Saturday, March 15, 2008 (2003) (Tikoy Aguiluz, 2003)

Tikoy Aguiluz released during the waning years of the sexploitation boom in Philippine cinema which started in the late nineties and extended up to the early years of the new millenium. It's easy to accuse as also primarily exploitative like other similarly-titled movies (like Talong (Eggplant, Mauro Gia Samonte, 1999), Balahibong Pusa (Pussy Hairs, Yam Laranas, 2001) or Itlog (Egg, Francis Posadas, 2002)), but as with most films by the reliable Aguiluz, the film has something truly intelligent boiling beneath its fleshy and sexy come-ons. It's a reactionary film in the sense that it tackles issues that were pertinent during its time like the proliferation of online prostitution, and the Philippine-made I LOVE YOU virus, a worm that has gained international infamy because of the damage it caused. These issues have wormed its way into the nation's collective consciousness through various media outlets that even to the technologically-challenged, the issues arouse a sincere curiosity, if not shame or disdain.

The film details the story of Joanna (Juliana Palermo), who returns to the Philippines from the United States after discovering that she is pregnant. Because of her limited money and her inability to find a job because she did not finish high school, she decides to take the offer of Rick (Gary Estrada), proprietor of an internet cafe and a pornographic website called Webdiva which concentrates on Filipino women, to star in his website. Although Joanna's reasons for entering the internet flesh trade is mostly financial, the film never implies her job as a source of exploitation. She is paid well, and as it turns out, discovers that she has an immense talent for seducing men worldwide. Habibi (Angelu de Leon), the expert webdiva, prides herself of her occupation. Prostitution is stripped of the usual grim disposition Philippine cinema has given it, where the girls would always be unassuming and naive nymphs from the barrios who are tricked into the business by shrewd thugs. Instead, prostitution, at least the online kind, becomes a tool for economic leverage for Joanna and the other models. In a larger scale, it can even be said that online prostitution also caused sexual leverage where men from all over the world mindlessly give their money to women who are forever unattainable fantasies.

The set-up here echoes the words of filmmaker Lav Diaz (who along with Jeffrey Jeturian had cameos in the film as interviewees for a news program) who implies that the internet has paved for the Filipinos an avenue for world domination. While the internet has undoubtedly made the world smaller by making communication easy, it has twisted humanity's perception of reality, where pertinent emotions are transmitted to persons with the not only the efficiency but also the inhumanity of digital sounds and pixelated images.

This is the world that Rick invests in. He is exactly the type of person who can and will make a quick buck out of the by-products of a world-wide social and philosophical revolution. Actor Estrada captures near-perfectly the very Faustian characteristic of Rick. He infuses Rick with worldly shrewdness and experience coupled with a very dangerous desperation. As such, Rick becomes this charming devil as he effortlessly mouths internet-age philosophies while recruiting Joanna into his prostitution ring. In one scene, he interrogates Joanna of the tongue ring she is wearing. He first sends a message of disapproval, supposedly suspicious of her inability to give oral sex, to the point of ordering her to remove it. He finally gets what he wants when he finally seduces Joanna to go down on him, on the impression of giving him a first hand experience of the benefits of the tongue ring. The scene is evidence of Rick's mastery of negotiation and bargaining; he is a capitalist beyond any kind of redemption.

Joanna falls in love with one of her customers, Spike (Carlo Maceda), a hacker who has been hired by the police to help out in its investigations regarding hacking and online prostitution. While the love story is clumsily fleshed out as we never really realize that Joanna and Spike's online flirting transcended their initial motivations of greed and lust respectively, it nevertheless grounds the film's lofty examinations with something earnestly plebeian. From its dim and compelling examinations on the internet, suddenly takes a different more conventional route, introducing into the storyline the police operative that is targeting the Webdiva operations. The climax of the film involves the scheduled raid, made known to Spike by his commanding officer (PJ Abellana), allowing him to be there just at the right moment to rescue his online lover from harm. Rick devolves from cunning devil into crazed criminal, betraying all the subtle ruthlessness and innovativeness he once possessed, thus ending in what I feel is a hugely disappointing demise for the suave villain. However, Joanna, along with her co-webdivas, are finally caught. Their inevitable destinies, despite the financial freedom and personal contentment, seem to be intertwined with the rest of the poor, pathetic, and naive flesh traders that have become staple in the evening news: embarrassed women in various stages of undress with their towels, hands and hair covering their faces exposed and exploited on camera.

Is prostitution really exploitation, or is it female domination or at least an opportunity for social equality, as the film so lyrically emphasizes with Joanna's self-determination and Habibi's ability to provide despite being a single parent? In connection with the burgeoning presence of Filipinos in the seedier corners of the internet, is it really ludicrous to consider Diaz's suggestion that such are mere modes for Filipino world domination, or at least an opportunity for equality in an international arena that makes it impossible for poorer nations to gain an identity? These are the questions that subtly proposes with its non-didactic and non-moralizing presentation of what are conventionally portrayed as social ills. Unfortunatly, it feels like the public and most close-minded critics can't go beyond the seemingly lascivious trappings director Aguiluz chose to drape the film with to reach a wider audience. That said, I believe is a good, if not great misunderstood film.


girlautumn said...

im impressed by your loyalty to our films even if most are so excruciating to watch. plus the fact that you have to write reviews which just doubles the pain.
you have reviewed films of some good friends of mine. some were not good. and i agree with you.

Anonymous said... is boring as hell. which is bad for erotica.

and i feel bad writing this since the screenscribe is a good friend :(

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Girlautumn and Anonymous,

Isn't cybersex supposed to be boring (or at least to the people who aren't into it). I admit though, the erotic scenes in weren't really all that impressive, but the film is really much more than those scattered scenes of nudity. Yeah, the screenplay isn't really the best thing in the movie.