Life is reduced to the tiniest details for 8-year-old Yael in “Nervous Translation,” an understated yet appealing imagined-memory piece set in Manila in the late 1980s. Imagined because director-writer Shireen Seno evokes a time and place she never knew, with a young girl whose father works abroad and whose cold mother pines for her husband’s presence. Seno strips everything down to Yael’s experiences, keeping the focus on the world the young girl created and can control, unlike the world of adult dynamics that are so difficult to read for a lonely child who senses more than she understands. The result is a fragile, well-made and engaging film ideal for festivals searching for non-distancing Asian fare.
The Philippines in 1987 was a volatile time: Ferdinand Marcos was out and the nation was trying to adjust to the aftermath of the People Power Revolution. That’s the background of “Nervous Translation,” but those events are only obliquely overheard in snatches of news reports and such. The film’s circumscribed orbit is that of Yael (Jana Agoncillo), a rather obsessive latchkey kid who carefully sticks to a daily routine, from cleaning her shoes the moment she gets back from school, to a telephoned “mad minute” with a schoolfriend to do math exercises. She’s inherited her numbers compulsion from her mother, Val (Angge Santos), who has Yael pluck out the few gray hairs on her head and write down the amount in a notebook.
Those are the rare moments when mother and daughter have a physical bond. Otherwise, when Val gets home after a long day in a shoe factory, she has a routine: 30 minutes of no talking. No warm greetings, no words of love, no expression of joy. That’s because Yael’s father lives and works in Saudi Arabia, and Val isn’t coping well with her yearning for the physical intimacy of her husband’s embrace. Instead, she has to console herself with cassette tapes he makes, in which he tells her how much he misses life back home.
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Unknown to her mother, Yael spends a good deal of time after school also listening to those tapes. She replays her father’s voice talking about how much he misses home cooking, which prompts Yael to make a tiny meal with her doll house stove, using a candle to prepare miniature stews in a mimicking of adult behavior. Left alone so much, with no guidance from her mother, Yael gleans what she can from her hermetic environment, including soap operas that provide an artificial simulacrum of human relations. When her father’s identical twin brother Tino (Sid Lucero) visits with his family, she notices how her mother responds to his proximity, but she has no way of deciphering the signals.
Seno’s first film “Big Boy” was also about a child trying to interpret his environment, a theme for which the director clearly has an affinity. She also has a tendency to withhold information, as if fearful of anything that smacks of exposition. So we never know why Yael’s elbows and forearms are bandaged, and we learn very little about how she negotiates life outside the home. As much as possible, the girl seeks order in a world that’s otherwise ungraspable, reflected in the simple, precise movements required to cook with her dollhouse kitchen.
Since the film is meant to reflect Yael’s limited understanding, audiences need to accept that everything she experiences might be more perception than reality: Is Val really so frigid with her daughter? Three cinematographers are credited, though there’s no lack of cohesion, and close-ups of Yael playing with the miniature furniture offer compositional pleasures as well as insights into the little girl’s thought processes. Editing has a certain abruptness that fits with the perspective, and the production design for Yael’s house, with its monochrome wood paneling and minimal wall decoration, nails the period as well as the sterility of Val’s arrested emotions.