Sighs and whispers

Joel David - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Despite the current excitement over the role of digital film production in providing prospective filmmakers with directorial breaks, it would be worth keeping in mind that the tyranny of celluloid-dependent production was in fact capable of instilling in exceptional filmmaking candidates certain qualities that today’s film institutions wind up only paying lip service to: A solid grounding in the humanities, a thorough grasp of classical traditions, a philosophical engagement with social and historical issues, an abiding respect for financial risk-taking, and a willingness to engage the mass audience by entertaining and challenging them in turn.

Therefore, it makes perfect sense to maintain that the best local debut film, Ishmael Bernal’s Pagdating sa Dulo (1971), had not been surpassed for most of the past three decades, despite the recent proliferation of first-timers. Pagdating signaled the emergence of a talent distinguished by precociousness, intensive interest in vital issues, and empathy for others, with comic distance from profound institutional tragedies providing the icing on the cake. And it also makes just as much sense to aver that Biyaheng Lupa shares all of Pagdating’s merits and then some, considering the fact that its director-writer, Armando Lao, has had close to a full career in scriptwriting.

A final similarity shared by both debut films resulted in an outcome that should not have happened then, and that has even less justification for occurring today. Both display a sense of innovation so thorough, so nonchalant that film evaluators have wound up taking the film’s presence for granted. It would be newsworthy in itself if any influential institution were to recognize Biyaheng Lupa as the best Pinoy film debut of our time, just as Pagdating sa Dulo held that distinction for decades once people woke up to the fact. Such an anomaly can be gleaned in the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino’s 2009 awards nominees, which appear to have been heavily influenced by hype and compromised by the group’s reliance on video screeners rather than the theatrical exhibitions that once guaranteed that complex film texts would have the potential to provide actual viewing experiences.

Like no one else except Bernal, Lao has infused his very first outing with a recognizable and fully developed aesthetic philosophy. Those who had been able to follow his scriptwriting career will be able to trace where he had been headed, and how he had managed an extensive self-revaluation, although Biyaheng Lupa would still prove more surprising than what any of his previous major works could have presupposed. Per the filmmaker’s own account, the film departs from Lao’s utilization of real-time presentations, notably in his recent collaborations with Jeffrey Jeturian and Brillante Mendoza. Lao’s real-time narrative strategy was itself a coping mechanism, after the commercial failure of his epic-scale project with Jeturian, titled Minsan Pa (which, like Biyaheng Lupa, was produced by the same outfit).

Lao has described Biyaheng Lupa as reliant on poetic time, where cosmic principles impinge on the narrative, as opposed to duration-dependent real time and his earlier deployment of character-based dramatic time. Originally intended to focus on one of the present film’s main characters, the project hibernated as Lao went through his real-time storytelling phase, and re-emerged in its present poetically inflected mode. Biyaheng Lupa both embodies the materialist orientation that had always typified Lao’s scripts and transcends it at the same time, via its initial fragmentation of a close-quartered social unit, the passengers of a southbound bus, and the subsequent reconstitution of this same unit within the terms of the characters’ inner lives.

Biyaheng Lupa sets out its contract with its viewers by asking them to accept its sole artificial element, the premise that people think in terms of words alone rather than in terms of images or audiovisual stretches. Once we accept this, the film takes us on the journey of several characters — 16 all in all, based on the list of major performers, or 17 if we include the anonymous, unseen bus driver, who may or may not be standing in for the author. But the film’s complications do not end here.

At some point during the trip, the conductor activates the ubiquitous video player, and the Biyaheng Lupa’s producer’s earlier film, the aforementioned Minsan Pa, unfolds. Here the filmmaker may be acknowledging the reduction of finances (from celluloid epic to single-set digital) alongside the increase in scale (from hero-centered love triangle to multi-character dramatic discourse), even as the screen-within-the-screen characters interpellate the bus passengers. The sequence also operates as an extra-textual tribute to producer Joji Alonso, whose track record so far mirrors the innovative sensibilities of Jesse Ejercito. These valences come to a head with another video screening: A sing-along to the power ballad Kahit Isang Saglit, where the passengers wind up literally thinking of exactly the same thing, thus extemporaneously forming their own mini-community. Lao’s skill as documentarian is evident in how he demonstrates this phenomenon without the usual humanist throwbacks to unified aspirations.

In fact, the characters fall into singing along just as easily as they plot, bicker, judge, reminisce, fantasize and regret, with one of them even developing a funny-scary paranoid delusion that erupts in a knife-wielding outburst that just as quickly fizzles into abject surrender. As an aside, one might remark here that, given the radical paring-down of scale and resources, Biyaheng Lupa attempts the same successful delineation of a recognizable Filipino social milieu that Bernal’s Manila by Night had done. But where Bernal started with relative stability and built up toward a monumental breakdown, Lao begins with the more recognizable self-absorbed individuals typical of a harried Third-World existence.

Yet even as the characters insist on the primacy of their lives prior to the present trip, a question of haunting arises. The audience is never assured that the memories conjured up by anyone onscreen are real (one of them in fact worries that her illegitimate pregnancy will result in monstrous childbirth), which is why when the film follows some of them after they leave the bus, their conditions acquire a patina of uncanniness.

On the other hand, most of them are so caught up in their individual concerns that the other passengers represent intrusions that they dismiss, reject, misrecognize (especially in erotic terms), or at best tolerate. In short, while for us the characters’ pre-trip lives might just as well be fantastic, for the characters the other passengers might as well be specters that could dissolve once this transition has passed.

Such insights on transience, destiny and the abiding power of memory are brought to bear in the film’s climax, simple in conception, casual in execution, yet grand in the best possible way, heralded by a mystifyingly long take of the bus crossing a bridge then pausing in the middle. Without giving away this vital closure, I ought nevertheless to remark that we witness a series of rapturous textual ruptures and arrive at one of the most incredible final shots in cinema: A close-up of the last passenger, her face crowded by the monologues of everyone around her, building up to her devastatingly simple, amusing, yet heartbreaking final utterance, drawn from a fiction whose reality effect surpasses whatever documentations have been made of life in our wondrous, terrible, much-abused yet constantly hopeful existence.

(The author teaches at Inha University, Korea.)











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