AN old song is recited, and it pleads with all the torment of love: “Sa aldaw, sa banggi, di ka malingwan pa [At day, at night, you will not be forgotten].” It is the voice of Nora Aunor, the timbre recognizable all over this nation. The voice continues: “Mga inagrangay idulot mo sa Diyos [All your torment you offer to God].” It is a love song that fuses religion and sensuality, coming from a region where faith flows in the narrow strait of the mythical and the real.
They come in threes. The Three Dead Christ, real in the town of Gainza, is shown being worshipped by devotees. Three corpses float, disturbing in the velvet garb of the Christ. Three woman are raped and three men—triplets—are tortured. Men and woman violated are transformed into banana stalks, a belief that is common among Bikolanos and their tales of enchantment. Against the verdant field is seen the statue of Death, a skeleton dressed in red velvet, an icon in the land of icons. The woman who pulls Death is also the woman who appears and reappears with the icon of Death and, in unexpected places, is seen before an old sewing machine finishing something that can never be finished. Death is there but separate, the healer explains. A song of lament is sung by a male choir, the phrasing unique because the singers are from Buhi, the Bikol language which is marked separate from the other Bikol languages. The non-Bikolano need not know this but for the Bikolano audience, a crisis has been averted in the film: the actors have been allowed to use their own “first” Bikol language. Nora herself uses her Rinconada language from Iriga. Raffi Banzuela, who plays the priest, speaks his own Camalig-Albay Bikol. (The mother tongue expert should watch this film.) Against all this, a train seemingly with a life of its own navigates the marshland and meadows of the land called Kabikolan, on a trip with no beginning and with no end. Like memory. Like the endless violence that wracks this land. Images and images, with tension created between some of them, with meanings apparent in many of them, abound in this film called Hinulid. The title, which literally means “laid to rest”, refers first to the three images of the Dead Christ, unique and aberrant. But the title could also mean the grief that comes with Death.
Nothing is laid to rest, however, in Hinulid. By the fact that the people have made three statues resurrects the Tres Persona Solo Dios (Three Persons in OneGod), a system of belief prevalent in mountain cults. Nothing, indeed, is finished and resolved in Hinulid. It’s on this that the poetry of the film soars and takes us on a journey that works of great art are able to do. Instead of being diminished by the absence of resolution, the film, in fact, produces a discourse that is politically realistic out of scenes and events that are magical, mythical and full of marvel.
But if we notice and are touched by the poesy in the film, it is because there are prosaic moments. These are the realistic moments when we see Sita talking with the school authorities and the character of Lucas is evaluated. If not for the consistency in the presentation, where Sita is almost an audience, not engaging the other characters, the scenes would have weakened the film. As it is, some of the scenes that are devoid of the poetry appear to stop the mind travel. The audience, thus, waits for the train, and when it does pass—because it never arrives—we are enthralled by the seemingly boundless procession of personages and personifications.
Those who compose the local cast don’t disappoint. One can’t imagine it is their first time to appear before a camera for a film, and without the benefit of a workshop.
The Night Express Does Not Stop Here Anymore is the title of the fiction written by Carlos Ojeda Aureus, which, according to Kristian Sendon Cordero, the director, inspired the film.
The train is the magical motif that rumbles across the screen, connecting sorrow with rage, loss and recovery, justice and disorder. As this train moves, a story is told about a mother who comes home to bring her son to rest in peace. But this is merely no coming home, and this is merely not a train. It is the land where mountains come alive and where distant islands are monsters that fell as stars from the sky. The train knows it and Sita, the keeper of the urn of memory and justice, is also the keeper of the tale.
Predictable as it may seem, the coming of the train at every turn of the film, something inside that train is not within our control. The film offers us the interior of the train, the inner workings of remembrance. For inside the train is Sita and her son Lucas, appearing bodily beside her at different junctures of youth—at 9 years of age, at 15, at 25. Each appearance brings us the life of Sita with the son. Terrific and terrifying is the image of Sita carrying the urn with the ashes of Lucas, while Lucas sits there beside his mother. The proximity of life to death, or the lack of difference between Life and Death, is the message of the film.
We know where the journey is going when, at last, the older Lucas now appears beside Sita. Tender, yet horrifying, is this moment, with Lucas grabbing a kiss from his mom who does not, of course, feel it. But we feel it, this love that cuts across space and time.
As the older Lucas, Jess Mendoza has reached a maturity, the rawness of which was already greatly visible in his first film, The Natural Phenomenon of Madness. With a masculine charm not present in our crop of actors, Mendoza rightfully claims that space with Sita, as played by Aunor. Mendoza is the rightful object of Sita’s memories, with a face that seems to be of the Past and now glows because it is part of another world, not distant but not anymore within grasp. Mendoza has a presence that hovers. We can watch him over and over again because he makes eternity possible.
Aunor as Sita, as the one who remembers, makes everything possible. She helps us endure the long travel in the train, because we believe in her character. Leitmotifs are literary tricks and they can be tricky but with Aunor as the mind that recurs and connects the points in the cosmos, the return to the train turns into an act so magnificently compelling. Each time the train comes in all splendid angles, we look forward to being there with Aunor as Sita. Each time we are with her, we see a different face, a different emotion. We see her silent but with rage somewhere in that frail body. We see her smiling through the tears as the landscape moves outside the window. We see her in darkness. We see her standing, as if burdened by all kinds of loneliness. We see her tired, with memories about to fade. Then we see her again, recoiling, grabbing from the night the thoughts of her son, and her mother’s love. The night train could go on because the mind of Aunor, as Sita, makes visible the invisible. Toward the end, Lucas seen and unseen, felt and unfelt, longingly moves Sita toward him, telling his mother to rest because the night will be long. The camera crawls toward Aunor. As her eyes begin to close, sadness and joy and aloneness and anger flit back and forth, nuances of emotions painted in hues. Then rage and love, frustration and fulfillment, even sleep and death and all the multitude of contradictions, begin to be etched in that old face, growing older each second, aging because the land is ancient as only Aunor—as Sita, as Mother Incarnate, as Life facing Death—could summon to obey.
It is said that Aunor mockingly sighed as she watched the rushes and said: “I am old.” She has, indeed, grown old in this film, a testament to her dedication to the craft. But more that, she has, in Hinulid, became an even greater actor, if such were still possible with an actor who has already been hailed as the greatest.
Cordero can heave a sigh now. He has completed a film that he thought, like the train journey, could never come to a stop. An awarded poet, Cordero has brought his keen confidence in what words can do to this film. His use of voiceover has brought the old device into a different dimension. Jesus Volante is the voice behind those lines.
But don’t ever think that Cordero is saying memories could heal. Memory is more powerful than justice and, in some of the words of the healer, memory also serves a great warning. The romantic in Cordero, however, remains: in the sublime and highly textured cinematography, in a grand animation done by animators from Ateneo de Naga, meteors fall and light up the sky behind the sacred mountain. The train blazes with the fire of a thousand fireflies and resumes its journey through mythical time, where mothers can never forget their sons, where villages will not be ignorant of the politics of violence, where numbers rule our destiny because sons are murdered and we turn to memory for justice.