Indentured Servitude Mixed Up

This is Not a Review of: Deleter

This is not a review and I did not care about spoilers.

First movie of the year — actually, the first movie Rem and I have seen since SM had a drive-in showing of Peninsula at MOA in 2020 — and of all the Metro Manila Film Festival entries this year, we chose the horror flick with Nadine Lustre, Deleter.

We like local horror, and it also helped that Louise delos Reyes, who since Baka Bukas we’ve had a soft spot for, is in it. We’ve seen one of Mikhail Red’s movies, Block Z, which despite its many, many flaws, had promise and its (funny) moments.

So on the first day of the year, we found ourselves standing in front of Cinema 4 at Ayala Terraces.

We trooped in, found our seats, and watched the trailers. As the opening narration started, the lady beside me said out loud, “Ay horror pala to!” The other lady who came with her said, “Akala ko ba romcom?” To which she replied, “Kala ko action!”

Ahh, the classic movie-going experience.

Deleter, written by Mikhail and Nikolas Red, tries to spin several yarns around a central story. Lyra (Lustre) is an online content moderator, whose whole job involves looking at graphic pictures and videos uploaded into social media and pressing one of two buttons: Delete or Ignore.

Hindi Ka Na Makakatakas Dito: Corpo Hell

The central mystery revolves around Aileen (delos Reyes) who seems to have gone AWOL. Having worked in a BPO many lifetimes ago, I do know this is commonplace. Turnover itself is a statistic often bandied about in meetings but ultimately ignored in the grand scheme of things.

Lyra’s workplace is eerie, owing mostly to the dark hallways and barely lit production floor. The sleeping quarters is extremely spartan with its bare floors and double deckers with paper thin mattresses. The dim lighting here, at least, makes sense.

I understand the need to make it dark and abnormally quiet: it was obviously to build a proper horror atmosphere. Corpo hell, or at least to those who know it, is scary enough as it is.

You go to work, log in, and sit in front of a computer, absolutely dreading the next irate caller — or, in Lyra’s case, the next lurid video. Five days a week, for 9 hours with an hour to bitch to your workmates while loading up on fastfood. Rinse and repeat.

It’s horrifying in its Sisyphean nature, despite the wall to wall carpet, brightly lit cubicles, and a steady hum of dull conversation. (Why do BPOs cover its windows and fill its offices with harsh lighting? To fool their employees’ circadian rhythms that now is not sleepy time.)

In the middle of the film, Rem asks, “So what profile would you look for to staff that place?” Great question.

What kind of person would moderate the internet’s worst cases of exhibitionist gorn for pay that’s implied to be unsalted peanuts?

Lyra: The Deleter

Lyra is great at her job and implied to have been there for years.

Her colleagues, in a sense, look up to her and are in awe of her approach to the job. Lyra herself spells it out for them: We handle data, not people.

“So what makes her stay here?” was the next question. What motivates her to get out of bed, dress up like a normal human being, and commute to work? Unfortunately, we have to guess here as the movie doesn’t tell us. We see her a few times outside of the workplace: in a cafe, in a bar, in a club, in the building’s rooftop smoking area, and a convenience store. We never see her at home and (we see a touch of cleverness here in the writers’ part) we never see her fully comfortable.

Trying to sleep in the convenience store, slumped over a counter, listening to chaotic techno music: not comfortable. Lying down in the prison-like sleeping quarters she and her officemates call “Bilibid,” tracing the apt if creepy message written under one of the bunks, listening to an officemate’s anguished private conversation with his partner: not comfortable.

It’s strange how she seems to take a bit of pride in what she does. When asked about what she does, she says something along the lines of, “I make sure people like you get to sleep at night.”

You feel for her, because she is indeed in Corpo Hell. Everything is white noise save for the job and what is expected of her. Delete or Ignore.

In a sense, Lyra’s whole approach to human connections also seems to boil down to those two buttons. A co-worker tells her that the person who they had hung out with (and had a very loud mental breakdown, too) a few scenes ago had finally resigned. She ignores it.

