Faith Healing Tradition
Faith healing as a theme is not new in Filipino cinema. The most prominent without a doubt is Himala (1986), now considered a classic directed by National Artist Ishmael Bernal with scriptwriter Ricky Lee, and Nora Aunor playing the lead. Story of an impoverish town in the dessert, with is actually a part of Laoag, Ilocos Norte (The same place where FPJ shot some of his iconic fight scenes in Panday). The Virgin Mary started to show herself to a village girl, Elsa, and bestowed her with healing powers. Things got complicated and Elsa eventually got fed up with people’s ignorance and fanaticism and famously declared, “Walang himala!” Elsa was shot. Himala competed in the Venice International Film Festival and received critical praise. A restored version was reshown in said festival in its ‘classic screenings’. Taking into consideration of international release, explains the rampant exotization, ‘universalist’ narrative, and aesthetics of poverty the film possessed.
One of the casts, Joel Lamangan (who played the role of the parish priest), eventually started directing his own films. He takes up again the theme of faith healing in the movie Ang Huling Birhen sa Lupa (2002). Lamangan tries to dwell on aspects Himala tackled superficially particularly power relations/dynamics, gender violence, religion as ideological apparatus. The story revolve around another impoverish community this time in an island and uses the similar neorealist approach in Himala with tinges of magic realism. Like Elsa, Cion (Maui Taylor) was also raped. She gave birth to the child but according to doctors she is still at medically a virgin, hence the title. The poor fishing village doesn’t only have a Virgin Mary but also a St. Nino!
The link between faith healing and small town politics are probably the one of the best subversive texts and critique on the postcolonial condition like that of the Philippines. It is the kind of material postcolonial critics would feast on. However, a contemporary of Lamangan and another ‘post Second Golden Age’ filmmaker Chito S. Roño came up with another approach towards faith healing. In The Healing (2012) the poor rural space was replaced with (post)modern urban space and the fanatic lower-class people were changed into affluent bourgeoisie. The radical change is instead of the moralizing melodramatic narrative used in the earlier films, Roño used an equally moralizing suspense-horror plot structure he was known for. The movie was also in commemoration of Vilma Santos’ 50th anniversary in Philippine show business. In an interview, Roño said that the biggest challenge is trying to figure out what Ate V hasn’t done yet. In short, he made a horror movie for Ate V.
A History of Postcolonial Medicine
The story begins when Seth brought her paralyzed father, Odong to a famed healer, named Elsa somewhere in one of the provinces near Metro Manila. After being stroked, doctors were skeptical if Odong’s conditions will improve. Seth, trying her chances, went to a healer. Manang Elsa after praying over Odong asked her assistant and brother Melchor to give Seth some herbal medicine to be taken later. Seth was dumb folded and was about to leave. Before they left, there was a commotion among the people waiting in line outside the house. A man fainted and was rushed to Manang Elsa’s service. Later that night, Seth prepared the herbal medicine and made her father take it. The next day, Odong was able to walk and talk like any other healthy person.
During the pre-colonial times, medicinal and religious roles are intertwined. Often, the community priestess or babaylanes is also the herbalists and midwife. Inhabitants of the islands believe that they coexist with creatures not like them or those they cannot see. These creatures live in rivers, mountains, trees, etc. Illness is commonly attributed to disrupting the balance between people and other creatures in natures. Example, you destroyed their home, stepped on them, and even urinated on them. The priestess would then negotiate with the spirits and give the patient herbal supplements to ease his or her suffering. When the Spaniards arrived, they brought with them the science of medicine among other things. They also made extensive measures to eradicate the influence of babaylanes who also happen to be community leaders.
Most embraced the Catholic faith, science of Western medicine and lived near the plaza complex under the church bells. Some babaylanes fled into the mountains preserving their culture and influence. With the efforts of the colonizers, babaylanes eventually became the aswangs. Natives already believed in aswangs and other creatures of lower mythology but with the arrival of the Spainards and Catholicism, the aswang became a woman similar to the ‘witches’ of Europe and the only to vanquish these evil forces is through the use of religious apparatus (holy water, crucifix, etc).
Now back to the public health situation of the colony. Obviously there weren’t enough medical supplies and doctors to accommodate the entire population. The colonizers didn’t give the indios higher education then so the public health problem was aggravated. Much later in the colonial era, rich indios were given a chance to receive university education both in the country and abroad. Even national hero Jose Rizal studied to be a doctor in order to serve his community’s basic needs. Decent health care was only available to the affluent and those living in the proximity of the town center or cities. The pre-colonial beliefs and practices were strongly preserved in the impoverished rural/provincial areas. Still, Christianity was able to infiltrate these spaces, thus a hybrid form of medicine emerged an example of which is faith healing.
