Saturday, August 23, 2008

Lumapit, Lumayo Ang Umaga (Ishmael Bernal, 1975)

I finally decided to write about this movie when I was listening to a Rilo Kiley song titled “Never,” which starts out -

I'm only a woman,
Of flesh and bones.
And I wept too much,
We all do.
I thought I might die alone.
I have nothing to give you, you see
Except everything, everything, everything
All the good and the bad

I don't really know why. The song is about giving up everything to be with the person that made you better. The movie is about dislocation, dehistorization, and a woman's role/place in history. Maybe there's a confluence in both song and movie, and maybe I'll understand it in the future if there is ever an opportunity to sit down again to figure it out.

This movie is especially dear to my heart because of many reasons, but especially because it introduced me to “old” Filipino movies. Digging through the “for sale” bin of a Filipino video store in Los Angeles one day, I found this old and aging cassette with the title taped on it—obviously, somebody took a Beta tape and transferred it to a VHS tape, seeing that the label was way too big for the cassette. The title was way too poetic to be just any regular old movie...”Lumapit, Lumayo ang Umaga,” literally “The Morning Comes and Goes.” Later I find that it was one of Ishmael Bernal's films, but only after the tape has wreaked havoc on three VHS players and one TV (it was a painful lesson in video deterioration). But after much cleaning, the tape finally did clear up, and the awful white noise gave way to a semi-decent Beta transfer (which means, the quality is crap, but not unbearable). The 35MM copy of the film doesn't exist anymore (deteriorated, along with other LEA films), so it makes this tape more important to me, at the very least.

The story, much like other Bernal's films with Elizabeth Oropeza, is about a woman who lives in the boundary that separates history and its subaltern. Amy meets Vic at the market where she works. They fall in love, they marry despite her mother's disapproval, she dies, they move to the city. We find out Vic is wanted by the police. When the police closes on him, he tries to escape, but did not. He pretends that he found work somewhere far while he is in jail, so Amy waits for him. After nine years he does not show up, so she starts to work at a large store where he meets Mr. Yap. Mr. Yap is the rich Chinese who owns the grocery store, and he immediately falls in love with Amy. Amy hesitates, but finally gives in and marries the wealthy man. When Vic returns, conflict ensues. Amy must choose between the two men, but could not: she loves Vic, but Yap provides for her. She is torn, until the situation is decided for her.

The plot, in all earnestness is rote and ripe for melodrama—and seemingly, nothing else. But Bernal achieves something great: through minute details, he layers the drama with meaning, emotion, and conflicts. It's his signature for the films he made during this time: small gestures and details that reveal a world. Very little flourish very little theatrics, very little drama. Through the use of deep focus and brilliantly placed pauses and glances, he reveals reality and society and the people that must exist within it, outside of it, but mostly in the boundaries of it.

Like his other movies made during the same time, this most obviously is a movie about a woman. Or better yet, a movie about woman. The desperate yet servile mother, the vulgar neighbor, and Amy who tries to situate herself between the two, the film spans the wide range of reality the Filipina encounters. The film doesn't judge her position in society; only observe the rock and the hard place in which she finds herself. Amy loves and believes in the fantasies of her na├»ve youth, but she is also cognizant of the reality of dire poverty and living in a difficult world an abandoned, single mother. Bernal takes great pain not only in memorializing the pain of forgetting her first husband to provide for her father-less child, but also the necessity of doing so. Most importantly though, he also shows that a woman can love a man with money, not the money the man has. Amy learns to love Yap for his kindness and willingness to accept her for what she is. Instead of focusing on the ideal of “true love” as opposed to the “reality” of “necessity” and “exploitation,” Bernal understands the fluidity of the “female virtue” of loving and caring. It is not an opposition, but rather a contiguous human decision made day by day, situation by situation, most commonly recognized as “existence.”

The same also applies for the men. Instead of opposing both as either villain or hero, rich or poor, virile or impotent, the men aren't just man, but creatures who, like Amy, Amy's mother, or her neighbor, must exist in and balance the line that divides social expectations and social reality. My first interpretation of both male characters is that of entrapment: in a masculine, macho, and manly world, the man provides and the woman chooses who can do it better. Worse yet, that they condone such standards and as such, the sexist attitudes that come with it. But after multiple viewings, I realize that this is not necessarily so. Bernal's genius comes from his capacity to demonstrate not only the social structure that restricts woman, but also man into a certain “role.” The need to provide and the devastation of not being able to provide is not only rhetoric—emphasized in other films by the use of such cliches as “head of the family,” “breadwinner”--but also demonstrated by its dehumanizing effects. Like Amy, Vic and Yap's lives are determined by the unceasing process of choosing between alternatives recognized as existing.

