Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Mangatyanan (2009)

Mangatyanan (Jerrold Tarog, 2009)
English Title: The Blood Trail

Jerrold Tarog's Mangatyanan (The Blood Trail) tells the story of Laya (Che Ramos), the daughter of a legendary photographer. While she has grown up to be a very able photographer herself, she is consistently hounded by her father's reputation and more pertinently, memories of her father taking advantage of her while she was growing up. Thus, Laya seems emotionally impenetrable, adamantly refusing to visit her father on his deathbed, despite being indefatigably persuaded by Luzviminda (Irma Adlawan), her mother who left her when she was still very young, oblivious to the fact that her only daughter is being sexually abused by her husband at home. Instead of personally taking care of her dying father, she accepts a job to travel to Isabela province to photograph a rare ritual called mangatyanan by the Labwanans, a tribe whose numbers have been dwindling because its youth have been losing interest in its old ways.

Mangatyanan is definitely easy to admire. The cinematography is exquisite, with cinematographer Mackie Galvez giving both urban and rural landscapes sun-drenched yet melancholic hues. The musical score, composed also by Tarog who utilizes gentle melodies and rhythms to accompany the impressively evocative visuals, enunciates the emotional deadlock that consumes the film. The plot, while simple and straightforward, holds considerable depth, most especially in the way it portrays such sensitive matters like incest, rape, and forgiveness with both comfortable distance and ample sensitivity. The acting is mostly superb, especially Ramos, whose Laya is externally an emotionally guarded character with enough acuteness to make her adequately personable, and Adlawan, whose Luzviminda is all at once pathetic, because of her persistence in reaching out to her unwilling daughter, and sympathetic, because of her quiet acknowledgment of the difficulties of her daughter. Mangatyanan is undoubtedly masterfully made, with each minute of the film crafted with the meticulousness that one can normally expect from an experienced filmmaker.

It is important to note that Mangatyanan is only Tarog's sophomore feature. Tarog declares Mangatyanan as the middle part of his Camera Trilogy, the first part of which is Confessional (2007), about a wedding videographer who travels to Cebu to document the famous Sinulog Festival but instead, gets involved in the attempt of a local politician (Publio Briones, III, who plays the Labwanan chief in Mangatyanan) at redemption through his video camera. It is therefore inevitable and normal that Mangatyanan is assessed with heightened expectations from those whose interests were aroused by Confessional's endearing wit and social satire. It is also very understandable why Mangatyanan was met mostly with admiration, because replacing the playfulness that lifts Confessional from its social and political commentary is an unattractive seriousness that pervades the entirety of Mangatyanan, and instead of the organic feel of Confessional which plays like an ordinary vacation video (the one that you'd usually catch during family reunions) that went absolutely wrong, Mangatyanan indulges in a deliberately concocted storyline, directed with hardly any humor. In other words, Mangatyanan, probably because of its technical proficiency and Tarog's near-perfect direction, turns out to be an opaque film. It suffices to digest it at surface level: a well-made melodrama about a woman who needs to forgive.

However, Mangatyanan is a film that deserves more than just surface level viewing. As middle part of Tarog's Camera Trilogy, the viewer is instructed to view the film with more astute perception. Where Confessional utilizes the camera as an instrument to reveal truth, Mangatyanan uses the camera as an instrument to hide truth. The camera becomes Laya's device for pretended normalcy, as it induces other people to perceive her as her father's daughter, notwithstanding the abuses which are known only to her, because she has inherited his talent and profession, the same way a good lawyer would have children who would be lawyers, a doctor, children who would be doctors, and so on. The camera produces pictures, like the ones taken by Laya's father that are hanging on the Labwanan chief's room, that are on surface level pertaining to the mangatyanan, but upon further investigation, actually pertains to a device created by the Labwanans to attract tourists and their money. The photography project which Laya embarks on seeks to preserve the culture of a dying tribe, but beyond the seemingly lofty goal of these pictures are the unvisualized ills that infest the tribe itself, from the unwillingness of the chief's only son (Bor Ocampo) to continue the tribe's legacy to the familial troubles that result out of the tribe's impending natural death because of the allure of modernity.

Even Tarog's camera becomes a tool of falsity, as he skillfully and deviously weaves his invented tribe and its rituals and fluently spoken dialect into momentary reality. Fortunately, Tarog does not burden the film with a moral stance, portraying perpetrator and victim with as much humanity (although fractured) as possible. To force a moral stance would only muddle the lofty intent and cheat the narrative of its emotional and thematic complexity. Finally, Mangatyanan does not differentiate between truth and lies since in its cinematic language, the two are purposely indistinguishable. The film ends reasonably, like the well-crafted melodrama that it was meant to be with Laya reunited with her mother, who is forgiven without her faults absolutely forgotten. As both well-made melodrama and middle part of Tarog's self-imposed Camera Trilogy, what Mangatyanan does effectively is to modulate redemption through forgiveness (Confessional forwards redemption through confession), notwithstanding the extent of the sin, the gravity of the harm, and the length of the hurt.


