Husband, Mistress, Wife, and Lover.
Sexual preference and lifestyle has always been one of the more confusing prejudices within society. The notion of how or with whom someone wishes to express their physical love seems the most desperate and self-centered of bigotry. Those who find homosexuality perverted tend to function under the misguided assumption that gay people are constantly on the make or long to spend their leisure time in the attempted conversion of "straights." People with a fundamentalists Bible-based moral code quote chapter and verse about how and why there is sin in this "choice," but those without a god to back them up tend to be irrational and oversimplify. In essence, since they can't imagine themselves involved in such acts, no one else should either (let alone actually do it). For these closed-minded souls, the traditionalist society of the modern day Philippines should seem like Shangri-La, for here the age-old sexual roles are strictly enforced. To be gay is to be shunned, and in the film Three we are allowed to see the devastating effect this kind of backward thinking can have on families and friends. It offers us a chance to see a culture and characters in flux, between the narrow-mindedness of the past and present, and the potential openness of the future.
Facts of the Case
Elsie and Tito are married. Tito is a successful architect who is constantly cheating on his wife with his scheming secretary, Susan, who longs to take Elsie's place in Tito's life. One night, a car pulls up to their house and a strange, manly woman tells Elsie that Alice wants to see her. Soon, Alice herself arrives at Elsie's home and in their confrontation we learn that, before she was married to Tito, Alice and Elsie were lovers. Had been since they were teenagers. Alice presses for a future meeting, and it is here that we learn that she is dying of cancer. While committed to the manly Barok, she wants her old lover back. At first, Elsie says no. But as old emotions overtake her, she leaves Tito and returns to care for Alice.
This devastates Tito. In his society, the man is the ruler of his domain, and women do as they are told. Susan is happy, and she quickly moves in to replace Elsie. Alice demands that Elsie come out about her homosexuality or leave. Elsie confronts both Tito and her mother. Only Tito is surprised and hurt. As Alice gets worse, Elsie discovers she is pregnant with Tito's child. Suddenly, an impoverished life caring for a dying lover doesn't sound all that financially secure. She yearns for the protection of Tito's status and salary, but her love for Alice is too strong. Eventually, Alice confronts Tito, and explains that nothing he does will change Elsie. Still, she wants the child to be happy and she forms an unusual, mostly friendly non-competitive alliance between the three of them. But even the best-laid plans can begin to unravel when prejudice, fears, and true feelings come rising to the surface as life altering and ending events loom over them all.
Three is a good movie. It's not a great movie, or a profound statement, but it does a decent job of showing us the place that homosexuality and promiscuity have in the society and culture of the Philippines. It does this by focusing on the story of individual people, not dwelling on grandiose themes of civil rights or vile persecution. If this were an American film with an American sensibility and an English speaking cast, it would turn into something preachy, striking the chord for acceptance and tolerance long and often. Or maybe it would take a self-serving, sanctimonious turn, allowing good intentions to escalate into its cinematic counterpart: utter lifelessness. But as set within the traditional, conservative system of the Philippines, the film invigorates the viewer, supplying several intriguing layers and subtle themes that one does not usually find in the self-conscious works of the West. As the characters behave and react, we wonder how much of it is the way they feel, and how much of it is a reaction to decades of communal indoctrination.
Three deals with flawed people living lives filled with unhappiness and deception. Elsie is a lesbian, always has been. She was married off to Tito because to not be would raise a family scandal. Girls like her serve men and have male heirs. Her ex-girlfriend Alice is as close to open in her sexuality as the limited tolerance of her town will allow. She channels the bitterness of persecution into a stalker-like lust for the comfort of Elsie. She also understands the pain of rejection, having no contact with her parents at all. Tito is a stereotype at first: his entire persona and purpose in life is linked to his penis and sex drive. But soon we see he is primarily a victim of his culture: one where male adultery is acceptable (and somehow expected); one that considers affairs mundane; and one that assumes sexual proclivity is an indication of wealth and privilege. This is really his story, the tale of Tito as a symbol. It's his presence, his social status, his "maleness" that the rest of the characters respond and rebel against. Along with Barok, Alice's current lover; Tito's gold digging mistress, Susan; and Elise's poor, lower class mother, we get the entire spectrum of Philippine life, from rich to poor, respected citizen to deviant outsider.
