The Beard Factor

About Habilin’s hairy thrills

Aside from some minor disparities, Carlo Alvarez’s and Val MacArthy Depro’s story is kind of like Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video. There are three reasons why I recall the scenes in Thriller and the now declining genre of the music television in watching Habilin. One, is the shortness of it. It gives you (usually) everything within 180-seconds. Second, is the darkness of the movie which is both psychological as well as cinematic and lastly because of Ralph Fernadez’s hair and beard factor that instantly reminded me of Michael Jackson before and after transforming into a Werewolf in that music video.

The darkness in the cinema can mean both the literal darkness that surrounds you in the movie house or the faint exposure of the camera. In Habilin, there is another kind of darkness. We enter the movie suddenly as if we are pushed into pool with clothes, cell phone and wallet still on. When you overcome this, the quick images that follow are of archetypes that make the house of cards. Literally, there is a house. Needless to say, it is a haunted one. But the director made it a point that it’s not anything quaint or colonial looking. It’s just a rest house somewhere in the outskirts of the city where you can take your kids or girlfriend up for a barbecue weekend. With some trick of lighting, this normal-looking abode is turned into a ghastly stage set-up for where our fright night must occur.

The second archetype is embedded in the story, that of beleaguered hero wanting to escape a “dark” past. This is reflected through his reticent face, undistinguished gestures and the dark wayfarers. A hipster. And as I mentioned previously, his beard makes him fit for the look of an anti-hero but not quite the victim of a ghostly trick or treat. Hairiness goes way back in the hazy history of cinema and it’s only equalled by its prominence in the frame of Habilin.

Hirsute and Horror

The overall significance of hair in the movie Habilin can point to what film critic Richard Brody calls “A long lineage of depilatory fashion in theatre and film.” Brody gives the example of “Hair”, a Broadway musical that tells the story of the “tribe”, a group of politically active, long-haired hippies of the “Age of Aquarius” living a bohemian life in New York City and fighting against conscription into the Vietnam War. He notes that the display of the hirsute is also the display of the masculine, indeed, the sexual in movies where the growth or lack of hair takes a prominent role (as in almost all Bruce Willis movies). In one scene we see Ralph Fernandez’s character being haunted by mud on his arms and we see a struggle between him and his monster self. Hair represented his past, his nature that he must resist and the growth of mud on his body was not unlike hair growing on him if he was indeed turning into Werewolf (Again, my MTV imagination).

The use of hair as a sign in the audio-visual format—the most effective approximation of reality that is not reality—can’t be separated from the prevalent fashion of its milieu. “The budding of beards in the late sixties and early seventies, a supposedly hippie thing to do, went together with a general trend toward body hair—women didn’t shave armpits and legs,” noted Brody. That was also the time of the Beatles, and long-haired gurus associated with new age wisdom.

 In the nineties we recall Fernando Jose’s chest hair in the seminal telenovela, Marimar, as his sign of strength, and good nature. Otherwise, he should button up his shirt because for some time, I kept seeing hair on my plate when I eat spaghetti. Back then movies used the opposition of Nature versus Modernity. A very romantic way of prodding audiences to flock the movie houses. “Nature was the key idea; in response to the regimented styles and modes of corporate life, a movement was afoot to reassimilate humanity to nature, and the styles of clothing and grooming (as well as attitudes toward sexual desire) reflected this ideal, even if in a way that itself rapidly became a part of culture and fashion,” continued Brody.

In Philippine literature, Lam-Ang, the Ilocano hero, is said to have long and smooth hair.  When he defeated the Igorots, the Vigan river was red with their blood. Lam-Ang came down from the mountain, noted the bard of his epic, with dirty and clammy hair. But before cleansing he decided to attend to house chores by fixing his father’s barn—an obligation he wasn’t able to do for the nine years of war. Upon the sound of a gong, women went to Lam-Ang and helped him bathe in the Amburayan river. When he finally washed his hair, the water in the river became poisoned and fishes scrammed to jump to the riverbed.

The legend of Lam-Ang is so strongly projected in the archetype of Philippine culture from Jose Rizal to Ninoy Aquino to Fernando Poe, Jr. that there is strong indication of it in Habilin even if the directors may not be aware of it. That the son is supposed to carry on the obligation (and also sins) of his father even if he himself has already proven his manhood in war or in the case of Habilin, driving a car, smoking a pipe, or having a girlfriend, is a very Filipino way of seeing and placing things in order.

This irony of archetypes is that it often leads to a reversal. But this dialogic also breeds a germ of idea (a compendium of strong images embedded within a culture) that can go to a deeper level—the spiritual. Habilin, can be loosely translated as either instructions or heirloom and the movie presents this concept in image and in narrative. The image of beards can indeed be signifiers of maturity or manhood. It might be more useful to look at them in terms of the other great fashion shifts of the day not unlike the prevalence of tattoos perhaps as a badge for both prisoners and porn stars that are now appropriated by branding of corporations and jaded hipster types with nothing better to do. Hair is a very intimate and yet very publicly displayed body part. It takes a lot of time to grow so some people relate it with their past, some people forget that they ever existed at all. The connection in Habilin is that it is the main character’s nature that is trying to “grow” upon him and that like the Werewolf there is a psychological struggle against this nature represented by the physical struggle against the growth of mud on his arms. In the Filipino way of speaking, “may bahid,” or may “dumi sa kamay,” is similar to saying you have blood on your hands. I see this as reference to then and now instances when Filipino struggle and emancipation was so closely tied to ownership of land.

The hairiness of Ralph Fernandez maybe just incidental. I’ve seen him sporting that hair since ever since. But the animalistic look he exuded may have intrinsically suggested untrimmed humanity. The figuring of mud in the murder scene and in his arms underscores the archetypal images offered in Habilin. But then again, like the role of archetypes it’s impossible to isolate the cinema and other forms of audio-visual culture from prevalent or alternative fashion trends. I believe that the reason why Habilin is effective in the micro-cinema genre is because there is progress in the story at once from different meanings derived from images presented.

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