On The Road for Road Movies
The road movie is one of the most prominent subgenre in cinema. All the major directors at least tried their hand at this narrative structure; David Lynch has Wild at Heart, Terrence Malick has Badlands, Federico Fellini has La Strada, Ridley Scott has Thelma and Louise, Walter Salles has The Motorcycle Diaries, the list goes. The origins of the road movie would always lead back to Hollywood and the Western genre. After the Yankees ‘civilized’ the ‘Wild Wild West’ and dozens of cowboys and Indians stories they produced along the way, the postwar generation of 1950s were looking for something new. With the economic boom the US experienced after the war, younger people were able to afford automobiles and go on adventures to the ‘Westcoast’ using the highway infrastructure already in place.
A landmark cultural text that emerged was Jack Kerouac’s novel, On The Road which heavy influenced the Beatniks and the subsequent production of road movies. Walter Salles recently adapted On The Road (2012) into cinema. It is interesting to ask why didn’t the road movie didn’t spurn out localized versions in the Philippines during the time when US had political control over the islands. The answer is simple; the country didn’t experience a postwar economic boom, automobiles didn’t become affordable, and lastly there were barely roads aside from the fact that the entire colony is in ruins after the war (unlike the mother country).
There have been a number of Filipino road movies recently produced but in this essay I will focus on Jobin Ballesteros’ Colorum (2009). The said movie competed in Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival and this should be expected since without the cheaper digital filmmaking boom of the recent years, road movies would never have surfaced. These new indie road movies would bring new light to the discourse of Filipino postcolonial condition because of their different treatment of spaces and the people moving in them. It could even be said that road films like Colorum represent marginality even in a venue like Cinemalaya since the organizer’s official logo shows blue, yellow, and red boat sails.
The opening scene we see Simon (Alfred Vargas) being interviewed by a panel of higher police officers. He explains what it means for him to be a policeman, the dangers, and his responsibility to his society. He answered conservative and ‘kiss ass’ answers but he stutters and greatly lacks confidence. He realized this and leaves the room hating himself. Then, his ‘Ninong’(Archi Adamos), which is a police colonel, assures him everything will be okay. By this time next week he will be promoted. The next scenes show Pedro (Lou Veloso), an disoriented old man walking around the city. He goes to a house looking for a man. The landlady tells him the person left a year ago and gave him the new address which is all the way in Leyte. Pedro looks the bus station, where he can get a ride to the provinces. Simon is next seen checking out a house for rent and immediately calling his fiancé, a nurse based in the US, telling her he found the perfect place for their business. He then goes on with his day, driving his colorum FX for extra income.
Night falls in the city and Pedro is still lost until Simon found him in the sidewalk and tells him there’s still room. Pedro absentmindedly got into the car. All the other passengers eventually got off and Simon asked Pedro where his headed, since his heading for the garage. Naturally Pedro replied he doesn’t have an idea. Simon felt pity and decidedly to help the old man and gave him a ‘libreng sakay’. They went in circles and started arguing until Simon hit a pedestrian. The man was knocked unconscious and bleeding. Simon panicked and Pedro became hysterical. Simon points his service firearm to Pedro to shut him up. They got into the car and left the scene. Simon called his ninong and told what happened. His ninong got furious since Simon is up for a promotion and this will certainly ruin everything, besides the FX is licensed under his name. A colonel operating a colorum vehicle isn’t a very good thing. Simon is advised to go back to their province (Cebu) with the car and cool down for a while. Everything will be okay since teritoryo natin doon. Their relatives will then ‘take care’ of Pedro, the only witness to the crime. Simon handcuffs Pedro and together they head for the south.
By now, Colorum has established itself as a ‘running away from crime’ road movie. The hit and run incident will continue to drive the plot forward and haunt the characters. Regarding the postcolonial discourse the film tackles the Third World metropolitan-and-others. This binary system is explored thorough the film in a very subtitle manner. When they ran out of money, Simon decided to stop by some friends in Daet. His friends rent out surf boards to tourists. Everyone was glad to see Simon again. They decided to stay for the night. Over drinks, one of Simon’s friends remarked, “Buti naman napadalaw ka dito sa atin ulit. Halos wala na kaming balita mula nang umasenso ka.” Metropolitans use to serve as the center of colonial power and capital. However, after the liberation of former colonies, metropolitans still maintained the methods and standards left by the colonial experience. These capital cities now serve as centers of internal colonialism or imperialism. Simon is praised for making it in the big city, when in fact he has a meager policeman’s salary and is involved in illicit economic activities like driving a colorum vehicle. After the crime, they left to the provinces since there are less chances of justice being served. Later they met a pastor would got rich by operating a community church. The man told them he also grew up in Manila but went to the province to look for a job. Simon then remarked, “Baliktad ah.”
Keep Coming Back to Manila
This Manila-Others binary could also be the primary reason why road movies took a long time to emerge in the country. Since Manila is where most of the capital is, it only logical that movies are made in and by people in Manila. The narratives that are products of this arrangement also show a Manila-centric ideology. When a probisyano/probisyana tries her luck in the big city, she travels by boat. During pre-colonial times, coastal and river settlements developed rapidly because of the strategic advantage the body of water provides (food, transportation, and trade). The colonizers further utilized these settlements and created centers of colonial rule. Until now, the major cities in the country are near bodies of water; Manila, Cebu, Davao, Bacolod, Iloilo, etc. Natives who resisted colonial rule fled to the mountains and preserved most of their indigenous culture. The lowland-coastal city is not only the center of development but also of ‘civilization’ or you if like ‘culture’ (e.g. schools, health facilities, major religious structures, state offices, amusement including cinema). People in remote inland/highland/rural areas are the living embodiment of the subaltern: naive, fatalistic, and backward people needing guidance.
