In 1927, during an emergency meeting at the start of the Chinese Civil War, communist revolutionary Mao Zedong uttered the now-famous words: “the political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” In a way, Rae Red’s first solo directorial debut is a modern take on this phrase, examining how a gun can affect and change the life of a female blue-collar worker.
In the film’s first few seconds, we are presented with various parts of the city–all putrid and chaotic–complemented with an upbeat, jazzy score. This sets the mood of the entire film and prepares us for Babae at Baril’s neo-noir style with a particular focus on feminist politics. Janine Gutierrez, who plays an unnamed department store saleslady, is subjected to both gender-based and class-based oppression. She is occasionally catcalled, harassed, and looked down upon because she is a woman, her frailty and timid personality preyed upon by the people around her. She struggles to be regularized at her job despite her hard work, her manager constantly calling out her tattered stockings as non-compliance to the company’s strict protocols.
Red understands the inextricable linkages of class and gender, that capitalism not only maintains but also benefits from the unequal power relations between men and women. It is impossible to talk of gender emancipation without addressing economic problems prevalent in society. The film borrows inspiration from other political-feminist films of the previous years like Liway (2018), Aria (2018), and Barber’s Tales (2013) if only for its merging of the personal and the political. However, what sets Babae at Baril apart from these films is the crew behind it, composed of mostly women. This lets the film have a better, more nuanced insight on the woman’s psyche, carefully balanced with its revenge-anarchist politics.
But unlike the films mentioned above, Babae at Baril opts for a more pacifist resolution to its central conflict. Throughout the film, each person’s response to the allure of power that owning a gun gives off eventually decides their fate, suggesting that its dangers outweigh its positive aspects. This is where the film gets awry and overly simplistic, too enamored with the idea of the gun as merely a cinematic metaphor in a narrative that follows a neo-realist approach. With its rejection of anarchy as the end-all-be-all of the titular woman’s journey, it also inaccurately equates personal enlightenment with social liberation. In effect, it detaches the Woman with the chaos still happening around her, already satisfied with a brief taste of freedom and power.
The film encounters some structural problems. It was first written as a short film in 2017 but the feature-length version doesn’t quite expand on the original premise, resulting into something that feels more like a stretched short film. The exploration of the gun’s backstory was not justified, done only to establish a small albeit major point. The film’s two parts only cohere thematically but do not totally merge into one satisfying narrative.
Despite these shortcomings, Babae at Baril still is one of the most technically well-made Filipino films of the year. An obvious standout is Fatima Nerikka Salim and Immanuel Varona’s sound design, able to capture the sounds of a city in socio-political decay and creatively matched with an enthralling score that prevents the film from having even one dull moment. Tey Clamor’s cinematography and Eero Francisco’s production design were also essential in creating an immersive experience, evoking a sense of lawlessness and dog-eat-dog savagery. Actor performances were phenomenal as well: Gutierrez as the Woman on the gradual process of political awakening, Felix Roco as the perverted co-worker, JC Santos as the policeman in a brief but intense role, and Elijah Canlas as the teenager trying to escape and survive. The ensemble performs their individual roles with palpable gusto, adding to the film’s overall gritty atmosphere.
For all its worth, Babae at Baril is an exciting albeit polarizing first feature from someone who can hopefully further diversify voices in Philippine cinema. Its fully realized feminist politics is a positive stride towards stronger female representation in the local films to come, one that is unafraid to challenge societal norms and question prevailing ideologies.