Monday, November 14, 2011

SA KANTO NG ULAP AT LUPA (Mes de Guzman, 2011)

Filmmaker Mes de Guzman seems to have one overriding and obsessive tendency throughout his career: a Wordsworthian affinity for naif and innocent characters caught helplessly in the clutches of an unwelcoming world. These protagonists in de Guzman's films are often children or youths, depicted as castaways or as disenfranchised creatures left to their own devices, scarcely comprehending their sorry plight. Many of the old Kanun films of Iran, films catered to the young, are artificial compared to this, their dilemmas little more than math problems geared to their delicate age, their outcomes leaning towards happy or hopeful resolutions. De Guzman, on the other hand, does not shy away from tragic denouements, taking the classical unities of drama to their logical and truthful ends.

This darkening of vision in the work of de Guzman has been most pronounced in recent years. Last year, he engineered Stone is the Earth and Ice is the Earth, two parts in a projected trilogy that are particularly embedded in this ominous vein. That is not to say that it is a newfangled tendency: his earliest short, Batang Trapo (2002), and his famous Daang Patungong Kalimugtong (2005) are not exactly sunshine paeans to children.

Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa is apt to sunder hearts once again. Set in the inhospitable province of Nueva Vizcaya, it takes an unflinching gaze at the hand-to-mouth lives of four street boys living on the fringes. They are from the highlands, but the lure of modern life and disaffection from their families have made them come down to the big, bustling towns like Solano, Aritao and Bayombong. However, few jobs and opportunities beckon, only the pangs of privation. Instead of food, they chew on betel-nut to slake their hunger. 

As in many broods, there is a pecking order among these kids. Yoyong, the eldest, most adolescent of the group, is big-brotherly but not above putting a hand on his younger mates at the slightest provocation. Poklat is a firebrand, who either stands up to Yoyong or abuses his secondary position. Boying seems loyally attached to the group, finding his way back even after being forced home by his father. Uding, the literate among them, is the bottom feeder, who must make do with scraps after every one has had their fill. 

Episodic in structure, neorealist in approach, De Guzman's film shows these kids caught in the last gasp of innocence. Their naivety is best illustrated in a scene where they bring home a discarded vhs player found on a garbage heap. Believing it to be a gift, they have it tested on a neighbor’s television, only to realize that it is broken and  beyond repair. Worse, it is technology as obsolete as their innocent worldview. 

For the most part, cynicism has not corrupted these kids. The world still holds out grand abstractions like camaraderie and love. In one episode for instance, Yoyong is taught how to read and write by Uding, in the hope that through letters he can court a well-off girl he admires from afar.

De Guzman, however, does not underestimate his characters. He affords them with sparks of cunning that seem lifted from childishly clever movies they have seen. One episode details how the youngsters write a letter to trick the boss at the local slaughterhouse into hiring Yoyong. They surprisingly succeed, and are soon helping Yoyong wash pig entrails. At such times, the twists and turns may seem to be scarcely plausible.

But De Guzman is carefully setting things up. He is chiseling away at dramatic uniformity. This is the bliss before the fall. Events are steering inevitably into an incontrovertible ending. What happens, he asks, when a disjuncture between the boys' unwieldy dreams and the world's monolithic reality becomes all too painfully manifest? What happens when their sense of family derived from the group is threatened and the appeasement requires such grand and heroic gestures?  And what happens when hunger intervenes in all these boys' hardships? Antidotes to these visceral yearning lose their dark luster. They must be sought at all costs. 

Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa is a film composed with calibrated compassion. It secretly wishes for a reprieve for its characters, but it concedes to the tenor of things. The final moments are oneiric and hallucinatory, swathed in muted light and thick fog: the boys are trudging up a grassy mountain. Does it conjure a kind of ascension, or are they being summoned again for a cruel comeuppance? Are they going back home, or nowhere between heaven and earth?    

(Title in English: At The Corner of Heaven and Earth)
(Alternate Name for Director: Ramon Mez de Guzman)

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