Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim (Arnel Mardoquio, 2012) December 1, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Cinemanila, Indie Sine, Noypi.
Written and directed by Arnel Mardoquio
Cast: Fe Virtudazo-Hyde, Glorypearl Dy, Irish Karl Monsanto, Perry Dizon
In many ways Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim is Arnel Mardoquio’s first great work. But in saying that, one runs the risk of devaluing the strength of his previous films, especially Sheika, which may be messy and untempered as a whole but has moments that offer a kind of hopeless desolation that its subject deserves to have. His movies are always conscious of his background. Hailing from Davao, he has long been exposed to the problems that people from Mindanao face, his stories taking shape from first-hand observations and experiences. He isn’t young: he is 42 and his hair has turned gray over the years. In addition to being a film writer and director, fields that he has decided to focus on fairly recently, he is a prolific and prizewinning playwright, theater director, actor, poet, and librettist. This involvement in various disciplines has given him a certain ripeness, a kind of wisdom that comes with age and maturity, aware that art is more or less an expression of misery. Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim is his fifth feature in four years, and his growth as a filmmaker, if he has a quality that needs to be emphasized, couldn’t be anything but remarkable. Instead of turning another screw, the movie is a statement that refuses to be quoted in simple terms, and its seemingly subdued surface allows more water to flow in its forked paths until there’s nothing left to corrode.
Much of its power comes from the deliberate control of sound. Its investment in silence is difficult not to notice because the story, which involves three Muslim insurgents and a kid trying to escape from their captors, needs a lot of time to breathe. It alternates between sucking in air and exhaling it because it happens to be the metaphor for its actual premise, how some people caught in the conflict in Mindanao contend with their everyday life, always finding themselves running and staying put. Mardoquio addresses the complexities of the armed conflict, but he does not explain why violence remains and why war and peace have become too abstract to understand. He does not pursue the whys and the wherefores; instead he creates sequences, particularly the brilliantly executed opening, in which the whys and the wherefores have come to be pointless, knowing that life goes on regardless of reasons, whether the revolution succeeds or not. What the film accomplishes in its subtlety is a drama that is effective and moving, not to mention having the ability to conceal its propaganda very well—Mardoquio losing the habit of staging sloppy spectacles, something that he was wont to do in his earlier work—and the screen is filled with images that take the plot into surprising directions. At some point in the film there is that beautiful shot of the hill where a man is seen with a water buffalo, and then a few seconds later a troop of bandits emerges on top, seven of them, as if referencing either Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai or Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven, and for a brief moment the narrative has an air of a Western movie, which makes the hostile environment even more strangely horrifying. There is no denying that Mardoquio is in love with his visuals, as there are instances when the film will intentionally pause to show a lovely view of the falls or the orange sky, but he knows when to cut them: he takes them away just when the viewer begins to fall in love with them as well.
Despite the many chasms it can fall into, Ang Paglalakbay ng Bituin sa Gabing Madilim never gets carried away by its sentiments. The anger and frustration that seep through its story are levelheaded, and its perspectives are grounded in consequences and not in platitudes. When the lesbian angle is finally confronted, it unfolds naturally, Amrayda and Fatima kissing each other as if it’s the last time, a kiss that connotes passion and resignation as much as bravery and cowardice. Amrayda is tired of the revolution, but she does not speak of its futility. It is still necessary, if not downright indispensable. She believes in a kind of life where her religion and her personal preferences could coexist, a life that would allow her to be a Muslim and marry Fatima at the same time, a life that is impossible to happen yet it’s something that she fervently holds onto. Mardoquio shares her weariness, closing the film on a bleak and uncertain note, but what is fate but bleak and uncertain? Where does the struggle actually end? How can a film address these issues without limning the blood in the frontiers and the dead bodies under the ground, without bringing up the cause and losing oneself in the maze of its contradictions? There are no simple answers, but more appropriately: there are no answers. Clearly, the revolution has already happened some time ago. It is still taking place. It will never cease. And there will be more corpses.