It's possibly Gil Portes's best film as Markova: Comfort Gay portrays the true story of a gay man (Walter Dempster Jr., a.k.a. Walterina Markova) forced to become a "comfort woman," a woman who renders sexual service to Japanese soldiers in World War II. Noel Vera has some reservations but otherwise admires this worthy effort.


THE ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW

Gil Portes's Markova: Comfort Gay turns on a magnificent concept: take the true story of a gay man (Walter Dempster Jr., a.k.a. Walterina Markova) forced to become a "comfort woman," a woman who renders sexual service to Japanese soldiers in World War II; cast legendary comedian Dolphy, known for his many cross-dressing roles; then cast his sons - Jeffrey and Eric Quizon - as younger versions of himself. Portes is known to be a resourceful producer and dealmaker par excellence; this may be a high point - if not the high point - of that aspect of his career.

The resulting film - scripted by Clodualdo del Mundo (Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila In The Claws Of Neon), Bayaning Third World (Third World Hero)) and photographed by Johnny Araojo (Bagong Hari (The New King)) - is intelligently made and handsome to look at. It covers Markova's life, from his beginnings as an effeminate youth (Jeffrey Quizon), to his career as nightclub dancer during the Japanese Occupation (Eric Quizon), to his present situation as a serene yet spirited old man (Dolphy) living in a retirement home for gay men.

Dolphy is a great actor, comic or otherwise, but I don't think he's ever had a film or role worthy of his talents, except perhaps in Lino Brocka's Ang Tatay Kong Nanay (My Motherly Father). Here and there, however - in isolated scenes, or in entire roles that are the only redeeming feature in an irredeemable film - he strikes a grace note, a balance between comedy and pathos that recalls Chaplin, or a balance between comedy and melancholic beauty that recalls Keaton.

Everyone has his favorite Dolphy moment. My wife remembers a scene where he tries to prepare a stir-fry meal by listening in on a cooking program on radio, except someone keeps switching to an aerobics show. A friend recalls a picture where Dolphy was so poor he only had dried fish and rice for dinner - he wouldn't even eat the dried fish, only sniff at it so it would last longer.

The Dolphy movie I remember had him and his fellow comic Panchito mixing a thick paste in a laboratory - he'd flick a speck at Panchito's eye; Panchito would reply with a handful slathered on his face; he'd retaliate with a bucketful dumped on Panchito's head, the whole thing done in a beautiful deadpan.

 

Dolphy supposedly decided to help produce this film half an hour after it was proposed to him; he may have sensed that this role would be crucial for him - for posterity, one of a handful of roles he would be remembered for. As far as I can tell, Dolphy is perfect for Markova - someone who has actually met the man tells me that he captures every gesture, every mannerism, even the style of makeup he uses. Where I think Dolphy fails, and this may be more a problem with the script and film than with the actor's considerable talents, is in capturing a sense of the man himself - what moves him, what keeps him going, the essential "gayness" of his soul.

Dolphy's performance seems primed for greatness - he tilts his head just so, and gives us those long, faraway looks that signify hidden depths inside. But what those depths may be, we only get glimpses of; Dolphy is playing Markova at a point when most of the major events in his life have passed and he can only watch as his friends die of heart failure or AIDs - dramatic if not very illuminating moments.

We might have learnt something if we had a clearer idea of how he felt, seeing his story splashed on the newspapers and on TV - the shame and embarrassment it must have caused him, the relief of having the truth finally revealed to the world; instead we get a comedy routine with TV journalist Loren Legarda interviewing Markova for his life's story. Even this kind of framework might have provided some kind of insight, showing her initial contempt, then her growing recognition and admiration of his spirit... but Legarda is too awkward an actress to make it believable; you can see Dolphy carrying most of their scenes together.

