Fantasia 2017: Town in a Lake
Jet Leyco’s Matangtubig (Town in a Lake), playing at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, feels as indebted to Apichatpong Weerasethakul as it is to the works of David Fincher and Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. It’s a film that floats by like a thick fog; rarely revealing more than just the tiniest morsel of information needed to push the plot along and constantly cloaking itself in an air of mystery.
The story begins in the thick of night. Two girls are shuttled by a throng of men to a car that lights up the inky blackness of the seaside jungle. A lone man sees this event take place. When one of the girls shows up dead and the other remains unaccounted for, the titular town is left in shambles. What begins as a fairly typical murder mystery soon morphs into something more singular. Though, for fear of spoilers, I won’t reveal precisely why it feels so original.
Leyco seems to be just as interested in the unresolved emotional strands left untied in the wake of a tragedy as he is in how families deal with the loss of a loved one long before her time. Much of the plot deals in ambiguities, situated around characters whose motives remain unclear until near the end, letting the camera drift along through the underbrush of a dense, verdant forest that nearly totally cloaks the ground, and repeatedly cutting to a shot of a man gradually submerging himself in the sea.
But Town in a Lake isn’t without a sense of humor. Like Gone Girl, to temper the horror of the central tragedy, Leyco uses the increasing press presence in the town to highlight the absurdly sadistic ways that the press needles the family members of victims. A barrage of camera flashes and throngs of microphones jut out toward the grieving families. They are posed like tragedy props; kept still and – absurdly – smiling for front-page pictures.
The area where the film is lacking, if only slightly, is in its performances. Some of the performers do an excellent job, especially the parents of the kidnapped children. They display a wealth of exhaustion, desperation, and sorrow. Other performers, though, can feel – occasionally – as if they are reciting lines for the camera. It is never so egregious that it ruins a scene and, generally, these are people with bit parts, but it is noticeable enough that it pulled me out of a scene once or twice. And while it isn’t a major problem, there is a particularly tired metaphor used to materialize the emotional trauma of the town. Thankfully this aspect isn't harped on for too long, but it does play a relatively significant role in the narrative resolution.
Still, this is one of the most hypnotizing and genuinely fascinating films of the year, and certainly among my favorites of 2017. If you are in the mood for something that basks in ambiguity or if you simply want an atmospheric mystery to sink into, give Town in a Lake a shot. It’s worth your time.