Lino Brocka's "Macho Dancer" (at the Nuart for nine days) exudes the raw vitality and power of Hector Babenco's "Pixote" and Mira Nair's "Salaam Bombay!" Like those films, it tells of young people struggling to survive in an urban jungle. It differs from them in Brocka's openly gay sensibility and in his ability to transform melodrama into romantic tragedy.
What makes the film so special, above all, is the perspective of Brocka, long the Philippines' leading, ever-controversial director. The film can easily be read as an expose of Ferdinand Marcos' legacy of poverty and corruption, but clearly Brocka perceives the timeless and universal in Ricardo Lee and Amado La Cuesta's screenplay. Throughout, there is the sense that no matter what the political situation may be, impoverished, unskilled kids everywhere will always be attracted to big cities and end up selling their bodies.
Brocka's handsome teen-age hero Pol (Alan Paule) is a country boy who decides to try his luck in Manila when the American serviceman who has been paying him for sex ends his tour of duty in the Philippines. Despite having been kept, Pol is essentially an innocent when he arrives in Manila's garish gay-bar district, accepting work as both a go-go dancer and a hustler. He's taken in tow by the wiry Noel (Daniel Fernando), who teaches him the supple, swaying art of "macho" dancing and invites him to be his roommate. As experienced and assured as Noel is, both on the dance floor and in dealing with johns, he has not lost his bearings nor his innate decency. Yet Noel is desperate for extra money to aid in the search for his missing sister.
"Macho Dancer" takes us into a world of sensuality and danger. No matter how determined Pol and Noel and their friends are to survive, they are always at risk--from the temptation of dealing and then using drugs and from the fact that the clubs they work in or the porno films they appear in are controlled by a brutal cop and his minions. (Curiously, Brocka doesn't deal with the specter of AIDS.)
These kids are so caught up into simply surviving they haven't the time or inclination to be reflective, especially in regard to sexual identity.
There's no question that "Macho Dancer" gets very steamy both in gay and straight situations. "Macho Dancer" (Times-rated Mature) is only briefly graphic but has an erotic charge that makes its young people seem all the more vulnerable. (The only people in the film who aren't vulnerable are the tough, comical gays, one of them a drag queen, who run the macho dancing clubs.)
At heart "Macho Dancer" is operatic--you can already see it as an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical--and its heightened sense of emotion rings so true as to sustain its occasional awkwardness as well as its aching tenderness. Its cast seems to be living rather than acting their roles, and the film is a key accomplishment from Brocka, who now faces charges of smuggling "Macho Dancer" out of the Philippines to avoid submitting it to the government censor board.