Last night I found myself at the UP Film Center with a handful of cinemaphiles. I was stuck in campus waiting for 7 o'clock so I could ply the streets to head home. With a few hours to burn I went to check what they were screening at the Film Institute. A Filipino digital film was scheduled to run.
I remember reading a very favorable review of Sa Aking Pagkagising Mula Sa Kamulatan on the Inquirer, but since good reviews can easily be bought, I read entertainment journalists with a healthy dose of skepticism. Once in a while however, they speak the truth.
This independent film by Ato Bautista is a diamond in the rough. An uncut gem whose brilliance shone through despite the weak first fifteen minutes, the sometimes off editing and the unintelligible dialogues during the first half. You don't really need to hear everything said. Most of the lines were peppered with "putang ina," "kiki ng ina," "betlog," "bayag," and "gago" anyway. The visuals speak clearly enough. Odyssy Flores' cinematography is suffused with yellow-ochre, a play of darkness and light, and the occasional use of cigarette smoke to cloak and confuse. The camera shows as much as it hides.
The story revolves around eight or so characters caught in a cycle of poverty and violence. At first, all are shown in an unfavorable light, caricatures of what we assume people from Manila's slums are all about. Petty criminals, drunk istambays, and sexual deviants. Hardly worth society's second thought or empathy. But as the story unfolds we see other facets of each character. We see lives and experiences which could be our own. No one is born evil by any means. But the merciless grip of poverty can make any one of us forsake the norms of morality to ease the pains of desolation, uncertainty or simply answer the call of a hungry stomach.
Writer Shugo Praico's slow, at times tedious exposition nevertheless kept us glued to our seats, eager to see what happens to these characters. The action picks up at the middle and we are taken for a lurid, touching, painful and sometimes funny ride. Ketchup Eusebio of Wazzup Wazzup fame is an acting revelation. I don't think I'll ever see this tadjock the same way again. I can't say the same for Archie Alemanya, also a tadjock. His portrayal was "hilaw." Lito Pimentel's sexually deviant cop is convincing and very scary. Too bad he didn't get much screentime. It's refreshing to see Kuya Bodgie again after his Batibot days.
Our linchpin to the film, probably the one with whom we "normal" people could relate to was played by Carlo Aquino. His character was oddly flat however. Such neverending patience and passivity despite the various acts of cruelty and lasciviciousness done him don't really inspire much sympathy. His is the familiar martyrdom of many "kawawa" characters in soaps. Just when you peg him for the forever willing victim, his one act of reprisal in the end comes as a surprise.
After the film's climax and the smattering of enthusiastic applause, we stayed stuck listening to the simple guitar score and looking at the credits with a mixture of pride for the filmmakers and not a little bit of awe. Wow. Pinoys can make such a film.