7 November 2014 | rooprect
"Where is far away?"
My title comes from a dialogue between the main character and his little sister when he tells her about people leaving the village to earn a living "far away".
"Where is far away?" she asks.
He answers: "Everywhere is far away."
"Batad: Sa paang palay" means something like "Batad: With no rice" (if you can trust my very rusty translation). The irony is that Batad is a mountain village in the Philippines boasting 4000 square miles of gorgeous rice terraces.
I had the life-changing opportunity to visit the rice terraces when I was 8 years old. Of course when you're 8, everything seems larger than life, more fantastic and more magical. For decades I told my friends about a place in the mountains that looked like a humongous amphitheater built for the Jolly Green Giant, with lush green steps ascending to the heavens. Nobody believed me, Jenny Keener called me a freakazoid, and after a while I started to doubt myself. That's one of the main reasons why I picked up this movie, some 30 years later, to see if my childhood memories were accurate.
And how! The scenery alone is worth the price of admission. Although the film was not shot in HD (someone please remaster this for blu-ray!) the majesty is stunning. Then the story begins...
The story struck me very much like an Aesop's fable but with humans. A barefoot mountain boy notices tourists wearing nice hiking boots, and it makes him want a pair for himself. He works hard to save money, comes up with some creative & hilarious ways of making a few pesos, but as fast as he earns it, the kind-hearted boy gives it away to his mother to buy food and basic necessities. At the same time, he starts dreaming of leaving his ancestral home and exploring the world, much to the dismay of his parents.
As a side note, I remember when I was there, a villager was really admiring my red Keds sneakers. I ended up giving them to him, and he loved them so much I think he wore them in his sleep. That is to say, the premise of this film is no exaggeration. Something, to us, as trivial as a pair of shoes can be, to them, like a fancy Rolex.
The film is very light-hearted with spots of humor, so things never become disturbing or violent, although there are 1 or 2 tense moments in the second half. The message & morality of the story is clear in the end, but there are enough pauses for reflection along the way to see the grey areas. This is the kind of movie which, despite its simplicity, can raise a lot of profound social & cultural discussions. Should cultures stay the way they are? Or should they integrate with the world? Is your primary duty to serve your family & community? Or should each individual court his/her own ambition? Should humans be wearing shoes or should we be barefoot?? Just like an Aesop's fable, we are given one resolution, but you can't help but wonder about the other possibilities.
By the way (this has no bearing on the story except to give it context), Batad is currently suffering a sort of exodus by its farmers. It is estimated that only 10% of the rice fields are actually being farmed due to farmers moving to the city for more job opportunities. Thus, this seemingly simple film paints a very powerful socio-economic picture.
This could be a great movie to watch with your kids, with your parents, or with the international finance ministers of G7 planning their next global economic policy.
And of course (if I haven't mentioned it already) the scenery is just breathtaking, and if this film ever gets remastered in HD for blu-ray players I would pay any price. My childhood memories have indeed been validated. Take that, Jenny Keener, for calling me a liar all these years!