Director Joyce Bernal is no stranger to taking the reins of an established brand. She’s directed the last couple of Vice Ganda films, stepping in for the late Wenn Deramas. Here, she replaces Brillante Mendoza, the first director tapped for this strange, experimental series. This is a very different situation, of course. Bernal’s directorial voice hardly shows up in the Vice Ganda films, the director more or less happy to get out of the way of the Vice Ganda machine. Here, she appears to have been hired as a corrective: a remedy to the overlong, rambling, self-indulgent, at times horrifying pieces of genre cinema that Mendoza delivered in the first two installments.
The difference is immediately noticeable in the running time. It’s hard to imagine the director of this franchise dictating to the would-be-dictator protagonist of this franchise, but there does appear to be a much less improv in the whole thing. It seems rather illogical to think that Vice Ganda might be a tougher talent to negotiate with than the historically difficult and boorish personality at the center of this series, but one might be led to make that case. Regardless, this was a much shorter, much tighter edition of SONA, with a generally lower quotient of outrageous things being said.
That’s a low bar to clear, though. And even within this much more tightly scripted format, there’s still a lot of odious things being said. One particularly baffling line goes “Your concern is human rights. Mine is human lives.” It’s a bizarre non sequitur that seems to omit the right to live among the rights that all humans should enjoy. But it’s the kind of pabulum that can sound profound when said confidently, and indeed Bernal punctuates this moment with a cutaway to the chamber in applause, setting up what will be the most used tool in her directorial arsenal.
There seems to be some tacit acknowledge that the main character of this piece isn’t actually a very compelling personality without the off-the-cuff remarks. There is also some indication that the producers know that there isn’t really a lot being said. And so, Bernal keeps cutting away from the subject, taking the focus away from the insubstantial monologue being delivered, and trying instead to impress the audience with scale. The attempt is marred by the fact that the various cameras are inexplicably set to different color temperatures, framerates, and white balances. It’s a weird technical hitch that gets kind of distracting, but it does produce something much more visually varied than anything Mendoza delivered. However, it only to serves to highlight how this particular franchise is struggling. It just doesn’t have anything new to say: three years in and the story hasn’t really moved forward. In many ways, things are just worse.
There is some attempt to create new villains to spark some interest, the main character making some vague threats to people keeping rice prices high. But at this point, it’s hard to believe anything he says. It only gets more pathetic as he brings attention to his supporting cast. One of the few characters Bernal gives a closeup is Bong Go, an empty void of a presence who always looks like he’s been caught off guard in photos, even when he’s the one who took the photo. The insistence on making this Bong Go a thing is really exhausting. He’s there in the opening tracking shot, looking very much like the best man in a wedding video, scored with a Freddie Aguilar tune. The attempted transition to some kind of Bagets-style spin-off feels ill-fated at best. Even a director as seasoned as Bernal can’t inject enough charisma to make this project work.
But to be fair, it’s hard to see what a director can actually do to make any of this work. Bernal brings a greater sheen to everything here, but that’s all it is: sheen. She isn’t really able to make that script any more compelling or convincing. It doesn’t even really deliver on the promise of the title: the State of the Nation. There is so much left undiscussed, so little acknowledge of substantial issues that need to be addressed. It just barrels forward saying things that they’ve said before, either unwilling or unable to progress the story toward the change that they promised all those years ago. It may have been shorter, and it may have been less immediately off-putting, but Bernal’s version, for all of its mainstream sheen, is just as horrific as anything Mendoza has done.