The problematic portrayal of the working class in the films Triangle of Sadness, Nocebo

Dec. 28, 2022

Two internationally produced films which premiered late this year star Filipino actors: Dolly De Leon as Abigail, a toilet manager who became a leader of a sunken cruise ship’s survivors in Triangle of Sadness and Chai Fonacier as Diana, a mysterious folk healer who suddenly appeared at a fashion designer’s home in Nocebo.

As we take pride in the stellar performances of De Leon and Fonacier in these films, we might as well contemplate our representation as workers from the Global South.

Abigail’s twisted motivations in Triangle

Nearly 5,000 cases of abuse against Filipino migrant workers were recorded in 2020 yet Triangle, one of the limited films that touch their narrative, still opted to portray them as corrupt opportunists via the character of Abigail. Perhaps careful not to cast a shadow upon Filipino pride, some local reviewers let this slide, even came to its defense.

Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, director of Triangle, could have been making a punching commentary up to the beginning of the third act which showed the very first distribution of food in the island. The elite simply didn’t know how to feed themselves and for the first time, their riches bore no value whatsoever. Meanwhile, the value of the working class, on whose skills and labor the elite at large parasitically depend, finally took the spotlight. Abigail knew that the social triangle turned upside down. Being the most capable in the island, she introduced herself as the new, rightful captain.

Assuming leadership, Abigail seemed to have found a way to seduce Carl (played by English actor Harris Dickinson), a fashion model who, had they not become castaways, wouldn’t have taken the slightest interest in her. In exchange for some food for Yaya (played by South African actress and model Charlbi Dean), Carl’s supermodel girlfriend, and a chance for him to sleep more comfortably in the lifeboat, Abigail got him to sleep with her. The rest of the film was stuck in this angle.

In the closing scene, the film suggested the possibility of Abigail killing Yaya after finding out that things could finally go back to the way they were. Given how Abigail was portrayed and the entire narrative was framed, there could be no motivation for such a possibility—not even the kind of life in the island where the rich can finally catch their own food—other than keep Carl for herself and herself in power. 

One review reads: “De Leon’s Abigail is fascinating precisely because she cannot be caged into mere Filipino representation. She does not behave like a model citizen nor is she interested in being one.”

One could somehow get where this justification might be coming from. Unlike most stories about migrant workers, Abigail’s is refreshingly not one of victimhood. In Triangle, she’s the boss, the lone person of color who orders the white rich around. One could even be drawn into thinking that this might be our longing to see our diasporic selves triumph even just onscreen. What a wet dream, though, at the expense of the truth—Filipino migrants have always been among the most vulnerable of workers. Flor Contemplacion, who might have been falsely convicted of murder, was hanged in Singapore in 1995 and Mary Jane Veloso, trafficked to become a drug mule, is still on Indonesia’s death row.

Popular interpretations of power and the human nature appeared over and over again in local reviews—about how Abigail “represents our inner desires that we are ashamed to expose,” how “power corrupts, and humans, as history has repeatedly taught, are not good at relinquishing control once they have it,” and how “even the poorest among us lack no imagination when it comes to selfishness.”

If indeed Ostlund made himself quite clear and sent these messages across, why at the expense of the image of a Filipino migrant worker who, contrary to what the film paints them to be, is in fact powerless against multiple forms of exploitation? Why misuse satire against the exploited?

Diana’s motivations as genre, plot device in Nocebo

In a lifestyle article published in October 2022 the following concerns were raised about Nocebo’s trailer: “Will the Filipino character be antagonized?” “Will this put a bad impression on folk healing?” Besides affirmatively confirming these questions via cultural exoticism in the name of “folk horror”, the film has bigger conflicts to reckon with.

The problem with making social commentary a plot twist is that it simply evades discussion to save the film from “getting spoiled,” which highly defeats the purpose. But even when the whole truth—that Diana (Fonacier) came all the way to London from the Philippines to avenge her daughter’s death from a fire that broke out in a sweatshop owned by Christine (played by French actress and model Eva Green) where Diana used to work—was revealed toward the end of the film, did it turn the tables and make us sympathize with Diana?

An answer can be gleaned from this review: “But the strength of (Lorcan) Finnegan’s film lies in how cleverly he complicates this dynamic of a monstrous other. Who’s the real monster in Nocebo—the Filipino shaman who intrudes upon a family’s home or the neocolonial capitalist designer who exploits workers overseas? Finnegan reveals Christine and Diane’s fatal psychic bond through patient pacing and flashbacks but wisely provides no conclusive answer. That’s because these two women are each other’s monsters. From an ethnic, class, and cultural perspective, these two women could not be more different.”

For a film to have engendered this kind of unspeakable interpretation, and not without basis, which equates an exploited worker to be as monstrous as the capitalist who exploits them, in the form of praise at that, is an utter betrayal of the film’s progressive intentions, if any, given that this isn’t just a purely fictional story. The Kentex Fire in Valenzuela in 2015 which nobody was held accountable for despite having claimed 74 lives, for which the film’s closing song, “Pugon”, was written, let alone the search for justice isn’t and shouldn’t be treated as just some material for horror.

But how could it be helped? Horror is cinema-worthy, horror is beauty: “Just as the director knows how to control tension, discomfort and mystery, in Nocebo he also intelligently handles the emotional power of the image, of its power to create beauty in the dark. The film features terrifying images that are truly frightening, and others that are profoundly beautiful.”

Even if something remotely akin to beauty which the Cine Europa review above was talking about exists, it should have been found in the justified punishment of Christine for exploiting workers via cheap labor halfway across the world. But this didn’t feel as satisfying as Christine was portrayed as confused and unknowing, even as some sort of victim from beginning to end unlike Diana who was framed as manipulative and sinister. Christine lacked any sense of real awareness all throughout the film—none when she ordered the sweatshop gates to be locked, none when she learned the whole truth. Dangerously bordering on innocence, such unawareness unjustly absolves Christine of all accountability while it is all put upon Diana who was conscious of her acts, being the one plotting revenge.

In the vein of ‘Parasite’

Could Bong Joon Ho, the South Korean director of Parasite, have unwittingly paved the way to a contemporary film genre which attempts to discuss social conditions but falsely equates the corrupt sensibilities of the elite to the desperate tendencies of the working class under misinformed notions of “universality” and “human nature”?

For we can start blocking this way while it’s early. So that in the next films starring the best of Filipino talents, we will be able to take pride, beyond mere screen visibility, of stories that genuinely champion our narratives.

Roma Estrada ( teaches languages, literature, and the arts in the Philippines.

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