Thursday, August 13, 2015

Esprit De Corps (Kanakanan Balintagos, 2014)

Soldier boi

Kanakanan Balintagos' (a.k.a. Auraeus Solito) latest film Esprit de Corps (2014), based on one of his own stage dramas written over twenty years ago, is an odd choice for adaptation: the play's clearly meant to function as a metaphor for the fascistic Marcos Administration (overthrown before the play was written), and written back when the director was fresh out of high school (the Reserve Officer's Training Program today is no longer mandatory in colleges and attendance--not to mention sense of relevance--has diminished).

But the kind of mindset that demands recruits be tested physically and mentally to the point of cruelty is still present,in both the Philippine military and educational system (we still have hazing deaths: that sophomore in De La Salle - College of St. Benilde, for example); and the notion of 'male machismo'--of strong bull warriors to be celebrated and weak 'faggots' (as the young men in the film so vividly call them) to be winnowed--still thrives in Philippine society.

Most of the film takes place in what looks and feels like a basement--a broad room with a broader ceiling stretching over bent and bowed cadets like a corrugated sky. One wall is a row of bars, emphasizing the prison-cell feel; on the other is a poster of Ferdinand Marcos (with his even more notorious wife Imelda) and a rack of rifles. A bench sits at the center under harsh lights, as if under interrogation. 

Testing starts small: the cadets are grilled for knowledge, reprimanded for slight lapses. Later they do an inhuman number of sit ups, push-ups, squat jumps. The cadet's every aspect is thoroughly scrutinized and humiliated physically, sexually, intellectually (one cadet is accused of being there only because his mother whored for his tuition). The cadets are pushed to their limits and then it happens--a gentle hand with a small white towel, a sweat-drenched back, a surreptitious slide from muscled back to stiffened nipple. How will the cadet respond?

Balintagos holds his cards close to his chest; much is said, little to nothing endorsed. We get the full range of military philosophy: that an officer should be strong should be a rock and not some mere gem ("What are you? Jade? Ruby? Turquoise?"); should know his poop sheets; should be handsome (?); should know word for word Cyrano's brief soliloquy "What is a kiss?" found in Edmond Rostand's play (?!). Don't know if any of this actually matters or why but it's the military, meaning: if you need your questions answered you shouldn't be there in the first place. 

And yet--Major Mac Favila (JC Santos) is in a position of authority and abuses his position accordingly; cadets squirm and twist under his command and can do little else in response. The Philippine military has been a homophobic institution publicly, more tolerant internally (for the record the ban on gay soldiers was lifted in 2010, but discrimination persists); you sense that the hypocritical attitude is one reason why they can be so flexible. The question of morality--of whether or not what happens in that barred, low-ceilinged room is right or not, belongs there or should be rooted out--is pointedly ignored by both cadet and superior, and much of the tension comes from maintaining that carefully cultivated act of evasion.
That's the essence of the play's '70s-rooted themes, its period-specific political subtext; beyond that it's hard to think of another recent film so openly and lyrically obsessed with  homoeroticism. Half the time the cadets sweat and strain half naked; half the time the officers are in the cadets' faces, yelling (at one point the close proximity evokes the most famous shot in Ingmar Bergman's Persona, of a face looking at the camera carefully fitted into another looking sideways). In the context of all this grit and perspiration the milieu seems appropriate: of course you'll find them grunting behind bars; of course you'll catch them flexing exhausted muscles against a concrete floor.*

* (That said at one point a naive provinciano mentions his wish to someday see a diwata, a forest spirit--and suddenly Balintagos presents her to us, in all her fleshy glory (actress Sue Prado in a brief but courageous cameo). Did I say homoeroticism? Eroticism, more like, in its various polymorphous forms.)

Balintagos leaves that dank dungeon for an image of ecstatic beauty: a naked male form floating above us in water, freed from the weight of the world. It's a moment to take your breath away no matter what your personal orientation may be, goes a long way into justifying insertion of Rostand's poem (why did Favila pick that poem anyway--to evoke the romantic nature of warrior culture? Suggest the sensuality of physical exertion and skin contact? Out of sheer perversity?) into the film: 
When all is said, what is a kiss?  
An oath of allegiance taken at close proximity
A seal upon a confession
A rose red dot upon the letter “i” in 'loving'
An instance of eternity murmuring like a bee
A balmy communion with the flavor of flowers
A fashion of inhaling each other’s heart and 
Of tasting the brink of each other’s lips
And each other’s souls.  

Unintentionally or not with this film Balintagos makes you feel the heedless rush, the throbbing rhythm of those words.

First published in Businessworld, 8.6.15  

Esprit de Corps will be screened on Aug. 11, 9 p.m. at the Little Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), as part of the Cinemalaya Film Festival which kicks off on Aug. 7 and runs until the 15th. International premieres, full-length features, and the entries in the short film competition will be screened in several venues in the CCP and at Greenbelt 3 movie theaters. For the full schedule and updates, visit the Cinemalaya Facebook page,, or their screening schedule.

No comments: