Brocka’s Children

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Critic After Dark

Pamilyang Ordinary
Directed by Eduardo W. Roy, Jr.

EDUARDO W. ROY, Jr.’s Pamilyang Ordinaryo (Ordinary People, 2016, now streaming on Netflix, with English subtitles) is one of the many and arguably one of the best recent films to continue the brand of social realism Lino Brocka helped initiate in Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975) — if anything, it raises the ante on challenges facing the eponymous couple. Aries (Ronwaldo Martin) and Jane (Hasmine Kilip) aren’t just homeless they’re homeless teens, not just homeless teens but married homeless teens, with a month-old child named Arjan (a portmanteau of both their names) dependent on their constant hustling, purse-snatching and shoplifting for sustenance.

Roy uses a largely handheld camera to capture 2016 Metro Manila, and his findings can be summarized in that classic US Marine acronym: SNAFU (“Situation Normal: All Fucked Up”) — Julio Madiaga in Brocka’s masterpiece struggled to live on the margins of this vast metropolitan sprawl and while Aries and Jane are younger, faster, far more agile, they face the same intimidating problems, with (if anything) a lower level of education.

On occasion Roy cuts to a surveillance camera (simply locked-down camera footage in black-and-white, with a time signature running on the upper right corner) and we see the urban digital equivalent of the Godlike point-of-view: the single eye looking down, serene, unmoving, dispassionately recording every passing moment. Roy often uses this shot as testimony to the couple’s various crimes, at one point generating considerable suspense (Jane walking past her marks — will she give up? Go through with it? Approach and beg for help?).

Early in the film, a plot twist — and suddenly the challenges Aries and Jane face become that much more challenging, perhaps impossible, to meet.

Along the way Roy touches on the different strata of society — the business owners who look on these two not just with indifference but hostility, and not without cause (Are they going to buy something? Steal something? Wreak havoc?); the police officers who seize the opportunity to do some sleazy sexual harassing (To Jane: “How old were you when you were first fucked? Did you enjoy it?”); the men and women who play on youthful gullibility (“Don’t you need a loan? You don’t have to pay me back just yet.”).

At one point we meet Jane’s mother (played with a flinty sharpness by Maria Isabel Lopez) and looking at her bitterly exhausted face you’re not much surprised that Jane would take to the streets (“Fuck this life,” the elder woman mutters, neatly summing up everyone’s feelings to date).

As for the upper class — they don’t even bother showing up for the film but have their domestic servants representing in their stead.

Some issues: Moira Lee plays Ertha, one of the adults who seem to care about these indigent youths and instead of chiding the film for showing a transgendered actor playing a negative role I’d rather say she’s proving transgendered actors can play any role, negative or positive (she’s very good for the record, wheedling and encouraging, charming and annoying, all at the same time).

Samples of public media responses to the couple’s flight raises a valid question: isn’t baby Arjan better off with a more materially wealthy couple? Jane brushes the arguments aside with more vehemence than reason; at one point she’s asked if she can recognize her babe and she says without hesitation — “Of course. I would recognize my child immediately. I’d know my own blood.” There are things, Jane seems to be saying, that no training or preparation can teach a mother, just as there are things a mother gives a child that no caretaker, no matter how wealthy, can easily substitute.

That’s Jane’s assertion and to Hasmine Kilip’s credit she presents them directly, with total conviction. That she’s easily fooled actually helps her case — she may be intimidated or turned on her head but she never tells a deliberate falsehood; she says exactly what she means, 100%. You stare at her face and for at least a passing moment, maybe longer, can’t help but be sold, however, mildly or partially, on the truth of her words.

A quick google survey shows improving figures on poverty incidence in the Philippines: 16.6% in 2018, down from 23.3% in 2015. That said the numbers remain staggering: 17.6 million Filipinos who don’t earn or possess the P2,145 (around $43) necessary to survive for a year. Of those, 4.5 million are homeless, with 3 million sleeping on sidewalks in Metro Manila alone, and some 200,000 teenagers became pregnant in 2017.

Of course given the information-gathering resources and techniques in the Philippines, these figures are woefully outdated (the latest statistic I’ve managed to uncover is from 2018); 200,000 pregnant teens sounds awful, but not all of them should be presumed homeless (hopefully). I wouldn’t argue that the figures are overstated however; if anything they’re probably understated, as none of these factors in the impact of Duterte’s campaign on illegal drugs (estimated 30,000 dead and counting) or the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) pandemic and its resulting lockdowns.

The point? Things are bad, not exactly getting worse, but there’s a long way to go for kids like Aries and Jane, not to mention a whole fresh set of problems (Roy at one point has the pair on a tin rooftop sniffing glue, and you think, “How long would they survive in the middle of Duterte’s drug war? And why are they targeted instead of the upper-level criminals supplying the drugs in that war?”). Roy, however, is no nihilist — despite everything, Aries and Jane manage somehow to hang on to their sense of humanity; if they lose everything else, at least they have that. Which isn’t saying much, but is definitely saying something.