Saw MASAHISTA (The Masseur) tonight at the Gateway Mall and theatre 4 where it was shown was three-fourths empty on its last day in Manila despite the high-profile media blitz resulting from its winning the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival.
I am at a loss if I should even write this. I was severely disappointed with the film, and yet all reviews I’ve read – from Business World's Doy Ariola (Thanks, Sir Ariola!) to Philstar’s Butch Francisco’s, sang its praises! Is there something they saw in it that I didn’t?
‘Masahista’ generally is a ‘quiet’ film despite its risqué topic, with moans, grief, and lotion slick as the sounds that reverberate in its 80-minute run. Transferred to a 35mm frame from a digital medium, the film has a somber mood to it owing perhaps to the topic at hand: abject poverty that has driven a 20ish boy to take on a job as a masseur in Manila servicing an all-gay clientele. Aptly called “Club Maharlika,” (“maharlika” means “a free man”, by the way, and I hope the comparison is not lost to audiences) the parlor is home to several brawny masseurs from Pampanga and Cebu who have their own reasons for doing the job.
With this theme in mind, one cannot help but remember the great Lino Brocka and his milestone works MACHO DANCERS (1988) which launched the career of his newest discovery, Allan Paule, and MANANAYAW (1988) which had greenhorn Philip Salvador essaying the lead role. Together with Mel Chionglo’s SIBAK (1995), these were among the first and only Filipino films to be sold in Europe for the longest time, and may have forever formed that continent’s image of the Philippines.
And along comes ‘Masahista’, the most recent Golden Leopard winner for Video (along with Canada’s LES ÉTATS NORDIQUES) at the 58th Locarno. Incidentally last year, we sent O’Hara’s BABAE SA BREAKWATER to Cannes. It may have been lost to European audiences and Filipino filmmakers but we seem to be sending the same themes to Europe for the last 17 years! It’s already strengthening the image that not only have we not improved socially, we have even become worse.
Let me make it clear. My bone of contention with ‘Masahista’ basically lies on its technical aspect and the overexposure of scenes which depicted masseurs and their clients as they do their stuff in dingy cubicles. I agree with some reviewers that these scenes can be deleted or at the very least, tightened. In fact, I am shocked that a newcomer like Coco Martin agreed to do a scene where client Allan Paule gets to - excuse the term - butt fuck him. I am pretty sure no other young actor who is just starting out would have agreed to such a scene (try this with any of the Starstruck winners and see if they would!), and I salute Martin for his courage and for putting his career on the line.
The challenge for (poor) Coco Martin is that he should prove that he’s not another pretty face, and must do everything to move on to better projects less he suffer the fate of some of his costars –Paolo Rivero, for example – whose careers ended long before they even started. With pretty faces becoming dime-a-dozen these days but without enough exciting projects to work on, new and young actors will increasingly become prey to the sex(y) film genre: the classic fallback when all the rest of the Philippine film industry fails. It’s a sad truth with miles of reels as proof.
Also, I am rather surprised that CBCP and conservative groups neither raised a howl nor a whimper over this film, the scenes of which are far more lurid than Jose Javier Reyes’ LIVE SHOW (2001) which, if we all recall, resulted in its banning and the eventual resignation of MTRCB Chair Nicanor Tiongson. I suspect it’s the Locarno win that saved the day for ‘Masahista.’ With a PGMA congratulatory message to back it up, it was finally granted an R-18 without cuts.
On the technical aspect, there is that lousy translation job from Capampangan / Cebuano / Tagalog to English. I raised this concern during the CCP’s Cinemalaya but it seems that it is getting to be very difficult finding credible translators. Then there’s the sketchy photography. The OBB alone already makes you think this was one bad job from both the Photography and Editing departments.
Coco Martin: how will he move from here?
Using the often-used contrasting of two parallel events – here depicted as Iliac (Coco) servicing a client and the final service a son does for his dead father. I must admit it is an effective style but it is not enough to arouse sympathy nor does it make a strong statement. It must be the cynic in me or something, but I do have reservations about Father-son themes because of personal experiences.
The nuances of the Capampangan and Cebuano languages were captured well by employing actors who are primary speakers. Since I speak and write in both, it was a pleasant surprise to hear them used in a local film. Coco’s attempt at Capampangan, for example, was pretty much acceptable.
