(A Critical Review of Emman dela Cruz's Sarong Banggi)
by Erwin "Ewong" Martinez
Sarong Banggi is unlikely to be forgotten. Not because it deals with a delicate theme rarely explored in Filipino films, but for the simple reason that it is both entertaining and experiential. You can fail to recall a movie but you certainly don't forget an "experience." Here, that barely refers to the boy's first sexual encounter but rather more significantly to the entire movie experience the viewer engages in.
The title (which translates to "isang gabi") takes after the traditional Bicol song that the old-timer prostitute used to sing to her child, and stands as well for the whole one-night setting of the story. Even by viewing it on VCD (the movie house always gives the best experience, and DVD, the second), Sarong Banggi still wouldn't fail to strum the cords of the heart. Many critics have praised it for Jaclyn Jose and Angelo Ilagan's standout performances, but definitely, there's so much more than meets the eye.
An oxymoron is not a better moron
This visual marvel of a digital movie has many facets that actually exhibit oxymoron. (As a figure of speech, oxymoron is an expression of contradictory words. A popular example: the Hale song that goes I'm freezing in the sun, I'm burning in the rain....) But in reviewing this film, I refer to oxymoron as the artistic juxtaposition of opposite elements or antonymous features. Sarong Banggi is a perfect example for such "reading."
This quasi-real-time film takes off oxymoronically. Blurry glints of lively lights in a dark night. Then that somber yet hopeful voice-over. "Sinong makapagsasabi? Na iba ang gabing ito sa iba pang mga gabi?" We don't see Jaclyn yet we have this feeling that she is poor, and just by her words and the way she speaks, we are sure of the depth of her character and thus her present issue. Then we meet Nyoy (played by Angelo) with his rowdy bourgeois friends in a car driving leisurely around Baywalk. The boys' cacophonous banter and their very mission that night (to book Nyoy into his first sex) show the frivolity of their preoccupation. This starting contrast is worked-out in a seamless direction and editing which is sustained up to the movie's closing credits.
The more obvious facet that exhibits this art in discussion is the movie's imagery, the visual itself. Sarong Banggi is a film in chiaroscuro ("light and dark"). As the movie is shot at night, the dark sky in the exterior shots automatically provides dramatic contrast to the strong lighting that the director used. This technique is further utilized in the interior shots in Jaclyn's apartment. The "visual oxymoron" here is recognized after the whole movie: it ends with "cool" toned imagery (Jaclyn and Nyoy at the breakwater the morning after) which is very much in contrast to the "warm" colors of the night before. (This goes a little further into irony wherein the day is usually warm and the night is supposed to be cold.)
Sarong Banggi is overlaid with a dramatic "psychosensual" score reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai's films. The film's "musical oxymoron" is this sentimental symphony blended with the hip, upbeat music of electric guitars and drums. Both musical pieces are put in appropriate scenes, setting the right moods. A worth-mentioning simple sequence is one that exhibits dramatic irony: Nyoy in the car looks out intently at the bright lights of Baywalk while his raucous friends frolic in the backseat, the dramatic score overlapping the boys' vulgar chant.
Reading (between) the lines
The best thing about this movie is that it is well-written. This should always be the foremost selling point of independent cinema as you don't need a whole fortune to come up with a good screenplay. Although I don't completely buy Sarong Banggi's full story, I am in awe of the beautiful script from which the movie is realized. I give five stars for the naturalness of the characters' voices and five stars for excellent characterization.
For me, this film features the best voice-overed monologue in Philippine cinema. For the common viewer (i.e., one without filmmaking or scriptwriting background), one may think that voice-overed monologues are easy to make. But in actuality, they are hardest to write because it entails a challenge of putting all soul and meaning and character in mere words, as there will be minimal acting and there is no co-actor to interact with. One has to consider the tone, the beat, the syntax, the socio-historical context of every word. In the beginning of Sarong Banggi, while you may be a little put off by the profound speech-that it seems the writer and not Jaclyn herself is speaking-her character is developed in a matter of minutes and you would then realize that her deep musing of what is otherwise a simple life is very much "in character."
