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Musings on the Mundane

Jaime Oscar M. Salazar

The appellation “Mrs.” is referred to as a courtesy title, but the woman who bears it, however willingly or happily, submits to the effacement of her birth name and the subordination of her personhood to her marital (and, sometimes, parental) status—a highly ritualized and widely socially accepted process that deserves greater scrutiny as to the degree of respect or consideration that it actually affords to the said woman. Mrs. (2016), directed by Adolfo Alix, Jr., engages the issues with which this form of address is fraught and resonates by way of exploring a complex set relationships—sororal, adversarial, filial, mentorial, and platonic—between women in the course of a relatively spare drama.

Chief among these relationships is that between a pensioner recently recovered from a bout of hospitalization, Virgie (Elizabeth Oropesa), and her resident caretaker, Delia (Lotlot De Leon). The house that they inhabit, overly large for two people and a gaggle of dogs and cats, shows many signs of wear and tear, in connection not only with its age but also with its being built over an active fault line—running along the walls are cracks attesting to structural damage.

In spite of the dilapidation that surrounds her, Virgie intends to continue living there, keeping faith with the memory of her father, who had bequeathed the house to her, and clinging to the belief that her son, Sonny Boy (Sebastian Castro), a communist guerilla who disappeared years ago, will surface one day soon. Her determination, if not obduracy, to remain draws her into intermittent bouts of antagonism with her relatives. Her younger sister, Glenda (Daria Ramirez), the legatee of the land on which the house stands, is eager to sell off her inheritance in order to mitigate the consequences of her spendthrift ways, not least among them the large debt to Virgie that she has racked up over several years. Virgie’s daughters, Marina (Rosanna Roces) and Jenny (Angelina Kanapi), believe that she would be better off staying elsewhere.

Image result for mrs adolfo alix

Delia, who for two decades has helped Virgie around the house and kept her company, is, in her own way, as unwavering as Virgie. When Delia discloses her plan to marry her lover at the forthcoming mass wedding ceremony sponsored by the local government—following the acknowledgement, prompted by Virgie, that she is three months pregnant—she is quick to provide assurance that she aims to stay in Virgie’s service. In the face of Virgie’s reluctance at this proposition, rooted in the notion that a wife ought to defer to her husband, Delia wears Virgie down with persistent pleading.

Oropesa turns in a fine performance as Virgie, displaying a formidability that is leavened with tenderness; whenever she is alone in the frame, which is often, she proves more than capable of compelling attention with countenance and gesture. De Leon, who initially essays her role as a kind of comic foil to Virgie, with an almost bovine naïveté, succeeds in making of Delia a figure of tragedy, heartrending and horrifying.

What is particularly striking about Mrs. is its penchant for meandering in and around a range of interiors—of houses, of restaurants, of a barangay hall—and dwelling at length on the mundane actions and interactions that its characters perform there. These mundanities point to well-established, and, at times, tedious routines in which men are, for the most part, spectral presences with varying degrees of influence. Virgie and Glenda rehearse longstanding resentments arising from Glenda’s waywardness, financial and otherwise, and Virgie’s stubbornness. Virgie and Marina squabble, over the telephone and in person, about Marina’s seeming deficiency of discernment in her choices: of partner, the layabout Benjo (Arvic Tan); of religion, by joining a cult; and even of how best to treat the ailing Justin, the “imported” cat that is beloved by Josel, Marina’s young daughter. Jenny, who resides in Vancouver, Canada, with her husband and two children, tries to coax her mother to join her permanently, as an immigrant, during one of their video chats. Virgie visits her friend Agnes (Anita Linda), an elderly activist who has also lost family members to state-sanctioned violence, to check on Agnes’s health and to exchange news. Virgie and Delia carry out household chores—for instance, watering the plants, sweeping the yard, looking after the pets, and preparing meals.

Even as Mrs. runs the risk of narrative unwieldiness, the film insists on the immersive moment, rather than the propulsive event, and this is what constitutes its achievement. With its sustained, painstaking focus on how its characters go about the dailiness of their existence—the use of lingering close-up shots to highlight the smallest flickers of thought and feeling is notable in this regard—the film renders anew the feminist slogan, “The personal is political.” It challenges viewers to reevaluate the intertwined concepts of “domesticity” and “femininity”, and their associated tensions and contradictions, as they play out, are negotiated with, or are resisted in the fluid, contentious realm of quotidian lived experience. How do institutions like marriage reinforce and perpetuate prevailing relations of power, especially in terms of gender and class? How does state repression manifest itself within and affect the private sphere, and how can this sphere be re-imagined as an arena for broader struggles? How can women establish networks of support between one another that circumvent, slip past, or subvert—however limitedly and fleetingly—the social mechanisms that seek to surveil and control their bodies, their homes, and their lives?

 
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Posted by on 17/04/2017 in Film Review

 

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The Exacting Forest and the Forgivable Man in Bagane Fiola’s Baboy Halas (2016)

The Exacting Forest and the Forgivable Man in Bagane Fiola’s Baboy Halas (2016)[i]

Emerald Flaviano

Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers.

Baboy Halas: Wailings in the Forest (2016), Bagane Fiola’s second film, is the narratively spare imagination of a life in an unsullied earth. Centering on the story of Mampog the boar hunter, the film attempts to find out how a life that relies so much on the natural world is possible.

A landscape of the leafy and befogged heights of the mountains of Davao backdrops the film’s title card. To the urban audience, the forest is fearsome and threatening even in its flattened form. The forest in profile—a landscape—immediately introduces the engulfing Other of Mampog and the rest of the Matigsalug people. Inside the seemingly impenetrable thicket, the forest is revealed in its claustrophobic glory. Raphael Meting and Mark Limbaga’s camera cuts its own path in the forest, following Mampog’s hunts through dense foliage, and the thick undergrowth beneath which hide treacherously slippery rocks. The skillful handling of the camera imagines an ordered world and makes us believe that Mampog’s purposeful meandering through a thick, claustrophobic forest can be followed through a navigable, albeit alien, space.

WITF_Still 4Mampog hunting. (Still photo credits to Origane Films)

This ordering mirrors the Matigsalug people’s attempts to negotiate with their wild home: ancient forest dwellers are appeased and cajoled, a hooting owl is considered a bad omen, and a white pig is a disturbance in the order of things. For the forest is the only source of Mampog’s family’s sustenance. Wild pigs are hunted, freshwater fish and toads are trapped in streams, and wild crops are foraged, but in no other way will the natural world be bent to human needs and desires. Everything is appealed to the forest dwellers, animals (the dog Bugtong, the hooting alimokon (wild pigeon)), and inanimate substances (the fire). In the most remarked upon scene of Baboy Halas, Mampog lights a small fire to warm a cold night inside a cave, keeping his end of a “dialogue” with the Cave Dweller. As the audience is glued to the hunter’s struggle for fire, we are also reminded how negligible human existence is in the riot of life in the forest: “It is much to ask, but do keep us alive,” Mampog pleads to the cold blackness of the cave.

WITF_Still 10Mampog trying to light a fire. (Still photo credits to Origane Films)

This smallness is somewhat amplified in Baboy Halas’ unidimensional characters: there is nothing much that we know about how Mampog thinks about their way of life, or how his wives think about the family’s constant struggle for food. Mampog’s younger wife looks off into the distance, apparently deep in thought about the nightmare explaining the cause of her husband’s recently disturbed behavior, but these thoughts are up for anyone to guess. This denial of revelation can be read, on the one hand, as signifying an ethical decision to maintain a respectful distance between filmmaker and subjects. On the other hand, it also asks us to connect with Mampog on a different level. Clearly, Mampog and his people do not struggle with the forest to live, but they negotiate in a reciprocal relationship. Mampog’s transformation into a boar can be read, among other things, as settling scores—the hunter pays for his hunt by becoming the hunted. This need for equilibrium is echoed in the formal laws of the Matigsalug, as revealed by the settling of dispute between two communities. Brass gongs and horses are exchanged over civil discourse, tobacco, and brew.

To an outsider, Baboy Halas feels like a documentary exposition of the everyday life of the Matigsalug. Isolating the Matigsalug from the urban lowlands, the film conceives of a people who live peacefully in an unsullied earth, with no modern clothes and tools, reliant entirely on what the forest provides. Yet this isolation can be anything but literally real. Baboy Halas is set in Sitio Maharlika, Barangay Baganihan, Marilog District in Davao City.[ii] Baganihan is known for its cold climate, and is a familiar haunt for Davaoeños seeking to escape the heat and bustle of the city. This imagined isolation in Baboy Halas gathers special significance, a year after reports of harassment and killing of Lumads in Mindanao broke national news in August to October 2015. Mampog and his family live undisturbed in forests where the Matigsalug have been living for generations, belying the systematic and concerted efforts of the state and mining capital to terrorize communities for their ancestral lands. But Fiola chooses not to foreground this and instead presents the Matigsalug as a community in its own, not necessarily almost always defined by their subjection; in an interview with Davao Today he reveals that the film’s narrative was largely drawn from the stories the Matigsalug told him.[iii] Though these stories are largely about privation and want, the Matigsalug are nevertheless active agents in their lives—in their negotiation with an indifferent natural world, in settling community disputes, in choosing to stay in the mountains and refuse the allure of the plains. The Matigsalug themselves act out their stories, and the uneven performances—some were indifferent, while some were engaged (as with the expansive Du)—assert each nonprofessional actor’s own understanding of his/her participation in a film representing their way of life.

