A dreamlike meld of fiction and documentary framed around spiritual beliefs and folklore from the Philippines’ Palawan province, “Busong” is enriching as ethnography and frequently frustrating as entertainment. Based on stories told to helmer Auraeus Solito (“The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros”) by his mother, this heavily symbolic essay is beautifully filmed and contains many striking sequences, but long stretches of narrative inertia will challenge even dedicated arthouse buffs. Pic has already clocked extensive fest mileage since its Directors’ Fortnight bow at Cannes, and will test offshore commercial waters with a planned March 2012 release in France.
Returning to the archipelago where he filmed the 2002 docu “Basal Banar” (Sacred Ritual of Truth), which concerned threats posed to traditional Palawano life by external business interests, Solito has composed this love letter to his homeland with only the thinnest wisp of conventional storytelling. What little narrative it contains revolves around Punay (Alessandra de Rossi), a young woman with crippling foot injuries and a terrible skin condition. Carried in a hammock by her brother, Angkarang (Rodrigo Santikan), Punay is seeking a healer for afflictions that have prevented her from ever setting foot on the ground.
With Punay’s damaged body serving as a metaphor for the ills and dangers facing Palawan, the screenplay detours into the lives of strangers the siblings encounter on their quest. Distressed widow Ninita (Bonivie Budao) tells the story of her late husband, Tony (Walter Arenio), a logger fatally crushed by an amugis tree, which is held sacred in animistic Palawan culture.
Briefly helping to carry Punay’s hammock is Lulong (Dax Alejandro), a fisherman whose son has drowned following an encounter with a hotheaded foreigner (Aussie thesp Chris Haywood) who claims to own the land and sea that have fed Lulong’s family for generations. The conflict between old ways and new realities is embodied by Aris (Clifford Banagale, “Bruno”), a descendant of Palawan healers who has returned from Manila to help Punay.
Depictions of shamanistic rituals and tribal customs related to cycles of birth, death and resurrection are fascinating, but co-scripters Henry Burgos and Solito (credited under his Palawano tribal name, Kanakan Balintagos) too frequently break the spell with extended passages in which virtually nothing happens. Connections between many of the characters drifting through the frame are sometimes very difficult to determine.
The result is a stop-start experience that will still move many viewers with its plea for the protection and preservation of Palawan culture, but distance others with hazy storytelling. Even during static passages, pic is well served by a convincing cast of inexperienced local actors who hold their own in the company of well-known performers de Rossi and Banagale.
Lensing by ace d.p. Louie Quirino (“Amok”) presents magnificent imagery of pristine beaches and forests, and a sequence in which non-CGI butterflies hatch from a human face is genuinely astonishing. All other tech credits are fine. Title translates as “fate,” or “instant karma.”