header image


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

Interested in What I Create?


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

entry arrow6:22 PM | Brushstrokes Signifying Longing: On Rianne Salvarita's Land and Sea

A way to approach a picture and determine its power is emotional surrender in the part of the beholder. Just a willingness to behold, and absorb, and see if there’s a fluttering from within that says something, that lingers in your head, that moves you. Nothing cerebral, not at all, nothing that reeks of –isms. That movement does not have to be cataclysmic, and does not have to have a tidal charge. It could be a faint fluttering, like the minute disturbance of air from the flapping of butterfly wings. It can even be cumulative, the immensity of something having moved you only made clear to you days, weeks, months later.

I have never ceased thinking about Rianne Salvarita’s Land and Sea, his series of paintings that quietly went into exhibition at KRI last November, and quietly egressed in January. I never wrote about it, for some reason or other. But I have never stopped thinking about those paintings.

And so here I am, finally succumbing to this belated surge, feeling the need to articulate what has remained unsaid for me, unformed in my head, even as I have mulled over these pictures so intimately, remembering with a strange affection the details, the misty composition, the haunting stillness of the landscapes that are at once familiar and unknowable.

What is Land and Sea? It is simply Salvarita’s attempt to capture the Dumaguete landscape with an eye that’s distinctly impressionistic. Here and there, rendered in brushstrokes that hint of the wistful and the romantic—actually the easiest way to appreciate these paintings—we see specific Oriental Negrense spaces—buildings, street corners, boulevards, beaches, ports—articulated in the manner of still life, borrowing the language of those ubiquitous Amorsolo knock-offs of the most pedestrian variety found almost everywhere in undiscerning Filipino living rooms, but. And there must be a “but” here. But Salvarita manages somehow to elevate his images to very good art, and the only reason that I can think of is alchemy.

They moved me, these paintings. A street at the public market. A skyline with the Bandera Building etched against a blue sky while a Ceres bus traverses the space below. Distant boats docking at the pier in the purple haze of sunset. A pristine Bacong Beach splendorous in the morning sunlight. A Rizal Boulevard lamppost standing guard over a view of boats in the distance. Another view of the Boulevard framed by a lonely acacia tree. Still another view of the Boulevard framed by another lonely acacia tree. A tree in flowery bloom shading what appears to be glimmers we can take to be fisher folk. Rolling countryside punctuated by trees, Cuernos de Negros in the distance covered in a mist. The small chapel outside of Bais City barely visible and standing out from surrounding vegetation. The campanario looming large.

They don’t feel empty, like how cheap art affects you. They feel like fodder for nostalgia, but also like a refutation of it. They feel romantic, but the images themselves evoke somehow an untethered sadness. Finally, they feel like depictions of tremendous longing, and perhaps they really are that.

I see these pictures, and I can hear the world sighing through them. Look at them, I tell myself. They are devoid of people, if you notice. There are only architectural spaces in them, as well as nature, formally composed, done in the representational style—and yet they look like there is a yearning in them, for people that’s absent in them for the most part.

It is good to be reminded once in a while that the appreciation of art can also be a Rorschach test that reveals more about ourselves than about the paintings or the artist. I don’t know what my reading of these pictures says about me—that I am a creature of longing? that I speak in the language of yearning?—but I am grateful for having seen these, and for the stirrings they have caused.

They also made me see my city in a new light, and if an artist must forever be tasked to defamiliarize the familiar in order to transform it into art, then Rianne Salvarita indeed has risen to that challenge. He made Dumaguete his own in Land and Sea, and I appreciate the vision that has been wrought.

Labels: , , , ,

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Sunday, January 29, 2017

entry arrow12:33 AM | Oscars Best Picture Roundup, Done

[✓] “Aliens know I can see the future, baby.”
[✓] “You’re full of shit, Troy, but I love you.”
[✓] “I can’t do guns, because God.”
[✓] “Let’s pay our mortgage with money we stole from banks, because macho irony. This is Texas, man.”
[✓] “You want me to do math? Give me a toilet.”
[✓] “Here’s to dreamers and the mess that we make. Plus backlash, because musicals are not serious films. You know?”
[✓] “Google Earth will find your way home.”
[✓] “I’m just a janitor full of angst. What do I know about raising kids?”
[✓] “Who are you? I repeat, who are you? I repeat, who are you?”

Labels: ,

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Sunday, January 22, 2017

entry arrow8:00 AM | Here’s to Dreamers

“Winasak ako ng La La Land,” I said the first day I saw the film. All I knew was, I could not remember the last movie I saw where I found myself pouring buckets of tears after the first hour until right at the very end. It was totally unexpected, even for me. When the credits rolled, I found I couldn’t move from my seat. So I sat there in the dark listening to Emma Stone hum a version of “City of Stars,” thinking what the f**k my eyes are red I don’t want the world to see I’ve been crying. I couldn’t have been lucid when it was finally time to exit, and what struck me immediately was this realization: that this was a different kind of love story, although it is very much cut from the same cloth of oldtime Hollywood romance. It struck me most of all as a love story about dreams—and if you have ever been a dreamer, this film is simply tailor-made for you.

I found myself in a nearby café—and all I could do was look out the window and stare at the rain. And then I found myself crying again.


What haven’t I said yet about this dream film that I haven’t said in that completely emotional first paragraph? Damien Chazelle’s musical comes as a gift. It fulfills everything I require in a movie, and is best allowed to come to you unfiltered by everything else [so no details here in this essay], and must be seen requiring nothing except your total surrender to its vision, its theme of dreams and dreamers, its Technicolor ache.

It is not without its naysayers, of course. People complain about the jazz—that it doesn’t say enough, for example, or that it makes a mistake for assuming it is “dead,” or worse that it involves a white man talking about music that sprang from the pain and the improvisations of black folk. But let me quote film critic Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience: “Though many critics got enormously uptight about the movie’s jazz conversations, they’re a red herring. The movie isn’t about jazz (Sebastian) any more than it’s about acting (Mia). It’s about dreams themselves and how rigid, committed, and proprietary we are about them.”

I have never loved a movie this much, not for the longest time anyway, and I think it is because it is a valentine to cinema itself, and knows every inch of what it is like to be beholden to a dream. And so I went to see La La Land again the next night, with friends Annabelle Lee Adriano and her husband Edo (both of them fellow musical enthusiasts), Renz Torres, Xandro Dael, Jon Riam Quizo, and a bunch of other people.

I was more lucid this time around, although I must admit that Emma Stone’s audition scene still made me tear up. It was a risk watching it again. I am always afraid to watch movies I like the second or third time around, because something always gets diminished from the raw power of the first viewing—but to my delight, the film held up very, very well. This time around, it was all about the nuances. I could appreciate so much better the technical miracles the film has accomplished—the freeway scene, the dance sequences, the chemistry of its stars, and regardless of what has been said about it, the dexterity of its screenplay.

And those nods to old movies! Rebel Without a Cause. Casablanca. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The Young Girls of Rochefort. An American in Paris. The Red Balloon. Swing Time and Top Hat. In Cinemascope and Technicolor. A cineast’s wet dream, really.

Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman—one of my favorite film critics—gets its appeal. And one could get it too, but Mr. Gleiberman says that “getting it” might require a second viewing for some: “I liked La La Land a lot the first time I saw it, but I confess that I didn’t fall head over tap shoes in love with it until I’d seen it a second time. That’s just the way it happens with certain movies; even a great one can kick in more fully on the second date .... [There’s] another reason La La Land gets better the second time you see it: You now have those songs in your system. And why should it be otherwise? Great pop songs don’t necessarily hit us with their ultimate force the first time we hear them; often, on the radio, they kick in that second or third or fourth time. In my own second experience with La La Land, I felt like I melted, all the more, into the story those melodies were telling. And I do mean melodies (though the lyrics are lovely). What I heard the second time is how [composer] Justin Hurwitz constructed the songs out of bits and pieces of the same musical motifs, so that they flow in and out of each other and merge; it’s really a unified song suite. By the end, the music has become a character in the film (which may be why there are so few actual supporting characters). Just watch the scene near the end where Mia is seated in the nightclub and Sebastian, on stage, sits at the piano and plays, very slowly, with one hand, those notes. Da da da da da da ... daaa. Those simple seven notes tell the entire story we’ve been watching.”

