Balangiga: A Howling Wilderness

BALANGIGA: A HOWLING WILDERNESS (2017), dir. Khavn de la Cruz


Gigi Javier Alfonso

It is a film that does not have much words; a surreal visual poetry of moving pictures with punctuations of disturbing images of fear, ravaged homes, massive killings, a scattering of human and animal carcass. Filipinos are fleeing, distraught, not knowing where to go, stripped of the spirit of purposeful resistance, overwhelmed by the declaration of the vengeful viciousness of the then commanding General Jacob H. Smith. The year was 1901. Americans occupied the Philippines taking over immediately from the Spanish colonizers in 1898. At this time, thinking that the US pacification campaign in the Philippines was a success and resistance to American dominance was at a minimum, the armed uprising in Balangiga happened. The confrontation left the US forces with ore casualties than that of the “Filipino rebels” in Samar, and it was a demoralizing surprise for the new colonizers.

Angered, Smith declared an all-out war and decided to flex American muscles to ignite terror all over Samar:

“I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn, the better it will please me… The interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness…”

With this command, Filipino men, women, and children from ten years old and above were mercilessly slaughtered. The people of Samar were seemingly cowed and terrorized into unquestioning submission on hearing these words.

Director Khavn chose to follow the narrative of ten-year old boy Kulas whose father was just massacred with many others. Justine Samson as Kulas was brilliant as the silent, brave, and determined young boy escaping a sure death sentence if he stays in the villages near Balangiga, Borongan, and other neighboring towns in Samar. He must cross mountains and rivers to reach the town where his mother was staying, a place which was beyond the tentacles of the vengeful Americans. Kulas, in this long and treacherous journey, was accompanied by his outwardly grumpy and ornery grandfather he calls Apoy (in Waray), aptly performed by Pio del Rio, and pet carabao Melchora. The painful and harrowing trek brings them to a village where men women and children were recently massacred. Homes were still burning and amidst the smoke, a toddler is revealed all covered with soot, a lone survivor. Kulas names him Bola and decides to bring him along. We see Kulas doing everything, while his grandfather slowly loses his strength.

Why am I so admiringly fascinated with this film Balangiga: Howling Wilderness? It received much bashing and beating from viewers who took note of the harrowing processes the child actors went through. The responses make this film and the filmmaker answerable to many questions on “sense of responsibility, propriety and ethics,” not only to the very young actors but to the general public for showing intermittently: the massacre of villagers; men, women, and children scrambling for their lives only to be struck down and left lifeless in the setting of fire and ashes; the characters in religious attire masturbating as he preaches; the cutting of a chicken’s head; the molestation of a goat; the piercing of a wriggling, shrieking piglet; the hacking of a carabao’s head; the scraping of the innards of the carabao; and Kulas cradling himself in the emptied body of his beloved pet.

The actual Samar experience is more horrific than any of these images. These shocking images, in comparison, lack the gore and lurid squalor that war brings. But the film is not just about shocking viewers. It took the cudgels of thickening the discourse of Samar’s devastation that has remained buried and silenced through generations of film literature.

The treatment of the film brings us to a level beyond neo-realism, a narrative form where non-actors are documented playing themselves. It cuts into some sense of magic realism, where thoughts and dreams are woven into the scenes with no foreshadowing cues. Melchora, the carabao flies, the bird doll with Christmas balls defecates, three giant bells with human feet collide and under the bell, a nude family. These images are meant to empower the viewers to do their own sense making. The allegories, ironies around with injected unpredictable scenes with blows of electrifying heinous images of the macabre.

While all that is being depicted is loss, defeat, and death, an outstanding strong ringing note of resistance (with villagers running after an ugly arrogant American soldier and killing him and with dear Melchora the carabao hovering about) embraces Kulas, Apoy, Bola with deep indomitable spirits.

Khavn has delivered a work that leaves our flesh quivering and our spirits moving on to face the future with mature anger, courage, and passion.


Nicanor G. Tiongson

Balangiga: A Howling Wilderness is a historical film that succeeds in making more palpable to a contemporary audience the effects of the Balangiga massacre of 28 September 1901. Unlike movies about heroes that almost always end up as hagiographies or films about historical events that present a textbook narrative of past events, Balangiga, under the cutting-edge direction of Khavn, engages the audience with its moving tale of a ten-year-old boy fleeing with his grandfather from their native Balangiga after American General Jake Smith promised to turn Samar into a “howling wilderness” n retaliation for the death of more than 50 American officers and soldiers.

