Film, being the medium uniquely capable of presenting grand, immersive spectacles, often tempt its makers to tackle topics of epic scope. As they do, their works often fall short of greatness, only proving that an expression of too much can produce something so empty. Sometimes the subject may be ordinary families, yet they expand the story to encompass a fuller range of life and experiences; these types are often more successful, but then there are films like Lando at Bugoy, where the filmmaker deliberately understates, deciding to weave a narrative around a limited, focused idea and setting.
Warning: this review presents a reading of the film, and it necessarily shares details of plot and other elements, or ‘spoilers’.
This core, in Lando at Bugoy, is the metaphor of carving a gravestone. Firstly, Lando (played by Allen Dizon), who makes a living by engraving designs, names and dates on tombstones, compares the task of disciplining his delinquent son, Bugoy (Gold Azeron), to the seemingly impossible task of molding hard stone. Then, Lando’s father later builds on the metaphor and points out how, when carving stones, applying too much pressure will only break and ruin the entire work. Whereas broken granite can be replaced, he says, Lando’s son is irreplaceable, so he should take a softer approach. And there is the insight by Lando, who, after so many years unable to bring himself to complete a gravestone for his late wife, calls his works the ‘diplomas’ of life, given to those who have graduated from this world.
(The metaphor brings additional resonance to the film’s setting. Camiguin province, “the island born of fire,” is itself a molded product of rock, the work of the island’s many famous volcanoes. One popular attraction in the island is a giant cross installed off-shore, at the site of a cemetery sunken by a volcanic eruption.)
This is not the story that drives Lando at Bugoy, however. It is mainly about the deal that Lando makes with his disobedient son, who would rather hang out and get into trouble with his friends than attend school; Lando challenges Bugoy, that if he, a dropout, would go back to school, Bugoy would attend his classes too. This premise naturally permits many amusing moments as Lando keeps his part of the challenge.
But even in its downtimes, in its small moments, the film returns yet again to its gravestones metaphor. One night, Lando tells a friend the story of how he once stopped a fight between drunken men by giving them one chisel each, then telling them to go ahead and beat the hell out of each other as long as he would have a name by the next morning to carve into a gravestone; the concrete, morbid threat was enough to knock some sense into the drunkards’ heads. This tightness of the story, its conservation of its images and metaphors is deepened when Bugoy reveals that his mother, Lando’s wife, died when she was accidentally shoved in a fight between drunk men, then hit her head on—what else could it be—a stone. The fighting motif is itself repeated towards the end of the film, as Bugoy, then Lando, gets into violence themselves. (It makes one wonder if, at least in this film’s world, Camiguin, the island born of fire, itself nourishes men of hot tempers.)
Lando at Bugoy‘s stubborness in mining its metaphor bears fruit, brilliantly, in what is perhaps its most powerful scene. Lando, with his tedious work at home, is understandably often unable to prepare for class. Once, in English, Teacher Emma (Rachel Anne Ang Rosello) picks him to be the first to recite a poem, which she assigned for memorization as homework. When Lando admits being unprepared, she tells him that any poem will do, even a popular song, as long as it is in English. So Lando, tentatively, begins:
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death…
It is Psalm 23, a biblical passage that is only all-too-familiar to anyone whose work is related to rituals for death.
The film’s loyalty to its core also entails a restraint in branching its plots. After class, Lando and Emma are seen strolling on a beach, and she even tempts him to flirt with her. He obliges with a pick-up line, she laughs, then decides to go home—and it’s the last that we see of this potential rom-com thread.
But the greatest display of restraint in the film is at its very climax, when Bugoy is beaten-up at a neighboring town’s fiesta by some jealous fellow. Lando sees his bruised eye, and his temper flares; he takes his chisel and runs off, seemingly to find the perpetrator and avenge his son’s beating. Bugoy runs after him, then the screen fades to black. In the next scene, Bugoy is seen at home, carving a gravestone, calling out his Pa in an almost sorrowful tone. It is only a ruse for the audience, however, as Lando is humorously revealed to be alive and well, sitting on the toilet at the outhouse. Bugoy is shown finally appreciating his father’s craft; they have warmed up to each other, starting to study for school together; and Lando is finally able to finish a gravestone for his wife, by symbolically mending a work-in-progress he accidentally broke earlier with too much pressure.
