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REVIEW: Minsa’y Isang Gamu-Gamo

Minsa'y Isang Gamu-Gamo: Filipino with a Passion

Nicanor G. Tiongson, The Philippines Daily Express, 1976

Contemporary Filipino moviemakers who seek to paint authentic Filipino
experience on screen have to steer a difficult course between today’s Scylla
and Charybdis. On the other hand, they must fight the currents of
commercial formula films that can suck and drown them into a whirlpool of
song-and-dance, and blood-and-thunder and “tawa-iyak” inanities. On the
other hand, they must not run aground on the “artistic” rocks of
Europeanized sensibilities that can crush and powder them into selfindulgent
insignificance.

Only a preciously few films have steered through this difficult course with
some measure of success. Some, like “Lunes, Martes…” have come so
perilously close to commercialism. Others, like “Nunal,” have all but been
devoured by “Frechified” artistry and sensibility. A few, like “Bitayin si
Baby Ama,” “Sakada,” “Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos” and “Tiket Mama,
Tiket Ale” have come through with commendable colors.

Filipinos should, therefore, rejoice that this year has witnessed the rise of a
number of producers, directors and scriptwriters who have bravely defied
the pull of commercialism and produced films that honestly and seriously
attempt to limn the Filipino and his myriad experiences on screen. “Minsa’y
Isang Gamu-Gamo preeminently belongs to this gallery of authentic Filipino
portraits. First and foremost credit must go to playwright Marina Feleo-
Gonzales for creating a story and screenplay that is so passionately real and
unequivocally Filipino. Using material from contemporary Philippine
experience, Gonzales’ story successfully strips the mask off the so-called
“special relations” between the Philippines and America.

“Gamu-gamo” focuses on two lower middle class families in Pampanga ---
the de la Cruzes and the Santoses. Cora de la Cruz (Nora Aunor) is a nurse
whose one ambition in life is to live in America. Now that her papers are
ready, she plans to get a green card after her one-year stay at an American
hospital, then change her status to immigrant and finally petition for her
family to live with her in America’s affluent society. Her mother (Gloria
Sevilla) and young brother (Eddie Villamayor) begin to dream of apples and
greenbucks, but the fly in their colonial mentality is Ingkong (Paquito
Salcedo), who insists that immigrating to America is betrayal of one’s
country.

Bonifacio Santos, Cora’s fiancé, has already filed an application with the
U.S. Navy so he can join Cora in the States. His mother (Perla Bautista) and
their helper (Lily Miraflor) save up for his expenses.

Because of their personal ambitions, both families, with the exception of
Ingkong, choose to ignore the brutal murder of Filipino fishermen and
scavengers by American soldiers who use the former as targets, and the
gross injustice of the American right of “extraterritoriality,” which allows
these servicemen to go scot-free out of the country. The families succeed in
turning their heads the other way, until tragedy strikes their own homes.
Mrs. Santos who works at the base Commissary, is subjected to indignities
by a Filipino female guard who strips off her “smuggled” panties and waves
it like a flag to delight the American male guards. Mrs. Santos brings the
matter to court, but the guard retaliates by raiding her PX goods store.
Nothing comes of the case and Boni, disenchanted with America, turns his
back on the U.S. Navy.

Cora is appalled at the failure of Philippine courts in Mrs. Santos’ case, but
decides to go to the States anyway. Her big “despedida” party, however, is
marred by tragedy. Her brother, inspite of all her warnings to the contrary,
decides to join other scavengers in the base’s garbage dump and is shot
dead by trigger-happy American soldier. Cora foregoes her plans of going
abroad and brings the case to court, only to be told in the end that the case
cannot be tried because the accused has already been assigned to another
country. In the end, all dreams of America, like the brother’s “saranggola,” are
dashed to the ground.

Aside from Gonzales’ compelling story, her screenplay is to be commended
for excellent characterization and dialogue, and some artfully conceived
sequences. With the possible exception of the travel agent (Leo Martinez),
whose role could have been shortened, all of Gonzales’ characters manage
to be both “typical” and “individual.” Cora and Boni are typical
“provincianos” whose highest ambition is to live in America, yet one never
feels that they are black or white cardboard characters standing for lifeless
ideas. Mrs. de la Cruz is a mother hen who can only think of her own brood
and can watch fellow Filipinos massacred and not lift a finger. Mrs. Santos
is a woman who fights for her dignity but is traumatized and pulverized by
her confrontation with the Americans. Most of all, Ingkong, who acts as the
conscience and point of view of the film, comes off as a lovable and
believable individual whose nationalism, derived from the Revolution of
’96 refuses to accept America’s travesty of Philippine independence.

