How To Die Young In Manila (2020)
A teenage boy (Elijah Canlas) travels into the heart of Manila and follows a group of young hustlers, hoping that one of them may turn out to be the anonymous hookup he’s arranged over the internet. As he heads deeper into the capital city, some of these nameless queer men keep turning up dead – though very few people seem to care. Despite this, our protagonist continues an obsessive search to fulfil his desires.
At the outset there’s a sense of nervous energy and danger that’s shot through with a vein of realism as a constantly moving camera follows our protagonist as he sits in the back of a taxi and heads into the city. As he finds himself in unfamiliar territory – both physically and emotionally – the undercurrent of surrealism becomes more prevalent. Dead bodies show up – one still in a bathtub another covered in blood – and invite little comment or acknowledgement from others. Our naïve central character still presses forward as danger and desire intertwine.
Near the film’s conclusion Vargas plays with religious imagery as one character is pierced with arrows, with a final death pose resembling that of the gay icon Saint Sebastian. This final burst of the surreal – all occurring in an underground tunnel, the events being blithely ignored by the rest of the passers-by – cements the film’s underlying themes of suffering and pleasure.
This allegorical short is a model of brevity as it reflects upon the experience of being young and queer in modern day Philippines. To be queer in such a country (whose track record with LGBTQ+ rights is far from spotless) – carries an inherent danger with a fear of – at the very least – being ignored and marginalised. Lest we forget all the characters here are anonymous, with the dead amongst them seeming little more than carrion. But there’s an almost sadomasochistic air here with the desire to fulfil and explore one’s sexuality overriding risk and the film pulsates with both menace and an air of exhilaration.
How To Die Young In Manila has the sense of a fever dream, that has a tangible and heavy atmosphere yet also displays a remarkable amount of lyricism. A clever and pointed use of the short form, it’s an extremely affecting and political piece of work.
Original title: How To Die Young In Manila
Directed by: Petersen Vargas
Cast: Elijah Canlas
Producers: Alemberg Ang and Jade Francis Castro
Screenwriters: Petersen Vargas, Kaj Palanca and Jade Francis Castro