Lea's Story highlights the problems of raped and battered women through the eyes of veteran Filipino actress Vilma Santos, who's an NGO (non-governmental organisation) worker. But everyone looks too comfortable in this supposed tale of anguish. Noel Vera laughs out loud... sometimes.


Bata, Bata, Paano Ka Ginawa? (Lea’s Story) is the latest by Lualhati Bautista, from her novel. Bautista is not an inconsiderable artist; she earlier wrote the screenplay for Mario O’Hara’s Bulaklak Ng City Jail (Flowers Of The City Jail) and for Ike Jarlego’s Nena - the earlier works having a roundness, a concern and skill with character development that’s unusual for a Filipino writer.

In her earlier screenplays, Bautista dealt with people from the lower classes - a stripper in Nena and a woman convict in Bulaklak. Vilma Santos’ character in Bata is recognizably middle class, even upper middle, and Bautista seems less inspired by the milieu. Her characters look idle and bored - not a promising start for a drama.

Their most constructive activity is social action; Santos works at a non-government organization (NGO) that helps raped or battered women. I’m not sure if it’s a problem with the script or with the production, but this particular NGO hardly looks real - a touch too well-equipped, perhaps, the workers just this side of being too good-looking (not to mention Santos who, dressed and made up, is the most glamorous NGO worker I’ve ever seen).

What really kills the credibility of the NGO scenes is when Cita Astals, as a battered wife, walks in with her heavily-beaten face. Or rather, her heavily made-up face, the bruise makeup being so unbelievably thick and colorful that instead of recoiling in horror you find yourself repressing giggles. Astals is usually a sharp and intelligent actress - I liked her abusive- adoptive-parent character in May Nagmamahal Sa Iyo (Madonna And Child) - but for this movie she seems to have been told to listen to her worse instincts and overact outrageously. You watch this circle of women surround Astals while she recounts her story of beatings and abuse - all the while breathing heavily and crying gallons of tears - and you can’t be sure if the pity is for her hard life or for her thankless role.

Santos’s life at home is, if anything, even more unbelievable. She has two children from two different fathers (Albert Martinez, Ariel Rivera), one of whom (Martinez) she lives with, the premise that drives the movie. It’s a novel situation, to put it mildly, and, to her credit, Bautista writes Santos’s character as strong-willed and defiantly fun-loving. Santos wants to be independent of the men in her lives, at the same time she wants to enjoy life at her own terms.

Yet Santos’s character can be a touch too defiant; she wears her independence a touch too openly on her sleeve. There comes a point when her many declarations of women’s rights become less a battle cry and more an acute pain, and you begin to wonder how any man can put up with her, let alone live with her.

Possibly the heart of this film’s problem is that, without the kind of desperate situations Bautista’s protagonists found themselves in in her previous films, her feminist rhetoric rings false. It was moving when Nora Aunor, as a convict, insisted on her rights to keep her newborn in Bulaklak; and it was moving when Sharmain Suarez insisted on her right to strip and show her body in Nena; but what kind of sympathy can we feel for a woman who lives in a house as expensive as Santos’s (two storeys, with several bedrooms and a large living room) and insists on her right to ignore her children whenever she sees fit?

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to feel sympathy for such a character: writing about the middle-class or well-to-do is possible but, if anything, even more difficult than writing about the poor. I’m saying that the challenges are different, the need for realism greater. And the film fails to deliver on the challenge.

As the mother, Vilma Santos delivers a varied, even competent performance, but not much else. She’s on her Sister Stella L. mode, from the Mike De Leon film of the same name, full of righteousness and rhetoric, though with uninhibited sexuality (largely implied - Santos nowadays is about as sexual as a grandmother). It’s been a long time since Santos has had a role that was even halfway exciting; now that she’s a city mayor and successful financially and politically, she seems to have lost the kind of hunger that drives an actress to greatness.

