She is Elena Fernandez (a makeup-free Iza Calzado), a 30-year-old midwife from Ternate, Cavite. We catch her practicing in front of the mirror for a final job interview for Saudi. She lives alone. Her kid, EJ, is in Bataan, under the care of her mother. Like many of our countrymen, Elena is willing to be uprooted and further separated from her family for greener pastures abroad.
Pandanggo sa Hukay follows Elena’s day-to-day life leading to that anticipated final interview, poignantly giving the audience a glimpse of the life that she will soon abandon for a bigger salary, for a better life. And we wait, with mild curiosity, if she will nail the interview and achieve her OFW dream.
The camera observes Elena getting ready for work, then takes a tricycle to the maternity clinic where she works. Set a few weeks away from the holiday season, we see the small town is scarcely adorned with Christmastime frills, including a hilariously misspelled holiday greeting on a gaudy tarpaulin.
When she arrives at the clinic, we meet her colleagues and friends (Star Orjaliza and Diva Montelaba) and their motherly boss (Sarah Pagcaliwagan-Brakensiek). We are then immersed in what goes on in an ordinary day at the clinic; birthing and consultations, which feature real-life pregnant women and what appears to be non-actors.
The film’s side commentary on the state of our marginalized pregnant women is reminiscent of Romana Diaz’s 2017 riveting Sundance documentary Motherland (Bayang Ina Mo), a heart-wrenching exposé on the plight of poverty-stricken — and mostly young — mothers in the world’s busiest maternity hospital, the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital.
Pandanggo is Sheryl Rose Andes’ directorial debut (she worked as AD for Baconaua, Kiko Boksingero, The Chanters) and in true cinema verité fashion, indulges the audience in the life of the beautiful and simple-minded Elena.
Unhurried and leisurely, and filled with candor, Andes lingers in the mundane details of Elena’s everyday reality; her shallow banter with co-workers, her compassionate interaction with patients, her long-distance communication with her son and, of course, her preparation for her job interview.
Comedy is everywhere — providing the viewer a humorous cultural immersion in the life of the working-class women of Ternate; their money problems, love lives and work lives. And, of course, that mandatory company Christmas party that everyone takes seriously, where Elena is forced to lead her team to a rehearsal of pandanggo sa ilaw (dance of lights).
Andes’ docu-like treatment makes Pandanggo sa Hukay engrossing. The humor is sometimes funny, sometimes trite (plus-sized women always gets plus-sized jokes), but refreshingly candid. The actors, though, lack that distinct Caviteño accent — but it doesn’t matter, as the cast’s performances are delightfully naturalistic, especially Calzado, who proves to be a versatile actress. Her Elena is an effortless portrait of an unsophisticated parochial beauty, a little crass but compassionate, and convincing as a midwife (Calzado reportedly took a crash course on midwifery at the University of Santo Tomas).
Everything seems fine — until Elena’s life takes a chilling turn, which is very unexpected. After a languid and cheerful examination of Elena’s quotidian existence, we are suddenly hurled into a heart-stopping suspense-thriller — a violent nightmare that brings new characters into the plot played by Mercedes Cabral, Acey Aguilar, Charlie Dizon and the brilliant and unforgettable Yves Bagadiong (Respeto, Dog Days). In this dark chapter of the narrative, there is one particularly horrific scene, but Andes frames it sensitively, sparing the audience from becoming too disturbed.
From Andrian Legaspi’s 2018 Palanca Literary Award-winning screenplay, Pandanggo sa Hukay is more than just about a woman waltzing her way into life’s tragedies, but also a commentary on social and moral ills. It’s both gripping and entertaining for its verisimilitudes.
The film skillfully balances humor and violence, like a graceful dance, so it’s never distasteful. It may speak about many things, but the filmmakers manage to bring them all together in one coherent, absorbing piece.
3.5 out of 5 stars