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

Himpapawid: Rebel without Marx, A desperado’s flight to perdition

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By Mario A. Hernando

An old newspaper item about a man hijacking a plane and dropping from the sky 5,000 feet below has intrigued filmmaker Raymond Red well enough to imagine the circumstances and details that led a desperado to take this extreme course of action. The result is “Himpapawid,” a well-crafted social drama and thriller that takes us into the life of the wretched of the earth, without wallowing in melodrama and voyeurism that characterize most films about poverty and the downtrodden.

By no means a socialist or ideologue, Red nevertheless sees the futility in venting one’s rage and exasperation without a higher purpose or maybe, without the guiding hand of comrades. That hijacker is Raul, a loner and oppressed laborer who seems to get the lower end of the bargain at every turn. The first time we see him, he is pleading with his boss at a construction site not to fire him. He wants to go home to the province but wants to get his job back when he returns. The foreman wouldn’t budge. This early we see a steaming human volcano, ready to explode

On the way home, he passes by a striking workers’ campsite. Clearly here, the laborers’ linking up with one another is a viable option for him, but he does not see any potential in this. If the strike has any use to him, it is to steal, stealthily, one of the streamers on which are painted fighting words. He is collecting these fabrics for something he is setting up. Small, nasty incidents pile up in his consciousness, even that TV news showing a man taking his own son as hostage, a precursor to a grand scheme he is hatching. Meanwhile, an airplane whizzes by seemingly just above his head, as though to suggest another option.

Sights and sounds above and below heighten Raul’s worsening condition and loneliness: a coin that drops into sidewalk drainage appears so precious. He jerks off watching a neighborhood hussy from his bathroom. When the camera focuses on a disgusting rat or cockroach, we see there are creatures smaller than the budding criminals the characters are turning out to be, though in terms of worth, they are equal.

His room is surrounded by the striking laborers’ banners and streamers. There is irony here. A Marxist solution is at hand, but instead of empathizing with the workers, Raul chooses to link up with the wrong guys----neighborhood “istambays” (street toughies) and drinkers with a common ax to grind: exploitation in the workplace, deception, injustice. They are not taking it any longer and they have a plan to strike back. But things are bound to go awry, and when the attempted heist boomerangs, Raul is back to his original plan: he will hijack a plane armed with a gun, grenade and his improvised parachute, and jump down to his hometown.

The actors, regulars in the independent movie scene, make up a wonderful ensemble. Leading them is Raul Arellano who makes a deteriorating mind look normal, if a bit disturbing at times, he is self-absorbed and high-strung, reminiscent of De Niro’s Travis Bickle. When he breaks down before surprised bystanders, a security guard tells him, “Pahinga ka muna, pagod lang ‘yan.” (“Give yourself a break, it’s just fatigue.”) But his weariness is profound. And it will later take him to an ultimate act of bravado.

The gang is expertly played by actors especially Raul Morit as driver of the getaway cab, and Soliman Cruz as the eventual captive and torture victim. John Arcilla as the group’s leader Crispin strikes awe. If Crispin is authoritative at all, it is only because he is talkative, a whiner and proselytizer without ideology----a bore. But in fact, they are all bumbling fools giving larceny a try. In three roles are Marissa Sue Prado----neighborhood harlot, unsympathetic clerk, and beleaguered flight attendant. The different characters partly represent Raul’s confused state of mind, and Prado is almost unrecognizable in each portrayal, truly a different character.

In handling these actors and dramatizing the moments that lead to Raul’s climactic desperate act, Red has shown that he has mastered the art of storytelling as well as the other elements that constitute brilliant, powerful cinema: striking visuals, well-calculated pacing, a surprise element like some detour into the extraordinary (in this case, the hijack), and the naturalistic and top-caliber acting by the cast.

More than this, Red has progressed a great deal as artist----enfant terrible with fascinating experimental short films in the first phase of his career, name director who continually embraces new technology in filmmaking while doing commercials and feature work that deal with history and social realities. In this second phase did he do his Cannes-winning work “Anino.”

Embarking on what could be the third, current phase of his career, Red has unraveled “Himpapawid,” his most mature and substantial work. Like his previous films, there is painterly quality to every frame but this time it serves the story well and oddly, helps make it move. There is grandeur in Red’s vast landscapes, pictorial beauty in the intimate shots, and a curious, almost elegant contrast between light and shadow. With “Himpapawid,” Red takes the local indie movement thousands of feet higher. The film soars.