The Gypsies in Peque Gallaga’s Virgin Forest (1985) August 9, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi, UP Screening.
Directed by Peque Gallaga
Written by Rosauro dela Cruz
Cast: Sarsi Emmanuelle, Miguel Rodriguez, Abel Jurado
More than anything benevolent, McKinley’s Proclamation of Benevolent Assimilation in 1898 is geared toward the imperial intentions of the United States of America to address the importance of the white man’s burden to the Philippines, how they can keep us safe from harm, how they can save us from eternal damnation, and how they can turn our tribes into civilized citizens of the world, oh how kind – – glorified selfishness, I believe. But then again, one hundred and ten years later, where did that $20,000,000 from the US take us? The Treaty of Paris is always a reminder of bad luck; sometimes when dreams allow me to swim in my own pretensions, I imagine myself speaking in Spanish and devouring the works of Borges and Cortàzar, teaching Latin American literature in the Middle East rather than taking good care of old people (which is as dignified as any other professional job in the world if placed in proper perspective), and somehow the thought leaves me in bitter longing – – because it never happened.
Virgin Forest is Gallaga’s interpretation of the capture of President Emilio Aguinaldo in 1901, an event that ended the Filipino-American War in the eyes of the colonizer. The transition from the fall of the Spanish forces in the supposed Battle of Manila Bay to the takeover of American soldiers in Philippine cities and provinces never ran smoothly; in fact it went more violent. Confused seems inappropriate to describe those times; there lingers an evasive, primal feeling of helplessness, of madness, of consciousness in limbo wherein eveything is caught in eclipse, the country, the people, the culture, even Aguinaldo himself who declared our independence three years ago. Gallaga’s tale captures that glimpse of unrest, with huge help from Conrado Baltazar’s perfect eye for evoking the varying levels of entrapment, from physical to spiritual, as his characters examine themselves from within. Chayong, Alfonsito, and Alipio’s vulnerability is emphasized by their differences – – Chayong (Sarsi Emmanuelle), an estranged woman whose need for sexual affirmation is deemed immoral, Alfonsito (Miguel Rodriguez), an insulares who knows Aguinaldo’s whereabouts, and Alipio (Abel Jurado), a fisherman whose only concern in life is to support his family. Baltazar, arguably the greatest Filipino cinematographer, relates us their freedom and repression through his stark photography, the stylized lighting shaped like demons possessing their souls. Too bad most of his works in print do not justify that trademark of excellence – – but even in mold-infested reels and abysmal copies in video they still look grand, his enduring style hints admiration in every frame, his vision never tiring.
Much has been lost in the voice-over in the beginning; I never understood any of it. But that doesn’t affect Dela Cruz’s well-written script – – his metaphors for a country in disarray are delivered satisfyingly. Gallaga is driven by ambition; he seems obsessed with characters trapped in situations of historical massacres. Here he builds countless rooms for experimentation and takes advantage of cinematic liberty. That scene when Chayong, Alfonsito, and Alipio find comfort in each other is the only time when their freedom is actually achieved, not by means of declaration, not by means of speech given by Aguinaldo, not by any staged battles – – but by themselves alone. It remains one of the most beautiful scenes in Philippine cinema. Gallaga’s affection to details is exemplary, and as always, his production design is such a pleasure to marvel at.
It may have suffered from too much acid – – Gallaga’s overdone battle scenes, the obsessive shots, the misplaced action, the conundrums, and Mother Lily’s misleading requirements, notably the film’s title which invites arousal, but still Virgin Forest is an important bookmark in history. It is said to be a favorite by Lav Diaz; now find a film to beat that. * * *