Saturday, April 03, 2021

Martial Law Melodrama: Lino Brocka's Cinema Politics

A dirty affair

Lino Brocka is easily the best-known of the '70s generation of Filipino filmmakers, arguably the best-known Filipino filmmaker in the world. He has directed both popular and political melodramas, sometimes a mix of both; his films have screened in Cannes and won awards; his two most acclaimed works--Insiang (a young girl, her mother, and her mother's boyfriend struggle to survive in the slums of Tondo), and Manila in the Claws of Neon (Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, a provincial fisherman wanders the eponymous city in search of his lost love))--were released by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project through the Criterion Collection.

That said, there's not a lot of text dedicated to the filmmaker. Mention in books on Philippine cinema (including film scholar Jose B. Capino's Dream Factories of a Former Colony: American Fantasies, Philippine Cinema); his own entry in the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Encyclopedia of Philippine Art; a compilation of articles edited by critic Mario Hernando--that's about it.

Finally, to this small collection, we can add Jose B. Capino's Martial Law Melodrama: Lino Brocka's Cinema Politics (University of California Press; 328 pages; published 1.7.20; $72 hardcover, $24.75 paperback) which takes fifteen of Brocka's films and breaks them apart, considers them in context of social and political trends, and in the context of Brocka's life and career. And while it focuses on one filmmaker--Brocka--as he works through a tumultuous period of both Philippine history and cinema--the martial law era of the '70s up to early '80s--a case can be made that Brocka was Filipino cinema's response (or resistance) to deposed president Ferdinand E. Marcos' authoritarian regime.

Capino does qualify his focus: martial law was rescinded in 1981 but Marcos kept many of his powers till he was ousted in 1986; Corazon Aquino replaced Marcos in a mostly bloodless revolution but struggled to keep her frail democracy afloat till she allied herself with the Philippine military, eventually using some of the same repressive tactics. And Capino does acknowledge at least one other Filipino filmmaker who spoke out against Marcos: Mike de Leon, who collaborated with Brocka on Manila in the Claws of Neon.

Capino considers not just the aforementioned Insiang and Manila but also You Were Weighed but Found Wanting (Tinimbang ka ngunit kulang, a semi-fictional account of Brocka's small-town youth); Jaguar (neo-noir about a hired bodyguard dreaming of social acceptance); My Country: At the Knife's Edge (Bayan ko: Kapit sa patalim, political melodrama about a labor scab) and Orapronobis (Fight for Us, yet another political melodrama about a former rebel priest). He highlights what he calls “The Marcosian moment”--a sequence, often violent, often dramatic, charged by both the filmmaker and the contemporary situation with significance. In the case of Manila it's a lynch mob picking up lengths of wood and iron pipe to attack the film's hero, Julio (Bembol Roco)--Brocka deliberately stylizes the image, building the alley's tin walls up to impossible heights, then zooming in on Julio's tearstreaked, terrified face; beyond the visual touches, the image itself evokes the idea of “a larger, more formidable force crushing hapless individuals”--a rephrasing, if you like, of Orwell's classic definition of power, and a neat summation of Marcos' regime.

Capino goes into Brocka's three major '70s films in detail, pointing out how You Were Weighed resembles historical figure Jose Rizal's social novel Touch Me Not (Noli me tangere), and how the novel--critical of Filipino society in Rizal's time--cues the audience to read criticism of our own time in the film's characters and incidents. He discusses the film's portrayal of Filipino machismo especially in the figure of Cesar (Eddie Garcia), town patriarch and biological father of Junior (Christopher de Leon as the young protagonist and Brocka's surrogate)--and, in direct opposition, Berto (frequent collaborator Mario O'Hara, who also wrote the script), the outcast leper who presents an alternate role model.

The criticism lands with more impact in Manila, partly because the disparity between lower and upper classes is more dramatic (heightened by producer-cinematographer Mike de Leon's gritty camerawork), partly because Manila is the international face of the Philippines, and partly because the film depicts actual activism, in the brief shot of a rally marching down a wide boulevard (glimpse of You Were Weighed actor/scriptwriter Mario O'Hara yelling into a megaphone, urging action).

Equally important to Capino's thesis are the scrupulously documented reactions to the films (full disclosure: he was kind enough to include a few of mine). He notes the favorable response to You Were Weighed and Manila, notes how critics at the time of release were forced to be circumspect in their political analysis lest they cause the filmmaker trouble--and here we see the insidious influence of censorship: not only does it suppress artistic expression, it suppresses dialogue over said expression, with critics resorting to hints and allegations to protect the artist.

Capino depicts Brocka's often adversarial relationship with government censors--noting that the censors were often sharper and more cunning in their reading of a Brocka film than the equivalent film critic. The filmmaker responded with provocative remarks (calling his film a “political tool,” observing “how sensitive the government was to criticism from abroad”) and incendiary gestures (wearing a barong--a traditional Filipino suit--with a map of the Philippines and the word “JUSTICE” emblazoned across its front), often pushing the watchdogs to the edge.

Brocka apparently went too far with Insiang; the censors (and Imelda Marcos herself) not only objected to the depiction of Manila slums but pressured Brocka to change the ending. Which he did, though his way--where in the original teleplay (again by O'Hara, adapted to the screen by Lamberto Antonio) Insiang (Hilda Koronel) boasts of her crimes to her mother Tonia (Mona Lisa), in the film her tone sounds more regretful than triumphant, and she begs her mother for forgiveness. Capino points out that the subsequent images--done entirely without dialogue--leaves matters ambiguous as to whether or not mother and daughter really reconcile.

