Waikiki (Elwood Perez, 1980)
It is undeniable that Filipinos are addicted to migration stories. In a way, despite the far-flung locations of these tales, there is always a strand in the tale that would be instantly relatable, either because immigration has been a common ambition of the ordinary Filipino or immigration has been vicariously experienced through a loved one. From Gil Portes’ masterfully lyrical ‘Merika (1984) to Lav Diaz’s slow-burning Batang West Side (2001), the Filipino diaspora is always depicted with a discontent and ennui, of a gnawing longing for the homeland, of a certain pride for being rooted in a culture despite being detached from its source for so long.
Elwood Perez’s Waikiki is different from these migration stories because its main character, Edad (Alicia Alonzo), a mother who was separated from her husband and two daughters who migrated to Hawaii, is the outside, the seeming trespasser, to the stories of the migrants that her loved ones have become. Left behind because of tuberculosis, she waits for the day when she’ll be able to be reunited with her family. When she gets to Hawaii however, she discovers her daughters (played by Rio Locsin and Lorna Tolentino) adversely changed, with morals looser than what she would’ve expected, with husbands and boyfriends whose attachment to family is less grounded than hers. She finds her husband (Raul Aragon) with a different family, putting that final nail in the coffin of her own American dream, forcing her to go back to the Philippines, with her dignity more or less intact.
Instead of dwelling into the sordid problems of migration, Perez peeks into the specific life of someone who was left behind, expectant of joyous reunions with the loved ones she knows through happy memories when they were still together but instead was greeted with indifference and alienation from loved ones obviously changed through the passage of time and the sudden shift in culture. Alonzo portrays the mother’s coming to terms to the fact that her precious family has been shattered by the American dream with believable intensity. She fights until she no longer can fight, and her eventual surrender to the realities that have literally hit her in the face is quite heartbreaking.
The mother’s story however is just one half of the film. The other half features Mikaela (Alma Moreno), Edad’s eldest daughter who decides to stay behind with her ailing mother, falling from her mother’s graces when she decides to work in a nightclub as a dancer. With the help of her doting neighbor (Bella Flores), she discovers the practical functions of her sexuality, parading in grass skirts and dancing a bastardized and overly-eroticized version of Hawaiian dances with scantily clad Ricky Belmonte to the beat of drums and suggestive chanting of the word “Wai-ki-ki,” subliminally evoking images of what is kept hidden by those strategically placed shards of dried grass.
Despite the obvious erotic undertones of the dances, Perez withholds from designing the scenes to be plainly lewd, plainly objectifying Moreno’s womanly curves in compromising rhythms. Instead, Perez injects the scenes with some sort of feminine empowerment, where men are beholden to the hypnotizing grooves of the show’s main attraction. Waikiki, despite being advertised as a sexy film in obvious reaction to Moreno’s sudden rise to fame as a sex symbol especially after her stints in Joey Gosiengfiao’s Bomba Star (1980) and Nympha (1980), is actually a film that features strong women amidst a world of men made frail by very real circumstances.
Waikiki is deceptive in a sense that it allures with exoticization of female sexuality, of a very foreign land, of the migration experience, before exposing very familiar truths of how families are pulled apart by the Filipino diaspora, how there is an immense divide between traditional mores and the virtues of progress and modernity. Perez, by adeptly juggling the commercial requirements of studio filmmaking and his own artistic impulses, has created a film that is strange because it almost always works in all its attempts to be whatever it needs to be. As a sexy film, it does not fail to arouse. As a melodrama, it does not fail to force out tears. As a portrait of the Philippines then and now, it does not fail to impress with both its astuteness and simplicity in expressing its points.
(Cross-published in Lagarista.)