Film Review, Media Studies

Bakhtinian carnivalesque in a Pinoy film

Since I am teaching Film Criticism and Film Theory, I am uploading some of my old film criticism essays so my students can easily access it.  This is my critique of Jon Red’s film Utang ni Tatang (2002). I gave Jon a copy and he quite liked it.


The film starts with a lighted white bulb. Then the contorted (“uglified”) face of Kado (Jeffrey Quizon) comes in, quizzically looking at the very low-angled camera. Boyong’s face comes in afterwards and tells him not to bother with it (represented by the camera) and instead sit down and talk with him. Boyong then tells this story about a man fascinated by a red hat (pulang sombrero). It is a long and boring story (Quizon yawns to make sure that the audience realize it’s a boring story). Just when Boyong was about to say the point of the whole story, i.e., why the man in the story likes a red hat, another guy (sitting on the floor, wounded) shoots him (Boyong). When Quizon realizes what happened, he screams “Bakit pulang sombrero?” (Why a red hat?)

The very first film sequence tells the viewers that this film, although it involves deaths and violence, and may appear to be “serious” at times, is after all, only a farcical comedy. Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque can describe the atmosphere of Utang ni Tatang. Bakhtin’s “concept of anticlassical aesthetic (such as the close-up of the distorted face of Quizon) emphasizing not harmonious beauty and formal unity but rather asymmetry, heterogeneity, the oxymoron, and the mesalliance” (Stam, 1969)[i] can be found everywhere in the film. Bakhtin’s apparent disrespect for life and death is stated right at the very start of the film. The Quizon character was more concerned about the point of the story than the death of the storyteller.

The first sequence is immediately followed by the credits accompanied by photographs of the actors as a “barkada” enjoying their stuff. The photographs evoke a carnivalesque atmosphere where the viewers can perceive a “locus of oceanic feelings of union” within the “barkada”, i.e., the characters of the film.

In lieu of a site or a place for the carnival, the movie has a jeepney. It becomes a road movie. As the film’s cinematographer Larry Manda confirmed in an interview, the director Jon Red’s theme is the journey itself. The jeepney, as the mobile stage of the story, evokes the carnival spirit of the Filipinos. The now ubiquitous jeepney was created out of US surplus jeeps, painted colorfully, and decorated with all kinds of objects – from Virgin Mary mini statues to posters of sexy women to stickers with slogans like “God knows HUDAS not pay.”

The juxtaposition of Joel Torre’s domestic scenes with Joel Torre’s barkada / jeepney scenes emphasize the difference between ordinary life and carnival life. The domestic scenes are slow-paced with melancholy music that matches Torre’s melancholy face. On the other hand, the barkada / jeepney scenes have an allegro / staccato tempo with lots of laughter and fast music.

“The processes of understanding any ideological phenomenon at all (be it a picture, a piece of music, a ritual or an act of human conduct) cannot operate without the participation of inner speech”.(Stam, p.64) Jon Red portrayed inner speech through close-ups of Mike’s melancholy face, slow panning of the camera and non-diegetic music. He also used voice-over to indicate Mike’s thoughts about his family.

On “Day Zero” when the barkada embarks on their journey to Tatang, Mike (Joel Torre) comes out of his house in slow motion. He runs his fingers through his hair and lets out a big angry sigh, almost like a war cry.  He leaves the domesticity of his life for an adventure. It was a cry for liberation.

Meanwhile, another member of the barkada — a pastor, prays in his church for guidance. Although he had previously told the group that he had already changed since he “found God”, he suddenly has a change of heart. The call of the barkada is hard to dismiss. Unfortunately for him, he misses the bus, or in this case, the jeepney. Perhaps this is his punishment for hesitation.

According to Bakhtin, one of the lures of the carnival is “the foregrounding of social overturning and the counter hegemonic subversion of established power via the ‘world upside down’.” In the film, most of the members of the group leave their everyday life (at least temporarily) to join this carnival of a journey. Mike (Torre), appears to be a contented man with a wife, a kid and a job that enables him to live a decent petit-bourgeois life. Boyong and his sidekick immediately resign from their jobs in a carinderia – happy for the opportunity to resign from their overbearing boss. Kado, the jeepney driver/owner immediately agrees to the use of his jeepney, forsaking a day or two worth of income in the process. And the pastor – “a man of God”, decides to join the group even it can mean committing a grievous sin – murder. For the characters, joining the hunt for Tatang will inevitably turn their world upside down. Yet they embrace the opportunity. The Day of Reckoning has come.

Religion is not sacred in carnivals. In this film, the pastor was willing to forsake the Church. There are also sequences inside the Catholic Church. Al refuses to go inside. Boyong goes inside for the very first time in his life. While inside the church, he wants to flirt with a female parishioner. Kado prays fervently, but his religiosity is degraded by the supposedly funny contortions of his eyes and face – an example of carnivalesque irreverence. Then a man (Sol Cruz) comes to him and asks him if he (Kado) has seen the man’s lost sons. The sons were not lost in the church but at the plaza during a concert the night before. Mike follows the priest with his gaze. The priest goes inside a confessional only to reappear a second later to utter the words “ikumpisal mo na kay Tatang” (Confess to Tatang!).

Like in carnivals, the group’s get-together gives them the chance to reject “social decorum entailing a release from oppressive etiquette, politeness and good manners”. Boyong and his sidekick, Mokyo, are only too happy to tell off their patroness. Mike does not have to act stiffly and politely and can even loosen his tie and roll up his sleeves.

There are also cameo roles of carnivalesque characters like the man who lost his sons, a very dark retard in a carinderia, a shirtless guy who apparently sleeps with a hat and sunglasses, and a fat male homosexual who owns a carinderia with three “sons” who are all fat and imbecilic.

Another concept of Bakhtin is the “perspective on language which valorizes the obscene, the nonsensical and the ‘marketplace speech’ as expressive of the linguistic creativity of the common people. Utang ni Tatang is full of “obscene, nonsensical and marketplace” speech.

On the way back, Mike tells Al (Ronnie Lazaro), “Sayang ‘yung buong biyahe, pare-pareho tayong aatras.” Al answers, “Hindi importante ang pupuntahan, ang importante ay yung biyahe.” The quasi-religious idea of carnival as the “space of the sacred” and “time in parentheses” of a mystical union with the cosmos is adopted here.

The destination is not important, the journey is. There is no geographical or temporal setting. It is in a dimension of sacred space and parenthetical time.

Bakhtin associates the carnival with the vulgar comic genres and favors “the people.” “Utang ni Tatang” is vulgar comedy, which is disconcerting to some critics because Jon Red is supposed to be an “artistic director”. His brother Raymond Red won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palm D’or of Short Films for “Anino”. Many expected Jon Red’s film to be “pang-award”, too.  To the critics’ chagrin, Jon Red’s film is just another vulgar comedy. The critics seem to forget that the reason for the durability of comedians like Dolphy, the late Chiquito, Tito, Vic, Joey and others, may be because the vulgar comic genre is close to the hearts of many Filipino filmgoers.

While the film disappointed the critics, it also did not attract the masses. Perhaps the reason for this is that the film was perceived by the masses as an “art film” which made them shy away from it. The film was touted as an “independent film”. Also, the director (Jon Red) and the cast (Joel Torre and Ronnie Lazaro) are all associated with “artsy” films.

It is interesting to note that while Woody Allen, Jim Carrey and other American comic actors / directors win awards, in the Philippines, comic actors / directors like Dolphy can win awards only if s/he makes non-comedy films.

Bakhtin says, “language and the word are almost everything in human life.” And “all the diverse areas of human activity involve the use of language” “The word is the exclusive medium of consciousness and functions as essential ingredient accompanying all ideological creativity.” Speech diversity, according to Bakhtin, “achieves its fully creative consciousness only under conditions of active polyglossia, i.e., the simultaneous world-wide existence of mutually incomprehensible tongues. (Stam, p. 59)

In Utang ni Tatang, Mike is not able to tell his wife anything about his barkada. It seems like no words in his wife’s “language” or more precisely, “parole” can make her understand about his own experience with his barkada. Even a new member of the barkada, Mokyo, is not allowed to know about the group’s past experience. Mokyo kept on asking, “Ano ang utang ni Tatang?” (What is the debt of Tatang?) But nobody in the group would answer him, not even his friend, Boyong. The phrase utang ni Tatang belongs to the secret language of the original barkada. Mike, Al, Boyong, Kado and the pastor have their own language incomprehensible to everyone else. The words utang ni Tatang  belong to this special language of the barkada. Not even the viewers themselves can be made privy to the real meaning of this secret code.


Director/Writer:    Jon Red

Cinematographer: Larry Manda

Cast: Joel Torre, Jeffrey Quizon, Ronnie Lazaro,

Maricar de Mesa, Jaime Fabregas

Producer: World Arts Cinema

[i] Stam, Robert (1989) Subversive Pleasures: Bakhtin, Cultural Criticism and Film Maryland: John Hopkins University Press

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