J. Pilapil Jacobo
Surveying the settings of local cinema’s sex films, we can say our audiences have quite traversed many a zone: street corners, public parks, fishing villages, and all that lush vegetation. But since no meat could ever matter in the sole depiction of current perversions, exhibiting the said areas only furthered myths about the sin city, as well as the sad tropics. Before we can say that a filmic locale is legitimate, the space must fully flesh out a context, one that marks out the passage of identities, they who are unsettled, or are simply stranded—lost and struggling for another, if not a better, place. And even if a film’s aim is to simply uncover a site of struggle by showing bodies stripped of their human dignity, the divestments must not only lay bare the devices that coerce subjects to accept the wearing down of their whole and parts and discard the possibility of redress by holding on to their pedestrian habits. The cinema of such variety that strives to be truly interventive must avoid the mere spectacle of a striptease by envisioning a spectrum of embodiment beyond the nude and the naked. After displays of the burlesque, a film is also hoped to reveal new designs of refashioning disfigured, because disproportionate, social anatomies.
Thankfully, Brillante Mendoza’s Masahista has its context, one that maps out what we can call a “tropical traffic.” Shuttling between the metropolises of Angeles and Manila, the film locates the transactions of the flesh not just on the level of anonymous bodies but on the plane of familiar subjects—familiar, as the encounters plot out the prosaic itineraries of corporeal selves negotiating affects which are by turns sensible, sensational, and of course, sensory. Familiarity is a condition the film aspires for so that what can only come to the fore is a vision of the “concrete,” revealing the various “social thicknesses” deep down a seemingly dichotomic (country-city) surface. Once a city that catered its “women of excess” to American military officers, Angeles in the film now provides the “surplus” of male sex work to a capital region whose homosexual herd seems to need tending from an ever-willing pack of virile virgins.
The American moment in Angeles is a significant incident in understanding the contemporary history of sexuality that the city has come to represent. Anecdotes tell us that as a “contact zone,” Angeles has allowed a “cultural coitus” that only allegorizes this country’s miscegenational tendencies (or are they techniques?) with foreign sojourners, the colonial paramour most especially. The fruit of the said dalliance is most evident in the birth of an Amerasian generation, the “G.I. babies” of yesterday’s lonesome songs. But the fair fathers of these love children had no choice but to abandon them and their mothers, local economy’s “service women,” turning them into cashless casualties of a war they once wished would last beyond their years. Against their will but with the movies in their mind still reeling, these women coaxed their swearing sons to carry on the “heritage.” After all, these men, demigods boasting of hybrid physiognomies, could only be ripenesses ready for the picking. We are not saying that the masseur (Coco Martin) in the film is of the said lineage, nor we are suggesting that the mother (Jaclyn Jose) is a retiree from civilization’s oldest trade. Such readings would only defeat our efforts to contextualize the filmic locale. What we are trying to point out here is that the choice of the milieu makes the film tread a path paved with the stuff that constructs history. Nevertheless, Jaclyn Jose as the masseur’s mother is a point to consider. In her youth, Jose archetypicalized the prostitute in films like Macho Dancer and Olongapo: The Great American Dream. The irony of this detail only thickens the texture of Masahista’s historicizing.
Manila completes the erotopolitics of a post-American Angeles by providing the new “base” from which the “trafficking”of flesh is negotiated. Instructive in this discursive field is the notion of “excess,” as it names the diasporic movement of male sex work from the country to the city in legionary terms, ascribing to the flight a force best expressed in the idiom of “swarm,” “horde,” and yes, “stampede.” In the metropole, the excess of male bodies need not threaten the “balance of trade.” If we consider the clientele, who in desiring only produces a surplus of longings, the omnipresence of male sex work will no longer astound us, for we finally come to understand why there is a “mass production” of male sex work in the city—because the “service men” perceive the setting as one overflowing with the capital that would free them from a condition of economic scarcity.
Masahista particularizes the male sex worker that services the metropolitan context by singling out an expert—the masseur. The choice to identify the said type answers our question of why the film dwells in the familiar: to make more palpable (but not necessarily palatable) our reckoning with urban estrangement, social immobility, and albeit elaborately, spiritual retreat.
How does the alienation take place? With the massage as both the medium and the message of the “service,” maleness becomes an indefinite undertaking for our expert; if his performance falls short of the expected display of prowess, then musculature need not be a primary criterion in purchasing the goods of masculinity. If the pleasure of the visual matches that of the performative, only then can man preserve his mythic wholeness. But how can one reconcile a view with a gesture? How does a quiver (or its absence) fail a gaze? Such a struggle “the boys” must contend with even after they have been chosen as “finalists.” In the bedroom, there is the real pageant. Nonetheless, probing the grotesque male body does not necessarily valorize the bearer of the gaze. The rather typical depiction is necessary to critique, not the gay, but the consumptive machinations of a libidinal economy in which the gay participates.
Brillante Mendoza’s critique departs however from the imaginings of Lino Brocka (in Tubog sa Ginto and Macho Dancer) and Mel Chionglo (in Sibak and Burlesk King), who have worked through the question of male sex work under the social realist paradigm. A film leaning towards the latter will have to dramatize a range of social forces which restrain and finally disable the individual to rise out of the condition of (what else but) poverty. With or without the dream of the “good life,” Macho and Sibak portray the male sex worker as someone left without any choice but to sell his body. The pathos that this premise conjures is obtuse, for it rests on a false humanism: the bourgeois lamenting the perils of the lumpen throng, as if the former has not contributed to the latter’s dispossession. Such philanthropic guises are not found in Masahista, whose society works out its poignant tragedies in the humble energies of the everyday, and not through the grand forces of messianic history. The film’s settings are open milieus whose unruly arrangements tangentially capture political terrains, and not cordoned locations whose insularity exaggerates, by way of allegory, the (un)likelihood of politicized and politicizing landscapes. Residing in these locales are locals inhibited by the imbalance in the social ecology and not just non-initiates stripped of their virtues in a morality play. Portrayed is human interaction; conflict only arises because of the clash of desires and interests, and not just because of individual mores and manners sticking out of the social fabric.
In other words, Masahista is significant because it evinces the ethnographic, a mode that most aptly configures a context, breaking down familiar experience into the perceptive and the perceptible—those details, patterns, and motions of “local knowledge.” The critique that such a framework yields goes beyond the defiles of exposé (as in tabloidal television) and the shame of exposure (as in circulated private telephonic video), but remains within the bounds of the cinematic exposition, or the visual essay.
But the film chooses to emphasize certain disruptions in its ethnography by juxtaposing the trades of the flesh with the rituals of bereavement, a feat achieved through a tour de force parallel editing. This technique infuses the masseur with a certain sentience, enabling him to confront the limits to prowess, the insistence of finitude, and the redemption in filiality. But how does the film build up these thematic possibilities? This is where criticism functions as a rhetoricization of the filmic anthropology.
As the hotbed of desires in the cold Third World night, the massage parlor allows one to weather the heart—well, for a dear price. But while the quasi-panoptic cinematography explores the scenario to its minutiae, granting the audience almost total access to the dark skin and its darker schemes, the production design dares to evoke synaesthesia, making the visual and the tactile copulate. Masahista lets our eyes come into contact with the various senses of touch, from the habits of the busy flesh to the rites rendered to one’s wretched remains. This is where art moves us, in spite of a genre’s bare necessities. And this is also where Mendoza tries to remind us that while labor is alienated (forced by the customer into sodomy, the masseur doesn’t get his expected fees), the reification is not total, for the masseur’s work is, despite his sex, affective.
We are told that in a massage, one lets another’s hands touch one’s body, and allows the forager full entry to that landscape. But with the transaction involved, the erotic remains the customer’s fantasy. The tactile one, we are told, is a master of tactics. He may be numb to the nakedness before him, but with each stroke, he knows he can close the deal and get more out of it. So Iliac, the masseur, touches the customer’s core by weaving a pathetic life story, which varies from one night to another, depending on the moment’s need. But the film tells us that the masseur’s narrative, even with altered references, is a self-allegory, a confession even. Well, almost, for the sinner leaves out the gravest offense. On the night of his service, Iliac finds out that his estranged father has already passed away, but the former only ignores the news, letting his romance novelist customer (Allan Paule) finish his parable. However, at the height of abandon, Iliac is haunted by his own abandonment. Before a phantom of death, that is where the fictive, however tangible, renders itself futile. The film owes these levels of abstraction to a screenplay whose ambiguity is made brusque by an attentive sound recording, allowing Puigesque chatter to commingle with Pinterian silences.