The grouping of these complex characters creates one of the many subliminal and obvious references to the notion of three in the film. The original Tagalog title Tatlo…Magkasalo is roughly translated as "three as equals" or "three caught together," so it is clear the makers want to emphasize the notion of threes and triples. The movie is presented in three movements. The first deals with the carnal desires and sexual lust of the players. The second focuses on the social and interpersonal ramifications of coming out of the closet and excepting who you are. The third and final act centers on the harsh reality of living within a society that devalues homosexuality as it celebrates family and marital duty—there can be no happy ending or an imagined fantasy resolution here. There are also several interconnected threesomes between the characters. Tito, Elise, and Susan make up the "domestic" threesome. Alice, Elise and Tito make up the "alternative" threesome. Barok, Elise, and Alice make up the "gay" threesome. Tito, Susan, and the Mother are the "straight" threesome. There are so many variations that a fascinating dynamic is created, one that allows real emotion and the political undercurrent to surround and touch all the characters. It's a credit to the cast that their subtle performances accentuate the unspoken pain and hidden shame that people within this culture must endure, simply to be who they are. Each actor makes his or her character a distinct and real human being.
Sex is also a very important issue in the film. But Three is not some pornographic flesh fair. Although there are some very torrid and erotic moments, the sexual act is used to communicate unspoken issues, to show Tito's need to bolster his manliness or Susan's demand for control and happiness. In Alice, we see how physical love is the closest thing to an inherent gay right she has. But in Elsie, sexuality finds a mixed message. Sex for her was almost always about shame. With Tito, it became a chore geared toward childbirth and denial. Now she is caught between the desire to be true to her heart and safe in her home. Director Carlos Siguion-Reyna does an excellent job here of framing the action and setting compositions so that the sexual and personal battles amid the characters are always illustrated. When Elise's pregnancy threatens to send her back into the arms and domination of Tito, Siguion-Reyna never lets us forget about Alice. Her seated image inserts itself into the shot between the married couple, showing that even in the faux-celebration of parenthood, there will always be Elise's lesbianism to contend with. Siguion-Reyna also does a wonderful job of hinting at the growing acceptance in this culture of alternative lifestyles by painting the perimeter of the film with believable gay and lesbian extras. At first we are concerned that they will be the subject of dim comedy or ridicule. But they play an important role in the subtle message of tolerance and affection.
And this is what Three does best. It exemplifies how being gay is not all about mandates, rallies, and civil disobedience. It's about being who you are. It's about being human. Gays and lesbians are not labels, just people: no better or worse, more noble or deviated, than the average member of the race. They are not overly righteous gods suffering for the social cause. Nor are they oversexed perverts looking to bed every member of the same sex they see. Director Siguion-Reyan makes these potential archetypes individuals, pointing to and accentuating their faults as well as their best features. Alice in particular is a very unlikable character. She throws off her current lover (a very butch but caring woman) for her long lost (lipstick lesbian) love. She uses her disease as a lure and an anchor. So does Tito (his disease being "machismo") having to constantly "express" his heterosexuality and demanding female subservience in a mad attempt at securing his masculinity. Elsie is ashamed of her leanings, so much so that she is willing to discard them, and herself, for the security of a socially acceptable home. This compelling, realistic focus helps Three to transcend its melodramatic, disease of the week trappings and become a wonderful, if not always perfect film.
There are only two real flaws with this DVD release from Culture Q Connection. The first is the transfer. It is impossible to tell if this film is in anamorphic widescreen or not. There is no indication on the DVD package, and a search of the 'net has resulted in mixed messages. About as mixed as the transfer, actually. This is a DVD image filled from frame to frame with original print flaws. There are grain, scratches, tears, and even some overexposed portions of the film. While not overtly distracting, they do interrupt the mood and tone that the film worked so hard to create. Some important moments are indeed marred by obvious flaws. But at least it's letterboxed, because notwithstanding from an incredibly poor quality trailer for some unfunny comedy, we get nothing else here. NOTHING ELSE. Not even chapter breaks. Take that back, there are TWO chapter breaks. One is the START of the film; the other comes at 57 minutes into this 87-minute movie. People complain about David Lynch and his lack of chapters, but imagine having only ONE. Why bother to have it at all? The total lack of even the most standard of DVD features makes the presentation of what is a decent foreign film seem cheap and unappreciated. And that is too bad, because it is hard to imagine a company like Culture Q Connection intended it to be this way. They champion gay cinema, not bash it.
