October 24, 2009
ALNBNJ is a far-reaching, affecting chronicle. It reels in the viewer into following the pivotal day in the life of its protagonist Juan aka Erwin (Ray An Dulay), a live (gay)sex performer who is making a crucial decision in his life: to leave the daily grind of seedy carnal routine in favor of beckonings of a sick mother and a simple provincial life.
Like thousands of other similar stories out there Juan arrived in the city in search of better things and months and months of struggle found him committing man to man action in an underground sleazy bar. Though he appears neither apologetic nor resentful of his fate, he is also not happy of his squandered potential—only the fading, laminated diploma hanging precariously on the dilapidated wall of his ramshackled pigeonhole of a room reminds him of once a promise of a decent life. Typical story for those who have seen scads of equally-sleazy indie movies lately but what made the story entirely his own is his quiet dignity: he never moans, complains or bitches about his ill fate; he forge on the daily struggle with courage and determined detachment.
He is not alone in this foul existence and he is very aware of it: There’s the scene where a destitute neighbor borrowed thirty pesos to buy a scoop of rice only to get bumped by a running street urchin sending every grain on the pavement and getting soaked by the murky canal water. She didn’t erupt into a wild melodramatic sob; she just tried to scoop what she can possibly retrieve, desperately trying to salvage every precious grain. In the catastrophic bar scene (you struggle to neutralize a lump in your throat as) you witness scattered, broken biscuits intended for homecoming present being picked one by one from the floor. It kills you. It breaks your heart. It makes you forget you went into the theater in the hope of looking at raging hard-on of the cast, only to be won over by shimmering raw talents who are in complete command of the role they inhabit.
Adept direction and a subtle script brought out the indisputable talent of Dulay into prominence. Whereas in the past Dulay’s acting aptitude glimmers but get eclipsed (because of the minority of his roles). ALNBNJ is his opportunity and he convinces us that you'll watch this movie not because of raging erections but because of hard-won talent. Even the minor casts approach their characters with precision and humanity they seem not to regurgitate a script but tossing out lines like it is a spontaneous snippet of their daily dialogues.
Somewhere in the course of the film I wondered: Is it just me or the movie has an intriguing argument to make? The case being: Living in squalid condition, striving to live on, finding your way through brutalities of life are discouraging but not reasons to stop caring. Flashes of kindnesses are randomly injected to make this claim tangible: a sympathetic bar owner (essayed with candid, comic glee by Bonife himself: “Kayong mga gays, bisexual, straight curious, straight tripper o ano man ang tawag ninyo sa sarili ninyo isa lang ang ipinunta natin dito: Burat!” Classic.), a benevolent police member of the NBI raid squad, a neighbor who would willingly split her meager meal all seem like rare likelihoods but one cannot deny their uncommon existence either.
Another interesting aspect is the underlying, semi-subversive stand essayed in the movie: by putting an accent on the brand of people and forces that prey on the haplessness, desperation, misfortune and plain bad luck of individuals who are careworn and plainly, vainly trying as damned hard to claim a right to live for at least another day.
All throughout these tormenting moments ALNBNJ keeps itself in check: it is careful not to slide into sensationalism or petty melodrama. It never attempts to mine shallow sympathies on the plight and adverse conditions of its characters. It doesn’t rhapsodize the sexual scenes instead use them as natural progressions of the story. Thankfully Altarejos, Bonife and Salonga didn’t rehearse the rampant, cheap indie formula of “I Am So Desperate So I Am A Hooker” route but instead moulds its characters with willpower and fortitude. In so doing the movie and characters make our empathy spontaneous and potent.
ALSBNJ is honest and despite the pitiable moments is strangely kindhearted, with acute understanding of a struggling soul’s tendencies and motivations. It tells a touching, well-crafted story and treats the widely familiar plot/flawed characters with delicate respect and legitimate deference. It openly tells a blunt story that will resonate with anyone who at one point in his life was driven to misery and anguish and how the viciousness and cruelty of other people (and life in general) will squeeze out that last remaining ounce of hope in you until you are rendered beaten, cynical and emotionally empty.
This is where I applaud and commend Altarejos + Bonife + Salonga. Ang Laro Ng Buhay Ni Juan is like a bittersweet, hand-written love letter designed to wound you. And it does wound you. It rouses your humanity into sudden wakefulness.
Ang Laro Ng Buhay Ni Juan is currently screening at Robinsons Mall Cinemas (Galleria/Manila. Please check other theater listings). Do support this worthwhile indie movie as a way of encouraging more neat materials to come to life and hit the screens!
Posted by loudcloud at 12:38 AM