Huling Balyan ng Buhi (Sherad Anthony Sanchez, 2006)
English Title: Woven Stories of the Other
Film critic Alexis Tioseco calls Sherad Anthony Sanchez's first feature film Huling Balyan ng Buhi (Woven Stories of the Other) the single most important Filipino film of 2006. The acclaim is both daunting and deserved: daunting because several excellent and important Filipino films were also released in 2006 (including Lav Diaz's 9 hour epic Heremias, Jeffrey Jeturian's socio-realist drama Kubrador (The Bet Collector), and John Torres' very personal Todo Todo Teros), and deserved because Huling Balyan ng Buhi is indeed a wondrous revelation of an up and coming filmmaking talent (Sanchez, who at merely 22 has made a film that is both intensely beautiful and mature) and also of the largely marginalized regions of the Philippines from which unique experiences and tales can be gathered.
Huling Balyan ng Buhi was made through a fund granted by CinemaOne, a cable channel that hosts a yearly film festival (the film festival's more prominent products include Dennis Marasigan's Sa North Diversion Road (On the North Diversion Road, 2005), an adaptation of a play that centers on marital infidelity, Sigfried Barros-Sanchez's Ang Anak ni Brocka (The Son of Brocka, 2005), a mockumentary that plays around with the idea of gay filmmaker Lino Brocka siring a child, and Connie Macatuno's Rome and Juliet (2006), a lesbian romance). Sanchez, armed with the film grant worth 700,000 pesos (around $15,000 more or less) and a definite idea of what he wants for his first film, travelled back to his native Mindanao to start production, hiring most of his production crew and several non-actors from the area, making the film feel as real as possible (and according to Tioseco, Sanchez cut out some footages with veteran actor Bembol Roco from the final film, feeling they were false).
"Sa pula, sa puti" (translated as "in red, in white," the typical call before a cockfight signalling the betters to choose the fighting cock they wish to bet on) narrates a female voice while images of red and white are flashed onscreen. This is followed by a narrated prologue telling a tale (scenes from the tale are windowboxed, evoking a sense of reminiscence or storytelling) of armed conflict between two tribes where a child, grandson of the tribe's balyan or priestess, gets injured. To preserve their heritage and the hard-earned victory against the rival tribe, the villagers ambush the balyan and several other men are carrying the injured child to the town doctor. The film then goes on to tell of the seemingly disparate tales of three groups: an ambushed crew of communists recuperating and waiting for other comrades, a battalion of government troops stationed in the village of a balyan, and two children who are lost in the jungle.
Sanchez mixes poetry and mundane reality. He bathes carefully composed and framed images with the sweeping arias composed by Matilda: waiting atop a grass covered hill becomes rhythmic and haunting, a soldier following a distressed balyan is punctured with an enigmatic and curiously sexual air, as well as in a scene where two men start wrestling amidst a pond where a naked woman mysteriously emerges from.
Huling Balyan ng Buhi is a war film, one that doesn't relish in the flagrant violence and casualties but speaks of and for the lives that are ultimately affected. Philippine cinema has shied away from discoursing war (which is very surprising since the government has been engaged in armed conflict for decades with rebels); the last film that attempted to do so, not counting those films that were merely set during wartime but not really interested in the subject, is Marilou Diaz-Abaya's Bagong Buwan (New Moon, 2001), a rather unsuccessful attempt to put into film the lasting conflict between the government and the Moro insurgents. Sanchez's film, instead of relying on the traditional narrative, crosscuts between real-time sequences that is more telling of the currency of conflict than what is manufactured by the creative mind of a screenwriter, who mostly merely rewrites personal impressions of war or what has been published in newspapers. In Huling Balyan ng Buhi, we see soldiers delighted by a videoke machine where they can sing popular songs in Manila or feasting on rows of banana leaves filled with rice, vegetables and fried fish; or hear young communist recruits being taught the evils of capitalism or singing their anthem while exchanging longing looks for each other. This is the real face of war especially one that has been staggered for years: of boredom, simple pleasures, diminished ideologies, and communities where the presence of uniformed soldiers and regular clashes have become a way of life.
Then there's the balyan, a curiously malformed (she is merely the height of a prepubescent boy, and has an abnormal gait) woman who is suffering a mysterious malady as her hands are draped in bloodied bandages. She laments of what she has become, a mere curiosity to the younger members of the village and a plaything to the transient soldiers. Where once the balyan was revered for her contributions as elder to the community, now, because of the infiltration of modern forces through the windswept tracks of warfare (soldiers from more urbanized locations and progressive ideologies have tainted the purity of culture), they are seen as living antiquities, respected not for what they are but for what they once represented. The balyan here is that very delicate element, fragile, dying and somewhat insignificant, that is struggling to continue to exist in a nation that is slowly being homogenized by modernity and armed conflict.
Then there are the two children who traverse the jungle, sometimes killing time by playing hide and seek but most of the time, aimlessly crying and walking as if looking for something or someone they lost. It is a thread totally unrelated to the struggles of the ambushed rebels or the community of soldiers. The two lost children seem to be in the film in a symbolic capacity, representative of something which is not totally clear (maybe forgotten) but still evidently familiar: of being young and lost. During the final moments of the film, the two children find who they were looking for, their mother, deep within the jungle. Sanchez's camera follows their excited faces as they run towards the yet unseen object of affection, cutting to an overhead shot of a jungle clearing nestled from the rain by foliage. The two kids lie, huddled together, in the clearing. There is no mother, no other person beside them.
The stories are finally woven together not by the common considerations of traditional narrative but by an overbearing feeling caused by prolonged warfare where no bet can ever be capable of winning. The thread that finally connects everything is inevitable loss: of a mother we'll never get to know, of a real reason to fight, of the last balyan, the final bastion of a cultural identity.
This is my contribution to the Contemplative Cinema Blog-a-Thon at Unspoken Cinema.