The story of how “Cavite” got made is better than the movie itself.
Aspiring filmmakers Ian Gamazon and Neill Dela Llana, best friends since high school in San Diego, bought a couple of digital video cameras and scrounged up the money for plane tickets to the Philippines.
They couldn’t find an actress to play the lead in the terrorist thriller they’d concocted so Gamazon ended up starring besides co-writing, producing and editing. Dela Llana served as cinematographer. Once they finished their 10-day shoot, they sold the cameras on eBay to pay their bills and edit the film.
All that low-budget, indie-minded resourcefulness, though, has resulted in a movie that, at least superficially, could have been a rather standard Hollywood action flick if it had had a bigger budget. Actually, it’s a lot like Joel Schumacher’s “Phone Booth” from 2002; you could think of it as “Cell Phone.”
Gamazon stars as Adam, a Filipino-American who gets caught in a web of kidnapping and violence when he travels to his homeland for his father’s funeral. While waiting for his mom to pick him up at the airport, he hears a high-pitched ringing in his bag and finds that someone has slipped a mobile phone in there. The menacing (and uncredited) voice on the other end threatens and taunts him, telling Adam he’s holding his mother and sister captive.
If you can accept the idea that the caller is omniscient, it’s a compelling premise — one that doesn’t need all the film-school trickery (jittery camerawork, jump cuts, strobe effects, body-mounted shots) that Gamazon and Dela Llana repeatedly employ, often in headache-inducing fashion.
The visual aesthetic seems especially incongruent with the stirring realism they’ve achieved through images of urban squalor. “Cavite,” named for the city where it’s set, often leaves the same sort of devastating impression that “City of God” did in its unflinching depiction of the Rio de Janeiro slums. No editorializing or manipulation is necessary; the images speak for themselves, and they’re deafening.
The caller forces Adam to see it all, rubs his nose in the culture that this young man knows so little about while working as a security guard in the United States. He speaks to Adam in Tagalog, and when Adam responds only in English, he’s asked whether he’s ashamed of his family’s language.
He guides Adam down alleyways, sends him to a cockfight, tells him to buy an unfertilized egg at a crowded open-air market and suck it down whole.
“Have a taste of your country — get it in you,” the caller insists. “Tasty, isn’t it?”
At its core, “Cavite” is about the journey within, even though Adam is forced to take part in terrorist activities that violently mar the world around him and leave him a shell of who he was when he arrived. (The caller acknowledges that he’s a member of Abu Sayyaf, and chastises Adam for failing to follow Muslim tradition.)
Gamazon and Dela Llana approach some meaty, intertwined issues here of faith and family, identity and culture. They’ve also cooked up an engrossing thriller in just a short amount of time; truly, you have no idea how it’s going to end until it finally does end.
But then at one point, as the cell phone battery is dying and time is running out, Adam growls: “I’m not going anywhere until you give me back my family.” At moments like that, you may as well be watching some generic Harrison Ford movie, and not a work of real innovation.