In the last days of September and the whole month of October 1901, Kulas and his grandfather Apoy Buroy hurriedly leave their native Balangiga on a carabao sled, after Kulas’s father is killed by the Americans. With a pet chicken and a few belongings, the refuges must travel over three mountains and seven rivers to reach Quinapundan, where their relatives will give them sanctuary. Along the way, they encounter different victims of war,  both dead and alive: a group of circus performers who inform them that Americans are threatening to kill all males ten years old and above; the bloody corpse of a boy spread-eagled on their path; a crazed Banduria Bandolero playing a guitar with broken strings as he watches over his son’s lifeless body; a village burned by the Americans from which Kulas saves an orphaned two-year-old boy; a horny Father Puray proclaiming the beatitudes or blessings of each sexual organ from a pulpit in the middle of an empty rice field. One day the three travelers are caught in a driving rain and the grandfather falls sick. Before he dies, Apoy Buroy bequeaths to his grandson his special anting-anting and tells Kulas to travel following the setting sun until he gets to the place called Biringan, where there are no Americans and there is only peace and food and loved ones like his mother.

As Kulas resumes the journey, now with just the baby he has christened Bola (ball), he encounters a mute American soldier who uses his gun to force Kulas to cook for him. The soldier then shoots Melchora the carabao dead and orders Kulas to hack his pet carabao to pieces, removing the innards and roasting pieces of the meat. With hatred in his eyes, Kulas attacks the soldier with a long knife when the latter takes a leak, then grabs the soldier’s gun and shoots the soldier in the arm, scaring him away. Kulas gathers the remaining meat and travels again with Bola on his back till they get to the hut of the couple Yuyay and Pandoy, with whom he shares his rice and carabao meat, while they give him camote to eat. Two days after, the couple disappears, taking with the rice, meat and Kulas’s anting anting which he had given to Bola to wear. Kulas then moves on with Bola, stopping to fish and cook or pick fruits. Once, he witnesses the townspeople running after the American soldier who shot Melchora. This time it is he that the people hack to death with bolos. As Kulas leads Bola through a desolate landscape, he tells the boy how much he loves him, even if all Bola does is cry. Soon after, Bola dies and Kulas must once again bury a loved one in the sand. Bereft of all that is dear to him, Kulas himself soon expires. Melchora flies over the dead body, but soon the boy’s soul is shown excitedly crossing the shallow river toward Biringan, a place of many animated colors, where the dead congregate in blissful existence, free from witch birds and white oppressors.

The journey that Kulas undertakes is not only physical but psychological and spiritual as well. Although he travels for only a few weeks, Kulas, played with intelligence and sensitivity by a very natural actor named Justine Samson, matures in the process, from a naïve boy who just wants to catch dragonflies to one who can cook rice without burning it, from a kid who must be ordered around to do what he should do to one who can take care of a sick grandfather and bury him after he dies, from a child looking for a mother to protect him to a gentle guardian to Baby Bola. Balangiga is a growing up story, much like that of another Kulas in an earlier film also about the Philippine American war called Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?

But what makes both Kulas and the film memorable is the way the boy is characterized through his inner thoughts and dreams, invariably presented as surreal scenes replete with symbols, allusions, and layered, sometimes ambiguous, meanings. The majority of these dreams depict his longing for and obsession with finding his mother, who at times acquires a dimension of motherland and at other times is conflated with freedom. In the dreams, she is the mother sitting on a carabao, which in turn is standing on a boat piloted by Kulas, which stands absolutely still on solid ground; the mother lying dead or asleep as she floats on air inside a burning hut; the mother frantically digging into the sand while several natives are buried in the sand with only their heads showing; and the mother and Kulas in panic as they are chased by three flying balls of fire. Some dreams center on the witch bird (an assemblage of paper, bamboo, and Christmas balls) that represents the conqueror America, which like the Adarna bird of the local korido, would lull the native through a song (a beautiful lullaby) into a sleep of colonial quiescence. Other dreams refer to historical details associated with the Balangiga attack, like the bells that Kulas rings and the huge bell under which the family of Kulas is discovered by an American soldier. Recurrent is the dream of Melchora the pet carabao flying in the air, emblematic perhaps of the native’s freedom that can only be found in Biringan, as is the dream of Kulas’s mother standing strong as and against a mythic balete tree, as chickens freely fly around her. A dream of Biringan also is that of Kulas playing with children of his age (who later vanish like ghosts) inside a circle drawn on the sand bar. A thought-provoking image is that of an American military trumpet standing upright on a stony stream as it plays a call to arms, followed by the image of the grandfather on all fours chasing a goat which he then has sexual intercourse with. Of course another category and absolutely disturbing is the image of a live pig skewered like a shrimp on an upright bamboo pole, slowly bleeding and squealing to death (with no historical or cultural basis, can this image be considered sensationalistic and ultimately gratuitous?).

