The National Pastime – Actors: Muhlach/Paulate/Aunor

Niño’s Comeback

Kontra Bandido
Directed by J. Erastheo Navoa
Written by Ruben de Guzman

Disclaimers from the participants’ publicity machinery notwithstanding, the 1986 Metro Manila Film Festival raised expectations of more substantial film fare than what was available to the public just before the event. From the foregoing any hack psychologist could infer that I’ve conducted at least a casual survey of what was showing then, and more than that…all right, so I slummed around some. And all right again, so I enjoyed the item in question – a two-hours’ wonder called Kontra Bandido. The trouble with this kind of experience is that no amount of aesthetic defense can justify even the mere act of paying attention to such a slim, inconsequential product. Film critics, when they feel like critics, fall back on social-scientific constructs to discuss what after all would be typical industrial output; but then again, expertise in the dynamics of society is supposed to take secondary place to an understanding of the nature and purpose of beauty, as far as the critic is concerned.

Hence our dissatisfactory condition of having film critics either lacking for titles to subject to proper scrutiny or, as is more often the case, lacking in the skills with which to approach works with artistic merit, because the very dearth of worthy titles has prevented what growth they may be capable of. The cleverer ones revert to what aspires to be social criticism, but only wind up at best halfway toward science and nowhere near art. Needless to add, the effect on a so-far passive audience would be miseducational; the small consolation we derive from the observation is that this passivity obtains only in the case of art criticism.

So my two-centavos’ worth on Kontra Bandido (the other ₱7.98 went to making the government and theater owner and producer happy) runneth thus: Niño Muhlach’s comeback picture did well in providing ample acting support to offset the star’s deficient appeal, coming as he does midway between cute kid and marketable teenybopper. The genre’s a tricky one, combining action with comedy, but succeeded, at least according to my vulnerable sensibility when I saw it, because of several departures from local convention. The outsiders who take over the requisite Everytown are not identified as political rebels (their leader is addressed with “Ka” or comrade, which is forgivable considering the lengths to which propaganda movies will condescend), although they wear fatigue uniforms. They’re more like paramilitary protection racketeers, especially when toward the end a benevolent father figure turns out to have two-timed the outsiders’ leader. Although said leader fails to appropriate this disclosure to provide himself with decent motivation, the father is not consigned to the oblivion of guilt, but is instead set up for sacrifice.

In the end, all who have indulged in violence, including our boy wonder and his well-meaning cohort, are wiped out by the same principle with which they attempted to attain justice – nearly all, that is, since the Muhlach character is provided, apparently as an afterthought, with a playmate more acceptable than the catechism teacher he has been lusting after. Aside from Janice Jurado, who plays the teacher with amusive hypocrisy, comic relief is provided by Bernardo Bernardo, whose nth portrayal of a screaming homosexual in a presumably man’s world may be able to sustain a more diverting (and longer, if we throw in Roderick Paulate) discourse on the emergent gay phenomenon in Philippine cinema.

Not much, I’ll admit, but at least the significances (or significations, just to show how much I know) therein may prove useful for some future chronicler of pop history. Unlike – sigh – this review.

[First published February 11, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Gross, Gaudy, & Gay

Ako si Kiko, Ako si Kikay
Directed by Mike Relon Makiling
Written by Jake Cocadiz

The evolution of the gay persona in cinema has been a rather strange one, and not just because of the nature of the subject matter. To begin with, active artistic (or even just artsy) enterprises have been known to be relatively tolerant of the queer predilection – in fact, one area of debate rages as to whether the milieu causes the condition, or the condition defines the milieu. Lost in the brouhaha is the essential observation that artists, who after all may just be craftspeople who want to do good, need to keep in touch with the dual forms of sexual persuasions within themselves to be able to represent both sides in the war between the sexes. In the process, and to the occasional consternation of either sex, a distinct form – more accurately, a complex of several distinct forms – of sex-based characteristics has emerged.

The situation, of course, can be threatening, especially within the strictures of the Judaeo-Christian tradition predominant in Western and Westernized civilization. But after the long and painful dismantling of institutionalized oppression against certain creeds, races, and sexes (women specifically), gay liberation promises to constitute the wave of the near future – with a downright effective propaganda potential in the community of artists. Beyond social context, film, as the most active art form of the times, has reflected the shifts in the portrayal of the gay condition in a manner which can be described as doubly realistic: for not only is the medium itself the most effective reflector of reality known to man (the generic, not the sexual, creature), the delineation of homosexuality in it can be considered a matter of the filmic and sexual practitioner’s portrayal of herself or (forget not gay males) himself.