The sight of a horizontally-growing Jaclyn Jose makes me wonder why she is stuck with this kind of genre. I would have asked Allan Paule the same thing if I had the chance. While this is all nothing new to Ms. Jose, star of Chito Roño’s PRIVATE SHOW (1986) and TAKAW TUKSO (1986) by William Pascual, and who appeared as a prostitute in a Cinemalaya entry SARONG BANGGI (2005), I seriously wonder if she has more plans for her future other than starring in low-budget films. I know her, although not personally, to be a staunch supporter of new directors and new material and this may be the reason for her being a part of projects like ‘Masahista.’
Honestly, with a topic like this and despite the fact that it may not necessarily pander to the prurient, any gay man will find delight in watching ‘Masahista’. In fact, it appears to have been created to please this particular sector although it would be too sad if it were to be billed as a “gay film” from hereon because - and I say this without meaning to insult the community - the message of this film would be lost. If the orientation was meant to be a marketing ploy, this should very well pay off. I have yet to read about how well – or bad – it is doing in the box office. If Chris Pablo’s (supposedly) Wong Kar Wai-esque DUDA (2004) was able to make it (and it was far lousier than anything I’ve ever seen), ‘Masahista’ can, too although I’m making a rather bad comparison here.
Given the chance, I’d rather watch ILUSYON by Ellen Ramos and by another favorite director, Paolo Villaluna - also a scholar of Mowelfund like Mendoza - who is more known for his short film PALUGID (Margins). PALUGID is the 2001 Second Prize winner at the 24th Gawad CCP; Best Short Film at the URIAN, and an official entry to the Yamagata and Overhausen festivals. I saw it in a Pelikula at Lipunan festival in Cebu several years ago, and have sought out friends in Mowelfund to convince Villaluna to lend me the VHS copy for transfer to DVD. He said yes, of course, but I never got around to doing the transfer as he doesn’t work at Mowelfund anymore. Sigh.
“A filmmaker is an agent of change. I did PALUGID to change the representation of gay people from the ‘screaming faggot types’ to sensible human beings. To my mind, I was successful in that aspect because it broke barriers and achieved my goal,” said Villaluna in a 2003 interview with The Manila Times writer Archie Liao.
The opening scene of PALUGID
Sadly, this can’t be said of ‘Masahista.’ Just because it is based on reality does not mean it’s worth filming. There are excellent topics, and then there are tired ones. Revealing the inner workings of a masseur’s life is good but will not help them rise from their predicaments. Rather, films like this have the tendency to invite scorn, revulsion, disdain, and pity for the characters but not incite real efforts to get involved in movements to change society – which is what real filmmaking should aspire to.
Also, if Brillante Mendoza thinks he can cloth his seminal work with legitimacy by employing Paule or Jose, he is sorely mistaken. It will take more than stars to bring a film to a status worthy of respect. Brilliante Mendoza will eventually be judged by his succeeding works. We can just let ‘Masahista’ pass as an effort that paid off.
By the way, it is obvious by now that I’ve posted a lot of photos from the film in this entry, but this is just to show you what you may have missed (not much) by not watching it.
Brillante Mendoza’s next film, KALELDO (Summer Heat) will be shown soon. It stars Johnny Delgado, Cherrie Pie Picache, Alan Paule, Angel Aquino, Juliana Palermo, Lauren Novero, Criselda Volks and Rita Magdalena. Since I grew up in Pampanga, I think “kaleldo” simply means “summer” but I don’t want to argue with Mendoza’s translation because I’ve done enough bashing for a day.
Brillante Mendoza’s debut film The Masseur is an atmospheric account of a man who must deal with the death of his father after working the previous night at a gay massage parlor. Iliac (Coco Martin) must dress his father for the ceremony, but is more concerned with the well-being of his widowed mother. The night before, Iliac takes on a new client and the two discuss matters of life, sex and their parents. The sexual ambivalence of the sexual encounter juxtaposes with the delicate, religious nature of his father’s funeral, creating an innovative story arch while conveying the wisdom that one single day can decode a life. Mendoza uses dialogue sparingly, letting the rich visuals take center stage.
- 41st Chicago International Film Festival