Davao: city of superlatives

Here’s what you learn when you go to Davao just to admire eagles.

The much-touted piece of trivia that Davao City is the largest city in the country always had me imagining an urban jungle whose sprawl surpasses that of Metro Manila. That idea excited me, in a dubious capacity as a ‘city explorer’, but at the same time it worried my conscience, because the congestion of Manila is terrible for a myriad reasons, none of which would be pleasing to see replicated somewhere else in our archipelago.

It was both a delight and a disappointment then to realize that the nominal vastness of Davao is nothing like that of Manila’s. Delight because, as a tour guide in Museo Dabawenyo dutifully pointed out, more than eighty percent of Davao City’s territory is in fact rural—sparsely populated, fresh, green. And the city government intends to keep most of it that way; there were mentions of development plans and city ordinances intended to limit urbanization (or, euphemistically, ‘development’) of the city’s greener districts. Coming from Manila, it’s certainly refreshing to find a major city government in the country caring, or at least affecting a concern for, nature. (Only time will tell if Davao will stay pro-environment, or be tempted by unsustainable prosperity.)

On the other hand, the actual size of urban Davao means that there isn’t as much for me to see around in the way of man-made environments, i.e. city architecture. Downtown Davao, the blocks surrounding the city hall, is a blend of the weariness of Manila’s Quiapo and the sleepiness of my hometown, Malabon. Davao City’s growth so far has definitely been horizontal rather than vertical—Marco Polo Hotel is the only visibly high-rise structure in the downtown area, and serves suitably as a compass if you feel like wandering around.

Photo of old buildings located along San Pedro St. in downtown Davao City.
Buildings along San Pedro St. in downtown Davao City.

As to why the city’s official boundaries remain so expansive is still unknown to me. The size is absurd when compared to the neighboring territories: Davao City is larger than the rest of the province of Davao del Sur combined. Wouldn’t it be somehow more efficient and effective for governance if the territory were to be chopped up into several cities and municipalities? I can’t be sure, I’m not some public policy expert. I’m guessing that local legislators and executives want to retain the ‘largest city’ title for the vague pride and prestige of a superlative. Competing for the largest, biggest, longest whatever, no matter how Guinness World Records-silly it becomes, is a Filipino hobby after all.

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‘Tu Pug Imatuy’ (2017): life and death in ancestral lands

The film’s story and style is strongly reminiscent of certain Hollywood films, but it is firmly grounded in its lumad context and concerns.

Despite running for only 90 minutes, Tu Pug Imatuy (‘The Right to Kill’) delivers the experience of an epic. It manages this partly by alternating between quiet, lingering moments, and thrilling, kinetic sequences. But more importantly, the film exhibits a layered story—it is, at once, an ethnographic documentary, a primer on pressing social issues, and, without glorifying violence, something of a survival adventure.

Note: this film analysis includes details of plot, or ‘spoilers’. It is written primarily for those who have seen the film.

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2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten (Petersen Vargas, 2016): confronting nature and nations

The power of nature and the past of a nation lurk behind this story about the volatilities of youth.

It is the late 1990s in the province of Pampanga. Several years have passed since the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo that buried so many of the province’s towns under massive volumes of debris. The volcanic material combine with rainwater from perennial typhoons to produce lahar; the government builds the Megadike in an attempt to contain its destructive power.

Meanwhile, American military forces have recently evacuated the bases in Clark air field and nearby Subic Bay, partly as a result of the Pinatubo disaster, and partly as a result of political decisions by a nation asserting its sovereignty.

This is the backdrop of 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten, though the film obscures the consequences of its setting behind blithe cinematography, frames color-graded to a fresh and hopeful palette. Even the aspect ratio is an unusual 5:4. The combined visual effect evokes the nostalgia of old Kodak photos—a nostalgia that tends to summon simple, happy recollections while conveniently forgetting painful, complicated memories.

Petersen Vargas, in a limited résumé consisting of such shorts as Geography Lessons and the music video for BP Valenzuela’s Steady, has already demonstrated a distinct style before working on 2 Cool. Sometimes, as with Steady, he paints a mood through the cinematic equivalent of sweet nothings—stylized, mesmerizing visuals with no particular statements. Sometimes, as with this film, his first full-length work, he maximizes cinematic language in telling his story, while still infusing it with his unique gaze. Combine this directorial reputation with young actors capable of competent, convincing performances, and we have a compelling film in our hands.

Warning: this review presents a reading of the film, and it necessarily shares details of plot and other elements, or ‘spoilers’.

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Umaapaw by Ang Bandang Shirley: singular feel, many possibilities

This music-video is Shirley at their heartstring-plucking best, visualized with sublime storytelling.

Awit, masaya ang mga tenga
Sa aking alaala ito nagsimula

In life, as with music, there is movement and then there is stillness. There is sound and then there is silence. When the action becomes too much, we leave the town looking for solitude.

We all have our own places where we turn to for comfort in loneliness. Sometimes it is an old, empty parking lot, at the fringes of the city, close to the forest and free for tired souls to inhabit. You would come there for solace, but what happens when someone else comes wandering into the space you would rather have all to yourself?

Panaginip ang dumalaw

You may choose to keep to yourself, retreat into your thoughts; or you may be enchanted by this other soul. You see her lost in smoke and clouds of thought, and you hear questions in your mind, prodding you to explore, to find out what it is that you share with her that drives both of you to seclusion. You may choose silence; or you may take a deep breath, and open a connection, offer a distant but firm handshake.

A man and a woman share a handshake in the Ang Bandang Shirley music video for Umaapaw, under handwritten lyrics, “Panaginip ang dumalaw.”
Screen capture from the Umaapaw music video, youtube.com/watch?v=9pXZCO3A_8w

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Baguio: the eternal and the environmental

Baguio’s unique character as a Philippine city requires a similarly unique dedication to its protection.

Baguio is a young city. It is only over a century old—practically an infant among the historical cities and towns of the Philippine archipelago. As recently as the turn of the 20th century, while ilustrados and invaders quarreled over the serious matter of sovereignty in the lowlands, the area known as Kafagway was only a grassland inhabited by humble Ibaloi folk, quietly tending to their cattle. A few years later, after inevitably winning the Philippine-American War, weary Americans stumbled upon this cradle of a land in the mountainous Cordillera region. Exhausted by lowland Luzon’s tropical air, they must have fallen homesick at the first whiff of Kafagway’s chilly midland winds, so they quickly decided that they will build a resort town in that place. Baguio was born.

Flowers with dewdrops at Burnham Park, Baguio City.
Flowers at Baguio’s Burnham Park.

Yet, despite this young history and the absence of a Spanish heritage that most of the rest of Luzon Island enjoys, Baguio has already attained for itself an immortal character. The numerous artists and authors who have made this place their home attest to the sense of the eternal pervading the midland city.

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