By Arnel Ramos

For those who are naturally fascinated with the supernatural, the elements, and the concept of the afterlife, this is a welcome ride.

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Written by Paolo Herras and illustrated by Tepal Pascual, Buhay Habangbuhay is one of the entries in the ongoing CineFilipino Film Festival   organized by Media Quest and Unitel Productions. The movie attempts to work on many levels. It mixes drama, Pinoy’s propensity for the paranormal, and comedy even when the humor somehow falls flat. Its origin as a graphic novel is interesting since it is not everyday that a graphic novel, the more “sosyal” incarnation of the “bangketa-sold komiks” of our youth, gets a big-screen treatment. When the comedy works, it is laugh-out-loud funny, just in the scene where Anna Marin as Meryll Soriano’s mom tells the spirits which she can feel tagged along her returning daughter, with son in tow: “Bawal ang nega!” But when it doesn’t, the efforts to make you smile are quite tepid.

Perhaps it takes a certain astuteness to make an amalgam of different elements work wonderfully together. Writer-director Paolo Herras has the skills and the passion, and  eventually, time will hone him into a master of cinematic hybrid-ing. Buhay Habangbuhay works better as a dramatic canvas that proves that life doesn’t end when one stops breathing. As Jake Macapagal’s character tells his dead wife’s spirit near film’s end: “Parang mas buhay ka pa ngayong patay kana.”

 In the story, Sandra (or Sandy) dies in a freak accident. Her spirit loiters, patiently waiting for her husband to join her in the afterlife. As the film unfolds, we learn that the dead also grieve, and mourn, and ultimately move on. They can do do other things, and take on better pursuits. Death and ghosts here can be just a metaphor for souls emerging from a dark phase in their lives, and slowly crawling back into the light.And perhaps attaining a sense of purpose. What one might have missed out in life, one can strive to get a hold of after death.

It hurts a little when one has seen City of Angels (with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan) and its German inspiration, WimWenders’ Wings of Desire. In both movies, there is a markedly somber mood. A sense of sadness and yearning and isolation. And the knowledge of the fleeting, fragile quality of life.Buhay Habangbuhay could have taken on that same route had it done away, for one,with the character of Ricci Chan as a spirit that has seen better days. All that Chan’s character does is deliver punchlines that often fall flat. Garbed in a frock, his is a foreboding presence when it should take on an ethereal quality about it. In effect, he becomes Iza Calzado’s character’s “bff” rather than a mentor, and/or guide as she takes baby steps into a realm where no records can offer foolproof evidence about.

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Jubilant smiles and quiet nods would have been earned had there been scenes where Chan’s character helps introduce Iza into this new plane – how to glide about and a subtle lowdown on the extents of what a spirit can and cannot do. The film thinks that viewers are intelligent enough not to be confused, and surmise that a child can actually see a sprit, while the kid’s uncle can merely feel her presence.

On another level, Buhay Habangbuhay invites us to suspend our disbelief. But even when you’re ready to charge it all to suspension of disbelief, logic still dictates that Iza must not have guessed right away where the wake of her departed spouse was.

On yet another level, even when some scenes are too brightly light, the movie is at its most beguiling when there is just haunting music playing and montages of cityscapes and clear blue skies are flashed on screen. There is beauty in everything that surrounds us, be it to the dead or to the living.

The film is also blessed with some of the finer actors working in the industry today. Meryll Soriano as the new wife makes her few scenes count. Stay long enough to see that scene by the couch where Meryll, Iza, and the child actor Nhikzy Calmacry, but only to end up laughing. Jake Macapagal is properly suited to play an aging, cold husband. Anna Marin is a joy in a nakaw-eksenang role while Rocky Salumbides is virile personified.

And IzaCalzado, this woman can do nothing wrong; whether she is just regarding her husband, or another woman’s spouse, or as a spirit. The admiring masculine charms of Salumbides, like in the scene where sheis finally reunited with her husband(now that she’s dead and a wandering spirit),but is ready to move on to the Great Nothingness, then she tells him, “Ako lang pala ang bumuo mula sa wala,” Iza does it with nuance. There are no eyes threatening to pop out, no screaming voice, no quivering lips. Her portrayal always mutedly beautiful.

Buhay Habangbuhay ends on a hopeful note, with Iza’s spirit finding purpose and closure in loving herself and loving others, outside of family, outside of self. In death or in life, that is ultimately what makes being here, there, and everywhere.

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