Ariel Rivera and Raymond Bagatsing are good-looking but dull; they hardly leave an impression. Even the usually interesting Albert Martinez seems subdued in this film. His best scene is when he listens to Santos’s farewell speech: he generously cedes center stage to Santos, supporting her with his sometimes sympathetic, sometimes uncomprehending reactions; he seems to be genuinely trying to understand what she’s trying to tell him, and failing miserably (acting the part of a listener is no small skill, and rare among our attention-hungry actors). Poorly characterized men are a given in feminist films, but Martinez almost - though not quite - manages to give his cliched male boor some semblance of humanity.

The film was supposed to be Laurice Guillen’s comeback film, and you wonder if she could have done a better job than Chito Rono - Guillen loves defiant women characters, as she has shown in Salome and Init Sa Magdamag (Midnight Passion). She’s even worked with Santos before, on The Dolzura Cortez Story, and the result was a moving, decently made melodrama; she certainly can’t do a worse job than Rono. His camera is endlessly restless, panning here, panning there, except when he holds still for a prettily lit shot; it’s watchable - all of Rono’s films are - but completely at odds with the rest of the movie. Bautista’s stories hunger for a plainness in visual approach that Rono can’t seem to understand.

Bautista was better served in her two previous films. Ike Jarlego, a former editor, brought a straightforward honesty to his interpretation of Nena, while Mario O’Hara brought a sensitivity, a largeness of spirit, and one of the most formidable visual imaginations in Philippine cinema to Bulaklak.

Bulaklak Sa City Jail is, in fact, Bautista at her best: there is an urgency to her storytelling that’s largely absent from Bata, Bata. O’Hara’s direction is a model of how to adopt Bautista’s scripts to the large screen: plain, gritty realism for the establishing scenes, an almost Renoir-like simplicity for the dramatic scenes. And when Nora Aunor as Bautista’s convict heroine escapes into Manila Zoo, O’Hara knows how to pull out all the stops: the zoo is transformed into a baroque fantasyland, a nightmare jungle of animal hoots and shrieks, where a gorilla’s arm can unexpectedly snake out to hook you, and a mother, desperate and exhausted, gives birth on the floor of a lion’s cage. In Aunor, Bautista has her perfect heroine - wordless, almost painfully inarticulate, yet strong and no-nonsense when the occasion demands. Her performance, and not Santos’s, is what real cinema is all about.

Note: Businessworld, September 11, 1998. The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
Click here to order.

For more... email singbigo@singnet.com.sg with the message, "Put me on your mailing list."

January 9, 2007

  Click here for other Asian Values DVD Reviews:

Jack And Jill
Markova: Comfort Gay
Dumplings: Three... Extremes
Elena's Redemption
The Stud And The Nympho
Sex Beyond The Grave
At The Breast Of The Enemy
The Sexy Killer
In The Navel Of The Sea
The Girlie Bar
Starlets For Sale
The Amorous Lotus Pan
Big Bad Sis
Yesterday Children
The Sugar Daddies
Tinimbang Judged Today
Bruce Lee And I
Lady Chatterley's Lubbe
The Boxer's Omen
The Foxy Ladies
Corpse Mania
Pale Passion
Your Wife, My Wife
Raw Passions
Pussy Hairs
Pale Passion
Pila Balde
Sinful Adulteress
Flower Of Manila
Sinful Confession

The Most Beautiful Creature On The Face Of The Earth
Sexy Playgirls

Toro (Live Show)
Sexy Career Girls
Woman Of Mud
That's Adultery
Adultery, Chinese Style
Women Of Desire
Naked Under The Moon
Virgin People
Love Swindler
Girl With The Long Hair
Scorpio Nights
Sex For Sale
36 Secrets Of Courtship
Biyaheng Langit
Sexy Girls Of Denmark
Golden Lotus: Love And Desire
Tuhog (Larger Than Life)
Dreams Of Eroticism
Legends Of Lust
Amorous Woman Of Tang Dynasty
Hong Kong Hong Kong
Kiss Of Death
Crazy Sex
Forbidden Tales Of Two Cities
The Call Girls