Sizzling summer heat loses steam in Brillante Mendoza’s Kaleldo (Kampanpangan for “summer heat”). Mendoza’s directorial skills turn arid Pampanga into a beautiful setting for a family drama hampered by a problematic screenplay. A story about the Manansala family of Guagua, Pampanga, it stars Johnny Delgado as Rudy Manansala, a woodcarver and father to three daughters: Jess, wonderfully played by Cherry Pie Picache, is the eldest daughter and a lesbian who suffers the scorn of her father; Lourdes, played by Angel Aquino, is the favored middle child who is married to a weakling of a husband, Andy (Alan Paule); and the youngest daughter, Grace, played by Juliana Palermo, who is married to a mama’s boy Conrad (Lauren Novero).
Kaleldo is a movie in three parts; each daughter’s story is prefigured by an element. The first part, Wind, is Grace’s story and how she tries but fails to integrate with her husband’s family. Fire prefigures the story of Lourdes, her failing marriage and costly indiscretion. Water, the last part of this trilogy of elements, is the story of Jess and her girlfriend Weng (Criselda Volks), and is highlighted by the death of the father and ends with Weng walking out of Jess during the father’s wake. The fourth element, Earth, is the landscape of Pampanga. The importance and purpose of these elements in the narrative is never clear. Are these just devices to divide the narrative? Or are there stereotypical characteristics of the elements that are present in the stories of each daughter? Are the daughters’ personalities akin to the elements? The screenplay is out of its element. The three parts are not woven tightly and is far from seamless; the division is more disruptive than unifying. It is safe to say that the sum of the three parts did not achieve a cinematic whole.
Kaleldo created a buzz in the public’s imagination with a lesbian, Jess, as one of its central characters. Once marginalized and close to invisible, there has been an abundance lately of lesbian representations in Philippine cinema with Joel Lamangan’s Sabel, Connie SA.Macatuno’s Rome and Juliet, Auraeus Solito’s Tuli, and Babae by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo. Though films with lesbian characters offer a deeper understanding of the woman-loving-woman relationship, some representations are problematic (Carlos Siguion Reyna’s Tatlo…Magkasalo comes to mind as one of the most). Even if these films render lesbians visible in predominantly patriarchal representations in Philippine cinema, the discourse about lesbians that these films generate leaves much to be desired. Most lesbians are represented as drunkards (Jess’ lesbian friends in Kaleldo spend most of their screen time drinking or drunk), confused, criminals, evil, violent, and spurned by men they love and so turning them into men-hating lesbians.
Most films also dichotomize lesbians into butches and femmes (for lack of more appropriate terms). The butches are depicted as very macho and patriarchal, and the femmes are depicted as very feminine and subservient. At the end of the film, the lesbians are turned straight, made to go back to the altar of heterosexuality, and married off to the next available bachelor, thereby fulfilling the heterosexual happy-ever-after plot. Kaleldo places itself in this quandary. After exposing the flawed heterosexual relationships between Lourdes and Andy and younger sister Grace and Conrad, and portraying the lesbian relationship between Jess and Weng as a stable, loving, caring, and supportive partnership between two women, it chooses to break up and destroy the lesbian relationship and marry Weng off in a church wedding. Why deny lesbian love its much-needed and deserved happy-ever-after? Why succumb to the heterosexual and patriarchal notion of relationship?
A voice-over narration feebly attempts to explain that Jess had to let go of Weng because she loves her, unlike the kind of love her strict father had for them that left her scarred. Whatever happened to fighting for one’s love? Where is redemption here? Where is empowerment? Instead of liberating Jess from the scarring and stifling patriarchal love of her father, she succumbs and is defeated by it.
Brillante Mendoza, winner of last year’s Young Critics Circle Film Desk awards for his first film Masahista, creates some stunning picture-perfect scenes with sparkles of cinematographic brilliance that turns lahar-stricken Pampanga into a beautiful setting, albeit some scenes are devoid of context.
The acting is uneven and inconsistent, making it difficult for us to empathize with the characters. Johnny Delgado’s acting during his daughter’s wedding seems more lustful than loving. Angel Aquino, Alan Paule and Lauren Novero render forgettable performances. Liza Lorena is over the top. Juliana Palermo and Criselda Volks are competent.
The bright spot in this acting ensemble is Cherry Pie Picache who turns in the most subtle yet searing portrayal of a devoted and dutiful lesbian daughter that still does not command the love and respect she deserves from her father. Picache’s transformation is effective and detailed – in small quiet gestures, a painful look, a longing stare. Her characterization is intelligent and void of histrionics. Picache inhabits Jess in a convincing manner and blends with the landscape that is Pampanga. We ache as she strives for her father’s respect, acceptance, and ultimately, his love. We cringe as she is constantly berated and publicly embarrassed by her father for how she dresses. We cheer as she defends her sister from a rampaging husband with a leg of pig as a weapon. We experience her love for her girlfriend Weng with her intimate caresses. We flinch as she is slapped by her father for answering back and standing up for herself and Weng. We sense her fear as she ever so slightly recoils in the presence of her domineering and violent father. We empathize with her vulnerability as she mourns his death.
Contrary to prevalent, albeit erroneous, representations in film and other mass media where the lesbian is typecast as macho, brusque, uncouth, and abrasive, Picache’s portrayal of a lesbian is strong yet sensitive, willful yet tender and loving, and impenitent yet compassionate. Defying pervasive filmic and societal lesbian constructs, she intelligently captures the nuances of Jess’ character portraying her as a dutiful, hard-working and responsible daughter, a protective sister, and a loving partner. Picache does not characterize Jess solely as a lesbian, but more importantly, as a person. This is reminiscent of Jeanette Winterson’s musings on being a lesbian in Art Objects, “I am not a lesbian who happens to write. I am a writer who happens to love women.” Cherry Pie Picache’s Jess renders more depth and humanity into a lesbian character than most of lesbian representations in recent Philippine cinematic history.
Cherry Pie Picache is the saving grace of Kaleldo, and yet it is her character, Jess, that suffers the most tragic loss as lesbian love wilts under the sweltering heat of summer in Pampanga.