Mum’s the Word
In My Life
Director: Olivia Lamasan
Cast: Vilma Santos, Luis Manzano, John Lloyd Cruz
Shirley walks over to a group of four white sculptures. Her son Mark sheepishly stands beside her. “Father and son, mother and daughter,” she says, pointing to the two pairs of figures. She gestures at her and Mark, the third pair: “Mother and son.” Shirley smiles triumphantly at her seemingly clever parallelisms. “Family! Kaya nga gusto ko dito.” Mark’s lover Noel laughs and takes the photo.
The scene is short, almost forgettable, buried somewhere in a touristic sequence where Mark (Luis Manzano), with his boyfriend Noel (John Lloyd Cruz), shows his mother Shirley (Vilma Santos) around New York City. The white sculptures are George Segal’s Gay Liberation, a site-specific installation in Greenwich Village built in 1980 to commemorate the Stonewall riots which catalyzed the gay rights movement in the US. Shirley, however, is unaware of the monument’s nature, recognizing it only as innocent males and females in a “family.”
It is a small moment, but it signifies Shirley’s dilemma. In real life, like in the monument, she is surrounded by people she considers family, yet has failed to recognize as free individuals. That photo, then, is a psychological family portrait. Shirley is disconnected from her husband, her son, and two daughters. They are the plaster figures in her life: cold, unknowable, but ever-present. Blinded by her own predilections, Shirley has failed to appreciate the deepest desires of her loved ones who, like models for a Segal sculpture, have been smothered, molded and sculpted into a form Shirley sees fit.
Mark and Noel, like their plaster counterparts, are merely suggestive of gay men. They are clearly gay, but they are measly impressions: fleshed out enough to be recognizable, but vague enough to be harmless. Perhaps owing to its Star Cinema origins, we do not see details of Mark and Noel’s relationship. We see the bedroom that they share and the gay bars that they frequent, though we do not see what happens in them. It is ironic that so many homosexual employees contribute to the creative output of institutions such as Star Cinema and ABS-CBN, yet these very institutions are hard put to forward queer narratives. If any, gay representations are always clouded in condescending spectacle (the stereotypical vulgar cross-dresser) or, in In My Life’s case, a censored silence on queer sexuality.
This begs the question: should we expect this kind of progressive view on homosexuality from the mainstream in general and In My Life in particular? Perhaps not. In an industry dominated by conservative values—rooted in the ideal economic feasibility of a G-rated film—In My Life’s gay publicity is simply a ruse, the film’s bid to package itself as daring and sensitive, as is fitting for the Star of All Seasons. Vilma Santos’s comeback cannot be centered on anything but her. The film must project Vilma as a daring actress (and liberal-minded politician) willing to tackle controversial roles, while maintaining her palatable sensitivity as the ordinary matriarch of Anak and Dekada ’70 fame. In My Life, then, is ultimately a film about mothers. Though packaged as a queer film, it is actually a family movie, the much-publicized homosexual angle between Cruz and Manzano just one of the many issues mothers like Shirley have to deal with in these times.
The story is Shirley’s, thus it is framed in a conservative mother’s perspective. Out of love for her son, homosexuality is something she (and in turn, the viewer) must see and acknowledge but not necessarily accept. If Mark and Noel were replaced with a heterosexual couple, Star Cinema would have probably been more willing to include the kissing and love scenes de rigueur for romance flicks featuring characters of Mark and Noel’s age. All we are given, however, is a loving hug and token kiss on the cheek at sundown, which, although very tender, remains starkly conservative, given the breadth of private issues already uncovered about Mark and Noel’s relationship.
The message, it seems, is that homosexuality is so widespread that it is impossible to ignore, to the extent that a top mainstream outfit can risk casting two of its top leading men (“leading man,” of course, being a euphemism for a straight alpha male) in gay roles, yet we are still so reviled and/or ashamed that we cannot even delve into discussing its intimate details without worrying about viewership. The compromise is a homosexual representation that is homo without being sexual.
If there is any lesson to be gleaned from In My Life, it is that the failure of Shirley as a mother is rooted in her limited ideological scope. She is, after all, a typical conservative mother of her time, and holds many of the dominant heteronormative views: motherhood is the ultimate role of women to the detriment of their careers, and men are not meant to fall in love with other men.
Despite this, In My Life is quite a compelling depiction of globalization and how it affects the Filipino family. Throughout her directorial career, Lamasan has been responsible for some of recent mainstream Philippine cinema’s most sensitive and provocative films on the Filipino diaspora. Her stories are clearly grounded on the economic drive for migration—the lack of jobs locally and the increasingly high cost of family living—and how the resulting migrant experience affects us both individually and collectively.
In My Life follows the tradition of films like Sana Maulit Muli (1995) and Milan (2004), which explore the various exigencies of migration in different contexts. Sana Maulit Muli showed the difficulties immigrants face in climbing up the American corporate ladder. Milan had immigrants climbing literally up the Alps, tackling the perils of being an illegal alien in Italy, the economically-grounded collective lifestyle of OFWs and how it fosters infidelity. In My Life raises the issue of marriages of convenience as a tactic for naturalization, and problematizes its effect on queer immigrants.
While it dares to tackle migration and gender, In My Life’s exploration of these issues remains largely limited. A well-calculated mainstream gamble, it stirs controversy but ends in a safe place, daring enough to be talked about but conservative enough to see with your mother. #
Entry filed under: Edgar Allan Paule, Filipino films, Full length films. Tags: aids, gay, gay liberation, george segal, homosexuality, immigrant, in my life, john lloyd cruz, luis manzano, new york, olivia lamasan, queer, star cinema, vilma santos.