Innocence and brutality merge in Khavn dela Cruz's Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, one of the entries in the 2017 QCinema International Film Festival.
The art film is a meditative take on the incorruptibility of a child's mind, in spite of severe devastation that should unsettle any person.
Balangiga: Howling Wilderness depicts the infamous Balangiga massacre of 1901, a historical event where American soldiers committed genocide against thousands of citizens in Samar.
In the center of the story is an eight-year-old boy named Kulas (Justine Samson), who narrowly escaped the massacre where his father was killed.
Feeling defeated, he lazily follows his grandfather (Pio del Rio) across the countryside in search for a safe place. However, he finds a new resolve to be more responsible when they find an infant (Warren Tuaño) in a burning town.
The three actors are newbies, and it is impressive they can deliver high-caliber acting despite the punishing conditions of the shoot.
They had 10 days to walk through every terrain imaginable, and they were exposed to the rough elements.
In fact, the strong performances of these actors hold the movie together.
They are relatable, and their honest portrayals will want you to stay through the film's grim, and sometimes incoherent, two-hour running time just to see how their story ends.
Khavn dela Cruz is a multi-awarded auteur director who likes breaking the rules of filmmaking in many of his pictures.
Balangiga is no different. It is shot in the traditional 4:3 aspect ratio, which is jarring at first and takes a while to get used to.
Camera movement and cinematography are also uneven throughout—sometimes it is steady and the shots are picturesque, and there are times when it is handheld and the photography is blurry, dark, and shocking.
The storytelling is non-linear and interspersed with contrasting scenes of extreme cruelty and astonishing beauty.
All of these elements make the viewer question reality.
Is the movie presenting the truth, or is it part of the characters' dreams?
Is the on-screen insanity a coping mechanism for Kulas, so that he can retain his child-like wonder despite the savagery around him?
This interpretation of Balangiga only comes after introspection. There are viewers that may find the movie nonsensical, or at worst, offensive.
The editing is cluttered. The story regularly got sidetracked by absurd fantasy scenes that seem to be disjointed from the over-all plot, and may go over the head of some moviegoers.
Aside from that, there were scenes of severe animal abuse that were inserted into the film as fast cuts.
Various scenes of on-screen deaths for chickens and livestock mutilation may traumatize the faint of heart.
This reviewer wonders if these scenes will also cause a controversy in the same vein as the 2016 Metro Manila Film Fest entry Oro, which had an on-screen butchering of a dog that led to a Senate inquiry.
Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, ultimately, is a divisive film.
You either love it or hate it.
There are those who may find it confusing and disgusting, while others might praise it for its bravery.
It might be controversial, but that is necessary to burn the lessons of a tragic historical account into one's mind.
Balangiga: Howling Wilderness has a rating of R-13. It is one of the entries of QCinema 2017, which is ongoing until October 28.
Entries are being screened at Gateway Mall, Robinsons Galleria, Trinoma, U.P. Town Center; and at Cinematheque Centre Manila on T.M. Kalaw, Manila.
Ed's Note: The 'PEP Review' section carries the views of individual reviewers, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the PEP editorial team.