Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Inang Yaya (Pablo Biglangawa & Veronica Velasco, 2006)

A digital film about the ubiquitous Filipina domestic worker, Inang Yaya is a Filipino reworking of James L. Brooks’ brilliant 2004 melodrama Spanglish, where a recent Mexican immigrant brings her daughter along when she stays with a rich West LA family in Malibu for the summer. In Inang Yaya, Norma (Maricel Soriano), a domestic worker in Manila brings her daughter Ruby (Tala Santos) with her after her mother (Marita Zobel), who was caring for her daughter while she stays in the city to take care of a wealthy couple’s daughter, Louise (Erika Oreta), suddenly dies. Just like in Brooks’ film, drama ensues after class tension forces Norma and Ruby to compromise their relationship for the sake of the family they serve. Directors Biglangawa and Velasco do a great job of translating the story into a new context, despite compromising some of Brooks’ insights for the sake of dramatic tesion.

First, the DVD. I have to say, I feel bad dinging Unico Home Entertainment for their DVD releases for they might just be one of the leading companies when it comes to releasing Filipino movies, both contemporary and classic. They started the trend in transferring Filipino films into digital medium with their Cinefilipino line, and now they are pushing the limits by releasing great but largely unknown classics from Lino Brocka. But the problem is their transfers suck. As I’ve said before, they pretty much botched up the DVD for Ina Kapatid Anak (and I’m not talking about the lengthy, complicated, and expensive process of restoration, but rather the simple and relatively inexpensive act of properly masking the film that is going to be digitized). Manila By Night is a mess. The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros is riddled with combing (which can be fixed by merely removing some of the extra crap they have on the DVD so that there will be more space for the film itself). And judging from the stock they will use for the Insiang DVD (the one used for the New York Film Festival screening, which had the subtitles burned-in), they will probably apply some weird and previously non-existent masking to cover up the burned subtitles. I wish to be proved wrong, but I doubt that that will be the case.

For Inang Yaya, the image looks like it was an internet video stretched out to DVD-sized image. The degree of pixelation makes it look like it was from a bootleg DVD (no, I wasn’t watching bootleg video). The colors were right-on—really, how can you mess up the colors in a digital feature?—but the pixelation was a major enough problem that it distracted from the viewing experience. Some would say that I should just be thankful, but personally this degree of carelessness is a reflection of just how much movies really are undervalued in Filipino society. Looking to make a quick buck, Unico’s DVDs look like something they wiped their ass with. Knowing the demand, they want nothing more but to satisfy the demand without giving anybody quality products.

Translating Spanglish to Tagalog seems to be a surefire way into making a blockbuster. Unlike Americans who cannot relate to the Spanglish’s wealthy families because domestic workers and personal helps remain a privilege of the wealthy, Filipinos in general know the experience of either being served by domestic servants or serving as a domestic help. Filipinos either carry fond memories of their yayas—which, unlike in the West, does not merely translate to “maid,” but rather something more endearing, like a governess who acts as a second mother—or the children they literally raise because of the absence of working parents. I personally was attracted to both Spanglish and Inang Yaya because of my own fond memories of my yaya, whose personal life I was never privy to, and who became a part of the family about the life of whom no one knows. She died of cancer a few years back, but I was not able to be there because we moved to the US. In her absence she became an enigma, much as Norma’s life unfolds before Louise’s eyes as if this woman who is practically her mother is just now introducing herself to Louise.

Inang Yaya and Spanglish’s triumph is in articulating what I have always found odd in having a yaya: the class difference that drives such relationships to exist and the class envy that drives people to enter such relationships fully knowing that they will be in the lower, serving end. What is fully extrapolated in Spanglish but subtly hinted upon in Inang Yaya is the economic gap that keeps the master and the servant from ever fully understanding each other. Inang Yaya’s publicity touts it as a film that explores the nature of motherhood and the ability of a woman to be a mother to a child that is not her own. Thankfully, it never actually does this, instead focusing on the perpetual difference of the servant from the master. The film’s preoccupation with slightly opened doors and windows and frames within frames does not connote a space through which people could meet each other, but rather the frames and entities that separate and prevent. When Ruby slowly forms a friendship with Louise, fade-ins have her move from one door frame to another, until she is sitting next to Louise. But when this connection is made, it is shot so as to revela Norma afar, ironing clothes, framed and separated by multiple door frames. Seeing her separation, we are reminded that Ruby is lured not simply by Louise, but by her toys. It is a companionship formed through class envy. But the most poignant use of these frames within frames is when Norma is helping Ruby and Louise get ready for school. Teased by her classmates for being poor, Ruby runs to the school bus so the other girls in the bus do not see her mother. When she sees that the girls forgot their lunch boxes, Norma runs to the bus to give them their lunch. She barely makes it, and when the door to the bus is closed, Nora’s face is framed by the door window, while in the foreground Ruby ducks her head in shame as the other girls laugh at her. The window emphasizes Norma slowly drifting away from her daughter, and Ruby’s slow destruction due to her difference.

Many viewers complain that the film lacks any sort of dramatic tension, but I think the tension comes in the details, specifically the clothes and the toys that define Louise and Ruby’s relationship. One of Louise’s first interaction with Ruby is when she recognizes Ruby’s shirt as one of her throw-aways that Norma took for her daughter. While Ruby looks on as an observer (behind doors, windows, and thin walls), Norma repeatedly keeps telling Louise to clean up her toys. In one scene, Louise hits Norma with her stuffed toy after Norma scolds her for being messy. As Ruby looks on, Norma looks ashamed, but continues her work simply because she has to. When Ruby asks for something—stationery stickers—what is revealed isn’t merely Ruby’s growing materialistic desire but Norma’s inability to provide for it. When her mistress May (Sunshine Cruz) asks her what’s wrong as she was about to tell Norma to change the sheets in the guest room, the connection is made between May and husband Noel’s (Zoren Legaspi) kindness and Norma’s role as a servant. When May buys Ruby the stickers she wanted, the couple’s “kindness” is laid bare: it isn’t merely kindness, but rather a payment for Norma giving up her role as a mother to her daughter.

It is however in the portrayal of Louise’s family that Inang Yaya failed, and miserably. Whereas it cleanly lifted the class tension and human dynamic in the domestic worker’s perspective from Spanglish, it failed to take that film’s humanist look at the lives of the wealthy. Whereas Brooks’ film delved deep into the damages privilege does to a family’s psyche, May, Noel, Lola/Grandma Toots (Liza Lorena) and Louise are mere witnesses—wooden witnesses, at that—to the drama that is Norma’s life. In its approach to the family’s desire to move to Singapore, we never understand it as anything more than a change in lifestyle, as if the family is just moving down the street. When the family pressures Norma to leave her daughter to move to Singapore with them, we are supposed to understand why exactly the family would do this. But the whole time, my reaction is, “who cares?” The film doesn’t establish this family’s concerns as weighing more than taking care of one’s own child. One could mention Louise’s attachment to Norma, but as the film’s preoccupation with the half-closed windows and doors show, her attachment is at best tenuous, one that remains between a servant and the master-child.

This oversight is also what causes the film’s most dramatic scene to fall flat. When Norma buys Ruby new shoes that look like Louise’s expensive shows only to find that the shoes are “Skeetchers,” not “Sketchers,” Ruby rejects the shoes, and ultimately her mother. The scene is witnessed by Louise, whose presence weighs heavily on the scene even if the camera relegates her to one small corner of the frame. The scene could have been as powerful as Flor (Paz Vega) quitting her job in Spanglish, and Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) voicing out her hatred and rejection of her mother for turning her back to luxury and comfort. In that scene, the resignation is witnessed by the members of the family, whose awakening is charted by the film. But in Inang Yaya, the witness isn’t awakened. Her complications as a character only extend as far as having an emotional attachment to her servant, but never her relationship to a servant. She isn’t awakened as much as she witnesses yet another teary scene between the mother and the daughter. Which is why her effort to reconcile the mother and the daughter (which Lola Toots crassly made explicit later on in the film) seems a little odd. It’s not for the sake of acceptance of self along with the acceptance of the mother, but merely for dramatic reconciliation.

This about face the film took—from a film that chronicles economic difference to one that just wants a smoothly dramatic tying of all elements—is redeemed by the ending that rejected the motherhood theme that its publicity touted over a critical look at salaried-motherhood. When Norma plays with the girls in what seems to be a dream-like, paradise-like setting, she asks if she could ever divide her heart over her daughter by blood and adopted daughter. Ironically, she wears a servant’s uniform. When the maid and her child-master are separated, Louise and her family leaves on a van, while Norma and Ruby leaves through a lowly tricycle. Louise may see her as a mother, but even in their separation are portrayed to be not in equal footing. These elements underline the film’s main tension, even if it still leaves the wealthy family inexplicably wooden.

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