An extraordinary feat of physical filmmaking under extreme conditions, “Reef Hunters” brings moving authenticity to the great movie tradition of intense adventure and moral drama on the high seas. Working with a tiny fraction of the budget of “The Perfect Storm,” prolific Filipino helmer Marilou Diaz-Abaya — in her 18th feature — stages a Conradian battle of wills and inner turmoil against the unfamiliar backdrop of illegal net fishing in the archipelago’s fragile underwater reef system. Though true to the Filipino film style of macho conflict, violence and melodrama, “Reef Hunters” tones down the excesses while keeping its humanistic eye on the dramatic prize. Pic has been a B.O. smash in the Filipino market, topping even Diaz-Abaya’s previous feature, “Jose Rizal,” that had been the all-time local B.O. champ. Good numbers should soon follow in Asian and Euro urban centers, if not America.
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The decision to largely cast film with locals in Bohol province pays off in opening minutes, as legendary reef fisherman Fredo (Filipino superstar Cesar Montano) leads a swarm of mostly children of desperately poor parents to his rickety vessel like a Pied Piper to an uncertain fate. Heading out for a catch of fish before Christmas arrives, Fredo commands with the kind of iron fist that captains Ahab and Queeg would have admired, threatening to toss overboard anyone he deems “lazy.”
His wise father, Dado (Pen Medina) and loyal aide Botong (Jhong Hilario) have seen this all before, but even they begin to chafe under anger-driven Fredo’s rule.
Seen in a brief flashback, Fredo’s memory of losing his wife Aurora (for whom he has named his ship) and small child in a sea accident animates his wrath at the ocean and compels him to feel that he must conquer the watery realm. As a result, this tortured man — whose worsening bodily wounds become a symbol of his moral collapse — ignores Dado’s persistent warnings on the cost of not “listening to the sea.”
Diaz-Abaya builds a classical rhythm, alternating between the private dramas on board and several astonishing reef-fishing sequences, in which the children dive without aid of scuba or snorkel gear, breaking up the reef bed in order to stir the fish for netting.
This eco-destruction is quietly presented, without strident underlining for a message, even though the reef erosion caused by this fishing is what motivated the director to conceive this project nearly 10 years ago. Her superb control of events and a dynamic cast extends to subplots involving Fredo’s hooker g.f. Susan (Amy Austria) and the poisonously deceptive Botong, which in less assured hands could have sent pic into a snarl of tragic knots.
When tragedy does arrive, it does so with fine catharsis after a suspenseful, surreal sequence worthy of Werner Herzog in which the boat is mysteriously caught in oceanic doldrums. Montano shows why he’s a marquee name, delivering a grand, physical perf in the manner of Kirk Douglas, blending nicely with a bevy of expressive, amateur thesps.
Climatic special f/x are borderline cheesy, but pic is otherwise a marvel of pushing the limits of what cash-strapped camera crews can do. Without a pro Filipino underwater squad to work with, Diaz-Abaya created her own, and the results are often unforgettable.