[It is films like that this one that I count myself privileged to write for a website like ScreenAnarchy. It is not often that this type of essential cinematic discovery comes along, and I'll admit there is quite a heady-thrill when you are caught so off guard about a film. I must confess that my experience of the Filipino film industry is rather limited. That brings me into this particularly obscure piece of cinema with a lack of context politically and socially. A good thing that this film deals with themes and images which are timeless and intrinsic enough to the human condition, certainly knowing the state of the country at the time (original release was 1985) has to add a fair amount of additional insight into the film, however it is not really necessary. On a certain level, there is an art-house accessibility that should have had Silip picked up by Criterion (who put out Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo) or Masters of Cinema or Facets years ago.]
Kudos to UK label Mondo Macabro for bringing this intense film out of obscurity and hopefully into a beloved place in cinema history. Surely it belongs beside Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo as one of the defining films that go after the extreme side of the human condition. It would be foolhardy (or too convenient) to label this film as simply an 'Opera of Exploitation'. Still, it does open with a man killing a buffalo with a hammer before disemboweling the beast and hacking off the head with an axe. And he does so, not only in front of the village children, but in particular one grief stricken young boy who viewed the animal more as a pet than livestock. He is told by the man, who during the process of butchering the animal for later distribution amongst the village folks, that the people have to eat. It is a particularly strong way to end the innocence of the child, and also of any unsuspecting audience member. The film is loaded with graphic sex, more than one grizzly murder and at one point, a hedonistic gang rape. And yet, art this clearly is. Unlike many films labeled as extreme or exploitive cinema, Silip is a meticulously plotted, delicately structured and textured film that finds a sublime balance between thematic depth and shocking (occasionally even absurd) imagery. The two hour plus film wraps it all up in package that speaks volumes about human repression, how people individually and collectively deal with guilt and the inevitable unleashing of the beast within if things remain bottled or suppressed for too long. Speaking without irony or hyperbole Silip is a bona fide masterpiece.
Set in the stark coast of northern Philippines, visually the film makes the most of the countryside. As there are no few trees to cover from the sun, there too is little privacy. A thin flap of dried grass my hide a sexual encounter but it doesn’t hide the noises, and temptation to peek in to whatever carnal activity may be going on is only natural. In fact, the literal translation of Silip is “peeping.” While voyeurism is both a staple of eroticism as well as cinema in general, it is hardly the only thing on this films agenda. The story follows two exceptionally attractive girl friends which have caused more than a little conflict and confusion in the little town. Tonya (former Miss Philippines Maria Isabel Lopez) is filling in as the religious teacher of the village while the catholic priest is off in Manila getting treatment for a serious medical condition. She uses religion as a shield for her smoldering lust towards the town butcher, Simon (seen in the opening moments slaughtering the buffalo) and pushes abstinence, purity and religious fervour on the impressionable young ones. Most of the townsfolk find this a little intense, in particular Simon’s current lover, a widow and mother of Miguel (the little boy who was unhappy about the buffalo slaughter and going through some Freudian issues in regards to Simon having his way with his mom).
Then there is the trashy vixen Selda (Sarsi Emmanuelle). Returning from exile from Manila with a white boyfriend, make-up and a boom box playing Madonna (Like a Virgin, naturally). Exiled for having sex with Simon years back and likely preventing any meaningful relationship between Tonya and Simon (these people have some serious emotional baggage from the incident). Selda seems to be back in town for one of two reasons. Either she is on a lark to show off her consumer goods and white boyfriend (signs of success) to the town and have kinky rural sex on grass mats or she is honestly trying to get Tonya out of what Selda refers to “this hell, ” meaning the village. The tension between these two women (both actresses are not only gorgeous, but excellent in their opposite roles) and handsome stud Simon are the lust-triangle which is the driving force of the film which plays out like an exotic Shakespearean tragedy. A young student Pia, seen getting her first period in the opening moments (in a shot of blood running down her leg immediately following Simon hoisting the buffaloes horns) is caught between the two womens opposite life outlooks. Tonya is all catholic guilt and repression and barely bottled lust (at one point Tonya has the children throw hot sand on her loins to put out her desire) while Selda is the embodiment of brazen passion and devil-may-care attitude for religion, propriety or restraint. The rest of the townsfolk seem to be harboring a collective guilt and confusion at the death of Tonya’s mother some years ago, not to mention Selda’s self imposed exile. It’s a boiling cauldron which would make David Lynch smile and the filmmakers have constructed a perfect storm of Catholicism and gender-politics provocation with one of the most intense climaxes this side of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. Rarely has the loss of innocence or the lengths people will go to crawl through the mud in an attempt to recapture that innocence been visualized so vividly. A failed plea for rational thought or even a semblance of justice is lost to the collective (and willfully blind) passion of the mob and the animal nature man. The willingness to deny seeing clearly - even with the facts are so visibly on display - is an engrossing way to consider and compare the burning of the needs of the flesh and the equally burning needs of the spiritual. If you are not shaken to your very core at the conclusion of this film, well check your pulse -- or your moral center of gravity.
While Silip will likely live or die by string of shocking images on display (and there are many, all shot well above the level of any average exploitation film), there is an art to the execution that cannot be denied. Director Elwood Perez (who cut his teeth making those Wonder Woman by way of Superman films, the Darna series, but has worked in nearly every other genre of film and is well known in his native land) is caught between making something along the lines of the Japanese Pink films (the Filipino style, popular at the time, featuring pretty-darn-close-to-hardcore-sex, is often referred to as ‘bold (slang for nude) film’) and the Euro-art stylings of Liliana Cavani. A match made in Hell, surely a good thing to rile up the unsuspecting populace.