Miyerkules, Abril 16, 2014


October 4, 2012

Photo courtesy of Video 48

This year, Lino Brocka’s BONA (1980) was brought into the spotlight once again when the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) decided to create an updated version of the film through a stage satire. It was directed by Soxie Topacio and the comedic actress Eugene Domingo played the eponymous role, while newcomer Edgar Allan de Guzman reprised the role of Phillip Salvador’s showbiz-wannabe. Despite relocating the story from the slums to the lower-middle class of Manila, from an oppressive 1970s regime to a clean and fully-Americanized era, both film and play revolve around the idea of the obsessed female fan and her fate after choosing what she desires in contrast to what her family expects for and from her.

“Obsession” is an international title given to Lino Brocka’s BONA (1980). This is probably because it is about a young lady’s extreme obsession with a man who isn’t really a superstar with a high-profile character. Or perhaps because it also attacks the film’s star’s (Nora Aunor) aggressively loyal fan following. Obsession isn’t the most notable element in the much-lauded 1980 film. It tackles issues of poverty, fanaticism and choice and how these overlap and affect the lives of the characters. Possibly, Bona is accused by her family for being hopelessly obsessed and beyond herself. But obsession is not in itself an empty extremist concept. It is rooted in desire, in passionately going for what a person wants. And it is evident in the film, through her complete elimination from her own home and the eventual abandonment of her idol, that Bona’s choice to escape her expected role to follow her desire has led to her alienation. BONA is a film centered on this female desire, and how society perceives it as something unaccepted, especially when it is against expectations. What the play proves is that 32 years on, it seems what Filipino women want remains in question.

Patriarchy manifests itself well in Lino Brocka’s film. Both in the middle class and the slums, women are forced back into the households to fulfill their duties as mothers, wives and helpers. And once someone like Bona willingly escapes her role to follow what would satisfy her, she is driven out of the picture. The Philippines is a strictly patriarchal country and women are indeed oppressed in this society by keeping them in gender roles provided by the patriarchal system. As a social realist film, BONA reflects all these atrocities within the patriarchal setting of Martial Law. But is it possible that BONA suggests a filmic solution to the suppression of women’s rights? Using writings on feminist film theory (particularly that of subjectivity, desire and spectatorship) and Marxist feminism, this paper aims to find the real situation within the patriarchal setting during the Marcos regime (1972-1985) with regards to the oppression of women’s desire that is represented in BONA and how women can liberate themselves from this situation.

BONA: A Result of 1970s Contradictions

Set in Manila, BONA is about a middle-class young woman who’s a fan of a poor bit player in films named Gardo. She leaves her family to serve the man and is scolded several times by her father who forces her to return home. To Gardo, she is not a love interest but a helper. Despite her efforts for attention and affection, he continued his habits of drinking and womanizing but still Bona did not leave him. Her insistence to stay with Gardo led her brother to drive her away from the family completely. But when she returns to Gardo, he’s planned on leaving her and his house to marry a rich woman and go to America.

Women introduced in Brocka’s film occupy different roles. There were prostitutes and well-kept middle-class women who were either working or studying. But the ones that populate the slum setting and even the bourgeois household of Bona are seldom housewives and helpers that are shown as helpful homebodies. Bona herself was assigned by her father as an assistant to her mother, with a job of cleaning and cooking.

The conditions of Filipina women in the 1970s were not so different from these portrayals. Religion’s strict ties with society have produced this conception of the Filipina. Catholicism was (and even today is) still strong and patriarchy has been strengthened as a result. The passive Maria Clara type is the normal Filipina type and the sexually independent woman is immediately a whore. As Gemma Tulud Cruz (2005) wrote

These figurations of the Filipino female are also a throwback to the configuration of the Filipino woman through religion, specifically the emphasis on the Virgin Mary of the Annunciation, by the Spaniards, who colonized the Philippines for more than three hundred years. Interestingly, as Nira Yuval-Davis (whom Schüssler Fiorenza quotes) posits, this religious configuration of the Filipino woman is also implicated in the Spaniards' nationalist discourses, for it can be traced to the attributes of Maria Clara—the Filipino version of the doncella (the image of the perfect woman of the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth century), which the Spaniards used to subjugate and domesticate the Filipina.

