Lawrence Fajardo’s awarded film visits the hidden otherworld of undocumented Overseas Filipino Workers in Japan
FILIPINO filmmaker Lawrence Fajardo and his team visit little hidden communities of Filipinos, most of them undocumented, in Japan and the result is “Imbisibol,” a compelling composite that is at once poignant, enlightening, ennobling and enraging—sentiments known to prompt even the gentlest (or even the most uncaring) people into action.
Yes, we can all come down now from a “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” high to this grounded cinematic account of what a specific otherworld— one that Overseas Filipino Workers inhabit— needs liberating from: despair and damning choices.
“Imbisibol” is passionately, and compassionately, put together. Fajardo deftly steers a main cast so skilled and technical elements so precise, if austere, that it feels like you’re right in the middle of things for every minute of over two hours. Individual stories are told with no more hysterics than necessary to propel an inevitable meltdown or signal the end of a confined existence.
I confess I may have read too much into what I thought was mood lighting. Five minutes in, I wonder why it is a tad too dark. I recall my first exposure to Fajardo via his action movie “Amok” which, in contrast, is a little too visually hi-fi for the squeamish. Ah, I tell myself, that’s because the characters in “Imbisibol” are, as the teaser says, “longing to remain unseen.”
Or is it the dead-of-winter backdrop? Annie Lennox plays in my head whenever the nth character, an unmoving blanket of snow, is in the scene, and that’s often: “Dying is easy; it’s living that scares me to death—cold, cold.”
Fajardo has a simpler explanation. My “a tad too dark” may have something to do with the projection equipment at the movie house, he says, even as he admits that he applied an aspect of that theory to the camera work—“(that’s why) the characters are mostly like shadows.”
But they’re “like shadows” only as visual elements because, as narrative subjects—in the four tales strung together—they are carefully, almost lovingly, conceived and cut out. So real they seem, that: 1) It is stressful watching the has-been Manuel (a male escort, played by Allen Dizon) in a take-me-I-beg-of-you stage number with younger men for hire; 2) Edward (Ricky Davao) allowing his room mate Benjie (Bernardo Bernardo) to sleep a little longer on a freezing morning comes across as nothing less than an act of love; 3) It is perfectly understandable for Linda (Ces Quesada), wife of a Japanese man, to lapse into Tagalog in frustration over arguments about their apartment building being filled with illegals.
Further, my heart freezes when an irate co-worker confronts Rodel (JM De Guzman). I have read too many stories of the sort to not know that Rodel’s dreams are gravely threatened at this point. And when, trying to flee, he ends up eyeballing a befuddled Benjie at Linda’s door, I feel I can read the thousand thoughts racing between them, two total strangers.
The scene right before that is the one I choose to remember. Fast friends Benjie and Linda have some tea and quiet time, reminiscing old times and cracking old jokes. Bernardo and Quesada, both steady and dependable thespians, turn the otherwise mundane moment into an unbidden respite, but also a foreboding, the proverbial calm before the storm.
Fajardo shares notable tidbits from his pre-production research. “For many of the undocumented Filipinos that we interviewed, one strategy has worked for years: Just be quiet, wherever you are. As long as you stay away from trouble (that would put you on the authorities’ radar), you’ll be okay. The (Japanese) government seems to be (lenient) that way. Evaluation of possible deportees is often case-to-case.”
Many of their Pinoy interviewees, Fajardo says, are just saving up to go home and willing to take menial jobs, of which there are a lot.
Japanese bosses, immigration men and police officers are depicted well in the movie, far from being the enemy. Linda is asked for her identification papers and she complies, but then asks for the immigration man’s ID in return. It is a respectful exchange. A few other scenes echo this.
The neighbors are not a problem, either—not the fictional ones in the stories unfolding onscreen, and not the real ones. “While we were shooting,” Fajardo relates, “a Japanese man asked how he could help undocumented Filipinos.”
Just the same, Fajardo believes the “invisibility syndrome” afflicts more OFWs in Japan than in any other country that imports labor from the Philippines. Which makes “Imbisibol,” in the very least, an instructive reference point for everyone back home, especially the government.
Add to this the fact that the movie, originally written as a one-act play in 2013 by Herlyn Alegre (who worked on the screenplay with John Bedia), has been invited for festival screenings in six countries (Canada, Japan, Sweden, China Vietnam, France) and won an estimable number of awards, including the Netpac at last year’s Vesoul IFF, plus seven from the 1st Sinag Maynila in 2015—Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Production Design, Cinamatography, Actress (Quesada) and Actor (Dizon). As I write, Fajardo is named Best Editor at the 3rd Asean International Film Festival and Awards in Kuching, Malaysia. De Guzman has been cited by Gawad Tanglaw, and Bernardo was 2016 Gawad Urian Best Supporting Actor.
We should be looking at a box-office hit.
On the contrary, “Imbisibol” has screened locally only in special venues. It is currently screening in almost empty houses at selected SM malls, through Cinema Lokal, an initiative of the Film Development Council of the Philippines. We have enough time to make this right—the special run ends May 11.