All in a game

Mihk Vergara’s Patintero is not merely a children’s movie or a movie about children and childhood.

In Patintero: Ang Alamat ni Meng Patalo, newcomer Mihk Vergara fashions a coming-of-age film in a childhood tale everyone who grew up before the digital revolution can relate to. One, in which warm, sweat-laden lazy afternoons after class dismissals rule. We do not see the child characters of his film inside the four walls of their classroom but always outside of it – wrapped in the singular concern of the once-popular Filipino street game of patintero, the Filipino modified version of tag.

In the eyes of the film’s main protagonist, ten-year old Meng (Nafa Hilario-Cruz), the game is central to their lives and the small community they live in so much so that each start of a game is heralded with much fanfare. The first part of the film already establishes the stratification the game engenders, one that also creates labels of players and ranks them according to their abilities. There are the usual winners and the losers – the “patalos”, in which Meng and her band of misfits belong. But unlike any game, the losers don’t get to be losers forever. Some of them are actually underdogs, whose slim chance at winning is just a result of being pigeonholed into stereotypes by the dictates of other cliques and their older counterparts. There is Shifty (William Buenavente), the newcomer whose frail physique is matched by his steadfastness and honesty; Nikay (Lenlen Frial), the academic achiever whose friendship with her teammates just as admirable as her grades; and Z-boy (Claude Adrales), the out-of-school wannabe-street caper who appears and disappears magically like the superhero name he espouses, and who helps the team with his motivational speeches and infectious optimism.

And of course there is Meng, the perennial “patalo”, who lives with his grandmother (Suzette Ranillo) who seems to operate a small catering business, and older brother Manuel, who by his association to the older clique of “patalo” tormentors, sometimes makes life difficult for Meng and his friends. The film only introduces her mother (Katya Santos) when her grandma dies and it also does not shed light on the circumstances surrounding the absence of her father. While Meng’s domestic woes are portrayed in a less dramatic light, this does not diminish the film’s characterization of her. Clearly, Meng has set out to conquer what is seemingly an innocent pastime for adults and has-beens as a way to claim something for herself, a victory that will be forever etched as a legendary childhood memory on the way to the harsher and complicated world of adulthood.

The screenplay, co-written by Vergara and Zig Marasigan, subtly touches on the struggles of growing up and the realities of an incomplete family by magnifying the aspect of the game. The mechanics of the game dominates the narrative but it is not without a sense of importance. As the games unfold and reach a climactic end – with its clear-cut illustrations of lines, rules and codes, and the opponents and players that inhabit this world, our access to this nostalgic artifact becomes a representation of the games we continue to play as adults. In this rectangular universe, the children-players embody the individual in the collective, where one’s uniqueness (as in each player’s trait or capability) attains a higher purpose in the attainment of a goal.

The touch of magical realism (the new cut of the film incorporates comic book illustrations in the game scenes) brings energy to the honest portrayals of the child actors, creating a spectacle of the game that is fun to watch, something that is accessible and distinct at the same time that carries with it a vitality we think might have lost or are incapable to give off in our now, more cynical selves. But at the same time, this nostalgia goes beyond mere remembrance. In this day and age where children commune less and less in the streets, the generation and period where Meng and her friends learn the hard lessons in life, presents a stark contrast to the present digital “commune” of the online world, where today’s generation mostly find satisfaction with.

Yet, the film is another casualty the harsh reality of commercial cinema this week, a reality faced by Filipino independent films wanting to reach wider audiences. Which is why Patintero is not merely a children’s movie or a movie about children and childhood. This wide-eyed-ness – or call it idealism – of the characters is clearly reflected by Vergara’s attempt to tell a story outside studio-backed formulas or one that is a breather from social realist narratives. In Patintero, Vergara’s battle is to simply tell a story of bravery, and in Meng, he has clearly found an ally.

– Jay Rosas

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