Enisled on Kota Island, one of the disputed islands of the Spratlys, Julian Macaraig, a solitary sentry, spends his long, uneventful days in routine and ennui. Other than reporting ship movements in the area, there is little productive to do, so he idles the time away with silent and deadpan regularity. Here he listens to the unfolding news of President Estrada’s imminent downfall on radio and television, on the shore he poaches turtle eggs buried in the sand, he keeps himself fit with his daily dozen, and masturbates to Asian pornography.
But there is something strange that draws him to the island’s mangroves. He bears witness to inexplicable sightings here. This is prefigured by a prologue showing a mermaid giving pleasure to a man of unknown identity. When two other soldiers are assigned to join Julian on the island, we learn the enchanted and maddened fate of those who previously held the same post. But they are tales of the fantastic: how mermaids abound and may make contact, how a lost and spectral sentry roams the islands, how the secret location of deposits of black gold is kept by the mermaids. We also learn how the death of his predecessor has rendered Julian mute for many moons.
On the surface, Kalayaan follows through lengthy, unedited takes the island sentry’s isolation, a fact which foreshadows the dangers of enforced exile and solitude. Silence is its first symptom. Seeing mythical things is another. Madness may be next. But through radio and television broadcasts, the fate of the disputed islands is made to run parallel with the fate of a nation, a fact that allegorizes the importance of the latter. The film’s title, after all, denotes the grand word of freedom. One interpretation might point to the ironic lack of freedom of the film’s main protagonist – his seemingly being held incommunicado, a victim of large traumas. This is echoed and verbalized with empathic displeasure by the two arrivals. On the island, the lack of freedom destroys the mind, and evokes illusory figures and phantasms, dark and fatal as the promise of oil.
Along with Sandoval’s Aparisyon, Kalayaan is probably the most consciously and frontally European in tone and approach among this year’s Cinemalaya entries. The thrust of visuality and the sparsity of dialogue not only remove the burden of the vernacular from its Thai actor but bring the film closer to the aesthetics of Western filmmakers. In scenes showing the sentries performing exercises, there is a conscious effort to take a page from Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, a film about the French Foreign Legion in a remote outpost in Djibouti. This is not to mention the entire tradition of contemplative cinema valorized in the last decade or so in Europe that Kalayaan seems to draw from. Closer to home, Kalayaan has affinities to the work of Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose own enchanted forests figure in Blissfully Yours and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives.
Judged as a work in the prolific career of director Alix, Kalayaan represents a triumph. Kalayaan is a deceptively simple film about the dark side of solitude, and yet read at a higher level, yields a more profound significance. Like last year’s Isda, and unlike his earlier output, it exemplifies how elements of magic realism and the supernatural can be harnessed to deepen and add meanings. That it may signify Alix’s easy (too,easy, some will maintain) adaptability, that it may suggest that he is something of a chameleon without a particular style (from the straightforward, unaffected debut of Donsol to the Iranian-inspired Kadin to the expressionist, poverty film Chassis), this filmmaker can answer by making more and more films of this caliber and quality. There can be no doubt, Kalayaan is one of the superlative films at this year’s Cinemalaya.
Title in English: Wildlife