Monday, April 29, 2013

Mariposa sa Hawla ng Gabi (2012)

Mariposa sa Hawla ng Gabi (Richard Somes, 2012)
English Title: Mariposa in the Cage of the Night

Manila has often found itself a central character in many Filipino films. Manila, in Lino Brocka’s Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975) and Macho Dancer (1988), is a place of failed promises, where innocent men and women from the provinces are sucked into a labyrinth of deceit and violence. On the other hand, Manila, as depicted in Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night (1980), is a city that has become home to the perpetually despaired, depressed, and disillusioned. Brillante Mendoza, in his films set in Manila like Tirador (Slingshot, 2007), Kinatay (The Execution of P, 2009) and Lola (Grandmother, 2009), the city is characterized by squalor, where dignity and humanity have become virtues amidst overwhelming corruption. The way Manila has been depicted in films has been rooted to the fact that its allure betrays. The city is a predator that feeds on the need for salvation, for respite.

Richard Somes’ Manila is similar in feel. The difference lies in the way he dresses up Manila. Gone are the hyper-realistic slums and its pitiful dwellers. Instead, he focuses on the labyrinthine alleyways that houses lost souls and strangers. The storyline of Mariposa sa Hawla ng Gabi (Mariposa in the Cage of the Night) is not unlike the many tales of provincial dreamers traveling from their rural villages to the city for the promise of a better life as depicted both in celluloid and real life. What differentiates Somes’ dark tale from the rest is how he molds his protagonist, a barrio lass in search for her missing sister, into the antithesis of the stereotypical victim.

Maya, played by Erich Gonzalez, one of the very few mainstream young actresses who is able to venture towards playing more complex roles, is not one who easily falls victim to the city’s empty charms. Her mission is not survival, but to ease her gnawing curiosities and suspicions as to the strange fate of her only sister. From there, she uncovers the hidden face of the city, one that ekes its existence out of vanity, greed, and pride, despite the abject lack of resources.

Despite the seemingly fantastic design of Mariposa sa Hawla ng Gabi, it remains to be one of Somes’ most personal works. It reflects his initial understanding of the big city. Somes, who hails from Bacolod City in one of the islands south of the capital, has moved to Manila to work. Although dark, damp and dreary, his version of Manila is littered with eccentricities that may or may not be exaggerations of what is really happening deep in the metropolis. Sausage factories are lively with flies and other crawlers feasting on fermenting meat and pig intestines scattered all over. Restaurants serve monkeys and other seemingly unpalatable delicacies. Plastic surgeons make do of tire sealants and other dubious liquids, transforming women into monsters, ready to be hired by the most daring of sexual adventurers. Somes’ film bizarrely charms through its showcase of the colorful depravities that thrive in the city. Framed by a deepening mystery that comprehends the outrageousness of it all, the film outlines the very extent and margins of our humanity the same way it depicts the hidden dirt and grime of the city it lives in.

With Mariposa sa Hawla ng Gabi, Somes adds another dimension in the ever-growing scope of Manila’s character. Brocka showed Manila’s deceit. Bernal showed Manila’s despair. Mendoza showed Manila’s stubborn resilience. Somes showed Manila’s blatant insanity. The film more than just offers a gripping descent into the exotic unknown, it also opens up to a perspective of a city that has too often been relegated by cinema to the boredom of reality.

(First published in the programme of 15th Edition of the Far East Film Festival in Udine.)