To Visayans, their language is anything but just another regional vocabulary in the Philippines for expressing themselves. Visaya (or Bisaya) the language (of which there are several ethnolinguistic distinctions) is at the heart of the Visayan identity. It forms the strength of the Visayan people and their culture in all their uniqueness and diversity. On the global stage—even on the Philippine stage—however, Visaya has been comparatively less visible than the more standardized Tagalog whenever people refer to the Philippines.
So it was a very good thing when award-winning Filipino actor Cesar Montano decided in 2004 to produce the Visayan-language film “Panaghoy sa Suba” (in English “The Call of the River”). The movie, which Montano directs and stars in, was presented as an exposition of the Visayan language with both a Filipino and an international audience in mind. Montano’s venture paid off handsomely as “Panaghoy” received stalwart reviews nationally and around the world.
As specifically accommodating in being constitutive of an overarching Visayan theme, Montano’s World War Two-era film—set in the island of Bohol—encompasses more than just a regional setting. Ranging from American colonial arrogance to the Japanese occupation that befell the Philippines, Montano takes particular pains in “Panaghoy” to add a resonant patina of historical reality to his narrative.
As the countdown to war begins in the film, a widely-despised American businessman named John Smith (played by Phil Anthony) throws his colonial and racial weight around in supervising his Filipino laborers. He has nothing but contempt and condescension for the natives with the exception of Iset, a young, submissive female played by actress Juliana Palermo. To complicate matters for Palermo’s Maria Clara-type female character, the Japanese occupation produces another romantic admirer of hers, this time a loyal subject of the Japanese empire but a kindly Japanese officer (Jacky Woo). Both the American entrepreneur and the Japanese officer make marriage proposals to Iset, whose real love interest is Montano’s character, Duroy. To add further infatuation to “Panaghoy’s” love quadrangle is Duroy’s younger brother (Reivan Bulado). The brother does the noble thing by putting his feelings for Iset aside for his older brother.
Marrying Iset one day is an inviting prospect for Duroy. But his emergence as a formidable guerilla leader—Duroy was a former banca operator—temporarily sidetracks his plans for the future. One of Duroy’s distinctive character attributes is his robust heroism and courage. These sometimes extreme attributes are tempered by a placid and docile nature.
A given pillar of “Panaghoy” is its enticing cinematographic frames of the physically-distinctive and psychologically-enriching tributary and surrounding area that greatly enhances the audience’s viewing sensation. Continuing along this stream of thought, Montano seamlessly converges his film’s natural environment with the localized, provincial society which is completely dependent on it. Capable of subsisting without intricate and artificial constructions like social divisions, a modern rule of law, or a strong governmental presence, the social microcosm that emerges in “Panaghoy” gives us the illusion of peaceful existence in the throes of war. But this illusion doesn’t last for long as the movie’s characters are soon overwhelmed by the agony and sacrifices of the greater conflict being waged around them.
Bristling with drama and passion, “Panaghoy sa Suba” on closer inspection is wrapped in several thematic layers, all of which create a profound effect on the film’s characters. A more comprehensive perspective of Montano’s movie will prove to be no less reflective.
Most of all, “Panaghoy” is unabashedly faithful to the Visayan language and culture that its director draws his production from. By filtering threads of romantic love and the inescapable history of the Philippines through the Visayan cultural and linguistic matrix, Montano leaves an indelible mark on Philippine cinema.