Thursday, March 11, 2010

SFIAAFF28 2010: FILIPINO CINEMA—Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting, 1974)

"What a title!" Michael Hawley quipped regarding the 1974 film Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting), one of the four films featured in the Lino Brocka mini-retrospective that comprises part of the focus on Filipino and Filipino American cinema in the 28th edition of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF).

The title is a Biblical reference to the Book of Daniel 5:1-31, wherein the last Babylonian king Belshazzar holds a feast at which sacred vessels confiscated from Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem are used to drink wine and further profaned when the revelers toast to the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone. Suddenly, a mysterious hand appears and writes on the chamber wall "mene mene tekel upharsin", which defies interpretation until the prophet Daniel interprets it to read "you have been weighed and found wanting." This Biblical story is the source of the popular idiom "the writing on the wall" as a euphemism for impending doom that is so obvious only a fool would not see it coming. It also provides the origin for the similar expression "your days are numbered."

You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting lays out its impending doom in the film's opening sequence: a sepia-saturated flashback wherein an albularyo (traditional/folk medicine practitioner) performs an abortion on Kuala (Lolita Rodriguez), as the baby's father Cesar (Eddie Garcia) restrains her and covers her mouth to silence her cries. An example of feticide and not pro-choice—Kuala having been clearly coerced—the sight of her aborted fetus drives Kuala insane. Cesar then abandons Kuala to her fate as the village's scabrous idiot as he persists as an incurable lecher.

When Neil Young caught a revival screening of Weighed and Found Wanting at the 2009 Viennale, he reported to The Auteurs that Brocka considered his commercially successful eighth feature his "first novel", which prompted Young to envision "the sprawling nineteenth century fictions of George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell when watching this humanistic exploration of small-town prejudice, one which covers pretty much every stratum of society while relating a melodramatic, almost soap-opera-like story of sexual hypocrisy, abortion, jealousy and young love. As usual with Brocka, happiness is elusive and short-lived, and to be a sensitive or sympathetic individual is to be doomed to misery and/or death. But while the ending is typically downbeat, Brocka does offer a glint or two of optimism—for which, given the starkly grim finales of most of his oeuvre, we must be grateful."

Noel Vera—a writer and programmer based in the Philippines, and author of Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema (2005), named after his influential blog—has contributed an informative profile of Lino Brocka ("Lino Brocka: The Heart of Philippine Cinema", abbreviated from a longer version) for the festival's program along with capsules for the four Brocka films in the retrospective. Of Weighed and Found Wanting, he synopsizes: "You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting was Brocka's rare attempt to do melodrama on a large-scale canvas; it's a panoramic view of society in a small provincial town, from its wealthiest citizen to its most wretched outcast. The film seems inspired by several sources: Federico Fellini's 1953 I Vitelloni, for one (the sensitive youth who leaves town to come back a celebrated artist), and also Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 The Last Picture Show (the mysterious older man who turns out to be the catalyst and mentor for the youth's transformation into manhood). Two other sources I should cite: José Rizal's social-reform novel Noli Me Tangere, which is the source for the mother (driven insane by the loss of her child) and her leprous husband, and also Brocka's own life: the town where he filmed was the same one he lived in as a bastard child. Mario O'Hara wrote the script from a story idea by Brocka, and gives a great performance as Berto, the leper. The film was both a critical and commercial success when it came out in 1974; it began the '70s golden age in earnest, and remains one of the period's key films."

Both Vera's profile of Brocka and the program capsule are abbreviated from earlier versions that expand in intricate detail the role Weighed and Found Wanting had in establishing Brocka's career in the mid-'70s and his eventual influence on Philippine cinema. "Tinimbang," Vera wrote in
his earlier review, "was like a rock flung through a plate-glass window; the film was a herald call, officially the first in what was to be called the '70s Golden Age of Philippine Cinema."

After having abandoned Kuala, Cesar becomes one of the richest men in his village and sires a son Junior (Christopher de Leon in his first role). At first, Junior takes pleasure in all the privileges provided by his family's social position—an opulent home, popularity, good looks, a girlfriend who's the prettiest girl in town (shades of Cybil Shephard!)—but, then his pleasure curdles. His father reveals himself as a lecherous philanderer, his mother a hectoring shrew, his girlfriend fools around with another boy and is summarily married off, and his friends prove to be louts. Junior's perspective shifts and he recognizes everyone around him as "ignoramuses, hypocrites, spiritual grotesques", except for the town's outcasts—deranged Kuala and the leprous Berto—who he befriends, despite his father's admonitions. The film ends, Vera synopsizes, "with Junior acting out the action described by the film's title—he stares at every town folk in the eye, judges them, and finds them all wanting"; a dramatic moment helped enormously by the broad canvas and large ensemble Brocka employed to create his melodramatic epic.

