For a movie with a title like Hubad (Tagalog for “naked”), the promise of heavy breathing and unfettered eros just isn’t quite fulfilled. Oh, there’s a seething hotbed, all right, but one seething with frustration and repression and lack of funding. Art and desire, conflated here in sparklingly incisive ways, is consistently cockblocked, if you will. Even in the first few minutes, foreplay is interrupted: a man, in closeup, is recounting his fantasy to a woman — of getting aroused by a woman rubbing his crotch with a stick — when the camera pulls back, and his listener gets flustered and runs away. “House lights please!” the director yells, and we discover that we’re in the middle of rehearsals for a stage play.
It’s the opening scene of Denisa Reyes and Mark Gary’s unashamedly intelligent and ambitious film Hubad. It’s Gary’s second feature film, and Reyes’ first. (It’s tempting to write that Reyes is “a bright, emerging new voice”, except that she’s a multi-awarded dance choreographer and Artistic Director of Ballet Philippines, the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ resident dance company.) Hubad is about two middle-aged actors, themselves dissatisfied by their respective marriages, filming a play about a married couple’s sexual fantasies. No, wait — it’s not about sex, it’s about intimacy and honesty, as Andre, the director (played wonderfully by real-life director Peque Gallaga), reminds them in a series of speeches, belligerent and grandiloquent all at once.
The intricate dynamics between “Hubad” the play and Hubad the film are what make the film interesting in and of itself, but what makes it more fascinatingly rich is how the play itself affects the movie’s characters. (There’s a third layer, as it turns out, which is “real life” — the couples in the movie are apparently indeed married to each other.) The play they’re rehearsing (in “real life”) is Liza Magtoto’s 20-minute play “Hubad”, itself an exploration of different sexual role-playing between two people in bed. In Hubad the movie, however, the play is written by the imperious Andre as a deliberate sexual provocation, something practically meant to goad the censors into shutting down the production. The audience — okay, I really should just speak for myself — is never completely sure whether the play is indeed as brilliant as Andre thinks it is, or whether he’s totally full of bluster. It might be both. It’s clear that Carmen and Delfin aren’t quite sure either.
Like their respective marriages, their careers are past their prime, with Carmen ignominiously deleted from her soap opera (first her lines, then her character), and Delfin auditioning for a thankless job as a singer in a Hongkong theme park. (Watch for Carlos Celdran in a cameo.) Meanwhile, Andre has serious problems coming up with money for the film, either from censorious funding panels or agents looking to place their less talented but ostensibly better-looking ingenues. The play, in short, is steady but grueling work, made more difficult by the actors’ own seemingly repressed urges and their relationship to the material, and by Andre’s borderline-abusive stage direction. (The scene when the indignant Carmen, her nerves in tatters, upbraids Andre about her having orgasms at middle age is simultaneously liberating and uncomfortable; it’s practically worth the price of admission.)
While most movies about cinema portray the emotional and psychological components of acting, Hubad shows it’s also an intensely corporeal experience, the clear product of Reyes’ choreography. The couple’s stylized sexual acts are choreographed step by step by Andre, most notably in an “S&M” sequence that consists of Carmen pulling invisible strings attached to a prostrate Delfin’s limbs. She twists him to and fro like a marionette, and they don’t quite get the timing right, almost like a parody of a sex-instruction video. The short snippets we see initially seem like an odd jolt of crude humor in Hubad, until one soberly realizes that the real puppeteer — Andre, the director — is lurking in the wings.
At which point I should write something about the cast: The wonderfully nuanced performances here, by Irma Adlawan and Nonie Buencamino, are nothing short of heroic. (For instance: there’s a scene early on when Carmen, just before she’s about to deliver a line (in response to being seduced by Delfin), is momentarily taken aback by a directorial instruction from Andre. Her face goes blank, then returns, a little too late, with this odd, slightly pained expression that I initially attributed to not-so-great acting, until I realized that she was precisely portraying an actress struggling to stay in character, visibly disturbed by what both Andre said and the words coming from her own mouth.)
The ursine Gallaga’s performance is similarly fascinating to watch: arrogant blowhard one moment, lovable avuncular crank the next. The supporting cast is excellent as well, but in the film’s one glaring weak point, Carmen’s husband Nestor (played by Dennis Marasigan) is portrayed too obviously as an ineffectual nebbish, as if to justify what Carmen does later. In case we don’t get the irony, Nestor’s business is in holiday decorations — Christmas balls, to be specific — but nonetheless it’s a great excuse to highlight the gaudy, ersatz Christmas cheer of their overdecorated house. But it’s as if the screenwriters (Ron Bryant, Reyes, and Gary) hesitated about whether Carmen was going to be sympathetic to the viewers.
