Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Visions of the Creole Bastard: Film and the postcolonial body

Davis, played by Jose Saenz, is determined to dunk in The Flip Side (2001).

On Saturday the 27th Annual Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival presented the 10-year anniversary screening of the pioneering narrative film The Flip Side. An official selection of the Sundance Film Festival in 2001, the LAAPFF screening marked a historic moment in Filipino American film and raised questions about the future of the genre. At ten years old, is The Flip Side a film that a younger generation can relate to? What cultural changes have occurred between the Fil Am generation of the late 90s and early 2000s, and the generation coming-to-age around 2010?

In 2001, a troupe of California-based Filipino American artists and advocates stormed the Sundance venue in Utah with the intent to make clamor for The Flip Side and DJ Qbert's Wave Twisters that premiered at the same time. These Fil Am pilgrims were surprised to be greeted by a small community of Utah Fil Am residents who showed a tremendous amount of love for the artists.

At the time, the Fil Ams' experience in Utah reflected a bigger phenomenon of Filipino (mis/under)representation in the larger public imaginary. Many times during Sundance meetings and press events, according to The Flip Side director Rod Pulido, he and other Filipinos were the only people of color around. Also to note, the film was interestingly programmed into the Native Forum portion of the festival, which is perhaps reflective of Utah's demographic imaginary and Filipinos' strange ethnic placement in the United States. "The Native Forum director felt that Filipinos' issues were similar to those of Native Americans, such as dealing with assimilation," Pulido mentioned during the Q&A portion of the LAAPFF event.

Filipinos similar to Native Americans? Hold up. This is getting confusing. I think this cross-racial resonance speaks to the indeterminacy that best describes Filipino people whose culture is mixed, creolized, and transformed by what Filipina art critic Sarita See calls a "wild heterogeneity."

But the film speaks for itself when it comes to Filipino American anxiety (from outside and from within) over their complex membership in the U.S.'s (and the world's) racial and cultural landscape. Likely to resonate with Fil Ams of all ages, as a satirical drama, The Flip Side engages questions about racial and cultural authenticity. Characters in the movie perform a series of "Fil Am caricatures" (some more painfully disturbing than others): the bahag-wearing Darius who awkwardly preaches facile Philippine nationalism, the brother Davis who speaks as if he were African American, the sister Marievic who hopelessly wishes she looked more white, the bagoong craving father, the gossiping mother, and the lotto addicted lolo.

The film opens with Darius returning home in suburban California (the film was shot in Cerritos) after his first year at college where he joined the Filipino student group Kababayan. Emboldened by his knew knowledge of Filipinoness, Darius deals with his dysfunctional family members while preaching the gospel of (his version of) Filipino culture. Darius's curmudgeon lolo stays cramped in an upstairs room, where Darius visits bearing food in hopes of connecting with the old man who for Darius becomes a proxy for an "authentic" Filipinoness. Giving away his hip hop records to Davis, Darius exchanges his default hip hop identity--an identity that Rod Pulido said he most identified with--for minstrel-like Filipino indigeneity.

Darius, played by Verwin Gatpandan, drags in indigeneity with his bahag.

A testament to the identity-formation process many college-educated Fil Ams go through, The Flip Side is both a hyperbolic critique of Filipino American culture and also a comedic meditation on the otherwise complicated circulation of racial and cultural referents dealt to Filipino Americans. For the Fil Am males in the movie, the ethnic journey is a journey to recuperate a Filipino masculinity, with Darius's bahag representing a phallic symbol of his Filipinoness and Davis's desire for the supposed African "extra bone" in his foot together with an obsession with gaining height representing his own longing for a black manhood. In addition, the heroicizing of lolo with his Battle of Bataan medals stand in for an aspirant Filipino (militant) masculinity gone flaccid, of which the two generations--Darius and lolo--resolve by tricking their quirky family members and starting a journey of their own.

Marievic is proud to be "Hawaiian."

The seeking for a more stable sense of self for Darius's siblings ultimately meet tragic disfigurement: Davis breaks a bone in his foot after trying to dunk on his modified basketball rim and Marievic's nose becomes infected after a botched cosmetic operation to "fix" her Filipina nose. But the sad idea of "fixing" a Filipino identity is perhaps the most heartbreaking lesson offered by The Flip Side, performed poignantly by Ronalee Par who as Marievic trashes her vanity mirror arrangement after her boyfriend dumps her. Her boyfriend, who is drawn to Marievic when they first meet, tries to guess her ethnic background of which Marievic agrees is "Hawaiian". "In Hawai'i I was born, that's why I'm Hawaiian," she tells him. Hawaiian, therefore, according to Marievic, is a more legible and intelligible (and exotic) ethnicity compared to the disarticulated and ambiguous Filipino. Ultimately, Marievic's desire to "fix" her "flawed" identity meets with failure and loss.

The message, then, that The Flip Side promotes is that a Filipino and Filipino American culture does not need "fixing" like that exemplified by Davis and Marievic's penchant for bodily modification. Maybe the film is telling us we should embrace our ambiguity and "wild heterogeity" and find agency in being able to play with borders. Or maybe the film is suggesting that young Filipino Americans should seek knowledge about their history, especially our history of resistance as shown by Darius's teaching Davis about Philippine "heroes."

