Julian Macaraeg (Ananda Everingham) patrols and solitarily habituates a desolate island called Kota in the contested waters of Spratlys. His hut is barely equipped. There’s a television with its DVD player replete with snowy images, its make shift antenna rising like an awkward satellite; a transistor radio blaring the rapidly descending reign of Joseph Estrada. The year is 2001. In this craggy navy detachment post, Julian has acquired a routine. He’s awake all night, pursuing shadows that stir deep into the bakawan (mangroves). But there’s nothing there. He turns to alcohol until he’s drowsy then sleeps into midday. He wakes up to face his hangover; does his morning run. Occasionally, he taunts the migratory birds. Then he fishes for food. After drying his catch under the sun, he then turns to his limited stack of porn videos, pleasuring himself ‘til he’s consumed, then he stretches beside the waves, diligently observing his timid pet turtle until it peeps out of its shell. But something is amiss. Macaraeg refuses to acknowledge the radio communication asking for his RSVP for a get-together set for soldiers manning other similar islands in the territory. After three long months, Julian is finally coming home.
But this desolate atoll rankles with its puzzling urban legend: A soldier, like Macaraeg, once manned the post and found a mermaid who shares the bounty of the island, i.e. its rich oil reserves. They fell in love, but the soldier betrayed the mermaid when he peddled its treasures to the Chinese. As consequence, the mermaid disappeared. One day, the soldier went missing, never to be found again. Victor Pinaglabanan (Rocky Salumbides), Julian’s former colleague, is believed to have suffered the same fate. However, Pinaglabanan’s fate was a tad more horrifying, shaking Julian deep into his psyche. He somehow requires a degree of resolution that's hard to come by. This is what keeps the soldier wandering in the dark of night.
One day, Julian is joined by Lucio (Zanjoe Marudo) and Eric (Luis Alandy), his fellow soldiers assigned to take over the post for five more months. Despite the jubilant company, Julian strictly adheres to his routine, unmindful of the company. “Mula ng nangyari yun kay Pinaglabanan, di na nagsalita yan,” explains Lucio about Julian. While Manila eagerly topples the Estrada administration, Lucio and Eric wake up with a missing Julian. Where is he? Could he be found?
Director Adolf Alix Jr.'s "Kalayaan" (Wildlife) is a vivid visual dissertation on solitude and a man's descent into lunacy. Like many of Alix's works, he executes his scenes employing real-time film making (more pronounced in the works of Tsai Ming Liang and Nuri Ceylan Belge), thus the audience experiences Julian's overflowing time, displayed in aggregates of seemingly routine activities. When he opens a can of food, when he waits for his pet turtle to move, when he walks into the ocean to fish, we experience an unedited, uncut preoccupation from start to finish. This actually creates an atmosphere that rankles with monotony, and what better way to understand Julian's predicament, right? But unlike the indolent moments in Aloy Adlawan's "Ang Katiwala", we are kept awake and tantalized by the protagonist's seeming vacuous emotionality. If that isn't a hallmark of an engaging performer, I don't know what is. To be sure, a consummate performer doesn't require too much words to sustain attention.
Ananda Everingham is Thailand's biggest male superstar, analogous to our Piolo Pascual, so it's easy to understand his capacity to hook viewers without saying much. Since Everingham plays a Filipino soldier - and he does not speak Tagalog (he is Lao-Australian), his vocal paucity is written into the character which, to my mind, is a major challenge for an actor. After all, emotions are mostly rendered by speech. Everingham has to employ other means to express himself. He comes up with an impression that lingers in our minds long after the credits have rolled. To be fair, Everingham has done his share of art house flicks (Uekrongtham's "Pleasure Factory" and Pen-ek Ratanaruang's "Ploy"), but in "Kalayaan", for more than an hour, he fills the cinematic palette with his lone presence.
The mystical strain in "Kalayaan" channels the temperament and style of Apitchapong Weerasethakul's "Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives", and the haunting images of sand and sea, reminding me of Aureus Solitos' "Busong" (Palawan Fate).
There are some loop holes in the narrative. Julian is heard reporting to his command post: "Dalawang barko ang dumaan. Pagkatapos, nawala na sila, sir!" While bird watching, he shouts, "Takbo!" During a mock beauty pageant between Lucio and Eric, Julian was asked to interrogate the two for the Q&A. He asks: "What is the essence of Spratlys?" Yes, he actually spoke in a few scenes, yet Lucio points to his vocal crutch saying, "Mula nung nangyari yun kay Pinaglabanan, 'di na yan nagsalita." So why did we hear him speak? When something morbid transpires in a camp, isn't it customary to pull out the officers involved for investigation and debriefing? Why was Julian retained to finish his three months? Weren't they concerned he would suffer Victor's fate?
While it's a worthy cause to delve into the relevant issue of oil reserves in the territory, Alix mainly espouses on solitude. In fact, this was deftly covered until it introduced the psychological effect of desolation and social detachment. His creepy demeanor becomes valid proof of cerebral perturbation. This is why a conclusion that openly interjects the existence of blow-job performing mermaids becomes a narrative nuisance. So the urban legend wasn't the product of solitude-induced craziness? So the stories about mermaids protecting oil reserves were real? This narrative curlicue actually muddles what could have been a near-perfect parable. All those overly indulgent stretches of sickeningly routine activities suddenly feel like watered down versions of pure unadulterated boredom, throwing away the romanticism it brings.
Alix's "Kalayaan" is another feather in the young director's cap, but this isn't as seamless as "Haruo" and "Isda". Sometimes, one has to learn to control exceeding indulgences to avoid alienating an audience. "Kalayaan" straddles this boundary. I am not surprised why during my whole day movie marathon (watching five films), this had the least number of people watching. While most films on exhibition boasted of full house, "Kalayaan" sadly had lots of empty seats. This isn't right because it has one of the most novel concepts, bold enough to tackle a wearily dull topic. What's more, it is shot in "real-time".
Reasons to watch: A Thai Superstar; Albert Banzon's surreal camera work; a view of the disputed Kalayaan islands; an uncompromising method of film making not seen in mainstream flicks; a cerebral take on solitude and lunacy; a creepy mermaid. On a lesser scale: Rocky Salumbides gets a provocative "lip service" from a mermaid (looks prosthetic to me); Marudo, Alandy and Everingham display their muscley backside several times. If they're not enough reasons to run to the cinema to catch "Kalayaan", then stay home and watch your DVD's of "Petrang Kabayo" and "Moron 5". I'm sure you deserve them. :)
|What's a Thai superstar doing in a Pinoy Indie?|