Brown Histories (Bontoc Eulogy, Baler, Blissfully Yours) January 8, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Docu, MMFF, Noypi.
“Bontoc Eulogy,” “Baler,” “Blissfully Yours”
by Richard BOLISAY
(Bontoc Eulogy, Marlon Fuentes, 1995)
If a film lives depending on how many people have seen it, then Bontoc Eulogy has already died in Philippine memory. But thanks to Alexis Tioseco’s efforts this small film has gone another rebirth to more than twenty people in FullyBooked U-View last December. More than anything, such profound discovery leads me to reflect on the necessity of direction, for what are films but reflection of a soul, of souls scattered in search for emotional truth, that even if few of us in the audience can express the heart of this collective experience, one can never discount the power of persuasion that any one of us can uniquely deliver.
Marlon Fuentes examines the gray area of his roots and puts it under the microscope, only to find out that gray, not brown, is what defines our race, that the moment a child breaks into this world he already shares that loss, or lack, whatever difference there is between the two, in his blood, as if it is the only thing that keeps us together as Filipinos – – our imagined pasts. Every Filipino has a blur in his cognition of identity, and Fuentes, in his careful mishandling of his material, taking deliberate measures to emphasize his tricks, bellows the most painful cry of a Filipino-American standing on the crossroads, like a child left under the rain, unable to move the landscape behind him, that despite his feet moving forward, everything around him is still in place, motionless, untroubled.
Bontoc Eulogy starts with reminiscences, with old photos of Fuentes on his college graduation before leaving the Philippines for America, carrying his dreams and his past with him. He thinks aloud, allowing his thoughts to seep through our minds, on how he is able to live in two worlds, his new life with his children in America and “the flickering afterimages of the place [he] once called home.” The narration is accompanied by images of rural living, presumably in Bontoc where the filmmaker’s kin had lived, of Igorots doing their everyday chores, bathing carabaos, women carrying their children, performing rituals, dancing, even showing their mundane activities, as well as images coming out of nowhere like the child sleeping inside a kulambo (mosquito net), while Fuentes continues to raise his questions, to ask himself, almost rhetorically. He relates the stories of his two grandfathers: Emiliano, who died during the war against Spain in 1896, and Markod, a Bontoc warrior who was one of the Igorots who left their village for the St. Louis World’s Fair, to be put in display in the largest and most ambitious exposition of world culture, an event that marked a turning point not only to people who attended the fair but also to everyone who lived at the early years of the century. Markod strikes Fuentes as more interesting to probe, not to mention a global setting to speak of where his thoughts can be identified with in a wider scale.
Markod travels to America along with 1110 tribal natives, two of whom froze to death inside a boxcar. These groups share nothing with him but origin and skin color. As they arrive, they are asked to build houses and perform activities the same way they do back home, the authenticity becoming irrelevant since the visitors of the fair are already astonished just by merely seeing them. It is, by all means, the bestseller of the fair, their otherworldliness pulling every inch of interest, validating the dichotomy of the festival by contrasting the presence of indigenous people to the advances in modern technology pioneered in the West. Fuentes uses footage of the actual fair as he tells Markod’s story. He describes the fair through his eyes; his mix of prose and poetry hops from the box of fiction to cross the realm of the real, and afterward the dissolution of the real, that questioning its truth becomes natural but unnecessary. Markod wanders around the fair grounds, for what is an exhibit without getting some amusement (imagine the sight of a woman who can whirl a chair using her mouth), and rides the Ferris wheel for the first time in his life. Like Fuentes, Markod is consumed by a longing, an intense desire to go home, be home, be back with his family, with his wife who was pregnant when he left, and now, in this land unknown to him, millions of miles away, in a place where he couldn’t care less, where people consider him more as an object than a human being, an artifact in a museum, a prehistoric bone exhumed in a faraway polar region, a missing link in an unknown civilization, with eyes feasting on him, giving undivided attention like a biologist examining a rare species of algae, all but cerebral, the distance between the spectator and the spectacle farther than the distance to Andromeda, Markod wants to escape and Fuentes gives him that freedom, those few moments when Markod has the taste of home as he hides in a forest, calm, peaceful, far from the noise of the fair, and he walks until he falls asleep, and when he wakes up, the guard is beating him up violently until he is put in confinement. Markod never loses the only thing he has – – hope – – and it drives him further away from himself, returning home only in his mind. Unable to move from there, Fuentes starts to ponder on Markod’s whereabouts, his remains in the country where he now lives, as he goes to the National Archives and reads about a man who climbed in a Ferris Wheel and died the next morning. With his camera, he visits museums and sees the skulls and preserved brains of unknown people; he wonders if not one of them is Markod. But one thing I believe he is sure of: Markod never went home.
