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By Noel Vera

I REMEMBER watching Takaw Tukso (directed by William Pascual, written by Armando Lao) in a wretched 16 mm print years ago: the film would skip and skitter, and jump (it seemed) entire scenes. Had the vague notion that Boy (Gino Antonio) married Debbie (Anna Marie Gutierrez), and later Nestor (Julio Diaz) married Letty (Jaclyn Jose); also had a notion that Anita Linda played Boy’s mother Aling Conching, but just what happens to her by story’s end I was not all that clear.

Gino Antonio / Anna Marie Gutierrez / Julio Diaz / Jaclyn Jose

What was clear was four extremely attractive people lusting after each other, husband for wife and vice versa — though not necessarily husband for his legally married wife (or vice versa); four young men and women coupling in a variety of combinations and positions, scratching an itch they can’t quite reach. By the time of the film’s violent climax (at least I thought it was violent — the print wasn’t very legible by this point) I came away with the impression of a compelling chamber drama, set in a house beside a small auto repair shop in one of the less affluent neighborhoods of Manila — Bergman transposed to Southeast Asia, all sweaty and squalid and begrimed.

Having again seen the film in reasonably complete form, I can’t say my impressions were off the mark, just incomplete. It’s a marvelously nimble little melodrama touching on the social rules among and between the sexes back when we recognized only two; on the natural trajectory of people subject to the pressure-cooker conditions of the lower middle class (with their accompanying expectations, aspirations, affectations) — in a word: unhappy. Bergman, I imagine, would have approved.

I’d also call it a clever little study on how the human character works out its problems under differing circumstances. Debbie is a spoiled brat, unhappy with her at times tyrannical, at times selfish mother (Eva Darren), who vaguely sees her (when looking at her at all) as a potential sexual rival (shades of Brocka’s Insiang, only Lao’s script moves quickly moves past the initial similarity); Boy is equally spoiled, lackadaisically studying for his commerce degree with his tuition paid for by his mother — at first glance the newly married couple seem perfect for each other, until Aling Coching makes it clear that she hates Debbie for entrapping her son, and expects the young bride to do much, if not all of the housework.

Aling Coching supports her son but holds unspoken affection and respect for Nestor, the nephew she adopted who has become the shop’s best mechanic. Nestor is the eternal outsider looking in, envious of Boy’s relatively higher social status (the family was comfortably middle-class until the father’s death), grimly conscious of what he earns day by day, with each head lamp bulb replaced, each valve scoured, each engine painstakingly reassembled (he even on occasion collects the payment for repairs).

Letty is arguably even more of an outsider — poor and a woman. She loves Nestor, but Nestor is dating Debbie; when Debbie, after a spat with her mother, runs away with Boy, the two are hurriedly married, with Nestor in the uncomfortable position of living in the same house with his former girlfriend, now wife of his employer, cousin, best friend. What does poor abandoned Letty do? Get impregnated — by Nestor no less. The four live under Aling Conching’s roof, in a tense little dance around past and each other, the severe tin-and-concrete walls encircling them physically and emotionally.

Pascual enhances Lao’s script by having the camera come close in, emphasizing the cramped quarters (production design by filmmaker Dante Mendoza); when couples make love the women are often backed into corners while the men surge forward, brown buttocks pumping away. The few times a couple has sex outdoors it’s night and we see them in long shot, the surrounding darkness (shadows and light provided by cinematographer Joe Tutanes) a blessed liberating relief.

As Debbie, Anna Marie Guiterrez is all arched brows and elfin mischief; her scheming after Boy when she’s dating Nestor is what started all the complications in the first place, and, alas, when she realizes marriage only elevated her to the status of glorified housekeeper, she goes on scheming, manipulating, prodding others this way and that, trying to find the right mixture of people and circumstances that will allow her that impossible moment of perfect happiness in her life.

“…two widows whose lives have been so inextricably, bitterly linked with literally nothing to say to each other.”

Jaclyn Jose as Letty has the less showy yet braver role, as Debbie’s undesirable ugly-duckling best friend (though calling her “undesirable” and “ugly” is a stretch, she is a skilled actress) with the near-impossible challenge of making Letty’s simple unalloyed love for Nestor interesting. She does so with an intense, open directness.

Julio Diaz as Nestor keeps his balance between heedless libido and watchful caution: on one hand he wants what he lost, now tantalizingly within reach, on the other he’s wary of his position in the household — despite Boy’s trust and Aling Conching’s affection, he knows what their reaction would be if he should ever turn on them.

Gino Antonio’s Boy is perhaps the simplest character with the most interesting twist: a passive weakling who, when faced with pressure (in this case unpaid bank debts), buckles easily; he’s never had to stand on his own, and his unthinking response only leads to disaster. How then, Lao carefully poses the question to us, might Boy react to the prospect of infidelity?

I see two main weaknesses to the film: the 1980s convention of slow leisurely sex with a saxophone playing in the background hasn’t aged well; Pascual apparently hasn’t bothered to integrate some of these sequences into the film’s dramatic arc (not that I mind — far from it — but viewing the narrative as a narrative and not an excuse to string a series of softcore sex scenes together, it’s distracting). The second weakness I find more serious: the film fails to find that extra something — a motif perhaps, or an overall look — to elevate it beyond being a well-made visualization of an excellent script.

The climax (skip this paragraph if you plan to see the film) happens suddenly, the way most violent confrontations go… but there’s sudden and then there’s sudden — a slow-motion sense of impeding disaster as you pump your brakes uselessly and your wheels skid sideways vs. a surprise collision with little impact because you haven’t been adequately prepared. The film’s climax seems to be of the latter sort; while you know Boy is capable of violence (to Debbie for one) and you know he’s aware of Nestor’s betrayal, you’re not sure why he chooses that particularly moment to confront Debbie, nor have you been persuaded he can be violent to Nestor (a cousin and friend from childhood — and a man capable of defending himself). Pascual redeems himself considerably (if not completely) with what follows: the camera roving over the desolation that was the repair shop, accompanied by a tolling bell, later the women meeting at the graves of their respective husbands, two widows whose lives have been so inextricably, bitterly linked with literally nothing to say to each other. Presumably the censors board had insisted on adulterers and murderers being punished (while allowing us to enjoy all the sex and violence they commit) — the same censors that had insisted on changing the ending to Mario O’Hara’s Bagong Hari (The New King), released earlier that same year.

That said, the fact that one feels the film’s failures keenly actually speaks well of Lao’s script, the cast’s performances, and Pascual’s overall directing — that it’s so good you want it to be perfect (again that impossible moment!). One of the best films of that decade, Filipino or otherwise.