What happens in the intervening scenes is never revealed, but here is a guess: Bugoy caught up to his father and restrained him from getting into trouble, reminding Lando of his wife’s death in a drunken fight. This would have knocked sense into him, and it would have defused their distant, cold relationship; Bugoy teaches Lando; the son molds the father’s hardened character.
That this is probable and sensible is, pun intended, a last testament to the film’s discipline in keeping to its spirit.
Lando at Bugoy‘s actors are admirable for their simple, but consistent and appropriate performances, aligned with the film’s overall restrained and laid-back tone. The subtlety can be seen in such scenes as when Allen Dizon, as Lando, first visits the school to enroll. Approaching the office, he hesitates, steps back, the doubt visible on his face. After a moment, he takes a deep breath, and moves on.
Even the lensing work in the film is in tune with the cinematic vision. The depth-of-field is notably shallow in many scenes, centered on characters, as if to reflect the story’s narrow focus. A wider clarity is only achieved towards the end, after the narrative climax. While many shots of Camiguin’s natural beauty are distributed throughout the movie, the film refrains from displaying a complete, wide image of the island from out in the sea, featuring its famous volcanoes, until the resolution of the story; Lando at Bugoy‘s cinematography, in other words, is a story on its own.
(To digress: films like this, where the locality is featured strongly and the choice of which is often personally-motivated on the part of the writer/director, are prone to criticisms of being no better than a tourism ad. With its restraint and substance, Lando at Bugoy is more than that, though it does irreverently feature local food products in many comic moments.)
Sound design is unobtrusive, and the music, mostly instrumental, is similarly light. A gentle, acoustic palette is employed for most of the film, except for the climactic scenes, where a harsher, native instrument plays.
There are some rough edges in editing (notably in a classroom montage), but it is not too distracting, and again discreet for the most part.
In sum, the manner in which Lando at Bugoy is constructed is satisfyingly consistent with its key theme of conserved expression.
Beauty in relaxed simplicity
The premise of the film, a middle-aged father returning to high school, lends it a tendency to be comical. Indeed, there are sprinkles of lighthearted humor throughout, and the complementary scenes of Lando bonding with his teenage classmates are simply heartwarming. This is a premise that is easily wasted in tacky, by-the-numbers filmmaking in the spirit of 1990s mainstream Tagalog movies—but Lando at Bugoy is steadfastly simple, and thereby conserves its own worth.
It is helpful to consider the story’s most peculiar character, Lando’s father (and Bugoy’s grandfather), played by Roger Gonzales. The film does not dwell on him; it does not even care to give him a proper background. He simply appears randomly, bringing comic relief with his aloof attitude. (Bugoy explains that a bomb rattled his brains during the Second World War.) Like many of the film’s elements, he only comes to focus near the climax, in order to tell Lando how best to deal with Bugoy; but even then, he is sidetracked, and he decides to unashamedly show off his latest cha-cha moves, prancing at the beach in view of Camiguin’s famous Sunken Cemetery cross.
Lando at Bugoy has been criticized for its lack of conflict, or the mildness of it, if any. But we can take a different perspective and say that, rather than a weakness, its restrained tone and laid-back narrative is its own statement. Like Bugoy’s grandfather, the film speaks in a come-what-may tone that is often aloof and only partly engaged, but nevertheless always authentic. It is a tone that resonates with its provincial setting. Unlike Water Lemon, which takes an almost-hostile approach to the subject of rural serenity, Lando at Bugoy embraces and lives it.
Meanwhile, it tells the story of a middle-aged solo parent who goes back to finish high school and get his diploma, both the literal academic diploma and the metaphorical graduation for a life well-lived—and we, the audience, are grateful to share on such a simple, humble story.
The film is written and directed by Victor Acedillo Jr. As revealed in the epilogue, the character of Lando is based on the real-life story of Silvino Bajao, a Camiguinon who finished his high school and tertiary studies at a late age before serving his home province as a school teacher.
The featured image for this article, showing Rachel Anne Ang Rosello and Allen Dizon as Teacher Emma and Lando in the film, is taken from the official Cinemalaya festival website at cinemalaya.org.