And so where were we? Ah yes, Ako si Kiko, Ako si Kikay: gay Filipino movie characters, numerous enough to constitute a menagerie all to their fabulous selves, have definitely come a long way since the exploitative presentations of Dolphy some decades back. The conflict, if we were to take this kind of output seriously, was literally evident in the last Dolphy movie, the Facifica Falayfay sequel, in which the gay junior was developed according to updated stereotypical logic and then given the traditional resolution of going straight in the end; I wonder how many of the mass viewers got the point, much less appreciated it. The crucial turnabout was attempted by a ten-year-old Dolphy entry, Ang Tatay Kong Nanay, but the lead star’s persona could not break away from the box-office expectations of having the gay-male character seek solutions to his problem apart from the conventional options of going straight, celibate, crazy, or dead.

A more likely watershed has been Manila by Night, which was revolutionary in several other senses as well. Conveniently released at the turn of the current decade, it has helped mark the era of a new type of approach to gay portrayals, with the characters being at the very least logical (Kaya Kong Abutin ang Langit), at the most humane and endearing (Palipat-Lipat, Papalit-Palit, Moral, and Scorpio Nights). The gay characters in these subsequent titles, however, essay supporting roles only, and here is where the hitch obtains: the compromise so far for having a lead gay-male character is providing the same with comic treatment.

In a sense this isn’t as bad as it sounds, since this approach makes the, er, guys easier to appreciate (especially when portrayed by purportedly straight, and therefore open-minded, performers), and more fun to behold besides. The obvious limitation is in the number of types available for depiction: quiet, unassuming ones, who’ve distinguished the movies earlier mentioned, lose out to loud screaming clowns – Mahinhin vs. Mahinhin, Paru-parung Buking, Lalake Ako!, and now Ako si Kiko, Ako si Kikay. Granting the entire scenario as a given framework, the best one can say of Ako si Kiko is that, well, lead performer Roderick Paulate is well on his way to developing an accomplished persona in his own right. His (pardon the term) faggotry is technically impressive, a welcome result of extensive training in the craft, comparable to Nora Aunor’s underdog – minus the potential for serious acting afforded by roles for the latter. The project itself is the sort of fluff, lighthearted and lightheaded, that enables any well-honed craftsperson to run away with the action, and Paulate doesn’t waste whatever opportunity has been made available to him.

On the whole the accomplishment doesn’t amount to much, particularly when one considers the dramatic potentials in two supporting characters: the first is the domineering aunt, a reincarnation of the mother in the original Facifica Falayfay, who engineers and defends the upbringing of the gay character. The other’s the kookily flirtatious female, the realization of Kikay’s fantasies, implausible in herself (derived as she was, Nutty Professor-style, from a chemistry genius’s successful experimentations), but spiritually embodying the ultimate aspirations of the transvestic queen. The movie attempts a parallel by having Kiko similarly imbibe the potion and turn into a macho-bagets counterpart, but the resultant commentary is beside the point; I suppose, the commercial consideration of providing the authentic female with an authentic male partner aside, the filmmakers must have lost a crucial amount of courage, rather than imagination, in pursuing the contrast in sensibilities between femininity and gayness. Not to despair, though: in Paru-parung Buking, the queen (played by Paulate’s only other real competitor, Bernardo Bernardo), backs out of a sex-change operation after his conscience, in a fittingly campy Garden of Eden setting, quite simplistically warns him of the immorality of tampering with inborn essentialisms.

This notion of the gay condition as being a compromise between two sexual orientations is in itself inaccurate and inadequate, so unfair as it may sound, one begins hoping for another Manila by Night or at least a character-intensive project for the likes of Paulate. Otherwise we may find genuine talent going the way of industrial dictates – by way of Kikay in succeeding Dolphy, or of Kiko in having a place among several other straight comic roles. For plurality’s sake let’s hope something turns up, aside from Paulate’s penciled eyebrow.

