Among the “new normal” adjustments in media consumption induced by the still-ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the emergence of streaming as a viable, though still far from preferable, option to theater-going was definitely on its way to happening, with the current health crisis only speeding up its inevitable arrival. Not surprisingly, streaming has now become the place to watch out for pop-culture benchmarks, unless one insists on adhering to the increasingly nonsensical insistence of the Philippines’s critical and academic elite (same circle, for the most part) that the high-art presentation of poverty issues is the cinematic ideal to aspire to.
Among the country’s streaming participants, Viva Films has resumed its early role as determined new player, the same way it set out to challenge the then-nearly monolithic Regal Films when it first emerged during the 1980s. This time, however, it also seems to be partaking of the innovations that Regal once became known (or notorious) for, including its reliance on commercial (“low” to the critical elite) genres and bare-bones budgeting.
I would be remiss if I fail to report that with a currently streaming release, Nerisa (available via Vivamax & other services), it has finally struck gold, the same way that Regal regularly did during its time. Shot on a schedule resembling Regal’s pito-pito (₱2 million, minuscule for 1990s celluloid, for seven days of production plus another seven of postproduction), the project intercepted a young filmmaker, Lawrence Fajardo, on his way to upgrading his fluency in the medium while extending his grasp to material he had not yet attempted.
Fajardo’s qualitative shift in directorial expertise was affirmed when his previous project, Kintsugi (the technique of pottery repair in Japanese), shared the Young Critics Circle’s top prize with Raya Martin’s Death of Nintendo. Fajardo started out by specializing in the multicharacter-film format, a challenge that only a select number of filmmakers accepted with regularity, including Ishmael Bernal, the country’s undisputed master of the form. With Imbisibol, an earlier film set in the northernmost (and therefore coldest) Japanese island of Hokkaido, he depicted the lives of undocumented Pinoy migrants – one of whom was played by the luminous Bernardo Bernardo – beset by financial and immigration troubles, and attained a personal best.
Nerisa benefits immensely from the narrative treatment shaped by Ricky Lee, who has apparently reworked his script for Laurice Guillen’s Salome (1981), in its focus on the plight of an outcast couple in a coastal village. Since it follows a linear trajectory rather than the recollections in Salome of a crime of passion from the perspectives of several participants, Nerisa enables its characters to position themselves in the violence-prone class and gender dynamics that a patriarchal order imposes on its citizens, and further qualifies the proceedings by articulating (via radio commentaries) the global concerns of our fisherfolk confronted by Chinese vessels overstepping their territorial boundaries and plundering Philippine waters.
The townsfolk are far more aware this time of the impact of alien forces taking undue interest in local resources (as has always been the case since the 16th century), with the elders explaining how recent industrial activities cause landslides and pollution that make it impossible for fishes to thrive close to shore. So the scarcity of catch at all familiar distances, coupled with the possibility of superior foreign vessels ramming native fishing boats and leaving the occupants to the mercy of the sea, has made fishing-as-livelihood both difficult and dangerous. Obet, the title character’s husband, badgers his peers to venture beyond municipal fishing grounds in order to be able to purchase his own boat and stop relying on the preferences of boat-owning artisans.
As in Salome, the couple live beyond the pale of their town’s quotidian concerns. Obet was an orphan raised by a childless couple, with his stepsister Lilet (an abandoned child being raised by the same couple) narrating Nerisa’s tale. Nerisa herself was a foundling rescued by Obet from drowning, who cannot remember her past life, and whose beauty is enhanced by her faithfulness to her savior; understandably the men who learn about her develop a fairly strong carnal interest in her, while their wives suspect her of bringing to their island the rusalka-like curse of a seductive yet dangerous mermaid. She finds sororal refuge in the town’s other outcast women – Joni, the independent-minded loner who dares to dispense with her body according to whatever advantage it might bring her, and the aforementioned Lilet.
When Obet disappears during a fishing expedition, the trio set out to ask help from Coast Guard officials. The townsfolk thereafter initiate a round of malicious gossip whose outcome anyone familiar with social media can expect to end dismally for everyone involved. Upon his return, Obet gets caught up in the cycle of negativity and works out a form of punishment premised on the kind of homosocial interaction observed by the late queer feminist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Between Men, where same-sex male bonding is facilitated by their use of women as objects of exchange.
Fajardo’s expertise in handling these admittedly distressing developments lies in his ability to render passion as a crucial element of survival. Obet’s original intent to punish Nerisa via marital rape is misperceived by her as an expression of his ardor. The other menfolk’s savagery is infused with the anxiety they feel because of the depletion of natural resources that they once took for granted. Yet Fajardo also makes clear whose side he champions: in failing to see how the women in their lives are twice victimized – by the forces of uneven global development as well as by patriarchal ideology – they set themselves up for an ironically satisfying bloody retribution.
Nerisa’s brand of cautionary feminism may be yesterday’s news to today’s enlightened viewers, but I would argue that its delineation of a more conflicted mentality among villainous characters, as well as its upholding of women’s solidarity premised on their bodily prerogatives, ought to serve as templates for future rural-set sex melodramas. In addition to these revelations, Fajardo deploys a disciplined minimalism that only the ornery would ascribe to the limited resources he had to work with.
There’s a breakout lead performance in Cindy Miranda reminiscent of an earlier beauty queen-turned-actor, Elizabeth Oropesa, who here plays Obet’s adoptive mother, as overprotective of him as she behaves cruelly toward his half-sister (another feminist insight into mothering from an essential circle of authors starting with Jessica Benjamin). I also never imagined a time when Aljur Abrenica would be able to command a film screen with any authority, but if our cinema ever runs out of talent to celebrate, that would be the definite indicator that our surrender to forces beyond our control has been completed.
[First published August 23, 2021, as “In Nerisa, Viva Brings Back Regal’s Low-Budget Blockbuster Formula” in The FilAm]