Some people though keep comparing its musical attributes to old films featuring Cole Porter or George and Ira Gershwin songs. The songs of Sondheim or Gershwin are of a piece, complete in themselves—and in classic American musicals, they were used as pop-up numbers that mostly do not really add to the story. The ballet in American in Paris is a perfect example. Perfect and a delight in itself, but was it necessary to the story? No. In La La Land, the ballet at the end is integral to the question the film asks: “What could have been if we only stayed together?”

I’ve actually initially wondered why most of the songs in La La Land felt incomplete in the movie—the first iteration of “City of Stars” which Ryan Gosling hums and sings at the pier, for example, is something you could miss if you blinked hard enough—but then I later realized, like Mr. Gleiberman did in his Variety article, that they all constituted a tapestry together, one song altogether with highlights and refrains and repetitions, and from interviews I read, the composer actually meant that to be the case.

On second viewing, I noticed the perfect and sound architecture of the score: the delight and color and whimsy with lots of songs for the sections of the first Winter and Spring, like the honeymoon of a relationship. When Spring ends with that iris shot of the two leads finally kissing after that dream dance among the stars, it opens to Summer—and there are no more songs and dances save for one: the matter-of-fact duet of “City of Stars,” stripped of glamour, just a girl and a boy with dreams singing together around a piano, just all grit and ambition and trying to make a relationship work.

Fall continues with all that heartbreak—but it ends with “Audition,” Emma’s final torch song, the beautiful lyrics of which is the film’s narrative told with a heart on its sleeves. That leads to the much-needed coda, the goodbye conversation at Griffith Park, and finally leads to the finale in Winter and all its joys and heartaches.

It’s a well-made movie that bears scrutiny, and I don’t want to add to the complaint that the story is “simple.” It’s not. It’s just “lightly” told, which is its best vehicle. What could be more serious than a movie about the demands of dreams and the grit of compromises and the subterfuges of letting go? What do people want, a love story in the philosophical mode of Terence Malick?

One has to say something about what it says about love—and why the end has turned many people’s heads. But director Chazelle has explained it so well: “I am very moved by the idea that you can meet someone in your life who transforms you and sets you onto a path that is going to finally enable you to be the person you always dreamed of being, but ultimately, you need to go on that path alone.” And there has been a long tradition of that in classic Hollywood.

Consider the story of Casablanca. He loves her. She loves him. They have springtime in Paris, and then she suddenly disappears from his life. He goes off to Morocco and somehow finds himself owning a bar named Rick’s. No, the apostrophe is not shaped like a musical note, but there’s a jazz pianist working there. Out of the blue, and of all the bars in Casablanca, she has to come and enter his. But she’s married now, and she needs to save her husband the anti-Nazi activist, and the only way out is a plane out of Casablanca. He’s the only one who can help. She tells Rick she will stay with him, this time—but he has to help. He looks at her with so much yearning, and tells her, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” He tells her to go. They part. Sad, beautiful endings are forever.

Consider the story of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. He loves her. She loves him. They’re poor but they have dreams. Her mother thinks she should marry the rich, handsome, kind man who pines for her. He goes off to war and she becomes heartbroken. When he returns, she has married the kind, rich man. And he marries the kind girl who consoles him. Years later they meet accidentally in the gas station he now owns. He says hi, she says hello. They part.

Sad, beautiful endings—again—are forever.

[Read also Anthony Lane's review at The New Yorker].

