A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim” (Stars’ Journey into the Dark Night): A Film Review

EDITOR: Arnel Barbarona
DIRECTORS OF PHOTOGRAPHY: McRobert Nacario and Arnel Barbarona
SOUND DESIGN: Arnel Barbarona
PRODUCTION DESIGNERS: Bagwani ‘Buggy’ Amplayo and Raleon Monsanto

PRODUCERS: Cinema One Originals, Skyweaver Productions, Red Motion Media, HYDEntertainment, Alchemy of Vision and Light Film nd TV Productions and Conrad Cejoco
CAST: Perry Dizon, Cristy Lim, Glorypearl Dy, Irish Karl Monsanto, Fe Virtudazo-Hyde and Roger Gonzales.


There is no doubt that with his latest film – Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim – the Mindanawon independent filmmaker, Arnel M. Mardoquio, has now become one of the country’s best.


In a number of social media sites that one can easily access in the internet, Manila-based film critics – in their year-end assessment of films produced in 2012 – have included Mardoquio’s Paglalakbay as one of the best 20 films of the year. This film earlier won the Jury Prize Award at the Cinema One Originals festival and the same award at the 14th Cinemanila International Film Festival.


With his fifth film (after Hunghong sa Yuta, Hospital Boat, Sheika and Crossfire), Mardoquio has authored (he wrote the story and screenplay as well as directed the film) a film of tremendous significance, with an awesome power to mesmerize the viewer owing to filmaker’s sheer audacity to be different and unique in his approach to tell a story using the language of film.


If the reader wants to watch a riveting film about the violent reality of troubled Mindanao devoid of a didactic framework that insults the viewers’ intelligence to think for themselves and at the same time have the rare opportunity of watching a movie that is truly an art film, then make sure to check out where it is going to be shown soon enough.


The Film’s Minimalism


There is a stunning minimalism in Paglalakbay, which is one reason why it engages the heart. The film’s plot follows a very simple narrative. A young boy, Faidal (Irish Karl Monsanto) loses his parents who were former Moro rebels and who were killed as their armed engagement later shifted to being involved in kidnapping for ransom. The knapsack full of dollars was passed on to Faidal after his mother’s death. With a band of American and local troops trailing him, the orphan made the great escape from their home to wherever he could find safety. He vows to seek vengeance for the death of his parents.


He ended up in the company of his aunt Amrayda (Fe Gingging Hyde) and Fatima (Glorypearl Dy), who decide to help assure Faidal’s passage to safe grounds. Both women are Moro rebels disillusioned by the armed rebellion and are also seeking a way out of the embattled zone of their homeland. They sought the assistance of the family patriarch, Baba Indu (Roger Gonzalez) who was convinced to help the three relatives. But the escape would end in tragedy.


The film’s minimalism extends to its other aspects. As most independent films go, Paglalakbay hardly uses computer-based special effects (SPFX) or computer-generated imagery (CGI). It is then left to McRobert Nacario and Arnel Barbarona, the film’s directors of photography, to take full advantage of what their digital camera can record.


Nacario and Barbarona prove to be the right cinematographers for Mardoquio’s vision of what Paglalakbay’s cinematic look would be. In almost all the film’s scenes, the camera is where it should be. There are powerful scenes where the camera hardly moves; it stays put and serves as the eye gazing on the scenes that unfold.


In one extended scene which is one of the film’s highlights, first the viewer sees a farmer looking after his carabaos on a hillside, then a few peasants walk across the screen carrying small logs, after which a band of soldiers appear as they walk down the hillside while the farmer with the carabaos make a hasty exit. All these as dragonflies fly across the screen’s foreground.


Paglalakbay’s photography is one of its major triumphs. The viewer can only be most appreciative of the intense care that the filmmakers took in making sure that – despite the limitations of digital film – the viewer’s eyes are able to feast on magnificent shots especially those of nature studies. Considering the fact that most scenes were filmed outdoors and given the limitations of resources which cut down on the days of filming, one can only wonder how the film got made. What helped the filmmakers, of course, was the sheer beauty of the locations where the film was shoot.


The film’s minimalism becomes even more striking in terms of the use of sounds and the non-use of a musical score. Those who made sure that Paglalakbay’s sound would live up to Mardoquio’s vision of this film – including Ditoy Aguila (sound engineer), Arnel Barbarona (sound design) and Maki Serapio (sound recordist) – deliver what was expected of them.


If viewers close their eyes and just listen to the sounds, they could easily imagine that they are deep inside a forest with the sound of waterfalls, streams, birds, insects, rustling of leaves and all that which one hears in such a location.


