Pax Americana, circa 1945, comes to the Philippine Islands at the end of war. On the island of Mindoro, American parachutes rigged with relief goods dangle from the high branches of trees like loaded socks on a Christmas tree. There is expectation of colonial largesse in the air. Former soldiers serving under the Americans claim their much-cherished benefits. Citizenship. Travel. Money. Livelihood.
Strange, bittersweet things, however, are afoot for a pre-adolescent boy named Julio. From a laboratory in his backyard, his father has just created a growth concoction whose efficacy is quite a success. Each day made to take spoonfuls of the bitter drug and bodily stretched on a rack, Julio is the docile guinea pig. His growth spurts are notched on the bamboo poles supporting the family nipa hut. This way, approval from his father seems welcome, but Julio must pay for it according to the strictures of scientific method. His siblings run free; he has grown distant from the village. He seems mute, wearing a doleful look. Julio has become Big Boy, the mascot of his father’s entrepreneurial spirit, deep in the fastnesses of Mindoro. One day he stops growing.
Big Boy, the first feature film by Shireen Seno, is in many ways about the traumatization of childhood. Childhood is not always magic and idyll. True, to some extent, Seno’s film mirrors Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s A Summer at Grandpa’s with its evocation of a happy childhood. Here with fondness are the wonder years: the parlor games, the outdoor adventures, the staunch playmates, the favorite songs, and the innocence. But in Big Boy, the innocent is uncomprehending and bewildered, tragic and ill-fated. It is perhaps because national hindsight paints a darker picture, owing to the unlucky turns in our history.
For her first film, Seno deserves a ton of credits for her unflinching recreation of a colorful but sorrowful childhood. One can imagine a screenplay almost wholly descriptive of time, mood and place: Big Boy is quite visual. Seno finds a true correlative not just with a grainy stock and a Super 8 camera that felicitously envision bygone times, but with collaborative and mentoring minds who help her transition into feature filmmaking. John Torres and Pam Miras are credited by Seno in one interview, but two kindred spirits emerge from a viewing of Big Boy. Raya Martin’s Independencia and Kidlat Tahimik’s Turumba are what come to mind, one of them a period piece set in early American times, and the other about a child's traumatic encounter with the West.
Apart from its strong and evocative visual qualities (an out-of-focus, deteriorated look and a smudgy palette), Seno makes conscientiously sure that the film's soundtrack is not neglected. Her use of out-of-synch sound evokes the convolutions of memory. We remember this way: the sounds and images are sometimes governed by different mnemonics. And again, the verbal aspects in Seno’s film are as evocative as the visuals themselves. For one, the singing of songs and the family banter and endearments are pitch-perfect and seamlessly complement what appears onscreen. No mean feat for a film that mostly foregrounds children, most of whom are non-professionals.
Big Boy is also a study in how a few touches can recreate faithfully a given period. It helps that some architecture of American handiwork remains, but with minimum expense the visuals of Big Boy seem to take on an old vintage. A street sign, household implements, a costume or two, an American song sung as a lullaby – all not so elaborate minutiae that believably indicate the postwar era.
Few filmmakers are like Seno, for what she achieves is not even often attempted. Today’s filmmakers want to be modern and contemporary and urban, or simply have no connections to the past. Seno is not one of them. Big Boy has a special resonance for those who have once listened to the older and slowly disappearing generation. The stories they tell often turn toward the generosity of our old colonizers. Hey, Joe, do you have chocolates? The line is anachronistic, but you still hear that in the provinces. My grandfather, an English teacher in peacetime, named his children after characters in books that his American counterparts gave him. Our obsession with our old masters has been total – and fatal. Seno tells this heart-wrenching story.