Don’t let the title fool you. Etiquette for Mistresses is so much more than the slew of mistress movies that have come out lately and I must say, one brilliant piece of filmmaking that carries a powerful message, not just for mistresses, wives, but for women from all walks of life and the men who love them.
It took several years, and multiple tries before this novel by acclaimed author Jullie Yap-Daza, originally published in 1993, was adapted to the screen, mainly because the initial attempts just didn’t seem right. It was a touchy subject, mistresses and infidelity, so much so in the Philippine setting, where extramarital affairs are looked upon with disgust and disdain. Finally, two decades after the original material was released, the proper timing came, along with the right studio (Star Cinema), the right director (Chito Rono) and screenwriters — to bring to the big screen this literary gem (which could not be found in bookstores nowadays. I had to go to a library to get my hand on a copy).
Etiquette for Mistresses is the story of five women — all different and powerful in their own rights, who manage to land themselves in the unfortunate role of querida or kabit, the #2 — the mistress in the lives of the men they have come to love. Cheena Crab plays Charley, the mistress of one of the richest businessmen in the country. She is not what one would expect of a mistress, but her facial structure holds an appeal that encourages good luck in trade. Kris Aquino is Georgina, a restaurateur who gets asked by her lover to teach a young mistress how to comport herself given her station. The mistress in question is Ina (Kim Chiu), a young singer from Cebu, who leaves her family behind based on a promise of true love given to her by the husband of one of the most powerful politicians in the country. There’s also Stella (Iza Calzado), a lawyer who is the secret mistress of a hard hitting newsman, and Chloe (Claudine Barretto), the most rebellious of the bunch, the nightmare mistress as one might say — who even years of being a mistress still does not understand the rudiments of the game.
Most people would think that Etiquette for Mistresses is a manual for mistresses. The title suggests as much, but looking deeper into the story, the rules reflect so much more. Its actually a deviation from the common depiction of mistresses as women who are forced to become paramours because of necessity. These five women in the movie embraced their roles as mistresses because they genuinely loved the men they were with. They were in the situation because of choice, and they have set the rules because they do not want to ruin their lovers’ families.
Now, loving someone is not license to excuse their choice to become mistresses, but the story depicts, in great detail what sacrifices they have to go through in order to not step over the line — the pain that they have to endure, knowing that they will never be the first in the lives of the men they love, which is a torture in itself.
Aside from the gentle unraveling of the story, there were brilliant scenes in the movie, and an equal distribution of highlight moments for all five members of the cast. Just as one would think that one of the cast members is being forgotten, there would suddenly be a scene for the books that tugs at the heartstrings and unleashes the waterworks, or just when one thinks that all is bleak, there would be a ray of hope at the end of the tunnel. Its a cinematic experience for the audience.
Not to be a spoiler but scenes of note are Kris Aquino’s confrontation with Claudine Barretto over the handling of Kim Chiu’s character; the scene where Kim was singing a Visayan song while playing her guitar — there were no subtitles to translate the meaning of the song but the emotion in which she sang it conveyed the depth of feeling, the sadness and the loneliness that these women shared at that particular moment that audiences will be moved as well; Chynna Crab, of course was there for comic relief but the way she stood up for her friends earned her major brownie points in the hearts of the viewers; Claudine Barretto — say what you will over her handling of her personal life (which is irrelevant in this review, btw) but this woman is an amazing actress. Her character was the bitch of the bunch but her portrayal, especially in her confrontation with Pilar Pilapil towards the end, just gives you the right amount of feels. Actually, she manages to steal the show in every scene that she’s in. She’s that good, and I’m glad she finally made her comeback with this type of quality movie. But by far, my favorite scene would have to be Iza Calzado’s one moment with her lover — because it was just so heartfelt and moving. I will not say more but it managed to convey love and hope, and despair. It was amazing brilliant.
In helming this movie, Direk Chito Rono was faced with the daunting task of balancing out a sensitive material with the sensitivity of the Filipino audience. This, aside from the fact that he had to direct an ensemble cast of talented actresses, and deliver a film that would do justice to the message of the book and cater to the requirements of the mainstream market. He did it successfully, and brilliantly. There was a fluidity to the film that delivered that balance and that commitment to quality. There was that respect for the material and the respect for the abilities of his actors. There was that genuine consideration to deliver the film’s message in a way that is not offensive but rather relateable — in the way that stays with the audience even after they have let the cinemas, in a way that gets them to think and analyze and view the movie objectively after their hearts have been ripped out for these women.
All in all, Etiquette for Mistresses’ brilliance lies in the blend of an empowering message that spans status and gender, and an execution that enables the message to pierce through the consciousness of the audience. EfM is not just a movie that glorifies mistresses. It is a story of genuine friendship, of sacrifice and inspiration, especially for the women — that they have the power to change their fates — that their destiny and happiness lies in their own hands, and while it may prove to be difficult, they have the power to take control of their lives — if they have the courage to do so.
Side Note: You may have noticed that I have used the word brilliant quite loosely in this post, but its just because the movie was indeed… you got it, brilliant! Here’s a sneak peek and if you haven’t seen it yet, go do it now.