Bakal Boys (Ralston Jover, 2009)
English Title: Children Metal Divers
The first half of Ralston Jover's Bakal Boys (Children Metal Divers) is excellent filmmaking. Jover, writer of Brillante Mendoza's Manoro (The Teacher, 2006), Foster Child (2007), and Tirador (Slingshot, 2007), and Jeffrey Jeturian's Kubrador (The Bet Collector, 2006), gives an engaging glimpse of Baseco, one of Manila's most depressed areas, and its surrounding shorelines through the eyes of children who seek to augment their families' minuscule income by scavenging for junk metal and selling them. Opening with two best friends, 10 year-old Utoy (Meljon Ginto) and 12 year-old Bungal (Edgardo Olano, Jr.), being chased by a security guard for allegedly pilfering junk metal from a neighboring shipyard, the film's first half immerses its audience to the peculiar life these kids, by virtue of extreme poverty, are forced to live. Despite the dire circumstances that naturally presents itself, Jover treats the material with delightful levity, never forgetting that his subjects, no matter how much they are forced to grow up quicker than the rest, are still children. They are still preoccupied with such matters like play and friendship, juggling these juvenile needs and more with very real threats of pain, hunger and death.
From the mundaneness of these children's day-to-day existence, Jover finds lyric. From the overt grime, he uncovers an unlikely elegance. From the undignified treatment of life that leads to the triteness of death, he reveals a quiet compassion for his subjects. Virtually unadorned with the exception of the infrequent pleasant melodies composed by Teresa Barrozo, the film forgoes distance for intimacy. Jover's camera tireless follows these children as they play and work. The underwater scenes, where the camera shows the children swimming past floating dirt and debris, are not beautiful images in a traditional sense, considering that there is barely anything to be seen except for the constant browns of the cloudy water and the silhouettes of delicate children floating for long periods of time, yet it emphasizes the discomforting burden of childhood innocence and the struggle of livelihood that these children have to grow up with. There is an intriguing blur of play and work when we see these children, donning their worn out goggles and makeshift flippers, swimming in and out of the frame.
The sea, an endless expanse of space that the children sees as both a provider and a taker, is depicted with intrigue and mystery. Despite the overabundance of grueling reality, the film manages to evoke a faint mysticism, not much different from the magical attributes Mario O'Hara gifted polluted Manila Bay with in Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2004). The enigmatic disappearance of Bungal, an emotional baggage that pervades the latter half of the film, is depicted with cool casualness. Alone, he jumps, with the suddenness of a random irrational decision, and swims further and further from the safety of land, and in a way, further and further from the hardships of living. That scene, precursored by the children planning their dive among other concerns, has the same curious abruptness Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), where young schoolgirls and their teacher suddenly disappear after an afternoon picnic. While Bakal Boys does not center on the lack of answers regarding the disappearance (Jover makes it clear that dozens of children drown weekly because of the practice), the film manages to give the sea a semblance of reverence, and more importantly, minimize the inevitable didactic repercussions of tackling such a socially relevant subject matter by delegating the drama of Bungal's disappearance or death off-screen.
Bakal Boys, however, without losing its sincerity, loses a bit of the realness that kept the first half afloat. Inescapably, after selling their haul (a particularly memorable scene where a shrewd scrap metal dealer haggles with the children) and dividing the earnings among themselves, the kids return to their respective homes, and the film expands its scope to involve adult matters. The adults are played by professional actors (Simon Ibarra as Utoy's father; Gina Pareño, who with her commonplace looks, can usually seamlessly meld with the settings and situations the characters she plays, as Bungal's grieving grandmother; Ketchup Eusebio, Jess Evardone, Cherry Malvar and Joe Gruta play various roles). Yet, there is an observable difference between how the actors and the real children inhabit their roles, how the actors are obviously playing a written character while the children are not, knowing the concrete grief caused by actually losing a best friend to the sea. The result, especially in scenes when the kids are with the actors, is a palpable awkwardness, which prevents me from fully investing myself to the rawness and immediacy of the human concern.
Still, Bakal Boys is very good. Instead of bludgeoning the film with the larger picture, Jover concentrates on accurately encapsulating the kids' day-to-day life in a span of less than two hours, clinging to the mundane and banal and finally, allowing the kids to tell their own stories without much directorial intervention. In a film that puts the triviality of life (to the point of death being a relief) in the midst of economic desperation as the forefront of its social discourse, it's quite impressive how Jover has kept the perspective wholly human.