Monday, September 07, 2015

Bagong Bayani (Unsung Heroine, Tikoy Aguiluz, 1995)

For Labor Day--yes an American holiday, but doesn't the struggle happen everywhere, to almost everyone?

Proxy mother
Tikoy Aguiluz's Bagong Bayani was made in two months on a shoestring budget, has been plagued by unaccountable production delays (due to pressure from Viva Studios, perhaps?); so far no theater has agreed to release it, so the closest you might get is this article

Which is a filthy shame: Bagong Bayani is the best Filipino film of the year. "But the year's only half over," you might point out; actually, I think this is the best Filipino film since Orapronobis in the late 1980's.

Aguiluz as probably no one can remember did Boatman: Ronnie Lazaro and Sarsi Emmanuelle gave unsentimental, entirely natural performances as a pair of toreros--live sex performers. As a portrait of two lonely people living at the edge of the hell that is urban Manila, it was one of the finest films--erotic or otherwise--made during the late Marcos years.

Aguiluz also did the documentary Balweg, the Rebel Priest (not the action flick with Philip Salvador) and poured his experience making that into this film. Parts of actual interviews mix with dramatizations of specific episodes; the outside and inside of Changi prison were filmed with hidden cameras (Aguiluz reportedly dressed as a turbaned Indian to film the prison gates; when a guard spotted him, he literally had to run to save the film footage).

From first frame onwards it's obvious that this is not going to be your usual Carlos J. Caparas massacre flick. Flor Contemplacion (Helen Gamboa) is led, bare-footed, to the gallows; she is followed by a restless camera, seeking her out from every angle--handheld, tilted, low-angled, panning. The execution itself happens swiftly in a series of shots so fluidly cut they have the smoothness of a hanged man's dying emission.

The film shifts backwards to Flor's initial interrogation: she is forced to stand for hours, deprived of food and water, while the CID officer (an electric Pen Medina) repeatedly slaps her. Gamboa shows Flor's exhaustion without once resorting to standard hysterics; it's a wonderfully understated performance.

It's said that Chanda Romero wants to sue the makers of this film because the part of Flor was promised to her. Her performance (as alleged murder victim Delia Maga) is no disappointment, however; she's always been a talented actress, and here she has never felt more honest. The scene where she discovers her ward drowned is especially fine: having a good idea as to what her employer might do, she picks up the phone and literally has to force herself to punch his number; you see the terror in her trembling hands. But her best moments are spent with her fellow actress: the two have an easy rapport, and we sense the loneliness that draws them together (The fact that their employers allow them to see each other only once a week strengthens the tie).

Aguiluz suggests Flor's meager existence by showing her room: a tiny cubicle nearly filled up by a single cot, where a TV that must have cost a month's wages sits on the room's one folding chair. Flor on being convicted had merely exchanged one prison for another, traded a living death for a literal one. A shot alludes to this equivalence: as Flor climbs the stairway to meet Delia for the last time, the camera follows her past darkened hall and bright window, darkened hall and bright window as if her hold on life was that tenuous, as if she were already fading in and out of existence.

One of the film's finest sequences takes place inside Changi prison, where Flor meets fellow Filipina Virginia Parumog (Irma Adlawan): their early scenes have a tentative feel, as Virginia tries to draw Flor out of her torture-and-drug-induced shell. Adlawan as Virginia is a warm, intelligent presence; she senses Flor's enormous need, her innate strength and sense of sympathy rising up accordingly. In one scene, Virginia reads to Flor's family a smuggled note; while Gamboa narrates Flor's suffering, Adlawan suggests--by the inwardness of her crouch, the bend of her neck--how deeply she feels the words. Aguiluz clothes Virginia in shadows, implying total immersion in her friend's state of despair; it's a tribute to director and actresses that with the simplest of devices--a cramped posture, a bit of darkness, a voiceover--they manage to give us a glimpse into the souls of these two women.

When the children visit their mother they see her through a cramped little barred window similar to what actually exists in Changi; this forces them into uncomfortable contortions, and you think: they aren't even allowed a good look at their mother. They talk as people in their situation talk: greetings, then important business, then small talk, dribbling away to a despairing silence. Having nothing else left to do, Flor and her children press palms through the security glass.

The film has flaws. The execution music is too emphatic; Aguiluz lessens the impact of the children's' prison visit by repeating it; Pete Lacaba's otherwise excellent script sometimes tends to speechifying, sometimes feels too expository.

The mix of dramatization and documentary recalls Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line, about the arrest and conviction of an innocent man for murder. Line however attempted to deconstruct events, repeating them over and over until you see the contradictions in the prosecution's case; Bayani assumes Flor's innocence, giving the Singaporean version only a token glance; it might have helped the film to adopt a more objective tone (but then we wouldn't have all these wonderful performances). As is Bayani doesn't seem as concerned with the question of guilt as with capturing the flavor of Flor's life; the use of interview footage of other overseas workers broadens the implications, turning her story into the story of all OCWs abroad.

You feel a kind of impassioned anger, a sort of exalted sadness watching the footage. A pair of Singaporean youths gives their comments to the camera: "I think that Filipinos are overreacting," one of them says. "How can they feel sorry for a murderer who killed a child and a fellow Filipina?" The camera is silent as we watch them smile their pleasant smiles. Then Aguiluz complicates our anger by showing us Filipina OCWs still left in Singapore. "If Singapore is wrong, it's too late--she's already dead," an office worker pleads, as if nervous that her boss might be watching. "Hello Philippines!" a maid waves gaily, striking a pose--she has plucky courage--"I've been here seven years." Her position on the issue is summed up in one sentence: "if the findings show that Flor is innocent, I'll go home. If Flor is really guilty, then I hope I can stay and keep working." In other words: I can't help what happens in politics, but in the meantime, let me feed my family.

June 12 is Independence Day, hence the question: was Flor a hero? Yes, according to Bagong Bayani: Helen Gamboa plays a frightened woman who had little idea of what was happening to her and why, but later found a dignity and humanity she never had as a domestic helper. Arguably filmmaker Aguiluz's masterpiece, and one of the best films ever made on the Filipino oversea worker's epic, tragic story.

 Manila Chronicle, 6/12/95

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