An airplane flies past an anonymous Zamboanga cemetery. Outside the city's airport, reporters are waiting. Passengers from the most recent arrival scramble out of the airport. A man, donned in running gear, is approached by the reports. He won a prestigious marathon in Manila and returns to his native Zamboanga to start running across the island of Mindanao. While the reporters are gathering clues from the runner as to why he wants to run, another man (Alfred Vargas), dressed in typical Manila clothes, appears. The runner, who is still being followed by the reporters, and the man leave the airport in separate directions.
Zurich Chan, instead of following the possibly more colourful tale of the champion runner, follows the other man, as he takes a cab through the streets of Zamboanga he may or may not remember from the childhood he chose to forget and abandon. He arrives in the office of his godfather (Lilit Reyes), the starting point of his journey to find his dead father's grave. His father bequeathed him with almost nothing, except for a piece of land, a rundown car, and a diary of his father's exploits as a medical representative. The man rides from one town to another, retracing his father's footsteps, discovering secrets about him, and inching closer to truly living.
Simplicity has become so underrated, especially today wherein complex plots, social relevance, and shallow intellectualism have become overrated. More often than not, simplicity has been mistaken for lack of originality, thinness of plot, and worse, absence of imagination and ambition. Teoriya could have been about the runner, traversing the dangerous but picturesque roads of Mindanao. It could have dug deeper into the psyche of the runner. It could have been immensely inspirational, a film that puts forth triumph against the stereotypical adversities that plague the island.
Fortunately, Teoriya is not about all of that. It is first and foremost a story, the simplest of all stories, and like all stories, a theory as to what the story's creator would do had he been in the shoes of the character he is writing himself in. That said, the film, with its unfairly criticized simplicity, is a heartfelt achievement, rife with anecdotes that add not only quirk and humor into the exercise but also rare visual lyricism.
Without forcing issues for the goal of achieving some sort of social relevance, the film manages to acknowledge that personal stories are unavoidably intertwined with the bigger picture, that more often than not, in any journey, there will always be predictable encounters with poverty (the hijacking farmer), with violence (the father's experience of losing his parents to massacre), with love (the woman among men). These encounters are not caused by some clever circumstance or narrative conceit. It is just how life naturally unfolds. With Teoriya, Chan celebrated the enjoyable mysteries of life and living life while basking under the peculiarly warm sunlight of death.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)