Critic After Dark

Kundiman ng Lahi (Folksong)
Directed by Lamberto Avellana
Citizen Jake vimeo site

(Again, a film from LVN studios, available — without subtitles, alas — on Mike de Leon’s Citizen Jake vimeo website)

GIVE IT to master Filipino filmmaker Lamberto Avellana: he knows how to start a picture. Badjao had a horn blown to gather a village of house canoes, forming a seaborne village; Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay began with a detonating grenade; Anak Dalita evoked Roberto Rossellini in neorealist mode, tracing the ruin of a church from its fractured belfry to the people teeming at the base of its crumbling walls. Kundiman ng Lahi (Folksong, 1959), Avellana’s last film for LVN studios, trumps them all I think: no blown horn, no explosives, no church ruins, just the monotonous thumping of a wood pestle milling rice in a mortar. An obvious symbol — we’re the rice, the husk (our innocence, our sensitivity) pounded out of us by the relentless pestle — but also a sexual one, the phallic pestle pounding into the accepting mortar, turning hard seed into tender food.

Village lass Isang (Charito Solis) is enjoying the town fiesta when she receives bad news: her mother is dying. She ends up in the care of her Aunt Siyanang (Rosa Aguirre, who was Tony Santos’ martyr mother in Anak Dalita) and Uncle Teryo (Avellana stalwart Joseph de Cordova), who lent her mother money. Isang has debts to pay, so Siyanang has turned the girl Cinderella-style into their housemaid — washing clothes, cleaning house, cooking and serving food; worse, Teryo has noticed that the girl is growing in all kinds of ways.

There’s a claim that this is the first Filipino film to attempt a more open depiction of eroticism — I wonder about that. Gerardo de Leon’s Sisa has his heroine lusted after by four men (five if you count the director with his camera); Avellana’s own Anak Dalita has the imperious Rosa Rosal flaunting her endless limbs at the stoic Tony Santos, Sr. Avellana does put the eroticism front and center here more than in any of his previous films, using his intimate camera to film Teryo sitting down to dinner with Isang serving. Teryo insists that she sits and eats with him; the girl reluctantly complies, wiping away spilled soup when Teryo, sucking on a bottle of cheap gin, knocks the bowl with his hand. Each time the camera cuts to a different shot the lens is angled just so (presumably Teryo’s point of view) that we have a sidelong view of Isang’s creamy cleavage; inserted into the sequence are a series of closeups of Teryo’s face as he surreptitiously steals glances. What makes the scene however is that Isang isn’t being seductive at all; Solis plays the scene with casual ease, totally unconscious of her effect on her uncle — when she finally has a glimmer of an idea that he’s paying too much attention (a stare held a moment too long) she immediately tries to cover up, an act of modesty all the more provocative for being sincere, if belated.

Her modesty, a pink ribbon tied in a bow across her undeniably sensual figure (the bow is like a red flag to men: it calls out to you to undo the knot), is the complication that drives much of the plot. Isang loves honest Tonio but Siyanang doesn’t approve; on the other hand Isang needs to earn a better salary (to pay off her debts faster of course) so Teryo with Siyanang’s approval takes her to a “salon” (headed by Oscar Keesee, of course, in habitual villain mode) to become a taxi dancer. When Isang points out the contradictions in her adoptive parents’ treatment, Siyanang and Teryo have the same answer: this is for your own good. Isang resists as modesty demands, but when Teryo attempts to rape her (a scene that has apparently been cut out of this only surviving copy) she moves out and ends up working there anyway. If Isang and her fellow townspeople represent traditional Filipino values, said salon represents a more modern Philippines, frank in its recognition of the sexual needs of today’s men, practical about the impulse to sell anything and anyone to survive.

Enter Vic Silayan’s Jaime, a rich playboy with a snazzy convertible (a Pontiac Silver Streak if I’m not mistaken) — the look of thrilled joy Isang throws over her shoulder as he carries her away from the chaos in the club (Jaime had started a fight), shot verite style with the shaky camera apparently mounted on another car, is about the happiest she’s ever been, and arguably a poignant high point in the film — poignant because it’s so unexpected and you know it’s strictly temporary: she’s in for more suffering, and this is just the setup prior.

Jaime tries to seduce her, but she won’t have any of it; she may be a taxi dancer, but she’s a taxi dancer on her terms, however unlikely that may sound. If her modesty is the film’s narrative motor, the way it bends and deforms to adapt to circumstances is her character’s narrative arc.

Isang eventually turns to Tonio and — in possibly the one break granted her in the film — he unquestioningly accepts her. Again modern life intrudes: Isang has done the most traditional thing she can possibly do (marry her true love), but for the sake of her considerable debts her husband has to abandon farming in favor of a job at a concrete factory. The rest of the film is spent wondering when Isang’s past will catch up to her which, knowing the trajectory of her life so far and the conventions these melodramas follow, it eventually will.

Avellana is serving up a potboiler here, no doubt about it: a chance to display Charito Solis’ physical charms while at the same time presenting traditional Filipino morality’s struggle to make sense in modern times, in a way that titillates yet ultimately satisfies audiences’ sense of right and wrong (Skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film!). Isang doesn’t want to be a taxi dancer but is forced to do so when her uncle attempts to rape her; she gives herself to the man she loves but goes to the church the very next day to marry; later Siyanang, on learning the truth about Teryo, reconciles with Isang. People’s values are bent but not quite broken, and with a little belated action and a lot of forgiveness everything comes out more or less right in the end. Perhaps the only real injustice that lingers past the end credit is Tonio’s fate: ironic that of all the men Isang knows he would treat her the cruelest; like in Yasujiro Ozu’s A Hen in the Wind, the husband’s anger is sadistic in its sense of betrayal — is especially sadistic because society and social mores back up his indignation. Avellana does pay the self-righteous prig back a little — the co-worker who corrects Tonio’s delusions beats him up and humiliates him (Avellana’s gift for comedy on brief display here) but the payback feels inadequate: what Tonio really needs, you feel, is a knee to the groin, not his wife back.

But all this is incidental, is arguably shallow if clever posturizing; what Avellana is really after, I suspect, is the spectacle of a woman suffering. Solis is a simple fresh-faced beauty, but her beauty really comes into its own with a touch of adversity: the death of a mother, domestic slavery, attempted rape, a husband’s wrath — she’s never more gorgeous than when she’s facing the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, here being more outrageous than usual. You wonder what the title has to do with the film — beyond the vague statement “this is how Filipino life is like” — until finally, with Tonio collapsed and snoring drunk, and Isang, having freshly endured verbal and physical spousal abuse, pleads to his sweatstained back. Solis isn’t acting with much — her hair hides her face like a veil, and her voice struggles to keep control. The song’s lovely melody sneaks into the scene, and in silence Isang performs a small act of tenderness. Avellana has used his camera in an emphatic manner throughout the picture to point up the melodrama, leading up to this moment; here he’s as chaste as Isang has always claimed to be (and largely is), with the camera sitting at a discreet distance (a tatami-mat shot worthy of Ozu), and quietly delicately breaks our heart. Not perhaps Avellana’s best work, but it’s up there.