Thursday, February 17, 2022

Init sa Magdamag (Midnight Passion, Laurice Guillen, 1983) forty years later

Init sa Magdamag
, forty years later

(Restored version available on Details of plot discussed in explicit detail. )

The film starts wordlessly in a hotel suite, with Mr. Eleazar (Ding Salvador) humming "Bessame mucho" as he disrobes and Irene Trejon (Lorna Tolentino) sitting in her bubble bath. She hears a gasp and solid tonk! pulls the shower curtain aside, sees Mr. Eleazar on the floor, and the slow-pooling blood. 

Shock and dismay. Cut to a fully dressed Irene glancing back before leaving through a pair of sliding doors. The camera pauses to wander over the TV set, the furnishings, the bed with its immaculate dustcover (Why immaculate? Because they hadn't had the chance at sex), before returning to the gaping door, a lingering languorous shot that both opens and sums up the film: empty room, sordid scenario, camera following the departed woman into the dark-- into the depths, so to speak, of the woman's psyche.

The woman again, this time putting on her face before a mirror, kissing her sleeping boyfriend goodbye. We follow as she takes up position behind a bank counter and learn her name: fresh hire Becky Claudio, summoned by Mr. Perez (Leo Martinez) to his office to fill in gaps in her employment record. Like Guillen's camera, Mr. Perez uncovers little: she worked with Felix Wear-- now bankrupt-- and her boss can't give references because he's emigrated to Canada. The interview is comically awkward; Mr. Perez is clearly intrigued and wants sex, but hasn't the guts to ask. 

Next is boyfriend's turn: in a series of long takes atop a bed we watch Armand (Joel Torre) grill Becky on her past. "How many boyfriends have you had?" "Six." "I'm seventh?" "Seven is a lucky number."

Armand doesn't like her answer. Becky relents to only two-- can't remember anything about her first. "We broke up. That's how most love stories end, right? I forgot him, he forgot me."

Irene later Becky later Leah Sanchez is Guillen and writer Raquel Villavicencio's protagonist; as incarnated by the cabal's third member Lorna Tolentino, she's a catlike chameleon of a creature difficult to pinpoint in space and time, affix to a definite image. Darkly handsome Jaime (Dindo Fernando) learns this to his dismay: he notices Leah, turns briefly away, turns back and she's gone. "You play the game well," Jaime tells her when he finally catches up. "What game?" Leah asks. "Cat and mouse." "Are you married?" "Aren't we all? But my wife's abroad." "So that's it; when the cat's away the mice will play." "But I'm a mouse," Jaime insists. "You're a cat, you're too inquisitive," says Leah, adding "even if you know everything." 

"Except about you," says Jaime. "What do you want to know?" Leah asks. "Everything," Jaime replies. "Nothing." Leah is as quickwitted as Jaime and his superior at hide and seek-- she has to be, to evade predators. Guillen's camera follows as Leah slips in and out of sight, 'follow' being the operative word: like Jaime, Guillen's camera has trouble keeping up. 

Stories and games; stories with Armand, games with Jaime. Becky tells Armand the story of seven boyfriends; he's displeased, so she knocks the number down to two (including him); Leah and Jaime flirt in the playful tone of carnivores sizing each other up for the kill; later Jaime reminds Leah of this-- that she's a good player, perhaps the best he's ever known. 

As Irene becomes Becky becomes Leah, Guillen marks each transition with water imagery: Irene pushes a glass door (vertical sheet of frozen water) aside to depart; Becky peers into a mirror (rectangular sheet of reflective water) to check the freshness of the face gazing back, later rinsing away yet another discarded persona in the shower; Leah emerges from seawater (amniotic fluid) completely reborn.

All that water, not just literal moisture but translucent surfaces revealing reflecting refracting Irene Becky Leah back at themselves and us; revealing reflecting refracting the mercurial creature men-- and Guillen's camera-- pursue at their peril.  

Her nights are punctuated by a recurring dream: Irene in a bathtub, humming (she's always trying to cleanse herself); the shower curtains pull aside. "It's over," she says, smiling; Becky (later Leah) wakes with a gasp. As the film progresses Irene stops delivering the line and the dream grows shorter and shorter, suggesting a life accelerating towards some yet unknown destination. 

Guillen, a master of onscreen sensuality (see her breakout feature Salome) realizes the handsome production (design by Benjie de Guzman, art direction by Jerome Beley) with some of the most graceful camera movements (by Romy Vitug) and fluid editing (by Efren Jarlego) this side of Nagisha Oshima. Call this a prototype of what will soon be recognized as the glossy Viva melodrama, the glossiness an empty shining shell if it wasn't for Raquel Villavicencio's script. 

