The following is a paper that captures, in essence, a nuanced take on Celso Ad. Castillo’s Burlesk Queen (1977), situating it within the context of Philippine Cinema.
Part of our course work from the previous semester was to develop a film criticism grounded in the context of the “Philippine”. The class was treated as a seminar to develop these ideas. It became a process of collaboration between the instructor and the students whereby a selection of films were constellated with other resources to tease out each of their underpinnings.
Celso Ad Castillo’s Burlesk Queen (1977) is a film like no other. Set in an era when bodabil entertainment in the Philippines was waning, it details the life of Chato (Vilma Santos) as a burlesque dancer who navigates through a landscape set by a morality imposed by her crippled father, Mang Roque (Leopoldo Salcedo), that is trumped by the need to make ends meet. Chato finds her cadence when Virgie (Rosemarie Gil) was unable to perform on stage when she was overcome by her heartbreak from a recent fallout with her lover, Ander (Roldan Aquino). Realizing Chato’s potential the principled theater manager, Louie Fernando (Joonee Gamboa), wanted to solicit Mang Roque’s support for Chato’s dancing, to no avail. Thereafter, moralists file a subpoena against Louie who is later forced to make drastic decisions to save the theater. He lures Chato into hiding her identity so she can still perform despite the disapproval of her father. During her performances, she takes on the persona of a masked dancer named Czarina. Chato’s success enables her to buy a new wheelchair for her father. Intoxicated by young love, Chato falls for Jessie (Rolly Quizon) and commits to him her virginity. Mang Roque is still convinced that his daughter is dancing at the theater. They get entangled in a fight but Chato was firm in her decision to keep dancing. The tension that revealed the extent of the strain in their relationship drove Mang Roque to commit suicide. Chato learns of her father’s passing after a performance that was interrupted by Virgie. She rushes to the hospital, expresses her regrets in uttering harsh words while kneeling, hanging onto the edge of the bed where her father’s lifeless body rests. She vows to never dance again. However, Chato realizes Jessie’s inability to provide for the two of them. She soon finds herself going back to Louie to covertly ask for his help in employing Jessie. Chato arrives at home and enthusiastically approaches a drunk Jessie atop the stairs. Her mother-in-law reveals herself from the shadows as she continues to pack Jessie’s suitcase. He leaves with his mother, convinced that he can still finish law school and become a lawyer. Left to her own devices, Chato decides to dance for one last time, taking on the challenge of becoming the theater’s savior. She dances until she loses herself, blood left oozing between her legs, the ultimate sacrifice for a theater already in ruins.
With the theme of humanizing a burlesque dancer presented in Burlesk Queen, I was propelled initially to take on a feminist perspective in the portrayal of Chato’s character. Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) served as a guide in curating the two films that I presented during the seminar which sought to draw out this perspective from Burlesk Queen, namely Walang Rape sa Bontok (dir. Lester Valle, 2014) and Babae at Baril (dir. Rae Red, 2019).
Mulvey presents the concept of the “male gaze” through psychoanalytic theory. Mainstream Hollywood cinema was the backdrop of her analysis as it “coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order” (1975, 8). She builds upon Freud’s concept of scopophilia, the pleasure derived from looking at another person as an erotic object. The act of deriving pleasure from looking is subdivided into two processes. The first is the recognition of the subject’s desire to look at another person as an “object of sexual stimulation” (Mulvey 1975, 10). Secondly, the subject constructs an ego, an identity distinguished but is simultaneously identified with the object of its desire. She recognizes a world ordered by an imbalance with the interaction of the active/male and the passive/female. In the Hollywood filmic sense, the male projects his fantasies unto the female and solidifies her “to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey 1975, 11). The female, in return, submits to the male’s desires, is eroticized and sexualized.
The Burlesque in Burlesk
There is truth when Louie claimed that when you look up the term burlesque in the dictionary, it is not as malicious as how the moralists claimed it to be. Burlesque as a literary form is an exaggerated parody of a classical text, a caricature done to ridicule a serious subject matter. It later on developed into a form of entertainment where various acts of comedy and performances were included. The American version of burlesque included closing acts where scantily clad women danced on stage. This morphed American version is the form of entertainment portrayed in Burlesk Queen. Castillo adds another layer of burlesque to it as he, the auteur, ridicules and points out the irrationalities of the Americanized form of burlesque, the objectification of the female body for profit. In his Burlesk, he seemingly undermines the form but at the same time utilizes it to pull out an attentive meta-analysis of its construction.
