With its unorthodox structure and detours into magic realism, “Haze” carves out a distinct place in the large body of contemporary Filipino films about the struggle to survive in a society wracked by poverty, broken homes and barely-functioning welfare services. Focusing on four homeless children whose criminal activities spiral into tragedy, writer-director Ralston Jover has delivered a powerful essay on social inequity and child endangerment. Winner of the Outstanding Artistic Achievement award at the Shanghai film festival, “Haze” is gathering momentum on the fest circuit and is well worth the attention of programmers. Local release details are pending.

Jover has consistently investigated the margins of Philippines society since his early credits as writer of Brillante Mendoza’s films “Foster Child” (2007) and “Slingshot” (2007). In his fifth outing as writer-director, Jover shows harsh life in Manila from the perspective of youngsters whose childhoods have been all but obliterated by the failure of adults to provide love and care.

The haze of the film’s title is literal at first. An opaque mist is applied to a wide shot of Guadalupe Bridge as voiceover recites “Ang Pagkawala Ng Hamog” (“The Loss of Fog”), a haunting poem composed for the film by local character actor Rener Concepcion. The disappearing mist reveals a concrete pipe on the banks of the Pasig River that’s home to four children.

The youngest is Moy (Bon Andrew Lentejas), a chirpy 8-year-old orphan. Rashid (Zaijian Jaranilla) is a 12-year-old Muslim who’d rather live on the streets than with his harsh father, Abdul (Lou Veloso). Addicted to inhaling chemicals is Tisoy (Sam Quintana), a boy of about 16. The female member of the gang is Jinky (Teri Malvar), a 15-year-old rejected by her mother and terrified of returning to a children’s home she describes in horrifying detail. Daily life for the quartet consists of stealing whatever they can get their hands on.

After Moy is established as the central character it comes as a jolt when he’s killed during an attempt to rob a taxi driver. In the aftermath of Moy’s death Rashid takes responsibility for arranging his friend’s burial. In a long and virtually wordless sequence that will make viewers feel heartbroken for disadvantaged children everywhere, Moy is laid to rest in a pitiful tomb inside a dilapidated cemetery.

At roughly the halfway mark, Jover’s screenplay winds back to the taxi robbery and follows Jinky, who’s been caught by intended victim Danny (OJ Mariano). The failure of institutions to protect children is starkly shown as police and welfare agencies permit Danny to assume custody of Jinky and install her as a maid in his apartment. Jinky’s tale takes on suspense-thriller shadings as details of Danny’s strange relationships with compassionate-then-cruel girlfriend Paula (Anna Luna) and flatmate Bernard (Mike Liwag) begin to emerge. The question of whether Danny is Jinky’s savior or a predatory monster remains open until deep into the proceedings.

The film’s fantasy element involves Tisoy “seeing” a costumed teenage “Supergirl,” who dashes through busy streets and sometimes becomes airborne. Though the superheroine arrives as a bright symbol of hope, her continuing role isn’t developed as richly as it might have been. Still, it’s an interesting and welcome point of difference from most Filipino features tackling similar subject matter.

A few minor lapses into sentimentality notwithstanding, Jover maintains a detached, nonjudgmental approach that allows his messages to sink in slowly but surely with viewers. His young cast deliver fine performances, with Malvar a knockout in a demanding role that earned her best actress honors at the Moscow film fest. Bryan Dumaguina’s subtle score and appropriately unfussy photography by first-time feature d.p. Pipo Domagas are standouts in a polished technical package.

Film Review: ‘Haze’

Reviewed online, Adelaide, July 13, 2016. (In Shanghai, Moscow, New York Asian film festivals.) Running time: <strong>100 MIN</strong>. (Original title: “Hamog”)

  • Production: (Philippines) A Cinema One Originals production, in association with Keep Me Posted, Black Maria Pictures, CMB Films, Wildsound. (International sales: Cinema One Originals, Manila.) Executive producer: Ronald Arguelles.  
  • Crew: Director, writer: Ralston Jover. Camera (color, HD): Pipo Domagas. Editor: Chearliebebs Gohetia.
  • With: Teri Malvar, Zaijian Jaranilla, Sam Quintana, Bon Andrew Lentejas, OJ Mariano, Mike Liwag, Anna Luna, Lou Veloso, Ruby Ruiz, Flor Salanga, Kylinne Alcantara, Cataleya Surio, Jun-Jun Quintana. (Tagalog, English dialogue)