Friday, September 1, 2017

Review of PAUWI NA: Pedaling from Perdition

September 1, 2017

There had been a lot of good word of mouth about this film when it won six major prizes in the first ToFarm filmfest last year, notably Best Actor for Bembol Roco and Best Actress of Cherry Pie Picache. Two weeks ago, this was chosen as one of the featured films during the first Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino. Both times I missed this. Fortunately, the PPP films had extended showings in selected SM cinemas as part of its Cine Lokal program. Luckily, I was finally able to see it on  the last day of its extended run.

Pedicab driver Mang Pepe made a living delivering various loads around in the big market place. His family lived a miserable dead-end life in an urban slum area To help augment their financial requirements, his wife Remedios accepts laundry, his daughter Pina sold cigarettes, his son JP worked in construction but did petty thefts on the side. JP had a blind pregnant wife Isabel, who can see the resurrected Jesus Christ with her in their hovel.

One day, Mang Pepe was able to get his hands on a big amount of money but kept this secret from his family. Instead he tells them all that he wants to pull out of the slum life they've led for the past 10 years, and go back home to their (unnamed) province. So the next day, all five of them and their pet dog Kikay rode two pedicabs and embarked on a very long, dusty, difficult road trip back home. 

There have been a number of parallelisms made about this movie and another PPP movie "Patay Na Si Hesus". Both films have a family going on a long road trip with their pet dog. Both films had Chai Fonacier playing the daughter (but two very different characters). Both films also have a character named Hesus (one is the dead husband, the other is supposedly the real one). Their similarities though end with those similar elements. At their core, these are two very different films. 

Unlike "Patay" which is a black slapstick comedy first with dramatic elements, "Pauwi" is a serious drama first with occasional dark humor. The exhausting road trip of "Pauwi" was fraught with problems, frustrations and troubles day after day. Since they were only riding open pedicabs, they are constantly exposed to dangers of traffic, the elements, hunger and unsavory people. They just have their guts, wits and sense of humor to get them through, and of course, there is Jesus Himself traveling with them.

Bembol Roco plays the father Mang Pepe and Cherry Pie Picache plays the mother Aling Remy. These two veteran actors really gave sincere and moving performances. Not only were their roles physically demanding, it was also very emotionally draining for both of them. That one scene where Aling Remy was asking Mang Pepe about this bad cough was probably enough to win them the awards by itself. Roco did not say anything in that scene, but his face and tears bared his very soul. 

Jerald Napoles plays the lazy rascal JP like it was second nature to him. Of all the characters, his was rather one-dimensional and not too well-developed as written. It was also hard to believe that he was the son of Picache when they looked like they were the same age (in reality Picache is 13 years older), especially in that apology scene at the church. 

Chai Fonacier also plays Pina very naturally, like how we saw her in in "Patay na si Hesus" and "Respeto". We feel her internal struggle here -- stay loyal to family or to break free and claim her future. Her scene waiting out the rain under a shed with the priest was wordless yet it was so effectively unsettling.

As Isabel, Meryl Soriano was a breath of fresh air amidst all the dirt and grime of this film. She was the one who looked clean the whole time. The film did not really introduce how she developed such a personal tactile relationship with Jesus, but we just accept the situation that it was out of the purity of her heart. 

Jess Mendoza may have played sinners in "Baconaua" and "Sa Gabing Nanahimik ang mga Kuliglig", but he played Jesus Christ himself here. It was puzzling when he was first introduced looking through the nail hole in the palm of his hand, wearing a crown of barbed wire on his head, but we get the drift soon enough.  He intervenes at the most opportune moments and makes the most intriguing commentary about religion and about life. 

The topic of abject poverty and what it pushes people to do is not easy to watch. Director Paolo Villaluna wisely breaks the harrowing street scenes with fantasy scenes of the family in finery and ballroom dancing. This potentially depressing film redeems itself by promoting family unity and bonding against all odds. Seeing the family smiling in the face of such hardship gives us pause to reflect about our own lives and our relatively petty concerns compared to theirs. 7/10. 

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