Director Kip Oebanda’s LIWAY (2018) could probably be the best film you’ll see this year. It doesn’t disappoint. In it are aspects one may expect when you make a trip to the cinema. As he narrates his own story, Oebanda orchestrates the narratives with watchful eyes, careful not to give too much, yet meticulously presenting all the needed details to pull you in the dark of the moviehouse.
But what makes this film most compelling is Oebanda’s gift for storytelling. Within its scenes are fragmental visions of imaginations, displayed brilliantly through shadow puppetry. This device is something we rarely see in our cinema – that perennial risk to offer something different, which Oebanda willingly takes and succeeds. Alongside this, we journey through Dakip’s history, both the playful and painful. Though LIWAY uses the final years of the Marcos regime as its milieu, it avoids to over draw a political agenda. Thus, allowing its audiences to weight their own facts against the narratives on the film. Oebanda, working with co-writer Zig Dulay, weaves the narrative into a poignantly watchable film, dismissing melodrama, yet emotionally strums a chord or two as we go along.
As far as Dakip could remember, the only world he knows is inside the guarded walls of a prison camp. He was born and raised there, together with other political detainees and criminals. But it really doesn’t matter to him, at all. He lives with his parents, Day and Ric, who were former members of the CPP-NPA, now convicted dissidents and have been detained for years.
During her younger years, Day was known as Commander Liway, an influential rebel leader from the mountains until she was captured and sent to prison. She was pregnant with Kip during that time. Now, with her son by her side, she tells him stories and myths to hide him from the painful realities of everything around them. Little does young Kip know, that these myths are allegorical representations of the kind of regime they are in.
There is something about Glaiza de Castro that makes her Day/Liway quite compelling and deliriously captivating. She compels through her bright eyes and connects through the screen which makes her so easy to root for. Despite the character’s concealed persona, de Castro shines in her silent moments, magnifying the depth of Liway’s past, her hopes, and her failures, even. Worthy to note, too, is her singing voice. As Liway sings in the dark of the night, de Castro renders heart-rending arias that pierce and enthral.
The film opens with a group of young people playing “hide and seek,” with Dakip as the “it.” When he begins to look for his playmates, Oebanda shoots in a continuous frame following Kip while he searches a claustrophobically tight surrounding. It is at this point when we knew that everything that would follow will be from his perspective; that this film will be about a young man in “search” for who he is and finding meaning from the guarded world he’s living in.
It is also at this point when the film introduces Kenken Nuyad, a small boned young man playing the role of Kip. He easily commands the opening frame and he consistently pulls through the center in his succeeding scenes. With a milieu mostly perceived as dark and potentially tragic, Nuyad paints a cheerful color, one that we always look forward to see.
LIWAY also comes with some engaging ensemble of Filipino talents. Julie Bautista as Sister Isa blends so well with Oebanda’s subtle direction; careful yet moving, subdued yet attached. Dominic Roco plays Ric which was rather subdued but ever present. Sue Prado’s Pinang is also something to look forward to. Wait for her breakout scene, which pierces the formerly insatiable, which presents one of the most heart breaking moment in the center of the film.
Ah! Soliman Cruz as the Warden is a breath of fresh air. It is great to see him again on the big screen. Why, with his toned down performance that still manages to engage, Cruz reminds us how controlled action-reactions can do so much for the screen.
Halfway through the film, Kip gets an opportunity to take a trip to the outside world to speak at a rally of protesters. As he steps outside the prison gates, the world grows larger and incredibly greener. He sees a carabao, and for a moment contemplates with awe at the white beast by the pasture. In the city, he eats at a mall and sees a mannequin. He greets it and expected a response.
At the prayer rally, Dakip makes his first public appearance. It is his first time to see such a big crowd. He holds the microphone and for a few moments there was silence. And then he speaks. “I saw a mannequin earlier today,” he says. “I thought that the people outside the camp are like mannequins. Silent and unmoving.”
It is at this point where one gets to see how innocence can reflect one’s truth. In Dakip’s enclosed world, he metaphors a scathing reality about apathy and denial, two things most relevant to our society, even today.
Oebanda has already directed three other films before LIWAY. After receiving considerable acclaims from critics and filmmakers alike for his earlier films, he was consistently asked when he’ll direct a film about him and his mother’s history during the Marcos years. This, he only answered with “when I’m confident na as a filmmaker.”
In LIWAY, one can see how Oebanda’s confidence has crystallized through time. Though this one shines with depth and poignancy, it avoids the usual trap of conscious creation and politicized activism. Instead, it thrives on hard facts, something quite critical in our media today. It is grounded from his own past recollections, of a world so tight, you can’t help not see every detail and remember so vividly.
The film ends with Oebanda utilizing space and time to symbolically offer a heart-wrenching denouement. As Kip moves from one point to another, one can’t help not to whimper and sing out at the same time. It is silent, but wonderfully vast; full of meaning and absolute hope.
This film soon becomes an ode to the magic of stories, and a continuing appreciation for life. Just by watching LIWAY, you will see how a son could offer such a wonderful gift for his mother. And by doing so, he exponentially presented such contribution to a wider generation of moviegoers. It is a gift that consolidates recollected memories – both the joyful and the aching – and wrapping it in the most engaging story that grips as it touches.
That, alone, makes the trip to the cinema all worth the while.
5 STARS OUT OF 5!
PS. I’m really glad to have caught LIWAY on the big screen. It is unfortunate that I wasn’t able to catch it during its initial screening in Cinemalaya this year. It would have been such an endearing and empowering experience to watch it with a crowd of students and film enthusiasts. I would probably have joined the chanting when the final credits rolled, too.
Go catch it while it’s still in the cinemas. A STAR IS BORN and EXES BAGGAGE can wait. Sadly, this one can’t. Bring a hanky. Tag along a friend, too. By the time the credits roll, you’d be glad that you did.