Lola (Brillante Mendoza, 2009) October 21, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemanila, Festival, Indie Sine, Noypi.
Directed by Brillante Mendoza
Written by Linda Casimiro
Cast: Anita Linda, Rustica Carpio, Tanya Gomez, Jhong Hilario
Rumor has it that Lola was admired in the Venice Film Festival because the audience there was moved by the glaring similarity between their city and our own. The sight of the surrounding waters and the boats that transport people from one place to another in the film may have reminded them of the lovely canals and gondolas of their city. They may have been particularly impressed by our gondeliers who don’t wear shirts even if the weather is cold. Seeing the rows of houses built on these high waters may have caused them to cringe—because they lack the beauty of their own monuments and buildings, the bridges that connect them together, and the romantic feeling that one gets while looking at them. Surely, our Venice is no place to propose a marriage. The audience may have also related to the strong rains and flooding, which they have come to regard as common occurrences in their everyday life since their city was built. They know how it feels like living above water. They even have tourists visiting them just to look at their life. The stories about the sinking of Venice may have also crossed their mind. But supposing the rumor is true, what could possibly be wrong with their emotional familiarity with the film?
Just to clarify, we don’t call them gondolas. We call them boats because boats are used in our small rivers in the province. We don’t call them canals too. They’re just plain and simple “flowing water” to us, not “streets paved with water” because we really have streets—they’re just covered with water. What we refer to as canals are often clogged with garbage that has been there for thousands of years. “Estero” is often used, though it is pejorative, which apparently the Spanish origin of the word is not. We just love to address things in their pejoratives. When you live near the “estero,” you live in the shanty district of the city. Flies mix into your food, rats run beside you as you sleep, and you’re fine with it. It’s easy to get used to the smell. The rows of houses built on these high waters are houses for sure, mostly made of concrete and metal, but some are makeshift shacks made of whatever things their owners can find—scraps of wood, tin cans, cardboards, fabric, tarpaulins, anything to cover their homes from the sun and rain. Their foundations may be strong but we can’t be sure in ten years. We are not sure if Sitio Ilog in Malabon is sinking but aquifers are impossible to find there. We are not sure what the ground is made of because we haven’t really seen how it looks like for a long time. Interestingly, we call these shacks “barong-barong,” and we call our national dress for men “Barong Tagalog.” Furthermore, it is politically incorrect to call these people living in shanties “squatters.” We are advised to call them “urban settlers” because they really are urban settlers.
We have tourists, and they also come to visit us to look at our life but we’re sure they are not happy about it. Yes, they admire our resilience, our smiles amid the misery, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re pathetic. At the height of the relief operations for the victims of typhoon Ondoy, we see American soldiers stoked by the gleam in these people’s eyes as they receive the goods to feed themselves with after the disaster. But until when they’ll have something to eat we’re not really sure. We can only be sure that the relief goods are temporary. After a certain period of time, as if taken hostage by ailing memory, we go back to the state of calamity that is not caused by natural calamity, but by political calamity, historical calamity, and calamity by natural selection.
We also eat typhoons for breakfast—we have them all year long. Like Venice, we are used to periodic flooding, heavy downpours, and high tides, but we are more wary of tsunamis and landslides. We have landslides even in the city, and recently it is taking its toll on wealthy subdivisions. Flood is one thing; but flooded all year ’round is another. Sitio Ilog in Malabon, Metro Manila, which is the main setting of Lola, is one of our little Venices, with floodwater that never subsides even during summer. The film’s main emotional thrust comes from the mere sight of the place, and while it does not attempt to make the situation of its people dramatic, it appeals like a news story, made compelling just by its telling and the footage that comes along with it.
Brillante Mendoza has always been up for challenges, and among those challenges is either choosing a subject that will fit his location or choosing a location that will fit his subject. Whichever way, he gets the benefit of his interesting subjects. But unfortunately they don’t always work. The danger of his realism is knowing that it can break down any minute, that its fragility can open its doors to failure anytime. There are times when being fragile works though, if it is carefully sustained like Kinatay, but upon seeing Lola and looking back at the experience of seeing Foster Child two years ago, Mendoza seems to go back to that safe road of throwing in brilliant moments to make up for his inability to be terse.
