Of Skies and Earth

***1/2

Reviewed by: David Graham

Of Skies And Earth
"The use of humor becomes poignant given how impoverished these kids are, their indomitable spirit shining through even when the world deals them a bum hand."

The resurgence of Filipino cinema should be furthered by this enjoyable slice of Ken Loachian youth drama, playing out a little like a more exotic version of this year's art-house hit The Kid With A Bike. Following a rag-tag group of runaway street urchins, writer-director Mes De Guzman shows admirable restraint and brings balance to the seemingly uneventful story-line, sensitively addressing several issues from delinquent drug abuse to child labour. Helped enormously by a charming and authentic cast, his eye for detail immerses the viewer in the characters' desperate but not hopeless world, where adults have little authority and the pastoral beauty of the country is redundant for kids who are both dependent upon and enslaved by the urban community.

Dossing in a disused hut in an abandoned lot, four children fritter away their days looking for work and food while fighting and playing among themselves to alleviate their boredom and frustration. With farming families they're hesitant to return to, the group are overseen by a testy teenager who's as harsh with his words as he is heavy with his hands. Nonetheless, a brittle bond develops between the crew, with their self-sufficiency and support for each other eminently preferable to a life of agricultural toil. Craftily gaining employment in a local abattoir, the group must contend with sickness, prejudice and the wild weather, not to mention more common adolescent concerns such as romance and education. When the youngest begins teaching the older boy to read and write, the pair find a new worth to their situation, but their new-found confidence takes a knock when a romantic gesture ends in embarrassment.

Punctuated by striking time-lapse shots of the cloud-blanketed mountains and sprawling fields, Guzman's film is both visually ravishing and hauntingly realistic. Using a minimal score that more or less fades into the background for most of the duration, he lets the daily dramas of the group unfold with a raw documentary-style insight; in particular, the handling of the pig-slaughtering strikes a startling juxtaposition between the innocence of the kids going about their duty and the animals reduced to piles of meat and internal organs. The group seem happy to have gainful employment despite the fact that all four of them are being paid one person's wage, and their selfless attitude to work is amusingly contrasted with their playful approach to domestic life, as in the scene where the younger trio send floating 'presents' down the river to where their elder leader is washing his clothes.

As the film gains dramatic momentum, it also loses a little of its focus: when tragedy finally looms, the director perhaps milks his audience's sympathies too much. The seemingly endless scenes of children in tears have a blunt force but they also become somewhat wearying, with an ambiguous ending sitting uneasily with the preceding realism. Although spirituality and even superstition are woven throughout the script right from the start, the climax lacks a clear message, drifting hazily into the transcendent in a way that compromises what has gone before: it's almost like the unnecessary epilogue for Tree Of Life, but thankfully Guzman is a lot less indulgently heavy-handed than Terrence Malick.

While anyone who's seen Kes or Sweet Sixteen will feel the plot to be problematically familiar, the stunning locations and engaging performances manage to maintain investment in the characters' plight for most of the slightly bloated run-time. The use of humor becomes poignant given how impoverished these kids are, their indomitable spirit shining through even when the world deals them a bum hand. Of Skies And Earth offers an affecting window into the mundane existence of Filipino's poorest youngsters, Guzman deserving credit for refusing to resort to clear-cut moralising, even if his attempted transition into the abstract doesn't quite come off as successfully as his localised take on social realism.

Reviewed on: 02 Jul 2012
Share this with others on...
Of Skies and Earth packshot
Life is tough for a gang of Filipino street children.

Director: Mes De Guzman

Year: 2011

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: Philippines

Festivals:

EIFF 2012

Search database: