The society of respected film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian in cinematic excellence

Bwaya: Calm Amid Greed, Menace

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By Mario A. Hernando

Here is a true-to-life panorama of a marshland: serene, beautiful, and green. Placid water everywhere. Small nipa and wooden structures and brown soil dot the waters with thickets of lilies all around. The Manobo folk in their quotidian life: A crowd recites “The Lord’s Prayer” while a body is exhumed from the grave, kids frolic in the waters, two girls play doctor and patient, a teacher at the floating “literacy school” reminding the class of their graduation fee, the same teacher leading a class party for 12-year-old pupil Rowena and serving instant ramen, a mother at Rowena’s second party serving more ramen to the young guests.

Then later, a shocking incident happens. Rowing a canoe with another girl and singing a song that goes, “Can you really be independent?”, Rowena is attacked by a crocodile. The panorama is forever changed.

The village portrait in Bwaya now shows an innocent girl missing and likely killed, for sure by the predatory creature that symbolizes menace, greed, and insatiability. The menfolk act like a posse in search of the girl or her remains. The croc attack may have been inspired by a similar incident in Mindanao several years ago which gained international attention with the capture of a crocodile called Lolong, deemed the “world’s biggest in captivity.”

A shaman’s voice weaves a tale that goes back to the time of Noah and the Deluge, locally the age of the Baybadyan, and links the ongoing story of Divina and Rex, the parents, and their child Rowena to the folkloric tale of the crocodile Dinagye-an and his wife Dehanejun (mythical ancestors of Lolong).

Director Francis Xavier Pasion mixes into this panorama of village life some disturbing realities. The poor parents are milked P800 for their daughter’s graduation expenses, prompting Divina to try to borrow the money from neighbors--to no avail. The shaman is asking P1,500 for his services and P2,500 more for expenses: the sacrificial pig (another figure of greed and gluttony), the mayor (same thing), and miscellany. At one point, in the classroom, Pasion flashes an official portrait of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Is that a fly stuck to her nose?

Life is already hard for these poor natives. They also have to contend with a menace lurking in the waters--and human menace on land.

Pasion completes his picture with his recurring meta-concern. A crew of media reporters invade the stillness of the place to exploit Rowena’s grieving survivors, like rapacious buffoons teetering on a boat. These characters seem to have been lost from Pasion’s earlier movie Jay, a full satire on broadcast media. The crew’s rotund leader even loses her poise when she falls off-balance, making her feet wet.

Interviews with the real Divina and Rex which sort of bookend the picture, and a clapboard ending a shot take the audience to detours from the flow of the story, suggesting a stage-managed “reality.” Pasion’s meta-cinematic excursions break the film’s romantic illusion and expose real-life Divina and Rex to be much older or simply weather-beaten.

And yet, the couple who play them are no Angel Aquino or Piolo Pascual, to cite two glamorous actors who could do them with competence and ease. They are played by less-gorgeous actors whose professional commitment is highest, who completely immerse themselves in their roles, equally convincing as ethnic characters and grieving parents, more empathetic than the real-life persons.

Karl Medina as Rex is seemingly unemotional when told of his daughter’s fate, but a closer shot reveals a face that is pale and inconsolable. His breakdown is seen at a distance. Angeli Bayani totally sheds the artifice of an actress playing a role, inhabiting Divina’s body and soul like a true native, a mother hen tending to her kids and crushed by the loss of one of them. Bayani’s emotional range is awesome.

Neil Daza’s camera captures the authentic emotions of Divina and Rex well--up close and at a distance, as when Divina wakes up from sleep, and weeps hysterically like a banshee. Rex is often seen by the door of the shack, his back at the camera, or paddling away, and when he turns around, he looks stoic as usual. Daza also focuses on the other characters sharply: Rowena (Jolina Espana), the other girl Jennifer (Jane Salvado), and teacher Nestor (R.S. Francisco).

Away from people, the camera paints exquisite scenes of the magic hour, twilight and a moonlit night, and fluvial movements (normal and bird’s eye levels), especially the aerial shot of bancas knifing through murky waters after the discovery of Rowena’s body.

Complementing the visual splendor is Erwin Fajardo’s minimal, unobtrusive score recreating Manobo music effectively if sparingly. Musicality is one of the natural expressions of Manobo culture and the child Rowena gives vent to this. Another one is art. Near the film’s end, Divina asks for her late daughter’s assigned drawing of a nurse figure in class, taking home not just one girl’s small artwork but an expression of her humanity and aspiration that makes living even in such a threatening environment worthwhile.