At the heart of Zurich Chan’s Teoriya is the search of a man for the elusive grave of his father. The search involves a far-ranging journey crisscrossing his homeland, one that thrusts him into the bosom of different destinies and destinations. It serves as occasion for a meditation on the land and people, a meditation on what beareavement means. What the son learns along the way informs a theory to explain what he has never tried to confront before: the undeniable legacy of his father.
In short, Teoriya dramatizes a theory of uncertainty to situate the father in relation to the son. There remains, however, another theory to consider, the self-referential theory, the authorial theory. Outside the narrative thrust of the film, this filmic effort, Chan’s feature debut, stands for the director’s declaration of a film philosophy, what he deems should constitute a film, what substance to incorporate, what poetics to bring to bear upon it.
Having sat through Chan’s film, all the talk of theory, one realizes, is much ado about nothing. Teoriya is conventional filmmaking: conventional tale, conventional storytelling, conventional poetics. As an allegory -- there seems to be one about patriotic inheritance -- this film may sound heroic and noble, but it’s an idea better heard than seen. The script is a letdown.
The premise, for instance, has the feel of a shopworn, dog-eared opening gambit. A man returns to his hometown of Zamboanga City to claim the inheritance left behind by his estranged father. It doesn’t amount to much: An old, temperamental car, a self-help book, and an assortment of personal effects. The most valuable item is his father’s journal, where he soon reads about the ecumenical anxieties of a dying family man. His last famous words: The family is the anchor!
To much regret, the narrative settles for the most facile of contrivances: a lot of fortunate coincidences, a lot of deus-ex-machina encounters. Serendipity and predestination could very well be the themes. The father’s journal, meanwhile, is a fount of cliches. (The family is the anchor! We hear this again and again.) The allegory is not much of an allegory. The filmmaker has picked out the most obvious, most prosaic analog: a dying father to stand for a moribund fatherland.
The film unfolds as a road excursion: a journey through Zamboanga convulsed with poverty and rebellion. While enlightenment slowly dawns on this man, the road leads here and there wherever fate brings him. He slowly gets the pulse of the land, the truths of his father’s confessions. Although much of it happens at random, it’s all to the good: the proverbial coincidences are conspiring to lead him to the right places and right people. (If you have read Paulo Coelho before, you might get the idea.)
Every stranger met along the way is salt of the earth. There is a highwayman, armed hilariously with a blunt two-by-four, desperately compelled by poverty. The hard-up man proves to be a good chap; offers him all the hospitality he can afford. Another is a family who welcomes him to their home and teaches him what little they know of familial solidarity. Then to round out the grace of benevolent fates, an unexpected presence from the past proves to be a god-sent intervention.
Certainly, one can do worse than watching a film with such an ostensibly relevant and commendable import. However, much of what transpires in Teoriya has the patina of the old-and-many-times-gone-over. Everything is tired. The truths are truisms. The father’s journal must be closed shut, lest we hear its bleating again... The family is the anchor, the anchor!