Biyaheng Lupa (Armando Lao, 2009)
English Title: Soliloquy
Other than Lav Diaz, whose Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001) has become a beacon of artistic integrity and independence in the midst of a failing mainstream cinema (its running length of 5 hours makes it a chore to watch for an audience who have been fed with Hollywood films and their local variations; its powerful themes make it even more difficult for an audience who have been trained to view cinema as a tool for escape), Armando Lao can arguably be referred as one of the figureheads of the current Philippine cinema. Understanding the budgetary limitations of filmmaking in the country (a lesson painfully learned while shooting Jeffrey Jeturian's Minsan Pa (One Moment More, 2004), which required more money the producer was not able to recover), he devised a screenwriting manual called "real-time" that allowed several filmmakers to make films from the use of available technology and very meager resources. Probably the most famous of these "real-time" practitioners is Brillante Mendoza whose Serbis (Service, 2008) and Kinatay (The Execution of P, 2009), both of which were written by Lao, competed in Cannes, the latter earning Mendoza a Best Director prize from the prestigious film festival. Other "real-time" directors include Jim Libiran (Tribu (2007)), Jeffrey Jeturian (Kubrador (The Bet Collector, 2005)), Francis Xavier Pasion (Jay (2008)) and Ralston Jover (Bakal Boys (Children Metal Divers, 2009) and writer of Mendoza's Manoro (The Teacher, 2006), Foster Child (2007) and Tirador (Slingshot, 2007)). Lao, however, is more than just a screenwriter as his scripts are written with directorial vision. Instead of merely constructing the narrative and characters and leaving the rest of the creative process to the director, Lao immerses into the entire filmmaking process, stamping each and every one of the films which he had a part in with auteurial integrity.
Biyaheng Lupa (Soliloquy) is the first film where Lao attaches his name as director. The conceit is fascinating: passengers of a bus en route from Manila to Legazpi City are exposed through their thoughts, magically vocalized whenever the door closes turning the bus into a space that is insulated from the rest of the world. Despite the liberties Lao made with reality, he maintains an accurate grasp of the process of bus travel: the noticeable eccentricities of each and every stranger you are forced to breathe the same enclosed air with, the momentary connections made through shared glances, baseless annoyances with each other and the isolated idle chatter, the torturous passing of empty time, and the occasional roadblocks like a sudden flat tire or an unavoidable checkpoint. This deliberate attention to detail that encompasses not only the tangible elements but also the mood of the milieu has always been a trait of all of Lao's filmed scripts. The vast gap between the poor and the middle class in Jeturian's Pila-balde (Fetch a Pail of Water, 1999), the underhanded exploitation of cinema in Jeturian's Tuhog (Larger Than Life, 2001), the transitory romances of the tourism industry in Minsan Pa, and the coinciding physical deterioration of a family-run movie theater and the moral depletion of the family running it in Serbis, these pervading concepts are adeptly translated into the screenplay, and eventually into the films, through the seemingly impertinent details and textures in the narrative that actually add more than color but thematic integrity to the filmed stories.
The conceit of immediately hearing the thoughts of the passengers of the Legazpi-bound bus is definitely fascinating. What starts out as merely an intriguing novelty transforms into an existential reference to the various characters, as their vocalized thoughts become the only vehicles for these characters to actually prevail in the world during that bus ride. Without the conceit, these passengers are completely deprived of a reason to exist within the narrative framework. It nearly feels like these characters are pleading to persist and matter in the world through Lao's graciousness to grant their hidden thoughts perpetuity through recorded sound. That even the deaf-mute character's thoughts partake the form of his voiceless means of communication; the fact that their thoughts are presented via the characters' own method of communication, complete with speech mannerisms and intonations, is a signifier that the aural manifestations of is much more than an ingenious writer's device but serves as the characters existence in the film. As their stories manifest through memories from the past and current contemplation, their histories and possible futures slowly unfold only to be abruptly terminated by the same conceit that gave them their existence.
The inevitable consequence of mounting a film that tells the stories of various characters who are only related to each other by circumstance is the inequity of quality or substance, which is of course, all a matter of taste. For example, for those who enjoy heavy-handed melodrama, the storyline of the deaf-mute (Carlo Guevarra) who escapes from his adoptive home to visit the grave of his real mother might prove to be emotionally resonant; I thought the character's storyline was superfluous and overextended. For those who require their stories spelled out in black and white, the storyline of the dissatisfied wife (Shamaine Buencamino) who takes her chances at a variety show only to end up with her fate unchanged might seem to have a difficultly ambiguous ending; I thought the scene where she alights from the bus, with all her thoughts suddenly silenced, and meets up with her husband, who she just mentally maligned, and walks home, with Lao's camera nervously lingering with the deafening silence, is one of the film's most powerful sequences. For those who are partial against preachy cinema, the vocalized thoughts of a retired court interpreter (Jose Almojuela) about the as he reaches his destination might be considered a distraction to the seamless flow of the film; I thought it was a moving juncture, one that is not only revelatory to one of the film's most guarded characters but also preparatory to the film's conclusion.
A concrete bridge, lighted and shot to maximize a sense of foreboding, breaks the comfort of formula. By film's end, we have become so accustomed to the cacophony of loud thoughts when the bus door closes and the unnerving silence when it opens that the phantasmagoric image of the bridge and the bus slowly entering the frame jars the film's staggered logic. The suddenness of the shift in aesthetic and mood allows for the unexpected termination of the remaining passengers' stories; the bus fell down a cliff, killing all of its passengers and consequently, all of their stories. It seems and probably is the easy way out for Lao's film, since the conceit has turned into a redundancy and therefore a liability, and the abundance of stories has resulted to predictability. Yet, it is also very understandable because Lao is after all, the writer, and as writer, he is god to the lives he chose to make stories out of, and just the same as the passengers who have alighted the bus and whose stories are no longer within the perspective of the film, everything must have an end. That is simply the nature of cinema. It is limited by the bounds of storytelling, and a good filmmaker, whether he is a writer, a director, or both, must make most of what exists within such bounds. With Biyaheng Lupa, Lao continues to prove to be a very good filmmaker.