Un-cleanliness is Next to Godliness
Director: Mauro Gia Samonte
Cast: Brigitte de Joya, Rodel Velayo, Odette Khan, Emmanuel Borlaza
There are so many wild contradictions in Mauro Gia Samonte’s mind-boggling Kangkong that frankly, I don’t know where to begin. The film, to describe it in simple terms, is a very strange hybrid of soft porn and religious cinema. And not just the common kind of porn with a religious fetish—it’s actually a serious attempt to describe the difficulties of becoming a priest. So serious in fact that despite its genre and pito-pito aesthetics, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, in its 2001 review of the film, called it “a good story… well worth one’s time and money.”
The first twenty minutes of the film is pure Seiko material—and incredibly funny, I must admit. Pamela (Brigitte de Joya) is a balikbayan lass with a penchant for skimpy clothes. Her fleshy limbs and conyotic twang, paired with a naïveté for rural ways, makes her a prime target for rude sex-starved tricycle drivers. She is saved from harassment by Carlos (Rodel Velayo), a handsome tricycle driver who turns out to be a rich lola’s boy on his way to entering the seminary. Thus begins Pamela’s desire for Carlos—and the temptations which threaten the boy’s divine calling.
The rest of the film is less entertaining, evolving into a righteous melodrama with the occasional racy sex scene. There is quite a good amount of flesh exposure though sometimes in unexpected places, like the close-up of Carlos’s butt while he is being spanked by his controlling grandmother Señora Isyang (Odette Khan, the quintessential kontrabida). Like most of its contemporaries, the film has a very odd theme song, in this case the classic As Time Goes By, which plays over montages, sex scenes and credits.
The gender roles of Kangkong’s characters are curiously skewed, a little off-tangent from the stereotypes soft porn flicks are wont to portray. Pamela is the liberated Stateside girl who is unashamed to show her sexuality and court the guy, yet she also plays the damsel in distress, grateful to Carlos for defending her against thugs. (What the narrative doesn’t explain is why the hell a girl living a comfortable life abroad would go to all the trouble of coming home to the Philippines just to become a magkakangkong.) Other female characters include Eliza, the maid who is determined to use her body to move up the social ladder; Beatriz, the slutty bargirl/carinderia owner who has the hots for Nitoy but is resigned to the fact that she is not the one he wants; and Pamela’s tiya Talia, who is much older (and thus dominant) than her husband and is very vocal about her desire to leave the kangkungan for a better life.
It is strange that Kangkong, being a soft porn flick, is clearly aimed at a male audience, but portrays men as generally subservient, whether towards women or towards the Lord. Carlos is not exactly the hunky male, but rather a submissive sissy boy obedient to his grandmother. The macho male character is his best friend Nitoy, a tricycle driver who is more frank with his sexual needs, yet pessimistic when it comes to love. The oppressor, a role usually reserved for male characters, is Carlos’ grandmother Señora Isyang. The town usurera, she manages most of the town’s businesses and operates a ruthless pawnshop, where she bleeds dry even the smallest of farmers.
Fun and aesthetics aside, the film portrays the Philippine countryside as a feudal landscape. The Philippines is the proverbial kangkungan, a lowly patch of swamp cabbage idiomatically equivalent to the bottom of the barrel (pinulot sa kangkungan), a backward society where landlords and usurers reign, and the Church’s power and conservative moral standards are the norm. The government, in this case the barangay captain, is a mere mute witness to petty squabbles, as opposed to an actual overseer of justice. Homes and livelihoods can be snatched away instantly, hectares of land grabbed over merienda. Farmers are cursed to a perpetual hand-to-mouth existence, helpless against landlords, relying only on the Church or the landlords’ own kindness for any change in their situation. Even Pamela the Stateside girl is crudely feudal—the USA, she says, is a place where she gets to eat hamburgers every day, unlike here where she has to put up with the staple kangkong and rice.
It is easy to trash Kangkong for its cheap production values and awful acting (and lord knows the film deserves it), but it does say a lot about the pervasive provincial sensibility that, while cheap and laughable, remains very much present even in newer productions. How can it not be, when the feudal situation of the countryside has barely changed? Kangkong does not show the Spanish-era kind of feudalism where there is no separation of Church and State. What it shows is a more contemporary semi-feudalism, where the state hardly exists, and conservative-minded landlords rule the land. With such a dire context, it is no wonder that characters look to God for deliverance.
The most striking thing about Kangkong is that while the film denounces Señora Isyang’s greed and corruption, Kangkong is quick to defend sexuality, saying that it is only normal, an expression of love. Sex, however gratuitous, is not the most immoral thing—it is greed.
Convoluted as the film may be, there’s something to gain in a serving of Kangkong.#
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My favorite Kangkong scene
Forgive me, but I couldn’t help posting a transcript of the scene I enjoyed most:
EXT./INT. PALENGKE. DAY.
Nitoy and Carlos drop Eliza off at the market, near Beatriz’s roadside food stall. Nitoy tells Carlos of his apprehension that Carlos might be having the hots for Eliza. Carlos, laughing, reassures his friend—and his faith.
CARLOS: (To Nitoy.) Bro, kung nasa puso mo si Jesus, ‘di ka tatablan ng demonyo!
NITOY: Kunsabagay, demonyo kung makapang-akit sa’kin si Eliza. Hawak pa lang ng kamay nya e kumukurot na puson ko!
Nitoy walks over the various viands being served in Beatriz’s carinderia.
NITOY: Ano kayang masarap dito?
BEATRIZ: (Matter-of-factly.) Ako!
Beatriz walks over to Nitoy.
BEATRIZ: (Caressing Nitoy’s face.) Hahabol-habol ka kay Eliza, hindi ka naman pinapansin. Samantalang eto ako, pwede mong lamunin. (Pauses.) Nang buung-buo.
NITOY: Beatriz, gutom lang ng puson yan. Ang gutom ko kay Eliza, gutom ng puso. (Looks back at the viands.) Dito muna tayo sa pampabusog ng tiyan!
BEATRIZ: Call din ako diyan! ‘Yan daw tiyan ang pinakamalapit na daan papunta sa puso ng isang lalaki. (Ladles some porridge into Nitoy’s bowl.) Gusto mong tikman ang arroz caldo ko? Maineeeet… (Hovers her breasts near Nitoy’s face.) Bagong ligo…. este, bagong hango.
NITOY: (Takes a whiff of Beatriz’s bosom.) Bagong ligo nga, este, bagong hango.
Nitoy begins to eat his arroz caldo.
BEATRIZ: Gusto mo ng chicken breast? (Smothers Nitoy’s face with her breasts.) Chicken leg? (Raises her leg on a table.) O chicken ass?
She bends over suggestively, giving Nitoy a full view of her derriere.
BEATRIZ: At siyempre… kasama ako. (Shakes her ass seductively.)
Cut to the next scene, where Carlos is at the church, talking to Jesus while cleaning up the altar, humming praise songs to himself. A great, very cheeky editorial decision, I must say. Sabi nga ni Brigitte de Joya (her most famous line na nasa trailer pero wala sa pelikula mismo), “I like… Khangkohng!” #
Entry filed under: Edgar Allan Paule, Filipino films, Full length films. Tags: brigitte de joya, church, emmanuel borlaza, feudalism, kangkong, mauro gia samonte, odette khan, religious, rodel velayo, soft porn.