By Carmen Aquino Sarmiento
Written and directed by Roman Santillan-Perez, Jr.
THE PROSPECT of two spectacularly gorgeous, half-naked (but only their upper halves, for this movie is rated R-16) young women getting it on with each other for around a third of this nearly two-hour long feature, will surely draw in the curious crowds. However, the story of Adan, with its boldly unconventional take on the patriarchy, is more complicated than titillating, with artfully shot scenes of the taga-bundok (hillbilly) Ellen (Rhen Escano) gallivanting in sheer dresses which show off her nipples. She is practically unschooled. Her overly possessive father Lucas (Bembol Roco) was deeply traumatized by his wife’s Mara (Maui Taylor) taking off, and leaving him to raise their little daughter on his own. Thus, the mag-ama (family) have lived essentially as hermits for the last decade: off-the-grid, in near total rustic isolation, with only poultry and livestock for company.
Santillan-Perez’s subversive agenda is first glimpsed at the expression of absolute malice which creases tiny Ellen’s face as her father cradles her in his arms, to console her for her mother’s abandonment. Later, the adolescent Ellen takes out her frustration over her bleak rural existence, by wringing the neck of a duck which had inadvertently pecked her. Living so close to nature has not soothed the savage beast within, but has instead brought out her baser animal instincts. Ellen is overly suspicious, mistrustful, impulsively violent and prone to impute the worst motives to other human beings.
Apart from her aging father, Ellen’s only other human contact comes, mostly vicariously, through her decrepit transistor radio. Thus, she is pathetically overjoyed with the monthly visits by her older bestie Marian (Cindy Miranda, Bb. Pilipinas Tourism 2013) who also conveniently brings Ellen her feminine hygiene supplies. When Ellen first gets her period, her father gruffly hands her a wad of basahan (cleaning cloths) and instructs her to use these as a pasador (the washable pre-World War II cloth napkins which are making a comeback in this age of global warming and climate change). Touchingly, Ellen sniffs the pristine manufactured sanitary pads which Marian provides. Come to think of it, Marian might have done better to take Ellen to the bayan (town proper) so that she could get away from the farm for a change. When Ellen has to buy pads on her own, she chooses them through her sense of smell since she cannot make out the labels.
There is a brief flashback to a few years earlier, when a pubescent Ellen rebelliously runs away to the city. Lost and totally confused, she is reduced to cowering on the pavement by nightfall. This is where the older teenage Marian finds her, and takes her under her wing. It is the beginning of their lasting friendship, and then some. They declare their love and loyalty to one another, but neither seems to have any realistic plans as to which direction the rest of their lives together might take. These young woman are not particularly articulate, but this film definitely passes the Bechdel-Wallace Test which, among other factors, asks whether a creative piece (literature, theater, or film) features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man whom one of them is interested in.
Adan was based on a story by Yam Laranas. Jonison Fontanos co-wrote the screenplay. One wishes that there had been more of a backstory about the very capable and unflappable Marian. How does a mere cahera (cashier) in a small town hardware store, muster the guts and the muscle to carry out three gory murders: one in a beerhouse, curiously and conveniently devoid of staff or other customers except for the victim, and another with a claw hammer in a police station? How did she come to be on the streets herself when she and Ellen first meet, and already be so savvy at such a tender age? As a young adult, Marian does not seem to have any family or friends either, other than Ellen the mountain girl. They are both outsiders who cling to each other, because they have no one else.
Meanwhile, being alone most of the time, after finishing up with her household chores, Ellen avidly engages in self-exploration, fondling and fingering herself. Deprived of any formal education, her nubile body becomes her curriculum. Torn pages from a porn magazine are her visual aids. Ms. Escano’s cherubic face and matter-of-factness about getting naked, make these not your typically steamy pene or S.T. (penetration or sex trip) sequences. Ellen delightedly exclaims “Hooy!” when Marian first kisses her. During the film’s premiere at the UP Cine Adarna, a student asked if there was something symbolic about Marian’s always bringing Ellen a chocolate candy bar during her visits. Eppy Quizon who plays the police inspector tracking the two women, mischievously suggested that she reflect on the significance of having Ellen and Marian eat tahong (mussels) together.
The bond between Ellen and Marian as two oppressed and virtually alone social outcasts, reminds one of the solidarity between the marginalized Thelma and Louise (Thelma and Louise, 1991). Their violence and the nihilistic end, also recalls the films (e.g., Sister My Sister, 1994) about the notoriously murderous Papin sisters of Paris, who had also became each other’s incestuous lesbian lover. Their committing murder together was a form of sisterly solidarity and an expression of despair at their being among society’s lowliest: they were orphans and housemaids. Psychoanalysts have called their joint madness a “twin delirium,” which might explain Ellen and Marian’s extreme actions in the end. Unfortunately, this may also imply that lesbians like Ellen and Marian are unhinged and dangerous, even psychotic and perverse. It marginalizes them further.
Ms. Escano explained why a film about two women in love should be titled Adan, after the first man. It seems that just as God made Adam the first man, Marian and Ellen had made each other their own respective Adam’s. The persistence of a male symbol as the chosen metaphor for the loved one, speaks volumes of the indomitability of the patriarchy.
Another audience member was offended at Ellen’s flippant reason for wanting to get away from her dull peasant life, even if it meant committing murder and manipulating the one woman who truly loved her: kasi amoy tae (because it stinks of shit). The audience member felt that remark was derogatory towards Filipino farmers, and rural life in general. The director Santillan-Perez assured him that he had not meant any disrespect towards peasants. He was actually quite concerned about how the children of aging farmers did not wish to follow in their parents’ risk-filled and poorly rewarded footsteps. And who can blame them? As the old Depression-era song goes: “How’re you gonna keep them down on the farm, after they’ve seen New York?”