Jino to Mari (Gino and Marie)
Directed by Joselito Altarejos
JOSELITO ALTAREJOS’ Jino to Mari (Gino and Marie, 2019), about a pair of sex workers hired to do a Japanese porn film, is (to put it mildly) fairly explicit — about as explicit as a Filipino independent film probably gets nowadays without actually being porn.
Gino is a callow 18-year-old (though at one point he claims 17) who services gay clients to help out grandmother and younger sister, Marie is a single mother of 25; both are recruited by a common friend to do a Japanese porn film for P10,000 each (around $192) and are bused and shipped past forest and sea to a remote location (Cagbalete Island in Quezon Province).
One can’t help but think of Lino Brocka’s classic Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag only in the opposite direction: two already corrupted urban dwellers lured out to the countryside by the promise of money, their street smarts and city-formed paranoia proving worse than inappropriate — they’re inadequate.
The film starts out slow: Gino (Oliver Aquino) stepping out with a client (filmmaker Emmanuel de la Cruz, in a brief amusing cameo), refusing to fellate the older man and threatening to slap him with a pedophile charge when he insists; Marie (Angela Cortez) taking her child to school dressed as a Disney princess (it’s costume day for the students, with a prize for best-dressed). Altarejos lets us know what kind of people they are, who they prostitute themselves for. If in the end their work days don’t look much different or more exciting than any other blue-collar laborer’s, that’s the point: different job, different day, same tired old shit.
Then the trip to the island. It’s no small effort; long bus trips with a change mid-journey; an equally long ferry ride to the island where the passengers get seasick on the way. You may start to wonder if Altarejos is perhaps pulling a fast one here but the trip serves several functions: it’s a chance for Gino and Marie to get to know each other, and it gives the viewer the sense that this is a break from the grime and grind and relentless crowds of the metropolis, a real holiday even from the need the two have to constantly earn for their loved ones — a holiday from responsibility, if you like. They can just be, breathe and doze and, on occasion, lean against each other for support. If they develop any rapport, it’s as travel companions.
Adding a little curious curlicue of detail to Gino’s personality: he likes to listen to opera. During the long bus ride he shares with Marie an excerpt from the “Flower Duet” from Leo Delibes’ Lakme, a delicate petal of a song that’s as far from urban Manila as anything you might imagine (hence Gino’s partiality, I assume). Marie seems fairly appreciative but otherwise unmoved; being the more experienced and more poised — basically the more hardened, though at first glance she has a childishly fragile look — she also seems less open to out-there influences.
Then the island. A break to rest from the trip, and filming. It goes as expected: shot in black-and-white and, yes, quite erotic. Then naked men with birdlike masks straight out of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut suddenly appear out of nowhere, and all bets are off. A word on Altarejos’ soundtrack, which seems carefully considered, perhaps even more so, than his imagery: aside from Delibes he uses Schubert’s “Ellen’s Third Song” as prayerful counterpoint to the profane imagery, and (uncredited) Beethoven’s “Allegreto” (7th Symphony, 2nd Movement) — that pageantlike march-step rhythm and sense of doomed inevitability underlining and justifying the two actors’ long odyssey to this moment, of utter degradation.
Altarejos adds a radio broadcast (documentary?) describing the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, with mention of Filipino collaborators; as coda he plays Francisco Santiago and Ildefonso Santos’ “Pilipinas Kong Mahal” (My Beloved Philippines), about our willingness to perform any sacrifice to guarantee our freedom. Too heavy-handed? I don’t know; trip, arrival, and filmmaking have been carefully choreographed visually, aurally, emotionally to arrive at this point; the filmmaker may be forgiven for bringing out the big guns — may even be justified in doing so.
One thinks of shock cinema and its most famous practitioners: Gaspar Noe and Lars von Trier. Arguably the two filmmakers have filmed more explicit and more gruesome imagery, but what gives Altarejos’ film its force is that he fleshes out his characters, modulates their dramatic arc: they’re corrupt but not that corrupt; Gino refuses to perform oral sex, Marie does not kiss. When they’re persuaded and prodded to cross their respective lines step by shuffling step you’re with them; you care that they have drawn those lines — it’s what keeps them dignified, keeps them feeling human — and you care when they start losing their grip on that sense of humanity.
Most instructive in my book is Von Trier’s The Idiots — perhaps the only film of his I actively like. Much of it is pointless and, yes, idiotic — a nihilistic group of men and women, gleefully upending middle-class conventions. Then, suddenly, sharply there’s the ending — the very existence of the film justified, the point driven home with the swiftness and accuracy of a shank. Alterejos achieves something similar with a kiss: the film snaps into focus, our resistance and upraised arms fall away, and he (like the arty porn filmmaker in his picture) can have his complete and unquestioned way with us, however he likes.