QCinema 2017 reviews: ‘Balangiga’, ‘Kulay Lila Ang Gabi…’, ‘Dormitoryo’

Stories of different horizons told in the same intimate fashion.

Balangiga: Howling Wilderness

1901, Balangiga. Eight-year-old Kulas (Justine Samson) flees town with his grandfather (Pio del Rio) and their carabao to escape General Smith’s Kill & Burn order. He finds a toddler (Warren Tuaño) amid a sea of corpses and together, the two boys struggle to survive the American occupation.

If history is a drama, then adults are the actors; the children are mere spectators, and too often its victims. In Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, the children seize center stage in a horrific episode of Philippine history. As foreign invaders raze towns across the province, two young boys, along with an elderly man and their tired carabao, plod through the countryside. They narrowly escape the bloodshed, but gunfire is always booming across the landscape, and the scent and smoke of burning villages hang in the air. The action of war—or rather, the massacre—is unseen, but its destructive trail lies everywhere: the path is littered with bloody corpses, scampering refugees, and lost lunatics.

Kulas, of course, sees these artifacts of destruction. He acknowledges them with his eyes, gazes at them but does not speak of them. His task is to survive his circumstances, not to contemplate them. At this he is largely successful: he and his company’s closest encounter with the ghost of violence is their brush with an American soldier (played by Daniel Palisa), in a sequence that, somewhat amusingly, gives life to the phrase “little brown brother.”

The task of Balangiga’s audience, meanwhile, is to imagine the thoughts that whir in the child’s mind as he witnesses war’s ravages. His situation appears terrible to us, when we project our privileged understanding to his story. But in Kulas’ young consciousness, the Balangiga massacre is not something to be regarded within some historical context. He only wants to avoid harm, and for that he only has to evade the cruel grown-ups with pale skin in blue uniforms. And so, when the coast is clear, under the safety and serenity of night, he reverts to the child that he is. His grandfather assigns him to the chore of cooking the rice, and he grumbles. He only wants to see his mother, play around, and dream of flying carabaos.

Balangiga fully inhabits its main characters’ perspective. Its storytelling is whimsical and relaxed. It feigns an innocent disorganization: once, the story briefly cuts to a flash-forward, before taking a leisurely amount of time getting to that point of the story in proper order. Our protagonists are ostensibly running for their lives, but there is negligible sense of urgency, as Kulas and his grandfather ambles along with their carabao. The still-unreturned Balangiga bells make an appearance in one of the film’s many non-sequitur scenes; only some of these scenes are clearly dream sequences, the rest unexplained.

Balangiga is a spool of mostly bare, natural scenery, but as the story unwinds, it occasionally yields jarringly flamboyant scenes. Kulas and company encounter strange tableaus along their journey, and these scenes, along with the numerous dream sequences, build a tone of magical realism that may in fact be unintentional; that may be surreal only because of playfulness and not of a deliberate intention to be bizarre. The resulting film feels like a story in limbo, neither here nor there, but always and strongly evocative of innocence.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers employ a lo-fi digital-video look, and frequently use wide-angle shots, the camera closely following the actors. The former lends it a semblance of authenticity, as if it were home video; the latter conjures intimacy. Balangiga labels itself with a specific, novel tag: ‘intimate historical epic’, a genre that at first glance looks like a paradox. We ask, isn’t history anything but intimate?, until we realize that while we are used to history portrayed in grand, sweeping epics, our actual encounter of it is almost always intimate—small, personal, ephemeral.

Balangiga takes a step further: it takes the viewpoint of children. The filmmakers claim that it is a children’s film, but before it premiered, few believed the claim, partly because of director Khavn de la Cruz’s reputation and partly because of the historical setting. It is true though, if one could overlook the bloody tableaus and the grisly shots of dying livestock (which has attracted the wrath of animal rights groups). There are violent images, but there are also fanciful elements: there are flying carabaos, lost and found chickens, and ominous stop-motion-animated birds. The film score complements the images with slow, tender melodies on piano. When Kulas finds Bola (his nickname for the toddler) among the burning ruins of a village, his immediate reaction is a punchline: he mistakes the soot-covered boy for a tiyanak, a devil baby. Balangiga is a bleak film reenacting the desolation of war, and yet it leaves us a strangely warm glow. We are grateful for its stubbornly hopeful outlook, as only a child’s perspective could muster in dire times.

What adults can learn from this survival story is the idea that children caught in history’s darker moments may not necessarily recognize the deep suffering around them, and that it is perhaps for the better. Massacres leave behind a howling wilderness, but this wilderness may just as well be a vast playground for the children left behind.

Or maybe young ones do understand their historical circumstances, but adults discount their capacity for heroism. In what is perhaps Balangiga’s most captivating image, we see Kulas standing in the rain, having wrestled the rifle from the American soldier; he holds the weapon defiantly, threateningly, as he shields Bola behind him. In this moment, the child stops being merely a footnote, and becomes fully an actor in his own chapter in history.

