Jaime Oscar Salazar
Equipped with sewing skills honed from childhood, under the tutelage of her mother, and with a college education, Michelle could not have failed to grasp that the opportunities within her reach—opportunities to work, and, potentially, to prosper away from her hometown of Baao, Camarines Sur—if not necessarily abundant, are still greater than many of her fellow Bicolanos, and, indeed, of her fellow Filipinos: the Bicol region has historically counted among the poorest in the country, and the Philippines, as a whole, continues to be indigent, in spite of all the recent noise regarding the propitious shift in its economic fortunes. That she chooses not to capitalize on these advantages, instead choosing to eke out a living by now and again taking on commissions from her neighbors to make, mend or decorate articles of fabric, constitutes the unwieldy knot at the heart of An Kubo sa Kawayanan (The House by the Bamboo Grove). Directed by Alvin B. Yapan, the film traces the different pieces of intricately interlaced material that make up such knot, with a view to making a case for its tenability, while at the same time acknowledging its vulnerability—or least the possibility of its vulnerability—to becoming undone or to being cut.
Michelle (Mercedes Cabral)—who is renowned by her community for her mastery of needlework, notably the technique of calado or open-work embroidery, which has few other practitioners in the immediate vicinity—leads a solitary existence in the titular dwelling, a bahay kubo built by a river and some distance from the center of town, and sustains herself with basic supplies, eschewing banal conveniences. Early on, she evinces an intense attachment to her domicile, as well as the customary design of her life-ways, that is revealed to border on the uncanny, suggestive of either psychological disorder or supernatural intervention. From her opening monologue, she refers to her hut as though it were a sentient entity, capable of manifesting its will and exerting it upon her. In particular, when her personal belongings start to go missing and the house begins to betray structural flaws beyond the ability of the local carpenter to repair, she decides to interpret such as signs that her hut wishes her to depart.
The signs interweave, perhaps conveniently, with invitations from the people around her to seek a better life elsewhere. Her boyfriend Gary (Marc Felix), for instance, entreats her to come away with him from Baao, a locale that, to his mind, admits of too little variation for his liking, and to chase the lure of fresh horizons as migrant laborers. Filmmaker Larry (RK Bagatsing), who shows up at her doorstep in order to shoot a documentary on her art—by way of injecting vigor into his unsatisfactory career—implores her to accompany him to the metropolis, where she can showcase her talent before a broader public. Nonetheless, neither the wiles of the hut nor the appeals of the two men, succeed in persuading her to leave—at most, she is compelled to improvise, all throughout remaining resolute in her decision to stay put, suspicious of, if not outright hostile to, the prospect of altering where she is and what she does. When she cannot find her lone pair of scissors, she cuts thread with a bolo. Following the loss of her slippers, she walks around barefoot. When her bolo vanishes in turn, she offers up prayers to St. Anthony of Padua, requesting his aid in the restoration of the items that have disappeared. Gary and Larry are each stymied by her polite but firm willingness to carry on without the benefit of his presence—a willingness that, with regard to the latter, is reinforced by a nightmare of sexual assault.
To conceive of Michelle as belonging to a species of primitivist or Luddite would thus not be unjustified. And yet there would seem to be more to her position than the idealization of nature, the fetishization of the past and the opposition to the “new”. When moved to explain her refusal to quit her abode or to delocalize the production of her art, she invokes malasakit, the practice of empathy or solicitude that she considers crucial to ensuring the integrity of the domain that she has marked out for herself—and who but she should or could be expected to be equal to the task? It is here that her alertness to the contingent nature of home can be discerned: she understands that “home” is more than a physical edifice, that it pertains to a place of safety and familiarity whose boundaries are arbitrary, unavoidably pervious to the currents of modernity. Rather than let herself be swept up toward witless complicity in notions of progress and development, especially with reference to the global traffic of bodies and commodities in which the Philippine state has all too readily connived, Michelle insists on fashioning for herself a vantage from which to appraise the costs of such notions, and to negotiate the performance of her everyday life accordingly. If she displays a tendency to overinvest in her own agency to transcend the forces and structures of the prevailing social order, this is, to a certain degree, tempered by her realization, at the close of the film, that the world will—inexorably—move, carrying her along with it.