Working Girls (Ishmael Bernal, 1984) October 16, 2011Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Lagarista, Noypi, Trip to Quiapo.
Written by Amado Lacuesta
Directed by Ishmael Bernal
Cast: Hilda Koronel, Chanda Romero, Carmi Martin, Rio Locsin, Gina Pareño
On the surface, the first team-up of writer Amado Lacuesta and director Ishmael Bernal is rather unlikely. Prior to the release of Working Girls in 1984, Lacuesta was a bank executive in Makati, working his way up the company ladder, and Bernal had already been making movies for more than a decade, including the highly regarded works Manila By Night, Himala, and Broken Marriage. Lacuesta’s background was focused on business, Bernal on art and its many limbs. Both showed remarkable success in their fields, and their paths wouldn’t have crossed if one of them hadn’t chased his other dream.
Noted for writing dialogues in his pad of paper at work, Lacuesta pursued writing on the side. Having little exposure to film production did not discourage him to submit a script to a competition organized by the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. A few years later he was asked to write a screenplay for Viva Films, which producers Tony Gloria and Vic del Rosario picked up to advance the careers of some of the industry’s biggest stars then—Rio Locsin, Carmi Martin, Chanda Romero, Hilda Koronel, Baby Delgado, and Gina Pareño—and to introduce newcomers like Edu Manzano and Cesar Montano. Bernal agreed to direct Working Girls, and it went on to become one of Viva’s critical and commercial triumphs. More importantly, its writer, given a pat on the shoulder, began to take movie projects as part of his day job.
Lacuesta needs to be mentioned early because he is seldom championed by film writers, while in fact, looking back on his relatively short career in cinema, one realizes he has never written a second-rate script. Even Mumbaki (Butch Perez, 1996), which tells the story of a man returning to his roots in Ifugao to serve as a town doctor, a material that works outside Lacuesta’s artistic comfort zone, holds up very well because it strikes a good balance between heavy research and emotional sensitivity. For Working Girls, apparently, he does not have to conduct research. His many years of work in Makati have provided him enough knowledge to write a script whose characters are anything but forced. He has lived in the environment: watching presentations at board meetings, observing secretaries share gossips, putting up with the formality of dinner cocktails, sneering at office politics that thrives whenever somebody gets promoted or when the stock market plunges into an all-time low. His dialogues do not sound scripted; on the contrary, his pen makes graceful strokes however complicated the plots may be.
“Sabel! This must be looooove!”
One important reason for its success is its colorful characterization. Carla (Hilda Koronel) holds one of the top positions in Premium Bank and is being considered for promotion. Her closest rival is Raul (Tommy Abuel), a womanizer who gets her secretary, Isabel (Rio Locsin), pregnant. Raul, however, has his eyes on Amanda (Baby Delgado), an executive from Property Management Seminars who faces stiff competition with Nimfa (Gina Pareño), a single mother who earns a living selling jewelry to employees of both companies, returning every week to bring new items and collect payment. Rose (Maria Isabel Lopez) cannot pay Nimfa on time, so she asks help from her friend, Khris (Joel Lamangan), and she eventually concedes to prostituting her body for easy money. Anne (Chanda Romero) has less financial problems than Rose, but her marriage is slowly falling apart. Taking no notice of their troubles is Suzanne (Carmi Martin), the voluptuous secretary (read: office slut) who seduces old executives and willingly offers her “assets” to them.
It goes without saying that Working Girls champions women, but it is not hampered by any feminist intentions. It still plays on stereotypes about women being inferior to men (read: male chauvinist pigs) but the movie shows them only to make fun of them. Lacuesta and Bernal, both male, treat women as women: they flirt, they hurt, they fall in love, they fall out of love, they work their way to the top, they make stupid decisions. That’s the movie’s firearm of feminism: women are not different. Their brains are bigger than their boobs, as Joyce Jimenez wittily points out in Narinig Mo Na Ba ang L8est? (Jose Javier Reyes, 2001), but there are times when their boobs take control and it’s perfectly fine. Their imperfections only make them more attractive. Their sexual needs do not make them less of a person, and their efforts to please the men they like demonstrate how society is turning the tables for the better.
Almost eighty percent of the film happens at the workplace, and even when the characters are staying home or dining at a restaurant, they still talk about work. Working Girls is driven by the idea that career makes or breaks a person’s life at a certain point, and Makati in 1984, booming and becoming the city’s center of business, is the place to be for people who want to succeed. Dirty old men, social climbers, office bullies, doltish receptionists: they’re all there, haggling to keep their heads above water. Bernal has an eye for structural design and cinematic space, complementing the supposedly monotonous interiors with shots of streets and skyscrapers, taking pleasure in adding fine details like old-fashioned taxis and advertisements lit by neon colors at night. Unlike Star Cinema movies that depict the middle-class, Working Girls presents people who are not alienated from their surroundings. The characters’ wealthy backgrounds are not just an excuse to shoot in luxurious locations or to have them talk about their luxurious lives (read: No Other Woman). When Carmi Martin screams “Sabeel! This must be looooove!” and Edu Manzano calls her to his office and reciprocates her feelings, it’s nothing short of brilliant, the kind of humor that doesn’t leave a bad taste of camp in the mouth.
Jose Javier Reyes, in one of the lowest points of his career, dared to remake Working Girls in 2010. He took the liberty of using the same title and said that his version was intended to pay tribute to Lacuesta and Bernal, unaware that he only did them a disservice. He filled in the shoes of writer and director and fell short on both. For one, he failed to realize that in Lacuesta’s world, hindi lang bata ang lumalandi. Men and women in their thirties and fourties aren’t promiscuous: they are liberated. They have lives outside the bedroom. Lacuesta knows how executives talk to fellow executives and how common employees try to make ends meet and still manage to have some fun after. They are humorous because they are intelligent. Bernal was aware of all of these, and obviously he didn’t have a hard time making the great script work.
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