[First published September 30, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Chauvinist’s Nightmare

Kumander Gringa
Directed and written by Mike Relon Makiling

One cultural paradox of our current national existence is the fact that at this point, close to the second anniversary of the February 1986 revolution, our favorite mass medium still has to yield an unqualified triumph in political discourse. Once in a while, or sometimes too often, the movie industry would come up with an alleged true-to-life depiction of a still-living and militaristically significant political personality. The samples so far have proved to be viable for box-office business, but understandably self-serving for their respective subjects; in short, bad for the spirit in the long run. I hope this sufficies to demonstrate the minimum of cynicism in my appreciation of Kumander Gringa as our most successful post-revolution political movie so far. True-la-la, as the lead character (or more accurately one of two) would say: the item, like its subject matter, is far cleverer than what it would have us believe.

To begin with, Kumander Gringa arrives on the (high) heels of Ako si Kiko, Ako si Kikay, which features not only the same director, Mike Relon Makiling, and performer, Roderick Paulate, but also the same comic premise – that of two characters identical in physical appearance but worlds (well, sexes actually) apart in orientation. Notice the twin defensive measures resorted to here, in terms of intention: not only is the undertaking a comedy, it also features the least offensive of Pinoy stock comic characters. And just in case this still couldn’t serve to appease the moralists in our midst, it further halves the lead character in two, the better to drive home the contrast between sexual differences, playing as it does the comic gay against his straight and serious counterpart.

But where Ako si Kiko was content to exploit this condition for strictly commercial comedic ends, Kumander Gringa pursues a far more ambitious and ultimately more appreciable, if not actually radical, course. Where the aforementioned biopictures were content to simplify political arguments by reformulating the left-vs.-right conflict into a center-vs.-extreme argument, Kumander Gringa provides sex-based embodiments for each side of the debate. Instead of the good-guy peace-lover caught between the bad-guy war-freaks on both sides of the political fence, we’ve got the gay lead straddling the contradictions between the more realizable concepts of civism and militarism, as represented by traditionally defined women on the one hand and similarly self-imposed men on the other. For the first time in any major local movie, both sides are made to succumb to the camp aspects of the gay option.[1]

The limitation of this sort of approach should be obvious to any perceptive social observer. It’s still too schematic to allow for innovation within specific sexual orientations, whether conventional or queer. Where our current biopictures attempt one over run-of-the-mill action movies by imbuing the psychologically motivated protagonists with political significations, the likes of Kumander Gringa in turn transform these political valuations into sexual differences. The approach is actually more analytical than dramatic, and in the final reckoning all these titles share the common property of editorializing in the wrong medium. They strive for the attention-getting appurtenance of thematic novelty without having fine-tuned (and as a consequence they cover up) the essential mechanisms of character and plot development. Using rhetoric metaphor, the machine looks new and therefore potentially workable, but it could never run itself into the long-term required for classical stature.

That would of course be tantamount to expecting Dostoyevskian rewards from a Mills & Boon paperback, and in fact I’d go as far as conceding that a Mad magazine feature would be closer to the nature of Kumander Gringa. But the mere fact that the discussion could initiate this level of polemics indicates that Mike Relon Makiling and Roderick Paulate, and by association contemporary Philippine motion-picture comedy, might be going somewhere. Kumander Gringa will also offer some slight film-educational, or more appropriately performing-arts, insights, particularly on the cruciality of the comic performer’s contribution. Again this carries on where Ako si Kiko, Ako si Kikay had left off, this time with the lesson more pronounced. What I mean is that, compared with most of Roderick Paulate’s previous gay-persona outings, Kumander Gringa to begin with has dangerously weak histrionic support: no Nida Blanca, Tessie Tomas, Nova Villa, not even a Maricel Soriano in close range, just a bunch of well-meaning and congenial talents eager to do their best but whose capabilities definitely fall outside the lead star’s caliber.

The risk Makiling took in response to this limitation has paid off in most parts, of which the financial aspect isn’t yet the least. In Kumander Gringa Paulate comes into his own in a definitive manner, proving for all practical purposes that he’s the prime comedian of the day, fully capable and confident in getting away with even the worst conventions his specialized kind of craft can proffer. Shrewdly, as it turned out, Makiling built the movie’s highlights on scenes intended to be carried by one, the other, or both of Paulate’s characters, and in fact allowed his star the bravura opportunity of creating a character-within-a-character, with the gay lead barely though riotously managing to impersonate his macho counterpart.