When an argument is repeated, it is meant for emphasis. But when an argument is already sound, and this argument is repeated a number of times, it can only account for indulgence, which is not bad if the intention reaches out to emotions other than anger and depression. But what if that is the intention? And what if that has always been the intention? In the arts, realism often equates to the sordid. Fundamental to the realists are truth and accuracy. While realism, especially in the Philippines, is naturally depressing, it should also be awakening. But realism, if it still needs to be pointed out, should not only be reflected—it should also be interpreted. Unfortunately that’s when Mendoza takes his realism for granted, the part when he has to interpret, the part when he has to lobby the underlying advocacy of his films, the part when he not only needs to put his ear to the ground but also every part of himself.
He is an observer alright. But observers, to be effective, must relay their observations clearly and punctiliously. These observations are used to come up with assumptions—hypotheses which, no matter how far-fetched and maligned, help to find solutions to the problem. Mendoza has strong observations on old age, on human suffering, and on the dragging inefficiency of our political system in general. Suffice it to say that the details of Lola are overwhelming. Problems ooze from various directions: social (robbery and prison), economic (the grandmothers’ struggle for a living), spiritual (faith and resilience), personal (relationships of the characters with each other) and environmental (rains and flood). These are well-founded observations. These happen. These are real. But Mendoza has not able to put them to good use. He hasn’t able to capture the interest in their conflicting realities and the force to make them coherent—that while the theme itself is embracing these stories to drive his point across, the narrative suffers from his graceless hand, from his haphazard way of making us feel the agony of the grandmothers’s fate.
It is easy to be carried away by some of the scenes because they are really effective. The closeups of Anita Linda and Rustica Carpio are like images of endless grief, the lines on their faces trace every hardship they had to bear. The expression of weariness seems to be sculpted on them. Anita Linda walking in a small alley, calling out her grand-grandson, shouting, and eventually glimpsing at a corpse, is harrowing to the bone. The funeral procession also holds the same feeling, only magnified to achieve a cruel epiphany. The aerial shot of boats moving forward makes it poignant, during which the silence among audience members could only mean commiseration. Rustica Carpio’s tedious walk down the stairs, holding on to the rail in every step, validates our sympathy to her. That oddball sequence of catching fish in their flooded house—with every family member delighted by the strange discovery—seems more like an inadvertent parody of Mendoza’s popularity in foreign festivals. In Lola‘s brilliant moments, clearly, Teresa Barrozo’s music becomes their life.
There is a reason why people advise you to take your time. There is a reason why some films take years to be finished, and ultimately there is a reason why some films are not finished. To finish a film just for the sake of finishing it—or to be able to participate in a prestigious festival, perhaps—isn’t criminal, in fact it’s mostly reasonable, but it also risks the respect of your peers. While foreign press will not be able to discern the cities of Manila, Mandaluyong, and Malabon, and how they are illogically connected in the narrative, your fellow countrymen will. Foreign festivals are gluttons for punishment, and sadly the film community in your country is slowly turning into that too.
Now we go back to our question in the beginning. What could possibly be wrong with the foreign audience’s emotional familiarity with Lola? Nothing. Film appreciation is interesting because it is personal,and not entirely cultural. It is solely dependent on the person’s taste—his individuality. And Lola is a good example to illustrate this, a pressing case that will fuel discussions on perception. It is impossible not to be moved by its reality, but it stops when it has already accomplished that reality. We ask, should a film cease from continuing its social study when its objective of representing reality is already done? Isn’t that hit and run? Is the film helping our condition if it only continues to dignify our resilience? Our patron saint of words Conrado de Quiros says, “The other face of resilience is a long-suffering people. Or worse, the other face of resilience is an uncomplaining people.” Because when the credits start to roll, we just sit back there and give the film a courtesy clap.