May 29, 2017

[Movies] Ang Araw sa Likod Mo (2017) Movie Review

Independent film projects tend to have a particular message they want to convey more than anything else. There's some implication of quality and thought when it comes to such movies since they're not shackled by the requirements of a "traditional" mass market movie with a greater (or safer) chance of success at the box office.

Ang Araw Sa Likod Mo is a bit distinct given it presents itself as an advocacy film. So we already expect such movies to have a particular message but tagging this movie in this manner clearly reminds you of this fact. It wants you to enter the theater expecting to learn something about what you're passionate about. True enough the movie comes with a quick reminder at the beginning that explains the context of things and stresses the movie is based on or at least inspired by true stories.

The movie is a most interesting one that manages to juggle several narratives and managing to give justice to each of them. That's no small feat and the movie has its hands full telling a story and more or less depicting the sides of the conflict accurately enough. It's not a 100% accurate depiction of things but a lot of love went into trying to get the details right.

Synopsis: Ang Araw sa Likod Mo (or The Sun Behind You) is a 2017 advocacy military drama written and directed by Dominic Carlo P. Nuesa. Disclosure: I'm friends with Bong Cabrera, one of the stars of the movie but this has no impact on my review.

Omar (Mike Liwag) was a scholar in Indonesia who has come home earlier than expected. It turns out that he was radicalized while in Indonesia and is determined to join the local terrorist group fighting the Jihad in Basilan. He hopes to join his brother Jamil (Bong Cabrera), who is already a mujahid with Ahsan Kasaran (Bernard Laxa). But it turns out that Jamil has decided to turn his back on the Jihad by offering the Philippine military information on one of the secret jungle camps in exchange for a sizable bounty.

Initially Jamil feels he's done with both sides and now has the funds that he needs to get his family out of the conflict area. But then he learns of his brother's intent to join the insurgents. So he agrees to lead the military to Ahsan Kasaran in the hopes of also finding his brother and convincing him to escape with him before the fighting comes to a head.

What I Liked: The story takes place on three main fronts - Jamil and his family, the Scout Ranger unit following Jamil as led by Sgt. Benjamin Calayan (Ping Medina), and of course the insurgents themselves. The story only takes place over the course of a few days so it feels quite brief but Nuesa does his best to include snippets of other stories in the dialog asides of the various characters. How they managed to juggle all this and still present a solid narrative says a lot about Nuesa's vision for this movie and how much thought went into crafting the narrative to achieve all these goals.

The acting at times feels a little low-key,  but that may what best represents life in a conflict zone like Basilan. We only get to hear the Scout Rangers speak while on the move, which largely means being quiet and escaping possible detection. Jamil's conflict isn't that can be verbalized in the movie as he is forever under threat one he reconnects with his fellow mujahideen. So instead we have Bong Cabrera rely on more subtle physical cues to his internal turmoil as it leads to the movie's climax.

And this has to be said - the Scout Rangers are awesome.

What Could Have Been Better: Camera work for this movie was a little confusing at times with a lot of shaky camera moments that didn't feel like they needed to be shaky as sharply contrasted by suddenly steady shots. A lot of the dialog is done in the now-typical cut-to-cut-to-cut of tight shots on the actors as they deliver their lines. It's a practice I wish would go away as it cuts into the performance of the actors. The scenes with the Scout Ranges were taken more as a group and so the conversations felt more natural and realistic.

The end of things feels a little wonky with a deus ex machina moment that suddenly pushes the whole story forward to the end. I kind of wish they had more time (and resources) to tell a longer story with more detail for the other plots and sub-plots but it's hard to get funding for indie movies like this one.

TL;DR: Ang Araw Sa Likod Mo is a thoughtful and quite powerful effort to depict the lives of the fighters in the South without making it a good guys versus bad guys sort of cartoon narrative. It's a labor of love that manages to make things feel real enough despite limited production capabilities with strong acting and a real story to tell. And thus the movie gets a good 4 Scout Ranger maneuvers in the jungle out of a possible 5.

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