TORONTO.COM - Off World: Desperate odyssey

March 15 2012

Starring Marc Abaya, Che Ramos and Lao Rodriguez. Directed by Mateo Guez. Tagalog and English with subtitles. 76 minutes. Opens March 16 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. 14A

A tenuous and affecting story about a young Filipino Montrealer tracking his abandonment resentment back to Manila, where he hopes to find the mother who gave him up for adoption at an early age — but not his brother — Off World is marred by compromises in quality that probably come down to economic constraints, and lock first-time director Mateo Guez into decisions that give his film the odour of desperation.

At just 76 minutes, Off World still seems too long, and the story only half told, as Guez guides his other self, the mopish Lucky (Marc Abaya), through the sordid glare of Manila’s slums and finally to his nightmarish birthplace, a stinking, city-sized garbage dump called Smoky Mountain — because the methane captured in its bowels is always being ignited by rotten organic matter — that’s inhabited by the human jetsam of this rank, Conradian outpost.

Lucky is led by a dedicated social worker, Julia (Che Ramos), to his unwitting brother, Mamacita (Lao Rodriguez), who has arguably not fared so well for all the benefits of motherly proximity, and ekes out a scavenger’s life in the city’s red-light zone as a transvestite/transsexualizing prostitute.

As Lucky’s odyssey progresses, and successive shocks — cultural, emotional and violently random — knock him off balance, he becomes increasingly dependent on Julia, whose rational nature and warm heart give credence to their developing love affair.

But with little in the way of dialogue, and much in the way of long, brooding gazes to a point somewhere behind the aggravatingly present lens, we’re left wondering if Lucky — or perhaps Guez — has lost his way, and why he keeps his identity secret from his brother and mother for so long.

Maybe it’s for the dramatic payoff of the revelation — the single-thread plot’s only natural end point — but by the time it happens, all tension has evaporated, and the reactions seem unnatural and overwrought.

Off World gives the impression it’s being made up as it goes along, stretched between anchoring dramatic moments to within millimeters of its flimsy limits. Only the cinematography of François Dagenais, who gives Manila’s underbelly a sheen that’s as obscene as it is hallucinatory, makes Off World worth its 76 minutes in the dark