Labels: , , ,

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Saturday, January 21, 2017

entry arrow11:01 AM | Putin's Long Game

You have got to give it to Putin though. The man played the long game -- the longest game ever. It must have shattered him when, as a KGB man, he saw his world fall apart in the early 1990s, with America and its Western allies victorious at the tail-end of the Cold War. He must have said, "Some day I am going to exact my revenge, and I am going to use everything the West holds dear -- your democratic principles, your access to information, your rabid capitalism, your pop culture -- and turn them against you." Exactly 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, with widespread allegations of Russian meddling in the American electoral process [and God knows where else -- the Philippines? Brexit? the Syrian crisis? the rise of the Kardashians?], Trump is now President, fake news rules our social media and traditional journalism is in decline, capitalism has become a savage riot, and reality television has dumbed down everyone. Putin made all of the West his very own Manchurian Candidate, and its awfullest manifestation is President Tiny Hands.

Congratulations on the long game, Mr. Putin.

[P.S. This must be read with an ironic note.]

Labels: ,

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Friday, January 20, 2017

entry arrow10:05 PM | The 2017 Silliman University National Writers Workshop Fellows Have Been Announced

Ten fellows to the 2017 Silliman University National Writers Workshop have been named. The 56th edition of the Silliman University National Writers Workshop starts May 8 to 19 at the Rose Lamb Sobrepeña Writers Village in Camp Look-out, Valencia, Negros Oriental.

The ten writers, chosen from a pool of applicants from all over the Philippines, are Elijah Maria Villanueva Pascual of Marikina City (Ateneo de Manila University), George Deoso of Quezon City (University of Santo Tomas), and Hezron G. Pios of Bacolod City (University of St. La Salle) for poetry; Arlene A. Avila of Tacloban City (University of British Columbia), Matthew Jacob F. Ramos of Cebu City (Ateneo de Manila University), Vincen Gregory Yu of Iloilo City (University of the Philippines-Manila), Cesar Miguel Escano of Tacloban City (Ateneo de Manila University), and Maria Tanya Cruz of Quezon City (University of Santo Tomas) for fiction; and Tiffany Corinne Conde of Quezon City (Ateneo de Manila University) and Catherine Anne A. Orda of Quezon City (De La Salle University) for creative nonfiction.

The panel of writers/critics for this year includes Director-in-Residence Jaime An Lim, Resident Writers Cesar Ruiz Aquino and Ian Rosales Casocot, as well as Regular Panelists Gemino H. Abad, Susan S. Lara, and Alfred Yuson. They will be joined by Guest Panelists Jose Wendell Capili, Grace Monte de Ramos, Danilo Francisco M. Reyes, Anthony L. Tan, and International Panelist Beth Yahp of Australia.

Founded in 1962 by S.E.A. Write Awardee Edilberto K. Tiempo and National Artist Edith L. Tiempo, the workshop is the oldest creative writing workshop of its kind in Asia. It was recently given the Tanging Parangal in the Gawad CCP Para sa Sining by the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

For more information about forthcoming events during the workshop, e-mail Workshop Coordinator Lady Flor Partosa at nww@su.edu.ph, or call the Department of English and Literature at (035) 422-6002 loc. 520 (Edilberto and Edith Tiempo Creative Writing Center), or visit the website.

Labels: , , , , , ,

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Thursday, January 19, 2017

entry arrow12:50 PM | Stirring Still

A cold Thursday. The city is learning to stir again after a few days of being in a standstill, immobilized by flood and wetness. Last night, for example, you could hear distant dogs bark in an absolute quiet I haven't heard since Dumaguete was still its town-like self decades ago. But my body also has gotten used to bed weather, dammit. It is unheedful of the hours, content only in purring close to blanket and pillows. I tell myself upon waking near noontime, I must learn to stir again. Let's try harder.


[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

entry arrow6:43 PM | Faces

I thought of Ingmar Bergman's words when I saw this sequence. To paraphrase Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder's glorious take-down of Hollywood (and La La Land's dark cousin), film does not need words, it needs faces.

Labels: ,

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Saturday, January 14, 2017

entry arrow9:13 AM | Different Paths

“I am very moved by the idea that you can meet someone in your life who transforms you and sets you onto a path that is going to finally enable you to be the person you always dreamed of being, but ultimately, you need to go on that path alone.”

