TOFARM review: 'Tanabata's Wife' is smart, unique, impressive

Fred Hawson

Posted at Sep 14 2018 11:22 AM

Tanabata was a lonely Japanese farmer who immigrated from Okinawa to run his own farm in Trinidad Valley in the Mountain Province back in the 1920s. 

One day, he hired a young and pretty Bontoc tribeswoman, Fas-ang, to help him in his house and farm (cabbage and strawberries) for P4 and unlimited rice. 

Eventually, Tanabata and Fas-ang fell in love and lived together as husband and wife. Even if they soon have an infant son Kato, differences in their culture eventually crept its way into their relationship and threatened it.

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From the very first frame of this indie film, I immediately felt that this would not be an ordinary film. This did not look or feel like a Filipino film at all. The angles and aesthetics of the scenes made it look and feel like a classic Japanese film, and I loved the grace and beauty of its photography by cinematographer Nap Jamir. 

Those scenes of Tanabata sitting outside his house looking longingly into the distance looked and felt like Yasujiro Ozu. That scene with the tight close-up on Tanabata's face and its varying expressions into gradual fadeout looked and felt like Akira Kurosawa. 

This Japanese aesthetic was so consistent throughout the film it was impressive. Tanabata's house of straw and sticks looked so good on that big screen. Even if there were scenes with numerous unwanted insects flying around, the actors were so zen and unfazed. There were some very unique dramatic transitions between scenes (by film editor May-i Guia Padilla) that were truly remarkable, heretofore unseen in other Filipino indies I've seen before. 

Also very Japanese was the way the story was divided into three distinct sections representing the stages of Fas-ang's relationship with Tanabata, each with an introductory card with a symbolic moving image and labels in Japanese calligraphy (as well as the English translation). It was so nice how they showed the gradually progressive closeness of Tanabata and Fas-ang's relationship. 

In his portrayal of Tanabata, the Japanese lead actor Miyuki Kamimura seemed to be channeling classic Japanese film actor Toshiro Mifune himself. He registered very well on screen and consistently came off as a good and positive person. Yoshihito Tsukasa and Yoshiro Takada, who played Tanabata's supportive Japanese neighbors Okamoto and Terada, also gave very natural and realistic performances. 

The new Filipino actors were still raw, and tended to be awkward in their acting, but were nonetheless effective in their roles. As the title character Fas-ang, Mai Fanglayan toed that thin line very well as she portrayed a character so brave yet so naive. Her unpreparedness to be a wife and mother were seen as much by her fondness for watching comedy movies, as by the rashness of her decisions. Kurt "Ayeo-eo" Alalag played Okdo, Fas-ang's prideful male friend from the tribe. (Alalag was also part of the film's music team together with film editor Padilla and Mark Tan.) Danilo "Guintapan" Bulanay played the loyal Tiago, the lowlander farm hand of Tanabata.

Inspired by a similarly titled short story written by Sinai Hamada, this film was directed by three directors according to the end credits. These are: Charlson Ong (who also wrote the original script), Choy Pangilinan (who helped with the screenplay along with Ong, Mao Portus and Juan Carlo Tarobal) and Lito Casaje (who also played a brief role as a stingy Japanese businessman Watanabe in one scene). While the story is seemingly simple, the screenplay was smartly written with lines in Japanese, Ilocano, and Kankanaey, rich in provocative ideas and subtle humor. 9/10

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."