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

Mga Kuwentong Barbero: Not a Barber's Tale

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By Nicanor G. Tiongson

Decades after it was ended by the People Power revolt, the Marcos dictatorship has become the subject of choice of many independent films since 2005. Some of these have exposed military abuses on women as in Ka Oryang, the psychological traumas of former activists as in Mga Anino ng Kahapon, the militarization of an erstwhile peaceful village in Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon, the failure of the ideologies and dreams of a couple of UP professors in Dagitab, and now the politicization of a barrio woman in Mga Kuwentong Barbero or Barber’s Tales.

Barber’s Tales narrates the story of Marilou Aguallo, who grows from a housewife with no mind or life of her own to a person of resolve who decides to embrace a radical ideology. In a rural village at the foot of the mountains, Marilou has lived for more than two decades, serving with hand and foot her husband Jose, the only barber of the barrio. It is a loveless and lonely marriage, especially after their first child, suffering from a congenital infirmity, dies at age ten. Fearing that the second child might also be abnormal, Jose decides to abstain from intercourse with Marilou, seeking sexual release instead in his favourite dance-hall prostitute Rosa. After one particularly intense and drunken night with Rosa, Jose comes home and dies in his sleep. Like an orphaned child, Marilou at first feels lost, but she finds guidance and strength in her two loyal friends: Susan, a vendor of rice cakes, who already has five daughters and is pregnant with yet another child, and Tessie, a spinster who has raised her only nephew Edmond and now sends him to school in Manila. The two friends encourage Marilou to assume Jose’s role as barrio barber, especially since Jose did teach Marilou how to cut his hair. But even with the endorsement of the parish priest Fr. Arturo, the menfolk are reluctant to entrust their hair to a woman, believing barbers have to be male. Only after the townmayor Alfredo Bartolome, Jose’s former client, makes Marilou his official barber do the barrio folk begin to flock to Marilou’s barbershop.

But under the worsening conditions of martial law, more challenges begin to confront Marilou and her village. Unknown to Tessie, her nephew Edmond, who is also Marilou’s godson, has stopped his studies in Manila to join a radical activist group in the mountains near their barrio. One night Edmond brings a wounded comrade to Marilou’s house. Marilou has no choice but to accept them. She even agrees to fetch Rosa, the cabaret girl, who turns out to be the elder sister of the wounded rebel. Before Edmond leaves, Marilou begs him to leave the movement and go back to his studies for Tessie’s sake, but Edmond is already committed to his ideology. In no time, Edmond comes back, this time to ask permission to hold political meetings in Marilou’s house. Marilou turns him down, but later relents when the fascist military shoot down Fr. Arturo and two assistants because they were caught in the act of giving rice to the rebels. In the meetings held in her house, Marilou’s eyes are opened to the oppressive conditions of martial law and the evils of the dictatorship. This realization is sharpened when Marilou meets the mayor’s wife Cecilia, whom the whole town knows is beaten by her dictatorial husband, an ally of Marcos, whenever she confronts him about her many women. After several meetings, the unhappy and desperate Cecilia believes she has found a true friend in Marilou whom she admires for her bravery. One day, after the mayor tells Cecilia he will separate from her, Cecilia fights back by threatening to reveal all the mayor’s illegal deals to the media. Cecilia is beaten black and blue. She escapes and asks Marilou to accompany her to her favourite place in the forest, a precipitous cliff. There Cecilia recounts to Marilou what happened and after kissing Marilou on the lips, jumps from the top of the cliff to her death. Marilou screams in shock and disbelief.

But worse is still to come. The mayor tells Marilou to keep silent about the incident and then officially announces that it was the NPA that ambushed and killed his wife. The media pick up his story and the mayor gets overwhelming sympathy from all, including President Marcos who announces he will attend the funeral. To prepare for Marcos’ visit, the mayor asks Marilou to give him a haircut. As he promises Marilou that she will be generously compensated for keeping her silence, Marilou fatally stabs the mayor in the neck with his special gold-handled scissors. With luck, Marilou is able to leave the mayor’s house unnoticed. She goes home and, to disguise herself, cuts her long hair and hides elsewhere in the barrio. To help Marilou escape, her friends Tessie, Susan, Rosa, and some kabaret girls take advantage of the Good Friday procession to smuggle her out of town, confusing the military by having all of their long hair cut short like that of Marilou. Marilou successfully escapes into the mountains and eventually joins the NPA, taking Luz (Light) as her nom-de-guerre, the name that Cecilia would have given the first child she never had.

Barber’s Tales belongs to the series of Jun Lana’s movies whose main concern is the interrogation of traditional gender roles. In 1998, Lana scripted the film Sa Pusod ng Dagat, whose main character, a young man, decides to take on his mother’s occupation as barrio midwife. In 1999, Lana wrote the screenplay for Sa Paraiso ni Efren, about a gay social worker who moves into the house of a hustler he is in love with, who lives with a girlfriend and a former wife. In 2005, Lana’s story was adapted into film in Pusang Gala, which tackled the special friendship between a gay man and a heterosexual woman as they cope with their respective tumultuous relationships. In 2012, Lana wrote and directed Bwakaw, about an aging gay man, who learns to accept himself and to live happily without depending on anyone. But where the other films focus on individual psyches and personal issues, Barber’sTales succeeds in interweaving the personal story of the main character with the socio-political conditions obtaining under martial law in a given time and place. In the film, Marilou’s personal journey towards her epiphanies coincide with the gradual process of her own politicization, and vice versa. After she is liberated from her husband’s control, Marilou breaks the barriers set by social roles (women cannot be barbers) and political expectations (women and politics do not mix). As her consciousness further grows and expands, she assumes a “man’s occupation” and excels in it, subverts the fascist regime by aiding the radical underground, avenges Fr. Arturo and Cecilia by executing the mayor who is a replica of the dictator himself, and joins the rebels in the mountains to win freedom from political oppression through the force of arms.This organic interweaving of the personal and the political gives this

film gravitas, making it the most insightful and satisfying of Jun Lana’s gender-oriented films.

And the gravitas is matched by Lana’s directorial achievement. A well-chosen cast of actors, mainly from the theatre, delivers a memorable feat of ensemble-acting, where individual characters are clearly defined without anyone attracting undue attention to himself/herself. The costumes and props succeed in defining class (as in the case of Marilou, Tessie and Susan), character (as in the case of the rich but vulnerable Cecilia), and occupation (as in the case of the priest and the prostitute), even as the lighting and camera shots are able to capture the earthiness and simplicity of the barrio folk. Finally, the choice of location is nothing short of felicitous, with the little barrio representing the strictures of convention, the dominance of patriarchy, and the narrowness of vision of those who inhabit it, and the mountains behind it symbolizing freedom in all its forms – as sanctuary for beleaguered souls, as escape through tragic self-imposed death, and as haven for all rebellious spirits. With its eye for authenticity and its faithful depiction of the horrors of military rule, Barber’s Tales is anything but a barber’s tale.