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

Chassis: The Mechanisms of Living and Dying Rated X

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By Tito Genova Valiente

The ending of Adolf Borinaga Alix’s film Chassis will be talked about for days on end. There will be two sides to the debate always: is that the real thing or merely prosthetic? Feelings about the scene will always be two-pronged: you either like that ending or you hate it. Somewhere in the middle of those extreme responses to the film will straddle the question about the logic of the ending or, in a more utilitarian vein, the necessity of the final act.

Logic as a mechanism is almost absent from this narrative about a mother who tries to eke out a living when living is also nonexistent in the place where she and her daughter find themselves. What one finds in that place as sign of movement are the many container vans under which individuals manage to live, exposed to the elements, and breathing in the polluted gas coming from the vehicles.

Transitory is this place, a halfway house for those who see in the area livelihood of the most meager and cruel kind. The director describes the setting as a kind of purgatory. If we follow the old catechism, the promise of purging in that symbolic jump-off point to redemption is always available. Indeed, Pier 16 stands for a terminal only insofar as it is the end of a trip for drivers delivering goods to places as distant as the comfort that forever eludes them. Nothing is terminated in that pier; rather, life seems to begin always in an attempt to head to destinations that are not in the horizon.

The film tells us the beginning of life, ostensibly, does not propagate hope. The problem for those who inhabit this site is that they will always be underlings. When they pause and sleep, they will be facing up not to the sky but to the chassis of the vehicles—steel, cold, bereft of warmth as we humans are conventionally used. If this is home, pray it is temporal. If this is home, wish for the ending, a happy one, something to lift the spirit.

Done in black and white, the film does not ingratiate at all: no vow of salvation is in the offing. The landscape is overwhelmed by motors and machines. A mother walks back and forth, almost lost in the cemented homogeneity of the landscape. She lives under one of the many trucks and container vans. In that small space, she creates a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen. She leaves the shadow of the truck and goes to another spot in the pier where the sound of water could be heard. Behind the wall of tires her daughter comes out, fresh from a semblance of shower.

If you do not know where they live, you can never tell when the mother walks her daughter to where she can take a ride to school that they are homeless. The daughter is clean and worries about the coming class fieldtrip. The mother promises, like any mother, that she will talk with the daughter’s teacher regarding the financial contribution to the class activity. The mother later talks with the father of her daughter and their sala is the driver’s seat of the container van.

The human community does not play a leading role in this narrative. The machines do. And yet Alix reinvents for us the most basic elements of what makes us human: the notion of family and a working concept of love, responsibility, caring. Motherhood and fatherhood never had it so bad and proto-pure and troubling as in this tale.

When we enter this community, we know one thing: one can never really be happy in this place. On that note—neither bitter nor sweet—flies off the storytelling of this film. People will have to subsist in this strange economy of displacement and in that subsistence we cannot expect them to be bothered with morality and other code of ethics we so glorify in the middle-class illusion of lifestyle. When hints and vestiges of the notion of good versus evil rear their heads, those heads are ugly. Instead of giving the characters in this story some fighting chance for survival, those reminders about being human once turn into natural irritants.

The women and wives in Chassis know how to survive because they have repulsed to a great degree those questions about the innate goodness and weakness of men as well as women. Anonymous sex thrusts its lack of identity because it is pumped in silence. The partners may know each other but in the furtive quiet of the act they cease to know themselves at all. But Alix saves the day for the inescapably human in us all: the women being used by men in this film do not enjoy the act. The mother services men and serves as an orifice. She looks at the wall. She scans the space. We doubt if she ever gets an orgasm; we trust she gets paid. The men could not care less; they just need release.

There is a magical scene in the film participated in by three actresses, namely Evelyn Vargas (natural and engaging), Angeli Bayani (sultry even without lines) and Jodi Sta. Maria. A man comes not to pick up (that’s giving too much credit to human interaction in this society) but to check the sexual accessibility of one woman, Sta. Maria. The man comes near the three women, his face cropped unseen by camera. He stands in front of Sta.Maria, in the background Vargas chews the scene with her glances so quiet but so knowing and yet bereft of malice. Bayani sits there a flesh for the taking but with no judgment at all. One senses fear, and a sadness washing over the three women, the selling of flesh onsite undeserving of the moral bracketing of prostitution.

Where were we when this Jodi Sta. Maria metamorphosed into a complex, unnerving actor? We can quibble how her destitute woman looks clean in Chassis but as the young mother who just wants a safe world for her daughter, she assaults a man and it does not matter if that man is responsible for hurting her daughter. Her daughter makes her a mother, the only vital sign of humanity in her; otherwise, hers is a face that looks to the horizon that is not for her really. When the truck that serves as her home for a period of time is driven off, she looks around for another truck that could be the roof of her home. It is the lack of pain in that search for another home that makes Jodi Sta. Maria’s mother the most painful lesson about love that is almost like the soul refusing to leave the body of a dying person.

Where were we when Adolf Alix changed his countenance from a recorder of distant exotic islands into an artist documenting the disappearance of boundaries and humanity in communities? In Chassis, Alix explores another exotica: poverty and the capacity of human beings to explore each other’s weakness and exploit each other’s power and test the limits of endurance and love.

The film Chassis has been acclaimed in film festivals abroad and should make Adolf B. Alix one of the most significant voices in Philippine cinema, independent or mainstream. And despite that ending, which will either be hated or acclaimed.