Skip to content

Plot: retired assassin is force back into the trade again…

Maria was probably the best female-centric action movie of last year next to the surprisingly brutal and efficient Furie (2019) from Vietnam. Maria is as lean and mean as they come, and pulls absolutely no punches. Or rather it does, and whether Cristine Reyes is wielding a gun, or kicking and punching her way out of the trouble there’s an instant familiarity about what it presents. It’s too early to say whether Pedring Lopez is the new Cirio H. Santiago as he has yet to carve out a niche for himself. Judging from Maria he certainly isn’t shy about paying homage to his country’s well-documented history in exploitation cinema, action and otherwise. More importantly, though, Maria is bound to make an international star (and action hopeful) out of Cristine Reyes. Maria is François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968) reimagined as a no-frills action flick with Reyes as its titular angel of vengeance, and proudly continues a 30-year old Filipino cinematic tradition.

A female-centric action movie from the Philippines? Color us shocked. It’s not as if the country has around three decades of tradition to draw from. Hollywood has always been notoriously slow on the uptake. In 1990 Luc Besson brought the female vigilante to the international stage with his Nikita, but it wouldn’t be until twenty years later before the female action movie became a legitimate subgenre onto itself. Prestige features as Anna (2019), Tomb Raider (2018), Hanna (2011), and Colombiana (2011) make it look as if it’s a fairly recent trend, and for Hollywood indeed it is. However, the Philippines has long been a bastion for female empowerment and the female action star has been a staple of domestic cinema for longer than it ever was, or has been, in Hollywood. Women acting as judge, jury, and executioner is an old staple of Filipino cinema, one more or less spearheaded by writer-producer-director Cirio H. Santiago with his TNT Jackson (1974), She Devils in Chains (1976), Naked Fist (1981), Naked Vengeance (1985), Silk (1986) and Angelfist (1993). Maria carries on that legacy and, surprisingly, wasn’t co-produced by either Besson or Jing Wong.

Maria (Cristine Reyes) is living a quiet suburban life in Manila with her ambitious campaign worker husband Bert (Guji Lorenzana) and young daughter Min-Min (Johanna Rish Tongcua). While out on a campaign event Maria is captured on film by members of the Black Rose cartel. When said information reaches kingpin Ricardo De la Vega (Freddie Webb) he has his second-in-command Kaleb (Germaine De Leon, as Ivan Padilla) dispatch a bunch of goons to even the score on his seedy unfinished business. Maria used to call herself Lily and was employed as an assassin for the cartel. After she refused to fulfill a contract she faked her own death to escape the cartel’s ire. In the melee with armed Black Rose goons Bert and Min-Min end up dead and Maria is forced to return to the life she thought she left behind. She contacts her old mentor Greg (Ronnie Lazaro) to help her devise a strategy that will bring the cartel down. Her true target is not old man Ricardo or ambitious underling Victor (KC Montero) but Kaleb, the man she once called her confidante and lover. When the Black Rose sends Miru (Jennifer Lee) and her goons to pressure Greg into talking his security detail Bogart (Nelson Montives, as Nhelson Montives) is barely able to slow her down. In retaliation Maria kills Miru in a club. Taking the fight to the enemy Maria faces wave after wave of Black Rose minions before facing Kaleb himself. This time Maria won’t be so kind.

The man behind Maria is Pedring A. Lopez. Lopez never took any formal film school training and worked his way up. He started out as an editor for local Philippine TV networks and in the advertising industry while teaching himself visual effects and motion design. His hard worked paid off as he became an award-winning music video director and TV commercial director. His first feature was 408 (2014) from where he moved on to The Seed (2015), the supernatural horror The Entity (2015) with Japanese AV star Maria Ozawa, and Darkroom (2017). Maria is Lopez’ first venture into action and he seems to handle that far better than his previous excursions into horror. None of Lopez’ prior features seem to have been all that well received but Maria seems to be the break he has been longing for. To its credit Maria never devolves into the half-joking tone of Bring Me the Head Of the Machine Gun Woman (2012), and it never captures the zeitgeist (or that classic Filipino tone, for that matter) the way Benjamin Combes’ zany Commando Ninja (2018) did for over-the-top American action from the 1980s, but as an action movie it’s about as lean and mean as they come. The only thing missing is that Maria never engages in any Arnis de mano, or Filipino stick fighting.