Vera contextualizes that Brocka was essentially telling his life's story, drawing from his memories of San Jose, Nueva Ecija, and of the people there. "Junior was Brocka—the sensitive young man, disillusioned with the status quo and yearning for something different, something more; he was also Milagros [Laurice Guillen], the politician's bastard (Brocka himself was the illegitimate child of a political figure). You might say that the secret behind Brocka's intensity, behind his close identification with the outcast and oppressed, was that he himself was an outcast—painful knowledge that would make him more open to the plight of others, to fellow outcasts in life."

This is especially apparent in the sideshow narrative of the effeminate teacher who makes unsuccessful passes at Junior and is shown prissily skirting puddles during a rain shower. This makes the young men laugh and—relating the image to Berto—Junior says it was funny to watch a man acting like a woman. Berto does not bite. Instead, he asks Junior if he would laugh at Kuala for her idiocy or himself for his leprosy? As these two outcasts have been pictured as two of the most decent people in the film, the effeminate homosexual is thereby aligned with decency. For 1974, this was an amazingly brave alignment on Brocka's part.

In broad, overly-assured strokes Kane Wheatley-Holder reduces the psychological complexity of Weighed and Found Wanting to a socio-political allegory of resistance: the common man against the Marcos regime. I, however, prefer the more nuanced insights offered by Richard Bolisay at his site Lilok Pelikula. Bolisay observes that Brocka's filmmaking was "driven by his force and brilliance as a political observer than as a political activist" and warns against erroneously boxing him "into a solely political filmmaker which he isn't. His films show many faces of politics, and not just the one that drives people into streets to protest." Differentiating even further, Bolisay writes: "Filmmakers are not just makers of film. They are also makers of political discussion. It is like saying writers just write, they don't think. Brocka … made films not only to depict the tumultuous years of the Marcos regime and its after effects but also to awaken the minds of the people by not just being political, but by being real and honest. The seventies and the eighties were the years of unrest, but not all films made during those decades were expressions of dissent."

Junior's story and his climactic act of judgment (resistance?) is not, however, what Vera finds to be the film's true point of interest. As type, Junior "is hardly original" and joins "a gallery of small-town youths who learn about disillusion and heartbreak." What's more, Vera characterizes Junior as "something of a self-righteous prig—de Leon plays him as if he's too good for the likes of his father and those hypocritical grannies. It's a superior stance too easily assumed; you feel he hasn't quite earned the right to do so." Vera criticizes de Leon's performance as "downright thin." No, the film's presiding power lies in "the intense yet simply told story of love found at the bottom of the world" between the town's most miserable inhabitants: the homeless lunatic Kuala and the leprous Berto, nearly lunatic himself in his loneliness. Vera considers that O'Hara may have written the best role for himself and mentions in his Senses of Cinema appreciation of Mario O'Hara: "In Brocka and O'Hara's treatment of the character, you see a rare (for Brocka's films) ambiguity—Berto in his loneliness and sexual hunger is a somewhat frightening presence; when he first looks at Kuala, it is with a predatory glint in his eye. We later learn of Berto's true nature—shy, sensitive (or rather, oversensitive), full of an affection for others that he doesn't dare express. It's a fascinating character, especially as Brocka had asked O'Hara to play him; O'Hara agreed, and does a magnificent job. Which is as it should be, because as people in the know put it, he was really playing himself." Vera concludes: "Rodriguez and O'Hara make the relationship that blossoms between them effortless, yet utterly real—Rodriguez as Kuala responding to Berto's attentions hungrily, even greedily (the way a child would); O'Hara as Berto suddenly finding himself functioning as guardian and father as well as lover. The couple are the most successful evocation of love in any of Brocka's films, I think, and by far the most moving."

Mario O'Hara and Lolita Rodriguez had worked together on an earlier Brocka film Stardoom (1971), which Vera describes as "a Jacobean melodrama (with great performances by Rodriguez as the backstage mother, and O'Hara as the unwanted son)", and later portrayed lovers again in Gumising Ka, Maruja (Awaken, Maruja, 1978), "Brocka's rare (and for the first half, well-made) gothic ghost story."

