Tuli (Auraeus Solito, 2005)
English Title: Circumcision
After the introduction of Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005) to appreciative crowds during the 1st Cinamalaya Film Festival, director Auraeus Solito would release Tuli (Circumcision), his first time working under a studio (Viva Films, under its digital filmmaking branch), a mere few months after in competition in the Cinemanila Film Festival. The film would win the top prize, but would be banned from public consumption by the mercurial local censors board. While Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros is wowing critics and audiences worldwide, Tuli is left unseen, underappreciated, and almost forgotten. Released locally on DVD (which brandishes the infamous censoring and its lesbian love angle as advertising come-on's), Tuli would later on follow the footsteps of its fabulous elder brother. The film has since been screened in Sundance, Berlin (where it won the NETPAC prize), and other festival cities.
It's completely different from Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros. It is situated in an unnamed forest village wherein a mixture of Catholicism and native mysticism is still strong. It withdraws from the urban realism of Manila slums, and instead develops a folkloric touch to the narrative. It's also less colorful, due to the fact that first, Solito chose to shoot the film in an old sepia look which further enunciates the timelessness or the removal from modernist reality, and second, there's a lot less humor --- no Maxie and friends sashaying in beauty pageant costumes.
Tuli has a marvelous opening: the village circumciser (Bembol Roco) prepares a group of kids to their circumcision rituals. He asks these kids to jump into the stream, supposedly to soften their foreskins. Solito captures these innocent kids like botticelli angels floating underwater; with special loving attention to their manhoods --- presumably the last they'll see them in that particular state. The circumciser, with the help of his daughter, one by one, circumcises each kid. The ritual is interesting: he asks for their names, makes them chew on guava leaves before hitting the foreskin with a handmade instrument, then forces them to spit the mixture of saliva and guava leaves on the fresh wounds.
The film proceeds years after, Daisy (Desiree del Valle), the circumciser's daugher, has grown up to be a beautiful lady. The same group of kids who got circumcized during the film's opening have become men; one (Luis Alandy) dutifully serenades Daisy nightly (giving the circumciser the idea of marrying the two) while another (Ping Medina) impregnates local lass Botchok (Vanna Garcia) before leaving her permanently. Nanding (Carlo Aquino), the grandson of the local shaman, is the only man in town who is uncircumcized --- causing him to be the point of jokes of his peers. In that village of traditional customs and patriarchal norms, Daisy seeks to rebel, first from her father's daily fits of drunken anger, and lastly from that village's own state of hypocritical contentedness.
The screenplay, written by Jimmy Flores (Solito' batchmate during his Mowelfund days), won first prize in a local screenwriting contest. It is considerably complex with its detailed implications of relationships within the village (the circumciser being forcedly married thus have very little or no love for his daughter; the close-knitedness links of each family). Yet, I cannot grasp any psychological maturity among the characters. Some of the characters inhabit a deluded state (for instance Nanding, whose goals in achieving his grandfather's agimat seems to be a mere afterthought rather than an actual plotpoint), with reasonings of questionable integrity (Botchok suddenly comes up with the idea of having a baby to ease Daisy's mother's sufferings). The screenplay's complexity is its downfall; it addresses too many issues that much needed humor, or even essential sprinkles of possibly humanity, are foregone.
While Flores struggles to balance his tale, Solito lends a helping hand in adding credibility to such. Solito's style inflicts a hint of mysticism to the familiar melodramatic ordeals. Instead of mere nipa huts and traditional passion plays, he adds interestingly placed mosquito nettings (to make the light pass through with a lot more sensual flair) or zealously crafted materials (observe the backgrounds, or even the costumes) that would presumably be unavailable to any typical villae. In Solito's eyes, Flores' village is no ordinary village --- it is that imaginary village of sexual aches that try to rebel in a very traditional Filipino context of what should and what should not be.
The film's plot flutters like a forgettable excuse to tell Solito's story --- of confrontation to tradition, and of the many possibilities of love within any cultural context. It is with that mindset that I see Tuli as a worthy successor to Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros' accolades. Although largely different in style, in mood, and in setting, there's that undeniable link that connects the two films together.