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« 7 CHINESE BROTHERS | Main | THE CRITIC'S CAPSULE: REVELATION 2015, VOLUME 2. »
Wednesday
Jul222015

LILET NEVER HAPPENED

Stars: Sandy Talag, Johanna ter Steege, John Arcilla, Angeli Bayani, Dorothea Marabut-Yrastorza and Jermaine Patrick Ulgasan.
Writers: Jacco Groen, Roy Iglesias.
Director: Jacco Groen.

Screening as the Closing Night Film at the Reel Sydney Festival of World Cinema.

Watch the trailer here.

Rating: 3.5/5

Finding bittersweet humour and heartbreaking humanity amongst the horror of the child prostitution industry of Manila is key to the impact that Dutch filmmaker Jacco Groen achieves with his debut feature, Lilet Never Happened. As one of Europe’s most respected documentarians, he has developed a distinctly empathic eye which, along with a measured degree of craftsmanship, keeps the narrative buzzing with real-world intensity, with the occasional indulgence in wish fulfilment movie moments.

Crucial to the film’s emotional heights is Sandy Talag as Lilet, the hardened 12 year-old who has fled an abusive, exploitative domestic life to live amongst the runaways and orphans in the shadowy alleyways and abandoned lots of the Filipino capital. Talag is a soaring onscreen presence; a naturally gifted performer who can play tough and tender in the same frame, she is called upon to navigate scenes that would test actresses twice her age and experience.

Having dodged the lascivious advances of a corrupt official (Hilario Nayra) while incarcerated, a sceptical Lilet is befriended by social worker Claire (Johanna ter Steege). Despite the offer of education and shelter in Claire’s school for disadvantaged kids, Lilet seeks out her elder sister Tessie (Dorothea Marabut), a ‘club dancer’ who services high-paying customers under the watchful eye of ruthless house mama Madame Curing (Grace Constantino, delivering the film’s other deeply resonant performance). Despite her protestations, Lilet becomes embroiled in the skin trade, her youth and beauty fetching top dollar amongst the establishment’s high-paying predators.

Lilet occasionally glimpses a life that more appropriately suits her tender years. She shares a sweet bond with fellow street-kid Nonoy (Tim Mabalot) and exhibits an affectionate bond with her younger brother Dino (Jermaine Patrick Ulgasan), whose unflinching hope that his sister will provide the new life that both desperately need gives the film a vital warmth. But the indelible sequences are those in which Talag portrays Lilet’s spiralling acceptance of life as a sex worker; in one memorable sequence, the actress achingly conveys an existential crossroad, striding through the red-lit hallways of the club’s ‘back rooms’ contemplating the consequences of a life under Madame Curing’s soulless exploitation.

Adopting an innocent’s point-of-view of a harsh, often inhumane society puts Groen’s film in the company of such lauded films as Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988); it most strongly recalls Jeffery Brown’s Sold (2014), which examines the trafficking of a Nepalese girl to sex trade in India, and Keren Yedaya’s haunting 2004 Israeli drama, Or (My Treasure).

Lilet Never Happened falls just short of the classics of the genre; some rote characterisations and treacly sentiment occasionally derail the compelling, hard-edged realism at which Groen excels. Yet it remains a bracing, bold insight into the child sex criminal underworld, conveying a human spirit crushed into submission yet surging with the strength it takes to survive such abuse and injustice.

Lilet Never Happened will have its Australian Premiere at the Reel Sydney Festival of World Cinema. Ticket and venue information available at the event’s official website here.

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