By Dennis B. Gonzaga
A tale of mortality, memory, and transcendence
KRISTIAN Sendon Cordero's sophomore film, Hinulid (2016), reminds us of an old Irish saying that goes: “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal. Love leaves a memory no one can steal.” He attempts to craft a film that is an ode to mortality, memory and transcendence.
The spine of the narrative is simple enough: Sita Dimaiwat (Nora Aunor), a migrant worker, returns to the Philippines to attend to the remains of her beloved son, Lukas (Jess Mendoza). She takes the train back to her town, carrying the burden of her son's ashes and of the protracted miles bursting with endless cascades of memories.
Cordero then deftly wraps this simple narrative with layers after layers of sharp social commentaries, lush metaphors, rustic myths, and deep philosophical and poetic contemplations. He even manages to insert brief torrents of humor in an otherwise poignant cinematic terrain.
The film can be daunting to watch and digest because it eschews natural temporal progressions. It dares to exist across all permutations of time and all configurations of space. It invites its audience to inhabit its unique imaginarium with no offer of compromise nor apology. And this is where the film eventually and simultaneously succeeds and slips.
To understand and appreciate Hinulid, one must examine it through three different lenses: the personal, the regional, and the cardinal.
The film is, at its very core, personal. It is a fetish. It is an indulgence. It is a dissertation on one's own path within and beyond the bounds of loss, despair, retribution, and redemption. Hinulid is Cordero at his most insightful and at his most visceral. The film, at times, feels alien to the senses and to the wit because it is an extension of the artist's psyche. It is yet another refrain in the artist's grand opus that seeks to unify various creative mediums and artifacts into one Wagnerian totality.
As with Angustia (2013), Cordero presents himself first as a poet, then as a philosopher, and lastly as a filmmaker. At times, he struggles to find balance among these roles. The film bears witness to this internal struggle. There are moments when the film benefits from Cordero's threefold persona. But in equal measure, the struggle translates into visuals in a most distracting manner.
Herein lies a dissonance. Hinulid requires—or demands—its audience to forego its own set of prejudices and thoughts and to surrender fully into the continuum of the film's conjectures.
But this is not necessarily a flaw or an oversight. Rather, it is a timely rebuke of the ails of culture. It seeks to challenge the unwashed to rise above the economics of cultural mediocrity and to strive for sophistication. Hinulid challenges its audience to gauge the film on its own terms, to see it according to its vision, to understand it within the framework of its own discourse rather than what contemporary culture requires it to be.
Still, this laudable attempt is not without its problems. The film is saddled with tirades that may be legitimate commentaries on social realities but which ultimately burden the narrative. There are moments when Hinulid goes into tangential acts which have no clear ties to the core story. There are jabs that would only make sense to an inner circle of acquaintances. A member of the audience even remarked that Hinulid sometimes feels like three separate films squeezed into a two-hour and plus full feature. This remark would have been justifiable since the film actually leans on the symbolism of Christ thrice-interred. But the opportunity is lost because there is a glaring disjoint between and among these meandering themes.
Hinulid's primary strength is that it is regional cinema through and through. Although the film explores a rather universal subject, it does so in a medium that is unapologetically local. The regional sensibility is not merely confined to the language of the narrative—although this is its most brilliant asset.
The emergence of regional cinema has always been stifled by the prevalence and primacy of the metropolitan platform. The economics and politics of cinema has yet to be divorced from centralist geopolitics. One can only cringe at the idea of a regional film being shown in the heartland it represents months after being screened in cinemas in Metro Manila. The stinging irony is that regions must be content to play second fiddle despite being the true cradles of the creative impetus. This is a critical gap since regional cinema must and should be first viewed and reviewed from a regional perspective.
Despite the impositions of the politics of cinema, Hinulid still accomplishes its task of being a film of, for, and by Bikol. The terrain is Bikol. More importantly, the characters and the talents portraying them are Bikolanos.
As mentioned, language is the film's most valuable asset. Hinulid is a powerful exponent of regional cinema because it respects the language. The actors and actresses speak the language with such care and sincerity. The film mostly prides itself as being the platform where Nora Aunor finally speaks in her own vernacular. But the film's true star is the language itself.
The film ultimately sounds genuine to the native speaker. This is a stark improvement from Cordero's debut film, where key characters ultimately soil the material with their lack of capacity to respect the rigors of the language. The emphasis on Bikol—in all its glorious variations and permutations—is indeed a refreshing break from the dismissive and frequently exotic treatment reserved for the tongue of regional films. The commentary is evident: one who crafts a narrative in an indigenous terrain must accept and learn the language—from its overt inflections to its most arcane nuances.
The film also avoids the hegemony of the exotic gaze. Cordero presents a terrain of Bikol that is far removed from the postcard scenes that cheapens one's appreciation of the local and the locale. Cordero's Bikol is not draped in the majesty of its firmament-piercing mountains nor its renowned landmarks nor its mascot delicacies. Instead, his Bikol is a decrepit structure, an aged train system that persists through the sylvan countryside like a defiant serpent of myth, a ubiquitous stream running through an equally ubiquitous rice field, and a feeble hanging bridge that would only be familiar to local inhabitants. It is a terrain of Bikol extracted from memory, from ennui, from nostalgia. It is a Bikol that is without a name. But it is still Bikol nonetheless.
