Bright Lights Film Journal

Softcore Soap: Mel Chionglo’s <em>Burlesk King</em> (1999)

Like the macho dancers it portrays, this uneasy mix of melodrama and realism never quite gets it up

With Macho Dancer (1988), the late Filipino director Lino Brocka (1940-1991) pioneered a new genre. His melodramatic vision of Manila’s gay nightclubs and the undulating boy-bodies that populate their stages won fans among devotees of foreign fleshpots and aficionados of that rarity, the queer-tinged trash/exploitation flick. But the schmaltzy plot and overcooked acting made it hard to take the film very seriously. Attempts to read Macho Dancer as late neorealism were problematic too, given Brocka’s drooling voyeurism in rendering an endless parade of naked male flesh.

Broca’s assistant, Mel Chionglo, has added two entries to this rickety roster: Midnight Dancers (1984) and Burlesk King. Midnight Dancers had a trashy power that kept it watchable. Burlesk King, despite a few surprisingly effective scenes, eventually sinks under the weight of its too-obvious softcore soap-opera impulses.

Harry (Rodel Velayo) is a young Filipino-American from Olongapo, one of the country’s notorious American army bases. His father is American, a vicious abuser who beats and pimps both his wife, Betty, and his son. When the abuse accelerates and his mother is allegedly killed, Harry runs away to Manila to seek his fortune. Inevitably, for a good-looking and somewhat dim boy like Harry, the “macho dancer” lifestyle beckons, and he hooks up with another boy, hunky James (Leonardo Litton), and Mama Odette (Joel Lamangan), a fat, noisy queen who runs a popular bar.

Meanwhile, the film’s subplots start to unfold: James’s sister Aileen (Cherrie Pie Picache) is a dyke whose lover’s family rejects them. Harry finds a friend in Mario (Raymond Bagatsing), a gay writer of heterosexual romances who’s having trouble with his boyfriend. For reasons never disclosed, there’s also a gang war between James and his pals and a gang led by a harmonica-playing thug. Harry takes up with the self-proclaimed “Mother Teresa of the red-light district, ” the animated whore Brenda (Nini Jacinto), with whom he has a troubled relationship. Numerous flashbacks of Harry’s father abusing him and his mother keep yet another story simmering in the background.

All these threads are intercut with lingering scenes of Harry, James, and a bevy of boys grinding away onstage for the pleasure of both male and female fans. These scenes, which pop up with clocklike regularity regardless of what’s happening in the rest of the plot, quickly wear out their welcome. They show the boys in a variety of camp-kitsch poses and rituals, bathed in colored lights, writhing mindlessly with their crotches cupped by a hand or a feather or a bubble. In one tacky-inspired moment, they take showers onstage (that’s in “The Boys in the Magic Basin” sequence, per Mama Odette), gymnastically soaping themselves with one hand while maintaining their modesty with the other. These images are redolent of old Western models of frozen, pose-y homo boys in posing straps, the sailors and hustlers of AMG or Western Photography Guild in the 1950s and ’60s. There’s a quaintness in these tableaux that’s at first charming but eventually slides into overkill through sheer grating repetition. Varying the props from Indian loincloth to feather leggings to gauzy pantaloons doesn’t help.

Occasionally – quite unexpectedly – director Chionglo redeems the material and the movie suddenly feels real. One of the flashbacks shows Harry’s father’s very casual handing-over of the boy to a middle-aged American. The scene is drenched in darkness, and it’s not clear immediately what’s going on, making the realization that much more powerful as the boy and his trick are framed in the light of a streetlamp inside a doorway, slowly moving away.

Another powerful sequence that leaps off the screen quite unexpectedly is Harry’s encounter with his mother. (It’s not giving away the store to mention this; the film telegraphs most of its plot points to even the most distracted viewer.) Betty is an aging whore who doesn’t recognize him and tries to seduce him on the street. She’s pathetic in grasping for this comely, reassuring bit of flesh, offering to do him in a dark corner of the street for nothing. Appalling and poignant indeed are lines she uses to seduce him such as “My holes are tight.” It helps that the actress, Elizabeth Oropesa, is skilled in rendering what is, to the film’s detriment, only a minor character briefly glimpsed. Strong too is a brief “AIDS sequence, ” but best to leave that for the viewer to experience.

Burlesk King squanders such scenes in a mostly slow, remote story, staying overlong on sequences such as Mario’s teary-eyed pleas for reconciliation with his boyfriend that have little emotional payoff. Chionglo isn’t the only culprit here. Actor Rodel Velayo as Harry has to carry most of the movie, and despite his blank-eyed sex-doll charms and fetching flesh, he’s clearly not up to the task. When all else fails, there’s always dialogue, and the film does deliver some juicy dish. Mama Odette on Harry’s refusal to screw American customers because his father was from the U.S.: “Fucking an American doesn’t make you a father fucker!” And Brenda has the definitive whore’s lament about nonpaying customers: “Fucking mosquitoes. They feed on me for nothing!”