"Kung anong nasa loob, ‘yon ang nararanasan mo sa labas... sino nga'ng nagsabi noon? Nabasa ko yata ‘yon kung saan, dapat pala nagdala ako ng mababasa... Pero ganon siguro ‘pag sanay ka nang maghintay... sa wala."
While you recognize the profundity in her thoughts, (this is where the oxymoron comes in), you can not deny the naturalness or genuineness of her words. An amazing blend of deep and shallow!
"Magdamag na namang dilat...buhay ang diwa ko sa kaiisip, baka kung ano na naman ang lalabas... Erase, erase, erase..."
Jaclyn, of course, has her charming quirks. To pass the time, Jaclyn makes up or rather makes out a whole story just by observing the people around her. She does this to a weeping woman a few tables from hers. In her wit-stricken monologue, Jaclyn goes on "brainstorming" the whole life of the stranger-on why she's crying, that her husband is in prison, about her lost or estranged son, then fantastic plots of infidelity and his son being not her own. Then Jaclyn contemplates why the woman is at the breakwater-that this is where the husband proposed to her, or perhaps this is where her son was lost. Or as she resolves, "Baka dating sirena! Pwede rin...mas simple...mas totoo."
This long sequence of Jaclyn's soliloquy at the breakwater is, for me, the best part of the film that I actually bothered to write her words down. This part highlights what I call the movie's "oxymoronic poetry." Whereas the term is mind-blowing, Jaclyn's lines are really simple yet profound; it is poetry for the high-end and the laypeople, it is comprehensible and entertaining at the same time. (Sigh) Oxymorons... Oxymorons...
As illustrated earlier, an important corollary of the writer's chosen words for his or her fictional creation is the exposition of the character's "character." In this aspect, the director brings out faithfully to life the writer's characters. (Well, in Sarong Banggi's case, the writer and director is one person. So maybe that explains it.) Before we see her face, the close-up images on Jaclyn (which gives hints of Madame Bovary-ish character) identify at once her age and her lifestyle as a hooker; and as already explained, her voice-overed speech show her pondering nature. Her words are a give-away that secrets lie deep within her:
"'Di natin malalaman kung sino sila, hanggang di natin kinikilala isa-isa, kung ano sila, kung anong nasa isip nila... sigurado ako, ibang iba sa tingin natin."
Meanwhile, Nyoy's introversion is obvious enough that he doesn't say a word until the 17th minute of the film. Then, with just one phone call with his parent, we learn about Nyoy's good-natured demeanor and gentle soul.
Reading (between) the lines with someone else
The movie is, of course, not pure monologue. The interplay between Jaclyn and Nyoy is founded strongly in their exchange of words. The dialoguing is so natural and entertaining that it impressed on me the similar amazement that my favorite "talk" movies did: Richard Linklater's Before Sunset and Tom Noonan's What Happened Was... (The latter is a Sundance-winning, one-sequence, real-time movie wherein a man arrives in his female officemate's house for a dinner-date...and that's it!)
Jaclyn and Nyoy actually get to talk to each other only after half an hour in the film. Before this, we are accustomed to Jaclyn's silent self and talkative mind. (Oxymoron!) But when she finally gets to connect with Nyoy, with him sharing her lonely table, she can't just hold her horses. This signifies Jaclyn's serious yearning for someone to converse with, and thus, her deeper longing for a loved one, her lost child. Nyoy goes on a guessing game about her age, and then it was Jaclyn's turn to guess the boy's name, both in vain. Then later, Jaclyn makes Nyoy think of the backstories of the people around them, like she always does. To her surprise, Nyoy invents good stories, even more fantastic than hers. (This is actually a subtle clue for the eventual revelation, like a creative mind is something a parent passes on to his or her child.)
