Reviews: ‘Kuya Wes’, ‘Pan de Salawal’, ‘Liway’ (Cinemalaya 2018)

Stories about a love-struck clerk, a miraculous child, and a pregnant rebel.

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Kuya Wes

Direction: James Robin Mayo | Screenplay: Denise O’Hara & Heber O’Hara

Wes (Ogie Alcasid) is a timid and earnest remittance clerk who falls for his customer in need, Erika (Ina Raymundo). As Wes offers to help her out, his “relationship” with Erika and his friction with his younger brother Raf (Alex Medina) starts to change him.

Like James Mayo’s own The Chanters and his associate Thop Nazareno’s similarly beloved Kiko Boksingero, Kuya Wes features a cute premise that promises a feel-good, underdog-story film, but as it delivers the charms it also deals a sucker punch, a double-edged blow that tickles your ribs as much as it wrenches your guts.

Wes is a generation older than Kiko and The Chanters’ Sarah Mae, but he is in many ways just as immature. Wes is not his real name, but a nickname of endearment given to him by his regular customers. His devotion to his clerical job is disproportionate to its prosaic repetitiveness. We watch him continually redecorate the remittance center with the latest holiday greetings as the months go on—Valentine’s followed by graduation, graduation followed by Mothers’ Day, Mothers’ Day followed by Fathers’ Day. Erika’s similarly clock-like visits, at one in the afternoon on the 16th of every month, is Wes’s sole hope of joy in his unremarkable life.

This film plays along with convention for a while. Obstacles are established early on—she has a husband and children, he is naive and awkward—but destiny is destiny, as Wes himself likes to say, and at one point it becomes all but certain that the guy will get the girl. (There is a lovely montage featuring the song Waltz of Four Left Feet.) If this were a mindless feel-good movie, that would be all, it would be that simple; but it is not.

The bright, inviting yellow of Wes’s office and the good intentions of his snarky colleague Joy (Moi Bien) contrast with the dim lighting of the apartment he goes home to every night, where Raf, his sister-in-law Tess (Karen Gaerlan) and their children treat him so coldly that he appears more like their servant than their provider and family. (To emphasize the point, the camera’s composition in this film is often lopsided, Wes’s image pushed to the edge of the frame, marginalized and isolated. Even in his scenes with Erika, the thick post of the remittance center counter separates their figures.) Wes’s job is more than incidental detail: Raf’s family depends on him as much as the customers of the remittance center do; his under-appreciated job completes the link between overseas workers and the families who depend on their financial support. Like Diday, the nanny in Kiko Boksingero, or Lolo Ramon, the elder in The Chanters, Kuya Wes is a tribute to the overlooked characters of life. There have been numerous films exalting the sacrifices of OFWs; this film turns its attention somewhere else, and sees the humble remittance clerks, “the ones who hold the door open” in Wes’s words.

Kuya Wes is also a study of disillusionment, yet again like its spiritual prequels, although it explores darker depths. Wes’s ill-advised pursuit of Erika leads to some truly unsettling situations, giving this film an overall tone more tragic than comic. The final scene (where we observe Wes from within the remittance office, mirroring albeit in a different perspective the first scene where we watch Wes from outside the same place) is even frustrating, ending the story vaguely as it does, leaving it to us to contemplate what happens to a man when he is forced to check his fantasies.

Ogie Alcasid as Kuya Wes opening shop at the remittance center, in ‘Kuya Wes’ (2018).
Ogie Alcasid in ‘Kuya Wes’.

Pan de Salawal (The Sweet Taste of Salted Bread and Undies)

Writer/Director: Anna Francesca “Che” Espiritu

A small community near the Manila Railroad gets its dose of miracles from a wandering girl who violently harms the sick as her magical way of healing them.

