Pampanga the Prostitute, Manila the Customer
A Review of Brillante Mendoza's 'Masahista'
The first time I heard about the Kapampangan digital film Masahista by Brillante Mendoza, I quickly searched for a DVD copy of it. Yes, even a pirated copy, just to be able to watch it. Thank Ápung Sinukuan, I got an original copy at SM.
My thesis proposal during my stay in the Broadcast Communication Department of the UP College of Mass Communication was about halting the deterioration of the Kapampangan language in Angeles City through the use of broadcast media, particularly TV, by giving people media content (soap operas, talk shows, teen-oriented shows, etc.) in the Kapampangan language.
But that topic was a trimmed down version of what I originally would like to make a study of. I wanted to cover all forms of mass media: print, film, radio, and even theater.
In the area of film, with 100% confidence, I hail Brillante “Dante” Mendoza the father of Kapampangan films. While there is no evident Kapampangan film industry yet, ever since his series of films, young Kapampangan filmmakers have been inspired to write screenplays using their Ámanung Sisuan. If I know, other non-Tagalog filmmakers have been influenced by Mendoza’s films, which I love to describe as “culturally detailed” and “colorfully realistic.”
Although not entirely Kapampangan when it comes to the language used, they offer a great deal of Kapampangan stuff, like festivals, traditions, superstitions, and comic relief only Kapampangans (by land of birth and language spoken) would be able to relate and give significance to.
Mendoza is a renowned production designer in many films. Famous in his lineup is the 1986 film ‘Private Show’ by Chito Roño, where he bagged an award; ‘Takaw Tukso’ by William Pascual; and 1985’s ‘Virgin Forest’ by Peque Gallaga, where he became Art Director.
Then one day, he decided to make his own film, thanks for being acquainted with Angeles City’s Ferdie Lapuz, a known international film distributor who has brought several Filipino films like Maryo Delos Reyes’ ‘Magnifico’ and Francis Xavier Pasion’s ‘Jay’ outside the country.
Who knew that in spite of Mendoza’s fame in Production Design, he would get greater honor as a Director, since his debut directorial film ‘Masahista’ (The Masseur) won the Golden Leopard Award in the video competition of the 58th Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland, which brought artistic pride to both the Filipino and Kapampangan community.
Center Stage Productions. Starring Coco Martin, Jaclyn Jose, Katherine Luna, and Alan Paule. Synopsis: Iliac is a young masseur who went home to Pampanga to find out that his bedridden father is dead. Iliac assists in the preparation of his father's burial including dressing his dead father up inside the morgue (Source: Wikipedia).
It’s not entirely a Kapampangan film (the Internet Movie Database even states that the language of the film is just Tagalog), because the story takes place both in Manila and Pampanga. In Pampanga, the characters speak Kapampangan. When Iliac goes to Manila, he speaks Tagalog, because his customer Marina Hidalgo (Alan Paule) was Caviteño and his raunchy girlfriend (Katherine Luna) was Tagalog-speaking. Some of his co-masseurs are Kapampangan though and they speak the language even though working in Manila.
In Mendoza’s visit to the Holy Angel University where we both delivered workshops to young film aspirants, he stated that his main goal in filmmaking is to show truth. Hence, the cultural detail, the scenes that would raise the eyebrows of censors and conservative families, and his unpopularity among the masses, who always go for the mainstream, escapist movies.
A line I can never forget from the Hollywood film ‘V For Vendetta’ goes something like this: “Politicians use lies to hide the truth while artists use lies to tell the truth.” Mendoza is an illustration of this statement as even though his films appear to be fictitious, they are largely based on reality.
There is really no beginning-climax-end to look out for in ‘Masahista.’ A lot of critics say the story is flat; I couldn’t agree more. However, such sincerity is what makes me like most of Mendoza’s films. They are the show-don’t-tell type. Plus the culture and realistic happenings foster a sense of reality and sophistication. Of course, Mendoza can’t expect to be patronized by the average Filipino, since it takes some high level of art appreciation and intellect to enjoy his works.
The Kapampangan Experience
Culture, which manifests materially (through crafts, shelters, clothes, language, physical activities) and immaterially (beliefs, values, judgments, norms, laws), is presented in detail in ‘Masahista.’ Since a lot of scenes are in Pampanga, present Kapampangan culture enjoys much highlighting.
In ‘Masahista,’ Coco Martin (who is of Kapampangan descent himself) plays the role of a Kapampangan masseur. Asked why Mendoza (and Lapuz) chose the masseur to be Kapampangan, they said it’s because a lot of Kapampangan boys really work as masseurs in Manila, which they attribute to the average Kapampangan male’s tendency to be lazy and wanting of quick money.
The opening scene of the movie was enough to make me relate it to my life as a Kapampangan who used to study in Quezon City going home every weekend to Pampanga: the view of the plains and rice fields along the North Luzon Expressway under the vast firmament.
