Ways of the Sea -- Film Review

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BUSAN, South Korea -- "Ways of the Sea" is akin to Michael Winterbottom's "In This World" in form and essence, only on a smaller scale. Although it does not have resources to traipse around the world exposing human trafficking from a global dimension, the implications it raises about what makes Philippine illegal overseas workers surrender their fates to unscrupulous human smugglers and the vicissitudes of the sea is no less serious. From a Mindanao coastal village to the shores of Sabah, Malaysia, Sheron R. Dayoc charts a voyage of innocence lost.

His account is realistic and remarkably succinct, yet subtle and glancing.

Although in danger of being submerged by the proliferation of independent films from the Philippines, its depiction of a unique non-urban location and minority Muslim culture may help it dock at discerning festivals, especially socially conscious ones.

The port of disembarkation is Basilan, a fishing village in the Mindanao city of Zamboanga. Employment broker Hernand rounds up his candidates for the trip to Sabah. The economic and political instability of the area is implied by the presence of soldiers who weave in and out of the proceedings, and the passengers' difficulty in paying for the fare. Without needing to wade deeply into poverty issues, one character says it all when he tells a fellow traveler "we're all doing it for our families."

The danger and temptation women face are implied at the outset. Slimy Hernand sweet-talks two young women who get cold feet about going on board. Others are more willing, like Lydia, a naive girl from the sticks, who drools over the jewelry and beauty accessories of Mercedes, a veteran worker in Sabah. The latter looks like she has been around and brags about that.

At a stopover on an island, Lydia pays the price for her naivete and learns the market rate of her purity. Her reactions are recorded in six-minute long take that derives remarkable tension from its motionless, wordless and nearly soundless setup.

The end, which circles back to the beginning as the ship arrives on a Malaysian shore, is short, sharp and worryingly open-ended. The epilogue reinforces the workers' desperation with sobering facts and statistical figures.

Soulful cinematography provides a counterpoint and relief from the grim situation by rendering the environs as beautifully as watercolors, though technically it is on the rough side. The village looks picturesque, with houses perched on stilts hugged by the sea and sky, and the land covered with tapestries of whitened seaweed laid out to dry. As the illegal workers set sail, the sunset taints the sky fiery amber. Music displays both range and personality, alternating between lively percussion and very melodic songs with poetic lyrics and builds to a rousing impact at the end.

Pusan International Film Festival, New Currents

Cinemalaya Foundation, Sounddesign Manila, Underground Logic present A Los Peliculae Linterna Studio Production.

Cast: Romeo Jhon Arcilla, Maria Isabel Lopez, Amalyn Ismael.
Director-screenwriter: Sheron R. Dayoc.
Producer: S.R. Dayoc, Lilit Reyes.
Director of photography: Arneb Barbarona, Dexter De la Pena.
Production design: Amar Sharif.
Music: Jasper Perez.
Editor: Chuck Gutierrez, Lester Olayer.
No rating, 77 minutes.
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