'Balangiga: Howling Wilderness' review: Powerful and tender
Some of the country’s greatest films, from Lino Brocka’s Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975) to Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side (2001), feature the dire repercussions of its heroes’ migration in search for what should have been promised lands.
In a sense, the films represent a country’s fractured psyche, one that was borne from centuries of both subservience to colonial powers and ready adherence to foreign influence, reinforcing the compulsion to leave, to migrate, to be closest and nearest to the masters.
Stories of exoduses from the provinces to Manila, from Manila to overseas lands are oft repeated, making escape the quintessential narrative of the Filipino.
Story of escape
Khavn dela Cruz’s Balangiga: Howling Wilderness is also a story of escape.
However, instead of shaping its discourse about how history has shaped the conflicted identity of a nation through allegories formed from stories of migration and diaspora, it directly confronts it by setting itself in a land that has been ravaged by foreign powers and a people rendered helpless and forced to flee their homes.
Here, the characters, eight-year old Kulas (Justine Samson), his grandfather (Pio del Rio) and a baby (Warren Tuaño) they rescued from a burning barrio, are literally escaping a land forever tainted by the literal evils of colonialism. They are damaged goods, equated by their colonizers with fowls and other beasts of burden, all deserving of a cruel fate just because they had the gall to fight back.
In 1901, after a raid by Filipino freedom fighters that saw the demise of 48 American soldiers, General Jacob Smith ordered for the massacre of Samar.
From the ominous opening text, Dela Cruz then shifts to a view of the island from the eyes of an air-bound camera, revealing pristine emerald forests and bountiful rice fields ready for harvest. The carabao crashes, abruptly ending what is revealed to be a day-time dream of Kulas, who is awakened by his cantankerous grandfather. They better be leaving so that they can reach Borongan, the town they imagine to be brimming with food and no Americans in sight, in time.
They begin their arduous trek deep into wilderness of Samar, whose landscape is riddled with the physical, emotional and psychological remnants of the American’s pillaging and violence.
Wrought by war
Balangiga: Howling Wilderness tells through its images the depravity wrought by war.
What is most fascinating, however, is that the film is thoroughly a children’s tale. It is a parable of innocence giving way to the necessity of survival. Dela Cruz laces scenes that depict Kulas grasping what little childhood he has that remains with moments that disrupt, whether it be a wheelchair-bound musician making noise or a man of religion spurting profanities and lascivious gestures.
While situated within a period in Philippine history, the film is aptly set in a world where the terrors of reality are better conveyed by visuals that transgress both tastes and norms, giving Dela Cruz the full freedom to play around with images to convey emotions ranging from primal rage to bleak surrender. Lullabies blend with arresting images of strife and cruelty. Dreams turn into nightmares. Hopes of escaping war end up in demise.
Balangiga: Howling Wilderness is powerful not because it revels in the spectacle of war and violence but because it fully comprehends their more damning consequences. This is a film that can only leave you in awe of how it manages to be stunningly beautiful without betraying the hard truths and ironies it ingeniously cultivates.
Its effects are indelible. It shocks. It terrorizes. It then leaves you more human than before, perhaps scarred by the film’s tender exposition of both the preciousness and fragility of life and hope.
Elegy to purity
Balangiga: Howling Wilderness navigates its seemingly simple narrative around the very relevant tenuous relations the Philippines has with America.
The film has clear political implications and suggestions. Yet as soon as it ends with an ironic burst of animated hues and figures, it graduates from being a mere document on the sufferings and indignity of a nation under a colonial power’s regime.
It becomes an elegy to purity, a lyrical and heartbreaking testament to humanity’s pursuit of freedom from whatever form of imprisonment. – Rappler.com