Justine Samson as Kulas walks in the middle of a burning village in ‘Balangiga: Howling Wilderness’.
‘Balangiga: Howling Wilderness’

Kulay Lila Ang Gabi Na Binudburan Pa Ng Mga Bituin

Aries (Jay Castillo) and Chai (Max Eigenmann) sign up for a couple’s retreat program where they are given free rein to fix their marriage in whatever way possible or impossible.

Kulay Lila Ang Gabi is a rom-com in which the comedy comes from the no-holds-barred, exceedingly rude insults that the protagonists, Aries and Chai, throw at each other. The Filipino of the screenplay’s synopsis captures it best: the lovers are “maanghang at derecho kung magsalita”. The violence is more than verbal; Chai hurls and smashes a few objects at Aries throughout the story, in moments that are less surprising slapstick and more cringe-inducing crazy. But it’s all fun. It’s amusing, even though it would’ve all been funnier if only the humor felt more spontaneous, and less calculated.

Most of Kulay Lila Ang Gabi’s story takes place in a hipster vacation house, an oddly-shaped one-room shelter made from recycled shipping containers. There’s a microwave oven inside, though there are no discernible power lines or generators or indeed any sign of civilization in sight; this retreat house is isolated in a hilly patch of rural country. The curves of the hills are seductive, though their colors seem too saturated for reality. The wide but empty landscape and the confines of the house’s white walls are meant to evoke intimacy, but it hardly works for the uncooperative couple. Aries, upon entering the house, immediately complains about claustrophobia.

There is a revelation late in the story that could make you smile, if you like that kind of imaginative ploy. It is not terribly groundbreaking; it is the kind of twist that loses a lot of its appeal if, as this review does for you, you become aware that a revelation about the true state of things is in order. But it does explain the film’s careful, off-kilter storytelling, as well as the unnatural environment, the physical violence, and the quasi-dream sequences featuring the titular cosmic bodies and phenomena. (The visuals are unfortunately uninspired; they are no more dazzling than old-school screensavers.)

What Kulay Lila ang Gabi forgoes in breadth, we expect it to compensate for in depth. A film that mostly follows only two people confined in a room is expected to flesh out nuanced characters with a complicated relationship and complex backstories. However, Aries and Chai’s predicaments are thin. Their relationship troubles revolve around jealous fixations, as if overcoming this one problem is all they need to finally grow up and be ready to start a family. The artificiality and strangeness of the film’s settings seem to spill into the characterization, spoiling Aries and Chai’s chances for evoking sympathy.

Kulay Lila Ang Gabi has a nice landscape, but the grass is a little too green.

Jay Castillo as Aries lying on the grass, holding a hand to the sky, in ‘Kulay Lila Ang Gabi Na Binudburan Pa Ng Mga Bituin’.
‘Kulay Lila Ang Gabi Na Binudburan Pa Ng Mga Bituin’

Dormitoryo (Mga Walang Katapusang Kwarto)

Charles (Charles Salazar), an engineering student with an eye for beauty, just returned from school to a dormitory owned by Aling Linda (Ces Quesada), a strict, lonesome widow. Other occupants of the dorm include Max (Max Celada)—now on his 7th year in college, Sheen (Sheenly Gener)—his reluctant partner, Steven (Wowie De Guzman)—a social entrepreneur, Ramon (Jun Sabayton)—his cop lover, Alex (Vandolph Quizon)—a call center agent, and Jenny (Kate Alejandrino)—his attentive girlfriend. They all spend the evening tucked away in solitary rooms, talking about collective experiences, sharing a similar fate. And rent is due.

How many characters in a story do you need, at least, to represent the spirit of Filipino society, plus its ills and humors? Dormitoryo seems to answer this question. Eight characters, it says, and each of them has to be damaged in his and her own way.

There is Charles, the pervert whose strange sexual habit wittily sets up the film’s sickest, funniest (and unexpectedly political) joke. He often makes nude drawings by tracing over the photos in his stash of adult magazines—and this is merely the most innocent of the acts he performs with the photos. Max, the overstaying art student, says Charles has a good hand, mistaking the traced drawings as original works. Max and his mostly-agreeable girlfriend Sheen would have made for the least dysfunctional couple residing in the dorm, if not for a gasp-worthy piece of information plainly stated near the end of the film.

Jenny and her maternally-disapproved boyfriend Alex are the intriguing couple confronted with an unplanned pregnancy. But their problem is mild compared to that faced by ‘Sir’ Steven and Ramon; the cop and his respected lover are implicated in a corrupt mayor’s unspecified scheme, and their reaction to the crisis is pure comical desperation. The dorm’s lonely landlady, Aling Linda, stubbornly refuses to sell the house and follow her children (who have migrated abroad) because of her devotion to her husband (who has departed for the afterlife).

