BY Gina Tumlos
True to his form, Mike De Leon once again holds up a mirror to the Filipino psyche and domestic fragmentation in all its pernicious permutations. He skillfully skirts through the backdoors of Philippine society to uncover the underground world of the suffocating and seemingly unbreakable familial ties in Kisapmtata (1981) starring Vic Silayan, Charito Solis, and Charo Santos. The film is every bit as chilling and unsettling as a Stanley Kubrick film, a strong parallelism which can be drawn from both directors’ complete control of the mis-en-scene.
Based on a true event that occurred in the early 60s, the movie follows a young woman’s (Charo Santos) struggle to break free from her father’s (Vic Silayan) smothering grasp by marrying her co-worker Mike (Mike Ilagan). What follows is a disturbing picture of a father’s deranged attempt to keep the couple away from each other and ultimately, to keep Mila for himself. The mother, played by Charito Solis, becomes a ghost whenever the father comes into the picture. Her performance is frightened but not hysterical, a fitting prototype of a woman beaten into cyclic violence and submission. High praise, however, should also be given to Vic Silayan’s performance of the abusive, pot-bellied patriarch to whom the film owes its overarching feel of claustrophobia. Reminiscent of Jose Rizal’s Padre Damaso and the frail Maria Clara, the father- daughter tandem between him and Mila as shown in the beginning represents how the concept of the Filipino family has transformed over the years. The patriarchal model of the household was losing its appeal, and in its place was a creature of the changing times: an inverted power structure where the young learned early on how inebriating straying from convention was.
Made in 1981 while still under the Marcos Regime, Kisapmata captures a time when the notion of the traditional family was beginning to shatter. Women specifically were gaining a more active voice in society and in politics. Martial Law produced a fertile environment for women to come together as the immense degradation of the Filipina spurred the birth of campaigns against the trafficking of Filipino women and the exploitation of women in general, as well as awareness-raising efforts on instances of torture and rape of female political detainees. The stark difference between Mila and her mother reflects this budding yet ubiquitous movement towards activism. Mila eventually recognizes the danger of living with her father and finally decides to elope with her husband. In the only dialogue between the two in the film, the mother laments over her daughter’s abandonment of her and how she herself tried to run away but to no avail. Mila, on the other hand, manages to make it out the front door but returns to sever the ties that bind once and for all. For those who have seen the film, we know that the following scenes do not play out how we want it to, but instead leads to the culmination of this beautifully orchestrated psychological nightmare.
De Leon’s prowess as an avant- garde filmmaker is not dimmed by the film’s linear narrative. His attention to detail adds layers of foreboding as the frame shifts from a home filled with paintings and books to that of Mila’s grotto- like cage. In addition to this, sound plays an indomitable role the film. Vic Silayan’s cackle is disorienting and nerve-wracking, it is as if we half expect him to take out his belt and whip the nearest object. The power of his voice never wavers no matter who he’s talking to be it his comrades or his daughter. Ambient noises are likewise intensified, especially creaks and bangs, to further accentuate confinement and restraint. Notable as well are the number of shots focusing on the lower extremities of the characters, thus adding to the perverse tension among Mila, her father, and Mike. Hints of what is to come are distributed throughout both implicitly (zooming in on the statue of Jesus Christ at the latter part of the movie) and explicitly (Mila’s nightmare about rushing water while trapped inside the house).
Much of the film’s potency comes from the eventual implication of everyone in the film’s finale. With everyone guilty of blame, we can’t fully sympathize with either one or the other; at the same time, we can’t just self-righteously condemn just one person. The father’s possessiveness, the mother’s passivity, Mila’s fear and eventually her compliance, and Mike’s lack of foresight all add to the parcel of realism, familiarity, and depravity Kisapmata delivers on a silver platter.