Set in the '20s, Tikoy Aguiluz's Tatarin (Summer Solstice, 2001), based on Nick Joaquin's play of the same name, is about the oldest and longest-running war known to man, the war between the sexes. By keeping nudity away, Aguiluz intensified the sexual tension through gestures and ritual. Noel Vera tells all.

Tikoy Aguiluz’s Tatarin (Summer Solstice, 2001), based on Nick Joaquin’s play of the same name, is about the oldest and longest-running war known to man, the war between the sexes. Joaquin’s problem then was how to make this war relevant again to jaded audiences (the play was written in 1975); his solution was to set the play in the ’20s, when male-dominated Western Culture was just beginning to tremble. Aguiluz’s adoption of Joaquin’s stratagem is, I think, a smart move - this way he captures the very roots of the war (or at least of the 20th century edition of the war) as waged by our grandparents and great-grandparents; he photographs the combatants at a time when the battle is still urgent and raw, the stakes desperately high.

And the battle lines are drawn, of course, around a married couple - Don Paeng and Dona Lupe Moreta (Edu Manzano and Dina Bonnevie), on the evening of the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist, on the third night of the Tatarin - a pagan ritual where for three days out of the year women hold ascendancy over men.

I can’t think of a better Filipino filmmaker than Aguiluz to evoke the living past - especially in a production like this, where immersion in a long-gone age is crucial to the success of the film. Combining the considerable resources of Viva Studios (which are usually poured into banal glamour productions) with his keen documentary filmmaker’s eye, Aguiluz (with the help of production designer Dez Bautista) evokes the remarkably authentic, miraculously detailed world of the Moretas - from the flourmill that produces their dried noodles, to the ’20s-style kitchen hard at work on dinner, to the luxuriously appointed family mansions with their incredible painted ceilings.

And it’s not just a matter of having an enormous production budget; it’s the intelligence to pick out this particular detail, the wit to shoot from that particular angle - then the judiciousness to cut it all up so that you only glance at the images, and are left wanting more.

On the set of Tatarin.

But more than the ability to recreate a historical period, Aguiluz (again, with the help of writer Ricky Lee and editor Mirana Medina) is able to streamline Joaquin’s play, to focus on the struggle between Don Paeng and Dona Lupe. The three have tinkered with Joaquin’s married couple, made delicate adjustments, crucial revisions - the Moretas, for one, have lost all warmth and affection for each other, where in the play they still show signs of tenderness. Don Paeng has become a psychologically immobile, sexually impotent monster (kudos to Edu Manzano for the courage to portray such a thoroughly unlikable man) while Dona Lupe (Dina Bonnevie, in possibly the performance of her career) has become more submissive, more withdrawn (the better to highlight the climactic reversal when it comes).

Then there is the dialogue, which has been pruned, made less explicit, made more functional than decorative. Besides the careful pruning, Aguiluz manages to locate the drama in the moments when words are not spoken - through shots that encapsulate in a single image the tension of the scene, like the one where Dona Lupe’s foot is kissed by Guido (Carlos Morales), with Don Paeng watching from the balcony. Don Paeng, the shot says to us, is ascendant by virtue of his standing in the balcony, but is also rendered remote and helpless by the distance.

Then the Tatarin ritual itself. Moved offstage in the play, the ritual occupies center stage in the film: a wordless, 10-minute orgy of pulsing drumbeat, flaring torches and convulsing women. Aguiluz wanted the sense of a real location turned theater set, and he got it - the dance, staged at the foot of an actual balete tree, feels nightmarish, surreal. And obscene - though nudity is at a minimum, there is no lack of lewdness to the drumming and dancing, which at times is reduced to frank rutting. "Pagan" is a polite and inadequate term for what happens at the foot of the balete tree.

Tatarin feels more lighthearted than Aguiluz’s earlier works, if only because he doesn’t end the film with a life-or-death situation (meaning: the protagonist didn’t die). More, it’s the first really comic film Aguiluz has ever directed, and he handles the material with admirable lightness and vigor.

Note: Cinemaya Magazine, Issue # 54-55, Winter-Spring 2002. The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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