Thursday, November 29, 2007

Burlesk Queen (1977)

Burlesk Queen (Celso Ad. Castillo, 1977)
English Title: Burlesque Queen

Celso Ad. Castillo's Burlesk Queen (Burlesque Queen) is most famous for Vilma Santos' noteworthy performance. She plays Chato, daughter of crippled Roque (Leopoldo Salcedo). She works as assistant to Virgie (Rosemarie Gil), current star of the burlesque stage (the film opens with Gil gyrating to the rapid beatings of drums, to the ecstasy of her numerous patrons). Resisting the lofty wishes of her father, Chato succumbs to the lure of the stage and the money it would bring her. It really is a grand performance as Santos was able to deliver the physical requirements of the role with her innate charismatic aura (a skill that earned the actress legions of fans and eventually elected to public office). Santos' Chato is servile to the men around her (her father, Louie the theater manager (played by Joonee Gamboa in the film's other equally terrific performance) and Jessie (Rolly Quizon), her boyfriend) but when she dances onstage, it doesn't come off as merely sensual and titillating. She dances burlesque to make a statement (if there is such a thing), a statement important enough to die for.

More remarkable than Santos' portrayal of the doomed burlesque dancer, is Castillo's filmmaking. Set within the very patriarchal lower class Manila, Castillo posits the burlesque theater as not merely, as impassioned Louie points out, a place for highbrow entertainment for the masses, but also the window for the film's female lead to become superior to her male oppressors. It's a difficult metaphor to execute but Castillo successfully does so. The dancer, scantilly clad amidst the cheers and jeers of horny men, is easily regarded as the victim of exploitation. But in the film's case, the stage becomes the dancer's opportunity for leverage which is impossible in the outside world. The stage provides Chato ease from the outside world's patriarchal clutches. She becomes financially stable on her own, temporarily free from her father's influences, and powerful over thousands of men.

Interestingly, Castillo stages a poetically sequenced scene of Chato's devirginization within the theater. Jessie attempts to make love to Chato inside her dressing room, and the latter submits to the former's sexual advances. Interspersed between their lovemaking (take note of the ballad that plays in the background as the lyrics talk of love amidst the entire world's disapproval, very typical of the romantic declarations that inevitably falter over time) are scenes from the stage, a circus act of horrid penetrations: of a woman being juggled by a man, several magic acts, and more importantly, of a man hammering a nail inside his nostril, then puncturing his eye socket with a metal stick, finally commencing with him swallowing a long blade. Castillo's juxtaposing Chato's first sexual act with acts of unnatural and bizarre penetrations of the human body impart a clear message of invasion, of Chato's theater where she is the goddess (her stage name is Tsarina the goddess) and almighty over all the men who watch her. The theater is no longer the same sanctuary; in a way, the theater's magic has been tainted. She becomes pregnant and decides to stop dancing pursuant to her relationship with Jessie and pregnancy. Her devirginization within the theater becomes symbolic of her surrender to the outside patriarchal forces.

The burlesque is in its dying days. Submitting to the very same patriarchal forces that have established strict moral norms and economic systems, the government has deemed the dance to be lewd and illegal. Louis plans that the final burlesque performance be the best and we become witnesses to the plan's grand execution: a judiciously edited montage of circus acts, musical numbers, costumed dances and finally Chato's coup de grace to both the theater and to herself. In a hypnotized daze with spotlights concentrating on her rhythmic gyrations, she enchants her audience. Once more, she is a goddess, the most powerful person in that wide area full of men. Her reign is short lived for she is pregnant with Jessie's child and starts bleeding. Castillo cuts to Chato's face, sweaty and in pain and we hear as her heavy breathing joins the rapid beating of the drums. The camera pans down, and we see her belly dangerously shaking as blood continuously flows down her thighs. This is Chato's repentance, a fatal undoing of her naive betrayal of the stage to succumb to patriarchal forces. Chato reluctantly stops and presumably dies as the crowd cheers on.

