Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Mother's Story - Accountable Tragedies

The Filipino migrant worker has embraced the concept of 3D jobs, an American neologism that refers to “Dirty, Dangerous and Demeaning”. These jobs bring higher wages due to a shortage of willing qualified workers. Such employments engage in high risk, low status works. What’s baffling, some of these people aren’t even paid all that well.

Medy Santos (Pokwang) is desperately coming up for air. Her dubiously invalid husband Gerry (Noni Buencamino) refuses to work, and has turned to gambling; even their utility budget gets usurped. When Medy gives birth to her second child, she only had herself to turn to. Moreover, her mother (Daria Ramirez) constantly nags her to find a job abroad. The road to riches is nowhere found on local shores. When an actress offers Medy the chance to work with her for her 10-day U.S. tour, she reluctantly grabs the opportunity and leaves the care of her children to her mother and best friend (Ana Capri).

One serendipitous day, she meets Helen (Beth Tamayo), her erstwhile childhood best friend who has left a daughter in Manila, but has since remarried to an elderly American. She tries convincing Medy to stay and find her fortune there, at the risk of earning an illegal status. The day before her flight back to Manila, Medy gets a distressed call from Gerry. Queenie (Xyriel Manabat), her youngest, was rushed to the hospital and she had to send money – fast! It wasn’t even considered that she was coming home the next day.

En route to the airport, Medy is circumspect – and swiftly detours away. She decides to stay. After all, coming home seems like a dead-end option for dearth. And her children need to feed, go to school, see doctors. With Helen’s help, Medy takes odd jobs helping out at a children’s class. But as days pass, it becomes clear that illegal immigrants enjoy paltry rights, thus couldn’t earn more than they should. Helen offers her a better paying job (try $800) – that of a live-in house keeper in a household of a constantly squabbling lawyer couple. What’s worse, they take her passport and throw her in an otherwise nonhabitable room. She isn’t allowed to leave the premises except the occasional foray outside to put out the garbage.

For the next couple of years, Medy lives her miserable days oppressed and mistreated. Her only link to the world outside is Helen who runs errands for her, sending money to Medy’s family and dropping her Balikbayan boxes. But Medy gradually unearths a ruse: Helen receives a considerable percentage of the money she earns. With hands mashed by manual labor and a crumbling soul, Medy – with the help of her employer’s daughter – finds the courage to escape. Will Medy succeed?

Medy’s story is a cautionary tale of courage and perseverance, and it’s obvious that this will resonate loudly among Filipinos whose fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters work overseas. But this tale of heartbreaking quandary is showing interminable urgency. We’ve lived with this for three decades and we’ve grown accustomed to such humdrum tragedy. The plot gets more tiresome when Medy – after seven years – finds her way home. Suddenly, the mouths she’s been feeding turn against her. She’s suddenly the neglectful mother to her idiotic son King (Rayver Cruz). Her sickly daughter (Manabat) doesn’t know her. Her mother just stares with woeful I-told-you-so’s when she complains of her children’s apparent alienation (“Pitong taon kang nawala.”). Gerry, her husband, wouldn’t even meet her at the airport.

Though there is a degree of diversion in Medy’s story, you couldn’t help shake the excessive complot to weave a story as deplorable, almost disconsolate – nothing short of calamitous – as Medy’s. Many of the characters are caricatures and cardboard depictions – like Medy’s American employers, husband Gerry, Medy’s son King, – you are somehow taken to the world of Walt Disney where anti-heroes look like villains, growl like devils and move with sinister deportment. Such is the failure of this narrative, where black is black and white is white. Life, if you’ve noticed, has gray hues in between, and blotches of colors and shades. This is why Beth Tamayo’s performance lends a degree of inscrutability for this cinematic vehicle. Tamayo tempers her underwritten part with due restraint; it’s hard to peg her as friend or foe. Like most people, Tamayo shows reflections of humanity – actions guided by motives, yet there’s also the inherent goodness grappling with moral dilemmas (she has gambling problems; her marriage is falling apart; she needs to send money for her daughter back home). Tamayo luminously shines in 2012’s first local release!

Pokwang tries hard as Medy, and it’s easy to empathize with someone who has experienced the hardships of being a migrant worker. She has probably endured more than Medy (didn’t she lose a daughter while working in Japan?) Unfortunately, Pokwang peppers her performance with sprinkles of humor which don’t quite make the grade. (“Aatend ng kombulsyon sa Amerika.”) It was an artistic choice to lighten what’s a decidedly sappy narrative, but such moments feel displaced. The more glaring realization is that we’re watching Pokwang play herself. That isn’t so bad, but not all that good either.

It’s hard not to challenge some illogical choices in director John-D Lazatin's narrative. King, the character played by Rayver Cruz, Medy’s eldest child, is particularly perturbing. If he was indeed intelligent as the story has him, wasn’t it ever an issue that his father was merely posturing as an invalid? Was Gerry sitting in a wheelchair? Yes, he limped, but that never stopped people from finding work. Heck, people with greater physical disabilities – polio victims, amputees – even become lawyers and doctors. Wasn’t it crystal that if there were one negligent parent; it would readily single out the patriarch who refused to seek work? And wasn’t it the grandmother’s métier to educate her grandchildren why their mother chose to stay away? Or was she merely happy to receive her monthly stipend? She was the moving force behind her daughter’s migration. These were obvious lapses in the story. You may drop a tear or two, but at the back of your mind, you knew you’re riding the perfunctory mechanics of melodrama. And it helps that Dodgie Simon penned such a heart breaking melody in Carol Banawa’s “Sakaling Malimutan Ka”.

Life sometimes reeks of tragedy, and we’re accountable for half of it.

Helen and Medy

Employers from hell

Mother and daughter share light moments

Son King blames mother Medy

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