WITF_Still 9Du wooing another man’s wife. (Still photo credits to Origane Films)

In a sense, the white domesticated pig that Mampog shoots down stands for the tamable life that the lowlands offer. Feeding a family would hypothetically be easier as opportunities to work for a living in the bayan are far more reliable than the fruits of a hunt. Faced with a choice, Mampog does what he has always done and “kills” the white pig, desperate for meat for his family. He consequently loses his grip on reality: the white pig (if there ever really was one) is still alive and well, but visible only to him; the white pig transforms into a mysterious white figure (a forest dweller?); and he cuts down men who had eaten the pig roasted. Mampog has fallen out of favor with the forest, which then denies him meaning. Only his metamorphosis will reconcile—indeed, literally reincorporate—Mampog again with the forest.


[i] A previous version of this review was edited for factual accuracy.

[ii] Capistrano, Zea Io Ming C. “‘Baboy Halas’: Davao’s indie film heads to Netherlands film fest.” http://davaotoday.com/main/culture-2/entertainment/baboy-halas-davaos-indie-film-heads-to-netherlands-film-fest/. 8 January 2017.

[iii] Capistrano 8 January 2017.

 
 

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Long Walk to Peace

Skilty Labastilla

The penultimate scene of Women of the Weeping River (Sheron Dayoc, 2016) finds the protagonist, a young woman named Satra, heading towards the other side of the river in her remote village in Sulu, her face gripped with a sense of purpose and urgency but her gait betraying a tinge of wariness as she moves amidst the brambles in the woods. Her family is embroiled in a bitter feud with a rival family, borne out of a land dispute, that has cost dear lives from both sides, and Satra is intent on ending the cycle on her own, against the wishes of the men in her family who believe that their maratabat (family honor and prestige) is at stake, and that when life from one side is taken, any retaliation less than taking life from the other side is tantamount to showing weakness.

Unbeknownst to her, the person she intends to talk to, Shadiya, is doing the exact same thing. Shadiya previously confronted Satra when her son was killed by the latter’s brothers as revenge for the death of Satra’s husband. She told Satra then that she does not wish for anyone to carry the pain that she feels, but that her family has no plans on letting go of the piece of land both families are fighting for.

When both women finally meet towards the end of the film, they first warily size each other up, not knowing what the other will say or do, then they stare at each other wordlessly for a good half-minute, their eyes saying everything they needed to say.

The scene then cuts to the film’s final scene: of several soldiers lying dead in the mud and in their truck, the rain washing over their bodies, having just been ambushed by enemies.

It is but fitting that these two scenes come at the very end of the movie – which on the surface is about the repercussions of rido (blood feud) on the families involved – as they reflect the intricacies of present-day Muslim Mindanao sociopolitical realities, and connote that although there is a sliver of hope in ending cycles of inter-clan violence by recognizing the power of human agency, particularly of women, who are even more marginalized in Muslim society, there is still the matter of larger structural issues that need to be dealt with.

Mindanao, particularly Muslim Mindanao, has for the longest time been at the margins of the Philippine nation-state. Decades of political and economic exclusion brought chronic poverty and disenfranchisement, and the weak state gave rise to local elite families who can readily challenge weak authority and control to, for instance, source firearms extra-legally and build private armies, as well as capture government resources for their own selfish needs.

WWR home

Revenge killings, certainly, are not atypical in any small-scale society where family and kinship ties, instead of the state, are the main sources of authority. As Wilfredo Magno Torres III points out in Rido: Clan Feuding and Conflict Management in Mindanao (2007), in societies where the state is weak, decision-making and enforcement become more decentralized and the provision of security is based mainly on self-help. In the same volume, Gerard Rixhon argued that the turbulent history of Sulu such as numerous military occupations and incursions from foreign powers, its (forced) inclusion into Philippine  territory, “divisive politics, widespread corruption, inadequate justice system, and government neglect” have led the Tausug to resort to a private form of justice called mamauli (revenge).

The film effectively shows this weak hold of the state on families by emphasizing the remoteness of the dwelling of Satra and her family from the town center, with them transporting what few farm produce they have on two baskets slung on a cow and walking for hours to the poblacion, where they still need to plead with traders to give them a fair price. When the land dispute between Satra’s family and the Ismaels explode into a bloody encounter where Satra’s husband is killed, the decision whether or not to exact mamauli falls on the men in the family, particularly on Mustafa, the family patriarch, a bearer of a Tausug culture where traditional values of bravery and masculinity are highly prized. It does not take long before the vengeance killings transpire, and this time the lives of two young boys from both sides are tragically cut short.

WWR river

As the men in the family prepare for more bloodshed by selling treasured family heirlooms to acquire more long arms and Satra’s youngest brother gets trained in shooting a rifle, the deeply troubled Satra consults her mother, Nuryama, in a lovely quiet scene where the two women sit by a clearing in the woods surrounded by wild yellow daisies. Satra, tired of her life-long acquiescence to the men in her life (her father and brothers), asks Nuryama if there is something either of them can do to finally put an end to the senseless cycle of violence they find themselves in. Nuryama, having lived her whole life in the shadow of her husband, naturally expresses hesitation, telling Satra that whatever the two of them decide to do would mean disobeying Mustafa. This scene obviously presages the “staredown” scene I described earlier, when Satra finally finds the courage to defy her father for fear of losing even more loved ones.

WWR daisies

The fact that the film does not conclude with a pat, optimistic ending is testament to Dayoc’s keen understanding of the Muslim Mindanao context. In 2015, he made the documentary The Crescent Rising, which highlights the narratives of men and women caught in the quagmire of war and poverty in Muslim Mindanao, and posits that there are no victors in war. Even in making viewers empathize with marginalized Tausug families through Women of the Weeping River, Dayoc does not glorify them either. In confronting viewers with that stark parting scene of military soldiers lying lifeless in the rain and mud, he also reminds everyone that there is no single solution to violence, be they inter-clan or inter-ethnic. Even if families realize the futility of the never-ending feuds; even if men and women can find solutions on their own or with the help of mediators; and even if traditional values of maratabat, of masculinity, and of bravery will eventually be harnessed for the greater good and not for familial one-upmanship, the state still has supreme responsibility for the welfare of the long-suffering Moro groups.

The forms that this state responsibility – for long-lasting peace and equitable development – will take are obviously varied and multi-pronged, and should involve every group that has a stake. The enactment and implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (the film shows a scene where Satra witnesses a rally of mostly women and children Muslims in the town center chanting for the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law) will be a long drawn-out process but, in the meantime, different modes of local participatory development engagements go a long way in easing the region’s poor and marginalized out of their suffering.

WWR rally

Women of the Weeping River is outstanding not only because of Dayoc’s judicious handling of relevant themes (he also wrote the script) but even more so because of his exceptional grasp of film language, particularly in trusting that the scenes will work more effectively with minimal musical score, and by letting the camera patiently capture the characters’ inner turmoil through intelligent mise-en-scène and symbolic imagery. It helps that the film’s actors, mostly amateur, all deliver superb lived-in portrayals, particularly newcomer Laila Ulao as Satra.

With just four feature-length films under his belt (the other two are Halaw, 2010; and Bukod Kang Pinagpala, 2015), Dayoc is quickly emerging as one of the country’s most relevant and perceptive filmmakers. As regional films continue to make their mark in Philippine cinema, I’m positive his name can only shine brighter.

(All photos are taken from the film’s screening copy.)

 

References

Rixhon, G. (2007) ‘Tausug and Corsican Clan Feuding: A Comparative Study’, Rido: Clan Feuding and Conflict Management in Mindanao. Makati City: The Asia Foundation, pp. 304-324.

Torres III, W.M. (2007) ‘Introduction’, Rido: Clan Feuding and Conflict Management in Mindanao. Makati City: The Asia Foundation, pp. 11-35.

 
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Posted by on 11/04/2017 in Film Review

 

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‘Minsan Pa’: Mga Pagtalunton sa Pagitan ng Pamamaalam at Pagdating

Eli R. Guieb III

Minsan, ang pamamaalam ay isang pagdating.  At ang mga pagdating, kadalasan ay mga pamamaalam.  At magkahalong panghihinayang at pag-asa ang binubuhay, pilit na binubuhay, sa mga masikip na oras na sinisikap pagkasyahin sa pagitan ng mga payapang pagtatagpo at paglisan, sa tahimik na pagtalunton sa diwa at unawa.  Ito ang buod ng komplexidad ng mga naglalagalag na damdaming pinilit himayin ng matalinong pelikulang Minsan Pa ni Jeffrey Jeturian sa panulat ni Armando Lao.

Kung tutuusin ay hindi naman kakaiba ang kuwento ng pelikula, subalit kakaiba at malalim ang paghawak ng direktor at iskripwriter sa mga emosyon ng mga tauhan, maging sa emosyon ng mga kontextualisadong visualidad ng kondisyong material ng mga tauhan sa isang tiyak na panahon at lugar ng mga pagtatagpo at pamamaalam.  Pinagsanib, pinagtunggali at kalaunan ay pinaghiwalay ng pelikula ang samu’t saring pinagdaraanang emosyong personal ng mga ordinaryong mamamayang umiinog ang buhay sa sentralidad ng Cebu bilang isang siyudad na umaagapay sa mga nagbabagong hugis ng globalisadong urbanidad.  Sa pagitan ng humanidad ng mga koneksyong pantao at ng deshumanidad ng mga koneksyong binubuo ng globalisadong kapital ay ipinahiwatig ng pelikula, sa isang napakapayapang pamamaraan, ang nagsasalimbayang koneksyon at diskoneksyon ng mga sarili at mga kolektibong sariling nabubuhay sa higop ng mekanikal na urbanisasyon, kasabay ang pagtalunton ng mga indibidwal sa mga hinahanap na espasyo ng sarili.

minsan

Ara Mina at Jomari Yllana sa Minsan Pa (2004)

Walang pagtatangkang maging lantarang pulitikal ang Minsan Pa, pero sapól ng pelikula ang dimensyong kultural ng mga binabagong ugnayang pantao na umuusbong sa isang sitwasyong ang mga tinaguriang kalakarang global ay nanunuot sa mga kondisyong lokal, at kung paanong ang hulí (kondisyong lokal) ay umaagapay o di-kaya’y tumatalilis, minsan ay umiigpaw, sa una (kalakarang global).  Bagamat may tendensyang maging palaiwás ang pagtalakay ng Minsan Pa sa mga sanhing pulitikal ng mga ganitong pagbabago sa lipunan ay masinop naman nitong napanghawakan ang makinis nitong paghimay sa mga magkakapatong na subtextong kultural kung saan ang mga pamamaalam at pagdating, kadalasan, ay bunga hindi lamang ng mga personal na paglalakabay ng mga damdamin kundi ng mga puwersang pulitiko-kultural na nakakawing pa rin sa mga indibidwal na sarili.

Namumukod-tangi ang paggamit ng pelikula sa mga imahe ng mata ng tao at lente ng kamera bilang mga suhestyon sa pagbibigay-visyon sa mga posibilidad ng iba’t ibang hugis ng relasyong personal at iba’t ibang anyo ng ugnayang panlipunan, maging sa mga probabilidad ng paglaho ng mga koneksyon at visyong ito.  Sa pelikula, ang turismo, halimbawa, ay isang anyo ng voyeurismo o pamboboso, isang paraan ng pagkalakal sa kahirapan ng mga Filipino, at tusong palengke sa pambubugaw ng mga naghihingalong pangako sa mga inaakalang katuparan ng mga pangarap.  Sa mga kondisyong ito ay inilarawan ng pelikula ang magkakakawing na deshumanidad at humanidad ng mga tauhan, lugar at panahon (e.g., ang lente ng kamera na kumukupkop sa mga paít at saya ng nakaraan subalit parang multong nanunudyo sa pagpapadaloy ng kasalukuyan; ang naglahong paningin ng mata kasabay ng pagdilim ng tutunguhing relasyon).  Tinipon at isinubi ng maraming indibidwal sa lente ng kani-kanilang mga personal na gunita ang kimkim-kimkim na maliliit na kuwento ng ordinaryong pamumuhay, na sa pagdaloy ng pelikula ay nagpapakapal sa textura ng karimlan at panlulupaypay ng visyong panlipunan ng pagkabansang Filipino.

