Tinikling or 'The Madonna and the Dragon' (Samuel Fuller, 1989)
French Title: Tinikling ou 'La Madonne et le Dragon'
Tinikling or ‘The Madonna and the Dragon’, made for French television and shot entirely in the Philippines, is the last film Fuller directed. The film starts with the display of several photographs of domestic strife from various parts of the world like Beirut and Nicaragua. After which, photographs of Ninoy Aquino’s assassination, leading to the declaration of the elections between overstaying president Ferdinand Marcos and Aquino’s widow, Corazon. The film, set a few days prior to the elections, has foreign journalist photographers chasing around Manila for that perfect picture that will catapult Manila’s chaotic situation to international standards. It pits the distance from their subjects these journalists have to acquire to succeed with the very human situations that they are forced to witness and only document.
The action begins in the middle of a trash dump. Fuller opens with an extreme close-up of the withered face of an old man who is frantically praying. The camera pans to reveal the barrel of an automatic rifle, sticking against the back of the old man. The rifle’s owner, an intoxicated soldier, orders another person to shoot him at the count of three. The other person, a female photographer named Patty (Jennifer Beals), is cursing the soldier for his inhumanity while readying her camera to shoot the soldier at the exact moment of the old man’s execution. The soldier counts to three, kills the old man, and angrily asks Patty if he shot his proud moment. Patty curses the soldier and says that she couldn’t, forcing the soldier to angrily point his rifle at her, readying to shoot. Before the soldier could pull the trigger, he is shot by another photographer from behind. Simon (Luc Merenda), Patty’s savior at that time is also her ex-husband.
The opening sequence is one that fulfils Fuller’s description of what cinema is. In a matter of a few minutes, Fuller was able to completely characterize Patty as a woman too concerned over the welfare of her subjects to be truly successful. Simon, on the other hand, is more of a mercenary, adept not only in photography but also in other skills that would land him the perfect sensational photo. The photograph he takes later on, a photograph featuring a soldier shooting an old lady who refuses to reveal the lair of the rebel vigilante group of Mindanao (Ben Cervantes), becomes the object of the film’s story.
Wanted by Marcos’ men and Mindanao’s men for political reasons because its raw power which can steer the election towards Corazon Aquino and by the foreign press because it encapsulates the situation of the Philippines under the regime of Marcos, the photograph is suddenly stolen, leading Simon and Patty to deal and connive with Manila’s underworld which features Mama (Christa Lang), the shrewd owner of a casino cum brothel, Pavel (Patrick Bauchau), a suspect goon who has ties with both Mama and Mindanao, and a prostitute (Pilar Pilapil) under the care of Mama whose romantic dealings with Mindanao seems to be the picture’s only avenue to a real dramatic heart.
Tinikling or ‘The Madonna and the Dragon’ is commendable for dealing with a very specific event in Philippine history. Inaccuracies are inevitable. For example, the film makes it seem that Corazon Aquino officially won the elections, leaving out the People Power Revolution which eventually led to Marcos’ ouster. I suppose the several days of the peaceful revolution would throw the film’s quick pace off. I also suppose that Fuller did not have full control over the final product, which is why the film is not as tightly edited as it could be. However, the film has enough Fuller in it to be assessed alongside the director’s best films.
Aside from the astounding opening, the film also features a gun fight set inside a movie theater. As Mindanao’s men are firing against Marcos’ soldiers, Fuller cuts to the gunfight that is happening in the film being screened. Fuller seems to be channelling his Pierrot le fou quote by juxtaposing the violence of cinema and the violence of the realities of Marcos’ regime in that brilliantly conceived action sequence.
The film suspiciously ends rationally. Patty finally gets the picture that betrays her earnest characterization, shooting a boy (Reginald Singh), whom Patty rescues from the trash dump from bloodthirsty scavengers early on, who kills a man who turns out to be a Marcos supporter. Simon shoots Patty shooting the picture. Corazon Aquino has replace Marcos as president of the Philippines. Against the man-made peace provided for by a luxurious hotel pool, Patty and Simon are reunited. The boy, whose peculiar grasp of the English language was learned from growing up being fed by gangster movies, is reunited with his passion for rock and roll and everything else American.
Tinikling or ‘The Madonna and the Dragon’ concludes in a way that everything that happened before, from the extreme poverty that turns children into ingenious murderers to the treachery of freedom fighters, seems to be nothing more than plot points in a continuing history of a nation. From the perspective of foreign eyes, it seems that the very real atrocities of the country are but mere subjects of pulp fiction. Fuller, like the foreign photographers he chose to concentrate on instead of the fractured Filipinos whose stories may prove to be more endearing, chose to tackle his subject from a safe distance, turning the film into an enjoyable, sometimes intellectually stirring but ultimately emotionally shallow trip back to the final days of the Philippines under Marcos’ rule.
(Cross-published in Lagarista.)