In Area, Ai-Ai delas Alas’s portrayal of an aging sex worker could be an effortful switch for her, considering the type of comedy she had built her career from. On the big screen and on T.V., she had played loud characters and caricatures–that to be able to convince us that she was this experienced prostitute in a poor section of Angeles, Pampanga should be a feat. And she partly succeeded.
Her strategy was to play the character anemically, an even amount of white powder painted on her face, dark eyeliner on to emphasize her sad eyes. She was Hillary, a woman longing to see her son, the boy separated from her for years since the aftermath of the Mt. Pinatubo eruption. Ai-Ai had to let that snicker and screechy, cacophonous voice she is known for to leave her for this stint to win us over. How she pointed her lips and opened her mouth into shapes while delivering dialogues, how she squinted her eyes at the same time while laughing–they, too, had to go. She spoke softly. Like she swallowed her voice as if filled with shame.
She was ready to cry anytime, her stare warned us. Her face was dead-cold when she had sex with some freak, like a suffering saint’s while she pleasured a senior citizen. Forget her chin being her physical asset in comedy. It had turned into an ID in the brothel. Hearing someone call her Baba (chin) could summon memories of teenage bullying she might have endured in the past. She must have capitalized on what little pain that namecalling could resurrect inside her, which added to her interiority, paled her face more, made her head tilt a few times to its left side, weakened, ready to repose, sucked of her Ang Tanging Ina spirit.
She had this rare but appropriate bursting out from her general ‘flatness’ of portrayal. In one long-take, she gave her all, with an absence of self-consciousness, a little of her comic energy coming out of her face and in her cry. It was a pumped-up version of Hasmine Killip’s continuous take in Pamilya Ordinaryo the first time it had sunk in on her that she had lost her Baby Arjan, Ai-Ai looking similarly like Killip, both looking lost themselves.
Others in the movie displayed a sense of commitment as if they contributed money in producing the film. Sue Prado played her role memorably as one of Area’s sex delights. With Hillary and the rest of the prostitutes, she reared her children inside their ‘casa,’ owned by an operator played by Allen Dizon. Those who acted as kid pimps and sex workers brought life to their roles too and did not disappoint. They helped create this pseudo-reality that was comic and a little carnivalesque. Depressing most of the time.
I thought the story was about to sprawl into a multicharacter study to depict and represent that squalid place, the ‘area’ reached after passing through a narrow street, which was this ‘portal’ to a wretched wonderland reeking of urine at each turn and fun you could sense there was a sparse number of people poised to play sakla (native card game) soon while some sweaty, smelly, gigantic, bearded, regular customer copulate with a cheaply-priced petite sex worker inside one of the rooms of the small, dilapidated, bungalow, with the sex mismatch you could imagine it’s close to pedophilia but who cared? But to one of my friend’s and to my dissappointment, the movie gathered shape at about two-thirds of its screen time, focusing on two character-story arcs.
This is not to say that this movie is something to be completely dismissed. Praise it for being another tireless take on poverty and on those symptoms of our society’s malaise. Poverty and prostitution never went away anyway. The film should have also worked better as a period piece. Some scenes better cut short to improve the pace.
Despite its faults, there was this good vibe I sensed in the whole production that, when I gave in to cry a little at some key moments, I never felt bad or manipulated. Somewhere close to the end of the movie, however, the producer and director unwisely yielded to the temptation of literally stamping their faces in one scene as manifestations of their pride for their film output.
Ai-Ai should hold her head and chin up high no matter what. She had shown boldness in exposing some skin and in sharing those little circles of keloid scars on her back for authenticity’s sake. Here a tamed hyena, with a generally competent ‘sheepish’ performance, she just had one too obvious awkward moment: when she talked or asked an old best friend how she was doing when she met her in church. That short clip should have been edited out as she looked like she snapped out of character.
For the most part, she was fine, especially towards the end, when she was defenseless in front of someone who could be familiar. She unwrapped her nakedness after taking a bath, was ‘cleansed’ like what the fat, male obstetrician’s findings was of her sex organ after a test–“Non-smelly and beautiful,” he described. Then, when you were feeling the urge to urinate, that was the time Ai-Ai regained that aura of delicacy, as if the sex profession had amazingly preserved the purity of her heart.
It’s all right that this role had been cited as one of her best performances, and had been reaping for her nominations at local award-giving bodies this year. But I won’t be giving her the award. It lacked that peculiarity, that slight shape-shifting of emotions that should have driven women living in such an oppresive condition to act crazily at times, that one dirty word or two here and there coming out of her mouth, some ‘exterior’ proofs of strength that would support how she had thrived in such a place, or at least even that pretense of strength. There were none of those that I noticed, none of that sprinkling of coarseness to enrich her character. Her rendition (or the requirements) of her role was to be too good, too willing to be victimized, too ‘heroic’ and ‘dreamy’ she could be an older version of Kim of Miss Saigon–the movie minus the lovely pop songs that would have entertained us and kept us awake in its unnecessarily prolonged scenes, the movie ending in a bittersweet note because there was an inappropriate narrative closure to it somehow, sweet as it underscored or implied the importance of religious faith, making us leave the theaters feeling good, bitter because the roots of the social ills still existed and remained untouched.