Busong (Palawan Fate) is the summation of Auraeus Solito's artistic life, so far. Its devotion to folklore and its insistence on it being told through the usage of practical effects as opposed to sleeker and more popular digital effects is owed to the dazzling stop animation that was the source of absolute wonder in Ang Maikling Buhay ng Apoy, Act 2 Scene 2, Suring at ang Kuk-ok (The Brief Lifespan of Fire, Act 2 Scene 2, Suring and the Kuk-ok, 1995). Its reliance on romanticizing the struggle of the marginalized and the underrepresented is owed to the famous love story of the young gay boy and a police officer in Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005) and the struggles of various genius high school students in Pisay (Philippine Science, 2007). Its homoerotic gaze is owed to his sincere re-telling of his own homosexual coming-of-age in Boy (2009).
The film's most direct precedent however is Basal Banar (Sacred Ritual of Truth, 2002), a documentary that compiled very real stories of land-grabbing and other oppression in by the outsiders towards the native people of Palawan. Much like Basal Banar, Busong is a collection of stories that focus on the issues concerning Palawan. While it is the sense of community, of a common struggle, that connects the stories of Basal Banar together, in Busong, fate is the thread that ties the tales. Busong retells the stories of Solito's childhood and the stories he documented while making Basal Banar as one narrative, made endlessly elaborate and poignantly poetic.
Busong tells the story Punay (Alessandra de Rossi) who is suffering from a mysterious illness that rendered her helpless and perpetually wounded. Angkarang (Rodrigo Santikan), Punay's brother, carries her on an ornate hammock, searching the land for a cure to his sister's suffering. Their search would lead them to meet several strangers --- the widow (Bonivie Budao), of a logger, a fisherman (Dax Alejandro), and the descendant (Clifford Banagale) of Palawan's healers.
Spells are spoken to pacify wildlife. Butterflies fly from healed wounds. At the same place and time these magical events happen, foreign capitalists bully the island's impoverished natives. Traditions are slowly being forgotten, salvaged primarily by sung stories recorded on tape and played in the radio. The film is not grounded on logic. It is more than anachronistic. The film exists in some abstract plane, where past, present, and future converge, tradition and technology are not at odds with each other, and myth and reality intertwine.
From the dreamy episodes set in the beaches and forests of the island to the erstwhile but gorgeous underwater sequences, Busong is undoubtedly visually sumptuous. However, like postcards sold in the gift shop of a luxurious tourist's resort, the images that cinematographer Louie Quirino conjures are framed and lighted predictably to enunciate the natural allure of the island. Shot and projected in high definition video, Busong runs the risk of being too beautiful, too defined, and too welcoming. A film that grieves for a dying tradition and cautions of the masked repercussions of forced modernization is deserving of a tinge of grit, a hint of ugliness, and a possible serving of anger.
There is no denying that the film is a product of Solito's love for his cinematically-neglected homeland, which he visualizes to near-perfection. During those moments and sequences where the film becomes incomprehensible story-wise, it is that love which is communicated with absolute ease. Each frame bursts with that unabashed adulation for his cultural heritage. Busong is essentially Solito's ode to himself, his past and the many pasts of his people that contributed to who he is as an artist.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)