Stalkers, Migrants, Lovers, Filipinos: A Review of ‘Kita Kita’

Kita_Kita_Header2There is more to Kita Kita than [redacted], for it is also a morality tale, a migrant’s narrative, and a championing of Filipino identity and nationalism.

Many have rightly applauded Kita Kita’s fresh, innovative take on the Filipino romantic comedy genre, but others, equally justified, have rejected the film altogether,  repulsed by the stalking done in the name of love and kilig.

[SPOILERS RIGHT AHEAD]

Like many, I found the film funny and entertaining, but I side with those who rightly criticize the film for its portrayal of stalking. There is simply no going around the fact. Even if Tonyo simply wanted to return the favor, as some have argued in his defense, he could have done so without resorting to stalking. They were neighbors after all, and fellow Pinoys to boot, so why not just knock on the door one day and say, like normal people, “Uy, dyan lang ako sa nakatira sa harap mo. Ako nga pala si Tonyo. Thank you ah, ako nga pala yung pulubing tinutulungan mo’t binibigyan ng pechay”?

That would have been the normal, most sensible thing to do, but sensibility has been sacrificed to pander to current fashions in #hugot culture: the fantasy and redemption of an unseen yet faithful love.  Perhaps this also explains why there is no altogether happily-ever-after ending: why Tonyo had to die.

But there is more to Kita Kita than stalking, for it is also a morality tale, a migrant’s narrative, and a championing of Filipino identity and nationalism.

Someone to Watch Over Me: Justifying Stalking

It is nevertheless interesting exercise in film criticism and in the ethics of fiction to see how the film justifies the stalking.

In The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), Wayne Booth showed us that fiction deploya various means to persuade us to sympathize (or otherwise) with characters, suspend our judgment of them, or balance our moral responses altogether. In Kita Kita, only at the end was Tonyo’s stalking revealed, after we have been shown how nice and kind he was, and after Lea has already fallen in love with him. Thus, the much-applauded non-linearity of the movie — and its echo of Kurosawa — is a rhetorical device to convince us that Tonyo’s stalking is justified or forgivable. The stalking would been downright creepy (if it isn’t already) had the film began with Tonyo — a stranger — watching over Lea before he came to her house.

Secondly, Tonyo’s creepy behavior is placed in light of Lea’s vulnerability — loneliness and eventual disability — as a Filipina migrant in Sapporo, Japan. Had the film been set in the Philippines, Lea would not have needed Tonyo’s help. She presumably would have family and friends close by. And this would have undercut the need for stalking. But given her status as a migrant — alone and blind — she had to be dependent on Tonyo for redemption, happiness, and eyesight. Seeing and stalking have intimate links with power (think of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon and Laura Mulvey’s Male Gaze). But without Tonyo, Lea might not have known (at once) that Nobu was cheating on her, and who knows how long it would have taken for her to reach the hospital? Somebody literally had to watch (over) her.

Feminist-inspired analyses find Lea’s dependence deplorable, but dependence is not ipso facto bad. No (wo) man after all is an island, all of us need saving and help from time to time, and even the most independent, self-made person still depends on others to some extent. And this dependence is more pronounced in the case of Filipino migrant life. So why the flak when Lea is portrayed as dependent? She clearly needed it.  And at any rate, it is precisely because of Lea’s dependence on Tonyo that she eventually gets to see and become a single, independent woman once again.

Somebody else could have brought her to the hospital.  Kita Kita could have taken this route,  but it does not. Very few people are seen in the film; most of it focuses on Tonyo and Lea. And the exclusion highlights the difficult and lonely nature of migrant life. Japan is not an entirely welcoming place for Filipinos, if not migrants in general. Think of Rey Ventura’s autobiographical Going Underground (1992) and Herlyn Alegre’s Imbisibol (2015). And let’s not forget the entertainers in Japan, whose experience has led to discrimination and to a stereotyping of Filipinas as lowly entertainers. This notwithstanding the role of Filipina women as described by Lieba Faier in her Intimate Encounters: Filipina Women and the Remaking of Rural Japan (2009).

Iba Pa Rin ang Pinoy: Championing the Filipino

But another, more significant reason why Kita Kita does not rely on foreigners is that to do so would conflict with its somewhat pro-Pinoy stance (which is not a blanket anti-Japanese racism). The primary characters with whom Lea interacts the most significantly, Nobu and his girlfriend, are shown in a negative light. It’s a portrayal that contrasts with the decency of the other Japanese in the film (bartenders and the old couple at the start), the charming normalcy of northern Japan, and the promotion of Sapporo’s beautiful landscapes, undoubtedly designed to induce Filipino tourism thereto (I was told that the film was made in partnership with a Sapporo studio). Kudos to Kita Kita for showing Filipinos that there’s more to Japan than Tokyo or Kyoto. 