Pan de Salawal feels like an extended episode of that late ’90s children’s show Hiraya Manawari: a tale of magical wonder with bittersweet ingredients, intent on imparting life lessons. It helps that Bodjie Pascua of Batibot fame is also cast in a leading role, as Sal, a lonely old baker suffering from failing kidneys. (Perhaps it is the pandesal’s fault.) This child-friendly film is just as enjoyable for amicable adults, because of its mischievous humor and relentless wordplay. There is a newspaper vendor who sells tabloids by their sensational headlines; he goes around shouting, “Dyaryo, dyaryo kayo diyan! Makialam naman kayo!” When Sal is asked why his pandesal tastes so bland, he quips, “Don’t eat salt, it’s a-sin.” It is a pun from Sal—a pun de Sal. (All the bilingual puns must have been a headache for the subtitle writers; indeed, they mostly just gave up, leaving the jokes unexplained in the English captions.)

Sal strikes a friendship with the gifted but impolite child, Aguy (Miel Espinoza), soon after she wanders into their community, and after he witnesses her healing people. Their lolo-and-apo, Silas-Marner-and-Eppie dynamic forms the emotional pillar of this redemption story. She explains to Sal that she was named as such because giving birth to her was too painful for her mother; ‘aguy’ is Bisaya for ‘ouch’. The ensemble characters in the community possess similarly deliberate names, and ironic afflictions. There is Hidalgo (Ian Lomongo), the barber with hand spasms who likes taking his customers’ pictures; Hidalgo is also the street in Quiapo famous for camera shops. There is the drug store attendant with a terrible allergy, and her wheelchair-bound mother, a former folk dancer. Bruno (Soliman Cruz) is the meat vendor with a macho name and a potentially cancerous tumor in his breast. Pilar (Madeleine Nicolas) is the former local pageant queen bothered by ungraceful coughing. And there is Sal himself, whose nickname is short for Salvador; his would-be salvador—savior—Aguy is puzzled to discover that he is the only person for whom her healing power fails.

Pan de Salawal basks in unabashed sentimentality: there is a climactic scene so schmaltzy it could have brought the entire movie down crashing and burning with it, if not for the sheer absurdity of Aguy’s miraculous methods. The sense of innocent and magical wonder is propped by the film’s simple and purposeful musical score, and cinematographer Tey Clamor’s eye for neat compositions. The story is set in Pandacan, the same Manila district often portrayed as a cheerless and even treacherous place in many other films, but here it is rendered in the warmest possible palette, short of making it look like it is dusk all the time. Sal’s loneliness finds expression in his old house, with its colonial architecture and aura of tired wood, creaking furniture, and dusty kitchen.

But Pan de Salawal is not about dust and decay; rather, it is about salt and life. All the wordplay is foreshadowing for this film’s essential observations, that physical pain is preferable to spiritual sickness, and that pain may in fact be necessary for genuine healing and lasting peace of mind.

Bodjie Pascua and Miel Espinoza as Sal and Aguy riding a train, in ‘Pan de Salawal’ (2018).
Bodjie Pascua and Miel Espinoza in ‘Pan de Salawal’.

Liway

Direction: Kip Oebanda | Screenplay: Kip Oebanda & Zig Dulay

Liway is based on a true story about a young mother with a mysterious past who uses storytelling to protect her child from the realities of growing up inside a prison camp during the Martial Law.

Liway’s greatest storytelling coup is the revelation at its very end, that it is an autobiographical film—that Dakip, the child born and raised in prison, is the same person as Kip, the film’s director and co-writer. (A priest suggested the change in name when he was baptized, after being freed.) It is an interesting ending for a film that for most of its duration employs unremarkable storytelling techniques. It is not incompetent; it is merely very conventional. In the opening scene where Dakip plays with other captive children in the prison yard, the camera follows them in sweeping movements, accompanied by tender music designed to tug your heartstrings. You could definitely feel the filmmakers’ gentle but firm coaxing: Look at Dakip, look how he is forced to spend all his days in this tiny space, how poor he is!