Dolphy badly needs the earlier scenes in his life to explain his character - and they don't, not really. As the adolescent Markova, Jeffrey Quizon plays a bright young ingenue who is occasionally beaten up by his older brother. He's wickedly funny when, despite himself, he cackles over his brother's sudden death; he shrieks persuasively when in a later scene a man holds him down and starts to spread butter between his ass cheeks. But how he eventually learns to relax and enjoy gay sex (not an easy task, that), we never get to see (the camera tastefully pans away from Markova's deflowering before we learn his ultimate reaction).

Later, when Markova is a young man (a beautifully dignified Eric Quizon) singing and dancing in a nightclub, we are barely introduced to his fellow dancers before they are gathered up and gang-raped by Japanese soldiers. Seeing men violently sodomized is a horrifying sight (though having a bunch of them just thrown down on the ground and pronged without even a pause to let the horror - pardon the expression - sink in tends to dilute the impact); seeing men we have come to know and understand brutalized would have been more affecting, by far.

I don't think this is a minor complaint. What happens during the Occupation in many ways defined Markova's life, and we need to understand how this crucial episode changed him and his friends - an understanding, however, that is not forthcoming. The men eventually escape, and this could have been an occasion to demonstrate how Markova has learnt determination and courage from his harrowing experience, but Dolphy merely mentions this to Ms. Legarda in a few short sentences.

Later, one of his friends turns serial killer, luring Japanese officers into blind alleys and stabbing them with a knife. Markova and company do nothing more than look on with shocked expressions; we never really learn if they approve or reject what he's doing. I kept waiting for a reaction from him, a reply from his psyche to what he had just gone through, but nothing - it's as if they had gone through a particularly chaotic Midnight Madness Sale, and was none the worse for wear (at least his friend responded by turning psychotic).

 

In fact a lot of questions, not all of them unimportant, go unanswered. Markova is portrayed as being full of nobility and grandeur but you have to ask yourself - other than staying alive, what has he done in the film to earn this portrayal? If he had risked his life to help someone - a friend, a lover, a family relation, anyone - we might have understood; even if he didn't help someone, but at least cared for or deeply loved someone, we might have understood.

There are his friends, but poorly characterized as they are, you couldn't care less about them (whenever Markova refers to "my friend Carmen" I kept looking around, trying to distinguish one heavily made-up face from another).

Otherwise, you might think of Markova as a shallow, self-centered creature who never loved anyone - which is fine, great films have been made based on such characters, but the film clearly wants to show Markova as noble, practically wants to canonize him, and we see little actual reason for it onscreen.

Beyond that crucial character, that "other" that would have effectively reflected Markova's inner spirit, there are barely any other people around. The family is briefly introduced in the opening passages, and Dexter Doria is cheerful in her few moments as Markova's mother - but for the rest of the film they mostly disappear, without so much as a "farewell!" or at least a goodbye wave.

The society around Markova and his friends suffer even less exposition - homosexuality was even more taboo then, and it would have helped to sketch in a little context, given us a quick précis of the relationship of Markova and friends with the world at large.

Grave reservations, yes... against which I put forth a trio of performances: Jeffrey's bright and spirited youth, Eric Quizon's quietly elegant young man, and Dolphy's comical Grande Dame (The inquisitive might ask: "Why does Markova go from spirited to quiet to comical?" To which I can only reply: "In the perfect film rolling in my mind, I see the missing scenes where this evolution of character is more clearly defined").

I put forth Neil Daza's miraculous recreation of period and atmosphere, del Mundo's literate and often-witty dialogue, and a constellation of lovely little cameos (Joel Lamangan's wittily gay City Councilor; Chaning Carlos's sly old man, literally dying for a sip of soured soup). I put forth Gil Portes's brilliant premise - actually, practically all his films have brilliant premises, and are worth seeing for their subject matter alone. Markova: Closet Gay may not have completely succeeded in showing us the man behind the made-up mask, but it does offer a compelling glimpse of something rarely seen.

Note: Businessworld, December 8, 2000. The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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November 14, 2006









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