Let's pretend we get the message. Prepaid internet is so affordable and accessible, you can practically walk around with it etched to your skin. Did you get that on first viewing? Neither did I. But we do get the subliminal message, and it's sex. The genius of the ad is that it turns corporate logos like Yahoo, Friendster, Multiply, and MTV into eye-popping ink art. On rock-hard caramel bodies, of course. Who knew logos could be so lickable?
In 1980's beloved Bona, directed by Lino Brocka, Nora Aunor was a witting slave for the two-bit macho actor she obsessed over, played by Philip Salvador. It was a story of unrequited love, but also a great power struggle. The new movie Booking is packaged by its makers as a gay Bona, as if the original wasn’t already gay in spirit and sensibility. Booking is literal in its transposition of the romantic premise, but misses out on the complexities of human behavior that made Bona a masterpiece.
Emilio Garcia is a gay talent manager pining over his own discovery (sexy Marco Morales), a bum who has no acting experience apart from occassional photo shoots. Few may remember that Garcia has played the exact same role before: In 2003's Mapanukso, he was the gay talent manager to Gerald Lauron, a macho dancer rising to become a star actor. If you’ve wondered how in the world Emilio Garcia, a former body pageant winner and sex object, has become, in one role after another, the patron gay martyr of our times, look back to the B-movie Mapanukso, and trace the path right up to last year's Dose and Eskandalo.
But if Mapanukso, like many showbiz insider tales, suffered from ludicrous fantasies about fame and fortune, Booking’s depiction of people on the outskirts of the limelight is grounded on prescient social realities, which makes it a better film and closer to third world pieces like Babae Sa Bubungang Lata. In the movie’s first half hour, Booking is an interesting peek into the mundane activities of a manager and his ward, minor players grasping at slivers of hope and opportunity. Even though the movie talks more than it shows, the facet of life it dramatizes is grungy and delicate enough to keep us watching. Writer-Director Joven Tan expressed the same subject in last year’s Paupahan. The dirty side of showbiz and desperation of wannabes was the best part of that movie; it’s also the best part here.
Unfortunately, Booking fails to follow through. It’s interested in “turn of events” more than believable character actions. When the actor decides to offer his body to his manager, the sex is generic titillation when we really would have benefited more from real emotions – the flickers of hesitation, submission, or elation. As it turns out, the movie’s agenda is to contribute yet another gay martyr in the dismal list of gay martyr movies, wherein the homosexual’s senseless demise is supposed to be the price of his pure love. I stopped buying any of its melodramatic manipulations halfway into the movie. Even the struggling actress (Mercedes Cabral, naked in many scenes) and her minor-aged brother (Charles Delgado, naked in one scene), both moonlighting as prostitutes, are prone to waxing poetic about their sorry states. There are welcome moments when the characters say something unexpected – such as when Cabral confronts Morales about whether he sleeps with his manager, or most anything that comes out of Anita Linda’s mouth, as Morales’ frank grandmother – but otherwise, everyone ends up as lifeless brainless pawns in the grand design of pity.
In a recent article, veteran journalist Mario Bautista calls for a prohibition of what he calls "gay porno" from screening at the University of the Philippines Film Institute. UP -- along with the Cultural Center of the Philippines -- remains the last public venue for films deemed unfit for viewing by the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board. When the MTRCB gives a film an "X" rating, it can't be shown anywhere -- except in UP or CCP. No one in government is supposed to have legal power to curtail freedom of expression, so every movie is allowed a place -- at the very least in a cultural or educational setting.
For the past year, many X-rated films have enjoyed packed premiere screenings at UP -- sometimes a new movie every week. Today, filmmakers reserve slots at UP even before getting a rating, in anticipation of a hard time with the MTRCB. It's somewhat become standard practice, especially since it's also an effective promotional scheme in capturing a core audience. Most of these films eventually graduate to a more lenient rating of "R-18" after a cut or two, and go on to commercial runs in more accessible multiplexes. Not all of them are gay films. A few are straight. The X rating is mostly attributed to sexual content, even in films not particularly about sex. But it's the gay sex films that are presently getting the raised eyebrows, perhaps because they attract such an excitable crowd during these premieres, and perhaps because "gay" and "sex" are words that make certain sectors uncomfortable especially when put together. But much more likely, gay sex films have become targets because they have acquired a reputation for being bad. It's easy to discredit a terribly made film.
But thank goodness the UP Film Institute doesn't discriminate on values, whether moral, religious, or, more importantly, technical or artistic. It's ridiculous to ban a film based on quality or artistic merit. I sat through a terrible Dingdong Dantes and Marian Rivera romance last year, for example, but I'm not one to deny the one or two persons in the audience who may have found a morsel of delight in it. I wasn't exactly happy with at least half the gay films released last year either, but different people have different tastes. You have to weather the bad, because only in such a free environment can good films also thrive. They wallow in the same pond.
Filipino gay sex films are already on the fringes. This is evident because the major studios don't make them. It's almost exclusively the territory of the independents, with scrimped budgets to compensate for a significantly smaller market. Their commercial runs are very limited, in only a handful of theaters, and only in the major cities in the country. R-rated films aren't even shown in the country's largest cinema chain, SM Cinemas, following a company policy. (They only show PG or G.) X-rated films are even on the fringe of the fringe. Producers don't expect to cover their entire moviemaking cost with just one special screening in UP. Most people, even those interested to watch them, don't even brave the traffic and distance to UP in Quezon City. As it is, the setup for X-rated films is already unfriendly.
I've always had a problem with the flimsy standards and inconsistencies of the MTRCB in awarding ratings. It deserves a separate discussion, because that is not the issue here. The issue is not art or trash. It is not X or R. The issue is not exploitation of actors or unfit professional practices, though it deserves its own inquiry, of course. The issue is that in the event a film does get an X-rating, where will it go if UP chooses not to accept it? What certain people like Mario Bautista are asking for is beyond regulation, and it's not even simple censorship, it's banishment. It's throwing an entire work into limbo, never to be seen or heard from again. It's like cutting a person's tongue before people are allowed to hear what he has to say. Pity if those films turn out to be something you might actually find good, whatever your inclinations are. Supposing for a moment that government could banish content ever since the 1940's, our movies would still be unable to depict married couples in bed together (which was seen as lewd in those times), and homosexuality, even among clothed men, is a topic that would never see the light of day. Non-banishment guarantees that our culture moves forward with the times.
The most unfortunate thing that arises from this issue is the unmasking of some of our elders, like Mario Bautista, who wield phrases like "artistic freedom" yet still err on the side of banishment. If people like him won't champion expression, then who can we trust? If people in seats of government, some of whom are also artists, seek power to banish on the basis of taste, can we trust them to be the guardians of our culture? I'm also appalled that students and alumni of the University of the Philippines echo the same cries for banishment to keep their beloved alma mater "pure". I can't believe these are people who spent formative years in a diversified thinking environment. Right now, UPFI is still set for a premiere screening or two of possibly controversial material, which is the way it should be. If there's anything that needs to be changed around here, it's certain individuals' attitudes.
The Bakla Review is a homosexual, a supporter of Phiippine cinema, and an alumnus of the University of the Philippines.