Saturday, June 23, 2007

Babae sa Breakwater (2004)

Babae sa Breakwater (Mario O'Hara, 2004)
English Title: Woman of the Breakwater

Yoyoy Villame is one of the most underappreciated musicians in the Philippines. While the elite members of society are dictating to the masses the dictum of culture and good taste (mostly Western inspired orchestrations or indigenous melodies), Villame rebelled and came up with songs whose melodies are simple enough to be sung by the tone-deaf, and whose lyrics are memorable enough to be memorized by the simpleminded. His songs are considered novelty, yet the term itself is an anomaly as Villame's songs talk about real life, both its joys and pains, distilled by his jovial beats and uplifting attitude. In fact, in film, his songs are utilized to describe the state of Philippine society --- like in Aureaus Solito's Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005) which began with a song where Villame sings "this is my country, the Philippines..." while the camera displays garbage piling up in a creek.

Villame died a month ago, leaving a legacy of songs immortalized by the millions of Filipinos who can hum them in a heartbeat. Probably his most lasting mark on film is in Mario O'Hara's Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater) where he played a street side entertainer singing songs he made famous decades ago.

Babae sa Breakwater is a film about a man Basilio (Kristoffer King), who escapes from provincial Leyte to the slums of Manila with his younger brother Buboy (Alcris Galura). Residing in the makeshift tenements beneath the tourist-infested breakwater of Manila, Basilio falls in love with a prostitute Paquita (Katherine Luna). Their relationship is troubled by the apparent poverty and the more impending threat of the slums' jealous protector, ex-cop Dave (Gardo Versoza). This tragic tale is alleviated by the ditties of Villame, providing a biting sense of irony to the plot and an accurate summary of the unpredictability, the chaotic colors, and the dizzying bevy of emotions that surround Manila life.

O'Hara's film, by itself and without the help of Villame's songs, is quite good. There's an undescribed underlying mythology that sits quietly; to disavow of such mythology or religiosity would spell out a disbelief in many of the film's supervening events. The film begins with what seems to be a religious ritual. Men in masks are about to sacrifice a person; that event causes a eunuch priestess to be murdered causing more acts of vengeance which will ultimately affect the young Basilio and Buboy. It's sort of a seaside cult --- the monster child of Catholicism and paganism, with statues of the Virgin Mary or pagan gods jotting out of the seawater.

The sea in O'Hara's film is the domicile of god; it provides as much as it takes away. Basilio and Buboy respect and appreciate its role. Despite the garbage and filth in Manila Bay, the brothers pay their respects to the unnamed deity by submerging their faces (supposedly conversing to their father --- murdered in the introductory religious vendetta). When humanity betrays Basilio (as when he gets pickpocketed or he is removed from work), it is the sea that magically provides.

The film actually describes man's relationship with the sea (or in this case, God as represented by the sea). Manila, in the film's point of view, has raped the sea --- abused it and polluted it. The city itself is crowded with abusive people and dregs of society; children are addicted to rugby and will fight for leftover food; men urinate in the streets; the characters' pasts (both Paquita and Dave) showcase a depletion of morality within the citizenry, which continues to their present lives; another character steals to escape from the Breakwater but only succeeds in maintaining the habit. Basilio comes from a land where the sea is pure, and within the film, he maintains that purity and is able to reform Paquita, despite the temptations and the treachery of the city. O'Hara succeeds in driving that point, and fantastically, within the context of the tired genre of melodrama about the provincial who gets lost in the big city.

In a way, Babae sa Breakwater is a modified retelling of the Orpheus myth, with Basilio playing the tragic Greek hero and Paquita as Euridyce who is trapped in the underworld. Basilio manages to uplift Paquita from the hedonism of the city (as properly depicted in Dave's character --- an impotent, disabled boss who works through his muscled bodyguard and delights in alternative pleasures). On his way, tragic events ensue yet the end result, the ultimate goal, is to bring Paquita back to Leyte where the sea is clean.

O'Hara's filmmaking and the familiarity of Villame's melodics turn Babae sa Breakwater into a modest yet sublime artwork. At first, the film's simplicity may disarm you into thinking that it is in equal rank to the oft-produced socially-relevant melodramas of the past recent years. However, the film is certainly different as it is ripe with contexts and meanings; all of such are dutifully wrapped up in this fascinating work by two of the country's most brilliant artists.

This post is my contribution to Windmills of My Mind: Film Music Blog-A-Thon.

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