Memories of Underdevelopment
Director: Roni Bertubin
Cast: Joseph Izon, Andrés Alexis Fernandez, Boots Anson-Roa, Tommy Abuel
On the surface, Roni Bertubin’s Lovebirds is a lighthearted romantic comedy, filled with trite-and-tested tidbits characteristic of the genre. Mario (Joseph Izon) is a closeted mama’s boy in the province. When his Spanish cyberfriend Alexis (Andrés Alexis Fernandez) flies to the Philippines to meet him, the forward-thinking foreigner’s presence challenges the backward community’s beliefs. His conservative mother Amelia (Boots Anson-Roa) freaks out at her son’s apparent homosexuality, and tries to nip the fledgling relationship in the bud. Mario and Alexis fight for their love, of course, and the story ends, like all rom-coms, with a wedding—or at least something resembling it, because obviously, the gay marriage battle is far from won.
In spite of the conventions, however, Lovebirds manages to paint a thoughtful picture of why homosexual relationships are so difficult for Filipinos like Mario. Indeed, more than just the topical boy-meets-girl (or in this case, boy) scenario, Lovebirds is a film about underdevelopment in both the private and public spheres.
Stunted development is a consistent theme throughout the film, whether in story, milieu or production design. Mario’s family lives in a sprawling house that speaks of relative affluence, fully furnished, complete with gardens and fountains and undergoing expansion—yet the whole house remains startlingly unpainted, the walls made of bare cement. On a broader scale, the mansion/hacienda stands amid fishpens and small farms, in a place which leaves roads unpaved but can afford high-speed internet, a speck of prosperity amidst an undeveloped rural landscape.
On a narrative level, Lovebirds is basically a coming-of-age story that happens not among adolescents, but between adults. Mario, though obviously a fully-grown man, is the little mama’s boy till the end. Like a teenager, he is at a point in his life where his dreams are vague, his mother controls him, his gender is in crisis, and he is fumbling through his first real relationship.
A stunted homosexuality and a stunted relationship, an underdeveloped mansion in an underdeveloped province in an underdeveloped nation. Why all this underdevelopment? Lovebirds presents us with some hints. The Spanish-Philippine connection, for one, is a not-so-subtle nod to the country’s colonial past. It was the Spanish, after all, who imposed onto the populace the conservative Catholic morality—and with it, homophobia—which dominates the country to this day. Centuries of white rule also shaped the popular notion of beauty, which put a premium on Caucasians and their features. (“Pare, ang swerte mo nga e, foreigner ang makakadevirginize sa’yo,” Mario’s best friend Tonton tells him. “E ako nga e kung sinu-sino na lang diyan, e.”)
The colonial domination is reflected in the household dynamics at Mario’s home, where the matriarch Amelia is the dominant figure. “Not in my house,” she always tells her son, forbidding in her home sexual relations in general, and Mario’s homosexuality in particular. This repressive environment is the reason why Mario’s only dream, according to his father Celing (Tommy Abuel), is to leave his mother’s house and flee to Manila. Which brings us to another colonial relationship—imperial Manila as the space of freedom and land of promise, as opposed to the backwardness and repressiveness of “the province” (in this case, Laguna), a blanket term for “everywhere else.” Manila, Mario thinks, is a place where dreams can come true, where far from his mother, gays can be gays. (Of course, this is not necessarily the case, but that is up to Mario to discover.)
General ideological sensibilities, though not absolute, are sketched out with a clever demarcation as the story begins. On the day Alexis arrives, the main characters’ costumes are polar opposites. The more liberal Mario and Alexis are dressed in modern polo shirts, while the conservative welcoming committee, Amelia, her submissive husband Celing and her sidekick Marietta, are clad in traditional formal attire. Later that evening, as Celing professes his support for his son’s wishes, he berates Amelia for making him wear the “itchy” barong tagalog, a metaphor for the old-fashioned mentality his wife espouses.
In the end, Amelia realizes her mistake and accepts her son’s happiness. “I now pronounce you husband and husband,” she says tearfully, giving her blessings to the couple. What follows is a very interesting sequence—the “honeymoon” in the house’s most sacred marital bed—which appears clichéd and superfluous at first, but is actually a thought-provoking commentary. Still giddy with their newfound freedom, Mario and Alexis make love on the four-poster bed, romantically styled with scattered rose petals, sheer white curtains, and candlelight. What is interesting is that we see a close-up of a birdcage—a welcoming gift to Mario from Alexis—on the bedside table, after which we see, behind the curtains, the naked bodies of the two lovers.
This loaded transition suggests that the story has not really come to an end. Mario and Alexis may have gotten the family’s approval, but they aren’t exactly free yet. As they make love, we see their cage, their bodies confined in a sheer prison of crisp white drapes. There remains the cage that they themselves created inside of them, a veil of secrecy, the vestiges of homophobia within that they could not shirk off that easily. Even the lovebirds that they conjugally take care of and symbolize them as a couple are named Romeo and Juliet, a sign of the inappropriately heterosexual framing (who’s the girl, who’s the boy in the couple?) which still plagues many gay relationships.
But that is another battle altogether. What is important is that they have overcome their initial conflicts. Upon moving to Manila, they can now tackle the next big contradictions in their lives, among them the more sophisticated dynamics of homophobia in the cosmopolitan metropolis. It is the step forward that counts.
“Stand up for yourself,” Alexis says, urging Mario to fight out his own battles. You cannot change your situation without a change in your conditions. Colonialists were driven out by organized Filipino movements, haciendas gradually dismantled and land redistributed by peasants’ collective struggles, parents slowly relent when their children fight for their freedom and fulfillment. Perhaps homophobia will be eradicated when homosexuals link arms and begin to stand up for themselves. Whether out of love, by charm, or by force, someone has to let go so that others may be freed.#
*apologies to Tomás Gutiérrez Alea.
Entry filed under: Edgar Allan Paule, Filipino films, Full length films. Tags: andrés alexis fernandez, boots anson-roa, cyber, gay, gay film, interracial, joseph izon, lovebirds, queer, roni bertubin, spain, tommy abuel, underdevelopment.