By the time this comes out, I’ll be some days on vacation. I had been looking forward to it, not having had one since 2000 when I went from regular employee of the Inquirer to regular columnist. That has had its upside and downside, the downside being losing my three-week paid vacation. Over the last decade and a half, I had been like the US Postal Service, coming through despite rain and snow and heat and gloom of night.
But what can I say? The bones are creaking a little louder and the energy is flagging. I’m taking time to oil my body parts and recharge my batteries. I’ll see you again on May 19.
Meanwhile, to end the week:
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A few years back, I was lamenting the fact that Filipino movies had fallen by the wayside while those of other Asian countries had gone very far in their journey, going on to startle the world with their brilliance. Hong Kong, Taiwan and China in particular have produced Wong Kar wai, Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou. South Korea and even Thailand have been making waves as well, if as yet small ones. A pity, given that we were one of the pioneers of the Asian cinema, producing movies before and after World War II that compared not unfavorably with those of the Japanese masters.
Over the last few years, particularly with the burgeoning of digital films, I’ve had a change of heart, or head, realizing that news of the Filipino film’s death has been grossly exaggerated. Many of the movies of Cinemalaya in particular are a joy to behold.
Indeed, recently I saw a couple of films that dwelled on the plight of Filipinos but were not done by Filipinos. Which gave me to glimpse the possibilities of Filipino movies going global not just by way of film festivals which, though prestigious, do not give them a wider audience, but by a more commercial route. That audience exists.
It is by no means the first time this has been done. The last one I saw before these was John Sayles’ “Amigo,” which told the story of the American occupation of a Filipino village during the Filipino-American War. It starred Filipino actors, with Joel Torre in the lead, along with American ones, including a Sayles staple, Chris Cooper. Sayles, of course, is a legendary director of independent films (and not quite incidentally a novelist as well). The recent ones I saw were both done last year.
The first is “Metro Manila.” It was written and directed by Briton Sean Ellis and the production crew is largely foreign. Its target audience is obviously also more foreign than local.
It tells the story of a farmer in Banaue, who is exploited mercilessly by the local rice trader, and who decides to move his family—wife and two kids—to Metro Manila to try his luck there. As you might expect if you are a Filipino viewer, luck is not what’s forthcoming. What is so is even more merciless exploitation by Metro Manila’s denizens. A bit in the mold of “Maynila, Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag,” but throws in liberal doses of action/suspense when the main character (Jake Macapagal) finds a job as guard for an armored car.
It adds a nuance or two to what Dan Brown calls the “gates of hell,” particularly in its depiction of the depths of poverty the capital is heir to, a few coins and scraps of food being something to die—or kill—for. At least for us: For the foreign viewer, to whom it seems primarily addressed, it’s probably nothing less than a revelation. You know it is addressed to that viewer because of some liberties it takes with reality.
Penniless in Tondo, the farmer and his family somehow get to pass by the Pen, which is all the way in Makati. And the farmer/guard’s partner likes listening to opera—“O Mio Babbino Caro” is playing on his stereo in the armored car. I know these are meant to contrast high and low, the sublime and the brutal, but still.
Those who do not like unrelentingly depressing movies will be glad to know it doesn’t have an unrelentingly depressing ending. But that may just be me, I have a fairly high tolerance for depressing.
The second is “Iloilo.” Like “Metro Manila,” it’s written and directed by a foreigner, Anthony Chen. Unlike “Metro Manila,” it doesn’t happen in Metro Manila, or any other part of the Philippines; it happens in Singapore. But it is about a Filipino, a maid who hails from, as the title says, Iloilo.
It’s a quiet slice-of-life story that avoids the usual stereotypes in stories about Filipino maids. The maid (Angeli Bayani) doesn’t get to be api or, heaven forbid, raped. Her employers in fact are fairly decent middle-class folk. The story revolves around the relationship between the maid and her ward, a boy who starts out being a spoiled brat but eventually gets to be quite close to her. The maid’s employers later fall into hard times, the husband’s investments going south, and are forced to let her go.
Not all the costs of being a Filipino maid consist of physical hardships, and not all have to do with the maid herself. Those costs include hurts or emotional wounds as well, and include the ravaging by them of others, too. This movie dwells subtly on them. The effect of the maid’s being laid off is more devastating on her ward than on her. The boy who has bonded with her feels the loss of a nurturing presence like a visceral wrenching. You’ve got to be a little jaded not to be moved by all this. It offers not quite incidentally new insights into the plight of Filipino maids, which is the plight of those they leave behind, the children especially, when their services are terminated for one reason or another.
The gold is there, just waiting to be mined.
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