Monday, October 8, 2007

Santiago! (Lino Brocka, 1970)

*Apparently, like other films produced under LEA Films, this one is presumably lost except for the bad video copies made of it. Yay for film preservation.

Lino Brocka’s Santiago is, if anything else, Philippine Cinema’s Ascenseur pour l’echafaud (1958): it signaled the arrival of a new cinematic consciousness that soon took over an entire nation’s cinematic tradition without actually being mired in the very techniques that it announced. Santiago bears the themes that will later become Brocka’s preoccupations—mainly, an individual observing society from the outside and the depiction of the diverse and sophisticated ways people respond to oppression and suffering—but is still made with what seems to be techniques of a studio-based First Golden Age Cinema: overbearing music that isn’t so much a counterpoint to the image as much as a melodramatic underline to the image; a by and large straightforward narrative with a by and large clear resolution to the conflict (by and large because although the narrative and the conclusion are clear and predictable, Brocka never really just lets them be without tinkering with them); and by and large a stagey feel that lacks the raw realism that Brocka later perfects in films such as Insiang (1976) an Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag (1975). But throughout Santiago, one senses Brocka’s dislike of the conventions he is working through, and he makes it loudly known that this indeed is his film.

If Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Taon Walang Diyos (1975) is worthy of being seen (among other reasons) for its willingness to reconsider the Japanese enemy during WWII (the hatred of whom is something that should never be underestimated, especially in Asia), Santiago is worthy of being seen for its willingness to reconsider the Filipino resistance during the war. Through Gonzalo’s (Fernando Poe, Jr.) conscience, Brocka reassess the tactics used by the Filipino guerillas during the war, and the macho admiration of men who give up family and life to fight through whatever means, even if it is killing fellow countrymen. See, Gonzalo was ordered to blow up a building which was suspected of being a Japanese cache. But after he installs the dynamite, he finds that the building also housed a number of Filipino civilians, including numerous women and children. He ends up killing all except one, a girl who he brings to a nearby small village after he turns his back to the resistance in shame.

However, his idleness and willingness to work but not fight was understood by the villagers as cowardice, especially by the families who have fathers and sons who are fighting the Japanese. Worse still is that he is compared to Dante Romero’s character, who, despite killing a family of Japanese informants and is seen as a hero, is revealed to a be a cold-blooded killer who kills not just out of duty, but out of pleasure. Things come to a head when Romero’s character, jealous of the attention his former girlfriend (Boots Anson-Roa) is Giving Gonzalo, reveals to the villagers that Gonzalo did indeed blew up the building that killed many civilians in the nearby town and not the Japanese. Angered, they storm Gonzalo and drive him out of the village. He returns later when the Japanese invades the town to save the villagers from the Japanese.

As an outsider, Gonzalo’s character is the person through which Brocka measures the town’s morals and values. Far from the fight themselves, the town is free to discuss issues of violence, war, and guilt while Gonzalo, having gone through the follies of war, internalizes these same issues. Through horrific flashbacks and what looks like dream sequences, Brocka allows us inside Gonzalo’s head and experience the war as it is to this one man. But from the way he cuts the scenes in the village, one can tell that in this place, it is all about the reaction to war rather than war itself. Although reaction-based editing (where a depiction of an action precedes a cut that leads to a reaction to the action; forgive me for not knowing the technical term for them) is standard in studio-made productions, here Brocka uses them to show that in this case, it’s all about the reaction, not the action the produces them. Also, it doesn’t help that when the townies speak, they speak with a very literary tone (again, standard fare in pre-70s Filipino cinema). That is, they speak with the tone of someone who hasn’t experienced the horror of the thing they speak of.

