Mga Anak ng Kamote (Carlo Enciso Catu, 2018)

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The absurdist and political, the bravest yet exquisite film entry in the ToFarm Filmfest 2018 competition Mga Anak ng Kamote, opens like a terrifying mood piece. The sounds accompanying its main character’s movements and glances cue the terror. Are militaristic. Mixed with or highlighted by animal and jungle noises. When I try to recall the sounds now, they ‘implant’ in my head a torture scene, where somebody bony and naked is violated by men in uniform, deep in a dark, dank dungeon, the victim whipped by bamboo sticks and electrocuted.

The lead character is Iyong. No question she is a victim too. The woman confused. Possessed by an acute level of madness. She might have a poor concept of self, her being gnawed or stunted by something. Or someone. That’s why the smaller aspect ratio screen displaying close-ups of her face suggests repression–or oppression. Bano (Alex Medina), her husband, talks about the beast/pig which destroys their kamote (sweet potato) garden, and his words suggest that he could be the culprit of her suffering, hiding beneath a harmless face. That harmless impression was wiped off when he said in their conversation at the dining table, “Huwag kang bumaba ng bundok para di ka atakihin (Do not leave the forest, so you would not be attacked by wild beasts).” It was a clear warning to just stay, not in a protective sense, but in a way to assert his stronghold of her, a devious plea for his wife to embrace her imprisonment.

That is confirmed too by the manner Iyong is captured on camera. Fenced. A hapless muted bird in a cage. Her face questions. Her silence and perplexed reactions show from the very start. Katrina Halili, in her most important role so far, manages to project that. Cluelessness in whatever secrets her husband keeps. Her glances are an amalgam of pain and suppressed desire–and something else. That ‘blank’ or ‘blur’ must have been a result of a clot or a blotch in her head. It causes her close-ups to be more intriguing and exciting to watch, the turmoil inside her etched on her face.

If you’ve read the synopsis or logline, the movie is set in the future, 2040’s or ’50s. But the first act is situated in the forest, the couple’s house a hut, fronted by fenced plots of kamote. There is no trace of urbanity or development in their place. And yes, they eat kamote like doing such is a privilege—weird to think when most of our grandparents must have subsisted with it in the Japanese-occupied Philippines during World War II. A kamote buyer/peddler arrives. Henry (Kiko Matos), a friend of Bano. He looks at Iyong lasciviously. Undresses her in his mind, in her mind. Forces himself even in one of Iyong’s ‘erotic’ dreams.

Then suddenly Bano disappears. We learn that kamote is already forbidden. A dangerous drug. A notorious chemical. There is a Kamote Regularization Act. People in the streets are complaining and protesting about such a prohibition by the government, by politicians who must have bowed to capitalists and other parties with selfish interests.

We realize that of all food, this ‘lowly’ rootcrop, the substitute for rice in olden times, is the one selected to be forbidden, as if pushing the poorest of the poor to the wall, them brainwashed to be terrified in eating kamote via fake news that they are poisonous, stripping the marginalized of that right to live.

While these images and issues seem to be noise and clouding Iyong’s mind, a media man, Calvin, helps her. They think that Bano must be captured and in one of the jails in the city. So, we see Iyong walk around, traversing roads, searching on lit city streets, the town scenes effectively and suggestively futuristic, with neon lights and signages, broken and dilapidated communication towers and satellite dishes, adding to the jaggedness and eeriness, as if with the intention to slightly disorient us.

And when things get crazier, that is the time we step back and appreciate the movie differently. The film’s motives become apparent when the references to Nora Aunor and her socially relevant films become too obvious to ignore. The movie in certain scenes evoke Mario O’ Hara’s Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos. Mga Anak ng Kamote inherits from that 1970’s classic a little bit of that Japanese inflection, that postwar psychology, the juxtaposition or interchange of abuse and love as we will later discover, the source of heaviness and confusion in Iyong’s heart and mind. We remember Bona when Iyong grills the potatoes, when she boils a pot of water, the smoke going up, her patience broken at one point. The mention of ‘pig’ harks back to the anti-US movie of Aunor directed by Lupita Kashiwahara, although in a different sense. And then also crucially that one line of Nora in Ina Ka ng Anak Mo, used in this film like a mantra.

This movie is a treasure-trove of Aunor references, even a salute to her acting style. The silence and deep internalization, the close-ups. It is also no coincidence that Iyong’s full name is Leonor, and we see Iyong meet a projection of her older self, blind, in the future.

The eyes being Aunor’s most potent arsenal in acting cannot hide the giveaway theme that this politically brave movie speaks of. History repeats itself. We cannot just kill fascists and dictators and then turn blind. It is even a mockery of the paid socmed trolls of this current Philippine government. Who wouldn’t be exasperated by their type of blind subservience? Many times, reading their comments on social media or hearing them discuss and justify the evil work of the Duterte regime, you could not help but scream “Ina Kayo” and “Mga Anak Kayo ng Kamote!” at the same time. The movie manages to mix that silence, doubts and madness because why not create such an odd mix at this time? We’re living dangerously. We have to speak differently, in a skewed language, in codes, parables, and allegories, as no logical and straightforward explanations seem useful for this throng whom we are irritated with, sad about, but whom we still want to save. It is high time we stop being well-trimmed and cuddly poodles and be a new breed of (space) mongrels ready to bite.

What better way to cap the movie than with a Susan Fernandez-Magno song rendition of a poem, Kung Ibig Mo Akong Makilala, a love song but could be interpretted as a call to dig deeper, to discover the movie, to know more about and to respect women. It could even be a call for a national moral introspection.

What a beautiful gift this movie is to us. And being overall a ‘silent’ and at the same time an angry film, it still decrescendoes finely like this, with Susan Fernandez-Magno singing, her exquisite vibrato rocking a crib. If she were alive today, I am sure she would still sing at small and big rallies. Hers and this kind of film are representatives of the growing force of the revitalized old and the new voices of light against this oppressive government, with a common goal to expose and fight polticians’ lies, immorality, abuses, and greed.

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4 thoughts on “Mga Anak ng Kamote (Carlo Enciso Catu, 2018)

    DJ said:
    December 10, 2018 at 5:01 pm

    I haven’t had time to write yet about this film, even if I badly wanted to because I think it’s been so underrated. This film is so much more better than many critics, and the lack of awards, make it appear to be. In any case, you did it justice with this review, thank you. I wouldn’t even catch those Aunor references (guilty of not having watched most of her films).

    I have a different interpretation of the older, blind Iyong, but it leads to the same conclusion anyway—that this film is a lot about contemporary psychological warfare. And we get an awesome mood piece along the way.

      spaceaso responded:
      December 11, 2018 at 1:44 am

      Hey Thanks DJ. It is an honor that someone who comprehensively and intelligently reviews movies would manifest(‘takteng formalities haha) his appreciation of my efforts. Keep on writing! Tama ba na you’re taking up film studies? Gusto ko rin, but my obligations and preoccupations dispermit me. Hopefully next year sana kahit matanda nako haha.

        DJ said:
        December 11, 2018 at 4:37 am

        Wow, thanks!

        I’m not! Engineering grad student ako ngayon haha. Though I do have vague plans of taking up something like film studies too, someday.

        spaceaso responded:
        December 11, 2018 at 4:55 am

        Nice. Tama talaga na iyong mga engineers, and in my case, architecture grad, ang nag-rereview ng films haha. Keep up the good work, sir!

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