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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

entry arrow6:12 PM | The Women of Amado Lacuesta Jr.

To take into consideration the slate of films written by the late Amado Lacuesta Jr. is to consider -- in the most intimate ways -- the many facets of the Filipino woman.

It is not that Mr. Lacuesta confined himself to exclusively examine in cinematic ways the psychology and mores of the Filipina. He has written other films of divergent concerns as well, some of them political, and some even overtly macho vehicles for venerable action stars.

For Lino Brocka, he penned together with Ricardo Lee, the seminal Macho Dancer (1988), which remains to date the definitive look into the underground lives of gay men and their dancing fancies. For Tikoy Aguiluz and Butch Perez, he wrote Balweg, The Rebel Priest (1986), a cinematic take on the life of Cordillera’s Father Conrado Balweg who became a rebel in 1979 and defrocked for taking up arms against Marcos. Again for Perez, he wrote Mumbaki (1996), which is in essence a study of cultural conflict -- it is after all the story of a medical doctor who goes home to the Cordilleras to bury his father, but finds himself torn between tribal wars, between city and country, and between modern and traditional ways of healing. Most famously, he created, in collaboration with screenwriters Red Navarro and Jose Bartolome, a testosterone star-vehicle for Fernando Poe Jr. in Ako ang Huhusga (Kapag Puno na ang Salop Part II), about an upright police officer's struggle against a corrupt judge.

And so, we ask: Lacuesta's screenplays as a study of women? We could begin with his work for Pablo Santiago, whose movie with Sharon Cuneta -- the titanic Kahit Konting Pagtingin (1990) -- is a certified blockbuster.

But it is Mr. Lacuesta's early works with Ishmael Bernal, all of them a conscientious examination of the many lives of local women, which will come to exemplify the relatively short screenwriting career of this former investment banker. At the age of 36, his first-produced screenplay for Working Girls gave him instant critical recognition, the success of which gave him the chance to pursue the writing for television and film full time.

When it was released in 1984, Working Girls descended on unsuspecting Filipino audiences like a thunderclap, easily capturing what was then the zeitgeist of Filipino women who, according to a recent description of the film, "worked hard, played hard, and made and broke rules." It featured an all-star cast that included Gina Pareño, Chanda Romero, Hilda Koronel, Maria Isabel Lopez, Carmi Martin, and Rio Locsin. The film charted the lives of women toiling in the corporate bowels of Makati -- among them a roving jewelry dealer, a smart but unhappy lady executive, a secretary impregnated by her boss, a haughty socialite, a receptionist who becomes a call girl, and a licentious secretary -- and came up with a satire so comic it proved revolutionary. In the early 1980s, no other film tackled the male-centric culture of the local business world, and was thus eventually championed as a shrewd (and funny) skewering of male dominion. It preceded even the like-themed Working Girl, directed by Mike Nichols, which starred Melanie Griffith as a secretary who manages to break the corporate glass ceiling, and also ultimately inspired Jose Javier Reyes's Makati Ave.: Office Girls (1993).

The same year that Working Girls was released, Mr. Lacuesta wrote Mr. Bernal's episode for the omnibus horror film Shake, Rattle, and Roll (the first and the best of the now-tired series), and immediately came away with the distinction of being the most effective of the three short films included in the anthology. In Pridyidir, Mr. Lacuesta and Mr. Bernal did not have the luxury of culturally entrenched mythology (Peque Gallaga's Manananggal) or superstition (Emmanuel Borlaza's Baso, which tackled the occult phenomenon of "the spirit of the glass") to rein in the audience into the story of a refrigerator possessed by evil spirits. The farfetched story could have easily landed the film into the murk of camp, but the screenplay succeeded in giving its central inanimate object a true sense of horror and dread, even with the minimalist shock effects of the refrigerator shaking or conjuring dead body parts inside its cold confines. The undercurrents of female sexuality, however, give the film its edge. In Janice de Belen's virginal character, the object of the refrigerator's seemingly carnal intentions, we see a subtle play on the power of a woman's burgeoning sexuality, which Pridyider has in common with Brian de Palma's Carrie.

