Dir: Carlo Encisco Catu | Dragons & Tigers | Philippines | 2015 | 90 min
Taking home Best World Film at the Harlem International Film Festival this past September, My Life with a King is the coming-of-age story of a Filipino boy rediscovering his native roots. Twenty-five years after Mount Pinatoba erupted, the Kimpanpangans still struggle to keep their language and culture alive. Spearheading the movement is a poet circle led by an elected chief — known locally as the King of Poets. Director Carlos Catu brings us a light-hearted but profoundly thought-provoking debut that breathes life into Filipino anthropology and literature.
The film begins with a modern spin on the classic ‘hero on a quest’ trope. High-school student Jaypee (Ronwaldo Martin) braves ubiquitous lahar (volcanic ash), melting heat and motorbike failures in order to invite the King of Poets to a high-school arts and culture event. When he finally stumbles into the poet’s ramshackle home, however, he finds the long-awaited monarch in as decrepit a state as his abode. Old, toothless Conrado Guinto (Francisco Guinto) is a seasoned drunkard, cockier than his champion fighting rooster, and not at all modest about his own “cock-fighting powers” at night. Thus begins an odd but heartwarming friendship nourished on a unique diet of trilingual poetry—English, Tagalog, and of course, Kampanpangan.
I’ve always thought slam poetry was a 21st century West Coast phenomenon, but My Life with a King proves that this has long existed as an ancient art. Kampanpangan poetry is a musical bouquet of complicated wordplay, well-turned phrases and flowing rhythm surprisingly similar to spoken word. It was a pleasure to hear Guinto, a local poet by trade (though not the Kampanpangan king) wax eloquent. His performance is spellbinding, captivating and transcendent, leaving one to wonder to what extent his recitations are actually “acted.” But the true heroes of the film are the caption writers, who miraculously managed to safely convey Kampanpangan poetry puns and, all through the murky waters of translation, artfully preserve moments of beauty — “As the tree presses his face into the bosom of the dark, warm earth…” — as well as parody — “Beloved Tintin, I will not bathe for two days to keep your scent on me…”
It is difficult to believe that My Life with a King is only filmmaker Carlos Catu’s first feature-length project. Scenes are laden with subtle symbolism: A funeral procession trudges through the ash-covered dust; the winning contestant at a beauty pageant receives “crown” of beautiful words; the corrupt local official departs in his flaming-red SUV during a poetry reading on Lucifer. The soundscape of persistent birdsong refusing to be drowned out by motor engines, radio static and the intermittent cell-phone notification is the refrain of a culture that does not surrender so easily.
According to Holy Angel University producers, the original intent of the film was to encourage the new generation of Filipinos to embrace their Kapampangan heritage. “We wanted to produce a film that will showcase the advocacy of the university, and that is the promotion and preservation of local culture,” explains Robby Tantingco, screenwriter and chair of the university’s Center for Kapampangan Studies. Yet, viewers of all backgrounds can take this message to heart. The line of the credits reads, “Your regional language is your native language. Learn to speak it before you learn another.”
A neat balance of humour and gravitas, My Life with a King is poetry in motion.