Carlos Siguion-Reyna's Call Me Joy (Ligaya Ang Itawag Mo Sa Akin) is a far cry from anything that resembles reality. About a prostitute who falls in love, you have to try very hard to get excited or feel moved by the script or performances. Critic Noel Vera feels his pulse fading away.


There’s a long-standing misconception that I dislike the films of Carlos Siguion-Reyna. Nothing could be further from the truth; I look forward to his films with great pleasure.

Like his latest, Ligaya Ang Itawag Mo Sa Akin (Call Me Joy). This is his version of Greta Garbo’s Camille, which was based on Alexander Dumas’s La Dame Aux Camelias; the book has also been adapted into an opera, Guisseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, which in turn was made into a sumptuous (if literal-minded) film by Franco Zeffirelli.

I’m happy to say that Ligaya needn’t bow its head in the presence of its upper-class siblings: director Carlos Siguion-Reyna and his writer-wife Bibeth Orteza, in their never-ending attempt to crack the international festival circuit, have taken this classic tale of love and redemption and stamped it with their own inimitable style. The film, from first frame to last, is a hoot and a half; if you don’t find yourself laughing by the first 15 minutes, check yourself for a pulse.

This time the Marguerite figure, Ligaya (Rosanna Roces), is a prostitute working in the most unreal whorehouse this side of Disneyland: the place is a squat-ugly BLISS housing development type stuffed with 19th-century furniture and lit like a soft-core porno movie set. She meets a young farmer (John Arcilla), falls in love, and moves in with him. The rest of the movie is a hodgepodge of heavy symbolism, outrageous coincidences, unreal acting, and supersilly melodrama. The actors intone kilometric lines - generously draped with flowery turns of phrase - managing to look vaguely zombielike one moment, totally hysterical the next (I’ve always wondered about the stilted dialogue in Siguion-Reyna’s films. Watching this movie, it hit me: the words must have been written to appeal to international film critics. They only want translation and subtitling to achieve that perfectly pretentious literary tone).

And the pumping scenes - the famous pumping scenes. Frankly, I don’t understand what all the fuss is about (if it’s really fuss, and not manufactured to promote the film): I always thought the MTRCB can censor a movie only if the people in it looked like they were having sex. No one in this picture was engaged in anything that looked remotely like sex; mud wrestling, maybe. My favorite instance is when Roces takes the mayor’s driver by the hand, and leads him to her room; she proceeds to hump him as if she possessed the male genitalia.

There’s also a good deal of spitting and rape in this picture, with Roces on the receiving end of both: she’s raped and spat on, raped and spat on endlessly, to the point that you feel she needs both a chastity belt and an umbrella to protect herself. Then there’s the scene where Arcilla’s uncle (Pen Medina) forces himself on Roces, sodomizing her. Siguion-Reyna also had sodomy in his last picture, Abot Kamay Sa Pangarap (Elena’s Redemption) - that time, it was Maricel Soriano who got it in the end. A portrait of the degradation of women, fine, but we got the point in the first film; you wish a little more imagination was exercised this time around. With every frame of the picture just dripping with meaning, you start to wonder what’s the real significance behind all of this (or the significance of all the behinds).

Roces has a lively delivery style when she’s being profane and bitchy; once or twice she gets to fire off one of those funny asides she’s famous for in her previous movies. As this movie wears on, however, Siguion-Reyna manages to shoehorn her into his approved style of film performance, and she acquires a whining tone for the so-called heavy drama scenes. John Arcilla, Eva Darren, and the rest of the cast all fall under the director’s spell; even Pen Medina, a ferociously talented actor, succumbs. Only Chanda Romero seems to break free, despite the fact that her character makes a totally unmotivated hundred-and-eighty degree turn; her whorehouse madam (belatedly implanted with a heart of gold) at least has the look and feel of a human performance.

Camille, La Dame and La Traviata ended in a rising crescendo of masochism: Marguerite leaves her man out of love for him, and is humiliated by said man (he throws money at her face); she later dies of consumption, her penitent lover weeping by her side. Here, screenwriter Orteza roots out the leave-him-for-his-sake subplot but has Arcilla fling money at Roces anyway (he hits her somewhere between her shoulder-blades). He does this because she left him; she left him because he called her a whore; he called her a whore because - well, we’re not sure why, but clear and forceful motivation doesn’t seem to be a priority here.

The film then tries to make some existential, post-modern point that money - even money thrown and meant to humiliate - is valuable, and should be set aside (Chanda Romero is so impressed by this - again, we’re not sure why - that she closes down the whorehouse and sends her girls away). Orteza also lops off the death-by-consumption climax and concludes with the two lovers reunited; a happy ending, if having more sex Siguion-Reyna style can be called a happy ending.

But complaining about this movie is almost beside the point. Siguion-Reyna and Orteza don’t make bad drama; you need human beings for that. No one - except Romero sometimes, and perhaps Medina - acts human in this movie. They aren’t driven by ordinary human motivations; they don’t even talk ordinary human speech. The result is rather entertaining: you might be watching a particularly macabre episode of The X-Files where aliens have already taken over a small provincial town and are trying to make a sex movie. They know the dictionary definition of "story" and "emotion" and they’ve observed countless examples of human lovemaking but the actual execution - well, they try; oh, how they try. You can only stare and laugh, helplessly.

To paraphrase a best-selling title, Carlos Siguion-Reyna is from Mars, Bibeth Orteza from Venus; this latest from their distinguished team seems to have dropped in from the far side of Pluto.

Note: Manila Chronicle, February 9, 1997. The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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March 6, 2007

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