ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
December 8, 2000.
The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review
Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
Click here to order.