Review: Ozawa Brings Notoriety To Lopez's Substance In NILALANG (2015)

In covering a lot of action movies or film in general, you don't always hear of instances of porn actors and making transitions to more serious careers in acting. When you do, though, it does present an interesting sense of appeal, and for me, considering some of the surprises I've seen in the action genre, I'm certainly no one pigeonhole anybody into a category, and I think many would concur with me.

That said, in the case of director Pedring Lopez's new action horror, Nilalang, I think at least one of the biggest factors in this film's press coverage was the casting of former adult entertainer Maria Ozawa - one of actually two former adult entertainers on my radar making their leap forward to more solid film roles. It's a noteworthy effort to make, and especially here for Ozawa who co-stars with a lead cast led by actor Cesar Montano, and actress Meg Imperial for Lopez's third outing as director as it continues its festival run as of late last year.

The film immediately transports you to the year 1602 in Japan during the Tokugawa era where three swordsmen from two families ars embroiled in a deadly bloodfeud involving an evil spirit, and an ancient book that could vanquish it. That scene seuges onward to present day Manila where we meet Tony, a cop whose team of forensic detectives from the Special Crimes Unit are hot on the trail of what he think is a ruthless serial killer. However, the trail has stretched from Japan to the Philippines ever since the late 1980's, and every step forward to possibly solving the case brings an even colder turn of events with more bodies piling up. Jaded by whim fantasies of the supernatural, Tony's search for the actual killer becomes a desperate one, but he's out of luck. Thus, he and trusted partner, Jane, seek the guidance of the local Yakuza by way of Miyuki, a young heiress whose father, Kazudo, bestows a special dagger onto Tony as it is attributed solely to vanquishing the evil spirit lurking within the bustling Asian city for its next target, which happens to be Miyuki herself. However, it's going to take more than a dagger to stop the bloodshed, and more innocent blood will spill before he can bring an end to this ancient evil once and for all.

The film is a very big, ambitious foray into the action/horror hybrid for Lopez who conjures the story as well as writes with co-scribe Dennis Empalmado. From start to finish, Nilalang is an edgy, stylish and gruesome ghost tale that pushes the envelope in some areas, and takes a pass at a few ornamental tools to get its story through, often using animated sequences to transition between certain scenes, lending it a certain graphic novel and anime appeal.

Actress Imperial stands out, by far, as one of the most beautiful actresses I've ever seen on screen and I couldn't take my eyes off of her no matter how frumpy her character was dressed. Her role as Jane was strong, charming and pragmatic in her ways, and I couldn't get enough of her as much as I found myself hoping to high heaven she wouldn't die in the movie (sadly, I've seen my share of horror movies to know how that script goes). At any rate, if you're reading this, Ms. Imperial, I may not speak a fluent lick of Tagalog, but you have a new fan here, and I'm on Facebook as well. I'm just sayin!

Montano brings a strong lead in Tony next to Imperial's Jane. Theirs is a close work relationship with a sustainable levity that doesn't meddle too much with romantic preconceptions whereas we are introduced to the few female characters connected with our male lead, including that of Ozawa's performance as Miyuki. Cheeky jabs at Tony's good looks and popularity with the ladies host a worthy chuckle or two courtesy of co-stars Dido Dela Paz, Cholo Barretto and Kiko Matos who play Tony's subordinates and comrades in the Special Crimes Unit, midway through the film, though the script makes certain not to exploit this. Smart move.

The two relationships we learn of are very much personal, keeping the story and script focused and sympathetic to our protagonists and their cause. Smart move. One of those relationships pertains to that of Tony and Miyuki, the latter played by Ozawa. It is a relationship that takes its time to evolve and explore its uncertainty, making it all the more rewarding the more we see Montano and Ozawa together on screen going into the third act. By then, Ozawa's gravitas as an actress is on full display; It is an acquired taste at first, but she successfully carries the look, beauty and overall image of her role, and the demands therein, from establishing chemistry with Montano to servicing action fans a worthwhile minute of swordfight with a living armored Samurai.

Epic set pieces, immersive texture in lighting and color with a pristine gloss mingled in the dark millieu set throughout the film, and Ozawa's own outstanding costumes right down to the intricately applied tattoo ink mostly visible on her arms and back, present a tremendous quality to the atmosphere of Lopez's world of urban topography, topped with supernatural lore and sexual nuance. Key are the fight scenes, coordinated by migrant Hollywood stuntman and choreographer, stunt director Sonny Sison, in which our titular antagonist, exhumed by a transparent, ghoulish figure, mapped by par CG visuals, hops between bodies to use as hosts to enact its cursed destiny of death and bloodshed, with the result signaled by a haunting whitening of the eyes with reddish inflammation and lifeless, zombie-like stare, and an otherwise unrelenting fighting prowess that makes our wraithlike villain, augmented by a shrieking vocal brass, almost completely unstoppable.

The end of the film goes for something brisk and exciting, albeit toned almost entirely different from the rest of the film which nearly completely undid my interest. In hindsight, however, I can mildly see some reasoning for an ending like this, and so it that did not take away too much from the experience given to us by Lopez in this meaty (no pun intended) endeavor. The score was terrific, and the film's presentation and boldness as a work of action, horror and tactful gore make for a fine milestone for Filipino movies, moreover speaking ultimate truth and gospel of potential to the auspices of the Filipino film industry who, despite whatever efforts are made, continue to stay hindered from investing in action movies. Nevertheless, the genre is slow to pass in this particular market with a few titles earning their way up to see the light of day on a more grand stage, making Nilalang all the more fruitful as a signature example for those who've remained in denial and a much-deserved audience abroad for folks like myself in the U.S..

Indeed, the world is full of some great talent to spare for the action film industry at large and it's a shame that not all market are keen on this. With that in mind, what Lopez has achieved here should, at the very least, drive the conversation forward - or keep it propelling - regarding what the Philippines' own is capable of in the genre. There is talent over there, and in the course of my own martial arts fandom, I've seen it, including the works of Sison's own assistant stunt director, Jeff Centuari, along with a few other directors and their projects as of late. All these folks need, really, is the support from those with the authority and means to provide the obligatory financing, time and resources, and unfortunately, judging by what I've read, all they seem to be getting is bureaucracy, and it's a shame. It's a shame because films like Nilalang are getting traction, and that's actually a good thing.

Granted, much of this film's proliferation can be credited to the lovely Ozawa whose prominence once upon a time as an adult star makes her a shoe-in for anyone who has been a fan of her work. Take this, couple it with the local starpower of Montano and the gorgeous Imperial along with Lopez's artistic caliber and intellect and Sison's acumen for stylizing action for film, make Nilalang a lively spectacle for moviegoers, and a necessary bookmark for Filipino action cinema, false prophets be damned.


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