Review: Utopia is the Laughing Face of Dissent in These Dangerous Times
Few cultures smile through pain better than Filipinos. In a country wracked with political corruption, poverty, social inequality, and an embarrassment of other problems, positivity is a defense mechanism. Sometimes, there’s nothing else to do but laugh it all off.
We are, however, also notoriously non-confrontational. We laugh to escape our issues, rather than address them. The temporary reprieves we afford ourselves through these moments of levity keep us sane, but rarely go toward helping us understand why we need them. It’s why hugot culture still sells, and why so many of our mainstream comedies come off as shallow.
It’s also why Dustin Celestino’s Utopia has been a long time coming.
Rife with biting satire, the writer-director’s debut film laughs in the face of modern society’s ills, and bravely so. By opting not to go on a safer tangent—as Citizen Jake did by underlining today’s similarities to the Marcos regime, or as BuyBust did by exaggerating the senseless violence of the War on Drugs without providing any substantial insight beyond that—Utopia critiques the administration in ways more seasoned creators failed. In doing so, Celestino has made a movie that, quite frankly, should’ve been on screens three years ago.
Utopia is a dark comedy that follows multiple storylines within the microcosm of Metro Manila, on a night that intertwines them all. A freelance director becomes an unwilling witness to police abuse. An online personality sexually harasses a woman on a livestream. Two riding-in-tandem shooters stalk their latest target. A struggling rapper delays a drug deal to catch his partner cheating on him. Three amateur goons plan a heist at a gas station. A PDEA agent finds himself in a buy-bust operation gone sour. A novice cop struggles with the corruption of his superiors. And in the middle of all of this, a comet flies close to the Earth, disrupting the city’s power with its gravitational pull.
It’s a lot to take in. The level of complexity in Celestino’s vision contributes to a relatively clunky start, but it becomes absolutely gripping after the character introductions. For all the issues that the movie seeks to address, there’s a real sense of editorial efficiency in the script that gives each sequence a clear thesis statement. Perhaps even more impressively, it manages to do so without ever preaching anything to the audience.
This is where the real value of Utopia comes in. The film both humanizes and strongly condemns its villains, allowing us to understand why they do the things they do, while constantly reinforcing the idea that compassion does not necessitate complicity. There’s a scene in which a drug lord bemoans the life he’s led thus far, with crime simply being a circumstance he was born into. Celestino, however, makes it clear that this does not in any way excuse the character for his evil acts.
In another scene, we see how one of the drug war’s assassins genuinely believes in the nobleness of his mission, but it’s juxtaposed with other scenes that show how greed and human error ultimately make his job more of a sickness than a cure.
In fact, the only truly revolting humans in the entire movie are the two cops who treat the drug war as some sort of capitalistic gold rush, with one of them not-so-subtly resembling a real-life former police chief.
And yet, Celestino’s irreverent sense of comedy keeps all this from turning Utopia into a hyper-elaborate lecture on ethics. Despite the seriousness of its real-life source material, the film is so heavily peppered with the absurdities of Filipino society, from police being late to the scene of a crime because of traffic to celebrity being defined by one’s adherence to toxic masculinity. Rather than having us laugh away the pain, the script has us laughing because it hurts.
There are concerns that the comedy might trivialize some of the darker aspects of the drug war—two individuals bicker over the spelling of “pusher” on a cardboard sign intended for their murder victim, for instance—but Celestino is careful to show it’s all done in criticism of the campaign, and not endorsement. The aforementioned joke, for instance, works as comedy precisely because the film believes murder is a monumentally stupid solution for the drug problem.
The script also works because of a cast that fully buys into what it’s saying. The ensemble sells every joke they’re telling, but spends each minute of their screen time fully aware of the message they need to get across. They aren’t playing anything up for laughs; performances are straight and sober, and the comedy shines through because of their earnestness.
There are far too many performers to critique in one space, but special mention needs to be given to Arron Villaflor’s idealistic Dalaga, Brian Sy’s thuggish-yet-sympathetic Ocho, and Enzo Pineda’s Mike, who serves as a convincing moral foundation for the entire film. The cast, in general, played each of their roles more than capably, although Simon Ibarra’s Tito could’ve used fewer flourishes in his performance; his line delivery had the tendency to kill the momentum of several scenes.
And while Utopia is remarkably polished for a feature-length film debut, it does show some of the shortcomings of a first-time director. There are scenes that, while entertaining, could’ve been left on the cutting room floor for not quite contributing to the narrative being told; the film feels long because of these moments. The shots are polished and the framing shows a keen eye for aesthetics—Utopia is simply delicious to behold—but they fall just short of delivering the visual poetry that elevates a great film to a masterpiece.
The film’s resolution also presents a mild contradiction to some of the ideals it’s trying to enforce; for a story that dissents against the drug war’s campaign of death, it uses a lot of killing to create its happy ending. The inconsistency, however, is tempered with a final message of hope that could be viewed, in a way, as a poignant plea for something better than the resolutions the film presents.
Despite these issues, Utopia is one of the strongest entries in the 2019 Cinema One Originals Film Festival. The cleverness of its script, the relevance of its message, and the nuanced performances of its cast all come together to deliver a story many directors have been too afraid to tell in the current political climate. For its bravery alone, it stands a chance at being one of the defining films of the era.
“We live in dangerous times,” one of the film’s characters says throughout the film.
Utopia is a film these dangerous times needed.