Repent or Perish!

by Fiona Villella

Repent or Perish! (dir. Matthew Victor Pastor, 2019, 84 mins, Australia)

Is Matthew Victor Pastor the master of the urban melodrama?  Certainly he’s one of the most exciting filmmakers working in Australia today. Formally inventive, his films are reflexive and experimental, using lush visual expressionism, a vibrant, resonant soundtrack and jagged cutting, all the while exploring deep questions of identity and dislocation for members of the Filipino diaspora in Australia.

Watching his films, I see a swirl of influences, including Wong-Kar Wai, Godard, Pasolini, even Sirk. On the one hand, his narratives bear a search for meaning and an honesty toward the characters, while on the other, his style contains a vividness of environment and setting, of the texture of urban life and urban characters.  

It’s kind of remarkable he’s achieved all this in a no-budget setting.

Set against the backdrop of the 2017 Marriage Equality vote, Repent or Perish! focuses on the lives of a small Filipino family, consisting of the father, Julian (played by Alfred Nicdao), daughter Jewel (Celina Yuen) and son Amos (Kevin Pham). The trope of the family as a hotbed of division and concealment is rich terrain for the melodrama genre, and Pastor continues that tradition in this film.

Though living under one roof, they’re a family that’s adrift, fraying at the seams; each individual concealing an identity that might go unnoticed in modern Australia but sits at odds with conservative Filipino culture.

Struggling since the death of his wife Maria (Michelle Ryel), Julian worries about the fate of his children and wants the best for them. At the same time, he is in a precarious state himself, harbouring his own unfulfilled desire and longing.

But Julian is oblivious to the true lives of his children. Jewel, sassy, defiant and tough, switches between her ‘daughter’ identity and that of a drug-dealer, whose thriving business will one day deliver a flash city apartment. Amos, a documentary student filmmaker, struggles with his identity as a gay man. For now, he chooses not to come out to his father for fear of being outcast and ostracised. Amos’ own turmoil comes down to self-acceptance, and the struggle to honour his true identity and embrace the possibility of love and connection over the easy road of lies and prostitution.

Opening in florid fashion, Repent or Perish!’s first frame is ablaze with tones of red and a dedication scripted in cursive, eloquent font to “those in my family who cannot be named”. Pastor reminds us that under the rule
of Duterte, drug dealing and homosexuality result in death. It’s “a melodrama from Manila” but very much about characters under the influence of its cultural orbit.

The backdrop to the opening credit sequence that follows is ‘home-video’ style footage of the 2017 Marriage Equality vote when crowds gathered in a public park for the decision. While Australia celebrates the victory of same-sex marriage equality, what does that mean for those living in cultural diasporic communities that ostracise homosexuality? Repent or Perish! presents this dichotomy between two cultures, and the plight of the non-conforming individual.

In his own unique style, Pastor punctures the narrative of Repent or Perish! with episodes that feature each character’s story a bit like a verse in a song or a chapter in a book. Adopting a wonderful cinematic artifice, he frames these chapters with tender and heartfelt tracks written and sung by singer-songwriter Fergus Cronkite (under the guise of Jayden White in the film). Each poignant track captures the emotional undercurrent of the scene that just unfolded.

When Jewel is chatting idly to her ‘baby’ as they’re driving through city streets, the tender, sheer beauty of connection between lovers is signposted with the track “Talk” that suddenly appears – both on the soundtrack and the screen in the form of titles of the song’s titles and its lyrics gliding up (or down) the screen. As in Pastor’s previous film Melodrama / Random / Melbourne! (2018), music plays a crucial role in Repent or Perish! by throwing into sharp relief the pure emotion that lies at the centre of that scene or moment or chapter.

In so many other ways the film’s soundtrack creates mood and tension. Incidental sound, like the audio of a train announcement warped through slo-mo editing or the rhythmic clicking of an automatic watering hose starkly conveys the characters’ emotional register and mood.

As in Melodrama / Random / Melbourne!, Pastor uses the soundtrack, including music, sound effects and voice over, to plunge us into the subjective world of his characters. The erratic camerawork and the expressionistic use of colour also builds a world of heightened cinematic subjectivity. The shots of Amos in bed with his lover are bathed in an orange glow, and shots unfold in haphazard, chaotic fashion reflecting the out of control desire. The moments when Julian discovers his daughter is a drug dealer jarring guitars resonate on the soundtrack while whooshing camera movement and blue light imbues the frame.

Though absent through death, the family’s disparate lives are conjoined by the recurring image of their mother, Maria, praying for her children. The image seems to come from some un-real place. Like a dream, it’s hypnotic and mesmerising in its textual sensuality – the lapping of waves, the aural whooshing of the wind, the wistful expression of ‘mother’ looking out onto a burning sunset, her ‘prayer’ a repetitive refrain for her children.

So much of the film follows a poem or musical-like structure with recurring images, signature sound tracks that close a stanza, and rhythmic cross-cutting between individual lives. Pastor sets up a series of symbols and metaphors; for the character Amos it’s motifs related to journeys and destinations such as trains, stations, and traffic lights. At the end of the film, passionately kissing his boyfriend, crumbling under the weight of love and desire, Pastor cuts to a pedestrian traffic light, the green Go man beeping irrationally.

For all his cinematic-reflexivity, Pastor manages to realise fully-fledged characters most successfully with the father figure Julian, a man whose predicament is portrayed with sensitivity and tenderness. Standing at the gates of his local church, dressed in a formal suit, we hear his voice-over rehearsing the interrogative questions he is likely to confront from the Filipino community of church goers should he enter.

The church gates symbolising the entrapment of religion and tradition, and Julian chooses instead to walk away. Soon after, we see him arrive at the apartment of a young woman, where he spends an afternoon. A former student of his teaching days, the simple act of sitting with her, sharing an afternoon and passing time brings him deep joy. Their relationship might seem unconventional but that’s beside the point – it’s pure and real.

Soon enough the young woman’s macho, suited-up boyfriend appears, is abusive, then storms off leaving a heart-broken woman who despises the abuse but craves the materialistic lifestyle her rich boyfriend provides.

Like any good melodrama, the climax of Repent or Perish! is the falling apart of its characters’ lives, shown to be as fragile as a house of cards. For Julian it’s the realisation his daughter is a drug dealer, for Amos it’s the choice between the truth and lies.

A finely-woven portrait of interconnected lives, Repent or Perish! highlights the extent to which we’re defined by those around us and broader cultural customs, and the effect that our choices have on others and all the bittersweet emotions that flow.

Repent or Perish!
screened on Tuesday, September 17, in Melbourne, at Thornbury Picture House, as part of the Australian New Wave filmmakers showcase. Check the Facebook Event Page.

Fiona Villella is a writer and teacher, and former editor of Senses of Cinema.

Published September 11, 2019. © Fiona Villella, Sep 2019.