~ Damien Chazelle

Labels: ,

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Thursday, January 12, 2017

entry arrow10:13 AM | 1997 Year in Music

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Sharing Ricardo Oliveira’s 1997 Year in Music video. Twenty-years ago, this was my musical landscape – and I just realized how pivotal that year was, how fun and radical and out-of-the-box, how much it changed me in retrospect. I was drifting through college belonging to no class in particular (I took my time finishing) since I decided to shift courses, my father died, I went to Japan to study, and I spent the rest of the year traveling across the Philippines and backpacking across Southeast Asia. And look at that range of music!

This is Mr. Oliveira’s 1997 playlist in Spotify.

If you told me twenty years ago that someday I'd find avenues of belated appreciation for Hanson's "MMMBop," I'd have laughed at you. The years teach you how to eat crow.

Labels: , , ,

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Sunday, January 08, 2017

entry arrow4:50 PM | In the Hospital

They placed me in Cunningham Hall, informally known around the university hospital as the "dengue ward." I don't have dengue, but the hospital is already filled to overflowing -- I've heard that there are times patients can get stuck at an ER bed for two straight days -- and I am lucky to get a bed at all, in an air-conditioned hall, right at a corner that afforded me a bit of privacy in a place that has 18 beds. Getting a private room is out of the question. I don't mind: I figured I wanted to study people, and this was a perfect opportunity for that. I don't know if the other patients around me have dengue: the man on the next bed apparently has been suffering from severe pneumonia for some months now, but his diabetes is masking the normal fever that should have been a symptom to his distress. He looks grizzled and his skin is jaundiced but otherwise he moves about fine. I learn about his condition when he made a quick conference with his doctor this morning, and I was eavesdropping -- not for lack of restraint. In this close space, everyone eavesdrops. By day, the place is teeming with bantays and visitors and nurses and orderlies and the rare doctor making their rounds. I don't much like daytime in a hospital, I quickly decided: it is much too noisy, although I've surprised myself by being able to sleep through the noise and the abundance of fluorescent lighting. Sleep is good; it is antidote to the boredom of hospitals. By night, a comfortable kind of quiet settles down and only the nurses on duty make the tiniest bit of noise. They wake you every four hours or so, to get your vital signs, to adjust the drip of your IV, to ask you if you have drank water or peed or pooped. I make myself very helpful. Still, I don't feel sick at all -- although I know the pain in my stomach has been coated over by the magic of painkillers. I was doubling up in pain when I arrived at the ER only the other day, to be quickly administered to by doctors on duty who apparently used to be my students. (In my mind, I hoped I gave them good grades.) Now, lying on my bed, I'm watching the drip, I'm passing the hours, and I've made myself game to the battery of tests they're giving me. "As long as I'm here," I told my doctor, "I might as well get that complete physical exam I don't ever get to do every year because I'm always busy." So now I know my blood sugar level, my cholesterol level, my triglycerides level, and all the other vital information about our bodies that become paramount once you've reached the age of 40. I still feel the same, but I'm sure my diet beginning now will not say the same thing. Happy New Year.


[1] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Friday, January 06, 2017

entry arrow7:37 AM | Hope is Bigger

I thought about my post from the other day, how I have forsaken hope for things to become better in the new year. But now I'm remembering Noam Chomsky, who once famously declared: “If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.” So, I take a deep breath: sure, there are Tito Sottos and Martin Andanars and Donald Trumps and Paul Ryans in the world, but hope is bigger.


[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Thursday, January 05, 2017

entry arrow1:31 AM | All You Need is Desire

“As long as we desire, we can do without happiness: we expect to achieve it. If happiness fails to come, hope persists, and the charm of illusion lasts as long as the passion that causes it. So this condition is sufficient in itself, and the anxiety it inflicts is a sort of enjoyment that compensates for reality … Woe to him who has nothing left to desire… We enjoy less what we obtain than what we hope for, and we are happy only before being happy.”

