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‘Barber’s Tales’ review: Jun Lana at his most cutting

Lé Baltar

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‘Barber’s Tales’ review: Jun Lana at his most cutting


Now that this 2013 film is on Netflix, audiences can examine it under a different light, perhaps one harsher than before

Spoilers ahead.

Revisiting a film after a considerable amount of time since its release and still discovering novel ways to look at it is a marker of its greatness. Often, a work’s wealth of insight can only be truly appreciated through temporal and cultural distance — its merit becoming part of an accumulation. Films of this caliber are hard to replicate. 

Consider Barber’s Tales, originally titled Mga Kuwentong Barbero, Jun Lana’s best and most ambitious work, which now enters Netflix’s orbit. The film first came out in 2013, a particularly generous and glorious year for contemporary Philippine cinema, handing us this alongside Lav Diaz’s Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, Erik Matti’s On the Job, Chito Roño’s Badil, and Sigrid Andrea Bernardo’s Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita. Throughout his filmography, Lana has been known for queering his work and being openly political, and Barber’s Tales reaches the pinnacle of that sensibility and conviction. 

Set in 1975, at the height of the Marcosian rule, the film tracks the life of meek housewife Marilou (Eugene Domingo), who succeeds her husband Jose (Daniel Fernando) as the town barber, after the latter’s sudden death — a decision that quickly raises eyebrows in a community overshadowed by religious and patriarchal beliefs. But Marilou proves herself to be a better haircutter than her late husband, beginning with local parish leader Arturo (Eddie Garcia, also brilliant in Lana’s Bwakaw) as her first client, until she is hired to be the personal barber of the corrupt mayor (Nonie Buencamino), who abuses his wife Cecilia (Iza Calzado), to whom Marilou is later attached.

After the film premiered at the 2013 Tokyo International Film Festival, a Variety review tagged it as a “less-inspired rural character study,” which is an astounding misreading, considering how the material does not goad Marilou to simply move to the next plot point, but rather allows her to peel off her motivations, process what is unfolding before her, and eventually make up her mind. For instance, when Marilou’s revolutionary godson Edmond (Nicco Manalo), alongside his comrade Renan (Jess Mendoza), seeks her help following an encounter with military forces, she comes to their aid but still asks questions later on. And while the film relies heavily on coincidences, a technique often found in mainstream melodramas, it makes the wise decision to gradually flesh out Marilou’s internal turmoil, precisely because Lana knows that political awakening does not happen spontaneously. If anything, it works protractedly, just like our struggle for national liberation, which has long been waged in the countryside.

Domingo at the center of the film is nothing short of terrific. Her work is replete with restraint but not too calculated, and one can really feel the depth of her character in the many ways she shatters Marilou’s docile facade — her existence no longer means preparing everything, from food to bath water, for a man who couldn’t even muster the bare minimum of treating her well — which makes the film’s pivotal act all the more towering. Domingo’s turn here is a testament to the fact that comedians are really some of the best talents we have in local entertainment, especially when they break out of their usual terrains (another case in point: Pokwang in Oda sa Wala). 

Outside of the commanding figure, the film also works because of how Lana weaves a tapestry of solidarity through the supporting characters, especially the women. Take Susan (Gladys Reyes) as an example, and how her assertiveness plays a crucial part in Marilou coming to terms with her timid behavior, like when Susan confronts Ompong (Jelson Bay), Jose’s best pal, about his trying to compete with Marilou after putting up his own barbershop, and how she refuses to be restlessly pressured into sex by her libidinous husband. And then there’s Tess (Shamaine Buencamino), who doesn’t mind being spouseless despite her age and takes pride in supporting Edmond in completing his studies in Manila, and later contends with the route that her nephew has taken and how Marilou figures in it.

It is through these female characters that Lana affixes his argument about unbridled comradeship and community and its place in the decades-long revolutionary cause, which peaks in an explosive act towards the end, where the women of the village, during a religious parade, have their hair cut to divert the state forces hunting Marilou, and ultimately help her disappear into the mountains where the resistance group awaits her. Of course, the religious parade can be read as mirroring the gathering that occurred on the streets of EDSA in 1986, which toppled the Marcos dictatorship (and what an irony to see them back in power, 36 years following that gargantuan movement). Even the character of Marilou can be tethered to Cory Aquino, the “ordinary housewife” who succeeded the dictator in hopes of restoring the country’s democracy but also had a fair share of abuses under her regime. 

Framed in this context, the rerelease of Barber’s Tales is all the more fitting, as audiences can now examine it under a different light, perhaps one harsher than before. The film is now also about the present as much as it is about the past — about how time has eroded so many things, but, in the cruelest of ways, actually changed nothing.

Time affords us more insight, and this is what separates Barber’s Tales from the rest of Lana’s works and the films of its kind — this scale of vision that sees change, like what Marilou has gone through, as a salient feature for a work to be touted as revolutionary. The film masters the politics of reckoning, ushering in new points of discussion. And given the distance, the film is no longer Lana’s. It’s now part of something else entirely, of the movement growing steadily in the forest. –

Barber’s Tales is now streaming on Netflix.

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Lé Baltar

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist and film critic for Rappler. Currently serving as secretary of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR), Lé has also written for CNN Philippines Life, PhilSTAR Life, VICE Asia, Young STAR Philippines, among other publications. She is a fellow of the first QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab.