Sunday, February 13, 2011

Three by Nora: 'Merika (Gil Portes), Condemned, Bulaklak sa City Jail (both by Mario O'Hara)

(Note: re-posted, refurbished, and re-styled for the For The Love of Film (Noir) blogathon, this year raising funds for the restoration of The Sound of Fury.)

Three faces of Nora

Gil Portes' 'Merika (1984) opens the same way any ordinary life will usually open--in the morning, in bed. But Mila (Nora Aunor) can't seem to get out of bed; she can't seem to bring herself to touch the icy floor with her feet, or brave the chill air beyond her room. She has to sit there, shivering, her comforter wrapped around her like protective coating.

Portes films the story in frozen weather and I think the decision is deliberate, brilliant even. Jersey City (where much of the picture was shot) can take on the unfriendly look of an anonymous urban population center and at no time is it more anonymous or more unfriendly than during the wintertime. There's plenty of sun but it's a weak sun, a pale sun, with rays that can barely warm the fingers, much less melt all the ice. This is a cold city, cold people, cold country--to even touch someone or glimpse his face you need to free the people from their layers of scarves, mufflers, sweaters and long sleeves before you reach human skin.

Mila is in effect living The American Dream, or at least the Filipino's idea of the American Dream. She's a nurse in a hospital with green card in pocket; she's earning well, she's living comfortably if sparely, and presumably she sends money home to her family, money that I'm sure is much appreciated. When push comes to shove, however, when the 'melodramatic' subplot kicks in (she has a lover named Mon (Bembol Roco) who wants to marry her; turns out he possibly needs to marry her for her green card), it's almost unimportant--a precipitating event, in effect, that only serves to crystallize her decision to go back home.

“Why?” Mon pleads with her. “What can I do to change your mind?” Nothing really--the achievement of Portes' film is to show us the answer without using a line of dialogue, in the endless vista shots, the series of lost, lonely gazes Aunor gives the camera, the constant flow of work/TV/bed/rise/work again, the utter meaninglessness a life lived in America can have. One pursues the Dream, but whose Dream is it really, who decides it's worth pursuing, and who decided that you must be the one to pursue it?

Portes does this subtly, simply, a Yasujiro Ozu chasing nuances of emotion across people's faces but employing Naruse's even more self-effacing camera style (no tatami mat-level shots, here). With Aunor he helps create one of the actress' finest performance, where the answer to Mon's question is really found in the emotions that flit across her luminous eyes, like shadows on a still pond. “I can't tell you why,” Aunor informs Mon; “you can't find out if you don't already know it, if you don't already feel it.” Any Filipino who has left his beloved shores, has spent any time at all in lands alien to his skin and sensibility will know--not so much “home is where the heart is” as it is heart hearkening to home's call. The motherland, the land of one's birth, the land of one's friends, family, childhood, making its irrefutable claim on one's soul. 

Portes' 'Merika is Aunor at her most realist; Mario O'Hara's Condemned (same year) is Aunor at her most baroque and noirish. O'Hara populates the streets of Ermita (the heart of Manila's sordid night life) with pimps, prostitutes, transvestites, cruising straight and gay men and women; with couriers, snitches, corrupt cops, gang lords, bodyguards, killers. As in Lino Brocka's most famous film Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975) it's a vision of Manila as one of the lower circles of hell. But not a depressed hell, not a hell where the inhabitants accept their fate with sad resignation--this inferno crackles with the diabolical energy of the damned dancing their way from one torment to another, stabbing and shrieking and fornicating and, well, not giving a damn.

Caught in this seething cauldron is Yolly (Aunor) and her younger brother Efren (Dan Alvaro), who have fled to the city because of some murder case. Yolly survives by selling long-stem roses; Efren is the lover of Connie (Gloria Romero), the upper-class leader of a gang of dollar smugglers. Connie is angry; someone has killed her couriers and stolen half a million of her dollars (a lot of money, and for once even by American standards), and she wants it back. Connie comes to suspect Efren, and wants to use Connie to get to him. Complicating matters is the case of “Boy Rosas” (The Rose Boy) a serial killer whose trademark is to leave roses on the bodies--apparently Connie's son Dennis is a prime suspect, as Yolly accidentally saw him knifing his girlfriend.