Hinulid also succeeds in highlighting the talent of the regions. Nora Aunor will always be in her element regardless of the material. But the mostly Bikolano cast were able to hold their own and prove that the region has much to offer in filmcraft. Hinulid is gifted with such fine and raw actors and actresses who shone in whatever limited screen time was afforded to them. This is enough incentive to convince future Bikol filmmakers to pursue their respective projects without the need to settle for the slim pickings offered at the margins of the metropolitan creative landscape. The breakout performances were those of Raffi Banzuela as the old priest, and Jess Volante as the caretaker of the three interred Christs. They essayed their characters with such depth and density that they may have perhaps been the more suitable anchors for the film's grand narrative. On the technical side, Boyet Abrenica deserves acclaim for his visuals and camera work. He manages to capture the film's abstractions with finesse and co
While Hinulid is successful in championing the regional agenda, it has to be measured and reviewed based on what it is: a film. And this is where the contentions arise. Is Hinulid a poem in long form masquerading as a film? Does it triumph in dispensing its essential claims?
Cordero's Hinulid, without a doubt, is a leaner, cleaner, and more refined work compared to his debut film. It is evident that the filmmaker has improved upon the inadequacies of his prior project. But it is also evident that some of the mannerisms remain. Again, this is not necessarily an indictment of the artist as poet and filmmaker. The artist must be engaged within the space of his or her material. The artist is entitled to his or her vision and to the procedure by which this is achieved. But the vision and the material must also be tested through the gauntlet of the gaze of the Other since the artist ultimately seeks the cognizance—not necessarily the approval—of an initiated audience.
Hinulid carries a beautiful and elegant narrative that remains relevant even if it has become an overused trope. The pain and tragedy of a mother who buries her child resonates across time, space and the cultural sensibilities that divide generations. Hinulid takes us on a journey home. The train ride is protracted. We are drawn into a lonely journey through the evolving layers and shades of night. Like Sita, the film convinces us of the need to delay the journey. This is because the journey only promises an utter finality. Memory sustains us even as we brace for the inevitable advent of Oblivion. Cordero portrays the rickety train rambling through the old tracks as a parallel to the Tandayag who eventually must return back to Earth and into the bosom of its mother. The reunion is difficult and bittersweet as mother and child are separated by the bounds of life and death.
But this powerful metaphor is diluted by excess. Cordero incorporates the imagery of the three interred Christs as parallels for the three stages of Lukas's life: that of a young boy, an adolescent, and finally a young adult. Generously interspersed across the narrative are folkloric elements that range from banana trunks as simulacra for the body, and the feared and revered presence of Death itself. Again, the excess is not necessarily a failure. Hinulid is, after all, a portrayal of reality transposed into the realm of the surreal and the abstract. It would be a project of futility if it veered away from the mythical and the mystical.
The problem lies in the film's inability to sew these diverse symbolisms into one congruent whole. The film collapses under the sheer weight of metaphors and alliterations that are eventually left unresolved and even dismembered. The film dabbles into commentaries on militarism, violence, and corruption. Understandable and commendable, but unnecessary to the narrative.
Cordero's threefold persona hovers heavily over the film, suffocating it at times. The philosopher tries to flesh out in detail elements that would have been better left in ambiguity. The poet attempts to expand and discuss imageries when they are better left to the inadequacies of the senses. The filmmaker tries to placate the philosopher and the poet.
As blasphemous as it may seem, Aunor's Sita is irrelevant to the film. This is not a dismissal of Nora Aunor. She still shines despite the stifling limitations imposed on her character. Sita is intended to be a character of restraint and austerity. She speaks little and filters her affectations. But the film fetters her instead of capitalizing on her capacity for restraint. Ultimately, she becomes an unnecessary token.
The character of Sita lacks the complexity and the gravitas to anchor the film's burgeoning layers of symbolisms, social commentaries, and philosophical ruminations. The parental narrative would have been more powerful, poignant, and profound had it been shifted from Sita to the old priest. Raffi Banzuela delivers such an inspired performance as the priest whose capacity for faith and devotion is matched by his irreverence, his passion for the stars, and sensitivity to the tales of the folklands. He would have provided the proper fulcrum around which the film's seemingly disjointed articulations could find a singular movement. Where the chemistry between Sita and Lukas appeared mechanical and contrived, the bond between the priest and the boy felt warm, palpable, and genuine. The old priest, in his role as both mortal guardian and the spectral guide, would have been the perfect psychopomp to bring rest and peace to Lukas. His sorrow for the loss of his beloved ward would have echoed the transcendent message o
f the film quite well. This was a lost opportunity.
The film still manages to end on a high note. The last minute captures and expands upon the themes of mortality, memory and transcendence in such a spectacular fashion. If not for the repetitive and overly indulgent components that weighed down the meat of the narrative, Hinulid would have set a significant standard in regional filmmaking.