Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III screens on Friday, May 1st at 7 PM at the Whitsell Auditorium.
Stories told through a logic of unrestrained chaos are often maddening and seemingly unnecessary experiences. Nothing alienates an audience further than the feeling that an artist is splashing paint on a wall; allowing “the powers that be,” or pure randomness, to dictate how their painting will go.
But how about a story told through a logic of unrestrained freedom?
Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III (say whaaa?), the new film by Filipino director Kidlat Tahimik of which the production has been started and stalled since the late 1970’s, is a cinematic exercise in just that: freedom of expression on how a film can be told.
Crisscrossing three decades worth of footage from 1980’s 16 mm film to modern day iPhone footage, Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III is essentially what would come out if you combine the scope of an almost Historical Epic with the budget and spontaneous/candid personality of a home movie.
This film offers two separate story-lines. The first (shot on 16 mm footage about 30 years ago) tells the story of the world-celebrated Magellan Voyage in the 1500’s. Magellan was the the first man to circumnavigate the world and intuitively, you’d think he’d be the hero of this story, right? No. Instead, the protagonist is his devoted slave, Enrique (played by the director himself), an illiterate, unassuming, and good-natured wood carver who was granted freedom after the voyage ended. He acts as the Magellan’s translator, daily bather, and at one point in time, almost a princess’s house pet, But he is forced out of that situation when the relationship grows intimate (innocently expressed however).
The second timeline is a present-day one, where a man (played by Tahimik’s son), a similarly-minded Magellan-esque character discovers and helps a shaman-like woodcarver on the shore of a beach. He then spends the rest of the film trying to find him again due to pure curiosity, embarking on a cross-cultural voyage similar to that of Magellan.
The best and worst quality about Balikbayan is its almost relentless narrative freedom. Transitioning from these two separate timelines proves to be a disorientating and alienating experience at times. The film offers little indication besides the differing aspect ratios of the screen (due to one timeline being shot on 16 mm in the 80’s, and the other being shot digitally in contemporary times) when one timeline has ended and when the other has begun, at least on first viewing. My perception of there being “little indication” was proven wrong upon second viewing though; it is not that transition clues are all gone, they are just a tad too subtle. If you blink or fail to focus on a corner of one frame, you may become confused as to why you are watching the next and what has led to it. Do not get me wrong, these transitions work and are actually quite clever and possess an internal logic about them, but perhaps they are a bit too clever. Also, helping to understand the narrative is a narrator (Tahimik again), but ironically his voice is mixed too low to understand what he is saying at times, so this can be a frustrating experience.
However, depending on how much sympathy and focus a viewer is able to grant to this movie’s freedom, and depending on his or her ability to “trust” that the movie knows where it’s going, its progressive expression of time combined with its deeply lighthearted and humane tone can push the audience forward into a truly novel and rewarding cinematic experience.
Despite the epic-ness of its scope, Balikbayan # 1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III feels deeply intimate and eventually a very revealing expression of director Tahimik.
Now, do I know the director? No. So perhaps this is a project, but to me, the film feels so organic and confident (yet far from arrogant) in its playful and absurd sense of humor, its genuine curiosity for people and cultures, and its almost ethereal sense and appreciation for Earth’s natural aesthetic beauty, that it’s hard to think that this is not coming from what the director feels deeply connected with as an artist and as a person. That is my favorite quality about this movie. It feels like I, to some degree, know the director after watching this film. It is the mark of a well-developed artist.
Some may think the ultra lo-fi aesthetic the film carries throughout goes a bit too far at times and risks being a parody of itself (at times the narrator frankly exclaims, “In a previous scene I haven’t done yet…”), but again, it’s how far as an individual you will allow the film’s natural personality to be appreciated. I for one found these moments to be refreshing and humorous in its self-aware humility rather then perceive them to be a form of self-aware mockery.
After the second viewing, I believe Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III to be an eternally open-ended and compassionate piece of cinema, an experience that will garner a wide spectrum of reactions from people who will naturally find different aspects to relate to, and be intrigued or inspired by.
ONE LAST POINT
As avant-garde as this film may come across, it could actually have a good amount of accessibility and here’s why: its free-form and mosaic-like integration of different formats, histories, and timelines of past and present is really no different than what the majority of us are exposed to on a day to day basis.
We are bombarded with a seemingly infinite amount of different formats and mediums for creating and/or consuming past and modern culture at an almost instantaneous speed, and this film finds itself right on the pulse of something insanely current but not really explored; and interestingly enough, it seems to do this almost unknowingly too.
Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III is a film that bravely tests new waters, but goes about it in the least pretentious, most warmhearted way possible. It can open many possibilities or ideas in an individual’s mind, whether that mind belongs to an anthropologist, an artist, philosopher, or anyone born with plain curiosity.