Remembering Mario O’Hara: The Laws of Authority, the Bible and Nature in the Brocka-O’Hara Films

Last week, screenwriter, actor, and director Mario O’Hara passed away from leukemia. Describing O’Hara’s passing as a “final curtain” only because it is fitting wordplay for a cinematic figure’s death is heartfelt but absurd. All it takes is to witness the moving, breathing young O’Hara as Berto the leper, or, track O’Hara’s stepping out from behind the scenes and back in, and it seems necessary to force the “final curtain” from closing abruptly for the sake of a platitude. For this post, I’ll be looking at two popular Brocka-O’Hara films in which, alongside director Lino Brocka, O’Hara was the principal
screenwriter: Tinimbang Ka ngunit Kulang (1974) and Insiang (1976).

THE LAW OF AUTHORITY

The films Tinimbang Ka ngunit Kulang (from here on called TKNK) and Insiang were released not long after Martial Law was established in 1972. A generational barrier may cause us to think that compared to the more explicitly political Brocka-Lacaba films, these two films were either a pastoral ode to the lives urban immigrants had left or simply ‘the city as the graveyard of dreams’ in which ‘promdis’ were swarming maggots.

But to place these films in its historical context is to see the violence of its constraints: a period of brutal censorship and the suffocation of freedom mockingly fronted by Imelda Marcos’s parading of ‘the true, the good and the beautiful’. Leftists retreated into the countryside, not only for their sorrows to be absorbed into the calloused but welcoming hands of a more idyllic Philippines, but in the Maoist belief that people’s warfare was born from the countryside, and to understand the sentiments of the peasantry is to understand where the real struggle lies.

Insiang may not have fit the archetypal rural setting of farmlands as it was set in Tondo, but without overt portrayals of city life, the setting was instead a closed ecosystem wherein social dynamics were the most prominent variable. In the film, the cityscape and the vehicular traffic fall away to reveal the bare bones of a community and subverts it further. The film posited the failures of a town’s social structure when transplanted into the city– and O’Hara’s public dialogue acts as a microlens to see where it cracks and floods. In a sense, the ‘town’ in Insiang is placeless– carrying the characteristics of urban density, but, much like rural towns, of a community built on bamboo and gossip.

With the gloating presence of state control in the city contrasting the expanse of rural flatlands or the alienating density of slums, you can see that these two films are both allegorical and realist, posturing an idea that clashed with Imelda’s modern Athens (she despised these films). Between artists and the state was a less than subtle game of apophasis.

An abortion. A slaughterhouse. For those who danced at the edge of Martial Law, the wrong step could set off a cliff dive of muffled mouths and murder. The two Brocka-O’Hara films both allude to the regime’s oppression, shocking the system by first shocking their unguarded audiences. TKNK opens to the middle of an abortion of a woman at the hands of a ruthless midwife. The cries of the woman resisting the violation of her body is stunted by a thick palm over her mouth and hands tying her down. Similarly confronting, Insiang starts with the anguished squeals of a line of upturned pigs in a slaughterhouse, in the process of being killed for mass human consumption. Beyond being suggestive of women’s rights and animal rights, an overarching point is being made to blanket the demise of social causes of the time: the artistic language needed to practice the code of allusion in a time where everything can no longer be said. The opening scenes spoke for all the issues that couldn’t be mentioned when it spoke of Martial Law.

THE LAW OF THE BIBLE

Both films carried the weight of holy law as though the bible were the ultimate judge to which everyone’s ankles were bound. It is suggested by the title, translated as “weighed but found wanting”, taken from a phantom finger (interpreted by Daniel to be a message from God) that wrote the inscription ‘mene, mene, tekel, upharsin’ during the excessive feast of Belshazzar. The suffocating presence of Christianity creates an almost universal moral cheat sheet from which stones can be cast.

From childhood, we are conditioned to typify biblical characters in order to understand the moral lesson of each story. Learning what kind of disease ‘leprosy’ has never been necessary for so long as we equated this with social exclusion. In a similar vein, O’Hara uses these biblical tropes to ease us into a multi-pronged plot whereby we were shown the politics of a conservative rural town, the growing relationship between the two outcasts, and the conflicts between these  two worlds.

Throughout the film, we see Junior, the son of a womanizer and a nagging housewife, trying to find his place within the town. He grows increasingly sympathetic of the towns two outcasts, and as they come together, he becomes a weak protector who slowly learns not only to remove himself as a pawn of town gossip and tries, following his own form of self-righteousness to battle it.

TKNK reveals the machinery of town gossip to be one that cleans its shiny, God-fearing exterior from the build-up they sought to banish: Kuala the ‘barrio baliw’ and Berto the leper. Berto the leper, with a rattle in his hand, ‘trains’ Kuala to come home to him, at first for sex and company, but later for love and protection within a makeshift Eden far away from the jeers and shoves of the townsfolk. The town’s aversion to social disease pushed its castaways out, but only for it to implode inwards as a consequence. In the process, however, the black and white of right and wrong is eroded by the gray area of intrigue, hypocrisy and prejudice. When gossip spreads about Berto impregnating Kuala, the town riots to save not Kuala the outcast, but their own morally superior souls in the eyes of an apparently prejudiced God (‘prejudice’ in that the townsfolk take it upon themselves to believe Berto is one of the untouchables, and his social nonadmission is okay by God). However, the lead, played by a young Christopher de Leon, emerges as the Jesus figure that corrects moral over-ambition with the open heart and mind that the New Testament exists for.

THE LAW OF NATURE

O’Hara’s screenplays are in a way, an overthrowing of the ‘perfect family aspiration’ from its throne as an ideal core unit– and if the family should at all be ‘the core’. Similar to Kuala in TKNK, Insiang is a protagonist driven to madness out of an isolating innocence exaggerated by a traumatic experience. Her mother, embittered by her husband’s abandonment, yields her sharp tongue and takes it out to stab anyone who should so reach out to her, especially to her young daughter Insiang, whose maternal love has just reached its breaking point. Fronting as the antagonist, her mother’s young boytoy, Dado is a stranger turned surrogate father whose ‘caring’ advances towards Insiang are nothing but incestuously perverted. Unable to convince her mother, her boyfriend and her best friend, and unable to turn around the influence of town gossip, she caves in, staking her ‘rightful’ claim in the love triangle and spins it into its carnal end.

Is the family necessarily society’s core unit? Was it for Junior, who later finds out that his father was the Cesar who forced Kuala’s abortion and drove her to consequent madness? Was it for Insiang, whose mother takes the word of her boytoy Dado in a heartbeat, turns on her own daughter who claims that Dado, the outsider, raped her? It appears that the family is a failed core, and that the real core unit of society is town gossip. Berto the Leper and Kuala were separated to their deaths because of town gossip. Insiang and her mother were driven further apart when the news of the love triangle broke out. Of course, in real life this sounds preposterous. But the idea that gossip could be the core unit in these two films in itself is another allusion: with powerless protagonists not allowed free speech and with society unable to access information beyond lies and hearsay, the blackout sounds frighteningly similar to the politics of the day.

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