Saturday, April 13, 2019

Jino to Marie (Gino and Marie, Joselito Altarejos)

Sex tape

Joselito Altarejos' Jino to Mari (Gino and Marie, 2019), about a pair of sex workers hired to do a Japanese porn film, is (to put it mildly) explicit--about as explicit as a Filipino independent film probably gets nowadays without actually being porn.

Gino is a callow eighteen-year-old (though at one point he claims seventeen) who services gay clients to help out grandmother and younger sister, Marie is a single mother of twenty-five; both are recruited by a common friend to do a Japanese porn film for P10,000 each (around $192) and are bused and shipped past forest and sea to a remote location (Cagbalete Island in Quezon Province).

One can't help but think of Lino Brocka's classic Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag only in the opposite direction: two already corrupted urban dwellers lured out to the countryside by the promise of money, their street smarts and city-formed paranoia proving worse than inappropriate--they're inadequate. 

The film starts out slow: Gino (Oliver Aquino) stepping out with a client (filmmaker Emmanuel de la Cruz, in a brief amusing cameo), refusing to fellate the older man and threatening to slap him with a pedophile charge when he insists; Marie (Angela Cortez) taking her child to school dressed as a Disney princess (it's costume day for the students, with a prize for best-dressed). Altarejos lets us know what kind of people they are, who they prostitute themselves for. If in the end their work days don't look much different or more exciting than any other blue-collar laborer's, that's the point: different job, different day, same tired old shit. 

Then the trip to the island. It's no small effort; long bus trips with a change mid-journey; an equally long ferry ride to the island where the passengers get seasick on the way. You may start to wonder if Altarejos is perhaps pulling a fast one here but the trip serves several functions: it's a chance for Gino and Marie to get to know each other, and it gives the viewer the sense that this is a break from the grime and grind and relentless crowds of the metropolis, a real holiday from the two's constant quest to earn for their loved ones--a holiday from responsibility, if you like. They can just be, breathe and doze and, on occasion, lean against each other for support, developing rapport as travel companions.

Adding a little curious curlicue of detail to Gino's personality: he likes to listen to opera. During the long bus ride he shares with Marie an excerpt from the "Flower Duet" from Leo Delibes' Lakme, a delicate petal of a song that's as far from urban Manila as anything you might imagine (hence Gino's partiality, I assume). Marie seems fairly appreciative but otherwise unmoved; being the more experienced and more poised--basically the more hardened though at first glance she has a childishly fragile look--she also seems less open to out-there influences.

Then the island. A break to rest from the trip, and filming. It goes as expected: shot in black-and-white and yes quite erotic. Then naked men with birdlike masks straight out of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut suddenly appear out of nowhere, and all bets are off.   

A word on Altarejos' soundtrack, which seems carefully considered, perhaps even more so, than his imagery: aside from Delibes he uses Schubert's "Ellen's Third Song" as prayerful counterpoint to the profane imagery, and (uncredited) Beethoven's "Allegreto" (7th Symphony, 2nd Movement)--that pageantlike march-step rhythm and sense of doomed inevitability underlining and justifying the two actors' long odyssey to this moment, of utter degradation. 

Altarejos adds a radio broadcast (documentary?) describing the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, with mention of Filipino collaborators; as coda he plays Francisco Santiago and Ildefonso Santos' "Pilipinas Kong Mahal" (My Beloved Philippines), about our willingness to perform any sacrifice for the sake of the nation's freedom. Too heavy-handed? I don't know; trip, arrival, and filmmaking have been carefully choreographed visually aurally emotionally to arrive at this point; the filmmaker having built up so much for so long may be forgiven for bringing out the big guns--may even be justified in doing so. 

A case might be made that Altarejos points a finger at the wrong nation--that the Philippines is being economically and politically raped not by the government of Japan but the government of China. But we've had a long and thorny history with Japan since the Second World War, and some thorny issues involving tourists seeking sex; historically Altarejos is right in making the pornographer Japanese, and if he meant to make a larger political point I suppose he can trust the audience to be intelligent enough to make the connection between foreign powers infringing on our sexual virtue / sovereignty.    

A note on the actors: Aquino as Gino is good, is annoying enough to be a persuasive millennial without altogether losing our sympathies, but the film after all is said and done belongs to Cortez as Marie. It makes sense to conceive of an older woman, cast an older actor to play her; she's seen it all (or nearly all) her threshold of endurance considerably higher than his. If in the end Gino can't stomach what he's being asked to do it's Marie's particular spiritually maternal grace (and the actor's finest moment) to witness his somatic rejection with piercingly sympathetic eyes.   

One thinks of shock cinema and its most famous practitioners: Gaspar Noe and Lars von Trier. Arguably the two filmmakers have filmed more explicit and more gruesome imagery but what gives Altarejos' film its force is that he fleshes out his characters, modulates their dramatic arc: they're corrupt but not that corrupt; Gino refuses to perform oral sex, Marie does not kiss. When they're persuaded and prodded to cross their respective lines step by shuffling step you're with them; you care that they have drawn those lines--it's what keeps them dignified, keeps them feeling human--and you care when they start losing their grip on that sense of humanity. 

Most instructive in my book is von Trier's The Idiots--perhaps the only film of the famed multi-awarded Danish filmmaker that I actively like. Much of it is pointless and yes idiotic--a nihilistic group of men and women gleefully upending middle-class conventions. Then suddenly sharply there's the ending--the very existence of the film justified the point driven home with the swiftness and deadly accuracy of a shank. Alterejos achieves something similar with a kiss: the film snaps into focus, our resistance and upraised arms fall away, and he (like the arty porn Japanese filmmaker in his picture) can have his complete and unquestioned way with us, however he likes. 

First published in Businessworld 4.12.19

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