There is however one sequence that I find was a bit flawed in Nyoy's tone of words. A few minutes to the movie's end, back in Baywalk at the break of dawn and right before Jaclyn revealed to him, Nyoy speaks:
"Pwede ko ba kayong samahan?... kahit di ko naiintindihan ang naglalaban sa loob niyo, nandito lang ako, baka makatulong ako sa loob niyo... Gusto kong magpasalamat dahil binuksan niyo ang buhay niyo sa akin..."
When Nyoy starts speaking, only Jaclyn is in the frame. You might think that it is Nyoy's voice-over, that he is talking to Jaclyn through some letter. This is valid thinking not because the camera doesn't include Nyoy but because his tone of voice and the words that come out were awkward. His dialogue doesn't sound instantaneous; yes, the whole night has been very eventful and might have moved him somehow, but his lines just seem monologuish, the words were very carefully chosen, like the words you write down as you think of a beloved person far, far away; he was speaking like he has already known the grave secret that is yet to be revealed to him. Then there's an intercut of Nyoy speaking these contrived lines-him seated a few feet away from Jaclyn-which cancels all speculations that he is not there. Suddenly, Nyoy breaks into his natural tone: "...dahil sa inyo, naging memorable ang birthday ko!" But before you can even recognize this redemption, Nyoy resumes ‘writing his love letter': "...hinding-hindi mabubura sa buhay ko ang gabing ito."
This one sequence, however, is offset by all the other character interactions in the movie. Even Nyoy's friends' earlier antics and lengthy banter are very real and come out naturally.
Simply put, Sarong Banggi is avant-garde in Philippine cinema for illustrating how great small talk can be. (Another oxymoron!)
The many very long engagements
Sarong Banggi must not have been one of the indie films that irked the critic Nestor Torre prompting him to advice upcoming directors to "stress the importance of editing to energize their work, and ruthlessly cut out footage...." Because for me, the soul of this movie lies in those long sequences, in the extended seconds after a lengthy conversation, those moments where you fit in the nuances. If the movie's sequences were trimmed down, even those segments with very little energy, it would have diminished the dramatic effect and defeated the principle of experiential viewing.
Consider Jaclyn Jose's voice-overed monologue (that has only a very brief intercut) which clocks at full seven minutes. That's the time it takes Jack and Rose to climb up the ship's stern, then Rose to remind him, "Jack, this is where we first met" as the others fall off into the sea or break their bones because of some foolish effort to not drown yet, then cut to Rose's mother and Molly Brown far in the safety of a half-filled boat, then back to the Titanic which sinks but not quite-it breaks in the middle hurling itself back into it's original upright position in the icy ocean (you then realize that this part is more about the ship than Jack and Rose), then screams, then more staccato screams they sound so familiar you'd feel you're in Enchanted Kingdom, and then snap, you realize it's actually the Titanic, or that you're watching the movie "Titanic;" then the ship gets sucked in again by the water, turning 90 degrees, Jack and Rose back into our concern, then you hear Jack say, or you say it along him, ‘We're gonna make it, Rose, trust me,' Rose replies, or you reply, ‘I trust you...,' the two now holding each other tighter than ever, as you brace your seat just as firmly that you can't help but remember your first time in the Space Shuttle ride, and then Jack and Rose plunge into the whirling water, gone just like that, at least for awhile. And then you do some thinking, you think real hard you're next impulse is to get that remote control and press the ‘rewind' button.
It's a different story with Sarong Banggi. Even in the first viewing, you either feel like you're Jaclyn or Nyoy, or maybe both, or Jaclyn at one time, then Nyoy at another, or you feel like you're a part of their world, you're another character who feels for them at that very moment. The long, real-time sequences-like when they talked for the first time at the table for a whole ten minutes-are pulled off, as I've earlier explicated, because of their natural dialoguing imbued with both witty and dramatic specks.
The film also has this three-minute wordless scene wherein Nyoy is by the payphone outside the convenient store, waiting for the liberated girl he was stuck with, and only at the third minute does he realize the girl has already left (and with a dirty old man). And though it seems bland or boring, I'm surprised that I was not at all turned somnolent by its lack of active actions. The hip, rock music that scores this scene, for one, helped sustain the energy. But then, come to think of it, I tolerated that whole sequence, I survived that moment because I relished it. Because I was waiting, just like Nyoy. That, is, experience.
Sarong Banggi's deliberate, meditative (art-film) pacing provides time for the viewer's rumination on what happened or what has just been said, or what may come next, or what may not happen next. This is what is never or hardly ever done in mainstream cinema. That's why no matter how hard the actors cry, or how much tears they shed, we may be touched but rarely do we become more than a part of the audience.
Sarong Banggi (I) and Sarong Banggi (II)
For a film that warrants a very long, critical analysis like this, it is obvious that it is already among my favorites. But great films, of course, have their flaws too. I have been using the term oxymoron to evaluate this movie, dissecting every aspect into two contrasting attributes and how they act together for a certain artistic effect. This movie, you can say, has been polarized in my reading. Furthermore, I could actually see two movies in Sarong Banggi: one is my altered version of it or what I call the "critic's cut," the other is, of course, the director's movie, the one I saw on VCD.
Since I have been analyzing the "original" movie, I'll present my "cut" of Sarong Banggi. I know that it's not just, and it is even futile, to push a movie or any work of art into what it is not but for the sake of comparison, I am cutting the film, and giving out some alternatives while "reading" some salient scenes in the "original" movie.
I think it would have been more brilliant if it ended at an earlier part. In the story, Jaclyn brings Nyoy to her apartment and they dance, massage each other, talk, make love, and talk again, up until they go to a Chinese restaurant to eat. While Nyoy is out of sight (the comic book hints that he's only gone for awhile), Jaclyn intriguingly observes a smoking woman across the table. But unlike earlier in the film, we don't hear her expected speculations on the stranger's story. (This is indeed a beautiful, altered device.) This might be that Jaclyn now has more important thoughts, graver than she (or we) could ever imagine, and deep inside, she wants to deny it to herself, and so we, the viewers, don't hear anything about her present feelings. Then, Jaclyn goes to ask for the bill from the waitress. We hear the girl off-screen say "Binayaran na po ng anak niyo!" A long beat. Then, with searing eyes, the smoking woman exchanges stares with Jaclyn. The tables are turned now-this woman curiously makes out Jaclyn's story. THIS IS WHERE THE FILM COULD HAVE ENDED.
I would also transpose to the part before the smoking woman appears the scene wherein Jaclyn morosely sings Happy Birthday to Nyoy, after the next table had a festive birthday singing (this actually comes immediately after my preferred ending) for this makes a beautiful dramatic irony. This alternate version of the movie is what I think could make a better Sarong Banggi. It has a simple, subtle ending. The quintessential off-screen voice saying "anak niyo" leaves us debating what that meant, what really happened (though we already have a stronger feeling about the real connection between Jaclyn and Nyoy.)
What was going through her head so grave that she could no more make out the smoking woman's story? What was she crying about while Nyoy was in the bathroom fixing himself? Is she really Nyoy's mother? So is it because she feels remorse for actually making love with her own son? All these questions (especially the basic, troubling mystery if she is indeed her mother) are in point of fact easy to answer if the intelligent viewer takes notes of the earlier nuances in the film. (Be reminded that the context in discussion is the "critic's cut.")
As already mentioned, that wonderful moment when Nyoy invents a story out of a stranger's appearance and actions hints that Nyoy is somehow connected to her; we are compelled to consider genetics. Also remember that story Jaclyn made about the weeping woman in Baywalk, that she lost her child, and that probably it was there that she lost him. This is like a foreboding motif for Jaclyn, though in her case, it is where she will again find her own son. Then, one striking element is Jaclyn's white rose, the petal of which Nyoy tenderly caresses to his face and keeps in his wallet. Yes, you can read the sensuality. But don't forget that it's a white rose, and not red! Consider also their whole interplay, especially their long conversation in Baywalk which sounded more of a familial bonding than a romantic foreplay.
