Photo from Maria (2019), dir. Pedring Lopez

Director Pedring Lopez attempts to bring action films back to the industry with his highly-anticipated film Maria. His motivation for it is noble – to pay homage to Filipino action films of the 70’s and 80’s, made with the intention of entertaining audiences of today. With beautifully-choreographed fight scenes and a nearly hyper-violent nature, the film should guarantee commercial enjoyment for action-film enthusiasts and casual audiences alike.

However, the fact that it is a female-led film adds an entirely new layer to the cinematic work; in a genre traditionally dominated by men, Maria seems geared to advocate for women in action, reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill with a singular woman motivated by revenge. Cristine Reyes as Lily/Maria delivers a powerfully feminine performance by precariously but successfully balancing her character’s story and the focus on her feminine physicality.

Sadly, the same cannot be said about the portrayal of other female characters in the film. Despite its stellar production and sleek cinematography, Maria falls short of empowering women as it claims to, thus failing to elevate a genre that is traditionally male-dominated.

Objectively, the film does well in the aspects that make it an action film. With exciting and well-filmed fight choreography, the Filipino Martial Arts-inspired fighting is sure to keep one at the edge of their seat.

More so, it is not a movie for the faint of heart, as it does not shy away from depicting numerous scenes of violence, torture and gore. Paired with stellar post-production editing and great production design, the cinematography in the film is the golden ribbon tying this action-filled package together.

But the movie quickly goes awry with its thinly written script. Characters were not fleshed out, motivations appeared saccharine, and more than a few lines were out of place, if not completely unnecessary. As a whole, the script is watered down in favor of more action scenes – an understandable move, but not necessarily a good one.

It never allows for the plot to thicken and, in traditional machismo culture, the supporting female characters are depicted as mere accessories to their male counterparts.

Lily/Maria’s (Reyes) physicality and strength are highlighted, as expected of any action movie, which usually focuses on the physical body of its lead. It may even be argued that she appears “adequately sexual”. However, the other female characters appear to be excessively sexualized.

To be fair, there is some attempt to empower these women physically. In one scene, one of the trained female assassins easily beats a very macho, masculine rival assassin to a pulp. In most action movies, this kind of scene is rarely witnessed. However, when analyzed further, this attempt for empowerment falls short, made negligible by other factors in the film.

The main character aside, the women always appear to be sidekicks to male authorities, until the script calls for them to be seen at the foreground – and even then, their supposed empowered selves are stereotypes at best.

Perpetually clad in tight crop tops, form-fitting black leather and stiletto heels, the motivations of these women are superficial and their backstories disappointing. Slow toe-to-head body shots are the obvious priority in filming them, as they already have scarce dialogue to begin with.

Beside Reyes’ character, the other female characters, though depicted as strong and skilled, remain entrapped as objects of desire, rolling around in tight clothing while the men around them watch and take pleasure in the sight.

From shot choices to storyline to costume design, it is evident that the movie was written through and for the male gaze.

Lopez claims he is not a political person, and so it must follow that his movies are apolitical. However, the fact that his film features a female lead in a traditionally male-dominated genre changes the whole dynamic. The current political and social climate demands more responsible representation of both females and males in media.

Thus, the movie begs the question: is machismo a prerequisite in action films?

Traditionally, that has been the case as the genre has historically been attributed to and celebrated masculinity, all the while catering almost solely to male audiences.

However, maybe it is time for that to change. In a world where feminism is finally finding a collective voice through new media, filmmakers and other media-content producers are continuously called to break traditional gender notions in the name of a more diverse and less prejudiced media.

Maria had great potential to be the introductory note to an entirely new breed of action films – one that shapes female characters fully and breaks decades-long reinforced stereotypes. There is much merit to the film’s technical aspects, but there is also so much more it could have done in terms of its message.

As you view Maria, take its “empowering” scenes with a grain of salt. There are still numerous hints of the patriarchy in there.

Maria will be showing in cinemas nationwide starting Wednesday, March 27.


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