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If last year’s festival boasted of quality films like Jeffrey Jeturian‘s Bridal Shower and Mark Meily’s Crying Ladies, this year’s festival, in terms of quality, is headed by Cesar Montano‘s intense drama entitled Panaghoy sa Suba or The Call of the River.

In spite of the controversies surrounding the selection process of the participating films in the 2004 Metro Manila Film Festival, with most serious filmmakers and art scholars complaining about the utter commercialist path that the festival had taken in recent years, a couple or so films still turn out to be a cut above the rest of the films in participation.

If last year’s festival boasted of quality films like Jeffrey Jeturian‘s Bridal Shower and Mark Meily’s Crying Ladies, this year’s festival, in terms of quality, is headed by Cesar Montano‘s intense drama entitled Panaghoy sa Suba or The Call of the River.

Panaghoy, lovingly shot in Bohol province in the Visayas, is Montano’s personal tribute to the beauty and culture of the said province, especially that area surrounded by the Loboc River. Aside from boasting of the wonderful sights and people of Bohol, the film also aims to revive the long inactive Visayan film industry. Utilizing Cebuano as predominant dialogue, Panaghoy is also an important film because it gives many insights about the Filipino – his history, values, and traits both good and bad. It also has an ideology that champions love for one’s native land.

This period drama is set in the 1940’s. Cesar Montano, who is lead actor, producer, and director in the film, plays Duroy, a young man who earns as a boatman, servicing those people who need to cross from one end of the river to the next. He is the eldest son of a sickly mother played by Daria Ramirez and father to two of his siblings – Ibo and Bikay, as their father had already deserted the family. Duroy is in love with Iset, a native lass effortelssly acted out by Juliana Palermo. Iset is daughter to a greedy father and a materialistic aunt. Though harboring the same romantic sentiments for Duroy, Iset also entertains, upon the prodding of her aunt, American John Smith, the abusive owner of a Nipa business in the barrio. Smith, excessively jealous of any man who would even dare speak with Iset, fires Ibo from the Nipa factory, causing the latter to avenge the injustice done to him. Unfortunately, Ibo dies as a result of a violent confrontation with Smith.

Furthermore, the barrio’s status quo is demolished with the arrival of the Japanese, forcing John Smith to flee for his life. Upon the presence of the new invaders, the barrio’s men organize a guerilla movement and flee to the mountains. The leader of the Japanese invaders, played by Jacky Woo, commands his men not to resort to any form of violece unless needed. His and Iset’s path crosses when the latter’s father is detained in the garrison when fishing dynamites were found under his possession. The Japanese leader falls in love with Iset, much to the joy of Iset’s aunt, who swore to never give her niece away for a starving local. However, when Iset witnesses the execution of the town priest, she turns against her family and flees to the mountains to join the guerilla movement.

The film has to be commended for creating interesting and well rounded characters. Every character is humanized and molded to stand for something about the Filipino, both positive and otherwise.

First and foremost, the character of Duroy stands for the Filipino’s most resilient traits. He is ready to take up in arms to answer the call of the river (the Motherland). He is a hopeful visionary, at the same time a hopeless romantic. Nevertheless, he also harbors great pains from his past that renders him uncapable to give forgiveness. Like the Filipino, he is gentle and passive at one time but when provoked, ignites like a wild animal. Duroy, as a character and as a symbol of the Filipino, stands out most in two key scenes in the film. The first, set on a field on top of the mountains, is when he finally gives forgiveness to his father who deserted them, implying the need for the Filipino to forgive whatever painful past he has. However, on the other key scene, when Duroy beats but surprisingly spares the life of the American who murdered his brother, it is implied that in order for the Filipino to move on, he should forgive but never forget. Indeed, one should learn from his past so as to even begin to move forward.

Iset, though portrayed as a typical Filipina, is also rich in terms of characterization. She is beautiful and charming, causing the foreigner to assert his authority and to attempt to blind her with material things. This is paralleled with how the Motherland has fallen prey to foreign invaders and their blind promises to civilize the primitives and to humanize those who lived like animals.

Iset’s aunt, played by Caridad Sanchez, symbolizes the seemingly conscious manner of pimping and whoring the Filipino to foreigners because of blind materialism and a damaged vision. On the other hand, Iset’s father, tands for the Filipino‘s tendency to become greedy and selfish, exacting affliction to his countrymen and the Motherland in general.

Duroy’s mother, albeit dying early in the film, is also interesting for she manifests a certain degree of nostalgia to go back to how things were before. Here is seen an inner psychological desire to go back to one’s core, to one’s roots, to one’s original mold of perfection.

It is also interesting to see in this film how it characterizes the American as more oppressive and far more brutal than the Japanese. Clearly, the film implies a comparison between a kinder, more sincere, and therefore a more human Japanese character as against an abusive, greedy, conceited, and pretentious American.

> Also, the film also gives a comment on the problematic on the role of religion regarding nationalistic causes. Should the church stay and direct its attention solely on prayer and religious ritual or should it take a more utilitarian and revolutionary role?

In terms of performances, most actors play their parts with flying colors. In this film, Montano outdistances himself in his already accomplished performances in Bagong Buwan and Muro Ami. Palermo was nothing short of a revelation and Sanchez, Ramirez and actors Joel Torre and Ronnie Lazaro were all reliably good. Rebecca Lusterio as Duroy’s only sister gives a memorable performance. Suzette Ranillo, as a nun, gives a short but realistic performance.

The cinematorgraphy is impressive but sometimes obtrusive, the music and sound utilization are all in the right places, editing and production design are above average.

Cris Vertido’s screenplay is outstanding and Montano’s direction is reliably competent.

Nevertless, the film is not unscarred by some flaws. Of all the performances, Philip Anthony as the abusive American is mediocre. It is very obvious that some of his lines were memorized. Duroy’s mother’s faint scene is absurd and unnecesary, and some of the flashbacks require only voice overs instead of entirely showing the scenes again.

However, these flaws certainly drown in the innovative accomplishments of this film. It works as a powerful drama, a love story, a historical film, and even as a travelogue. It holds its candle well whichever way you may want to slice it. Most importantly, the movie justifies itself as the hopeful rebirth of the Visayan film.

All in all, Panaghoy, without question, is the best film of this year‘s festival and definitely, one of the most important movies of this lean film year.

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Panaghoy sa Suba/The Call of the River is now available in DVD/VCD format all over Metro Manila and other key cities in the Philippines (eve online!).

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