Poor Men Who Are Great
“There are poor men who are great.” Kennosuke (Tatsuo Saito) a struggling father tries to justify himself to his young son Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara) in vain. At first glance the line is an oxymoron. How can a poor man be great? How do you explain that to a child not more than 10 years old?
Film has the power to show the world from the point of view of a child. That is what director Yasujiro Ozu in his 1932, silent film “I Was Born But…” achieved. It was part of the Silent film festival in Shang Cineplex, Shang Rila Plaza who screened them for free from August 24-27, 2012. Tropical Depression successfully provided the soundtrack and brought out the emotions and mood for the film.
Ozu also directed “Tokyo Story” in 1953, it is considered by critics and film historians around the world as among the greatest films of all time. National Artist for Film Eddie Romero was among those who attended the screening last August 25.
There’s a universality in the ability of good films to move emotions and provoke thought even if it is in a foreign language or was made nearly a century before.
Ryoichi and his brother Keiji (Tomio Aoki) aren’t really poor. They go to a good school, their mother cooks them lovely Japanese meals. Their house is small but is more than adequate for the family. Their father is quite attentive to them making sure they go to school and have what they need.
A bully in school harasses the two boys. Ryoichi manages to convince a delivery boy to be his resbak (enforcer) and scares the bully away. The bully’s gang of kids also becomes scared of Ryoichi and he takes the bully’s place as leader. He learns to boss them around and enjoys it. One day he learns that one of his underlings (at least in his mind) named Taro was having a film screening at home. Ryoichi as the new gang leader wrangles an invite for himself and his little brother.
Before the evening screening, the kids try to one up each other by bragging about their fathers. “My dad has better car than yours…My father is tougher and stronger than yours” contest. By virtue of being the ‘leader’ Ryoichi naturally wins the argument.
When the screening comes along Ryoichi and his little brother enter the living room of Taro’s house, which is far bigger and impressive than their own. They see their dad Kennosuke is also there to watch the film. It was more of a home movie where the ‘performers’ were Kennosuke and other employees of Iwasaki (Takeshi Sakamoto) who just happens to be Taro’s dad.
In the home movie the brothers see their dad making a fool of himself and making co workers laugh. Ryoichi is disgusted with the film and walks out with little brother in tow. When they get home Ryoichi tells off his dad. He believed that his own father must be ‘superior’ to Taro’s father who is his underling. He asks his father: “Why do you have to follow Taro’s dad? Why aren’t you the director? Why don’t YOU pay his salary? You tell us to study hard but you are nothing!” That was when Kennosuke tried to explain things to his son: “There are poor men who are great.”
Earlier interpretations of the film is that the child’s point of view reveals the hypocrisy of grown ups of having a double standard, which are not any less valid. But from the Philippine perspective in light of recent events, I’d like to take a different interpretation.
I’d like to believe the father is correct. There ARE poor men who are great. ‘Poor’ in this sense is not just financial but men who sacrifice and humble themselves that in truth are truly great. The loss of DILG Sec Jesse Robredo is only the most dramatic and recent example for this year who died in a plane crash this August. Last March it was the passing of PDI Publisher Isagani Yambot and in June filmmaker, screenwriter and actor Mario O’Hara and comedic icon Dolphy in July. Yambot and O’Hara are both personal heroes of mine. Now Robredo is also one of my heroes with the stories of sacrifice and humility that have surfaced after his untimely death in a plane crash.
For Ryoichi, because of his young mind and conflict with the bullies, might is right. If you cannot make other people submit to your will then you’re nothing. He couldn’t even accept his father was an employee most especially of Taro’s father. And if you’re top dog you have to show your power, your wealth and let them know who’s boss. That’s what frustrated Ryoichi and ate him up inside.
Jesse Robredo, Isagani Yambot, Mario O’Hara and even Dolphy were the reverse of the might is right ideal. All four men have recently passed away this year. And all four men have reached positions of power, if not reached the pinnacle in their own fields. Yet instead of imposing their own will, they made sure to serve and help others with the power and influence they gained.
Phil Daily Inquirer (PDI ) Publisher Isagani Yambot throughout his life supported countless causes from the urban poor, to feminist rights; human rights victims and so on. But what I personally witnessed was his strong devotion to Phil independent cinema. He religiously attended Cinemalaya, Cinemanila and other film fests that feature Filipino talent. He even made sure to invite screenings of the films of Brillante Mendoza, Aureus Solito and others in the PDI office. Yambot even encouraged the Entertainment section to put up the PDI Indie tribute the only award of its kind. In international fests I literally had to pull him in group shots with VIPs, he was reluctant to do so not wanting the limelight for himself.
Mario O’Hara is a modern Renaissance man, starting out as a radio talent and excelling as writer, actor and later on as director. For those familiar with his works he is already a National Artist. His screenplay for ‘Insiang’ a film by Lino Brocka is considered to be among the best Filipino films ever made. He has worked with two National Artists Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal. In person, he was also extremely humble preferring casual conversation to press interviews and wanting to emphasize his co actors.
He also had a genuine love for Phil History and culture as evidenced by his Cinemalaya film “Ang Paglilitis Ni Andres Bonifacio” and innumerable performances as an actor in Tanghalang Pilipino. Andres Bonifacio is one of the revolutionary heroes of the Phil known as ‘The Great Plebian’, having come from the masses. Bonifacio is one of the original Filipinos considered to be among the ‘poor men who are great.’
Dolphy although not financially poor, was generous and kind to those in need and was also a picture of humility. He has reached the pinnacle of Philippine TV and film as comedy King with countless top rating shows and blockbusters. Yet he never forgot his humble beginnings. The filmmaker’s choice of having a screening and Kennosuke ‘humiliating’ himself by amusing others through a home movie was a source of embarrassment for Ryoichi. Now we love Dolphy for making millions of Filipinos happy with his innumerable comedic performances.
DILG Sec Robredo was a man of integrity. In spite of being the youngest Naga Mayor and gaining a high position in government as cabinet Secretary, he purposefully did not enrich himself. He believed and instigated programs to help and empower the marginalized. The question in everyone’s minds is ‘How can God allow the loss of such a good man especially when his country needs him?’
The answer is we Filipinos have become like Ryoichi. Our minds have been blinded only by what we see. Wealth, power and fame have become virtues in this material world. When the Lord took Yambot we did not listen. When the Lord took O’Hara suddenly still we did not listen or truly give honor to his deeds. We were saddened by Dolphy’s passing but still did not heed the example in his life. Now that he has taken Robredo, we reflect, we rethink our own values not just for government but for all of us. Now we have to listen to Robredo’s words and make sure to continue his programs. Yes Ryoichi, there are poor men who are great.