'The Ashes and Ghosts of Tayug 1931' ('Dapol tan payawar na Tayug 1931'): Film Review

Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam
Epic, experimental and expansive.

Christopher Gozum's drama about a failed insurgency in 1930s Philippines makes its international bow at Rotterdam.

An entirely black-and-white affair which runs well over two hours, The Ashes and Ghosts of Tayug 1931 is the biopic of a revolutionary who led a small, short-lived peasant uprising against U.S. colonial rule in a provincial town in the Philippines. As the title suggests, however, the film goes well beyond this one-day insurrection on Jan. 11, 1931, as director Christopher Gozum uses this little-known historical episode to reflect on the social turmoil that has gripped his home country ever since then.

Continuing where Raya Martin (Independencia) and Lav Diaz (From What Is Before) have left off in their wildly different approaches to Philippine history, Gozum delivers an ambitious, multi-strand historical epic that gives voice to an ethnic culture rarely been seen in Philippine cinema — Gozum is the sole regular producer of films in Pangasinan, a language spoken by about two million people on the island of Luzon. Moreover, Ashes and Ghosts is an audacious attempt to fuse three different threads spanning nearly a century, each of them filmed in a different visual style.

Though it stutters a bit in the final reel, the film is unquestionably a thoughtful and inventive addition to the Philippines' indie scene after the one-time mavericks belonging to the so-called "Philippine New Wave" moved on to more conventional pastures. Three months after winning a NETPAC jury prize at the QCinema International Film Festival, Ashes will make its international premiere as part of Rotterdam's "A History of Shadows" program, exposure which should finally give Gozum a chance to emerge from the wings onto center stage.

Ashes and Ghosts begins in the present-day, as a nameless filmmaker (Fe GingGing Hyde) arrives at Tayug to research her project about a forgotten revolution which swept through the town more than 80 years ago. As she walks through streets filled with happy hawkers and joyous students, she discovers that all memory of Pedro Calosa's Colorum Uprising has vanished.

Interestingly, this 21st century strand is delivered as a montage of pristine photographs à la Chris Marker's La Jetée. They create an eerie sense of abject alienation, in sharp contrast to the film's second thread. Beginning with a young Calosa (Cedrick Juan) returning to the Philippines after a spell as a unionist in Hawaii and ending with his ill-fated rebellion against the colonial authorities in 1931, this second part arrives in the shape of a silent film — complete with intertitles (in the Pangasinan language), artificial flicker and overstated acting. All this plays into the scheme of things, however, as the final mix conveys the feeling of an ideal, larger-than-life past now lost in the cynicism of the modern age.

This sad state of affairs is very much evident in the film's third strand, a fictionalized take on the real-life meeting in 1966 between Calosa (Perry Dizon), historian David Sturtevant (Mark Jheroben Buada) and writer Frankie Sionil Jose (Soliman Cruz). Filmed in the style of a documentary of that particular era — handheld camerawork, grainy images that recall 16mm stock and so on —  it shows the aging rebel-turned-farmer taking the two urbane intellectuals on a tour of the region’s stark landscapes while he regales them with tales of his activist past.

Old Calosa remarks that the new Philippines is a land presided over by "false gods who speak clearly but with dirty minds," and that things are actually worse than when he was a clandestine anti-colonial warrior back in 1931. Significantly, 1966 marks the first year of Ferdinand Marcos' two-decade rule over the Philippines, a period marked by political corruption, economic exploitation and state-backed human rights abuses in the name of fighting insurgencies — problems which have since persisted in the country.

Much more than even Lav Diaz's Marcos-era allegories of Norte, the End of History and From Where Is Before, Ashes and Ghosts openly parallels the then and now. The nameless 21st century filmmaker in the first strand — a thinly veiled proxy of Gozum himself — finds herself sucked into the 1931 thread, where she interacts with the revolutionaries and bears witness to the heroic failure of Calosa's uprising.

This assertive message salvages the film's sprawling final third, in which Gozum and his editors Epoy Deyto and Carla Pulido Ocampo make disorienting jumps between the three parts. But lenser Chino de Vera's malleable camerawork and production designer Hiyas Bagabaldo's fine period details are consistently solid, ensuring Ashes and Ghosts burns brightly all the way to the very end,

Production companies: Sine Caboloan, HYD Entertainment, The IdeaFirst Company
Cast: Fe GingGing Hyde, Cedrick Juan, Perry Dizon, Donna Cariaga
Director-screenwriter: Christopher Gozum
Producer: Fe GingGing Hyde
Executive producers: Christopher Gozum, Fe GingGing Hyde, Lun Lana, PerciIntalan, Vivian Palisoc
Director of photography: Chino de Vera
Production designer: Hiyas Bagabaldo
Music: Ran Kirlian, Darren Vega
Editing: Epoy Deyto, Carla Pulido Ocampo
Sales: Christopher Gozum

In Pangasinan, Ilocano
139 minutes