From the Spanish era, it would still be evident in the 1970s that women are still restricted to domestic roles that didn’t grant them equal rights to professional careers. These views would also lead to the notion of the “weaker sex” and violence against women. The shift would begin with women’s liberation movements. 1970s feminist group MAKIBAKA (Malayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan) organized local feminists and, along with nationalist organizations like Kabataang Makabayan, contributed to social awareness programs that fought Marcos’ dictatorship. MAKIBAKA echoed the anti-imperialist and anti-fascist cries of their radical subsidiaries, while protesting the atrocities inflicted specifically on Filipino women such as sexual trafficking, domestic violence, and other forms of systemic oppression (Castillo, 2007).

The passive Maria Clara type would be reinforced in 1950s and 1960s cinema with the rise of the action genre, particularly films of Fernando Poe, Jr. that produced stereotypes for women of different ages “culled from Biblical characters and also represent the ideal Filipina: nurturing, caring and upright” (Jamon, 2004). In the earlier years of cinema these images were the norm for female characters, but during the 1960s and the 1970s these were complicated by the rise of Second Wave Feminism and the ‘bomba’ genre, and the insurgence of social realism in cinema. Second Wave Feminism found its way to the movies of America, where it liberated the woman roles – from domestic roles of the 1950s to the overtly sexual and independent of the 1960s. In the Philippines, the sexual revolution produced the bomba genre. Bomba was overtly sexual melodrama that was even promoted by the Marcoses as a means of blocking audiences from the social movements occurring during their administration (Dela Cruz, 1988). But social realism now was also working its way towards prominence, with the films of Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Celso Ad Castillo, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, etc. Inspired by New Wave Cinema, these directors would make the films that would shift views on women from objectification to real different situations. BONA then, with its focus on a woman’s desire and men’s opposition towards it, is a product of its time and is appropriate for an era of such contradictions.

Feminist film theory in the Philippine setting

Contradiction is itself a relevant matter in feminist film theory. In her groundbreaking essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey (1975) laid bare the masculinity of Hollywood cinema and the so-called “male gaze”. Hollywood films are transfixed into a male spectatorship and the women are recognized for their “to-be-looked-at-ness”. But she suggests that women in film can escape this viewpoint with a counter-cinema. That of course is not immediate since the masculinity of Hollywood cinema has been well-established in the earlier years of film, but as she said:

There is no way in which we can produce an alternative out of the blue, but we can begin to make a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides.

Feminist film theorists have followed suit, examining women’s representations and finally achieving favorable images of women from films such as Martin Scorsese’s ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974) and Woody Allen’s ANNIE HALL (1977). New Wave Cinema urged questions on women in the direction of Hollywood cinema and the 60s to the 80s marked a shift in the views on women in cinema towards more complex but not always uncomplicated images and voices. Brian McNair claimed that representations in film “must resonate with changes taking place in women’s lifestyles and values to succeed in emerging marketplace of empowered female audiences” (2002, p.121). The feminist movement has instilled itself well upon social discourse and upon film itself.

While the second wave feminism has been criticized for focusing on white women exclusively, the studies and discourses have influenced women apart from Western capitalist societies and have even spawned the “Third Wave” of the ‘90s to present. As also reflected in Third World Feminism, women’s liberation in countries like the Philippines is deeply connected to nationalism. In the Philippine context, pre-Hispanic ideologies are attributed by a residual form of female predominance (i.e. the concept of “babaylan”). This may be acknowledged as the source of ascendancy of women in political affairs and other aspects such as contemporary culture and social life especially during the post-WWII period. The emergence of feminism in cinema during the 1970s to the 1980s has served to strengthen female characters and has threatened to demolish machismo in local films (David, 1995). There was a lot of focus on woman-centric films ignited by directors Lino Brocka, Celso Ad Castillo and (especially) Ishmael Bernal. Female directors like Lupita Kashiwahara, Marilou-Diaz Abaya, Laurice Guillen and Olivia Lamasan also ventured into the film industry, with Diaz-Abaya helming the “first Filipino feminist film” MORAL in 1982. Not to mention, the two biggest stars of the period were women who also starred in several roles directed by the directors mentioned - Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos.

But of course, while the “New Woman” emerged in Philippine cinema, patriarchy also found ways of reasserting itself. The traditional genres and stereotypes still proliferated during this period, especially with the resurgence of the action and the bomba genre. In her analysis of 10 Tagalog movies with different portrayals of women, Pennie S. Azarcon dela Cruz (1988) observed that women in these films are exclusively dependent on men for happiness and fulfillment and safety at any entanglement and that they are “good” if they’re kind and submissive and when their devotion is only directed towards family life. Women were also portrayed as materialistic, ambitious and gullible, and are considered as sexual objects that must fulfill a man’s sexual needs (pp. 114-127). Philippine cinema has always given women a passive, subversive role that lacks sexual agency, especially in the light of the Filipino’s grip on religion and the patriarchal setting that feeds on it.

