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Love Letters
Feature by: Tiffany Limsico

From Benedict Anderson

When I first went to Java almost 50 years ago, and almost immediately became a devoted fan of wayang (puppet plays) in their various forms, including comic books, I was stunned by the images of the aristocratic heroes. For example, the unmatchable warrior and endlessly successful lover, Ardjuna, had no visible muscles, an elongated torso, long, thin, and hairless legs, a black face, modestly looking down, with only a wisp of a moustache. Bare feet, an expensive sort of sarong, bare chest save for a small necklace, extended bare arms, except for a pair of simple bracelets, and long hair coiled up and held in place by a jewelled little tiara. The blackness of the face, explained my friends, meant a calm, honest, and self-controlled personality. Everything about Ardjuna was the complete opposite of the Euro-American models, from Batman to the Hulk, from Richard the Lionheart to Muhammad Ali. Conversely, most of the villains in wayang were giants and kings from outside Java. The giants could be three times the size of Ardjuna, with large hairy bodies, big moustaches and beards, a lot of overkill expensive clothes, and deep-red faces, bulging eyes, and puffy noses pointed aggressively along a horizontal line. The deep red meant, I learned, quick to anger, arrogant, and full of unbridled desires for power, riches and women.

Living in Indonesia for two and half years got me used to seeing in real life young men whom everyone admired or envied for their masculine beauty and sexual attractiveness, People would say, “a real Ardjuna.” Beautiful unblemished brown skins, large expressive eyes, and what Thais nicely call santat bodies, meaning everything in perfect proportion. (There were no gyms and fitness clubs in Indonesia in those days.) For the first time in my life I felt rather ugly. Lower legs too short, eyes too small, and skin the typical European mottled pink. It was then that I made my one and only contribution to the Indonesian language, by giving a secondary meaning to bule, the local word for ‘albino’ carabao: till today the commonest use of this word is for ‘white people.’

When I started to go to the Philippines in the mid-80s I expected something very similar, since Filipinos mostly belong to the same ‘Malay race’ as the Javanese, even though the country has no tradition of aristocracy. In those days, the popular counterpart of wayang was the very successful Filipino film. The industry had then far the largest output in Southeast Asia, as well as many now ‘classical’ film directors such as Peque Gallaga, Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, Mike de Leon, and many others. To my naïve surprise, almost all the famous male film actors were mestizo, with fair skins, Hitlerish moustaches, large pumped up bodies, and often heavily gelled hair, usually in jeans, with partly unbuttoned shirts showing off hairy chests. The American influence was obvious, but also the residues of the Spanish-colonial social system which put mestizos in a position far above that of the ‘native’ indios. You could say that the mestizos were a small pseudo-aristocratic upper layer in the social order of the Philippines. With the possible exception of Ramon Magsaysay, all the Presidents of postcolonial Philippines came from this mestizo class or caste. In almost all the successful films of the time, indio-looking actors and actresses served as servants, henchmen, villagers, comedians, and members of the vast population of the near-destitute.

The one spectacular exception to the rule was Nora Aunor, a brilliant actress with a very dark skin and a beautiful voice. She was very sexy, but not exactly lovely in the mestiza manner. She specialized, or was made to specialize, in ‘victim’ roles, abused maid, abandoned mistress, betrayed friend, and so on. A perfect india heroine, who held sway for more than two decades as the idol of what supercilious Manila liked to call the bakya (home-made wooden shoes like clogs) classes. But a male equivalent was very hard to find.

This may explain why Lino Brocka’s Macho Dancers had such an impact on me. The nominal hero of the film was a typical mestizo type, pale face, Hitlerite moustache, large-bodied and a tad overweight – no acting ability whatsoever. But the emotional core of the film lay with Daniel Fernando, playing the hero’s best friend. We see the two of them working on stage at a gay bar in Manila, and it soon is plain that Daniel is desperately in love with the innocent hero, who finds sexual solace with Jaclyn José, one of the great actresses of the era, who acts as a professional prostitute. Daniel discovers that his young sister has been forced into a brothel ‘protected’ by malignant police. The two men succeed in rescuing the girl, but, of course, Daniel is brutally killed in the process. There is only one short chaste scene in which Daniel confesses his love to his stolid comrade. He is, you could say, a victim of his doomed love and of his own courage and attachment to his sister. My Filipino Ardjuna? Physically, yes: he had a perfect santat frame, dark complexion, elegant arms and legs, and large expressive eyes. Otherwise no: he will win nothing, and he knows it. So he became my hero.