Gonzalo however isn’t exactly the perfect hero who later forgets the town’s hatred when it is his turn to save it. The film’s last scene harks back to the first scene, but this time Gonzalo knows full well what he is doing. In the last scene, Gonzalo is faced with the same dilemma: they finally crossed the bridge connecting the town across river, and they must now blow-up the bridge to prevent the Japanese from following them. But problem is that some of the other villagers are still crossing the bridge, so Gonzalo must now choose between the people already across the bridge and the other villagers still across the river. Ultimately, he chooses to sacrifice the people still crossing the bridge, giving the signal to blow-up the bridge with a large degree of certainty. Was Gonzalo sacrificing them in retaliation? Was he finally free of guilt? Or did he do it out of necessity, understanding that his mission’s importance ultimately outweighs the lives of a few? We don’t really know Gonzalo’s motivations for his actions, but if there is anything that we are sure it is that this act solidifies Gonzalo’s loss of innocence and sense of right and wrong. From the non in, a life is just yet another thing that will be eliminated if it comes down to it.

Jay Ilagan’s character underlines this loss of innocence by representing that childhood that is ravaged in the process of knowing the cruelties of life. Ilagan is introduced as a young boatman who helps Gonzalo cross the river to the nearby village, and he is also the local who showed the rebels the tunnels under the church which helped them enter the church without being spotted by the Japanese. From the character that led Gonzalo to the peaceful paradise of the town, Ilagan became the person who led him back to the harsh truths of war and death. Throughout the film, he becomes witness to the changes that Gonzalo goes through, and he himself goes through changes that reflect the demands of the small town of a man. He isn’t an innocent bystander, but the film’s Junior (Brocka’s other young witness in his epic Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kuling (“Weighed But Found Wanting,” 1974). As an insider, he grows up defined by the ways and traditions of the town. But unlike Junior, Ilagan’s character doesn’t grow to transcend and ultimately judge the town, but rather grow to reflect the town itself.

If there is anything that the film exceeds in exceptionally well, it is the significant flashbacks that were shot and edited as if inspired by the Russian silent avante gardes. These flashbacks pierce through the relative serenity of the village by revealing the horror that the village seems to be hiding from itself. When Anson-Roa’s character embraces Dante’s character in reconciliation, he is reminded of the past: the sweet and mellow past of parades, beauty pageants, and fireworks, but also the violent past of Dante killing a family. The most significant however is Caridad Sanchez’s character’s flashbacks. Sanchez’s character is the town’s madwoman, and her flashback reveals why: raped by a gang of Japanese soldiers, her husband’s groin pierced by a bayonet, her husband leaves her to join the resistance. Later she bears the child of one of the Japanese soldiers that raped her. In a fit of rage, her husband kills the child. Mind you, these images are sensually shot in sepia as if Dovzhenko himself rose from the dead to shoot them, and cut together as if Eisenstein directed Brocka what to do. Close ups of hands, groins, and knives are interspersed along with shots of pained faces and faces in pleasure, thus abstracting the action into the objects and people’s reaction to their use. These images are coupled with Caridad Sanchez and Mario O’Hara’s great performances as husband and wife. And there are not enough words to describe how courageous their portrayals are: O’Hara having his groin pierced and bloodied in close-up, Sanchez in a very brief but very powerful topless shot.

Santiago will probably never be considered amongst other Brocka masterpieces. It is far too compromised, lacking the power of a film if Brocka is allowed full helm of the project, as seen in films such as Bona (1980) or Insiang. But nevertheless, this film is worth looking at if not for the way it dealt with WWII, for the way it shows how Brocka dealt with the limitations of studio-filmmaking before the new wave that he and a few others led, and how he harnessed his power as an artist to create equally powerful films later on in his career.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Curios and He Haws from Video 48

Here's something of interest from Video 48's newly-established blog: Lino Brocka's membership card, detailing films he borrowed a few days before his very untimely death. I can't really read much of the scribble, but it seems some fo the titles he borrowed were Mata Hari, The Snake Pit, Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, The Year of Living Dangerously, Salaam Bombay, Bad and the Beautiful, Seventeenth Bride, I Vitelloni, Angel of Vengeance, and The Hunter. Great stuff.
For those who do not know, Video 48 is probably as instrumental as those Quiapo sidewalks in creating what is becoming Philippines' new [digital] wave. With past customers such as Brocka, and new customers such as Jeturian, it seems it is not necessarily giving birth to a new order, but merely continuing a tradition. In terms of influence, it 's like Philippines' Criterion Collection and NYU-Tisch rolled into one lowly street corner in Quezon City. I've never bee to the place (I was still young when I left the country), but its reputation is well known amongst cinephiles who make their presences known online.

