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[ART & CRITIQUE] Kalel, 15 is a brutal coming-of-age film that spits right in our faces

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Emil Samaniego
Emil Samaniego is a former cultural worker at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and teacher of Introduction to the Philosophy of the Human Person and Contemporary Philippine Arts from the Region. He is also one of the founders of Politixxx Today and presently a senior law student in a law school in Mendiola, Manila.

They say that film viewing is voyeurism as it allows us to pry into the private lives of its characters. Kalel, 15 (2019) begins with a voyeuristic gaze as the blurry cinematic frame slowly clears up to show Kalel and his mom in the hospital, moments before and after they knew of Kalel’s HIV status. It was a powerful scene filled with lifeless silence, setting the tone of the film’s black and white portrayal of the gradual collapse of Kalel’s world after his HIV diagnosis. The loss of his innocence. His spiraling descent or fall into the abyss of existence, and his emergence from it.  

“Nakakahiya ka. Ano na lang ang sasabihin ng mga tao, wala kong kwentang ina kaya ka nagkaganyan?Tangina mo, pinag-aaral kita napunta lang pala sa wala.”

(You’re an embarrassment. What will people say? That I’m a bad mother, and that’s why this happened? You shithead. I send you to school. It’s all for nothing.)

These are the film’s first lines not from Kalel, but from his mother, Edith. It begins with the shame that comes with HIV diagnosis inflicted not only by strangers but more significantly by family and blood relatives of the one diagnosed with HIV. Clearly, Kalel, 15 is straightforward on its portrayal and critique of how the Philippine society treats those afflicted with HIV.

“Oh Kalel upo ka. Ano bang nangyari sa ‘yo? Mga bakla lang ang nagkakasakit ng ganyan. Bakla ka ba? Saan mo ba nakuha ‘yan?”

(Kalel, sit down. What happened to you?Only gay men end up with that. Are you gay? Where did you get it?)

With a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes, Kalel, 15 is a brutal coming-of-age film that narrates the story of how the 15-year old Kalel navigates his HV diagnosis against the backdrops of his dysfunctional family, teenage angst and romance, underground internet sex (although not directly depicted)  and drugs.

In essence, the film is Nietzschean on its portrayal of human existence and Kalel’s struggles against life’s never-ending vicissitudes, which in the end transformed him into an ubermensch (a Superman) or a person who rises above conventional Christian morality and has established his own values that he can impose to others.

Structurally speaking, we see the transformation of Kalel’s character in the following points in the film: 1) his HIV diagnosis, 2) bodily transformation as Kalel’s body is slowly altered by HIV, 3) the betrayal of his friends and girlfriend, and 4) the disintegration of any semblance of family support which begins when his mother eloped with a lover, followed by the imprisonment of his sister due to drug charges, and completed by that penultimate scene in the Church which functions as the symbolic death of the Father or (Death of God) and signals the complete liberation and transformation of Kalel as the ubermensch or Superman which the film’s final scene masterfully depicts. Also, embedded in Kalel’s change of subjectivity is the build-up of rage which Lana controls with restraint that allowed him to successfully execute his penultimate scene. 

penultimate scene

Aside from the obvious word play in the use of the name Kalel, which is a portmanteau of Kal-El, the Kryptonian name of Superman, and Kalel’s comic collection, Lana’s Nietzschean motif can be seen on how he deals with themes like morality, will to power (ie. Kalel’s silent resoluteness amidst diversity), death of God, human struggles, rage and transformation.

Also, throughout the film there is great sense of foreboding which Lana further exemplified through his black and white filter. Incidentally, this gives a sense of tragedy to the film. However, by employing a Nietzschean reading of the film, I argue that it should not be the case.

Kalel as an ubermensch (Superman) who can impose his own values to others

Kalel’s transformation into an ubermensch (Superman) allows us to imagine a victorious albeit existentialist version of his story. For one, it is not hard to imagine that Kalel’s HIV status is eventually controlled; and he is able to learn to hustle around the ways of the world to live a normal life. In short, this Nietzschean reading cracks open the film’s emancipatory potential by subverting the audience, and by extension, the society’s tragic reading of Kalel’s story.

In other words, there is nothing to grieve about Kalel, his HIV diagnosis and other struggles of his life; in the same manner that those who are diagnosed with HIV in real life do not need deserve our pity. Through this critical maneuver, the film, just like in its penultimate scene, spits right in the faces of those who view Kalel’s life as tragedy by default upon learning his HIV diagnosis. HIV positive people are the real Superman. This is the film’s ultimate critical stance directed to its viewers.

Nota Bene

There are a lot of positive things to say about the film starting with the actors and actresses’ performances. To begin, Elijah Canlas is phenomenal. Jacklyn Jose and Elora Espano also provided the necessary comedic relief and warmth (in an obscene yet typical Pinoy kind of way) to the film through their characters as Kalel’s dysfunctional mother and sister, respectively.

Of course, the film has to be lauded for tackling the overlooked issue of HIV infection among minors or teenagers in the Philippines.

Lastly, the film’s muted portrayal of various dimensions of Kalel’s sexuality is worth looking into. The subtle way the film hints how Kalel contacted the virus is excellent. Also, the black and white filter may not be for everyone but it has served its function, aesthetically or otherwise.  The film truly deserves a re-watch.

The film is already available on Netflix Philippines

Read my latest film review of Antoinette Jadaone’s “Fan Girl” (2020): https://politixxx.today/film-review-a-critical-look-at-antoinette-jadaones-fan-girl-2020/

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