I wish Capino had gone on to mention Mario O'Hara's onstage re-working of that scene, presented by Tanghalang Pilipino ('Filipino Theater') in 2004, which in my opinion works better than Brocka's film version. O'Hara restores the triumph but adds a subtler note suggesting the true cost to the daughter: a clearly traumatized Insiang, regressing to a more childlike persona, asking an imaginary character for a hug.

I also wonder about the book's assertion that Tonia is the maternal equivalent of Marcos--what about Dado (Ruel Vernal), Tonia's boyfriend, who Capino considers and dismisses early on? Dado is not just male but overwhelmingly male, with a swagger that's almost a parody of Filipino machismo (a swagger Marcos liked to assume back when his health permitted, and which Roderigo Duterte does a pale, pathetic imitation of in his late-night TV appearances). Dado if anything is more manipulative than Tonia, easily turning the woman round on her head, even convincing her of what she desperately wants to believe (that Insiang is responsible for her own rape, not him). I understand Capino has a thesis to prove, but I think he needed to explain more thoroughly how Dado fits into his scheme. It's an admittedly troublesome film to deal with in the first place, because onscreen I see not a pas de deux so much as a pas de trois: three people in a constantly shifting choreography hating each other, screwing each other, trying to outdo each other in status, cruelty, revenge.

Oddly Capino only touches upon one of Brocka's major works: Bona, about a young girl who adores an aspiring no-name actor so much she becomes his housemaid and occasional lover, the irony being the girl--lower than low because she submits herself to the bottom man on the showbiz totem pole--is played by one of the Philippine's biggest stars, Nora Aunor. Capino mentions the film in the preface, explains why it qualifies as a martial-law melodrama, then drops the title for the next few hundred pages till the chapter on Brocka's gay films, where he briefly describes how the relationship between girl and actor can be read as a relationship between two gay men. Why the short shrift? Not sure. Perhaps because there's a lack of authoritarian repression, Bona willingly allowing herself to be exploited by Gardo--Capino focuses mainly on the moment when the worm turns, and Bona has had enough of Gardo's abuse. The lack feels like a missed opportunity, Bona being the actress' chance to study the psychology of one of her many fans (I remember one article on the film describing how Brocka and his production assistants would plead with the crowds to keep quiet so shooting may continue--a crowd that refused to behave till the superstar herself raised her hand for silence). The psychology of blind worship may be key to explaining Marcos' decades-long hold on the country, how he continued to have diehard followers longing for his return, how they still campaign for one of his family--his wife or any number of his children--to be elected president. As it turns out, one of Marcos' most vocal and, chillingly, most powerful supporters is Duterte himself, who has often expressed the wish that Marcos' eldest son Bong Bong (his real name) should succeed him.

Capino really comes into his own arguing not just for Brocka's prestige films but his melodramas: Adultery: Aida Macaraeg Case No. 7892, It Hurts, Brother Eddie (Napakasakit, kuya Eddie), Miguelito: Rebel Child (Miguelito: Batang Rebelde), and A Dirty Affair (Gumapang Ka sa Lusak). Capino suggests that Adultery--about a woman who turns to a rich lover after her husband is jailed--touches on the oppressive assumptions imposed on a woman; that Such Pain dramatizes the devastating impact Marcos' economic policies--especially his campaign to send workers overseas to earn much-needed dollars--have had on Filipino families; how machismo and corruption in Miguelito merge in the form of Ven Herrera (again Eddie Garcia), a more powerful, more malevolent patriarch than Cesar in You Were Weighed. He argues for A Dirty Affair--a parody of Marcos' political career, from sexual scandal to political assassination--being not just opportunistic topical melodrama but an integrated piece of art, and a critical and commercial hit.

The book's final chapter touches on Brocka's gay films: Dipped in Gold (Tubog sa ginto, about a husband and father trying to repress his homosexual urges); My Father My Mother (Ang tatay kong nanay, about a gay man trying to raise an adopted boy); and in a coda Macho Dancer (about a provincial lad come to Manila to become a male stripper--shades of Manila in the Claws of Neon, only with more baby-oiled skin on display). One has to raise one's eyebrow at this inclusion, though Capino accounts for himself thusly: that Marcos' censorship laws in 1975 do disapprove of “perverted or abnormal personalities” (the restriction was not consistently applied, however, as the author himself concedes), and that “such disruptions in the creation of knowledge about prioritized cultural objects are only appropriate.” Not entirely convincing, I thought, but when Capino admits to the risk of “disturbing the coherence of this book” I have to give in--hard to resist a writer willing to bend his own rules to include some favorite titles.

Perhaps Capino's most interesting comparison occurs midway through the book, when he plunks Brocka's My Country side-by-side with Mike de Leon's Sister Stella L--both released the same year, both written by the same writer (Jose 'Pete' Lacaba Jr., who went on to write Brocka's Orapronobis). Capino points out that while de Leon's approach is more unconventional (more Brechtian?), complete with diegetic musical numbers and direct address to the camera, Brocka falls back to tactics familiar to Filipinos as far back as Rizal, stereotypes and heartugging melodrama and all. Brocka (unlike De Leon) is not a cerebral filmmaker; his most expensive productions give off the stink of Manila, and his most lurid entertainments betray the taint of passionate idealism. The figure that steps out of the pages of Capino's book is of the artist-entertainer, constantly cruising the local and international filmmaking industry for big bucks or a quick deal, with an eye out for the chance to slip in something substantial. De Leon is perhaps the better filmmaker--I personally prefer his work--but Brocka speaks directly to the common folk, has carried on a lively dialogue with them about life and love and politics for most of his working life.

(Published in the Fall 2020 issue of Cineaste

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