Friday, December 4, 2020

Lino Brocka | Ang Tatay Kong Nanay (My Father, My Mother)

the drag queen’s son

by Douglas Messerli

Orlando Nadres (screenplay), Lino Brocka (director) Ang Tatay Kong Nanay (My Father, My Mother) / 1978

If one marvels at the buoyancy of the late 20th century Philippine film industry, there are two names that help to explain it: Kidlat Tahimik and Lino Brocka, the later of whom is partially responsible for the surfeit of LGBTQ films still being created in that country.

      Certainly one of Brocka’s central films is his comedy-drama Ang Tatay Kong Nanay (My Father/ My Motheramazingly shot in 1978, an incredibly prolific period for the director, who also filmed Mananayaw, Gumising Ka, Maruja, Hayop sa Hayop, and Rubia Servios among other works during the same year.

     Father/Mother is a somewhat long, almost two hours, and rather discursive work ranging over so many different issues that it alone challenges, long before it was popular to do so, any singular identity of LGBTQ individuals.

      The film begins by suggesting that its central figure, hair stylist Dioscoro Derecho, better known as Coring (played by one of the most popular comedians of Philippine cinema, Dolphy [Rodolfo Quizon]) is a rather haggard drag queen, watching in tears as his friends camp it up and dance out the night. Coring, it seems, cannot get over the abandonment of his previous boyfriend/son/lover Dennis (Phillip Salvador), who after Coring paid for his education ran off to another city, a situation the has its echoes in the character of Bernadette Bassenger (memorably played by Terence Stamp) in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) who lost his young lover Trumpet to the fumes of peroxide.

       Coring’s friends not only mock his inability to enjoy the evening, but gang up in a taxi on their way home to destroy Coring’s one remaining treasure of that relationship, a letter from Dennis. The cater-wauling group, like the rather self-hating and friend-baiting gang of The Boys in the Band—yet another echo of this highly influential film—finally escape in flight as first Coring bails after which the cab driver forces the others to follow.

      After that night on the town one can hardly imagine the somewhat tired but yet talented parlorista he appears to be the next day. Living in the comfortable, if not fashionable house his father left him, he is a community regular despite his flamboyant behavior, celebrated by neighborhood figures who live far more destitute lives than he does.

       But that new day also holds a remarkable new series of events beginning with the reappearance of his beloved Dennis, who has now evidently joined the American navy in order to help support the infant son he carries with him, but whom Coring—so overwhelmed by the homecoming of his beloved protégé—barely notices.

       Dennis, so we discover has unintentionally impregnated a hooker, Mariana Jimenez (Marissa Delgado), who not only soon after left Dennis, but moved on to financially greener grasses. Scheduled for almost immediate duty on a departing ship. the young man abandons the boy, later called Nonoy (Niño Muhlach), to the care of his longing elderly lover.

       Coring can’t say that he hasn’t been warned by his clients, many of whom are also cross-dressers, about the near-impossible odds he will face in raising a young boy, given his lifestyle and the tatty neighborhood in which lives and works. How will he possibly care for the child and work at the same time? What kind of guidance can he offer to a child given his flair for the dramatic and outrageous aspects of life? On his meager wages, how will he pay for a son?

      Much of this film, in fact, is given over to just those questions, with Coring seeking out a strange familial-like support, ways to financially balance his own needs with those of an always growing boy, and his attempt to provide his son with the moral values that might represent a normalization outside of whose boundaries the child’s father has lived throughout his life.

      If the film appears now to reverberate with the pop comedy of a commercial film such as  the 1985/1987 film (Trois hommes et un couffin / Three Men and a Baby), Brocka predictably approaches his work with a far darker tone.

      Coring clearly does not perceive his own life’s trajectory as fitting with the future what that he imagines for the boy, and his gradual toning down of his personality and his unexpected criticism of those in his shop who, in front of the boy, uncontrollably project their queenly personae, loses him customers as well as, we are certain, some of his own self-respect.

     Brocka, presumably, might almost be faulted for his character’s tacit disapproval of high-camp behavior—which is, in itself often a tactic with which to survive the normative, disapproving world in which effeminate homosexuals live—but given the early date of a film confronting audiences with such a wide-range of truly controversial LGBTQ issues, I think it might be prudent to forgive both the director and his screenwriter, Orlando Nadres.

       In the very same year the French-Italian film La Cage aux Folles got around these issues by simply ignoring them, as it were not even an issue worth questioning for a young boy to grow up atop a Saint-Tropez gay drag club with a male drag queen parent, Albin Mougeotte, who with the boy’s blood-father helped raise the perfectly normative heterosexual boy Laurent. Brocka and Nadres quite obviously approach a similar situation more seriously.

   As After Dark critic Noel Vera wrote, in a biographical summary of Dolphy’s career at the time of the entertainer’s death in 2012: 

“If there's any comedy in the picture, unlike with most of Dolphy's movies, the humor arises from character rather than situation, and Dolphy here reveals himself as a superb character actor. Witness his discomfort at dealing with Dennis (the physical attraction he feels so intense he almost feels faint); witness too the growing sense of maternal love he feels for Nonoy, Dennis' child....

