For a film with such a sparse narrative and setting, it’s impressive how Kalayaan (Wildlife) evokes elements of so many other disparate works. At certain moments, I was reminded of The Thin Red Line, The Blair Witch Project, Splash, Castaway, The Secret of Roan Inish and Identity, among others. But such is Wildlife’s mutability, its rawness, that you could end up seeing or projecting all sorts of primal fears and doubts into the quiet, dark canvas it presents. If some recent Cinemalaya films appear to have commercial potential clearly factored into their production, this uncompromisingly abstract piece swims in the opposite direction. Not everybody, probably even just a minority, is going to appreciate its flawed and unsettling beauty, but we sorely need art like this. And it’s a bonus that it doesn’t just provoke, but also has a point.
Set in the geopolitical hotbed that is the Spratly archipelago, the film revolves around lone Philippine Navy soldier Julian Macaraeg (played by Thai-Lao-Australian movie star Ananda Everingham of ‘Shutter’ fame) counting down the last few days of his posting on a deserted island base within internationally disputed territory. After an, um… explosive opener, the film lulls us with an extended sequence of Julian going about his island routines and fits of brooding photogenically around the beaches and flora of his tranquil outpost. However, the more the camera focuses on Everingham’s gracefully toned physique, long lashes, limpid brown eyes and ruggedly aquiline nose, the less convincing he looks as a hardened soldier. There’s also just a certain not-Filipino-ness about him that’s hard to put your finger on. Much as I rail about this though, it’s just more of a nitpick than a dealbreaker, and doesn’t render the movie any less effective, and may even have enhanced some aspects of it. Everingham himself is an impressive physical specimen with an expressive enough face, but his characterization and even certain shots are obviously limited by his inability to speak Tagalog. Considering how the script had to accommodate his linguistic shortcomings, the call to cast him may have been more for international marketability than a real artistic need. They could easily pull off keeping the main character silent while he was alone on the island, but when two other characters show up, his reticence becomes harder to accept. This makes the film somewhat less immersive, but also rather more unsettling, which could actually be what director Adolfo Alix Jr. was going for. As a mostly wordless blank, you’re compelled to wonder whether Julian loves the solitude, or if it’s driving him mad.
Depending on your mood, the long silent stretches are there to either soothe us into going with the film’s flow, or test our patience as we wait for something, anything, to happen. Alix deftly ratchets up the tension directly through otherworldly goings-on around the island, and indirectly through news of political unrest and military maneuverings squawking through the radio. Before seeing Wildlife, I never imagined that mangroves could look so menacing. Wisely enough, Alix stuck to a less-is-more approach with the supernatural elements. We get just enough of a look at them to keep us guessing, like Julian, whether the wild darkness and its feral sounds are all just playing tricks with our heads. The inky, grainy night scenes set to Teresa Barrozo’s ominous soundscape, like how Pan’s orchestra may sound playing The Rite of Spring, need no blood nor monsters to unnerve. So we can’t help but be grateful when day breaks and we’re back to another round of sunlit navel-gazing.
The arrival of Julian’s comrades, as played by Zanjoe Marudo and Luis Alandy, energizes the film’s latter half. But if we thought that some company, and chatty characters at that, would help answer some nagging questions, they actually end up as more fuel for speculation. Are they real flesh and blood, or more mental projections of the lonely Julian? Marudo is all Id here, boisterously verbalizing and acting on his baser desires. Alandy seems to be standing in as the more even-tempered, hesitant Ego, while the stoic Everingham watches them both as the silently critical Superego. As the three frolic half-to-mostly-naked in the surf and sand, I couldn’t help but think that this felt like the eeriest, most vexing underwear commercial ever. We get spoon-fed more Spratly lore by Marudo the Id, and reflections on the young soldiers’ plight thanks to Alandy the Ego, but Everingham’s superego would remain a cypher, if not for a last act revelation by the Id. But just how accurate is that reveal really, if nobody else was there, and Julian refuses to talk about it? So, as our ancient ancestors did when rational explanation would not suffice, stories are attributed to the unearthly realm, myths are made and phantoms formed.