The story takes place over the course of one rainy, gloomy night; the space left by the rain fills with the hushed conversations within the rooms. Dormitoryo, like director Emerson Reyes’ previous film MNL 143, is a series of character studies in ensemble format. Even if none of the individual characters are particularly complex—a necessary trade-off in such stories—it is a credit to Reyes’ perceptive writing and the cast’s credible acting that all of them feel real and natural, as if you could easily walk into one of the countless dorms in Manila and find real persons there, rambling and fumbling about the same quandaries as those of the characters in the film.

Dormitoryo’s focus, nevertheless, is split between the idiosyncrasies of each individual, and their relations and interactions with each other—how they hold prejudices against, eavesdrop on, and pay respect to their kapwa, within a small, battered, crowded place. As with any ensemble film, Dormitoryo’s minimal story is a meticulous exercise in entanglement. And entangled all the characters indeed become, by the film’s explosive ending.

Dormitoryo’s essential setup is already a well-worn premise in local cinema—Lawrence Fajardo’s films follow the same formula to great effect. The use of this form isn’t necessarily a negative, and films like this should in fact feel familiar for their metaphors to work. In Dormitoryo, the titular house and its occupants is a microcosm of our circus of a country. We are all in this house together, our only shelter against the elements of the outside world; here we cling to what we can, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of principle, but most often simply out of convenience. We stay even if it can be more practical to leave at our earliest convenience, even if society’s rooms are only prevented from crumbling into total chaos by a few thin walls.

Charles Salazar putting his ear to his room's wall in ‘Dormitoryo (Mga Walang Katapusang Kwarto)’.
‘Dormitoryo (Mga Walang Katapusang Kwarto)’

Film stills screen-captured from the official trailers.


6 thoughts on “QCinema 2017 reviews: ‘Balangiga’, ‘Kulay Lila Ang Gabi…’, ‘Dormitoryo’”

  1. How do you find all these movies? It’s quite amazing, how there’s a lot and I don’t hear my friends back in the Philippines talking about any of them… Except the typical KathNiel or Maine-Alden movie.

    1. I anticipate these local film fests, and I go out of my way to see them. These alternative films are rarely well-promoted (compared to the typical mainstream studio movie), and the festivals where they screen are not always accessible. Even if these films manage to catch the attention of film lovers, not everyone is willing to take leaves from work and brave the traffic just to watch. This particular batch I’ve been reviewing, for example, was screened for only a week last month, in a total of 6 theaters out of the more than a hundred in Quezon City. The odds are really stacked against people getting the opportunity to see these films in the first place, so don’t blame your friends. 🙂

    2. Sorry, I got excited and realized I didn’t exactly answer your question, haha. On social media I follow a lot of film-related people: other film bloggers, critics, filmmakers, producers, festival organizers, etc., so by default, all these alternative films automatically find their way to my awareness.

      It reminds me of what writers have called the ‘attention economy’. These days I often think about how we all have these specializations, our little geek-corners, thanks to social media. It just happens that my own corner is filled with alternative Filipino films. But it comes at the cost of, say, not knowing as much about current political affairs.

      1. I can definitely relate with the attention economy thing. I barely know anything about top 40 songs because I just don’t listen to the radio anymore. I’m always on Spotify formulating my own jams. And I barely know anything about current movies unless someone’s convinced me to watch something. When I was volunteering at TIFF, I used my vouchers for limited release independent movies. I used one of them to watch The Bit Player (Ekstra). I was just quite amazed that a Filipino movie made it to that year’s festival programme. Don’t ever give up doing this stuff. I really enjoy reading your entries.

  2. Uy! I read the screenplay for Kulay Lila (the closest I could get to “watching” the film, unfortunately). I agree on the thinness of the characters’ predicaments, assuming of course that the movie did not stray far from the source material. The screenplay also reminded me of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” since they both incorporated technology as a means to solve and/or cope with relationship problems. Sayang ‘di ko mapapanood, curious pa man din ako sa portrayal ng futuristic elements sa mga pelikulang Pinoy.

    Anyways, did you read the play? It was noticeably short, only 75 pages, and the dialogs were terse (panay “potah ka” at “pakshet ka”). So I’m wondering, did the movie feel dragging at all? Unless they extended the script, the establishing shots of the hipster house and the silip-sa-telescope moments must have been loooong. Charaught.

    1. About Eternal Sunshine—oo nga ‘no, may similarity nga in premise and in tone.

      Only skimmed it to check if the film is a faithful execution of the script. And it is, from what I saw. The film runs for only around 70 min., and it didn’t feel draggy to me, though I would describe it as sparse. The establishing shots were fine, I did sense they were trying to communicate that something’s not quite natural about the landscape. But as for the ‘cosmic vision’ sequences—nahabaan nga ako, probably because I thought the graphics could have been made better.

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