About four years ago, during an interview on his tour promoting Honeydripper, John Sayles told me about his enveloping interest in the American occupation of the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century.
Amigo, his seventeenth feature, premiered last fall at Toronto and is now opening around the country. The novel, A Moment in the Sun, was published this summer, and is considered one of the year’s finest literary works.
I’m very much looking forward to taking on the novel, because Sayles’s other literary projects, especially Union Dues and Los gusanos, have a verve and expressive fluency matched, I think, by a deeply cinematic structure that moves through time and space in demonstrating an sinuously uncanny way of getting inside his characters’ heads.
I saw Amigo last fall, and I am also looking forward to another look. Here are some revised thoughts of what I wrote last year.
“We’re fucked from both sides,” a Filipino villager says with both disgust and equanimity. Sayles looks at the private anguish and moral difficulty of a smaller indigenous culture caught in the vicious crossfire of larger “civilizations.”
Captured with his typical felicity for character, mood and historical breadth, Sayles stages his new work against American armed forces occupation Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s one of his large scale ensemble pieces, like City of Hope, synthesized with how the past haunts the present, like Lone Star.
It's a typically freewheeling and original work from Sayles that wields his fascination with personalities and history to a rambling, open and chaotic exploration of caste, class and color. The novelistic origins of the project are unmistakable, most clearly in the free flow of dialects and languages. The movie moves confidently between English, Spanish, Tagalog and even some Mandarin.
The new film pivots on the elemental conflict of indigenous people caught between the political and military imperatives of an occupying force and a guerilla revolution. As the opening Spanish-language voice over pointedly alludes, the American conquest of the Philippines (1898-1901) expanded out of the American military campaign against Spanish interests in Cuba.
Sayles sets his story in 1900, after military operations between the two nations largely subsided following the Paris Treaty. The Americans established a favorable government in power, a brazen act of imperail reach that helped inflame a nascent insurgency led by revolutionary Emilio Aguinaldo unfolding in the countryside.
Set largely in the northern Luzon territory, Amigo dramatizes the conflict. The title refers to Rafael Dacanay (sharply played by Filipino star Joel Torre), and the patronizing nickname members of an American Army unit accord the local village leader, the "head man."
The spoils of the war have come home with a vengeance. Rafael's son has disobeyed him and fled for the countryside and joined a band of insurrectionists led by his estranged brother Simón (Ronnie Lazaro).
The local priest, or friar, Padre Hidalgo (Yul Vazquez), is one of the final remnants of the Spanish influence. He was imprisoned by the guerillas but with the arrival of the Army unit, he is set free. Sayles creates an interesting sexual subtext and rivalry grounded in religion as the leader's wife (Rio Locsin), a devout Catholic, is more tethered to the priest.
The movie plays off the cruel irony of the Americans now tasked with “saving,” or “protecting” the local garrison from the bandit revolutionaries that stage hit and run attacks before repatriating into the rain-soaked interior of the rice-growing area.
Rafael must play both sides against the middle. The power and strength of the film emerges through the dense, multithreaded story Sayles weaves into a curious and involving arabesque. The American soldiers, for instance, are neither mercenaries nor saints; some of them are wizened old hands from Indian pacification programs in the West, others callow and dangerously out of depth cavalry and infantryman.
The face of the occupying force is Lieutenant Ike Compton (Garrett Dillahunt), a compassionate, even steely voice of reason trying to maneuver around the more craven, animalistic directions of his superior officer, Col. Hardacre (Sayles regular Chris Cooper, pictured above). “I have to live with these people,” Compton says.
“No, Lieutenant, you have to make war on these people,” the colonel responds.
It’s easy to read into this film as a thinly veiled commentary on Iraq. Most historians agree that anti-insurgency Philippine campaign was founded on a belief of extreme “persuasion,” where brutal and explicit anti-agrarian policies shaped the strategic hamlet theories of Vietnam and eventually in Iraq. It does lead to some awkward parts, like Cooper’s unfortunate line about “hearts and minds,” or a somewhat unbelievable love affair that develops between a prized local girl and a redneck American soldier.
Amigo rarely feels compromised, much less conventional. Sayles uses humor and the actions of the soldiers, especially their near endless capacity for getting drunk or acquiring the worst kind of sexually transmitted diseases, to a ironically rip-roaring use of the song, "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," that layers the multifaceted group portrait.
It’s exactly that conflict between the male group and the individual priority that deepens and fleshes out the drama.
Working in digital video for the first time, Sayles finds a liquid style that frees him up to do what he does best, create fully inhabitable individuals. When the action does come, it is nasty, fierce and unpleasant. Amigo has none of the romantic revolutionary appeal of war or death. It is bloody and unremitting, even cowardly.
By the ironic coda, nobody escapes it.