Batanes is a cinematographer's movie and Monchie Redoble has a carefully wandering eye. In Masahista, his camera sweeps above a series of boxy rooms like a predator surveying a landscape of twisted bodies, here, it contemplates, detached. Batanes itself is overwhelmingly rich and Redoble does a great job of letting the intimate details of the vast landscape surface. The depth is felt more than seen; the sea always threatens to flood, the land sharp and jagged. Glorious, yes, but also untouchable. And the characters caught in a cycle of love and loss seem insignificant against the force of nature, which, in its heart, is what Batanes is all about.
Batanes is at the tip of the Philippine peninsula and is regularly rocked by storms which limits the flights that enter the province. Up to the present, there are only hints of modernity in the Philippines' smallest province, electricity continues to be intermitent, and its locals, the Ivatan, are at the constant mercy of nature's temper. Coming from the outside, Pam (Iza Calzado) is at first thrilled at the quaintness of life in Batanes when she moves in with her husband Rico (Joem Bascon) who spends most of his screen time lecturing Pam about the sea and her moods. When the sea does begin acting like the jealous lover that Rico portrayed it to be and claims Rico's life, Pam begins to open herself up to nature's incalculable pattern. Redoble consistently frames the actors as small counterpoints to the landscape or the sore thumb sticking out from the encompassing palm of the ocean.
Directors Adolfo Alix Jr. and John David Hukom also look to the weather for storytelling beats; the plot moves along as nature changes colors, which is a little too obvious for my taste. The sea taketh and giveth, and oh how it giveth in the form of Ken Zhu, my favorite F4 from the Taiwanese TV drama Meteor Garden. Unfortunately, this is when the movie drastically stumbles.
As a character study, the film does succeed in creating an engaging albeit sullen lead. The movie is at its best when it is following Pam around the island as she struggles to accept the fate of her husband by understanding the random jurisdiction of the sea to the point where she almost drowns in her desire to fathom what her husband's last thoughts were. The very pagan approach to mourning---conversing with nature instead of praying to God; nature's will instead of God's will---is a welcome point of view that's quite far from the conventions of popular cinema. This thoughtfully-paced introspective journey is cut short when the sea washes ashore an unconsciousness and wounded Taiwanese man who will ignite once more Pam's darkening heart. I get it, love is a force of nature in itself, so powerful that it punctures the movie's delicate atmosphere as it rushes clumsily to a happy ending. The relationship isn't given enough time to blossom considering that both Pam and Kao (Ken Zhu) are still in the process of coping with huge losses, a husband for Pam, and a family left behind in Taiwan for Kao.
Directors Alix Jr. and Hukom seem to be more interested in telling the story of Pam and the sea more than Pam and Kao's which feels more going-through-the-motions than a possibly more provocative love-among-the-ruined angle (which, years later, Alix Jr. brilliantly achieves with the incandescently heartbreaking Daybreak).
Or maybe, by glossing over the romance, Batanes acknowledges how insignificantly small we all are, how petty our heartbreaks, how trite our daily rituals, compared to the divine madness of nature's whim.
Directed by Adolfo Alix Jr. and John David Hukom
Written by Arah Badayos
Starring Iza Calzado, Ken Zhu, Sid Lucero, Joem Bascon