Cornerhouse Digital Reporter Clyde Macfarlane reviews The Masseur
The Masseur is in essence two very separate stories. They unfold as seen through the eyes of Iliac (Coco Martin)- a twenty year old erotic masseur working in Manila. In one he builds a rapport with a returning client, a romantic novelist; in another he comforts his bereaving mother during the preparation of his father’s funeral. Throughout its 76 minute length, a link between the stories becomes apparent as Iliac’s character develops.
The massage scenes are undoubtedly well shot- mood lighting reveals glimpses of oiled flesh through clouds of talcum powder, with the squelch of body cream and a few awkward conversations providing the soundtrack. Strategically placed limbs and clever camera angles hide the viewer from much of the intimacy, although no punches are pulled when it comes to verbal implication: “five hundred pesos more if you go in there, sir”, says Iliac to an insistent client. The preparation/funeral scenes are more raw and unforgiving, using hand held camera techniques typical of Brillante Mendoza’s award winning direction. They provide a snapshot of the Filipino adoption of Catholicism, a fascinating insight that ensures great anticipation for the rest of Cornerhouse’s Asia Triennial Manchester Film Programme.
The film does little to dispel the opinion that, as one client aptly puts it, “all masseurs are whores”. It’s a role Iliac seems to adopt with out much dissatisfaction; even the most open minded of viewers will raise an eyebrow as he is whisked away from the parlour by his justifiably concerned girlfriend. As Iliac stares up at the bright neon lights of Manila through a bus window, we are reminded of a well established ‘country boy in the city’ archetype- see Jimmy Cliff as Ivan in The Harder They Come, or John Voight as Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy; the latter holding a particular resonance as a fellow portrait of male prostitution. Buck’s tragic naivety is not, however, shared by Iliac, an experienced hand when it comes to “whoring”.
In a particularly emotive scene we follow Iliac into a morgue. In the parallel story he undresses the romantic novelist, who makes a quip about their underwear being similar. So well intertwined are the stories that there is confusion as to whether the novelist is in the massage parlour or the morgue, and one could easily mistake his quip as being addressed to Iliac’s semi-naked dead father. It’s a subtle trick from Mendoza, and epitomises The Masseur as a well observed coming of age tale set in two equally powerful environments.