Some real smart American actress should think about snatching up the remake rights to Ode to Nothing, Filipino director Dwein Ruedas Baltazar's low-key and mournfully lovely character study by way of Weekend at Bernie's -- my personal choice would be Melanie Lynskey -- but until that happens we're blessed and then some to have this version centering an astonishingly prickly and smart performance from Marietta Subong. This is as good an actress showcase as you'll see this year, and Subong knocks it outta the place.
She plays Sonya, the proprietress of a family funeral home seemingly dropped in the middle of the jungle -- every day's spent waiting for the freshly deceased to arrive, or to not arrive, and if they do then arguing with the relatives who want nothing but a bargain and aren't ever above using some crocodile tears to get it. Sonya's super over it, but resigned to her lonely lot, occasionally looking in on an elderly father who seems less corporeal than the dead bodies floating around the basement.
Then one day some gangster types show up with the corpse of an old woman, bloodied no questions asked or else, and task Sonya with its disposal. But something about this body's different -- perhaps it starts as a fuck you to the men telling her what to do but Sonya can't let it go, and before you know it the flesh, so weak, is propped up at the dinner table, a dear friend to the end.
Ode to Nothing seems to take its cues from the humid jungle air, moving slow and sweaty, a dripping Gothic fairy tale of loneliness and the thinning distinctions between thick wet air and the dirt -- it feels like a nice cool nap in a grave. I suppose some might find its honest fleshiness, its lack of pretenses around rot, off-putting, but I am not one of those people -- as with this year's earlier great film To Dust (reviewed here) I prefer an honest approach to ashes to ashes; brush the bullshit off of death and show me its practicalities.
This film's a little more fantastically-minded than that, though -- it has some magical thinking, thanks especially to the magical work from Subong herself, who makes communication with the dead seem as natural as calling up a good friend to talk good feeling nonsense. She does stellar uncompromising work, never begging for a smidge of affection, but somehow managing to make us fall for her all the same, and by the end, hoo boy, bowled over.