"The Chanters" is set in Iloilo province, and the dialog is in lilting Ilonggo language. Sarah Mae is a typical happy-go-lucky teenager who is addicted to her cell phone and to her favorite TV romantic soap "Kiss Me Heart Heart." Sarah lives and takes care of her grandfather while her single mother is far away working. Sarah is very excited because her favorite TV actress Danica Reyes is visiting their school in the coming week and she is determined to be in the welcoming program.
Her grandfather Ramon is no ordinary man. He is a famous chanter of the Sugidanon tribe. He actively records all the ancient Sugidanon epic chants in writing, sings the chants in special social occasions and teaches these chants to neighborhood children every Saturday. Unfortunately this year, as he was writing his final book of chants, Lolo Ramon is showing progressively worsening signs of dementia.
Jally Nae Gilbaliga was so natural in her portrayal of Sarah Mae, so young and carefree and resilient. Romulo Caballero was even more remarkable as Lolo Ramon, with his mesmerizing chanting and evocative portrayal of dementia. There have been few films that depict the relation between grandfather and granddaughter, and for this film this relationship takes centerstage. Fortunately, the chemistry between these two actors was perfectly pitched, never felt put on at all. They definitely feel like real people we know.
I commend director James Robin M. Mayo and writers Andrian Legaspi and John Bedia for effectively telling such a poignant story. It was not only a personal one between two family members, but on a bigger scale, it was about cultural pride, appreciation and preservation. The film proudly proclaimed their Sugidanon heritage in their colorful tribal attire and accessories, and especially those glorious chants like Nagbuhis, Amburokay, and Alayaw. Amazing how these chants are embraced by even the children who appreciate their value.
They used an unusually smaller of screen projection (1:1 aspect ratio) that gave the film additional character. Furthermore, if only for that final scene of Sarah Mae in her full fuchsia tribal regalia with the verdant mountains in the background, which evoked for me Vermeer's "Girl with the Pearl Earring," cinematographer Jav Velasco deserves award consideration. That beautiful parting shot communicated so much complex feeling, I (and many people in the theater with me) just burst into spontaneous applause.
Sometimes, filmmakers, especially indie ones, try so darned hard to come up with something so convoluted and complex that hardly anyone can enjoy. Occasionally though, we come across a special film so sweet and simple that is not only entertaining, but also delivers the most salient and profound of messages. "The Chanters" is such a film. 9/10
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."