Many films had depicted the atrocities of the invasion of the Japanese in the Philippines in the 1940s, but the film Sundalong Kanin (Rice Soldiers) – directed by Janice O’Hara for the New Breed category of the 10th Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival – effectively showed the darkness of this theme using a different point of view.
The film featured four children – Nitoy (Nathaniel Niño Britt), his younger brother Benny (Isaac Cain Tangonan), Badong (Elijah Canlas) and Carding (Akira Morishita), all living in the town of San Nicolas – who first thought of warfare as only child-play, until they themselves got into the real thing after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. They eventually aspired of becoming real soldiers fighting their Japanese counterparts. But as they were trusted to spy the Japanese troops for the guerrilla, not only did they experience the war with the Japanese, but the war with themselves.
The film’s harsh depiction of the theme successfully brought out the seriousness of the children to survive the war amid their innocence, especially acting-wise. The following scenes exhibited best the physical and emotional pain they went through:
- The scene where Nitoy had no choice but only cry for the death of Alice (Rania Delamar) after being raped by the Japanese;
- The act where Benny admitted the crime in behalf of Nitoy, and after being brought to the Japanese troop leader Taneguchi (Art Acuña) got scared as he pointed the gun at the latter despite his calm insistence;
- The scene where Carding and Nitoy killed Badong though slingshots because of his spying for the Japanese which resulted to the death of Nitoy’s elder brother Ruben (Enzo Pineda) and other members of the guerrilla;
- The scenes where Carding and Nitoy were killed by the Japanese, and where Dado (Angelo Martinez) pointed the gun at Benny.
The portrayals of Acuña and Marc Abaya must be commended. Abaya played very well the bitter Tonyo Pagalpal, a servant who was assigned by Taneguchi to become the mayor of San Nicolas for his ability to speak a little Japanese instead of Tomas (Paolo O’Hara), the town mayor himself and father of Carding. Meanwhile, Acuña convincingly mimicked the typical English-speaking Japanese and also portrayed the picture of the Japanese during the Occupation that most Filipinos might not have known.
Overall, the film may have no powerhouse cast, but all the actors – especially the four children – had their brilliant moments.
However, the film also depicted some light moments maybe to save the viewers from the depressing scenes and to somehow remind us of our own childhood. The war games, the ‘puppy love’ between Nitoy and Alice, and the leader of the guerrilla who was speaking funny American English.
Visuals-wise, the film also effectively showed how it was living in the 1940s: the nipa and stone houses; the mountainous landscape; the cars, the outfits of the characters; the sepia tone of the film overall. However, the present Japanese flag was used in the film instead of the one used by the Japanese Imperial Army (the one with sun rays), which could be a historical flaw.
In terms of language, the actors’ portrayals were convincing because of the use of words we can still use now, unlike some films which used highfaluting ones. The only concern is that child actors should have been told of the responsible use of Filipino cuss words in real life, as they did so many times in the film.
Most importantly, the film portrayed how the lives of these kids were drastically turned around by the Occupation, from their joyful moments of their friendship to their depressing quest for individual survival. The scenes profoundly displayed intense expressions of hatred, envy, betrayal and hunger for power, which revolved around all characters in the film, especially the children.
The film stressed the message that the War never brought any good for Filipinos, as it only caused further division among its own citizens. Also, children would never be able to realize how extremely difficult being on the front line would get, that life would eventually, unforgivingly turn back on them. After all, they were mere children, known for their innocence.
Therefore, the film successfully portrayed the heartbreaking cruelty of childhood caused not only by the Japanese.
PS: Sundalong Kanin grabbed the Audience Choice award for the New Breed category of Cinemalaya X.
This post was later published in the Philippine Online Chronicles.