Maria is played by rising star Cristine Reyes. Reyes - the Filipino answer to somebody like Fernanda Urrejola, Diane Guerrero, or Gina Rodriguez - got her start as a contestant on GMA’s StarStruck and cut her teeth on Filipino TV. Her first feature of note was the horror Patient X (2009) after which she graduated into drama and romance with Working Girls (2010), No Other Woman (2011) (the second highest-grossing domestic film that year), The Reunion (2012), and Trophy Wife (2014). Her most high-profile starring role thus was in the Emilio Aguinaldo biopic El Presidente (2012) and via the comedy Abay Babes (2018) she arrived at Maria. Reyes has graced the covers of MOD, Cosmopolitan, Preview, Metro, and Maxim. Cristine seems to have no formal background in martial arts, although you wouldn’t be able to tell from the slick and graceful action choreography and editing. Whether she’s playing a loving mother, a sexy femme fatale, or a cutthroat assassin Reyes possesses quite a range for a television actress. Obviously action is just one of the genres she can do, but she’s far more than just that.

With the fading of action stars as Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude van Damme movies like Maria and Furie (2019) are needed to revitalize the genre. Maria is pretty much what a contemporary Naked installment should look like, and probably what Naked Soldier (2012) should have been in the first place. We would have preferred some more hand-to-hand combat routines and some martial arts out of Reyes, but the punishment she metes out here is more than just serviceable. Would it have benefitted from Cristine shedding some of her clothes? Not likely. It’s custodian to one shower scene and it's never meant to be tantalizing in the first place. The topless kickboxing or – action movie is something of a Filipino invention, and chances of it returning are nil since Cirio H. Santiago’s passing in 2008. As near as we can tell nobody has risen to the task of usurping his throne as a writer, producer, and director one-man industry. Maybe Pedring A. Lopez is that messiah the Filipino scene has been longing for? We can only hope that Maria wasn’t a fluke but the prelude to a long career in niche cinema.

Plot: young girl dabbles in black magic and summons an evil spirit

P was no doubt helmed in response to Ringu (1998), and Danny and Oxide Pang’s underappreciated The Eye (2002). P picks up where the Pang brothers left off in 2002 and is historic for being the first Thai-language film to be helmed by a Westener. The Westener in question is British expatriate Paul Spurrier and P has the good fortune of having Suangporn Jaturaphut (who would never act again) as the leading lady. The horror in P is peripheral and subordinate to the human interest, but that doesn’t make P any less effective when it fires on all of its cylinders. As a modest little genre piece P assuredly maintains Thailand’s place in the horror pantheon. More often a gritty and bleak drama about sex tourism and the criminal underworld surrounding it P is atmospheric and frightening when and where it matters. Thailand might not be able to compete with Hong Kong, China and Japan in terms of sheer numbers but P might just be strong enough to help turn the tide. No new promise has risen to take the Pang brothers’ place in domestic fright cinema but Spurrier might just be the guy.

Paul Spurrier had his start in cinema like many a young filmmaker: by taking to the streets and shooting his own feature with a bunch of enthusiastic friends. The result of that was Underground (1998), a gritty crime drama about drugdealers in London. Spurrier had acted as a child in the British-Swiss war epic The Wild Geese (1978) and at some point at the dawn of the millennium relocated to Thailand. Naturally a filmmaker is going to dabble in horror early on his or her career and what better place to mine for local folklore and superstition than Asia? Since P was only Spurrier’s second feature the most cost-efficient would be to do a ghost movie. Hong Kong, Japan, and China have set many a precedent of ghost stories within in an everyday, metropolitan setting. Instead of Hong Kong or Beijing P is set in the neon-drenched sidewalks of Bangkok. Perhaps not as much of an indictment of sex tourism as we would like it is a lot stronger than much coming out of China. Not only because P actually manages to be frightening every once in a whlie, mostly because the sobering reality surrounding the supernatural tale at its center is as horrific, if not moreso, than its titular ghost.

Just like in China ghosts are part of everyday life in Thailand. Most of them come from a combination of Thai Buddhism and local folklore legends. Some of these came from the neighboring Cambodian, Lao, and Malay cultures. Others were adopted later through the Chinese community in Thailand. Interestingly, a large portion of ghosts from Thai folklore tend to be nocturnal, a few exceptions notwithstanding. Most ghosts in Thai culture are benevolent and many have built shrines in specific places exactly for that reason. Offerings (usually incense, small food items, drinks, or fruit) are made to appease the spirits and ghosts for good fortune and it’s considered an ill omen to neglect a ghost shrine. In Dan Sai, Loei Province a three-day event called Phi Ta Khon (ผีตาโขน or Bun Luang) is held annually, usually between March and July, to honor the spirits. The most recognizable to Western eyes is the Phi Song Nang (ผีสองนาง), a Thai version of the Chinese Nü gui or the ghost of a beautiful woman that lures, seduces and then kills hapless men. The titular P refers to Pee or Pii (ผี), the Thai word for ghost. The Pii here is the Phi pop (ผีปอบ), a cannibalistic witch spirit popular in Thai folklore that tends leaves the witch’s body when she’s in a dormant state to feed on the intestines of whoever she victimizes. To Western eyes the Phi pop comes across as a combination of the vengeful ghost (onryō) from Japan and the shape-shifting fox spirit (húli jīng) with its carnivorous proclivities popular in Chinese folklore and superstition.