Still, we learn NOTHING about the movie. There is no insert. The plot outline on the back it barebones and basic. There is no filmographies or cast and crew information. Research discovered that director Carlos Siguion-Reyna is a respected Philippine director with many films to his credit. Scriptwriter Bibeth Orteza is married to Carlos and has won many awards for her screen and teleplays. The role of Elsie is essayed by one of the Philippines biggest pop stars, Ara Mina, who caused quite a stir with this breast baring portrayal of a lesbian. (Imagine if Britney or Christina let it all hang out in a film where they had several intimate scenes with both men and woman, and you can imagine the tabloid press response and the amount of spin from Mina's music camp that occurred.) One on-line interview even had her proclaiming her heterosexuality over and over again, hoping that her male and female fans got the message (as well as to undermine the country's moralist's call to ban her music). All of this background information is insightful and intriguing. And NONE of it can be found on the DVD presentation. A few moments on the information superhighway were all it took for this review to add some depth to the presentation of Three. Why couldn't the manufacturer?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Let's get one thing straight: after watching this movie, it is clear that members of the rainbow coalition looking for a little Eastern island fun and sun should definitely skip the Philippines. For that matter, working and liberated women may want to take a pass as well. This is one backward country, sexual roles speaking. Women are born to serve, make babies, and take random smacks to the face and body when "the man" feels the slightest bit threatened. Gay men and women are subject to humiliating epithets and beatings for no other reason than their flamboyance and preferences. It's okay for a secretary to secretly wish for her boss to get divorced, since being a gold-digging, leg-spreading whore is an acceptable alternative to a legitimate career. And everything is about the baby. A man is not a man without one. A woman is useless if she can't bear one. Daughters should be shunned for not giving their mothers' one, and so on. Three may be intelligent and gentle when it comes to issues about gay recognition, but in the old style battle of the sexes, its clear that this is one "macho" loving society. And this scars the movie.
As do a couple of other minor issues. Blade Runner foretold of a day when all languages would be amalgamated into a kind of slang gutter talk. Well, welcome to Tagalog 101. This apparently legitimate language of the Philippines is very difficult to listen to and follow. Take some Spanish, a little Thai, perhaps a French word or two, and a great deal of broken English, mix them up like the junior jumble up, sputter it out, and you have this most frantic and coarse of spoken dialects. Most foreign films act as mini-Berlitz courses. After an hour or so, you can pick up a word or two. Not Tagalog. A character can say "I love you" three times and it can sound completely different on each occasion. That is, when you can read what the characters are saying. The subtitles are in the old-fashioned white lettering style, which means every time we focus on the sky or anything light, we loose important dialogue and information. But probably the most bizarre aspect of the film is the occasional break into full-blown English. No subtitles, no mush mouthed goofy talk, just standard, heavily accented English. As difficult as it is to hear the characters speak their own tongue, pidgining up the Queen's lingo is just plain jarring. Why it is here, who knows? If certainly does not add to the film.
In reality, Three could have been intolerable. It deals with prejudice and cultural stereotypes. Its main character, Alice, is almost insufferable. It deals with the standard weepy concept of someone dying of a terminal disease and wanting to mend fences and regain relationships long past. But because of its setting, and the skill of the cast and the filmmakers, Three rises above all these potential cinematic landmines to create a good, perceptive film. This is not the kind of movie that wins awards or draws critical accolades. It has its flaws, as does the DVD presentation. But if Tito can forgive and be forgiven, can't we? Audiences should show the same kind of compassion to this unknown foreign film. After all, it's not every day that one gets to witness the progress and level of tolerance our own society has achieved through the eyes of characters stuck in lives filled with dowerys, paternalism, and outright bigotry. Maybe someone in the United States should try and make a film similar to Tatlo…Magkasalo, something brave enough to expose the remaining social stigmas inherent in our traditions, while examining how love and acknowledgment can be achieved, one individual mind at a time. Maybe then our cinematic explorations of gay life will be more candid and insightful. Like Three
Three is placed on one year probation for being a decent, honest film about homosexuality that rises above its issue and disease-of-the-week TV movie trappings by setting its story in the conservative and suspicious social order of the Philippines. Culture Q Connection is hereby sentenced to 30 days in jail for not providing even the basics of DVD packaging, leaving the court to discover interesting information about this film and the makers himself.
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