The National Pastime – Directors 2: O’Hara/Gallaga

Major Bid

Bulaklak sa City Jail
Directed by Mario O’Hara
Written by Lualhati Bautista

Bulaklak sa City Jail is the last item in a series of outstanding outputs by the local movie industry in 1984. Among other things, three distinctions will be sure to secure for it at least a footnote in the history of contemporary Philippine cinema, in terms of the people involved in its production: it marks an auspicious debut for the Cherubim Films outfit, showcases Nora Aunor’s best performance for her comeback year, and signals the emergence of Mario O’Hara as a director whose command of craft has finally caught up with his conscience – an expectation which seemed to have been forgotten in the wake of similar successes by relatively more recent filmmakers. Audacious claims aside, the objective significance of Bulaklak sa City Jail resides in its depiction of a realistic social condition in high cineliterary style – an infusion that provides ample enough tension for most of the movie’s successful portions as well as diffusion of control in its less enlightening moments.

Print ad layout for Mario O’Hara’s Bulaklak sa City Jail (1984).

11011Bulaklak sa City Jail follows the searing odyssey of Angela, a pregnant victim of a miscarriage of justice, from her incarceration in the women’s section of an urban prison, through her escape and delivery of her love child in a city zoo, to her recapture and eventual legal triumph in obtaining custody of her baby. The city-jail sequences, which take up more than two-thirds of the film, provide the justification necessary for the above-mentioned declarations: here O’Hara creates a world self-contained in its observance of the perverse principles of dehumanization. Largely through a combination of a near-consummate grasp of technical elements as well as impressive performances derived from sound casting, the said sequences manage to build up to a workable microcosm of big-city savagery. So much so that once the movie’s concerns step out of the city-jail milieu, an imbalance ensues from an apparent confusion of purposes: if the aim were to establish prison life as a representation of everyday reality (as had been achieved in the film), then the device of re-establishing the same statement in the outside world has resulted in a redundancy; if, on the other hand, the city were intended to reflect and possibly amplify the conditions inherent in urban prisons, then the city-jail portions may be regarded as faulted by over-development. As earlier stressed, however, the portion of the film concentrated on the city-jail locale in itself makes possible the felicitous declaration of a qualitative adjustment in the capabilities of O’Hara.

11011So far the only pitfall he has stumbled into in Bulaklak sa City Jail appears to be the pursuit of a more grandiose design (the city as confirmation of the city-jail metaphor) at the expense of already established premises. For the excursion of Angela into big-city intrigues forces the film into a linear storytelling mode as the characterization of city-jail types is abandoned for plot twists; here the absurdities acceptable for enrichment of character begin to be called to account, and are transformed, in the context of conventionalized approaches, into glaring lapses of logic. Foremost among these is the total absence of outside support for any of the inmates. While this real-life improbability becomes necessary for the organization of the dramatic lines of force among the inmates, the artifice gets exposed once the Angela character is made to abandon the city-jail schema and the audience consequently realizes that the last jail victim she fought for before deciding to escape had connections powerful enough to influence court decisions – a consideration that makes their failure in releasing the victim-to-be too obvious to be ascribed to sheer negligence. A further inadequacy is evidenced in the stack-up of coincidences that lead to the dragnet and delivery sequences in the city zoo – admittedly the most impressive set-piece in the entire movie – although the question here is more of intention rather than method: why show the protagonist as trapped in a prison of murderous animals when the same point had already been driven home in, various degrees of effectiveness, in the city-jail and urban sojourns of the character? Here a less accidental development of action would probably have rendered the incident more satisfactory, unlike the forced (because false) wrap-up where Angela’s love child is presented to his godparents – who turn out to be the tragediennes of the city-jail portion: what were left behind by Angela as hopeless preys to the dog-eat-dog system of prison life turn out to be happy and whole after all, thereby contravening the already weak post-city-jail turn of events.

11011Although Bulaklak sa City Jail would ordinarily have been doomed by such compromises, the project does not appear to be as easily dismissible, saved as it is by a surface perfection never before seen in any Mario O’Hara movie. Previous exertions by the same director, if serious enough in purpose, tended to lapse into theatrical over-statement. Bulaklak sa City Jail indicates a readiness for maturation on the part of O’Hara, specifically in the combination of his willingness to handle big themes (which has always been his strong point) with the confidence of a veteran film craftsperson. Particularly noteworthy is his ability to create dramatic texture through the interrelation of character progressions (in the city-jail portion) and the use of ironic juxtapositions. Although these are virtues that should first be credited to the screenwriter, it may do observers well to keep in mind that O’Hara has written some of his own films’ scripts and has done even better ones for other directors. A continuing consciousness on his part of dramatic essentials will help distinguish him from the Johnnys-come-lately of so-called serious filmmaking, who in their less sober moments strive for flash without regard for illuminative sources.

