MANILA, Philippines – Thy Womb is not the flick that the holiday crowd heads out to see.
If I needed evidence of it, I needed to look no further than the seats around me.
Whereas the other movies I watched were packed, my evening screening of the movie had less than half the seats filled.
Apart from that, the group to my left walked out less than an hour in. To my right was a group that kept taking turns buying food. Those left behind would report what the others had missed.
And all told, there really was little to miss in the way of narrative movement. There was also a lot of loud yawning, if not snoring. I got the feeling that a lot of the people there were watching because the flick they really wanted to see was sold out.
And at the end of the film, there was a resounding, “Yun na yun?” from the meager audience.
Headlined by Nora Aunor and Bembol Roco, boasting all kinds of international awards, Thy Womb is a strong film that follows a very defined aesthetic. If you’re familiar with indie cinema, then a lot of this will look familiar to you. If you’re not and you’re expecting something on par with the major studio releases of the MMFF, then you will most definitely feel that you have been duped.
What the film endeavors is to present us a way of life that we are probably unfamiliar with. I know I had an awareness of lives like these, but Thy Womb asks us to take a long hard look at lives, culture, values, and community.
When I say a long look, I mean it. There are a lot of shots here that take their time. It is languorously shot, at the brink of being indulgent in its willingness to stick to and observe a moment. Where slicker productions might edit out sequences to keep the story moving briskly, Thy Womb will stop and make the audience wait with the characters.
Case in point is a scene where Aunor and Roco come to a home with a negotiator, and the 3 wind up waiting outside for an extended period of time. We watch them wait. That’s it.
This would most definitely create consternation on the part of the pop moviegoer. Of course, it could be argued that editing is a part of filmmaking, and cutting out the “boring parts” is part of modern filmmaking. But considering director Brillante Mendoza’s decision to go cinema verite with the execution of this film, such scenes work.
Whether they win over the popular audience is another matter, though.
But winning over that popular audience is not the film’s concern. Rather, it shows us a specific culture, and how people work within that culture. Work here is literal, as we are shown the day-to-day life of the couple, as they go out fishing, crafting and all the other things that they do.
It is not a workaday life as we know it, but we are shown the routines and the ways of this community.
Moreover, we are shown cultural practices, particularly that of courtship. As an aging couple, Bembol Roco’s character has grown old with his wife, played by Aunor. But they do not have children. So the general frame of the film follows the two as they try to find him a new wife with whom he can have children.
We participate in the struggle, with all the waiting, all the traveling. It’s a slow, rather arduous route. We are subjected to it as viewers. And it gets taxing, and what many might call boring. The film can get repetitive, overdoing certain images, or taking too long before moving on.
But then that is part of the film’s aesthetic, and also part of the film creating a tone and emulating the rhythm of the lives that it attempts to capture.
The film has many strengths. Mendoza knows a good image when he sees one. And while one might mistake the many out of focus shots and shaky cam as problems of craft, we can see that these help to create the realism of the approach.
More importantly, there are great shots that help us to create meaning through metaphor. And there are shots that are just damn pretty, just wonderful to look at. Mendoza makes the most of his setting, the sea, the sun, the horizon, and some particularly pretty underwater shots.
The underplayed but extremely effective performances of Roco and Aunor are strengths to be enjoyed. There’s a lot of restraint here, and a lot of nuance in the way that they play their characters. They are truly allowed to act, not only with dialogue, but with the way that they move.
Unlike a lot of filmfest performances that rely on big scenes and bombast, it’s the little things, the gestures and the facial expressions, which Mendoza endeavors to capture, which make the leads’ performances interesting. And as we reach the end, we find those expressions and movements driving the story more than anything else.
Thy Womb, as I have warned, is not the family movie that people are looking for this season. It is, though, important that such a film is part of the MMFF.
Sure, it’s the requisite art flick amidst all the commercial stuff. It’s different, it’s interesting, it’s challenging.
It’s far from perfect, but it is definitely worth watching.
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The 38th Metro Manila Film Festival will run from December 25, 2012 to January 7, 2013 in cinemas nationwide. For more information, visit the official MMFF website.
(Carljoe Javier teaches at the UP Department of English and Comparative Literature. He has written a few books, most recently the new edition of The Kobayashi Maru of Love available from Visprint Inc. and the upcoming Writing 30 available as an ebook at amazon, ibookstore, b&n and flipreads.com.)