No need for worry: it really is Carmen’s film, in a way. There’s a lot of chatty talk about Filipino women and sexual repression — and all this naturalized discourse, it’s important to point out, coming from men smoothly shooting the breeze with each other, impressing each other with their so-called insight. In an early scene, Delfin gives Andre advice on how to “handle” women, straight from the pickup-artist handbook: “Criticize them, compliment them, then you can make them do what you want,” or words to that effect. It’s funny and not just a little icky when Andre tries this technique on Carmen, and she is rightly suspicious. She’s invested, in any case, with a kind of moral authority here, one freer than the Catholic strictures that surround her domestic life and the production of the play.
It’s in that respect that Hubad is a particularly Filipino film, portraying a culture where sexuality simmers under the surface of the everyday, but is still considered, both in discourse and in practice, gravely taboo. Hubad is also an interesting glimpse at a particularly hermetic world: this is very strictly the world of bohemian middle-class and upper middle-class Filipinos — not people you see on film very often, actually, even if they’re precisely the kind of people making these movies. When the setting isn’t the theater or Andre’s living room, it’s coffee shops and bars (the Radioactive Sago Project performs “Alak, Sugal, Kape, Babae, Kabaong” in the film, although it’s Australia’s Dirty Three that provides most of the mournful soundtrack) — all places where both work and fun actually happen, as opposed to the couples’ own dreary dining rooms.
Hubad‘s sexual frankness is clearly a major selling point — you see the dry-humping all over the movie’s trailer (NSFW) — but I’m far more interested in the film’s incisive examination of the process of creating art. One might even say it’s where all the real heat and sticky passion happens: arguing over motivation, trying out lines, scraping together funds to rent out practice space, rendering oneself nakedly vulnerable in order to mine some deeper emotional truth. Indeed, the film is structured in such a way that the rehearsals form the spine of the narrative; instead, it’s life outside, in “the real world”, that interrupt this process of creation. Miguel Fabie III’s camera shifts to handheld in these cramped scenes, underscoring, with its looseness, the improvisatory quality of creation.
Even the supporting actors participate in the forging of art: Delfin’s wife Leah (Shamaine Buencamino) is a voice talent, dubbing Japanese robot cartoons into Tagalog, and here we see again those fits and starts, the constant honing of inflection to get things right. And getting things right — getting there, as it were — is hard; my memory is hazy, but except for perhaps one scene, practically every play rehearsal sequence ends with someone storming off in a fit. Hubad shows art as rehearsal, repetition, negotiation, dialogue — or, conversely, conflict, misapprehension, discomfort, exhaustion, and coercion.
And isn’t this, in fact, how amorous relationships work as well? Not as a given state of being or a gift of grace, but as a process, the by-product of incremental, patient, and sometimes downright (deliciously) dirty work: a world of Method acting, rehearsals, curtain calls, improvisations, collaborations, revisions, outtakes, spontaneities, flubbed lines? And sometimes, just sometimes, couples even make it work and come together.
When at last we see scenes from the filmed play performed at length — the little teasing snippets in rehearsal now finally bared to the play’s audience, and the movie’s audience as well — it comes as a shock because the audience in the film is laughing uproariously, witnessing the apparent opposite of the desperate and frustrated foreplay we’d witnessed earlier. Or maybe it’s only funny in an Edward Albee kind of way, with the audience misreading the savagery — and yet the response of laughter, in terms of emotional catharsis, feels just right.
And when the film ends, there’s a paean to the joys of theater delivered in a speech by the stage manager. It’s a stirring conclusion, and perhaps a little ironic after the emotionally bruising experience, but it’s fully earned, the perfect valediction to the little 90-minute miracle we’ve all experienced. Cigarettes after the screening are optional.
[NOTE: The marketing of Hubad seems designed to whip up a little frisson of scandal, but what I think is rather scandalous is that there's only one screening scheduled so far in the continental United States: Friday, July 24 at the New York Asian American International Film Festival. Readers of this blog in the New York Tri-State Area, if you're out there, I hope you know what to do: bring a date, and -- as Vincent Canby once wrote of Manoel de Oliveira's Abraham's Valley -- "watch the film, then argue into the night."]