Then we are taken to sites and objects such as the kalésa (horse-driven carriage), pedicabs (public transport tricycles that house no motors), and the parul (giant lantern)—all of which would be more familiar to a Fernandino, since the setting of the film is specifically in the City of San Fernando.
I live in Angeles City and don’t go beyond the Intersection to the center of San Fernando so those objects didn’t really ring a bell. However, when I, for the first time, paid a visit to the City Hall of San Fernando to deliver a lecture on the state of the Kapampangan language for the city’s Heritage Week, I was given familiarity to the stuff I saw in ‘Masahista.’ I even rode a kalésa and a pedicab for the first time in Pampanga!
More cultural detail involves masseurs speaking their native tongues (Kapampangan, Bisaya), Iliac washing his feet the way Pinoys usually do, the continuous operation of prostitution houses, the palengki-like tawaran between prostitutes and customers, the forbidding of sweeping after the death of one person, the Kapampangan’s habit of criticizing people who accidentally trip (“Mulala!”), the feast-like funeral activities of people like playing cards, gossiping, and indulging on food, making a big deal out of a power failure, and many more.
Then, of course, the wonderful giant lanterns only Kapampangan craftsmen can erect beautifully. They are made for the annual Liglígan Parul (Giant Lantern Festival). The behind-the-scenes footages of the DVD show the technical side of the giant lantern and how the lights are controlled.
I’m not really sure if the director/writer is trying to say something about life being like the magnificence of the giant lanterns and how people marvel at their beauty, but you are free to associate Iliac’s life with them. Mendoza’s films have the tendency to be unclear, but that is what makes artsy people intrigued; is the director trying to say something deep? Hence, the birth of the viewer’s thinking. Hence, Mendoza’s films can make you exercise your mind.
An interpretation I made, being a federalist and an Imperial Manila decentralist, involves the masseurs being provincianos and the customers and pimps Manila Tagalogs. I won’t discuss it in detail, since it will take a new set of pages to elaborate, but people familiar with the “Imperial Manila” discourse will get what I mean.
A Balid Film
Speaking of a sense of reality, on the bad side, it is obvious that the lead actors who have a number of Kapampangan lines are not Kapampangan-proficient, and the fact that they are not reeks in the way they deliver their Kapampangan lines.
Coco Martin is obvious in trying to adopt the sort of singsong accent of Kapampangan. Foreign and non-Kapampangan viewers have the slightest probability to detect such flaw, but for a Kapampangan like me, I can only cringe or laugh at the mispronunciations the actors make, the same way I roll in laughter at the trying-hard English of some Manila starlets.
Worse, in some lines, Coco mixed Tagalog grammar/words and Kapampangan. For instance, in an apparently fake accent, he said, “Sori pu, na-lowbatt ako nabengi.” (Sorry, my cell phone ran out of battery last night. / Sorry po, na-lowbatt ako kagabi.)
A native would find the line funny, because it should have been “Sóri pû, mé-lowbatt ku nabéngi.” Kapampangan verb tenses don’t sport the use of na- and the word ako is basically Tagalog.
Jaclyn Jose, who played Natty, the tocino-making mother of Iliac, was good. Almost. In some scenes, I was convinced that she indeed spoke the language. But it’s no surprise, as Jaclyn Jose is an Angeleño from Brgy. Sto Rosario. In the shooting of the controversial Pinoy film that made it to the main competition of the Cannes Film Festival ‘Serbis’ (where I worked as local coordinator and script continuity supervisor), we spoke to Jaclyn in Kapampangan, and even though she is balid, one can speak to her in Kapampangan and expect her to understand fully.
All of the extras in the Pampanga scenes, plus the siblings of Iliac (Lakan ning San Fernando 2008 Aaron Rivera and his younger sister) and one or two of the masseurs, are genuine Kapampangans. I can tell by the way they speak. Also, seeing their minor characters behave the way I perceive Kapampangans to behave in some occasions—such as the brutal gossiping behind people’s backs, silent criticizing upon another’s misfortune, and overreaction to actually-no-big-deal stimuli—makes the film closer to home.
It’s a great, even though simple and plain, film. In fact, it has earned a spot in my ‘Favorite Movies’ section in my Friendster profile. What taints it is the broken Kapampangan of the lead actors.
I’d like to believe that film is audio-visual and it is its innate goal to give the audience a sense of reality, not make them pretend to believe. With linguistic imperfections, reaching the goal is about 25% hindered. Sadly, even in Mendoza’s follow-up film ‘Káleldo’ (‘Summer Heat’), the lead actors speak Kapampangan as if with twisted tongues.
But then again, I understand. There aren’t many Kapampangan-speaking actors. I just hope that in the future, this language thing would be fixed in Mendoza’s (and every Kapampangan filmmaker’s) films. I believe we’re on our way there.
Please email reactions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo of Mendoza by Laura Irvine.