REVIEW: A Little Show Of Horrors: As diversion or defiance, the Philippine teleserye is suddenly displaying acts of resistance

MINDANEWS (08 December 2019) — A year ago, Oscar Albayalde, who was still getting the hang of his appointment as the new chief of the Philippine National Police, the enforcer of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, declared how unhappy he was with an action-drama series on nationwide television. In a press briefing in November 14, 2018, he said that FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano (The Hillbilly) “gives us a bad impression.” He complained that the show, which depicted corruption in high places, was “unfair” and “very disturbing” as it besmirched the image of the police. The bespectacled police chief especially noted how the teleserye portrayed the PNP chief as a villain.

From ABS-CBN website

The TV series, as it happens, is a work of fiction. In real life, Albayalde, scheduled to leave the service in November 8 this year, went on early retirement in mid-October due to allegations about his connection to so-called “ninja” cops who aid, instead of apprehend, drug lords, aside from running off with the loot.

The television show still airs, carried by the Manila-based TV network ABS-CBN, and is not the only teleserye that has dared to display acts of resistance.

This year, another TV series on the same network was bolder in its caricature of Philippine politics. In The General’s Daughter, which has already wrapped up its run, politics, drugs, and social media troll farms were interwoven into a suspense thriller that triumphed in the ratings war against rival network GMA. The main character went by the surname Bonifacio; she was the long-lost daughter of an Army general named Marcial.

It’s a name game: Marcial Bonifacio was the name declared in the passport used by the late Filipino opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. on his flight back to Manila from his exile in Boston in the United States during the martial law regime of former President Ferdinand Marcos. Aquino famously opposed Marcos rule and was assassinated upon his arrival at the Manila International Airport in 1983. This kickstarted a series of events that led to Marcos’s downfall and the rise of Aquino’s wife, Corazon, into the Philippine presidency.

From ABS-CBN website

Duterte, who happens to have replaced Corazon’s son, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, in the country’s top elected post, in 2016, has not only welcomed the Marcos family back into political prominence but has also imposed martial law in the Southern Philippines, although for reasons not related to the Marcoses.

Among the most conspicuous features of martial law is the curfew, which curtails the movement of citizens, especially at night. In the past few weeks, another ABS-CBN teleserye has turned the spotlight on the curfew. The Killer Bride, a horror-drama series which began in August this year as a ghost story and gained traction with its multilayered narratives of love and revenge, featuring popular actors, has, without warning, suddenly gone all-out as a political fable. It brings its fright-fest to the terrifying arena of politics as it illustrates how a community is besieged by a killing spree orchestrated by its top political leader.

From ABS-CBN website

In its episodes just before Halloween, a mayor in some out-of-the-way province where banana plantations abound—some televiewers wonder if this is a sly reference to Davao City, the address of power in the Duterte presidency — orders his henchmen to slaughter those on his kill list. They are to do this at night by pretending to be the people’s worst nightmare, the spectral “killer bride” whose mythical bloodlust can be blamed for the carnage.

The mayor institutionalizes this climate of fear by imposing a curfew at night. “We know what is good for the people,” he tells the media. “Trust me.”

Emboldened by the mayor’s directives, the police and a ragtag band of “volunteers” rough up the townspeople during the curfew hours, sowing more fear and discord aside from the killing spree.

Those who oppose the mayor’s moves decry what they call his “iron rule.”

Among his opponents is the show’s main character, Emma, a makeup artist in a funeral parlor, who does makeovers on corpses before they are laid out for the wake. Her work place gets good business with all the killings in town. As the camera follows Emma around the mortuary, televiewers espy one cadaver after another. It’s as if the TV show haunts and taunts: This is the new normal—how we navigate around the brutal fact of death all around us.

At a time when truth-telling in the Philippine media has become a tight-rope act, a shrewd tactic has apparently emerged: fictional storytelling on television that maneuvers its way into the currents of public discourse.

By unfolding the reign of terror in its imaginary world as part-ghost story, tapping into Philippine mythology where the supernatural can be a compelling expression of the otherwise helpless citizens’ need to claim power for themselves in any way they can to subvert the status quo, The Killer Bride manages to tickle its community of viewers into the hearty guffaw of an insider’s joke.

Fables and allegories are mainstays in the rich history of dissent in the Philippines. At the height of Marcos’s authoritarian rule, the newspaper columnist Niñez Cacho-Olivarez sneaked past the Ministry of Public Information by filling her columns with light, “harmless” storytelling, such as her version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Such ingenuity goes all the way back to the fight against Spanish colonial rule. In 1838, Francisco Balagtas wrote his epic Tagalog poem, Florante at Laura, ostensibly as a heart-breaking romance. But its lines—“Within and outside my unfortunate country, tyranny rules”—were a no-nonsense eye opener. This love story was really a call to arms for love of country, helping stoke the flames of the Philippine Revolution that, at the end of that century, ended Spain’s 300-year stranglehold on the archipelago.

But new colonial masters took over: the Americans, who promptly banned any articulation of Philippine independence with the Sedition Act of 1901. Undaunted, Filipino artists put symbolic characters, costumes, backdrops and props on the stage to rouse the people into nationalistic fervor. At first glance, these musical theater extravaganzas were about silly love triangles—but the characters had such names as the Motherland, the Hero, and the Thief, which were codes for the Philippines, the Filipino freedom fighters, and the American colonial government. When the censors caught on, the police were busy for several years arresting the performers, playwrights, and even entire audiences.

During the Japanese Occupation, the invading forces were put in the spotlight, too. The Filipino cultural critic and scholar Doreen Fernandez recounted that in their acts the comic duo Tugo and Pugo “would make fun of the Japanese non-verbally, by pulling up their cuffs and revealing rows of wristwatches, which the Japanese had taken to confiscating and wearing simultaneously.”

