Thursday, September 11, 2008

'Merika (1984)

'Merika (Gil Portes, 1984)

Mila (Nora Aunor), a Filipino who has been living and working both as nurse in a hospital and aide in a convalesecent home in New York for years, wakes up to the voice of the radio commentator announcing the weather for the day before starting with the day's biggest local news: the recall of a line of transit buses that will inevitably lead to a reduction of available transport for commuters. She goes about her morning rituals, turns on the television to watch the morning show, which promises to tackle American politics and the latest film to screen in theaters. On her way to work, she looks at the people around her, none of which look and speak like her.

Aunor, within the first few minutes of Gil Portes' 'Merika, gives us an ample glimpse of what is happening in Mila's mind. Her barren stares are reflective of the disconnect she has with New York and her gestures tells of a discontentment of her present situation. Mila is tired of her life and is on the verge of making that crucial decision to let all the financial rewards of working in America go just to be back to the Philippines where the faces, the language, the issues are familiar and pertinent to her.

'Merika does not revel in its setting. It reveals New York from the perspective of a Filipino who has resided there for years. Thus, we see New York, notwithstanding the occasional sidetrips to more famous landmarks (atop the Empire State, or the Trump Building), as plain and ordinary and at times, boring and uninspiring. On the other hand, we are never shown the Philippines but the mental images that we get are overpowering. Through the letters and calls that Mila receive from Cora, her friend who chose to stay in the Philippines, the latest showbiz rumors from tabloids imported from Manila, or the reminiscent and colorful discussions between Mila and her elderly ward (Cesar Aliparo) about the Philippines, the city becomes even more drab, the chronic disconnect Mila that experiences in America becomes even more apparent, and her longing to go home gets more persuasive.

Of course, Mila is surrounded by fellow Filipinos who, in their own ways, are struggling in the foreign land. Her roommate and best friend Violet (Marilyn Concepcion) is on her nth attempt to pass the nursing exams. Danny (Marshall Factora), the lab technician in the hospital where Mila is working, preaches about ideologies that traces back to his student activist days, but is unable to do anything more than lecture to his fellow migrant Filipinos. When push comes to shove, life in America has become too much of a redundant necessity for the Filipinos living and working there; and with families to feed back in the Philippines, a country that is in a constant state of economic and political disarray, the idea of repatriation seems ludicrous. Much more for Mon (Bembol Roco), who relocates from California to New York and eventually starts wooing Mila to marriage, partly for love but mostly for her papers.

Portes tells the story (written by Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. and Gil Quito) of the Filipino émigré without the usual embellishments of trite melodrama or vapid sensationalism. Instead, he paints a picture of loneliness in a foreign land that is both moving and memorable. Against the autumnal-hued (cinematography by Ely Cruz, who also lensed Mike de Leon's phantasmagoric film Itim (The Rites of May, 1976)) backdrop of back-breaking work and occasional acquaintances in a foreign land, Mila's metaphoric isolation is even more affecting, even more gripping. In the end, she abandons America for whatever unassured future that awaits her in her homeland. Before concluding with a shot of Mila boarding her plane back home, Portes indulges with a montage of the people Mila has left behind, continuously struggling on amid the mundaneness and moroseness of living the American dream. 'Merika is a wonderful portrayal of that elusive American dream, absent all the fantasies and illusions that have draped it ever since.


Jojo Devera said...

Great review Oggs! I've been longing to hear you thoughts on 'Merika. I'll forward your review to one of the films' screenwriters, my good friend Gil Quito. 'Merika is one of my favorite movies and in my opinion is Nora Aunor's best performance and Himala, a close second. The film is seen through Mila's eyes. It's a far cry from Portes' travelogue films like Miss X and Carnival Queen. 'Merika is a small film with a big heart.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Jojo,

I agree... Nora is fantastic here. It's not a showy performance (nothing like Himala or The Flor Contemplacion Story), but she shines especially in the quiet moments. The opening sequence is beautifully directed. I'm not a big admirer of Gil Portes, but I have to concede his direction in 'Merica is sublime.

Jojo Devera said...

I loved the opening sequence as well. Gil Quito told me that he and Doy del Mundo locked themselves in a hotel room for a week to write 'Merika's screenplay while listening to Nora's songs on casette tape. I liked Portes' early films like Sa Piling Ng Mga Sugapa, Kukulog, Kikidlat Sa Tanghaling Tapat and my personal favorite Wanted Wives. 'Merika was Portes' career defining moment. Unfortunately the films that followed were a bit disappointing with the exception of Saranggola.

Oggs Cruz said...

It's probably to my disadvantage that I've only been exposed to Portes' later works (Mga Munting Tunig, Homecoming, etc.). I'll look out for the films you've recommended, that's for sure.

Eboy Donato said...

sabi ko na nga ba, ikaw yun eh. nice work on "Ang Pinaka."

Oggs Cruz said...

Salamat Eboy,

Kamusta na? Are you still with Greenpeace?

Eboy Donato said...

i still volunteer from time to time, but i'm a currently employed by corporate america.