Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ploning (Dante Nico Garcia, 2008)

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 Palawan that once served as the province’s capital. The rich and sumptuous colors of this island’s nature and culture – the verdant greens, the sparkling oceanic blues, the ochres and other earth tones – are perfectly captured through Charlie Peralta’s unerring cinematography. One of the film’s recurring motifs is the Ati-Ati Festival, full of festivity and pavonine colors. The Cuyonons are no less endearing, their tightly-knit sense of community and their leisurely way of life, a gentle reproach to the world outside. The Cuyonon language gives the film its own lilting and subtle rhythms.

The film opens in the high seas on an illegal Taiwanese fishing vessel plying the waters off Palawan. One of the crew is Muo Sei, a 30-year-old dark-skinned man who seems quick to pick fights with his crewmates. His Taiwanese boss, who keeps a fatherly eye on him, tells him how he keeps enunciating the name of Ploning in his sleep. He suggests that Muo Sei should try to figure out what it all means and make peace with his past. He is given a one-day furlough on Cuyo to find out what he can about his past.

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 Philippines’ entry to the 81st Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film Category. Not my kind of film, but the film authorities could have made a worse choice, let’s put it that way.

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