Monday, October 6, 2014

Thy Womb (Sinapupunan)

Brillante Mendoza and Nora Aunor on the set of Thy Womb

THY WOMB (Sinapupunan)        A-          
Philippines  (100 mi)  2012  d:  Brillante Mendoza 

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.  Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of death.  
—Roman Catholic prayer, Hail Mary

Cited as the singlemost important achievement in Philippine cinema for 2012, this is a visually expressive work set In Tawi-Tawi, one of the country’s five mainly Muslim provinces and one of the small southwestern islands of the Philippines, almost to Malaysia, where the director introduces us to a sea culture, an impoverished Muslim community that lives in wooden huts built on sticks literally out in the sea, also known as sea gypsies, where boats are a necessity for travel.   Throughout the film, we see a variety of motorized and hand-paddled canoes, often stacked to the brim with food for sale or other cargo as they frequently travel into more populated land towns, usually decorated in bright colors, where the overall impression is an immersion into an isolated community with a colorful culture and heritage, where ornate costumes are on display for festive occasions along with uniquely choreographed dance sequences.  As a reminder of the everpresent economic scarcity, alongside these dazzling images of splendor are repeated shots of young naked boys jumping into the water from the decks of their homes, which for them is like having an ocean for a front yard, where nearly everyone relies upon maintaining their fishing nets for survival.  Impressively shot by Odyssey Flores, who gorgeously captures the daily rhythms of life, where the sea is such an integral part of their lives, while the beauty of the region is undeniably a major attraction of the film.  Also of interest, Mendoza dedicated the film to the Bajau people, the more commonly recognized name for the Sama, speakers of the Sinama language from Tawi-Tawi and the entire Sulu Archipelago, where six languages are seamlessly woven into the film, an accurate reflection of the linguistic diversity of the region as well as the entire Philippines.  The film’s stars use Tagalog for almost all of their conversations, but the children in the background or local vendors heard throughout are speaking Sinama (actually two languages, one for the Tawi-Tawi southern region and another for the central).  Arabic is used for the Muslim prayers, while the women coming out of the mosque, as well as a few local families in town are speaking Tausug.  Also English is spoken at one point when counting money.  This diversity of ethnic language will be lost to viewers relying upon subtitles, but the attention to detail is what makes this film relevant. 

The title is a reference to the Virgin taken from the Roman Catholic prayer Hail Mary, where overall Christianity remains the overwhelmingly dominant religion in the Philippines, yet in this area its influence has diminished.  While the film opens and closes with childbirth, a defining moment in a woman’s life, the focus of the film is more upon Shalelah, Nora Aunor, a Philippine superstar in 170 films dating back to the 60’s, who acts as a midwife because she can’t have her own children, essentially altering the way she’s viewed by the world around her.  As she has done with so many other births, she requests the baby’s umbilical cord, bringing it home where it hangs alongside all the others she has collected through the years, a constant reminder of her inability to bear children.  Her culture offers a remedy, however, allowing a married couple to find another suitable wife for her husband so that she can fulfill the most essential part of their marriage.  Her husband Bangas-An (Bembol Roco) is a good-hearted man who adamantly wants a child, so while their relationship is a happy one, Shalelah spends much of the film searching for the right partner, confiding to a friend, “Instead of cheating on me, I’d rather pick a bride for him.”  Much of the film is set under a spectacular sky, where the sea offers a great expanse to the horizon, but this tranquility is often interrupted by the sinister presence of gun-toting pirates or soldiers, where anticipated violence is built into the human condition of people who are accustomed to a surrounding military presence that is largely ignored.  At one point a wedding is interrupted by gun shots, but pandemonium is avoided as the music continues to play, where the Muslim-Christian conflict in the region is a part of everyday life.  Mendoza’s film (where the director is the credited production designer) is hypnotically repetitive, as he takes us through various stages of authentic Muslim ceremonies and rituals like the endless flowing of waves, where the viewer is dazzled by a ceremony of colorfully decorated spirit boats released into the sea, celebratory dances in sumptuously designed costumes, and hauntingly beautiful music composed by Teresa Barroza.  The rhythm of the film recalls Tian Zhuangzhuang’s THE HORSE THIEF (1986), a film that seamlessly blends Buddhist ritual and color into the natural splendor of the landscape, where cultural traditions can be as overpowering as the daunting forces of nature. 

At the heart of the film is the bond of marriage, where this idyllic couple seems perfectly matched, both beloved within their tiny neighborhood on stilts where they are seen as pillars of the community, where the self-sacrificing Shalelah “would do anything” for her husband’s happiness, seemingly driven into a role of subservience by a culture that elevates motherhood to a woman’s highest ideal, leaving childless women to chafe in their second class status.  That Shalelah not only accepts her role but actively seeks a younger and more beautiful replacement may be the ultimate undoing of this marriage, as the desired child supersedes the interests of a barren mother, who is treated as an outcast, despite the irony that she is seen as a mother figure to most within her community, choosing her as the most respected midwife.  Initially the audience is sympathetic to her plight, thinking perhaps multiple wives is the custom, where the marriage may continue to thrive, but when we meet the prospective young bride, the lovely Mersila (Lovi Poe), it’s clear her intentions in no way include Shalelah, where her sacrifice may be her ultimate undoing.  The degree with which this couple attempts to raise money to pay for the wedding dowry (as each new bride has a price) is a chilling revelation, as they begin to sell a piece of themselves in order to create the possibilities of a new beginning, but one that does not include Shalelah.  One has to question this idea of marriage that proceeds without a divorce, where the interests of both women are subjugated to the interests of the husband, whose all-abiding desire for a child overrides any other concerns.  Much of the power of the film comes from such dramatically compelling performances and extended wordless sequences, where so much is expressed visually, where one’s idea of religion or marriage is never discussed or explained, as Mendoza instead floods the screen with endless images of religious ritual that goes back to antiquity, much of which is breathtakingly beautiful.  The director imprints his own stamp of artistic authority through a brilliantly devised film, which is highly ambitious in challenging existing social traditions, yet utterly simplistic in such a minimalist approach, where the spaciousness of what’s left unsaid remains at the core of the film experience, where each viewer will have to fill in what’s missing.  It’s a sad and haunting film, elevated to supreme heights by the audacity of the extraordinary visual design.   

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