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Amigo (John Sayles, 2010) December 7, 2010

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Cinemanila, Indie Sine.
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Written and directed by John Sayles
Cast: Joel Torre, Rio Locsin, Garret Dillahunt, Chris Cooper

The dichotomy in Amigo is loud and clear. Two sides: the Filipino and the American. The setting: the tail end of the Philippine-American War. Bonifacio was dead. Aguinaldo was the so-called president. Early on I thought John Sayles is making a joke. With some foreign dignitaries invited to watch the closing film of the Cinemanila International Film Festival, the Filipino dialogues in Amigo, which constitute more than half of the film, are not subtitled. I went on to think—sublimely, because of the cold—that from a joke Sayles is now making a statement. Maybe that’s part of his intent: them not having a chance to understand exactly what’s going on in the barrio the same way the Americans then never did. Clever, and indeed no one walked out. A patient group! I wonder what Ananda Everingham, who’s in the audience, must have felt in his seat. He might have thought of his father who swam across the Mekong River to fetch his dear wife from Laos to Thailand. He might have thought of their love story. He might have been moved to tears. But that affair happened in the late 70s. Amigo is set in the dawn of the twentieth century, so a seventy-year difference, considering Thailand and the Philippines are neighboring countries with a dramatic difference of colonial history, is only a matter of perspective, like, say, looking at Boy Abunda’s mirror. Anyway, there you go, the Philippine-American War, which lasted from February 1899 to June 1913, after the Mock Battle of Manila between Spain and America in August 1898, which must not be confused with the Battle of Manila, in which more than 2,000 Filipinos and 50 Americans were killed. So, who won the panjandrum?

John Sayles, of course, is a wise man. He knows my history better than I do, that much I can give. He can probably narrate the Philippine-American War history better than Gregorio Zaide, and in a more interesting demeanor. But Sayles, given away by his storytelling, is not a historian; he’s an interpreter, which is not to say that historians are not interpreters with the biggest balls. Like most great filmmakers, Sayles is a man interested in fiction inspired by history. In Amigo he is rather conscious of historical accuracy, which is just the right thing to be, but the setting does not hold water. We see the American soldiers, we see the Filipino “insurrectos,” we see the Spanish friar, we see the Chinese blabbering about their life, we see whores and horses; but except for their clothes, are you sure this is not 2010? Aren’t we looking at the spitting image of the Philippine-American War at present, the summary execution of insurgents, the extrajudicial killings of journalists, the Balikatan exercises, “Nicole,” and Noynoy’s continuous support of the American government? What is this, a set-up? Or do we get apprehended again for hyperbole?

I’m being unfair, of course. But ask anyone in the audience and not more than ten have a respectable idea of what the hell happened in the Philippine-American War. Maybe Kidlat knows. Or Spanky Manikan knows. Or Joel Torre knows. But the common people—ahem, us—what do we know? We just spent thirty minutes in Grade 3 discussing the Treaty of Paris and we laughed hard how cheap we were bought from the Damasos. The good thing about Amigo is that it doesn’t dwell on names and dates, which our elementary teachers were so wont to do. Sayles picks the meat and works on there, breads it, layers it with atmosphere, never mind if his chosen narrative is not as dramatic as, say, Platoon, or as ridiculous as Tropic Thunder. Sayles fulfills the American side of the coin with dexterity. The Yankees are so good at quips and puns. In fact, to be blunt, I enjoy the American parts more than the village plots, which probably speaks more about myself than the film. The subplots are more interesting than the whole, because the whole tries to be polite while the subplots are careless quirks that magically transform the flatness of the film into something unique. When things are reduced to metaphors, that’s when I freak out. Thank God no one tried to cast Gardo Versoza as a rebel. Come to think of it, why is it that in every period film set in the Philippines, either during the Spanish era or the American, there are always two characters that resemble RIzal and Bonifacio? Are they Adam and Eve? It must be tough being either one of them, always emulated like that. Anyway.

All the while I’ve been looking for some meaningful insight in Amigo but what I get are these beautiful and often funny postcards whose sender must have had a nice time scribbling on. It reeks of pertinence, but everything’s just floating up there. Since you know better, tell me, how come those three years of hamburgers and fries easily erased all the three hundred and thirty-three years of wine and the cross? Whose interpretation should we believe, and more importantly, whose context? You and whose army?

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