Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Kundiman ng Lahi (Folksong, Lamberto Avellana, 1959)

Country girl

(Again, a film from LVN studios, available (without subtitles, alas) on Mike de Leon's Citizen Jake vimeo website)

Give it to master Filipino filmmaker Lamberto Avellana: he knows how to start a picture. Badjao had a horn blown to gather a village of house canoes, forming a seaborne village; Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay began with a detonating grenade; Anak Dalita evoked Roberto Rossellini in neorealist mode, tracing the ruin of a church from the tip of its fractured belfry to the people teeming at the base of its crumbling walls. Kundiman ng Lahi (Folksong, 1959), Avellana's last film for LVN studios, trumps them all I think: no blown horn, no explosives, no church ruins, just the monotonous thumping of a wood pestle milling rice in a mortar. An obvious symbol--we're grain, our husk (our innocence, our sensitivity) stripped off of us to a relentless beat--but also a sexual one, the phallic pestle pounding into the concave mortar, turning hard seed into tender food.

Village lass Isang (Charito Solis) is enjoying the town fiesta when she receives bad news: her mother is dying. She ends up in the care of her Aunt Siyanang (Rosa Aguirre, who was Tony Santos' martyr mother in Anak Dalita) and Uncle Teryo (Avellana stalwart Joseph de Cordova), who lent her mother money. Isang has debts to pay, so Siyanang has turned the girl Cinderella-style into their housemaid--washing clothes, cleaning house, cooking and serving food; worse, Teryo has noticed that the girl is growing in all kinds of ways into a sexually mature woman. 

There's a claim that this is the first Filipino film to attempt a more open depiction of eroticism--I wonder about that. Gerardo de Leon's Sisa has his heroine lusted after by four men (five if you count the director with his camera); Avellana's own Anak Dalita has the imperious Rosa Rosal flaunting her endless limbs at the stoic Tony Santos Sr. Avellana does put the eroticism front and center here more than in any of his previous films, using his intimate camera to film Teryo sitting down to a dinner served by Isang. Teryo insists that the girl sits and eats with him; she reluctantly complies, wiping away spilled soup when Teryo, sucking on cheap gin, knocks the bowl with his bottle. Each time the camera cuts to a different shot the lens is angled just so (presumably from Teryo's perspective) that we have a sidelong view of Isang's creamy cleavage; inserted into the sequence are a series of closeups of Teryo's face as he surreptitiously steals glances (nice little comic touch: when Teryo gets a good long look down Isang's blouse the mouth of his gin bottle swings up to his mouth). What makes the scene however is that Isang isn't trying to be seductive at all; Solis plays the scene totally unconscious of her effect on her uncle--when she finally has a glimmer of an idea that he's paying too much attention (a stare held a moment too long) she immediately tries to cover up, an act of modesty all the more provocative for being sincere, if belated.

Her modesty, a pink ribbon tied in a bow across her undeniably sensual figure, is the complication that drives much of the plot. Isang loves honest Tonio (Eddie Rodriguez) but Siyanang doesn't approve; on the other hand Isang needs a better salary to pay off her debts faster, so Teryo with Siyanang's approval takes her to a 'salon' (headed by Oscar Keesee, in habitual villain mode) to apply for the position of taxi dancer. When Isang points out the contradiction in her adoptive parents' treatment, Siyanang and Teryo have the same answer: this is for your own good. Isang resists as modesty demands, but when Teryo attempts to rape her (a scene that has apparently been cut out of this only surviving copy) she moves out and ends up working there anyway. If Isang and her fellow townspeople represent traditional Filipino values, said salon represents a more modern Philippines, frank in its recognition of the sexual needs of today's men, practical about the transactional nature of survival.  

Enter Vic Silayan's Jaime, a rich playboy with a snazzy convertible (a Pontiac Silver Streak if I'm not mistaken)--the look of thrilled joy Isang throws over her shoulder as he carries her away from the  the club, shot verite-style with the shaky camera apparently mounted on another car, is about the happiest she's ever been, and arguably a poignant high point of the film. Poignant because unexpected, and likely temporary: she's due for more suffering, and this is just the setup prior. 

