The Republic of the Philippines is a nation comprised of over 7,000 islands with a history and culture that has been intrinsically tied to both its Eastern and Western neighbors since the first wave of Malay and Polynesian tribes first settled on the island over 24,000 years ago. With the influx of external influences constantly shaping and remolding the people and the landscape, to state that the Philippines has had its fair share of turbulent times is not an exaggeration. And, although the country may be quite small, it would be incorrect to assume that all Filipinos share a collective mono-culture. Language, religion, economics, education, skin tone, where you’ve been, and who you know all play a part in dividing the population into smaller and smaller sub-groups, essentially making the struggle to survive the only commonality that all Filipinos share.
Adolfo Alix Jr.’s 2007 film Kadin is a coming-of-age story about a boy, played by Rico Mark Cardona, coming to terms with the sobering fact that a majority of what being an adult entails is learning to deal with the various disappointments that crop up as one tries to live their life. Not a very original theme but the quaintness of the story and the simplicity in execution does harken back to the best films of China’s Fifth Generation filmmakers like Zhang Yimou. Set up somewhat like a fairy tale or parable the premise is quite simple. Peping (Rico Mark Cordona) entrusted by his father to take care of Gima, the family goat, before he left his family to find work in the big city is surprised to find the goat mysteriously gone one morning and soon both Peping and his little sister Lita (Monica Joy Camarillas) launch an island-wide manhunt to find their goat before their grandmother and returning father find out.
Set in the island of Sabtang, which is located in the Batanes island region, Alix and his cinematographer Rodolfo Aves Jr. devote a large majority of the film to capturing the sheer beauty and Edenic qualities of the island. Untouched it seems by the twentieth century, the only markers of modern life are a few appliances and the stray motorbike that makes it into the camera’s eye-line. For this reason, the film offers a wonderful counterpoint to the grimy urban noir narratives favored by many Filipino storytellers. A prime example of this is the comically understated scene in which Peping goes to the island police station and we are introduced to what I presume to be Sabtang’s only two police officers passing the time by playing chess. Annoyed by Peping interrupting their chess match, a game they’ve been playing day in and day out, they offer him a list of possible scenarios of what could have happened to his goat, not to help the boy but for Peping to go and investigate on his own so that they can finish their chess match in peace. Although Adolfo does stick to the usual clichés of ineffective and somewhat lazy law enforcement, the root of this ineffectiveness is not corruption as it would be in typical crime dramas, but simply that,in an island like Sabtang, crime isn’t a problem. How can it be a problem when goats outnumber the people?
What Adolfo is trying to tackle with Kadin is not crime and its roots but poverty and its effects on a community minus the harsh social melodrama that one would find in the cinema of an artist like Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, or Brilliante Mendoza. Even though the island is far removed from social issues like crime and pollution, the people struggle on a daily basis just to survive. Adolfo addresses this during Kadin’s opening, when we are introduced to a small mob holding down a screeching pig as an old man, clasping a blade, offers a prayer and then proceeds to graphically eviscerate the animal. The violence is sobering in that Adolfo doesn’t ever budge his camera from showing the blood and gore and on the audio track, the pig’s screams don’t just stop as soon as the blade enters its body but continues on till the animal finally expires many minutes later. The pig’s liver is read for any clues about whether there will be feast or famine on the island while the rest of the organs are carefully preserved and the meat is carefully divided amongst the men to feed their families. This ritual, though primitive in execution, is performed by men adorned not in robes or “tribal dress”, but in fact clothed in baseball caps and shorts. The men in Kadin’s prologue must “get their hands dirty” to put food on the table just as the characters found in typical urban crime dramas must do and though the violence they commit does not constitute breaking the law it is no less brutal though far fewer films are devoted to their struggles.
This theme of casino struggle is also reiterated in Peping’s motivation to find Gima. The promise to his father to take care of Gima is compounded with the family’s economic and emotional ties to this one goat. Peping’s father bought Gima from a local shepherd but, because of his meager wages, could only afford the weak and sickly Gima. The goat miraculously survived, but at the cost of its survival, Peping’s mother tragically fell ill while taking care of Gima and died. Adolfo doesn’t just tell this to the audience to wring some emotional sympathy from them, but to show the cost that many impoverished families have to pay just to survive. Also, it can’t be reiterated enough just how important the figure of the mother is in Filipino cinema. Just as in real life, they can be both nurturers as well as one’s worst enemy, and dramatists in the Philippine film industry have cultivated a rich genre depicting the various effects that a matriarch”s presence, or lack thereof, can have. Thus with the loss of Peping’s mother, Gima becomes a makeshift mother for Peping and his sister; its milk not only providing nutritional sustenance but also financial security since the family runs a side business selling Gima”s milk to the villagers on the island. This connection makes Gima”s vanishing even more painful for Peping because not only could he not save his mother, but now he can”t even protect a measly goat tied right outside his home.
Although already far from being a perfect film, Kadin has one flaring error in its ending. After the sad revelation of what happened to Gima, killed and eaten by a bunch of self-satisfied bureaucrats, and Peping’s subsequent arrest for attempted goat theft, the film should have quietly ended. Not a perfect ending, but consistent with the themes Adolfo was dealing with. The real ending, though has Peping waking up the next day to find a new fatter goat in front of his house and the young smug government official who had taken Gima in the first place redeemed, a single tear drop falling from Peping’s eye as a silent thanks to this once cruel man. In my opinion, though this betrays what we just saw and the young bureaucrats “redemption” is too sudden to be believable. Though the philosophy that is espoused by many social dramas that life is hard and only gets harder is nothing new, Kadin’s ending undercuts all that Peping went through since Gima could be so easily replaced. The audience may feel better by this uplifting ending, but the saccharine final scene only offers false hope. Peping’s search for Gima is a story about lost innocence and how a boy became a man as he discovered just how cruel the world could be, but Adolfo’s ending makes the film about an anonymous bureaucrat”s redemption through a little boy”s suffering and sadly reverts Peping from a mature adult back into the whimpering boy he had started to move away from.
(Author”s note: For a subscription price of only $8.99 at Asia Pacific Films you can view Kadin and many other Filipino and Asian films that they provide for online streaming.)