MANILA, Philippines - A film that weaves together stories of the anguish and desperation of American and Filipino soldiers during the notorious Bataan Death March could have been shot on location in a large-scale production.
Filipino director Borinaga Alix Jr. instead chose to film "Death March" in black-and-white and almost entirely inside a studio using hand-painted backdrops, with close-ups of actors' painted faces portraying their struggles with nightmares and hallucinations in one of the bloodiest episodes of World War II.
"Death March" is competing against 17 other movies at the Cannes Film Festival that opens Wednesday, including Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring," French director Claire Denis' "Les Salauds" and fellow Filipino director Lav Diaz's "Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan." The entries were made in the category for art house and experimental films.
Some 70,000 starving, sick, and exhausted American and Filipino prisoners of the Japanese Imperial Army marched under a brutal sun for five days in April 1942, covering 105 kilometers (65 miles) from the Bataan peninsula to a prison camp in Tarlac province. Survivors told stories of atrocities, with many of the prisoners stabbed or decapitated by their Japanese captors if they so much as stopped to drink water or collapsed to the ground. Thousands died from illness or exhaustion.
After reading the script by Rody Vera, Alix said he was struck by the war's emotional and psychological effect on soldiers.
"It felt like they were sleep walking their nightmares," Alix said in an interview. He said he wanted to highlight how the event shaped the soldiers' psyche.
Instead of the initial plan to go on location, he consulted the production designer and decided "to shoot in a controlled environment where all the elements were synthetic, except the actors, to heighten the surreal feeling of the film."
The multi-character movie stars Filipino actors Sid Lucero as a Filipino soldier who fights to stay sane after his friend is shot in front of him, and Filipino-American actor Sam Milby as an American soldier taking care of his sick captain but also thinking of ways to escape from the Japanese.
Other Filipino actors whose stories converge in the film are Zanjoe Marudo, Jason Abalos, Carlo Aquino and Felix Roco.
Japanese actor and producer Jackie Woo, who has starred in two previous films directed by Alex, also plays several roles.
"At first I was surprised because he was Japanese," Alix said of Woo. "I know it is a very delicate subject matter especially for them, because the world has stereotypes of how the Japanese were during that time."
But he said he was happy that Woo loved the script, which last year won first prize for screenplay at the Palanca Memorial Awards, the Philippine literary version of the Pulitzer Prize.
"He said he is not afraid to produce it because at the end, all these three countries are victims of the war," Alix added.
Shooting lasted 18 days over about four months. At least 15 local artists had to hand-paint the backdrops for two months before shooting began. The movie went over the budget at around 10 million pesos ($244,000) because of the decision to shoot in a studio.
Alix said that while shooting indoors was confining and more expensive, it was worth it.
"The audience might feel a certain discomfort because it's not as real as it is, but at a certain point you also feel like you are in a journey with the characters" he said.
The 34-year-old director, named in 2010 by The Hollywood Reporter as among Asia's best and brightest entertainment personalities below 35, said he was thrilled that his movie will be competing in Cannes.
"For me it's just an honor to be in the same lineup of these directors because I love their work," said Alix, whose co-directed movie "Manila" also had a special screening in Cannes in 2009.
He said being in the festival gives small films like his the buzz and exposure that can boost sales.
Two French distributors have signed up to market the movie in France and elsewhere, he said.
"What is important now for us is to show that there is a movement that is coming from the Philippines, because in the past six years there have been a lot of Filipino films that have been screened in festivals and we get a lot of reviews," he said.