Ostensibly a horror flick based on a mythical Filipino tree demon which eats men and impregnates women, Motel Acacia digs deeper to tell an allegorical tale about immigration in a fictitious Trump-esque America.
From the moment the film opens in a bleak snowy landscape with a campaign poster slogan, “Making our country great again”, it’s clear we’re off the grid.
But where are we exactly? With Motel Acacia’s multi-ethnic cast, it’s impossible to answer that question.
“That is one of my many points,” says Malaysian-born, Philippine-based director Bradley Liew, 30, who made his feature debut three years ago with acclaimed drama, Singing in Graveyards.
With Motel Acacia in pre-production for almost four years, Liew and his producer/writer wife Bianca Balbuena describe it as a continuously evolving process. However, when Trump was elected, the script took a hard right turn into issues surrounding immigration.
Finally settling on a narrative about a young Filipino man (JC Santos), groomed by his tyrannical Caucasian father to take over Motel Acacia, a place where nobody checks out alive. While functioning as a shelter for illegal immigrants on behalf of a sinister government programme, it’s not quite the job he signed up for.
“But it’s not just about Trump. It’s about all these political leaders who think there’s an easy solution to immigration. It’s just ridiculous,” argues Liew, 28, when FilmInk meets with him in Tokyo.
“These people in developing words think they can find a better life and that they will find greener pasture by going overseas. But when they get there, they discover that the eco-system has its own set of issues where tyrannical leaders view immigrants as social diseases and want to eradicate that disease.
“That’s why we wanted to create this motel which is being used by the government to eradicate their social problems,” says the director who describes his film as part Ridley Scott‘s Alien and part John Carpenter’s The Thing.
“I wanted to replicate a real analog feeling – just like those two films.”
Joined by Santos – who was happy for the director to use his real name of JC for his character – he says, “Bradley’s only two instructions for me were to lose weight so I’d look starving and to watch Alien.”
Shooting interiors in a Manila studio, the cast and crew flew to Slovenia for the outdoor snowy sequences. “I was determined to have snow,” says Liew, “because when you take these characters who are Filipino, Thai and Malaysian – all from countries where we only see sun 365 days a year – I wanted to create a real contrast by putting them in a place which is dark and full of snow.”
Arriving in Slovenia in January this year, the joke wasn’t lost on them that the country is also the birthplace of First Lady Melania Trump.
But, in what might have been taken as an eerie premonition, the snow stopped on the first day of shooting. “All the snow had melted and it was literally the same day that Trump tweeted about how it was so cold in the American Midwest that people couldn’t survive outside, even for minutes,” recalls the director.
In what was one of Trump’s more memorable tweets, he wrote ‘. . . What the hell is going on with Global Warming? Please come back fast, we need you’.
“That tweet blew my mind. Like what on earth?! This is insane!” laughs Liew today. “And that was the same day that all the snow melted – because of global warming. Of course, I had to include that quote in our film.”
Made on a budget of US$1 million, Liew believes this to be one of the most expensive films ever made in the Philippines.
“In the Philippines, we’re used to making films for under US$200,000 so there’s a huge level of expectation for Motel Acacia’s returns.”
For Santos’ part, he hopes the film shines a spotlight on human rights. “It may be strange and quite scary in parts, but it really speaks about immigration,” says the actor who has already made ten films in his native Philippines this year. “We want world leaders to wake up.
“This is a real cautionary tale. From my point of view, I think of it as a coming of age tale – in every scene, I’m always asking questions and having to deal with stuff, decide on what will happen next and trying to make the right choices.”
As for this re-telling of the Filipino tree demon legend, known as a Kapre, Liew harked back to stories passed down through generations. “I wanted to do my own interpretation of the kapre mythology. It’s a spirit known for being very mischievous. It lives in a tree and smokes a big tobacco pipe and likes to seduce human women. It also hates men.
“It tries to lead men astray in the forest, so they get lost, and while they’re lost, he steals their women and fucks them. So, for this movie, the tree is cut down and made into a bed and all the spirit remembers is his lust for women and hatred for the men who cut it down.”
Like most folklore, he says, parents tell their daughters the tree demon stories to ensure they come home early and won’t stay out late at night.
A huge fan of George Miller, Liew would love to work with the director one day and believes Mad Max: Fury Road to be the best of the iconic franchise.
Spending six months in the Melbourne suburb of Clayton, he adds, “I love the Australians and producer Bianca Balbuena served on the jury at Sydney Film Festival a few years ago.”