Roughly translated in English and taken
out outside of the context of homosexuality that it is commonly associated with, the Tagalog colloquial word kabadingan in a cultural sense is a contemporary concept that describes a spectacle of loud contrived crassness or obnoxiousness in both behaviour, design, and aesthetic sensibilities that is indulged in for its entertainment (attention-grabbing) value. The Tagalog word kalaswaan, for its part, goes back in history a bit longer and refers to a spectrum of unsavory sensibilities ranging from unwholesome at its better end, to smuttiness at its worst end.
Why do I use the two words in the same phrase as Philippine cinema? To answer that I defer to two pieces of insight that I cite in my book:
Isagani Cruz on the state of the Philippine entertainment industry in an Inquirer.net editorial dated 16 June 2006:
Benjamin Franklin said that if the people misuse their suffrages, the remedy is not to withdraw the precious privilege from them but to teach them in its proper use. The entertainment industry, which has the most available access to the [Filipino] people through the movies, television, radio and the tabloids, is instead purposely miseducating them.
The Philippine entertainment industry is not only a vast wasteland, as television has been described in America, but a vicious instrument for the abatement of the nationâ€™s intelligence. The shows it offers for the supposed recreation of the people are generally vulgar and smutty, usually with some little moral lesson inserted to make them look respectable, but offensive nonetheless. On the whole, they are obnoxious and unwholesome and deserve to be trashed.
[The above snippet is also quoted in a Film Academy of the Philippines website article here.]
University of the Philippines sociology professor Michael Tan commenting on the occasion of the Sixth International congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific held in Melbourne, Australia from the 5th to the 10th October 2001 cited by Diana Mendoza in her article â€œBetween Sensationalism and Censureâ€ (Philippine Journalism Review, April 2002, pages 35-37):
Commenting if the Philippines could be at the forefront of education on sex and sexuality Tan said no, because “media have very sensational coverage but they still have this patina of moralism which is strange.” He said this brims over to the film industry that churns out movies carrying the “crime and punishment” theme — for instance, movies with pots of adultery that run steamy sex scenes but which towards the end, mandate that the adulterer, who is always the female, gets shot or imprisoned.
“With these endings, movies become a morality play after two hours of titillation,” he said.
Tan said Filipino movies also carry the “crime and redemption” theme, in which a sex worker eventually realizes there is a better life outside prostitution, but only after the audience [have] been treated to several sexual episodes.
So are Messrs Tan and Cruz being fair in their assessment of the Philippines’ entertainment industry — in particular its film industry? Am I, myself, justified in making a generalisation that the collective products of the Philippine film industry are, in fact, malaswa and filled with the kabadingan that many point out has come to be the signature character of the industry?
Harsh questions perhaps, but the obvious answer happens to be a subjective take on the matter that I happen to agree with. A friend of mine quipped, â€œ Why can’t indie film focus on good story telling?â€. To me, it seems that in the subset of Philippine cinema that tries to pass off as serious artistic stuff, the race is not for the telling of the best story but for who encroaches the furthest into the rapidly shrinking let-not-go-there zone. Over the last several decades, that zone lost territory to the race first with its coverage of nudity, then on-screen copulation, then gay sex scenes. Pretty soon, the indie film industry, perhaps under the banner of it being indie and, being considered so, licensed to be “artistic” will breach a milestone that will make it qualified for the distinction of being compliant with Rule Number 34.
If you gotta make a movie with sexual themes, why does it have to be malaswa? Sex is obviously no longer taboo in Philippine society and one can weave a story around sex that does not have the trademark morality dose and peeling-of-the-taboo-onion thematic structure that consumes precious minutes in many Filipino movies. I have yet to see a Filipino movie containing sexual themes where the sexual themes are merely incidental to (rather than the main point of) the message or its value proposition to the audience.
If it isn’t sex that these film producers are trying to use to appeal to our sensibilities with, it is “social relevance”. Another friend of mine made what I thought was a very insightful observation that “local indie film makers are superficially focused on having something socially relevant to say. It takes effort to watch their movies. It’s like you are watching a symposium”. Ouch! As such, I beg to differ with Ilda’s viewpoint slightly. Perhaps Filipino films do make me think — of things that really entertain me. And the minority that at least try to make me think of serious — less really entertaining stuff — do so in a way that makes the experience just a notch above a visit to the dentist. Last I heard, it is possible to be both socially relevant and tell a good story while you are at it. But then that takes creativity.
Mainstream Philippine cinema obviously reflects the character of the greater part of the society that forms its audience base — an audience that gleefully laps up kabadingan and kalaswaan. The market that supposedly “serious” film makers are gunning for, on the other hand, is a sophisticated one with well-rounded tastes. As such social relevance or sex alone will not necessarily be a strong enough come-on for these folk — there is already enough of that baked into good story-telling in the global library of content — both mainstream and eclectic — that they draw upon for their viewing pleasure. This means that serious Filipino film makers will have to compete at that level — at world-class levels — to reach their target audience. Being “better” than mainstream Filipino movies is not good enough. You have to be good in absolute terms.