By Carmen Aquino Sarmiento
Written and directed by Jose Tiglao
WITH THE contentious SOGIE (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression) Equality bill pending in congress, a film that purports to tackle the obscure and oft-misunderstood matter of intersexuality raises expectations. To make sure that even the thickest audience member understands what he’s getting at, the writer-director Jose Tiglao repeats every heavy-handed metaphor at least twice. For example, the opening lines about a legendary mango tree in the Bonifacio family’s orchard which bore an atis comes up every so often. In case you didn’t get it, the atis is supposed to stand for the protagonist: 14-year-old Adam Bonifacio (Gold Azeron).
To make sure we get the obvious implications of the film’s title, young Adam has a small glass jar on his desk, crowded with cocoons. He is also “artistic,” a recognizably gay stereotype. Thus, he is charged with rendering the stiff, hard-edged illustrations for the lame school projects their teacher assigns. His class partner is his high school’s oldest student: the 20-something town prostitute Angel (Iana Bermudez). She turns up at Adam’s house at 10:30 p.m., in pek-pek shorts and a tight tank top, ostensibly to do homework, and is promptly ushered into Adam’s bedroom by his unusually accommodating mother Aling Elena (Yayo Aguila). Although he has a writing desk in his bedroom, Adam lies prone on his bed, and sets the picture which Angel brought for him to copy, behind him, so that he has to keep contorting his body, twisting and straining his neck, just to look at it.
The Bonifacio family is certainly atypical. We are to believe that his parents never thought that his having two sets of human genitalia was odd, and that Adam was never examined by a medical doctor throughout his 14 years. (During the Q&A after the screening, the director said he also wanted to show how the government has been remiss in responding to its citizen’s health needs.) Adam’s parents got him quality art materials and a Discman but they never took him to a doctor. To bolster the plausibility of such an unlikely scenario, one of the film’s producers, a youngish woman, further claimed that although her own parents were both government employees, they never took her for a check-up or treatment with a medical professional through her growing years. Thank you, Mom and Dad.
Much is attributed to Aling Elena’s being illiterate. For example, she sticks a serving spoon in a bowl of rice, then uses her bare, saliva-coated fingers to scoop up clumpfuls, and dump these on her family’s plates. Her husband, Adam’s father (Ricky Davao), is a Christian pastor, obnoxiously spewing Bible verses. He holds praise and worship services on their tiled, balustraded terrace. A medical doctor is among his regular congregants. The family certainly appears middle-class. They live in a concrete two story house in a town with cement roads, and even a motel which Angel frequents.
Angel takes a liking to Adam. They are together when he gets his first period, somewhat late at age 14. So, the drama of having a clueless Adam bleed into a pristine stream while cavorting with a pok-pok in a wet T-shirt was the reason for setting up his parents as negligent to the point of abuse? This calls for more clunky symbolism, with several scenes afterwards of Adam, wrapped up in sheer nylon mosquito netting and agitatedly rolling about his bed, while blood seeps through his shorts. Remember those grade school natural science lessons about the pupa and the chrysalis, dummy. Perhaps impelled by concern over their stained bedsheets, his oblivious parents finally decide to consult their swishy congregant Dr. Mortiz (Bodgie Pascua). He refers Adam to the Manila-based endocrinologist Dr. Tolentino (Ivan Padilla) whom he repeatedly stresses is a wealthy, gorgeous hunk, hence a catch, an obvious object of desire.
Disturbingly, mere days later, upon receiving Adam’s test results, Dr. Tolentino pressures the Bonifacio’s to immediately decide on sexual reassignment surgery for their son. The Philippine Medical Association should take notice of this extremely ill-considered and unprofessional behavior which is portrayed as being entirely normal and usual among members of their profession. Weirdly, Dr. Tolentino, who is an endocrinologist and not a family medicine physician, turns up at Adam’s very urban home town to conduct a half-assed “medical mission” out in an open field: just a desultory handful of patients queued in a single line, and without any medical support staff such as nurses to take their vital signs or keep records, not even a pharmacy station. The film is set in the late 1990s when Barangay Health Centers existed. But this pathetic excuse for a medical mission becomes the unlikely opportunity for Dr. Tolentino to get stranded in Adam’s hometown due to a sudden rainstorm. His only recourse is to seek shelter in the Bonifacio home, although he is a customer of the local motel, which he and Angel use for their short time trysts.
The ever-accommodating Aling Elena does not put up the young virile Dr. Tolentino in a spare room or on their living room sofa. She has him bunk with Adam, whom she realizes possesses a penis, a vagina and also a rectum for that matter — or all the equipment for a pedophile’s delight. The Bonifacio’s do not take their only child into their bedroom either, but complacently leave him alone with an almost total stranger whom they have met, perhaps twice at best. It is a restless night of more raging hormones for poor Adam. This inspires him to do a languorously sensuous head-and-shoulder-rolling dance which is uncannily similar to that of Arthur Fleck in the public toilet (The Joker, 2019) after his subway killing spree. Tiglao declared though that even if parts of this film were re-shot just three weeks before its premiere (in order to get the original X-rating mitigated to an R-16), or after The Joker had become a Philippine box office hit, Adam’s little interpretative dance antedates Joaquin Phoenix’s.
Over-stimulated by his night with the hunky Dr. Tolentino, Adam engages in self-exploration, probing himself with a cold white plastic ballpoint pen — not with his natural God-given fingers — while lying supine in his bed. His mother suddenly calls him to dinner, startling him so that he falls out of bed and lands with a thud, flat on his back on the floor. Miraculously, the plastic ballpoint pen does not perforate or bruise his tender lady parts. He does get to reply, “Coming!” which may be the only intentionally humorous line in this ostentatiously sincere film. A coming-of-age moment is when Adam decides to attend his junior-senior prom stag. Unfortunately, his sense of style is severely limited by the selections from his mother’s wardrobe. Say no to his dress: he turns up in a dowdy long-sleeved button-down polo shirt and a prim, non-descript A-line skirt, with no accessories or make-up, except for a Dinky Soliman streak in his hair. The Queer Eye guys would have a field day making him over.
Because of its au courant topic and politically correct, though ham-fisted, good intentions, Metamorphosis was well-received by the wannabe indie crowd culturati. The scenes which merited its original X-rating have been revised though its ending has what may be considered its money shot: buck-naked Adam sprawled on a rock, basking in the sun at his and Angel’s favorite swimming hole. There is no visible prosthetic female vulva, but the camera lovingly lingers on his flaccid penis, which is the color of tocino.