In photo: Kulas (Justine Samson) and Bola (Warren Tuaño) face off with an American soldier in “Balangiga: Howling Wilderness”.
You are walking on a dusty provincial road. Maybe you are going to your grandparents’ house or tita’s house. Then you see someone standing on the road’s edge, near the trees and other vegetation.
An old man, dressed in a brown robe like a monk or a priest, preaching and chanting. His voice and body are trembling. As his voice gets louder and shakier, you realize he is chanting a mix of Tagalog and Latin-sounding prayers.
You come closer. His voice and face look familiar. He starts chanting even louder, and now his voice and body are trembling.
What’s he doing? Why is his arm under his robe? He’s jerking himself off while chanting and praying. OMG.
How would you react to that sight?
I’ll tell you my reaction: I laughed. I laughed out loud in the movie theater and some people started staring at me.
I laughed because the crazy old man in the robe was Rox Lee, one of the pioneers of Filipino animation in the 1980s, a cult figure among artists, illustrators, filmmakers, painters and cartoonists.
And Rox is all of that and more. He is a member of The Brockas, a deliberately wazak, rock-ish band that also includes filmmakers Lav Diaz and Khavn dela Cruz. Rox also performs ridiculous magic tricks when drunk.
That was when I realized: punyeta, mga kainuman ko lang ang gumawa ng pelikulang ito ah. (Translation: this darned film was something put together by my drinking buddies)
I guess I laughed because I missed Rox, and was so glad to see him again. Even if he was in the midst of sticky blasphemy.
On the other hand, the very first jump-scare I had in “Balangiga” was that scene with Lourd de Veyra.
I had heard he was in the film but I still jumped when Lourd appeared for his scene: as another madman; a deranged musician playing a ukulele and screaming, as the ukulele broke into pieces in his hands.
I got scared and understandably so: wouldn’t you, if you suddenly saw your friend wearing chicken feathers, screaming, and apparently having a psychotic breakdown?
Love or hate
“Balangiga: Howling Wilderness” is a film that people either love or hate. So far, it seems a greater number of people love it—if we go by the awards it has received, and the gushy reactions on social media.
It already won five awards at the FAMAS, with the Film Academy giving it Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Song.
“Balangiga” also won Best Picture at the Quezon City International Film Festival.
As for the Gawad Urian, it was nominated in ten awards categories, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay.
In contrast, the Cinema Evaluation Board of the Pistang Pelikulang Pilipino hated this film. They gave it a rating of zero.
“Warless” anti-war cinema
Not many Filipinos bother to learn about the many war atrocities committed by Americans against Filipinos. Hopefully, those who watched Khavn’s film have come away with a more serious interest in the Philippine-American War (1899-1902).
“Balangiga: Howling Wilderness” is the most accessible work of Khavn. But if one expects this anti-war film to show actual war scenes, then it will be a disappointment.
Instead, this film explores the effects of the war on communities, zeroing in on a group of exhausted, hungry, fearful survivors: eight-year-old Kulas (Justine Samson); his grandfather Apuy Buroy (Pio del Rio); and their farm animals. Their carabao, Melchora, deserves special mention here. They also have one chicken, a nameless supporting actor.
Kulas and Co., are making their way from Balangiga to Borongan, as they try to escape American soldiers who are making sweeps through the town. The Americans are on a mission of vengeance and destruction–killing women, children, livestock; pillaging and burning.
Along roads, rivers, streams, and in the forest, Apuy Buroy and Kulas routinely see bloody, burned, and hacked bodies, human and animal. So much death, darkness, and silence. Fires light up the night, as houses and farms burn. Looking at these scenes, I felt neither repelled nor disgusted—instead, there was a wave of deep sadness over the waste of life that war brings.
They are making their way to Borongan, another town where they hope to find Kulas’ mother. Apuy Buroy tells Kulas that his mother may have escaped to Borongan before the Americans razed the town to cinders.
This early on, you don’t hold much hope for this bunch of stragglers. They are running out of food. They have no weapons, except perhaps for Apuy’s bolo. The grandfather grows weaker day by day.
Land of spirits
When Apuy Buroy collapses and is taken ill, he goes into a delirium and tells Kulas: you’re mother is in Biringan. Go and find her there. The grandfather didn’t simply mispronounce Borongan; while Borongan is a real town, “Biringan” is a mythical place inhabited by enchanted beings and spirits.
I took this to be a foreshadowing that all the stragglers will die. Later on, Apuy Buroy and Kulas find a toddler, lost and abandoned in the chaos of war. Kulas names the boy, “Bola”. This does little to ease my sense of foreboding, and I brace myself for a potentially heart-wrenching death scene later on.
“Balangiga” is not straight, chronological storytelling. It seems like a mess of vignettes, recollections, hallucinations, a delirium filled with shocking, strange, sometimes obscene images that send the viewer into cognitive and emotional displacement.
At worst, it is an effort to shock and jolt us out of our comfort zones. At best, it is very poetic and even tender and lyrical cinema: as though you suddenly wake up, cold and naked inside a morgue, surrounded by corpses, and find your fingers wrapped around the freshest, most beautiful white rose you will ever see.
This is an anti-war film and a war film, but not of the epic variety. It is an intimate and poetic, sad, slow, and occasionally disgusting portrait of what war does to human beings—and all throughout the film, there’s that undercurrent of savagery and treacherous violence.
The Wasak Aesthetic
There are scenes/images that are simultaneously weird, poignant, funny, and creepy. Here’s a list of some of them:
- Apuy Buroy kills Kulas’ pet chicken and roasts it. Kulas refuses to eat. Later on, driven by hunger and need, Kulas eats his former pet. What happens next turns surreal and preternatural: the chicken’s remains reassemble themselves, from tiny bones, forest detritus, and anachronistically, Christmas decorations.
- The chicken becomes an Encanto Bird, a ghostly, darkly magical being that follows and haunts kulas and, later on, Bola.
- In a dream, Kulas sees three huge church bells, “walking” in the gloomy dusk. The bells keep on moving and blindly bump into each other. You’d expect a loud clang, but there’s total silence. One of the bells lift up, and you see a Filipino family. Father, mother, two children crouching inside; all naked and covered with mud or soot. The mother looks eerily similar to Kulas’ mom, who keeps appearing in Kulas’ dreams.
- Apuy Buroy wears a metal amulet, an agimat: it’s shaped into a naked man with a huge, ragingly erect phallus. Apuy Buroy swears it protects him against the Americans.
- This amulet is later stolen by an elderly couple who pretend to adopt Kulas but end up stealing his supplies while he slept: food, clothes, amulet. They leave behind the bolo and abandon Kulas and Bola.
- Trivia: the elderly couple were supposed to have been played by—wait for it—Boy Abunda and Elizabeth Oropesa. However, scheduling conflicts prevented them from playing the roles.
- In another delirious scene later on, Apuy Buroy miraculously returns—and he proceeds to passionately dry hump a goat. It’s painful to watch. And hear. All I could do was ask, in my head, “Why, Khavn? Whhyyyyyyy….”
This is how Khavn rolls, artistically. It’s a sort of “wazak” aesthetic that explodes your brain into the strange, the shocking, and dislocating—where you are at a loss for words at first, trying to wrap your mind around just what happened.
So does Kulas finally reach Biringan? Does he die? The film is unclear on that. But by then the film has already hooked you with its strange, mad loveliness—the cinematography, using high, sweeping drone shots of achingly beautiful landscapes—crystal clear waters that make you long to roll on the beach. Sand the color of the ashes of your failed relationships and powdered bones.
And yet, Khavn’s film cannot escape this irony: the film which condemns war and man’s inhumanity is itself being condemned. Animal rights activists accuse Khavn of torturing animals during filming.
Is this true? Let’s try to find out in our next article on “Balangiga: Howling Wilderness.”