The titular character is Illiac (Coco Martin) – a young man who caters to a male clientele in need of release (of any kind) in Manila. When his father dies, he travels back home for the funeral and both sides of his life – the smalltown boy and the urban sex worker – juxtapose inside him.
The film’s greatest strength is that it continuously finds new ways to convey that juxtaposition visually. In this context, the body becomes a powerful link between Illiac’s predicament in the countryside as well as in the city. In one scene, a sequence of cuts connects the act of disrobing before a massage with the act of dressing a corpse.
The script, written by Boots Agbayani Pastor, is enamoured of this type of contrast. Life and death constantly pop up against each other throughout the film – even if it’s sometimes so on the nose that it softens their blow. For example, while Illiac’s father is being buried, a lot of attention is given to a street game that’s taking place nearby.
This is symptomatic of the big narrative issues in display here. By focusing too much on the point this story is trying to make, the filmmakers forget to add depth to these characters. The audience never gets to know the inner thoughts of Illiac in regards to his profession – nor what may have driven him to it. His family relations are never fully fledged and it’s never fully clear how they deal with one another. He has a girlfriend who makes two (very obnoxious) appearances and then is strangely left out of the narrative.
The character who has more screen time besides the masseur is Alfredo (Alan Paule) – one of his clients who claims to be a writer. Their sessions together develop into some sort of seduction that takes up most of the feature’s latter half. While this could be a short film on its own, it feels inconsequential and disconnected in this context. The fact that Illiac’s sexuality is never openly discussed reinforces the narrative’s blind spot.
In hindsight, The Masseur‘s flaws may be attributed to the growing pains of juvenilia. Since its release, Martin became a star and Mendoza grew to be a powerhouse in Filipino filmmaking. Here, both artists show talent and skill, but they still lacked a clear voice.
The Masseur is showing as part of the Locarno Film Festival. You too can watch it at home by clicking here.