As in all classic noir the plot (by Jose Javier Reyes, Frank Rivera, and Mario O'Hara) is complicated, and gets even more complex as it moves along. O'Hara cuts at a restless, no-nonsense pace; if your attention flags you might lose track of at least one important thread in a tangled web (which matters less than one might think--here speed and not clarity is priority; O'Hara whips the film along at a brisk pace, building up momentum to keep the whole ungainly mess from collapsing). The look is dark, dark, dark--O'Hara wraps the film in shadows and deep reds; when he leaves the lurid strobes of Manila's nightclubs it's to the harsh incandescents of a merchant ship, where Yolly is brought and eventually tortured.

Condemned is a rich brew of sudden violence, baroque cruelty, and sardonic dark humor. Everyone is on the make; everyone is screwing everyone else to try get ahead. When Yolly visits her friend Mayette (Gina Alajar, in a brightly played cameo), the girl promptly coaxes her American boyfriend to buy her a dozen roses at two dollars a flower, "if you love me," Mayette adds; the poor sap promptly buys the bunch. “Oh, Robert, I believe you really do love me!” “My name is not Robert, it's George.” “Never mind, it's the same. Thank you.” The exchange shouldn't work, but no one cares--they're too much in a hurry to take the money and run.

What sets Yolly apart from everyone else, though, what keeps her human as opposed to the animals around her rutting and ripping each other apart, is her love for Efren. Efren is a handful: sweet, dedicated to his sister, but possessed of a short temper and a fearsome capacity for violence. The two cling to each other like orphans lost in a dark wood; when Connie snatches Yolly, Efren's fury is aroused, and the stage is set for a knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred confrontation between Efren and Connie's entire gang.

In perhaps my favorite scene Yolly confronts Connie in her darkened living room. Gang lord versus flower girl, matriarch versus maiden, Gloria Romero of the '50s Golden Age versus Nora Aunor of the '70s Golden Age--it's a face-off cinephiles can only dream about, with Gloria's imperious gestures and insinuating tones pitted against Aunor's implacable stare. Efren may be a handful, but Connie should really be watching out for Yolly--hell hath no fury like a Nora scorned.

Noir films have many tropes; one of the oldest and most familiar--and, I would argue, best-loved--is (warning: details of the ending to be discussed; please skip this paragraph if you plan to see the picture) of the treasure trove of cash or whatever flung to the four winds, a signal that the hero (or heroine) does not care for the ostensible objective any more, that the noir world has broken him or her down, and he has opted to step out of the race, whatever it may be, and declare himself free. It's been used as far back as John Huston's The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955), as recently as Johnny To, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark's Triangle (2007), but rarely has the moment been as quietly heartfelt (or heartbreaking) as when O'Hara has Aunor do it here. Handful after handful of dollar bills--so passionately lusted after, so bitterly fought over--liberated by strong wind to sprinkle the sea. She could have used that money; they could have escaped to the provinces together, had a decent life together, but the dream was not to be. If she tosses the cash, it's because there's literally no reason for her to keep it--it's about as valuable to her as a suitcase full of garbage.

In Bulaklak sa City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail, again 1984--Aunor was on a roll that year) O'Hara combines the stark realism of 'Merika with the noir elements of Condemned, this time setting everything in a women's prison in Manila. Aunor plays Angela, a cellmate newly initiated into the prison hierarchy (the initiation ritual is, to put it mildly, harrowing). O'Hara includes a constellation of small stories, from a veteran prostitute who works extra hard to install her son comfortably in the men's section of the jail, to a mother driven mad by the death of her only child, to a woman determined to escape, if only to revenge herself on her husband's mistress.

Angela's storyline dominates the film, of course--she's just been informed that she's newly pregnant, but this doesn't stop her from trying to break out any chance she can. Her narrative arc moves from total rejection of her maternal status to grudging acceptance to eventual love of the baby growing inside her. As her belly grows so do her problems when making a prison break--and so, it seems, does her determination to give birth to the baby outside of prison.

