This article is as much a review for Thy Womb as it is a eulogy for the state of Filipino culture.
We recently had the pleasure of watching Thy Womb, the internationally and universally acclaimed picture to have birthed itself from Brillante Mendoza’s unique perspective is more than just a film, it represents a social phenomenon. Like all good art - and this film is art - its impact transcends its mere screening; public reaction to this film is as telling about the sublime talent of Nora Aunor and Mendoza, as much as it is a statement on the status of Filipino culture. The maelstrom of international praise, heaped over praise; the international film festival showings and the artistic and cultural recognition it brought to the Philippines internationally through Nora Aunor’s Bisato d’Oro Award for Best Actress, the La Navicella Venezia Cinema award from Italian film critics and the very close brushes with Golden and Silver Lion Awards at Venice is a significant win for a country that is often ignored, maligned and dismissed as a mere seedbed for domestic servants, call centre workers and terrorists. But the contrast with the domestic Filipino response at the recent Metro Manila Film Festival could not have cut sharper: Pull-outs from cinemas, low turnout and token awards at the sham of an awards ceremony with pleads from the director to support the film.
The shame. The disgrace. The indignation.
The best film to come out of the Philippines since The Blossoming of Maximo Olivarez and the halcyon days of Lino Brocka and it is ignored, it is disregarded by the industry and the Filipino public, who were happy to be associated with the film when it was within an inch of the Golden Lion, yet toss it aside when presented to them locally. The shame, that only foreigners - both respected directors, actors and critics, as well as ordinary filmgoers appreciate one of the best pieces of cultural art to come out of the Philippines and we do not. The disgrace that this film has lower viewership, that it went unsupported, that it was denied the Best Film Award at the Metro Manila Film Festival; yet lauded internationally. The indignation that a poorly executed, overacted, plagiarism of Chinese film, In Love We Trust is the highest grossing flick and its poorly-rehearsed-emotions actors continue to win local awards. The disgust that Sosy Problems takes in a more sizable audience; a film that could not have more represented the basest and ugliest aspects of Filipino culture: white-skin envy, social climbing, rampant materialism, and a taste for the tawdry that vindicates the excesses of the 1%.
Filipino cinema has always taken a beating compared to our Asian neighbors. Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar-Wai, Hayao Miyazaki and Kim Ki-Duk are near household names abroad. Everyone instantly associates Japan with thoughtful animation like Princess Mononoke, Samurai classics like Tasorare Seibei or Kurosawa’s Roshomon. Korea is noted for the raw savagery of its films like Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy and Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life; and Hong Kong has had a litany of classics from Infernal Affairs to In the Mood for Love. Even Thailand captures the world with the admittedly heavy-handed Ong Bak series; and India with its mix of infectious Bollywood and reflective pieces like Deepa Mehta’sWater.
Where is the Philippines in all this? What are we known for? Who is our lodestar director in this brave new age of globlalized culture, where we must all compete to lay down a stake and define our national image, lest it be defined by ignorant political and economic commentators.
Brillante Mendoza is but one answer to all these pressing questions.
Mendoza has distinguished himself as a filmmaker, that whilst not talented technically, possesses a wealth of insight, vision and focus on aspects of Filipino culture to create compelling stories. At its core, cinema is about storytelling. Mendoza’s hyper-real, almost documentary-style of narrative provides such a sharp focus on social issues and individual characters, establishing an enthralling mise en scène that draws the audience into the world he has taken, represented and in many ways created. Doing the rounds of various film festivals since the inception of his career with, Masahista, which I consider a lesser work in is oeuvre. Few directors domestically and globally possess Mendoza’s sensitivity and empathy to create such nuanced films oozing with emotion. Few directors have the bravery to pull off a film like Kinatay, which shocked and awed Cannes with such raw savagery that it earned him the Prix de la mise en scène (Best Director Award) at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009.
Despite a considerable career and acclaimed breadth of work, Thy Womb is Mendoza’s first true masterpiece. Whilst Masahista was divisive in an almost exploitation subject matter; and Foster Child and Kinatay had been noted for his trademark low-tech, shaky cinematography; Thy Womb presents a hauntingly poignant reflection of human devotion, tradition, desire and joyful exploration of Badjao culture, shot across gorgeous landscapes, with sensitive, yet high-tech cinematography expertise. Gone are the days of the shaky camera, replaced with graceful underwater shots, soaring aerials of Tawi-Tawi and claustrophobic macro-shots of the minutiae and talismans of the Badjao. The brightly colored straws of a mat, the scaling of a fish, the sharp spikes of locals plants - the film creates a world rich with visuals that draws us into the slow-paced world of barren midwife Shaleha (Nora Aunor) and her fisherman husband, Bangas-An (Bembol Roco).
Indeed, Mendoza meticulously creates the world of Tawi-Tawi for his audience. His camera patiently lingers around stilted villages, at markets and in bullet-ridden Churches. He leisurely meanders through Islamic weddings and ever so slowly builds the picture of a relationship of complete devotion between Shaleha and Bangas-An through a mix of extraordinary and mundane events. The untouched setting of Tawi-Tawi provides Mendoza with subtle symbols of each character’s desires - the miracle of turtle eggs, the majesty and danger of whale sharks, the crack of Philippine Marine gunfire. Yet through this story of spousal devotion, Mendoza injects an ominous undercurrent, just seething beneath the surface of their impoverished, yet sylvan life. Smiles at markets are punctuated by a storm of soldiers with assault rifles, wedding songs interrupted by gunfire and the ever presence of the deep, dark ocean divides each island, each community and each character.
The film continues to linger at such a sedate pace, that the entrance of Mersila (Lovi Poe), instigating the brief second and final act of the film arrives with such abruptness to emotionally dislocate the audience. Mendoza proceeds to rapidly dismantle and destroy the entire world and the lives of the people he created. When the extraordinary final scene arrives, you understand why Mendoza’s camera lingered in the first act, you understand why he took his time building this rich world and in the process, making the audience invest in his reality, that when it finally shatters, it is heartbreaking cruel and haunting. You may not feel it straightaway, but as you leave the cinema, the events of the film replay in your mind, as if you were in Shaleha and Bangas-An’s marriage, making the ending that much more potent.
In many ways, the story of the characters of Thy Womb is not sui generis. Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern tangentially dealt with similar subject matter, and arguably the low-brow The Other Woman touched on a similar predicament. The unique perspective is in Mendoza’s skillful presentation of the relationship. Once again, he demonstrates his insight into human relationships. Rather than pitting Shaleha against Mersila in a bathos-laden cat fight; Mendoza realises that the most devastating part of the loss of a relationship is not its destruction, but the genuine love and affection that preceded the loss. It is the memory of the devotion, the love and the genuine affection that it once provided that makes the loss so much more bitter. Mendoza spares us the fight and the angst so common to the average film couple; but instead gives us the memories, the emotions and the context of the relationship, so that Shaleha’s loss, becomes our own.
Nora Aunor pulls off a sublime performance of the same calibre and dedication as her previous internationally awarded roles under Lino Brocka’s directorship. Perhaps, another performance of a lifetime to add to her belt. She depicts the humble and sun-worn Shaleha with such authenticity that she completely disappears into her role. From her knife-work scaling fish to her quiet looks of hopefulness, then desolation, Nora’s quiet portrayal of Shaleha lingers with you long after the film.
The rest of the cast provides a worthy counterpoint to Nora’s authenticity of emotion and character. It was particularly satisfying to see that they hired real Muslim Filipinos in supporting and extra roles, as well as Mendoza’s exploration of Badjao customs, clothing and ritual, that the film even exceeds its potent narrative to become an excellent introduction to Tawi-Tawi and a fascinating cultural artifact.
So, why despite Thy Womb’s wonder and skillful artistry, why must I raise vitriol or even captious objections against the other films of the Metro Manila Film Festival? Many would charge that Thy Womb isn’t for everyone. That it is beyond the reach of the ‘masses’ and many would find it soporific or wouldn’t understand it. Others would yet say that my anger is class-based - the educated and hipster culture critic lording it over the ‘simple masses’.
Such charges would miss the point entirely. To say that it is beyond the reach of the ‘masses’ is over simplistic. Appreciation (or ignorance) of cinema transcends class. Many who adore the banality of Sisterakas live well-heeled, gated village lives. Wealth is no guarantee of culture, anymore than it is a guarantee of good taste. The fact is that Thy Womb was ignored by all Filipinos, in favour of the absolute detritus of Filipino cinema. That is the insult.
My anger is palpable, because Thy Womb represents more than just a masterpiece of cinema. So much more is at stake. Cinema is as much a mirror to society, as it is a window used to project what we want to be and how we desire the world to see us. Thus, what is at stake is the cultural heart and soul of the Philippines. That the majority would rather see a truly pathetic film such as Sosy Problems, shows how low the Philippines has sunk from its previous status as cultural centre of Southeast Asia; the Paris of the Far East, that was the first port of call for Italian Opera, Russian Ballet and American Theatre companies.
I want the Philippines to once again ascend to its rightful position as an international cultural powerhouse. We have so much to offer - from the stoic Cordilleras of the North; the glorious and desperate metropolis of Manila and the cultured and venerable people of the South - as Mendoza has clearly demonstrated in this film. There are so many stories to tell and so many ways to tell it, beyond the trite presentation of the mundane problems of rich people, as occurs in One More Try.
It appears that the Philippines has the ironic distinction of being culturally rich, yet starved of artistic, cinematic and literary achievement. Mendoza’s film is a rare achievement and represents a break from the past. An opportunity to reject the sickening commercial formula of ABS-CBN Films, soap operas steeped in bathos and the inappropriate comedy that relies on wretched cross-dressers and sexual innuendo from the 70s.
Film is one of the few media where a country may freely share its culture, its progression, its artistry, its talent and most importantly, the productive image it seeks to construct for the world. Thy Womb showed that we are a nation made up of far more than domestic help and terrorists. We are nuanced, we are beautiful and we have much to offer. The fact that Filipinos themselves failed to support this film and made a beeline for the predictable annual box office trash is the saddest part of this entire narrative.
Our rejection of the best of our own culture’s offerings tells the world: We are not a mature nation. We are not a nation to be taken seriously. We are a nation that lacks cultural respect.
So go out today and watch Thy Womb while it is still on. Not just because it is a gorgeously shot, sensitive, devastating personal tale of devotion and love set in one the Philippines’ most peripheral regions. Not just because it is one of the best performances of Nora Aunor. Not just because it received a five minute, standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival.
See it, to tell the world, that Filipino culture is not dead.
Unless we support our directors, our filmmakers and our true actors, Filipino culture will be worse than terminal. It will not exist.
Thy Womb: Skillful and hauntingly beautiful, it represents both the pinnacle of Filipino artistry in cinema, and the nadir of Filipino culture.
Listening to: Born To Die by Lana Del Rey
Loving: Japan trip
=(: lack of sleep