Sunday, December 7, 2008

Turning a New Leaf By Patrick D. Flores

repost from the 2002 YCC citations

Turning a New Leaf
By Patrick D. Flores

Uro de la Cruz’s Buko Pandan opens with a winding road that leads its
audiences through the heartland of Southern Tagalog, coconut country
of lush vegetation that glistens in the drizzle. A jeepney takes a
young woman to a remote neighborhood of tall plants and cool springs,
where she casts off a prisoner’s garb into the current of its storied

The film is marketed as being of the bold genre, and certain
conventions and codes bear this intention out. The evocation itself
of a milieu blessed by bounty and relatively unspoiled by the
corruption of the city and its mores builds up the image of a
virginal domain waiting to be explored and consequently ravaged by
the prurient eyes of the camera. But formula is one thing, and
expression is another. A certain style of filmmaking, based on genre
or other considerations, is taken as any distinct mode of creating
form in film, and it is made possible only against a background of
options that makes a particular choice significant, meaningful, and
therefore recognizable stylistically. Film artists work within these
possibilities in the process of making art, but are never limited to
custom and habit. As an erudite art historian puts it: “The style
forbids certain moves and recommends others as effective, but the
degree of latitude left to the individual within this system varies
at least as much as it does in games.”

We can glean in Buko Pandan traces of both rule and risk in the realm
of style. Apart from its captivating visual sweep of the countryside
peopled by farmers and police, it has for its main characters two
sisters on the cusp of womanhood, so to speak. They live with their
grandmother who is stricken by tuberculosis. Their father had drowned
in the river, which also had earlier claimed the life of their
grandfather who, in a freak accident, would be smothered by what
could well have been an eel. At the outset, the rustic province is
wracked by tragedies that lurk behind its deceptively benevolent
flora and fauna.

But besides natural adversities, our heroines also confront threats
posed by culture and civilization, a mode of modernity that
challenges tradition. The young women are portrayed as innocent
maidens traipsing across their little land in flimsy dresses,
obviously a concession to the genre. Their ways are girlish and
charge nary a malice even against the most lascivious, the better for
the men of the town to take advantage of them and indulge in their
guile. They are exposed, in other words, in more ways than one to the
conditions of labor as they weave palm-like fronds from seemingly
giant bromeliads into wide-brimmed hats, and to urbanization as they
deal with the bid of the son of a wealthy neighbor, who comes back
from the city, for the spring that they own. The man wants to build a
resort. We observe from these complications that the lives of Bining
and Esper are not trapped in a vacuum, but play out in social
situations. We see them going to school, listening to vapid radio
serials, and also dreaming of a future beyond Luisiana-Laguna.

As in tales of this streak, there is the moment of sibling rivalry.
We witness the sisters vying for the attention of the rich kid next
door, who exploits their varying vulnerabilities and aspirations for
mobility. The elder, Bining, is circumspect, refusing to sell the
spring down the river. But the younger, Esper, is impulsive, somewhat
rebellious, and less discerning. Both of them lust after the same
man, but it is the latter who musters up enough nerve to go up the
stone house. This single act of indiscretion steers the film toward
sharp turns that end up in murder and sacrifice.

Buko Pandan moves headlong by snaking into the memory of Bining who
does time for a crime Esper had committed out of a fatal combination
of guilt and rage. We see both of them in the end reunited, with
Esper tending their humble homestead in the contented arms of her
loving husband, her former childhood beau, and daughter, and with
Bining steeled by experience and insight. In this passage from purity
to pollution, from seduction to danger, from death to renewal, from
departure to homecoming, the “bold” film redeems itself. Instead of
abusing the theme of the rape of a virginal colony represented by
virginal women baring the abundance of their flesh and the poverty of
their mind, it bothers to understand what it is that women want and
why they want it under circumstances both within and beyond the
control of their limited reckoning.

This cinematic redemption keenly condenses in the metaphor of the
pandan whose leaf gives off a uniquely sweet scent, especially when
mixed with boiled rice, and whose fiber lends itself well to the art
of weaving. The buko or coconut is a more typical reference to rural
clearings and its limpid juice that drips across the bodies of women
is without doubt stock in trade.

All things considered, Buko Pandan is almost but not quite a bold
film. While it is true that its cast-Maricar de Mesa, Pyar Mirasol,
and Paolo Rivero-are packaged as bold stars, they hold out more than
their anatomies for autopsy. They perform very well, given the
parameters of the genre, and are sincere in infusing life into roles
that they, from the looks of it, are familiar and sympathetic with.
Moreover, while it is true that the film meets its quota of industry
requirements, it is able to go beyond its predestined outcome. The
director, with a degree of compassion for the material, carries the
seeds of the story to fertile ground, tilling a field of fruitful
images, motifs, symbols-and wistful music from Coritha. If what
hobbles Philippine cinema is the failure of imagination and
initiative, Buko Pandan, which echoes Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette
and Manon of the Spring, proves the cynics wrong to some tolerable
degree. For framing a bittersweet horizon of the Philippine pastoral
and its promise of plenty and perdition, the film, like the leaf it
lovingly invokes, is at once filament and fragrance. (Reprinted from
Manila Standard)

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