O'Hara takes full advantage of prison corridors to create narrow spaces that shrink with distance, creating a sense of claustrophobia; he finds equivalent spaces outside of prison, when the convicts are on the run--one refugee finds herself hiding inside the dormant cars of Manila's Light Rail Transit, long after closing time, the boxlike interiors uncannily recalling the squalid hallways the woman had so recently fled. She never really escaped, O'Hara seems to be telling us; she had the choice, but her mind was never really set on freedom--she's been running up and down the same barred corridors all this time. Later, Angela breaks out herself and is tracked down to Manila Zoo. Trapped in the lion's cage, sitting in filth and pleading for mercy, her horrifyingly bloodied figure drives O'Hara's point home--this is hell, nor are we out of it. 

Women in noir films are common; they are often femme fatales, beautiful and often untrustworthy figures that drive the plot, or ensure the hero's eventual doom. Aunor's Angela is unique in this sense, that she is a central character and a strong woman and a mother in a recognizably noirish world, a feminist figure (novelist and screenwriter Lualhati Bautista did the script) struggling to survive against male institutions, male authority figures, at the very least male heroes--and not needing a husband or male lover's help in her struggle. More, she's fighting not for her man, or for money, or for some jeweled bird statue hidden under layers of lacquer, but for her child. Does this dilute the film's noirishness? I don't think so--if anything, it raises the stakes, makes the odds even more hopeless, the urgency of her struggle all the more emphatic (not for a man, or for money, but for her own child!). 

Unlikely and a bit much perhaps, but O'Hara and Bautista's achievement is to make the premise at least halfway convincing--O'Hara by using camerawork and setting and performances that are grimly, indisputably realistic, Bautista by having Angela fight back through plausible means (a hint: she needs help, and negotiates shrewdly to get that help). A wonderful, solidly entertaining film.

First published in Businessworld 12.17.09.


Anonymous said...

sana nandoon ka sir; i was surprised direk mario stayed to watch condemned i thought he advertently didn't watch his films; but he said in the forum that condemned is his favorite among his works so maybe thats the reason he remained to catch it again.

TG Staff said...

REALLY REALLY interested in seeing movies from these people; do any of these have US releases?


Well, no subs is fine too (though, I'd likely need a dictionary since my comprehension has gotten terrible over the last few years), but I need stuff to play on a REGION 1 player (my PS3).

Noel Vera said...

Check my link on Filipino films on DVD. Not been updated for ages, but the websites are still up. Insiang and Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang in particular are with subs and watchable and great films.

TG Staff said...

I already ordered both those movies (REALLY REALLY enjoyed Lino Brocka's Orapronobis... I was so impressed with it... like, that sequence where Jimmy drags his son's body to the church is probably one of my favorite scenes in a movie).

They're having a hard time finding INSIANG, however, so I have to wait for it to be shipped later on (along with "Ang Tatay Kong Nanay", which is also lost in the warehouse somewhere... I don't know why, but I guess that's how it is).

But, yes...

Gonna go on a Filipino movie binge and I'm trying to gather various places where I can own the stuff legally (found a place that sells Ishmael Bernal's "Himala", which I saw recently as well and had a burning desire to own right after).

Noel Vera said...

Check out that link I have on my blog--does link to DVD titles and articles I wrote on those titles. Also, kabayan central has older movies, and they're very much worth watching.

TG Staff said...

Cool; I'll likely be working my way through that blog post of yours in the next coming months (like, I'll accumulate it all as money becomes available)...

That said, there are several things that I'm really interested in seeing, but they don't seem to have any kind of release (for example: Lino Brocka's "Jaguar")... in fact, Orapronobis only seems to have a legal download at some information database; that's cool and all, but I would like a PHYSICAL release of it.

Oh, here's the link, just in case you're interested (it has direct download):

I'm PRETTY sure it's legal; the place seems legit enough.


Either way, yeah, it's the only way for me to "own" the movie.

Video quality is quite shite though, to be honest.

Anonymous said...

Certainly. I agree with you.

Noel Vera said...

Glad to hear of it!

Joe Thompson said...

"opted to step out of the race" -- that's a good observation of a point that turns up in many noirs.

Noel Vera said...


Sometimes that's the best they can hope for, isn't it? Not to win but to survive, by stepping out of the whole mess. Tempting thought actually.

Unknown said...

Maam/Sir...What is meaning of merika?

Noel Vera said...

I'm a sir.

"'Merika" is short for "America."

Noel Vera said...

The beard in my profile picture is if anything even thicker now.

Don't click said...

She as Mercedes is doing great in GMA Teleserye Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit.