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Before the VC Filmfest 2006 kicks into full swing, APA takes you behind the curtains for an exclusive look at a couple of its featured films. First up, the pride of the Phillipines, "The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros."
In the small town of Guipit, Manila, pre-pubescent Maximo Oliveros (Nathan Lopez) falls in love with rookie cop Victor Perez (JR Valentin) in an environment where poverty is seen in all its unabashed smells and colours at every corner. Precisely what Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros) points to in the midst of the poverty in which Maximo and his family live are those moments of hope, happiness, family, romantic love, and friendship that can occur and more importantly, must occur for a life to be meaningful in the most clichťd -- and therefore most profound -- sense of the word.
The debut film from documentary Philippine director Auraeus Solito, and screening on Saturday, May 6th (Program 21) as part of this yearís VC FilmFest program, Ang Pagdadalaga... is the kind of film that lingers with you after the lights in the theatre are turned on and youíre outside of the theatre faced with, well, life, which is what the lead character Maximo -- nicknamed Maxi by family and friends -- comes to terms with in his own small world through a series of interlocking events. Ang Pagdadalaga... is refreshing in the sense that rather than lock itself in the category of a "gay film," despite what the title may imply primarily about sexuality, both Solito and screenwriter Michiko Yamamoto (a Filipina of Chinese and Japanese blood) present Maxiís growing pains and joys in the context of larger issues regarding conflicting sides of family loyalty and social justice and the violence that accompanies them, which arenít just simply black and white.
These conflicting, unstable and overlapping sides (beauty/poverty, disgust/affection, family loyalty/social justice) portend a more complicated world than what Maxi imagines at the beginning of the film, content at being the familyís "housewife" for his widowed father, Paco (Soliman Cruz), and two older brothers (Ping Medina, Neil Ryan Sese) instead of going to school. His familyís racket of selling stolen cell phones doesnít bother him in the least and when we first see Maxi, swinging his hips like a pendulum out of control, weíre immediately on his side despite or because of the laughter provoked by his antics with his friends (they stage a Miss Universe pageant) and the mature acceptance of the responsibility of cooking, sewing and doing the laundry for his family. Flowing under the surface of these mixed/fixed gender roles is Maxiís family ties that really anchor the plotís shifts to and from diverse social/moral/personal spaces of the film: the moments between the brothers and father where they sit down together for a meal or watch a film on TV while cracking jokes touch your sensibility since you realise that they are, for the most part, metaphorically trying to grow or simply find flowers, however few, in a weed-infested environment.
As James Brown once sang, the world of Ang Pagdadalaga... is a manís world, or a homosocial world redolent with the gaze where the woman is glaringly absent with the exception of the sacred/profane binary illustrated by the framed picture of Maxiís deceased mother displayed in a small family altar and the peripheral figure of Janet -- who may or may not be a prostitute. (But may as well be as itís the sole term in which sheís discussed.) But this doesnít translate at all into Philippine machismo/misogyny as Maxiís familial role complicates the reading of his body as purely feminised or a rejection of masculinity (which donít mean the same thing) or strictly stuck in between genders -- this would disorient the spectator into thinking that heís caught in a cycle of frustration and confusion about his sexuality, which is not the case. His comfort with his sexuality and his familyís matter-of-fact acceptance of it are what allows them as characters to avoid being cardboard types.
Of course, the film doesnít present a utopia and doesnít claim to build one amongst the trash-ridden waters and constricted spaces of Guipit. Early in the film, Maxi is physically harassed in an alleyway by two local men, but itís at this point where Victor, the rookie cop, emerges literally from a pool of light to chase away the men and walk Maxi home. By the time they reach Maxiís home, the boy is in love. Ironically, itís the encounter between the innocence of Maxi and his love for Victor on the one hand and Victorís own innocence of the machinations between the police and the locals on the other hand that provokes one to teach the other to grow up and which finds Maxiís family locking horns with Victorís pursuit of their illegal business and a possible tie to a murder.
Nathan Lopez as Maxi is so incredibly sincere and affectionate that itís hard to imagine that he initially rejected the role since he didnít want to play a gay character. Luckily for everyone involved, Lopez agreed, as the energy he generates around him and especially with model-turned-actor JR Valentin as the cop is one of the filmís strengths. One of the most seductive sequences in the film is when Maxi sneaks into Victorís house to nurse him after Maxiís father and brothers give the cop a severe beating to teach him not to pursue his inquiry into their activities any further. The following morning, as Maxi is cooking in the foreground, Victor emerges from the shower and while dressing in the background, we the spectators -- male or female -- become implicated in Maxiís act of gazing at Victorís body. We are forced to recognise our own participation in the act of gazing since Solito places the camera in a manner that gazes at both characters, thus adding nuances to the notion of visual pleasure that could be accounted for the sight of Victorís body, the innocence and openness with which Maxi gazes with desire at Victorís body, the acknowledged acceptance of each other as a person -- vulnerabilities and all --Maxiís performance of the gaze as the object of our gaze or all three. Continuing the fluidity with which the filmís homosocial world presents conflicting sides of the law, love and loyalty, Solitoís construction of the ambivalence with which Victor approaches Maxi -- balanced by Maxiís aggressive pursuit of Victorís company to the point of stealing a kiss from him at one point -- reveals how much gender is a constantly re/negotiated performance in the everyday. Pivotal is Ang Pagdadalaga...ís rendering flexible the terms masculinity/femininity and heterosexuality/homosexuality -- Paco as the father/mother of the three brothers; Victor and Maxi as the love pursued and pursuer and vice versa -- and how this flexibility of performances of gender in turn makes transparent and illusory the boundary between private/public spaces where gender is performed, engaged with and received. Maybe Ďritualí is more appropriate than Ďperformance,í especially in light of Solitoís filmography comprising the documentation of the history, myths and rituals of his ancestors in the island of Palawan, Philippines.
The screening of Ang Pagdadalaga... at Sundance earlier this year marks an important step in the recognition of the active digital filmmaking in the Philippines that has been emerging in the last five years or so (similar to Malaysian director Amir Muhammadís Sundance premiere of his digital documentary The Big Durian, a first for Malaysia, in 2004). In conjunction to the Philippine films as part of this yearís VC FilmFest program is a seminar on the current status of Philippine digital/filmmaking inside and outside the studio circles, in which Solito will take part. Armed with Ang Pagdadalaga..., Solito can rightfully claim the (re)blossoming of Philippine films.
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Date Posted: 4/27/2006