By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento
Balangiga: Howling Wilderness
Directed by Khavn
THE FILM’S director Khavn, the self-proclaimed “father of Philippine digital filmmaking” has admirable ambition and untrammeled imagination. Both are manifest in Balangiga: Howling Wilderness. This is not a conventional history of the criminal war perpetrated by the invading American forces against Samar peasants in 1901. It is the mythic, surreal journey of Kulas, (the poignantly authentic and self-possessed Justine Samson), an eight-year-old orphan who struggles to traverse three barren mountains and cross seven rivers to find his mother in the netherworld of Biringan. Note that three and seven are both considered sacred numbers. His faith that his mother has survived keeps him going. The livid red of Kulas’s pants and the cerulean blue calm of his shirt recall the apparition of the little girl in the red coat among the Holocaust corpses in Schindler’s List.
At the start, Kulas is accompanied by his grumpy grandfather (Pio del Rio) and the nurturing Melchora, their beloved one-horned carabao. Crossing an inferno of blazing huts, he finds the toddler Bola (Warren Tuano), another orphan. The suffering of these war waifs verges along the surreal edge of dream as they trudge through jungles of trees bearing the decaying fruit of peasants gruesomely crucified, enormous frogs flapping like dry leaves or miniature corpses in the wind and a squealing wild pig impaled on a bamboo stake. Not to pull an Oro, but one hopes the pig did not suffer too long. The vivid images and masterful cinematography mercifully transcend the horrors. However, a scene where Apuy, the grandfather, dry humps a nanny goat is gratuitous at best. He has to muzzle her. Even farm animals deserve dignity.
Watch out for Lourd De Veyra’s shell-shocked Banduria Bandolero, with eyes rolling to the back of his head, and Rox Lee’s deranged, depraved priest, shouting out obscene paeans.
The soundtrack is a character in this film. Lolita Carbon’s hoarse lullaby has the rawness of keening and dirge. Max Surban’s folksy and upbeat rendition of Khavn’s nursery rhyme-like “Gitik-Gitik” imparts the innocence and haplessness of the many peasants, conveniently termed collateral damage, who continue to suffer and die in the name of industrial progress and development aggression. The war is not over.