The girl (in the uniform) walks home alone at night…
In The Girl and the Gun, the violence creeps up and rules over almost every moment as experienced from the perspective of a young working-class woman living in the suburbs of Manila. Writer-director Rae Red establishes a strong connection between the cinematic space, the main character and the viewers very early on, immersing the audience deep in the protagonist’s physical as well as emotional condition, both influenced by the city’s rules and rhythm. A dirty overnight pad sold at the local small shop, blisters from high heels, ripped tights, aggressive remarks regarding appearance at work, various ways of sexual harassment build the atmosphere of suffocating oppression, making the reception of The Girl and the Gun almost physical. So how is it to be the girl in the uniform walking home alone at night in Manila?
The film centres on a nameless young woman, who migrated from a remote province to the capital to find work. She becomes one of the department store’s clerks, attending to the customers until late evening, commuting long hours between downtown and the suburbs where she rents a shared room in a tiny flat. The living conditions and background lead to alienation from her female co-workers. Shy, withdrawn, lonesome, she is easy prey for anyone wanting to vent anger and frustration: the employer, the landlord, the disturbed male colleague, vendor at a sari-sari store, roommate’s boyfriend. The situation starts to shift when the main character is woken up by the gunshots in the middle of the night and finds a discarded weapon in the alleyway. This divine-like intervention twists the storyline in different directions, changing perspective, leading through the maze of violence running deep through the city’s bloodstream.
Rae Red skilfully weaves gender and class-specific images and situations into the narrative that incorporates multiple genres and film styles. She fully controls the flow of the storyline, moving abruptly between explosions and implosions, shifting the main character’s position in the power relations, then suddenly completely changing the point of view and centre of the story. By employing “follow the object” plot device, Rae Red avoids exploiting the main character’s condition, her suffering, loneliness, and humiliation. In The Girl and the Gun revenge is subverted, it does not bring further destruction but becomes a first step towards liberation.
Reconstructing the history of the gun connects Rae Red’s debut to the 1990s postmodern films, in which props such as a weapon or a phone often bring disturbance into the cinematic world and let the chaos roam. The opening of The Girl and the Gun seems to echo Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s 6ixtynin9 (1999). Even if the former draws from social realist cinema and the latter is full of grotesque and pastiche, the two films have much in common. They rely on the protagonists’ subjectivity to the point that some scenes might be the women’s own projections, the visualization of their fear and paranoia. Both films start with the scene at the main character’s workplace during a staff meeting with the manager. Women in bright uniforms stand in neat rows while being lectured by the male superior, some emerge from the situation gratified, some punished. Both films consecutively revolve around young women dealing with destructive everyday violence until their life is altered by a coincidence involving a gun. However 6ixtynin9 and The Girl and the Gun are grounded in specific context – Thailand during 1997 economic crisis and Philippines in the time of Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs – the two films share a common spirit that finds its full realization in the unexpected ending.
While in 6ixtynin9 Bangkok seems more of an anonymous chaotic megapolis, Manila in The Girl and the Gun turns into a film noir city – a sinister space with dark alleyways full of traps, illusions, and dangers. The protagonist’s identity as a migrant from the province ignites a well-known “corrupt city versus idyllic countryside” motif common in the tales about modernity. Recently Manila served as a background for many stories revolving around police brutality and drug trafficking, however if there was a place for a woman protagonist, it was a motherly character such as in Brillante Mendoza’s Ma’Rosa (2016). In Neomanila directed by another member of the Red family, Mikhail Red, Manila also becomes a film noir city, however not seen exclusively from the female perspective – the hitwoman, Irma, is a strong character, but not central to the story. Space and motifs in The Girl and the Gun reminded me of the ones in Insiang directed by Lino Brocka. In this classic 1976 film, the suburbs of Manila are seen through the eyes of the young woman, who leads the audience through the narrow streets, dimly-lit bars and gambling joints, the environment in which she often faces violence and sexual harassment. Both films explore female protagonist’s subjectivity, the search for mother’s support and love, of which they are denied, eventually having to learn to live without it. However, genre-infused The Girl and the Gun does not have Insiang’s social realist heaviness and, fortunately, offers an ending that gives empowerment and hope instead of emotional ruin. Rae Red once again escapes cliché.
The Girl and the Gun seems a difficult task for the cinematographer since most of the scenes take place at night in underlit or overcrowded locations. However, Tey Clamor managed to make brilliant use of colour by focusing her camera on the costumes that signal the character’s inner change. The stiffness of the yellow uniform is highlighted by the department store artificial light. The boldness of the red-riding hood-like jumper is occasionally illuminated by the streetlamps. The anonymity of the grey tracksuit is enhanced by the shadows in the alleyways, allowing the protagonist to hide in the crowd of onlookers.
Perhaps it is because of the all-female crew, but there is something truly different about The Girl and the Gun. When Janine Gutierrez concludes her brilliant performance as the eponymous girl with a long shot of her facing the camera, the moment feels reminiscent of Jean Pierre Léaud staring straight at the audience in the iconic last scene of the 400 Blows. Rae Red is definitely a filmmaker, whose scriptwriting and directorial work deserves to be followed closely.
The Girl and the Gun screens as part of the 19th New York Asian Film Festival 2020, streaming online in the US via Smart Cinema app from August 28 to September 12.
Main image © Tey Clamor