Monday, June 15, 2009

IndioBravo: Baler

Think of the Siege of Baler as the Filipino Alamo, except it was the Spaniards making the last stand. 1898 was a rough year for the Spanish Empire, but the officers commanding the barricaded remnant refused to consider the possibility of defeat at the hands of the Filipino revolutionaries. The nearly year-long siege would be a miserable ordeal, which also separates two young lovers in Mark Meily’s historical drama Baler (trailer here), which screened during the IndioBravo Film Festival.

Half Spaniard and half Filipino, Celso Resurreccion volunteered for the Spanish Army hoping it would eventually take him to Spain, where he could reunite with his Spaniard father. While serving his term of enlistment, he meets Feliza, the beautiful daughter of an ardent nationalist. Unfortunately, great historical events will interrupt their star-crossed love.

Although Resurreccion tries to elope with Feliza, events conspire against them. As a loyal soldier, he finds himself taking refuge with fifty-some of his comrades in Baler’s Catholic Church, the coastal town’s only stone building. Like the famous Japanese soldier who finally surrendered in 1974 (also in the Philippines), the defenders of Baler refuse to believe news of Spain’s defeat. For nearly a full year, the Spaniards would hold out, allowing Resurreccion and his friend Lope only surreptitious glimpses at their Filipino true loves.

Baler is an unapologetic historical romance filled with canon fire and lovers embracing on wind-swept cliffs. Yet, the actual historical episode is indeed quite fascinating, lending itself to cinematic adaptation, particularly the Filipino rebels’ inventive attempts at psychological warfare. While Baler essentially depicts the Spanish officers as arrogant fanatics, it frankly humanizes the rank-and-file Spaniards (and half-Spaniards) far more than the largely faceless rebel forces.

Jericho Rosales and Anne Curtis (who is actually half-Filipino and half-Australian) are reasonably credible and sympathetic romantic leads. Frankly, Mark Bautista and Nikki Bacolod are at least as charismatic in supporting roles as their best friends Lope and Luming (if not more so). Still, Meily shows a deft touch with the material, never letting the action sink too deeply into over-ripe melodrama.

Baler is an old-fashioned sweeping weeper of a romance. Fans of the genre should find it a pleasing diversion. It also effectively dramatizes an intriguing but little known chapter of the Philippines’s history, making it a compatible fit for IndioBravo’s festival program.