A remote island’s military outpost serves as the location for intriguing existential drama in “Kalayaan.” Toplining regional draw Ananda Everingham (“Red Eagle”) as a soldier whose long period of isolation has pushed him to the brink of mental collapse, this minimalist exercise by prolific Filipino helmer Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr. won’t appeal to most, but offers rewards for patient viewers who click into the pic’s elliptical rhythms. Everingham’s presence and Alix’s solid arthouse rep ensure strong fest legs and should help attract the attention of specialized tube outlets following the film’s world preem at the Cinemalaya fest.
An eye-catching opening sequence sets up a sensual, otherworldly atmosphere: In near-darkness, an unidentified man is seduced by a mermaid before a gunshot is heard. Visuals snap suddenly to searing daylight in a shack occupied by Julian (Everingham), a handsome soldier in his 30s living alone on Kota, a tiny dot in the Kalayaan Islands cluster, approximately 300 miles from anywhere else in the Philippines.
An Australian-Lao actor working primarily in Thailand, where he is a major star, Everingham utters not a single word as the film establishes a powerful sense of place, and what feels like timelessness. In long sequences showing Julian’s daily routine of exercise, fishing and watching porn, the only scraps of information arrive via crackly, unanswered radio transmissions from headquarters. It seems he is about to end his three-month stint, and the 1998-2001 presidency of Joseph Estrada is in its final stages of capitulation.
It may also be that Julian’s grip on reality is capitulating. With stunning sound design by Ditoy Aguila, creating an eerie cacophony of low-bass industrial rumblings and the shrill tones of an insistently ringing bell, Julian becomes convinced that somebody or something is watching him from the mangroves.
Although Julian’s absolute isolation is stretched out a tad too long, the story gathers momentum with the arrival of Eric (Luis Alandy) and Lucio (Zanjoe Marudo), fellow soldiers sent to Kota by concerned commanders. The friendly duo’s attempts to engage Julian in conversation are met with only silence and indifference, but discussions between Eric and Lucio raise the question of whether Julian was involved in the tragedy that befell his predecessor. The open-ended finale will leave some auds frustrated; others attuned to the film’s internal logic will be stimulated to draw their own conclusions.
Lensing this natural paradise in muted tones that make it appear as non-travelogue as possible (Puerto Princessa in Palawan stands in for Kota), Alix’s frequent d.p. Albert Banzon successfully visualizes the central character’s deeply troubled psyche. Even with no more than a couple of lines of synch dialogue, Everingham remains compelling, using physical movement and facial expressions alone.
Technical work is of a high order on a low budget.