Review of Lihis (Joel Lamangan, 2013)
Lihis wants viewers to care so much for the travails of its protagonists without bothering to ensure that said protagonists are worth caring for in the first place. These days one never expects to enter a cinema showing a Joel Lamangan feature expecting subtlety (see, for instance, Medor de Edad, The Bride and the Lover, The Mommy Returns), and, sure enough, the director elects to dwell on the predictable melodrama generated out of Lihis‘ controversial topic rather than on pursuing heretofore uncharted possibilities inherent in the material. It’s quite a shame because Ricky Lee’s script has the potential to traverse junctures between private and public, personal and political, and show the irony of the Left’s rejection of the dominant political ideology while repressing sexualities that deviate from the dominant sexual regime.
The film recounts the doomed story of Ador (Joem Bascon) and Cesar (Jake Cuenca), two rebels who fall in love in the mountains of Quezon Province during the Marcos dictatorship. The story is told in flashback from the perspective of Ada (Isabelle Daza), the grown-up daughter of Ador, and a fellow rebel, Cecilia (Lovi Poe). For the first act of the film though, we are treated mostly to unnecessarily lengthy love scenes (in slow-mo for maximum erotic effect – note to Mr. Lamangan: there’s nothing less exciting than overly directed sex scenes.) between Ador and Cesar, between Ador and Cecilia, and between Ada and her boyfriend, at times intercut with one another. Even if this film fails on so many levels, at least it can boast of a memorable, if laughable, scene of Bascon pounding away at Cuenca on a huge river rock.
In the heat of the two men’s romance, Ador decides to marry Cecilia mainly because, up until that point at least, homosexual relationships are frowned upon in the movement. For a substantial portion of the screentime, we are made to see Cesar beg and cry and flail for Ador to not leave him. This pathetic behavior would have been a little bit more palatable for viewers had Cuenca not been both so comical and so annoying in his portrayal of desperation. He falls right into the trap set by Lamangan, who is known for eliciting capital A ‘Acting’ from his actors (which is baffling because Lamangan is an excellent actor himself). Here, Cuenca goes beyond capitalizing just the A to making it all caps ‘ACTING!’ He grimaces, grunts, groans, and grovels, and through it all, his expression reminds me so much of a pained version of Zoolander’s Blue Steel pose.
I feel though that this is more Lamangan’s fault than Cuenca’s. Of the three lead actors, Cuenca has the least experience in acting in indie films. Bascon and Poe are both able to give appropriately textured performances here mostly because they have been handled by less stagey directors in previous indie films. Even newcomer Isabelle Daza (who fares better than her mother here) acquits herself well, though it’s pretty obvious that she’s still having a hard time speaking in straight Filipino. Cuenca hasn’t had much experience in non-mainstream films, and it is Lamangan’s task to remind him that he is almost always trying too hard in most of his scenes. Cuenca could not even be bothered to modify his in-fashion hairstyle (shaved sides, longer top) to something that resembles 1970s men’s hairstyle, as if he just came from a Bench photoshoot.
Lee and Lamangan have been reminding everyone in press interviews that Lihis was conceptualized way before Brokeback Mountain (2005), to which the film has been compared to, not unfairly. Both films have straight-acting gay men whose intense love for each other consumes both even when one of them gets married and builds a family as a result of societal discrimination. Yet Lihis does not possess even a tinge of the power of Ang Lee’s film because of two reasons. First, its lead characters are not even likable: aside from the cloying neediness of Cesar, Ador doesn’t seem to be motivated by anything, making his relationship with Cesar seem one-sided; and Cecilia knew before marrying Ador that he was gay and in love with Cesar, yet leaves him when she realizes he is still… well, gay and in love with Cesar. In Brokeback Mountain, viewers understand Jack Twist’s neediness because Lee painstakingly shows us the devastating impacts to Jack’s life if he would spend it sans Ennis del Mar.
Which brings me to the second point: Lihis fails to establish to the viewers the two men’s spiritual connection, why they need to be with each other against all odds, beyond the momentary call of the flesh. The first time they meet, they are seen vehemently arguing about how to pursue their armed struggle against the regime. The next scene has the two of them alone at night on some clearing where they, again, fight, physically this time, until they kiss. The following scene has Cesar give Ador a pair of boots. The next scene introduces Cecilia flirting with Ador while Cesar is seen sulking in the corner. Then Ador tells Cesar that he wants out, that he is now with Cecilia. Cesar refuses to accept this and stalks him in the river, where they eventually have sex. That’s it! Where is the love? Lamangan makes the viewers assume the inevitable without giving us visual cues of attraction between two souls. That is why that overly melodramatic final shootout scene (where Ador and Cesar are surrounded by soldiers firing at them) not only fails to elicit the intended emotions out of viewers: instead of feeling sorry for the lovers whose lives were about to end (simultaneous last breaths at that!), viewers were laughing out loud at the predictable lines and slow-mo last hurrahs: once one of them is hit by a bullet, the other rushes to him then stands up in super slow-mo to face the soldiers and shouts “Mga putang ina niyo!” Ador and Cesar do this exactly four times in the scene, alternating between each other.
It’s fair to say that Lamangan’s direction is one of the production’s weakest links because most of his production crew bring out their A-game: the cinematography, editing, sound and music are commendable. The other weak department is the production design, specifically make-up. The characters are supposed to age by more than two decades, yet Raquel Villavicencio and Jim Pebanco only had their hair dyed white without the accompanying wrinkling of facial skin. The casting choice of the Putol character is also confounding. He was about ten years old in the 1970s but they cast a 60-year old man to play his contemporary counterpart.
My biggest disappointment with the film though is with its failure to explore the exciting possibilities of its premise. Lamangan, a former political dissident, has always been critical of government and the military in his serious films (see, for instance, Burgos, Patikul, Deadline, Sigwa, Dukot). In Lihis though, both are not targets, at least not directly (a side story on extrajudicial killings only serves as weak backdrop). Because there’s no clear-cut “villain”, the film channels all its angst inward, particularly in the Cesar and Cecilia characters. Ador, because he is an indecisive gay man, is made the unwitting villain. Cesar gets so hung-up when Ador leaves him and Cecilia’s failure to convert Ador to heterosexuality leaves her too frustrated.
As it is, the film is not unlike a National Geographic special that features a cheetah and a lion battling for a piece of meat (Ador) in the savanna. It’s all very carnal. The film never attempts to show how the larger sociocultural forces are at play in the private sexual politics of its characters. Lamangan and Lee should have realized that there is actually an obvious villain: society at large, that the Left’s struggle against hegemonic political ideologies would not mean anything if it would still succumb to the dictates of hegemonic masculinities, of homophobic patriarchy.
Just when we need Lamangan to be critical/political, he settles for the tried-and-tested, because flashy, appeal of bedroom melodrama.