Some of Gonzales’ scenes are built on situations that are portrayed and
executed with a marvelous economy of dialogue. When Cora comes home
with her passport, she sits at a table with her mother and engages her in an
animated conversation that gets interrupted or drowned some times by both
the TV set and Ingkong’s “speeches” about nationalism. An even greater
achievement of the playwright is her ability to make scenes dramatic --- like
that of Mrs. Santos telling her son about the incident at the base --- without
making her characters throw tantrums or sprout kilometric, archaic words
like “subalit,” “datapwat” and “bagamat.” Lupita A. Concio’s direction is
both sensible and effective. In the courtroom scene, she establishes both the
locale and the crowd in court with a long shot, while the title of the case is
being read. A medium shot then establishes the panel of lawyers (with
complainant at the back). The camera then focuses on the judge and then on
the defendant’s lawyer who explains that his client is out of the country, and
then goes back to the judge who decides that the trial has to be postponed.
The final shot is of Cora standing up and pleading for her brother, and then
weeping helplessly into Boni’s arms.

But spare as her scenes are, Lupita Concio’s direction never becomes
monotonous or flat. Sometimes it is enriched with symbol, as when the
camera closes up on the body of Eddie being laid out on the cart and then
zooms out to show the cart moving against a landscape that includes a
Philippine and American flag flying on equal poles at a distance. Wherever
there is symbol, however, it is worked in naturally, as in the scene where
Cora and her mother are reflected on the “aparador’s” two separate mirrors,
while they present contrary points of view about bringing their case to court.
Sometimes not only symbol but blocking as well makes a scene both fresh
and stimulating. After Mrs. Santos’ case is dismissed, Boni comes to see
Cora. Boni helps the young boy with his kite, and Nora puts his “merienda”
in a little hut near the garden. Right after Boni tells Cora that he is giving up
his plans of going to America, the boy’s red-blue-and-white kite (which has
been equated with American jets and the couple’s own dreams) dives onto
the foreground. Boni picks it up for the boy and then stands holding the
rope that fastens the “kubo’ to the ground. His emotion is effectively
visualized as he grasps the rope, which partly covers his cheeks.

Acting in “Gamu-gamo” is superb. Once again, Nora Aunor proves herself
to be one of the finest actresses today, with an acting style that is both ‘raw”
and “fine,” characterized by a disarming sincerity and force, that can break
into an unbelievable number of nuances, shades and colors of emotion.
Outstanding is her court scene where her face registers a gamut of emotions
--- from anger to confusion to depression and despair --- in the space of ten
seconds. Like a mature actress, she does not attack dramatic scenes with
histrionics or hysteria. Over her brother’s coffin, she curses the Americans
who came to pay her family off by screaming “My brother is not a pig” over
and over again with mounting intensity.

Jay Ilagan’s performance is likewise commendable. He is tender with Nora,
angry for his mother, concerned for their help, playful with the young boy,
respectful to Mrs. de la Cruz, and docile and attentive to Ingkong. Perla
Bautista is tender with her son, conciliatory and then angry with the guard,
and completely fragile and vulnerable after her trauma. Gloria Sevilla is an
instinctive mother to her brood, and always conciliatory to her father even
when she disagrees with him. Lily Miraflor is all heart for Boni and Mrs.
Santos, but is so pitifully ignorant she falls for her husband’s ruse. Most of
all, Paquito Salcedo combines the firmness of a true nationalist (without
sounding silly or looking ridiculous) with the softness of a grandfather who
is all kindness to his grandchildren. Unforgettable is Salcedo’s short scene,
where he embraces and weeps over his grandson’s bloodied kite before
committing this to the fire. Truly, no other movie in 1976 has succeeded in
turning out such uniformly superb performances.

Music was effectively used for irony. Restie Umali took the melody of
“America, America” to serve as background precisely for the scenes where
America is unmasked as a foe. Likewise, the theme song of the movie is
built on the melody of the same song but is fitted with words that end with
“Walang mang-aalipin kung walang paaalipin.”

Good as the film was, however, it was not entirely free of flaws. Concio’s
use of slow motion and freezing techniques for the scene where Cora comes
down the stairs and climbs on the cart to take her brother’s body in her arms,
is sophomoric, and gimmicky, and certainly detracts from the effectivity of
that scene. Likewise, the insertion of Aunor’s songs is such a thinly-veiled
excuse to cater to Aunor’s less important, but more popular talent.

Likewise, technical flaws diminished the effectiveness of certain scenes.
When Ingkong and the young boy talk about their resolve not to go to
America, the sounds of children playing and screaming drowned out most of
the dialogue. Dubbing for some scenes was so bad the sound of words
would be finished before the characters opened their mouths.

Flaws notwithstanding, the film stands as one of the best in 1976 Filipino
Film Festival and in the year 1976 as well, not only because the story and
screenplay, and most of all, the point of view of the movie are unequivocally
and passionately Filipino. Premiere Productions should be commended for
coming out with films like “Gamu-gamo” that have true social relevance
and are authentic portraits of the contemporary Filipino.