It was 1957, ventriloquist Hernando Alamada (John Lloyd Cruz) was performing with his dummy named Ha on the cruise ship Mayflower who sailed the East Asian route. When he came home, his plans to marry his long-time sweetheart Rosetta did not come to pass. Despondent, Hernando decided to leave his twin sister Hernanda's home in Barangay Tagsibol and wandered aimlessly with his carabao-drawn cart.
Along the way, he met 13-year old boy Joselito (Jonathan Francisco), a middle-aged woman Dahlia (Dolly de Leon), and a Catholic nun Sister Lorenza (Mae Paner) who all wanted to go to Barrio Daang Tapak to take the boat to Isla Diwata where gold was discovered. He reluctantly helped them get there but by then, the imperious village chief Among Kuyang (Teroy Guzman) had already raised the boat fare seven-fold.
In his first full-length film in 4 years, John Lloyd Cruz totally gave his all in this dedicated performance as Hernando. If he was actually doing the ventriloquism scenes for real, Cruz had impeccable voice throwing technique and some interesting vocal variations. During that entire segment of self-exile on the road, Hernando had resolved that he would not talk to anyone else except through Ha. It was just rather disappointing that we never saw a full version of his hit cruise ship performance that earned him his loyal fans.
His best scenes were his introspective soliloquys which reflected his inner turmoil and struggles. In one, he debated with Ha about helping others do what he thought was not good for them. In another, he talked to his image in a mirror about the plight of the unenlightened masses and compromised artistic integrity. On top of that, there were all these physically-demanding scenes of Cruz walking on endless rough roads while guiding a carabao, or Cruz digging up a grassy field to make a toilet.
The unlikely tandem of Dolly de Leon (with her miniskirts, short shorts and high heels) and Mae Paner (with her severe black habit) were a delightful duo to watch with their contrasting fashion and personalities, and their common big appetite for free food. That scene of the two ladies wading through shin-high flood on a rocky mountain path in the pouring rain must have been so exhausting and dangerous for them to shoot.
Ever-magnetic Teroy Guzman played Among Kuyang as Diaz's metaphor for a politician's insatiable greed from then up to now. It was notable how he would always lapse in speaking in English (purposefully?) even when he publicly preached Malay pride. His best scenes for me were his precious reaction to Dahlia's indecent proposal and how oddly he described his hot-headed sister Matilde (Hazel Orencio) with anachronistic medical terminology.
This film was set in 1957 in the wake of President Ramon Magsaysay's death in a plane crash, so his political legacy was thoroughly discussed, However despite the time setting in the past, Diaz was still able to throw shade on politicians who took power two decades after, and especially the one who took power six decades after, and this was done in no uncertain terms. Through the character of Hernando, Diaz also appealed for the government not to neglect the people in remote provinces in terms of their education and social welfare.
This 4 hour 10 minute film is relatively-short as far as Lav Diaz films go. This is already the 11th Lav Diaz film I had watched, so I am already quite familiar and comfortable with his trademark languid pace and long extended takes.
A black comedy, this film actually had very steady pacing in the storytelling, engaging, not boring at all. Well, maybe except for those 20 or so interminable minutes of Hernando leading the same group of villagers to recite the full Abakada from A to Ya over and over.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, “Fred Said.”