Friday, May 04, 2018

Laman (Flesh, Maryo De Los Reyes)


Belated tribute to Maryo J. de los Reyes (1952 - 2018)

Crazy for the flesh

When I first saw Maryo J. de los Reyes' Laman (Flesh) some sixteen years ago I thought it 'pretty good.' Some sixteen years later (has it been sixteen years?) it seems more than just good it's arguably some of the best work Maryo J. has ever done.

A married couple--Dodong, Lolit (Yul Servo, Lolita de Leon)--come to Manila from the provinces to look for a job; they end up rooming in the house of Dodong's best friend Omar (Albert Martinez), who lusts for the ripe young wife.  Omar works for the energetically entrepreneurial Nipsy (Elizabeth Oropesa) while working her on the side; Nipsy in turn develops a hankering for the young and strapping (if sexually clueless) Dodong.

Seductions revelations realignments follow, the kind of lurid melodrama de los Reyes has done before nothing radically new. But unlike in his previous Paraiso ni Efren (Efren's Paradise) there are no gauzy attempts at dream imagery, no unlikely subplots involving NGOs; unlike in his Red Diaries de los Reyes isn't asked to showcase some diva's thespic prowess. Laman is simple, modestly-scaled, surprisingly honest; it doesn't aspire to be more than what it is, a well-made example of itself. 

Yul Servo as Dodong proves with his sophomore performance that the potential suggested in Batang West Side (West Side Avenue) was no lucky accident, though his role here is far simpler (when he first arrives he's persuasively innocent; when he loses his innocence he's persuasively idealistic). Lolita de Leon as his wife Lolit is like an uncut gemstone--lacks polish lacks grace but when angled just so to catch the light she's brilliant.

Elizabeth Oropesa is even better as the sexually voracious Nipsy, the employer with a caramel core (think whore with a heart of gold sitting on a hoard of gold)--she convinces you with eyes that flare and melt she has the ruthlessness to succeed in business, yet can still respond to Servo's unalloyed goodness.

Albert Martinez is one of the gamest actor in the industry.  There's little he won't do apparently, from wearing women's clothes (Scorpio Nights 2) to performing onscreen gay sex (Gusto Kong Lumigaya (I Want to be Happy)) to playing unmitigated bastards (everything from Segurista (Dead Sure) to Tatsulok (Triangle) to this film).  This may be the best role he's had in years, if only because it's the first role he's had in years where the character makes sense.  We come to understand Martinez's hustler; we identify with the need for security that drives him to seek wealthy women like Nipsy, the same time we know the maddening itch he feels faced with de Leon's heaving sweat-beaded appeal.  One instinct is his best hope for a long if uneventful life; the other is trouble immediate and irremediable.

De los Reyes who's in his fifties needn't feel embarrassed when compared to the 'Young Turk' filmmakers coming out of the woodwork nowadays; he's every bit as adept with shock cuts and innovative camerawork (overhead handheld what-have-you) as the best of them. Laman is well-edited well-shot eye candy, yoked--and this is where de los Reyes has an advantage over the so-called 'Turks'--to a solidly written, compellingly plotted script (co-written by de los Reyes himself, with Wali Ching).

It helps that Reyes (presumably with Ching's help) presents a series of visual motifs developing the film's themes. When Lolit first arrives at their new home it's a pigsty (consider that Dodong and Omar work for a company that turns out lechon de leche--whole roasted milkfed pigs--the metaphor feels grotesquely appropriate). Lolit picks up debris, brushes grime and filth off floors, rinses with bucket after bucket of handcarried water. She pours bleach into the toilet bowl--a pale ceramic lotus squatting at the center of a cramped bathroom--painstakingly scrubbing from edges inwards. Lolit in her innocence purifies the desecrated vessel, renewing it, rendering it pristine once again.

But a toilet is meant to be used. Lolit is bathing when a drunken Omar walks in on her to urinate; they stare at each other over the bowl and you feel the air crackle between them: pure and profane, freshly cleansed and inwardly corrupt. Delos Reyes immerses them in the harsh light of an overhead incandescent; the two approach as if on drawstrings, egged on yet somehow kept at emotional arm's length by Archie Castillo's lively Bachian keyboards; the editing dissolves into impressionistic montage. The bowl suffice to say is re-desecrated, several times.

Then there's Lolit's provincial specialty, spicy crabs simmering in coconut cream. No one enjoys the dish more than Omar, who complains constantly of the chili burn yet smacks his lips and asks for more (I'll nominate the sequence as one of the most effective uses of food--of distinctively Filipino food--on the big screen); it's also a nice little symbol for Lolit--simple yet decadently rich, with a deceitful heat that sneaks in under the sweetness of the cream.

Lolit is a pure soul; if you need to name her equivalent you'll find her in Lino Brocka's masterwork Insiang. Both are innocents corrupted and betrayed by the big city both respond to that betrayal with the same purity of action (If I prefer the latter it's for Brocka's intense elegant simplicity). By film's end both employ their virtues--Insiang her beauty Lolit her spiced crab in coconut cream--to unexpected ends (Or is it unexpected? Tragedy classically structured is more inevitable than surprising). Nipsy for all her money and worldly wisdom seems towards the end a bit in awe of Lolit: Nipsy's long and varied life still has the possibility of heartbreak and pleasure and change; Lolit in a single gesture willingly throws all that away to express the unyielding--and inevitable--demands of her nature. Of if you like her flesh. 

Expanded and revised from the original article, first published in Businessworld 9.13.02

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