First published in Businessworld, 5.23.13
Auraeus Solito's Busong (Palawan Fate)--which is enjoying its international release--is arguably a failure--but what a failure! At first glance it's incomprehensible, slow, apparently confused; it's also ballsy, impassioned, impossibly beautiful.
The film's first half is the most difficult to sit through. We are introduced to Punay (Alessandra de Rossi), whose skin is speckled with mysterious boils and open lacerations (it's not clear whether they are some form of disease or inflicted wounds), and whose feet are so raw they literally cannot touch the ground--she's borne aloft on an intricately woven hammock (with a delicate mosquito-netting canopy, no less) by her brother Angkarang (Rodrigo Santikan), and she seeks a cure.
We eventually meet a woman (Bonivie Budao) who helps carry Punay for a while, telling her story; at one point the woman is warned that the sacred Amugis tree growing nearby--an impressive evergreen that grows to the height of around seventy-five feet--should not be harmed (besides the spiritual significance its bark and sap have medicinal properties). Of course her husband is a logger, and his chainsaw roars hungrily for hardwood to chew on...
The pacing is leisurely--perhaps too leisurely; Solito's attempts at a mysterious air (Who is she? Why is she so afflicted? What does she intend to do about it?) are rigorous to the point of asphyxiation--you hunger for even the tiniest crumb of exposition, maybe a relaxed moment between the two siblings, even a vulgar joke or two.
What sustains the viewer and keeps his eye drinking in the film (in heavy, gasp-inducing draughts) is Solito's unblinking camera lens, capturing the unbelievable beauty of Palawan. It's not just photographing the surrounding greenery--any Travel Channel cameraman can do that--but Solito (with the invaluable help of cinematographer-filmmaker Louie Quirino, who also lensed Rico Ilarde's Beneath the Cogon and Altar) captures the infinite variety and expressiveness of the landscape, a mystery and majesty that gives this film (would give any film I imagine) more magic than it can handle, almost. At one point a character crossing the screen stops, presumably startled by the richness of the verdant growth and deep blue sky, and you can't help but nod silently in agreement. Shakespare once described Cleopatra thusly: “age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety;” one can imagine the Bard confronted with Palawan, and struck speechless.
The film comes into its own with the third story, told by the fisherman Lulong, whose boat was confiscated because he fished in private waters--he and his son must cross from sandbar to shore on foot, and the waters are filled with poisonous stonefish. Lulong of course knows the fish's true name, which protects him from its venom; he's left unprotected however from abuse by the bodyguards of the rich man who now owns the area...
Solito stages the moment with surprising speed, and one appreciates the venom with which he expresses his anger at the landowner; in one of his previous works, Basal Banar, he documents the abuse wealthy landowners in Palawan often inflict on both the environment and the indigenous tribespeople. If anything the venom is perhaps too intense--what this and the previous story lacks is some kind of empathic imagination for all the characters of the story, including the villains (the landowner here is painted in effective if broad strokes; we do feel sympathy for the logger's wife, but barely understand the logger himself).
If, say, Solito were to fill out the landowner's character--give us the man's point of view, not necessarily endorse it but give it the same intense sympathy he gives the fisherman--it would give the ironic resolution to that storyline more bite. Likewise if the logger and his wife were more thoroughly fleshed out (when you think about it, they have the most complex predicament: they make their livelihood from destroying the surrounding forest that is their home) it would give their storyline more resonance, more relevance.
One doesn't really need to outline what one means--full empathy is amply demonstrated in Solito's fourth story, that of Aris, a shaman's apprentice who left to live in Manila and has come back to his native land. Aris (a thin disguise for Auraeus Solito himself) is easily the most richly realized figure in the film, with his ambivalent straddling of the modern and the traditional, the urban and the rural, the rational and the mystical. He's abandoned his culture at one point, has come back with happiness and at the same time regret, having lost loved ones in his absence.
He meets Punay and in the single loveliest moment in the picture attempts to cure her: her boils and lesions bloom with hatching chrysalis, actual dormant creatures swelling out of their hardened shells to bloom into butterflies. It's an amazing moment--if Solito's many loving shots of nature evoke Terence Malick (with Malick's sense of reverential awe), this is Solito's Malick-crossed-with-Cronenberg moment, a monstrous miraculous mutation of both prosthetic art and actual biology...no you can't fake that delicate pulsing, the insistent pushing out and spreading of fragile, not-quite-dried wings.
This, finally, is the Solito we've been waiting for; the Solito of miracles and wonders, effortlessly produced; this is the Solito of his animated short Suring at ang Kuk-ok, arguably his most extraordinary work to date, a low-budget yet effective cross between the enchantment of nature, and the enchantment of imagination. One draws in one's breath (the way one doesn't in Hollywood superproductions and their ridiculous digital effects nowadays) and wonders: how did he do that? And can he do it again?
Busong is as noted before not a complete success; it is flawed, it is difficult to follow; it is, on the other hand, the genuine expression of a genuine artist, bounding forward in his art and not looking back; it is a stumble and step, more courageous and thrilling than any number of less flawed, less ambitious films I've seen in the past few years. I look forward to the full blooming of this chrysalis, and await his next work.