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

Tuhog: A Choreography of Juxtapositions

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By Mike Rapatan

Jeffrey Jeturian’s Tuhog from a screenplay by Armando Lao is a film about the incestuous relationship Gabino or “Amang” (Nante Montreal) has with his daughter Perla (Irma Adlawan) and granddaughter, Floring (Ina Raymundo). When news of Amang’s rape breaks out, a pair of enterprising filmmakers (Crispin Pineda and Frank Rivera) drives to Perla and Floring’s house and offers to buy the rights to their story in order to make a “social realist” film “based on a true story” denouncing Amang’s moral depravity. Perla and Floring reluctantly make a deal. They then show up at the premiere of the promised movie cheekily entitled “Hayok sa Laman” starring Jacklyn Jose as Violeta, (Perla’s alter ego), Klaudia Koronel as Hasmin (representing Floring) and Dante Rivero as Leon (Amang’s counterpart). Perla and a pregnant Floring look excited at the start of the movie to see themselves on the big screen.

But as the movie progresses, they become queasy and realize the filmmaker’s true intentions. They become visibly appalled at the movie’s sensational and titillating treatment of their suffocating predicament. Instead of being portrayed as victims who assert their rights and reclaim their dignity, they are characterized as sexual perverts and violent degenerates. In the eyes of their friends and neighbors who accompany them to watch the movie, they appear as abnormal and psychotic individuals. The shame they seek to redress returns in another more insidious form. Their pain has been exploited and their names are defamed.

Released in 2000, Tuhog provides an entertaining and fascinating viewing experience. The glow from the awards that it has reaped shows no hint of fading. It won in the 2002 Urian awards for Best Picture (Regal Films), Screenplay (Armando Lao), Cinematography (Boy Yniguez, Shayne Sarte, Sherman So) and Music (Jay Durias).

Watching the film again is like walking in a hall of mirrors where one sees refracted or fragmented images of characters crisscrossing the boundaries of time and space. Scenes from Perla and Floring’s sordid past are wittily intercut with Violeta and Hasmin’s fictional life. Through Ronald Allan Dale’s sharp and smart editing, the constant shuttle from verisimilitude to pulchritude is playful yet meaty without being condescending or moralizing. The depiction of Perla and Floring’s angst in multiple and often contradicting layers contributes to a knotty perspective which engages the mind and elicits varied responses ranging from amusement to empathy.

With its movie-within-a-film structure, Jeturian’s Tuhog is a showcase of reflexivity transmuted in different levels. Jeturian’s mise-en-scene is a choreography of juxtapositions. The push and pull between the reel and the real is often laid out between certain areas of the screen space or between Floring and Hasmin’s narrative worlds. In one particularly memorable scene, Jeturian displays a fluid and coordinated sense of movement where in the foreground, Hasmin enters the door of her house with Don Ramon (Albert Zialcita), the hacienda boss, looking for Leon, her father, and the camera pans to the right to show Violeta in the background exiting the rear door while dragging Leon’s dead and wrapped body to a nearby well.

In the closing scene of the film (following the sequence where Floring and Perla’s friends give sarcastic comments about their family secret), Jeturian divides the screen into two to mark the simmering conflict between Floring and Perla and their neighbors. We see Floring and Perla huddled protective of each other on the left side of the screen while on the right side their friends and neighbors politely sit and make small talk about the movie and performances of the actors. The uneasy silence that follows the conversation underscores the strained relations between both groups as each side masks their true feelings towards each other, anger on one and scorn from the other side.

In the next sequence, the visual blocking of the dialectic shifts from a horizontal plane to a depth axis where action in the foreground contrasts with the background. A long shot first establishes Perla’s van turning around the Monumento rotunda. The film then cuts to a shot of the van entering and stopping in the foreground of the frame with a close-up of a dazed Florita and Perla. The van then exits frame to reveal in the background a long shot of their film’s giant billboard showing the movie’s characters in a tawdry and seductive pose.

In other scenes, Jeturian seamlessly bridges events in Floring’s past with incidents in Hasmin’s story. In one shot, Floring plays coy with Oca (Raymond Nieva), her lover, who tries to snag a kiss from her. She walks away and stops and stares. In the next shot, we see a naked man bathing in the river who turns out to be Adan (Eric Parilla), the male object of Hasmin’s gaze. Hasmin enters frame and picks up Adan’s clothes and runs away.

The effect in scenes like this is often ironic or parodic. Take for instance the hilarious cuts from the spare documentary look of Perla and Floring’s distressed state to the indulgently sensual and exaggerated smoke-billowing scenes of Hasmin and Adan’s carnal routines. The tongue-in-cheek production design (Ron Henri Tan) and staging in several scenes such as Koronel’s self-conscious wet kamison look and Koronel and Parilla’s acrobatic nude lovemaking in the tree top are spot-on satirical allusions to the pulp and contrived style of bold films prevalent in Philippine commercial cinema at the time the film was done.

In spite of the comic pokes, Jeturian keeps a steady watch on Perla and Floring’s misery. A great deal of this film’s enduring appeal is that satire does not overwhelm sorrow and neither does sorrow wallow in sentiment. Jeturian consistently communicates the claustrophobic environment of his characters by situating several confrontations in the stairways of the houses and in the toilet’s tight space. Sometimes, his actresses are positioned near calendar images of the Blessed Virgin Mary and these underline their characters’ endurance.

As Perla and Floring, Irma Adlawan and Ina Raymundo turn in strong yet restrained performances which reflect in a very nuanced way the silent scream in their hearts. The scene where Raymundo shows Floring’s disgust as she sees herself on the screen being raped by Leon demonstrates Raymundo’s firm thespic control and her keen understanding of her character’s emotional fatigue. Jeturian’s double-take in this specific scene where Hasmin is interchanged with Floring may look like a sleight-of-hand trick done to show off the filmmaker’s dexterity. But the scene is sensitively handled and Floring’s pathos is subtly conveyed.

On the other hand, one can complain that when the action starts to seesaw between the movie and the film, Violeta and Hasmin are given more attention at the expense of Perla and Floring. Perla and Floring seem to hit a plateau in the middle of the film. One would have wished for a more complex progression in Raymundo and Adlawan’s characters towards the end. Be that as it may, this gap does not diminish the film’s impact. Its interrogation of the ethics of representation is intricately and creatively undertaken in the film’s opposing and intertwining strands of motives, values and actions. Years later, Francis Xavier Pasion’s Jay (2008) would still show the circuitous and convoluted character of media ethics.