Intent is the most misleading thing in the world; but when you rob the intent of something it loses its importance. Fuentes’ purpose is to make an anti-illusionistic film, a documentary of half-truths but complete understanding, and by using a generic footage to represent the visuals of his material and mixing them with seamless recreations and creative shots to glue the pieces and tighten the spaces in between, he manages to weave a powerful yet depressing account of the intangible – – our concept of identity – – that right now only becomes a question of relevance. Like the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, Bontoc Eulogy can also be analyzed in dichotomy. First, it is a personal journey; an undertaking to satisfy the filmmaker’s objective, but as it unfolds it is able to put forth a sentiment that is not only the filmmaker’s own but also of every Filipino’s. Second, its trickery, instead of losing your trust, impresses you. The narrative is designed to follow the filmmaker’s intention and it serves its vision as much as it manipulates. By accepting the fiction of this faux documentary, it lightens the feel of history without losing any weight of it, allowing the imagination to take over, because history is only an interpretation – – the Bible, for instance, is an interpreted teachings of Christ – – a human creation; therefore it is not a definite signifier and proof of one’s existence.
I tend to believe that what has never been ours can never hurt us. Sometimes I wonder if identity is just a concept made out of boredom, of people who had nothing much to do so they posed a question with no definite answer, because if identity is what defines you, then isn’t your name good enough to answer that? Deep thoughts only lead to deeper thoughts, and deeper thoughts can only reach a deadend. But people who bravely puts himself in the quest is satisfied just to have taken the challenge, the effort, the initiative to know, despite failure, despite reaching the deadend, because after all the journey in itself is the destination, the bittersweet treasure. Bontoc Eulogy is created out of falseness, and with that falseness Fuentes has created a truth, a truth that is beautiful, a truth that is depressingly beautiful. For a film that cares much about history but agrees to alter it, Fuentes has proved what a Japanese writer once said, “No matter how far you travel, you can never get away from yourself.” He never did.
(Baler, Mark Meily, 2008 )
That brief moment when the screen reveals Roy Iglesias’ name as Baler‘s writer, admittedly a sign of my irrepressible sordidness, I know the next two hours will cause me to endure seeing an ambition painfully falling into pieces, crumbling until the make-face epic grandiousness peels to expose the shortness of its vision, leaving me with nothing but regret.
I admire the intention; I admire the effort being given to films that recreate periods in our history. It is always an attempt to remind us that we have a past, that we existed before, that we have roots, that by experiencing these things through cinema we can be able to appreciate what our ancestors had gone through for us; nationalism is what keeps us steady, our social conscience. But filmmakers, no matter how pure their intentions are and no matter how many volumes of documents and memories of war they exhume, must also be aware of the infinite power of creativity, of imagination’s limitless ability to affect, to conceal the ugliness of this world, to bear the pain of a cruel universe. What Baler has pushed through is accuracy; where it fails miserably is form, originality, and interest. Its interpretation of war is nothing different to what our textbooks have told us – – textbooks that are recently reported to impart errors – – bland, superficial, and formulaic. “Textbook history.”
With little financial resources that local producers are willing to risk, Baler‘s production values are convincing. I am no expert in historical accuracy but for the most part, it is able to suspend my disbelief, letting me examine the plot and its characters better, their shortcomings rendered visibly and their lack of striking moments consistently delivered, as if Meily has forgotten that we paid for our money’s worth and not for charity work. His wife, Lee Meily, has been again a huge help. Like in Crying Ladies, her cinematography shines but not strong enough to be considered great; it suffers along with the story. What bothers me most of the time is the use of language, the multitude of actors delivering lines in Spanish, the phraseology and syntax of Tagalog in the late 1800s; the inflections are sometimes very disturbing for their apparent misappropriation.
