Sunday, November 27, 2016

Chris Martinez's "Working Beks" - Cinematic Preponderance and the Gay Men

Okay. Here's a premise that's almost too simplistic to share. But sometimes, people need reminding. Like other homo sapiens, gay men are human beings with their own burdens to carry. In Chris Martinez's "Working Beks", some of these specimen get fishbowl scrutiny. 

The film follows the lives of five gay men within a 24-hour period. Champ Reyno (Edgar Allan Guzman), a matinee idol, figures in a gay video scandal. He’s gone incommunicado and taping for his popular teleserye is put on hold for two weeks. 

After seeing his mother plead on television, Champ resurfaces. His handlers decide to face him off with a veteran investigative journalist (Leo Martinez) for a scripted revelation that would have him admit his romantic affair with perennial screen partner Joy Madriaga (Bela Padilla). But how do you smokescreen a viral video scandal?

Meanwhile, Tommy Sarmento (TJ Trinidad), a marketing executive for a liquor and beverage company, is on tenterhooks. Their company's number one product endorser is missing, but his extracurricular shenanigans might affect sales of their product. More than this, Tommy is gearing up for a well-earned promotion. But he soon discovers that he is being passed up for the position because he is gay. In fact, his homophobic boss detests Tommy’s flaunting of his “alternative lifestyle' - one that involves overachieving children and a supportive partner (Arnold Reyes).

Jet (Prince Stefan), a call center agent, learns that the random stranger he’s recently had unprotected sex with committed suicide upon learning that he’s HIV positive. To make matters worse, Jet has been feeling under the weather, with symptoms that include fever, coughing, malaise and night sweats. Does he? Could he?

Jet's lifestyle is an accident waiting to happen. His promiscuity has him cruising bars, hooking him up with strangers 7-8 days a week. His body is taking the brunt  of it all. He knows he needs to get himself tested. But he realizes that the journey to finding the truth is harder to accomplish.

Gorgeous aka Gregorio (John Lapuz), a cross-dressing food vendor, struggles to support his extended family who all depend on him. His mounting obligations don’t allow him to socialize so he keeps flirtations with a hunky security guard Gardo (Jeric Raval) at bay. Meanwhile, his no-good father (Rez Cortez) is harassing him for a dole out, something that he doesn’t have.  

Finally, Mandy (Joey Paras), a “reformed” gay man, is preparing to march down the aisle with sensitive bride Judith (Cai Cortez) who’s aware of his struggles. Unfortunately, Champ’s sex video provides an inconvenient bump on the road. This temptation is too potent to remind him of his real preferences. As a desperate measure, he enlists the help of his colleague Brother Benj (Atak) to cure him of his homosexual tendencies. In the process, they employ various methods of pseudoscience once believed to avert homosexuality. Would they work or should Mandy just walk away?


Intermittently told in dramedic fashion, the cross-section of characters tackles concerns of the contemporary gay men, and there's considerable amusement to be had. Jet's story particularly rings like a discordant bell. In a society where even "killing" is sanctioned, endorsed and condoned by the authorities and its gutter-minded apologists, moral conventions become moot and academic. 

Killing loses its "illegality" (let's forget the moral grounds) because it is no longer regarded a social taboo. It's an everyday occurence. Weighed alongside these murders, Jet's nihilism seems inconsequential; a non-issue, in fact. What people don't realize is that this moral apathy is gradually rejecting even the very basic social conventions like manners and social grace.

In the movie, Jet finds meaning in his life by filling a vacuumn satisfied by his material desires, leading to an excessive hedonistic lifestyle of shallow sex and loud social events with even louder, if disposable, friends. He congratulates himself for his sexual catharsis that only provides temporary escapism. Unfortunately, Jet represents a steadily growing population of nihilists. 


Champ's dilemma, on the other hand, is a common scenario nowadays. This is a new world that fosters digital voyeurism, that even orgasm is one-click away. People's inherent nature to connect allows others to take advantage, employing the digital media to nefarious use. How many personalities have succumbed to the lure of the watchful and omnipresent video camera? These salacious videos, recorded and even traded for a bigger audience, have willing viewers because people are basically curious and wouldn't want to be left out of the bandwagon. Add into the fray, that dash of superiority of witnessing a person satisfying his most basic urges. 

This is why watching Champ tintinnabulate another guy's genitalia on video isn't too alien a concept. Not anymore. This leaves Mandy's story a bit stale, prosaic. Champ's proud member becomes part of a hundred others, nothing particularly special unless he has a gold-plated schlong the size of a molave branch. If I were Mandy, I'd go watch the video then move on. A mere sex video won't figure in any normal person's decisions - gay or straight. It baffles me why a silly video would make a dent on Mandy's marital plans, to be honest. The most that we should get from his story is its comic proclivities, a pampakwela more than a didactic exposition.  

This takes us to the elements surrounding Mandy's gay exorcism a.k.a. "conversion therapy". The design involves a series of "conditioning" meant to catechize or indoctrinate the mind into believing that homoerotic tendencies are distasteful and aberrant. It should averse the subject.

Thus "aversion therapy" is employed in the form of repetitive mantras ("I love the vagina", "Gay is not okay"); emesis therapy preconditions the subject to throw-up upon application of a visual stimulus, i.e. half-naked men. Then there's the more drastic and invasive electric shock therapy (ECT) employed similarly for schizophrenics and depressives unresponsive to medicine.

These treatments are, of course, considered archaic nowadays and have no scientific basis so it is rather odd that such ridiculous methods find their way in a modern, "educated" comic tale. But let's treat this as an artistic license to mine the comic possibilities. The result is a hit-and-miss affair. It would have been productive if they shortened these episodes in favor of a more grounded, albeit situational approach involving Mandy's surroundings and personal relationships. After all, it should be clear to every half-wit that no amount of rubber band punishment will change one's sexual preference. How do you combat an affliction too deeply ingrained in the genetic composition of a person? Immanuel Kant’s critique on metaphysics and conditioning doesn’t have a place in this diatribe. Surely, you don't psychoanalyze nature nor treat it as a pathological disease.


Among the five characters, it is John Lapus' skillfully depicted and well-limned turn as Gorgeous we find most sympathetic, and for obvious reasons. Gorgeous doesn't deny his cross-dressing nature, and he acts and dresses like one, but this doesn't stop him from working hard for the people he loves. 

Neither does his homosexuality prevent him from becoming a decent person - and a productive member of society. In fact, it is his selflessness that defines him, not his being gay. It is in Gorgeous' story where we find the movie's cinematic worth and beating heart.

Like many Chris Martinez films, "Working Beks" bristles with wit and, in some way, cinematic urgency. Portions of it skid away carelessly, and stereotypical delineations sometimes get in the way of an insightful discourse. Nevertheless, it is a brave effort to showcase stories of the gender-benders otherwise relegated to comic support in mainstream films. While the arc of the narrative doesn't exactly allow it to soar, it is hard to dismiss the film as something less relevant. The stories fleetingly interconnect, but you get a decussatory feel among the characters; that there's a string that pulls them together to fuel cinematic preponderance.


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