Into the Woods
by Michael Joshua Rowin

Dir. Raya Martin, Philippines, no distributor

Raya Martin does not lack for ambition. A rising young star of Filipino cinema with seven films chronicling the history of his country already under his belt, Martin initially received laudatory notices for 2005’s A Short Film About the Indio Nacional (or the Prolonged Sorrow of the Filipinos), has completed the first two parts of a planned “Box Office Trilogy” (Now Showing and Next Attraction), and now with this year’s Independencia can claim to be the first filmmaker to represent the Philippines in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard competition. He’s all of 25 years old. Independencia is obviously the work of a promising filmmaker, yet even while it displays confidently sumptuous imagery in the service of a cleverly ironic critical indictment of cultural colonialism, it also betrays an incoherence and incompleteness that a more seasoned talent would most likely not commit to celluloid.

The film opens on a small marketplace in the Philippines before the turn of the 20th century. It’s shot in a very specific quality of luminescent black-and-white that reminds of certain 1920s and 30s Hollywood cinema—gauzy, diffuse, a little dreamy. Cannon shots startle the marketplace crowd, and soon a mother (Tetchie Agbayani) and son (Sid Lucero) are shown packing their belongings to escape the oncoming chaos of the revolution against Spanish rule. The only thing they need to bring on their journey, according to the mother, is their faith.

Into the woods they flee. But the forest is conspicuously phony: beautifully painted backdrops blend with lifelike plants and trees in the foreground, amplifying the setting’s artificiality. A cabin left behind by the Spanish provides their new home, one they must restore to properly live in. A third person joins their party: The son discovers in the forest a young woman (Alessandra de Rossi) who is suggested as having been raped by American soldiers (“Wait ’til they hear what you did to that girl,” an offscreen voice says in English), and brings her back home. The mother develops a disturbing jealousy toward this stranger, dreaming—in a superimposed sequence that plays out above her sleeping head—of her only child taking the young woman from behind on a luxurious bed. Before she dies during a powerful squall, mom will also dream of repeatedly slapping the young woman. The young woman has meant no ill-will, but she has quickly succeeded the mother, and is soon seen pregnant and in the throes of birthing pains.

In a moment recalling the fake malfunction that bifurcated Tropical Malady, Independencia is abruptly interrupted when the film is made to look as if it’s sliding away from the projector lens (A Short Film is also, from what I’ve read, similarly divided). A colonialist propaganda newsreel is briefly shown in its place, explaining in an English voiceover the necessary actions of an American soldier who shot a local boy on the pretense of shoplifting. When we return to the main narrative it is many years later, and the son is now a longhaired father with a son (Mike Aguilos) of his own. The forest has become thoroughly part of the grown man: he explains to his boy that the reason they dwell apart from civilization is that townspeople are warlike, a point he illustrates by telling a story about two villages that once fought over hunting grounds until they all killed each other. But even his family’s isolation cannot stave off war, and it encroaches when Americans enter the forest during their siege of a nearby community.

Independencia works best as a metacinematic allegory of cultural resistance and perseverance in the face of imperial domination. Using classical Hollywood syntax, Martin links the United States’ inherited occupation of the Philippines with the emergence of that superpower’s greatest ideological weapon: the movies. The fake newsreel, featuring a villainous soldier sporting a preposterously false moustache, makes the connection explicit, but Martin also exaggerates soundstage illusion to mock Hollywood’s exotic fantasies, even as he simultaneously re-enlists that illusion in the service of a shimmering, lush myth closer to indigenous and oral storytelling traditions.

Unfortunately Independencia ends up with a ton of thematic loose ends. What is the significance of the mother’s Freudian sexual envy to the rest of the story? What of the son’s desire to reach the sea and become a fisherman? What happened to the precious amulet the son speaks of as a lost heirloom once owned by his revered father? The son wishes to recover it to ward off the Occidental invaders—does the climactic, strobe lightning storm mean it’s fallen into the hands of an unworthy possessor? Is the dark specter with a hand-drawn outline around it the savior referred to as the forest’s protector (and supposedly glimpsed by the child at one point)? If so, is its power ferocious or negligible? These questions seem to be left hanging due not to ambiguous intent but directorial sloppiness—at only 77 minutes, Independencia contains either a strangely inordinate amount of filler or a poorly conceived narrative (as co-written by Martin and Ramon Sarmiento), with a rushed ending that bafflingly conflates colonial repression with natural disaster.

Despite all these problems, Martin’s proficiency with lighting, mise-en-scène, and sound design is never in doubt, not exactly faint praise for someone who’s just reached the quarter-century mark. Even if the available evidence shows he can build properly on some ideas more than others, Martin clearly possesses a visual intelligence that portends terrific exploration and originality, two qualities that almost guarantee refinement.