Baler (Mark Meily, 2008)
If films are judged based on scope and ambition, Mark Meily's Baler, which details a love story set during the final moments of the Philippine war of independence, would be an indubitable masterpiece. However, more often than not, scope and ambition do not necessarily translate into quality. Along the way, things go wrong. Budgetary constrains, studio pressure, inept artists and craftsmen, among a multitude of other reasons, would convert a promising premise into an inevitable mess. That is exactly the case with this film.
Baler's story, written by Roy Iglesias (who wrote several scripts for directors Chito Rono, Joel Lamangan and Erik Matti in the past), is basic. The forbidden romance of Feliza (Anne Curtis, who is a tad too gorgeous for the role; it's quite curious why no diversion came her way while waiting for her amore), a native of the town of Baler, and Celso (Jericho Rosales, a very welcome presence), a soldier of Spanish and Filipino descent, is thwarted by circumstance. Feliza is the daughter of Nanding (Phillip Salvador), a Philippine revolutionary whose personal vendetta against the Spanish colonizers has colored his patriotism with a tinge of irrationality. The bulk of the film covers the siege of Baler Church, where around fifty Spanish soldiers (which includes Celso), believing that reinforcements from Spain would arrive to quell the rebels, use the church as their final fortress before finally realizing after 337 days of hunger, suffering and despair that Spain has lost the war.
As a film, Baler just fails to cohere. The individual technical elements fail to weave into a coherent whole as everything, from the music to the pretty visuals, feels out of place. Vince de Jesus' atrocious music score, a collection of treacly melodies and predictable rhythms, desperately attempts to capture the epic feel of the feature but inevitably falls flat on its face. Lee Meily's cinematography, while astounding at first with the way the pristine greens of the landscapes and the multitude of hues of the skies are painted and how faces are lit to enunciate primary emotions or to simply emphasize the subtle facial contours of the actors and actresses, simply fails to visually communicate the supposedly escalating morbidness of the situation of the Spanish soldiers. A bit of drabness, some shadows, a touch of necessary ugliness would have added depth to Meily's postcard-worthy visuals. The result is quite miserable: a historical epic with the musicality of a deodorant commercial and the visuals of a nineties Mexican soap opera.
Director Mark Meily's two previous features, Crying Ladies (2003), about three women who are employed as mourners for a wealthy Chinese man's funeral, and La Visa Loca (2005), about a man who after being denied an American visa, agrees to have himself nailed on a cross in order to fulfill his lifelong dream to travel to America, are all adorably comedic trifles. Baler, unfortunately, lacks the novel charm and the whimsical ease of Meily's two previous films. Baler is ponderous during its first hour. It certainly feels like Meily is struggling with the serious material as the editing is questionable and the storytelling is inept. Moreover, the battle scenes are ineptly staged and deliriously shot. The film seems devoid of any urgency or passion to sustain any sort of interest for its prolonged duration.
Baler's bittersweet romance borne out of the masses' love for predictability and convention and the pathetic need to mix education with escapist entertainment (it is pathetic mostly because the task of education belongs to schools and not cineplexes, and the fact that the siege of Baler remains a footnote in Philippine history is a failure on the part of our educational system). While Meily largely flunks at the task of putting up a production that merits any serious consideration, it isn't surprising (and I, for one, am not going to say anything against it) that it is getting accolades from several sectors, presumably and hopefully in an effort to showcase the need to divert the logistical and economic energies of mainstream studios into making films that matter.