A Review of Sundalong Kanin (Janice O’Hara, 2014)
JPaul S. Manzanilla
It has become common to tell a coming-of-age story set in war. Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malena showed a boy’s obsession with a pretty woman in the midst of Second World War Italy. Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon narrated a young man’s curiosities in the course of the country’s struggle against Spain and America. In both films and in Sundalong Kanin, adolescence is wrapped up in a drastically changing social body-politic.
We witness how boys fight children’s games, and play out their fantasies even through the war. Things turn out appalling when the games become too real to be enjoyable that their adventure becomes so serious in its childishness and we begin to question how tenable circumstances are.
What transpires is a game of social inversion, seen in how a Nihonggo-speaking servant was appointed by the Japanese captain to serve as town executive and, hence, chief patsy of the occupying force. Tonyo, the then-a-helper-now-a-master, exploited the opportunity to exact revenge upon the former executive who humiliated his family, following his child’s win in a children’s game defeating the boss’s son. This particular fact shows how a local potentate depends so much on a force coming from outside in order to have control over his fellows, revealing in the process the fragility of power in an uneven polity. How can this fragile and facetious authority be subverted?
Accomplished in the film is a brilliant exposition of gray areas in moments of turmoil. The Japanese officer mercifully kills a raped girl to spare her from further suffering and exonerates a boy who confesses of killing a Japanese soldier; tellingly, the child says that he doesn’t want to kill—this after preparing weapons for killing enemies earlier in the movie—and the officer admires him for such wisdom. The audience cannot help but laugh at scenes of a screwball rebel officer aping his unseen American superiors with crackling English we have come to associate with the military establishment. Tonyo’s mother suffers in silence but does all her best to mitigate her son’s wickedness, lecturing a child not to follow his son’s ways. One boy recognized his mother’s rapist from the comrades of his playmates’ brothers; he later exposed the rebels to the enemies and was swiftly punished for “treachery” by his friends. All the kids who played the lead roles, especially the one who played Tonyo’s son, deserve commendation for sensitive acting. And the editing adroitly cuts and connects moments for a careful development of tempestuous scenes, crucially from the instant a Japanese soldier is killed by the boys to the part where their fathers are blamed for the crime—the climax before the climax.
One, however, finds a problem in how things are being reduced to personal struggles. It is as though war is just an extension of the boys and their fathers’ resentments, with the conquering army’s sudden granting of power and its attendant privileges utilized for revenge.While it is true that the internal or the domestic is the decisive element, we also ought to know how the foreign or the outside re-form the entity it combats. If war is politics by other means, we need to ascertain why and how an enemy is defined as one before he is annihilated, or becomes triumphant.
Two boys from opposing sides survive the struggle in the end. We are, at least, offered a chance to hear a retelling of the memories of violence.
JPaul S. Manzanilla taught communication, humanities, and Philippine arts courses at the University of the Philippines Manila and Filipino and history courses at the Ateneo de Manila University.
Editor’s Note: This review is part of a series of reviews of outstanding films of 2013 and 2014 that we will feature here in the run-up to the YCC Citations Ceremony on April 23rd. Earlier reviews have been featured for Badil (here and here), Porno (here and here), Debosyon (here and here), Pagpag, Lauriana, Quick Change, Ang Kwento ni Mabuti, Babagwa, Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, Mga Anino ng Kahapon, Sonata, the 2013 Best First Features, and Sonata Maria.