'Above the Clouds': Berlin/EFM Review

Above the Clouds - Still - 2015
A subtle sophomore effort about grief and loss.

Five years after his well-received debut, Filipino director Pepe Diokno returns with a family drama about a teenage boy and his estranged grandfather.

In 2009, 22-year-old Filipino director Pepe Diokno gate-crashed Venice with Clash (Engkwentro), a fiery gangland thriller that brought him the festival's best debut award and expectations that he might become the next torch-bearer of gritty, urban Filipino cinema. But while the hype has subsided, Diokno has morphed and matured. His sophomore effort swaps subtle storytelling and sumptuous visuals for his former preoccupations with genre filth and fury. 

Just as Clash lived up to its title by offering taut tension and ceaseless confrontation, Above the Clouds is as ethereal as a familial drama could get. Perhaps the mellowed vibe explains the lack of festival traction for Diokno's latest outing, which premiered in the Tokyo International Film Festival's Asian Futures sidebar and scored its only competition berth in Singapore. But the young filmmaker's surprising artistic restraint and his canny eye for natural beauty should inspire further festival bookings or ancillary action, particularly after distributor Doc and Film International shops the French-Philippine co-production at Berlin's European Film Market later this week.

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While inspired by a real-life catastrophe — the aftermath of Typhoon Ketsana, which wrought deadly havoc on the Philippines in 2009 — Diokno largely avoids the anger over social injustice so prevalent in his first film. (There are just hints of his opprobrium here: the young protagonist, Andy (newcomer Ruru Madrid), witnesses lawlessness in the streets as he searches for his missing parents after the storm, while his tetchy grandfather (Filipino rock icon Pepe Smith) suggests that he had to quit working in photography partly because of the political upheavals in the Philippines in the early 1970s.)

Instead, Above the Clouds is about the emotional journey of the two lead characters, as they reflect on the ways in which they abandoned the two figures whose deaths loom large over the film. Coming from one end of the age spectrum is Andy, whose reluctance to allow himself to be handed over to his grandfather's care is slowly revealed to be the result of his suppressed guilt about his part in his parents' death. Meanwhile, beneath the old man's crabby veneer lurk decades of grief and loss. Wallowing in squalor in the countryside, he laments his abandonment of his son, his family and, finally, his own chance at a happy life.

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To his credit, Diokno never stoops to caricature or cliché as he highlights the differences between young and old, city and country, modernity and tradition. Instead, he unceasingly celebrates the ravishing beauty of the rural Philippines. Shot at Mount Pulag National Park on the island of Luzon, Above the Clouds provides stunning settings for both Andy and the grandfather to release and resolve their internal turmoil. Carlo Mendoza's camerawork provides a stirring survey of the landscape, while deftly highlighting the characters' relationship to all this nature, while Johann Mendoza's music also helps heighten the drama within.

Above all, however, are the excellent two lead performances, both perfectly tuned to Diokno's scheme of subtle things. Surprisingly, chemistry abounds between the upstart Madrid and local showbiz legend Smith, whose four-decade career in Filipino rock has earned him a reputation as something like his country's answer to Mick Jagger. To those who know and love his work, Smith's haggard, grandfatherly turn in Above the Clouds is sure to come as a compelling surprise. 

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Market); also Tokyo International Film Festival (Asian Futures) and Singapore International Film Festival (Competition)

Production companies: Epicmedia, Unlimited

Cast: Ruru Madrid, Pepe Smith

Director: Pepe Diokno

Screenwriter: Pepe Diokno

Producers: Bianca Balbuena, Phillippe Avril, Pepe Diokno

Executive producers: Harlene Bautista, Jose Mari Abacan

Director of photography: Carlo Mendoza

Production designer: Benjamin Padero, Carlo Tabije

Editor: Pepe Diokno, Gisele Rapp-Meichler, Lawrence S Ang

Music: Johann Mendoza

International Sales: Doc and Film International

In Filipino and English

No rating; 87 minutes