Joey Reyes' comparatively marginal Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) entry is basically an extension of his more glamorous "Sakal, Sakali, Saklolo" - itself also an MMFF entry this year - in that both films tackle the themes of Filipino culture in terms of the family. This somewhat affecting family drama is marked by a sensitive direction and fine performances. While there's no question that the film's lead star poses a tough challenge for those who won't be caught dead watching a film by Senator Jinggoy Estrada, anyone who makes the extra effort to see it might find that it's not that bad after all.
The film tells the story of Oca, an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) in Saudi Arabia, who has recently come home after 10 years of drilling oil in the Arabian kingdom. As he tries to make up for his long absence, he soon finds that winning his family's affections isn't as easy as spoiling them rotten with "pasalubongs" and shopping sprees. His wife (Lorna Tolentino) is having a hard time accepting the fact that her husband is financially supporting his mother (Vangie Labalan), his older sister (Eugene Domingo), and his brother-in-law (Dick Israel). His children (Shaina Magdayao, Arron Villaflor and Julian Estrada) grew without a father's image and are thus estranged to him.
The plot doesn't really translate to a compelling material on paper but the astute writing and direction, coupled with the everyman charisma of Estrada and the solid support of Tolentino provide a pleasant naturalism to the film. Tolentino manages to create vivid character of Oca's wife while maintaining external restraint.
But the real surprise is Estrada, whose cinematic work has previously been limited to lowbrow materials better reserved for afternoon free TV. As Oca, he shows substantial dramatic range, moving from a sullen OFW to a mature man coming to terms with his family rather convincingly. It's unfortunate, though, when the script requires him to do a heavy drama somewhere in the film, as clearly, the guy isn't cut out for it. But it's mercifully short and doesn't detract from the overall material at all.
"Katas ng Saudi" isn't as polished as Reyes' last two projects with Star Cinema - the score seem to come spontaneously from a karaoke machine, the cinematography isn't as nicely composed, and the editing isn't as fluid. While some of the conflicts provided tend to be derivative at times, the resolution doesn't feel forced and the main arc leading to the final act is well-drawn that the ending rings with little artificiality.
The end result is a family drama that will appeal to anyone who can look beyond the surface and find a piece of him/herself in what's presented. It may not be something to fill a whole "balikbayan" box, but it's worth writing home about.
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