     More, there's a handling of homosexuality that is startlingly deft, considering when this was made. Coring doesn't believe in gay empowerment—when Nonoy catches him in drag, he makes excuses; when the boy puts on lipstick (in an attempt to play an American Indian), Coring, misunderstanding, reprimands the boy. Brocka shows us a gay man who fails to transcend his times (Coring believes homosexuality is a flaw—or worse, a sin), who nevertheless does his level best to be a parent to the child; watching Coring bumble along in desperate befuddlement, often against the dictates of his own instincts, creates a complex knot of feelings in the viewer. You feel your heart quietly breaking in sympathy for the man, the same time you find yourself (despite the film's overall serious tone) chuckling in amusement.” 

     The “drag” episode is particularly poignant, as Coring is convinced by his friends to drop his parental duties for just one night and return to perform, as he had in the past, in the notorious “fashion” shows held in local neighborhoods. This event, held in a school playground, attracts   Nonoy simply by its amplified sounds, the child escaping the guard of Coring’s housekeeper to watch, with a mix of curiosity and wonderment, the tacky show in which drag queens march down a small viewing stand replete with emcee (Joey Galvez) before strutting and posing before the appreciate audience below.

     If there is any evidence that the actions with which Coring has been involved for his entire life are societally verboten we recognize it when the police, with clubs raised, suddenly appear in an attempt to close down the event. Coring takes cover beneath a metal-supported bleacher, suddenly discovering Nonoy standing beside him. The look on Coring’s face is one of horror and regretful release, as if all that he has attempted to keep out of the boy’s consciousness has been for naught. 

     Angrily, he pulls the boy out of the rubble of his dream-night and walks him home, his make-up dripping from what are surely his tears of fear and embarrassment. Yet the boy seemingly takes it all with amazing innocent, as if he has just witnessed a special treat, a playful costume party in which men are permitted to dress up as women. It’s a touching scene that reveals, especially by film’s end, the absurdity of Coring’s attempts to hide his own natural proclivities.

      Despite these corrective incidents, however, one cannot imagine a move loving and supportive father than Coring, who clearly dotes on the boy as if he were truly his own child germinated by his long-ago lover.

      All of that changes, however, when Dennis suddenly returns on leave and without warning visits his and Mariana’s son while Coring is at work work. Dennis, as has previously been suggested, is not someone who thinks carefully about his actions, and now basically kidnaps the kid for the day, portraying the boy’s “uncle” as he takes him to an amusement part and buys him small trinkets. 

       Returning home to discover Nonoy missing, Coring and his friends go on a mad search for the boy, who finally shows up with Dennis, a relief and a somewhat sad pleasure for Coring of seeing his “other” son for at least one night. Nonoy watches his uncle leave with some sadness, demanding that he come back for a visit soon.

       This episode creates a major tonal shift in the entire work, as we now discover another, more frightening aspect of Coring’s identity after Dennis, also visiting Marianna, reveals to her their son’s whereabouts.

       Since leaving Dennis the ex-hooker has married a wealthy man whose death soon after has made her wealthy, transforming her into a kind a dictatorial head of household that Marianna might have conjured up from reading about Imelda Marcos—who we might recall was ousted from role as the First Lady along with her Filipino President husband Ferdinand only a year previous to the making of this movie.

       Most of the merry window’s days are now apparently spent redecorating her palatial manor, inspecting it out of fear for any trace of insect or other animal life (even a small turtle leads her into a fury of revenge), and maltreating her numerous staff-members. Delusional, she determines that all she is missing is the presence of her own son.

       While Coring quickly shows her the door after she, too, briefly kidnaps the boy for a shopping spree, he realizes that he will never be able to outwit her lawyers and can never offer Nonoy the opportunities her money represents. Almost sheepishly, he bows to her demands, requesting only that she leave the boy with him for just a little while longer so that he may acclimate Nonoy to the change he is about to suffer.

       If previously any anger that Coring expressed to the boy as out of love, he now appears to scold and even taunt the boy for no obvious reason, refusing to even give him a few coins to buy his bird—a present from Marianna—a small pack of birdseed, and demanding the boy return home when he attempts to display the bird to some of his friends in the street. If at first one might imagine that he is taking out his own anger and hurt upon the child he about to lose, we recognize, more importantly, that he is still attempting to teach the boy to love him a little less. After each angry outburst, the actor Dolphy hurriedly turns away from the camera as if hiding his own bodily pains and subsequent tears for what he believes is his necessary behavior.

      When the transition comes, it does not work well, at least from Nonoy’s point of view. In Marianna’s spotless house he is simply another trinket she has collected who doesn’t fit into her orderly plans of extravagant dinners and late-night parties. The child is refused entry even into her own bedroom, while being given nothing which might truly entertain him in the long empty days he seems confined to the house’s equally empty rooms.

       Refusing to the even eat, Nonoy goes on a kind of personal strike which raises his mother’s ire as she attempts to force him to behave as the model son whom  she has imagined might give her solace and company. The boy runs away, returning home at another moment when Coring is again dressed in drag. But this time he quickly embraces the boy with all his love, Nonoy reporting that he has run away and that if he is sent back he will run away again, ad infinitum, as long as it takes for Coring to once more become his father...or, looking at the man dressed as a woman who stands before him, his mother. And so, with tears flowing from the crossdresser’s eyes, the movie ends much as it began.

     As I wrote about the gentle film above, You Are Not Alone, 1978 was a particularly mean, if fascinating, year when it came to the depiction of LGBTQ people. These two films were notable exceptions, Brocka’s work becoming a touchstone for honest portraits of queer folk for a long time to come.

Los Angeles, December 4, 2020

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (Decembeer 2020).

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