The irony is so palpable, you can smell it.
(Courtesy of cine-vue.com)
I was determined to watch Thy Womb out of one impetus: I could not bear to think that what were tabulated as the 2012 Metro Manila Film Festival top-grossers were the best films that our country had to offer. It certainly provided a snapshot of what the current moviegoer is looking for, but I hold filmmakers, like all artists, to an invariably higher standard, as their craft and medium are capable to affecting minds and hearts.
Imagine my despair when I found out no Makati cinema was showing it. I had to check in with Click The City and I was also disappointed to find that only 9 theaters in the entire capital were showing it as of the first Saturday of the new year - it certainly makes one wonder why it was even included in a festival that had the words "Metro Manila" in them.
Entering at around 11:45 AM for the 12:00 NN showing of the film, we came into an empty theater. It was so bizarre that we started doing the "echoes" to check that there really wasn't any one around. After the flag ceremony video - whose brilliant idea was it to insert almost 2 minutes of "acting" after announcing that people should stand up for the national anthem and before the actual song? - a couple of people entered the theater as well, we were no more than 10 people all in all. On a Saturday.
Thy Womb stars Nora Aunor as Shaleha and Bembol Roco as Bangas-An, a married Badjao couple who seem to have answered the question "who wears the pants in the family?" with the response "no one and everyone". Both of them go fishing, they both work on the mat weaving (one does the actual weaving, the other does the dyeing of the material), and even though Shaleha is the midwife, Bangas-An assists in the process. Which was actually refreshing to see, and in stark contrast to the film's central conflict.
They are a barren couple, and under their laws/religion/customs, a man is allowed to have another wife with the purpose of begetting a child, with the implicit assumption that it is the woman who has difficulty with it. (I do wonder if the roles were reversed, and it is the husband who is incapable of impreganting his wife, would a Badjao woman be allowed to take another man for the same reason?)
The film, for the first half, focuses on the mundane-ness of everyday life: trips to the market, seeing a beautiful shawl and not buying it to save money, and even when very early on, Bangas-An gets shot, they do not bother going to the hospital, but treat his wounds with herbal remedies. The casual appearances of men in fatigue uniforms, or (what I assume to be) pirates are taken matter-of-factly, an inconvenience that, after decades of living with the violence in the area, have become nonchalantly ingrained into their daily schedule. When a scuffle ensues and some men in a chase bump into Shaleha, she proceeds to pick up the dropped root crops she bought and heads back her original way with no comment.
Bang-An's desire for a child must be a horrible ordeal to bear witness to, much less be married to, and in true Nora Aunor fashion, she does not need to engage in any hysterical dialogues, or hair pulling of any kind to make the audience empathize with the turmoil and torment - and the comical irony - that she, a midwife, who cannot bear her own child, has to help in looking for a suitable replacement for herself. Her eyes alone are all she needs to convey this, because the culture in which she lives out her marital duties all accept it as a husband's right.
They find Bangas-An's next wife in Lovi Poe, who plays Mersila. Before they can even see her, they have to raise a dowry well over a hundred thousand pesos, and when the couple sells the boat motor, it underscores what they deem important, that they would think of possibly jeopardizing their source of income. When Mersila finally appears, the furtive glances that Shaleha makes communicate that while her husband's journey has ended, the unraveling of her life is just beginning. And when, privately, Mersila insists on a single condition when she bears him a child, the scene where Bang-An's tears fall are so gut wrenching that I physically winced because the horror of making this decision was something I would never want to experience.
The final twist of the knife is when Shaleha has to deliver the baby, and all she has to remember her entire marriage by is the umbilical cord of the infant, which also served to sever a marriage that she has been nothing but steadfastly loyal to.
Yes, a film has to make money. But that cannot be the only reason why a film comes into being. Against a backdrop of commercialism, box office receipts and themes of quick quips/fantasy worlds, Thy Womb was no more than a saling-pusa in this festival. (If I remember correctly from reading a news item, that is literally the case, since there was an eighth film that did not make it in time for the festival, and Thy Womb was the 'replacement'.)
Thy Womb wasn't made to fit in. It was meant to stand out. And it does so spectacularly.