The Filipino Film "Ploning"
(an appreciation)

The opening credits of Ploning is a lyrical suggestion of a lover's tryst. The film starts with the Taiwanese Chuy, who tells his ward Mu-sei to look for “Ploning” because Mu-sei had been dreaming about her since he was a child. Chuy helps Mu-sei begin his journey, entrusting him to a tricycle driver who will tour him around Cuyon for a day so he can look for his “Ploning.” It was the town fiesta in Cuyon and Mu-sei's memories begin as he sees the spectacle of naked men dyed in blue and dancing in the streets. Mu-sei turns out to be Digo, who got lost at sea in a similar time, twenty-five years ago. Digo begins his journey to the past and we meet the characters of his childhood once more - specifically Ploning, who was a surrogate mother to him, because his own mother was an invalid. Digo's brother was an alakayo, somebody who painted others with blue dye, during that fiesta when Digo got lost at sea.

Back in Time

Twenty-five years ago, Ploning took care of Digo. Ploning's father owns a fishing boat (basnig) and owns a Kasuy preserve delicacy business. Ploning is waiting for her lover, Tomas, at least this is what the townsfolk knows. Tomas' mother Intang, considers Ploning her daughter-in-law and Ploning acts the part, even supporting Intang in her business of salt-making.

There's a buzz in town about Ploning going to Manila to search for Tomas. Digo doesn't like this. Ploning assures the child that she will not leave him but fails in her promise of coming to Digo's house to celebrate fiesta with him. The reason is that she is sidetracked by Intang's plea for help. 

It has not been raining in Cuyon for a long while, and the people have been waiting for rain.Then it finally comes, but it melts all the salt that Intang has been making. Intang is devastated. She calls everybody's help to gather the salt and save it from the rain. But she is not able to save them. She blurts out in utter frustration that God is cruel. In her hysteria, she blurts out the secret only she and Ploning knows – that Tomas has long been dead. Ploning placates Intang's unbelief with more of herself: her help, her support, her empathy. But whether or not Intang will be able to move from her emotional reality to an ideal reality, from a denial to an acceptance of the death of her son, and on to a life that is beautiful, the film doesn't say. 

A nurse from Manila, Celeste, comes to Cuyon to help take care of Ploning's father. She eventually learns about the stories entangled in Ploning's story. She discovers by accident the secret of Ploning's long-lost love. After twenty five years, when Digo finds Celeste, she puts Ploning's story together. But the final cut shows Celeste before Ploning's grave asking the latter to help her finish the story.  

Cuyon Island

Director Nico Garcia hails from Cuyon Island in Palawan. This scenic place and its people serve both as the inspiration and metaphor for the movie Ploning. Against this idyllic backdrop, the heroine Ploning is painted in a neo-realist manner. Director Garcia explores Ploning's consciousness by listening to the silence of the island. He captures its beautiful landscapes in mesmerizing cinematography.

Ploning's story is inspired by a Cuyonon folk song. The lyrics is a plea "from a boy to her lover for the latter to wait for him and remember him as he leaves her for a different land. The final verses of the song bare the boy's wish that the girl keep a stone wrapped with her handkerchief, as reminder that his love for her is undying. It's a lovely song, with a melody that encapsulates the emotional longing that the lack of physical intimacy emboldens.” (Oggs Movie Thoughts)

Cuyon Island is idealized in Ploning – its quietness, its calm, the simple life of its people. Long shots of the open sea, focus shots on fishermen's lamps as they catch fish, panoramic view of the rocky shores, excellent photography of the lush rural greenery and wonderful sunsets also project the emotional weight of the narrative. A specific setting like the cemetery, for example, highlights the theme of death. Many “idealization” of death is shown in several scenes of the film, the discourse on death being a way to heaven, a place where one can directly talk to God. 

On the other hand, the rocky shores of this setting are scenes set exploring cynicism. For example, that instance when Celeste openly challenge Ploning's “wasted time” of waiting for a lover. An open challenge to the ideal proposed in this film is one scene in Ploning which expressed the other side of the ideal. This other side is “unbelief” in God, whereas Ploning is “belief” or “faith” in God. The character of Intang problematizes this "belief". For Intang, her salt production is a way to perpetually live the myth of her son. Tomas has been long dead, but she is unable to accept this fact. Her denial leads her to damn the God who she claims doesn't listen to her prayers. Earlier, she claims that she has petitioned God to not let the rain fall until Tomas‟s return. All the salt vanish as soon as the rains come, and Intang confronts the heavens in a hysterical outburst.

