By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento
Directed by Toph Nazareno
LIKE HIS first acclaimed Cinemalaya entry Kiko Boksingero (2017), writer-director Toph Nazareno once again brings us a deeply sympathetic and profound coming of age story. The motherless Edward (played by 15-year-old Louise Abuel who is totally amazing) must serve as his father Mario’s (Dido dela Paz) bantay or hospital bedside watcher — although in Philippine charity wards they do not sleep beside, but underneath, the patient’s bed, barely a hand’s breadth from the rusted steel matting bedframe, upon flattened cardboard boxes. They may only bathe between 4 to 6 a.m. Throughout the day and night, they must see to their patient’s feeding, hygiene, and medication, since there are not enough orderlies or nursing aides to do these tasks. Without the bantay, many patients would never make it.
Edward’s much older half-brother Renato (Michael Chua) must go back to work in the province as their father’s lingering illness has drained their very modest finances. Mario is a virtual stranger to his sons. He merely begat them, scattering his seed here, there, and everywhere, without ever taking paternal responsibility. Now the old horndog, stricken with drug-resistant TB, petulantly demands that his offspring drop everything for him. Blood is still thicker than water for both Renato and Edward who grudgingly observe filial piety as best they can.
The opening scene masterfully depicts the bedlam of the teeming and noisome Emergency Room. Undaunted, the quietly heroic doctors and nurses manage the chaos. The camera is unsparing yet respectful in its depiction of the poor’s suffering. But it also shows their dignity and generosity. A bantay with no legs still manages to look after her loved one’s day-to-day needs. Ward neighbors take turns manually pumping away at the primitive ambo-bag for those who can’t afford to rent mechanical ventilators. With many such scenes affirming our humanity, Edward is the antithesis of poverty porn.
No child — or any human being, for that matter — should have to live or to work under such hellish conditions for days on end. Burdened with caregiving duties, the barely literate Edward must skip school. For a mentor, he has Renz (a confident Elijah Canlas), an older, worldlier, snarkily cool teenage padyak (pedicab) driver, whose patient must stay in the corridor. The two youths cope by making light of their dire situation. They get paid in loose change to run errands for the overworked medical staff, including buying them beer. They lay bets on who among the most serious ER cases will survive.
That is how Edward first encounters Agnes (Ella Cruz) another orphan, a laman ng calle (street urchin) injured in a traffic accident. All alone in the world after losing her beloved grandmother, the feisty Agnes has had to adopt a tough exterior just to survive. Despite her desperate circumstances, she values her life and human dignity. She angrily calls Edward out for betting on her life with Renz, as though she were nothing more than a rooster in a cockpit. Despite the unprepossessing surroundings, a tender and innocent love develops between these two unfortunates. Looking after the vulnerable Agnes, even helping her to use a bedpan, Edward grows in compassion. He finally learns to accept his father’s failings. Moved by the old man’s suffering, for the first time, he reaches for his father’s hand to comfort him.
When Agnes dies, Edward overhears the hospital morgue attendant negotiating to sell her still nubile corpse to pornographers. This appears to be a thing in Philippine culture. In our deplorable job market, the manual sewage cleaners who must immerse themselves in effluence without any protective gear and the mortician’s aides who do the actual evisceration and off disposal, must count as among the least desirable occupations. However, for the latter, it seems that sexually abusing and desecrating female cadavers is one way they might get back at this cruel world where they are at the, if not close to, the very bottom. Or perhaps it’s just another way to get their rocks off. Here, the hospital morgue attendant is not portrayed as a pervy villain, but just another practical and madiskarte (resourceful) Juan dela Cruz, struggling to get by.
From these depths, Edward achieves the magnitude of Greek tragedy and (Steven) Spielbergian transcendency. Like Antigone who defied the victorious king to retrieve her fallen brother’s corpse from the battlefield for a proper burial, Edward is determined to prevent the defilement in death of his beloved Agnes. Like E.T., he does this by spiriting her remains away on a bike, but one with a sidecar, the padyak provided by the otherwise cynical Renz who surprisingly, recognizes the love between Edward and Agnes, and willingly takes risks to protect them.
Mario, now in the ICU, tells Edward that the doctors have confirmed he is dying. He has decided they should just go home. No longer the happy-go-lucky youngster, Edward must face the death of a loved one again. The final scene shows him on his last night in the open hospital pavilion to which the ICU bantay are relegated to. He shakes with sobs as he lies curled up on his tiny cardboard strip, among the many other exhausted bodies of sleeping bantay. It is a scene reminiscent of recent news service photos of our overcrowded prisons, overflowing with surrenderees and captives of the President’s war on drugs. The drug war photos purposely evoke Gustave Dore’s depictions of hell in Dante’s Inferno. For many of our poor, a living hell is their only reality, but one which the filmmaker Toph Nazareno’s film Edward depicts with the truth and power of Art.