Topografia

On more than one occasion, we hear the characters of Gutierrez “Teng” Mangansakan II’s Topografia talk about the importance of stories — those that elude us and those we can’t escape. The film’s opening scene finds Felix Roco’s Daud, the son of a congressman, getting a new tattoo after citing how his skin is the only place left for the stories he wishes to tell. His best friend, Jess Mendoza’s Marco, a young reporter, struggles to find a story relevant enough to be relegated on the front page of the papers. Their dynamic informs the rest of the film: a reluctant young politician soon to take a seat in the Bangsamoro parliament who would rather watch cartoons or listen to music in his car and an idealistic young writer entrenched in the struggles that his best friend takes for granted.

This impending transition of political power and the collateral aftermath affecting the rural communities is such a rich background for Topografia to mine for subtext and metaphors enriching its best friends-on-a-road trip plotline. However, the film fails to tap into that potential; often finding itself on awkward footing through the characters’ forward complaints on their issues. We barely see how the stories they repeatedly claim to be of utmost importance reflect in their personality or inform their action.

Felix Roco often excels in roles that require him to be subdued making the occasional burst of anguish or terror that much more potent. He’s capitalized on that slacker screen persona in films like Ang Nawawala and Shift, as well as the use of moments of silence as a tool for menace and longing in films like Babae at Baril and Pan De Salawal. However, that approach works against him in his character as Daud. We are either told by Marco about his capabilities as a writer or we hear through an offscreen voiceover all that he’s gone through at the behest of his father. Those traits and trauma, nonetheless, see no direct manifestation in any of his scenes. He is supposedly protected by a powerful political figure but he continues to fear censorship in his own school paper. He resents his father’s corruption but finds no hesitation in berating a gas station employee. Instead of coming across as scarred and conflicted, Daud’s journey finds him simply exercising his own privilege and wallowing in past trauma that didn’t seem to affect his escapist lifestyle.

Topografia (2021, dir. Teng Mangansakan)

Marco’s journey, on the other hand, is intercut by a parallel narrative from his time as a guild writer working directly with the oppressed communities in the countryside. There are plenty of offhanded comments about Marxist ideology and the revolutionary movement that crop up in many of his conversations with fellow activists but they all seemingly start and end at the basest premise. Some of these platitudes give off the impression of introductory sentiments not being given the depth to tether these characters’ ideology with their inner motivations. Still, it is not without merit to be given even a glimpse into that side of the struggle and how the borders of education, literature, politics, and even film could overlap in giving identity to an enduring cultural narrative.

All of these, including the structural device of a radio-station-like voiceover that fills in the gaps of the characters’ histories, service this conceit about stories and the choice of our narratives. The unspoken romance that supposedly lingers between the two central characters is diluted into one or two conversations and a climax that could have been more impactful had the seeds been planted deeper. While that climactic scene would linger for two solid minutes with its intention to be as discomforting as possible, the lack of a discernible progression with the characters keeps their connection and its aftermath from having a more emotional impact.

It’s noteworthy, for me personally, how I found the scene that directly precedes said climax to be my favorite sequence when arguably it was only meant to manufacture a brief window of time for the climax to take place. This scene in particular finds Marco in the company of random strangers at a resort. While the whole sequence may seem lackadaisical, it was in this scene where the dialogue felt truly organic, allowing us to witness and hear this unworried mix of dialects in an aimless banter of the locals.

Stories of self-importance or, more appropriately, stories echoing the significance of other stories often dangerously amount to navel-gazing. We often pine for or resent the places that made us but we are similarly just as responsible for filling these empty lands with who we are. The mountains, caves, abandoned orphanages, beaches, skin, and lands that harbor the stories of Topografia echo a history that at once commands attention but quickly fades as it ripples past the next terrain.