Taking its cue from a firm and unforgiving biblical adage about final reckoning, Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang depicts hypocrisy and false piety -- sometimes in solemn tones, sometimes in not-so-serious satire -- within a small provincial town in the middle of 1970s. Set in San Ignacio, Nueva Ecija, a fictional but no less actual town, the worst of human excesses and weaknesses bubbles just beneath the surface of specious religious trappings. We see the womenfolk in their mantillas rise and fall to the directions of the priest, their lips prayerful and their faces expressive of ardour, but cut to their homes and headquarters, we find them practicing a perverse kind of Christianity, one that is caught up in sheer appearances alone. For every religious occasion observed by the camera, there seems a scathing equivalent of incriminating excess.
For each funeral on display, the deceased about to be lowered into the grave, there is a rather comical scramble for a photo opportunity. For each mass on Sunday, menfolk gather outside the church in a huddle, boasting about their skirt-chasing, womanizing and sexual exploits. (It is all out in the open that the youths form a funnily similar gaggle of their own, with nascent braggadocio, taking after their fathers). For every wake, there is a beehive of gossip among those who style themselves as the town’s religious (The Association of Christian Works), while everyone else gathers in a boisterous gaggle, playing chess and bingo and gambling, drinking and toying with the village idiot. It is easy to recognize them as an ensemble character of sorts.
Working in tandem with scriptwriter Mario O’Hara, a collaborator for several films by then, director Lino Brocka constructs a seemingly damning but ultimately hopeful moral fable about a Filipino town that may not be too far removed from a contemporary one more than thirty years later. Against these worldly corruptions emerge unlikely characters who may hold out hope for recuperation and redemption: Junior, the teenage son of a wealthy family whose name may suggest the legacy of his sinful forebears; Kuala, the village fool whose bitter and painful past explains her lunacy; and Berto, the leper who lives unwillingly exiled in the margins of society.
At 35 years old, Brocka accomplishes what we see in retrospect as his first masterpiece in only his fifth film, displaying self-assured direction and instinctive eye for detail. With the contrasts between goodness and depravity, he seamlessly combines lyrical passages, often those that contain Junior, Berto and Kuala, with compositions brimful of chaotic characters that he reserves his satirical barbs for. We see here the incipient touches of a social commentator that would treble years later. What is astonishingly surprising, Brocka’s greatest accomplishment in this film, however, is that he pulls off an adroit juggling act detailing each of his varied characters.
Plaudits must go to the perfectly-cast performers foregrounded by this film. Lolita Rodriguez plays Kuala with almost childlike innocence, belying a past that sees her traumatized by an abortion and abandoned by her lover (Cesar, Junior’s father). Mario O’Hara portrays Berto the leper with empathy, equal parts wise, when counseling Junior about the facts of life, and recognizably human, in his hours of need. As Junior, Christopher de Leon provides the youth’s perspective well, unjudging and innocent, still redeemable. As though awakening to the world for the first time, he boldly observes what is otherwise a bewildering vortex of wrong exemplars around him: spurned by his adolescent love (Evangeline, played haughtily by Hilda Koronel), wrongly influenced by a father (played with swaggering gusto by Eddie Garcia) whose womanizing knows no limit, and his boyhood pals, who have learned too well from their fathers.
But the most essential parts of this film remain those that involve Brocka’s holy triad (Junior, Kuala, and Berto, almost constitutive of a hermetically sealed family): this aspect of his film is a little sentimental, true, but ultimately reflective of social paradox — that society’s only hope lies with those that it has exiled. Away from the forked tongues of society—those that may do them in in the end— Brocka’s brave and intrepid characters provide the voices of innocence and reason, their scenes together depicting a pastoral poem whose definitions may have become pure anachronisms in this day and age.
reviewed: May 15, 2009