By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
The American director John Sayles has a long and distinguished history of tackling difficult projects addressing difficult aspects of life and history. His latest film “Amigo,” set in the Philippines, explores a time in history not well-remembered by most Americans, but which remains vivid to Filipinos.
The film opens during the Spanish-American war of 1898. It takes place in a small community on the Philippines’ largest island, Luzon. The American forces, under the command of Colonel Hardacre (played by Chris Cooper), intend to wrest control of the Philippines from the Spansh, as part of the overall war strategy.
In the village, Rafael Dacanay (played by legendary Filipino actor Joel Torre) calls the shots and owns most of the land. The other villagers work for a percentage of the harvest. But the arrival of a U.S. military detatchment lead by Lieutenant Compton (Garret Dillahunt), turns everything in the village upside-down.
Unlike Colonel Hardacre, the Lieutenant is essentially a gentle man who tries to understand and work with the people under his care. But he must obey orders, and his orders are sometimes harsh.
Rafael calls himself “Amigo” to the Americans, the Spanish word for “friend.” But saying friendly to the Americans involves keeping secrets. Rafael has ties to the rebel forces plotting against the Americans from the depths of Luzon’s many jungles and caves.
The Filipinos speak mostly Tagalog, and the main English translator for the Americans is the Spanish-born priest Father Hidalgo (Yul Vansquez). Language barriers allow for the keeping of secrets, but they also create practical barriers. A translator might mis-translate, or selectively translate, something, to serve his own purpose.
As Rafael, Joel Torre gives a fascinatingly nuance performance. With his wife and family, he shows warmth and patience. Confronting the Americans, he perseveres against their ever-changing views of him, offering little protest at even the harshest of treatments.
Rafael also communicates with the rebels on a fairly regular basis. This requires cunning, careful planning, and sometimes even the exploitation of chance elements, to conceal his activities from the Americans. This eventually begins to wear on him, and the barriers between his separate identities begin breaking down.
The director and his cinematographer, Lee Melly, render the island of Luzon in bright greens and an amazing array of gray shades. The grays also symbolize the complex nature of the occupied village, a world where no one is entirely right or entirely wrong.
Parallel constructions also help portray this community in crisis. Two funerals, held miles apart, might commemorate two entirely different people who died under different circumstances. But they both died because of the war. Sayles cuts back and forth, emphasizing the similarities and the differences.
Sayles has always shown a keen eye and a tender heart for his characters. Everyone in the village carries a distinctive spark of uniqueness. So do each of the soldiers, except possibly for the blustering C olonel Hardacre. But Hardacre represents the boldness, and foolishness, of American military policy.
Fortunes can change on an American whim in the village, or on a rebel whim out in the jungle. Not every narrative in “Amigo” resolves happily. But John Sayles delivers a unforgettable portrait of a era, and reminds Americans of their largely-forgotten history into the bargain. (END)
“Amigo” plays Sept. 2 through Sept. 8 at at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Avenue in Seattle and at AMC Southcenter 16, 3600 Southcenter Mall, Tukwila.