Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sampaguita, National Flower (Francis Xavier Pasion, 2010)

Francis Xavier Pasion’s Sampaguita, National Flower – a real-life glimpse into the nightly fates of a group of street urchins selling the titular garlands in the streets of Manila – has just won the Special Jury Prize at this year's Cinemalaya. Popular reception also seems to validate such critical acclaim as first- and second-hand accounts attest to the ability of this film to draw tears of apparent pity and sympathy at various screenings. At the risk of seeming callous and iron-hearted, let me say that the reception borders on the curious -- an exaggeration, an overcompensation for something? -- but then again aren't we the same country of bleeding hearts reeled in by the sobering stories and saddening sagas coaxed out on national television by the likes of Willie Revillame and Jessica Soho? Frankly speaking, there’s also already an entire subgenre of films that have more dexterously parlayed the dramatic potential of a similar premise: Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, Hector Babenco’s Pixote and Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay. Sampaguita does not hold a candle to those classics.

But a bad filmmaker on the evidence of this film, Pasion is not. Already, to say that Sampaguita possesses no power to move is to deny the foregoing and underestimate this filmmaker’s powers of manipulation. To sweep its audiences into simultaneous applause and tears is no mean feat. Pasion knowingly deploys his practiced tricks as he intercuts actual interviews with his young subjects and the corresponding dramatizations of their confessions en route to crafting an account of poverty.

We do get a vividly graphic if stylized sense of degradation that befalls the young characters of this film. Images sear on our memory: tired and weary, they sleep on hard pavement with cardboard for blankets; the cops and city officials chase and scatter them off the streets like so many vermin; the night unlooses on them shadowy pedophiles and various predators. There is no reprieve for them, those whose lives on the home front are not appreciably better, and perhaps worse, since they presuppose bigger expectations for a sense of home. As a prologue of sorts demonstrates, our national symbols are being drained of lofty meaning for the dispossessed. The sampaguita, more significantly, has become inextricably linked with images of deprivation, danger and despondence.

But Pasion commits suspect decisions, too. None more glaring is his choice of a curious timeframe to formulate his story. Here it is Christmas season, and the acts of charity are more commonplace and more forthcoming than during the rest of the year. All of a sudden, the streets are not so uninviting, but a source of bonanza for those who know how to beg and hustle. This cosmetically closes the gap of class divisions, a misrepresentation of social conditions that Pasion must be called to explain. By showing the bourgeoisie in a positive light, doesn’t it return the onus of decent existence on the shoulders of its young characters?

With the noblesse oblige of the bourgeoisie in evidence, it throws in a suspicious, Empsonian form of ambiguity into the proceedings. Have the noble acts of our representatives on screen galvanized us into action, or have they just reassured us into complacency and refrained from seeking our further intervention? It may be an old chestnut but the saying Everday is not Christmas holds a demonstrable, time-tested wisdom. Sampaguita may have reduced us to tears, but it has also absolved the audience of its crucial role of social transformation. It may have coaxed us into applause, but only for our majestic mirror-image in the eyes of these little, pitiful street urchins.


  1. Dear Mr. critic,

    the time frame of the film is not Christmas, but the first day of classes. This was evident from the first VOICE OVER of the film.

    Did you really watch the film or just relied on the trailer and reviews?

    tsk tsk. This is a lazy review of the film. Littered with ceremonial preachings and lousy insights.

  2. Dear Kaye,

    Christmas or no Christmas, it doesn't invalidate what I write. Read again.

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