Young Star

The filth and the furor


If you’re old enough to remember the original noses of movie stars, you probably remember when the Metro Manila Film Festival was a showcase for cinematic excellence.

Back then, being in the MMFF selection was a big deal. Every year, moviegoers could look forward to movies that aspired to artistic and commercial success. In the 70s and early ‘80s—ironically during the martial law years—the gap between Cinema and Commerce was not yet an abyss. The Ishmael Bernals and Lino Brockas could buy themselves the freedom to make a Bona or a Manila ByNight by making komiks melodramas or teenybopper musicals. The critical favorites were not usually box-office hits, but they were, as the socially-responsible like to say, sustainable.

No doubt Iskul Bukol: The Reunion and Tanging Ina Ninyong Lahat will bring cheer to many viewers, but what exactly do they contribute to the discourse on Filipino society and identity? Other than proof that we’ll watch anything because there’s nothing else. It’s safe to say`that the 2008 selection will not be in the league of Ganito Kami Noon,Paano Kayo Ngayon. The demise of the local movie industry can be measured not only by falling grosses, but by the quality of the MMFF entries of the last decade. Since the MMFF has been reduced to a bailout plan for suffering producers, maybe we should allow the mainstream movie industry to die a natural death so that a new one can take its place.

It’s not that there are no more good Filipino movies being made. It’s just that they have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting into the festival selection.

At the very first Metro filmfest in the ‘70s, Vilma Santos starred as a striptease artist in Celso Ad Castillo’s Burlesk Queen. I was in elementary school at the time, and my parents were not about to accompany me to a movie with “burlesque” in the title, but I remember the furor surrounding that movie.

“Burlesque” is “a theatrical entertainment of a broadly humorous, often earthy character consisting of short turns, comic skits, and striptease acts.” It’s been around since Aristophanes wrote his comedies thousands of years ago. In Tagalog, “pagbuburles” meant “to take one’s clothes off in public.” It was something to be shunned by respectable people. Apart from its subject matter, the film was controversial because it starred superstar and former teen idol Vilma Santos, it was directed by Celso Ad Castillo, self-proclaimed messiah of Filipino cinema, and it contained a truly shocking dance sequence.

Burlesk Queen climaxes with Vilma bumping and grinding in front of a wildly cheering audience; her gyrations cause her to have a miscarriage. Lurid, yes, and not likely to be forgotten.

Burlesk Queen won 10 awards at the first MMFF, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. I remember hearing that the sweep was so controversial, the prizes were recalled soon after the ceremonies. Recently one of the jurors at that MMFF corrected me: Yes, there was a huge fuss over the awards. Many were stung because the head of the jury, Rolando Tinio, said exactly what he thought of the other entries. (Tinio was never one to mince words.) The awards were not rescinded, but to keep the peace, some of the winners returned their trophies.

At the time it struck me that if people could have violent arguments and brawls over Cinema, Art, and Truth, these must be Very Exciting Things. They must be worth dying—or at least bleeding—for.

Three decades after the furor, I finally got to watch Burlesk Queen.

It is easy to see what the fuss was about. It is big, chaotic, and audacious. Celso Ad Castillo was once called “Celso Kid,” the enfant terrible of Philippine cinema. Later he was just terrible, but BurleskQueen is exhilarating.

The story is a familiar one: a young woman with an invalid father to support sells her body in order to live. Not on the streets, but on the stage of a burlesque theatre. Vilma plays Chato the dancer with a mixture of innocence and strength—the sleaze of her surroundings cannot break her. Leopoldo Salcedo plays the proud old man who is dying of shame—his presence links Burlesk Queen to the “Golden Age” of Philippine cinema and makes the movie’s thesis more poignant. Joonee Gamboa is the theatre owner who makes long speeches about burlesque being an art for the masses and a vehicle to elevate them intellectually. He comes off as slightly loony, but who says art is “normal”?

The theater is condemned by politicians who preach morality. In the movie, the battle between art and politics is fought right at the old man’s window. From the window, we see a politician delivering a campaign speech, vowing to clean up the city. The old man sits at the window, watching the rally, while the theatre owner tries to persuade him to let his daughter dance. Downstairs, the daughter flirts with the politician’s son.

There is so much happening in every frame of Castillo’s movie: it is literally pulsing with life. While the former star dancer played by Rosemarie Gil rages drunkenly onstage, a woman in the audience slaps the man sitting next to her. Backstage a boy gropes his girlfriend, onstage a performer pounds a very long nail into his nostril, and on the soundtrack a singer declares he will do anything for love. It is as if every character onscreen were starring in their own movie, and the story unfolding before us is merely a slice of all this vivid life.

When the theater is ordered closed, the owner declares that their last show will be something to remember. He does not exaggerate. The scenes leading up to the climactic dance—the montages of the singers, dancers, and comedians—evoke a bittersweet longing for an era that had vanished.

We have been fooled. This movie is not about a young woman taking her clothes off. It’s about life, art, and the dark, unexpected places where they sometimes meet.

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Email your comments and questions to emotionalweatherreport@gmail.com.

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