- Miss Education
"Mila" is Joel Lamangan and Ricky Lee's long-stem rose tribute to teachers,
a class of people who, when you think about it, are in a class by
themselves. They deal with overcrowded classrooms, wretched school
facilities, a lack of textbooks or teaching materials, an increasingly
illiterate student body, and some of the lowest wages this side of the
poverty line--and that's when they're paid at all. Teachers are the unsung
heroes of Philippine society, and our neglect of them and their cause is one
of the primary reasons why we have our huge underclass, our chronically
stalled economy, our generally ignorant and narrow-minded view of the world.
Teachers, in short, are the perfect subject for a great Filipino film,
and deserve all the attention and praise such a picture can heap upon them.
This, unfortunately, is not that film. It's eventful enough--one teacher is
accused of having a gay lover, another complains of the huge salary
deductions in their wages and mentions an upcoming teacher's strike (problem
and solution in the same breath), and yet another finds herself breaking up
with a violent boyfriend asking for stake money--all in the first ten or so
minutes. Homophobia, low pay, labor unrest, gambling addiction, spousal
abuse--each urgently relevant issue is touched upon with remarkable
efficiency, as if off a checklist. Gradually you wonder if maybe the entire
movie is a checklist of social and political ills presented with remarkable
efficiency and you think: this is going to be a long movie.
The strike proceeds, and Mila (Maricel Soriano) is one of the teachers
involved. Mila is the kind of self-sacrificing teacher Meryl Streep dreams
of playing, because Academy Award voters are suckers for noble melodrama.
She's patient, kind, and generous with her hard-earned money (little enough
as it is); if she has a flaw, it's in her choice of men--but that's more bad
luck than a real flaw. Take her second boyfriend: he's played by Piolo
Pascual as a moist-eyed puppy-dog ten years her junior (the
make-up--designed by James Cooper--does an admirable job of making Soriano
look decades younger). He's handsome, gentle and sweet--who would ever
guess that he was a "shabu" addict?
Yet he is, and the moment Mila learns this is the moment the film really
begins to slide off its tracks. Mila finds an incriminating piece of foil
on the floor and her boyfriend acts like an old maid in a bath
towel--suddenly he's all over her, loudly declaring his purity intact. It
doesn't help matters that Pascual gives a truly terrible performance, all
tics and trembling and copiously dripping sweat. He doesn't seem to have an
idea of how drug addicts talk or think--how the hard cases develop massive,
well-developed defense mechanisms when dealing with people who disapprove,
how they can reach unbelievable levels of intricate playacting or denial
while begging cash for their next hit. He's weak where they are strong,
desperate where they are calm, and ludicrously resigned to his addiction
where they are chillingly sure they can kick anytime. Pascual, in short, is
an embarrassment to addicts, who should sue him for defamation of character.
It's not much longer after this that Mila stops coming back her apartment
and starts living in the streets of Ermita. If this development makes you
want to ask half a dozen questions--well, you're not the only one. Why does
she suddenly want to become a homeless person? It's not as simple as a
change in lifestyle. And why, you ask, does she abandon the teacher's
strike she so passionately supported? Is she disillusioned with the
progress made? I see no evidence of this, no moment of doubt or realization
in her of how useless it is to strike--something Lamangan, who is
sympathetic to the Left, may not have wanted to put in the film. I'm not
saying sympathy to the Left is a crippling attitude artistically
speaking--more power to them and all--but we're still left with Mila's total
lack of motivation for abandoning her friends and residence, which seriously
cripples the movie.
Once settled Mila makes a living by selling coffee, snacks, cigarettes. We
see her teaching one child; by the next scene, she's handling an entire
class, teaching them the alphabet. Where did these children come from? How
did she convince them to come? This is something we've never really seen
before, the spontaneous development of a street-level schoolroom, and it's
interesting enough that we'd like to have one or two scenes showing its
creation. Instead we're treated to the age-old sight of the sidewalks of
Ermita as a three-ring circus, done to death in the films of Brocka and
Bernal, a grotesque or freak sitting at one corner and a standard-issue
Whore with a Heart of Gold wisecracking in the other.
"Mila" is frantic, incoherent, and hey while we're at it, not very original.
If we were to chart the different films that inspired the different parts
of this one, we might call the film "Sister Stella L" by way of "Central
Station," with the ending of "The Flor Contemplacion Story" thrown in for
good measure--a Frankenstein monster of a movie, with footage from other
pictures haphazardly stitched together. And the less said of that ending
the better, with hundreds of marchers, dozens of speakers and a heavenly
chorus attempting to elevate Mila into immediate sainthood.
The less said of the ending the better, but mention has got to be made of
the film's afterword, which states that the story was based on the life of
Ms. Pamintuan, then goes on to say that any resemblance to persons living or
dead is entirely coincidental. This confusion between trying to be honest
and trying to cover one's ass at the same time is actually characteristic of
much of the film, which wants to be both shocking and non-offensive,
realistic yet non-actionable. You might say the film takes its cue from
incumbent Philippine president Ms. Glory Macapagal, who in trying to please
various sectors of society at once (Church, businessmen, middle class, urban
poor among others) only succeeds in offending everyone at once--an Equal
Opportunity Disappointer nonpareil.
Lamangan seems to be hung over from when he was directing "Deathrow"--all
pans and dollies and fast cuts when the film cries out for is a calmer, more
deliberate visual style, with room for the actors to breathe. Ricky Lee
shows the most ease when he's dealing with the street people of Ermita, who
he's written about in films as far back as Lino Brocka's "Macho Dancer."
You can't help noting, however, that the action in "Macho Dancer" is far
more documentarylike and persuasive than anything you see in "Mila," Brocka
having the unparalleled gift of shooting as if his camera were outside the
theater with fresh footage rushed inside as soon as they're developed.
"Macho Dancer" is hardly Brocka's best, but in terms of realism and dramatic
power, it's a far more effective piece of celluloid than "Mila" can ever
hope to be.
A footnote: problematic as the film is, I'd say it's a supreme act of idiocy
trying to give this film a rating of R-18 or "For Adults Only" --there's no
nudity or violence at all in the picture, which does try to teach (if
poorly) the proper values. So what if there's a little cursing? It's
natural, and when you set the action in Ermita (before former Mayor Alfredo
Lim turned it into yet another tourist trap), it's a necessity--whores and
pimps and street children are not known for their verbal tact or reticence.
Once again the MTRCB (yet another of Glory's handiworks) is slapping its
censorious hands over a perfectly normal biological phenomenon (the last
time it was the birth scene in Robert Altman's "Dr. T. and the Women"). It's
as if no one in the board (or in the present administration, for that
matter) has ever let loose a string of insults, or given birth to a child.
Amazing how people so out of touch with daily life are given so much power
to tell us what to see or not to see in our own daily lives.
(Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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