Nobody does it better
Init Sa Magdamag (Midnight Passion)
Starring Lorna Tolentino, Joel Torre, Dindo Fernando
Written by Raquel Villavicencio
Directed by Laurice Guillen
Becky (Lorna Tolentino) is in love with Armand (Joel Torre). When Armand leaves for the United States, Becky promises to wait for him and she does, until Armand's wife-to-be confronts Becky with her past: once upon a time, she was named Irene, and had an affair with a married man. The man died in a motel room, presumably a heart attack, and Irene had left without reporting his death. Becky is blackmailed into forgetting Armand; she vanishes, then recreates herself as Leah, a fashion model. She attracts the attention of Jaime (Dindo Fernando), a wealthy hedonist, with whom she is locked in an ever-tightening sexual embrace, from role-playing to voyeurism to sado-masochism. Then she meets Armand again, and discovers she still feels for Armand. Becky-Leah-Irene finds herself forced to choose, between a husband and a matchless sexual partner.
When it opened in 1983 the film was a financial failure: most people couldn't understand the woman protagonist's shifting identities, the apparent plotlessness, the languid pacing, the moody cinematography. Those who could have appreciated it probably rejected the politically incorrect image of a woman who deliberately misbehaved, preferring their feminist messages represented by more militant, more politically correct, less complex incarnations.
Which makes Init Sa Magdamag coming when it did all the more remarkable. Feminism in early 1980's Manila seemed to envision woman as the all-around superbeing: able to hold down a job, successfully raise children, express her artistic longings, pray a decade of the rosary in fifteen minutes flat (sexuality was something men discussed with other men, endlessly). Anything that suggested a woman was less (or, actually, more) than a bundle of virtues was frowned upon, even attacked.
Init in my book treats sex honestly; it doesn't shy away from the fact that women may want sex and variety in sex as much as if not in the same way as men do--shows this through attitude and sensibility, in so understated yet vivid a style that it's startling to realize Init doesn't actually have a single frame of female nudity.
Init isn't absolutely free of the whiff of the exploitation film, and rightly so; the exploitation aspects give it pungency. It's also frankly erotic at a time when even American films were experiencing a sort of Puritanism--this was 1983, years before 9 1/2 Weeks (which stopped short of depicting sadomasochism), Basic Instinct (which is, to put it mildly, misogynistic) and Fatal Attraction (basically an estrogen-drenched slasher movie). In the Philippines we have a new puritanism, and if Init were shown in theaters today, the local censors would have a time cutting away inappropriate footage.
As Becky-Leah-Irene, Lorna Tolentino gives a finely shaded performance. She can shift from fresh-faced innocence to utter abandonment from one scene to the next, sometimes in mid-shot; her sensuality is extraordinary when you consider that she was four months pregnant at the time some of the scenes were shot (Perhaps not; think of all those hormones simmering inside her). Dindo Fernando, who's played a whole range of weak, humane, sophisticated city types, is surprisingly effective as Jaime, the wealthy businessman with a taste for cruelty; Joel Torre is simple and moving as Armand, Becky's husband.
Scriptwriter Raquel Villavicencio takes an exploitation film's conceit--woman with several men--and humanizes the story. She has put a living, breathing woman in the story's center, a woman with a core of mystery unexplained by Freudian or social theories, an otherwise intelligent woman with demons gnawing away inside. More, she dramatizes onscreen, in erotic-thriller terms, a theme that has run like a damning thread in men-women relations throughout history: that women are often expected to change themselves constantly, to suit the expectations and desires of their men.
Villavicencio also does well by the men, who are more than just cardboard figures in a feminist diorama. She gives them their own points of view, makes them either selfish and sympathetic, monstrous and meek.
Laurice Guillen is better known for directing Salome, a Filipino retelling of the Japanese classic Rashomon; Init to my mind flows better, at the same time more assured and less didactic. The film is a work written by a woman, directed by a woman, starring a woman infused with a woman's values, sexuality, needs. Yet it's a total work of art--there's little that's castrating about the film's view of men, little that is lopsided or simplified or misogynistic about its attitude to either sex. Init is that rare work, a feminist film that transcends feminism: everyone is understood, with an empathy that is almost frighteningly complete.