J. Pilapil Jacobo
If there is any inflection of cinema that can grasp the truth of the tropics, no other perspective can lay claim to the apprehension but a film from the region, or from a province or district that essays the particularity of filmmaking from a singular location. What else can intuit the idiom of a zone but a vernacular audition of the world that protects the rapture of place and at the same time incites the rhapsodic instance to vanish at the time of enravishment?
Jose Abdel Langit’s “Malinak Ya Labi” is the first Pangasinan narrative film, and it may also be the first contemporary Filipino motion picture to have understood what it means to be situated in the equatorial tropics, or at least from the latitude of, let’s say, Binobolinao. And yet, while the truth that is disclosed as folk may be misconstrued as always already torrid, the region of the ravage is demonstrated as something beyond the sweetness of summer or the melancholy of monsoon. The moment of the tropic is night. And its site is northern.
If the Kapampangan poetic of “Ari: My Life With A King” is premised on “Atin Cu Pung Singsing,” Langit’s “Malinak Ya Labi” affirms that the regional film can only ground its vision on folk tonality and the dissonances that can be heard as it runs contrapuntally along the syncopations of the modern.
Some translations of the condition of “linak” may gesture toward a state of “peacefulness,” but the film insists on a more fundamental supplement to music: “silence.” However, unlike Adolf Alix’s “Kalayaan,” where the interval colonizes the auditory landscape until cinema itself is aurally fixated with its own chiasmic duress, “Malinak Ya Labi” accepts silence as a principle of sound itself, where voice, rhythm, noise are habituated to imagine a sense of ambience, answer what surrounds the tropical world, and open up the discourse of the tropical time that eviscerates what is commonplace in a scopophiliac relation to the tropical image.
Visuality is further abducted by the contiguity that is demanded as soon as the “linak” turns opaque, into “labi”; the negative is attracted to itself, and yet the coupling does not accumulate into absence. “Malinak Ya Labi” demarcates its region of ravage as a northern nocturne, in the silence of salt, through the fioriture of ferment. How does a saltflower bloom under the Pangasinan moon?
As in “Ari,” we don’t get to hear the song of the folk till the end, but “Malinak” rigorously frames the sonorous sensibility of the film. The rubric of the “silent night” transposes itself through the various tonal themes framing episodes of the narrative. The most dramatic of these musical incarnations is an operatic piece scored in the middle of a riot one carnival night. I do not have access to the Pangasinan lyric right now (that would enable me to engage the music philologically), but the translation of the aria sung by a spinto refers to “night” conceiving “daylight”; a “star” as a “smile of the dark”; and ultimately, the lunar “heart” eclipsing into its balsamic “night.” What logic of the trope would subsume solarity under all things umbral? The afternoon in the southern manor as axiomatic moment of the languorous dalliance no longer constitutes the pivot of the tropic day. From a promontory along the narrowest northern strait,”Malinak Ya Labi” celebrates the gibbous event!
Althea Vega in a scene from “Malinak Ya Labi”
Pangasinan tropicality supervenes the possibility of romance and of course an erotic with the premise of “bagat,” the blood sacrifice that is offered to an edifice so that the spirits won’t imperil the integrity of building. The source of the blood is decidedly animal, but “Malinak Ya Labi” complicates the matter by telling a story of how a child was stolen on the eve of the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, and whose body was left as “bagat” to inaugurate a bridge connecting a quaint isle and the Pangasinan mainland. The gift is itself poison; and the time given in exchange for the toxin can no longer deceive borrowed life. Silent is the northern night, and the tropical truth it can only reveal is terminal. The moon waxes red for the death of an innocent. Welcome to the necrotropics!
Lorenzo Fernandez Cosgaya’s “Diccionario Pangasinan-Español” (1865) defines “bagat” as “sacrificio, ofrenda, convite.” The colonial lexicon carries the divinity of the present in the Latin senses of “sacrificus” (from sacer: holy) and “offere” (to God) as dimensions of the Pangasinan gift that is “bagat,” while the sense of community in “convivium” enlarges the sacrifice/offering as tribal, a pact made by the collective on behalf of its members; as a gift whose scale is total, “bagat,” pace Marcel Mauss, is indeed potlatch. If what is served in the banquet is none the less human blood, who sits at the head of the table? God?
We are told about the hours leading to the child’s death through shifting perspectives arrayed to us in a series of intertwined vignettes on the lives of certain figures in the town of Putot (Severed): Domingo, husband of carnival mermaid; Amanda, naïve but devoted schoolteacher; Salvador, sweet-talking soldier; Silvano, saltmaker; Teofilo, fortune teller; and Emmanuel, who becomes the “bagat.”
A common figure in these tales of the Pangasinan everyday is Carmen, the collector of bets who is grandmother to Emmanuel and wife to Teofilo. We never know whether Carmen finds Emmanuel’s body, but she navigates a day in the town attending wakes and requiem masses, while gossiping about the dead and speculating on how certain numerical combinations on death instances might spell good fortune for the living. As we follow through the forlorn lives of the folk, we discover that deaths of children, young women, and old men have been random and regular in Putot town, and somehow, the storytelling persuades us to realize that everyone has been complicit with a culture of impunity. The necrotropic has seeped into habit.
As a folk song, “Malinak Ya Labi” describes how on a “silent night,” someone awakes with a longing for a beloved long absent from the dreamer’s life. The desire does not debilitate, however, as the remembrance banishes sorrow from the heart (Napunaslan ami’y ermen ya ag bibiten). To protect the memory of the love is the point of loving (in fact, in the absence of the beloved, to remember one performs the requisite passion), and remembrance possesses an acumen that might transcend the incipience of death (No nodnonoten ko ray samit day ugalim/Agtaka nalingwanan, anggad kaoyos na bilay
Langit’s “Malinak” transforms the song of his folk into an elegy; the film becomes a work of mourning, because the filmmaker’s grief is crystalline, like the salt of his earth. If the gift that must be received is death, the only way to love is to refuse forgetting. “Triste tropiques,” again and again. And how lovely is the loneliness! Its time is attenuated, like the salt of the fish that is made pure inside the jar that houses the ferment. Within that ecliptic space, the universe is always turning, darkly, into the vast silence, where love is most touching: “Ta pilit na pusok ya sika lay amamayoen.”