Thursday, June 28, 2012

Auraeus Solito's Philippines-set BUSONG provides glorious vistas, legend, poetry-- and maybe a few unintentional chuckles

As a fan of Philippines filmmaker Auraeus Solito, ever since his bizarrely affecting narrative debut The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (from 2005), and his interesting follow-up, Boy (2009), I was primed for the beauty of this filmmaker's lovingly shot male bodies and his effectively simple story-telling technique. His new movie BUSONG (aka Palawan Fate) is something different, both more and less: a sumptuous mix of gorgeous sea- land- and sky-scapes, Philippines legend, mysticism, modern-day intrusions and, as ever, rather simple storytelling.

Via his mother, Mr. Solito, shown at right, comes from the Philippines' Palawan tribe, located in the South-westernmost point of the islands. Not until after the filmmaker graduated from university and returned home did he begin to learn the many stories of Palawan culture, religion, magic and the Shaman-Kings -- from whom, mother informed son, their family had descended. Eventu-ally, Solito decided that he must make a film about all this, of which Busong -- the Palawan version of "fate" -- is the first in a trilogy that the filmmaker has promised to continue.

From the outset, as a pair of scantily-clad young men carry a hammock-like receptacle along an uninhabited shoreline, the movie offers up the timeless look, sound and feel of legend. The crisp, bright, utterly pollution-free landscape makes for the kind of color cinematography that you can only achieve in the non-industrial areas of the world, and many of the shots here will take your breath away with their beauty.

What the young men are carrying turns out to be a very ill young woman (above), the sister of one of the men. Another young woman offers to help carry the load and to take the girl to a "healer," so off they go. We learn of this new young woman's problems (missing husband, chainsaws and felled trees), and then another bearer takes over the carrying duties (a hunky fisherman who once had a son and a boat), and finally another young man returning from the city to his ancestral place among the Shamans.

We learn of each of these bearers' life via memory, dream and narration, as one story flows into another like the constant ocean waves or the waterfall (three photos above) that feeds the little lake below it. If we're not always sure where we are or of whose story we're currently part, we're soon back again with the sick girl, as she is carried further toward either healing or death.

Though we see little of "modern civilization" -- a scene in a hospital-like office, an encounter with a nasty white man -- we're made aware of how the Palawan people have been and still are ill-used by their oppressors and by western religion. One character remarks of wanting to be "where the sound of church bells is not heard and government does not exist."

Along the way there is a scene of a breath-taking giant plant (no special effects, just nature, I suspect); another demonstrates the healing effects of Palawan urine; and the finale offers up our young woman's wounds actually breeding butterflies out of her sores (nice make-up job here).

What holds this very slow-paced film together are its staggeringly lovely visuals, as well as as the beautiful young men and women the director has chosen for his leading roles. His camera caresses them all, particularly the men, with appreciation and barely-concealed longing. While the simplicity of the stories and their telling makes for charm, however, it can also lead to some longueurs, during which you may find yourself wondering what Mystery Science Theater's man and his robots might make of all this. Their occasional commentary, no doubt, would be choice.

The above might sound unfairly harsh, for there is much to appreciate about the filmmaker's endeavor. But sometimes Solito's simple and beautiful leans a little too much toward the former. Busong opens this Friday, June 29, in New York City at the Quad Cinema. No other U.S. playdates are to be immediately found, but you can click here to see its many past playdates, at festivals internationally.

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