Set in the southernmost and arguably the most marginalized portions of the Philippine archipelago, Sheron Dayoc's Halaw (Ways of the Sea) documents the attempts of several of its citizens to secure a better life by cro...展开ssing borders via the sea that separates the hopelessness in Mindanao and the promises of Sabah. The first half of the film, set on land, gives the audiences a glimpse of the lives sought to be changed, from the recruiter (John Arcilla) who manages the goods he has to bring to Malaysia intact and untainted to the Badjao siblings who seek to be reunited with their missing mother. The latter half, set primarily on sea, maps the journey and defines the relationships, until they reach their destination.
During the film's first half, Dayoc, gifted with the ability to tell stories through gestures instead of the giveaway expository powers of words, compiles an array of emotions from his subjects, emotions like anger and frustration from Arcilla's persistent recruiter, resignation and sorrow from Maria Isabel Lopez's seasoned cross-border passenger, and longing from Arnalyn Ismael's Badjao lass.
He therefore unmasks from the broken landscape defined by makeshift shacks on rickety stilts and military men in incessant patrol a people of confused identities, to whom nationality is a non-issue, and language is not a barrier. The only constant among them aside from the fact that in the motorboat they are all equal in the sense that they all have paid the same expensive fare, is a shared humanity, as defined by their decision to forego risks and uncertainties all in the service of filling a need. This is Dayoc's strongest suit, the ability to humanize, to hint at histories and pasts of his selected characters with only offerings of glimpses of what could be a more troubling and devastating whole. The motorboat, carrying its paid and hopeful passengers, leave port. A lullaby guides them to sea, creating a false impression of peace and comfort.
However, the journey should be anything but peaceful and comfortable. Dayoc misses the tedium and boredom of sea travel. He also misses the possible dangers, the probable escalating dramas, and the budding connections between the characters. It seems that Dayoc envisions the sea as refuge from the ills caused by the deficiencies and excesses of society. Thus, when the motor boat ends up in Mamanok Island, the final station where the boat replenishes its supplies before arriving at their supposed destination, the passengers, more specifically the recruiter and his single ward, are again exposed to the same dangers they are trying to escape from. It seems that as long as corrupted man-made social structures, there can be no hope, no hope. The film's most poignant moment, a scene where the recruiter and his ward are in equal terms in terms of being hopeless and helpless, involves a predicament where these social structures have broken down to reveal humanity in its basest and most repugnant.
Halaw is admittedly not a faultless film. The ending, whose abruptness can be read as ambiguity or a metaphor for the supposed endlessness of these cross-border tragedies, is ultimately a betrayal of Dayoc's sincere appreciation of the passengers' disparate yet connected conditions. However, amidst these technical and narrative issues, the film most importantly exists as an indictment of the failures of these man-made institutions, of the suffocating implications of poverty, intolerance, corruption and other by-products of abused and misused social structures, and borders, boundaries, and other instruments that primarily seek to protect these social structures but in truth, only propagate exploitation wherever and whenever such issues exist.