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

Halaw: Borders of death and darkness

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By Lito B. Zulueta

IN SHERON Dayoc’s “Halaw,” a boatload of curious characters with their own private quests and ulterior purposes tries to cross the border between the Philippines and Malaysia. While they slowly make their way amid the waves and winds, their stories unhurriedly unfold, interweaving into an intricate whole that’s on one end is poignant, on the other sordid. When they reach their destination, they stealthily enter inland to avoid detection by border guards. In the depths of darkness, shots are fired, presumably by Malaysian sentinels; and we discover that the characters’ real stories have just begun—right at the point of death. From port of entry to port of destination, death is farewell and welcome.

Dayoc weaves issues like a Badjao tapestry: human smuggling, Diaspora, white slavery, and unrelenting poverty. Hernand is a pimp who tricks women into crossing the border, where he turns them over to sex trafficking syndicates. Similarly inclined is Mercedes, a prostitute who tries to impress naïve girls of her affluence and show-off jewelry so she can also sell them to her clients in Sabah. Paradoxically Mercedes plays with nine-year-old Daying, a Badjao girl who’s taking the trip with her brother Jahid: they’re making the perilous crossing in order to reunite with Jahid’s wife, who’s a sex slave in Malaysia.

Despite the bucolic marine surroundings, these are characters out of the depths of the sea, Matthew Arnold’s “Sea of Faith” become “the vast edges drear (and) naked shingles of the world.”

Dayoc, a Zamboanga City-based filmmaker, said he had tried to shoot the film quite near the Sabah border to give the movie its swell of credibility, its corrosive realism. We don’t know if he has indeed achieve his aim, but granting that some scenes have been embellished and other settings done as a composite, there’s a biting immediacy to the movie that makes it believable.

In the first place, the movie’s cinematography is cutting and evocative, its production design sharp and direct. The texture of the shots—close-ups of the characters as they contemplate the vast sea before them, tight shots that show the crampness of their provisional lodgings as they hope from one island to another, and the moody seascape—lends a forthright propinquity to the movie.

In many of the shots, the characters are cast as silhouettes against a horizon of blacks and oranges, amid twilight that provides a natural embodiment to the characters’ extended journey toward one end of darkness and to another. To some extent, since the characters harbor less than innocent motivations, the wrestling between dominant dark and losing light is a contest whose result is predetermined—a casting of ever-lengthening shadow, ever-penetrating pallor.

The audience does not really know if the journey ends in triumph or tragedy. The shots that ring out inland as the travelers make their way clandestinely may be the noise of boats revving up their machine; they may in fact be the noise of the waves as they crash on the rocks. But whether the characters land safely or not is not the point. The point is the journey itself, the voyage of discovery: “Halaw” achieves a psychological crossing of the borders of Philippine consciousness: it’s a Conradian descent into the heart of darkness.