Tambolista (Adolfo Alix, Jr., 2007)
English Title: Drumbeat
Fourteen year old Jason (Jiro Manio) and his older brother Billy (Coco Martin) aspire for two entirely different things. Jason is saving to buy a drum set while Billy, who has gotten his girlfriend pregnant, is finding ways to earn enough for an abortion. When their friend Pablo (Sid Lucero), a hustler who was recently evicted by his landlord after being caught stealing from and having sex with his wife, stays with them for a few days while their parents are in the hospital, a plan is hatched to steal from Nanay and Tatay Trining (played by Anita Linda and Fonz Deza, respectively) who reside across their house. The money they would steal from the elderly couple will supposedly pay for Jason's drum set and Billy's girlfriend's abortion, and fix Pablo's dire financial situation. However, things don't turn out as planned, and the repercussions of their actions are far graver than what they originally imagined.
Adolfo Alix, Jr.'s Tambolista (Drumbeat) is all about Manila's urban rhythm. It is about that rhythm's comforting inconsistencies and its hypnotizing unpredictability. It is also about the dire consequences of missing a beat. The city's unique soundscape is characterized by the barrage of different noises that swell into a distinct although cacophonous drumbeat. Alix consciously laces the film with a soundtrack of frequent ambient sounds: of the loud sirens that announce the arrival of the police, of the endless blare of cars rushing down a busy highway, of the nightly barks of the neighbors' pet dog, of the repetitive nagging of Nanay Trining, of the heavy breathing and the loud moaning heard from Pablo's bootleg porn videos. Even Khavn De La Cruz's musical score, a hypnotic mix of infrequent drumbeats and short melodies, possesses the same quality and rhythm that aurally replicates Manila's uniquely delirious moods.
The screenplay, written by Regina Tayag, is by itself a tense and engaging piece of work. The characters she created are not explicit stereotypes of Manila's poor folk, and in turn, deviates from being a mere repetition of the many images and stories of the impoverished urban dwellers Philippine cinema has and continues to conjure. The characters are poor and we see their surroundings as cramped, dirty and often hostile. However, the film concentrates more on the moral deterioration that accompanies the economic and social decay that perpetually burdens the city.
Thus, Jason, Billy and Pablo do not beg for the film viewers' sympathies or understanding, nor do they seek to represent the inhumane consequences of the nation's enveloping state of poverty like the petty crooks of Brillante Mendoza's Tirador (Slingshot, 2007), with their aimless and cyclical state of destitution. In fact, they are seen as repulsive with conflicts that arise, not from their financial situation, but from their own acts and decisions. While it is true that Jason and Billy's family is poor and Pablo even more so, they are not cornered into a life of crime and penury. Their decisions are not results of lacking the basic necessities of living. Instead, these decisions are emissions of a corrupted generation that venerates money, shallow ambitions and restless fantasies of the flesh.
Alix's direction here is commendable. His visual sense, with the aid of Albert Banzon's cinematography, is sublime, choosing to shoot the film in total black and white, save for some bits in color. Tambolista may probably be Alix's most audacious work, which is saying a lot since Alix has directed a few adventurous features like Kadin (The Goat, 2007), Alix's tribute to auteur Lav Diaz which is essentially a kid's film that features Lav Diaz-esque pacing, Daybreak (2008), which details the final few hours of a gay relationship, and Adela (2008), which concentrates on an old woman on her eightieth birthday. In Tambolista, Alix experiments in storytelling as he tells his story not with chronological logic but with the same aura of unpredictability that pervades the entire production. The narrative method is not entirely novel (Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu's 21 Grams (2003) is similarly structured), but Alix pulls it off with admirable ease. More importantly, the structure does not feel pretentious, since the seemingly illogical sequence of scenes of verbal and physical violence or sex is apt to the chaotic cadence of the city.