The films that Tikoy Aguiluz has directed over his 37 year feature filmmaking career have not just courted controversy but also straddled the oftentimes contradictory worlds of populist moviemaking and independent art cinema. From his first film Boatman (1984) with its use of unabashed nudity and sexual content to his current film Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story (2011) whose release promised the resurrection of the Filipino action film but instead caused a blood feud between Aguiluz and his star, the actor/politician E.R. Ejercito, when the film was reshot and re-edited behind Aguiluz’s back by Ejercito who disliked the director’s apparently languid pacing and artful direction. During the interim decade of the 1990s though when the country’s newly elected leaders were rewriting the national Constitution and trying to build an idealistic utopia for its people was ironically when Aguiluz’s reputation as an auteur was being cemented by a series of internationally exhibited films that charted the plight of all those left behind during this new “golden era” in Philippine society. Although the reforms put forth by Corazon Aquino and her successor Fidel Ramos did quite a lot to repair the damage that the Marcos regime had wrought, several natural disasters and a few international incidents, specifically a standoff with China in 1995 over the Spratly Islands, stalled both administrations grand plans for nation building. And as for the Filipino film industry it didn’t escape unscathed during this new so-called democratic era either. A wave of strict censorship, the most severe in the country since World War II, forced many auteurs whose work ran counter to the image that the government had hoped to project of the Philippines to look for unconventional methods of finance as well as venues outside the country to screen their work.
Of course this did not mean that the Filipino film industry was not productive. Though the 1990s saw a slight drop in film production from the previous decade, with 1,427 films approximately being produced in the 1980s while the 1990s only had about 1,366 films being collectively released. What really hurt producers were the heavy taxes being levied on them by the government, the influx of technically impressive Hollywood films into theaters, as well as the MTRCB (The Movie and Television Classification Board) which indiscriminately gave any film they deemed immoral or objectionable an X rating. A few of their most memorable rulings were Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) and Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County (1995), which were all given an X rating though unlike local productions which were prohibited from showing their films in local theaters these Hollywood films were grudgingly allowed to screen their work for a paying audience in any theater that could afford to book these films.
Strangely though, the one local genre that still held both critical as well as commercial potential was the soft-core porn genre, what the Filipino film industry labeled as the bomba film. In fact, the 1990s saw the formation of the pito-pito system of film production wherein starving upstart filmmakers were given shoestring budgets, usually around 2.5 million pesos (approximately $65,000), and 10 days to shoot and edit a film. The work that came out of the pito-pito system usually didn’t amount to anything more than just sensationalistic crime or sex films but this system of low-budget filmmaking did pave the way for the Filipino independent film best online casino movement that gained a lot of steam during the start of the new millennium.
Although the sex film has deep roots in Philippine popular culture that stretches as far back as the 1960s, it has survived as long as it has not just because it taps into prurient male desire, but because these films offer many auteurs a venue from which to shine a light on the hypocrisies that govern Philippine society. As for Aguiluz, although he began the decade strong with the documentary Bagong Bayani (1995), a film exploring the plight of Overseas Contract Workers (OCWs), troubles during its production and the fact that no theater in the Philippines would agree to screen the controversial work, even to this day, pushed the director to once again return to the bomba genre with his next film, Segurista (1996).
Falling under the sub-genre of “sex-trip” film, Segurista is the story of Karen Fernandez, played by former “Miss Asia Pacific” pageant winner Michelle Aldana, who works as a no-nonsense insurance agent by day and at night dons the attire of a guest relations officer, GRO, a euphemism for the women who work as hostesses in bars and nightclubs all over the Philippines offering company to lonely men. For Karen these two seemingly disparate jobs bleed into one another. The men that come looking for her company are gently coaxed to sign an insurance policy with her before she even entertains the thought of sleeping with them. Every new client she lands means an even bigger commission bonus and thus getting her closer to her goal of a million pesos. Her motivations for doing this are less Machiavellian and more pragmatic though. As we find out midway through the film Karen has a husband and child living in the far outskirts north of Manila in the town of Bacolor, an area devastated by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. With her family struggling to get by Karen has made the move to the big city with the expressed goal of amassing a small fortune to rebuild her previous life that she had with her husband and daughter. Yet things go awry just as Karen’s dreams are within reach when the men around her become obsessed with possessing her.
It’s interesting to note that although men figure greatly in the plot, Karen’s clients in both jobs being exclusively male, Aguiluz’s film paints a world practically devoid of them. The few male characters we see are either financially impotent, spoiled lovesick puppies, or outright misogynists. Aguiluz’s main target though is the nouveau riche which ironically Karen belongs to. This new middle class with their inflated sense of entitlement are rapacious and have a hunger for first world products, i.e. owning Sony Walkman’s, drinking the finest imported liquor, gifting Disney brand merchandise to their children, and speaking a hybrid mix of Tagalog, Japanese and King’s English. In fact, the Manila portrayed in Segurista will be familiar to those who’ve seen Ishmael Bernal’s City After Dark (1980) or Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanagag (Manila: In the Claws of Neon, 1975), but whereas those films showed a crumbling city on the verge of imploding from rampant corruption and poverty Aguiluz shows a bustling and thriving city completely divorced from those barely surviving outside its walls.
Yet the main reason why Segurista made headlines during its release was when the MTRCB slapped the film with an X rating due to the erotically charged sex scenes, though nudity is used sparingly with much of the violence in the picture being offscreen, and Aguiluz’s film was banned from ever playing in Philippine theaters though the government didn’t seem to mind that Segurista was submitted to the Academy Awards for consideration as Best Foreign Language Film. This and a laundry list of other “rulings” by the MTRCB quickly deemed them irrelevant and also illustrated the inherent ludicrousness of an organization who proclaim themselves to be “indispensable tools for moral recovery and nation-building.” By going beyond the role of ratings board and censoring/banning films that they deem immoral one can only infer that the MTRCB don’t have a specific issue against sex, drugs, and anything anti-Christian or anti-government they merely have a low opinion of Filipino viewers who they must think are easily corrupted by whatever they see and hear. For those lucky enough to have seen Aguiluz’s film they would have been impressed by Michelle Aldana’s performance. She transcends the cliches of playing a fallen woman, hooker with a heart of gold, or ice queen. Though a lot of credit must be given to Pete Lacaba and Amado Lacuesta’s screenplay it is Aldana’s Karen, an unapologetic goal-driven woman, that makes Segurista a must-see film. Her pretty face and gorgeous body might have set tongues wagging but underneath that sultry exterior was a person unwilling to give up on her dreams no matter what the obstacles were. And it is telling that the last scene in the film echoes the last shot in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1993) as both films close with the respective female protagonist’s family praying over their grave as the camera cranes up and then pans to show the devastation wrought by man and nature, in Ugetsu it is a civil war while in Segurista it is the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. Though Mizoguchi and Aguiluz grew up in different eras and places both filmmakers were interested in the poetry of suffering and illustrating with their work how love could transcend the evanescent nature of things like money, power, and physical wealth.