HIBLANG ABO (Ralston Jover, 2016)
(English title: "Strands of Gray")
* Official entry, full-length feature category, 12th Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival
Filipinos are known for close family ties, which is why most of our elderly are being cared for by relatives instead of strangers, unlike in other countries where old age means automatic hospice care. In "Hiblang Abo," Ralston Jover's big screen adaptation of Rene Villanueva's play of the same name, four aging men are living together in a hospice called Bahay ni Juan. What cruel circumstances that brought these men together under one roof is part of the story's mystery, yet as with most morality pieces, it still boils down to choice.
In Jover's film, we get to witness the daily routine of former writer Huse (Lou Veloso), ex-union leader Blas (Leo Rialp), former farmer Sotero (Jun Urbano) and former vagrant Pedro (Nanding Josef). Despite their seeming friendship and the peacefulness of their sanctuary, these men are evidently haunted by their former selves.
We get a peek into the men's backstory via a series of flashbacks. As if to say that the main characters' past struggles are of equal weight, Jover decided that only one actor, Matt Daclan will portray all four men during their younger years. While confusing at first, the uniqueness of each character's demons makes the narrative design understandable.
"Hiblang Abo" dissects the nuances of old age without judgment, and poignantly highlights every minute detail of reality that the four men must live with everyday, such as remembering to take medicine, or coping with claustrophobia. In one light moment, perhaps the only ray of sunshine in this otherwise stark observational drama, the men are being questioned by student researchers about erection, a probe which causes discomfort, and eventually, hilarity.
In much deeper context, the four men have to deal with feelings of guilt, alienation, regret, longing and the most depressing of all, a desire for human connection. Memory itself is an unseen character. Memory is the ultimate traitor.
Of course, the material itself is compelling and rich in detail, and at most times, Jover stages his big confrontations like a stage play. It could be argued that the film lacks cinematic perspective, because it does not allow us to forget that the material was originally meant for stage. However, Jover's penchant for realism is also the film's strength, allowing us to experience the gravity of the mundane, among others.
With such a material that relies heavily on the performances of its four lead characters, "Hiblang Abo" succeeds as a personal, affecting journey due to its excellent casting. All four actors rendered distinct, memorable performances that no character was of lesser importance. The blending of the performances was also key: Rialp as the short-tempered and dominant Blas, Urbano as the irritating but tender Sotero, Josef as the vulnerable Pedro and Veloso as the reserved and guarded Huse.
"Hiblang Abo" is a blunt reminder that time is always against us; that it is more important to treasure people over anything else, and; that it is always a choice to be happy or miserable. Like the palm fronds in the film, we, too will one day wither and become ashes, just vague traces of a bygone era, never to return.