Perfumed Nightmare, Neocolonialism and Kidlat Tahimik’s Experiment with Film Form

Perfumed Nightmare by Kidlat Tahimik (1977) is a successful experiment in using film form to deliver a message about neocolonialism, progress, and Filipino identity and aspirations.

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It will be useful to first think about which type of film Perfumed Nightmare (Mababangong bangungot, 1977) really is, because it does not comfortably fall under the definition of fictional narrative film alone. Many sequences in the film are, or at least appear to be, shot as cinéma vérité; a few examples being the hoisting of the Zwiebelturm in Bavaria, the visit to the Sarao Motors jeepney factory and the images of the townspeople doing penance. And yet, other sequences are obviously scripted, such as the parodistic meeting scene in which Kidlat Tahimik blows away the Western leaders.

The film does have a plot, and several scenes are set up and executed to advance this narrative. We have scenes, such as when Kidlat wakes up one morning to talk to the photos of beauty queens beside his bed, which are shot in a manner similar to what we would expect in mainstream fictional films. At other times, however, the film breaks suspension of disbelief by looking like a documentary; in multiple scenes, Kidlat plays around while smiling and looking directly at the camera, clearly implying awareness of the cameraman.

By having both fictional and non-fictional elements, the film straddles the boundaries of film types, and elicits credibility in what it presents while at the same time enhancing the impact of the messages it purports. But what is this message that Perfumed Nightmare emphatically carries?

At the center of the film is the character of Kidlat Tahimik, a jeepney driver living in the rural town of Balian, Laguna. He is the president of a fans club dedicated to Wernher von Braun, a prominent rocket engineer working for the American space program; this is symptomatic of his fascination with economic and technological progress, something that is common to virtually all Filipinos.

The main conflict of the film comes from the clash between the perceived backwardness of Filipino culture and people, and the apparent superiority of modern Western society. There are numerous images and symbols for this throughout the film: there is the white carabao that Kidlat often dreams about, which his friend Kaya describes as fascinating but unattractive because of the cold stare of its eyes; there is the parallelism between the intrinsic values of native bamboo construction and the ruthlessness of modern engineering; there is the Sarao jeepney factory, which, even though it may not be as huge and efficient as Rolls-Royce, should be prized for its ingenuity in manufacturing methods; and there is Kidlat’s recurring line, “When the typhoon blows off its cocoon, the butterfly embraces the sun.”

Perfumed Nightmare portrays Kidlat’s initial fascination and eventual disillusionment with economic and technological progress. Progress is a good but not necessary, and sometimes even counter-productive, ingredient for human happiness; it may be nice to have space programs and efficient modern engineering methods, but these soulless innovations should not come at the expense of native values, as exemplified by the French street market vendors, the Bavarian art of zwiebelturm, and the Filipino indigenous bamboo craft.

On a more political note, Kidlat Tahimik in Perfumed Nightmare showcases the evils of neocolonialism; he shares the belief that the Philippines is one of the countries who have claimed independence from their colonizers, and yet remain under the control of First World nations, who are still able to wield power through economic and technological superiority. The title of the film itself refers to the misguided aspirations of people, who, blinded by the appeal of modern society, have abandoned their native values in favor of foreign ones, like Kidlat in the film hoping to see the American spaceships while overlooking the value of his own jeepney. In Kidlat’s own words, Perfumed Nightmare is the “cocoon of American dreams.” He effectively advocates for the enlightenment of people about the excessive fascination with all things foreign and modern; we are reminded of the scene where the Western leaders meet and Kidlat Tahimik blows them away, with an indigenous strength likened to the winds of Amok mountain. There is also the sole bridge in Kidlat’s town Balian, which in serving both as an essential structure for the daily activities of the townspeople and as the point of entry of foreign culture, represents the connection between Third World countries and developed nations.

It is an irony, therefore, that the film was made to be distributed by the American film studio Zoetrope. Kidlat, however, manages to overwhelmingly instill Filipino values in his work with Perfumed Nightmare. He wrote, directed, and acted for the film all by himself, and with a meager $10,000 budget, using old film stock. This one-man act stands in stark contrast with the huge coordinated efforts of Hollywood studios in producing movies; the small-scale spontaneity of Kidlat Tahimik compared to the large-scale planning of Hollywood brings to mind the comparisons between Sarao and Rolls-Royce, between bamboo craft and modern engineering. Kidlat shows in action the values his film champions; he describes his own craft as “kapa-kapa film[making]… and bathala-na script[writing].” (“filmmaking by instinct… and ‘whatever-comes’ scriptwriting”)

Moreover, Kidlat’s experiment with film form in Perfumed Nightmare resulted in a distinctly Filipino film. The incoherently alternating use of fictional and non-narrative techniques, the lack of effort to sustain viewers’ disbelief, the apparent impulsiveness of the characters’ actions, the kenkoy humor and the relaxed reflectiveness of the narrator—all these make us feel a distinctly Filipino spirit in the film. Perfumed Nightmare develops its Filipino flavor not just through its content, but more importantly in form, and the result is that it is extremely close to other Filipino films only in spirit. It is a rare, unique film in actual form and content.

Kidlat’s experimentation with film form therefore supports and enhances his message about neocolonialism and nationalist values; and the gravity and nature of these statements, in turn, creates the need for an experimental form.

Note: This piece was originally written as a paper for an introductory film art class in university, several years ago.

References

  • Bordwell, D., & Thompson, K. (2004). Film Art: An Introduction (7th ed). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • San Juan, E. Jr. Introduction to the Films of Kidlat Tahimik: On the Politics and Aesthetics of Filipino Cinematic Art. Retrieved February 2011, from focusphilippines.de/kidlat.htm.

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