Ploning, written and directed by Dante Nico Garcia, has a tantalizing provenance.
Its origins are not written literature or factual story, but one mysterious folk song. Garcia recalls how many years ago, he was made to hear, at a gathering of friends, a Cuyonon love song about a man who leaves behind his love and their island home with a vow of steadfast love and eventual return. Mysterious and meager, the lyrics hinted teasingly at Ploning, the woman of the title. But it was premise enough for the director, setting the creative wheels into motion. For years, the film gestated steadily, with Garcia ultimately crafting his own rendition of the story (with the help of Benjamin Lingan) and envisioning it as a vehicle for actress-friend Judy Ann Santos.
Ploning takes place mostly in Cuyo, an island off mainland
The film opens in the high seas on an illegal Taiwanese fishing vessel plying the waters off
Muo Sei, it turns out, is Rodrigo, a native of Cuyo who was given up for lost 25 years ago in a sea mishap. In search of the mysterious woman in his dreams, Rodrigo retraces his steps and returns to all the places he once knew, their old village, Ploning’s house, where little is left but a picture of him and the woman. We begin to see the past through Rodrigo as a 5-year-old child; and towards the end, through Ploning’s confidante, Celeste.
As the memories return, Rodrigo enfleshes Ploning and an ensemble of characters that populate Cuyo. Like the woman of the song, Ploning was known around the village for remaining faithful to one Tomas, who had left town for some pressing reason. This left her with a reserved and distant countenance. We barely see it though. Ploning’s presence, if anything, seems lovingly communal: a composite of feminine ideals, assuming many womanly roles and providing succor to those in straitened circumstances. She was the sun, the island’s stalwart: a motherly presence to Rodrigo as a 5-year-old boy and Siloy, a broken-hearted, young man who admires her apparent faithfulness to Tomas; a sisterly figure to Celeste, a nurse from Manila, and Alma, a single mother who can unburden only to Ploning; and a daughterly presence, however aloof, to her father, Susing, and Juaning, a bedridden paralytic, Rodrigo’s mother.
Writer-director Garcia seems to be tiptoeing around his subjects: his affection and reverence for Ploning and the Cuyonons, on one hand, and bosom-friend Judy Ann Santos, and her retinue of established and non-professional actors, on the other, has preempted the earthy and seamy side of characters to show. (Apparently there is a dark side to Ploning, but you’d never know if you missed one expository moment.) We should have been tipped off : Ploning comes billed as Judy Ann Santos’s 30th birthday offering: the filmmakers are careful to mythologize – and folklorize – its lead actress.
This also happens to be the maiden offering of Panoramanila, a hybrid production house of independent filmmaking and major industrial logistics, which has a self-appointed ethnocentric thrust of throwing the Filipino and his archipelago into flattering relief. It succeeds in its purpose, but it has also produced a film with touristy tension, devoid of genuine conflict and replete with treacly, winsome characters.
There are structural cracks in the narrative that should be mentioned, too: many of the key events in the characters’ lives, for one, are not shown but told. The talkiness, the endlessly expository nature of the dialogue, is only meant to ventilate the beautiful cadences of the Cuyonon language. (This film is weary of the imperialism of Tagalog.) Another flaw is how the narrative momentum seems retarded by the crisscrossing of present events and flashbacks. Ploning loses much emotional and climactic power because of this.
Ploning would go on to become the