At Large: Music in war
By Rina Jimenez-David
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:20:00 11/21/2008
Before World War II, there was a substantial population of Japanese migrants in Davao province, many of them forming friendships with Filipino families. One such friendship resulted not just in a young man’s relative ease with the Japanese language, but also in the survival of the entire family. At war’s end, having survived exile and forced evacuation, the family remains intact and whole. As does their upright piano, which the young man describes as “the heart of our family.”
Music, friendship, loyalty, family and our shared humanity—these are themes that run through the movie “Concerto,” an entry in the recent Cinemalaya competition that is now making its commercial run.
Directed and written by Paul Alexander Morales, “Concerto” tells the story of a family in wartime Davao, based on the diary of Lt. Col. Anastacio Campo as annotated by his granddaughter Virginia Yap Morales, the director’s mother.
It is the Japanese Occupation and the family, headed by Ricardo and Julia, and their six children have left their home in Davao City and are staying in the farm of a tenant, along with Julia’s brother. Ricardo (Nonoy Froilan) used to be with the military and was severely beaten by Japanese interrogators. As the movie opens, he is sick and hobbling, embittered by his experience and vowing revenge against the invaders. But the eldest son Joselito (Jay Aquitania) takes a more practical, pragmatic view. Using his knowledge of Japanese, he sells sweetened camote to the soldiers in the nearby Japanese camp, striking up friendships with the officers who begin to visit them regularly.
A woman of faith and graciousness, Julia (Shamaine Centenera Buencamino) receives the foreign troops as best she can, as does Maria (Yna Asistio), who embarks on a budding romance with a young Japanese lieutenant. Nina (Meryll Soriano) the older sister is ambivalent, nursing feelings for an American soldier she met before the war’s outbreak. Complicating matters is the fact that their oldest sister is married to a doctor who has been conscripted by the guerrillas.
* * *
There is a sense of foreboding throughout the movie. Will the Japanese intelligence officer discover the Filipino family’s connection to the guerrillas? Will Ricardo give vent to his pent-up rage and frustration? Will Joselito’s forays to the camp and his familiarity with the Japanese get him into trouble? And what of the news that the American “liberators” are about to descend on Davao?
The film’s climax is an impromptu concert staged by the family to celebrate the return of their beloved piano, which the Japanese had transported from the city. The timing proves providential, if a little sad, for most of the soldiers are due to leave camp the next morning to take up kamikaze or suicide missions, a last, desperate ploy of the Japanese military. In an evening of Filipino airs, Japanese martial songs and classical piano pieces, the family and their Japanese guests seek solace and resolution, come to terms with their humanity, and reach across the void created by nationality, culture, religion and war to establish a human connection.
* * *
Many times in the movie, one expects it to fall into any one of the clichés of wartime cinema—the rape of the daughters, for instance, the revenge killing, the incarceration of the friendly Joselito, or even the massacre of the family.
But while the film doesn’t obscure or soft-sell the horrors of war—the children come across the body of a civilian in the forest, and Joselito calmly removes the shoes and puts them on—neither does it over-dramatize its impact.
Under Morales’ confident handling, the movie is more interested in exploring how war, in all its dehumanizing horror, manages at the same time to strengthen and burnish one’s humanity. In the family, and in their varied ways of coping with the situation, one sees how, in rising above their difficulties, they manage to maintain the values that have kept them strong and united, surviving even the harshest of times.
There is a lesson here for families everywhere—and in our own “worst of times.” The economic news may sound dire and desperate, but if this family survived the war with just prayers, music and friendship, then surely today’s families can find their own sources of strength, too.
* * *
Although an “indie” production, “Concerto” looks, sounds and feels luxurious. Perhaps it’s the cinematography (by Regiben Romana), which bathes every scene in a warm, golden light. Or maybe it’s the more-than-competent acting, with not a false note by any of the cast.
Outstanding are Shamaine Centenera Buencamino who rises above the challenge of giving nuance to a stereotype, managing to imbue her pious, kindly mother role with some steel and softness. A revelation is Jay Aquitania, who portrays Joselito so comfortably and confidently. Likewise a revelation is Yna Asistio, whose first film role this is. It’s difficult to believe, too, that “Concerto” is Nonoy Froilan’s first venture in film, for he lends the aging, bitter military officer a quiet dignity and resolution. Meryll Soriano has long been an “indie” favorite, and she shows us why in this film, for despite her experience she deliberately keeps her emotions muted.
A special mention here of the actors portraying the Japanese officers and soldiers, who skirt the temptation of overacting and living up to the stereotypes of war movies, to allow the audience a glimmer of the soldiers’ human frailties.
Maybe that’s “Concerto’s” greatest gift: the realization that even in war, we were all, Japanese, American or Filipino, just human beings caught in a hell not of our making, but discovering amid the wreckage, the core of our true selves
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