Perfumed Nightmare (1980), dir. Kiplat Tahimik

by Noah Rymer Volume 27, Issue 3-4-5 / May 2023 9 minutes (2237 words)

A lone bridge built by a Spanish soldier, spoken about in an English narration, and residing in a Filipino village is what famed Filipino D.I.Y. journeyman Kiplat Tahimik opens his opus with, a potent mix of thesis statement and filmic allegory in his treatise on the Philippines’ double-colonization, foreign industrialism, and the culture of both in his surrealist-tinged rendering of the American Dream into the terrors of foreign intervention, Perfumed Nightmare.

Kiplat plays himself as a Jeepny driver (a Filipino taxi driver who specifically drives repurposed Jeeps) who longs to cast off the humble village life he once grew up in and escape into the modernist dreams of technological growth, development, and transit, one bridge at a time. Kiplat’s village life itself is a strange, almost Gothic pastiche of American ephemera and fervor: a bikini-clad blonde model sits next to the Madonna in an ornamental frame; he leads a fan club devoted for the American who developed rocket travel despite his village being turned down for American aid; fragments of an American radio program weave itself in and out of the film, blaring then just as suddenly disappearing like audial ghostly afterimages, cultural blips and aberrations of the consumerist ‘good life’ juxtaposed with the poverty of the village. “Get into America!” the radio proudly announces, as if it were a Grecian seer divining the commands of the future.

These aspects of foreign culture participate in a reverse-Orientalism and become inculcated, fetishized, and ritualized into the daily life of Kiplat and his club members, where the daily broadcasts and letters of their American radio show take on a near-liturgical office of importance and dissemination. “I do not dream of Disneyland anymore, Mama,” Kiplat defiantly states, but all the same is lured into the trans-continental industrial theme park, the glittering airports and monoliths of machinery that bring Tomorrowland into today.

Transportation, both physical and cultural, become a recurring theme throughout as Kidlat’s jeepny driving is essentially the only form of travel within the small village, and his club and transistor radio are conduits of cultural transportation from America to the Philippines just the same. An affluent woman who was the first to fly on plane in the village regales an awe-inspired Kidlat with her own story of technologically advanced transit, something the humble jeepny workers could only glide in in dreams of escape. Kidlat narrates shots of his bosses’ Jeepny factory, recalling bits and pieces of Filipino culture within the dialogue: “These are vehicles of war which we made into vehicles of life.” “An old Jeepny never dies.” The Filipino way of life, then, is shown as something restorative and regenerative, a special resilience learned from Spain and America’s ruthless colonization and militarization, coupled with a fierce interdependence and free will as Kidlat tells his baby sister Alma that “…you are the master of your own vehicle. Only you can tell it where to go.”

But even a raging spirit and the drive to break the chains doesn’t always work, as Kidlat’s mother weaves the tale of his father, scolding Kidlat that “You are just like your father, fascinated by the white man’s smile,” after telling her that he would be going to Europe. The American troops tricked the Filipinos into fighting the Spaniards with them so that they could occupy their land easier; the gift of a rifle to Kidlat’s father brought with the deceiving aphrodisiac of promised liberation: “The bridge to your freedom, your vehicle to freedom.” “‘We will help you with your revolution against the Spanish tyrants,’ said the smiling American.” “As he sang the sweet song of victory, the Americans were buying us in Paris.” This powerful triptych of dialogue mirrors the cultural/lingual combination of Spanish/American/Filipino, weaving in and out of each other like the fuzzy fragments of Kiplat’s radio, all distinct but clashing, a swirling combination that all seek dominance over the other in the Filipino psyche.

Kaya, Kidlat’s bamboo-hut craftsman elder, wistfully remembers a more folkloric version of the story, telling him that his father was strong and fearsome, and with his breath could blow down men with the force of a typhoon and could level mountains all by himself. Colonization tangles with folk culture, a potent mythology that can never be built over or not buried in the dirt, all at once spiritual, effervescent, and life-giving. This same kind of wisdom ripples throughout the film, in particular when Kidlat admirers a Parisian tower handcrafted from stone that had been around for 600 years, with Kaya’s disembodied voice gently reminding him that “One day you will know the quiet strength of bamboo,” while a frustrated Kidlat responds “You cannot build rocket ships from bamboo!”

With Kidlat now in Paris on a business trip, a foreign country that represents industrial progress only second to America in his eyes, he slowly grows disillusioned with the false glamor and capitalist futurism he’s surrounded by. Candy machines litter numerous shots of beautiful Parisian antiquity like technological blisters, and pithily enough there’s even a machine on a tombstone whilst a skyscraper eerily looms in the distance as Kidlat’s boss monologues about progress and enterprise. A new shopping center is erected with almost the same grandiosity and size of a cathedral, monolithic and foreboding in its nature, and not just for its size, but for the inevitable purgation of the family-operated street-carts who take pride in their pastoral craft in the dog-eat-dog economic realism of sprawling modernity versus stoic tradition. It’s the burning end of a familial economy, a step towards the Blakesian “dark, satanic mills.” “A simple tribute is more powerful than the giant monuments of our civilization,” Kaya calls out to Kidlat once more.

Kidlat finally understands. His eyes are opened to the destructive artifice of this pre-constructed life, the lies of freedom and choice, and that pervading sense of industrial doom that now surrounds him like miasmic cloud of smog. He doubts the providential quintessence of a distinctly American life in the land of progress and renovation, almost like a prayer in itself, he asks: “Will it be the paradise I prayed for?” Kidlat’s rumination of this so-called Promised Land veers further into the broodingly surreal, as he becomes surrounded by Hollow Men (and women) with plaster-cast faces, holding up cut-out smiles over their blank expressions; this is the “Perfumed Nightmare,” the inversion of the American Dream where alienation and isolation become the law of the land. There is no hope, just deracination that awaits foreigners looking for a better life and sublimation to the rat race that the U.S. proudly presents as a gleaming paradigm of the American spirit. If you don’t conform to the American ways of living, of culture, the film says, then, like the declined offer for aid that took place earlier in the film when the Filipinos refused the Americans to once again take control, you will never prosper in the land of the free. Just as the Americans bought the Filipinos (physically) through the ownership of their land, so too they must sell themselves (spiritually) again in order to gain what was already once stolen from them.

Kidlat now truly understands what Kaya meant, remarking on a rare albino beast native to the Philippines, when he said that “Sweetness of the caribou is like the chewing gum the American soldiers gave you,” hearkening back to the temporality and disposability of capitalism displayed in the deployment of the candy machines. A sweetness that can only be fading. So, gaining strength not from a pre-constructed and imposed sense of culture, not from the gleaming advancement and sheen of foreign technology, Kidlat looks inside himself and discovers the same power his father once had, that no Spaniard nor American could take away: his roots within Filipino culture, the true culture that comprises his person. He blows a mighty typhoon breath across Paris, blowing away all the fake smiles, the monolithic machines, everything that stands for artificiality and mechanical rot. Kidlat has achieved his own dream, that of self-realization, as he triumphantly yet humbly signs off the film: “This is the last will and testament of Kidlat Tahimik. And a Declaration of Independence.” In his own words, Kidlat doesn’t want to be in league with ‘those who build bridges to the stars,’ recognizing that communication and transportation find their place in genuine person-to-person connections, rather than from Mars to Jupiter and the conquering of space. It’s his place to build those bridges with the people in his village, just like he did with his job as a Jeepny driver. There was more life within that small, little village than the entirety of America or Europe for Kidlat, and that’s the kind of sweetness that will outlast any kind of chewing gum.

