Auraeus Solito follows up his locally and internationally acclaimed gay coming-of-age story in the slums The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros with Tuli. At first glance, you wouldn't know that these two films were made by the same director. While Maximo Oliveros is set in a gritty section of Manila where Solito grew up and takes place in contemporary time, Tuli is set in the deep Philippine countryside where the mechanics of Spanish Catholicism merging smoothly with folk rituals is made tangible.
An insular world of rarefied relationships comes out of this meeting of different belief structures. So thickly drawn out and pre-determined are these relationships and modes of communication that walking through the dirt paths across extensive foliage and rocks is a cinch.
In this world lives Daisy, a young woman who puts up with her always drunk father and his verbal and physical abuse, while her mother can only do so much, given the parameters of a woman's place and voice to mitigate such violence. Nevertheless, through Daisy we follow the process of breaking through the cycle of pre-determined roles, as she is eventually emboldened to express her desire to marry her female friend, Botchok.
Parallel to this story is that of Beneng, who alternately chooses to follow the steps of his ancestors. We see him performing the ritual of obtaining the talisman from the flower of the banana plant. Despite following the ritual of obtaining the talisman as dictated by his family's history within the village, Beneng and his grandmother are looked upon as marginal figures precisely for their stronger sense of the spiritual. Unlike Daisy's situation, he lives peacefully, as if in an apprenticeship with his grandmother.
Grandma Tua is perhaps a direct model of the strong native Philippine women of pre-colonial times who acted as healers, or baybaylan, and were sometimes leaders of their region. Throughout the film, Grandma Tua is shown performing rituals to call upon the powers of her family's talisman. Her character always ends up helping to push the narrative forward -- to the advantage of the protagonists, of course -- but, as a result, Grandma Tua's place in the narrative comes off as a bit dry and formulaic.
These two parallel stories of marginal, or alternative, sensibilities are united by the film's title. The word "tuli" in Tagalog means "circumcision" or "circumcised," depending on which syllable is accented. And in fact, the film begins with the at times comical performance of circumcision by Daisy's father on several of the village's boys.
Beneng, one later discovers (during a reenactment of the cruficixion, of all things), was never circumcised, and it is this fact that prompts Daisy to choose him to father a child for her, Botchok, and her mother. When news of Daisy's "marriage" to Botchock, her pregnancy and her choice of Beneng as the father leaks out, the village is turned upside down, challenging the very rituals and social customs on which the village had stood.
Did I mention this film is about rituals? If I've repeated the word several times already, it's because of this reason that it should come as no surprise that Solito is the director of Tuli. Solito is very much invested in documenting the traditional rituals of his native origins in the southern Philippine islands of Palawan, and he has also conducted research on the Japanese island of Okinawa to document its own indigenous rituals.
To break it down a bit, Tuli is a series of tableaux vivants (during parts of the film, I was often reminded of Pier Paolo Pasolini's work, especially La Ricotta, and his use of Catholic tableau-like scenes). They bring together: one, the push towards a matriarchal structure through Daisy's character; two, the force of the indigenous ancestral line through Beneng; and three, the penetration of Catholic performance in folk tradition and the everyday through the choice to set a good part of the film during Holy Week.
Obviously, this commingling of varying sociocultural forces doesn't hit you all at once. But the film's highly distended pace and cross-cutting, which is due to the way folk and Catholic religions have come to simultaneously shape so explicitly the life-ways of the village, really makes you feel as if you're part of that environment, as clichéd as it sounds. Part of it too is the fact that Solito shot the film with a Sony HDV-FX 1 camera, lending it a very documentary look and taking up a notch in terms of quality Southeast Asia's leading role in digital film production.
Now to the not-so-good. Tuli is by all accounts a beautiful film to look at and listen to. It's entirely in Tagalog, and what's more, the language is a rather literary, or poetic, Tagalog which doesn't sound so formal since it's made to emerge naturally from the given situation. But because of its strong visuals, I have to wonder what it would have been like if it had less dialogue or had even been a non-talkie film.
When I say "strong visuals," I don't mean it as an overall positive deal. It also accounts for some of the exaggerated acting and delivery of dialogue that can make viewing of Philippine films so painful for me. Even if veteran actors like Bembol Roco are involved. Hence the fantasy of less dialogue, because the strongest scenes in the film are those allowed the audience to listen to the natural sounds of the landscape. (Although, hearing a rooster crowing for what seems like the 100th time has its limits).
The soundtrack itself is a mixed batch, but unlike the narrative, doesn't always work. Moving from the quiet of acoustic guitar strumming to electronic beats in the countryside may work under the guiding hand of Apichatpong Weerasthekul, but it ends up grating on the nerves in Tuli more than anything else.
But back to rituals: in essence, Tuli is about the reenactment/performance of rituals, exaggerated acting, off-kilter soundtracks and all. And isn't that another way of saying what film is and does?