When three sex addicts show up in Olongapo, the sex city in the Philippines made famous by the Americans during the Vietnam War, they indulge in what they know best. But what they don't know is that Mother and Daughter are sharing the same man. Noel Vera gets an eyeful of the Tikoy Aguiluz film, Tatsulok (Triangle).
THE ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW


"Want a tattoo?" David O’Hara (Albert Martinez) asks, just before he moves in for the kill; it’s his one concession to sportsmanship, a final warning before the fatal spear thrust. As he speaks, both hunter and hunted are surrounded by photographs of tattoos - all kinds of tattoos, from writhing serpents to naked nymphs to demons with obscenely lolling tongues, fantastic creatures to decorate the skins of a fantastic clientele - the punks and pimps and prostitutes of Olongapo City.

Welcome to the world of Tatsulok (Triangle), the latest work from filmmaking team Tikoy Aguiluz and Pete Lacaba. The film is apparently Aguiluz’s reply to the question: can a movie full of sex and violence, quickly made and on the cheap, still be a work of art?

The answer seems to be yes. Tatsulok was made on a five-million-peso budget, on a 15-day shooting schedule. It was shot entirely on location, in Subic and Olongapo, and takes its visual cues from what makes these two cities unique. And its many sex scenes are unapologetically staged to titillate and shock, to sell the movie to a wider audience.

But the copious sex serves another purpose: it drives the different characters to do what they do and want what they want, despite the laws of convention, of morality. Minda (Elizabeth Oropesa) has a happy life with her husband, but she still goes out to look for a lover. Her daughter, Stephanie (Amanda Page), is happy to have met and known her long-lost mother, but still accepts the offer of a motorcycle ride from an exciting, possibly dangerous man. Albert Martinez as David O’Hara has a blooming career with a rock band, yet still chooses to involve himself with a mother and her daughter.

Sex as motivating force is nothing new; it was the motor that drove Diane Keaton in Looking For Mr. Goodbar and it made for an enchanting game of musical beds in Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles Of A Summer Night (at one point in the film, a bed with a beautiful woman lying in it actually slid out of a wall, playing a delicate little melody). Aguiluz and Lacaba take this age-old theme and make it their own: for them, sex is an addiction, a drug that gives pleasure but little happiness, a destructive force with its own attendant feelings of guilt and despair, of humiliation and self-destruction.

 

Then there’s the texture: Aguiluz’s films always have this caught-in-the-act look, this sense that you are looking in on people without their permission, watching them do some very ugly things. This underlying sense of voyeurism was present in Boatman, which was about toreros, or live-sex performers; it appeared in Segurista (Dead Sure) where Albert Martinez (again playing a sexual glutton) made love to Ruby Moreno, all the while casting a wandering hand over Michelle Aldana’s breast.

Aguiluz achieves his voyeuristic effects effortlessly, perhaps because he has often played the part of voyeur. He’s a veteran documentary filmmaker (Mt. Banahaw, Holy Mountain; Father Balweg, Rebel Priest), and the tricks he learnt while making documentaries lend his films a dropped-into-the-action feel. In possibly his best work ever, Bagong Bayani (The Last Wish, about the Flor Contemplacion case), he reportedly shot footage of Changi Prison in Singapore, and even smuggled a video camera inside the prison compound.

It’s interesting to note that Aguiluz’s cinematographer, Romy Vitug, is often praised for glossily beautiful lighting and compositions. Vitug’s visual beauty is still present in Tatsulok, but with a tougher attitude, a grittier texture. Years ago, Vitug did a few films for filmmaker Celso Ad. Castillo; one of the most striking results of that collaboration was Julian Makabayan, a socialist epic that used surrounding fields and natural sky to lyrical, yet unpremeditated, effect. Vitug’s work here echoes what he did in Julian, it achieves a harsh poetry with the use of available light.

But light and imagery can only do so much; Aguiluz musters the forces of sound to his side as well and the sound of Tatsulok, its pulsebeat, is distinctly rock. With the aid of Jun Lupito, Aguiluz evokes the rock scene at Olongapo - somewhat diminished what with the departure of the US Navy, but not without vitality. Lupito’s drawn-out guitar chords and improvised riffs (Aguiluz supposedly pulled him in last-minute to jerry-rig a soundtrack for the film) turn out to be livelier and more interesting - more different - than the stolid, standard, synthesized Muzak they use in most Filipino films nowadays.

Amanda Page gives her subtlest and most substantial performance to date as Stephanie, while Albert Martinez’s satyric David O’Hara is every bit as intense and believable as his previous role in an Aguiluz film - national hero Jose Rizal in Rizal Sa Dapitan. It’s a shock to see Martinez - to see, in effect, Dr. Rizal - slide his tongue up and down a woman’s arm, but that’s Martinez, throwing himself (and any other part of his body) fully into a performance.

Page is interesting, Martinez brilliant, but the movie finally belongs to Ms. Elizabeth Oropesa. She must have read the role Lacaba wrote and realized this was the performance of her career: she holds nothing back for the film. Her Minda is a fully realized creation, a woman trying to escape the past, trying to hide it, the sheer pain of it, with whatever pleasure she can find.

Which is finally what the film comes down to: pleasure in the form of sex, as a way of hiding pain. Minda seeks sex to forget the boring present, and to escape her past. Stephanie accepts sex as consolation for a disappointing mother who had put her up for adoption. Only O’Hara isn’t so clearly motivated, though there is a hint in his angry sentiments towards David O’Hara, Senior - the father that abandoned him as a child. Everyone should be happy - Subic being paradise on earth - but no one is, not really; they vent their discontent the only way they know how, in the heedless pursuit of pleasure - the flip side of pain.

"House Of Pain" reads the signboard in O’Hara’s tattoo parlor; around it, his tattooed creations growl and shriek and gibber and moan, in pleasure and in pain. Aguiluz or Lacaba (or perhaps both) must have taken the name from H.G. Wells’s infamous novel. They must also be familiar with the refrain the good doctor had invented for his creations, "Are we not men?" the Lawgiver asked as his fellow animals capered and howled. In the end they were: they made decisions, and became men. We are too, or at least, the characters in Tatsulok prove to be; they choose to run towards pleasure in avoidance of pain, confusing one for the other in an endless, hopeless chase.

Note: First published in Businessworld, May 22, 1998. The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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