Just like in Himala and Ang Huling Birhen, Mang Elsa also lived in a rural/provincial area. When one says rural/provincial one refers to mountains, trees, dirt roads, wooden houses, and naive-fatalistic people. “Healing (pagbulong) is said by healers (parabulong) and their patients to be the ‘help’ which is given to the poor, to ‘those who have nothing’. Although many wealthier people in [Bicol and] the Philippines generally use healers, they can do so to supplement or complement the Western hospital medicine which they can afford. Poor people feel excluded from hospital medicine by its prohibitive cost, and yet in life-threatening emergencies they need to resort to it. Doctors are for the rich, I was told, and healers are there ‘as a help to the poor’.” (Cannell, 1999, p. 80)
The next day, Odong (Robert Arevalo) causes a commotion in the neighborhood as he narrates how he got well because of a faith healer. Seth (Vilma Santos) and her visiting son Jed (Martin del Rosario) are dumb folded. Seth is separated from her husband, Val (Mark Gil). Jed lives with his stepmother (Carmi Martin) and sickly stepsister, Cookie (Kim Chiu). We later learn that Seth is a high ranking execute in an insurance company. That night, she was furious arriving in a ‘thanksgiving’ party her father threw. Seth later learns there was another reason for the get together. A handful of her friends with diseases also want to try faith healing and they want Seth to bring them to Manang Elsa. Seth was hesitant but eventually agrees. Later that night, Jed video-chatted his mother and showed how terrible Cookie’s condition has gone because of a rare kidney disease whose name is irrelevant to this essay. Jed also wants to bring Cookie to Manang Elsa (Daria Ramirez). Seth doesn’t want to take Cookie personally since she still has issues with her ex-husband.
When they arrived in the place, they also see fellow dayos from Manila but the usual crowd waiting in line is gone and they found a pissed off Melchor (Joel Torre). Manang Elsa is exhausted and wouldn’t do healing for now. The group whines and begs and wakes up Manang Elsa inside the house. Manang Elsa though weak gave in. Seth has five friends with her who asked to be healed; Ding (Cris Villanueva), a policeman with a skin disease, Alma (Pokwang), a medtech also with a skin disease, Chona (Ces Quesada), came with her husband and has Goiter, Greta (Ynez Veneracion), also came with her husband has a lump on her breast, and Kakay (Abby Bautista), came with her mother Cita (Janice de Belen), and is losing her eye sight. They were all accommodated plus the other group from Manila. On the way home they came across Jed and Cookie. Cookie was also healed by Manang Elsa. One by one they eventually all got better. Except Cookie who was rushed to the hospital, after drinking the herbal tea. Seth’s ex-husband was furious about her involvement in Cookie’s case. After some time, Cookie got better, greatly confusing the doctors.
After the fortunate events, Ding invited the group to his engagement party which also serves as their ‘thanksgiving’. Ding wanted to remedy his skin disease immediately since he’s ashamed to ask his girlfriend for marriage because of it. However, Chona is not present. Earlier Seth saw her but didn’t act normally. Later they learned Chona killed herself in their neighborhood. Everyone was shocked since Chona didn’t seem to have problems. The next day, the guy (which is actually gay) from the other group who also went to Manang Elsa was reported to have taken his own partner hostage in a fitness gym. The circle of friends tried to calm themselves down. Next, Greta saw her own doppelganger then killed her husband and herself. The entire group is now terrified. Ding, even asked Seth for a medical insurance package for his wife. Ding then went to a raid operation of an (male) prostitution den. Seth saw his doppelganger and tried to warn Ding. Into the raid, Ding met his doppelganger, and started shooting prostitutes, clients, and his colleagues. He, naturally also killed himself.
The remaining members from being terrified became hysterical. Cita brought Kakay to a Chinese Temple to her uncle who a monk to watch over her. Alma left the house and moved into a dormitory. Seth was looking for her address when she saw her doppelganger and tried to warn her but it was too late. Alma started to drop other residents from several floors. She eventually poured gasoline all over her and ignited herself. Now only Cita and Seth are left to fix things.
They went back to Manang Elsa. The community was deserted and Melchor became a drunkard. Seth explains the recent tragedies but Melchor is oblivious. He narrates that Manang Elsa and his wife are both dead killed by Dario (Jhong Hilario). How did this happen? Dario is the patient they taught to have fainted but actually had a heart attack. When Manang Elsa ‘healed’ him, she brought him back to life. One can’t just bring back to life a dead person without consequences. The subsequent patients of Manang Elsa will have to pay with their lives the one that was given to Dario. Dario, said Melchor, has to be killed to end the further deaths. Dario is now imprisoned.
