If there is just a single aspect that Carl Joseph Papa’s Manang Biring could take pride in, it has to be its brilliance in transporting its audience to a relatable landscape by means of a well-crafted story. It bagged the Best Film award at the recently concluded Cinema One Originals film festival most likely for its innovative response to the event’s theme “Kakaiba Ka Ba?” which pushes the envelopes in creating films that captivate and break grounds.
Manang Biring is a fascinating take on rotoscoped footages, which ultimately celebrates a rarity in Philippine cinema where a group of animators, led by Eru Petrasanta, trace over live footages and transform them, frame by frame, into a full-length feature animation. It is quite a feat to complete everything with details that go beyond the convention of animated films commonly marketed for children. It is able to create a world of its own: mostly silent but is amplified by such powerful characters that have their respective drives and motivations.
With an adult-centric story that tackles depressing issues, the result is breathtaking with scenes that are never dull albeit in black and white. The alluring musical score by Dino Parafina helps give the vibe that is too reminiscent of Papa’s endearing film Ang Di Paglimot ng mga Alaala which won the NETPAC Jury Prize for Best Feature at the 2014 QCinema International Film Festival.
In March, along the sea of passersby and churchgoers in Quiapo, just outside the famous church, an old woman named Biring (Erlinda Villalobos) sells alternative medicines together with her friend Eva (Mailes Canapi). The temper of the old woman is tested by a guy who looks for a remedy for asthma only to end up complaining after hearing the rather costly price. In the absence of customers, the two women talk about Biring’s recent discovery that she has terminal cancer. This marks the struggle of the protagonist in front of the spectators: setting the expectation that with such condition, she would conquer hardships other than what she presently bears. Her imminent demise looms but it is too early to tell what will happens.
With no electricity in her house, Biring contents herself with a lamp that keeps her company before she goes to sleep at night. She looks into an old, faded mirror, she brushes her hair, all in the quiet of the night that she wallows in. As she falls to sleep, a grimly claw slowly snatches her. She dreams of looking down at herself in a grave somewhere far away from reality. Perchance it is a foreshadow of what is to come when a big owl swooshes behind her.
In April, Biring is woken up by the loud knocking of a mailman who is angrily looking for someone named Severina Macasaet. It is for Biring. Upon knowing that the recipient is an old woman, he tones down and apologizes for being pesky. He looks past the doorway to see glimpses of antiques inside the house. He then hands her a letter from her daughter Divina Ramirez. It is from Nita.
It is painful to hear Biring read the letter as her voice melts to that of Divina who relates life away from her mother. The music swoons as Divina or Nita tells Biring that she has been in Dubai for 10 years already with her two sons: JP and CJ. She plans to come home in December with her youngest, CJ, in order for their family to experience Christmas with Biring. The old woman is melancholic as she goes to the calendar to flip through the December sheet.
She agitatedly goes straight to her doctor (Lance Raymundo) and entreats the patients in the room to let her through. Tears fell from her eyes as she begs to be saved from her illness. She just wants to see her family in Christmas. She is wary that she does not have enough time but there is a growing desire inside her to overcome the situation. However, she easily gets lost in her reality when she seemingly hallucinates in that room where she sees a nurse who hands her a baby. This could be a lost memory of her giving birth to Nita wrapped in her delusions. She is drawn back by the doctor and they discuss several options such as having her breasts removed and undergoing chemotherapy. Biring is determined but the doctor is hesitant if the old woman’s body can still survive the procedures needed. A series of operation entails a large amount of money. Biring is unwavering; she knows she has to do something to get past Christmas.
After visiting the doctor, she goes to the cemetery to visit the grave of her husband Bienvenido. It is a short, touching visit that puts more emphasis to her loneliness.
In May, her head is covered as she has lost her hair as a result of chemotherapy. She still needs money to pay for the hospital bills. One day, she gets the idea of selling from Amanda Gonzales (Bea Benedicto), a young woman who sells Sociales beauty products. As Amanda explains the opportunities of joining the company as a member, she is lost back in the memory of hearing the news about her cancer metastasizing. Death is inevitable that she is frequented by its nearness. When she gets back to that instance, she orders a number of glutathione soaps which she later on sells with higher price.
In June, Biring is imagining a lot of things when she inspects her breast after bathing. She stares at herself in front of the mirror, looking at how she looks and what her breasts have become. She squeezes them and thinks of them being deformed more than their state. It could just have been an ordinary evening until she hears noise from the kitchen. With a toilet plunger in her defense and in the dark, she goes to the source of the clanging objects and discovers that there is a thief in her house. It is the mailman who has delivered Nita’s letter. Instead of reporting him to the police, Biring lets the thief eat dinner with her.
His name is Terrence (Alchris Galura). He lives with his siblings and is orphaned by her mother who has died of cancer. He notices the breast of Biring and likens it to having been eaten by a zombie, bitten by a dog or dug through by a cat. There is a sudden connection between the two despite him trespassing and attempting to steal the antique furniture in Biring’s house. They make an agreement that he will help her sell the interior furnishings so she could raise more money. Eventually, this same guy would become like a son to her.
