Monday, September 10, 2007

Dalaga si Misis Binata si Mister (Lino Brocka, 1981)

Is Dalaga si Misis Binata si Mister a complete failure? Not at all. I don’t think masters such as Brocka are ever capable of making anything that is a complete ham, but maybe this is a reflection of the leeway given to Brocka as per his role as the most influential filmmaker in the Philippines, and it may be proven wrong by simply pointing out that I have not seen all, not even most, of Brocka’s pictures. However, even if the technical reality of a certain film project makes it impossible for a movie to be a success, the qualities that define an auteur could nevertheless be taken into account and be used to interpret the movie beyond its technical failures.

In this movie however, it is the other way around: the technical gloss masks Brocka’s perpetual preoccupation with class and social transgression to deliver an entertaining vehicle for Nora Aunor and Christopher De Leon and nothing more. And the movie is entertaining: as a comedy, both actors play the traditional (stereotypical?) battle of the sexes scenario to a hilt, and do not fail to give a sense of dignity in their roles despite the need to make it funny in a conventional and inoffensive manner. In addition, the lengthy opening sequence and the number of scenes here and there within the movie displays Aunor’s singing, a diversion the inclusion of which to the narrative will be discussed later on.

But as portrait of domestic dysfunction, this is a second-rate attempt by Brocka to do something in which Bernal specializes. Not just marital discord, but rather in dramatizing social, political, and emotional distress as revealed through the breakdown of the family, the base of the Filipino’s (mythical) sense of self. In Bernal’s films however, the use of marriage as social metaphor is taken further by never really focusing on the destruction of the heterosexual relationship (unlike Brocka, queer reality was never a concern for Bernal, who I guess found enough solidarity in the equally marginalized image of the woman and also found that focusing on the relationship between a man and a woman to be more bankable), but rather on the ravages this destruction wreaks on the woman, both bearer and protector of patriarchal values and the primary victim of it. Bernal’s female image is Vilma Santos, whose (despite being known for her histrionics) use of a brand of subtle acting (one of small flutters of mannerisms that would fit well in a John Cassavetes flick) made the damage less ideological and more personal, and thus more devastating.

Aunor on the other hand isn’t meant for such a role. Whereas Santos specializes in personifying internalized and normalized social mores and the damages done thereof, Aunor’s image isn’t as “everyday woman.” Her very being is one of defiance: short, dark, and very strong eyes, Aunor cannot do “damaged woman” because of the passivity it implies in part of the woman. Although Santos’ characters, although suffering the havoc of patriarchy, never becomes a mere victim, Aunor’s image already assumes liberation, one whose defiance is not a product of oppression but of the character’s innate rebellion (ironically, since she is always portrayed as being more “traditional”). Even in a movie such as Brocka’s Nakaw na Pag-Ibig (“Stolen Love,” 1980), where Aunor played the role of a poor woman whose lover’s class envy caused him to leave her for a richer woman, Aunor’s oppressed wife never seems so “oppressed.” Even if her lover left her, her small efforts to win him back still betrays a sense of dignity, of a woman who wasn’t going to take anything lying down in the first place. (Which also made her character’s demise a little predictable, but not in a bad way.)

In the case of Dalaga si Misis Binata si Mister, this image of liberation translated into irresponsibility. The notion of “play” that is associated with love, sex, and youth that Bernal complicated in Dalawang Pugad Isang Ibon (“A bird and two nests,” 1977) in here is literally just play: when Aunor tells de Leon that they need to separate so they can be singles again without having to think of each other, it literally sounded as just that. There is no sense of a complicated relationship one has to marriage (freedom vs. companionship; the freedom in companionship and the oppression of loneliness). When Aunor gives de Leon the limitations on his “visits,” there’s no sense of a woman in control. Rather, it sounds like a couple of kids just messing around. Mind you, “a couple of kids messing around” itself could mean a million of things, as we’ve seen in Peter Pan (PJ Hogan, 2003). But in this case, Brocka never decides to treat play as anything more than messing around (as opposed to "messing around").

De Leon’s character could have been one of those pathetic yet pitiable male characters who, despite their execrable behavior (Dado in Insiang), were forgivable for their destructive imperfection. Or, even if we’re not willing to go that far (Dado we should remember was a rapist who fucked the mother to get to the daughter, de Leon a mere boy who couldn't keep his pants on), he could have been like Jay Ilagan’s character in Maging Akin Ka Lamang (1987), pitifully bound to his lust for a woman (in De Leon’s case, women). But played for pure comedy, De Leon was a buffoon. The sleeping around, the regretting it, the sleeping around some more…it was a little tiring.

The one narrative strand that I thought Brocka could have exploited well was the one that opened the movie: Nora Aunor as character-actress. Mid-way through the movie, we see De Leon spying on Nora through a telescope from across the street. Later we find that De Leon’s new girlfriend who was a model at his advertising agency. The movie ends with Aunor returning the gaze, looking at a sleeping De Leon. There’s all these layers of competing gazes—of alternating looking and being looked-at—that could have been the basis for the film’s battle of the sexes, and something that could have given this film a credible link to Brocka’s other works, with his preoccupation with having/lacking power and oppressing/being oppressed by others. As it is, this movie’s only link to Brocka’s ouvre is the clunky way it incorporated the “battle” part without looking at how it complicated the “of the sexes” part.

I know I know: “Filipinos are simpler, our stories simpler, our attack simpler.” But as the best filmmakers have demonstrated, “simplicity” is relative. As Brocka already demonstrated in Hello, Young Lovers, there’s a lot of ways to subvert the conventional story one is forced to tell. But I guess for a master filmmaker like him, it’s excusable. Maybe he was just tired…he did have three years prior where he churned out multiple masterpieces every year, three just in 1980 (Bona, Angela Markado, Nakaw na Pag-Ibig). Maybe he was just tired. In that case a little trip like this movie is forgivable.

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