Hence, the spectator is no longer a voyeur but a fellow sufferer. Brillante Mendoza sees to it that the sensual detail will not lead to an alienation from the image, but a filiation to it. So when Iliac is made to dress his father’s corpse up, the latter’s touch is already charged with irony. Here is a character left without any choice but to confront what the event, absurd as it may seem, can intimate about mortality. What does the masseur do with the cadaver that he detests but needs to reclaim by means of a dignified apparel, while remembering how he surrenders his own manhood, or what is left of it, each time he undresses for the survival of his kin? What touch can he offer when the warmth of his hands has already been taken by a stranger’s body?
The vulnerability presented by the masseur’s encounter with death is made more palpable by a motif of ruin (or the neglect that causes it) running through the film’s lyrical images: a bicycle’s mishap with a karitela in a street of broken earthen pottery; demolished buildings which surround the hospital where the dead father is lain; the widow’s rough face; and a customer whose skin sags with every breath he catches just to enjoy the night’s lease.
So why resolve the metaphysical dilemma in terms of the melodramatic? At one glance, the scene where Iliac discovers the shoe sizes that his father kept is not in keeping with film’s rhythm. The said revelation simply disrupts the contemplative pace the film has maintained because of the director’s keen handling of the tropes of tactility. At that point, the narrative evaporates, condensing emotion only through Iliac’s tears. But the flatness of the rendition salvages the rest of the film from sheer campiness on the hand and ultra-poeticism on the other. It is in this tempo bereft of any affected cadence that one finally feels through it all; and melancholia descends, sinks in, stays. Then we realize that isn’t just a plot that can unravel, but also viscerae.
Speaking of the visceral, one performer almost vomits her gut out to claim it. Katherine Luna, whose concept of body acting is limited to a grimace, coupled with the most irritating shriek, can only arouse pity. We understand that her character is supposed to state an oxymoron: a sex-starved prostitute who happens to be the gilfriend of an overperforming masseur. But what the hell happened with the contradiction? Where has all the control in Babae sa Breakwater gone? Out to sea?
If there was any advantage Paule had as an actor in the film, it would have been hindsight. Unfortunately, Paule could not recall the 80’s, when he immortalized the role of the male sex worker. Instead of drawing from his Macho Dancer experience, Paule turned to his Sa Paraiso ni Efren role and repeated the Maryo J. de los Reyes motivation—sissiness as homosexuality! Had he looked farther, he would have understood why Mendoza chose him for the role—to complete the path he has traversed as an actor in the genre by playing the part of the client and providing an ironic twist to its typicality. Paule should stop accepting gay roles from this day on. His reading of the customer is just customary.
Jaclyn Jose carries a body that tacitly wishes to disappear. In the film, she is the untouchable, and she knows it.
Coco Martin, who switches from innocence to cunning to regret with conspicuous effort but with notable charm nonetheless, plays the eponymous character with utter vitality. Well, Martin is rather limited by his face, whose gentle features resist corruption, or a prospect of it. Stunted puberty also thwarts the erotics of his body, but the psychological restlessness Martin invests into the role glows, enabling him to release a persistent sexuality. At some point, we are convinced Martin is rather unsexed, and therefore, miscast as the masseur, but the hunger is there—an authentic one that makes him a “savage aesthete.” This understanding of emptiness must be the reason why Martin knows where to touch and when to go before he is singed by his own advances. In the end, tactility must be coupled with a movement, after the moorage. Martin’s seduction is by turns sly and timid, one that draws very near only to escape.
In the 16 years of the Film Desk of the Young Critics Circle, Masahista makes history by being the only film ever to be awarded in all categories. A total achievement most clear in the vivid urgencies of editing, sound, cinematography, and production design; in the calm eloquence of the screenplay; and in the thoughtful performances of Jaclyn Jose and Coco Martin. But above all these competencies is director Brillante Mendoza, who might just be the auteur Philippine Cinema has been looking for all these years. In this debut film, he is not just an assured visionary, but also a scrupulous worker, with hands so “full of grace,” that in the end, we say that a “sexual healing” can happen in and through film; and when it does, it seeks what lies beneath duct and pore, cutting through muscle and bone, to find what could be a harrowed soul, and salve it with love’s touch, caress, embrace.
(This essay appeared in Young Critics Circle Film Desk’s “Sine-Sipat: Recasting Roles and Images-Stars, Awards and Criticism for 2005,” March 2006.)