Transit: Busan Review

A multi-linear approach opens up a film that gets better as it proceeds, as young perspectives salvage the melodramatic tint of a familiar domestic-worker story.

Hannah Espia's directorial debut -- and Phillippine Oscar entry -- chronicles the lives of five Filipinos adapting to life in Israel.

One of the most memorable conversations in the Israel-set migrant-workers drama Transit sees a group of Filipino domestic workers talking about how their offspring's minds are shaped growing up as an alien in a foreign land. In order to conceal their illegitimate-resident status, the women say, children grow up being taught to lie and hide so as to avoid deportation back to the Philippines.

This unnerving revelation is an illustration of the strongest suit of Hannah Espia's directorial debut. Working through the lives of five Filipinos (or four and a half, as one of them was born with Israeli blood) living in Tel Aviv, Transit – freshly anointed as the Philippines' official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar – is at its most powerful when it touches on the lives of the confused youngsters who find themselves living in the shadow of their parents' anxiety and caught in between conflicting identities.

Eschewing a linear approach, Transit zeroes in on how his five protagonists experience more or less the same period in time, with certain scenes repeated from a different angle so as to focus on how they react to reality from varying perspectives. But before the youngsters' tales take over, Transit still has to set the scene with the time-honored accounts of Filipino laborers struggling abroad. First off is Janet (Irma Adlawan), Yael's domestic-helper mother whose comparatively calm working environment belies her constant fear of being deported for having overstayed on her expired work visa; then comes her boyfriend Moises (Ping Medina, who is working against the odds to keep his son from being deported under a new Iaw which requires the children of immigrant workers to leave Israel.

These two episodes, alongside the third one about newly-arrived young maid Tina (Mercedes Cabral), retreads many an anecdote made familiar with the Philippines' OFW (Overseas Filipino Workers) films. Espia flirts with the melodramatic visual and narrative tropes of that mainstream subgenre, and in the early scenes the film betrays its flaws.

But the further Espia goes down the age ladder, the better Transit becomes: there's more of a formalist rigor to the film (which was largely shot on handheld cameras) as the film gradually brings the five lives onto the same narrative map, with two of the children — four-year-old Joshua, brought to life by a sparkling Marc Justine Alvarez, and teenage Yael, played by Jasmine Curtis-Smith —making uncertain steps in opening up their own distinct multicultural futures. Yael, whose estranged father is Israeli and who only speaks Hebrew, embarks on a romance with a local boy, and Joshua gleefully studies the Torah under the aegis of his father's cuddly employer. With the boy eventually pondering over his future in the Bangkok airport – a final shot which mirrors the one opening the film – Transit attains a level of contemplation and visual stillness which works well with its title, with Espia channeling the melancholy of in-betweeners without the usual histrionics.

New Currents, Busan International Film Festival
Production Company: Ten17P Productions
Director: Hannah Espia
Cast: Irma Adlawan, Ping Medina, Mercedes Cabral, Jasmine Curtis-Smith, Marc-Justine Alvarez
Producer: Paul Soriano
Screenplay: Giancarlo Abrahan
Cinematographers: Lyle Sacris, Berhil Cruz
Production Designer: Thesa Tang
Editor: Benjamin Tolentino
Music: Mon Espia
In Tagalog, Hebrew and English
92 minutes