Furthermore, it is very clear that they had sex though we don't see it happen. Perhaps it is the director's prerogative so as to lessen the gravity of the incestuous affair in the eyes of the viewer (well, aside from aiming for a safe PG-13 rating). If Jaclyn and Nyoy were not related, there could have been room for a more challenging (and blatant) execution of sex. A more subtle detail is actually a technical work: notice that there is no close-up shot during their ever so important kiss. This suppressed execution of the otherwise very intimate activity may have been done to render it less romantic.
All these, for me, are enough to suggest that she is her mother. The word is "suggest." The beauty of a suggestion is that those viewers who were not so keen on watching could always argue strongly otherwise. And so you have a definitive thinking (even arguing) crowd afterward.
If so, the movie would be comparable to the Cannes-winning Father and Son by Aleksandr Sokurov. But unlike Sarong Banggi, this Russian film pushed "suggestion" to the bounds of blatancy. All along, you'd believe the incestuous relationship of the two men but when the film ends, you'd find yourself in elation and, at the same time, deception and confusion that only the highest form of art can elicit.
The way Sarong Banggi actually concludes I think was a bit a downhill resolution-it has less ‘art' and more ‘act.' It was like the creator of the film was liberated from the ever dependable Canonical Book, and vowed to never open it again and to let no rules hinder his expression of art. But a few days before he finishes his masterpiece, he still succumbed to consulting that Book.
The mother of all questions
In my first viewing of the video, I didn't really buy the mother-son angle and I found it troubling and troublesome at the same time. Only in my second run of the VCD, and thus the chance to really look beyond what I see (or simply, read between the lines) did I comprehend and appreciate that essential element. (To begin with, it is the very concept from which it all sprang.) Was it because I didn't see that angle coming, that I wasn't too observant at first? Or should there have been a little more obvious elements that would establish their kinship? Or was the problem due to the fact that the mother-son angle becoming obvious came a little too late in the story that it seemed contrived?
Although I have quelled the thought that maybe there should have been no incestuous angle at all, I am alarmed by a valid loophole of the story, an important element at that. Early in the film, Nyoy tells Jaclyn that it is his birthday tomorrow. This leads to a myriad of logical questions of which the unforgiving viewer demands an answer for one or two. Didn't Jaclyn feel weird about that at all? Did she not realize that Nyoy must be the same age as her son? Didn't she feel any mother's instinct? She gave Nyoy that comic book as a gift, did she keep that in safety to give her son on his birthday when the time comes? If she loved her son so much that his loss troubles her up to now, wasn't she having some sort of sad celebration that night? Did she forget her own son's birthday? Did Nyoy's adoptive parents change his birthday?
In the movie's ending, it can still be argued whether Nyoy realizes that Jaclyn is actually telling her that she is the mother who abandoned him. Nyoy's crying could tell us so, but in this film teeming with many nuances in expression, you can never tell. Then later as the day breaks, Jaclyn sings "Sarong Banggi" sobbingly to sleeping Nyoy whose head rests on her lap. This is somewhat an overkill. Jaclyn's eyes are almost dried up, she has had a two-minute breakdown in her bed earlier, that song has been ringing in our heads for two hours, and here goes this loving woman singing "Sarong Banggi" to confirm to us that, yes, she is his real mother, and that she has just made love to him.
All told, however, Sarong Banggi ends with pure emotion caught in a magnificent imaging of the camera. The whole film is beautifully pictured you could forget that it was shot on video. Even as the closing credits roll, the mood of an unusual catharsis is sustained, with no traces of melodrama. Jaclyn hugs Nyoy one last time before he gets in the taxi. This could be the last time they'd ever see each other. What's next for them? Will Nyoy ever return to Baywalk? Will Jaclyn stay there? Will she take him back? We'll never know. But for as long as we remember Jaclyn and Nyoy, for as long as we'd recall this movie, their bittersweet story, we'd always care because once, even just for two hours, we were in it.
(for more critiques and other stuff by the author, visit: http://ewongco.blogspot.com/)