Jaime tries to seduce Isang, but she won't have it; she may be a taxi dancer but on her terms, however unlikely that may sound. If her modesty is the film's narrative motor, the way it bends and deforms to survive circumstances is her character's narrative arc.   

Isang eventually turns to Tonio and--in possibly the one break granted her in the film--he unquestioningly accepts her. Again modern life intrudes: Isang has done the most traditional thing she can possibly do (marry her true love), but for the sake of her considerable debts her husband has to abandon farming in favor of a job at a concrete factory--a more modern setting full of frank, practical people. The rest of the film has us wondering when Isang's past will catch up, which--knowing the trajectory of her life so far and the conventions these melodramas follow--it eventually will. 

Avellana is serving up a simple potboiler, a chance to display Charito Solis' physical charms while dramatizing traditional morality's struggle to stay relevant, in a way that titillates our sense of prurience the same time it affirms our sense of right and wrong (Skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the film!). Isang turns down both uncle and Jaime but gives herself freely to the man she loves; the very next day they go to a church to marry. Siyanang treats Isang poorly but when she learns of her husband's attempted rape she offers reconciliation. Teryo acts maliciously, often under the influence of alcohol, but when faced with the prospect of death comes clean of his sins. People's values are bent but not quite broken, and with a little belated action and a lot of forgiveness everything comes out more or less right in the end. Perhaps the only real injustice that lingers past the end credit is Toni's: ironic that of all of Isang's men he would be the cruelest; like in Yasujiro Ozu's A Hen in the Wind, the husband is sadistic in expressing his sense of betrayal--is especially sadistic because all of society stands behind his indignation. Avellana does pull the self-righteous prig down a notch--the co-worker who corrects Tonio's delusions beats him up* and humiliates him royally in the bargain (Avellana's gift for comedy on brief display here) but the payback feels inadequate: what Tonio really needs, you feel, is a knee to the groin, not his wife back.**

*(Talk about stirring excitement, Avellana has Tonio attack his co-worker at the factory, the two men exchanging blows against the background of a vast cement mixing drum--the whirling wall of steel studs suggesting pervasive danger, the sense that at any moment teeth can be knocked out or an ear ripped off or the entire face flayed from one's head. No stunt man involved, mind you--that really is Eddie Rodriguez, his face only a foot or so away from the drum's spinning surface.

**(And while we're talking injustice--why do Joseph de Cordova's strong features and darkly rich voice condemn him to villain roles while the younger prettier Rodriguez is often crowned romantic leading man? Must '50s melodrama conform to the idea that a fair face reflects a fair soul? Couldn't Isang have given Teryo the chance however brief to prove he can treat her better than Tonio ever did?)  

But all this is incidental, is arguably shallow if clever posturizing; what Avellana is really after, I suspect, is the spectacle of a woman suffering. Solis is a simple fresh-faced beauty, but her beauty really comes into its own in the face of adversity: a mother's death, domestic slavery, attempted rape, a husband's wrath--she's never more gorgeous than when facing the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, here more outrageous than usual. 

Listening to the eponymous song's lyrics--about experiencing near-death agony until the adored reciprocates the singer's love--you wonder what the words have to do with the story beyond the vague thesis "this is how Filipinos experience love." Having poured a fresh round of verbal and physical abuse on his wife, Tonio collapses into a drunken snoring heap while Isang pleads to his insensible sweatstained back. Solis isn't acting with much--her hair veils her face, her voice struggles to keep control; while the song's lovely melody sneaks into the scene Isang performs an act of tenderness. Avellana has used his camera in an emphatic manner throughout the picture, to better point up the melodrama; all that activity leads up to this moment, his camera as chaste and simple as the protagonist has always claimed to be (and largely is), sitting at a discreet distance (in a tatami-mat level shot worthy of Ozu) while Isang quietly delicately breaks our heart. Not perhaps Avellana's best work, but certainly up there. 

First published in Businessworld 5.24.19 

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