Mirroring conservatism and modernity in Daughters of the Three Tailed Banner

The characters find solitude in their own silences where their ill-fated aspirations continue to dwell.

The new film by Mindanao filmmaker Gutierrez Mangansakan II, Daughters of the Three-Tailed Banner, the first chapter to a two-part film, tells two stories of Muslim women: one that happens in a provincial abode and one that mostly occurs in the confines of a luxurious hotel in the city. At times, the film feels episodic and hurried due to its brief running time, a result of Mangansakan’s decision to divide the film into two books, but it serves an important standpoint in the director’s entire cinematic oeuvre.

In the story that happens in the countryside, a family of women is still mourning over the loss of the only remaining male member – a mujahideen – and the matriarch grandmother (Evelyn Vargas-Knaebel) laments over the slow descent into death of the family name. But the family’s fate and the story’s movement lies in the hands of young Tonina (Haidie Sangkad) who appears to be torn over a decision to leave their home for the city. She also happens to be pregnant with her dead cousin’s child. The second story revolves around Aida (Urian Best Actress Fe Gingging Hyde) who is marooned in the city working as a hotel housekeeping servant. After being swindled by an illegal recruiter for work in the Middle East, she thinks she does not have a face to show to the family she left in Maguindanao but she needs to play pretend to be able to send money back home.

While the two seemingly-disparate stories have its two central women figures in Tonina and Aida, both are surrounded with women who are equally torn by decisions and consequences. Tonina’s aunt Nora (Maria Victoria Beltran) who returns to the province with the news of her nephew’s death realizes she is more unwelcome than ever as a result of her own liberation from the shackles of tradition and normativity, and who finds an odd linkage to the character of Tonina’s crazy aunt Sophia (Mayka Lintongan), a kind of outcast observer. Both characters are important representations of extremes that is suggested as a kind of punishment. Meanwhile, Aida finds a brief moment of reprieve in a chance encounter with one of the hotel’s guest, a faded celebrity Sabina (Sue Prado), but it is their shared misfortune that ultimately connects them.

There is a marked difference in Mangansakan’s approach in this film, a departure from the contemplative pacing of his previous films. The juxtaposition of the two stories through editing suggests that while the characters live in different spaces of confinement, they are linked by the struggle to liberate themselves. While the characters find solitude in their own silences where their ill-fated aspirations continue to dwell, there is a clear urgency by which the two stories achieve their (non)resolutions. Unlike in the previous films, the choices here are clear and the consequences are as unforgiving as the political and economic forces that continue to entrap these women: familial responsibility, tradition, servitude, even desire.

This thematic relevance is where Daughters find its similarities with the director’s previous efforts, from his debut full-length film Limbunan (The Bridal Quarter), which examines tradition in the cultural lens, to the docu-narrative The Obscured Histories and Silent Longings of Daguluan’s Children, which echoes similar narratives and aspirations of women. The country/city dichotomy, as initially pointed out by film critic Chris Fujiwara in his review of the film, is important because it mirrors these “oppositional” forces of modernity and conservatism.

Mangansakan has always invoked the mythical in the stories of his films, and in Daughters it finds its locus in the serendipitous birth of the much-desired male heir in the final moment of Tonina’s story. Her duty is complete but a new cycle begins. Meanwhile, we find Aida in a sidewalk after a harrowing ordeal with the police. She holds in her hands something that offers temporary hope. She disappears from the frame, with our knowledge that the following day, a new autonomous government for the Muslim population will be installed, but her journey does not end there. Her liberation might still be light years away.

– Jay Rosas

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