While Gil Portes's Gatas Sa Dibdib Ng Kaaway (At The Breast Of The Enemy) succeeds as an economically-made low budget feature, the drama is never milked (sic) out of the otherwise well-written story. Noel Vera feels undernourished.


THE ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW

It's part of Gil Portes's genius as a producer that he was able to take the sets and costumes he used while making Markova: Comfort Gay to shoot another film at the same time - two movies, almost for the price of one.

Gatas Sa Dibdib Ng Kaaway (At The Breast Of The Enemy), like Markova, is set during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, in World War II. It's the story of a young woman (Mylene Dizon), whose husband (Jomari Yllana), is arrested by the soldiers of a Japanese garrison, on the suspicion that he is a guerilla. Dizon pleads her case to the garrison's commander (Kenji Motoki), who sympathizes and lets Yllana go; when the commander's wife dies and leaves their son motherless, Dizon (who is nursing), is hired to feed the baby from her own breast.

 

It's a lovely story (by Jose Dalisay Jr. and Portes) and the script (by Dalisay) develops it quite nicely. Unfortunately, a lovely script is only half the picture. The film feels like a rough-cut rather than the finished product - the telling is a touch too slow, scenes go on a touch too long, and there are moments when you can actually see the actors waiting for their cues.

I've sat through my share of slow movies - the works of Theo Angolopoulos and Andrei Tarkovsky come to mind - and even dozed through some of them, but rarely have I ever felt annoyed by the less-than-lively pace, mainly because I felt they knew what they were doing. Such films draw us out; make us want to wait and see what happens; bring us to a kind of suspended hypnotized state with their thrillingly mysterious reserve. A film that is slow because it's trying to approximate that kind of storytelling - and not succeeding very well - can be irritating in the extreme.

As for the performances - Mylene Dizon acquits herself well enough (it's her picture, after all), and shows her (reputed) surgically enhanced breasts with winning ease, but her menfolk are woefully inadequate. Motoki is tall and handsome and wooden (I've seen livelier anime on Saturday morning television); Yllana I've followed through many films under many directors, and I've yet to see his mouth move once (I suspect the dialogue comes out through speakers hidden behind his ears).

 

Then there are the many missed opportunities... like when Yllana is beaten by the Japanese and all Dizon has to offer is her milk, and Motoki catches them at it together - that should have been a charged moment, full of surprise and fear and unexpected eroticism; instead, Dizon gives a short apology and the matter is dropped. Later, when Motoki enters the living room and finds Dizon giving her breast to his child, there should have been more drama, more feeling to the scene, but no - Dizon casually explains that the child wanted milk, so she supplied him (it's as if her nipples were an ATM machine, ready to service anyone in need with functional efficiency).

Perhaps the film's most courageous artistic choice - and most damning failure - is in allowing itself similarities to the classic of the genre, Mario O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God). The parallels are obvious: both are set during the Occupation, both involve a woman forced to decide between her Filipino and Japanese lover.

But where Gatas's Japanese officer is a milky-veined gentleman, Tatlong's is a rapist, with demons in his past; where Dizon is adequate as a loving (and rather passive) mother and housewife, Tatlong's Nora Aunor breathes fire into her role as a woman torn in two. After watching  Gatas, I can safely say that the heights and depths, the glories and terrors of the human heart were not plumbed; I couldn't say the same after watching Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos.

Note: Businessworld, January 12, 2001. The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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