Barber's Tales (Mga Kuwentong Barbero): Tokyo Review

A feel-good drama anchored by Eugene Domingo's starring turn and a narrative which advocates women's triumph against chauvinist odds.

Philippine director Jun Robles Lana's follow-up to his indie hit "Bwakaw" combines the political and personal with the story of the emancipation of a rural female barber under the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship in the 1970s.

2013 marks the 30th anniversary of an event which heralds the beginning of the end of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines: the assassination of the tyrant's most vocal opponent, Benigno Aquino, on the tarmac of Manila's airport on Aug. 21, 1983 would eventually snowball into a massive political movement which led to Marcos' ouster in 1986 and the return of democracy to the Southeast Asian nation.

In this context, Jun Robles Lana's latest film could be seen as a metaphor for this episode in Philippine history: by speaking of the political emancipation of a meek widow, Barber's Tales – which was set in 1975, with Marcos' political sway very much present in the village the story unfolds in – could be seen as mirroring the rise of Corazon Aquino, who would transform from being Benigno Aquino's "plain housewife" into the leading figure of the anti-Marcos movement, before finally succeeding the tyrant as president.

Philippine audiences would certainly be able to detect the parallels between history and Lana's story – the power of funereal and religious parades, for example, or how those in power would frame their opponents with deaths they caused, as Marcos tried to finger communist rebels as masterminding Benigno Aquino's killing. But just as Lav Diaz's recent festival hit North, the End of History, Lana's film – which premiered in competition at the Tokyo International Film Festival, where Diaz's film would also be shown – goes beyond the lone historic event with an audacious attempt in actually exposing the commonly-shared traits which has led to the tragedy and calamity that follows.

While Diaz's film explores the conservative ideology that could give rise to cynical power-grabbers, Lana's Barber's Tales uses the spiritual awakening of a village barber's subservient spouse to condemn patriarchy – a way of thinking which props up the behavior of corrupted politicians and thuggish husbands, but also well-meaning revolutionaries fighting for a good cause. It's a universal theme which would engage with audiences beyond the Philippines, and Lana's linear and conventional spin to the story – driven by melodrama of co-incidences, and the showing of women's solidarity through mainstream humor, complete with quite a few jokes about the male genitalia – would certainly give Barber's Tales as much festival traction as Lana's previous film Bwakaw.

And Lana could very well thank his lead actress Eugene Domingo for all that, as the veteran's poised performance is what anchors the film just as it sometimes veers dangerously close to comic-soap territory. Rather than drawing out the transformation of her character, Marilou, with broad strokes, her delivery is very controlled and somewhat internal.

She began the film living completely as the shadow and slave of her barber husband Jose, attending to his every whim – making him food, ironing his shirts, heating his bath water – and also forced to tolerate his patronizing bullying attitude and his nocturnal ventures in town. Even as she takes over the business when he dies – a task encouraged by the local pastor Arturo (Eddie Garcia, the actor-director who flourished in Bwakaw)and grows into her work as a better haircutter than his spouse, the change is slight and so incremental, even as she has to contend with the mayhem around her, as she plays the matriarch who cares for the other troubled women in the village – such as Susan (Gladys Reyes), who was pressurized into sex and continuous childbirth – while also beginning to care for the young rebel fighters in the area.

Domingo's performance subtle turn as Marilou has a reason, as her docile veneer could serve to jolt the audience with the one explosive act at the film's finale when she finally gets to confront the local corrupted mayor (and Marcos flunky) Alberto Bartolome (Nonie Buencamino) for one last time for all the hurt and grief he brought to everyone in his realm, from his own long-suffering wife Cecilia (Iza Cazaldo) – whom Marilou has befriended – to all the people he ruled with much duress.

Barber's Tales is a story about sisterhood; Domingo's turn is suitably supported by engaging performances from, for example, Shamaine Buencamino – who plays Tess, the single middle-aged woman whose role as a sage among confused wives is thrown into disarray when her nephew decided to join the anti-government insurrection. Their resilience against the odds speaks volumes about the chauvinistic universe they were placed under – not just from Alberto and his cronies, but even in a milder way from the rebels to which Marilou and Tess could only care for (serving food to them while they plot their ambushes) and fret about.

Given the period nature of the film – it was set in the countryside in the 1970s, as far away from Bwakaw's contemporary, urban settings as it can be – the production design could somehow be found a bit wanting, with the sets resembling something more out of a TV series than the cinematic epic Lana might need for the story. And while audacious in content, Barber's Tales is certainly mainstream in style, with a plot heavy on coincidences (Jose's husband's favourite prostitute also happens to be the sister of the rebel fighter Marilou saved – an event which brought about a reconciliation between wife and mistress) and camerawork and editing which relies on conventional close-ups and shots/countershots.

Still, Barber's Tales provides enough of a harbinger of things to come: as the film ends, Susan's voiceover relays the rumors surrounding Marilou's fate after she has left town: these takes on her life – she might have gone on to become a maid; she might have gone insane – relays the many realities facing Filipino women in decades to come. Lana's "real" ending for her character is much more optimistic – but perhaps it's in this that Barber's Tales will thrive, as Marilou and sisters continue their struggle to find the light in their lives.

Competition, Tokyo International Film Festival

Production Company: Apt Entertainment and Octobert Fain Films

Director: Jun Robles Lana

Producer: Ferdinand Lapuz

Executive Producers: Michael B. Tuviera, Joselito C Oconer, Ramel L. David, Perci Intalan and Jun Robles Lana

Cast: Eugene Domingo, Eddie Garcia, Iza Cazaldo, Gladys Reyes

Screenwriter: Jun Robles Lana, on a story by Peter Ong Lim, Elmer Gatchalian, Benedict Mique and Jun Robles Lana

Director of Cinematography: Carlo Mendoza

Production Designer: Chito Sumera

Editor: Lawrence Ang

Music: Ryan Cayabyab

International Sales: Ignatius Films Canada

In Tagalog

120 minutes