Imbisibol, the one-act-play, has everything happened one day when Benjie and Manuel chance upon each other at Linda’s house. The banter that ensues between two guests let us peek into their personal lives; until Linda distributes their letters, and we learn that they are using aliases rather than real names. And they are using other people’s mailing address too, confirming either their transience or their hiding, their true predicament starting to be apparent to us. Both men are undocumented, among the paperless workers and migrants in Japan, the bilogs! Suddenly they are abrupted by a needy knock on the door. Rodel, another bilog, comes in to hide because authorities are after him, his involvement in a crime few hours before now giving him, and his identity, and maybe Benjie’s and Manuel’s too, away.
The film adaptation starts so much earlier and while it is still about how bilogs live in the shadows it is also about so much more the play is not. It steps back to give us the bigger picture: of the four characters’ personal lives, their dilemmas and daily realities. And their displacement in a country that is foreign to their Filipino sensibilities, the snow and freezing coldness they have to adapt to underscoring it, while trying to eke out a living for their dependents back home in the Philippines. Lawrence Fajardo paints the whole film in blue, in sadness, and the bleakness of what is unfolding is augmented by our sight of overwhelming white, out in the street and on the rooftops, its visual implication suggesting of people wanting warmth and hugs and human proximity, but how, in a distant place where individuals are far away from everyone that matters.
Benjie is old and has a wife and children back home, but here in Japan he is living with a lover, a guy named Edward, their union seeming ideal, away from prying eyes. They share everything, from house rent to groceries, and their affection is deductible from the way one cares for the other. Edward prepares food for Benjie and vice versa; and Fajardo does it, the conveyance of affection, in a subtlest of ways one time when Edward reminds Benjie they are going to mass. But Benjie, from work and wanting of sleep, tells Edward to let him be, a few minutes of nap would do. Before Edward leaves Benjie alone, Fajardo lets Edward stay a bit longer, wordless but looking at the man about to sleep before him, lovingly. What a scene Fajardo has pulled off here! Edward switches off the light, making sure the nap is undisturbed, and goes out of the room.
Benjie is preparing a surprise birthday party for Edward but gets more surprised himself when Edward does not come because authorities have caught up with him. Edward is undocumented like him. He goes to the park now alone, now the other half of the bench where Edward used to sit is empty. Isolation could not be underscored better. Appreciable is how Fajardo does not settle for the relationship alone, but follows Benjie to his work as well, to give us the details and meat of the segment. There, the director shows big machines to our faces, and Benjie being scolded by his boss. The message is clear: Benjie is a merely a dot in a tiger country whose economy is so advanced, it can afford to be unforgiving and cold, especially to the paperless.
Manuel is working in a bar as a hosto and his first scene shows him escorting a client out, his only client so far and maybe for the rest of the night. He is old for his job so his customers come in trickles, and so when he spots a prospective customer by the door he approaches quickly and offers himself to her rather religiously. But she is sure she wants Jay instead. You see his diminishing market value by the way his face dims a bit for the rejection.
Another time, he gets rejected again by an old-time regular, their haggling gone sour in a snap. She throws money in his face in anger, while he is lying undressed on the sofa. She shoos him out. He collects all his things, which are mostly clothes he took off and before finally leaving picks up all the scattered bills, his desperation inversely proportional to the how few he is gathering from the floor and how needy his retrieval is.
So he resorts to supplementary job: cleaning toilets. For the broke like him, any job would do. For all his despondence, it is surprising the character is not one dimensional. Writers Herlyn Alegre and John Paul Bedia make him wasted as well: he is addicted to gambling. The frequency of his betting goes past the logical, of attempting to recoup losses, to something deeper and self inflected, his irritability with co-hostos could not have underscored the depression better. See how he easily flares out one time when he hears a co-worker utter a word, and he goes at it, superficial thing, like it is the biggest concern in the world. And Allen Dizon, now past his macho days with excess fats starting to peek out here and there, seizes the role like he has not before, and what a performance!
Linda rents out flats to fellow Filipinos, most of whom are illegal aliens, and among them is Rodel. Her husband, a Japanese, her sole cling to the country, feels the high risks of her business so he wants them out. And so Linda is caught between her husband’s pressure and dealing with fellow Pinoys, most of whom have become her friends.
She seems not so aware of the consequences of what she is doing; or she is, only she is Filipino helpful and compassionate. Plus she funded some of her boarders’ coming to Japan, so pushing them away is like letting them off the hook. Her realizations came when one time, on her way home, an immigration officer stops her to check her ID. These are encounters the bilogs are trying to evade.
The fourth segment, Rodel’s, appears out of place, the film’s blemish. While Benjie’s, Linda’s and Manuel’s sections are all introspective, Rodel’s is more physical. More about his rivalry with a fellow Pinoy co-worker than about a bilog’s circumstance in Japan. This rivalry starts out as inggitan that turns bigger as egos get in the way. It reaches to a boiling point, the face off reduced to kinetic run and catch game that results in a homicide. His story is actually part and parcel of the play but with the adaptation’s thrust of self-contemplation, it has become a mere wrap-up to the three stories before it, a sort of a mandatory climax to send a whole film into a heart-thumping crescendo. The segment does not need it, this treatment.
The tail end of the segment has four characters met at Linda’s place, the play’s sole residue on the adaptation. Rodel’s crisscrossing in the house’s rooms is one treatment too far, but a few minutes before it, Fajardo gives us an effective pouring out that has Linda and Benjie criticizing Pinoy’s creativity when coming up with aliases. Federal Express has become Pederico Paspas, Benjie chides, while laughing out loud. Linda joins the bitter gratification, until their laughs give way to their true feeling, the pain inescapable, their situation undeniable.
The last scene is pregnant with meaning. Rodel, in trying to escape from the crime, runs fast. After him are the authorities, and they might as well be running metaphorically after all the bilogs in Japan, the undocumented workers whose collective trails of fleeing are in the snow, caught by camera, on the film’s final frame.