Good Ol' Review: Ang Kwento ni Mabuti is a Quietly Engrossing Film

No spoilers.

The film Ang Kwento ni Mabuti starts with an ethereal and almost supernatural teaser and cold open as we see clouds and fog seemingly engulfing veteran and multi-awarded actress Nora Aunor as she walks up a mountain, terrified and clutching a large bag.

Smash cut to the title card and then to three girls having fun chasing each other with small bamboo blowguns speaking Ilocano while Nora Aunor sets up a series of hoses that will bring water from the creek to their home down the mountain.

The contrast between the two scenes, one dark and mysterious, the other quiet and simple, will be repeated many times through the film.

Nora Aunor is Mabuti, a woman who lives with her mother and four grandchildren in the mountainous countryside of Nueva Vizcaya. When she isn’t using natural methods to heal neighbors’ dog bites to the leg, she’s tending to the small crops and livestock they have while raising her grandchildren left in her care by her unmarried son and daughter who are both trying to make a living in the city. Her mother isn’t 100% healthy either.

After being introduced to their family’s simple and relatively happy daily lives, we learn Mabuti mortgaged their family’s land to help pay for her son’s going abroad to work. That job in Dubai eventually didn’t pan out and now the bank wants its money.

Mabuti decides to travel to the big city to see what she can do about keeping the land that’s been in her family for generations. On this hours-long journey, she has a chance encounter that presents her with a chance that could change her family’s life either for better or for worse.

Ang Kwento ni Mabuti begins as a slice of life drama. It is lighthearted and simple; a quiet story that follows the everyday lives of a family living off the land in the Northern Philippines. But everything takes a turn when Mabuti realizes what’s just been entrusted to her by a woman she had only met the day before.

Suddenly, a simple life in the countryside is turned upside down and we see Mabuti, who has always been positive and happy, now confused and worried.

It is an engaging story even when it is so quiet. Being set and filmed in Nueva Vizcaya, specifically the mountains where it can be lush and green as well as arid and barren contribute to the characters’ sense of being secluded. The closest town is a ways away, while your closest neighbor is a couple of minutes walk up the road. That Mabuti’s simple life is rocked as soon as she leaves the confines of the hills and mountains is an intriguing contrast that gives the story a realistic and grounded depth.

This film uses atmospheric perspective in the best way a film could possibly do. A simple, uneventful life in the mountains, “the end of the world” as they describe it themselves, rocked by Mabuti’s shocking discovery. The film’s excellent cinematography enhances the simplicity of the story while also presenting some stunningly artsy and meaningful shots.

With my family being from the provinces of Cagayan and Kalinga, I loved watching a film with 100% Ilocano dialogue. The Ilocano spoken in the film gives the film an authenticity and sincerity even if the accents of experienced actors like Nora Aunor and Arnold Reyes (as her son Ompong) could have used a little work. Mara Lopez, who plays her daughter, was the most convincing of the non-native Ilocano speakers in the film.

The rest of the cast felt and sounded more natural, but I guess me being from an Ilocano-speaking family allows me to notice those kinds of nuances a lot more. I’m not sure, but most of the roles probably went to locals from Nueva Vizcaya and they certainly more than carried their own weight against someone like Nora Aunor.

Nora Aunor, considered one of the best Filipino actors of all-time, has given excellent performances time and time again. And her performance in this film is no different. That she is understated throughout the film, even if the screenplay does not call on her to give scenery chewing/overdramatic deliveries, is a testament to her versatility.

That the film does not need to be over-the-top or loud itself; that it is just as, if not more intriguing than mainstream films about adultery, young love, adultery or nonsensical product placement comedies is an accomplishment in and of itself.

Ang Kwento ni Mabuti is a beautifully stunning and emotional journey through a few weeks in one woman’s, one family’s simple life. Even when an unexpected curveball is thrown at them, they and especially Mabuti, never forget what’s most important to them. That such a simple and quiet story can provoke so much thought as the credits roll and can provide a wholly fulfilling experience is something to be applauded and enjoyed.

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