Interestingly too, the film blurs the line between the real and the surreal, implying perhaps that one is continuous with the other– given the excesses and absurdities that man is capable of. At the end of the first dream about the witch bird, the mechanical bird, imitating the Adarna, defecates on the sleeping Kulas. When Kulas wakes up, he discovers that the bird dropping has actually burned into the skin of his arm. This happens right before his grandfather had beheaded and roasted the night before. In another scene, Kulas leads Bola through a wilderness of crosses marking the graves of the victims of Jake Smith’s murderous rampage. The scenes of Lourd de Veyra as Banduria Bandolero and Roxlee as Father Puray are designed and shot to look surreal. Through design also, the real assume a tinge of the surreal (e.g., the green paint dabbed on the head of the chicken and the nose of the carabao). Through camera and computer, the shot of a landscape in a square frame is superimposed on the “actual” and larger landscape in one scene.

But ironically, even as the film succeeds in composing the character of Kulas through dialogue, costume, and dreams, it fails to adequately relate and contextualize the boy’s story within the larger events that happened in Balangiga before and on 28 September 1901. At most, the dreams allude to the bells of Balangiga and the American eagle of imperialism, but even these symbols would probably be lost on ordinary audiences who probably know nothing or very little about the Balangiga attack, how the bells figured in that attack (the bells signaled the general attack on the American soldiers camp), and what the Balangiga incident meant to the Philippine-American war and America’s grand project of imperialist expansionism. As it is, the film assumes that the ordinary Filipino knows what actually has been called “the forgotten war” which our Americanized education precisely erased or blurred from our memories as Filipinos. And yet there are so many instances in the film where images of the Balangiga attack could have been introduced. For instance, the boy says he hates the Americans because they killed his father. The film leaves it at that. So, the questions engendered in the audience’s mind are left unanswered: why and how was the father killed? Was he one of those shot during the native attack on the mess hall of the Americans or one of those shot in the plaza or in the convent where the American officers were killed. There were many scenes in the film that could have ushered in flashbacks to show the scenes of the Balangiga attack: the burning village, the corpses hanging from trees, the lines and lines of crosses on the beach. Similarly, dreams could have smuggled in scenes of what actually happened to Kulas’s family members, and the people of his village. So many of these precious historical details are found precisely in Rolando Borrinaga’s book which Khavn claims to have used.

While the film must be commended for its bold decision to tell the story of Balangiga through a boy’s eyes, for its imaginative way of creating character through riveting surreal dreams, and for the director’s deft orchestration of screenplay, cinematography, editing, and music, I must also be reminded that the point of making a historical film is still primarily historical. To my mind, a historical film succeeds as such if it is able to give us a deeper understanding of a historical event and the forces that figured in it, through stories and characters that translate that historical event into a moving human experience that ordinary people can empathize with. If the film had allowed Kulas (and the audience) to gain knowledge of the larger conflict in Balangiga– without violating the point of view of a ten-year-old boy– through the boy’s dreams, the evidences of war he encounters during his travel, and the fellow Samarenos he meets and talks to, the film would not only be the personal journey of an individual but a social epic showing a peasant child caught in the maelstrom of that “howling wilderness” that was the aftermath of that one glorious moment, when the natives of a sleepy barrio planned and executed one of the most ingenious victories of the Filipinos in the war against imperialist America.


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