Thursday, December 13, 2012

Pusang Gala (Stray Cat, Mario O'Hara, 2001)

Below the belt

Pusang Gala (Stray Cats) was a Mario O'Hara film featuring Yul Servo, Janice de Belen and Gina Alajar, financed by Tony Veloria for television in 2001--Veloria being a maverick producer who bankrolled unusual projects including Lav Diaz's five-hour Batang West Side (West Side Avenue), which also starred Servo (he was pretty much Veloria's protege). Like that film this had an unhappy history, having been turned down by the networks (presumably for its unconventional storytelling and for Veloria's status as a media outsider--he was originally a Makati accountant before he dove into the business of films). It was ultimately shelved and forgotten for some eleven years.

This year O'Hara died in June of leukemia; Veloria died in November from a bus accident; the 2012 Cinemanila International Film Festival will be holding the first-ever public screening of the film as a tribute to the two.

It's a modest little thing, shot on video (low definition, decade-old technology) and for a while you wonder if this might be one of O'Hara's rush jobs, a strictly made-for-TV effort on an impossibly small budget and impossibly short deadline. Even the sound--usually a distinguishing hallmark of an O'Hara film--is crude, with inconsistent volume level and harsh transitions.

But the film like its ostensibly plain-looking protagonist grows on you. Dora (de Belen) when she's not taking in stray cats runs a catering company for film and television shoots; not an extravagantly profitable enterprise but it's steady money and it keeps Dora--who is single and childless--comfortable. 

If she has a problem in her life it's men: the men around her, the men working under her, the men--and this is an industry with plenty of good-looking specimens--that parade past her with plastic trays held at waist level, waiting to be fed. O'Hara presents her predicament baldly: she's counting out the day's profits to her workers when the director cuts to a closeup of a denimed crotch. An electric guitar blares out a chord; Dora pauses a second before looking away--doesn't help matters that the unwitting subject slips a hand into his pants to scratch a persistent itch. Her problem is men, and their desire to have little or nothing to do with her.

This is where de Belen's courage shines clearest, her complete lack of self-consciousness or vanity in presenting herself as an aging, unattractive woman--not so much physical unattractiveness as a kind of projection of unattractiveness, as if she knows how she comes across and flinches at the idea of people (read: men) thinking of her or worse pitying her that way (she's past caring about other women, except when they are involved with her men). This plus a clinging, forlorn neediness functions as a kind of shark repellent, warning those of the opposite sex “steer clear: this girl is trouble.” Even when she does use makeup or fixes her hair the act is integrated into the film's portrait of her desperation: you get the impression of an unintended parody, a little girl playing at being mommy--you don't believe her pose for a minute, and you feel embarrassed for her for even making the attempt.

Dora meets her match in Anton (Servo), a provincial youth who comes to Manila looking for work. Anton may look guileless but that's all show; he's really a smart operator, a sneakier Joe Gillis to Dora's more passive-aggressive Norma Desmond, and she unwarily adopts him like any stray cat. Together they develop a relationship of mutual exploitation and dependence that eventually, inevitably, spirals out of control.

In any film where a relatively affluent older woman has a relationship with a less prosperous younger man one is always tempted to recall the Billy Wilder classic Sunset Boulevard (1950). Call this a Sunset done on a Filipino indie budget--where Wilder's film has scale and grandeur this one has a sordid realism; where Sunset's Norma is a gorgon in icon makeup Pusang's Dora is a recognizably human figure that inspires both sympathy (“Poor lonely thing!”) and contempt (“Why does she keep doing this to herself?”). She might be the spinster you know at work, an old maiden aunt from an obscure branch of your family--in short a character, as opposed to mere caricature.

Another significant difference: Norma had resources at her disposal, money that she held with an iron claw (if she was as shrewd a lover as she was a businesswoman, she might have also held Gillis' interest); more she has the pride and fury to fight back when confronted with her mortality, and an equally obsessed butler to back her up when reality impinged too closely. Dora plays a different game--she chooses her targets, plies them with food and offers of employment, is supportive of what they want when they want it. She cunningly plays the stereotype loving Filipina girlfriend/mother, and when defied or rejected presents a face of absolute hurt (the joke is that de Belen was famous early in her career for playing melodramatic martyr--her soap opera Flordeluna ran for years from 1981 onwards, on the strength of her character's popularity). Anton as it happens is almost as effective an actor--when he turns on the waterworks tragic sincerity just gushes out of every pore, and it's Dora's turn to be bamboozled. The sight of the two as they struggle to take control of the dynamic seesawing between them is funny and sad and not a little repulsive.

The medium is video and the production budget barely appropriate for a TV movie (worse, an independently produced TV movie) yet O'Hara tells his story with quiet confidence and understated visual flair, occasionally borrowing bits and gestures from previous work. The camera that ranges through narrow alleys and crowded film sets, for example (from Pangarap ng Puso); the occasional insert of a man rutting or being stabbed, dropped in place like an unexpected flashback (from Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos and Manananggal in Manila); the repeated motif of men's crotches wrapped in denim or cotton or khaki (a joky reversal on the old adage about what all men really want); the occasionally theatrical staging, so memorably used in Babae sa Bubungang Lata; the textured shadows and ominously angled imagery, found in nearly all of O'Hara's noir films. 

Then there are the cats, born survivors of feline grace and independence and mystery. It's possibly because of this independence and mystery that they inspire such hatred from people (I'm tempted to say 'men'), are often subject to neglect and abuse, even torture. Like Anton when found homeless, like Dora when she's circling round a man she desires, you often can't help but find cats--strays in particular--pathetic and repulsive both.

The story's sting comes not from the comedy or grotesquerie but from love, because Dora does love--she's patient and tender when caring for her cats, her paralyzed father (again the difference from Norma Desmond, whose only true beloved--a pet chimpanzee--dies before we can see how she's like with something or someone she truly cares about). Dora feels so much affection coming out of her that when the outpour is choked up or blocked for any reason you actually fear for her; the frustration is a visible pain on her face that she can barely manage to suppress. 

You can't help but think that there's an autobiographical element to the story, that O'Hara identified closely with his heroine. Actually he identifies with all his characters, but this was during a difficult period in O'Hara's life--He'd enjoyed some measure of success, a rejuvenation of his career that began with Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof, 1998) which led pretty much nowhere: a failed historical film on Jose Rizal (Sisa, 1998); an unfinished action noir (Sindak (Terror, 1999)); an experimental love story (Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000). Never mind that these were some of the most daring and imaginative Filipino films ever made; they were too daring--few wanted to see them, even less comprehend them. To their forlorn but heroic ranks one must add this film, somehow made, somehow forgotten. 

One might guess at O'Hara's emotional state at the time. He would make one more 35 mm feature some two years later (Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2003), would take another seven years to create his last major works (Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (The Trial of Andres Bonifacio, 2010), a digital drama about the trial and execution of a Filipino hero, and Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother, 2011)), a political mini-series about the rise of a Cory Aquino-like leader. He won accolades but not real commercial success; his career was essentially over, but he must have suspected as much back in 2001, when he struggled to find financial backing.

Like Dora he must have felt he had been spurned--or worse, misunderstood--by Filipino audiences; like Dora he can only offer his potful of beloved offerings--grotesque yet beautiful (a stubborn streak in him refuses to completely pander to popular taste, to offer what they want as opposed to what they need)--in the vain hope of reconciliation. Yes, I believe O'Hara felt what Dora felt; I also believe he felt horror at the terrible thing that Dora could become, if she were less tough, if she possessed less strength. A gem of a film, a sad reminder of what we have lost.

First published in Businessworld, 12.7.12

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