Vera likewise raises a provocative critique of Brocka, observing that the "intense identification he felt towards his characters is the foremost virtue of his storytelling; at the same time, [that] it was his biggest vice. If he had a tendency to like certain characters—to get under their skin and look through their eyes—he also had an equal tendency to shut others out—to condemn and deny them their full measure of understanding." He argues that Brocka has wasted the potential characterizations of Cesar and Milagros. After her seduction of Junior, Milagros simply vanishes from the film, Vera complains, "And you miss her; you want to know what happened to her, how she ultimately fared after her one-night stand with Junior." Eddie Garcia's Cesar "could have been a crucial role in the film, the correlative to de Leon's Junior—where Junior is a young innocent waking up to compassion, Cesar could have been an aged hedonist haunted by it, mirror images lit from different angles." These two characters "fall on the borderline that separates those who deserve Brocka's condemnation and those who deserve his compassion; they are either swept to one side of the border or forgotten, and the film's complexity suffers as a result."

03/15/10 UPDATE: Watching Lino Brocka's You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting (1974) a second time projected and with an audience revealed a palpable discomfort with Brocka's melodramatic style (reminiscent of the overblown melodramatics of Sirk or Fassbinder). Though Dave Kehr noted at the New York Times that this "broadly popular cinema of sex and soap opera transformed itself into a vehicle for strong social commentary and a political force to be reckoned with" and further observed that "Brocka seems less interested in psychosexual conflict for its own sake than as a reflection of the inequalities and injustices at the base of the Philippine system", the SFIAAFF audience didn't seem to quite know how to take the film's histrionics.

Though writing about a separate Philippine film, Noel Vera's description of the audience reception applies equally here: "They were laughing throughout much of the film, but it wasn't easy, derisory laughter; if anything, it was a terse release of tension, the kind of laughter you hear from someone fully aware he should know better but feels nervous, nevertheless." This was especially apparent in the scene with the gay schoolteacher (YouTube segment 11, below), which elicited the loudest laughter. Knowing how this scene was a set-up for Junior's conversation with Berto in the next, I was amused by how the SFIAAFF audience became quiet and contrite once they realized that Brocka was chiding them for being complicit in ridiculing the effeminate gay man. This is a complicated dynamic, however, which raises a distinction between laughing at someone at their expense as opposed to laughing with someone in the sense of sharing a cultural in-joke. In the 35+ years that gay liberation has fought for its place at the table since Brocka filmed You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting, it would be absurd to assert that an effeminate male no longer elicits laughter—as, conceivably, any gender reversal elicits laughter—but, arguably that laughter has shifted in degree away from cruel judgment to savvy bemusement or—to a certain extent—a kind of "you go, girl" identification? The audience reaction to these two hinged scenes underscores a certain timeliness to Brocka's film that otherwise might be perceived as "dated." The struggle for human dignity among the marginalized remains timeless.

On second viewing, I also noticed the manner in which Brocka juxtaposed Catholic iconography—primarily images of Jesus—as backdrops against which the hypocrisy of his characters becomes silhouetted. This is especially noticeable in the film's opening flashback where Cesar reacts to Kuala's aborted fetus. He's positioned in front of a painting of the compassionate heart of Jesus. One visually absorbs Brocka's criticism of patriarchal veracity. Further, there's a distinct alignment of the film's narrative trajectory with the Catholic ritual calendar, particularly apparent with Kuala's baby being born during the Christmas season.

You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting is available on Netflix. Otherwise, it's available on YouTube in subtitled segments: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16.

03/16/10 UPDATE: Noel Vera and I have been exchanging comments on Facebook regarding Brocka and this film. He's synopsized our conversation at his site Critic After Dark. Essentially—based upon Berto's query to Kuala if that was her "real name"—I asked Vera if Kuala's name had a hidden meaning? He came up with this: "Might add that looking around, the name 'Kuala' might have some significance, other than being an unusual name for a Filipina, means in both Malay and Indonesian 'estuary,' that muddy region of a river where fresh water merges with salt water. Certainly Kuala in the film might be considered by the men in town 'muddy' or unclean goods, and that she represents a mix of innocent and hedonist (a hedonist rendered innocent by insanity), age and youth, mother and whore."

That's a fascinating riff, whether O'Hara/Brocka meant it or not. Unaware of linguistic demographics in the Philippines, it makes me further wonder if a Malay/Indonesian name for the character of Kuala would further set her apart and characterize her as an outsider? I wonder how integrated the Malay/Indonesian languages are in Philippine culture?

Cross-published on

1 comment:

Noel Vera said...

Hi, Michael, screenwriter/poet/journalist Pete Lacaba weighed in on the question of the name 'Kuala' at my blog post.