It is easy to take the setting for granted, given that since it was during wartime patriotism is alright to be overused, but after walking out of the near-empty theater, only three days after the festival opened, I wonder what is it with the Baler siege that made them turn it into a film. What is so important about it? Neither I’m doubtful of the heroism of our freedom fighters that time nor I’m denying its historical significance but if Baler has been successful, it should have given it depth and interest, not just narrow staging of events in exchange for a faded romance recycled for a millionth time. What I get out of it is that the siege is flat and uninteresting, and the Spanish soldiers and the Filipino army with them are too stupid to starve themselves to death, and that their commitment to service is shallow because they have to surrender themselves in the end, or that Baron Geisler need not hold a bottle of wine to make him look less sober. It relies too much on historical details, probably afraid of misinterpreting it, afraid that the dead will wake up to hunt them for misrepresentation, that it loses what it has meant to strive for: an inspiring story. What it chooses to focus on is nothing new, we’ve seen those battles before, Conrado Baltazar has shot it superbly in Gallaga’s Virgin Forest, we already know how much we’ve suffered, we just don’t realize how much we’ve lost. It is a Roy Iglesias’ mistake: not making risks, adhering with stereotypes, lacking creativity. With those Spaniards forced to stay inside the church, even though I am ripping this off from Bunuel, isn’t it more interesting if they want to surrender but they just can’t get out? The door is not locked but they just can’t move themselves out and no one wants to start doing what’s necessary? And they stay there for months and months until they eat all the furniture? That is far from being accurate but wouldn’t that be more intriguing to watch for two hours? But what Meily did is sprinkle it with too much seasoning it has already acquired a taste different from its own.
Imagine getting a gift put in smaller and smaller boxes, wrapped very nicely, taped very tight, and when you get to the smallest one you find out that there is nothing inside but air – – it is just a practical joke. It made you laugh; you know it means something but in truth it is really nothing; it is just meant to make fun of you. Baler is that; like Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Jose Rizal, it has ambition but it does not serve that purpose; it is an empty ambition. It only leaves you asking yourself, Are these films really reflective of my history? I hope not.
(Blissfully Yours, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002)
Forty-five minutes through the film, a pop tune accompanies the name of the producers, the title of the film, the actors, the crew – – the credits seem to appear out of nowhere, without any intention than their mere existence – – and this is when a playful Thai young woman and a Burmese illegal immigrant drive their way to the forest, exchanging meaningful glances, clipping fingernails, holding hands, mindlessly applying homemade lotion, chatting, teasing. By the time the car reaches the end of the road and the two head for a walk, it marks an imperceptible transition, a hidden transmogrifier clicking to turn another object into another, which is what basically describes Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Joe) as a filmmaker – – a shaman in the city weaving tales of the modern and the supernatural, a human transmogrifier, an urban fabulist – – and his second feature, Blissfully Yours (Sud Sanaeha), is so damn blissful I feel my senses have coerced into putting me in a state of miraculous exhilaration.
It is one of those rare instances when you feel that the credits are not only serving their purpose to flash names; here, hours after I realize the magic of that quirk, it provides the bridge for the two parts of the story, events that are only defined by their location and not by their narrative, because definitely the most difficult in writing about Joe’s films is defining terms (an event is not really an event, a transition is not really a transition, and sometimes a character is not really a character, just a chemical reaction in our brain that resulted from straining to find some meaning in the film’s first hour) without making necessary exceptions. The first part, at least, is hinged on the “normal.” Roong, a young lady who works in a factory of figurines, and Orn, an older woman who longs to have another child, accompanies the illegal Burmese immigrant Min to the doctor for his skin problem spreading all over his body. They pretend that Min is unable to speak so that people will not be suspicious of his status. Orn requests for a medical certificate so Min can apply for a job but the doctor refuses to give her without legal identification. She begs, even reminding the more stubborn doctor her loyalty for a long time, but to no avail. They pass by the market to buy some ingredients for Min’s cream to alleviate the pain and itch before heading to her husband’s office, where she talks to him about her plans to get pregnant. Before leaving, she cuts the vegetables and mixes them with the lotions and moisturizers with the help of her husband’s colleague, who, in a skillfully directed sequence thereafter, chases their car in his motorbike without Orn and Min noticing him. They go to Roong’s workplace and Orn helps her fake an excuse to leave work early, and they exchange vehicles and part ways with Roong taking Min with her. And the credits roll a few minutes after.
