Kamoteng Kahoy takes off from a pretty compelling question: what happens to a small town after a major tragedy befalls them? How does it affect the children? And what if the one responsible was still in their midst? Kamoteng Kahoy answers these questions with a measure of intelligence, but a lack of focus ends up hurting the film overall. Kamoteng Kahoy often shows signs of being a truly great film, but those signs just don’t come together.
The movie is based on a true story. In a small town in Bohol, a town is rocked when over a hundred young students are hospitalized after eating some tainted cassava cakes, killing about two dozen children. The blame falls squarely on the shoulders of Lola Idang (Gloria Romero), who accidentally used pesticide instead of flour in her recipe. The movie follows the fallout of the tragedy through the eyes of Ariel (Nash Aguas), who lost his two best friends to the poisoning, and is struggling to come to terms with his own survival. Meanwhile, the whole town falls apart as they try to deal with the pain of losing so many children.
The story has a lot of smart little details, but it’s not as tight as it could be. This is a really intelligent look into survivor’s guilt, into the complex mix of emotions that come after a devastating tragedy. And through the eyes of Ariel, we get to see a lot of very genuine emotion. But the movie is also filled with a lot of extraneous details. We get caught up in subplots where the characters are just caricatures, and that hurts the overall emotional impact of the film. The strength of the picture lies in its ability to show some slice of the truth, and it’s all put into question when we encounter characters that simply don’t ring true. It also loosens up the narrative, placing details that are ultimately droppable, drawing attention away from the parts of the picture that are actually compelling. One can understand the yearning to really look at the overall psyche of the town, but the way it’s done in this movie, they come off as little distractions that don’t add up to anything. In the end, the arc of the townspeople feels extraneous to the overall themes of the film, and the movie would’ve been served better by a greater focus on the main character.
It helps that the main character is played by Nash Aguas. Aguas is showing a lot of potential, forgoing the usual child star hamminess and sticking to something a little more real. His talent becomes more apparent when he’s compared to his fellow child actors, who do play it up a bit too much. It feels like blasphemy to say this, but Gloria Romero is starting to be a detriment in her scenes. She definitely has presence, but sometimes it feels like she’s out of sync with the pacing of her scenes. Irma Adlawan is stuck with playing the movie’s most ridiculous character, and she cartoons it up as well. It was just sad.
Kamoteng Kahoy really does have some great writing in it, but it doesn’t come together as well as it could. The emotions are there, but the way the movie is structured fails to highlight those strengths, as the movie meanders through weaker subplots that ultimately don’t add much to the final picture. The movie does have its moments, little scenes that indicate a profound understanding of the thoughts and emotions involved in dealing with tragedy. In the end, though, they’re all still just moments.