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

Mga Kuwentong Barbero: Incredible, But These Barber's Tales are True

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By Tito Genova Valiente

The story begins with a village locked deep in a valley. Several deaths after and the village is spruced up for the visit of a dictator. In that place, its lone barber died in his sleep. Despondent, his wife takes over and becomes the prominent barber in town. Somewhere, a woman is lovely and depressed. Somewhere, a wife is battered and made pregnant by her cruel husband.

Tales abound in Jun Lana’s Barber’s Tales. You can tell the tales and retell them, put them in any position and yet the world these tales sprung from still makes sense. These stories derive their validity not through histories but through a composition that shades the border between fantasy and political commentary.

In the film, Barber’s Tales, the small tales are true but somewhere in these tales are other tales, unyielding to our common notion of what is factual and what is fictive.

In the town, the location of which always comes with the reminder of its isolation, the barber shop is where all people converge. Jose is the barber but he is no raconteur. The tales will come from other people and the event these people find themselves part of.

Jose is stern with his wife, who serves him like he is the true master of the house. Jose is the master barber to this wife who apprentices also in her husband›s craft. Jose, however, is also the master in this marriage where the wife is servile and scared. There is no love in the husband›s voice when he asks something from the wife. The house reeks of tension. We fear for the safety of this woman in her own home.

When Jose dies, we are left to contend with Marilou, the widow who has nowhere to go, it seems, until she decides to be the next barber in town. She tries first with the good priest who is satisfied with her style. The other men would not trust a woman with their hair. One day, she is asked to see the Mayor who learns about her skills gained from her husband. The mayor is happy with the haircut and soon there are customers in the old barber shop.

Interesting that the mayor, all chauvinism and power, will trust a woman to cut his hair, In Barber’s Tales, as in the so-called “kuwentong barbero, ” a token name for the gossip as well as ribald jokes in barber shops, the tales are caught in between the real and the unreal. The stories in barber shops are usally an all-male assault at the society and the women who are perceived as weakeninng communities with their femaleness.

The narrative of the film saves it from being merely fabular or metaphorical. The film does not dwell on the metaphor of communities fooled by the leaders that hide from them the truth of an ugly government. There are characters who are well aware of the fairy tales spun by a vicious king and an insane queen in the palace. These characters include the young student, Edmond, who quits his studies to join the revolution in the mountains. He is able to gather more men and they talk about truth in the barber shop, the place where lies and life›s exaggerations are constructed.

Then one day, Edmond disappears. Then one day, a beloved person in the villlage is killed.

The character of Marilou is not at the center of the tales, for there are so many tales. But her barber shop and her conversion from an almost dumb woman to a popular barber are in themselves containing the true elements of a barber’s tale. Contentious and charming, the story of Marilou is a wonder to read. As played by Eugene Domingo, the character is almost catatonic in her coping with the loss of a man, the same loss of which reproduces her presence. But there is a terrifying strength in those resigned postures, in those non-confrontational stance. We know that this woman will either break down or break out of the village, and break out she does but not in the grand, sweeping Greek manner but in the firm and ordinary stroke of a barber’s knife.

Marilou’s journey from someone who does not believe in the revolution and fighting for social upheaval is one of the staunchest elements of the film’s screenplay. It is a slow, gradual awakening, and deaths are the source of life in this woman’s rebirth into a new ideology.

Marilou asks Edmond to remain a good son to her friend, for that is all that she knows. The home, after the school, is the best place for sons, this woman timid as a woman for a long time, declares. But the village has a silence that will not last long. As the killings of pople continue, Marilou provides refuge for the “rebels.” Marilou meets up with the mayor’s wife who confides to her all her pains. Up there on the cliff, Marilou witnesses the full descent of a woman into hell, a turning point for the barber to tell her own barber’s tales.

As the only barber—perhaps, the only female barber in the area—vanishes, varied stories are told about her whereabouts. Rashomonesque only up to a point, the disappearance of the barber is soon explained in a tour-de-force scene at the end where religion, society, violence, and politics are almost textbook titles of what a small community has become. A procession is held and the military is on alert to look for a long-haired woman. But the women are also on full alert to save other women. They all change their hair, the barber, his tale and his craft, a splendid polysemic representation of what women can do when men are not doing what they are supposed to do in terms of equality and freedom.

Not all is fine in this town. A woman is made insane and is pushed to her end. The film, however, makes her ethereally lovely in despondence, a wink at how we subjugate women by keeping her either out of her mind or physically, superficially beautiful amidst poverty and politics.

Iza Calzado is the only compromise in the film for the existence of woman as decor, Calzado justifies the shot of her beauty, reminding us that past films subsisted but gained economically from the depiction of women as weak. The rest of the women in Barber’s Tales are extraordinary characters. Shamaine Buencamino is Tess, the aunt who finally accepts that her nephew who is seen as her own future is not going to fulfill her dream. Buencamino rages and that rage comes both from her own misunderstanding of a belief in a different kind of force and that timid realization that her nephew will never be part of this socicety anymore. As the wife who is battered for sex and for status, Gladys Reyes proves once more her discovery of a self, capable of good performance, one that is buffered by new politics.

Carlo Mendoza’s cinematography sweeps over hills and mountains but bring us back to the claustrophobia of a community. With coloration diminished to restraint hue, the film evokes nostalgia and tenderness. Chito Sumera in his production design manipulates the found object, a town and ties it to a period that is remembered sweetly by a generation who saw the period tortured into silence.

Film readers are talking about some allusions and references to older films. The scene at the cliff between Domingo and Calzado is being tied to a scene between Gigi Dueñas and Nora Aunor in Ishmael Bernal’s Himala, both scenes recalled for the terrible beauty about two women who face each other but are alone in their being women. Not even a kiss and not even a communion of the mystical wind blowing their way can put women together that easily. The world is wary of women in relationship deeper than friendship. The act of women cutting their hair at the end recalls vividly the cutting of the hair of Rosario (played by Nora Aunor in the classic Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos). Where in Rosario’s case, it was about betrayal amidst a war that was not ours to die for, Marilou’s shedding of her hair stands for ties with women in a war whose meaning is linked to struggles of classes and genders.

The film Barber’s Tales arrives significantly at this historical juncture when revisionism is dominating the way stories are being written and rewritten about the martial law years. The years of the conjugal dictatorship are in books and discourses, in testimonials that form murals of memory, forgetfulness and loss. We have difficulty preserving remembrances because they are individual. Here is a film that thrives on the contradictions of a community subsisting on charades and social make-believe, on mores and values that are old products of a society that is supposedly always inherently and teleologically driven to harmony. We know this is not so. Barber’s Tales is a validation that the decay of this society has long been predicted by people who look up and do not believe the chronicles of the elite from heaven.

Tales will be told and truths will be told. They will provide counterpoint perspectives to the common, still dominant, plot about how men protect women, how leaders protect followers, and how a nation’s tale is a power-grab of anecdotes, trickster’s tales and fables.