Anonymous said...

Hi Oggs,

I've been an avid reader of your blog and I'm glad you posted a review of this film since I've been anticipating for what your stand will be on Mangatyanan. With what you've mentioned, I think I need to view this one more time to recognize and further understand the complexities woven in the story. My first viewing left me disappointed as I felt that the movie showcased a shallow level of storytelling on loss of cultural identity and forgiveness + reconciliation as well.

But what simply disappointed me the most was how the movie partially paralleled itself to Robert Zemeckis' Contact (1997). This was even hinted in the movie-- remember the scene where Laya was reading the hardbound novel of the film in her room before leaving for her assignment?

It's been years since I've last seen Contact but after watching Mangatyanan, I can't help but feel the striking similarities of both films despite the differences in plot and nature:

1. Lead characters from both films are female whose careers are in their field of interest. Jodie Foster's character in Contact has been dreaming to be an astronomer since childhood. Laya, on the other hand, seems to love photography both as a living and leisure.

2. Both characters are emotionally wounded with their tragic or dark past involving their fathers, that contributed to their beliefs and character in the present. Jodie is still grieving over the sudden demise of her father who served as her only family when she was just a child. This was the major reason why she has lost her connection with God and why she became more career-driven. In Mangatyanan, it seems that Laya can't push herself to forgive her father in a more personal manner because of her history of child abuse and neglect. Suffice to say her dark past made her more distant to people around her.

3. Both movies used the overlying theme (Contact- science fiction and time travelling, Mangatyanan - ethnic tribes and rituals) as a tool in revealing the meat of the story. The climax(es) present their fathers' apparation by means of undergoing a process. In Contact, Jodie went on a ride on the giant time travelling machine and go on astral travel and unexpectedly met her father in an emotional encounter on the beach. In Mangatyanan, Laya witnessed a ritual and followed the blood trail, went on a trance and got to talk to her father's apparation on the cliffside.

4. Both events resulted to a restoration of the lead character's faith. It can be seen in Contact that Jodie's outlook in life was more on the positive side after her journey. After her assignment in Isabela, Laya was able to face her demons. I don't know if it was a straight-in-your-face metaphor but my friend and I thought she gained freedom after the event due to her abrupt resignation from her job, hence the name Laya.

IMO, Mangatyanan would've been a really interesting movie but I can't help but overlook the movie's similarities with one of the best Sci-fi movies I've seen as a kid. It came off raw and confused in terms of tone and outcome. This was supposed to be a mix of a cultural eye-opener and an emotionally-driven plot, but both elements were half-baked in this movie. It doesn't even help that Mangatyanan had a slow pace at the beginning. Che Ramos, Irma Adlawan and the rest of the cast were really commendable, though.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks anonymous,

I haven't seen Contact and I'm not sure if the similarities between the two films are intended by Tarog. However, I get your point regarding the initial disappointment with the film, because after viewing the film, I was really disappointed, and felt shortchanged because of the simplicity of the story. However, it does require a bit more thinking and analyzing to get something out of it, although that might be difficult because of the temptation of reading too much into what essentially is a well-made family drama. However, it has to mean something about truth and lies, and how the two are negligible in our lives (a theme Tarog started with Confessional), and redemption, no matter how obvious it is.

It's tricky. Without the trilogy, Mangatyanan feels impertinent. Within the trilogy, it feels more important but less effective compared to Confessional. Tarog got himself into a situation where he just needs to stop listening to us and do what he wants, and shape the trilogy into what he wants it to be.

I'd want to see this again, maybe after Tarog completes his trilogy and see how everything turns out.

Jerrold Tarog said...


To ease your pain, let me set the record straight: Mangatyanan IS a homage to CONTACT, one of my favorite sci-fi/drama flicks of all time.

Thanks for the balanced review, Oggs. Glad it's out.

Anonymous said...

Sir Jerrold: Thanks for the clarification. Just like Oggs, I'll make sure that I get to watch this one again along with Confessional, which admittedly (and embarrassingly) I haven't seen yet but have been longing to watch if only it could be shown in theaters again or there were copies out there, before I watch the third installment of the camera trilogy. :)

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks for that clarification, Jerrold. I haven't seen Contact; and the views from the people I trust haven't been good, but I'd get around to watching it... someday... someday...

The Scatterbrained Runner said...

a film critic who hasn't seen Contact..hmm..seems like an awful waste of space..

Anonymous said...

@Gene Paolo still better than a film critic who does not even know who Ozu is.

Oggs Cruz said...

I didn't know Contact is required viewing for critics. Never had the interest for it, I'll catch it if it's on cable, but I won't go out of my way to catch it.

Noel Vera said...

Dave Kehr is an ardent admirer of Zemeckis, oggs. That said, I don't see Contact's appeal. Jodie Foster gives a twitchy performance, the science fiction is strictly on the Close Encounters level (search the end of the universe only to meet your father), and the drama seems embarrassingly intense, especially from today's point of view where you want to ask "what's the big deal?"

James Woods is a lot of fun, though.