He had been discovered earlier on by Peque Gallaga, who starred him in the lurid 1985 melodrama Scorpio Nights. Here he plays the part of a poor student living in a tiny rented room. It turns out that the floor of this rickety flat has holes in it, which allow him to spy on the couple living just below: a brutal, abusive policeman and his attractive wife. Daniel gets in the habit of watching them have violent sex, and masturbating every time. He is drawn by lust and pity for the wife, and eventually starts a love affair with her. The audience knows what will happen, though the suspense is terrific. The husband finds them together and kills them. Once again an indio victim. Daniel is terrific in the part and one can barely look at the screen as the denouement draws near.

I had by then become a devoted fan and went to every movie in which he played. But the parts were trivial – always secondary, friend of a hero or of a villain. Then I read in the newspapers that Daniel was doing intensive workouts in a gym to enable him to try for hero parts. The result was the neglected and unsuccessful film called Huminga ka na hangga't gusto mo (Breathe So Long as You Want). The film is a typical Filipino melodrama about the revenge of a poor boy against a gang of Manilan spoiled young bourgeois rapists. Daniel plays the hero part of a young Igorot (’savage’ in Manilan eyes) from the Gran Cordillera in Northern Luzon, whose sister is raped and tortured by the bourgeois gang on holiday in Baguio. He descends on Manila only armed with the Igorot’s traditional weapon – a crossbow. One by one the rapists are killed. A memorable scene comes when Daniel, looking for a safe hiding-place, comes upon a group of destitute Igorots who are squatting on the flat roof of a tall residential building with marvelous views of Manila. Why did the film prove a box-office flop? One reason may be that there was now something slightly monstrous in his looks. The bulging muscles of his arms and chest destroyed his elegant santat figure, as if a native head was stuck on top of a quasi-mestizo gym rat body: what many Thai gays call na kliat (repulsive). Another surely was that spectators were not ready for a successful indio hero.

At the end of the 90s, President Ramos was spending large sums to celebrate himself as well as the 100th anniversary of the execution of number one national hero José Rizal by the Spanish colonialists. One major project was a television serial of Rizal’s great novel Noli Me Tangere. Parts of the serial were laughable: the atheist ‘philosopher’ Tasio is shown returning to Mother Church on his death bed; tragic heroine Maria Clara lives in a spick-and-span, flower-surrounded convent with a nice gentle Mother Superior; etc etc. But some of the best Filipino actors and actresses were recruited for the film and did themselves proud. The official hero of the novel, the young, naïve, foreign-educated mestizo, Crisostomo Ibarra, is played excellently by the mestizo star Joel Torre. But the moral center of the book, the enigmatic and doomed indio Elias, was rightly given to Daniel, and he made the most of it. Miraculously, he had shed the Batmanish biceps to be santat once again. Grave, haunted, idealistic, intelligent, and valiant, Daniel-Elias ends by sacrificing his life for Ibarra-Torre. A real mensch as Yiddish-speakers would say – but once again a victim.

How to explain all this? Many Filipino intellectuals like to blame everything ugly in the national society and culture (including films) on the brief period of American colonial rule and its aftermath. There is no doubt that Americans succeeded in marginalizing Spanish and installing American English as the language of status and the state. Hollywood’s influence has certainly been profound. But I think that Spain, over three hundred and fifty years, had a far more profound influence. Of the greatest importance was the successful implantation of Catholicism over most of the archipelago. In the Catholic version of the story of Christ, the crucified Christ, innocent of sex, and the Virgin Mary, the grieving mother who becomes the protector of those in trouble, are the central ‘victim’ figures. Colonial Spain created the racial hierarchy which gave mestizos a peculiar (legal) status – below real Spanish but above the mass of indios – which has never disappeared. (American racism, binary in character, offers no privileged place for ‘mixed’ people and American colonialists looked at Filipino mestizos with a good deal of contempt.) Spain also brought with it a ‘macho’ culture, which is still strong, and expects women to be subservient and tolerant of abuse. (The Philippines today has one of the highest rates of rape in the world, and is the only country I know where you can hear men happily boasting of raping women.) Sometimes I think that the melange of American and Spanish dominance is one of the ugliest of such combinations anywhere. This situation made it possible for Nora Aunor, a mesmerizing actress, to become a superstar because she consistently played traditional female victims and had a huge (largely) female audience who could identify with her. Daniel Fernando did not have such cards, and so, despite his great gifts, never reached superstar status. But he represents something old and deep, like id in the national consciousness: maybe that is why in film he almost always has to die.

This is why I love him. He is a beautiful man, and the only male film star in whose eyes one always feels the real sadness of his country. I am sure Rizal would have loved him and would have been delighted that Daniel was the only one who could play Elias with a kind of simple indio grandeur. Dear Daniel, mahal kita.

Benedict Anderson is Aaron L. Binenkorb Professor of International Studies, Emeritus, of Cornell University. A specialist on Southeast Asia, his works include Imagined Communities; Mythology and the Tolerance of the Javanese; In the Mirror: Literature and Politics in Siam in the American Era; Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anticolonial Imagination.
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