Sagwan (Monti Parungao, 2009) July 15, 2010Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Indie Sine, Noypi, Queer.
Directed by Monti Parungao
Cast: Ryan Dungo, Dennis Torres, Martina Wilson
Just when everyone thought that UP Cine Adarna was the newest gay bar in Quezon City came the premiere of Sagwan. It’s February last year, much like the premiere of Ang Lalake sa Parola in September 2007, when gay pride was on, and gay was every man in sight. It was a field day like no other. Cheers and jeers welcomed Sagwan. On one hand, it sated the crowd with unrelenting exposures of manhood and rigorous sexual activity. Prudence was not a virtue. Every gay eye magnified every movement as little as a bobbing dick. Clammy history, sodden with sin and surprise, was writing itself. On the other, it sated MTRCB’s exhibitionistic thirst for self-righteousness. After receiving complaints that UP Cine Adarna was being a “haven for pornographic films”—allegedly after “UP No Place for Gay Porno” came out in Manila Bulletin, a column by Mario Bautista whose sentiments were more institutional than personal, leaning on trite terms such as “artistic freedom”, “artistically well done”, and “artistic merits”—the University was threatened by another challenge to its immunity from censorship. Its producers cried foul after Sagwan rowed with a double X-rating. Off the top of everyone’s mind is this: Could the film sail through after its premiere and be allowed public screenings? A no-brainer, of course. It could, and it did. After the scissors of morality get in the way, Sagwan opened the First Queeriosity International Film Festival a week later.
Too bad I wasn’t there for the fine spectacle. Premieres like this are like being trapped in a shelter during a strong typhoon and finding representatives of every group with you, seeking refuge in the wonder about to come. It is Noah’s Ark only Noah is not aware of the vast homogeneity of his people; and instead of sixty days, the Ark is built only to last for two hours. People stay a half hour more for politesse, minding their P’s and Q’s without losing the thrill of the occasion. Clearly, what I hold now is the artifact that MTRCB deems fit for public viewing, the objet d’art it considers a morally sound film: the local video release of Sagwan. From what I see here—in this version already lacking in lust and lewdness, devirginized by the priests and priestesses of local cinema—MTRCB has foiled another coup to make its vestigial presence known, a vestige which, according to the dictionary, is “a degenerate or imperfectly developed organ or structure that has little or no utility, but that in an earlier stage of the individual or in preceding evolutionary forms of the organism performed a useful function”. That’s a long definition but you may stop at “a degenerate…” and the thought is still complete.
With the publicity it garnered after the premiere, it is rather unfortunate that the video release of Sagwan has more voice-overs than sex. Imagine—or if it gives you the creeps to imagine, just toy with the idea—the narration is tackier than the blowjobs. How regretful is that? The deprived viewer has the right to expect smut and enjoy it, but halfway through the film hovers that strong hunch that (1) it could never get any better; (2) completely nothing in it is worth fantasizing; and (3) this may not be Sagwan. The third, of course, is a wishful thought that the film and its director, Monti Parungao, do not deserve. Not even a pinch. Parungao co-writes Sagwan with Arnold Mendoza and together it becomes clear that neither of them knows how to write. They trust Alfred (Ryan Dungo), an eighteen-year-old virgin who makes a living ferrying tourists, to thrust his libido right in our face only to drown us in misery. Come on, give us a break—Alfred doesn’t look like eighteen; and worse, he doesn’t look like a virgin. As he rows his boat, he seems to argue with me: “Hanggang ngayon malinis ako. Lalaking birhen kung tawagin. Hindi dahil wala akong libog sa katawan. Sino ba namang aayaw sa sarap ng pagpaparaos?” Oh, really. That he has to be a virgin is a cheap excuse to convince us that he is also attracted to men, particularly to his close friend Eman (Dennis Torres) who is hitting on him and his girlfriend Cecilia (Martina Wilson). Attaboy! There is also an abundance of boatmen in sight—after all, Pagsanjan is a tourist destination—and there’s the treat of glimpsing at shirtless men whose chests are more expressive than their faces. They also wear shorts that are sadly shorter than their dialogues. If you remember these scenes very well, as clear as the mole in Eman’s face, nothing is wrong with you. The photography is exquisite.
