There is a glint in Victor Pearson’s eye, a boyish one but also a devilish one, as all glints tend to be at some point, mischievous, smarmy. It’s why filmmaking cohorts Monster Jimenez and Mario Cornejo invoke the same catch-all caveat about the subject of their documentary Kano: An American And His Harem. “You have to meet him.”, they tell me on separate occasions. I sense a slither of faint awe under the revulsion and I get it. Pearson is the expatriate American who maintained his own private harem of wives, and who languishes now in a country jail under the weight of 80 counts of alleged rape, all of which he vehemently denies. If it doesn’t exactly plumb the same depths of malevolence as, say, Charles Manson, what he does exude is a similarly dangerous ambivalence: charismatic and diabolical in equal measure. And it leaks into the movie, irradiating it almost. The part where he sings Love Potion #9 smacks of both the quaint and the sinister, and not merely out of how creepy the subtext of the song gets, no. One second he’s your boisterous uncle with one too many drinks in him hogging the family videoke, the next he’s Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet. He is, in many ways, the quintessential pervert. He is also the perfect documentary subject.
Monster, who directed, and Mario, who produced, amassed a nosebleed of interview footage to sift through: interviews with the plaintiffs, with the parents of the plaintiffs who insist the plaintiffs were lying, with the women who stayed loyal to this day, with Pearson’s estranged sister, rumors of deviant activities that threw political figures into the mix, which videotapes that have since gone missing allegedly bear out, of tiny conspiracies between the cracks. In the time it took for the film to reveal its shape, as documentaries are wont to do with this one taking five years, a tremendous amount of sides to the story emerged. Monster and Mario simply felt it would be unfair not to show all. Trouble is, Pearson seems to demand nothing smaller than a burst of indignation, his right to a fair shake long since waived. You go soft on someone as notorious and you’re at best an apologist , at worst a conspirator. Two women have gone so far as letting Monster know they wanted to throttle her after watching the film, for allegedly casting Pearson in a sympathetic light. It does no such thing, of course.
Kano is more than just watchable, though. It can be, and often is, terribly and compulsively entertaining, and it’s not from making light of matters but from how funny some of the people in it can be, it’s that levity with which we confront everything, endemic to us, peculiar to others. But at no point does the film slavishly demonize Pearson, at no point does it need to either. That’s the bone to pick for many. Only its gut-punch, both as film and as argument, really gets its brunt from resisting the urge to editorialize, leveling everything past the point of being about one man’s guilt to being more about an entire nation’s cultural psyche. How deep our resident subservience to the white man runs. How every moral choice tends to boil down to money changing hands. How money is our enabler, our prosthetic, our elixir, our atonement. And more than that, how the beloved infidel may well be our prevailing icon of machismo. Pearson doesn’t faze us too much, perhaps, because he is, in many ways, nothing new. He is every domestic action star who ever played a real-life philandering family man slash cop hero and spread the gospel of the other woman as a badge of manliness. And that he’s a war hero, too, makes the embodiment even more perverse. Those two women have every right to their shock and vitriol, of course, and to its ferocity. It’s worth noting, though, that they’re both foreigners. Obviously they’ve never seen a Bong Revilla film.
Mondomanila Directed by Khavn De La Cruz Written by Khavn De La Cruz and Norman Wilwayco Based on the Novel by Norman Wilwayco
It had me with the thalidomide anti-drug hip-hop number and there was no doubling back after that. Nearly every Khavn (not a) film draws a non-negotiable line in the sand, either you’re in or you’re out and half-assed gets you nowhere. And this is the one with the outsize myth. The one that gestated anxiously for five years, which, for someone like Khavn, counts as a lifetime, given how the unifying mean of his diverse, divisive ouevre is its velocity and volume and how they tend to exhaust both the word and paradigm of prolific. Mondomanila is the one, really, that almost got away.
Blame the vagaries of fate, as these things happen. But who knows if fate was pulling a few strings in its favor, given how the sense that Khavn's deceptively brash and reckless filmography was building up precisely to this point becomes tougher and tougher to ignore, not so much in the way that it feels like everything he’s done before while also feeling nothing like it, but more in its sense of culmination, in its vibrant throwing down of favorite tropes: the sociopolitical rebuke, the blackly-comic ultraviolence, the freaks on parade, the unabashed sentimentality, the deviant sex, that would be the dwarf orgy and goose porn, the bubbly pop sing-a-longs, particularly its climactic production number. Even the magisterial last bow of Palito feels serendipitous if not orchestrated.
This is not the first time Khavn has staked out Everyslum, of course, except that in severely condensing the dense sprawl of its source code, Norman Wilwayco’s prize-winning cult novel, everything gets heightened even more than Squatterpunk, heightened into polemic, into poetry, into opera, into shock-pop, coming on like some exploded depression musical slash dysfunctional family comedy, obnoxious and color-mad and surreal. And the more it reaches its own boiling points of surrealism, the more it one-ups the earnest social realism of the poverty porn you can mistake it for at first blush, uncannily nailing, too, the genuine throb of its milieu, which has nothing to do with the exoticized despair that has become a haggard trope but this lust for life anyone who’s been to Anyslum can parse off the bat, and will recognize through the cartoon sheen. It's a joyful defiance almost, or a defiant joy if you will, the sort that comes from living a life with nothing to lose.
Lawas Kan Pinabli (Forever Loved) Directed and Written by Christopher Gozum
That melancholia of displacement running like a hum of current through Lawas Kan Pinabli (Forever Loved) poeticizes the OFW experience partially as a maddeningly obtuse but gorgeously dreamlike reverie of transience and separation anxiety and the longing that comes from it: a man, nameless and fictional, searches aimlessly, possibly fruitlessly, for his missing OFW wife in a foreign country tellingly fraught with secret perils, the very same foreign country, it turns out, that Christopher Gozum has been working in all these years as an OFW.
Rising above one’s station is the aspirational default of the Filipino have-not, and working abroad their go-to golden ticket, the Middle East their Canaan. And the way we ritually valorize OFWs as unsung, working class heroes is not just out of how they significantly boost the economy like a periodic sugar rush but also, and mostly, for the backstory of tremendous sacrifice they go through to get where they are. Rags-to-riches is the true opiate of the masses and everybody loves a melodrama of struggle that pays off in dividends.
The bruising subversion here is in the way it dispiritingly, and shockingly, lays bare how steep the cost of that sacrifice can get, and how they often are each other’s worst enemies. It's not all blight, no. The sequence with the transplanted rockhound is, if nothing else, soothing. And there is a bracing loveliness to everything. But, give or take one or two, the real-life OFWs in the numbing, revealing interviews that intersperse the cul-de-sac detective story, and meld ghostly narrative with brooding documentary until the joins dissolve into each other, are, in varying degrees, victims: of workplace mishap, of mistaken identity, of abandonment, of treachery, of the malfunctions in our cultural psyche. This is not the public face of the OFW-as-hero, with his head held high all robust with hope and friends with the future, but rather its evil twin, slinking in the shadows, looking away if you gaze at it too closely. Diaspora is such a lonely word and Lawas Kan Pinabli is at turns a begrudging valentine to that loneliness. Diaspora is also a necessary evil, or at least an evil we have made necessary. And the ruination of these OFWs, as well as their desperation in the face of it, is the horribly disfigured face it refuses to show the world.