Directed and Written by Sheron Dayoc
It's a sort of porn, too, the valorizing that domestic cinema makes OFWs undergo, much like the way they valorize the poor. Let's truss it up, then, and pelt it with ridicule like we do poverty porn, but then again let's not as that's petty and a bore. Not to say that there's nothing to exalt about OFWs but when a demographic becomes too profitable to upset, the patronizing tends to get laid on a little too thick even for melodramas. And as a trope, all those films - - - Caregiver and Anak and Dubai- - - say little about working away from your family in another country other than that it takes a tremendous sacrifice and that it can get terribly lonely and that it's heroic almost. Sheron Dayoc's Halaw taps a bleaker, richer vein. The grist that feeds his film may be the rampant people smuggling that sneaks out of Zamboanga and into the back door of Sabah, but it's really about the desperation and banality of the Faustian bargains that are as much at the heart of the OFW experience as the heroism and the melancholia. And how deep they run into the systemic malfunction of a country that fails time and again to sustain its workforce and into the seductive glamor of anywhere but here.
Following a ragtag group of stragglers that include a returning and bejeweled middle-aged whore (Maria Isabel Lopez, hilarious), a brother and sister (Arnalyn Ismael, a little pushy but a grace note regardless) hoping to reunite with their mother and John Arcilla, who threatens to center a piece that doesn't want for one but calms his trademark seethe down into a fitful languor before he does, Halaw only looks like an ensemble piece but doesn't behave like one. Working abroad under any conditions, but moreso under these conditions, is a last resort without coordinates. And it is this random and aimless meander to the way Halaw denies its characters any room to bond into a group dynamic nor milks them for anything more than a passing empathy and to the way it picks up strands of plot and subplot it doesn't pursue and parses everything in loose ends and half-measures, that nails the interior rhythm of what every OFW goes through, the numbing tedium of waiting under which anxiously simmers threat.
Less than a third of the way in, though, as night falls and the rickety outrigger sets out to sea, Halaw lapses into montage - - - anxious faces, blackened tides, maudlin ballad playing over it all. It's wistful,sure, but not a little at odds tonally and also not a little corny and not a little phony, too. It's a freak burst of weakness and a mere nit I wouldn't have picked if the suspiscion that the film has been cut against its will didn't get more and more persistent after this. If there's anything Halaw needs, it's at least another half-hour to breathe, not to have more room for more things to happen but rather to have more room for more things not to happen. Tedium and threat, right. And much as every scene seems determined to acquiesce to this necessary torpor, something curtails it before it gets to do so, cuts it short, hurries it up, hews it to a shape. Its unfortunate English title (Ways of The Sea) may come off like some drab tourism AVP but Halaw does benefit from not having the temperament of your average Cinemalaya film: that would be earnest and cushy and prudent and no coloring outside the lines. And I wouldn't necessarily mind truncation if it didn't have the worrying nag that much of it is done to fold the film into the weary comfort zones of the Cinemalaya house style it's been evading and doing a valiant job of it,too.
But it's the last shot nearly everyone piles on,though - - -the outrigger disappearing into a dark grove and the series of expository title cards telling us nothing, at least nothing the literal translation of the title (deportee) hadn't told us already. It's the loosest of loose ends, all unease and displacement and with the severity of a stump where a hand should be. I have no idea if the Halaw we have is a Faustian bargain struck with the forces that be, right down to the terrible subtitling, all I go by is how tough it is to shake the sense that the ending came out of some reverting back to carte blanche. Not only is it the film's most triumphant moment, aesthetically, but as a singular, damning epitome of the pointlessness in it all, it is also its truest. * * *