The part of the premise that recalls Life is Beautiful, about the mother, Liway, protecting Dakip using fiction, is only a small part of this film. An animated sequence performs the exposition, using shadow puppets; in it, Liway tells the story of the diwata of Kanlaon who fought ‘monsters from the north’—a thinly veiled allegory for her own past as a rebel in the mountains of Negros, campaigning against the government of Manila (and beyond).

It is not while taking diversions like this, but rather when it is telling plain truths, that the film becomes compelling. We do not want myths and supernatural tales; we need to know historical realities. When Liway gives up the puppets to tell Dakip about the true story of her fleeing to the mountains, leaving her family, and being hunted by soldiers, that is when the film finds its meaning, and its power.

Liway is mostly confined to the prison that Dakip considers home, but it also traces a journey to freedom, reflected in how it starts in a constricted space (the camera looking out through a tiny prison window), and ends in the freest, widest space there is in the outside world. Crisp visuals and cold lighting define its visual moods; one remarkable shot has Dakip’s face lit by the weak moonlight, behind bars.

Glaiza de Castro delivers a remarkable performance as the alternately vulnerable and intimidating Liway. Her moving renditions of Himig ng Pag-ibig and Pagbabalik, the latter set against images of struggle fit for a national anthem video, are some of the highlights of this film. Kenken Nuyad, the child actor who plays Dakip, does well even if he is somewhat miscast, because he does not at all resemble either de Castro or Dominic Roco (who plays Ric, his father and Liway’s husband).

An aspect of Liway’s story that the film only briefly mentions but would have been interesting if it were explored, is the reason for her fleeing to the mountains in the first place. She was involved in preaching liberation theology, it was said, and even in the present time of the story, in the prison with Dakip, she is shown to be still religious and dutiful in her prayers. But Liway is not as concerned about discussing ideologies as it is with simply recounting intimate experiences: first-hand stories of brutality in the insurgency, and personal remembrances of a sympathetic prison warden. It was a dark period for the nation, but it was not too dire, not too helpless: even Dakip had the privilege of choice, although a difficult one, between a comfortable freedom away from his parents or a futureless captivity with them.

It is this dedication to a fair recollection of truth that unites Liway with some of the most popular Martial Law stories in our culture, stories like Lualhati Bautista’s Dekada ‘70. Notwithstanding shortcomings of craft, each and every earnestly-crafted movie about this period of our history is welcome, if only so that we may not forget.

Kenken Nuyad as Dakip behind bars at night in ‘Liway’ (2018).
Kenken Nuyad in ‘Liway’.

Stills taken from the films’ respective teaser trailers.

Author: DJ

Scribbles about films and other fabrications.

5 thoughts on “Reviews: ‘Kuya Wes’, ‘Pan de Salawal’, ‘Liway’ (Cinemalaya 2018)”

  1. Dahil dito parang gusto ko tuloy mapanood ang “Kuya Wes”. Sana magkaroon ng commercial run. Parang “funny on the outside, sad deep inside” na maliit na pelikula ang dating sakin base sa review mo. Related siguro sina Denise kay Mario O’Hara no?

    1. Sana nga, I think it’s one of the more marketable films in this year’s batch naman. Hmm, maybe, pero medyo equally and obviously funny and sad siya for me.

      I searched about it, and yep, pamangkin siya ni Mario O’Hara.

  2. Were it not for my impoverished state, I’d be a cinephile, if only to pay homage to the efforts of artisans like DJ who breathes life into and reveres ouvres of fellow craftsmen through reviews of their movies. DJ regales with his medium and makes me enjoy in my mind works that can only be imagined marvelous for his depictions of them. Thank you for your seminal series on films with merit. I will stay glued to this ipad theater in earnest thanksgiving. Cheers!

    1. Thank you! I hope that these films will soon find a way to be more accessible for people like you. There’s no shortage of good films being produced in the Philippines today; the problem is in distribution.

      1. I can’t agree more, DJ. Your hope is my prayer. Keep inspiring with your pen-pushing!

        Sent by kuya ham… Godbless! 😇

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