Mardoquio’s decision to keep the soundtrack to the barest minimum – with hardly a musical score – is an inspired move. This allow for scenes where silence is celebrated and consequently cherished by the viewer. Mardoquio is in the right company with this technique; this has been employed by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds), Ingmar Bergman (Cries and Whispers) and the Coen Brothers (No Country for Old Men).


Ensemble Acting


Once more, as with his four previous films, Mardoquio brings together a cast of actors who are Mindanawons. He has continued to refuse seeking the services of Manila-based popular actor-celebrities; he sustains his belief that Mindanao has a pool of actors who would serve him well. In Paglalakbay, once more, he is proven right.


Most of them, he has worked with in his previous films. This trait he shares with distinguished filmmakers like Bergman, Truffaut, Brocka and Mendoza. Like them, Mardoquio gets his actors to work together as an ensemble with everyone fitting very well into the film’s narrative.


All actors playing the six main characters of Paglalakbay manifest truth in their acting; their performances are outstanding. Fe Virtudazo-Hyde (who won Urian’s Best Actress in Sheika) once more manifests her tremendous talent in acting as Amrayda. Glorypearl Dy makes an impressive acting debut as Fatima; she is able to stand her ground in scenes she shares with Virtudazo-Hyde. Irish Karl Monsanto is the film’s discovery and acting revelation. His Faidal is a young boy seething with anger at his parents’ violent death, nurturing a deep desire to avenge their death and yet holding on to the innocence of his youth that is fast slipping away. Monsanto has a bright future in Philippine cinema if only he would continue to be in films directed by the likes of Mardoquio.


Paglalakbay’s take on Mindanao’s Narrative


For all the minimalism of Paglalakbay, it paints a complex portrait of the Mindanao landscape. It’s take on Mindanao’s narrative is multi-layered. The storyline cannot be reduced to a single tread as many treads make up the tapestry which serves as the film’s backdrop.


Mardoquio was faced with the challenge of presenting this narrative but to do so as a film artist. Fortunately, he refused to fall into a trap of being an ideologue and a propagandist. To be true to his art, he employed the techniques which were developed in the cinema of experimental films. These techniques involved impressionistic and poetic approaches to the film’s construction.


Experimental film’s goal is often to place the viewer in a more active and more thoughtful relationship to the film. This Mardoquio does with his Paglalakbay. He shows rather than tell. He mobilizes the language of film as extensively as possible in order to help the viewer follow as closely as she can to the flow of the narrative. In the end it is really up to the viewer to connect the dots if she gets off track; it is the viewer who will complete her own journey in finding out what the film’s meaning is all about.


For all the complexities of the Mindanawon narrative that the film tackles head-on, in the end the viewer can eventually discern what this meaning is all about. He drops a hint as to what this is, but does not impose it on his audience. This is why the viewer has to engage the film totally if he is to fully appreciate viewing Paglalakbay.




One’s enjoyment at viewing Paglalakbay is also in the realization that one is viewing a multi-genre film which is why it is hard to categorize this film under one specific genre. It is an action film with battle scenes. It is also a film about a great escape with a lot of running around as the main characters are on the run.


It is also a film with a love story involving a triangle of lovers. Specifically it is a “gay” love story with the two women characters in an intimate relationship. Considering the Muslim faith tradition of these two women, the film offers a rare view of how these women deal with a relationship considered taboo within such a tradition. This is still one more angle that manifests the audacity of the film’s author to explore beyond the usual borders that confine filmmakers to the safe and comfortable realms.


However, the film’s major achievement is in its being an anti-war film. Following in the footsteps of great filmmakers whose anti-war films are now considered classics (Chapin’s The Great Dictator in 1940, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in 1979, Brocka’s Santiago in 1970, Castillo’s Asedillo in 1971, Weir’s Gallipolli in 1981, Joffe’s The Killing Fields in 1984, Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket in 1987, Stone’s Platoon in 1988 and Born on the Fourth of July in 1989, Mallick’s The Thin Red Line in 1998 and many others), Mardoquio points out the senselessness of the war that has raged in Mindanao for decades.


Mardoquio is truly a committed son of Mindanao. In all his films, he has shown how passionate he is in tackling Mindanao’s social ills. In Paglalakbay, he reveals to us how crushed the Mindanawon soul is (“naglalakbay sa gabing madilim”) even as it desperately attempts to escape away from its enslavement.


The Mindanawons are the stars in this film narrative. Dare we go on a “paglalakbay patungong malinawag na araw?”


(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, former head of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” and “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English [A Sojourner’s Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw].)