Bongao, Tawi Tawi - a town at the edge of nowhere. It is the southern backdoor of a country inept of providing employment to a good number of its population. And human nature allows the hungry soul to seek greener pastures. In the far flung island of Tawi Tawi (this includes the Turtle Islands just 20 kilometers north of Sabah) are irresolute people who wish to impetuously seek fortunes in the Malaysian territory. After all, an empty stomach would lead to a land perceived as bountiful.
Jahid (Aljimar Hajijol), an illiterate Badjao father of 9-year-old Daying (Arnalyn Ismael), is taking his daughter across the tempestuous, albeit illegal sea border to find his missing wife. Problem is, they don’t have enough to cover the fare of P2,500 per person. Fortunately, illegal trafficker Hernand (John Arcilla) gets desperate enough to take them in when a couple of Hernand’s recruits from Basilan back out at the last minute. Mercedes (Ma. Isabel Lopez), an oft-returning hooker, joins the admiring group, occasionally flashing her lucrative “gifts” – the contentious fruits of her 8-year gruntwork. This has so bedazzled the gullible young Lydia (Ross-Ann Daklis) who dreams of a plethora of wealth. Each one dreams a life away from the incessant barrage of tactical violence and abject poverty that delineate the region. On a balmy evening, Hernan takes his “customers” on a leaky outrigger boat to the tumultuous shores of Malaysia.
While on board the banca, they passengers hear each other’s stories and dream of better lives en route the turbulent waters, seemingly oblivious to the precariousness of their impending arrival to an unwelcoming terrain. At a refueling station, young and naïve Lydia gets a dose of her future when she gets raped by a man Hernand owes money to. What awaits our fortune seekers on the dark and treacherous shores of Sabah?
Director Sheron Dayoc tells his stories straight and without much narrative ruse that even the music employed to coat the story never overwhelms. In fact, "Halaw" (Ways of the Sea) is almost documentary in form. There is a lesson to be learned here: when there is a story worth telling, you don’t need any other diverting gimmicks like loud foreboding music, expensive special effects, distracting side stories, gratuitous sex, etc. You don’t even require melodramatic contrivances (indisputable in Star Cinema dramas about migration like “Milan”, “In My Life”, “Love Me Again”, “Caregiver”, “Dubai”) to engage your viewers or impart a didactic dispatch. You only necessitate a valid story, the knack of telling them (artistically, of course), a decent cast and a more than competent cinematographer (after all, cinema is a visual medium – and you should not tell your stories on a blurry, dizzying, nebulous canvas).
John Arcilla appears in one of his career’s best performances. Bereft of his vocal crutches and, more significantly, cloaked in comfortable scenario, Arcilla imbues his character with enough pathos to be encompassingly desperate, sympathetic, compelling and scary (the scene where he tries to convince the young teachers to pursue the trip was particularly spine-tingling because you knew there was nothing that awaits the girls in Sabah). More than anything, this is a successful ensemble work, carefully and impressively admixing veteran and amateur actors. You hardly feel awkward moments intermittently found in independent films such as this. Moreover, the amateurish proclivity of regional cinema is hardly noticeable here. One of its advantages is its brisk story telling – the film clocks at 78 minutes – and really underlines the fact that you don’t need an indulgent 2 hours to tell a good story!
“Halaw” is Malaysian Bahasa for “driven away” or its Tagalog translation, “Itinaboy”. The film won its well deserved award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2011; several awards at the Cinemalaya in Manila and other international festivals. It is thus such a pleasure to finally catch this film (May 21, 2012) at the recent Asia As Our Society Film Festival at the Shang Cineplex. “Halaw” (released in 2010) seems low brow and unfamiliar. Not a lot of people is aware it even exists, regardless of its winning awards here and abroad. Isn’t that simply undeserved?
|Ma. Isabel Lopez plays Mercedes who's been around and has been doing the journey for 8 years.|
|Arnalyn Ismael is 9 year old Daying. The Badjao child is braving the Sulu Seas to find her mother in Sabah.|
|John Arcilla plays Hernand , the illegal trafficker. He won Cinemalaya's Best Actor in 2010.|
|Beauty, dearth and danger in Bongao, Tawi Tawi.|
|At the southern tip of the Philippine archipelago is Tawi Tawi which includes the Turtle Islands, 20 kilometers from Sabah.|
|"Halaw (Ways of the Sea)" is relatively popular in the international festival circuit, but almost unheard of in the Philippines.|