29 October 2011

Movie Review: Kape Barako

Ceci n'est pas un cafe.

In a number of reviews that have been posted, there seems to be this repetition of a certain perspective regarding independent cinema that I must dissent from. It is the outright dismissal of all films that feature sex, sexuality or the naked bodies. It is not a surprising occurrence. In Manila, and especially among the wealthier classes, there is a public aversion to the body, to sex and to life. The animal part of us is something to feel shame and guilt towards -- as though our bodies were something separate from ourselves.

I do not disagree with the view, on the other hand, that many independent films go to a reactionary extreme (an enantiodromia perhaps?) where a film enacts a similar one-sided compensatory reaction which has value in pointing us to the underlying problem.

Kape Barako, directed by Monti Parungao and written by Lex Bonife, is a clear attempt to tell us something about our feelings of shame and guilt but not from the view point of tragedy. As von Franz once wrote:
It is a normal rhythm in human reactions, illustrated for instance in the classical antique plays where three tragedies are succeeded by a comedy. One could not go home after having seen Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and two others like it; there had to be one of Aristophanes' comedies at the end so that everyone would roar with laughter... It is the climax of excitement which turns into the wish to laugh -- one cannot stand too much of such an exaggerated tragic condition so that occasionally one is compelled to make fun of it.
It is for these reasons, that comedies, especially must be looked at very very carefully, before one can cast them into the rubbish bin of meaninglessness or our own shadow contents. Kape Barako is precisely a Feast of Fools. That is a celebration of medieval Europeans in which the roles in social and religious life were reversed and blasphemy reigned as the liturgy on this day. It was finally prohibited in the 1400s with the strictest punishments. This of course was followed by what Norbert Elias referred to as the civiling process in which our bodies, materiality and so forth was increasingly habituated/disciplined into its present state through shame, guilt and repugnance. European and American encounters with natives all over the tropics who had hang ups in departments other than the body and hiding it presented very uncomfortable moments of ethnographic self-reflection which would usually result in some effort to "correct" "reform" or "teach" us -- including Filipinos. Now, of course, anthropologists write books and books about our neurosis with how we clothe ourselves!

So, we are definitely in the realm of the shadow in this movie. It has the usual features of this realm: naked bodies, open and unabridged displays of sexuality, objectification of the male body. But then it has something more -- which, if felt out accordingly, might produce a light nausea. Coffee is mixed with semen and served to clients.

Ceci n'est pas une barrista.

Let's do some associations, shall we?

Coffee was first discovered as a useful bean plant in Ethiopia hundreds of years ago and crossed over to Yemen where it became firmly established as a vivifying drink -- used by Sufi mystics in their night time devotions to stay awake. It was banned by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in the 12th century and was unbanned in the 19th century. It became a drink of the aristocracy in Europe in the 17th century and fortunes were made by imperial-merchant companies growing coffee in the tropical colonies and importing them back to the imperium.

Coffee is black but it has an awakening, vivifying effect. It is slightly acidic. Traditionally, coffee trees were grown under much larger canopy trees and were grown in what was called 'shade-cultivation.' So coffee has a strong association with elements that could be associated with the shadow contents of the psyche. It is grown in the shade, the shadows. It is black but had an awakening, vivifying effect. It goes through an extensive process from the tree to the roasted bean that is ground and and then hot water added. It is not just a primitive shadow content. But the liquid end-result of a long process of distillation. It is a concentrated form of the shadow.

I don't feel like I need to really go into a long history or association of semen, do I? Semen has always been associated with what it does in humans and other animals. It creates.

So what does it mean for coffee, this concentrated form of the shadow, is mixed, secretly, with the procreative force? In Kape Barako, we are told that it activates and resonates with gay men -- who as I mentioned before represent a certain shadow figure. This is a key point. It is only the gay men who respond to this powerful form of creativity, mixed with the shadow -- who slowly turn a failing coffeehouse into a successful coffeehouse with gay bar qualities. In order to save the coffeehouse, the owner agrees to a macho dance show and he is able to save the coffeehouse. Although the coffeehouse has a certain historical association with elitism and hierarchy I don't think that's a central theme in the movie. Instead, we are shown that the mixing of this condescended and concentrated form of the shadow and creativity offers a recipe towards a livelihood.

I will now talk about the end of the movie, so be forewarned.

The end scene tells us that we have experienced a Fools Mass or a Feast of Fools. Afi Africa's character presents a complex reversal of gender norms in many respects. He is the bakla. But, at the same time, he has adopted the Christian and conservative attitude on feminine sexuality as his own -- that is, he's a virgin. This only gets more complexified when Johnron Tañada's character ends the movie by going down on him. It robs him entirely of the self-imposed femininity of his sexuality. This indicates that the comedy has provided in a joking manner, the most serious truth which names the important role of the shadow in the development of consciousness, but does not go so far as to fully demonstrate it and remove the story from the realm of play. Nothing is safe including the absurdity of adopting a narrow, misogynistic view of feminine sexuality. Had it not been a Feast of Fools type comedy, it would have ended with Johnron Tañada making out with Afi Africa and then a tender love-making scene.