In Lower Isan in the northeastern region of Thailand in Si Saket province lives a young orphan Khmer girl named Aaw (Suangporn Jaturaphut) with her ailing, superstitious grandmother (Pisamai Pakdeevijit). To protect herself grandmother has initiated Aaw in the ways of Khmer black magic. All she has to do is obey the three sacred rules. No longer able to treat grandmother’s deterioriating health with the medicine she’s able to procure in her peasant village in the valley of the Mun River on the border with Cambodia Aaw is forced to seek employment in Bangkok. In Bangkok Aaw is picked up by Pookie (Opal) and before long harsh reality sets in. She’ll be working as a go-go dancer in the Pbar where she’ll be servicing foreign clients. Before that Mamasang (Manthana Wannarod) changes her name to Dau and she will broken into her new employment by bar owner Martin (Paul Spurrier). A bitter rivalry develops between Dau and club favorite May (Narisara Sairatanee) with the latter’s accomplices Mee (Amy Siriya) and New (Supatra Roongsawang) trying to sabotage her at every turn. In her darkest hour Dau turns to her grandmother’s black magic to help turn her fortune. As she sinks deeper into destitution and prostitution Dau breaks the three sacred rules one by one. Will anybody be able to stop the evil that Dau has summoned?

It would be something of a misnomer to call P an exploitation movie as it never is very exploitative to begin with. Even though it concerns itself with sex tourism, prostitution, and go-go dancers everything in P stays within the realms of the respectable. The most risqué, if it can be called that, is the sapphic tryst between Aaw/Dau and Pookie – but P goes well out of its way not to make a thing out of it. The go-go dancing sequences are usually sexier than the implied prostitution scenes that precede a kill. Where P really shines is in the ways it finds to creatively kill Johns on a limited budget. First and foremost P is a human interest drama and the supernatural – and horror elements are tangential and secondary to that. When P does focus on the horror it follows the conventions of the ghost horror subgenre without ever rocking the boat. Where it really gets interesting is how it treats the exorcism scene. Instead of a typical exorcism the purging of Dau’s demon bears more of a resemblance to a drugs withdrawal scene. Far more troubling is that P isn’t really all that interested in offering social commentary on the political machinations behind the circumstances in which it forces its lead character. Spurrier acknowledges that sex tourism and coerced prostitution do exist, but seems to be in no apparent hurry to make or take a stance either way. P is a horror where the unflinchingly bleak picture of modern day Bangkok is often more frightening, especially when the neon signs come on, than the ghost at its center.

Greatly adding to the mystique of P is a tour de force performance of Suangporn Jaturaphut. That Aaw/Dau mirrors Jaturaphut’s own life experiences so closely greatly adds to the authenticity of P. Suangporn also grew up under-privileged and disenfranchised in the slums of Bangkok and only took to acting as a means to pay for her ill mother’s mounting medical expenses. Her mother saw to it that she went to school and got herself an education as to not fall into the ever-looming threat of prostitution. In the decade-plus since P Suangporn has enrolled in Assumption University and eventually received her B.A. in Chinese for Business. Little is known what became of Jaturaphut post-B.A. but it’s safe to assume that she simply disappeared in the anonomity of everyday civilian life. She appears to not have disavowed her involvement in P in the years since but it’s unlikely that we will ever see Suangporn on the big screen again. Director Paul Spurrier has since worked as a cinematographer on the television series Edge of the Empire (2010), helmed his third feature The Forest (2016) and the television series Eullenia (2018-present). In other words, Spurrier has naturally become part of the Thai cinematic landscape.

Thailand has long been the mecca of cheap action and in the last couple of years has been making a comeback in terms of horror. While not as visible as China, Hong Kong, and Japan since the 2000s the country is steady on the rise again. P was unlike, say, the preceding year’s The Sisters (2004) not nearly as blatantly imitative of Ringu (1998), Ju-on: The Grudge (2002), and South Korea’s A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003). While ghost movies like Shutter (2004) and the Art Of the Devil (2004-2008) franchise are staples in Thai, it’s movies like Meat Grinder (2009) that prove that Thailand has come a long way since Universal monster romps The Wolf Girl (1977) and Werewolf (1987). Like the best Asian horror P draws from rich local folklore and superstition and coupled with Spurrier’s almost documentary-like gaze it makes P an atmospheric little ditty. Anybody remotely familiar with Asian ghost horror will find nothing novel here, and just like Verónica (2017) and We Are Not Alone (2016) it was quietly released on Netflix. P was not going to revitalize the ghost subgenre, but it deserved better than that.