The society of respected film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian in cinematic excellence

Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa: Cinema As Pain, Politics & Poetry

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By Tito Genova Valiente

The triumph of the film, Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa, comes from poetry. For lack of a better term, believe me, the optimal praise we can give Yapan’s work is that it has poetry written and sung all over it.

I struggle with that description because the modifier “poetic” has been bandied already for works that are tremulous and fragile. Employed to define the power of film, the same adjective softens and, oftentimes, trivializes a powerful work.

The poetic tone of the film, however, is really more than the sound and fury of that literary form. Yapan actually uses poetry as lines and as sound and as colors. The director initiates the movement out of the lines from poetry; the metaphors and the turn in and of each word occupy space and time. Where the recitation or the reception of lines from the poems brings the urge to slow down a scene or even stop the rhythm of the narrative, this does not happen in Sayaw.... What happens is the lines become a current through which subtle and not-so-subtle messages are transported. What happens is that the poems fill the air and give the characters dark clouds to gaze at or portals to traverse.

When we start hearing the lines from the works of Ophelia Dimalanta, Joi Barrios, Melinda Bobis, Elynia Mabanglo, Rebecca Añonuevo, and Benilda Santos, the words and the syllables become organic and are then made part of the film, not as extraneous vibes but as palm readings that are ordained integral to the fates of the characters in the story. Something else happens: the poems are not so much as read than as acted out. This is where the triumph and the tragic tone of Alvin’s lovely elegy reside.

Circling the site of what looks like a place of permanent sadness with just a tinge of terrified hope are the movements, the dances, the gestures of the three characters.

Subtlety is not an enduring aesthetics of Filipino mainstream cinema. The tendency—and this could be the function of a dominant narrative culture—is to expose and to explain. There is nothing wrong with that style. That could be our way of telling stories. But art is also about the exception. This film is that exception, that rarity that draws us in. Yapan embraces the strength of subtlety; he feasts on the eternity of the ellipses. This time, this visual banquet is in the actors and their characterizations.

The story has been told many times: a beautiful teacher is seen as hiding secrets and sadness. Comes a well-off boy who gets attracted to the teacher. This time, the boy does not seduce the teacher but learns how to dance so he could partner the teacher. Across the room, another young man looks at the boy looking always at the teacher. The infatuated boy, Paulo Avelino, seeks the help of the other man, Rocco Nacino, who happens to be the assistant of the dance teacher.

The dance teacher is Karen and is played by Jean Garcia. Some viewers, especially those who like Dance with a capital “D”, may take exception about her performance as a dancer. But this is film and editing and camera can always work around the body and Garcia has the body of a dancer. Within that body is an actor and the rest are left to our imagination.

Imagine Garcia’s teacher is someone with a past. She does not live though in that past much as we with our stereotypes of aging divas want her to savor cobwebs and memories.

I have no memories of Jean Garcia and her gravitas. After this film, I cannot think of her as not being important. In the opening scene, she stands at the head of the class and discusses a film about gaze. The lines are about passion but her Karen is a coiled serpent of restraint; we fear she will break if she goes further with the poem. Simply, she is Mother Lament, just a bit younger, who reads poetry as if she is washing off her sins and regrets before the bell rings. She originates the gaze in this film.

As Karen, Garcia looks at Nacino looking deep at Avelino and she knows where all this would lead to. She, however, does not step back but rather walks into the space of attraction and desire. For her role, Karen carries poems—lyrical and political claims to identities contested and now reconstructed. Sappho plays consort to males drawn into each other’s maleness, a healer presiding a rite of passage where no return is ever promised.

This is the subversive act of the film: the employ of what we call feminist poetry to accompany another gender’s journey into a destiny or despair. Enchanting—and naughty—is the scene where the two actors deal with an assigned poem, as they read Benilda Santos’s “Ang Sabi ko Sa Iyo.” Listen to the lines: Bumaling ang dagta sa hiniwang kaimito/Namuo sa talim ng kutsilyo ang ilang patak/Diyan ako naiwan, mahal, at hindi sa laman.

The sap and the juice and the instrumental knife and its sharpness are the standard images for the male sex act, and its aftermath. We know that. We are not prepared though in the enchantment that is original to male genders deviating from nature understood as its only nature, when Santos declares love in what is spilled or released and not in the flesh where the sap comes from. Thus we ask: can a gender understand another gender? In this film, that is the trenchant claim.

As the object of Nacino’s gaze, Paulo Avelino is immaculate. Even his skin shines clean. His Marlon does not have flaws; he has faults. Stared at, Avelino’s character is rendered passive. This is the reason when the reckoning for recognition comes, for Avelino’s performance is almost lusterless when placed side by side with that of Nacino’s. That lack of burnish though is the appeal of Avelino’s role and the actor plays this well. Consider the end of the film when the gaze of Dennis/Nacino is responded to: Avelino now golden as the hero Humadapnon of the Panay epic is dancing with Nacino in the role of the Sunmasakay, disguised as a man but actually a woman who is destined to save the hero. Coiling and recoiling from and into each other, the final gaze becomes a tear that falls.

Of course, I cannot blame the viewers if, in the end, Nacino is remembered. After all, the young actor ceases to be a raw performer in Sayaw... and turns into a wise young man, a pained lover able to solve the puzzle of Alvin Yapan’s lore. Rocco Nacino’s lips will remain sealed for now, save the gaze that started it all. And the gazed, the Marlon in many men, the Paulo Avelino of pop myth, trembling and secretly turgid at the thought of what is being proposed.

The film benefits from the cinematography of Arvin Viola, the music of Christine Muco and Jema Pamintuan, the editing of Mai Dionisio, and the production design of Aped Santos. Crucial to the film is the realized choreography of Eli Jacinto.

Alvin Yapan wrote and directed the film; he co-executive-produced the film with Alemberg Ang.