WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: In the heat of the night

I had reservations about bringing my Social Justice class to see Lee's movie on the very first day it was showing in SM Cinema 2. I thought it was going to be one of those artsy-fartsy pseudo-intellectual movies that trivializes social issues and, worse, would eventually spawn pito-pito copycats that torturously mangle the theme beyond artistic redemption. But my students wanted to see it, and as I had exhausted them with an exercise on social investigation into the life experiences of the streetchildren right outside the campus gates, I figured they were due for a break. I know it's rated R-13, but just the same, I got a quick poll to make sure that they were all of the age of majority before I handed out tickets.

Lee asked us to see the movie on the first day because they needed the audience to start coming or else SM would pull out the movie and replace it with You Are The One. Okay, this is a class in Social Justice. We'll have to do our bit to level the playing field somewhat.

So there we were at noon Wednesday for the very first Davao screening of the movie. Still I had my reservations, but I try always to keep an open mind. That way, it's a lot easier to move positions when one finds the experience to be a delightful surprise after all.

Sarong Banggi the movie was that exactly. It explores the modern jungle's rituals for coming of age. For a while there I turned nostalgic remembering the line of prepubescent boys marching off down to the river for ritual circumcision. Bayabas, itak, at ang patadyong ni mama do not happen anymore.

Anyway, Lee's newest outing on the rites of passage should be called Ang Pagbibinata ni Norberto Jr., to evoke his earlier film entitled Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros which I, unfortunately, was not able to see. No, Sarong Banggi is definitely not Ang Pagme-menopause ni Maximo Oliveros.

The story goes that on the eve of his birthday, Norberto Jr., aka Nyoy, a sexually uninitiated, but otherwise well-adjusted, middleclass young lad, goes out on gimmick with his more worldwise pals. The parents play along and give him enough money to accomplish what needs to get done that night. The plans for hooking up Nyoy with a prostitute fall through when the group sees that she was kind of on the wrong side of thirty. They managed to find a younger one and sent Nyoy on his way. But when left to their own devices, Nyoy and the girl soon discover that the chemistry was off. The girl takes off with a foreigner while Nyoy wasn't looking.

He eventually ends up back at the Baywalk restaurant talking to the aging prostitute the gang had earlier spurned. She introduces him to the kind of fly on the wall techniques our teachers used to make us practice out there in the general vicinity of Roxas Boulevard, Remedios Circle, and the Malate environs. Durkheim's anomie and anonymity characterize that area, so much so that it is a subculture all on its own. Consider the kaleidoscopic blur of foreigners, sex workers, runaways, gays, sex-deprived seamen, and people on the make rubbing elbows with musicians, coeds, yuppies and families out for the night. There's no end to the potential subjects for constructing a plausible person-situation scenario with just the physical presentation to go by.

"What's his story?" is an exercise that hones social perception and cognition, the requisite tools of the social scientist. Lee accords Jaclyn Jose the privilege to act as his medium as he demonstrates for the audience how it's done. Her performance creditably acquits her as an actress of note.

Lee said this was a movie about May-December intimacy. That's an understatement. The script draws on a mature understanding of the emotional development required for one to be capable of really connecting with another human being. Some, like Nyoy, young as they are, have always had it. Others, like Jaclyn, only learn it when, as middle-aged adults living empty lives, they are faced with the innocent trust that, having had no experience of receiving, they eventually end up repaying in the only currency they have: lies. The opportunity for redemption goes unrecognized until it's too late, and the poor soul ends up mired deeper in the muck of corruption.

How can you do right when you've always done wrong? Still, you know what would have been right, but the opportunity to do it has passed you by. Time is cruel that way. Some actions are irreversible. Maybe. Can you make second chances at doing it right? The movie tries to answer that question.

Sarong Banggi is a provocative movie largely because it explores the age-old theme of the Oedipus complex. You come away from the movie with a lot of unanswered questions because you know what the writer wanted you to think, but the viewer who is moved to save the human soul would be reluctant to agree. It's this troublesome ambiguity that got many of my students really hooked enough to want to see it again.

Janilyn Largo, 20, and one of my more reflective students, wanted to know why mainstream producers do not put out films like this more often. I guess it's because not many movie watchers out there would pay to apply theories of social interaction or philosophies of redemption. And not many writer-producers out there are intellectually mature enough to be comfortable with ambiguity, or with dishing it out onscreen. You have to be pretty independent not to compromise on ambiguity. Especially when you wish to play for an audience old enough to find out for themselves.

(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan's column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments [email protected]. "Send at the risk of a reply," she says.)