The Living Dead
JPaul S. Manzanilla
We have seen this before. Poor people are gambling their lives with whatever they have to survive—guts, wit, and bits of sanity that remains. In fact, the scene where Makoy (Kristoffer King) steps on shit recalls the lead character’s same fate in Kubrador (Jeffrey Jeturian 2006), also about the binding connection of illegal gambling and the country’s slums. Those who do public commuting would see the long stretch of saklaan lines on the roads and streets of Caloocan, close to where the film is set and is actually their alternative venue for a wake being planned.
But Oros is not poverty porn. The basic problem with some of those who criticize films that deal with poverty is that they deny poverty whereas the problem with poverty porn films is that they delight in it. Poverty porn ties the poor to the image and enslaves them in it. In Oros, we are given the life of the poor in its utter normalcy. Others would see it as boring, bereft of action. But not necessarily bereft of imagination.
The cloud of smoke that envelops the place and serves as the opening scene would appear mystical but it is this shroud of haziness that the filmic project attempts to clarify. “All that is solid melts into air,” Marx metaphorically says of capitalist relations, and it is the filmmaker’s charge to grasp the liquid condition of human relations before it finally disappears from our sight. And so we see that Makoy dutifully takes charge of renting dead bodies for public wake in order to sponsor gambling; in the process, he trains his brother in the trade, even though the latter hesitates.
A middle class audience would scoff at many scenes, much more when they observe them in real life. Why the temerity to bear children when they can’t even feed themselves? Why lay bets when you don’t have the money to sustain your household? How can we pity and help these people when they swear at their parents, steal money, and fuck and kill one another? The moral economy of the slums does not need our help. And it is this truth which we can’t accept that is the central intelligence disputing the poverty of pornography. For the squatters (Illegal settlers? The urban poor? The underprivileged and deprived?) they make do with whatever they have. With or without us—or even despite us—they will because they must survive.
It is in this light that we learn that didactic proposals to alleviate poverty would fail. The film’s intertextual composing of the reproductive health bill in the radio news being broadcast, though of soft sound, becomes a sonic force that nags at their plight. Its editing also lacks the vibe of the setting, especially in chase scenes where danger is barely felt. What makes up for the film’s lapses are the outstanding performances of Kristoffer King as Makoy and Kristoffer Martin as a lad being prepared for the only job they know. There are also fine points in cinematography, even though many of the scenes are trite. When, at one point, the sea’s vista from the Baseco Compound in the most impoverished area of Manila was shown, we gather that there is still hope amidst all of these.
Yet death has already been foretold. It is the corpse of his brother Abet that Makoy finds in the end. How will they survive when the law that sometimes suspends its power to apprehend now enacts its full force to legitimize itself? They are the living dead in this set up that denies them the right to live.
Breaking the Circle
Jaime Oscar M. Salazar
Situated in the sprawling slums of the Bataan Shipping and Engineering Company (Baseco) Compound in Tondo, Manila, Paul Sta. Ana’s Oros configures a cinematic realm that is populated by those so desperate that they must depend upon the dead for their survival and sustenance: even though gambling is, as a general rule, illegal, the practice is tolerated at wakes, especially when the authorities are persuaded, by way of grease money, to look the other way, and it is within this context that Makoy (Kristoffer King), and his younger brother Abet (Kristoffer Martin), are able to eke out their living, as the two periodically procure unclaimed cadavers from funeral parlors—no great difficulty, apparently, in an area notorious for violent crime—and help their clients stage spurious vigils at which they then function as operators of sakla, a card game that is supposed to date back to the Spanish period, in order to generate sufficient revenue for division among all involved in the ruse.
The money is easy enough to make, but the expenses entailed by the saklaan, which include bribes for officials, regular shots of formalin to keep the corpse looking fresh, and the costs of eventual burial, coupled with the desire for just a little more income, are what drive Linda (Tanya Gomez), to push her luck, asking the siblings to assist her in extending to three weeks the wake of a man for whom she has had to concoct the rudiments of a relationship to make the ritual believable, and their efforts to fulfill this request are what set the events of the story into motion. Such motion is, over time, shown to describe a tantalizing circle of exploitation that may be fateful but is not inevitable—one that Makoy is challenged to break and alchemize anew.
Oros gives the impression of being backed by a certain amount of ethnographic research, and its attempts to avoid creating spectacles out of scenes of poverty by way of a matter-of-fact treatment are laudable; some of the pains that it takes, however, to evoke the textured materiality of its locale, as when cockroaches suddenly appear on a kitchen table to the startled cries of a homeowner; when a character inadvertently steps on a pile of feces and has to scrape it off his foot; or when it becomes obvious that the complexions of King and Martin have been darkened, come across as contrived and fail to convince—a significant limitation for a work that, in many respects, does not so much break new ground as tread territory already covered in compelling ways by other films. Its uneven tone and pacing, as well as the tendency of the narrative to telegraph key points well in advance of their actual revelation, compound the weakness.
What nevertheless makes Oros a gripping drama is King, whose performance, much praised by many quarters, is a revelation indeed. At once a hard-nosed entrepreneur and a compassionate brother to the often intractable Abet, who is a reluctant participant in the business and would rather occupy himself with other pursuits, Makoy is wonderfully complex and contradictory, and it is testament to King’s skill that it is in the countenance of his character that the hope for transformation, for a world moved by agency rather than by chance, longed for all throughout a film that is saturated with misery, is finally registered and proffered.