Richard Porton checks in from New Jersey and took a film trip to The Philippines in Shireen Seno’s debut film Big Boy, shot audaciously in Super-8, resembling a fever dream slyly generated by a home movie aesthetic.
How does a filmmaker tackle history without indulging in the banalities (and one-dimensional view of the past) that often plague Hollywood blockbusters such as Lincoln? One possible antidote to fatuous historiography (and hagiography) is suggested by Shireen Seno’s debut feature, Big Boy. While documenting a specific moment in the history of The Philippines — a period after World War II when American economic hegemony became solidified despite the country no longer being an official American colony — Seno’s film veers away from the macrocosmic generalities beloved by commercial filmmakers and filters history through the microcosmic prism of a family struggling to survive in the tumultuous postwar era.
For Seno, history is literally written on bodies — in particular the body of a Julio, a young boy living on the island of Mindoro in the wake of what the press book sardonically labels the Americans’ decision to ‘liberate’ The Philippines. Julio’s parents, as clueless as they are inadvertently cruel, stretch his body mercilessly and ply him with a locally made growth serum. They apparently associate a tall, strapping boy with healthy, American-style virility. It seems that a ‘big boy’, even if his growth is the product of blithe sadism, is more likely to compete with, and surpass, his peers. The IFFR catalogue labels this perverse optimism an investment in the "American Dream." That’s a perfectly valid assumption; it’s also possible to claim that this familial obsession with Julio’s size is Seno’s way of encapsulating the identity of a nation at a crucial juncture in its history — or, to put it another way, to meditate on what Benedict Anderson, a historian with a longstanding interest in Filipino nationalism, terms an "imagined community." Bombarded with American products parachuted into Mindoro, this family, desperate and foraging for food, become flesh and blood embodiments of the wages of imperialism.
Formally precise as well as ideologically potent, Big Boy, shot audaciously in Super-8, resembles a fever dream slyly generated by a home movie aesthetic. Leisurely long takes differentiate the dreary world of adults from the more carefree pursuits of the younger protagonists. Yet, even though the children frolic in the countryside, Seno’s grim vision is far from pastoral. The social tensions tearing apart the islands eventually rupture the film’s family unit. And despite the emphasis on ‘Americanization’, the family Big Boy depicts is far from ‘nuclear’.
In his 2010 monograph, Dream Factories of a Former Colony: American Fantasies, Philippine Cinema, José B. Capino maintains that ‘Filipino films made after the end of U.S. colonialism in 1946’ appropriate fantasies of American life in order to advance ‘the projects of decolonization and globalization (…) fantasies have articulated empire and mobilized against it (…) posed challenges to the alibis of patriarchy and nationalism, and opened up paths for Filipino participation in global culture.’ While many of the films Capino discusses are genre pieces — low-budget horror films and melodramas — his observations apply equally to art cinema. At a juncture when ‘Philippine Cinema’ is now an important commodity on the festival circuit, the yearning to open ‘up paths for Filipino participation in global culture’ is more tangible than ever.