Arnel Mardoquio's Ang Paglalakbay ng Bituin sa Gabing Madilim
(roughly translated as: A Star's Journey into the Dark Night) is essentially L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
had it been set in present-day Mindanao and draped in reality instead of fantasy.
Faidal (Irish Karl Monsanto) is suddenly orphaned when his parents, Muslim freedom fighters who end up becoming bandits involved in kidnapping for ransom, are killed, leaving him with a knapsack full of dollars and a band of American and local troops trailing him. He ends up with his aunt Amrayda (Fe Gingging Hyde) and Fatima (Glorypearl Dy), who decide to aid the orphan in his escape. They end up in the house of Baba Indu (Roger Gonzalez), the family patriarch, who joins them to ensure everybody's safety in their passage away from their embattled home.
Like Dorothy's companions, each of the characters in Mardoquio's remarkably directed film are possessed by their individual needs and motives, which seem to align with Faidal's quest to escape. The tedium of travel is punctuated with poignant revelations. Their military predators appear deliberately, always accompanied by an otherworldly drone that emphasizes the innate violence of their mere presence in the land. Mardoquio could have easily staged rousing chases or intense gunfights. Thankfully, restraint overpowers the need to preach and burst. He tells his story with admirable confidence, showing only what needs to be shown, telling only what needs to be told, and trusting subtlety in its pursuit of accomplishing his advocacy. When he allows his characters to talk lengthily, the burden of their words are always well-earned.
Ang Paglalakbay ng Bituin sa Gabing Madilim is visually arresting. Mardoquio displays his mastery over the spaces of the vast jungles and their surrounding fields. While his camera is often still, capturing the contained drama of his travelling protagonists with hardly any intrusion from the filmmaker, he sometimes deliberately navigates his camera through a wider location, showcasing the fact that the stage of his actions are not limited by the frame of his film. His film feels vaster than what is depicted visually. In a sense, he breaks the illusion of film and keeps his audience repeatedly aware that danger lurks outside his frames.
Mardoquio directs the sequences lyrically. In one beautiful scene where the four travellers take a rest before heading to sea, he has Baba Indu dutifully look for boats for their journey and Faidal, true to his being a child who just found himself in the middle of conflict, take a leisurely swim in the sea. Amrayda and Fatima, fresh from a lover's quarrel over the harsh realities of their forbidden and impermanent relationship, take the time alone to relish the remnants of their damaged love. Amrayda leaves, allowing Faidal to talk to Fatima, about things that concern most humanity, and not just those endangered by war. They reassure themselves. They have a bagful of money, a new love waiting out there, and a future ahead of themselves. The scene is utterly heartbreaking, summing up the entire conflict in Mindanao within terms that is closer to the heart than the ego.
They nearly reach their Oz, a sea where the horizon is littered with lights emanating from foreigners' factories and refineries, an indication that they are utterly trapped. They look up. The sky is littered with pale stars and other heavenly objects. Mardoquio conveniently concludes his story with the end of the chase, finally signalling a political stance he has been grooming right from the charged first frame of the film. In the midst of a war that has a national history as its never-ending fuel, there are no wizards, no magic, no steadfast friends, and no easy solutions to abruptly kill the conflict. It is a dreary struggle, where each participant becomes both an unwitting victim and a quiet perpetrator.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)
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