‘Tuhog’: Life is a frenzy

Ricky Torre
Veronica B. Velasco's film is a mixed bag yet engrossing 'dramedy'

BOLD NARRATIVE. A frenzied 'dramedy' with a heartbreaking centerpiece. Poster from the movie's Facebook page

MANILA, Philippines – Veronica B. Velasco’s “Tuhog,” which opened on Wednesday, July 17, is a mixed bag if still an altogether engrossing and virtuosic “dramedy.”

The key plot point of this multilayered film (not to be confused with Jeffrey Jeturian’s Urian winner of the same title from 2001) is the horrific bus accident, on a highway that looks like Commonwealth Avenue, which sends a steel bar spiking through the windshield and impaling (“tinuhugan“) three of the movie’s quartet of lead characters – bus conductor Eugene Domingo and passengers Leo Martinez and Enchong Dee.

So are these three people rendered by the acccident into a human barbeque. How they survive long enough to ponder their fate, after being rushed to the hospital, is a bold medical premise better left to the amazement of the medical community. But one of the three characters eventually dies.

From this accident, the back stories unfold – the most poignant being Domingo’s complex friendship-turned-love affair with the bus driver, Jake Cuenca.

Here’s a clip about the film:

Unless Velasco had other references in mind, “Tuhog” may be an inspired retooling of “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” Thornton Wilder’s landmark novel about a rope bridge in the mountains of 18th-century Peru that breaks, casting off a group of people crossing this bridge to their deaths. A friar who witnesses this accident investigates the lives of the victims, in his search for this tragedy’s significance in relation to the divine.

“Tuhog” doesn’t go that cosmic, but instead limits its presentation to unraveling the characters’ mundane lives. There must have been other variations on this plot device elsewhere in our cinema and surely in the field of letters.

Teodoro Locsin Jr.’s brilliant, narrative-styled reportage on the April 1970 earthquake (for the pre-martial law “Free Press”) is directly inspired by Wilder. So is F. Sionil Jose’s riveting novel “Gagamba,” which takes off from the July 1990 earthquake.

There is another tragedy in “Tuhog” that is more pervasive in its impact than the accident – and that is the collective plight of these ordinary people, their frustrations and thwarted aspirations amid the chaos of this metropolis. 

Metro Manila is such a wide area yet we are all restricted by its swirling mess, such that this megacity has really become a powder keg, which sets off the varied acts of desperation in the film that you also read about in the metro section. 

“Tuhog” then serves as a panorama of contemporary Philippines – the country we know, as distinguished from the fascinating, almost bejeweled period setting of Carmen Guerrero Nakpil’s “Myself, Elsewhere.”

But this picture, divided like a triptych into three stories, varies wildly in its treatment of an otherwise remarkable plot structure.

Senior moment

The first story is this movie’s weakest chapter, about Tonio (Martinez), an ill-tempered retiree coping with his family’s discouragement of his dream of running a panaderia.

This modest goal elicits the more heartfelt support of his friends, with whom Tonio becomes more relaxed if still boisterous, as they indulge their happy senior moment playing pusoy while the bread in the oven turns black.

Tonio with his friends and Tonio with his family are scenes that contradict each other, as our lives in and out of our homes do. This is one of many fine contrasts in the film, except that much of this episode is rendered frantic and loud, and the bouncy score may even be taking that cue. Everything proceeds as in a children’s playground – the same lively atmosphere, after all, in any gathering among senior citizens.

It is Menggie Cobarrubias who embodies that joie de vivre as one of Tonio’s senior barkada, in a performance so relaxed as to be disarming. One beholds with delight this big-voiced character actor whose personality shines even in his small part in this movie – which also brings to mind his brilliant supporting roles in “Angela Markado,” “Mga Uod at Rosas,” and “Dalaga si Misis Binata si Mister,” among other lapidary classics from the 1980s.

Tonio’s children, on the other hand, weigh down this episode with their patronizing regard of their father and their serious disposition. Here the film seems to affirm the poignant irony that the youth who benefit most from life seem to miss its essence: the tidal rhythm of life, the certainty that there is no certainty, that nothing is ever too late, that failure is only a chapter, and that one just goes with life’s flow –  or “La vida es un frenesi,” the Spanish saying.

Also, that childhood is eternal.

