When you convene a group of beauty queens in a cruise ship, probably near the coastlines of Manila in the early 80s, you get the feel of an era long-lost gone. Amidst the exaggerated dance grooves, you remember that fun is such an easy thing to have even at a time when dictators rule the land.
But when the cruise catches fire in the middle of the bay (or should I say) somewhere in the South China Sea, crazy things happen all at once…First, it was as if no one died. Second, all the beauty queens to survive. Third, all of them coincidentally drift ashore to a lone desert island somewhere in the country (God knows where).
And fourth, they still look stunningly beautiful!
Jessica Zafra’s ‘97 essay on Joey Gosengfiao’s Temptation Island started the hullabaloo on this early 80s sexy-fantasy-comedy film. Neither a box-office hit nor a flop, this was shown in a time when Marcos was on the verge of establishing a moralistic crusade against Bomba films.
Understandably enough, Temptation wasn’t regarded as a qualified candidate in a line-up of promising films at the start of the Philippine Cinema’s second Golden Age. A roughly plotted story of four (4) beauty contestants who got stuck in a desert island, with a man for each of the three and a maid for one would have simply pulled it off. But as argued in a Brocka-regime, the film’s large element of artifice and exaggerated ironies pulled it out from the list of potential classics and study. As viewed during its time, this sexy, almost like the 90s’ pito–pitos, was obviously another Monteverde revenue project that will assure her profit goals for 1980.
Since Zafra’s article, many followers expressed their own thoughts right after. Noel Vera tags it as a third-world Pedro Almodovar “only funnier and stranger.” Lawyer-Critic Francis Cruz describes it as “a bizarre and absurd sexual romp where genre elements merge into a hodgepodge that is surprisingly effective and hilarious.” As the years pass, this cinematic trash has been proving its greatness in its subtle themes, motifs and craft.
With the many reviews and immediate reactions from new-young viewers, what seems to be lacking is a technical standpoint that will defend the film and director’s ingenuity. Though it is understandable that Camp as a genre is only meant to be enjoyed and not studied thoroughly, there is still a need for defense to comprehend its innocent depth and hilarious bliss.
Susan Sontag, in her 1964 essay Notes on “Camp” will be the main resource for this analysis. Sontag’s views draft a clearer definition of this 18th century-old genre. Her views on this art form has more complex syntheses, and by analyzing Gosengfiao’s work from a campy, yet theoretical perspective, will be more appropriate, as the film has been regarded as one of the most popular example of camp in the history of Philippine Cinema.
Temptation Island has a mixture of the needed elements of Camp in films. Its clear exhibition of basic Camp elements from sheer theatricalization, outrageous sensibility, to exaggeration, – integrated with a subtle revolutionary idea has made it to a genre so hard to achieve, that even Joel Lamangan still don’t understand.
Gosengfiao viewed acting as a mere tool to exhibit creative aspects of his actors. Even as early as Katorse, the too timid Dina Bonnavie was made to splurge and cry hysterically in the middle of the street, too dusty you see some particles moving from her hair to her face. Who can forget Alma Moreno’s hand-on-waist-while-standing-on-an-irrigation-stream-with-mud-all-over-her upper body asking: “bakit ako mahihiya?” These too campy theatrical movements are evident in almost all the scenes in Temptation. Who would not raise an eyebrow when you see Dina (Bonnavie) throwing sticcomitatic lines to Alfredo (Alfie Anido) during a rough confrontation after the former learned that the latter slept with Suzanne (Jennifer Cortez). Apparently these lines would have been appropriate in a scene delicately prepared for such romantic quarrel. But finding the players in the middle a god-forsaken desert, with no food and water (that most of them just decided to dance instead) makes the theatrical effect more inappropriate and uncalled.
Sontag’s description of too dramatic representations of reality in Camp has been cleared extensively enough to delegate appropriate utilization of such in the genre. These playful exhibitions of an art form (in this respect – acting) have been clearly manifested in almost every possible opportunity in Temptation. Despite the too obvious inappropriate setting and time for such dramatizations, the characters continually put their best foot forward in confrontational, fashionistic, climatic and denoumatic scenes. I cannot say that the performances were dry. I think that’s the magic of the genre. But the surrealistic undertones mixed with a fantastical mood leave the viewer laughing with both logical disbelief and immediate acceptance.
Other points to regard are on sexuality, gender and self-discovery. As early as the first few scenes, we see the characters establish their subplots that will eventually contribute to their developments as the story progresses. We see characters viewing themselves as winners in a chosen field. Azineth (Azineth Tobias) as a triumphant crook able to win a beauty contest for the prize money; Dina, a self-neglected-only-daughter who will prove her brothers that -yes – she can buy a car of her own once she wins the contest; Bambi (Bambi Arambulo) as an ex-runner-up from previous pageant aiming to get the throne this time, and; Suzanne a socialite with a maid (Deborah Sun) who’s only goal is to win the pageant to prove to everyone that she’s the rightful owner of the throne!
