Tuesday, August 8, 2017

CINEMALAYA 2017: Review of BACONAUA: Drowning in Darkness

August 8, 2017

It is already the fourth day of the 13th Cinemalaya Film Festival and I had only been able to see one feature film in competition. Over the weekend, local cinephiles had been excitedly reporting on social media about their personal favorites. This particular title "Baconaua" (Sea Serpent) was the one on the schedule when I went to the cinema this afternoon. I have not heard anything about this film at all up to now. Now I know why.

In a rural seaside town, three siblings -- 16 year old Divina, 15 year old Dian and 13 year old Dino -- were struggling to live day to day for the past 90 days since their father went missing from one of his duties as Sea Patroller. Since their mother already left them and had her own family on another island, it is up to the girls to plan for his funeral rites. 

One day, after a squall, their beach and the sea beyond it were mysteriously awash with hundreds of apples.  It did not take long when soldiers came to the town to investigate the event and look for perpetrators. Meanwhile, little Dino encounters and helps a wounded stranger who sought shelter in their tool shed.

Writer-director Joseph Israel Laban already had two Cinemalaya full length films under his belt -- "Cuchera" (2011) and "Nuwebe" (2013). The second film actually won for Laban the Best Director award in the ASEAN International Film Festival held in Malaysia in 2015. For "Baconaua," Laban had a good story on his hands, unfortunately his translation of this story to the big screen unfortunately left a lot to be desired. 

The film opened promisingly with a passage from the Book of Revelations, about the sea turning into blood. Then we see the seaside town at what seems to be a time before daybreak. Several seaside scenes were being shown onscreen, accompanied by the Spanish version of the Philippine National Anthem sung in full. These sombre opening scenes set the dark, dim and dull tone of the whole film.

The most remarkable feature of this film is its DARKNESS. I don't know if it is a problem with the print or the projector, but the whole film is just so dark. Even daytime scenes seemed to be filtered with a dim bluish shade, rendering them almost black and white. 

During the scenes where the sea and beach were supposed to be full of apples, I thought at first that there was a sea snail infestation. It was only when it was specifically identified as such before I knew those things were apples. If this scene was supposed to have shown the sea "turning to blood", it did not work because I did not see any shade of red at all. 

There were entire scenes where the screen was completely bathed in dark shadows. I had no idea what was going on if there was no dialogue to indicate what was happening. Even those climactic scenes of Dino, the soldiers and the stranger were not well lit, and this scene had to happen in the dead of night. We barely see the faces of the characters or how they were emoting. We only see faces in full color were in those few scenes lit with a candle! 

Elora Espano was wholesome here, and she played well as Divina, the eldest, responsible sister. The known acting talent of Therese Malvar was wasted as Dian, a role that just made her look petulant and promiscuous. The most interesting role of Dino was played by novice child actor JM Salvado, who was still a little stiff. It was so unfortunate for them that the darkness hid any nuance they might have had in their eyes. I simply do not see their eyes in many scenes where I can only see them in silhouette. 

Fortunately for supporting actors Bembol Roco and Erlinda Villalobos, who played helpful neighbors Mang Danny and Aling Lora, their scenes were better lit. The local swain Pol, who wooed the two sisters in succession, was played by Jess Mendoza. Anna J. Luna had a single scene playing Divina's friend Nica. Veteran actors Jeric Raval and Suzette Ranillo had single scene cameos playing a Coast Guard officer Col. Abdullah and the kids' mother Mengga respectively. The Stranger was played by an actor named Ron Lord. His face was never clearly shown such that I would not recognize him in another film. 

To put it frankly, this overbearing darkness was such an ordeal to get through the 92 minutes of the film. It was as if the filmmakers wanted to immerse the audience into this poor seaside town which had no electricity.  To be fair, there were some moments of beautiful nature cinematography (as you can see in the poster) in there, but their glory was eclipsed by the suffocating shade. Everyone around me in that screening were grumbling about the darkness while the closing credits were rolling. I think that is all we will remember about this film. 3/10. 

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