The Video Store of the Damned

Hey, anybody wanna go hit Quiapo with me?

Friday, October 5, 2007

Inay ("Mother," Lino Brocka, 1977)

Brocka’s Inay starts appropriately enough with a sad song: the mother (Alicia Vergel), a retiring teacher, is serenaded by her colleagues while her son Maning (Dindo Fernando) looks on, half-sad, half-exasperated, and half-dubious. The loss of an apparently great and well-loved teacher mirrors the loss of traditional values as represented by the mother, and the loss of childhood from the provider’s perspective. It is Brocka’s take on Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 Tokyo monogatari, where selfish and ungrateful children turn their back on their aging parents and equally, to the history and culture that is slowly being replaced by the then rapidly changing Japanese society. Brocka gave his own twist on the story, making explicit the economic basis of the conflict, the resistance of tradition against the creeping mores of urbanity, and the power struggle between child/present and parent/past.

Unlike Ozu, Brocka did not make his parental figure as tragically innocent or simple as Ozu’s mother and father, whose willingness to flow with the changes represented by their children heightened the sense of the children’s betrayal. Brocka’s mother isn’t exactly the most endearing person in the world (immediately after her retirement, she wakes up Maning’s entire family on a Sunday and calls him and his doting wife (Connie Reyes) irresponsible and lazy for letting their children stay in bed so late), nor is she the most self-sacrificing, selfishly starting drama with every woman she thinks is replacing her role as provider for her children. It isn’t just a past that is criminally being swept aside for the forward drive of the present, but a past that is stubbornly reasserting itself the hindering the necessity of adapting to change. The final image of the mother wittily conveys this stubbornness both in the mother’s assertion of power and the child’s impulse to resist: finding out that Maning’s third child is finally born after hearing it cry, the mother runs to the baby, carries it and wags her finger in an attempt to impose herself onto the baby to make it stop crying. The freeze-frame of her waging her finger and the baby crying is comparable to the final fight scene between Lucia (Adela Legra) and Tomas (Adolfo Llaurado) in Lucia (Humberto Solas, 1968), where the frozen emotion isn’t that of conclusion, but a sense that the struggle, although somewhat tragic, will indeed comically continue. Unlike however the beaming face that ends Tokyo monogatari, the vagueness isn’t couched on philosophy, but rooted on social context.

The mother’s differing relationships with her children reveals that the children’s slight rejection (because their rejection isn’t as obviously contemptuous as Tokyo monogatari’s) isn’t merely out of selfishness and ingratitude. With Maning, the mother self-righteousness is borne out of Maning’s poverty because he chose to teach at a public school like his mother instead of going for the corporate jobs that his siblings went for. The brunt of the past strikes most viciously against the people that the present has left behind, and the mother’s vindictiveness is a reminder of a history defined by colonial and postcolonial oppression. The mother’s communication with her Romy (Orestes Ojeda) on the other hand reveals that very Filipino-Hispanic tradition of maharlika, or a society that is ruled over by the very rich few. Not only does the maharlika rule over the society, it demands respect from the minions it rules over. Romy became rich after he marries a woman from a rich family. The mother’s interaction with Romy and Daisy is one of reverence, as if age matters very little in the face of inequality. Laid side by side with her treatment of Maning, it seems the mother cannot possibly lecture Romy and his family because the society that he represents is exactly the society that defines the past.