~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Julie or The New Heloise, Part 6, Letter VII

Labels: , ,

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

entry arrow9:00 PM | The Gasoline Swimming Pool

I was a bit overwhelmed by the day. I think I'll try to decompress for a bit, seek out a little me-time. This might be introvert me finally reeling from all those holiday social interactions. Or maybe it's just work laughing at my two weeks away from its embrace.

* * *

I think about the year the that comes -- and how completely removed I am from it, emotionally-speaking. I'm not sure it's apathy. It feels more like willful, amused surrender, like you're witness to a mob swimming in a pool of gasoline and someone in there is preaching in a loud voice that the sound of a matchstick striking is the sexiest sound in the world. And you're there observing from a balcony, and you want to shout, "It's not good to play with fire!" But they want the fire while they're backstroking and breaststroking and freestyling around the pool of gasoline. And you just have to learn to shrug and say, "They really want the fire..." And then you leave the balcony to have drinks at the bar at the opposite end of the city.


[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Monday, January 02, 2017

entry arrow1:02 PM | Daygon at Lilo-an

On the way home to Dumaguete from Cebu last December 30, we found our van in a standstill on the port of Lilo-an in Santander town, in a long line of cars waiting to board the barge during the New Year crush. While waiting, we found ourselves listening to a bunch of singers doing the "daygon," a traditional Christmas song in Cebuano that's rarely performed these days. Leo Mamicpic decided to catch them on video. Here's that video, where the violinist (!!!) starts with some riff off an old tune from the American south, segueing soon to more traditional fare. As a child I used to find these songs bizarre and old-fashioned. Now that I know how fast we are discarding our old traditions and heritage, they have become something to treasure and marvel at -- and one to definitely record and archive when you can.

Labels: , , , ,

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Sunday, January 01, 2017

entry arrow10:00 PM | The Ladies of Kayod and Rampa

When Babyruth Villarama’s Sunday Beauty Queen (2016) [trailer here] was announced Best Picture of the lot of eight at the tail-end of the 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival, I thought without hesitation: “Good for the MMFF. The film deserves the honor.”

There is something immensely satisfying in the acknowledgment of that accolade — like it was something long-time in coming — given how its inclusion in the 2016 slate created so much furor among industry people, most of whom found it being a documentary an irritating aberration that should have been grounds for exclusion.

It does mark a first in that regard: in the history of the festival, which was founded as the Metropolitan Film Festival in 1975, no documentary has ever been considered as a contender. That Sunday Beauty Queen won felt like history coming full circle all at once. That it also won considering that it was the one film in the whole festival that struggled the most in getting itself seen — only a few theaters outside of Manila dared screen it — felt like divine justice for those who had been championing it, who believed in its merits and the importance of its story.

For me, it felt like a decade-long corrective: its win comes exactly ten years after Enteng Kabisote 3: Okay Ka Fairy Ko ... The Legend Goes On and On and On was proclaimed Best Picture in 2006, the festival’s most embarrassing low point. Its win is a mark for great change still to come; it is also a clarion call for battles still to be waged ahead. (But of course. Bad taste does take time to overhaul, and it does have its own high priests. Consider, for example, the Manny Castañeda debacle.)

But here I speak too much of the film in the context of the MMFF’s long troubled history. Does it work as a film, and is it any good? It took me a long time to write this review. I saw the film four days ago, and I felt I had to allow it to settle in my head. Not that it was too complex to understand, or even too cerebral to feel: in these two considerations, Sunday Beauty Queen wins by being a film that is easily digestible and also easily felt. There are scenes aplenty in the film that provoke instant welling up of tears — the scene of someone talking about counting airplanes through the kitchen window, the telephone conversation about someone’s unexpected death, the scene at the halfway house.

And the structure of the story is easy enough to comprehend — Ms. Villarama’s camera simply follows several Filipina domestic helpers in Hong Kong as they struggle for six days of every week to manage the households of their “amos,” some under the scrutiny of cruel employers, and then on Sunday, on their day-off, they prepare to join an annual beauty pageant.

I think the film successfully sells itself as a very human story by allowing its cameras to linger and explore with so much intimacy the lives of the people whose stories we are following. After the film’s immediate opening at one edition of the annual beauty pageant — after the beautiful gowns have been paraded and after the crown and sash have been awarded — we are immediately plunged into the women’s every day reality. In the chaos of Hong Kong traffic, they transform to become the reverse of the Cinderella story: they trek back to the condominiums and apartment buildings of their employers, trying so hard to beat curfew, and in the next six days we see them toil with mop, broomstick, vacuum cleaner, and apron.

Often the film takes us deeper into the dirt-cleaning and babysitting by allowing its subjects to address us through talking head interviews, where they are allowed to explain, to reminisce, to ponder their place in the story of the country they have left behind. Why am I here and why am I not home? Why am I taking care of other people’s children while I have to make myself contented by watching my own child’s graduation through Skype? Why have I allowed myself this debasement by sleeping on the kitchen floor?

Their stories become a reflection of our nation’s frailties and broken promises. We know these stories exist; and yet to be confronted with stark images of these stories in the sweep of cinematic largeness is to feel cowed, and to feel crushed by our country’s seeming indifference. The film thrusts us into an identification with these people in a way we probably have never felt before, simply because cinema is powerful that way: thus their pain becomes our pain, their joys our joys.

And yet while the film does consider the darkness that often blots many domestic helpers’ lives in foreign places (getting abused by cruel employers, getting fired in the middle of the night, feeling the rush about having to get employment within 14 days at the risk of deportation, and so on and so forth), it also becomes a celebration of the hardy lives of these OFWs, and the film rightly marvels at their capacity to stage a “carnival” even in stark circumstances. That’s the Filipino spirit, I think, illustrated so well.

Ms. Villarama chooses to frame their stories in the simple framework of its witty tagline, “Kayod mula Lunes hanggang Sabado, at rampa ‘pag Linggo” (“Work hard from Monday to Saturday, do the catwalk on Sunday”) which I think is ingenious, considering the complexities of these real-life stories, a lot of which are left out in the name of narrative consistency.

Then again, one documentary is really not enough to contain everything, and so this is an editorial decision I can accept even if I feel it could have more in following, just enough, the hidden depths of the tangential issues it does present. For example, why is the Philippine Consulate generally unhelpful in addressing the plight of many domestic helpers in need of assistance? Why is the lesbian angle that is so tantalisingly proffered by the film not really explored? We are never given more than a promising mention of consular indifference, or a teasing shot of two women walking away.

One can explain these away by understanding that the filmmakers may not have wanted it to be too serious in weighing political and gender issues, which might distract from the simpler story of “struggle plus beauty pageants” — but I’m not so sure. One pointed way the film reminds us of a very political problem is by introducing its principals by full names, the number of years of their stay as DHs in Hong Kong, and the most damning of all, the college degrees they have earned back in the Philippines. It is saying our country has done great disservice to its people, reducing college degrees to nothing more than an aberration in a resume destined for servitude. This is never really explored as a problem, only limned at.

Some friends have also likened the film’s structure as being too much like a typical episode of Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho. “I’ve seen BBC documentaries that have tackled these issues better,” says one.

I don’t really agree with that — but I do think it could have borrowed a cue or two from Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, that great 1991 documentary about Harlem balls staged by gay black men in the very fringes of society’s margins. In that film, their “pageants,” their “voguing” competitions, their practice of “shading” are explained as expressions of a subcultural outrage, as aspirational efforts to counter the fact of their dreams being denied in the reality outside of these balls. Sunday Beauty Queen hints at that promise — it did ask the character of Daddy Leo why he organizes these pageants, and he merely replies with a playful, "Wala lang, feel ko lang" — but proceeds more or less to go the route of regular “poverty porn” storylines without the slums.

But I do think I am expecting a bit too much of Sunday Beauty Queen — and I think I am because the film is so very well-made it could have stood a bit more complexity. Nonetheless, I laughed, I cried, and in the end, I wanted to hug all domestic helpers from Hong Kong coming home for Christmas.

This is a great film every Filipino needs to see.

[The film is not being screened in Dumaguete]


Labels: , , , , ,

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich