The bulk of Carlo Enciso Catu’s full-length debut, Ari: My Life with a King – and may be its weighty and telling part – is the first act where he introduces his ambitions, among which is to elevate the language, and so its champions, by honoring a provincial poet laureate, as an outstanding alumni of Sapang Biabas Academy during the school’s foundation/commencement exercises. It is during this early part where Catu underscores his points: the program is already starting and yet the honoree, a Pampanga poet laureate, Kong Dado (Francisco Guinto), is far away at his backyard, in overused house clothes, caressing a gamecock. And out in the far-flung stretches of lifeless lahar and tall grasses is Jaypee (Ronwaldo Martin), a highschool student tasked to fetch the poet, almost lost, on an intermittently working motorcycle, and looking for the poet’s whereabouts.
The film’s big points aren’t evenly spread over the length, with the second half hardly saying a thing, while the outset taking all the bulk. Catu takes another emphasis by relegating the poet to the tail end of the program where while he is delivering his acceptance onstage, the program’s guest, who is the town mayor, is down there doing photo ops with the principal and being escorted out to his SUV, his company oblivious of the poem Lucifer that is being rendered by the honoree. The audiences, comprising mostly of students of the school, do not do better, hardly paying attention, the poem and its art probably lost on them.
It should have been a big day for Kong Dado and where else to bring in ironies than that day when he and all what he stands for, language or otherwise, are supposed to be celebrated. His poet-friends are not given food because they are not the awardee, and where Kong Dado is situated at during the refreshment somebody more talkative is lording it, using language casually and his audience are all ears. When he transfers table bringing with him his untouched food, nobody minds, the film’s message could not be clearer. Catu does a yin yang, or irony, where the significant is repeatedly taken for granted, why should we indeed cling to the old and obsolete? And even Jaypee, the one he least expects to do the transgression has forgotten him, only to remember hours later, retrieving him in a classroom where he hied off booted by all, where he used to sit when he was still a student. He is there silently situated in the room’s quietness, seeming resolved and not complaining in his loneness, you remember this helplessness earlier, when he was eating alone in his barong, and in the golden laurel leaves headdress, which he proudly dons whenever going out (a neighbor making a deal out of it, “I haven’t seen him crownless yet!”)
Jaypee carries the old man home already late and so he gets invited to sleep over and in the morning when the poet’s wife, Miding, invites him to stay for a vacation, he jumps at it like it is what he has been waiting for in his dear life, you wonder what transpired during the night to convince him it is a place worth returning to. Catu does not let us in on Jaypee’s thoughts sometimes, unless Jaypee’s agenda of having the poet teach him write a poem for his girl counts. Catu actually does not let us in on what he is up to most of the time. The speed of Kong Dado’s passing, for instance, which comes faster than your boy/girlfriend. And so is his sudden shift in narrative, this sliding the film down the track from its convincing start, never picking up to its initial hurrah after. If Catu has successfully made a case for a language almost getting outmoded in today’s generation, he also stalls it in favor of building friendship. The lad does not have ideal parents and the couple do not have children around and so they forge a family, both parties filling up each other’s vacuum. Not a bad thing to focus on, sure, but with the initial salvo of big words such as dying culture and language, this redirection is a lesser option and, on its own, a cliché.
Character study would have been a better detour but even this is the film’s lesser concern. After motorbike gives up on Jaypee and Kong Dado, forcing them to walk the length of the way home, Jaypee asks the old man if he has children. The film answers it with a long silence, then a cut. This kind of mum is recurrent throughout. Aside from an instance when deep into the night, Jaypee chances a photo album containing some old pictures of then young Miding holding a child, supposedly theirs, we have no idea what else is there to the old man. Rather it concentrates on passing characterizations (he is short-tempered, a drunkard, a boastful cockfighter) that are not fleshed out, no depths have therefore been excavated. We stay at the surface and get stuck at: Kong Dado, the King, is a skilled language technician. If he has warts and hemorrohoids, the film shuts us off them. That is why, when the film wraps everything up with a solemn funeral procession of an important man, which occupies a good few minutes of the film’s second half, we are not fully in on it.
What ultimately salvages the film are its strong message and high ambitions. It interacts Kapampangan language and Tagalog and the volley between implying a marriage of Filipino dialects that could spell culture and oneness. The first act delivers the goods. The rest, the bigger part, could have followed.