CINEMALAYA 2012: KALAYAAN (Adolfo Borinaga Alix, Jr., 2012)
Cinemalaya on its eighth year proves one of the strongest lineups since its inception. Almost all films are watchable, and KALAYAAN, from filmmaker Adolfo Alix Jr. is among those that must not be missed.
The effect of KALAYAAN lingers long after the movie, and while the realization of what you have just seen may not occur to you instantly, a repeated viewing may indeed help. I sure didn't fully get what Alix was trying to tell us upon initial viewing. I saw it again four days later, and I was completely mesmerized. I understood most of his symbols and subliminal themes (or have I?) and upon a casual conversation with a member of his production team, I was surprised to learn the simplicity of the film's message, and here I was over analyzing everything. I could not help it. Everything has its meaning. A turtle, or a mermaid, or the Philippine flag were not put there in the frame just for kicks. Besides, Alix himself said that it's up to us, the audience whatever experience or meaning we take home from his creation.
Alix is a filmmaker who is in a constant state of evolution; from his first film DONSOL he entertained us with an uncommon love story set against a beautiful provincial backdrop. Then there's ADELA, a bittersweet portrait of a woman at the dawn of her life. CHASSIS showcased Alix's maximum use of the black and white medium, highlighting a dramatic and poignant story of a mother in desperation in stark realism. Then there's ISDA, a fresh and entertaining marriage of the factual and the magical.
A constant observer would most likely say that Alix's cinema may be categorized according to pace: there's normal, and then there's slow. Normal would be ISDA, DONSOL, and PRESA for example, while slow includes LIBERACION, KADIN (THE GOAT), AURORA, ADELA, and KARERA. CHASSIS, while fits the category of hyperrealism, and may in fact be one of Alix's slow films, definitely does not feel like it, maybe because the story and Jodi Sta. Maria's inspired performance compels you to empathize.
KALAYAAN is slow in the basic definition of the adjective. It tells in the minutest detail the plight of a Filipino soldier, Julian Macaraeg (Thai actor Ananda Everingham of SHUTTER fame) stationed in the Spratlys (the group of islands are collectively called Kalayaan) during the infamous impeachment trial of ex-president Joseph Estrada. He is alone in the island, with his fellow soldier, Victor Pinaglabanan having been driven to madness and committed suicide. We see his routine in long takes (a notable trademark that you are watching an Adolfo Alix film)- jogging, doing push ups, talking to a turtle without words, and patrolling the island.
A pivotal moment in the film, a sublime scene (which I haven't noticed during first viewing) explains the film's mystery, and actually answers all questions (or most of it).
Two soldiers (Zanjoe Marudo and Luis Alandy) later drop by to check on Julian. Earlier scenes (jogging, push-ups, turtle conversation) are repeated, this time with three instead of one characters in the frame. The two soldiers provide the conversation and fill in some of the missing details through small talk, since Julian doesn't speak following the death of his comrade. It is later revealed that he was the one who shot the now dead soldier in the head, having played a modified russian roulette. This incident only deepened the madness already inherent in the island.
The story gets weirder and weirder until the ending, all the while the soldiers muse on the meaning of it all- duty, sacrifice, and life itself. Julian gets pleasured by a mermaid deep in the dark covers of the mangroves in the dead of night. The two visiting soldiers disappear without a trace. Julian is later seen covered in oil.
KALAYAAN may be attacked from various perspectives: it can be magical, with the presence of the mermaid- a somewhat cautionary tale for the ages. It could also be political, with the Erap impeachment clearly not a coincidence. Aside from providing the backdrop that prolonged Julian's stay in Kalayaan (because of the coup), one cannot help to at least ponder that there's more to this than simply that. With the theme being madness, and Erap running again for politics after being overthrown from the presidency, and with the reality that he may actually win again, and Alix's use of visual repetition, well you connect the dots.
The turtle highlights the slowness of time in the island; the Philippine flag behind the television to where Julian is jerking off may pertain to the ironic folly that never dies in our country- which may actually translate that not one of us is innocent in this phenomena. Everyone is an accomplice. Simply not taking action is a crime.
Albert Banzon's cinematography captures the environment majestically. Teresa Barrozo's eerie music creates mystery. As a result, KALAYAAN becomes not a movie, but an experience.
The wordplay on the film's title is also ingenious. KALAYAAN primarily refers to the group of islands, but it also pertains to Julian's freedom from guilt, and from this majestic but ironically god-forsaken island, and also freedom of the country in general. In fact, the character name Victor Pinaglabanan strikes us right in the cae. What are we really fighting for in Spratlys? And at what cost?
In terms of structure and treatment, KALAYAAN is also a fresh take on a simple theme of madness and alienation. Alix was able to exercise freedom in his nonlinear narrative and the unconventional elements he employed in telling his story. The film is not easy to take the first time, but that only begs for repeated viewings, and by repeat experiences the film promises a spine-tingling honesty basked in a rapturous beauty of an island whose majesty we may never fully understand.