It begs to be asked: When was the last time we saw an erect penis in a Filipino movie? In commercial theatres or legitimate video?
With the release of the R-rated Ang Lalake Sa Parola -- sans the erection and a variety of other sexual images that were the reason for its previous X-rating by the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) -- we really should be wondering aloud: What's wrong with dick? Is our conservative taste in cinema a reality or merely imagined? And, most importantly, could our backward cinematic culture be directly related to the absence of acceptable phallus?
I have not seen the notorious X-rated (and therefore practically banned) version, but I imagine it to be a superior film to the one I saw. In the R-rated Parola, I sensed an underlying spirit of bravery and bravura. Images of complete nakedness and overt sexuality would have certainly made sense. My plea: Unleash the original cut.
For the most part, Parola plays out like something old and useless: a country hunk (Harry Chua) is visited by a city hunk (Justin De Leon), and country hunk "comes of age" -- which, in a gay film like this, means he gets it on with another guy and "discovers himself". His girlfriend (Jennifer Lee) is consequentially waylaid. It's Brokeback Mountain by way of standard Pinoy boldie. Sex scenes appear as key turning points of the story. Mateo has sex with his girlfriend, then Mateo has sex with Jerome, then Mateo doesn't have sex with his girlfriend but continues to have sex with Jerome. In the "bold" genre, plot can easily be understood just by outlining the sex scenes. Scenes and dialogue can sometimes seem nicked straight from ordinary online erotica. The steamiest scene, involving unzipped trousers, is a great work of tease.
But something unexpected happens towards the end, where the movie achieves a kind of mindfuck. STOP READING NOW IF YOU WISH TO AVOID SPOILERS.
In the city, Mateo has dinner with his now-boyfriend Jerome and friends. In the middle of bilingual, educated but trivial chatter, he finds himself lost and unable to relate. If the movie hadn't been an effective romance up to that point, and not even an effective psychological study of a man, it's at least a movie with a big central idea. It invites us to pry into the nature of identity.
In a succeeding scene, the nextdoor maid asks Mateo if he's the new boyfriend, which he instinctively denies. A kitchen argument between the lovers ensues, in which Jerome forces Mateo to admit he's gay, but poor Mateo can't. I was rooting for Mateo not to answer. The movie asks: Could the label of homosexuality be largely an intellectual construct? As Mateo gradually rejects his taste for women, the film presents to us a slippery notion of gender. Although that final shot of Mateo framed by a painting of a woman's figure is telling of the filmmakers' position (they seem to say Mateo is, afterall, gay), I'd like to think it's not as closed. What I admire most is the depth and importance of the discourse.
There's a running narration about some silly folklore about a diwata (fairy) who seduces men. It intercuts with the main narrative, and it drove me nuts. It suggests the case of Mateo is not an isolated one but is the general plight of many men through time -- how straight men can turn gay or whatever. At some moments, I was reminded of Sa Paraiso Ni Efren, that classic Pinoy film in which a man who's primarily a woman-fucker goes into a relationship of love with a gay man. There's also a fairy symbol there, that signifies both a missing parental figure and also an elusive sexual identity waiting to be grasped. Anton Bernardo, that film's star, is similar to Harry Chua, too. Both embody the conflicting forces of man and child, starting with their physiques: a delicious balance of bulging muscle and baby fat.
Harry Chua is truly remarkable. He was perfect as a boy who was not necessarily inexperienced nor ignorant, but still in a way innocent. Clothed or undressed, fornicating or not, he was a joy to watch. My favorite scene was of him doing housework in just his whities. In that scene and others where the actors similarly expose or perform more than what conventional flicks would deem tasteful, Parola is elevated from a mere "story" into a filmmaking that approaches -- dare I say it -- Art. As the film coaxes the viewers to be voyeurs, it also implicates us in the ongoing exploitation: of one man's devolution (or evolution) as an object-slave. Too bad the truly baring incidents were wasted on the cutting room floor. I still maintain: A more explicit version of this movie could have been something powerful, as it moves farther from standard sex narrative into a reflexive provocation, in which our reaction to the image matters as much as the image itself. And besides, it would have been an even hotter film. Right now, in the sanitized cut, what we have is an incredibly steamy film that's not quite good, but close.