In an age in Philippine cinema where filmmakers and their films are thirsting for a local market at the risk of solely relying on the international film festival circuit for an audience, a genre of films persisted, with a captive market that was loyal to it no matter how technically inept and creatively insipid the films were. Queer cinema took over the space the titillating films of the nineties outgrew. Initiated by Cris Pablo's ultra-low budget meditations on the gay lifestyle that were shot on digital video, these queer films were mostly independently produced, a quality that separated it from the sex-oriented films of the nineties which were heavily supported by the country's profit-hungry mainstream film studios. As a result of the genre's indisputable profitability, which in turn opened it to exploitation by more enterprising producers who opt to concentrate on what drew viewers to pay and watch, which is the nudity and the sex, instead of artistic integrity, it earned ill repute among film circles who saw the genre's domination in both numbers and earnings of the entire independent film industry, if ever such a thing exists, as an affront to what independence in filmmaking really meant.
Yet queer cinema in the
Joselito Altarejos, whose career as filmmaker is a product of the recent boom in queer cinema, has made seven features in the span of only three years. His staggering output as a director is a testament to the undying demand for the films that follow the formula that breathe economic viability to that particular genre. With Laruang Lalake (Boy Toys), Altarejos offers an insider's look as to how these films are made, starting from when an aspiring actor (Arjay Carreon) from the province is pushed to audition for an upcoming gay feature by his ambitions of stardom and dire financial needs to when the film gets made but its life hinges on the hands of the members of the censors board.
It's clearly and understandably a non-judgmental portrayal of what happens behind the scenes. The characters, from Carreon's timid neophyte and his motherly manager to the admirably honorable director (Richard Quan), lack that certain darkness in their personalities that could have caused the requisite conflict in this film about filmmaking. Instead, the film focuses on the mechanics of making a gay film, concentrating on moments that are by themselves banal, but as a whole, is a statement on how gay films, despite their assured profitability, are still subject to all the rules of independent filmmaking in the Philippines, which include making most of shoestring budgets, putting up with unprofessional upstarts and being at the mercy of established ones, personal loans for the sake of the craft, and censorship.
Altarejos dutifully mounts scene after scene, attempting to approximate the tedium that goes with the filmmaking, coloring the tedium with bits of comedy and drama. Despite the effort however, Altarejos fails to engage primarily because the film is not consistent in its aim, struggling to initiate its audience with the familiar story of an upstart getting into a profession that will predictably eat his soul before completely changing course to focus on the fate of the film. The problem stems from the fact that neither the upstart nor the fictional film is interesting enough to carry a film about them. Carreon plays his character with hardly any charm to pull away the fact that the character is severely thinly written. Fortunately, Quan and Mon Confiado, who plays a strip club owner who is venturing to produce gay films, are believable in their respective parts. The fictional film, showed in bits and pieces as being filmed and as shot, seems to be the typical gay film, defended righteously by the director as an exploration of gay sexuality, but as portrayed in the partial pieces that Altarejos shows, is more of a montage of naked male bodies in various simulated sexual acts.
Despite all its faults, Laruang Lalake contains a sequence that makes it worth anybody's time. The director faces the censors board for a second time, pleading for his film to be given a go-signal to be screened commercially. As the censors rip his film apart and tackles each objectionable scene and explaining why it can't be screened to the public, the film morphs into something else. Sure, ostensibly, the scene laments a film culture that bows down to individuals whose senses and tastes have become obsolete (as deliciously displayed when the censors themselves are unable to turn a cellular phone in silent mode). However, much more than a statement as to the dangerous inutility of the censors board, the scene, in the way the director defends first the scenes and later on, the homosexual acts depicted in the scenes, begs for acceptance of the genre that exists primarily because there exists sexual differences. To disparage the genre itself is akin to intolerance, and in a way, just like all the members of the board that condescend on the elements that are essential to both gay cinema and being gay, we're all suspects.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)