The Memory

The people in the community has been led to believe that Tomas is in Manila, but Ploning knows as well as Intang that Tomas is a memory. Tomas is a bone that needs to be buried, and Ploning has done this a long time ago, but Intang has refused to do the same. Ploning keeping this one crucial truth to herself catalyzes her as mysterious – or different. Ploning is different because of her desire to not let others be sad because of her happiness. This thesis of Ploning's character is unnatural, but necessary to separate her from the rest. Thus, her character is neo-realist photograph, a mirror ideal. Digo is born a year after Tomas's death and Digo came to Ploning like rain longed for in summer. Ploning becomes a surrogate mother to this child. In the meantime, she is sharing Intang's sorrow in the loss of her son Tomas.

Others dream of the rain, but Ploning will say that the salt-makers are better than those who don't have harvest. In her position of silence in support of Intang, Ploning has allowed people to judge her, their deductions being based on how a “normal” person reacts to a “normal” situation like death. (During the funeral of Ploning's father, a woman asks about Ploning, “Why is she wearing white? Even non-relatives wear black?” and Celeste asks, “Why doesn't she cry?”) But Ploning, an ideal, is not normal, in the ideological sense. She “has a world of her own” says Celeste, and this understates Ploning's meaning in this film.

In spite of the heat, people are smiling in Cuyon. They go about their uncomplicated lives in uncomplaining fashion, content with the slow pace and the routine motions of living. In one line of the film, Celeste says that Ploning is like rain in Cuyon, and she is the reason why the Cuyonon don't really miss the rain. But when the short heavy rain comes, the people cry. As the blue dyes on their faces are washed off in the rain, their sad tales are revealed. In this climactic scene, Ploning is a compassionate witness to all their sadness. It's as if the island's happy dryness is a farce, and the rain is a kind of purging. And Ploning's heart bleeds along with the people.

The Viewer

We ogle at the beauty of the island, the peaceful isolation depicted in many long shots of the beaches of Cuyon and along its marshes. The camera directs our eye to the characters in the community; and what perfect setting to converge those than in a town fiesta, always a time of shared happiness, albeit only for a day. We then focus on the characters, their routines and how they look forward to a dance where the bachelors will most likely find their matches, 

Whole body shots of Ploning against a well-lighted, pristine backdrop of rural scenery (Ploning sitting on a rock in a cemetery, Ploning standing like a parola on a river bank against the sunset, Ploning walking in very simple rural clothes –two times – wearing a lovely smile and greeting everybody happy fiesta in the midst of celebration) distance the viewers from the character, thus perpetuating her mystery. This is both a film technique and an execution of a vision. When the camera focused on Ploning's face, it shows the only time she cries in the film, that is, when her father tells her that he has forgiven her. This is the climax of Ploning's mystery; her face is on focus, crying but happy. Next is a full body shot of a dance between herself and her father. Then yet another half-body shot is against the light, where the sunset outlines her silhouette as she shares a happy anecdote with the invalid mother of Digo.

Throughout the film, Ploning is smiling and encouraging others. Focus shots on Digo aka Mu-sei, shows that he is the carrier of the emotion that needs some healing. His insecurity is apparent in many scenes (the child actor underplays this emotion so that one can only deduct what is happening in his heart from the narrative and not from his facial expression) where he assures himself that Ploning will not leave him. 

Imago

Before the day of the town fiesta which is also the day of Digo's disappearance, Ploning says that she won't attend the fiesta, and will just bring Digo a lychee and a can of dye, so they can celebrate Fiesta in Digo's home. Unfortunately, Intang has an emergency. She calls for Ploning's help to save the salt from the rain. Diverted from her original agenda (church, then Digo's house) Ploning isn't able to fulfill her promise to Digo. Digo comes to her house and sees the lychee and the blue dye on the veranda, and brings it home, but Ploning is nowhere to be found. This time, he is sure that Ploning has left him, and thinking he can go after her in a raft, he boards it and he gets lost at sea.

