The world is a brothel

In Area, we are presented with both irony and absurdity that has become commonplace both in the
microcosmic space of the “area” and the world outside it.

The idea that a brothel could still exist in our times seems unthinkable when pleasure-seeking has caught up with our digitized present. What we picture are usually the brothels that we see in television series that are set in medieval times, say Rome or Game of Thrones. Prostitution, the oldest profession as they say, and the channels in which we navigate the trade of the flesh, have become complex and sophisticated, that going to a brothel with cramped, dirty rooms to let off steam, seems archaic and quite, well, inconvenient. But in Louie Ignacio’s Area, a prostitution den of such kind still exists – in Angeles City, no less, where the flesh trade flourished like crazy during the stay of the US naval bases.

In Area, men settle for cheap sex even with aging prostitutes like Hillary (Ai-Ai Delas Alas). She has a long-time dream of coming to America to search for her son from an American soldier who got separated from her during the Mt. Pinatubo eruption. What little she earns she hides in a box with the fervent hope that she will get out of Area. The other prostitutes would shrug off Hillary’s musings, dismissing it as a futile daydream, with Hillary not even exact information to venture on such a task. With all the squalor and the inescapability surrounding the place, it would seem as if Hillary’s aspirations are just that – a figment of imagination, a slice of fantasy she continues to dwell on to escape the banality of her everyday life.

In the film, the “area” depicted is one of the very few remaining cheap brothels, that is still frequented by drivers, stevedores, and even barangay tanods. The area is managed by Ben (Allen Dizon) and his brother (Delas Alas’ son Sancho delas Alas) who is the third generation in a family who has ran the brothel for decades. The area is left to their care and the brothers seem to cling on to their trade like a thriving business that it is. Their mother and grandmothers, once managers, have either busied themselves with store tending and religious piousness. Through them, we get to learn the history of the place, their stories providing a socio-cultural glimpse of Area.

The normalcy by which the older generations speak of Area and the casualness of the client-prostitute and manager-prostitute trade when juxtaposed with Catholic religiosity is quite fascinating. The story supposedly happens during the span of Holy Week, where we get to see the usual activities tied to its commemoration, from everyday novenas to scenes of self-flagellation. And these religious imagery that often borders on the fanatical offers an interesting visual contrast/complement to the sex trade at the heart of story, as if by existing casually in the same cinematic space by way of setting and narrative, we are presented with both irony and absurdity that has become commonplace both in the microcosmic space of the Area and the world outside it.

Despite the film’s propensity to display the grotesque, it does find the comical in a lot of situations, which adds to the idea of how the trade is nothing out of the ordinary, but is similar to running a small business that encounters little quirks along the way. For instance the way the sex is paid off borders on the hilarious: three cans or sardines are pushed through the hole of a door as payment or a senior citizen patron offering a used electric fan as a kind of temporary payment. There is even one scene that while improbable, owes much to the concept of the brothel as a thing of the past – a father bringing his son to Area as a kind of rite of passage. And while the young man’s premature ejaculation is predictably funny, what is even more comical is the fact that the father also had his rite of passage in the same Area and talks of it nonchalantly.

As if in a cycle, the story meanders as if nowhere to go, and it is actually interesting that way. But then it starts to grow a plot (an inclination perhaps influenced by the director’s prolific TV work) which it has to deal about in its last act that kind of wastes the rich material the film has started to build on. The film also misses an opportunity to tackle Area as a post-EDSA era and postcolonial commune, given the rich historicity of the place. Outside its squalid environs, the trade of the flesh has gone on for more lucrative and innovative ways, and the libidinal powers that once inhabited the brothel has gone on for more worldly conquests.

– Jay Rosas

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