Telling that is already exhausting. And I haven’t even told you the part that aside from transporting tourists the tour guides also moonlight in the sex trade, though that need not be said. Gay films nowadays lose that surprise to make them tick. It no longer takes a serious moviegoer to know where the story is going to lead. Sagwan is predictable all throughout, though its predictability wavers as much as it stagnates, which makes it a pain to watch. It doesn’t care to be watchable—it just cares to waste our time. Alfred’s confusion on his sexuality might be good if he doesn’t look so constipated, or if he reads books like Antonio does in Ang Lihim ni Antonio, or if he minds to zip his mouth and quit pouting. How come writers forget that their characters need to be interesting? And how come sex is always a commodity of boring self-reflection? Anyway, back to the story, if there is much to tell, Alfred doesn’t want his little soldier be touched by another man. He stands firm on not swinging both ways. His girlfriend is inarticulate—which is one way of saying that she is mute—who goes horny when her period comes near. She is subservient to Alfred, prepares him meals and watches him eat, but her subservience serves no purpose aside from emphasizing that she is a woman. Revealing that she was abused by her father, Parungao dropping hints here and there before eventually resorting to “akin ka lang, akin”, it becomes clear that the film’s concern is not to present her misfortune but to disgrace her even more, putting him in sheets between two men who have never quite learned the difference between a vagina and an ass. It felt awful watching the scene in the end without knowing that it’s ending there, completely bothered by that scary thought that it would go on finding more people to join their sex, share worse voice-overs, and eventually give us aneurysm. One clever device, though, that unlocks the mystery: as Alfred reaches his first orgasm, there goes the rotten flashback that explains the riddle providing the film’s only sign of acknowledging its medium. There is plot after all. Good grief.
That final scene is executed with grave intentions in mind. It illustrates the heaviest statement of the film, as it shows Alfred, Cecilia, and Eman spooning and eventually doing their thing. Whatever that statement is, I may not be too smart to interpret it, for I really don’t know what to say. The scene revels in its own worldliness that reading its textures, especially by someone who hasn’t experienced yet the thrill of threesome, would seem too pretentious. It’s better to leave you with Alfred’s words instead, who, among the three, is the only participant allowed to speak his mind and share his good feeling. He ponders, “Labing-walong taong sakit ng puson. Labing-walong taong tinitiis ko at hinihintay ang oras na ‘to. Sa wakas, nakaraos din ako.” Nice, how meaningful. Is it just me or these are lines that even full-blooded queers would cringe at? And laugh hard at after realizing how earnest they were delivered? Swear, from start to finish, Sagwan would make you feel very smart. That’s two hours of hearty consolation, if you were ever thinking of any. As Alfred continues to reflect, “Di nga siguro importante kung sino ang ka-sex mo. Ang importante kung ano ang pakiramdam ng ginagawa sa ‘yo.” Of course. You need a Master’s degree to know that.
Sagwan isn’t meant—nor could it ever aspire—to be this generation’s Boatman, which was also set in Pagsanjan and caused its director, Tikoy Aguiluz, trouble and controversy. Its star, Ronnie Lazaro, shared in an interview with Lourd de Veyra that Boatman “dealt him severe emotional trauma” and up to now he still feels uncomfortable being asked about the film. While Boatman enjoys cult popularity, Sagwan brings back the “trash movie aesthetic”, the kind of badly made films that makes you rethink its merits because it reminds you of the classic Susan Sontag note: “The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful. . .” Sagwan, in all its awfulness, could only be good years from now, when its reputation has grown so strong that future viewers will be looking at its terrible story with fondness, finding a way to satisfy their need for nostalgic irony. Murder, incest, rape, and a whole bunch of offensive crap seem to crowd Sagwan with depth but they only serve to impress and to rid itself of “guilt” by touching on relevant themes. Just when you thought it will emphasize the paddle as a phallic symbol, it only comes close to using it as a murder weapon. But even seeing that, we still don’t care.
Its lack of coherence only proves weakness; but if we were to follow the Sontag ideal—in her landmark essay on Camp which points out: “. . . even though homosexuals have been its vanguard, Camp taste is much more than homosexual taste”—Sagwan is less a Camp movie than a product of Camp moviegoing. Its action-packed nudity caters to the hungry desire to bring the big fat dick back to the big screen, which Ang Lalake sa Parola proved possible three years ago. It is also worthy to take note that while Sagwan is by all means dreadful—and its idea of what we expect from the movies is so low it’s insulting—its followers, particularly those who attended the premiere, are the ones slowly carving its place in movie history. Whether Sagwan is the crowning glory of gay cinema or a smelly and crunchy piece of shit is somewhat inferior to the impact it already made. Two important people I am quoting here: first, Sontag again, in which she says, “Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste”; and The Bakla Review, who stands side by side with Manila Gay Guy in championing queer culture—having made a great impact on the gay community in the last few years—and he who includes Sagwan in his Ten Most Important Filipino Gay Films of the Decade and tells: “Like Live Show in 2001, or Larry Flynt’s Hustler, we may find [that] our right to see what we want, or to say what we want, rests on a silly little underdog—a far-from-perfect, but vital, piece of trashy art.”
I just wish our censors, lacking both good taste and good taste of bad taste, had nothing to do with Waste Management.