"Biyaheng Langit" tells the story of Bea, a young Filipino-American (Joyce Jimenez). Bea is bored; all she wants in life is to raise five thousand dollars so that she can live independently in the United States. To relieve her boredom, Bea follows her grandmother (Nida Blanca) to the casino, where they gamble all night; this is where she meets Danny (Mark Anthony Fernandez), a runner who collects money from the tables for Bosing (Bembol Roco).
Gambling--the act of putting what you have at stake, in the hope of winning more--is the underlying theme of "Biyaheng Langit;" as Bea's grandmother puts it "I gamble to console myself, to keep from feeling lonely." Bea feels the same; that's why she has a one-night stand with Danny, and that's why she persuades Danny to join her in her less-than-brilliant plan, to pour their life's savings into a one-night run at the tables, in the hope of winning big.
Instead, they lose big, and have to run for their lives. Danny takes Bea home, to a squalid collection of shanties propped up besides the city's railways; here Bea learns of another kind of gambling, the gamble of the urban poor. Of people whose entire lives are put at stake without their ever asking for it, who either take years to die of malnutrition or are killed in a careless instant by an oncoming train. Taking risks is more than a recreation for them, it's a way of life--yet they still have to wear the same poker face, still have to put on the same brave, desperately defiant front as any card holder at the tables. More, they still manage to care for each other--"Auntie" (Vangie Labalan) and Solomon (RJ Leyran) both look out for Danny, who is an orphaned loner that the community has unofficially adopted; Danny in turn looks out for "Tenga" (Christian Alvear), an up-and-coming child pickpocket. Bea learns that even in hopeless circumstances human warmth and caring is possible; she learns that even here love is somehow possible.
The "hell" of a bad losing streak in the luxurious "heaven" luxury of a casino; the "heaven" of camaraderie and compassion in the "hell" of a squatter community--doesn't sound very gratuitous, does it? Granted, the theme is melodramatic and hardly fresh...but it's one to which the film's writers--Aguiluz, his film editor Mirana Bhunjun, writer Yanco de la Cruz, and novelist Rey Ventura--lend their talents and more, their conviction and passion.
Ventura in particular is key to the film's script; he began his career writing cheap romance novels, and he knows the value of old, melodramatic themes; he knows that people are quick to recognize them, and he knows that despite today's cynicism and postmodernist posturing, people still believe in them. Today Ventura is better known as the writer of "Underground in Japan," a novel chronicling his real-life experiences as an illegal immigrant in Japan. The book was praised by The Village Voice and, in an article in Asiaweek magazine, by Donald Ritchie, legendary film critic of Japanese cinema--yet essentially Ventura is still doing the same thing he did in his cheap romances: writing about love and loss, life and struggle. The difference between the romances and "Underground," however, is the strong material; the difference between "Biyaheng Langit" and practically any other Filipino melodrama today is the film's realistic and detailed texture (all four writers have made documentary films), and its often high level of acting.
Aguiluz always brings out the best in his actors; I remember Ronnie Lazaro's relentlessly ambitious "torero" in "Boatman," or Albert Martinez's humane and humanly frail Rizal in "Rizal sa Dapitan" (Rizal in Dapitan). I remember Helen Gamboa, playing the definitive Flor Contemplacion in "Bagong Bayani" (The Last Wish"--one of the best performances by a Filipina actress I've ever seen in the nineties. The actors in "Biyaheng Langit" are consistently good--Vangie Labalan as the matronly "Auntie;" Alvear as the spirited "Tenga;" RJ Leyran as the "wise" Solomon, Danny's best friend; John Arcilla as a treacherous henchman; Bembol Roco as the repellent "Bosing." Joyce Jimenez in the crucial role of Bea is adequate (with her clothes off, she's more than adequate)--but the film really belongs to Mark Anthony Fernandez, as Danny. Coming off a hard period of rehabilitation for drug abuse, Fernandez has lost all his baby fat and looks startlingly leaner, more predatory; at the same time he has the charisma and forcefulness to take his place as the film's ambiguous hero. His Danny is a fascinating mix of contradictions--smart and quick on his feet, yet not too smart that he doesn't fall for Bea's charms; unbendingly loyal to Bosing but when Bosing betrays him he doesn't hesitate to fight back, with a volatility, an anger that this actor simply wasn't capable of a few years ago.
A final note: it's ironic that the MTRCB's delaying tactics (What were they for, anyway--a swipe at Viva Studios? At Aguiluz, who has never been popular with the-powers-that-be?) has resulted in the film's gaining extra relevance, in that its portrait of money flowing from the gambling tables--from the most luxurious casinos to the humblest shanty--reflects the recent gambling-and-corruption scandal brewing in the Estrada administration. But Aguiluz has never been a filmmaker to shy away from betting on risky subject matter; this time, God willing, his bet pays off big time.
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