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Thrilla in Manila 

Cavite moves and zips and pulsates -- but to what end?

People who go to the movies for escape may be finding less sanctuary than usual these days, at least at the art house. There, the grim, up-to-the-minute disaster crawl beneath the nightly news has spilled over into film, which offers no escape from the political gloom.

In the genre of global angst, you have documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth about global warming. On the fictional end, Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke (Caché, Funny Games) has devoted an entire career to showing why well-heeled Westerners, seemingly insulated from the world's problems, should in fact be very afraid of the political and social chaos that define the rest of the world.

But the contemporary American indie cinema has rarely exhibited an investment in ideas that extend beyond the borders of its own navel. It's refreshing, then, to see a modestly budgeted independent film ($7,000 through post-production) like Cavite engage us with a world outside First World dating habits, road trips and kitschy Americana. Directed by two Filipino-Americans, Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon, Cavite plops a semi-clueless American into an unspooling nightmare in the Philippines, creating a collision between First World complacency and Third World chaos. If only the sub-par acting and gimmicky plot didn't sink such good intentions.

Cavite starts off looking like nothing so much as a cheapo knockoff of flashy, high-wire Hollywood cinema like Cellular and Speed.

Adam (co-director Gamazon) is a Filipino-American semi-screwup with a pregnant girlfriend and a dead-end job as a San Diego security guard. He travels to the Philippines for his father's funeral, but once in the country discovers his mother and sister have been kidnapped by members of the militant Islamic group Abu Sayyaf.

Speaking via a cell phone the kidnappers have tucked into his backpack, Adam winds through the city instructed by a hectoring, homophobic male voice on the other end of the line.

But though the cranked-up camerawork and thriller premise feels inspired by Hollywood, it becomes clear as the film progresses that the directors have more on their minds than just inflating our blood pressure.

In its own way, Cavite is a travelogue for how the other half lives, a "Lifestyles of the Broke and Anonymous."

As Adam trudges through endless squatters' villages where rivers of decomposing garbage abut backyards, he observes brutal cockfights and naked children -- half of whom, the kidnapper assures Adam, would gladly sell their bodies for money.

As Adam winds his way through Manila and the outlying city of Cavite and follows the kidnappers' directions, it becomes clear that educating this American of the horrors of his native land may be as much a part of their mission as retrieving the $75,000 waiting in a local bank for the terrorists. Over the course of the film, Adam and the unseen criminals debate their Muslim faith, with the lead kidnapper chastising Adam for being a lapsed Muslim and Adam calling him a jihadist and terrorist.

Despite such noble intentions, it is impossible to deny Cavite's low-budget origins. This is most glaringly evident in the faltering performance of its lead, Ian Gamazon. And since he is virtually the only character on-screen for the majority of the film (in itself a clever way of shaving money from the budget), it makes his unconvincing performance even more frustrating. Gamazon more often suggests someone who has grown fed up and cranky over a pesky telemarketer than a man kept in a state of near-constant anxiety over the possible murder of his mother and sister.

Though a herky-jerky hand-held camera, the incessant trilling of the cell phone and caffeinated editing play their part in upping the tension, the writing and acting chops are simply not enough to keep up the thriller pace. And Cavite, despite its ambition, doesn't deliver a denouement to match.

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