Today the reigning genre in Filipino theaters is romantic comedy and from the sheer volume churned out you'd expect our writers to have mastered the art of sexy banter, but no-- today's lovers sound barely literate, much less sophisticated. Villavicencio's dialogue is in the tradition of Danny Zialcita and Ishmael Bernal's musical-bedroom farces, with lines so finely honed they gleam like a knife display. "Are you married?" Leah asks when approached. "Is that important?" asks the man. "Not to me," Leah replies. "Not sure about your wife. I don't want a scandal." Step back, folks, and savor the stench of flaming fuselage as Leah blows the fumes from her twin smoking barrels.

Perhaps Leah's only real rival is Jaime. "I don't know anyone happily married, do you?" she asks when Jaime proposes to her. "I might if people married for sex instead of love," Jaime responds. "There's more to sex than love." One is reminded of Oscar Wilde's fondness for moral platitudes deftly flipped upside-down, and wonder why we can't write dialogue like that anymore.

Call Guillen, Villavicencio, and Tolentino's collaboration a masterclass in adult (as opposed to adolescent) entertainment, but there's deadly serious subtext here: Irene Becky Leah conform and deform themselves according to the man's wishes. "How many boyfriends have you had?" Armand asks; when he doesn't like the answer she changes it. Jaime isn't as naive but his jealousy is darker, his 'games' more demanding; she adjusts accordingly. Of Mr. Eleazar we know little but we can be sure he had his own kinks, which Irene ably caters ("she makes hungry / Where she most satisfies"). Each persona costs time and effort to create, each must be washed away like so much congealed makeup before donning the next; some psychic baggage-- that recurring dream for one-- isn't easy to abandon. 

The thesis is a subtle one feminists at the time struggled to accept. The kneejerk reaction was to glare and call her a slut; the more thoughtful hold her up as a negative example, ignoring the fact that she too is a victim despite her deceitful, manipulative ways (that because she's been victimized she's developed deceitful manipulative ways). 

In the film's most meta scene, Leah bumps into Armand and they have a talk up in the stone bleachers of an empty stadium. "It's like we're in a movie!" Leah-- Becky for the moment-- observes. "Hasn't that happened to you? Like you're standing outside your body. I can do that. I can stand outside myself, watching. When something happens, I just watch. I wait till whatever's happening ends."

"And then?" Armand asks. 

"Nothing. I leave." What Becky-- Leah-- describes is not dissimilar to the mental state of a victim trying to survive rape or torture. This has likely happened to Leah at least once with Jaime; you wonder if it's happened to her with Mr. Eleazar or (more to the point) with thoughtful caring Armand. 

When Armand tries to confront her, Leah-- Becky-- is evasive; Armand however won't be denied. He bores in on Becky's fabrications, tears them apart like so much tissue-- for someone we've taken for granted as a clueless innocent, Armand turns out to be the most intelligent of the three, the most relentlessly logical. Guillen often films Becky and Armand's scenes in lengthy two-shots, to emphasize their intimacy; when Armand interrogates Becky the camera cuts from one to the other, emphasizing their disconnect. "I'm not your enemy," he pleads, the camera following till she joins the frame. "I'm your husband."

"I have to protect myself."

"Yourself?" Armand and camera move away leaving Becky behind. "Yourself? What about me? What about us?" 

Becky pleads amnesia; she may be lying or telling the truth, but her face is the face of someone who looks genuinely lost. 

Arguably the most painful episode is of Armand forcing himself on Becky. Now that he knows what Jaime does to Leah, Armand attempts the same sadomasochistic games, earning Becky's-- and our-- contempt. The sense of a woman rejecting a man who disgusts her recalls Anna Karenina's rejection of her husband; Guillen shoots handheld to underline the domestic immediacy (there might be someone in the room recording the moment in videocam), in long takes to capture the escalating ugliness of her emotions. 

Something the filmmakers may not have intended: the film proposes that a woman should enjoy total freedom, even the freedom to be self-destructive. When Leah makes her final decision, viewers may ask: "why?" She has chosen where, if not when, and yes in a bathtub-- her dream recurring one more time, with soapy water at hand to wash away the consequences. 

Final point: Leah may be a sub but it's Jaime who chases after her, even when they've parted. Jaime despite all his declarations otherwise is like Sir Stephen in Pauline Reage's (aka Ann Desclos) The Story of O; he experiences a craving he cannot deny, he is conquered by Leah's surrender, he's as much a prisoner of his appetites as she. As with issues of feminism, freedom, memory, identity, reality, sexuality-- on the question of who wields authority and who submits, Init sa Magdamag offers few comforting answers.  

First published in Businessworld 2.11.22

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