Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Weighed and Found Wanting, Lino Brocka, 1974)

Tinimbang judged today

Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Weighed and Found Wanting, 1974) was a seminal work in contemporary Philippine cinema, one of the rare quality films of the '70s to enjoy commercial success; it also announced Lino Brocka, previously known as a skilled commercial director, as a major Filipino artist. 

Few realized the significance of this bright new voice, that it would be the first of many--Mike de Leon with Itim (Rites of May, 1976); Mario O'Hara with Mortal (1975); Brocka again, with Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975) to name a few. Contemporary and putative rival Ishmael Bernal had actually debuted two years earlier with the masterfully assured Pagdating sa Dulo (At the Top, 1972) but that film, despite its excellence, made little impact on the industry. Tinimbang was like a rock flung through a plate-glass window--a herald call, the first official film in what was to be called the '70s Golden Age of Philippine Cinema.

Tinimbang tells the story of Junior (Christopher de Leon) son of Cesar (Eddie Garcia), the richest man in town. Junior lives a relatively happy life; he stays in a huge house, he's popular and good-looking, his sweetheart Evangeline (Hilda Koronel) is the prettiest girl in school. Then Junior's life unravels: his father is an incurable lecher; his girlfriend is caught with another boy and summarily married off; Junior himself is seduced by Milagros (Laurice Guillen), the bastard child of the town mayor. Junior is driven to find comfort among the town's outcasts--in Kuala, a crazed homeless woman, and her companion Berto the leper. He eventually realizes that everyone around him--from the loutish youths he calls his friends to the wizened old women he calls his aunts--are ignoramuses, hypocrites, spiritual grotesques. The film ends with Junior acting out the action described by the film's title--he stares everyone in the eye, judges them, finds them all wanting.

It's a dramatic moment and Brocka invests it with near-Biblical significance, as if Junior were some young Christ delivering verdicts right and left (it's hardly a coincidence that the title is taken from the Old Testament's Book of Daniel). It helps enormously--lends the film more heft and substance (not to mention a broader range of targets for Junior to glare at)--that Brocka worked on a large canvas, one of the rare if not only moment in his career he would do so. Brocka was essentially telling his life's story, drawing from his memories of San Jose, Nueva Ecija and of the people there. Junior was Brocka--the sensitive young man, disillusioned with the status quo and yearning for something different, something more; he was also Milagros, the politician's bastard (Brocka himself was the illegitimate child of a political figure), the eternal outsider looking in. You might say that the secret behind Brocka's close identification with the oppressed was his own status as an outcast--painful knowledge that made him open to the plight of others.

This intense identification is both his foremost virtue and his biggest vice. If he had a tendency to like certain characters--to get under their skin and look through their eyes--he also had an equal tendency to shut others out--deny them their full measure of understanding.

You see this to a certain extent in Brocka's treatment of Milagros. Guillen in an interview talked about how she would often chafe under Brocka's detailed direction (Brocka in response would call her his "Jeanne Moreau"--mysterious and neurotic). Milagros was clearly conceived to be a wordly, sensual woman who would initiate Junior into the mysteries of sex; Guillen (perhaps rebelling against Brocka's rigid direction) adds a hint of empathy, a sense that she's a hurt soul reaching out to a fellow hurt soul. It might have been more complexity than Brocka bargained for, because after the seduction scene Milagros essentially drops out of the picture, and you miss her; you want to know what happened, how she ultimately fared after her one-night stand with Junior.

An even graver sin is committed against an even more crucial character: Cesar, Junior's father. As it turns out, Kuala had once been one of Cesar's many girlfriends; when she found herself pregnant Cesar had her baby aborted, and the trauma drove her crazy--she's been seeking her child ever since. Cesar interestingly enough is not unaffected by the affair; certain moments, certain movements of Kuala's remind him of the beautiful girl he once knew. Eddie Garcia plays Cesar beautifully; his could have been a crucial role in the film, the contrasting viewpoint to De Leon's Junior--where Junior is an innocent waking up to compassion, Cesar could have been the aged hedonist haunted by it, a mirror images lit from a different angle.

But no; these flashes of remembrance and regret don't redeem Cesar in Brocka's eyes, perhaps because the character is too far from Brocka's own to understand, perhaps because the man too closely resembled his father (reportedly a kind man, but Brocka may not have forgiven him for dying early). When the time comes, Junior judges Cesar as harshly as the rest--even harsher, perhaps, because Cesar keeps warning Junior away from Kuala and Berto. Milagros and to a greater extent Cesar represent wasted potential in Brocka's scheme I think; they are either swept to one side or forgotten, and the film's complexity suffers.

But then Junior's story isn't to my mind the film's true focus. Junior is hardly original--he's an amalgam of youths borrowed from Federico Fellini's I Vitelloni and Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, a gallery of small-town youths who are educated on disillusion and heartbreak. Junior is something of a self-righteous prig--de Leon plays him as if he's too good for his father and those hypocritical grannies, a superior stance too easily assumed; you feel he hasn't quite earned the right to do so.

The film's true power comes not from its foreground story but from its marginalia, from its deadpan observations of small-town life, most of all from Kuala and Berto, the town's most miserable inhabitants, and their intense yet simply told story of love at the bottom of this world. Cesar feels unfinished and Junior feels thin (the flaw may be in Brocka's approach than in the actors' performances); Kuala and Berto are fully realized characters (does it help that O'Hara who played Berto wrote the screenplay from Brocka's outline?). They are Brocka's version of Jose Rizal's Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) with Kuala as Sisa (remember that Noli was about yet another dull youth who wakes up to reality, that in the novel's margins danced a madwoman in search of her child)...

Lolita Rodriguez as Kuala captures the smallest, wince-inducing detail about homeless lunatics, from scabied scalp to urine-stained thighs. O'Hara plays Berto as a man isolated by his leprosy, perhaps not a little mad--when he first notices Kuala, he examines her with predatory eyes. Rodriguez and O'Hara make the relationship between them feel effortless yet real--Rodriguez as Kuala responds to Berto's attentions hungrily (as a child would); O'Hara as Berto suddenly finds himself functioning as guardian and father as well as lover. Is it any wonder that Junior would be drawn to them, that he would reach hungrily (as a child) to them, and that we the audience would respond as he would, to the warmth they radiate? 

Menzone, September 2002

Also available in my book Critic After Dark: a Review of Philippine Cinema, available online

The film of Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang is available on Netflix and on Amazon, with English subtitles (DVD only)

Picture above thanks to Video48

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