Review: Tanabata's Wife (2018)

Adapted from a classic Filipino short story, Tanabata’s Wife is the directorial bow of author-turned-director Charlson Ong, in tandem with his two collaborators Lito Casaje and Choi Pangilinan. A prolific writer of short fiction, Ong has won several awards for his work, including the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards, the National Book Award and the Gawad Balagtas, the lifetime achievement award from the Writers’ Union of the Philippines. 

Told in three acts, the film tells of the winding romance between Tanabata-san and Fasang. Set in the La Trinidad Valley near Baguio, Tanabata-san is an aging farmer whose friends urge him to settle down. He hires Fasang, a young Bontoc woman, as a farmhand with nothing but the promise of four pesos and a full belly. Though initially reticent and distant, the pair, as promised by the title, grow close as they close the gap on their cultural differences. Companionship soon gives way to swelled bellies and laughter in the nursery as the two continue to lead their quiet but hardscrabble life. 

Beguiled by the wiles of nearby city lights in fledging Baguio, dreams of a further tomorrow creep into Fasang’s horizons; her desires soon grow wings as she is whisked away by her interloper, Okdo, along with her son Kato. Unmoored, Tanabata lets his fields fall into ruins as he unsuccessfully nurses the injury of his lost love. Fasang learns of this and eventually returns to her ailing lover and the two are reunited. It truly is like that old adage about setting loves free. Fortunately for Tanabata, love found its way back home.

The loving craft and attention to detail behind Tanabata’s Wife’s construction is evident. Each frame of the film is a signed confession of love towards Japanese cinema. Ozu and Kurosawa themselves are name-dropped in the credits. Nap Jamir’s cinematography is quietly thoughtful, the compositions are precise but never rigid and the depth in each image is layered and dense without ever feeling overwhelming. The shots cascade together and slide into each other’s grooves like a river of flowing poetry. This is cinema as a gentle breeze on an autumn afternoon. 

The domestic dining table scenes set in Tanabata’s hut are firmly within Ozu’s purviewthe two share moments around a low table set against a window as they shed the skins they wear for the world outside their confines. In there they are a world alone, in there is a place that only they know and in there they are the only two people who know. Their counterparts, the rolling greens that stretch beyond the image, the heavy footfalls and scrounged up dirt and the rolling drumbeat rainfalls, come straight out of Kurosawa’s playbook, the director so famed for his composition of movement using environmental details. 

Where the film falls short of the otherwise easy naturalism it has worn thus far is in the performances. Miyuki Kamimura puts up a serviceable and competent performance as the genial Tanabata but the rawness of his screen partner, first time actor Mia Fanglayan, is evident and made for some distracting moments. Still, it is a very admirable first foray into screen acting, despite some tonal inconsistencies in the performance. 

Written by Koh Zhi Hao

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