Geography and culture are largely intertwined. This is the thesis being put forward by Ari: My Life with a King, directed by Carlo Enciso Catu and written by Robby Cantingco. The film’s first shot is of Mt. Pinatubo, now quiet and majestic but had once wreaked havoc and forever transformed the landscape of Pampanga.
The eponymous Ari (or Hari, as the Kapampangans are notoriously known for omitting the h) is Conrado “Dado” Guinto (Francisco Guinto), the town’s King of Poets, who at the start of the film is being recognized as a distinguished alumnus in the field of culture and the arts. Dado is an old man from another time–a time when poetry was given more value–and his being out of place is presented early on by placing him in a high school, his alma mater nonetheless, where he, although being lauded, is also being casually ignored by the youth.
Placed as a contrast to Dado is Jaypee (Ronwaldo Martin), the lad tasked with bringing him to the ceremony. Typical of his generation, Jaypee, while capable of understanding, cannot speak Kapampangan, whereas Dado insists on speaking solely in this language. Inevitably, they develop a mentor–student relationship at the guise of writing a love poem, through which a passion for the verse is kindled in him. The girl ultimately rejects Jaypee, but what is a better inspiration for poetry than love if not heartbreak.
Unlike the emperor with new clothes, the king is not oblivious, and he is melancholy. He drinks almost every night, as if to mourn the dying art. In his acceptance speech (or should I say acceptance poem), Dado talks about the futility of pride and the mortality of man, emphasizing that even a king would one day die. Though he puts a high value to his title, he does not see it as a means for monetary gain. Because appreciation of the art should go beyond honorifics, it should be practiced. For Dado, as long as he expresses his love for culture and his motherland through rhyme, he has done his duty. “The only thing this old poet seeks is your sweet applause.”
The film in no way suggests the supremacy of the Kapampangan, nor does it make Tagalog (or any other language) the enemy. In one scene, Dado remarks, “I keep speaking to you in Kapampangan and you keep answering in Tagalog, yet we understand each other, isn’t that crazy?” Because there can be agreement despite differences provided that there is mutual respect.
To be sure, Ari is about culture preservation, but it is also about establishing identity, not only of Jaypee but of an entire region who had seem to have lost it because of disaster and diaspora. In the film, characters constantly travel great distances through lahar-stricken areas and districts of old, empty houses left by those who have resettled or emigrated, showing how difficult it is to build a collective sense of belongingness when individuals are separated by distance and time.
When Dado’s wife passes on the golden crown to Jaypee, the film alludes to the popular phrase uttered upon a king’s death in the British Monarchy–“The King is dead. Long live the King.”–indicating that the line of succession is not broken, and that as long as at least one person is practicing the art, it will continue to live on.