NATIONAL POST - Film review: Off World (3 stars)

March 16 2012

In a week that sees the release of Muppet documentary Being Elmo and De-Niro-as-taxi-driver Being Flynn, you have to take titles with a grain of salt. Off World is not a tale of interplanetary exploration, for instance, although many of the landscapes do have an apocalyptic, otherworldly feel to them.

It’s also not a documentary, although for the first 20 minutes I was fooled. Paris-born writer/director Mateo Guez isn’t trying to trick us — it’s just that the film is shot in and around a massive garbage dump in the Philippines, where few but diehard documentarians would dare to tread.

Lucky (Marc Abaya) is a well-off Torontonian who was born in Manila but adopted as a baby. Now thirtyish, he’s gone back in search of his roots near a place called Smokey Mountain — a wistful name but an appropriate one for a 12-storey pile of trash that leaks spontaneously combusting methane from its pores.

Lucky quickly locates his brother (Marco Morales), a gay man who introduces him to the neighbourhood’s late-night parties, cockfights and prostitution, all shot with a dreamlike intensity by the director. Guez worked closely with the locals, adding to the realistic feel of the film.

Lucky grapples with the circumstances of his upbringing. Disgusted by the thousands of garbage pickers who eke out a living selling recyclables from the mountain, he must also admit that this is his home. Above his head swirls an unasked question: Did his mother love him so much that she sent him to a better life in Canada, or so little that she kept his brother and not him?

Guez also works as a photographer, and had a photo and video installation, also called Off World, at Toronto’s Contact photography festival in 2009. His images are rich and stunning — the slums of Manila shot in a monochromatic, smoky grey, livened by unexpected flashes of colour. His decision to avoid subtitles is well made, letting us experience Lucky’s sense of dislocation whenever the conversation shifts to the Tagalog language.

The film runs a brisk 76 minutes, and the ending may strike some as a touch simplistic, even syrupy. Approach Off World not as a traditional narrative but as a kind of tonal travelogue, however, and there is much to enjoy in its stark, ironic beauty.

Off World opens March 16 at the Bell Lightbox in Toronto, with the director in attendance at the 6:45 p.m. screening.

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