Hovering between folkloric myth and psychosexual reverie, Philippine helmer Alvan B. Yapan’s “The House by the Bamboo Grove” depicts a woman who develops an all-consuming attachment to her home. Though less visually rhapsodic than Yapan’s previous film, “Debosyon,” this sensual tale basks in the same pagan animism, and intrigues by its very simplicity. Although the opague ending doesn’t totally deliver on the promise of its suspenseful start, this arthouse curio, which features a sex scene that will leave audiences literally bamboozled, should leave home for a busy festival itinerary.
Like the helmer-novelist-scholar’s other works, his fourth is set in his hometown of Baao, in the province of Camarines Sur. Since losing all contact with her parents after they left to work abroad, Michelle (Mercedes Cabral, “Sapi,” “Thy Womb”) has become reclusive, devoting all her time to the art of Calado embroidery, which her mother taught her. Once a thriving handicraft unique to the Bicol region, passed on from Spanish colonialists as early as the 17th century, this needlework now has only one practitioner: Michelle.
Filmmaker Gary (Marc Felix) appears on Michelle’s doorstep to shoot a documentary about the custodian of a dying art. However, the chance of public exposure and an escape from the sticks holds no allure for Michelle. Indeed, her refusal to join b.f. Larry (RK Bagatsing) to seek work abroad is already putting a strain on their relationship. She’s also bothered by the sudden disappearance of her scissors, forcing her to cut thread with a kitchen knife.
Early scenes of Michelle trying to slaughter a rooster are juxtaposed with her mounting neurosis over her lost scissors in montages that evoke a giddy, macabre psychothriller atmosphere. Reading it as a sign from her rickety bamboo hut, she behaves as if it’s a living entity, or a nuno sa punso (ancestor spirit) that’s possessed her. Her obsession culminates in a crescendo of weirdness, with what must be the first ever soft-porn sequence involving a bamboo tree.
Yapan’s focus on the female protagonist’s psychological state, as she struggles to stay put despite Larry’s and the other villagers’ advice, serves as his commentary on the country’s labor diaspora and fading traditional culture. Though the helmer denies magical-realist or supernatural inclinations in his representation, claiming instead to depict an “organic” relationship between human and house, lenser Ronald Rebutica’s fetishistic closeups of objects — a stone, a beetle, flowers that mirror Michelle’s embroidery motifs — build to a trancelike effect that implies nature’s sometimes strange hold on the human psyche, of which the amorous bamboo is a symbol. While the film sensibly attempts nothing overtly ethnological or portentous (like making the house a metaphor for the country), the gothic ending and subsequent tangential flashback are overly nuanced, weakening the story’s impact.
Given the compact cast, Brillante Mendoza regular Cabral is tasked with holding the minimalist plot together, and she largely succeeds, her contemplative looks and misty eyes reflecting an intuitive communion with her surroundings. Although her opening monologue borders on the pretentious, the low hum of her voice throughout the film exerts the hypnotic effect of a lullaby or bedtime story. Bagatsing and Felix are considerably less distinctive in their roles.
Tech credits are decent given the standard Philippine indie budget. Less lustrously colored than “Debosyon,” Rebutica’s compositions still consistently yield visual interest — from the eerily lit, prowling shots of the hut, decorated with mysterious intimacy by production designer Paolo Rey Mendoza Piana, to the poetic watery widescreen images. Jema Pamintuan’s light score leaves less of an impression than the music accompanying children dallying with tinikling, once the country’s national dance, whose movements mimic those of a bird hopping between bamboo trees. The percussive rhythm made by bamboo poles reinforces the organic relationship between Philippine folk art and its ecosystem.