Much has been said, in print and online reviews, about the narrative structure of Ploning. For some, it was a distraction, something that just made the story confusing; for others, it was there to make things more difficult or complex, given that the story seemed simple enough. Across the reviews, this narrative structure has been pinpointed as the reason for the problems with plot and characterization.
On the Ploning website writer-director Dante Nico Garcia has tried to defend the movie, by saying that it’s “just (a) shallow (movie that’s) not for intellectuals” (“Mababaw lang ang Ploning at Hindi Pang Intelektwal!), and that Ploning was made, more than anything, with heart. And maybe that’s how people should be watching it, with their hearts instead of their minds.
Arguably, heart is always needed in watching any film, but I disagree with Garcia that this was a mababaw movie, or one that’s devoid of intelligence. After reading all the reviews on Ploning, what needs to be said is that this film is anything but shallow, and is nowhere close to being simple – or simplistic.
Notwithstanding the non-linear narrative structure, the characterization of Ploning and the presentation of the town were brave in its refusal to be tied down to the conventional tools of concealment and revelation. While the use of other characters to reveal the protagonist isn’t new, in this movie, it is the minor characters that are created by and do thrive on Ploning’s mystery: they all don’t know her, but they can all depend on her. The same thing can be said of much of the town, dependent as many of the townsfolk are on the cashew brittle that Ploning and her father had as a business in the midst of a drought – the material condition that allowed for Ploning to take the place of the rain that had yet to come.
This highlights as well something that’s been missed about this movie: that Ploning’s relationship with her world was allowed by her material conditions. It was her business that allowed for her moral highground, her notion of keeping to herself, in order to allow others their own lives, and believe what they will about hers. It wasn’t a messianic complex (as one review is won’t to talk about the Christianity of the movie) as much as it was established as characteristic of the provincial lass – the one who’s luckier than many, and is educated enough to know it; the one whose presence is just easily – and believably – inextricably tied to the well-being of her town. Ploning’s ability at mystery, her strange serenity, in fact, was allowed by her social class in the context of the impoverished Cuyonon.
Of which there were many: the little boy Digo (Cedric Amit) whose relationship with her remains a mystery until the end; the teenage boy Siloy (Lucas Agustin) who drove her around town, and who Ploning wanted to send to law school; the uneducated simpleton Alma (Meryl Soriano), needing Ploning to read and write letters from and to her husband; Intang (Gina Pareno), the mother of her lost love Tomas, who Ploning cares for like a mother-in-law, even when she and Tomas were never married, and Tomas had long died. The list does go on and on.
This points to the fact that the movie’s complexity isn’t wrought by that narrative structure that everyone’s complained about; the narrative structure is in fact called for, given what is the complexity in the story of Ploning and her relationship with the town that thrives on her existence. A linear narrative wouldn’t have been able to capture the fact that Ploning was a mystery through to her life’s and the story’s end. What we know of her is revealed only by two narrators, both working with the unreliability of memory, and tying together the story of Cuyo in the process of telling Ploning’s.
This shifting perspective, between the 25-year old Digo (Muo Sei) remembering his childhood with Ploning, and Celing’s (Tessie Tomas) middle-aged self recounting her 1982 migration to Cuyo as nurse Celeste (Mylene Dizon), has also been blamed by many for the confusion that they say the movie didn’t need. On the contrary, the two different memories are important precisely in pointing out that Ploning wasn’t ever known by anyone, and yet she was remembered as someone important in the collective life of the town. That it takes a young boy’s eyes and an outsider, to speak of her with nostalgia is as important as the fact that Ploning lived on in her cashew brittle business – something that continued beyond her life, misunderstood as she was for most of it.
The bottomline is this: as with any movie, heart and intellectwere both needed in watching Ploning; but maybe the more important thing is self-consciousness: how do you react to a movie that might be too different from the ones you’ve seen local commercial cinema produce in recent years? On the one hand, it isn’t your usual commercial movie that’s exhibited in the malls, and yet it also isn’t your standard indiemovie that’s just shown in special screenings. While it did have Judy Ann Santos as protagonist, two of the major roles (the young and older Digo) are played by Cuyonon actors (not unlike the use of Boholano actors in Muro-ami by Marilou Diaz-Abaya) who can’t be judged based on the learned (commercial) acting of your run-of-the-mill television/movie actors. Much of the movie is also in the Cuyonon language, with an intonation that’s unfamiliar – maybe as strange as having to read Tagalog subtitles in order to understand a movie.
Yes, Gina Pareno as Intang seemed to have had an overacted monologue, as she spoke about the deal she made with God that her asinan (salt farm) would be saved from rain in exchange for losing her son Tomas. But too, it isn’t difficult to imagine an impoverished woman, with no one else in the world, putting life and love into the one industry she knew how to tend, and to lose it all in the first storm to hit after a drought. That breakdown scene isn’t farfetched, for someone who knows how poverty as context can make for real-life soap operas. The existence of the simpleton, or the modern medicine woman, even the manang who Ploning grows up with, all make for an honest portrayal of a particular provincial life and the women this creates, impoverished as that is, and unreal as it may be to jaded Manileño eyes.
All of these though, have been seen as the downsides of this movie, adding onto what has been deemed as the difficulty with the film. And yet Ploning’s power can be seen to lie in all of these things as well. In the context of an indie movie industry that has a tendency at elitism (catering as much as it does to the academic/international/”arts” audience), and a commercial industry that is wont to just come out with one formulaic love story after another, this was one brave movie to make. Because it forces us as an urban Manila-centric, purportedly educated, audience to be self-conscious and question why it is we found the story unacceptable, if not impossible.
When in fact, all it is, is truthful. To the particular space that is Cuyo, the cycles of time between Martial Law and the present that render certain places as static, and the memories that keep traditions – and stories – alive. That’s a feat that could only be achieved not just with heart and intelligence, but soul as well.