Most shocking however is the interpretation of this film as allegory of the Marcos regime. It's so simple, yet the lack of necessity for each telling detail to call attention upon itself makes the symbolism more potent. Unlike other films, which make the somewhat trite argument that the Marcos regime is oppressive, Bernal argues in this film that more so than that, the Marcos regime is the point where the Philippines break with its history. Through the use of newspapers, slyly thrown-in factoids and caveats, and pop songs, I realize that the film does not begin with an undetermined now, and ends with the cinematic version of a now-future two hours later. Instead, by reading the headlines in the newspapers that Bernal scatters throughout (and he takes great pains to show them, even if it's just in one corner of the screen—when he scans Yap's opened gifts to Amy, in one corner of the screen a Life magazine with Marcos' face in the cover, presumably victorious), I realize the film began around the early to mid-60s (Amy and Vic's house are covered with advertisement for Osmena's candidacy) and ends right around the start of the Martial Law (unlike the boisterous night scenes prior, the last scene in the film—where Vic walks away and into the darkness—was of a deserted street, probably right after curfew). Vic's disappearance and Yap's introduction happened around the election, when Marcos was running for president (the “trouble” began with a newspaper advertising Marcos' candidacy and ends with, again, Marcos' victorious face on the cover of a magazine).

The opposition between Vic and Yap is one defined by the opposition between history and escape. Vic, a Filipino, arrives with scenes of almost Filipino idyll: fishermen selling their catch to women bartering prices, small coastal villages where everybody knows everybody and everyone knows everything about everybody else, marital bliss and the start of a Filipino family, tough times, but not desperate times. It's people still rooted in their land, in their history, and in their people, where the ominous presence of the government is present but does not linger. But something changes: the big brother manifests itself through a radio announcement announcing the discovery of a criminal involved in a “murder mystery” and Bernal shows Vic's face slashed in half by a newspaper bearing political adverts. More and more the headlines appear, both tracing the growth of martial law and the progress of space exploration. Finally, Yap arrives. His store is a symbol of consumerist escape: aisles and aisles of goods, background music of American pop songs badly rendered by Filipino singers. Yap is a successful Chinese entrepreneur, and Bernal makes full use of his foreign identity. When Bernal pans through gifts that Yap gives Amy in efforts to win her over, a tacky yet effective Chinese music plays. When Amy finally realizes that Yap is willing to give his all to her, it was during a date at a Chinese restaurant. Although the Marcos regime valorized “Filipino identity,” Bernal makes the innovative argument that in fact, this political option is more about a break with history than embracing one's true self. Just as Amy reinvents herself through the escape that Yap provides, so too does the Marcos regime provide an “escape” from the everyday realities of hunger and poverty by disassociating ethnic identity from the harsh reality of history, and instead attaching to it false notions of timelessness and physical boundlessness. Identity has been ostracized from reality and becomes discussed through quotations—I became “Filipino,” Manila became “the city.”

The sophistication of the film's story however does not merely dichotomize reality and fantasy, facts and myths. Instead, it skirts that line between the id and the ego and recognizes that the world is formed by a constant compromise between what one wants and what one is. Amy does not reject Vic, nor does she reject the fantasies that Yap represents. Although Bernal cleaves fantasy and reality through Vic and Yap's representations, Bernal personalizes that cleave through Amy and the hard choices that she makes. She moves in and out of Vic and Yap's lives, conscious of her movement and the changes that occur around her when such moves happen. The morning may come and go, but Amy represents that present through which the morning comes and goes. Although the story moves through a span of years and decades, Amy becomes a sort of guide, the ever present presence that was constant through out the story's changes. It's almost like in the frenetic move through and out of history, Amy is the Filipino people, who were, will be present, and will live through the changes that happen around them.

Speaking of movement, Lumapit Lumayo ang Umaga is one of Bernal's great studies in space. His camera and actors move within spaces, and their movements define stories, conflicts, and resolutions. Admittedly, the canvas in this case is much smaller than in Manila After Dark, where he explores the slums of Manila through the cover of darkness, or in Himala where faith and doubt are played out in the solemn aridity of a desolate sandy island. In Lumapit Lumayo, he focuses on rooms, houses, cars, and moves his cameras within the confines of walls and doorways. But every movement, be it by a character storming out or a camera moving restrictedly back and forth within rooms, becomes a declaration or a narrative exclamation mark. See for example the tiny houses occupied by Amy and her mother, and later by Amy and Vic, and how the wobbly exposed frames and simply constructed window frames put four sides around faces, bodies, and actions, delineating social norms and expectations. The department store, with its wide aisles giving a false sense of expanse as the camera dollies through endless aisles divided by stacks of goods. See, too, the division between the outside of Vic and Amy's houses, and how dreams are told outside but realities are realized inside. But most admirably however is his scenes inside Yap's mansion. The succession of rooms, partitions, balconies, and spaces are well realized by Bernal's use of deep focus and a mobile camera. Most noteworthy are the “confrontation” between Vic, Yap, and Amy. In Yap's spacious living room, Vic and Yap are in different areas of the space divided by arches and different floor elevations. As the characters argue, Amy walks in and out of each man's spaces as the camera moves around them. Amy ends the argument by declaring her separation, and walks out the door. Later, during the night that Yap suffers a heart attack, Amy and Yap speak of Amy's previous life while Amy stands in the foreground on a balcony while Yap stands in the background, inside a room separated by a door frame. Bernal underlines Amy's distance as well as her independence through the telescoping effect of the doorway. When Yap collapses, Amy runs along the telescopic doorway, putting an emphasis on the decision she already made.