Ang pag-apuhap ng pag-asa buhat sa nakaraan, ang pagbubuo ng mga pangarap tungo sa kung anuman ang maaaring harapin sa bukas, ang pagpapatibay ng bukas sa pamamagitan ng pagharap sa mga hamon ng ngayon, ang pagbibigay-buhay sa mga naglalahong visyon ng pag-ibig at pamumuhay bilang mga marangal na tao, ang pagsaliksik at pagsagip sa mga lumubog na pangarap, ang mga internal na paglalakbay sa sarili na hindi kumakaligta sa nakaugnay na mga paglalakbay sa labas ng sarili: sa lahat ng ito, ang mga pamamaalam at pagdating ay hindi laging pamamaalam at pagdating; ang mga pagdating ay nagiging pamamaalam at ang mga pamamaalam ay naghuhigis pagdating.

Maihahanay ang Minsan Pa sa iilang matinong pelikulang Filipino na pumapaksa sa tema ng mga nagbabagong ugnayang personal na nakapaloob sa mga empirikal na kondisyong material ng natatarantang lipunan.  Ipinagpapatuloy ng Minsan Pa ang mga pagsisikap ng mga nauna nang pelikulang kinakitaan ng katulad na estilo ng paglalahad at pagdalumat.  Ilang halimbawa ay ang Soltero ni Pio de Castro, Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising ni Mike de Leon, at Ikaw ay Akin ni Ishmael Bernal.  Sa mga pelikulang tulad ng Minsan Pa at ng mga kahawig na pelikulang nauna rito, nabibigyan ng katarungan ang pagtalakay at explorasyon sa komplexidad ng magkasalikop na mga personal na paggalugad sa katuturan ng sarili at kolektibong pamumuhay, bagamat kadalasan ay watak-watak na pamumuhay, ng mga Filipino na pilit na umuukit ng makataong pakikipagkapwa sa gitna ng kontemporaneong deshumanisasyon ng ugnayang pantao.

At bihira lamang, minsanan lamang kung tutuusin, ang bilang ng mga pelikulang Filipinong matinong humaharap sa ganitong hamon.  Isa rito ang Minsan Pa.

 
 

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Look After: Critique of ‘Foster Child’ (2007)

Patrick Flores

The film may on the surface be uneventful. Thelma Manlangqui goes about her errands as mother and wife on a typical morning, with the banal bustle that attends the ritual, except that her family, with husband and two sons, is quite exceptional. In their split-level shack in the belly of the city, she takes care of a foster child, whom the government had entrusted her; the boy named John-John would soon be handed over to American parents who had sought him for adoption. The film revolves around this event, beginning with the descent of a social worker into the depths of the slums to the moment when Thelma hands his charge over to his new parents in a posh hotel that does not only offer stark contrast to the squalor of his origin; it becomes the site of a deeply touching and troubling instance of cinematic experience in which the foster mother’s world falls apart in a skyscraper of marble baths.

The event, therefore, ceases to be a mere element of the plot. It is an event that takes in a sense of the total, the totality of society inscribed in a fairly straightforward sequence of incidents that seems to happen in a day, in a singular stroke. We say this because such an everyday circumstance translates into a consequence of historical forces congealing to produce precisely an event of this nature, with contradictions of class, gender, and race playing out to generate exemplary pathos and profound perturbation.

FOSTER CHILD, (aka JOHN JOHN), Cherry Pie Picache, Kier Segundo, 2007. ©Ignatius Film

FOSTER CHILD, Cherry Pie Picache, Kier Segundo, 2007. 

And this operates not merely in terms of discourse, but aesthetically as well. The ethnographic approach of director Brillante Mendoza intimates a stalking effect that threads us through the social thickness of what may appear to be everyday routine. It surfaces for us an aspect of life as it settles like sediment of a residual socio-economic system. On the other hand, it gestures toward a passage from the hovel to Manila’s highways and on to that transient station called a hotel. And then this: the final crash of maternal sentiment when Thelma realizes that her “son” had been taken away and that she could not do anything about it, a chronicle of a loss foretold but likewise a tale of the devout wish of wistful belonging, indeed a reversal and deferral of maternality. At this point, melodrama flirts with melancholy, tragedy with the realism of soap opera, an uncanny liaison that takes us to the most fraught of ties, the most alienating of emotions, and an emergent tone and terrain of affection.

The critical scene, and the episode that renders the film thoroughly cinematic, is when Thelma takes John-John, whose diuretic urge had intensified that day presumably because of stress, to the hotel bathroom. Here foster mother and foster child find themselves alone, confined to the affluence of a suite, the fixtures of which they do not know how to use: they turn the faucets the wrong way and the water spills all over the place. It is the mess, this nervousness, the inability to grasp the structure of power that becomes the film’s political logic, the sign of an aporia or impasse, the impossibility of not knowing how to carry out something very basic, to go about everyday life, something as rudimentary as it had been demonstrated in the prefigurative ablutions of the initial tableaux. It is as if, all of a sudden, everything becomes strange, unfamiliar, indifferent, formidable.