The renewal and further development of consciousness cannot occur without the Feast of Fools. It cannot be skipped and dismissing it only adds energy to the autonomous functioning of the shadow -- which may be what your soul is just looking for. A reactionary movement to one extreme before transcending both.

I hope to spark a discussion with this post about some of the things I've written here. Please feel free to add your voice.


  1. From how I see it, the coffee-semen mix is just a pun on kapeng barako, and its bold taste. Needless to say, barako as slang implies a sense of alpha-maleness, some sort of rugged masculinity, and what simpler and more absurd (hence more remarkable, hence more marketable) way to make your coffee manly, than by putting semen in it? And quality semen too (or so the movie implies), from able-bodied, not-bad-looking men who, as suggested, can sex you senseless.

    Of course, it wouldn't be as barako in its true sense with some creamer in it, but I digress.

    Filipino indie films of similar inclination (read: gay softcore) thrive these days because there is ready market, and deeper than that, there is a growing acknowledgement of this market. That of course is good in itself, but still.

    The Filipino cinema is easy to divide: (1) mainstream; (2) in-betweens; and (3) avant-garde and other renegades. This may be a bit simplistic, but I don't think it's too far off, especially if we are to focus on Kape Barako as a sample from the second clump: produced indie, but highly mainstream in its devices. Although evidently made for a specific audience, it's nevertheless made to be palpable enough to whoever is within the gay circle: simplistic plot, cardboard characters, irredeemable acting, and, well, Johnron Tañada. I'm sure one of these four factors is enough pull anyone in, and frequently, it's the acting.

  2. i understand that point of view, which is the prevailing view in many circles. however, i disagree with it. to me, it is loaded with a number of formalities regarding good/bad/right/wrong that easily overlook the beginnings of social change. the three traditional categories that most will divide Philippine cinema unfortunately does not give me any relevant information about the things that interest me: renewal and transformation of consciousness. the prevailing wisdom would suggest that we would find that in 'avant-garde'. but i consider two GMA films from the mid-2000s: Let the Love Begin (starring Richard Gutierrez and Angel Locsin) or Gigil (starring Katrina Halili and Alfred Vargas). under the prevailing classification system, they would be mainstream, yet both say something important about the renewal and transformation of society in different ways.

    Joel Lamangan's two Manay Po comedies tell us something supremely significant about the future of the gay man in Philippine society although a less than careful read of the film and it would be missed. Jay Altarejos' Lalake Sa Parole is an indictment on the failures of urban gay identity and gay community-making with respect to the transformation of individual consciousness.

    to me what is important is not necessarily complex plots, layered characters or award winning acting. i have seen many so-called avante-garde indie films with complex plots and highly layer characters which revealed nothing significant about life other than the limits of the thinking function.

    rather, to me what is important, is how the symbolic content constellates and what directions it suggests (or doesn't suggest) for renewal and transformation of consciousness. how it feels. and each movie must be taken on its own terms without regard to dominant classificatory regimes.

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  4. Manech said:


    For me, those cinematic elements I've mentioned a while ago is as important as the focus and/or breadth and movement of the film's content because I see the two facets as inseperable. Film, as with any form of media, must be effective (and on occassions, purposively radical) as a communicative tool for it to work. For me, to discuss ideas presented by a film is to open avenues to question how those ideas were presented. And, specific to Kape Barako, the way they presented a possibly radical idea "about our feelings of shame and guilt but not from the view point of tragedy" was suspect.

    Sorry if I came off as dismissive in my earlier comment; it wasn't my intention, though I can't really say I'm not. For example, I tend to shrug off Filipino mainstream films because they're most often just bull. I am fully aware that being indie doesn't mean excellence though; the Filipino indie scene has its share of shit too, often that obscure references and pseudo-intellectualism that only makes it esoteric.

    Daybreak (2008), however, was one of the more significant local gay indie films I have seen as of late. It exemplifies the transience of homosexual relationships, especially those that are gravely carnal; and how this is fast becoming a norm. Parts of Muli (2010) hint on how some local activist groups have seen / are seeing homosexuality.

    In short, the divide I have mentioned earlier does not mean that mainstream equals bad and indie good. How a film is produced and what cinematic tools it has employed does not automatically guarantee its cinematic quality.

    However, mainstream (or even formulaic) cinematic devices are there for a reason, and often, they are to justify or preserve the status quo, and to secure profit. Moreover, these popular devices are not specific to mainstream movies alone; some indie films have used them for the same desired effects.

    It is for these things that I find comfort in questioning (if it can be helped) details like plot, characterization, casting, etc, as they help show the bigger picture — something any good film is not indifferent to.

  5. i found Daybreak's message to be a warning/indictment on the failed intimacy of the upper classes. true intimacy that is and that the gay sex was mostly gratuitous (nothing wrong with that, just saying).

    of course, i recognize that what we consider to be a good film is not the same, but there is clearly overlap. =)