The Marcos years were a high point in inventive protest art. Mike de Leon’s Batch ’81, a feature film purportedly about the rites and rituals of fraternity boys, was a vicious dig at authoritarianism. Songwriter Joey Ayala’s Wala Nang Tao sa Filomena (There Are No More People at Filomena) and Haring Ibon-Agila (Eagle, King of Birds) remain eloquent in their poetic lamentation of the human lives and dreams squandered at the time—both using the alienating but all-encompassing point of view of birds. A caged bird is the central metaphor in the activists’ anthem Bayan Ko (My Country).

Jailed student activist and playwright Bonifacio Ilagan updated the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Pagsambang Bayan (The Country Prays). It’s a Marcos-era anti-dictatorship street-theater happening in the guise of the Catholic mass, which has since been repurposed in the current political milieu as a musical with 25 original songs.

With ABS-CBN’s contrarian teleseryes, is TV the new arena of political dissent in the Philippines?

ABS-CBN has earned Duterte’s ire even before he assumed the presidency. He complained that the network did not air his political ads during the campaign period for the 2016 elections even though these had been paid. He has repeatedly threatened not to renew the network’s franchise in 2020. In late October, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a media organization also not in the administration’s favor, quoted presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo as saying that Duterte’s threat should be seen as nothing more than an expression of his “inis” (displeasure) with the TV network.

After the former police chief’s press briefing last year, ABS-CBN replied that it “assures the Philippine National Police that the characters, places, and incidents in the program are purely fictitious as stated in the disclaimer aired at the start of the show every night.”

In realpolitik, the TV network—with its mixed bag of fictions, variety and reality shows, and primetime news programs—is a major influencer throughout the 7,641 Philippine islands. Its newscasters find it easy to leap into the heights of politics: the telegenic Loren Legarda became a senator and the authoritatively deep-voiced Noli de Castro was a step away from the Philippine presidency, as Vice President of the Republic of the Philippines from 2004 to 2010. Corina Sanchez, who hosts a weekly magazine show, is married to Mar Roxas, the standard bearer of the Liberal Party whom Duterte trounced in the 2016 presidential elections.

Shut down in 1972 when Marcos imposed martial law, ABS-CBN was returned to its owners, the Lopezes, during Corazon Aquino’s presidency. Her daughter Kris became its prized talent, with several top-rating shows, until her brother, Noynoy, ended his term as the 15thpresident of the republic three years ago.

With Duterte’s threat not to renew its franchise next year, ABS-CBN has gone full steam ahead with the egregious spate of killings in The Killer Bride. A video showing the make-believe mayor in bed with his longtime male assistant has gone viral on social media. Series creator Arah Jell G. Badayos and her team of four writers and two directors have no qualms showing that in the wake of the public backlash—not so much on the mayor’s sexuality (the show is refreshingly LGBTQ-friendly) but on his dishonesty and hypocrisy—the bloodbath unfolds as an elaborate cover-up.

But the mayor’s opponents are not exemplary good guys, either.

Emma, the mortuary cosmetologist running around town in baffling off-the-shoulder blouses, also uses scare tactics to manipulate the townspeople. Played with a hustler’s wide-eyed duplicity by the popular actor and singer Janella Salvador, Emma pretends to be possessed by the spirit of someone mistakenly thought of as dead. She has since grappled with her conscience, though, finding herself aghast at how she uses people as pawns in a game of deception and betrayal.

By getting everyone’s hands dirty in all this drama of manipulation (well, O.K., except for the clueless, affable character portrayed by the matinee idol Joshua Garcia), The Killer Bride aspires to an ars poetica—a declaration that, as diversion or as defiance, the show’s storytelling can be a kind of truth-telling as it goes against all-too-real odds in wresting control of the narrative.

In a recent piece, The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino quoted the literary critic Bainard Cowan’s prescient observation: “Allegory could not exist if truth were accessible: as a mode of expression it arises in perpetual response to the human condition of being exiled from the truth that it would embrace.”

But still, the data tell another story. In the latest separate surveys of the competing Philippine pollsters, Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia Research, Inc., released toward the end of October to reflect this year’s third-quarter ratings, Duterte enjoys the exact same digits of public satisfaction (SWS) and approval (Pulse): an undeniable 78%. Even now, Duterte’s critics and opponents are still reeling from the results of the midterm elections in May this year, when Duterte’s candidates, including his original police chief, Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa, as well as his longtime executive assistant, Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, won all the Senate seats—an overwhelming vote of confidence for Duterte himself.

These suggest that many Filipino televiewers enjoying The Killer Bride take it for what it is and can care less about what it aspires to be. It’s mere entertainment fare in the idiot box. What’s with reading between the lines? The mayor who orders a killing spree—and has since been exposed and publicly shamed, going into hiding—is simply this fictional guy with a closely guarded secret in the closet and cannot be construed as resembling a recognizable player in Philippine politics today. And the curfew scenario could be just a lingering anti-Marcos sentiment.

Nonetheless, by strewing red flags all over the place, The Killer Bride is pushing the possibility of other ways of apprehending what’s going on. While the teleserye may rouse nothing more than dread on its literal storyline, it somehow manages to raise bigger questions, provocations and probably even sparks of something that might catch fire.

This current haunting on Philippine television summons a folksy aphorism, “Huwag kang matakot sa patay; matakot ka sa buhay” — Fear the living, not the dead.

(After graduating from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York in 2018, Mozart Pastrano of Cagayan de Oro City, was named journalist fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. Pastrano wrote for The Manila Chronicle, BusinessWorld, Philippine Daily Inquirer and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, among others).