Foster Child is most productively viewed in relation to last year’s most accomplished film Inang Yaya and one of this year’s most revealing projects, Endo. The former speaks of surrogate motherhood and the latter of the contractualization of labor. It may motivate us to draw connections between these three narratives: of how work in the nation has been shaped by contractualization, more specifically subcontracting, surviving on exchange with short-term benefits and with enduring costs to well being and the capacity to truly love. In a significant way, these three portraits depict certain biopolitical formations in Philippine society: how bodies have become irreducibly the very “things” that have been produced for circulation as “labor” and whose romantic, erotic, and filial feelings have been compromised, and in fact, even effaced. We tend to forget that John-John has a biological mother, too, absent though she may be on the screen. And it is the nation-state that finances fostering as part of “social work and community development” in the era of globalization.

In light of a layered screenplay, a deft direction that scrupulously harnesses the potential of digital technology with nary an affectation, and astonishingly sensitive performances from the cast, most particularly Cherry Pie Picache’s valiant effort to nuance degrees of being fleeting and eternal Mother, the film deserves to be the favored child of 2007, the posterity of a dear departed industry.

(This essay first appeared in YCC’s 18th Annual Circle Citations program, August 2008.)

 
 

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Methods of Melancholy: Critique of ‘Bakal Boys’ (2009)

J. Pilapil Jacobo

The habit of locating the landscape of a purported independent cinema in almost every destitute milieu in the metropolis raises the ethical concern of what remains to be told when scenographic procedures, in their absolute exposure of urban poor indignity, almost always preclude subjects from essaying a human position against and in spite of their social predicament. The poor have nothing left to say in poverty pornography. The subaltern is denied of all chance to reside in in the social circuits of language, and participate in the militant struggle for a better life, as a figure of—in Native American literary critic Gerald Vizenor’s terms—“survivance.”

And yet, Bakal Boys seems to exhibit a behavior that departs from the exercises of screen exoticisms. The film premises its deviations on the question of grief, and asks whether one could still mourn when survival, particularly its material possibility, is always already a deplorable social condition. How does a character grieve when sentiments are not permitted to seep into the system, to take even the form of a “structure of feeling”? When persons seek emotional closure within this economic order, what sentimental practices are laid out as the markers of collapse and recovery?

In the case of Ralston Jover’s piece, what remains compelling in the setting up of the scenes of impoverishment is a spectrum of melancholic methods that bereaved subjects employ, because the loss can only be worked through in intimate terms.

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Bungal (Vincent Olano) disappears during an expedition of a band of Baseco boys to look for an anchor that older divers have left behind after finding a sunken boat. Of a temperament almost too intense for his age, Bungal believes in mermaids who could offer one a felicitous streak of luck. He also tells of his seaside town where fishermen may never return from sea. We see him drawing on the sand crosses simulating that cemetery of the sad tropics. Knowing the fanciful and the deathly, Bungal must depart from the narrative to give way to the choreographic instances of bereavement when the situation is routinely proposed as desensitizing and its random characters far from sensitive performers, if not at all sensate subjects.

Two figures of mourning are to be examined as species born and raised from Bungal’s disappearance.

The first is already familiar, for it is tense, vigorous, histrionic. And although there is always space for the gestures of the abandoned kin, Nanay Salvia (Gina Pareño), the grandmother who offers it all up to Allah, should be the last in a long line of such figures of anxiety. Hysteria is of course almost absent in the depiction, to be fair to Ms. Pareño, but we feel this species of traumaturgy has reached an exhausted phase; her body of grief interprets the phrases of entreaty to be translatable as nervous postures in the face of mortality.

Utoy (Meljun Ginto), best friend of the disappeared, demonstrates the other figure of mourning; his is a subject considered alien to such emotive exchanges. What does a child know of that abyss, loneliness? The figure that exposes us as unbelievers is that of patience. Utoy awaits the return of his friend as much as he anticipates an understanding of the disappearance itself. He searches for him in the various sites of their friendship: in the alleys of their mischief, and by the shores of their play. When the waiting ends, this figure marks the sand as cemeterial, as the ground of the leave-taking. All this he must ritualize in silence, which is only broken when she seeks out Nanay Salvia, for an embrace. And how does one read that final frame? That immersion into the waters of the bay could teach us about survivance—into an age of iron of what could be a man of steel at last, even with that speechless body.

