Aliwan Paradise (Mike de Leon, 1992)
Mike de Leon’s Aliwan Paradise, one of the four shorts featured in Southern Winds, rings truest in this present age where poverty, as explicitly depicted and as source of an unquenchable desire for escape, has turned into an embarrassing necessity in our entertainment.
De Leon’s view of the future is both hilariously fantastic and uncomfortably real. Although obviously inspired by the near-fascist regime of Ferdinand Marcos, the film’s setting can be read as a caricature of a Filipino society that is addicted to the pleasure of illusions, to the fleetingly amusing, to the ephemeral and the unreal. The Philippines is obviously in a state of grave penury. People are crowded outside the theater of the Impresario (brilliantly played by Johnny Delgado) to take their chance at impressing him and his inutile jury to land a job. The Impresario, under strict orders by her superior (a woman who appears only as a sketch that looks a lot like Imelda Marcos), is looking for a new type of entertainment, something that has not been seen before, and something that will and should sell.
Outside, Julio Madiaga (Julio Diaz) and Ligaya Paradiso (Melissa de Leon), characters from Lino Brocka’s Maynila: sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975), reunite under more heartbreaking circumstances. While Brocka uses the characters as symbols for the Filipino’s tragic search for happiness, De Leon infuses the characters with biting cynicism. Julio, although still madly in love with his former sweetheart, is more aware of the world and its inhumane devices. Ligaya, on the other hand, has totally abandoned romanticism for fatalist worldliness. Their reunion, in rebellion to Brocka’s grappling with a certain sense of hopefulness although futile, becomes more of a resolution to ideals that have become insignificant in a world where survival is the lone virtue that is worth fighting for.
And survival seems to be the only virtue worth fighting for. As a former human rights bureaucrat blows fire while lecturing on literature and eats shards of glass while teaching basic arithmetic and a nurse strips down to her underwear while taking care of an elderly man, the nobility of profession is quickly abandoned by the very basic need to earn a living. Dignity is forgotten. Ligaya’s performance, a song and dance number that fancifully narrates the downfall of the Filipino woman, sums up the distance of how far society has been corrupted by poverty. Her private dealing with the Impresario only reinforces the abject desperation.
De Leon however mixes his cynicism with timeless wit and humor. Doy del Mundo’s screenplay is essentially a satire, resting more on the ingenuity of the idea rather than the lives of its characters or the depth of the narrative. However, the film graduates from the limitations of its being merely a satire. Like its thesis as to how entertainment has lorded over the Philippines from prior to it being colonized up to the present, the film’s prophetic observations as to how entertainment has turned from being a source of respite to a parasite that lives on woe and suffering is evidenced by reality.
Willie Revillame, whose sudden rise to fame happened decades after Aliwan Paradise, has the same wile as the Impresario, acknowledging the wealth in both feeding from and feeding the poor. Star Cinema and other mainstream studios, who would never have raised funds to produce such an enlightening piece of entertainment as Aliwan Paradise, has the same muteness as the Impresario’s jury, ignorant of their being conspirators in creating an economy out of the Filipinos’ ignorance by coming up with products that are comparable to instant noodles, filling but deadly. Independent filmmakers, who subscribe to Mike de Leon’s ideals but are inevitably trapped into mining stories from the fringes of society not by the noble need to expose but by the personal need for acknowledgement, are the Julios and Ligayas of our time, aware of the gnawing injustice of it all but have become knowing parts of that awful but inescapable system.
(Cross-published in Lagarista.)