A reminder of the big hole we are all in

- Philip Cu-Unjieng () - December 26, 2001 - 12:00am
Hubog defies expectations. While much has been made of Assunta de Rossi’s starring role and the type of film she’s pegged her stardom on; this film is, in fact, an acting vehicle she can well be proud of. Forget it’s being classified as falling into the "bold" genre. If it is bold, it’s in the sense that it’s a boldfaced look at the social fabric that underlies contemporary Philippine society. For lack of a better term, it’s Brocka territory. And in these times of clarion calls for "nation-building films," it would do well to remember that the spectrum of films which heed these calls must also include those that portray "where we are," as much as "where we’d like to go."

Some quarters would claim that the film shows a sordid, bitter "slice of life" with no uplifting or exemplary message. Well, I still remember only decades ago, how it was decreed that one solution to the unsightly slum dwelling that were situated along the roads that led to the Manila International Airport was to create makeshift walls that hid these "ghettoes" from the arriving tourists. Some solution, right? Yet it thrived as a fact of our metropolitan life. To now say there is no merit to films such as Hubog is to similarly deny the right of films to also relate the existence of deep-rooted problems and realities that do exist and persist in our society. To expect that all such films have to also show solutions or "happy endings" is too simplistic a hope. If our reality can find no such easy panaceas, why should we think all filmmakers must have the answer? There will be all types of films; and as long as the vision of the director is valid, it’s up to the viewing public to support it or not.

A Good Harvest production, Hubog is one of the entries of this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival. Set in the slums near the pier area; it is an unflinching look at the lives of those who exist "below the poverty level." Selling your own "body parts" for money, cheating employers, taxi drivers robbing their own passengers, gambling during wakes; it’s all part of the "art of surviving."

Into this milieu we are thrust, following the lives of the four main characters. Assunta is Vanessa, a department store saleslady who single-handedly takes care of her retarded sister, Nikka (played by real-life sister Alessandra de Rossi), after the death of their mother. Two men play roles in Vanessa’s life; Oliver (Wendell Ramos), an "enterprising" taxi driver, and Uno (Jay Manalo), a bodyguard for a shipping magnate.

The timeframe of the film commences with EDSA 2 and progresses on to the May 1 debacle of EDSA 3. It’s an effective ploy, as it juxtaposes these national events and their impact (or lack of it) on the lives of these protagonists. For example, in the opening credits alone, we get the events of EDSA 2 being related on radio while Vanessa and Oliver "make out" in Oliver’s taxicab. EDSA 2 is dismissed by one slum dweller as a phenomenon of the "taga-Makati." We see how these slum dwellers are brought, courtesy of a Congressman’s bus, to rally for ex-President Joseph Estrada, and are disillusioned by the manner in which they are left to fend on their own when the cudgels fall. How these self-professed "loyalists" lead lives of vagrancy, interested only in what will be handed to them monetarily for rallying and how morally suspect they are by taking advantage of Nikka’s mental state in exchange for "sexual favors." The new connotation for "hamburger" can come first as a comedic release of sorts, but quickly descends to tragedy, emblematic of the immoral imperative which rules their lives.

The screenplay stays consistent to this "vision." Throughout the film, the catastrophes of national and domestic proportion impinge on each other. There’s an ebb and flow between what’s transpiring on a newsworthy basis and the lives of our four characters. This all comes to an effective denouement when the editing of the film intercuts between the May 1st events, violence on the "home front," and the capture of an urban terrorist.

The acting revelations in this film are Assunta and Wendell. It’s always been a trademark of Director Joel to really bring out something special from unexpected quarters. He did this with Glydel Mercado in Sidhi, Angelu de Leon in Bulaklak ng Maynila and Cogie Domingo in Deathrow. From Alessandra, we already saw something special in the film Azucena; but she once again proves just how far she can extend from the teenage format television shows she’s seen in. As for Assunta, this is a breakthrough film of sorts. "I hope they’ll watch this film. While baring my body may have been the price I paid to jumpstart my movie career; it’s here where I show that I can not only bare my body, but my soul as well."

The cinematography and lighting stay true to the gritty, urban environment we’re immersed in. The only time the "beauty lights" come into play are during the scenes of lovemaking. With all the indecency of the reality of contemporary urban life; it becomes deliciously ironic to find that the most "decent," normal sequences are these moments of lovemaking. These are, from one point of view, the only instances when we as the audience, along with the characters, actually transcend the bitter truth of what life is all about. They are the moments of release; when the constricting nature of living day to day in this cesspool of poverty and victimization can be forgotten. And true to form, they are only temporary. In one case, Vanessa discovers just how much of a heel Uno quickly becomes; and in the other, just how unrealistic a hope Oliver is doomed to be.

While the film paints a bleak vision, an indictment of our political conscience and system, it serves as a poignant reminder of just how deep a hole we have to dig out of. To deny this depth, is to fool ourselves into a complacency from which no real solution will arrive. A strong message indeed, powerfully delivered by director Joel Lamangan.

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