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Can a 12-year old lad who wishes he were a girl navigate the mean streets of Manila? Maxi cooks, cleans, and sews for his father and older brothers who are petty criminals. He's sweet, clever and hardworking, at ease with being gay, pinning a flower in his hair, swinging his hips when he walks, vamping with friends. He's seen adults hug and kiss and he's watched romantic movies, so on the verge of puberty, he develops a crush on Victor, a kindly young cop. Maxi's heart and loyalties are on a collision course: Victor is investigating crimes that lead him to Maxi's family. In the land of the morning, is there a place for this child of the sun returning? Written by
Though its a thoroughly Catholic-dominated country, the Philippines is said to have a more lax attitude towards "the gay" than other more liberal, democratic countries, like the one I live in. Many point to its cinema as evidence of this. Of course, this is from the outside looking in. LGBT folks, particularly the effeminate "bakla" male, might be commonplace in Philippine film, but the ones we don't see on screen face a particular type of oppression. They are often an object of ridicule, stereotyped as shallow, loud-talking and outrageously "mayabang," and usually sex-crazed. And a lot of folks, gay or straight, eat it up.
Despite its deceptive marketing (from the DVD cover/promo poster to the trailer), Auraeus Solito's Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros/The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (2006) isn't at all about a flamboyantly gay boy's crush on the hunky neighborhood police officer that happens to be set in a third world barrio. The story is the barrio, and all its contradictions, initially dressed up as a neorealist comedy evoking both Lino Brocka and Bagets at once before taking a darker turn halfway through.
Like all good (worthwhile) Philippine stories, its aware of acute third world contradictions without overtly speaking on it. If Brillante Mendoza's work emphasizes people's idealism despite wretched conditions, Solito's flips the formula. His Philippines is one where the people are wretched but the settings, still unmistakably impoverished, can also be a magical, wonderfully pastel-colored place.
Maxi (Nathan Lopez) is 12-years old, gay, and plays surrogate mother to his family of petty thieves: tatay Paco (Soliman Cruz) and his older brothers Boy and Bog. The barrio is his playground, until one night he's assaulted by some knuckleheads. Policeman Victor (JR Valentin) comes to his rescue, and they become friends much to his family's objection. Matters complicate when Boy ends up killing somebody in a botched robbery attempt. Lopez brings remarkable ease to the title character, embodying urban poor Philippines with simplicity and struggle. His selfless need/want to care for others is carried by a fragile balance between a naive confidence of who he is and a growing insecurity of where he is (and where he's heading). He dreams in a bubble in the process of bursting, asking his father "Wala na bang ibang paraan itay?" (Is there no other way, dad?)
On the surface, he's nothing like his macho, gun-toting father. However, beneath the princess demeanor, he is his father's son, perhaps more so than his brothers. Conditions have forced Paco to consider what is more dignified: starving with a factory job, or getting by as a petty thief. Maxi has inherited his father's most lasting trait: a commitment to keep the family together. Or at least fed, clothed and sheltered, even if it means doing the "wrong" thing. Thus, Maxi's "blossoming" has less to do with dealing with his rejected affections for Victor and more with facing down the reality of his family's livelihood.
Restrained by necessity rather than stylistic choice, Solito shows us what could be done with a digital camera, $10,000US and 13 days of shooting. It's a style of film that can never be overdone in the Philippines, where lack of support from the media industry and government and resources forces an organic creativity.
Solito's execution is matched by writer Michiko Yamamoto's (Magnifico, 2003) gift for compact, delightful drama/comedy without teetering to far in either direction. Thanks to this collaboration, Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros is a leap forward from the gay caricatures we've gotten too used to, and yet another piece of a compelling argument that Philippine cinema isn't all cornball and melodrama. Or, that a movie can still have those elements and not be shitty.
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