Above the Clouds (Pepe Diokno, 2015) August 12, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Written and directed by Pepe Diokno
Cast: Ruru Madrid, Pepe Smith
Pepe Diokno’s much-awaited second film veers away from almost every aspect of his debut work, forgoing grit and aggression for subtlety and introspection. The years between them may have factored into the direction he has chosen, for the most obvious difference is how, unlike Engkwentro, Above the Clouds takes its time to unfold, bearing a language that is all too familiar with audiences who are used to immersive silence, minimal drama, striking visuals, and spatial dynamics coming together to create a sense of experience instead of spectacle.
This aesthetic of slow, or what is regarded by some as contemplative, aims for the soul rather than the body, and Diokno’s discernible choice to extract the essence and revel in restraint makes a good picture — if a good picture means being left with an impression — showing that, like commercial movies, artistic films also abide by a formula to achieve an effect.
A teenager and his grandfather, estranged from one another, deal with grief and spend time together, hiking up a mountain where their dead loved ones have once had special memories. In a nutshell, that’s basically it — two bodies and two souls — the rest is background and interpretation. The plot offers no surprises, and it doesn’t need any. It only needs to emphasize a relationship forced into being because it is the door through which its ruminations on sorrow come and go. The interaction between the two characters reveals merely the distance between them, how one tries to reach out as the other moves away, and the film, the way it is written and staged, gives them no one to turn to but each other, not even the departed. Only upon buying this setup can the viewer appreciate the nuances it tries so hard to keep and eventually expose for emotional impact.
Yet Above the Clouds, despite the undeniable artistic flair, is carefully predictable. It moves in such a way that its lead characters seem to be completely unaware of the path laid before them and of the emotions about to smother them, as though cruelly they were excepted from seeing the whole view, and the audience, for the entire time, is positioned at the vantage point, witnessing their struggle and anguish from a determined spot. One feels sad while watching it because it is only natural to feel sad, but there is nothing in it that rises above, or goes deeper beneath, this veneer of mourning, nothing that makes the sadness separate and specific.
The death of the parents during Ondoy is an interesting detail, but Diokno prefers to dilute this suggestive element in favor of accessibility, letting it add only to the overall sense of tragedy and not to a narrative that needs more layers. Granted, Ondoy appears to strike a chord mostly with people who have been acquainted with it (i.e., those from Manila) — the way Yolanda can have a distinct and lasting impact mostly on victims from Samar and Leyte — and people outside the eye of these tragedies can merely use art or consume it to share in the grief. But Ondoy, come to think of it, is the fulcrum of Above the Clouds, and an articulation of grief coming from it could have brought forth something more distinct, allowing a more resonant reading of the title to complement the emphatic but unmistakably beautiful final shot.
Diokno himself had an experience of Ondoy, and being someone from the city has afforded the film, largely shot in the Cordillera, this point of view: a boy glued to his phone and music player while on the move, a boy regarding his parents’ special place as something his and therefore feeling responsible for its keeping, a boy unable to know and appreciate the sacredness of the surroundings for other people. This perspective does not attempt to show strong familiarity with the place — it is far from promoting tourism and being an advocacy — but it is apparent that the sights are purposely used to characterize and deepen the story, the climb signifying a rocky relationship promised to reach a turning point, and without this scenic view of the mountains and meaning darkness, the film would have nothing much to show, not enough for it to stand on its own.
So somehow it seems only reasonable that the loudest criticism of the movie from local viewers comes in this regard, something which foreign audiences expectedly failed to highlight, the way environmental neglect is presented, and the nature of the medium makes it open to various angles of judgment. Some are quick to point out the vandalism supposedly tolerated in the movie, even aggravated by the fact that another film, both critically and commercially successful, has also been a subject of similar reproach (and, as it turns out, these two films, in the ensuing chaos of arguments, are being made accountable for their audience’s possible reckless actions, not to mention ill-intentioned thoughts, after seeing them).
This is why showing a locally produced film to a Filipino audience proves to be meaningful. Despite the extreme displeasure that comes with reading inane online comments and arguing with people of various levels of posturing, some of whom have no awareness of decency and diplomacy, Above the Clouds becomes relevant because of these discussions. Even with the guise of being fictional by nature, should films be absolved from criticism outside their cinematic merits? To what extent should filmmakers be held accountable for their viewers (as well as their thoughts and actions)? These debates bring to light the often taken-for-granted facet of film culture, this idea that a work, once shown and made consumable, carries a duty for its audience — the duty to educate and share a good message — and it is assumed that those who see it, especially if the subject is sensitive and misinterpretation could lead to something unpleasant, may or may not be bright enough to make a proper response. Cinema, in this case, is believed to be powerful when something dangerous is imminent, or if it shows something that does not conform to one’s idea of appropriate. This kind of mindset that doubts the ability of an audience to be responsible points at a lack of sufficient art education, thereby the blame easily (and thoroughly) goes to the art being produced.
Hardly raised in these accusations of negligence, and something which substantiates the tendency of the film to romanticize and be romanticized, is that all these issues could have been avoided (or forgiven) if Above the Clouds had a better script, if it had made a stronger case for its deliberate display of destruction. For a movie that depicts trails and terrains, it decides to take the path often traveled and comes unprepared for a long trip, sharing the view but not the experience.