In July, Terrence treats Biring and Eva in a coffee shop in spite of Biring’s refusal to splurge money. Terrence insists and so they go inside that unfamiliar place where Biring yet again has a eureka moment. Accompanied by a jazzy score, they stage a scene where Biring fainted in the middle of the room and is rescued by a teenage drug dealer named Yohan (Patrick Sugui). Eva plays her wacky card as she steals the scene by acting out as Biring’s daughter. As the commotion grows, people surround them and this gives time for Terrence to take the small packages of drugs from Yohan’s bag. It is such a delight to see how this funny scene builds up into bringing laughter and cheer from the audience. We could not all agree with the criminal acts involved but seeing how the characters go to great lengths is still interesting.
In August, what follows is funnier: Terrence and Eva bring Biring to a night club. Their goal is to deal drugs to clubgoers who are mainly teenagers. Amidst the loud music and the sea of people, Biring is fixed into doing whatever it takes to beat her own deadline. Beginning with Biring and Eva’s awkward encounter with two young girls in the restroom, Biring is tagged as the “hottest lola in the bar” with hands from all corners asking her for packs of drugs.
Expectedly, she drowns in the setting and literally faints among the crowd. She is taken once again to her dreamland. There where the clouds hurriedly escapes from the skies, she sees the figure of a faceless woman crying before a grave. As she throws rocks, she is captured by a big owl that apparently represents her calling to the otherworld. She very well knows that her time is yet to come.
In September, she wakes up without remembering what has happened to her. There are glimpses of familiar faces of people close to her. She is in a hospital with Eva who then explains to her that the cancer has spread to her lungs. They are not supposed to talk about things that could make her anxious but she insists in learning what has happened to Terence. Upon knowing how he was ganged up, she tells Eva to give to Terence all her money, including her savings in a can of biscuit back home.
As Eva leaves, Biring is left to watch the television way past the curtains. The noontime TV program Showtime is on–the only time we get to see something in full color, something not animated, something from a different dimension. She watches attentively at the live competition where players dress up and act as famous people.
On their way home, they ride a taxi where Biring receives the radio announcer’s voice as if it is connecting to her, ultimately directly speaking to her and giving a warning that she would not make it until Christmas. She curses straight to the radio, which is tuned in to FM666, much to the surprise of Eva, Terrence and the driver. She asks how much money they have left and extends her desire to have electricity and Christmas decorations at home. Terence offers to make lanterns as Eva questions the intent of having a very early preparation for December. They end up agreeing on the decorations and food to prepare and who to invite among their respective families, while considering the expense to be taken from their savings.
Suddenly, Biring dishes her idea of looking for someone who looks exactly like her, someone who will study her and present herself as the mother of her child.
In October, they hold an audition where the fortunate one will win a reward of 20,000 pesos. Many women go to the screening but they are only surprised by the resemblance made possible by an old man named Jerry Cardenas who has shaved his moustache, tied his hair and dressed up like a woman.
In November, Biring and Jerry have planned out what to do come Christmas. He asks why her child left her but the only answer she was able to give is that it was her fault. He also asks if she would still face her visitors. He is worried that he won’t be able to do it. She insists on keeping the plan as she wants her family to have a happy Christmas. He offers returning the money to her if she would still make it, but she just lets it pass. She groans heavily on bed.
In December, there is excitement in the air as Terrence, Eva and Jerry (dressed up as Biring) wait for the arrival of Nita and CJ. The taxi arrives with Nita hesitating momentarily. She asks the driver to wait as she looks at the house and wonders why it is crowded. Her face is full of hesitation that it takes a few more seconds before she alights from the taxi together with her son. She is welcomed by the family and there is a long silence in the hug that follows between the mother and the daughter. Anything can happen right at that very moment. It is indeed an edge-of-the-seat experience looking at all the possibilities at hand, knowing that moving forward everything is possible and at any time the deceit could be realized.
Nita looks up and sees that the window is open. Out of her sight, Biring watches in the dark, eavesdropping, grasping every little thing she could to taste the experience even from a distance. Merriment naturally grows downstairs with everyone smiling, laughing, talking to one another with such joy in their faces. It is a wonderful Christmas being celebrated by an equally wonder-filled family. Tone by tone, colors are faintly revealed on top of the animated characters.
But upstairs, there is silence–a nondescript silence that clothes an old woman in her wheelchair. She mightily shuts her senses from what is currently happening in her house that has once been an almost lifeless one. She goes to the door to close it. As she holds onto that one thing that separates her from her family, she blurts her greeting through the sincerest way she can muster: “Merry Christmas, Nita.”
It is heartbreaking to see the pain and the joy and the anxiety of those last second. It could be that Biring finally gets to meet the souls that would fetch her. From the opposite of her door, she hears a voice that calls upon her. It could be that of her daughter who finally realizes her mother’s presence upstair. It could be her last hope before she takes her final rest. It could be that happy ending we all deserve to witness and. It could be that final smile on Biring’s face as she receives the best gift she has long since waiting for. But we could only hope for the best as the end credit rolls.
Manang Biring’s voice sticks in one’s head as the protagonist and as a memorable film in itself. Sure enough, it leaves with such beautiful aftertaste in the mouth. The story could have finished right there but the effect it has is a lasting one–something that digs deep into one’s heart and crushes the soul, reflecting a kind of reality that is sad and true.