Toro (Live Show) is Jose Javier Reyes's attempt at breaking out of the kind of films he's done - understated, for the most part well-observed portraits of middle-class life, usually with young men or women as protagonists. This time, the milieu is grittier, decidedly less un-middle-class - the lives and loves of toreros, or live-sex performers, who work the seedier sections of Metro Manila. Noel Vera sweats it out.


THE ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW

Jose Javier Reyes's Toro (Live Show) begins with the image of a young man staring straight into the camera - dark-eyed, dark-skinned, his numb voice speaking darkly tragic words.

He talks in a cynical, streetwise, seen-it-all tone and if I hadn't felt like I've seen it all myself - if I wasn't feeling every bit as cynical as this young man - I would have said "Hello! What's this? Something new?"

I did say "Hello! What's this... something new in a Jose Reyes film?" Toro is Reyes's attempt at breaking out of the kind of films he's done lately - understated, for the most part well-observed portraits of middle-class life, usually with young men or women as protagonists. He still has young men and women here - the film isn't quite that radical a break - but the milieu is grittier, decidedly less un-middle-class - the lives and loves of toreros, or live-sex performers, who work the seedier sections of Metro Manila. I thought the shows would have died out by now - they were far more prevalent in the early '80s - but apparently they have persisted somehow, and they're still fertile grounds for some new melodrama.

Reyes has done some of the necessary research - the room where the toreros perform looks authentically cramped and airless, with benches for the "audience" to sit in, and a plastic mat in the middle of the room, to make it easier to wipe off the sweat and other bodily fluids. The one false effect is a ceiling fan, set in front of harsh spotlights so that its endlessly revolving shadow falls on the performers' asses. Big mistake - given that this is a live performance, no one in his right mind would let shadows of any kind get in the way of a good view of a good-looking behind. It's worse than arty - it's bad showmanship.

Reyes has a few instincts working for him here. He stages the sex as a series of tableaus, with the performers presented - spread-eagled and expressionless - for our immediate, voyeuristic pleasure. The best endowed of them - Klaudia Koronel, she of unbelievably pneumatic breasts - Reyes uses mainly for laughs; she follows in the not-so-hallowed footsteps of Rosanna Roces, who liked to combine comedy and sex in an impudent mix (then Roces decided she was a serious actress, and appeared in a series of pretentious art films that killed off her spontaneity). Klaudia's performance is good-naturedly campy, and she gives the film a much-needed shot of irreverence - a good thing too, as it would have been hard to take anyone with breasts as bouncy as Klaudia's seriously as a dramatic actress.

On the other hand there's Ana Capri, who is impossible not to take seriously. Capri having sex suggests a martyr saint practicing intense, self-inflicted repentance - knowingly and repeatedly immolating her body in a sensual hell of her own making. Men surround her, they press close to her, they commit all kinds of lascivious acts on her wet and helpless body, and her only reaction to what they do is raise her eyes heavenwards. Capri seems to be that rare softcore porn starlet who can really act - her intelligent performance in last year's Pila Balde (Fetch A Pail Of Water) held that film together, while her performance in Paraiso ni Efren (Efren's Paradise) was the only thing in that picture worth watching. The film is much too talky. The narrator-protagonist who speaks to us throughout most of the film is the worse offender - he plasters the montages of otherwise effective sex with pseudo-poetic philosophical musings, and talks on and on and on, long past the point when the film should have ended. Some of the characters - the daughter who leaves her mother, for one - are not very credible; given the chance to speak, the girl's condemnation of her mother (who forced her into prostitution) is too eloquent, too consciously poetic. If Lino Brocka directed that scene, the language would have been simpler, cruder; the drama of the moment would have come from the girl's performance, not from any flowery figures of speech.

Toro is actually only the latest in what has become a sub-genre of the Filipino sex flicks, and it's instructive comparing this to what has been done before. The picture doesn't quite achieve the intense authenticity of Tikoy Aguiluz's Boatman - possibly the definitive work on the subject (Aguiluz started out as a documentary filmmaker); it does, however, look better than Chito Rono's recent Curacha - which was more an overproduced fantasia on toreros than anything you could possibly take seriously, much less like. Overall, a commendable, if highly flawed effort - you can see Reyes wants to stretch a few muscles; you hope he will be able to stretch them a little further, the next time around.

Footnote: At press time, Toro still has no release date - mainly because its studio (Regal Films) is hesitant to show it in these newly conservative times. This is the real obscenity - that a serious and earnest attempt at exploration like Toro should be shelved, because a few of the sexually constipated have cried "Foul!" Toro has already been invited to the Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama section, but still...); it would be ironic if German audiences are able to decide on the merit of Reyes's attempt before the general Filipino audience ever get a chance to see the film - intact and uncut - for themselves.

Note: Businessworld, January 28, 2000. The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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