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“Ang Huling El Bimbo”: When Questions Overcome the Ability to Respond

I am a Political Science graduate, major in International Relations and Foreign Service, with an interest in anime, religion and philosophy

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I came to “Ang Huling El Bimbo” musical to understand what the hype was about, apart of course from the legacy of Eraserheads and the band's social commentary.

After watching it, I decided to write something that would clarify my complicated feelings over the musical. Of course, I cannot deny the level of effort put into this endeavor. Kudos to the actors, set designers, cameramen and everyone involved in the production of this necessary piece. I call it necessary because of its clear intent to commentate on relevant social issues.

The question now is to what to make of its approach to today's problems

A Concerning Character Dynamic

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Lasting more than two hours, the musical has quite a plot. To simplify, it is about four friends whose bond has been broken by the rape of Joy, a simple girl with big hopes for the future. The consequences of the event are felt through their gradual misery in adulthood.

Our protagonists are three well-to-do boys, Hector, Anthony and Emman, entering university life with dreams laid out. In their dorm, they declared that they would reach for their dreams and be “masters of their fate (so help them God)”. They meet Joy, who enters their lives and partakes in their happiness. I could already tell something was a bit strange with the rose-tinted atmosphere with their friendship. Joy is definitely not a part of their world. In fact, she seems to play the role of moral support more than their equal.

Funny enough, this helps me return to a previous review I made on Berserk and its philosophy of dreams. Griffith, one of the story’s leads, has said he only considers fellow dreamers his friends. Within that context, aimless individuals like Guts do not fit the bill.

Where would Joy fit in this? Joy was never aimless. Are her dreams for an education “not enough” to make her their equal? Perhaps it has more to do with her class than her actual desires. Everyone wants success in any way, shape or form.

When I was watching the whole musical, it felt like she was never compatible. It was clear as day. The boys raised their hands to the stars together but she held their hands. She claimed her own star but she came last. Compatibility is not a big deal for a friendship though the fact that three of the four friends were going off to “big places” made me feel that she was just “momentary”. Yet, their memories were treasured. Joy was inspired by her friends and the three boys were drawn to her kindness. When the rape happened, however, I wished the boys would defend their friend and even help her after everything, given their privilege and means.

Abandonment and Exploitation

As it happened, the boys did not want anything to stain their future. Joy was forgotten after this event. It made me think. Would it be any different if the rape did not happen? Perhaps they would visit from time to time but can such consistency be assured when success is so comforting a bedfellow? This is exactly what I saw when they led successful lives. While they lavished in their dreams, Joy lost her agency and was swallowed up by a world of exploitation and futility.

Joy did not feel like she shared in their dreams. She wanted to be like them, to stand as their equal but in the end, she could not escape her fate. I asked once more: why did she not call for help? Rape will always be a destructive event in a girl’s life. The shame and trauma are already enough for someone to surrender to fate. And more importantly, if Joy was their friend for that long stretch of time, why did they refuse to help her? It was quite uncomfortable to see the men just drift away from Joy, leaving her to the inescapable claws of exploitation. Then it has done what it set out to do, to show us how those in privilege will always want to secure success and avoid anything they see as a nuisance.

When Joy was left to become a prostitute and a peddler of illegal drugs, it was like we, the audience, were abandoning her to her fate. An incredibly difficult point to reconcile was that when we return to the lives of the three men, we see them avoid Joy and blame her for their misfortunes. It was at the height of their success that their consciences began to bite at them. Yet it was too late. Joy died and her daughter, Ligaya (“Joy” in Filipino), was orphaned. They promised to make up it up to her but even I believe it was too late for them.

The three boys will never escape what they have done. Abandoning their friend in her time of need revealed that they were never friends. They ditched her the moment she became an inconvenience. More than that, we were left to surrender with Joy and let her carry on with a smile. This was not a smile of assurance or victory. She was a living martyr, preserving her joy for the sake of her hope, Ligaya.

Furthermore, we see how the event destroyed Joy’s ability to escape and we see how affected Hector, Anthony and Emman were. What we did not feel was how each time Joy engaged in her activities, she was hurt more and more by giving her body and dignity to strangers, even when it was for her Ligaya. We think of the world-shaking nature of her rape and leave her in the pit of that misery.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The musical exposes the misfortune of the underprivileged but we are still the viewers. We cry for her and keep wailing because she suffers for the world abandoning her. Yet there was no sign things got better. Was the lack of presence of the law another form of abandonment?

The story does not succeed in offering a sense of catharsis. Fiction can inspire or wake us up to reality. Art is subjective. It can comfort our woes and discomfort us with the realities we face. The latter is an effective use of theater and media but when the story basically says that this is Joy's fate, we are left bothered as to how to proceed. Joy’s rebellion against her circumstances came too late and almost ineffectively because we only see her constant surrender and acceptance, maybe even as virtues amidst these difficulties. In fact, the “redemption” of Hector, Emman and Anthony was barely developed. It was only in her death, not the misery of her family, that woke them up from their comfort and success. Understandably, that was the point. Yet not one character in this story, save Joy’s aunt, have been there for her. What we see is a world almost devoid of love and hungering for hope.

There was no activity for us. We see the discomfort but not the thrust to move. If we can move, we are more discouraged because no matter how much optimism and support we give to our less fortunate brethren, they have not been uplifted or empowered. Dreams are never enough to empower them. Yet maybe singing a heartfelt song given relevant meaning can awaken our social consciences now.

© 2020 Mar Louie Vincent Reyes