by Oggs Cruz
Jerrold Tarog's Mangatyanan (The Blood Trail) tells the story of Laya (Che Ramos), the daughter of a legendary photographer. While she has grown up to be a very able photographer herself, she is consistently hounded by her father's reputation and more pertinently, memories of her father taking advantage of her while she was growing up. Thus, Laya seems emotionally impenetrable, adamantly refusing to visit her father on his deathbed, despite being indefatigably persuaded by Luzviminda (Irma Adlawan), her mother who left her when she was still very young, oblivious to the fact that her only daughter is being sexually abused by her husband at home. Instead of personally taking care of her dying father, she accepts a job to travel to Isabela province to photograph a rare ritual called mangatyanan by the Labwanans, a tribe whose numbers have been dwindling because its youth have been losing interest in its old ways.
Mangatyanan is definitely easy to admire. The cinematography is exquisite, with cinematographer Mackie Galvez giving both urban and rural landscapes sun-drenched yet melancholic hues. The musical score, composed also by Tarog who utilizes gentle melodies and rhythms to accompany the impressively evocative visuals, enunciates the emotional deadlock that consumes the film. The plot, while simple and straightforward, holds considerable depth, most especially in the way it portrays such sensitive matters like incest, rape, and forgiveness with both comfortable distance and ample sensitivity. The acting is mostly superb, especially Ramos, whose Laya is externally an emotionally guarded character with enough acuteness to make her adequately personable, and Adlawan, whose Luzviminda is all at once pathetic, because of her persistence in reaching out to her unwilling daughter, and sympathetic, because of her quiet acknowledgment of the difficulties of her daughter. Mangatyanan is undoubtedly masterfully made, with each minute of the film crafted with the meticulousness that one can normally expect from an experienced filmmaker.
It is important to note that Mangatyanan is only Tarog's sophomore feature. Tarog declares Mangatyanan as the middle part of his Camera Trilogy, the first part of which is Confessional (2007), about a wedding videographer who travels to Cebu to document the famous Sinulog Festival but instead, gets involved in the attempt of a local politician (Publio Briones, III, who plays the Labwanan chief in Mangatyanan) at redemption through his video camera. It is therefore inevitable and normal that Mangatyanan is assessed with heightened expectations from those whose interests were aroused by Confessional's endearing wit and social satire. It is also very understandable why Mangatyanan was met mostly with admiration, because replacing the playfulness that liftsConfessional from its social and political commentary is an unattractive seriousness that pervades the entirety of Mangatyanan, and instead of the organic feel of Confessional which plays like an ordinary vacation video (the one that you'd usually catch during family reunions) that went absolutely wrong, Mangatyanan indulges in a deliberately concocted storyline, directed with hardly any humor. In other words, Mangatyanan, probably because of its technical proficiency and Tarog's near-perfect direction, turns out to be an opaque film. It suffices to digest it at surface level: a well-made melodrama about a woman who needs to forgive.
However, Mangatyanan is a film that deserves more than just surface level viewing. As middle part of Tarog's Camera Trilogy, the viewer is instructed to view the film with more astute perception. Where Confessional utilizes the camera as an instrument to reveal truth, Mangatyanan uses the camera as an instrument to hide truth. The camera becomes Laya's device for pretended normalcy, as it induces other people to perceive her as her father's daughter, notwithstanding the abuses which are known only to her, because she has inherited his talent and profession, the same way a good lawyer would have children who would be lawyers, a doctor, children who would be doctors, and so on. The camera produces pictures, like the ones taken by Laya's father that are hanging on the Labwanan chief's room, that are on surface level pertaining to the mangatyanan, but upon further investigation, actually pertains to a device created by the Labwanans to attract tourists and their money. The photography project which Laya embarks on seeks to preserve the culture of a dying tribe, but beyond the seemingly lofty goal of these pictures are the unvisualized ills that infest the tribe itself, from the unwillingness of the chief's only son (Bor Ocampo) to continue the tribe's legacy to the familial troubles that result out of the tribe's impending natural death because of the allure of modernity.
Even Tarog's camera becomes a tool of falsity, as he skillfully and deviously weaves his invented tribe and its rituals and fluently spoken dialect into momentary reality. Fortunately, Tarog does not burden the film with a moral stance, portraying perpetrator and victim with as much humanity (although fractured) as possible. To force a moral stance would only muddle the lofty intent and cheat the narrative of its emotional and thematic complexity. Finally, Mangatyanan does not differentiate between truth and lies since in its cinematic language, the two are purposely indistinguishable. The film ends reasonably, like the well-crafted melodrama that it was meant to be with Laya reunited with her mother, who is forgiven without her faults absolutely forgotten. As both well-made melodrama and middle part of Tarog's self-imposed Camera Trilogy, what Mangatyanan does effectively is to modulate redemption through forgiveness (Confessional forwards redemption through confession), notwithstanding the extent of the sin, the gravity of the harm, and the length of the hurt.