The OFW finds well-deserved recognition in Hollywood (Part 1)

'Ilo Ilo' by Singaporean director Anthony Chen

‘Ilo Ilo’ by Singaporean director Anthony Chen. Press photo

By Joel David

The present year, 2013, will be memorable for Pinoys mainly for the succession of national traumas it proffered, from the usual showbiz decouplings and sex scandals to pork-barrel exposés, separatist-militia violence, and global-scale natural disasters.

On the other hand, those who wish to remember whatever positive developments occurred will have enough to account for beyond the first Ms. World and Ms. Supernational beauty queens and the nth boxing triumph of Manny Pacquiao. In fact the equivalent past year, for those old enough to remember, would be 1984, when the country was in the throes of dismantling a discredited (U.S.-sponsored) dictatorship, yet graced with what may have been the most productive Golden Age year for Philippine cinema. As if to compensate for the greater concentration of troubles that befell the republic this year, 2013 supplied not just more wonderful films than usual, but also more festivals to showcase several of these achievements.

The rest of the world’s film community must have been taking notes, since the Philippines not only unironically claimed to offer “more fun” in its official tourist announcement; it has also actually been deploying its citizens to toil in nearly all the major inhabited areas of the globe. About 1 in 10 Filipinos, or close to 10 million in total, constitutes the official count; no other national economy depends as much on overseas remittances, even if three other countries (China, India, and Mexico) have, in absolute terms, more overseas citizens and consequently larger remittances.

In this respect, the overseas Filipino worker or OFW possesses a status crucial to the survival of her home country, not to mention her usual proliferation of dependents back home. This fact ties in with several other problems whose solutions lie beyond our reach for now: elected officials, for example, will always be confident about plundering the national treasury since the people in charge of the economy will no longer be able to suspend their money-making activities, the way they did during the Marcos era; put another way, if the OFWs withheld their remittances, the pork-barrelists may be frustrated – but only after the OFWs’ families had gone without for too long.

Unlike Western and several newly prosperous Asian countries, therefore, the Philippine global presence is far less privileged, manifested by workers concentrated in the least-preferred stations in their destination countries, rather than by tourists and scholars or professionals on exchange programs. The fascination among foreign cultures with the Pinoys in their midst derives from a recognition tinged with embarrassment and guilt: in an earlier, less-developed period, they could have been us.

Hence a lot of conflicted non-Pinoy responses to the OFW presence can be explained in terms of how badly the foreign employers wish to deny this reality about themselves, or how sorry they feel for the people who might have been their equal, had history taken other turns (the global response to the victims of super typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan can also be understood in this way).

Meanwhile, part of the pro-filmic renown that 2013 will be marking was the no-longer-surprising announcement that three official submissions to the Best Foreign Film category of the Academy Awards happen to deal with Filipino workers. The Filipino and Singaporean entries, “Transit” and “Ilo Ilo,” respectively, are overtly about OFWs (with another country, Israel, as the setting for “Transit”), while the UK’s submission, “Metro Manila,” is about a Pinoy worker’s odyssey in his native land. “Transit” was the first to be screened locally, during the annual Cinemalaya Film Festival; “Metro Manila” was screened not long after, while “Ilo Ilo” will be in Metro Manila theaters by the time you read this. It is in reverse order of their Philippine release schedules that I will be discussing each one.

Anthony Chen’s “Ilo Ilo” brings with it a number of well-deserved distinctions, including a trophy from Cannes as well as Taiwan’s Golden Horse prize as the best Chinese-language movie of the year. It’s better than what one could hope for, and strengthens the perception of how Singaporeans are attempting to bridge the connections between their people and ours after the several difficulties the Philippines had had with the Singaporean government, from Lee Kuan Yew’s disparaging remarks about OFWs to the Flor Contemplacion tragedy. The earlier OFW-themed Singaporean film, Kelvin Tong’s horror entry “The Maid,” was similarly well-intentioned but too derivative and necessarily dualistic in its configuration of the “good” victimized OFW and her evil-abusive Singaporean employers.

Since “Ilo Ilo” derives from a recollection of its filmmaker’s formative period with his Pinay nanny, it manages to depict a system where harshness and even outright cruelty can be understood even by the purported victim, with the IMF/WB-induced Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s as the invisible monster that inevitably takes over the country, driving its citizens to increasing levels of panic and frustration.

Chen maintains a humane grounding for the family at the center of his narrative, with the usually demonized character, the mother, revealed as the force that keeps the family, materially speaking, together; her jealousy at the developing closeness between her son and his nanny is kept in check by her realization that the problems she has to solve are larger than all of them put together, since it will mean their survival as citizens.

To its credit, “Ilo Ilo” is able to advance these potentially melodramatic developments in a subdued, humor-leavened manner, the heartbreak of the family (and their country) falling apart and losing the first “other” friend their son has ever had all held in and staying with the viewer long after the screening experience has ended. If you happen to be in the vicinity where the film’s being screened, don’t wonder that people are not buzzing excitedly about it, since it’s not that kind of film; just rest assured that it will provide good old-fashioned substantive entertainment, and head to the nearest venue without delay.

NEXT: ‘Metro Manila’ and ‘Transit:’ Ambitious, impressive

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