A bit of a disappointment after last year’s excellent “Bwakaw,” Filipino writer-director Jun Robles Lana’s “Barber’s Tales” is a solid enough but less inspired rural character study set amid the political turmoil of Ferdinand Marcos’ second presidential term. Eugene Domingo goes the stoic-suffering route as a grieving barber’s widow pulled into helping rebel forces even as she gets equally unexpected entree to the mayor’s home. While handled with restraint, the pic teeters into more familiar melodramatic territory than “Bwakaw” did, which may translate into better B.O. returns at home but also less international visibility.
Marilou (Domingo) is treated more like a servant than a spouse by husband Jose (Daniel Fernando); childless since the death of their only offspring years ago, they’re a cheerless couple. When Jose abruptly dies in his sleep, Marilou assumes she’ll have to move to a city and become a housemaid. But the kindly local priest (“Bwakaw” lead Eddie Garcia, basically doing an extended cameo) encourages her to keep the barbershop open using the skills her husband had taught her (albeit solely to cut his own hair). She turns out to be quite gifted with the shears, and the region’s wealthy mayor (Noni Buencamino) soon leads her list of clients, despite initial grumblings that “no one trusts a lady barber.”
Though wanting only to live a quiet life, Marilou soon finds herself caught between two conflicting sides. First godson Edmond (Nicco Manalo), who’s supposedly on vacation from university but in fact has been up to something very different, asks her to hide a wounded fellow rebel, then to let other local insurrectionists hold secret meetings at her shop. She’s also disconcertingly befriended by Cecilia (Iza Calzado), the mayor’s beautiful but unhappy wife. The mayor has been generous to Marilou, but she discovers a different side to his character from this needy, abused spouse.
Inevitably, a crisis forces Marilou to choose one side and burn her bridge to the other. While reasonably engaging (if too leisurely in pace), the script’s developments are nearly all so conspicuously telegraphed that there’s little real suspense to a story that should often be nail-bitingly tense. (After all, anyone found in league with the anti-Marcos rebels is likely to be tortured and/or killed.) Even the few relatively unpredictable turns — notably an “I am Spartacus” moment toward the end, and a fade offering multiple possible futures for our heroine — should resonate more than they do.
Doing a 180 from her self-parodying, widely exported previous turn in 2011’s “The Woman in the Septic Tank,” Domingo drabs down effectively but tends to hit the same doleful note throughout. Supporting players are solid, apart from weak link Calzado, who, like a silent film diva, casts her eyes mistily heavenward whenever called upon to express a serious emotion.
This second in Lana’s planned trilogy about rural village life is competently packaged, although a little more visual panache wouldn’t have hurt.