The dialogues are nothing less than mundane but it keeps you holding on – – it has that spark of quaintness – – particularly that scene inside the clinic where it reveals the characters the same way it adds to the film’s seeming peculiarity. Joe handles everything with precision, as if his penchant for texture and atmosphere will lose its spell if he exceeds a few seconds in lingering. And while he fulfills the responsibility of giving information about his characters, at the side, he never loses his indulgence, rewarding us with those shots from the back of the car, navigating the dusty roads, passing old stores and vulcanizing shops, and details of an alienating city life. Before moving to his favorite setting, he gives us the vibe of the extraterrestrial, that without favoring any scientific or fantastic plots he is able to create an atmosphere of strangeness common to science fiction, effortlessly.
Min surprises Roong by bringing her to a beautiful view of the countryside from the forest. It is an escape from the troubles of life, a picnic in the remotest side of the world, the pleasures of privacy, the excitement of quietude, the warmth of two bodies trapped in a passionate kiss, and Joe, in his magical eye for ethereal dreams, drowns the background of trees with blinding light, the sun at its fiercest, the leaves almost burning as Min breaks free and complains again of his flaky skin. The next sequences are difficult to differentiate. Memories, illusions, realities are all mixed up, not to mention that the setting makes everything primitive and disturbingly real. Joe drives the story into the wilderness but no act of savagery happens, just two people finding comfort with each other, unmindful of the world, heedless of histories. As it continues detailing Min and Roong’s aimless escapade, not in the usual verboseness but through the subtlest sweep of invisible transitions and mythical burn, Joe allows his story to travel in the past, present, and future, existing, for a brief moment, all at the same time. The mystery is there right from the very beginning but when we get to see Orn making love with her husband’s colleague in that same forest, and when he runs to chase the thief who steals his bike and Orn finds her way to Min and Roong’s place in the lagoon, it deepens the unknown consequences. What is possibly there to happen among the three of them?
Blissfully Years owes a lot of its beauty to uncertainty, that what we know is sometimes less important than what we don’t know, that knowledge can also work against us, that knowing is defeat. Why does it fade in the middle when Orn is finding her way in the forest? We hear a gunshot somewhere but where exactly does that come from? Why does Joe have to draw the scribbles and sketches of Min on the screen? I don’t know, but I understand that these uncertainties are what propel the almost non-existent narrative to unbelievable heights. It is a work that succeeds in detaching its story from the world, the characters from their repressive universe within, to escape, that like Roong and Min, it is able to give us, in two blissful hours, a view of the great wide world over there, and make us feel the adventure of discovering the perfect freedom in a new world. We have grown to so much unhealthy detachment that we cannot anymore tell the difference between what is ours and what we borrowed, what is ours and what we just stole, and what is ours and what can never be ours. Min’s skin problem is Joe’s most powerful metaphor to the very idea of race; it is something we will never lose. Being political is not only being critical; it is also recognizing that we are already imprisoned even before we are born; accepting that life can never be perfect but endlessly beautiful. After some time, it makes you think, what makes us differentiate what is culturally ours and not? How well do we know ourselves now? Are we still what we used to be? Is culture something that fades into oblivion after several years of inobservance?
The details of sexual activity are far from sensuous; they are almost perfunctory and apologetic. But the actors are doing it in such a way that being their voyeur leaves us without any guilt; such fancy deserves to be look at. That moment near the end when Roong lies beside Min to doze, exactly when we are very much tempted to fall asleep as well (and I’m thinking, you shameless woman, I fought every slim chance of sleeping just to finish this film and here you are sleeping before me), she slides her hand into his shorts and fondles his penis, cut to Orn alone nearby, sobered up after crying, and Roong closes her eyes to sleep, the sound of the water constantly moving, a fly landing on her cheek, she mutters Min’s name, dreaming maybe, and after forever looking at her Joe cuts to the view of the sky, the azure in the Thai-Burmese border, then to Roong rousing from her nap, her eyes looking up in probably the briefest shot in this film. A film so invisibly-structured and cryptic, Blissfully Yours is beauty to the infinity.