Donor (Mark Meily, 2010)
There is no doubt that Mark Meily is a proficient observer of the absurdities of Philippine society. His first two films, Crying Ladies (2003) and La Visa Loca (2005), eschew the phenomena of women being paid to mourn for a recently deceased Chinese businessman and a man getting nailed to a cross to get a U.S. Visa respectively of any serious implications for drama and comedy. Baler (2008), a period piece set during the war for independence where several Spanish soldiers are trapped inside a church as Filipino revolutionaries surround the church, is sadly an unsuccessful turn for Meily, who replaces his gift for finding humor in the deepest darkest recesses of society with trite and unconvincing romance. Fortunately, free from the restrictive clutches of a commercial studio, Meily returns to form with Donor, a hard-hitting black comedy that ostensibly tackles the kidney trade and the ridiculousness of the statutes that attempt to prevent it and in turn before criticizing traditional male domination in a society where breadwinner status in the family is steadily shifting to females.
Stuck in a marriage-less relationship with perennial bum Danny (Baron Geisler), Lizette (Meryll Soriano) is barely able to make ends meet with the very little that she gets peddling pirated DVDs. A recent police raid leaves her jobless. She attempts to apply for work abroad but eventually discovers that the simple act of job application will cost her a fortune. Back at home, Danny requests that she fund his gun acquisition. Strapped for cash, she is forced to sell a kidney to a Jordanian businessman for a hundred thousand pesos. One of the conditions of the deal however is for her to marry the Jordanian, in compliance with a law that prohibits the donation of organs to a stranger. The result, surprisingly, is more funny than imminently disarming and troubling, which is, quite frankly, a breath of fresh air in the overdone genre of poverty films that has been far too serious far too long.
Donor is an astoundingly sleek production. From the crisp digital lensing by cinematographer Jay Abello to the believable production design, the film adamantly refuses to surrender glossiness to the demands of grittiness. Indulgences, as with most of Meily’s previous films, are abundant with the overused fade-outs, whatever the supposed intent for such editorial trickery, as the most apparent. Fortunately, these ostentatious displays of directorial know-how hardly function to dissuade the viewer from being enamored by the novelty of Meily’s carefully crafted tale. Also, Soriano, with her subtle but commanding turn, Geisler, with his ability to make stubborn inutility intriguingly entertaining, and the film’s very able support, keep the film rooted despite several instances where the persisting fades and the grating musical score have become too cumbersome to ignore.
Probably the biggest achievement of Meily in Donor is that he manages to invoke a lively amount of levity for its comedic aspirations despite the film’s very grim topic. Of course, it might seem that the film is making a mockery out of the inescapable quagmire of social and domestic inequity that the poor are dwelling in but the film really goes beyond the sheen of insensitivity it seems to portray. Donor, by means of melding stark realism and caricature, manifests the compounding failures of society’s pillars, from moral norms to statutory concepts, to salvage the poor from being poorer. As Lizette goes through the rigors of putting up with Danny, of marrying a stranger, of selling her kidney, and later on, of suffering through the consequences of all the unavoidable staples of her hopeless existence, she still manages to wiggle her way out, not totally unscathed but still able to live and probably hope for another day. Focusing primarily on Lizette’s undeniable survival skills, it seems that it is this inscrutable capacity or stubbornness of the Filipino woman for woe and pain rather than the frivolity of the poor that Meily seems to center on.
The film’s ending, a spectacle of blood and gore that presumably ends Lizette’s tribulations at least for now, shocks primarily because the film has been so mannered and so quaint despite the possible grisliness of its topic. Whether or not Lizette can still wiggle away from the remnants of Danny’s influence and the grip of being moneyless in an age where everything is for sale is a non-issue. As she has learnt with the one hundred thousand pesos that simply dissipated in a matter of days, life and the occasional reprieves it offers are only temporary. Death, on the other hand, is permanent. Nevertheless, as long as we are living, survival, and whatever is needed for it are priceless, nay, price-worthy commodities.
(Cross-published on Twitch.)