A jovial and sweet melody replaces the hurried beating of the drums and the boisterous cheers. The theater is empty. The hundred or so seats have no eager men sitting on them. A dusty curtain covers the once vibrant stage. Pictures of the burlesque dancers, more prominently Chato, are on display. Outside, a couple of players, including the Filipino version of Chaplin (complete with the trademark hat and cane of The Tramp), are waiting. They stand up and leave. The film closes with them walking away from the theater, reminiscent of the bittersweet finales of Charlie Chaplin's comedies (more specifically The Circus (1928) and Modern Times (1936)). Of course, Burlesk Queen is nowhere like Chaplin's films yet the ending feels irresistibly apt, an intriguingly ironic homage. The living remnants of the theater, those bit players walking away, have no bright future. Like Chato, the theater is their sanctuary and survival. The real world, the desolate and unfair lower class Manila of which they are ultimately going to, has no place for them. The melody, the memories, and the transient burlesque queen that once charmed a thousand men with the movement of her hips have been drowned by hopelessness. They shall all remain tramps.

Burlesk Queen is much more than a gripping commercial melodrama. It is also a scathing commentary on the sexual politics that has become the atmosphere of Philippine society: of hardworking women and the good-for-nothing men they serve; of a patriarchal society gone awry. It is also a fervent reminder of the redemptive and equalizing power of art. Multi-faceted, committedly acted, and very well-directed, Burlesk Queen, I opine, is an unsung masterpiece.


Unknown said...

Hi, oggs. I still have to watch the complete version of this film since many people are saying its the kid's greatest masterpiece. Although i really like a lot PAGPUTI NG UWAK PAG-ITIM NG TAGAK for 2nd viewing, PATAYIN MO SA SINDAK SI BARBARA and ALAMAT NI JULIAN MAKABAYAN. Even in exploitation films like SNAKE SISTERS and ISLA, Celso's genuine artistry shines.

Oggs Cruz said...

I was really surpised with this film. I was expecting a film driven mostly by the star-turning performance of Vilma (most Filipino films are carried by excellent performances, the rest of the film's merits being drowned), but instead, Celso covers every corner, delivering an exquisite effort. Undoubtedly, it's a near-perfect masterpiece.

Anonymous said...

I'd say it was terribly flawed and pretentious and not Vilma's best. Burlesk Queen was shown in one of the best ever Manila Film Festivals at the hight of the golden period of Philippine Cinema in the mid 70's - together with Mike de Leon's "Kung Mangarap Ka't Magising." Hilda Koronel delivered a nuanced and much more textured performance in this film and Mangarap was young, relaxed, funny, and fresh. The same festival had entries from Broca and Bernal and Mike de Leon and Broca had a very public spat with the chairman of the festival board of judges, Rolando Tinio, over the latter's unconcealed bias for the Celso ad Castillo film.

Anonymous said...

I was only 9-years old when this film was shown and actually figured in a much-heated controversy at that film festival where it was fielded as an official entry. The one thing that intrigued me most was why all the awards it won in the same festival were recalled. Three decades after, I was delighted to have finally gotten a copy of it in vcd in a videostore at SM City. My verdict? It was one hell of a good movie. I agree with you Oggs, it's a near-perfect masterpiece. The skillful mastery of Celso Ad Castillo as a film-maker was very evident in the movie and this will definitely be regarded as one of Vilma's best performances, ever. I can't think of any other actress (past and present) who could give justice to the role the way Vilma Santos did here. Aside from the finale scene, she really got me in that scene where Rolly Quizon decided to abandon her and she just silently watched the mother of Rolly Quizon pack his (Rolly's) things. Suddenly, the girl heralded as the most powerful goddess on stage easily succumbed to sheer helplessness.

I think I am going to keep my vcd of this movie for a long, long time.

Ronaldo of Dubai said...

I just had the chance to watch Burlesk Queen thru one of my friends based in LA, he handed me a VCD copy. I was realy surprised with the movie.Direction of Celso Ad Castillo was really magnificent. But what I admired most is the acting performance of Vilma Santos specially the way she delivered her lines. Very clear. I will not forget her scene doing monologue beside her dead father. I was unaware my tears fell on my face. How I wish DVD copy of Burlesk Queen is available now so I can preserve it for a life time.