This unflattering portrait of Nobu is connected to the film’s championing of the Filipino. In a foreign land far away from your own, somebody like Nobu will not only not marry you, but will also cheat on you and break your heart. Even the half-Filipino, half-Japanese character, who tellingly responds in Japanese to Lea’s questions in Filipino, is on it. A traitor, Lea calls her. The message is clear: don’t consort with foreigners. Your family is not there. In the end, you can only rely on your fellow Filipinos. And thus Lea helps Tonyo during his beggar, homeless phase, and Tonyo returns the favor.

This patriotism, as it were, also takes pains to play out the replacement of Nobu with Tonyo. And this is evident not just in a literal change of lovers, but also in the replication of Nobu’s romantic date with Lea in her own sequence with Tonyo. Lea and Nobu went to the same places, as did Lea and Tonyo. Kita Kita gives her a do-over, a way to begin again by replacing her bitter experiences with the Japanese Nobu with her few weeks of happiness with Tonyo. 

Kita Kita is celebration of many things Filipino: hence the homage to various Filipino dishes: sinigang, adobo, and pansit; the casting of Tonyo (a Filipino name) as a quintessential Filipino:  blundering in broken English, funny, and far from the mestizo, foreign-tainted features of a, say, Derek Ramsay; and most importantly, the significance of Tonyo’s first words to Lea: “Kabayan.” This word of course marks the beginning of a courtship between two future lovers, but his first words — repeated several times — establish at the onset that before they are lovers, they are both Filipinos first, a common identity that serves as the initial foundation of their relationship.

Kita Kita hews to a theme of many Filipino films: the need to portray Filipinos abroad preserving and returning to their Filipinoness (whatever that might mean) and/or to reassure Filipinos at home that their compatriots abroad remain just that. One thinks of Sana Maulit Muli (1995), where an immigrant chooses to forsake the good life abroad, and come home to the Philippines; of Kailangan Kita (2002), which presents a Filipino immigrant to the United States fall in love, not with his fellow immigrant, but with a local, sweet, homegrown woman; or of English Only, Please (2014), which dramatizes the union of a Filipino-American with a Filipina, as well as the former’s education and eventual appreciation for many things Filipino. A similar logic underpins Kita Kita: (sa) Pinoy pa rin tayo. Iba pa rin ang kapwa Filipino.

Maginoo Pero Medyo Bastos: The Benevolent Stalker

But rhetorical device or not, Tonyo is a stalker. His sexual advances — attempts at kissing and touching — are downright deplorable. But he is funny and kind, and is undoubtedly and sincerely protective of Lea. So what are we to make of this mixed portrait: a benevolent stalker, if ever there was one? Does his kindness and protective intent negate, excuse, or justify his being a stalker?

On the one hand, to say “no” means rejecting the film’s moral logic, as would a feminist analysis, which condemns Tonyo’s patriarchy and his enactment of the Male Gaze. Here, Tonyo is a stalker and opportunist, and that is that.

On the other hand, to say “yes” would mean buying into the moral-rhetorical reasoning of Kita Kita, one that recognizes the gentler, kinder side of patriarchy and opportunism, which protects and as well oppresses. It’s a moral logic in which stalking is excused in the name of love, kilig and #feels on the one hand, and female protection and mere entertainment on the other. To the extent that films and fictional works can be accountable, the moral reasoning of Kita Kita reflects a transactional, balance-sheet style ethics, where negative traits often be offset with more positive ones.

A similar moral logic pervades Philippine politics these days, which helps explains why people scream “bias” when only the negative things get reported; why they are often willing to forgive and look the other way; and why leaders can institute progressive policies for women such as the RH Bill yet joke about rape; provide all sorts of public assistance but support a backward political system; protect the human rights of some but trample those of others; or support free education but advocate anti-poor neoliberal policies.

Ethics is a complex subject, and I am all for moral gray areas, but many things, including patriarchy and stalking, do not belong there. One is often commended for looking at the good and bad, for being nuanced, but wouldn’t it be better if there were nothing bad to look at and to be offset in the first place? Wouldn’t it be nicer if everyone’s human rights were protected, if women-friendly policies were in place and women were not subject to rape (jokes)? Wouldn’t it have been ideal if there were no stalking to be begin, if Tonyo was just kind, funny, and helpful?

With “ideal” being the operative word.

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