In My Life (Olivia Lamasan, 2009) October 10, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi, Queer.
Directed by Olivia Lamasan
Written by Raymond Lee, Senedy Que and Olivia Lamasan
Cast: Vilma Santos, John Lloyd Cruz, Luis Manzano
It is easy to blame it on distance. They say distance kills families. Distance breeds rebellious children who account their parentless childhood for lack of love towards them. It breeds children who don’t finish school and do drugs instead. It breeds children who would rather party all night than call their parents and ask them how they’re doing. It breeds children who complain they can’t find time to call their parents because it’s so late, why don’t they just call me instead? And when the parents call, Oh, shit, tell them I’m busy. Studying. These children who have always thought that the lack of attention given to them, like Claudine Barretto’s character in Anak, is more important than the attention given to them. They don’t need material things, they don’t need tuition for school, they don’t need extra allowance, they don’t need a secure home and steady future: what they need is the only thing not given to them. Their parents rearing them, being with them, seeing them everyday.
That response to parental distance is not exactly wrong, but the movies made out of it make it appear that distance is the only reason why families break up, and why children lose their lines of communication with their parents. No one wants to go away, no one wants to work abroad and leave their children behind, no one wants to see them brought up by somebody else. But a family has to eat, kids have to go to school, young ladies need nice clothes for the prom, boys need boy things, the house must be repaired, your cousin Boyet has cancer, your Lolo Tasyo died and we have to pay for the coffin and the funeral parlor, and so on and so forth. Necessities pile up, so parents try their luck abroad and stay there for years. Children are left to stay with their lolos and lolas, or titos and titas. Parents send money once or twice a month, send boxes of imported goods, chocolates, clothes, love letters. Years go by. They go back. They see the worth of their sacrifice. Their children have all grown up. They don’t even recognize them, even if they send pictures once a year on their birthdays. But some things are lost, some things are left unsaid between them, or rather, some things are preferred not to be said. The distance mattered. From geographical to emotional, the distance continues to separate them.
But as I said, it is easy to hold the distance responsible. The homebreaker. The murderer of good relationships. We are so acquainted with these overseas worker stories that we tend to limit our understanding and segregate them into labeled “lucky” and “unlucky” boxes. In My Life closes the deal for me upon setting this matter straight. In this case, the son works abroad and the mother follows him, initially for a vacation. After mulling things over, or as it seems, she plans to stay for good. She thinks she has nowhere to go. Her daughter is migrating to Australia. Her former husband and her children prod her to agree to sell the house more than its worth. Staying in New York wouldn’t be a bad idea, especially that she is an American citizen by birth.
The baggage of family problems she carries dents the narrative. Apparently, working in another country is an issue here. But it is not what keeps her family apart. For one, her daughter and her family want to stay in Australia holding on the promise of better life. Her son works in New York after an opportunity given to him by his employer. Or—he chooses to stay because he wants the hell out of his boring life in the Philippines. Or—sounding more judgmental, maybe he just wants to have fun, collect strangers, knit love stories out of them and make himself happy. Or—we just don’t know how many reasons we can come up with. But I wish to raise my tone here. Distance is not the problem. It is the mother’s failure to bring up her children well.
As you see, the same producers who gave us Milan, Dubai, and Caregiver also made For The First Time and Love Me Again. Once love and work are set in another place, they become special. And In My Life is special in the virtue of the mother’s character as a failed one. She spent time with her children trying to raise them like any good mother does. She hardly listened to what they wanted because she thought she knew what’s best for them. She was there, as they all grew up. Along the way, her children made choices, and she was unaware that she was neglecting things that were important to them. Her son’s sexuality, her daughter’s dream of becoming a doctor, her husband’s unknown reason for splitting up. In defense of her character, she did her best. But she failed, and it took its toll on her. Gravely.
She had to realize it—so there goes the fish-out-of-the-water setup in New York. She meets her son’s partner who willingly guides her in the city. The partner is heavily used as a device to reveal her nature. Personally, it is the mother’s relationship with him—as opposed to the mother-son or mother-daughter or mother-herself relationship—that is integral to the film’s premise. The most beautiful part of the film is not when her son confesses to her about his childhood, but when she and her son’s partner exchange snide remarks after the wake, and they argue and throw rocks of guilt at each other. From then on the doubt we raised on her character becomes truth. She has no one to blame for her suffering but herself.
The woman who plays the mother tries hard to be young, which might be the pattern of her recent films. It is not a bad path after all, for one has to graduate from doing the same things for a long time. She has comedic timing, and she has dramatic prowess. When she complains, “Ginagawa niya akong turista! Ikaw ang pinunta ko rito, hindi ‘yung tour!” we laugh because she is witty. When she throws a tantrum after getting lost in the subway, we hate her. Apart from knowing that it was her fault, we can’t stand the charming partner being blamed despite his niceness by an ingrate. It crossed my mind to call her character one of the weakest roles ever written for her, but that’s just because Shirley Templo isn’t too likable. She is repulsive most of the time. Reflecting, the actor has portrayed “unlikable” characters before, even taboo roles for that matter, yet we still like her. But in In My Life, her role tends to go beyond understanding; you just need to be her to understand her. Yet the actor delivers; she deceives us.
But the blood of the film flows from the actor who plays the son’s partner. Amid the histrionics and uneven noise of the film in general, he shows his restraint without fuss. Apparently the writers intend to make his character subdued. He exists in the periphery without losing his grip. When he cries at his partner’s back as he hugs him on the bridge, he is the equivalent of sacrifice. Never show the pain, never show the loneliness. That’s us, on the screen. The brief exposure of his family’s life is enough for us to connect with him. Contrary to the emphasis given to the mother’s family, we would like to know him more, know if the lump in his mother’s breast is just a false alarm, know if he’s just fine after crying overnight. We learn about his troubles in staying in the States, how he juggles work and hobby, how he struggles to earn for his marriage. God forbid, we don’t want him to fall into the arms of Pamela. His issues are more interesting, yet what makes him special is that like most people around us, we only get to know him up to a certain extent. He comes and goes. We miss him. We want to see if he’s fine. His distance unsettles us, in a good way.
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that these locations that the producers choose are just a way to make more money. They could show it abroad and Filipinos there would flock to the theaters, filled with expectations of connecting with the film one way or another, see their lives projected on screen, see themselves in the characters. It’s some sort of self-discovery. They want to be intimate with themselves, see how it works, see their situations from afar, observe how other people react. Their identification with the characters is what they paid the tickets for. If they don’t shed a tear, that’s disappointment. But more often they just find ways to connect. They look at the nuances with affection, checking if the characters reacted the same way they did in similar situations. Audiences seek connection, and if they don’t find it, they create it. Even if the film is more of an examination of their faults as parents and children than the circumstances that brought them where they are.