Digo is separated from the ideal, and loses sight of the ideal. His image from this time on becomes blighted, and only in his dreams is he able to realize a permanent union with this ideal. Twenty five years later, he comes back to Cuyon and traces his childhood. Digo carries the viewer's deepest desire to become reconciled with an “ideal” -  in this film, the person Digo has loved from his childhood, the subject of his dreams, Ploning. Ploning becomes Digo's quest, the energy that propels him to move on.

The camera gives no clues to Ploning's thoughts. At a certain point, the viewer suspects that Ploning became a tragic character when she stopped entertaining others who can take his lover's place. In fact, Ploning has moved on a long time ago. This is her difference. While everybody around her has a personal issue that needs attention and solution or requires a listening ear just so the shock or the trauma or the loss will become less debilitating, Ploning is grace and healing personified. People in the community remember her because she acts as a surrogate – even providing them with a cultural identity (The kasuy business is in her name). She is well-known because she is into the community's love stories, their tragedies, their making sense of the heat and dust, and their longing for rain.

The True, The Good, The Beautiful

Ploning's story is a thesis of goodness. A doctrine of death as life and as ultimate happiness is the key, the crucial text woven in Ploning's mystery. Evangelical Christianity proposes that one who believes in Jesus Christ by faith in what he did in the cross will go to heaven. By faith here means accepting that Jesus has already paid for our sins, and so we can't do anything to add to that. The film preaches this doctrine, softly weaving it in the story. One may not fully understand Ploning's mystery without an appreciation of this ideology. Hence, It is not easy to relate with Ploning because she is a proposition. She is more unreal in a sense that her reality is another reality. This also is a Christian ideology, that while we are in this world, we are also out of this world if our lives are consistent with our Christian beliefs. Different – or in Christianese – holy.

The mother figure here of Ploning is the Virgin Mary in many Catholic faithful's lives – she who is always sought after as “savior” (ina ng laging saklolo). Healed and forgiven, Ploning is dead to herself. She is living for others, for Intang, for Nieves, for Alma, for Digo and later, for Celeste.Celeste when she finally gets this mystery learns about what it means to become a “mother” who loves unconditionally. 

God another ideal, is presented in types such as Chuy – the surrogate father of Digo, and Juaning, Ploning's father. Chuy's last words to his “best catch”, Mu-sei, when he finds him at sea, is of letting go, “so you [Mu-sei] can find your direction, so you will know where to go.” Meanwhile, Juaning tells his daughter, Ploning, “If I can take care of that ship, am I not able to take care of you?” This last dialogue may be a biblical allusion, that is, coming from Matthew 7:10-12. 5.

Mirror Ideal

The film depicts a positive ideal, using the pristine, quiet place and its contented people. It is a story about many loves, but mostly about the ideal love that reconciles an erring daughter with her father, or that allows a son to seek his destiny, or that reunites siblings separated for a long time. It is also a depiction of lives which eventually turns around 100 degrees for the better, such as that of Celeste. Ploning feels the simple folks with unrequited loves, financial struggles, broken relationships, and other “common” life problems. We can't see Ploning herself. She seems shrouded, and yet, whenever we see her, she is always beautiful in the quiet sense of this word, and her smile calms us. 

We begin to desire Ploning, and we approach her curiously, trying to unravel her mystery as Celeste has attempted. Celeste considers Ploning and when she finds out about Tomas being already dead, the revelation is that Ploning has long accepted this truth and Ploning is happy. This explains Ploning's silence, her calmness, her resolve to bless others with her compassion. Celeste has discovered Ploning's perfect image. 

The people in the community wish for Ploning to become another man's wife. The film makes this a noble objective, as shown in the reason for the dance, but the film also shows that once the union of a man and a woman is desired as an ideal, it will lead to a wider gap between what is desired and what is apparent. In this film, there are illustrations of this in the good (Nieves and Toting), the ambiguous (Alma and Cleto), and the bad (Digo's mother and his father) partnerships.

To viewers, Ploning is a mental event, more abstract than real, more theory than life. And yet, who doesn't desire this ideal? The easiest way to approach this ideal is to approximate the desired happiness, the desired security, the desired peacefulness of mind – in some way: through marriage, in celebrations like the fiesta, in a dance, in a song, or even in a life-long stay in an idyllic lovely, peaceful island– which is the dream of every tired and harried soul. The island of Cuyon is celebrated in this film as performing this feat of Otherness, something that is desired and fulfilled. 

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