In the hands of first time director Ralston Jover, the depressed bayside community of Baseco, Tondo—one of the most densely populated areas in Manila—becomes a playground of hope for six boys who regularly harvest scrap metal in the murky waters of Manila to sell in a junkshop.
Unfortunately, an incident changes the way they deal with each other and the people around them.
Baseco Bakal Boys (international title: Children Metal Divers) is one of the films competing for the Network of Promotion for Asian Cinema prize award, a sidebar competition in the 2009 Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival.
Jover is also credited for writing the screenplays of internationally acclaimed films Kubrador (2006), Tirador (2007) and Foster Child (2007). The director co-wrote this film with Henry Burgos, who worked on this story for the GMA 7 documentary show I-Witness.
To bring a true-to-life feel to the film, Jover employed first time actors from the slum tenements, a la Slumdog Millionaire. Auditions were held at the Baseco compound where children metal divers aged 6 to 16 were chosen to play the key characters.
Rounding up the cast are Simon Ibarra, Jess Evardone, Cherry Malvar and Joe Gruta, and Gina Pareno.
The awarding ceremony of Cinemalaya will take place at the Cultural Center of the Philippines this Sunday, July 26, 2009.
THE PLOT. To Potot, Bengkong, Bungal, Paolo, Joven, and Utoy, the community of Baseco, Tondo is a happy place despite the poverty and the dangers of diving for discarded metal. Young and foolhardy, they scavenge for treasures in the murky waters despite repeated warnings that they might "get caught and eaten alive by mermaids." They continue with the dangerous practice even when a junkshop owner cheats them out of a good price for their recovered metal.
Then one day, Bungal disappears after they salvaged a sunken anchor near the parola (lighthouse). Utoy (Meljon Ginto), the youngest bakal boy and closest to Bungal (Vincent Alvin Olano) , is determined to find the missing boy even if everybody seems half-hearted or apathetic to the boy's fate. Will Utoy find Bungal? Or was Bungal taken and eaten alive by a mermaid, as the old folks say?
THE VERDICT. Baseco Bakal Boys is a poignant thesis on youth and hope in a dog-eat-dog world. It presents how a young person, full of dreams and idealism, reacts to situations in a corrupt society.
The film's power lies in its symbolisms and suggestions. Through a wide angle shot of a small boat bobbing in the dark waters of the Manila Bay, hope emits a faint glimmer against the waves of sadness and desperation. Far off the coast is a hazy view of a glittering metropolis that suggests the near impossible dream of the child divers.
Bungal believes that a mermaid's shrill call is luck. Before he disappeared, he heard an unidentified thin whistle, which sounds much like a patrol boat siren. He sets out to discover the source of the sound as he swam out once again into the bay. Viewers are left to wonder if he chose death or escape from the community.
Saddened at losing Bungal, Utoy singlehandedly convinces others to search for the missing boy. Almost everybody, even their friends, have stopped diving and refused to speak to Utoy after Bungal's disappearance, fearful that the same fate will befall them. Even grownups told about the incident stare at him blankly as if Bungal's disappearance is just a common occurrence in the community.
Utoy finds solace in Bungal's grandmother, Sylvia (Gina Pareno), who shares his grief but has quietly accepted her loss by offering up her sufferings to Allah, the Muslim God. Comforted but not defeated in his search, Utoy swims out to the bay after dark to look for his missing friend.
Baseco Bakal Boys is touching in its simplicity and sincerity. It touches the Filipino's fatalist thinking in the face of grief and defeat but at the same time, shows the new generation's unbreakable spirit.
Jover's camera understands the beauty of childhood very well, conveying it in the energy of the child divers who kick and tumble underwater, bubbles surrounding their thin bodies as they hoist a rusty anchor to the surface. It is also painful because for a person so small and helpless in an apathetic society there is only a choice between death as relief and defiance as escape.
Click HERE to view the schedule of films competing in Cinemalaya Cinco.
Czeriza Valencia graduated from the University of Santo Tomas with a degree in Journalism. She used to be a beat reporter for Malaya and Business World as well as a staff writer of YES! Magazine.