Review by Paulo Vargas; Photos from Cinemalaya
Malamaya is the story of 45-year-old Nora (Sunshine Cruz), an established mixed media artist with a sharp tongue and steadfast principles. One day, she meets Migs (Enzo Pineda), a 30-year-old amateur photographer, in an art gallery. He makes advances at her, and after a bit of courting and seduction, she gives in to his unrelenting boyish charms and his abs. Nora and Migs are a perfect fit, as long as we are talking about libido. Like many May-December love affairs, theirs start to unravel when Nora tires of Migs immaturity.
The premise of Malamaya is not unique. It is one of three films in this year’s Cinemalaya that objectifies the male body (F#*@BOIS and Belle Douleur are the other two), and one of two films that feature an older woman who starts a love affair with a younger man (Belle Douleur). What makes Malamaya’s approach different, according to directors Danica Sta. Lucia and Leilani Chavez, is that it features Nora as an empowered woman.
Nora is an outlier—she is a strong, independent woman with sexual agency, and she refuses to go by society’s standards. This is established when, at the start of the film, we hear her booty call Jim (Raymond Bagatsing) in the throes of pleasure. When he climaxes, Nora asks dryly, “Tapos ka na ba?” (Are you finished?). Near the end of the film, we see more of the same from Nora as she lays expressionless under Migs who goes at it with gusto.
By herself, the character of Nora is interesting. Sunshine Cruz’s Nora is compelling majority of the time, however, the way she commits to it without vanity is sometimes distracting. No person looks coiffed and made up without having any hint of conceit. Cruz could have made the character of Nora more believable if she traded her movie star looks with a more down-to-earth portrayal.
But there is little to no introspective as to why the audience should see Nora as a standard for women empowerment. This idea never evolves beyond being conceptual. The audience was promised a creative and sexual reawakening, but we are left with the same Nora after what could be described as a power nap.
While character development—or lack thereof—is the film’s main fault, it is only one of many. The narrative is just as strange. On one hand we have the story of the proverbial talented but flawed artist; on the other we have a steamy love affair between two unwary parties. On one scene, we see Nora and Jim talk about their doomed relationship, and on the next, she is flirtatious with Migs.
In between the drama of Nora’s relations, there are attempts to paint her as an artist: she brushes colors on a canvas, she owns a cat, she teaches differently-abled kids art, and she gives a talk in an art class. Then Nora and Migs lie on the floor naked. The next they talk about art in an art gallery. The next they are naked again.
The two directors can’t seem to agree on what the film’s focus should be, so they weave different plot points together. The inability to seamlessly weave theses plots show in the staccato editing, where vignettes of Nora’s and Migs’ relationship and Nora as an artist purposefully congest the film’s flow.
In a way, it is impressive that Sta. Lucia and Chavez was able to turn the male gaze right-side up into the female gaze, but in doing so they unwittingly capture everything that’s wrong with the male gaze, with only the sexes reversed. It is always interesting to witness emerging artists attempt greatness by breaking the status quo, but no quo was broken. It is the same play with different gendered actors.
“How do you know when your art is finished?” a student asks Nora in a classroom scene. “The same way you know when you’re done with sex, or when you’re done taking a dump,” Nora says to emphatic agreement by the students. Throughout the film we see Nora and Migs smoke cigarettes as a signifier of their bad choices in life. In the attempt of showing multiple layers, the film feels like an artwork unfinished.
Malamaya is jagged and hurried but bursting with concepts. At its core, it is candid and true to its intention. But ultimately the film suffers from its uncompromising ideals. Is it unbearable to watch? No. It is an enjoyable film with contemporary ideas, but it has the same faults as the films it set out to indict. What it lacks in fundamental story telling it tries to make up with big ideas