Inarguably, the past three years have been pretty bustling for actor and filmmaker Vincent Soberano. The relatively known MMA trailblazer and Muay Thai expert began breaking into film notably around 2015 with sea life doc, On The Brink, and evidently segued into narrative cinema shortly thereafter.
To a certain extent, it has already paid off as the multifaceted filmmaker accrued a small raft of projects among which that are either complete, in progress or still forthcoming. He initially finished his freshman feature action horror, Blood Hunters: Rise Of The Hybrids prior to a long period of distro mitigation, and in that time, started the process of moving forward with his current inaugural debut, The Trigonal, which opens in the Philippines this week.
The film’s packaging came conveniently topped with the timely addition of actor Ian Ignacio whose career up to this point had been in smaller action roles. Proverbially with a life cultivated from martial arts since he could crawl and sharing action stardom in his DNA through his father, local longtime action star Levi Ignacio, indeed it was the patriarch that obligated his son to specialize and strengthen his acting first at home and abroad earlier on.
Rest assured, those dramatic chops come in handy for The Trigonal, a production that wasn’t without its share of hurdles, as well as flaws with respect to its assembly. The casting of actor Gus Liem as the main villain further roots the film’s dramatic caliber going forward next to actress Rhian Ramos and Aussie actor and action talent Paul Allica.
The film wastes little time briefly exhibiting a piece of the brutality going into the opening title logo. Jacob (Ignacio) is a locally celebrated martial arts champion and hero, whose loving wife, Annie (Ramos), with whom he shares operational management at their own fight gym, begrudges his thrillseeker mentality and competitve instinct cosigned by his desire to support their parental prospects despite their struggles.
A curveball arrives in the form of Allen (Christian Vasquez), a questionable-looking fella with an exclusive invitation for Jacob to enter an obscure and seemingly mythic fighting tournament. When Allen returns empty handed to the tournament’s remote island camp held by Henry Tan (Liem), Tan excoriates and dismisses him. Enraged and humilated, Allen and his gang of thugs take matters, and bats, into their own vicious, lecherous and bloodthirsty hands.
Late on arrival and grievanced by the gruesome attack on his wife and dojo, Jacob takes the invite and engages the preliminary match that etches him into the tournament roster. A brutal bar room confrontation leaves him unconcious in his boundless search for justice eventually lands him in the care of Mei (Sarah Chang), a fellow martial artist arrived from America days later and staying with her kung fu master father, Master Li (Yang Qian Li)
During his recovery, Jacob is soon sought for counsel by local detective Tony Pascual (Soberano), whose own investigation soon leads him to Tan; As it turns out, Tan’s dubious tournament serves as a front for the underground production of a deadly new steroid that delivers results aplenty, certain side affects notwithstanding. Armed with a face and a name and with help from Pascual, Mei and former Sensei Mike Vasquez, it’s up to Jacob to step in the arena, take the fight to Tan and bring down the criminal organization that endangers his neighborhood as Annie’s life hangs in the balance.
Much to the film’s credit, Igancio is a rewardingly strong actor who can hold his own. He bounces off Ramos really well in their initial on screen chemistry, and presents great physicality when it comes time to throw down. He’s also backed by a slate of good supporting cast members, including Soberano and Del Rosario. His screentime with Chang, a champion American martial artist who’s been growing her film craft in the Philippines and China for the last several years, also bodes well in its share of promise on the action front.
Chang’s Mei has her moments where she shines, though at times it feels like her role was meant for a different movie compared to the darkly-toned narrative at hand. It’s largely meant as an upbeat addenum to balance out Jacob’s stoic mindset but it does ensue an imbalance to a certain point where things feel saturated. Liem turns in solid work as the villainous Henry Tam, never without a pair of musclebound femme fatales (Leigh Guda and Jenny Deocampo) by his side, or the will set the example and throw some punches himself as he does in the third act.
The action, all assembled and directed by Chang, is set up pretty well from top to bottom, though getting into most of them is a different story. For the most part, the choreography might have been better off with more engaged cinematography at times. The format is slightly wider than usual which means shots tend to be tighter than preferred, be it accidental or intentional. This, incorporated with lacking visibility of certain techniques, coupled with high-speed lensing for select slow-motion treatment for a more enhanced dramatic effect, tends to take away from the action.
The violence in the fight scenery really only hits more viscerally at its goriest moment when one fighter is laid to waste before faceplanting into a lit torch and stabbes. Some of the fights do have their share of luster with Ignacio invoking his action star growth and scenes featuring Soberano, Chang and del Rosario look genuinely solid. Paul Allica weighs in on the tournament fare as its champion and Tan’s roided right-hand lackey, James Lowe next to a cadre of fighters played by Li Qianyang, and Trigonal regulars played by Mekael Turner, Wu Pei Xiu and Jakab Golding.
Stemming from the film’s initial working title, the film introduces Tapado into the mix to bring things conceptually full circle. This aspect of the film’s action setup is brought to the table when we see Sensei Mike train Jacob in the art in an effort to up the caliber of his fighting style so as to “break through energy” per the purpose of Tapado. The action does introduce this in the final fight scene proving vital to the progression as characters Jacob and James square off.
Structurally, the story could have been much better, and the same goes for the action in terms of cinematography for the sake of choreography. The overall tone teeters between extremes at certain portions of the story as it unfolds and while watching, you eventually make it through to as you’re already immersed in the film’s more solemn millieu aided by Ignacio’s key performance often strongly emotes.
The immediate nostalgic flair of 80’s and 90’s tornament martial arts cinema fandom resonates well for what The Trigonal tries to achieve. Sadly it falters mostly where its shouldn’t have, and so you have to give a hand to the key cast, especially to Ignacio.
The competitive terrain of brewing an excellent action thriller in The Trigonal is a humbling one through all its strengths and faults. That Ignacio came prepared on all ends as one of his country’s rare gems – coming from cinema royalty, having pounded the pavement himself and applying his own blood, sweat and theatrical aptitude to be talented in both martial arts and acting – shows promise.
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THE TRIGONAL (2018)
THE TRIGONAL takes shape as a memorable martial arts drama with a worthwhile star to keep an eye on, and revenge narrative to assuredly enjoy. Everything else, for the most part, is a hit-or-miss.
- Ian Ignacio leads with strength and gravitas, and a fitting supporting cast with some cool fight scenery in between.
- Most of the action cinematography is as ineffective at times as the story and characterization for a time or two.