Himpapawid (Raymond Red, 2009)
English Title: Manila Skies
More than three decades after Lino Brocka's Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975), Filipino filmmakers are still busy depicting the treacherous allure of Manila. The styles and methods may have changed, with today's directors and story-writers eschewing melodrama for documentary-like realism, but the intent is just the same: to unmask the city of its glittering neon lights and expose the asphyxiating poverty that pervades it. Raymond Red, in Himpapawid (Manila Skies), goes further than trite exposition. He knows that we know that our dire situation, how the nation is always at the mercy of moneyed capitalists, how the masses are suffocated by an inept bureaucracy, how the poor are so impoverished that the only currency they acknowledge is hope. It is that hope that drives them to strive for a better future, relocate to the metropolis where opportunities are peddled left and right, and patiently persist despite the astute oppression and marginalization.
However, Himpapawid is hardly a film about hope. It is about the loss of all hope, about how this frustration rapidly morphs into desperation. The film is not simply about poverty, but about the absurdity of this nation's poverty; how despite two celebrated peaceful revolutions toppling corrupt presidents, and despite yearly reports of advances in the nation's economy, the poor remain poor, if not getting poorer. It is an angry picture. The anger, fluently communicated through the film's main character Raul (Raul Arellano), an ordinary laborer who we first see pleading, begging and finally, threatening for a day off to apply for an overseas job, is so palpable and pronounced, it frightens you immensely. Raul's story, enlarged by Red from a piece of news about a peculiar hijacking incident in 2000 where the hijacker, after collecting money and jewelry from the passengers and crew of the flight, jumps out of the plane and dies in the process, represents the ridiculous lengths the poor have to commit to in order to escape from an inescapable fate of what seems to be a cycle of tremendous hope leading on to tremendous disappointments.
A bag of cash and jewels falls from the sky. It just lands there in the middle of an undeveloped provincial farmland, almost magically. A farmer (Ronnie Lazaro) walks by, picks up the fortune, and runs home, promises his son he'll send him to Manila to study with a specific condition that he never returns to the province. The shot of the dreamy little boy carrying the baskets he and her mother sell for extra income fades (which cleverly gives an impression of a few decades passing by) to give way to Raul, crossing the street in crowded Manila, carrying a sack of goods on his back. From Raul's woeful experiences that we witness, from his unpalatable adventures in the middle of Philippine bureaucracy to his participation in his pals' botched attempt to steal from their shady recruiter the money that was stolen from them, the allure of the big city is exposed for the dangerous sham that it really is; that Manila, which is for the millions of Filipinos in the province, the place that holds for them the elusive promise of escape from the unbearable humdrum of their respective impoverished lives, is nothing more than a nightmare perfumed with neon-lighted billboards that display fantasies of prosperity. Yet, the sight of families of five, seven and ten crowding inside a makeshift shanty, a whiff of the pungent air from the hundreds of overly crowded squatter colonies that dot the city, and a survey of the plenty yet similar sob stories from these slums, all relating to their collective misfortune of leaving all their belongings in the province for the promised job in the city only to be left unemployed and without any money to go back, expose the sad and difficult reality in Red's outrageous fiction.
Red's play on the timelines, where he blurs the boundaries of past and present with the use of clever editing, cinematography, and production design, is more than just cinematic sleight-of-hand. In the 70's, audiences were horrified by the tragic fate of Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag's Julio Madiaga, who was plucked from the provinces, exploited in the city, killed by his fellowmen in a mob. In the 80's, audiences were again confronted by Brocka with Macho Dancer (1988) the same story of a man who flees the province for Manila, then works as a stripper in one of the seedy gay bars in the city, and ends up with the same fate as Julio. The 90's saw several variations of the same story, the most memorable of which is Carlos Siguion-Reyna's fantastically melodramatic Abot Kamay ang Pangarap (Elena's Redemption, 1996), about a barrio lass turned maltreated maid. The new millennium saw Maryo J. De Los Reyes' Laman (Flesh, 2002), and Mario O'Hara's Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2004). Himpapawid, I believe, is not the last of its kind.
Himpapawid bears the purely cinematic sheen (the luscious cinematography, its genre aspirations, its traditional screenplay) of its predecessors. There is a marked difference between Red's feature and the several low-to-no budget features being produced by many intrepid Filipino filmmakers; as Red's film has an elegant pace and a clear and consistent mise-en-scene, recalling the disciplined artistry of studio filmmaking, before it was cheapened by the need to break-even in a cutthroat market. More than self-indulgence, the purpose of making Himpapawid such a consciously polished film, reminiscent of Brocka, Mike De Leon, and Ishmael Bernal, is, in my opinion, to enunciate the absurdity of the fact that things, whether in reality or in what defines this nation's cinema, are still criminally unchanged. There is no difference between today and forty years ago. Manila remains to be hell; perhaps glittered and gilded to the unassuming provincial dreamer, but definitely still hell. Cinema, reacting to such unchanging reality, can only either exploit it or be angry about it. Red thankfully does the latter.