Wanted: Border (Ray Gibraltar, 2009)
Various snippets of what is to come, accompanied by a midi version of one of Johann Sebastian Bach's compositions, opens Ray Gibraltar's mysterious yet powerful Wanted: Border. The snippets, edited together in a seemingly random manner, will initially not make sense. We can hardly grasped how these sequences would fit: an old woman and her mute assistant inside their popular eatery; an obese woman running towards nowhere; the ominous facade of a centuries-old church; the same old woman being confronted by a God who is donning a fancy Hawaiian shirt and has an appetite for the old woman's mysterious soups; a drugged filmmaker dazed by pornography; and voracious sex. While the images flashing onscreen are hardly consistent with the glorious movements of Bach's religious music, it is the manner in which the music is played, with the dubious sounds of a computer that pretends to be a cathedral organ hitting the notes with both the precision only a machine can provide and the soullessness that comes with it, that creates an unsettling effect, a mood that incites suspicion of what is to come.
The nebulous plot of Wanted: Border revolves around the boarding house-cum-eatery owned and operated by Mama Saleng (Rosanna Roces). Not known to the many customers of the eatery, the sumptuous meat soup that Saleng serves is actually made from the boarders she occasionally murders. This is a practice she has developed through the years, from her traumatic childhood where she and her mother were accused of being ghouls by the townsfolk, to her experience as the girlfriend of a sadistic military man who has grown a craving for soup crafted from his tortured captives' flesh, to the present, where her untraditional cooking method is routinely done with the supposed blessing of the God (Publio Briones) she imagines. She is undoubtedly a monster, lacking the conscience that drives ordinary human beings to the socially-accepted moral standard but fueled by an obsession with her skewed devotion to a mutated mission of cleansing the world of sinners and lost souls. These sinners and lost souls include an obese neighbor (Sunshine Teodoro) whose unstoppable appetite leads her to an unexpected discovery, a documentary filmmaker (AJ Aurello) whose obsession with his art has become synonymous with his obsession for drug-derived pleasures, and a beautiful college student (Marisol Alquizar) who seeks to escape the clutches of her horny stepfather (Dennis Ascalon).
Gibraltar's dark fable may be described as sacrilegious, considering that it utilizes Catholic symbols and traditions to indict Filipinos of their boundless obsessions with almost everything, whether it be food, drugs, sex, or religion. The film's host of unlikable and obsessed characters seemingly drift in a world that is bereft of a higher being, where the only factor that controls each and every decision is a never satisfied desire that stems from an unhindered id. This makes Saleng, despite her murderous and anarchistic lifestyle, an unconventional messiah: persecuted as a child, called upon to serve, and ultimately sacrifices herself to end humanity circuitous path to violence. Roces, one of the Philippines' most popular actresses during the nineties because of her bold turns as seductresses in the decade's popular but usually forgettable titillating fare, gives the otherwise fearsome Saleng a bewitching gleam, turning her cat-like gesture of gracelessly grazing her chin with the backside of her hands into a peculiar yet beguiling mannerism, adding an erotic charge to her repulsive practice of espousing cannibalism. This is undoubtedly Roces' most captivating role to date, where what is conventionally considered as "bad acting" has granted the character a malevolence that is entertaining and intriguing to behold. Her random recitations of Jesus Christ's seven last words, declaimed with the suddenness and irreverence that do not befit the religious importance of the utterances, mirror the contorted piety and fixation that Saleng represents.
When Timawa Meets Delgado (2007), Gibraltar's hilarious yet poignant feature on the sudden spike in nursing students in the Philippines, is not just a document on the phenomenon. As the film progresses to detail the extraordinary decisions that are made to arrive at employment opportunities abroad (artists abandoning their craft to study nursing, professionals taking nursing as their second or third course, children being indoctrinated to want to take up nursing for college for the opportunity to earn dollars abroad), Gibraltar subtly pinpoints the alarming malady, the undeniable obsession Filipinos have for migrating out of the country to search for better opportunities in other countries, that gives rise to these momentary social fads and patterns. Gibraltar eschews subtlety for overtness in Wanted: Border. Laced with bleak humor, manifest symbolisms, direct affronts to a collective Filipino religiousness, the film wastes no time in puncturing what needs to be punctured, penetrating what needs to be penetrated, and exposing what needs to be exposed. In all its supposed blasphemy, contemptuous comedy, and a host of characters that are all blatant stereotypes and archetypes, fashioned with the theories of Sigmund Freud and the most repulsive of Filipino exaggerations in mind, the film offends because it simply must.
The film's striking last scene, a long take that starts with a bastardized Pieta (with Saleng in the arms of her decrepit assistant (Kristoffer Grabato), who seems to have inherited her cat-like mannerism) before zooming out extensively, passing through layers of gates, and ends with the famous tableau as a mere speck in the frame, is a faint spark of optimism and sanity in a world of unadulterated madness and amorality, minutely suggestive of a probable end to the illicit affairs and the abominable atrocities that happen behind closed doors. Gibraltar, with all the farcical cynicism he injects in his works, always has a hopeful stance in the midst of what possibly is a hopeless scenario. In When Timawa Meets Delgado, Gibraltar concludes the film with a sudden change in perspective, thus putting back the dignity of the nursing profession that is unavoidably snatched by the country's thirst for escaping the country's inherent poverty and restoring balance in a society plagued by an extraneous obsession. In Wanted: Border, Gibraltar manifests the same, although slightly muted, statement; that the solution to the ills that characterize Filipinos as a people is not the maintenance of a hypocritical outlook on life and blind reliance on empty religion for salvation or facile fantasies and addictions for pleasure and happiness but the conscious decision to simply kill the source and end the cycle.