Tuesday, July 21, 2009

AAIFF ’09: Hubad

You can see edgy, erotically-charged theater any night of the week in New York City, even on Sunday. Evidently, that is not necessarily the case in the Philippines. Appearing an explicit, psychologically revealing avant-garde production may rejuvenate the careers of two middle-aged actors, but it also threatens to disrupt their own relationships in Mark Gary and Denisa Reyes’s Hubad (trailer here), which screens during the upcoming Asian American International Film Festival.

Andre Joaquin is a gifted theater director. That means his work is not commercial, forcing him to rely on arts council grants to stage his productions. Unfortunately, his bureaucratic patrons are balking at the explicit nature of his latest work. While struggling to secure funding, he is pushing his actors to their breaking point with his demanding rehearsals. Carmen Manahan and Delfin Bustamante play a bored married couple, who simulate various fantasies during the course of Joaquin’s experimental play, and perhaps reveal something of themselves in the process, if their director has his way.

For Manahan, the play might be the last chance to save her flagging career. Bustamante still finds himself in demand, but for unrewarding gigs, like Disney musical revues. Both are reasonably happily married, just not to each other. However, perhaps as a result of the intimate nature of their rehearsals, they have begun an ill-advised affair.

This is an adult film, but not a prurient one. While Hubad, which translates as “naked” or “stripped,” appears to be about one thing, very little of it is seen in actuality on-screen. However, the many strange stage representations of intimate relations, including s&m sessions, will surely confuse immature viewers.

Hubad also might be a film only its native Filipino audience can really appreciate. While Joaquin’s dramatic vision might well be transgressive compared to say, typical Manilla dinner theater fare, here in New York, it seems pretty pedestrian. There is some fine acting to be found in the film though. Filipino film director Penque Gallaga is particularly memorable as psychologically manipulative director, subtly revealing Joaquin’s vulnerabilities, including his own specific Freudian issues. Nonie Buencamino also brings a real intensity and legitimate screen presence to role of Bustamante. However, Irma Adlawan sometimes strays into melodramatic territory, just like her character, the frequently overwrought Manahan.

Gary and Reyes convincingly capture the hothouse atmosphere of the chaotic rehearsal process. In fact, Hubad seems infused with a genuine affection for the theater. Much like Joaquin’s on-screen production, Hubad is an interesting work, featuring brave performances, but is still more likely to leave audiences intellectually stimulated rather than emotionally satisfied. It screens this Friday (7/24) at the Chelsea Clearview Cinemas as part of the 2009 AAIFF.