The level of marginalization is further extended considering the country’s place in the globalized world. Simon and Pedro later learned that the guy they hit was an American citizen. The Philippine state doubles it efforts to track down those who are responsible and even providing a reward. The US then sent FBI personnel to help since the lack of leads to the case; they suspect it to be an act of ‘terrorism’. Simon’s ninong calls him to hasten things up. Their relatives will now meet them in Ormoc not Mactan.
With after a conflict between the two, Simon found out Pedro is an ex-convict released after 30 years because of presidential amnesty given as a gift to prisoners who are also senior citizens by the President in celebration of the Independence Day. Pedro willingly cooperated with Simon since his son’s address is in Tolosa, Leyte. Simon got pissed off but when out of the route towards Ormoc and tried their luck looking for Pedro’s son who most likely disowned him, much to his ninong’s disappointment. When they reached the place, Pedro’s son moved again, this time to Pangasinan. When they arrived in Ormoc and Simon was about to give Pedro to be ‘taken care of’, he changed his mind and told Pedro, “Uuwi na tayo.”
Colorum is not just about the moral struggle of two subalterns but like the early road movie, the plot was used to give a social commentary on the landscapes outside the Capital and the people who move in these spaces. Along the way they met several peculiar and ‘pugartorial’ characters, a frustrated ‘nationalist’ writer (who writes nude, and has pictures of Rizal, Bonifacio, Jacinto, Mabini, Balagatas, Ninoy Aquino, and other ‘important writers’), a teen age girl going to the next town for an abortion, and a man who grew rich by pretending to be a pastor. Along the trip we see several ‘national’ symbols but when we take a deeper look actually have very ambivalent meanings. There are several shots of monuments whether by Rizal or any other ‘local’ hero, these historical monuments are juxtaposed by religious figures from different places as well. On Simon’s dashboard there is a Sto. Niño (Cebu, Visayas, province), later Pedro lends him a Black Nazarene (Manila, Quiapo?) t-shirt. Even the vehicle itself has multiple layers of meanings; a colorum Toyota Tamaraw FX.
They also pass by signs of progress established by the state; the vast San Juanico Bridge and the RO-RO ferry system. They also go by natural landmarks constructed to be national symbols particularly Mayon Volcano. But I think the richest texts are the McArthur Landing and the Romualdez Ancestral Mansion in Tacloban. McArthur and company are made of bronze and are intentionally built larger and taller than a life-size sculpture is suppose to be. Thus these American military officers, who ‘returned’ to ‘liberate’ the country in WWII, appear ‘larger-than-life’.
They didn’t have money and sneaked into the mansion/tourist spot for a place to sleep. We see the glamour Imelda (who was supported by Marcos, whose dictatorship was also supported by US during the Cold War) built for herself. The mansion has murals, some of her family, some of religious themes. There was a shot showing religious paintings but the walls where they were displayed are made off indigenous materials. The wall appears like a banig. The Ferdinand-Imelda marriage is another feature of cultural politics of the country. It a Luzon-Visayas political team up which is still done until now (e.g. Arroyo/Negros-Macapagal/Pampanga, Roxas/Capiz-Sanchez/Manila, etc.). This clearly illustrates the geopolitics of the country which was a remnant of colonization (Luzon then Visayas then Mindanao).
Colorums use to mean religious-political armed resistance against American rule (labeled as insurgents) but now they refer to anything illegal particularly illegal public vehicles that doesn’t go to the trouble (in the real sense of the word) of getting a permit from the government; a classic case of othering. Now, Ballesteros uses the colorum and the road movie format to again challenge the cultural hegemony. Indigenizing the road movie genre could also be a way of reviving the various epic traditions that existed in the island before colonization. Traditions which have been covertly or overtly marginalized by foreign literary forms, particularly Spanish theatrical forms. Until now, Filipino movies contain clear influence of komedya, sinakulo, saruwela, and bodabil.
In the end of the movie, Simon decided to face his crime and surrender. While in front of the police station, Pedro grabs his gun and fires at his thigh. Simon is in shock and in pain as Pedro instructs him, something like, “I will claim the responsibility. Get the cash reward, marry your fiancé, and build a life together. But please look for my son in Pangasinan and convince him that I’m not an evil person.”
Pedro goes into the police station holding the gun, one cop misreads his movements and shoots him, and others also open fired. Pedro dies in the streets. The final blow of the film is the concluding shots when the focus is Pedro’s body, his arm being pulled by a policeman, and the last split-second showed the photo of the Ninoy Aquino (another American sponsored hero like Rizal) in the tarmac. Before leaving the car, Simon got hysterical asking “Anong ginagawa mo?! Anong ginagawa mo?!”
Pedro simply said, “Bibigyan kita ng libreng sakay.”
Ballesteros’ film is a triumph because this is exactly what is it does.