Saturday, June 27, 2020

Crisaldo Pablo | Bilog (Circles)


tomorrow may be different
by Douglas Messerli

Crisaldol Pablo (writer and director) Bilog (Circles) / 2005

The poster for Filipino director Crisaldo Pablo’s 2005 film Bilog (Circles) looks as if it was one of the counterfeit porno films that the hero of the work, Cris (Archie de Calma) daily sells—along with candies, perfumes, fruit, beaded necklaces, and even crude drawings of wedding dresses, in fact almost anything anyone visiting the vast Quezon Memorial Circle in Quezon City of Metropolitan Manila might desire, including desire itself.
     The somewhat corn-ball structure of this film—at the beginning of the movie, Chris has just been robbed in a jeepney he is riding by men who are now each holding knives to this throat; and throughout the rest of this rather longish work, he  re-imagines his last few days to help him explain why this is happening to him, certain, he believes, to be his last moments on earth—doesn’t exactly allure us into the film we’ve just begun. And along with the poor visual quality of the cinema itself, and its fast-shifting repertoire of a vast number of characters perhaps explains why mine will be apparently the first and only review for a while of this work in the US.
     Yet, Pablo’s film is so much complex and dramatically significant than all of these simple flaws that one also wonders why this film has not become a kind of underground cult favorite. In Chris’ world, fruit sellers, business-men-and-women out to enjoy the nearby park’s deep shadows, prostitutes, both male and female, who hide in the depths of the park, and just plain naïfs having just arrive in the Philippine capitol directly from small isolated communities, as well as numerous others come together to ignore or encounter one another.
      Moreover Chris is not just a simple con-man carrying his large canvas bag of tricks, but is determined to help these individuals find housing, love, and acceptance in a world where such tangibles and intangibles are nearly impossible to find. For a small percent on a loan, he’s ready to personally take on one of the earliest country boys whom he rubs against, the beautiful Deo (Keno Alejandro), who has followed a smart and savvy female social activist to the city,  personally escorting him to a kind of flea-bag dormitory, where men live three to a room, sharing bathing kits (which consist of little but a pan and soap) and even bed-space.
       Yet, Chris has knowingly bedded this new straight boy with two gay men, in particular the serious-minded Rod (Rudolph Segundo), negotiating a smaller rent for Beo with the hope, it appears, that he may one day have sex with him. Yes, Chris is gay, but not the handsome young men with whom he surrounds himself without ever throughout the film being able to fulfill his desires. As Pablo’s closing theme song puts it (with lyrics by Pablo and music by Ato del Rosario): “I’ve gotten used to failed relations.” Yet, for all of Chris’ seeming cynicism, the same song ends “Tomorrow may be different.”
       Throughout the film we see Chris interacting with dozens of individuals, often taking advantage of them or simply accepting their dismissals of his peddling services; yet he knows a broken heart or, just as importantly, one soon to be broken when he sees it, and is often willing to zip up his bag of tricks and work, often without a fee, to help fan the flames of desire.
      One such figure whom he takes under his wing, is Rod, who has put his own life—and his gay sexual urges—on hold while he works as a office boy for a company head who later, as has a recent government communique, openly remarks that fags are a true danger to the society. He works in a world from which he has locked himself away, rejecting the temptations  every desire and sex, or even a simple beloved mango for breakfast, so that he can save up enough money to send it back home to help out his ailing brother (who eventually dies of stomach cancer), his other brothers and his mother and father, none of whom, he suggests, seem to be able to care for themselves.
      Chris argues that he should at least release his forbidden desires once in a while, if not daily. With Rod eventually does when Deo, discovering that the girl of his dreams—who incidentally has tried to make him realize that there can be no relationship between the two of them—seeks consolation, after Chris clears the room of the other boarder and any want-to-be voyeurs, in intense sex with boy.
      When Deo himself becomes a kind of apprentice-activist, the story focuses on others of Chris’ friends and enemies, the latter of whom keep him out of the house they own and away from visiting other clients. The friends seem increasingly to made up of male prostitutes who find clients in the park or, when it closes at midnight, on the street.
       One of the most handsome of them is Paolo (Rezíven Bulado), who has apparently contracted AIDS, and who a couple of times Chris saves from jumping from freeways and other dangerous spots. Paolo, however, eventually enters the park late at night, strips off his clothes, and from the top of one of the park buildings, jumps to his death.
       At other times, the entire community, fruit sellers and gay boys equally, are accosted by police raids, one of which leaves one of the seller’s young daughter almost dead as, left alone after the police have arrested her mother, she wanders out into traffic. She is saved by a local doctor.
       Yet good things also begin to happen. A doctor who daily comes to the park on her lunch break, reencounters her former lover, who has everyday since she has rejected him returned to the same spot with the belief that eventually she will return; their love is reignited.  
       Two warring mango sellers, forced to rush away from yet another police raid, help each other, one knowing of a place where they might temporarily hide with their wares. Simply out of appreciation for the help of the other, the least comely of the two women unexpectedly kisses the other seller, who admits that she rather liked the kiss, hinting that these to former enemies may become lesbian lovers.
        Deo again runs across the joyless Rod, and tells him of his love for him, and his desire to again have sex.
        Even Chris is “saved,” as a wedding dress obviously meant for one of his would-be customers, which has floated out of the jeepney in which he is being held captive, is spotted by some of his customers and protégés who quickly catch up with the jeepney and demand that the doors be opened, allowing for his escape.
       Pablo’s film, filled as it is by lost souls, also reveals that just the smallest bit of love and dreaming for them changes everything. As poor and desperate as most of these individuals are, “tomorrow may be different” as they circle round one another in search of their desires.

Los Angeles, June 27, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2020).

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