Thursday, June 18, 2009

‘Kamoteng Kahoy’

The other day I went to see the movie “Kamoteng Kahoy” directed by Maryo de los Reyes and written by Ricky Lee, both veterans and multi-awarded. I went because the movie was based on a real-life tragedy that happened in Mabini, Bohol in 2005.

It is a good film to watch these days when deathly horror flicks seem to be all there is. The theaters are drowning in blood, gore and green vomit.

I had written about the tragedy that claimed the lives of 27 school children and downed more than 100 after they ate fried cassava snacks sold by a vendor. Questions were immediately raised. Was it the cassava root that did it? Was it the way the food was prepared? Cassava contains linamarin. If cassava is improperly prepared, this toxic component could remain. When ingested, linamarin converts to cyanide in the human digestive system. The Department of Health ruled that it was pesticide, present in the cassava snack, that did it.

And now the movie.

It begins by introducing the individuals whose characters would play out more intensely after the tragedy, that is after scores of school children of San Isidro die. Aling Idang (Gloria Romero), maker and vendor of the lethal cassava snack at the school premises is at the center of the plot but it is the children Ariel (Nash Aguas) and Atong (Robert Villar Jr.) who would move the story to it denouement.

Ariel is a sensitive child with separated parents who are trying to forgive each other even as they live separate lives but it is Ariel himself who has to come to terms with the situation at his own pace. He survives the mass poisoning but his feelings of loss (close friends Rosemary and Dennis are among the dead) add to his confusion. He experiences survivor’s guilt as shown in his drawings.

Atong, the street-smart orphan kid, is a perfect foil to Ariel’s state of confusion. Unkempt, dirty and full of sores, he doesn’t have many friends. Severely battered by his motormouth aunt (Irma Adlawan as the surrogate mom from hell), he is tough as nails and has developed his own coping mechanisms. He is serving his punishment in the classroom when his classmates start falling sick during recess.

The movie does not dwell long on the day of the tragedy itself and its immediate aftermath—the wailing and gnashing of teeth, the media frenzy, the mass burial. But with the mood set, the movie proceeds to show how the bucolic town of San Isidro turns itself upside down. Grieving families turn against Aling Idang and almost lynch her to death. The old lady is herself full of grief and guilt and in a sudden show of fierceness vents her ire on her grown-up wishy-washy son.

The grief-stricken Ariel tries to move on but is weighed down by his dear friends’ passing, survivor’s guilt and family affairs. He visits the old haunts and there is only Atong who helps him confront his pain. Atong advises, philosophizes, challenges, even taunts. He is the quintessential kutong lupa with an attitude.

And so battered boy befriends grieving boy. And while the town tries to come to terms with its loss, Atong and Ariel set off to do things together, minus the old friends who died, with the former leading the way. The piglet-stealing episode and the two boys’ repartee the night of the “crime” was, I thought, so charming.

The movie does not say it succinctly, but forgiveness is all over it. Forgiving one another, and more importantly, oneself, is easier said than done. Ariel’s drawing of his surroundings shows that he is beginning to come to terms with the changes in his life.

Atong sets off for parts unknown, that is, the mean streets of Manila. The parting is bitter-sweet. Both survivors, the boys will look back to the friendship that grew out of their pain. Great little actors too!

Alas, the kamoteng kahoy (the movie’s title) or cassava was nowhere pictured. Nowhere was it shown how this root is grown and becomes food. Aling Idang was shown mixing, that was all. There were shots of some leaves in the beginning but there was no reference to them. They simply looked like wild growth or some garden plant.

Okay, I’m not a film critic, so that is all I should say was obviously missing.
Cassava is the world’s third most important crop. Cassava (manihot esculenta) originated in Brazil where it is called manioc. The Portuguese colonizers later brought it to Africa. Cassava is the principal source of nutrition for about 500 million people. The root is a rich source of carbohydrates, protein, minerals and vitamins A, B and C. Why aren’t we growing more of it for food and as alternative energy source?

The North Americans have it as tapioca (sago to us) for their custard-like tapioca pudding. The Chinese use it for tikoy. From cassava also comes gawgaw (all-purpose starch powder). Filipinos make a variety of cassava delights, among them, cassava bibingka.

The day of the 2005 tragedy, I was eating cassava pitsi-pitsi. Bulanghoy, balinghoy or kamoteng kahoy has come a long way from its barrio nilupak beginnings. Making nilupak (by pounding together boiled cassava, young coconut and sugar) is still an excuse for farm folk to soak in the glow of the full moon.

If you laid out before me a variety of desserts that consisted of pastries with vanilla essence and fancy toppings on one side and native goodies (kakanin) on the other side, I’d make a beeline for the latter. The blend of coconut meat and milk with sticky rice or grated starchy roots, caramelized sugar and pandan, sometimes with a sprinkling of sesame seeds and nuts, was concocted in heaven where the majority must be Southeast Asians.

Go catch the movie.