In his conservatism, Tonio’s son admonishes him against his “pagsusugal” (gambling) with his panaderia enterprise “kung kailan kayo matanda na” (now that you’re old). Senior citizens, who know what it’s like to be treated by their children like children, will relate to this and other scenes – wherein Tonio is aptly dressed like a schoolboy in khaki shorts.

His children’s outlook also shows the grim and determined character of youth – thus pointing already to the third story about adolescent love – but all that will change when Tonio takes the ill-fated bus. 

Era of apps

Compared with the other story threads, the film’s third chapter may seem the most trivial – about a teenager, Caloy (Enchong Dee), who vows to stay chaste while awaiting the return of his long-distance girlfriend, Angel (Empress Schuck), but succumbs anyway to autoerotica on cyberspace with her kinky prodding on-cam. But Velasco treats this material with due respect, surely understanding that no story is too insignificant to not be told. 

And by this episode, more than halfway into the film, “Tuhog” becomes something of a masterpiece – a demonstration of confident, skillful filmmaking that matches the tech world of today’s youth. It’s a distinct milieu, this era of apps and social media, that deserves to be chronicled in journalism and cinema – so that future generations will marvel at its quaintness later on.    

Dee is right for this context not only because of his boy-toy physique, as befits this story peopled by the young and beautiful, but more so because of his mature persona, which complements the depth of this essentially light story. 

Now, to the film’s centerpiece and its most complex chapter, which has a bit of both the earnestness of the third story and the bombast and frivolity of the first.

Domingo’s spaghetti-western styled entrance sets the seriocomic tone that would later give way to some serious romance and drama.

She’s a reputed terror in the bus line she works for called Janus Express – perhaps referencing Janus Films? But this doesn’t intimidate new employee Cuenca, who’s an open-hearted but soused, clumsy driver with a penchant for road rage that would later be her death. 

The names of these characters, Fiesta Dacanay and Renato Timbancaya, are an inspired brainchild (or brain-children) by a seasoned scriptwriter like Velasco (working with Jinky Laurel), who also flaunts her knack for kooky colloquialisms like “Larga na! Magpapasko na!” (On the road, it’s Christmas already!)

Cross mien

Fiesta Dacanay runs the vehicle in her supervision like a corporate enterprise a la “Kimmy Dora.” The rules she spells out to Timbancaya: “Bawal mag joke, bawal mag-yosi, bawal kumain, bawal ma-late!” (No joking, no smoking, no eating, don’t be late!)

At this point, the small details veer a little away from realism, because she and Timbancaya wear IDs, their bus stops properly when a passenger disembarks, and the “snatcher” in the one misdemeanor scene in the film is acting alone, without accomplices.

Renato eventually gets to see Fiesta past her cross mien. Their hard lives stir a mutual compassion and bond them together, only to tear them apart again. But Fiesta lowers her guard, receives Renato’s solicitousness and then his love.

In a way, Cuenca’s role is a variation on the Dingdong Dantes character in “Kimmy Dora.” Both actors also happen to look alike. And Velasco here transforms Domingo into a singular feminine vision, with her Tweety eyes and tossed round hair, and that bold and proud nunal on her chin, matched by a daughter mole near her suprasternal notch.

Her date scene with Cuenca is a film all its own – as are their kissing scenes. In one such scene, a cat enters the frame, as if in reference to the cats that keep showing up in Francois Truffaut’s movies. Domingo crying is also a lovely frame, a film painting by itself.

But this tenderness would only be an interlude in their frantic situations which would spoil at last their affair. Renato’s presence provokes the raging jealousy of Fiesta’s alcoholic father (Noel Trinidad). Renato’s own back story, a daughter and an estranged wife who wants him back, further complicates his relationship with the now-pregnant Fiesta. Their affair dwindles into a tense civility between co-employees. And then, that morning bus ride, where Tonio happens to be a passenger.

Caloy races to catch this bus, in pursuit of the two-timing Angel on board another bus who becomes devastated on stumbling into his one occasion of infidelity. Renato Timbancaya steps on the gear, speeding alongside that bus, then the accident – as Renato’s bus rams into a scaffolded median strip and sets loose a flying steel bar. There is nothing divine in this fatal convergence, other than an elemental sadness, perhaps, about the limits of human desperation. – Rappler.com

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