The style and tone of Perfumed Nightmare itself is a unique blend that combines various elements of documentary-style realism with boldly surrealist sequences that lends a uniquely spiritual side to the film (which isn’t all that surprising, since the Philippines are considered the most Catholic country in the world). Additionally, Kiplat’s usage of himself as protagonist and the voiceovers throughout lend a warm, familial feeling to the film, which could also be attributed to the highly communal aspect of Filipino culture (speaking as a Filipino myself, all Filipinos are essentially family and are usually talked to in the parlance of aunt or uncle, sister or brother).

Astonishingly, Perfumed Nightmare was also Kidlat’s debut film, where he got the moniker of Kidlat Tahimik when he was still Eric de Guia. Citing his website, “…he received his MBA from Wharton and worked as an economist in France before stumbling upon a 16mm Bolex in Germany. In an act of defiance that recalled the Filipino revolutionaries’ tearing of their cédulas in 1896 to declare independence from Spain, he tore his diploma in 1972 to become an artist and to rediscover his roots.” Another part of the mythology was that the name-change was symbolic in tossing away his birth name for something deliberately chosen for him, a “noncolonial name” that translates to “silent lightning,” which is rather appropriate for a man who not just channeled the forces of nature into combating colonialism in the end of Perfumed Nightmare, but also created a cinema that may not have had the greatest impact outside of where it was made yet all the same was potent and powerful in its creative effect, with filmmakers still feeling its aftershocks much later.

Kidlat thus went full-force in a righteous conquest to dismantle neocolonialist narratives through his films, and to reclaim his roots from both Spanish and American cultures through the creation of his own brand of fiercely independent and highly creative cinema that rallied against industrialism, the forces of capitalism, and aforementioned colonialism. Perfumed Nightmare was released in 1977, catching the rising tide of The Golden Age Of Filipino Cinema alongside such titles as Manila In The Claws Of Neon Lights (1975), Speck In The Lake (1976), and Rites of May (1976), and went on to become highly successful, as it won three prizes at Berlin Film Festival, was distributed by Francis Ford Coppola, and premiered in a New York cinema.

Kidlat continued to surge with a streak of independent films that spoke of the sorrows of Filipinos struggling against dominating cultures, but his films were never without a strong burst of hope that firmly believed that the Filipino could rise out of their chains imposed upon them by outside forces and break the continuous oppression they’ve experienced, proving that it’s love, family, and a rebellious spirit that will always win out in the end. His legacy has proved to be something that has reverberated throughout the annals of Filipino history, so much so that Kidlat is considered to be the father of the Philippine New Wave, especially with his hands-on approach to doing all the grunt work of a film instead of simply just directing or writing the script. And once more in the spirit of the familial culture of the Philippines, Kidlat has been called by artists and critics alike as “tatay” or ‘father,’ not only because of his cinematic innovation but for his continued support for the arts, founding the Sunflower Film and Video Collective to preserve and document Ifugao culture and teaching at the University of the Philippines.

Kidlat’s challenging narratives and somewhat experimental style all have their roots in his first, seminal film, and in his own words, The ‘Perfumed Nightmare’ refers to a seductive aspect of modern culture enticing us to be like our colonial masters…my film was…trying to question what one country’s culture, when imported wholesale, can do to another’s.” It’s more than evident that Kidlat has triumphantly broken free from that sickly spell, and his long legacy of films are helping Filipinos like me do the same and build our own identities from the refuse of colonialism, refurbishing waste and scrap into our own islands, our own spaceships, our own futures, much like the scrappy and resourceful protagonists of his films who have to navigate the dreck of retrofitted culture and find the purity and naturalism that aches to be located like a daisy growing from the cracks of concrete. Kidlat isn’t a daisy; he’s the whole damn bouquet.

Noah Rymer is a writer, poet, and occasional film critic who enjoys the whole spectrum of cinema, from twice-removed Italian ripoff cinema to obscure Czech New Wave. When he’s not busy beating up his typewriter, he likes to sip cheap wine and read Baudelaire while admiring the lush, verdant mountains and spiraling forests of Virginia.

Volume 27, Issue 3-4-5 / May 2023 Film Reviews   documentary   filipino cinema   kiplat tahimik