 
 

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‘Minsan Pa’: The Camera Obscured and Luna’s Vision

Eloisa May P. Hernandez

The camera plays an integral and integrative role in the film Minsan Pa.  It is a repository of a woman’s visions: her past, present, and the promise of a future.

Filmed entirely in Cebu, it stars Jomari Yllana as Jerry, a tour guide to the “Queen City of the South” for local and foreign, mostly Japanese, tourists.  He sells not only the sites and sounds of Cebu, but also pimps the women and eventually prostitutes himself. However, there is a sense that for Jerry, there is no such thing as a free lunch; everything has a price. It is part of his trade: he lives on commissions, tips, favors, and has mastered the art of bartering.  There is goodness in Jerry, though, as the breadwinner of his family, he sacrifices his own needs and wants for his mother and two siblings, and stands as the patriarch of the family. In return, he wields control over his mother and siblings (mother’s attempt to go back to teaching, his brother’s gambling, his sister’s emotional outburst).

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Luna (Ara Mina) is a pre-school teacher who joined one of Jerry’s tours and is apparently running away from her philandering boyfriend, Alex.  The whole trip, she holds her camera almost all the time, like a security blanket, ready to shoot (and even used it to shut up an irritating boy). Alex follows her to Cebu to woo her.  On a boating trip, the camera accidentally falls off the boat (which could have been avoided if she had the good sense to put the strap around her neck) and plunges deep in the sea. The camera takes a symbolic metamorphosis here as it is blinded, obscured by the depths of the sea.

Alex proposes marriage but reneges on his marriage proposal as he is blinded by a vehicular accident. Luna goes back to Cebu and, with the help of Jerry, goes on a mission to recover the camera.

The camera takes on a symbolic and real significance to Luna. To be photographed is to bear witness to one’s presence, as Pierre Bourdieu posited.  Luna photographs Alex, to affirm his presence in her life, to affirm a time of happiness, as Luna’s presence in Alex’s life is also affirmed.  The camera is a witness of, and an affirmation, of Luna’s visions of a nostalgic past filled with happiness. However, a photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence, the late Susan Sontag wrote. The photographs in Luna’s camera serve as a pseudo-presence (of her past with a tinge of nostalgia) and a token of absence (of her present without Alex).

Jerry’s affection for Luna grows as he misinterprets Luna’s trip as a sign of reciprocal affection. Thinking that Luna is weakened when Alex left her, Jerry tries to barter love and protection to Luna.   Sadly, for Jerry, his love is unrequited. He is weakened by his inability to give, to help, and to love without expecting anything in return. His selfish notions about love blind him. Jerry, the tour guide, knows the landscapes of Cebu but is misguided in the landscapes of the heart.

The loss of Alex’s vision is symbolic of his loss of power and the ability to gaze. Alex thinks that his blindness weakens him, and he doubts Luna’s love for him.  He is blinded, physically and emotionally (and even turns mute as he is almost devoid of any lines towards the end of the film).  For Luna, the recovery of the camera, and the images of their happiness it contains, validate the fact that they shared a past, a proof that nothing has changed, and the potentials of a future. As Alex loses his vision, Luna holds on to hers.

Luna shines through the movie despite the very macho Jerry who thinks she is a damsel-in-distress to be saved.  She who stands at the door of the hotel, deciding whether to invite Jerry to dinner (or not), as she repels the advances of Jerry.  Luna remains steadfast in her vision of a life with Alex, with or without his sight. It is Luna who holds the camera – the woman, in a reversal, who is the bearer of the gaze.

Luna’s name (moon as light source, photography as “light writing”) bears her vision: to shed light on two blind and weak men.  Luna sheds light on the obscured goodness in Jerry’s heart, emotionally blinded, and transforms him.  Luna’s love shines bright through the blinded heart of Alex.  It is Luna who enables the two men to regain a vision of themselves, and inevitably, to “see” again.

Defying the laws of probability and even of possibility that the camera and the film will survive the ravages of the sea, it is the audience (not Luna, Jerry or Alex) who will behold the visions of Luna – images etched on the silver coated negative, projected on the silver screen of the cinema house at the end of the film.  In Minsan Pa, cinema revisits its predecessor and pays homage to the camera (and the camera obscura) as it embarks on a journey of enlightenment and a fulfillment of a woman’s vision.  Minsan Pa illuminates an old cliche: it is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.

 
 

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