Jaime Oscar M. Salazar
Having lately gotten wind of the news that his father, Mario, had passed away, Jimmuel Apostol II returns to his hometown in order to seek out the grave and pay his final respects to a man from whom he has long been geographically distant and emotionally estranged. What looks at the outset to be a simple errand burgeons into the convoluted quest with which Teoriya, the first full-length feature by Zurich Chan, is concerned with tracing—one that has Jimmuel take a roughly northeasterly route across the Zamboanga peninsula over a number of days, from Zamboanga City all the way to Zamboanga Sibugay. The reason for this is that no one, with the possible exception of his blood relatives, whom he refuses to consult, appears able to tell him precisely when his parent—likely the only one he had grown up with, because he never mentions his mother – had died or where the body had been laid to rest.
It must be admitted that a film underpinned by such a premise requires from the audience no small degree of willingness to suspend disbelief, considering that death is one of the occasions around—as well as against—which human beings, at every known moment of history in every corner of the world, have conceived and built elaborate communal rituals, which are crucial to fortifying the bonds between and among the members of the affected family, clan, or other social group, and bringing back for the living a sense of control over an unsettling, if inevitable, experience. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie, Jimmuel is seen discussing the contents of his father’s will with a lawyer, who is also his godfather: as obvious a sign as any that, even if Mario had expired far away from kith and kin, his dying had set into motion a flurry of medical, mortuary, religious, and legal activities carried out by sundry personnel, many, if not all, of whom might reasonably be expected to make and maintain records.
Granted that his godfather is as clueless as he is—though surely the executor of an estate would have seen a copy of the death certificate, at the very least?—the fact that Jimmuel does not attempt—does not even think—to approach a single doctor, funeral home manager, memorial park administrator, priest, or government functionary for assistance, instead deciding to go from cemetery to cemetery in order to comb through one tomb after another, hoping to discover the place where Mario was buried, is a choice that, in beginning, bewilders. (To his credit, Jimmuel does track down Mong, one of his father’s closest friends and colleagues, but when Mong turns out to be in the grip of a mental illness, persistently confusing Jimmuel with his deceased associate, Jimmuel seems to give up on following a commonsensical trajectory to solving his personal mystery, preferring to tread the path of most resistance, as it were.)
The perplexity only increases when one considers that, for the past ten years, Jimmuel has been in Manila, ostensibly thriving in the advertising industry—from all accounts, a cutthroat world that prizes and promotes those who work with speed, creativity, and ruthlessness. Precisely what his job involves is not specified, but the relative profitability of his career is revealed most plainly by the size and the furnishings of his hotel suite, which features, among others, a living room and a king-sized bed.
It is his choice of temporary shelter, an exceedingly extravagant one in view of the circumstances of his return to his place of birth, that first suggests something significant about him—something that will be reinforced throughout the film: while, for him, the memory of Mario may be “the most sacred of memories”, Jimmuel is not so much a Crisóstomo Ibarra, whose search for Don Rafael’s remains spurs him to decisive, even dangerous action, as the parabolic prodigal son—an epithet his own godfather invokes—whose feelings toward his father and everything that his father represents constitute an intricate knot from which clear imperatives are grueling to extricate.
As the English historian Theodore Zeldin points out, “few people can extract solutions to their problems from their roots”, especially given what is known about roots today: besides serving as anchors, they also produce hormones, and therefore people “should not assume that roots give nothing but stability: they could say that roots also create moods”. It is on mood, rather than event, that the film wagers its artistic energy, persuasively configuring out of Zamboanga spaces within which a grief-stricken Jimmuel wanders in a state of errancy, guided in part by the entries in the journal of his father, in life a medical representative who had traveled everywhere in Mindanao to ply pharmaceuticals.
Although he apparently feels compelled to accomplish his goal, he also displays uncertainty as to his readiness to come upon Mario’s grave, such that he is willing enough to be diverted, no matter how briefly, from doing so. In addition to assuming the painstaking task of examining sepulcher upon sepulcher in the cemetery of every town he stops at, Jimmuel spends time with a number of strangers that he meets along the way, often to droll effect, as in the case of a strangely equipped hijacker who waylays him one night. It is these same strangers who render his roaming about productive, in that his encounters with them propel him to stay the course instead of drifting off the track.
Teoriya is suffused with the strength of Jimmuel’s ambivalence, which owes not only to the noteworthy performance of Alfred Vargas in the lead role, but also to the laudable cinematography and visual design by director of photography Dexter dela Peña, assistant cinematographer Mark Leaster Regondola, and production designer Paul Alfonse Marquez. Marked by spare dialogue and frequent silences, the movie is well-served by strong sequences that are vivid and picturesque without lapsing into gratuitous prettiness, being chiefly composed with a cool, somber palette.
The reluctance to take responsibility and the yearning to escape that drive Jimmuel’s meandering—perhaps a symptom of denial, one of the stages in the model of grief that was developed by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, which is the subject of an amusing allusion near the start of film, where one scene shows an “inspirational book” written by Charlemagne Alejandro, the protagonist from Chan’s short film Boca—are presaged by the opening shot: that of an airplane soaring through slate-blue air over a graveyard dappled with shadows, just before it lands at the Zamboanga International Airport. Unlike the departed over which he flies, Jimmuel is merely a transient presence here: his stay of limited duration, and his stake a nebulous one.
Many scenes reveal the distance that Jimmuel covers as he moves into, out of, or across the frame—whether several steps or a few kilometers—underscoring the amount of effort involved in changing position, in following a path, in initiating action. Recurring images of the horizon, of trees thrusting up into heaven, and of the sky at various times of the day all bolster the impression that what Jimmuel—an ineffectual, tentative man distressed by his quest—fervently craves is reprieve, is transcendence, though he also recognizes the impossibility of satisfying such a desire.
Where a more conventional work might fall back on the familiar notion of the presumably redemptive power of a difficult journey, particularly one undertaken for the purpose of discharging a filial duty, the film equivocates, resisting facile sentimentality, and choosing to intimate rather than to impose meaning—a strategy fully realized in the character of Jimmuel, who is at once rudderless and resolute with regard to his mission. Ultimately, his search has less to do with the fulfillment of an obligation than with a confrontation with memory, which is both adhesive and solvent in the process of cultivating and constructing a sense of self—a confrontation, Teoriya suggests, that is necessarily arduous and ardently necessary.
 José Rizal, Noli Me Tangere (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), trans. Harold Augenbraum, 231.
 Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1994), 50.
Rizal, Jose. Noli Me Tangere. Trans. Harold Augenbraum. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
Zeldin, Theodore. An Intimate History of Humanity. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 1994.