Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa (At the Corner of Heaven and Earth), Mes de Guzman's elegy to childhood innocence, is relaxed in its pace and elegant in its imagery. Set in De Guzman's native Nueva Vizcaya where continuous fields meet proud mountain ranges, the film reinforces its powerful images of rural hardship with gorgeous passages of slopes being enveloped by clouds, creating a certain lyricism to its straightforwardness. Instead of portraying children as passive victims of an unfortunate circumstance, they are shown to be more in control of their fates, capable to exist within penury without much tragedy, but handicapped by their pride and other vices.
Four children, most of whom have chosen to run away from their families, have turned an abandoned hut in the middle of an idle lot outside the border of the town of Bayombong into their home. Days are spent looking for work, or fooling around, or fighting among themselves. Nights, on the other hand, are mostly committed to rest. The predictability of their daily routine has turned their simple lives into some sort of paradise. Their concerns are minuscule. Their main goal is survival, to eat at least a few times a day and to maintain a semblance of order in their motley crew. Except for the occasional sickness, these kids seem to do well in their chosen independence.
De Guzman depicts these kid's lives' comfortable predictability with levity and earnestness. He avoids crossing the line towards melodrama. Instead, he admits to the subtle joys of their little lives, of sharing a piece of candy or a bottle of soda, of the pranks played, of falling hopelessly in love with an uptown girl. These little slices of the kids' humble lives, laced more with the comedy of childhood defiance than simpleminded pity whoring, prepare the film for its belated conflict, the inevitable collision of these kids' precious innocence with real life's corrupting harshness.
As De Guzman morphs his film from being a document of his protagonists' youthful antics into something darker, the seemingly innocuous landscape of Nueve Vizcaya turns more ominous, more burdensome, and more painful. He is after all a master in establishing atmosphere without crossing the borders of tasteful subtlety.
In Ang Daan Patungong Kalimugtong (The Road to Kalimugtong, 2005), the simple story of two children hiking their way to their school is not spiced by dramatic confrontations or grandiose turns in the narrative. The conflicts are merely suggested by gunfights overheard in the forest, or petty thievery in the name of survival for a day. Instead of working up stories to compound the dilemmas of his youthful subjects, De Guzman turns his setting, whether it be the road towards an ill-equipped public school or the impoverished margins of a rural community, into the story, allowing the place to breathe drama into the lives displayed.
Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa ends supposedly in tragedy, with the kids no longer existing in the fringes of a society that neglects them but somewhere else. De Guzman crosses over to poetry, with the children, in some sort of trance, escaping from their shelter into the field to be engulfed by a conquering fog. De Guzman merges the reality of the children's situation and the lyricism of Nueva Vizcaya's mysterious geography in a sequence wherein the film's little heroes confront their being in limbo, their being in the middle of life and death, in the center of hope and despair, in the corner of heaven and earth.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)