Bonnstetter applied an examination of Kenneth Burke’s poetic categories and Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the carnival in understanding comedy and burlesque in satiric films (2011). Bonnstetter builds upon Burke’s operative application of his “poetic categories” into “frames of acceptance (epic, tragedy, comedy) and as frames of rejection (elegy, satire, burlesque, the grotesque, and the didactic)” (20). The distinction between the comedic and the burlesque will help in the understanding of Castillo’s filmic style. Bonnstetter’s paper is an analysis of how the audience relates to film and reiterates that “how people define situations also defines how they react to them” (20). Burke considers comedy as a “frame of acceptance” because it highlights an intimate relationship between the writer and the rhetoric. Bonnstetter complements this with Bakhtin’s assertion that the “carnival “is not an individual reaction to some isolated ‘comic’ event” but is “the laughter of all the people . . . it is universal in scope; it is directed at all and everyone, including the carnival’s participants” (20). In a sense, the writer laughs with the audience, the audience laughs with the writer, one does not dominate over the other.
Burlesque on the other hand is a “frame of rejection” because as Burke explains, “the writer of burlesque makes no attempt to get inside the psyche of his victim” (Bonnstetter 20). The writer separates themselves from the subject matter and at the same time passes judgment on the act itself. Bonnstetter adds that “Burke calls this an “external” approach, meaning the rhetor does not see him/herself as a possible fool and instead highlights “the externals of behavior, driving them to a ‘logical conclusion’ that becomes their ‘reduction to absurdity’” (54). In adopting this perspective of burlesque as a “frame of rejection” to Castillo’s filmic lyricism, Burlesk Queen becomes his mockery and critique of an invasive American culture of entertainment. At its climax is the sacrificial offering of Chato’s life and her unborn child.
Castillo’s use of filmic metaphor is a testament to his profound understanding of the potential of burlesque as a form of critique. This is evident in the way he interspersed carnivalesque acts with Chato and Jessie’s sex scene. In another, Virgie descends into madness alone in her apartment and the flickering lights give the impression of her still dancing as if she was lit by the lights on the stage. Later in the film, Candy, the transgender stagehand/choreographer, is the first to enter when Chato was called for her final dance. Louie introduces Canuplin, the Filipino impersonator of Charlie Chaplin, before his performance of a “tragedy through the magic of pantomime” interspersed by Chato breaking the news of her father’s passing to Jessie. Castillo blends the comedic with the tragic and this is how he transforms the grotesque into something generative. The metaphors he used highlighted what he wanted the audience to realize. He leaves a lingering question after Chato’s miscarriage and implied death: who do we blame for this tragedy? The ridiculous acts that Burlesk depict point to the pervasive effects of a colonial imperialist culture that is very much ingrained in the everyday: an ordering based on class hierarchy, segregation of “high” or “low” tastes, capitalist inclinations, and the commodification of art.
The Auteur and His Vérité
Within Castillo’s poetics is the tension between the comedic and the tragic, as if mimicking real life. He never fails to set the mise en scene for his films. Daroy praises Castillo’s “concern with producing the documentary effects in Daluyong [at Habagat]” which is “very evident and conscious” (1976). David notes Castillo as a neorealist by “incorporating documentary footage” in Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-tim ng Tagak (1995, 12). Castillo’s adherence to “the truth” is also evident in Burlesk Queen in including genre scenes of the slums where the characters are assumed to reside in. He uses these clips to also indicate the passage of filmic time. His composition of the confrontation between Virgie and Ander at the tailor shop is another example of how he stays true to depicting the film’s life as real as possible. The musical score of the scene is provided by the beggars at the doorstep. As the confrontation scene unravels, Chato and Jessie communicate through glances. The same energy that is teeming with vitality can be observed in the simultaneous portrayal of the political rally, Louie asking for Mang Roque’s permission, and Jessie stealing kisses from Chato under the stairs.