But instead of leaving Paulate to assume the burden of taking the movie to climax in this one-upmanship manner, Makiling eased the project itself onto parodic territory. I wonder how aware the filmmakers were of how close to radical the movie’s climax was, wherein the gay survivor delivers the lines and actions so far reserved for our most revered male movie personae. The incongruity is downright outrageous, but no one who has ever been moved, as I’d sometimes been, with all those mythologizing endings in our action movies will fail to feel that almost-reflexive swell of emotion. On the other hand, if everything were deliberately done, at least as much as would be enough to hold up under this sort of scrutiny, then the movie couldn’t have been as casual, as disarming even, as it turned out to be.

Then again on further thought the literal notion of disarmament is made a vital part of Kumander Gringa’s denouement. I guess clever’s the word, and I mean it as a compliment, true-la-la, but somehow I couldn’t help suspecting that there might be more where this came from.

[First published January 13, 1988, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] One of the films made in the wake of the groundbreaking success of Mar S. Torres’s 1954 Dolphy starrer, Jack en Jill, was Tony Cayado’s 1962 Kaming mga Talyada, where seven effeminate brothers are transformed into masculine heterosexuals via army training coupled with the endangerment of their potential objects of desire; the very last shot, however, depicts their hyper-masculine commanding officer as having been “infected” with the effeminacy that he had sought so desperately to eliminate in his charges, as he follows the now-normativized couples with a distinctly waddling gait. That it took a quarter of a century before this (for want of a better term) condition could be acknowledged as vital enough to induce its proponent to undertake heroic action and transform an entire army camp into happy campers may be read in two ways: as merely a reaction to the recent spate of (again pun incidental) straight-faced people-power heroicizing biofilms; or, on a broader scale, as an expression of relief that the masculinist nightmare of martial rule has finally been dispelled.

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Child’s Play

Takot Ako, Eh!
Directed by Mario O’Hara
Written by Mario O’Hara and Tito Rey

Poor Nora Aunor. Whether as a result of the trauma of her identification with the late unlamented Marcos regime or not, the fact remains that she parlayed her brood on the public when it was still suspicious of any move she would make thereafter. As it’s turning out, it wasn’t just her timing that was off; it’s the material as well – the content, if you will, of her latest career move, which has amounted to fostering on an apparently bewildered following all of her legal children. To be sure, the tots do seem to possess an acceptable amount of potential; at the very least, they could get by anywhere else on their unique brand of charisma, definitely drawn from their privileged intimacy with the only world-class multimedia phenomenon our culture has ever had the good fortune to witness.

Aye, but that’s where the rub sets in. For why should the selfsame phenomenon ever decide for the very public that made her possible in the first place? Granting that her decision to campaign for the Marcoses was borne out of an abiding political naïveté (which I did and still do believe was the case), should the disapproval of an understandably outraged populace signal that her time on the stage (or tube or screen) of public life is up? Besides, if the promotional build-up of her kids had been already planned before the hue and cry of her disastrous sorties, there arises another, even more vexed issue – that of pushing a number of innocents into a situation which they may have good reasons for not preferring, if granted the maturity and independence of the proper coming-of-age status.

The long and short of it is that Nora Aunor hasn’t yet given the public her fullest, judging from the upward arc of her recent performances, whether histrionic or vocal. If the masses seem to have lost a considerable amount of their admiration for her, then maybe it was high time that a reassessment of her public image were done anyway. If I may say so, better this new atmosphere of cynicism than the indiscriminate adulation everyone used to lavish on her. The solution lies in her coming to grips with a more critical audience through a no-nonsense display of that apparently bottomless reserve of talent she seems to be holding forth at the moment, rather than allowing a bunch of harmless but comparably less contributory minors take on the front lines for her. Meanwhile they’re here, all four of them, and every sensible movie fan should be caught up (as I am – a movie fan, that is) in the dilemma of wanting all those other poor orphans lying around to be adopted by such a distinctive mother, yet not wanting to have any more of such children turn into instant celebrities before their time. They’re all lumped together (and boy, do I mean lumped!) in their mother’s latest production, Takot Ako, Eh!