In the argument of sensibility, Gosiengfiao did not dare dismiss the concept of affection, betrayal, and sex through a candid twist of transposing these basic instincts to another realm made each initial goal look unbelievably funny and outrageously pathetic. Even in a setting that will force human beings to focus on self-preservation, Gosiengfiao geared these basic human emotions and linked it to the latter. Who would have thought that love and sex are also part of self-preservation, and that these emotional coping mechanisms can be as good as food in a place of drought and death?
Indeed, the Campiest part in terms of sensibility lies in a revolutionary tone when Joshua (Jonas Sebastian), the lone gay character, died amidst straight people who fornicated to compensate the lack of food and water. Maria, despite the want of a partner, simply danced the whole night to recompense her need. And yes, she survived.
This sensible point proves that in a society filled with prejudice will eventually kill, or if not, eradicate, the unwanted – the unloved if not properly filled.
Camp style has been evident in other forms of the genre. From the too elaborate Tiffany lamps to Visconti’s direction of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, one requirement for this post-modern approach is inevitable concept of drama-dramahan.
Noticeable are the unintended exaggerations in Temptation. Most critics would argue that some of the scenes were a bit messy in terms of line-flow and blocking, but I think that’s simply the point! Over-blocks like Azineth’s jumpy dance groves while sitting down and talking to Alfredo about being a crook (a damn good crooook) was unintentionally made unstable and unrealistic. But think again, don’t most beauty queens move this way? What about the scene when Alfie rolled over a hill after Dina pushed him away? We see that the hill wasn’t so inclined and that the character can simply stand up and sit to resist the fall. But the fall was obviously choreographed; you just can’t avoid raising an eyebrow.
What I consider most hilarious, in terms of blocking is Azineth’s orgasmic position on the beach. This too exaggerated pose could pass for a White Castle photograph in the 70s, but think again, wasn’t the lighting and angles just too perfect enough? This unrealistic positioning was amiably accepted and unquestioned. But then again, you get the POINT, you get THEIR point!
Oscar Wilde wrote: “The more we study about art, the less we care about Nature.” I think this only goes to show that Gosiengfiao’s infatuation with the cinema and art direction was greatly exhibited in this masterpiece. Much as we want to believe that the director intentionally made these ridiculous dances and poses, our subconscious tells us that this was created with a clean motive. It whispers that everything was done in good faith, without the intention of making it look as bad as it is.
In the process we accept Azineth’s vanity poses and Bambi’s girlish moods. We smile when we see Dina and Alfredo run along the deserted shorelines, shot in landscape and played via slow motion. We laugh when we see Maria (Deborah Sun) requests for more panty hoses for more fish, and relate when Suzanne worries that she might get sunburned.
In this respect, Camp succeeds here.
Now comes the most challenging area in the genre. Revolution. When Gosiengfiao encased four beauty queens, three men, a homosexual and a maid in an island without help from the outside world, what formula can one think of that may pull off a socio-political idea. Remember: this is supposed to be a sexy film?
Amidst the many flaws and imperfections, we feel the subtle undertones of a socio-political struggle in Temptation. Among the stem-pillared huts and scorching temperatures, we see Marx’s social triangle ever present. Each main character represented a social class that interacts between and among the other classes. This political perspective presented an unintentional microcosm prevalent in the universal society.
However, a natural twist managed to turn this triangle upside down towards the middle of the film to its end.
We see the triangle with the two Marxist classes: The Bourgeoisie (Suzanne, Joshua and Dina) and The Proletariat (Azineth, Maria, Bambi Ricardo and Umberto).
The members of the upper classes are stylish, manipulative and idle. Despite the natural demands of the island, they continue to live out their class, even added artificial expectations from the others. Dina, on one hand, managed to conform to the members of the other class. Her character eventually shifted from a bourgeoisie perspective to a laborer after realizing the need for manual labor to survive. Suzanne, on the other hand, consistently lived her class. Tagging along her maid, Maria (the laborer), anywhere she goes, scolding her for each petty mistake and making her tell lies for her own motives.
The characters in the lower class were also members of the same class even before they came to the island. Umberto, a waiter is the most useful character for the others. His survival skills were extremely utilized. Ricardo, a male-prostitute, made use of his strategic surviving skills – though some of his thoughts were a bit off and hilarious. Azineth the crook, gave the other girls the nerve to use common sense and style to survive each scorching-starve-filled day.
As the plot progresses, we notice the shift of focus from the upper class to the lower class. Joshua the socialite died and eventually got eaten by the group. Suzanne eventually gave up her bitchy tactics to manipulate others and eventually gave in to help the others to find food. More so, Maria’s payoff scene where she went on top her lying and helpless Senorita demanding respect and equality is the final compensatory climax for this revolutionary cry.
In the interim, the lower class eventually became the leaders in the island. This revolutionary concept gave way to the film, in consideration of a post-modern genre, will have to take time to ripe and conform to the development of taste.
Viewing it from the 21st century perspective, will allow the young new viewers to see new dimensions in the film that has been disregarded in the 80s. Further, as Camp is relatively hard to achieve, Gosengfiao, was able to create a timeless example of a film that can represent such.