Aeta In The Big City
by Jansen Musico
Sa Ilalim Ng Tulay (2001)
D: Earl Bontuyan
S: Bong Cabrera, Cris Pasturan, Remi Tolentino, Mon Confiado
In the early 90s, the word “Aeta” was used as a powerful slur. Schoolkids tossed it around carelessly, alienating every dark-skinned boy or girl who was blessed with a head of curly hair. The media had a hand with this bullying. They had a field day with the Aeta’s misfortune. Pinatubo had just erupted. The lava, ash, and lahar that came with it forced them to flee their homes. Television and newspapers framed them as helpless bahag-wearing nomads with very slim chances at a future. They were made outcasts who needed to be pitied.
Earl Bontuyan tries to revisit the Aeta’s plight in Sa Ilalim ng Tulay, a film with good intentions but is unconsciously oblivious to its setting and its characters. It starts in the forest. A tribe of Aetas are shown living the simple life. Nono (Bong Cabrera), his wife Loretta (Remi Tolentino), and their son, Kulaw, are making do with what nature gives them, that is, until Mt. Pinatubo decides to shoo them away. They’re forced to live in a relief center where meals are only as good as they last. Nono’s cousin, Budak (Pasturan), gives them a visit. He tells the tribe stories of Manila: tales of bounty, big buildings, and beautiful women. Everybody gobbles it up, especially Nono, who decides to take his family and follow his cousin back to the big city.
The family’s trip is destined for tragedy, and Bontuyan makes no attempt in routing it elsewhere. Once the family hops on the bus, they’re faced with obstacle after depressing obstacle with zero signs of reprieve. This would have potentially worked if Bontuyan was able to make his audience feel compassion. Despite a solid performance from Bong Cabrera, too many technical distractions nipped any hope of empathy for his character. Sa Ilalim ng Tulay could have benefitted from a little quality control and sharper editing. Glaring post-90s clues stick out like sore thumbs in what becomes a “spot what’s odd in the frame” game. Not even the intentional blurring helps hide the flashy new brands and logos that are scattered throughout the film. Peculiar scenes are made more obvious because of framing and continuity. In one, Nono is forced to stand up in a bus which is visibly empty. The family are also dropped off at Cubao, but they somehow end up somewhere between Sta. Cruz and Binondo over the course of the night. The movie also seems to only know two times of day, morning and evening; the gaps between them seem non-existent.
Sa Ilalim ng Tulay is a film that has something important to say, especially with regard to displacement and migration, but that message doesn’t fully come through. The evident technical errors can only be faulted to some extent. In his quest to tell a simple story, Bontuyan disregards a sense of reality present at that time. Manilenyos are depicted as nice and helpful. They graciously give alms and directions, and even offer a family of accidental beggars, Aetas at that, a place to stay. It’s a very sunshiny portrayal, but it’s also one that makes people scratch their heads. Granted that the film isn’t about ethnicity, disregarding it makes the movie’s Aeta characters no different from generic vagabonds stranded in Manila. Perhaps this was Bontuyan’s intention, but that, too, got lost in the way.