Ralston G. Jover’s latest feature film Hamog (Haze), a Cinema One original production, is a labyrinthine web of experiences, both structurally and thematically speaking, even though it takes place mainly within a few settings in the urban sprawl of Manila. On the surface, like the opening scene that precedes the title’s appearance, a sheen of haze — the English translation of the film’s title —prettifies the hovering perspective of a riverbank in the middle of the city, flanked by concrete on either side of the frame with a pop of green in the middle. Balancing upon the green is a large cement cylinder occupied by several bodies, presumably a group of homeless people who make of the cement cylinder their abode. Yet once the haze dissipates and the film proper begins, the first shot immediately betrays the kind of muddled socioeconomic world of the film.
Moy (Bon Andrew Lentejas), aged around eight and an orphan, pops his head from above the cement cylinder (thereby hanging upside-down) to wake up his friends Tisoy (Sam Quintana), Jinky (Teri Malvar), and Rashid (Zaijian Jaranilla), begin their day, and survive by any means necessary. And with their appearance emerges the other meaning of the film’s title: batang hamog, literally ‘children of the dew,’ young adolescents who loiter and live around Manila streets and commit petty thefts. Because they are minors, they are usually sent to the Department of Social Welfare and Development instead of prison due to their crimes. However, the film is not a psychological study of why and how these four characters have (opted to) become homeless; nor is it a socially committed film that wants to incite change. Barring moments of magical realism involving a ‘supergirl,’ the film is largely a cold, detached look at these young people’s lives from their perspective, including the emotional disconnect between them and adults implicitly due to the larger context of a failed welfare state. The film follows the individual experiences of each of the four characters, showing simultaneously a slice of Manila city life and identifying the failures in, or absence of, a welfare state but without judgment. Teetering between a documentary and neorealist style of filmmaking, but thankfully without the appeal to sentimentality for the most part, Hamog is another solid contribution from Jover and to his emerging directorial filmography of the young and/or socioeconomically marginalised in Philippine society.
For those familiar with Jover’s credits, the above-mentioned qualities of Hamog should not be too surprising. In film, Jover emerged as an acclaimed screenwriter in the mid-2000s, beginning with Kubrador/The Bet Collector (2006, dir. Jeffrey Jeturian) and continuing with a couple of collaborations with Brillante Mendoza in 2007 (Foster Child, Tirador/Slingshot). In 2008, he made his debut as a director with a couple of documentary films and in the feature film realm with Bakal Boys/Children Metal Divers (2009). As one of the most significant independent Philippine screenwriters and directors working today, running across all of Jover’s works is an attention to the uneven distribution of social wealth and power in Philippine society, with the implication of a state that has done nothing for its citizens, shadow and official alike.
In Hamog, while the lives of the four young people are obviously the focus, competing for the spectator’s attention are intermittent shots of urban movement during the day and night, particularly the unending crawl of transportation, from cars, buses, trains, to people. Against the goings-on in the lives of the four young people, the stubborn shots of anonymous city life and mobility have the effect of neutrality at best and indifference at worst, therefore highlighting all the more the plight of these four characters — again, not necessarily in a sentimental way but rather in an objective way, reinforced by a prevalence of blue hues throughout the film, be it in costume, decor, or camera filter. When the film does veer towards the sentimental, rather than provoke the pity it seems to seek, it falls flat and predictable (e.g. Tisoy wandering in a park and encountering a younger boy wailing ‘Mama!’ repeatedly, as if abandoned; Jinky’s distorted home life with no father, a good-for-nothing mother, younger siblings, and a ramshackle shack).
While Moy, the youngest of the four, is legitimately an orphan who would rather not remain at the orphanage, Rashid and Jinky, the film reveals nonchalantly, have families to return to. But the problem lies in the fact that neither of these families is especially welcoming to their respective offspring, the parents too preoccupied with their own selfish ways, survival, and/or younger children to feed. Through Rashid, the film provides glimpses of Philippine Muslim communities, but does not make it into a subject. Rashid is first and foremost an individual, whose will and good heart shine through following the accident that kills Moy. Through Tisoy and Moy, the film shows the city’s blob of indifference towards the likes of them, too preoccupied with trying to survive themselves and ultimately not too different from them in that regard. As Tisoy searches for Jinky following a botched attempt at getting a cab driver’s money while he is stuck in traffic, we see the consistently negative treatment/attitude from adults (including an older brother), who are ultimately as on edge, thuggish, and/or cornered with limited options as they are. Through Jinky, the film presents an increasingly dark vision of adults that is part and parcel of that aforementioned blob of indifference and constitutes its most compelling part. First, she herself paints a horrific portrait of the youth center, a state institution in charge of juvenile delinquents and adamantly a place where Jinky does not want to return because its policy is more punishment than rehabilitation. Second, when Danny (played by singer OJ Mariano), the cab driver whose money the four attempt to steal near the beginning of the film, takes Jinky home and employs her as a maid, seemingly as a gesture of goodwill, she ends up no better among seemingly stable adults than among concrete and strangers outside in the city.
Also reinforcing the film’s detached, cold study of a nonexistent welfare state is the dearth of close-ups, thus putting the burden and trust on the actors to incarnate their roles and difficult, manipulative emotional relationships with each other and the city in as full-bodied a manner as possible. Actors Malvar and Jaranilla as Jinky and Rashid, respectively, are the clear standouts from the ensemble cast, towering above any of the other actors in terms of presence and conveying nuance of feeling. True, they occupy the most screen time, but perhaps they end up doing so because Jover realised their magnetic qualities on camera in the course of filming. In fact, the Jinky and Rashid segments of the film are the strongest portions and could be stand-alone short films. In this regard, the way in which they are merged with the other segments of the film is clunky at times, including the unexpected return, midway in the film, to the pivotal sequence of getting Danny the cab driver’s money.
Homog (Haze) is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Friday July 1 at 8:15pm at the Walter Reade Theater. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.