A change has been occurring in Armando Lao’s career of late, and I’m not talking about the fact that, after crafting masterful screenplays for other directors, Lao has decided to finally make his directorial debut with a three-year-old screenplay he wrote for another director—Biyaheng Lupa.
The change is more subtle than Lao deciding to rise up the filmmaking totem pole. Biyaheng Lupa, which won Cinemanila’s Digital Lokal Grand Jury Prize this year, follows the naturalistic vein of his most recent scripts: Kinatay, Serbis, and Kubrador are just recent examples.
These films are not plot-driven, characters provide the engine of the narrative, mood instead of logic is the prime objective. Take one look at 1998’s Sana Pag-Ibig Na, the family melodrama written by Lao which served as Jeffrey Jeturian’s debut as director. Compare that to Biyaheng Lupa, and it would practically be comparing a Hollywood weepie from the 1950s to a European art film.
The premise is intriguing: Set in a bus traveling to Bicol—with its interminable stopovers and delays—Biyaheng Lupa delves into the psyches of the passengers as they get on, get off, and stew in their own juices, left with nothing but their own thoughts for company. While the title loosely translates as "Journey by Land," its international title is Soliloquy for good reason: In a master stroke of storytelling, Lao the screenwriter gives voice to the characters’ minds and illuminates their inner lives—their hopes, fears, unhappiness, anxieties, paranoia, regrets—as they hold conversations with themselves.
The film is populated by stalwarts of Philippine independent cinema. To name a few: Shamaine Buencamino as Fina, who is on her way home after a failed stint in a game show and is harboring regret over marrying a lowly government employee (played by her real-life husband Nonie Buencamino); Susan Africa as Cora, mourning the death of her father and traveling with her daughter Becky (Isabella de Leon); Mercedes Cabral as Anabel, a pregnant girl living in fear of giving birth to a squid, an urban myth prevalent in her hometown; and Eugene Domingo as Irene, an OFW who is leaving her child with her mother to work as a female chauffeur in Qatar.
The story gets rolling as the bus pulls out of the terminal and a deaf-mute teenager named Micky (Carlo Guevara) on his way to visit his biological mother gets on, attracting the attention of a homosexual (Andoy Ranay) beset by financial problems and a young man (Coco Martin) fleeing from a life of servitude to his incapacitated mother.
Writing a synopsis for Biyaheng Lupa is difficult because the narrative follows everyone and no one at the same time. It is a film of stops and starts—a passenger gets off and is never seen or heard from again; a passenger gets on and the focus transfers to him or her.
New characters/passengers are introduced in the second half: Jaclyn Jose plays Helen, a "cougar" on her way to meet her young lover; she’s horrified that renowned gossip Lilian (Angel Aquino) is also on the bus. But Lilian herself is busy contemplating her attraction to bus conductor Pepe (Allan Paule).
Other characters include an elderly ex-convict (Mely Soriano), a court stenographer (Jose Almojuela), and a Scrabble player (Jess Evardone).
This conceit of coming-and-going characters is both the film’s crowning achievement and its ultimate frustration. Insulated within the air-conditioned, claustrophobic silence of the bus, sharing close quarters with strangers they have no reason to talk to, the actors have only their faces to express—or in some cases, contradict—what their thoughts are saying.
These veteran actors rise to the challenge handsomely. One scene that bears mentioning—Fina greeting her husband at her drop-off point. As Shamaine Buencamino leaves the cocoon of the bus and the cacophony of her real life comes crashing back, the camera lingers on the forced pleasantries she exchanges with the man she married, the honesty of her interior soliloquy hanging in the air like a stench that refuses to leave.
The haiku-like nature of the subplots also raises the bar for Lao the screenwriter, who manages to pack pathos, comedy, pettiness, and tragedy into the transitory stories that he is telling. Lao has always possessed the talent to deeply empathize with his characters: When Helen frets that a photograph of her with her young lover has gone missing, or when a man (Archie Adamos) surreptitiously eats some espasol he found under his seat, or when the passengers sing along to a videoke of "Kahit Isang Saglit" playing on the bus TV in their off-tune minds’ voices, your reactions are as unvarnished as the characters’ actions.
A few of the subplots feel superfluous. Micky’s dismissal of Becky’s attempts at friendliness, and then his inexplicable decision to give her his number as she is leaving with her mother, seems calculated to represent the teenybopper demographic. But Lao never presents his characters in anything other than their cracked, damaged humanity—which makes you root for them even more.
And therein lies the problem. You root for certain characters, and then the narrative’s abrupt dismissal of them may rub you the wrong way. Add to this the constraints of a tight budget and limited shooting time—which accounts for some characters not even being shown getting off the bus—and you may get the idea that Lao the director has a lot of catching up to do with Lao the screenwriter.
The ending has also been a sore discussion point among critics and film bloggers. Some feel it was too hasty, an awkward spike in drama that deviated from the film’s naturalistic mood. Some felt it was artistic, a triumph of creativity over fiscal constraints. Some say it lent the film an air of pointlessness.
I say the ending is inevitable: If Biyaheng Lupa is indeed a metaphor for life’s journey, then its climax is a foregone conclusion and comes, appropriately enough, without warning.
In the final analysis, the metaphor the film wears on its sleeve may prove to be the one thing that makes it fundamentally unsatisfying. Don’t let its seemingly random structure fool you. Biyaheng Lupa feels constructed like a college course in literary analysis or psychological symbolism.
Every character, the space they occupy, the props they carry with them—all are meant to represent something. They’re not allowed to just be. This means that critics and students of film will have a lot of fun deconstructing Biyaheng Lupa...and hey, how many local films can you say that about?