For Gil M. Portes, history is not just something in the past. A provocative, independent filmmaker from the Philippines, his films have sought to awaken social consciousness through creative—even politically incorrect—reinterpretations of historical events. He's his country's Oliver Stone for the way he digs up shocking episodes in national history. Then again, he's also like John Waters for the way he populates his pictures with transsexuals and transvestites.
In the Bosom of the Enemy and Markova: Comfort Gay, Portes' two entries in this year's Newport Beach Film Festival, are both set during World War II, when his homeland was under Japanese "co-prosperity" occupation before the Americans under General Douglas MacArthur came storming in to "liberate" the country. Both films—in Tagalog with English subtitles—deal with taboo sexual passions during the brutal Japanese invasion.
Of the two, In the Bosom of the Enemy(Gatas Sa Dibdib Ng Kaaway in Tagalog) is the more daring, even if the drama depicted never happened. The Philippines' submission to the 2002 Oscars, the film relates the sexual relationship between a Japanese captain (played by Kenji Marquez Motoki) and a local fisherman's wife.
Captain Hiroshi's Filipina lover dies while giving birth to their daughter, and he soon runs out of powdered milk to feed his infant. Conveniently, he encounters Pilar (Mylene Dizon), whose husband, Diego (Jomari Yllana), is being tortured by Hiroshi's soldiers as a suspected guerrilla. Pilar, who begs Hiroshi for Diego's release, ends up working in Hiroshi's household as a wet nurse for the infant. They soon become lovers, while Diego, on his release, predictably joins the guerrilla underground.
One strikingly erotic scene shows the infant sucking on Pilar's tit while Hiroshi cradles Pilar's other breast. According to the program notes, the scene was inspired by Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi's painting Saranggola, which Portes had seen at the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia: it shows a daughter breastfeeding her thirsty father on his way to the guillotine.
Portes seems to suggest that love (even with the hated enemy) is even more powerful than ideology. But he also stacks the deck. He depicts Pilar, herself a beauty, as choosing the strikingly handsome Hiroshi over the unfeeling and brusque Diego. Hiroshi is also shown as a humane officer who winces at the torture of Diego, although he does supervise a beheading (shown in all its gore) of another rebel. He begins to see the Philippines as "home" and to realize that the two peoples can unite in friendship.
In Markova, Portes resurrects the true story of Walter Dempster Jr., who served as a "comfort gay" for Japanese soldiers during the occupation. He's also known as "Walterina" Markova. The film shatters the silence that heretofore had focused on "comfort women" during the war. But gays, especially transvestites, were also forced into sexual slavery then, Portes reveals.
It's an all-too-predictable scenario: a Japanese officer is smitten with Markova and takes "her" to bed. But reaching down, he discovers the truth about Markova, explodes in fury, and orders Markova and his four fellow drag queens hauled off to prison. There, Markova and the others are forced to "service" rank-and-file Japanese soldiers, their rapes depicted in unremitting brutality. But the five "sisters" end up plotting their revenge.
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While the setting is stark, the queens still manage to camp it up. Indeed, even the taunts from little boys on the street about oral sex seem funny, not cruel.
Filipino comedian Dolphy excels as the queeny but noble Markova in old age, with brilliant performances by his two sons, Jeffrey and Eric Quizon, of Markova as a handsome adolescent and young man. All three won the Best Actor awards at the Brussels Independent Film Festival—as well as the Best Actress awards!
Portes is currently working on uncovering another dark historical episode in his country: the Americans' 1901 massacre of 250 Filipino civilians in Balangiga, a My Lai-type event covered up by the U.S. government.
Also worth watching at this year's festival is South Korean director Park Chan-Wook's Joint Security Area, which is set at the United Nations-supervised border between the two Koreas. In Korean with English subtitles, the film was a runaway box-office hit in South Korea because—notwithstanding George W. Bush's "axis of evil" bullshit—it showed North Koreans as human beings.