“Relasyon—querida, kabit, number two, mistress. Relasyon!”
In an iconic scene from Chito Roño’s Minsan Lang Kitang Iibigin(1993), Terry (Maricel Soriano) tells off Melissa (Zsazsa Padilla) for having illicit relations with her husband. Although the movie is close to two decades old, you’ll catch on in no time if you caught last year’s wave of mistress movies.
2012 gave us films like The Mistress, A Secret Affair and One More Try. Despite the almost recycled storylines, all three were hits. A Secret Affair was the fifth highest grossing local film of the year, and The Mistress wasn’t only the highest grossing local film of the year, but the third highest grossing of all time. One More Try, on the other hand, won nothing short of Best Picture at the 38th Metro Manila Film Festival.
The predictable shape
The theme of illicit relationships in cinema can be traced all the way back to 1921 with Iñigo Ed. Regalado’s novel SampaguitangWalangBango, which was adapted into a film by FermínBarva around a decade later.
The main characters are spouses Bandino and Nenita, with the former being a profligate playboy. Nenita serves her vice-laden husband in typical martir fashion. Later, though, she succumbs to the same vices as her husband when she meets a lawyer named Pakito, who is engaged to another girl.
Its storyline sounds like it could have come from any given film from the last two years, which shows just how little the subgenre has changed. If anything, though, it has all but lost its didactic social commentaries that expose the contextual realities of post-colonial Manila.
Romance movies in general may have a myriad of relationship twists and turns, but what distinguishes a mistress movie from these is a central love triangle that’s almost the narrative’s sole driving force.
The notion of the martir resurfaces in Relasyon (1982), a stellar example of a mistress movie with genuine depth. It portrays Marilou (Vilma Santos) as not just a mistress, but also a servant for the chauvinistic Emil (Christopher De Leon).
There is a poignant scene in the aforementioned: in spite of catering to her lover’s every need, she is still left alone in the house on Christmas Eve, because he really isn’t hers to begin with. Santos’ brilliant, appropriately emotive acting in the movie gave the star her big break.
Filipino Department faculty member Jayson Jacobo, PhD expounds on Santos’ role in Philippine media. “[Her] middle period presents us a social sphere of material conditions which articulate the context of amorous situations that persuade a woman to enter and exit a relasyon.”
Jacobo finds that more recent mistress films are devoid of the dramatic sophistication that these older films presented. He points out their key faults, saying, “These films of late are too concerned with the calisthenics of sexual encounter, the scandalous confrontation, the fashionable hysteria, the publicity of neurosis and the contrivance of normative resolution.”
More recent mistress movies feature much more liberated girls-about-town in contrast to the martir wives of the ‘80s, but the dependency issues of both wife and mistress remain in the guise of female empowerment.
This is most clearly embodied by Sam’s (Andi Eigenmann) plea in A Secret Affair.“Please be with me! Please choose me!” she cries, clinging desperately to Anton (Derek Ramsay). While the mistress is sexually empowered, her worth ultimately depends on the man’s love for her. The wife’s worth is likewise defined by the choice between her and the mistress.
Catfights like Terry and Melissa’s have always been the most awaited parts of a mistress movie. The intention is usually to throw in some tongue-in-cheek female wit, but these scenes often turn out to be absurd conversations, intentionally or otherwise.
The film’s potential for sincerity and emotional value is undermined by the sheer inanity of these scenes. Films like A Secret Affair have Rafi (Anne Curtis) and Sam spewing insults at each other, trying a little too hard to be witty but inevitably failing.
With all the hilarity that takes place, it’s easy to forget about the catalyst of this mess in the first place. Pay more attention to the plot, and you’ll find yourself asking, “Where was the man in all this?”
More often than not, mistress films climax at these confrontations that ensue between the women. This sidetracks viewers from the man’s culpability in the situation. All the freedom of choice, as well as most of the sympathy, is given to him, warranted or not. Biases like this make it difficult to pinpoint who is truly to blame when affective fallacies, directors’ priorities, and personal prejudice make us root for either the wife or the mistress.
“Mr. Ramsay’s characters are written and performed in such a vapid way that a legitimate psychological argument for the adulterous gesture never pulls itself off,” remarks Jacobo. He speculates that this elicits an ethical second chance for the cheating husband, while at the same time indirectly pointing a finger at the women who are too preoccupied to satisfy their husbands’ needs.
Communication Department Associate Professor Nicasio Cruz, SJ thinks otherwise, saying that the movie serves as a reflection of the wrongdoings of real-life infidel husbands.“The men really should be the ones watching, and yet, it is not popular among men because they’re doing it and it makes them conscious of what it does to women and children, most especially if they have another woman or family.”
Loyola Schools Guidance Counselor VirgilioPanlasigui takes a different approach. He asks that we leave all biases at the cinema, because the characters in question all play a part in the struggle and have to go through the same reflective processes to rid themselves of the emotional baggage.
“If you’re asking me who are the participants, everybody has their contribution. There is no monopoly of blame. Everybody has their contribution,”Panlasigui says in a mix of Filipino and English.
A secret escape
What leaves Filipino audiences so afflicted, then, by what Cruz calls “the mistress syndrome?” There are different factors that have made the subgenre as popular as it is now.
As pointed out, it is taboo in our inherently conservative culture. Panlasigui says of the matter, “It’s more titillating. It arouses curiosity [as to] why this thing happened, so I think that’s the reason why it’s in the psyche of every Filipino.”
He also adds that infidelity is not class-specific. “It also affects all walks of life, not only the poor, but it happens even to the top echelons of our society. It doesn’t choose whether you’re poor or rich. Everybody feels the same way. Everybody has needs, so to speak.”
The mistress film is many things: a comedy of manners, a moral conundrum and a confused discussion of a woman’s worth. More importantly, however, behind all the questionsof blame and worth is its nature as an escape.
As Cruz points out, most viewers are women, some of whom have ironically had firsthand experiences with the subject matter. “Perhaps [it is] their own private, vicarious experience of what it feels to be a mistress or ‘the other woman.’ In real life, they could not do it, but they have a curiosity [for what it’s like].”
Audiences want drama—to confront the other woman, to pull someone’s hair, or to stab them in the back with a pushpin—albeit from a safe distance. Viewers can, at least in theory, be the wife or the mistress and experience the drama without having to live it out.
This, perhaps, is the secret to the subgenre’s continued popularity, and the reason why the cinematic mistress will continue snaking into more beds for years to come.