While talking to investigators looking into a co-worker’s suicide, she deletes whole swathes of her relationship with the person, while her boss unsubtly listens on the other side frosted glass — directly in Lyra’s (and our) full view.

The relationship she seems to invest in preserving is with her boss, Simon (Jeffrey Hidalgo, aka Paraiso). He supplies her with “calming” pills, supposedly so she can shut out the bad and keep her efficiency up. She neither deletes nor ignores him — as she freely does to other people.

This utter lack of social capital spells trouble for Lyra in the movie’s third act, when she asks for help twice. She asks a co-worker for help with her backlog and he outright says no. He leaves and ignores the fact that he left his backpack in the office. The second time, she asks potential love interest, Jace, for help and he tells her how upset he is with her.

The movie tries to explain Lyra’s “desensitized” approach to everything with childhood trauma. Her dad killed her dog because of a superstition. There are clues that suggest it wasn’t just a dog, but we never really see the end of that mystery in full.

A Box of Yarns

By the third act, Lyra is unraveling. We, as the audience, had all these threads: the backstory (with the dog and the “missing” mom); the sus nature of the company she works for; Lyra’s hand tremors and increasing dependence on her calming pills; Lyra’s choice to Ignore specific, but obviously graphic videos and images; and what role she played in events that put her in the cross hairs of a vengeful spirit.

So many questions, so very few answers. Apart from that last one, we never really get any for the other mysteries.

It’s a shame, because we see the movie straining to build mystery. It’s true that real life rarely ever wraps things up in a neat bow, and neither should art. Deleter, however, manages to look like a pool from afar, but upon closer inspection, is really just a well-tiled puddle.

It brings to mind a few well-executed local horror films. Dan Villegas’ Ilawod, for example, gives us the creature’s motivation to wreak chaos upon a family in one simple line: Ang yabang mo kasi.

Then there’s Erik Matti’s Philippine episode for HBO’s Folklore, entitled 7 Days of Hell. Both the hero (a policewoman) and villain (a shaman) have the same motivations: ensuring that their children are safe; and should harm befall them, raining revenge upon the culprit. Ironically, they both realize how helpless they are in the face of the supernatural and real life horrors, respectively.

There are a few clever throwaway lines here and there. The opening narrative talks about Lyra’s dad told her seeing a ghost would prove the existence of an afterlife, of God. Interesting, but we never return to it.

Aileen says, while hanging out in Bilibid with Lyra, “Di ka ba naniniwala sa kabilang buhay? Wag kang mag-alala. Pag nauna ako, sasabihin ko sa’yo.” (You don’t believe in the afterlife? Don’t worry. If I die first, I’ll let you know.” Sounds like a weird thing to talk about in the sleeping quarters, but in hindsight, it sounds more like a threat.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying it’s a bad movie. It’s good. Nadine Lustre’s deadpan take on Lyra’s inner struggle is nuanced and perfect. She’s awkward and conflicted.

Louise fits as the wide-eyed newbie who knows she’s not fit for the job. Unfortunately, both are underutilized here. All we see are glimpses of what could have been.

In one of the flashbacks on the rooftop, Lyra takes a photo of Aileen. The scene is poignant, if a little disjointed. As Rem put it, it’s a pretty sunset with a pretty girl. Take the picture. . . before going back to dealing with horrible stuff. Delete or Ignore.

For Rem, the movie’s central question is, “If the horrible stuff is data, what happens if horrible stuff happens close to home?”

Grasping at several pieces of yarn, perhaps overcomplicating a simple story, and maybe even projecting, I wonder. Why was Lyra’s hell much more harrowing than the villain’s? Why was her condemnation much harsher than the man who actively hid and deleted evidence for the villain? Why did her “Delete or Ignore” response (her primary defense mechanism) to the movie’s central mystery damn her to a hell of repetition?

Near the end, Lyra apologizes. “Natakot ako.” (I got scared.) Of what, pray tell?

It’s just a shame. Deleter spent a lot of time spinning yarns and building mystery and depth that we never got to see.


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