Film Review: Filipiñana (2020)

Directed by Filipino director Rafael Manuel, Filipiñana presents a sharp look into the unspoken social hierarchies and class structures that dominate the surreal setting of a golf course, a microcosm for the filmmaker’s home in the Philippines. The film follows a young girl named Isabel (Jorrybell Agosto), a new worker at the golf course, as she wanders around the premises and begins to become all too aware of the seemingly invisible structures that govern her conduct and behaviour.

Made while he was studying at London Film School, Manuel shows himself to be as adept at crafting indelible images as he is at incisive social commentary. Presented in 4:3 aspect ratio, with cinematography awash in soft pastel colours against a backdrop of lush greenery, the setting of the golf course feels oddly secluded yet eerily charming. Through wide shots, characters almost feel like miniatures on an elaborate diorama. The film is composed of still shots that, coupled with the use of diegetic sounds—mostly of leaves rustling and birds chirping—create a dreamy atmosphere. Here is a place in stasis that can be seen as an escape for its patrons but a prison for its workers.

Manuel displays an especially playful visual style that confers a distinct sense of surrealism upon the work. Between the heavily choreographed movements of the patrons on the golf course—with the rich  swinging golf clubs or fanning themselves while receiving pedicures in synchronicity—and the workers getting consistently portrayed as being literally between their legs—Manuel creates a clear distinction between how he portrays the rich and poor. The theme of economic disparity is also communicated through visual metaphors, one of the most distinct being the sight of ants nibbling at the edges of an ice cream sundae, which mirrors the desperation of the workers themselves.

The playful visual style and heavily choreographed nature of the film is evocative of the works of Jacques Demy and a post-Tumblr era of visual aesthetics. One scene that brings this sharply to mind is of disco lights being projected sweeping past a character, looking not too unlike a Beach House album cover.

As stated by Manuel himself on his Kickstarter page, the film seeks to explore the dynamic between female workers and their female superiors, people who are ostensibly part of the same social strata but yet are in different positions of power. This is seen from an even larger dichotomy between young and old, and in the contrast visual between the dull grey blouses of the younger female workers and the bright pink ones of their superiors. By placing a focus on Isabel our empathy is directed to lie with the young. Through Isabel we slowly realise the unfair structures in place, from the overblown reactions she faces from her superiors in response to absurdly benign acts like sneaking a taste of cake. A single truth that seems to ring true throughout the piece is that in a society divided by class, the people that come in the most conflict to maintain a sense of decorum and their own livelihoods are those at the bottom.

Moving in a languid pace that reflects the aimless ennui of Isabel herself, the film possesses a sense of melancholy that is similarly reflected in Isabel’s fellow workers, who in their leisure time are depicted as sleeping, or slumped into various corners. A great sense of irony lies in the fact that in a picturesque resort the only thing Isabel seemingly longs for is escape.

Throughout the film, the song "Filemon" by Manuel Colayco recurs and casts a spectre across the film. The song is at first hummed by Isabel as a comforting tune and later sung by her at a karaoke session during the climax of the film. Through the song’s lyrics, Manuel fully verbalises themes that were previously ruminated on. During the climax the camera breaks its fixed position and slowly zooms into Isabel as she sings and tries to shake off her emotionally vacant state. It is revealed that the cheery, comforting pop ballad that Isabel’s peers bop their heads to is actually about the economic desperation of a man who spends his wages on alcohol to escape, not too dissimilar to their own situation. The way the song plays throughout the film underscores the inherent tragedy of the characters' lives, that the restrictive system they participate in will always be a silently accepted certainty.

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