Whatever the case, I think the tortuous racial negotiations visualized in The Flip Side work as a critique of the way Filipinos are seen as weak. I think the film performs a subtle commentary on the conceit of "purer civilizations" positioned "above" the creolized* Filipina/o and her/his aborted/injured Philippine national identity molded by Spanish (three centuries), U.S. (all of the 20th century as a colony/neocolony), and even Japanese (for three years during WWII) colonization. Filipino American engagement with whiteness, blackness, and (according to Sundance programming) Native Americanness provides a window to this mixed history. This in-betweenness references a complex Filipino racial position in the world that differs from the classical U.S. immigrant narrative that only identifies racialization originating upon arrival in the U.S. In other words, unlike many other immigrant nations, a creolized Philippines offers a grammar of racialization prior to migration. Yes, The Flip Side is a commentary on immigrant assimilation, but its also more by virtue of its envisioned "wild heterogeneity"--its characters' creolized identities.

Ryan Greer as Ralsto in One Kine Day (2010).

Another movie that speaks to the creolization featured at this year's LAAPFF is the beautifully-shot One Kind Day, a film about the trials of young skater Ralsto who encounters a series of money problems--including tense encounters with a haole drug trafficker named Vegas Mike--after he finds out his teenage girlfriend is pregnant. Director Chuck Mistui described during the Q&A that his movie addresses the problem of teen pregnancy in Hawai'i, visualizing what he called the the grittier, non-touristy side of Hawai'i.

Under the auspices of Haolewood Productions (a gesture to white people, or haoles as they are called by locals), One Kine Day foregrounds the multiracial landscape of Hawai'i with its cast of whites, hapa haoles (part white Hawaiians), Asians, and Islanders. The film, however, is surprisingly absent of Filipino presence especially given the large concentration of Ilocanos in Hawai'i. Nonetheless, the process of creolization--the colonial transforming of racial order, culture, language, and so on--parallels that of the Philippines. Both were colonies of the United States, but Hawai'i attained U.S. statehood in 1959 whereas the Philippines (for multiple reasons) remained a U.S. neocolony (which means the U.S. arbitrated uneven economic control and military authority in the archipelago). One Kine Day, with its subtle references to Hawai'i's peripheral yet incorporated status such as the recurring imagery of the U.S. Post Office, bears witness to the cultural and racial "othering" that describes Hawai'i's exotic status compared to the other 49 states. Perhaps Hawai'i's "other" yet somehow "familiar" status is why Marievic privileges Hawaiian over Filipino.

Even though during the Q&A Mitsui did not really mention the racial critique offered by his film, the multiracial cast and the tensions that emerge among its members suggest an embedded racial discord. For example, race and class tensions emerges when racially-mixed (Japanese and white) Ralsto hitches a ride with his two "brown," pidgin-speaking neighbors who recycle bottles and cans as part of their work. Ralsto blurts out he would rather have a baby than collect trash with the two men, prompting one of the men to retort: "You think you better than us?!" This scene unpacks bigger racial issues in the Pacific state, where the racial order can be described as whites above Japanese, Japanese above other Asians, Filipinos as the lowest Asians, and Native Hawaiians and African Americans at the bottom of the caste.

One Kine Day illustrates this racial hierarchy. When the story revolves around pregnancy and the anxieties of reproduction, the racial narrative becomes even more compelling. Given that discourses around race and native genocide in Hawai'i often follow a complex logic of bloodlines that mark native membership, reproduction becomes a site of the future of Hawai'i. One Kine Day, with Ralsto and his pregnant white girlfriend Alea, therefore, depicts a mixture of anxieties and hopes about the reproduction of a white future in Hawai'i. The "browner" residents embody sexual excess, risky behavior, and "improper" language (pidgin as Hawaiian creole) while whiteness (through Alea) signifies life and hope. The movie, I think, if read unconventionally offers a tragic criticism of these representations rather than their blind replication (you have to see the ending).

In many ways I agree with Mitsui. His film depicts a Hawai'i not seen by tourists. His vision of Hawai'i (whether intentional or not) reminds us of the "impurity" of the state's history, language, and residents. Like The Flip Side, One Kine Day reverses the colonial gaze by allowing the colonized people to speak back--in the "wild heterogeneity" of their creole language. The "dysfunctions" of the characters are not one-to-one representations of a bastard people. Rather, we can envision the characters as resilient survivors of postcolonial violence--"flaws" and all--who through their performance (satiric and/or tragic) will travel forward and reproduce (in life and knowledge). Yet, their flourishing--the pleasure and beauty of their creole culture--will always embody a memory of colonial transgressions.

The Flip Side and One Kine Day provide creative evidence of the racial position of creolized people in the world. Perhaps this archive can give knowledge to possible cultural alliances with other creolized people around the world, such as those flourishing in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the continental United States. Maybe such collaborations can create more creative productions that help disrupt the myths of a "weak" postcolonial people who need "fixing." Maybe one day a congregation of this alliance can gather (together with the local community) and celebrate their achievements like the hopeful group of Filipino Americans did at Sundance just ten years ago.

*I realize I'm taking great liberties in my use of the word "creole." For now, it is the most proximate word I have to describe colonial cultural and racial mixture.
Asian American Invisibility: You don't see us, but we see you!
Questioning Kapuso: Re-Thinking Fil Am Culture
You don't see us, but we see you: Filipinos under the veil


No comments: