“Taklub,” Filipino auteur Brillante Mendoza’s portrait of three surviving families a year after Typhoon Yolanda ripped through the city of Tacloban, is more concerned with their emotional devastation than with the physical aftermath. Shot in a no-frills documentary style that echoes its subjects’ deprivation, the film is at once intimate and detached in its dramatic economy, though the finale will leave many viewers saddened yet humbled. Without the provocative content of films like “Serbis” or “Kinatay,” it will be hard for this quiet work to make a dent in European arthouse circles. Domestic response will be much warmer, given its relevance, but mostly thanks to the reverence that lead actress Nora Aunor commands.
“A time to tear down and a time to build”: Quoting Ecclesiastes 3:1-6 in the closing credits, Mendoza reflects on the material and spiritual hurdles facing disaster reconstruction efforts, questioning whether faith, charity, stoicism and hard work are of any help when the tragedy is so random, the suffering so personal and acute. Certainly the film’s seemingly drive-by images of rubble everywhere testify to the havoc wreaked by Yolanda (aka Typhoon Haiyan), one of the strongest tropical cyclones recorded in history and the deadliest ever to hit the Philippines. Tacloban was the economic center of the Eastern Visayas region, a highly urbanized city with a population of more than 220,000 in 2010. It suffered a death toll of 6,201 when Yolanda struck on Nov. 8, 2014, but many more are lost or unidentified.
The film begins with a raw, disorienting depiction of a fire devouring a mother and her three children in their tent — an intimation that, a year on, death and destruction are still not far away from the survivors. One child survives but is in critical condition. Lianora Lariosa, nicknamed Babeth (Aunor), who lives with teenage daughter Angela (Shine Santos) and runs an eatery, makes a concerted effort to collect donations for Renato (Lou Veloso), who lost his wife and children in the tent fire.
Other characters who cross paths with her are Larry (Julio Diaz, “Kinatay,” “Serbis”) and brothers Erwin (Aaron Rivera) and Marlon (Rome Mallari), all of whom have suffered deep losses. Without probing their thoughts or backstories, Brillante’s regular d.p., Odyssey “Odie” Flores records their busy daily activities, using a handheld camera. Swamped as they are with pragmatic concerns like making money, filling out government paperwork or rebuilding their huts from scratch, they barely have time to mourn. The homespun realism evoked by Flores’ plain visuals is subtly layered with religious symbolism; in a telling scene, Larry, who volunteers for the church’s weekly Stations of the Cross ritual, literally finds his cross too heavy to bear, and walks away from the procession. At other times, he struggles to glean a divine message from another smaller crucifix he excavates from where his home once stood.
Mild-mannered Babeth takes great pains to help others, even taking in Larry and his young tykes in during another storm, but there are limits to her compassion. When she visits Renato in hospital and something happens in the ICU where his son is being treated, her reaction is not to stay by Renato’s side, but to run away in agitation; his aggrieved cry of “Why have you forsaken me?” takes on a biblical level of irony.
The elliptical screenplay by Mary Honeyln and Joy Alipio withholds most of Babeth’s past or her present woes until two-thirds of the way. Still, clues are provided by a trip to look up her ex-husband, Angelo (Soliman Cruz), to complete the couple’s DNA test, and also by repeat cutaways to her cherished mugs, with embossed photos of children. “Don’t envy me,” she says, and the full implications of her words come to light with an ending that is all the more galvanizing for being so unexpected.
Sixty-one-year-old screen legend Aunor (“Himala,” “Bona”) plays the provincial Mater Dolorosa with the same serene stoicism as her multi-award-winning turn as a barren midwife in Mendoza’s “Thy Womb.” However, her role here allows her moments of greater emotional heft, particularly in expertly restrained scenes, as when Babeth bottles up her hurt and disappointment in an awkwardly amicable exchange with Angelo. The male actors, whose faces register more stress than sorrow, are sometimes indistinguishable, with the exception of experienced thesp Diaz (Aunor’s co-star in “The Flora Contemplacion Story”), who invests his taciturn role with manly resolve and brooding self-doubt.
While there are references to government red tape (the fire in Renato’s tent was caused by kerosene lamp, as there was no electricity supply), the film avoids a moralizing political stance. Shot in real disaster zones after months of field research, the film puts the consequences of devastation and the sluggish pace of reconstruction all up on the screen, and they speak for themselves. Closing credits present a lyrical slide show of black-and-white stills, ending with aforementioned Ecclesiastes verse. Yet one is left with such a lingering sense of loss and helplessness that it begs the question of whether there’s really “a time for everything” in such a troubled world.
Tech credits — with a soiled visual aesthetic (Mendoza served as production designer under the name “Dante”), no score except the sonorous folk songs of local musicians, and mostly ambient sound — reflect Mendoza’s thrifty but serviceable production values.