Jean Garcia nurses Polo Ravales and Joseph Bitangcol
Joel Lamangan has always been a director of B-movie sensibilities. He makes movies fast and relatively cheap, and everything he touches acquires a bulldozing brazenness, stripped of subtlety. This is why his prestige bids for Art or High Drama, like Mila or Mano Po, are accessible but clunky. Yet when the movies go over-the-top, as in the camp of his comedies, the sensationalized violence, or sexploitation, there's something to enjoy. Like a true B-movie filmmaker, Lamangan's movies aim for some kind of social/political/spiritual higher power, falling instead on simplistic and recycled ideas, and only really succeed when they delight us on a brainless level.
Walang Kawala at first appears to be the Studio Man hopping on the gay indie bandwagon, working for independent company DMV in the digital format, complete with a dramatic English translation of a title, as if positioning for a festival abroad. But the film turns out to be everything we already know about the director's work: Irritating when it tries to be important, and delightful when it's lurid. It's a mix bag.
Joseph Bitangcol runs away from their fishing town, then becomes a macho dancer in Manila, while Polo Ravales, his lover, follows to find him -- a gay transposition of the plot of Maynila Sa Mga Kuko Ng Liwanag. A couple of references made about the Desaparecidos hint that the journey of these two lost homosexuals is an allegory to military abductions in the Philippines, but I think the forced comparison is empty, in much the same way that Hubog never really said anything about EDSA 3 Revolt, no matter how many references were crammed into it.
When you get down to it, Walang Kawala is a standard potboiler in which two men spiral down involuntarily into an inferno of sexual torture, right unto its merciless, meaningless standard ending, and it's the brash embrace of that exploitation that keeps us glued, even if we don't admit it. In one tense scene, Polo Ravales' innocent, tearful face is stuffed with a pistol, which slides in and out of his mouth, and I'm not as shocked by the overt sexual suggestiveness as much as the thought that the competent actor has fearlessly subjected his body for snuff spectacle. We actually watch the weapon abuse his orifice! I cringed and I laughed and I cheered at the bravura of it all. It's true elsewhere in the film. Joseph Bitangcol strips his bikini to flaunt his butt onstage, then later, while asleep, his brief bulge occupies nearly half the entire screen, to be fondled by the hands of Paolo Rivero. A crew of macho dancers are cute and near-naked, and, in a shot that's the talk of the town, Marco Morales, as the stardancer, makes a confident full frontal flash that may be the most in-your-face our movies have ever seen. That the actor seems to be intelligent as well as charming, as displayed in a couple of earlier scenes, including one in which he bathes in wet briefs, makes the stunt more shocking -- and appealing.
But the ringleader of this flesh circus is Emilio Garcia, who chews on the role of a sadistic cop like a cartoon demon in heat. In one scene, he appears to be the stand-in for a filmmaker of exploitation such as this, as he directs the two lovers to strip, kiss, and fuck each other while he jerks off. In Lamangan's totally mainstream style -- with bright rainbow lighting and perfectly safe angles and musical cues -- the edge in these situations is dilluted into a kind of S&M rape fantasy fulfillment. It's likely none of us will find any of it repulsive enough to walk out on, making it a palatable kind of sickness.
It's also nostalgic to see once sex idols Mike Magat and Jon Romano as thugs, still sexy, even though they remain clothed, like Paolo Rivero as a gay head waiter. Big-breasted Althea Vega, who hams and pounds in early scenes, is also an acting and baring discovery, one for the dudes.
The best part is that the movie was approved for an R-18 rating, without cuts, by the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB). It's baffling, considering just two weeks prior, three Filipino films had been X'ed -- Melancholia, Next Attraction, and Imburnal -- films that are definitely less graphic and arguably more sincere and effective in their artistic intentions. You're allowed to posit your own conspiracy theory as to why -- such as, "Obscenity for the MTRCB is a matter of political content" or "Art is X; Commerce is PG" -- and let's discuss. But bravo to the Board for making one of their most enlightened decisions in recent years, and I'm not being sarcastic. Because if trash -- granted, it's enjoyable trash -- is allowed to find an audience that can appreciate it, then who knows what sublime beauty the future of a free Philippine cinema can bring? If Melancholia, for example, were to be reassessed for classification, wouldn't it be silly to call it unfit now? Hey, isn't that movie also about the Desaparecidos?