Thursday, September 07, 2017

Ma' Rosa (Brilliante Mendoza, 2016)

Swap heads

Brillante Mendoza's latest feature executes the immersive handheld camera style of filmmaking as well as could be done despite the small production budget of a little over fifteen million pesos (roughly $300,000).

We see Jaclyn Jose's eponymous character right off, buying bulk supplies from a supermarket and fussing about the lack of proper change at the cashier (a suspiciously common problem--you wonder if sometimes Manila cashiers don't see the extra cash as some kind of tip). The supplies are for her corner convenience store which sells everything from cigarettes to little lollipops to (a sideline) packets of meth inserted in your cigarette pack if you have the cash know the proper password. 

Mendoza's deadpan introduction of his main characters has the effect of presenting an ambivalent case for us to judge: is Rosa a struggling entrepreneur or small-time drug dealer? Corrupting influence on her children or force for family unity? Our feelings for her are complicated further when she and her husband Nestor (Julio Diaz) are scooped up in a police raid (shot in long take with camera following the cops as they run down narrow alleyways into Rosa's cramped little shack). 

The police are an altogether different proposition: they're imperiously languid not unlike a pride of lions lounging around a watering hole--top predators on the food chain and know it too. They offer a deal: pay 200,000 pesos (nearly 4,000 dollars) and the couple can walk free (the cops call this 'bail money'). That, or surrender their supplier Jomar (Kristoffer King) so he can pay up.

The more negative critics decry Mendoza for going to the neorealist well once too often but what most of them seem to miss is just how darkly funny this all plays out. The cops are like lords and barons straight out of a George R. R. Martin epic demanding tithe--their entitled share of food money drugs, aforementioned 'lords' depending on the common serf as a source of both sustenance and amusement. A far cry from the American police of my experience, who act more like stale bureaucrats and insufferable public servants than anything so freewheeling or malevolent (if American officers are interested in a suspect's connections it's mostly to add to their case, not their wallets). The police in American TV and movies on the other hand are a whole different can of worms, often represented by the iconoclastic cowboy who tosses out the rulebook and goes after suspects Dirty Harry style--and then you realize where the Filipino equivalent find their inspiration, how the scenes at the neighborhood precinct have the horrible look and feel of a badly staged and directed Hollywood action flick.

The suspects on the other hand are more like cornered rats--they cower before their captors, fawning wheedling pleading to win some concession or favor, even to the point of turning in a neighbor or friend to sweeten the deal. If the police are preening rockstars the suspects are pratfalling clowns, sent in between numbers to keep the audience laughing while the divas prepare for their performance. 

Rosa's children are basically straight men, stony faced acolytes sent out to raise funds for their parents' freedom. Their subdued demeanor seems poignant, especially eldest daughter Raquel's (Andi Eigenmann, Jose's real-life child)--in the face of their parents' irresponsibility especially regarding drug dealing the children are forced into a state of maturity far beyond their years, and not for the first time. In these youths' faces you see the weary resignation of kids who have long recognized the need to pick up after themselves, often after their parents too.

Jose in my book has always been excellent. In Chito Rono's debut feature Private Show she turned the tired cliche of the provincial lass corrupted by the big city into a breakout performance, sensitive yet unsentimental in accordance with the film's neorealist style. In William Pascual's Takaw Tukso she played the cliche of the martyr wife with conviction, eventually cuing us in on the fact that said wife is actually smarter than she lets on to be. By the time of this film Jose has matured into mother roles and presents the cliche of the quietly forceful family matriarch with deceptive effortlessness--you don't see her acting you just see her, a fictional character fully formed and realized and walking across the screen. Diaz--a longtime friend and colleague of Jose--provides excellent foil as Rosa's lackadaisical husband Nestor; he really only comes to life when wheeling and dealing with the cops, otherwise he'd just rather hang back and let matters take their natural course, usually in a downward spiral.

Mendoza has been an avid supporter of President Duterte, a believer in the chief executive's so-called 'War on Drugs;' paradoxically the film (released about the same time as he was elected) has gained relevance in the wake of this protracted struggle of some fourteen months--some fifteen if you count from the date of elections (the killings started even before he took office). Low-level drug dealers possess more humanity in this film than the present administration has been willing to grant them, and the cruel corrupt system of 'palit-ulo' ('head swapping,' the film's original title)--of holding a suspect his wife his relative hostage till ransom is paid (or someone higher up is caught)--so rampant in the previous administration seems relatively benign compared to the ongoing campaign of extrajudicial killings (which in recent weeks has escalated to the stabbing of teenagers). In effect Mendoza's earlier work intentionally or not seems like a subtly rendered yet eloquent rebuke against the regime of murder and brutality we are seeing today.  

First published in Businessworld 9.1.17

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