Saturday, August 19, 2017

New Filipino Cinema ’17: Hamog (Haze)

Whatever you do, do not stereotype these homeless children, the so-called “batang hamog” or “children of haze,” living by their wits on the streets of Manila. For instance, Rashid cannot say he has no family to live with. He has too much family, thanks to his uber-traditional Muslim father, who keeps marrying “stepmothers” that clearly do not like having him around. Instead, he builds a surrogate support system with three other homeless youths, but an ill-fated robbery will break them apart in Ralston Jover’s Hamog (Haze) (trailer here), which screens during the annual New Filipino Cinema series at the Yerba Buena Arts Center.

Fifteen-year-old Jinky was cast out of her home by a drug-addled, mentally unbalanced mother, finding acceptance in the arms of the inhalant-huffing Tisoy. Eight-year-old Moy is the group’s mascot and the resourceful Rashid is the glue who holds them together. Their plans for this day are not so different from any other, but they pick the wrong cabbie to try to rob. Rashid and Tisoy make off with his cash, but the tightly-wound Danny catches Jinky and poor Moy is fatally struck by a delivery van during their escape.

At this point, the narrative splits in two, as we first watch the loyal Rashid try to raise the necessary funds to give Moy a proper funeral and a permanent resting place rather than the Philippine equivalent of Potter’s field. During his campaign, Rashid makes an unsatisfying homecoming, briefly meeting the new stepmother his father intends to marry during a ceremony he is politely asked not to attend.

Meanwhile, Jinky and Danny must contend with each other. Much to his frustration, the cops want nothing to do with a minor and the children’s services bureaucracy is a Kafkaesque joke. Since Jinky desperately wants to avoid the abusive and unsanitary conditions of the juvenile foster home, Danny brings her home to his tenement apartment to serve as a live-in maid. While this arrangement smacks of forced servitude, Jinky seems to willing accept it, but Danny’s wildly dysfunctional relationship with his girlfriend Paula and their third roommate Bernard is probably not sustainable.

Most of Hamog shares a thematic and aesthetic kinship with Brillante Mendoza’s street-level, issue-oriented films, such as Slingshot, written by Jover. However, it takes a weird third act detour into gritty noir terrain worthy of James Cain or Jim Thompson. Yet, Jover presents it so matter-of-factly, it never jars the viewer.

It also helps that the extraordinary young actress Teri Malvar, the Screen International Rising Star Asia Award winner at last year’s NYAFF, is the one selling it. She manages to be simultaneously heartbreaking and chilling as the abused and abandoned Jinky. As the delinquent and the cabbie, she and OJ Mariano (remarkably, the runner up on a Pop Idol-style competition now branching out into acting) develop a strange and evolving relationship that will keep viewers on their toes.

Throughout it all, Jover makes it clear respectable ethical standards do not apply in this world. It is like watching predators in the wild—only the strong survive. It will leave many viewers deeply unsettled (in fact, that is part of what it is going for), but the power of its performances elevates it well above typical slum denizen melodramas. Recommended for admirers of films by the likes of Mendoza and Midi Z, Hamog (Haze) screens tomorrow (8/20) and next Sunday (8/27), as part of New Filipino Cinema 2017 at the YBCA.