Jaime Oscar M. Salazar
Following the recent passing away of his mother, Francis “Kiko” Arenas (Noel Comia, Jr.) lives in the care of Diday (Yayo Aguila), his yaya, while Myrna, his aunt, is seeing to arrangements for him to come over to the United States and under her supervision—a task to which Myrna applies herself not entirely with avidity, citing financial difficulties. Grappling with the pain of orphanhood and the dread of leaving his home in Baguio City to reside in a foreign country among relatives with whom he is barely acquainted, Kiko finds an outlet in boxing: unbeknownst to Diday, after classes let out for the day, he departs for the house seemingly abandoned by his estranged father, George (Yul Servo), in order to practice his punches on well-worn equipment that he seeks to keep in good condition. When George makes an unexpected appearance during one of Kiko’s training sessions in the course of putting his house up for sale, Kiko, hungry for familial connection, seeks to slip himself out of Diday’s apron strings and into George’s affections.
Kiko Boksingero (2017), directed by Thop Nazareno, concerns itself with charting how Kiko, at eleven years old, negotiates the arduous transition away from childhood and toward adulthood, primarily in ways that play out on the plane of the quotidian: sleeping, dressing, eating, cooking, shoelace-tying, and walking to and from school, among others, are routine non-events that take on symbolic freight as milestones. The close attention that the film pays to them—at least as much as, if not more than, for instance, the unique event of Kiko’s circumcision—helps to underscore how growing up involves slow, incremental changes of habits and relations rather than sudden transformations. While possessed of a staunch, almost studied, modesty of scale, ambition, and emotion, Boksingero achieves resonance in its broaching of the question of what it means to be and become a man.
The film embarks on an exploration of masculinity mainly in and through the character of George, upon whom Kiko models his future self because of George’s purported aptitude at pugilism. George’s proximity to Manny Pacquiao—George is supposed to have traded occasional blows in the squared circle with the Kibawe-born fighter, who rose out of poverty to carve out a highly decorated and lucrative career in boxing—is crucial to the allure that he acquires in the eyes of his son. The fact that George ultimately proves a disappointment might therefore be read as an incipient critique of the vision of masculinity that Pacquiao, who has parlayed his status as celebrity slugger into various fields, notably politics, represents: on the one hand, wealthy, athletically accomplished, reportedly fun-loving and generous, as well as cisgender and heterosexual; and on the other, acquisitive of power, derelict in duty, and ignorant of history, not to mention bigoted, misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic. This is a vision neither merely idiosyncratic to Pacquiao nor wholly of his own making, of course—rather, it is nurtured and sustained in the intricate interplay between lives, institutions, and social forces.
Still photo courtesy of Thop Nazareno
The scenes involving Diday are also instructive, in that they trouble the masculine ideal of self-sufficiency: after all, it is upon her largely unacknowledged physical and emotional labor—her labor as a domestic worker, a point that the film appears, for the most part, to take for granted—that Kiko and George depend in order for them to carry out seemingly autonomous decisions. Kiko prefers to eat hotdogs instead of vegetables, and train with his father rather than going about his usual weekend activities, but it falls to Diday to do the cooking and the prodding awake. For his part, George wants to be able to come and go at will, unsaddled by the responsibility of childcare, leaving it to Diday to look after Kiko whenever it becomes tiresome or inconvenient for George to do himself.
That Boksingero is set in the former American colonial hill station of Baguio—even if rendered in a picturesque manner, effacing the many ills of overdevelopment with which the city has long been plagued—serves as a useful reminder of the American imperialist project to subjugate the Philippines, which boxing, introduced alongside baseball to Filipinos by American soldiers at around the close of the 19th century, is caught up with. The scholar Gerald R. Gems has noted that sports—disseminated through the school system, and by organizations like the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Philippine Amateur Athletic Federation, and the Far Eastern Athletic Association—were used by the Americans to inculcate civilizing values and channel Filipinos’ nationalism into athletic rivalries. Boxing, which came with “opportunities for retaliation” and, compared to other sports, greater largesse for winning, became widely popular, leading to the emergence of renowned fighters, such as the flyweight Francisco Guilledo, better known as Pancho Villa, whose feats in the ring challenged “notions of white privilege and prowess” and defied prevailing racial attitudes, which Gems says emasculated Filipinos. Such fraught history should factor into further efforts to draw out and account for the production, embodiment, and performance of specifically Filipino masculinities.