Female Desire in BONA

Throughout the history of cinema, women have always been objectified by men. Cinema establishes gender politics by assigning roles that are appropriated by men and women as a means of sustaining order in society. The woman in this setting is expected to be passive – she appears in accordance to man’s (who is perceived as “active” and “determining”) fantasies of her. Woman’s “to-be-looked-at-ness” in film is something feminists have studied and tended to defy, deconstructing the masculinity of cinema and finding ways for the entrance of female desire and subjectivity. The argument of Laura Mulvey (1975) in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, with regards to male objectification, states that
an active/passive heterosexual division of labor has similarly controlled narrative structure. According to principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like. Hence the split between spectacle and narrative supports the man’s role as the active one of forwarding the story, making things happen.

Yet this does not acknowledge the emergence of the women’s film and the possibility of the female gaze. Even in Mulvey’s “Afterthoughts”, she finds female desire to be possible only once the male gaze has been adopted. Mary Ann Doane (1987) suggests that the desiring gaze of female characters either lacks an object or results in punishment for the female gazer, and hence, spectatorial unpleasure. As a result, Doane notes "the woman's exercise of an active investigating gaze can only be simultaneous with her own victimization" (p. 136). Women can enjoy a certain female gaze but they are not in the determining position. De Lauretis also argues that narrative functions to “seduce” women into femininity without their consent. The female subject is made to desire femininity. Here, de Lauretis turns Mulvey’s phrase around: not only does a story demand sadism: sadism demands a story. She refers to the ways in which the female characters in VERTIGO (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), but also in a ‘woman’s film’ such as REBECCA (Hitchcock, 1940), are made to conform to the image that man has of them (Smelik, 2007).

Bona is the central character of the film. She decides for herself and she’s the protagonist we identify with. In the first four minutes, we find her mixed within crowds looking at an event/person. We first see her watching the procession of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, rather bewildered by the scenery. This is cut to Bona witnessing a film shooting and avidly checking for Gardo, the bit player she obsesses over. These scenes would suggest a parallelism between the Black Nazarene and Gardo – both have fans who devote themselves completely to their idols. The film immediately reveals that the perspective belongs to Bona, and we will see the film according to what she sees and experiences. According to Maria LaPlace (1987), “The woman's film is distinguished by its female protagonist, female point-of-view and its narrative which most often revolves around the traditional realms of women's experience: the familial, the domestic, the romantic - those arenas where love, emotion and relationships take precedence over action and events” (p. 139). Similarly, Mulvey (1981) discusses in her later essay “Afterthoughts on Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” that “the female presence as center allows the story to be actually, overtly, about sexuality; it becomes a melodrama”. In BONA, the central character is de-eroticized and does not function as a spectacle to be looked at. By her appearance, Nora Aunor embodies her more as a common Filipina rather than a well-to-do bourgeois lady. She isn’t an erotic woman here, but she resembles more the Maria Clara type through her conservative gestures. We see how she sees Gardo and realize in her actions the desire to be with him. Gardo then (as the intention of Lino Brocka) becomes the sexual object to be looked at. Bona is the bearer of the gaze and Gardo is the spectacle. Yet looking is not the only action Bona does to demonstrate this. Similar to the Noranians’ treatment of their idol, Bona left her familial responsibilities and her bourgeois lifestyle to live with Gardo in his small house in the slums of Manila. Significantly she took the responsibility of being Gardo’s helper. Her sacrifices and her eventual resort to enslavement are pitiful, because the audience (especially when it’s a Noranian, or any other avid fanatic) identifies with what she had to give up. This contributes to the melodrama and thus this images Bona as victim despite being the center of the narrative. Her stay with Gardo, her role as helper/mother, their confusing relationship and the intervention of Bona’s family fulfills LaPlace’s claims of what a woman’s film is with BONA.

After she was scolded by her father for spending the night at Gardo’s house without permission, Bona returns to a drunken Gardo. She carried him to his bed and while he spoke in gibberish, Bona told him that she’ll stay with him from that night on. Gardo responds by mistaking her as his deceased mother and apologizes for his drinking. This is not the only time Gardo would compare Bona to his mother. The morning after that night, Bona gave Gardo a bath and in his stories, he compared her to his mother. He said that like Bona, his mother loved to give him baths and that she touched his skin the way his mother used to. The image alone of Bona smiling and tickling the grown man while he’s being bathed is a sign of Gardo’s immaturity that would affect his decisions later. This also reveals Bona’s newfound role as mother to Gardo, not as girlfriend, that would also mark the start of her “pagpapaalila” or enslavement. Bona seems to understand this as a sign of affirmation: she is now willing to play mother just to stay with him. What this suggests is that a woman can enjoy her freedom to desire once she conforms to certain gender roles assigned to her. Upon finding Bona, her father immediately hunts down Gardo and orders him to marry her because he thought Gardo forcefully took her away from home. He is startled to learn that it is Bona who willingly came to stay with Gardo. This causes the father to be intensely angered that he chased the fearful Bona until he suffers a heart attack. Her father’s anger is also related to differences on social classes between Bona and Gardo. Gardo is, in her father’s words, “isang bit player na hampaslupa’t walang malamon” (a bit player who’s a tramp with nothing to eat) while Bona is from a bourgeois family who’s a “reynang tatamad-tamad pa” (a lazy queen). Between Gardo and her father, it is evident now that whoever Bona chooses she will be forced to accept what the man wants her to be. But in the end, she chooses Gardo.

The effect of her unlikely choice is that she would continue her role as maid/helper to the man. She now cooks his food, cleans his house, gives him a bath and carries his things to the film set. Bona’s self-torture and patience wouldn’t end there. Many times over, Gardo took home different women. And because she remains obedient to Gardo she serves these women, too. Bona’s desire towards Gardo does not reciprocate, because Gardo would devote himself to his small parts in films, his womanizing and his drinking. But then one night a naked Gardo gets up from bed, wakes up Bona and demands a massage from her. While Bona was massaging his chest, Gardo grabbed her hands to make her stop. In this sensual scene, a switch of gaze was suddenly apparent – Bona now is the object of Gardo’s male gaze, he recognizes her as a sexual being. This would then lead to their only sexual encounter. In that moment, one could infer that Gardo’s treatment of Bona was beginning to change. Yet by morning, it seems this encounter (not different to the other women Gardo took home) was only casual and it didn’t really matter to him. Bona on the other hand was looking at Gardo as if expecting some remarks about last night, because it was a glorious moment for the fan who finally gained the attention of her idol. But for Gardo it’s like nothing happened. The hopeless situation of Bona intensifies in this scene, because the spectator can clearly see that she’s just a utility for Gardo. As Roland Tolentino argued in his analysis of Richard Gomez in DYESEBEL (Mel Chionglo, 1990), the woman in film can only be functional as long as she can be used for the merriment or misery of the male character (2000, p.24). Bona enters the situation in control of her choices but because of her blind passion and passivity towards Gardo, she’s become a mere object for him to use sexually and domestically. It is reflective of how Nora Aunor’s fans love it when she needs them.

Despite fighting for Gardo throughout the film, it’s clear that the bit player didn’t acknowledge her efforts. Towards the end, her family would give her up completely. Bona returns home after learning that her father died. Her mother and sister welcome her and they take her to the coffin. Suddenly, her older brother enters the frame and starts beating her around the house until she’s outside. Similarly, Bona’s father beat her with a belt earlier in the film when she didn’t go home one night. This happened again when she was being forced back home at Gardo’s house. The brother now commands her to never come back or he’ll kill her. This is the consequence of her freedom to leave and choose Gardo. She’s now denied by her family, the last resort she could take is Gardo. But as she returns to his house, she finds his new girlfriend Katrina. Katrina was there to tell Bona that Gardo’s things need to be packed because he’s going to live with her. Gardo then affirms that he is marrying Katrina and that he’s planning on selling the house and leaving Bona. This further disturbs Bona who doesn’t have anywhere else to go. He tries to reason with Gardo but he didn’t mind her.

This would lead to the infamous ending of the boiling water, Bona’s response to her oppression by the men around her. Her resort to violence signifies her eruption and her response to the denial of her desire by men. In his review of Brocka’s BONA and JAGUAR (1979), Alain Garsault (1981) says that

Bona, despite living conditions in the slums, tries to be true to her feelings and fails. But in making a last desperate effort, Insiang, Bona and Poldo are able to salvage their human dignity – the only thing of value to which the poor, the enslaved, the oppressed, can lay claim (p.180).

It is Bona’s last blows for dignity after she realized that Gardo has exploited her all along. We wouldn’t know what happens next after she pours the boiling water but we’re sure it is her own way of resistance from Gardo.


Lino Brocka’s 1980 film BONA is a woman’s film since it tackles the situation of a woman during the height of feminist film theory in the Philippines. It has received accolades here and around the world because of its social realism, its direct attack on religious/superstar fanaticism and also perhaps because of a very infamous ending. Through the years it has gained more and more discourses and even an adaptation into a stageplay directed by Soxie Topacio and starring Eugene Domingo as the titular character.

Along with other social discourses on film, feminism both in the era when it was made and also within its social context, is arguably in a state of contradiction because of the reassertion of patriarchal modes into the cinematic form. In BONA, we get an alternative woman’s film. We identify with Bona as the central character in a struggle with the several men in her life. The film begins with the protagonist pursuing her desire in Gardo through her independence from the dictates of her patriarchal family from which she manages to escape. But as the narrative moves closer and closer to its end, we find that Bona just got herself into another oppressive situation. Upon choosing her desire to escape her strict father, she’s still enslaved in feminine tasks when she moved in with Gardo, doing the cooking, cleaning and she even started working. The furious father and the brother, as opposed to the caring mother and sister of Bona, are violent men who found Bona’s disobedience as a grave matter and decided to eliminate her from the household. The brother blamed Bona for the death of the father who forcefully tried to claim her back so she can help in the family. Gardo on the other hand accepted Bona not as an equal but as a utility he can use for comfort and utility. Bona is found bearing the gaze while Gardo seemed to be the sex object but Bona still had to conform to perform feminine tasks so she can preserve her gaze, and satisfy the desire to be with him.

Bona becomes a rupture in the system of patriarchy in the film when she chose to escape gender expectations of her father. But the narrative moved along to the reinforcement of traditional patriarchal modes for women. This is reflective of the backlash towards women’s lib that rose during the 1980s with the reinforcement of patriarchy. Gardo symbolizes this reinforcement when he accepted Bona but seduced her to serve him. Bona’s resistance then (as exploited female) is the elimination of Gardo using the tool that used to give him pleasure – warm water. While feminist critics have explored various media in search of feminist challenges to patriarchal institutions using the “female voice” (Gledhill, 1994), the “female action” is often overlooked. BONA proves that despite the continuous reassertion of the oppression of women, a solution can be made and that is the elimination of the oppressive patriarchal institutions not just through a voice but through action.

This is how feminism is connected to Marxism in the Philippine context. While women are engaged in the liberation from patriarchy, so is the struggle of revolutionaries against bureaucrat capitalism. And both these struggles are interwoven to battle against the bigger culprit: US Imperialism. In feminist film theory, the source of patriarchal modes that continue to attack feminist counter-cinema spring from Hollywood machismo. Feminism should not exist fighting for gender issues alone, but also capitalism. Like Bona, millions of workers are also exploited by selfish men who don’t really care about the conditions of the working class. Garsault (1981) wrote in his review of two Brocka films that the protagonists in his films are “situated within a framework, and with other people, and cannot be considered separately from them” (p. 180). The relevance of BONA lies in the fact that it is set in the urban poor sector of Manila where a bourgeois woman chose to live a working-class life and understood the reality of oppression towards her womanhood and dignity. It is the working class’ responsibility to revolt against these oppressive forces that continue to use the bodies of the poor for their own benefit. It’s not enough to let these voices shout and be heard. There must be action – a collective action that would liberate the thousands of Bonas suffering everyday.

BONA (NV Productions, 1980)

Directed by Lino Brocka
Produced by Nora Aunor (as Nora Villamayor)
Written by Cenen Ramones
Cast: Nora Aunor ... Bona
Phillip Salvador ... Gardo
Marissa Delgado ... Katrina
Raquel Montesa ... Nancy
Venchito Galvez ... Bona's Father
Rustica Carpio ... Bona's Mother
Nanding Josef ... Nilo
Spanky Manikan ... Bona's Brother
The Peta Kalinangan Ensemble
Joel Lamangan ... Director (uncredited)
Original Music by Lutgardo Labad
Cinematography by Conrado Baltazar
Film Editing by Augusto Salvador

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