Castillo masterfully peppers his fiction with truths. His inclusion of Canuplin evades filmic fiction as Canuplin is seen performing an unaltered role he plays in real life, a Charlie Chaplin impersonator. This makes the genius of his Burlesk more compelling. Castillo juxtaposes the seriousness of Chato’s condition with the comedic acts of Canuplin that is emblematic of Charlie Chaplin’s artistry. Corsaro writes of Chaplin’s last three films: “The films are beautifully out of control, the objectivity is deliciously tossed to the winds” (1979). In a sense, Castillo venerates Chaplin through his process in Burlesk. He sees likeness in him for they both create films with a certain embodied madness and professional perfectionism. To each, his own jack of all trades, master of one acquired filmic language: burlesque.
Jessica Zafra interviewed Castillo in 2012 and asked if Louie’s impassioned speech in defending burlesque as an art form comparable to “high” art is his own. Castillo answers: “I think directing is a matter of taste. If your tastes are classical, that’s what comes out in the movie. If you’re bakya, that’s what we see. Joonee’s character treats burlesque as an art.” He exudes this messianic persona and confidence, a “madman” with an art for art’s sake mantra. In the same interview, Castillo detailed his frustrations towards his contemporaries:
“My problem was that they didn’t stick to the real essence of cinema, which was audiovisual. I wasn’t fighting against the corruption of the system, I was fighting for the science of cinema. I wanted to cinematize the movies, make them understood as an audiovisual art.” (Zafra 2012)
It is also no wonder that Castillo graces Burlesk with his cameo. He took the role of Louie’s lawyer who oversaw his case against the moralists. Yet in the end, he fails to win the case for the theater. He portrayed himself as a foolish mediator who cannot even prevent what was inevitable.
Reyes’ review of Burlesk points out the flaw of showing an Elvis Presley crazed public casting doubt on the timeline of the film’s setting (1983). This may be intentional on the part of the auteur as he is trying to point to the inescapable influence of American pop culture proliferated by Philippine forms of mass entertainment. This fanaticism of Elvis can also be seen in Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak (1978), when Dido (Bembol Roco, Jr.) and the Town Rockers combo perform on the coronation night of Julie (Vilma Santos) during the town fiesta. In fact, it is in Pagputi that Castillo was able to refine and prove his own mastery of his filmic lyricism that he introduced in Burlesk. Apart from the allusion to American pop culture, also present in both films are the tensions between “high” art and folk/mass art, the disparity between the elite and the working class, and the representation of the political climate of the locality. It is through this allusion to a pervasive colonial culture that Burlesk Queen also finds kinship in Lamberto Avellana’s A Portrait of the Artist As Filipino (1965).
The Film as a Portrait
Central to Avellana’s Portrait is the house where the two daughters, Candida (Daisy H. Avellana) and Paula (Naty Crame-Rogers) live with their father, Don Lorenzo Marasigan (Pianing Vidal). The decrepit house is the embodiment of the condition of an impoverished old Manila before World War II. Burlesk and Portrait are both set at a turning point where the vibrant past is about to be overturned by adversity. Both films portray a sentimentality of this past and it was in the best interest of a central character to recover this. Vaudeville entertainment is threatened in both films, caused by the impending war in Portrait and by the moral cleansing of the politicians in Burlesk. Each portrays a nuanced understanding of the role of art in a social context. Art, as well as films in this regard, bear witness to the conditions that have enabled them to be produced in, with, or around it.
Castillo’s composition relates to Avellana’s through each other’s nostalgia of the past while presenting a critique of the present and possibly a speculation of what lies ahead. At each of their cores are similar aversions to change. Principled as they may have been, they led to tragedies petrified in each of their histories. Burlesk ends with Canuplin and his peers closing the theater after the camera panned to reveal Chato’s pinned photos on the wall. It evokes an uncertainty punctuated by the conviction that life must go on even after the curtains close on the theater. Portrait ends with Bitoy reflecting on the future of Manila after it crumbles to the ground. Bitoy exclaims: “It is not dead! It has not perished! Listen, Candida! Listen, Paula! Your city … my city … The city of our fathers … still lives! […] By your dust and by the dust of all the generations, I promise to continue! I promise to preserve!”
Transformations and trajectories, performance and practice
Castillo’s filmic form in Burlesk has opened the film itself to a multitude of readings and possible transformations as presented in this paper. To exhaust the boundaries of the film, I chose to look into Leeroy New’s Aliens of Manila project as its tangential reference. This was inspired by the mask that Chato wore for her dances. As pointed out in the seminar, it was Chato’s resistance to her father’s resistance, a subversion of his own set of morality. New’s Aliens can be likened in the same way, a subversion of normalcy on the streets of Manila. His living pieces are made to roam around the city, walk and mingle with the crowd while onlookers dabble in New’s personal mythology informed by folklore and body politics. New uses the body as his canvas and found objects such as plastic tubing, zip ties, or plastic water bottles. He transforms the body into otherworldly figures. He draws attention to his gender-neutral transformations of the body and at the same time challenges preconceived notions of how depictions of gender should play a role in one’s art. By using New’s transformative understanding of performance, Chato’s role, dictated by her gender, became more apparent. New reinscribes the erotic into the exotic with the protrusions in his living creatures. These exaggerations in a way mimic Castillo’s understanding of the burlesque. New burlesques hetero-normative gender roles in portraying absurd creatures unrestrained by gender to give emphasis to the dynamics of these issues as they play out in the status quo.
The seminar that sought to free up Burlesk Queen has enabled a more holistic approach to write Philippine film history. Linear chronology may go against the granularity that the filmic medium bears. Recognizing simultaneous vectors with varying extents of trajectories has enabled, in this regard, a better understanding of Celso Ad Castillo’s mastery of the filmic language. Understanding film history chronologically should be treated as one of the many possible first attempts to interrogate the intelligence of the film. A film as layered as Burlesk Queen cannot just be sliced neatly to get a cross-sectioned understanding of it. The process should be a dissection and careful examination of the layers and of the many working systems that give it life. Readers of Castillo’s films realize its significance beyond a cinematic form of entertainment. They are records inscribed with the auteur’s subjectivity of the context they capture and the context they resonate. ■
1 See Ricardo F. Lo’s interview with Vilma Santos for Expressweek, January 19, 1978
Bonnstetter, Beth E. “Mel Brooks Meets Kenneth Burke (and Mikhail Bakhtin): Comedy and Burlesque in Satiric Film.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 63, no. 1, [University of Illinois Press, University Film & Video Association], 2011, pp. 18–31, https://doi.org/10.5406/jfilmvideo.63.1.0018.
Corsaro, Domenic J. “Chaplin as Satyr: Mocking the Mystic Ebullience, or Life, Liberty and Prosperity in Three Chaplin Films (with An Afterword on the Final Speech from The Great Dictator).” Journal of the University Film Association, vol. 31, no. 1, University of Illinois Press, 1979, pp. 33–46, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20687462.
Daroy, Petronilo. “Castillo’s Evasion of History” The Urian Anthology 1970–1979. M. L. Morato, 1983. 188–191.
David, Joel. “The ‘New’ Cinema in Retrospect” Fields of Vision: Critical Applications in Recent Philippine Cinema. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1995.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Screen, Volume 16, Issue 3, 1 October 1975. 6–18.
Mulvey, Laura. Afterimages: On Cinema, Women and Changing Times. Reaktion Books, Limited, 2020.
Reyes, Jun Cruz. “Burlesk Queen: Reyna ng Pelikulang Pilipino” The Urian Anthology 1970–1979. M. L. Morato, 1983. 260–265.
Zafra, Jessica. “Being Celso Ad. Castillo” jessicarulestheuniverse.com. Nov. 26, 2012. Web. June 15, 2021.
A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino. Directed by Lamberto V. Avellana, Diadem Pictures, Cinema Artists, 1965.
Babae at Baril. Directed by Rae Red, Cignal Entertainment, Epic Media, Quezon City Film Development Commission, 2019.
Burlesk Queen. Directed by Celso A. Castillo, Ian Film Productions, 1977.
Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak. Directed by Celso Ad. Castillo, VS Film, 1978.
Walang Rape sa Bontok. Directed by Lester Valle, Habi Collective Media, 2014.
Leeroy New. Aliens of Manila (2015 — present). leeroynew.com