The mother’s relationship with her only daughter Daisy (Chanda Romero) is predictable in that she treats her as society treats women: as bearer of a culture’s very identity. The relationship here isn’t merely one of an oppressor and the oppressed. Repeatedly, the mother reveals how proud she is of her daughter, and how she is the most responsible and reliable of the siblings. Unlike the conflict-laden first meetings between the mother and the other three siblings, the mother’s first interaction with Daisy is very calm, and the daughter—unlike the daughter-in-laws in Ozu’s film—is neither ecstatic nor unhappy about her mother’s visit. It seems that Daisy is merely resigned to the fact that that is the way things work, the mother visits her children. However, it is also Daisy who causes the most trouble. After the mother finds out that Daisy is having an affair with a married man (a fact delivered with such simplicity and giveness as Bernal’s films about infidelity, many made around the same time), and is bearing his child without any intent of marrying him, the mother declares Daisy a whore and causes a scare after she collapses of anger. Compared with the innocence of the young Daisy, represented by the photograph that the mother carries around of Daisy’s first communion, this version of that child represents a totally different value system, a totally different outlook on life—that is, a bearer that brings a cultural identity that is alien from the identity that the mother represented. The conflicts between the mother and daughter were the most explosive and devastating because the depiction of two clashing value systems isn’t merely ideological, but a display of two women whose very being—womanhood, if you wanna go in that direction—is threatened by each other’s presence.

Finally, there’s Alex (Ace Vergel, appropriately enough the mother’s son in real life), the youngest of the four siblings who also inhabits the oddest position of all of them. He is a rich, self-made executive, but he doesn’t seem to have the economic baggage that defines Maning or Romy. He is also “liberated,” but doesn’t have Daisy’s sexual baggage. He is clearly the mother’s favorite, but it is palpable how confused the mother is in dealing with him. He brings his sexual conquests back home for his mother to see, but his conscience more than weighs on him as he painfully admits to his mother his promiscuity. His apartment is atop a supposedly very high building overlooking Manila, and Brocka takes great pains to show the mother’s suffering everytime she ascends to stairs to his apartment (she doesn’t want to take the elevator in fear of getting stuck midway to the apartment), even framing her Vertigo-style without the accompanying disorienting Vertigo shot. Looking at his relationship with his maid (who acts as a surrogate mother to him, a relationship the mother finds extremely displeasing), Alex does live the lifestyle of a big spender, but is almost apologetic in the way he subsequently must treat the people below him. Unlike Romy, he is unafraid to bring his poor brother’s family to Manila as guests. Unlike his siblings, he isn’t necessarily stuck in reliving the injustices of the past, nor is he so adamant in his push for the future that he alienates his family, especially his mother. It is as if he represents the indefinable yet concrete nature of the present, found balancing itself with the backwards-trajectory of history and past, and the forward march of the future. Like his apartment, he is afforded the bird’s-eye view of human progress afforded the future, but also finds his feet planted in the ground below.

It is in this setting that the mother finally realizes that her children have indeed grown up. Although earlier she insists that the mother may stop caring for her children, but the children will never stop needing their mother, the Christmas dinner in Alex’s house, where Romy, his wife, Daisy, and Alex come for dinner but leaves for other engagements reveals that the situation is actually reversed: it is the mother who will always be in need of children to care for. Her realization’s tragedy is recognizably a Filipino one: it’s Christmas, and there’s no family (and extended family) to celebrate it. But her move back to Maning’s house the next day reveals that Brocka isn’t necessarily just suggesting mere abandonment. The mother is revealed to be free all along, moving from one house to another not out of necessity, but of the sheer pleasure of changing allegiances and relationships. This sketch of familial relationship complicates blood ties by suggesting that rather than a rigidly defined connection, a family’s relationship itself is negotiable, fluid, and shifting, just as people’s position within history and social change is equally a balance between forward and backward, stops and gos. In the end, when the film harks back to the first scene when her colleagues celebrate the mother’s retirement from teaching, we aren’t reminded of the sad song but of Maning’s face, dubious of such displays of certainty of the linearity of history, and the happy rendition of “For (S)he’s a Jolly Good Fellow” that follows the teachers’ sad song, where her coworkers form a circle around her and dances back and forth around the mother.