Choices of Emotional Heft

Zig Dulay’s Bagahe is a film about choices – or lack thereof. It’s a story about Mercy, a Filipina who, out of economic necessity, sought employment outside her country. Bagahe starts off during her journey back to the Philippines. While on the aircraft’s bathroom, she makes an immoral choice of an induced miscarriage. It was a deed she had to do, with the main aim of preserving her familial relations – to be warmly welcomed and not disowned by her family. The baby’s conception, however, was not purely out of her volition. It was the result of abuse – just one among the many forms of molestation that real overseas Filipino workers have had to endure.

Dulay opted not to show this backstory. Perhaps he didn’t not out of trust that the audience would be able to connect the dots as the narrative takes form. But mainly because out of familiarity, especially of Bagahe’s Filipino audience. They have heard of such stories before on the dailies, radio, and the nightly news. Dulay knows that somewhere planted in their subconscious, they have an OFW story to tell – most, if not all, did not have a happily ever after. Dulay takes this grim yet familiar reality as a narrative tool to heighten the discourse. 

The NBI fetches Mercy from the mountains, cutting short her reunion with her loved ones. They then bring her to the city where she is taken to several government offices and institutions for an investigation. As a result, what started out as a personal problem to the reserved Mercy has ballooned into a national problem. More people enter the mix. And with more people, more choices are offered to Mercy. Yet such options are not as distinct from each other as before when she was alone in the aircraft’s bathroom. Mercy meets a blend of people who have different agendas. Most of the people she meets are a familiar bunch in our country’s institutions, bureaucracy, and very own neighbors. Some of which nag her to tell the truth, some use her dire situation for personal gains, while some have decided to fully accept her despite what she’s done. From a moral dilemma by a single person, the film evolves into an examination of a society.

Overwhelmed and confused, the reticent Mercy keeps firm in denying the accusations. All data point to her as the culprit who left the baby in the bathroom. Yet she feels that out rightly rejecting the allegations is her ticket out of the city and back to her family in the mountains. It was her choice not to admit to what she has done. Yet as more evidence unfolds, perhaps the only choice for her is to subscribe to the truth. But for Mercy, the only thing she wants is to be reunited with her family. Yet just like her privacy, her family grows diffident as they slowly discover what she has done.

Bagahe does away with the twists and turns of a typical narrative. Instead, its preference of form is a mix of slow and immersive cinema – intent on letting its viewers carry the emotional heft that its theme demands. It is through the confident intermingling of film language, abundant imagery, and sparse dialogue that it achieves a brand of claustrophobia, akin to that of a crime-thriller and a drama. Its end result is a compelling piece of art – an important contribution to the roster of films about Filipinos who have endured life abroad away from their family to make ends meet. But compared to other films of its kind, Bagahe’s weight lingers even until one walks out of the cinema’s doors.

– Virgil S. Villanueva

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