Actually I don’t intend my misgivings to mean that you should take the movie’s title as a piece of literal advice. The kids put up a brave struggle, I must admit their guts if nothing else (they’re mostly too young anyway) are worthy of their association with Aunor; and even she most carefully defers to them, by appearing in a low-key cameo and bowing out almost too soon before her presence begins to take hold. And that’s precisely where the trouble lies, friends. The kids couldn’t do yet without their mamma lending support, but if she did lend them enough, she’d surely wind up blotting them out. As a result, Takot Ako, Eh! suffers from a forward drive in its narrative, where the siblings, who play siblings, take too long to lead to a return to life of their dead mother, played by you-know-who; and when she does arrive, she just doesn’t stay long enough to develop dramatically.

Not that I’m taking this entire outing seriously now, but you’ve got a team functioning here that’s capable of some impressive work, and in fact has done it before (in their previous effort, Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak, in fact). Aside from the weakness already pointed out, the sci-fi premise also demands a lot of imaginative stretching, not to mention state-of-the-art special effects, both of which are served short in this instance. Too bad; the material in Takot Ako, Eh! is far less pretentious than last year’s “Halimaw sa Banga” episode, and for that reason alone I kept waiting for the oportunity where it could serve to prove, as the full-length Halimaw did not, that all a horror movie need do to justify its existence and our appreciation of it is provide a good scare, regardless of our much-abused preoccupation with “social” messages.

The only evidence that Takot Ako, Eh! could not have been made by just anyone with the right money and resources lies in one extremely exclusive instance. This would take a whole lot of paring down and possibly a radical revision of the exposition, but if our point of reference is Halimaw, then you’d now have the best installment available for that omnibus product. I’m referring to the subplot involving Caridad Sanchez as a way-out househelp, not quite in her right mind yet not quite obtrusive enough to arouse anyone’s suspicions. Before the time machine brings back the Nora Aunor character it first spews out Dracula (a wonderfully with-it Richard Merck), who like all the previous males on the scene doesn’t really fall for the maid’s advances, but, unlike the rest, doesn’t have the advantage of remaining intact during daytime and going without blood.

When Sanchez starts turning on the charm for her captive lover, all hell, for him at least, breaks loose, and one wishes for the most part that the final Countdown hadn’t been sooner. And to return to where we started: wasn’t this the kind of role – the maid, I mean in particular – that Nora Aunor became famous for? A character performer like Caridad Sanchez can think of nothing about shifting from serious to comic interpretations within more or less similar characterizations (check out two temporally disparate Lino Brocka films, Santiago and Ano ang Kulay ng Mukha ng Diyos?, plus her critically underrated salvo in Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Alyas Baby Tsina, for a sober accounting of the lady’s prowess); on the other hand, a Nora Aunor can only work on a highly involved plane of acting, in fact as in film. Forced to a distance (considering her bygone stature as the superstar of Cebuano cinema), Sanchez takes full advantage by playing to the hilt, damn the consequences, and involves everyone else in her having fun even at her own expense; Nora Aunor offers a weak substitute of herself, four of them in fact, and politely takes her place in the background. Somewhere there’s a metaphor for the human capacity for excessive celebrity, and the sadness of losing a precious sort of genius when the condition begins to take its toll.

[First published November 25, 1987, in National Midweek]

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An Update

The sobering of the national temper found its way into the essentially comic-fantastic genre discussed in this section, zeroing in on scatological details and the breaking of class-based sexual barriers. Given this type of requirement, authentic histrionic talent plays a role secondary to such criteria as physical deficiencies or bourgeois perfection. Meaning it won’t suffice to be just a well-prepared newcomer anymore, at least for the meantime. You’ll have to have something laughably wrong with your appearance, or else (if you’re female) an air of unattainability about you. The abstract notion of a pathetically unappealing comedian being romantically linked, even if only in the movies, with a well-bred girl gone wild may not sound funny to you and me, but we can easily speculate that anyone who regularly undergoes a sufficiently strong measure of social brutalization will eventually demand a proportionately desperate degree of entertainment. In terms of the particular examples already discussed, gay characters may have to straighten up or risk reverting to objects of offensive ridicule, while underdogs will have to bite; in short, (fictional) people will have to be what they’re really not for the moment, until matters beyond studio control begin to loosen up once more.

[First published October 24, 1990, in National Midweek]

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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