In 1985, the duo came up with Hinugot sa Langit, this time casting aside the metaphoric and the satiric to engage in serious and realistic terms this female world. In the film, Maricel Soriano -- in a rare restrained performance that foreshadowed her minimalist triumph in 2006's Inang Yaya -- plays Carmen Castro, an unmarried woman who discovers that she is pregnant. Will she carry the child to term, or will she get an abortion? What follows are scenes that "borrow" from the prototypical female melodrama marred by histrionic displays, but minus the melodrama and the histrionics -- a feat for a Filipino film. In considering her dilemma, Carmen faces off moral possibilities in the persons of Stella (Rio Locsin), a self-confessed "independent girl" who urges her to have that abortion, and Juling (Charito Solis), Carmen's overly religious landlady who represents the other option. But in drawing these characters, Mr. Lacuesta managed to render them beyond dramatic caricatures with issues to bear, and gave the women a complex humanity not too easy to pigeonhole.

In Eddie Garcia's Kung Kasalanan Man (1989), which Mr. Lacuesta wrote with Raquel Villavicencio, the darker side of female psychology is explored in savage thoroughness, with Dina Bonnevie in a dual role of a soft-spoken and decent woman and her evil doppelganger, a one-time friend who undergoes surgery to look like her and usurp everything she owns, including her boyfriend. This is Barbet Schroeder's Single White Female, three years in advance -- a version which is so much more incisive and realistic than the run-of-the-mill Hollywood psychological thriller.

Mr. Lacuesta's last screenplay was for Mr. Aguiluz's Segurista (1996), which he wrote with Pete Lacaba, and is remembered today as a misunderstood contemporary masterpiece inexplicably given an X-rating by the MTRCB. In his last film, Mr. Lacuesta returned, with a kind of relish, to his explorations of the female condition after flirting with commercial success and male-driven films in the early 1990s.

This time around, Mr. Lacuesta upended the theme of desperation which was then only hinted at in Working Girls, and gave us a stark view of things in his story of a top insurance agent, played successfully by Michelle Aldana, who moonlights as a GRO at night. The powerful men she meets and eventually services as a GRO at night becomes her unwitting insurance clients by day, ready to buy what she is selling to get more of her nocturnal wares. In twisting the notions of the very 90's concepts of "synergy," "networking," and "yuppiedom," Mr. Lacuesta, Mr. Lacaba, and Mr. Aguiluz gave us a damning indictment of corporate life in Fidel Ramos's short-lived tiger economy, and the sad essentially Filipino circumstances that distorted it.

The film critic Noel Vera has suggested that Segurista, after it was initially banned by the censors, is "a very dirty film," but for all the right reasons: "But then," Vera wrote, "maybe it's more than just a formulaic law applied idiotically. Maybe the censors didn't like the sarcastic things that Aguiluz, Lacuesta, and Lacaba have to say about our youthful businessmen, about our Great Light-Brown Hopes with their cellulars and laptops, about Philippines 2000. Maybe it's the insistence on dealing with dark, unpopular subjects that they don't want, the digging up of dirt they'd rather not see... Maybe it's not the sensuality, it's the honesty. Maybe they're right: it IS the dirtiest film of the year."

In New Year's Day 1997, Mr. Lacuesta -- whose literary accomplishments included the Palanca Award for his short stories and plays, and whose passions included photography, golf, and history -- died from a heart attack while in Baguio for the holidays with his family. He had, by then, gone back to becoming a banker, but someone who still had more stories to tell. He was 49 years old.

In the scheme of cinematic things, the screenwriter sometimes is the forgotten artist in the collaborative effort of film art, overshadowed by the actors and, in terms of auteurship, by the director. It is a tragic mistake.

In a career that produced ten films of consistent excellence and which have given many of our actresses (Soriano, Pareño, Romero, Cuneta, Bonnevie, Aldana, and many others) the roles of their lives, Mr. Lacuesta has the distinction for being a man with a lot of worthwhile things to say about women. Among screenwriters in the industry, Mr. Lacuesta had indeed proven by and large that he was without equal.

A retrospective of Amado Lacuesta's films will be shown in UP Film Institute's Cine Adarna, Magsaysay Avenue, UP Campus, Diliman, Quezon City, from January 23-24. The slate includes Working Girls, Segurista, Balweg, and Mumbaki. Go to the Amado Lacuesta Jr. website, or email info(at)madslacuesta(dot)com, for more details.

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