Maryo J. de los Reyes's Laman (Flesh) is an unpretentious, well-crafted sex film which the Filipino censors tried to get X-rated. But Reyes is not a fashionable young turk hot for attention. He's just interested in his craft and his characters. Noel Vera gets real low down.
 
THE ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW


Maryo J. de los Reyes’s Laman (Flesh; 2002) is his latest sex flick, and - surprise, surprise - it’s pretty good. Well, maybe not so much of a surprise - de los Reyes has always been a competent craftsman and I’ve always thought that given good material (or at least material that’s solid, without any embarrassing flaws), he can come up with a solid genre job.

In this case the job he comes up with is solidly in the genre of erotic "noir" drama. A married couple (Yul Servo, Lolita de Leon) come to Manila from the provinces to look for a job; they end up rooming in the house of Servo’s best friend (Albert Martinez), who finds himself lusting for the ripe young wife. Albert plays a gigolo, and one of his most loyal customers is a successful businesswoman (Elizabeth Oropesa) who, in turn, develops a hankering for the young husband (Servo).

Seductions, revelations and realignments follow; it’s the kind of melodramatic brew de los Reyes has done before, nothing radically new. But unlike Paraiso ni Efren (Efren’s Paradise), there are no gauzy attempts at dream imagery and no unlikely subplots involving Non-Government Organizations (the script and presumably the dream imagery were by Jun Lana). Unlike Red Diaries, starring Assunta de Rossi, he isn’t required to showcase some skin-flick diva’s "thespic prowess." Laman is simple, small-scaled, and surprisingly honest. It doesn’t make any pretense of aspiring to be more than what it is: a well-made example of itself.

Yul Servo as the husband is persuasively young and innocent - and later, innocence lost, persuasively idealistic; he proves with his sophomore performance that the potential he showed in Batang West Side (West Side Avenue) was no lucky accident, though his role here is far less complex. Lolita de Leon as his wife is refreshingly, 100 per cent real (no surgical enhancements, her); she’s good at playing exactly what she is, a young provincial lass corrupted by the big city.

Elizabeth Oropesa is equally good as the sexually voracious employer with a caramel core (think of the whore with the heart of gold become successful entrepreneur) - she makes you believe she has the ruthlessness to succeed in business, yet can still be attracted to Servo’s goodness.


 

Albert Martinez is possibly the gamest actor in the industry right now. There’s nothing he won’t do, apparently, from wearing women’s clothes (Scorpio Nights 2), to performing gay sex (Gusto Kong Lumigaya (I Want To Be Happy)), to playing unmitigated bastards (everything from Segurista (Dead Sure) to this film). This may be the best role he’s had in years, though, if only because it’s the first role he’s had in years where the character is clearly and carefully drawn.

We come to understand Martinez’s gigolo; we know the need he has for security that leads him into relationships with wealthy women like Oropesa, the same time we know the maddening itch he feels when faced with de Leon’s tremendous breasts. The one instinct is his best hope for a long and happy life; the other is trouble, pure and simple.

De los Reyes, who’s in his fifties, needn’t feel embarrassed when compared to the "Young Turk" filmmakers coming out of the woodwork nowadays; he is every bit as adept with shock cuts and innovative camerawork (overhead, handheld, what-have-you) as the best of them. He uses the "bleached-bypass" effect you saw in the battle sequences of Saving Private Ryan, the one that leaches out colors; he even includes the trick in Ryan where anyone in motion looked as if he were moving under a strobe light.

Laman is well-edited, well-shot eye candy, yoked - and this is where de los Reyes has an advantage over all the so-called "Turks" in the business - to a solidly written, realistically plotted script (co-written by de los Reyes himself, with Wally Ching).

I’ve heard of Laman’s tussles with the Movies and Television Ratings and Classification Board (the MTRCB, or, in short, the Censors) - how it was "X’d" twice, and how Regal Studios finally gave in and submitted a shortened version. It’s idiocy like this that makes me doubt the sincerity of the government’s interest in the arts; all they really seem to care about is in keeping it all clean and neat and toothless, like a travelogue.

Granted Laman has no positive moral lesson to impart to adult Filipinos - a characteristic, truth to tell, common in noir - why do the morons in the MTRCB insist in denying us the privilege of judging the film for ourselves (what makes THEM so special? "Higher moral standards," perhaps, or some self-perceived immunity to smut?)? Laman is definitely no film for a child - problem is, the MTRCB seems insistent on treating me and every mature member of Philippine society like one.

Note: First published in Businessworld, September 13, 2002. The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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