Saturday, September 8, 2007

Tatlong Bulaklak ("Three flowers," Danny Zialcita, 1979)

Tatlong Bulaklak is Danny Zialcita’s take on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, a film about the awakening of a bourgeois family and their maid after a stranger invades their home and makes love with all of them. Through sexual provocation, Pasolini examines the nature of the bourgeoisie and exposes its rotten core, revealed when it comes in contact with the purity of carnal desire. Whereas the maid, a poor woman from the countryside who goes back home after her epiphanic interaction with the strange seducer, literally becomes a saint, the bourgeois family self-destructs. The father’s combustion is especially portrayed in the apocalyptic isolation of a volcanic landscape, a scene that is now one of the most iconic scenes of Italian cinema, fitting for the very embodiment of the patriarchal system and values that the “family” represents.

Zialcita’s version however is much “lighter” and thus more deceptive. Being a popular filmmaker whose oeuvre tends to skew towards women’s weepies and melodramas, the flowers to which the title refers are women with relatable issues that are portrayed and exploited to the fullest melodramatic effect. Never aspiring to “art,” Zialcita strips the story of its Freudian and Marxist roots, the issues being “mere issues,” with no adjectives to academically describe them. But as it were, Zialcita’s simplicity lends it the complexity and political ambiguity that Pasolini’s work lacked due to its diatribe.

The film opens with Tony Carreon*, a motorcyclist who lies unconscious by the side of the road after a presumed accident threw him off the road. A lawyer and his secretary save him and refer him to a crippled rich man, who then hires him as a chauffeur. Through many plot twist and turns, Carreon becomes involved with Pinky de Leon, the crippled man’s trophy wife; Lorna Tolentino, de Leon’s sister and an actress forced by her mother and director to progressively “lose her top” on screen; and Gloria Romero, a country lass who patiently waits for her jealous husband’s release from jail, despite the village—including her mother-in-law—accusing her of being unfaithful. Carreon challenges the assumptions these three women have of their roles in society: de Leon as a faithful trophy wife, Tolentino as a sex symbol, and Romero as the self-sacrificing wife. In the process these women also break down Carreon’s image as a macho savior, revealing that indeed the change the occurs are of their own growth as human beings, and that Carreon remains still a being whose agency is reliant upon the women his libido desires.

Zialcita depicts all the characters’ entrapment visually as well as thematically. Whereas de Leon often struts around with as little clothing as possible, her first few scenes (frames 1 & 3) also depict her as either a framed image of herself (an image that is followed by a zoom-in into her husband’s reflection in the same mirror, suggesting that he only lives with her image and not with her) or sitting aside a framed photograph of herself. Romero is portrayed as either a cut-up body (frame 6 shows her as a headless tits-and-ass woman) or a woman trapped behind bars (frame 7). Tolentino is literally a whore, her director, producer, and mother/manager her pimps. In her “filming” scenes she is always hounded by her pimp and customers/audience. In one scene (frame 8), the director even crosses the third wall and sells his actress to us/audience himself. This transgression not only emphasizes the theatricality of the film-within-the-film and Zialcita’s film itself, but also Tolentino’s disembodied-ness, of her lack of existence outside the four sides of the movie frame.

Unlike the women, the men are deemed by Zialcita as unworthy of transcending their on-screen frame-prisons. De Leon’s husband, although thematically castrated by his wheelchair, is further imprisoned by Zialcita’s tight close-ups and frame-within-frames (frame 2). Romero’s husband is, except for the last scene, is always associated with being a prison and being imprisoned, and one scene with his mother where he promises to leave Romero to come back home with his parents reveals him an oedipal case. Carreon however has the worst of luck. Most of the time, he just looks tired and disheveled, as if exhausted from being the middleman in helping these women find themselves. In one climactic scene, all three women show up in his place one right after the other to tell him that he—the strongman, the hero—is indeed not part of their future. The scene is heightened by the film’s score, and Zialcita plays the whole scene into full effect by making Carreon out to be a total loser, both to be laughed at and be pitied. One right after another the women reveal themselves, with one right about to knock at Tony’s door just before the other opens it.

This being a Filipino movie, there is of course a happy ending. The women find themselves, and the men get what they want, which is fulfillment sexual or otherwise. Zialcita is a popular filmmaker. He cannot afford the brazen political effrontery that the likes of Pasolini or Godard may have been allowed. But being a populist auteur, he nevertheless subtly sneaks in a point or two. Although the end is happy, the women nevertheless seem unsatisfied. Romero’s face as she walks away with her husband could only be compared with Beauty’s face when she finds Beast’s true identity in Cocteau’s version of the fairy tale. Tolentino becomes pure and innocent, but despite her efforts her mother is still making money off of her name by blackmailing her producer and director. de Leon ends-up with Tony, but not only does she lose her spunk which made her appealing, her acceptance of Tony is just that. She kind of just…takes him.

To some extent, it is Zialcita’s—and Gosiengfiao’s, and Bernal’s, and Brocka’s, and the old Celso ad. Castillo’s—irreverence that is lacking in the industry today. Of course, irreverence isn’t lacking in Filipino filmmaking. In how it looks like, much of the indie scene contains these voices and maintains a monopoly on them. As of right now, O’Hara is silenced and the most irreverent movies made in the past few years were Crying Ladies and La Visa Loca which, despite being fun and different, lacked the social consciousness of the aforementioned auteurs (in La Visa Loca, the movie’s “epiphany” was that immigration was a result of lack of national identity, never examining if it is the nation itself that is pushing its citizens out of its borders). Heck, one cannot even make the bourgeois and elitist argument that it is the “increasing” catering to the “Bakya” crowd that’s leading to the degradation of Filipino movies. Let us remember that even the lowly FPJ action films and in our case, weepies, had some sort of a finger in character—that is Filipino character—development and growth. Even Nora’s very image as “the little brown girl” had so much social and political connotations. Seeing Hollywood domination, Filipinos couldn’t see any choice other than to acquiesce. In addition, since Hollywood has a tendency of shipping out only the most banal and formulaic of its movies, Filipinos are thus not even acquiescing to the best of American cinema. Thus, not only did Filipinos absorbed the worse exploitation of the most American of all methods of filmmaking—that is, genre filmmaking—we also absorbed the worse of how it conducts business—that is, see the profit and the numbers as the only indication of a cinema’s health.

I must stop before this rant turns into a deadly spark of outrage. Watching Zialcita’s film—or any other Filipino movie made before the 90s, for that matter—right after watching O’Hara’s Babae sa Bubungang Lata (“Woman on the Tin Roof”) will never result in optimism or hope…

*NOTE: I use actors' names because it is a pain in the ass to get character names. Having to either remember them or listen through the faded audio track on the tape, I decided to say fuck it and just use actors' names.

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