Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Himpapawid (Manila Skies, Raymond Red, 2009)
Raymond Red's Himpapawid (Manila Skies, 2009) is, frankly, ballsy filmmaking. To spend roughly a hundred minutes following the meandering odyssey of an introverted, possibly autistic young man named Raul (Raul Arellano, seen above) is hardly one's definition of popcorn entertainment--one feels no immediate sympathy for him, no leap of sympathy or kinship. His eyes home in on the camera lens laser-sharp; he's intimidatingly, almost frighteningly intense, and he maintains that intensity for the length of the picture. Following in his footsteps, serving as mute witness to his suffering--his lifelong passion so to speak--we find ourselves exhausted and not a little depressed by the experience.
Depressed, and at the same time exhilarated. Red is back, one can say; Red is back after some nine years of relative silence (after winning the Palme d'Or for his short film Anino) and he seems as obsessed with his themes and subject matter and storytelling style as ever.
Himpapawid starts off strong, with the simple story of a man (Ronnie Lazaro) who finds jewelry and money literally dropped from the sky, and uses this found treasure to finance his son's education in the big city, in Manila.
Red photographs the lucky youth head-on, in perfectly modulated sunlight, walking straight towards us with a burden of baskets on one shoulder; he cuts to a matching shot of a young man (Raul) walking towards us with a heavy sack on one shoulder and we know it's the same youth some years later.
We learn that Raul's luck has long since petered out, that he's living a hand-to-mouth existence as a cargador, a dockside loader, and that he wants to apply for another job, in another country. He asks his boss (Noni Buencamino, sporting a goatee and looking very put-upon) for a day off to apply for that job; the boss explains that in this job there are no days off. He insists. His frustration with his boss' stubbornness and his boss' exasperation with his insistence becomes a study in irresistible force meeting immovable audience.
Raul's troubles only weigh the heavier when he learns that his father is sick; he needs to go home. He takes on the neverending process that is Filipino bureaucracy (a lower circle of hell just as vividly if more thoroughly realized by Veronica Velasco in her Last Supper No. 3) to secure his permit to work abroad, the same time he falls afoul of a hopelessly naive and incompetent gang of would-be robbers (Keystone Kops gone extremely bad, headed by a ranting, raving, endlessly self-motivating John Arcilla).
It's a framework, a skeleton, really for the true star of the picture, Red's incomparable photography, editing, imagery (he's one of the few filmmakers around fluent in all stages of filmmaking, having been making them since he was seventeen). From the experimental exuberance of his first film Ang Magpakailanman (Eternity, 1982)--a great work, possibly his masterpiece--to the honeyed, golden hues of his Anino, he has pared his style down to this lovely, subtly sunlit camerawork with its deep shadows and subdued color pallet (different hues of brown and gray mainly, as befits urban Manila, with the occasional splash of bright red provided by the banners of striking workers). His lenses work the casually lyrical transformation of even the most mundane details (shacks with corrugated roofing and plywood walls; two naked boys bathing each other at an outdoor faucet; barges gliding down the Pasig river) into the gorgeously textured tapestry of a city ever decaying, ever alive.
Through this tapestry Red weaves a bright theme: skies, planes, the act of flying. Red in his interview said he had attempted to remake some of his shorts into features; this was to have been a remake of his short A Study for the Skies, only with two brothers and set in the Philippine American War; the final result bears little resemblance to that original premise and is instead based on a true story involving a Philippine Air Line flight coming from the southern city of Davao to Manila.
For all the talk of skies and flight, though, the overall impression one comes away with is not of free space but, paradoxically, of oppressiveness, of increasingly claustrophobic space, of rapidly closing walls, vanishing options, a dwindling future.
At a certain point, one does find oneself identifying with Raul, despite his many thorny aspects--he is stubborn, sometimes insanely so (as befits an independent filmmaker); he constantly looks upwards (as befits any dreamer) and inwards at himself (as befits anyone wracked with guilt and living in anguish); and he never gives up. Delusional and very likely insane, he finds a way to leap out of his straitened circumstances into some kind of freedom, some kind of conclusion. An inspiring, frightening, hilarious and tragic film, in equal measure.