A Portrait of Masculinity in Manila is Full of Men Named Boy (2018)

Manila is Full of Men Named Boy depicts the situation in the Philippines in 2009 during a sensitive time when local terror attacks had been taking place. The movie focuses on an estranged son (nicknamed "Big Boy") who buys a boy to be his son in a bid to impress his father, Rodriguo. 

This film casts light on the idolising of the white man and its attendant issues and director Andrew Stephen Lee has done that very well. It is these subtle hegemonic institutionalisations of differential treatment among racial groups, with higher or lower regard to some, that is the biggest elephant in the room. The main character, Big Boy, came back to the Philippines from the United States of America. Throughout the film, Big Boy is asked if he is from the United States due to his accent, and there are also regular gags of popular culture injected. From the point of view of an outsider, the film shows how priorities are weighed more towards Western affairs than local tragedies. For example, Big Boy receives condolences and remarks about the death of popular American singer, Michael Jackson.  Jackson’s passing is sadly given more prominence than the local terror attacks occurring in the Filipinos’ own backyard.

The importance of stereotypes in film is that it can help to raise awareness of stigma and bias, if done correctly. Bing Bong asks Big Boy what his occupation is and Big Boy answers he is a nurse. The first question that come out after that is whether Big Boy is gay; connotation of a male nurse seen as being gay, as most nurses are female and the role of nurse is associated with being feminine. There is still a strong stereotypical association with of being gay as being feminine, a common stereotype in the world.

Family pressure, and trying to maintain status, is a common struggle across families. The film makes use of unspoken cues from the actors to show displeasure, discomfort, as well as introversion of the characters really well. 

The film shows the societal pressures to impress one’s family as well as stereotypes surrounding status and qualities of manliness that might be prevalent in Asian communities. In one scene, Bing Bong bonds with Big Boy's father by smoking and drinking together with him. Such macho, or stereotypical masculine traits, are encouraged, even in one as young as Bing Bong.

Director Lee manages to convey through black-and-white imagery the intensity of the societal pressures to fit in society. The absence of colours, while the video quality is much more refined than what a film in 2009 would have, makes the film more solemn, and asks viewers to reflect and even identify with the main character Big Boy himself.

SINdie had the opportunity to interview director Andrew Stephen Lee and ask him more about the film.

SINdie: What inspired you to show Big Boy (as he was nicknamed) as an American rather than a person born in The Philippines?

Lee: This comes from my own identity... there’s a complexity here that people don’t often speak about. In having both American citizenship and Filipino citizenship, I am often considered neither: in the Philippines I am not considered Filipino, and in The States I am not seen as an American. So that leads me to ask questions about how outsiders are perceived. So hopefully by the end of the film, the audience may see something a little bit more.

There were certain stereotype tropes that were brought up in the film; that all Americans knew Michael Jackson, that if you were a male nurse, you were gay. How do you think viewers will perceive this?

I am not usually didactic with the way I want a viewer to understand my film. But my hope is that the beginning of the conversation starts with WHY. For me, the Why is addressing how people formulate value at the most basic level. Why does Michael Jackson's funeral have more attention over a tragic event? Why are children being reduced to their most basic self-definition? Why is smoking and drinking valued by these hyper-masculine men? Why would Boy’s situation be easier if he was gay? I think if we ask ourselves the hard questions about what our society values, we eventually come to understand many issues that we also must overcome. My hope is to get the viewers thinking about what these themes mean.

Given that this is based of events in 2009, what inspired you to show that Michael Jackson was more important in the perception of Filipinos in the film than on the terror attacks?

It really was inspired by what’s happening in The Philippines right now. I wanted to address a societal desensitization from Duterte’s Extrajudicial Killings without speaking directly about the issue. I’ve heard so many stories from family and friends about how these killings feel very normal now. How is that possible? How did that happen? And what other things that were once considered extreme, are now considered normal? 

Bing Bong and the other children in the movie were put up for sale. I was frightened but not surprised that this was a sight in 2009. What are your views on Big Boy buying the child, as a person, and also what do you think motivated him to do so?

For me that is quite interesting that you were frightened but not surprised by that. I’m quite interested in why you were not (in the end) surprised. But for me, this goes back to the theme of value. Could Boy become accepted by his family (of hyper-masculine men) for having a son who can drink and smoke? I’m not entirely sure of that answer myself. But what I was interested in, was finding something to express the absurd lengths we will go to in order to be accepted by someone else.

What is the story behind naming the film, Manila is Full of Men named boy? Is the term ‘boy’ a common term just used across, where names are insignificant? 
Boy is actually a common name. It is the name of my Uncle. For him, it is a nickname as he was the youngest…but for others it might be a proper name. And for me, the title shouldn’t be taken literally. It relates thematically to these hyper-masculine men. Can they be considered “men” for how they act?

Manila is Full of Men Named Boy was screened at the 29th Singapore International Film Festival as part of the Southeast Asian Short Film Competition.

Written by Varun Naidu
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