A REVIEW OF ‘MANANG BIRING’

Eluding poverty and tragedy porn

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KATRINA STUART SANTIAGO

KATRINA STUART SANTIAGO

The narrative of ailments and how it makes survival a conscious, every day choice, is not new in our cultural texts. What has resonated with me though, particularly in film, is the constant checking things off a bucket list: eating what she wants, traveling, saying sorry, saying I love you. These were in 100 (written and directed by Chris Martinez, 2008) for example, as it was in Forever And a Day (written by Melissa Mae Chua, directed by Cathy Garcia-Molina, 2011).

That this narrative is bound to the limits of class is not surprising in a country where health and medical services is only for the wealthier among us.

It is this context that made Manang Biring (Carl Joseph Papa, Cinema One Originals 2015) a movie worth watching, telling as it did what terminal illness is like for the poorer among us, but also how the narrative can be told without that layer of realism that has allowed us to imagine poverty porn—the cinematic portrayals of poverty that the international film festivals and critics like to see in our films.

Animating illness, poverty
After the first 20 minutes of the film, I whispered to my date: “Is it going to be like this all throughout?”


 Director Carl Joseph Papa accepts the best film award for Manang Biring together with Erlinda Villalobos who plays the titular role

Director Carl Joseph Papa accepts the best film award for Manang Biring together with Erlinda Villalobos who plays the titular role

The animation was disconcerting in the beginning for sure. Usually animation is used as an introductory and transition device in our films, especially when we are being made to imagine storytelling that works intertextually with other media such as comic books. I had thought—without knowing what the film was going to be about—that this was also only being used as a device for storytelling.

For Manang Biring though, animation was not mere secondary device; it was the film’s centerpiece alongside the story it was telling.

It took a while for the defamiliarization to settle down, and I meanwhile found myself constantly shifting between form and content: this is what’s going on, and this is why it’s being told in this way. It made me wonder about my own discomfiture, about why this was such a difficult movie to watch, and one realizes it’s not so much the form, but the content.

Because the dominant portrayal of illness in film is already involved in the rhetoric of positivity, where survival and happiness become of prime importance, in a time and space where money is of no object. But Manang Biring is not at all someone who can afford to not think about money, a tindera out on the streets as she is of various concoctions that purportedly solve every ache and pain, every ailment and sickness.

That of course she is the one with an incurable illness is an old ironic twist. That she had just conceded to living as long as she can, and dying when she will; that she had decided to suffer the pain of her body’s decay, until her body gives up, is what the animation deals with beautifully.

Because the black and white cartoon keeps us from focusing on what decay looks like, it keeps us from becoming judgmental about why she had taken so long to seek the help of professionals, or why she wanted to suffer through this at all. Without the gaze of social realism, we are allowed a removal from the standard(ized) tragedy of poverty (in film) and the kind of violence it wreaks on the body. With animation, we are allowed a respite from the poverty porn that has become redundant and tiring, international acclaim notwithstanding.

Beyond animation
Manang Biring also had going for it a very clear vision of how the story was to be told, given where it wanted to go. The plot twist was of course the fact that the old lady’s long-estranged daughter was finally coming home from America, bringing a grandson she had never met. This gives the old woman something to live for, a reason to at least fight the illness a little longer than she should, medical treatment included.

But instead of delving into the violence and pain of cancer treatments, not to mention its cost, what the film successfully does is divert the attention to the more urgent concerns of Manang Biring. The need for money was dealt with efficiently and with nary hesitation: the woman could obviously sell anything. So she went into the business of selling beauty products with her friend Eva (Mailes Kanapi), and selling whatever antiques she could find in her house with burglar turned friend Terrence (Alchris Galura). At some point the three unlikely friends happen upon selling drugs; Manang Biring decides to call it quits the moment she realized that their lives were at risk.

With the money question out of the way, the film could then focus on other things that were in Manang Biring’s head: mainly how to make sure that her daughter’s and grandson’s homecoming is as wonderful as possible. She finally gets electricity in her home, asks that Christmas is spent in their house by Eva and Terrence and their families, plans a feast for the day of arrival itself.

The efficiency with which this list of to-do’s is ticked off, as well as the sharp sense of time given Biring’s lack of time, is what dominates the rest of this film. It is light-hearted because Biring, Eva, and Terrence are wont to fall into banter. Biring herself is quick-witted and feisty, which allows for the handling of her impending death to be without the usual drama that is in the handling of tragedy in film.

This is really mostly about Erlinda Villalobos as the actress who plays Biring, who carries in her performance the weight of ailment, as she does the lightheartedness in mortality.

This she further layers with the sense of humor and absurdity to imagine getting a doppelganger, so that her wish of a perfect reunion with her daughter is finally fulfilled – even if she shall watch it from a distance.
That Villalobos is animated in this film, does not remove from the kind of work she put into the complexity of Manang Biring’s persona. It is her work here that allows you to realize that in fact the animation of the whole film is precisely what allowed for it to work, eluding the gaze of poverty and tragedy porn that is in too much of our films, and forcing the audience to contend with a story of people embroiled in these narratives instead.
That is Manang Biring’s greatest achievement.

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