Monday, November 18, 2013

ISKALAWAGS (Keith Deligero, 2013)

No bullshitting, nor turning your backs on these irrepressible pranksters, they command your honest vigilance, but maybe, just maybe, soon enough, they'll get their just comeuppance. I kid you. You'll see. What Keith Deligero's Iskalawags perfectly evokes and captures are the territory and swagger of childhood, the picaresque adventures portrayed impishly, seen through the pellucid eyes of one of the gang, a pair somewhat welling with tears, a voice shifting with emotion and color, tinged with nostalgia and wonder, loss and regret.

Like summers of bygone times, much of the movie is a series of mischief-making episodes, a skewer of adventures that involve this notorious group of adolescent boys under their black flag, narrated through a syncopated and rippled diction in thoughtful Binisaya. Set in a sleepy, seaside village on Camotes Island, Cebu -- sleepy if not for these unruly scamps -- a story of what might seem like a parataxis of pranks, the seeming impunity of children, is slowly preparing them for a rude awakening like sheep to a slaughter. Well, I kid you. Believe me.

We are thrust, without preliminaries or preamble, into the Iskalawags’ make-believe world: this motley crew -- led by Palot, the ring leader who rules by virtue of his seniority (15 years old), the only one so far with pubic hair, the narrator interjects in colorful idiom – reenact a gangster-like showdown from a 1980s or 1990s actioner. When not indulging their betamax fixation, most especially Jeric Raval starrers (a screen idol who makes a curious but telling cameo here), the boys remain inseparable, by day out for sport or by night in their hideout, or under the stars, dreaming of their next mischief.

Transposing Erik Tuban’s story to film is a triumph of Keith Deligero’s imaginative vision. The detail that the time and place of his world evoke reflects on his assured and mature direction. Noteworthy too is the almost unstudied naturalism of acting of the young non-professional ensemble of actors. They seem immersed in the illusionism of fiction, oblivious to all except their own personas. It must be said, however, that such a coming-of-age movie, by now, is far from new or novel: one may even suspect the paradigmatic film it references is Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, complete with its invitation to the fatal, not to mention the adult voice-over narration of one of its characters, and a chubby figure among them, both fixtures of coming-of-age movies at this point.

Where Iskalawags distinguishes itself, among a diverse and varied field at Cinema One 2013, lies in its brash and unabashed provincialism. This Deligero achieves with a quaint but appropriate visual and aural design: the combination of its seemingly washed-out patina (as in old photographs or old betamax tapes) and a Binisaya narration that is perfectly thoughtful, nostalgic yet modulated. Many of the episodes prove immersive and unique, its fractious kids sincerely inhabit and believe in the wonder of the diegesis, the kind you find only hereabouts. Or thereabouts in a seemingly embracing and permissive Sitio Malinawon, a lost frontier of freedom and dreams.

Foreseeable functions of their teenage years, some of the Iskalawags' objects of curiosity and obsession may read as follows: the vulva of a woman and sex education, spider fights, pretty teachers and pretty teenagers, feisty crabs on the shore, the massacre of chickens with slingshots, not to mention Palot's passion for papayas -- the symbolism surely not lost on you.

Sometimes, it bears noting, even worthy literature does not survive the transition to film, but Iskalawags manages to capture, perhaps even excel, the piquant and percussive story originally written by Erik Tuban. The rhythmic pensiveness and playfulness in Binisaya, a few days removed, still pits and pats in my ears. What I seem to miss, though, is an ending that may better hint at what sets off the reveries of the narrator. What happens to Palot and the rest of the gang at the moment of their crucial witness also remains a mystery. Gone in the secretive flashback, it seems. All we see is the silhouette of a man on a boat, apparently in a foreign land. The strictures of the grown-up world pinning him down, his memories yearning for the whitecaps  and  pennants of childhood rippling in the wind -- something the Iskalawags once embodied and stood for -- something, crazily, maddeningly, bidding him back home.   


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