Tikoy Aguiluz, who illuminated the world of toreros in Boatman, painted a portrait of the GRO girl in Segurista (Dead Sure), explores Manila's gambling casinos and railway communities in Biyaheng Langit.
The film was given an X rating twice by the Movie Television and Classification Board (MTRCB) for its frank sex and explicit violence, both of which have been described as “gratuitous.” Wouldn't know what “gratuitous” sex and violence looks like myself, but I do feel that if Aguiluz is to portray the heaven and hell of modern Philippine society with any sense of realism, he has to be free to show what needs to be shown. Also don’t believe in giving an X rating to any film, especially when this prevents the film’s commercial screening; it suggests the rather insulting idea that there are some images or subjects the adult Filipino can’t handle.
Biyaheng Langit is about bored young Filipino-American Bea (Joyce Jimenez); all she wants in life is to raise five thousand so that she can live independently in the United States. To relieve her boredom, Bea follows her grandmother (Nida Blanca) to the casino, where they gamble all night; there she meets Danny (Mark Anthony Fernandez), a runner who collects the money earned at the tables for Bosing (Bembol Roco).
The film is all about gambling, or the act of risktaking; as Bea’s grandmother puts it “I gamble to console myself, to keep from being lonely.” Bea feels the same; that’s why she tumbles into bed with Danny, and why she persuades Danny to join in her less-than-brilliant plan-- pour their life’s savings into a one-night run at the tables, hoping to win big.
Instead they lose big, and run for their lives. Danny takes Bea home, to a squalid community of shanties propped up against the city railways; here Bea learns of another kind of daily gamble taken by the urban poor: by people whose lives are constantly at stake without their consent, who either take years to die of malnutrition or lingering sickness or who, in a careless moment, can be pulled under and cut to ribbons by an oncoming train. Risk is more than recreation it’s a way of life-- yet they still put on the same defiant front, wear the same poker face as any cardholder at the tables. More, they still manage to care for each other-- Auntie (Vangie Labalan)-- who runs a railside eatery-- and Solomon (RJ Leyran)-- who works as casino floor staff-- both looked out for orphaned Danny; Danny in turn looks out for Tenga (Christian Alvear), the community gamin. Bea learns that even in these hopeless circumstances warmth and caring is possible; she learns that even in the hole she's in love is possible.
The hell of a losing streak in the heaven of a luxurious Manila casino; the heaven of camaraderie in the hell of a squatter community. Hardly fresh fare but what the film’s writers-- Aguiluz; his film editor Mirana Bhunjun; Ianco de la Cruz; novelist Rey Ventura-- wholeheartedly commit themselves to.
Ventura I suspect is key to the film’s script; he began his career writing romance novels, knows that people are quick to recognize the genre, knows that despite today’s cynicism and postmodernist posturing, people still believe in the power of a story told well. Today Ventura is known as the author of Underground in Japan, a chronicle of his experiences as an illegal immigrant in Japan. The book was well-received by The Village Voice and by Japanese film specialist Donald Ritchie in Asiaweek magazine-- yet Ventura is still doing the same thing he did in his romances: writing about love and loss, life and struggle. The basic difference between the romances and Underground is the autobiographical material; the basic difference between Biyaheng Langit and practically any other recent Filipino melodrama is the film’s attention to detail (brought out through research), and its often understated acting.
Aguiluz often brings out the best in his actors; I remember Ronnie Lazaro’s remorselessly ambitious torero in Boatman, or Albert Martinez’s humane humanly frail Jose Rizal in Rizal sa Dapitan (Rizal in Dapitan). I remember Helen Gamboa as Flor Contemplacion in Bagong Bayani (Unsung Heroine)-- one of the finest performances I saw in the nineties. The actors in Biyaheng Langit are consistently good-- Vangie Labalan as matronly Auntie (her recitation of her menu-- "I've got boiled pork; salted pork; fried pork; vinegared pork; sweet and sour pork"-- is aria of mouthwatering voluptuousness); RJ Leyran as worldly wise Solomon; John Arcilla as treacherous Berto; Bembol Roco as the repellent Bosing. Joyce Jimenez in the crucial role of Bea is a freshfaced, no-filter, no inhibitions presence that the camera effortlessly loves, but the film really belongs to Mark Anthony Fernandez-- coming off from a hard period of rehabilitation for drug abuse, Fernandez has lost his baby fat and looks startlingly lean, even predatory; at the same time he has the charisma to play the film’s ambiguous hero. His Danny is a mix of contradictions--smart and quick on his feet, yet not too quick to stay clear of Bea’s charms; shows unbending loyalty to Bosing but fights back when betrayed, with a volatility and anger the actor wasn’t capable of a few years ago.
Aguiluz apparently didn't get approval to shoot all the footage he needed-- some sequences feel pointless or cut away without resolution; he may be up to his elbows in blood and squalor and sensuality (sensational fare meant to draw in a large audience)-- but the camera's wandering lens suggest his true intent: not so much to tell a coherent story as to depict the texture and grit and sheer unlikeliness of urban Manila. You feel his varied settings the way you feel Danny's hand slowly roam all over Bea's goosepimpled flesh: the sharp dice tumbling over thick felt; the snap of cards being dealt; the rickety shanties trembling at a train's approach; the makeshift handcars sliding along with deceptive ease (they run on sheer footpower, literally). If there's a scene that perfectly encapsulates the film's theme, I'd say it's the moment when Bea returns to Auntie's diner looking for Danny: a trio of customers enjoy their meal ("stuffed tilapia; stinky tilapia; inadobong tilapia-- ") when a whistle shrieks; the customers jump out of the way. let the train rumble past (Auntie taking advantage of the pause to lay toilet-paper napkins beside the bowls), then sit to finish their meal. That's life in the Philippines for you-- absurd and dangerous and stuffed full to bursting with flavor.
First published in Businessworld 4.27.01