Friday, February 22, 2013

Bona Fajardo's Iliw - Love in the Time of War

There was something very gratifying watching Bona Fajardo's "Iliw" (Nostalgia). For one, I felt like my admission fee was money well spent. The scenography was breathtakingly well composed and the picture sparkled like this was made yesterday. Some portions may seem like a glorified slideshow (with static images flashing one after the other) it was a cinematic artifice: ill-advised, but nevertheless valid. Its superlative  cinematography justifiably evokes a far-gone era that deserves pragmatic remembrance. After all, cinema is a visual medium and telling a good story should start with good visuals; and this boasts of a keen eye that complements its gripping narrative..


The story is alternately set in Ilocos and Baguio in 1939. An impending Japanese occupation is about to change the life of strong willed Fidela (the lovely Kaye Abad) who decides to move from Vigan to Baguio, rather than succumb to the romantic advances of childhood friend Pablo (Ping Medina). When the Japanese finally arrives, Fidela's father is whisked off to prison, suspected of treason by the watchfully distrustful Japanese Imperial Army. A chance encounter between a high ranking Japanese officer, Col. Takahashi (the good looking Hiroyuki Takashima) and the desperate Fidela changes both their lives forever.

Romance is at the heart of this story - how the couple defied expectations of a very conservative society. It was an era of obstinacy and caution. Their intention to stay together becomes a dilemma, but I truly understood Fidela (not only was Takahashi endearingly goodlooking, it would also spell security for her family). Marriage is out of the question since Japanese officers have been restricted from any formal commitment with locals. Never sleep with enemies, as they say. The locals were understandably hostile subjects. Filipinos were underlings and subordinates; Filipino women were mere sexual doohickey. Ask the comfort women.

Regardless, real love would have pushed Takahashi to actually marry Fidela. After all, the Japanese commander's best friend was Father Josef (Gian Sotto). He could have asked the priest to perform the matrimonial ceremony within the hushed confines of the church. Living with Fidela conveniently exposed her to malicious calumny and scorn. This makes Takahashi's intentions suspect; thus painted his character as a predatory scoundrel, instead of the dashing paramour that's romantically intended for his character.

Kaye Abad and Hiroyuki Takashima are a perfect pair as the narrative's star-crossed lovers, although with Takashima's high rank position as colonel of Vigan, he could have easily bucked the system, unless the Imperial Army had "internal affairs" then. This was a time of war when everything was possible. He was lord of the manor so what's with all the crap reducing Fidela to a mere bed-warmer?

I have scruples with some of the casting choices. Ping Medina doesn't quite cut as the suave boy next door who's pining for Fidela's affections. Medina looked awkward and floundering. In the past, Medina has personified the rough and rugged everyman that picturing him otherwise was far from fetching. Irma Adlawan, playing Fidela's mother, makes the most of her limited screen time and though she could have been perfect, she mines her every scene like it was her awards-ceremony clip. Magnifying emotions tend to lend mediocrity to a cinematic moment because the scene transforms into caricature. I'm referring to 2 particular scenes: the opening where she's supposedly "aligaga" preparing for a party; then the scene where she kneels down the ground crying her little heart out for the "death" of her son Santiago. This eager beaver attitude is perfect when you're the lead in movies like "Sa North Diversion Road" or "Mga Pusang Gala"; not in elegiac movies like "Iliw".

Released at a time when digital film making was still making its baby steps in the country, "Iliw" provided a fully realized scenography. The Vigan scenes are luscious; the spirit of the past is gloriously captured (although some shots have been overly saturated - Pablo bicycling around town). Some scenes are also abruptly cut or unceremoniously fades (scenes at the first half of the movie) making them seem like theatrical montages. Then there are side stories that somehow stray away from narrative focus, veering away from the romantic narrative; e.g. what good does it do to expound on the death of Fidela's brother? Does it render anything more than blur what should be the main plot?

Despite these trivial notes, "Iliw" compels you to travel back into a time of strife and rumpled romance. Beautiful scenography, empathetic leads, and the crowd-pleasing use of Imago's "Sundo" as the credits roll - they all pony up for a great time at the cinema.

Irma Adlawan plays the heroine's mother: Bad theater habits.

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