Oros paints an eye-opening picture of the world of saklaan, a particular form of gambling played in no less than the wakes of the recently demised.
It is a Filipino custom that allows mourners to pass the time watching over their dead; but director Paul Sta. Ana unravels the tradition’s dark secrets through his latest film, Oros.
The film follows Makoy (Kristoffer King) and Abet (Kristofer Martin), two brothers who have made a living by setting up organized saklaan.
Despite the illegal nature of public gambling, the police turn a blind eye to bets placed over the wakes of the deceased. In the eyes of the naive, it is simply a way to pass the time. But in the eyes of the opportunist, it becomes a great way to make money.
Makoy and Abet’s occupation is a morbid one. They buy unclaimed corpses at the local morgue to stand in as deceased relatives. The wake is held at the home of a willing participant and alms, a sort of petty tax, is claimed from the players.
Everyone gets a cut. While traditional wakes last no longer than a week at the most, Makoy and his business partners stretch the grieving to over a month.
The longer the grief, the higher profit.
There is an undeniable richness to Oros’ milieu. The tradition of saklaan provides a great portal into a world that profits from the demise of others. But the core of the story is undoubtedly the two brothers, Makoy and Abet; whose contrasting characterizations provide for potentially interesting views on the world through Sta. Ana’s lens.
Makoy has fashioned himself an authority in organized saklaan, while his younger brother Abet is tired of the routinary grind of watching over the deceased. King and Martin’s performances are remarkable, nuanced by an equal mix of contempt and respect for each other as brothers.
The word oros itself refers to one of the four suits in the deck of cards used in sakla, which is represented by gold coins. The other suits, respectively named bastos (clubs), copas (cups) and espadas (swords) are used with equal measure throughout the game.
The four suits, it’s been said, symbolize the various social classes of the Middle Ages, with bastos being the peasants, copas being the church, espadas being the army, and oros being the merchants.
On one hand, Oros refers to the monetization of death; the idea of a person’s passing as a literal transaction that benefits the living. On the another hand, Oros also refers to the mercantile nature of Makoy and Abet’s occupation. They are simply businessmen, trading their goods and services for a bit of coin.
But at what cost?
Sta. Ana tells the story of Oros in a way most familiar to third world cinema. And despite the film’s attempt to remain organic and authentic, there is a surprising amount of rigidity to the film itself.
It is as if the film had taken notes from a textbook and is simply following the motions. Though this doesn’t present the film as a wasted experience, it also doesn’t present the film as anything more than middling. Given Sta. Ana’s years of experience and talent, Oros wastes its the burning potential of being something “great”.
Wrapped in layers of rich symbolism and thoughtful commentary, Oros lacks the emotional arc that allows it to resonate long after the credits have rolled.
To mistake that comment as a suggestion to turn Sta. Ana’s film into a melodrama would be missing the point entirely. There is a deliberate coldness to Oros; one that depicts humanity as callous and unforgiving. It is a worldview that fits into the harshness of the film’s world, and it is one that exacts a heavy toll on its main characters. But unfortunately, that heavy toll stumbles in on itself when we discover that the film has ended long before it should have.
In the end, Sta. Ana guides us through an eye opening world that is as insightful as it is Filipino. Unfortunately, the film fails to mine the potential of its own milieu. The themes, characters, and story – though promising – sputters to a screeching halt as soon as it begins to pick up steam.
The ending, though clever in its intention, is unable to build up into anything emotionally satisfying. And suddenly, the door to the captivating world that Sta. Ana opens before us is shut as quickly as it is opened.
For a film entrenched in the milieu of illegal gambling, Oros takes far too little risks.
PARA SA TAMAD MAGBASA:
For a film set against the interesting backdrop of saklaan, the film takes very little risk. The result is a film that is clear, symbolic and precise, with the wasted potential of being so much more.