Strong social critique barbed with black humor distinguishes Philippine drama Pedicab, directed by Paolo Villaluna, who made the gay prison drama The Inmate, and co-written with producer Ellen Ramos. An ironic, cigarette-smoking Jesus Christ, invisible to everyone but a blind woman, accompanies Mang Pepe and his ragtag family of Manila slum dwellers on their arduous journey by cycle rickshaw back to the countryside they had left years earlier. Though it oozes empathy and compassion for society’s lowest dregs, the film is something of a mixed bag to watch: the narrative drags on a bit numbingly for two hours before the big payoff arrives in a deeply emotional finale.
Pedicab cycled home from the Shanghai Film Festival with best film kudos, suggesting that it may have more festival life in it as it approaches the one-year mark after initial release.
A fine idea stretched too thin.
Mang Pepe (Bemboi Roco) and his wife Remy (Cherry Pie Picache) slave away in a noisy outdoor market in a Quezon City slum that is also their home. Despite his advancing age and a nasty cough, he peddles vegetables and other merchandise around town for stingy clients; she takes in laundry and complains bitterly about how dirty it is. Their daughter Pina sells cigarettes on the street and their strapping son J.P. takes odd jobs while his young wife, the blind Isabel (award-winning actress Meryll Soriano of Donor), waits for their first child to be born. At the end of the day there’s barely enough money to put food on the table. Yet despite their poverty and bickering, the family appears enviably close-knit and loving.
Bringing to mind Ettore Scola’s classic Down and Dirty, which chronicled the poverty of an extended family living in a shantytown outside Rome in the 1970s, the first half of the film convincingly establishes a slumdog environment that conditions every part of the characters’ lives, even their hopes and dreams. Pedicab is actually the kinder film of the two because the screenwriters have an obvious affection for their characters, who periodically appear in black-and-white fantasy scenes set on an abstract, perhaps heavenly, dance floor. Removed from their degrading living quarters, they become normal people to whom the viewer can relate.
However, the setup is leisurely and much screen time passes before the first turning point, when Mang Pepe has a stroke of luck and decides to move his family back to their native village. The city has not fulfilled their hopes for a better life; far from it. They leave in the dead of night, packing house and home on two cycle rickshaws, one of which has been “borrowed” for the occasion, and head for the highway. Their dog and Jesus tag along and both will play crucial roles in saving the little band.
It’s a long road home fraught with various dramas and adversity, but only in the closing scene do all the threads come together in a powerfully emotional way. For all his irreverent treatment of Jesus Christ, including wearing a barbed-wire crown and peering through large holes in his hands where his stigmata were, Jess Mendoza’s J.C. says a lot of wise things about the meaning of human suffering that ring even truer after the preceding two hours of disasters.
Though based on a true story, Pedicab has hardly any documentary feeling; its characters are lensed to bring out a heightened fictional vividness. The loosely strung together narrative is another story, and tighter editing would certainly help move the action along faster. In the main roles, Roco, Picache and Soriano are laughably gritty but ultimately effective in touching the heartstrings.
Production company: Universal Harvester
Cast: Bemboi Roco, Cherry Pie Picache, Meryll Soriano, Jerald Napoles, Jess Mendoza, Chai Fonacier
Director: Paolo Villaluna
Screenwriters: Paolo Villaluna, Ellen Ramos
Producers: Ellen Ramos, Paolo Villaluna
Executive producer: Milagros Ong How
Director of photography: Sasha Palomares
Production designer: Maulen Fadul
Music: Pike Ramirez, Veena Ramirez
Editors: Paolo Villaluna, Ellen Ramos
Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (Competition)