Zig Dulay’s Bambanti reveals a gold wristwatch is stolen at a rather late second third of the film but before that it takes time on mandatory exposition that shows one family, Belyn’s, struggling to survive. She is deep in debts and she does laundry for other families, Martha’s included, to make ends meet. Martha shows fondness for Belyn’s son, Popoy, one time the boy tagged along to the big house, gives him pasalubong, and later she gives Belyn fish too. The better off family is surprisingly good and understanding to the other! Belyn’s late husband is a brother to Martha’s husband, that’s why, and these two families are Filipino close-knit, and Dulay steadily and quietly sets these relationships up so that when he finally drops the bomb – an expensive wristwatch is stolen! – he has the rest of the film tear these connections apart. The film gives us an account on how social dynamics play up in real life, its microcosm is a small community in Isabela where a Bambanti festival is coming up. The closest I can associate this film with was Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, where a neighborhood was overturned as specimen, subject to our scrutinizing eyes.
Interesting to observe that Dulay’s feature films are not real-time, so unlike what he has penned for other directors. And the startling difference can be where he as screenwriter ends and where he takes off as an anchor. His last two features show where his impulses lie. He is a story-teller first, and his arcs are more plot-defined. He is not as minimalist and formless as his screenwriting outputs for other filmmakers are, but his drama is controlled and grounded. He attends to the visual aspects of the film, his camera is more static, and this is in a way an eye opener in the sense that he mostly collaborated with filmmakers whose styles are less composed and more raw and real, so unlike his. As a helmer, he is less auteur but is sure-footed. He paces his narratives with seeming calculation, never hurried but confident that the solid storytelling will pull him through. Bambanti’s first act shows this. He establishes the gold watch, the relationship of two families, Belyn’s dire situation and Popoy’s mischievous traits in almost unsuspecting and laidback way so that by the time he drops the conflict, every important point has been laid out and planted and we are already “in” the story.
Color-grading, visual compositions are not only what he applies as a director over his narratives and characterization, the work he does as a writer. We see his camera peering over a scarecrow to look at the people down the field. This is him as a director interpreting perspectives to derive meaning other than through plotting. In one key scene, when Martha’s daughter finally admits who the real thief is, he suddenly cuts the regular shot to a camera standpoint farther away, in the kitchen, a curtain slightly obscuring the view, our view, of a family realizing its big mistake. He puts us, viewers, at a distance where we are mere observers of what’s happening.
Dulay’s biggest decision, at least narrative-wise, is done right at the start when he lets Martha let Popoy in the house, offer him orange juice at the table, and then he withholds some scenes from us of other people entering the house. This decision of what to show and what to hide actually confirms what his concerns are and a determinant of what he wants to achieve. Not showing other people in the house narrows down the possible culprits to Popoy and Belyn and we therefore keep on second-guessing later on if one of them really took the watch or not. We find ourselves nodding at this, solely Dulay’s judgment as a storyteller, as we become trapped whether to believe Popoy’s denials or go on speculating who the real thief is.
This choice of leaving out few scenes, however generally effective, has sacrificed one key, albeit minor, character: Martha’s daughter. She is so cardboard thin that she goes on pressuring on Popoy, to cover up for the real thief, her boyfriend, just because she is afraid he would leave her. Her indifference is bigger than the social hypocrisy her actions have consequently created. She has her reasons, yeah, and the film tries to justify her action by making her a brat but all these appear to be mere excuses in hindsight than anything else.
Minus this one-dimensional character, Dulay’s understanding of human temperament is spot-on. When a visitor comes to her house to prod her son to admit the robbery, Belyn storms from inside the house to retrieve Popoy, grabbing him rather forcibly, physically, so that Popoy starts to cry while she sarcastically muscle him to, yes, admit it, her rage, we get, is not really for her son but for the judgmental people in her community, including and especially the guest herself, a woman of supposedly religious affiliations. The social apathy is getting to her, the best of her.
Bambanti is a valentine to motherhood and sometimes it gets in the way. How I want Belyn to be the real thief if only to give her that much needed third dimension in her character. As is, she is a mere ideal mother, more a prototype than real. She goes the length of what all mothers can do: take the cudgels for her son, go to precinct and own up a crime she did not commit, if only to let the burden off her son’s shoulder, a young and frail shoulder yet. Fortunately, Dulay makes up for it by showering Belyn with overwhelming nuances that his offsetting suffices.
I would have scrapped that letter-reading thread too. It is not only melodramatic, it is also pushy. But that’s just me; others would find that one scene heartrending, I know. And, okay, I admit, it is more melodrama than melodramatic, and the tears are earned. By the film’s end, the letter-sender, Popoy, is hoisted up in the air during the festival, the act symbolic: his letter and prayers have finally been heard and answered!