Cita went to watch over Kakay in the temple but lost sight of her during a lion dance. Then Seth saw Kakay’s doppelganger. Seth tried to warn Cita, but Kakay was already killing monks in a prayer chamber and then killed herself.
Seth is now desperate. She and Jed ‘abducted’ Cookie and brought her into a rest house in the province. Jed installed CCTV cameras to keep watch of the doppelganger. She tried poisoning Dario in prison but didn’t have the heart for it. Well she came back to the house she was attacked by Cookie’s doppelganger. She was able to defeat it after being trashed by the doppelganger (Dario called them diablong-kambal). After some time, Cookie’s doppelganger came back to try kill her and Seth again. But this time, it was defeated once in for all because Melchor came to the prison and shot Dario to avenge his sister and wife.
Postmodernization of the Postcolonial
The Healing has several observable Western horror genre influences particularly in the subgenre of ‘slasher’ films; multiple characters, a little gore, and ‘who will die next’ plot progression. An obvious Western symbol is the raven which signals the next death. Throughout the movie it was simply called ‘itim na ibon’ because of the lack of a local equivalent. Also a modified version of doppelganger that possess you and makes you kill other people and yourself. There is a local version called hunyango (also means chameleon in Tagalog) but these just show themselves as premonitions especially to relatives and friends. Throughout the film, ‘hunyango’ was never mention. On the surface level, the film doesn’t really provide anything new. Half way into the movie, when the sequence of healing was revealed (thus the sequence of killings) it became boring and predictable. But still the film remains to be a ‘rich’ cultural text, especially considering horror films best expose societal fears and anxieties.
On my initial reading I thought the film’s bottom line is the horrors of the postmodern. A survey of the characters and the spaces they move in would show this. Seth is a high ranking executive in an insurance firm; she is separated, and lives in an American period ancestral house (old rich, woman of power). She is also the landlady of Alma and other boarders. Odong after being cured starts to consume the ‘youth lifestyle’; dating a younger girl, having younger friends, learning how to use the internet and social networking sites, and going to places like malls and theme parks (post corporeality, simulacra). Ding is a police man (law, state violence) about to be married to his fiancé (indigenous groups) and observing her tribes practices (both in their marriage and his burial). Greta and her husband run an appliance repair shop. Cita (multiculturalism) is a single mother who got separated from her Chinese or Filipino-Chinese husband/partner. Seth’s ex-husband runs a surveillance equipment shop. Alma (feminized transnational labor) is a medtech working in Dubai. The spaces where deaths happened are also postmodern; fitness gym, sex den, Chinese temple, etc.
These people live their life in multiple layers of meanings and the thing that disrupts everything is not faith healing (alternative medicine) in itself but death. Not just any death but bloody and certain death. Also I think the greatest merit of the film is portraying death as a social spectacle. The special effects are not that good but every time one of them dies, it’s always a social event; there are a lot of usiseros, media people, and policemen.
The image and special effects are terrible but you could hear people scream and react, reporters giving updates to the camera, and policemen negotiating but have their guns ready. It’s not merely anxieties about death, it is about the fear that one’s death would be like what one sees in the news. Thus it is not mere fear; it is fear only the bourgeoisie experience. The more affluent you are, the more alienated you are from death. Middle class conception of death only happens in hospitals or with the elderly. On the other hand death is part of the everyday life of the subaltern; people die of diarrhea, pneumonia, malnutrition, etc. The resolution of the film is postmodern: alternative medicine works for some, it doesn’t work for some. This is highly problematic since viewers are made to ignore the postcolonial and material basis and sustenance of faith healing.
Birth of the Filipino Body
Filipinos attitude towards the body also reflect their perception of their bodies. One of the things doctors complain in the country is that Filipino patients are ‘in denial’. They wouldn’t go to a doctor unless the case has gotten worse. (All the more to cases like AIDS and HIV). It is still a very Christian ideology; you don’t own your body, just borrowing from God, etc. It is no wonder that legislation (Reproductive health, divorce, abortion, mercy killing, etc) that promote independence of the individual to make decision for his or her own body is strongly challenged by the Church. Once you make people control their body, they will sooner or later control their own destiny as individuals and as a nation. Until public health is improved both in the rural and urban areas, the condition of this country (political, economic, cultural) will remain stagnant. Unlike Himala and Ang Huling Birhen, the primary intention of the film is scare you not moralize you. It shows all the facts before your eyes but it is your decision to take action of not. In fact you don’t have to make a decision at all.
Cannell, Fenella (1999) Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines, Cambridge University Press