Ice is the Earth is the magnificent opening salvo of Mes de Guzman’s trilogy of films dealing with the plight of ordinary Filipinos. Films about our poor countrymen? Again? The award-winning filmmaker was not entirely happy with his choice of film themes. He wants to someday make a film that is full of hope but in the meantime he shares some indelible images of poverty and melancholic life of Juan de la Cruz.
The first ten minutes or so of the film are presented in an almost documentary fashion, with a warm narration that lures audience to the chilly, dangerous world of the mangangabogs/fish herders and tripulantes/boat workers in southern Philippines. Child divers steer fishes through the nets. They ensure that small stones don’t get caught up in the nets. During lulls in fishing action, the fish herders do errands or serve as lookouts.
A charming, powerful segment is the montage of playtime aboard the vessel. It is a believable portrait of idyllic moments. From skipping ropes through clapping games and wracking brains during the different board games, the men had lots of fun. Those with spare money spend some time in karaoke joints. However, too much idle time wearies down the younger ones.
Enchanting images from karaoke videos spur 14-year-old Pempe (Elijah Castillo) to cajole his brother Digos (Edwin Pamanian) about moving to Manila. These incessant pleadings by Pempe become a major irritant in the daily lives of the two orphans. Their supervisor noticed their rift and decides to transfer Pempe to an ice factory near Manila.
These two elements dominate the film as much as the two orphans. The brothers are rumored to be mermen. They are full of energy when at sea. The warmth of brotherly love negates the devastating coldness of the ocean. Hence, when Pempe decides to get away from the sea and his brother, he ends up like a fish out of the water. The film then shows the importance of constant heart-warming communication. Visits by Digos become scarce due to distance and work. The anger felt by the youngster becomes an icy, impervious wall that never thaws even after his death. His lifeless body is covered up in ice just like the fishes dropped off at ports.
Filmmaker de Guzman is a gifted storyteller. His combination of words and images is vivid and memorable. Take for example the striking image of rusting ships. It captures perfectly how the Marcos family and their cronies left the Philippines in a sorry, crumbling state. Pier Kalawang is an apt description for the country.
The director has an interesting acting find in Edwin Pamanian. Cut from the same mold as Tsai Ming-liang’s Lee Kang-Sheng, the actor’s ordinary, rugged look and raw acting fit in perfectly with the documentary feel of the film. Pamanian also stars as a miner in the second movie of the Earth Trilogy. Both movies were funded by foreign film festival groups.
I've been wary of several foreign-funded films whose synopses look promising but when you see the finished products, urgh, they are pure hogwash. Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Yelo is different. So is Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Bato. The two Earth films restore my faith in local films funded internationally. Göteborg International Film Festival Fund, which supported Ice is the Earth, was responsible for co-producing Lav Diaz's excellent Heremias. I'm eagerly anticipating the fund's other Filipino projects such as Jim Libiran's Happyland and Monster Jimenez's Kano.