11011With Bulaklak sa City Jail Mario O’Hara has begun his bid for major-league filmmaking. And at no sooner a time than the present: too long a period has elapsed since reviewers had such an opportunity to sharpen their critical faculties to be able to keep up with progressive artists who, by their long daring strides, set the pace for Philippine cinema.

[Submitted January 1985 to Tinig ng Plaridel; unpublished]

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O’Hara Strikes Again

Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak
Directed by Mario O’Hara
Written by Mario O’Hara and Frank Rivera

Mario O’Hara’s problem also happens to redound to the advantage of the sensible viewer. Either his films are worth sitting through from the beginning, or they warn you when a walkout is in order right from the start. Like his contemporaries when they were at or approaching their peak, O’Hara refuses to create any middle ground. Give any of his latest titles the benefit of a quarter hour or so, and you get assured that your money will be well-spent, or else you’re given the option of refusing a nonsensical product.

11011He also seems to have found the ideal level of balance between working on a moderate budget yet making the most out of his own storytelling and his performers’ histrionic potentials. Of particular interest over the years are his collaborations with Nora Aunor, and since his resumption of a directorial career during the 1980s, his batting average of roughly one well-made movie annually during the past four years places him on a par with no other local director except Peque Gallaga. For belligerence’s sake, I suppose one could list down the latter’s Virgin Forest and Scorpio Nights (both 1985), Unfaithful Wife (1986), and Once Upon a Time (1987), and on the other hand name Condemned and Bulaklak sa City Jail (both 1984), Bagong Hari (1986), and add Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak as O’Hara’s 1987 entry. Funny, as a final sidelight, how one happens to be identified with the art-for-art’s sake camp, while the other’s associated with the social-realism group – reflecting the earlier dichotomization between the public personae of Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka.

11011Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak isn’t exactly a movie one should rave about indiscriminately – let’s reserve that reaction for the first title that recalls the glory days of the early eighties. What Tatlong Ina does is provide a conventional good time (an irony for a film whose main characters are illegitimate kids, sex workers, and gangsters) – and it sure reflects tellingly on the state of the industry when a movie without any major ambition turns out to be in many ways the year’s best so far. The strange thing about Tatlong Ina, coming as it does from a filmmaker with a presumably progressive political orientation, is the property it shares with O’Hara’s other recent good films: happy endings. (Of instructive socio-psychological value would be a comparison between these and Gallaga’s serious efforts, which in contrast, except for Once Upon a Time, present tragic resolutions.) Although suffused with film noir stylizations, especially in an overabundance of shadows and equally shady characters, O’Hara films are entertaining to a degree that would definitely appall dogmatic proponents of social realism.

11011Never has his strategy become more obvious than in Tatlong Ina, where the happy ending finally ties in most satisfyingly with all the preceding developments. For all its realist imagery and subject matter, the movie is actually a proletariat’s fantasy – a wide-eyed daydream on how personal virtues operating within the proper social circumstances might just suffice in surmounting classic class conflicts. As further proof of Tatlong Ina’s political sophistication – or cleverness, depending upon your preference for the conventional – the proletarian heroes encounter opposition from not only the orthodox villains, the bourgeoisie, but also the so-called bad elements from whom they (the heroes) may initially be indistinguishable. The unlikely team of golden-hearted prostitutes and noble-minded bums subdue kid-snatchers and snobbish aristocrats through the use of force and charm respectively, with sexual attraction for each other and sympathy for a fallen comrade’s love child as motivating force.

11011The abstraction does sound ridiculous, and isn’t helped any by a series of coincidences that help propel the major characters toward ultimate victory. Only an artist’s strong convictions in the face of all this silliness could create a semblance of integrity through technical consistency. Which, luckily, O’Hara provides, by way of skills rooted in theater and well-hewn in cinema.

11011It wouldn’t be too pedantic then to maintain that Tatlong Ina, as typical of O’Hara at his best, is an effective accumulation of finely observed and captured incidents with above-average performances providing the crucial credibility factor. His storyteller’s sense of proportion fails him this time in only two instances, both of them admittedly minor in relation to the movie’s overall accomplishment. One is the use of the child as commentator, when her narrative functions at the start would have sufficed. Of course the expansion of the precocious Matet’s role fits in with her lead-star status, which in turn has served as the movie’s main come-on; but the problem of explaining real time – when, where, and why is she telling the story of her “mothers’” uphill struggles? – eventually emerges, and is never given even a perfunctory explanation. Secondly, and more seriously for the film’s narrative purposes, the story suddenly permutes into the standard (and, by now, quite kinky) Nora Aunor requisite of pairing off a mousy character with an extremely improbable mestizo-type; the fact that the Adonis in Tatlong Ina also happens to come from old-rich stock practically promises to be the movie’s undoing.

Nora Aunor, positioned between her usual fair-skinned male partner (Miguel Rodriguez) and her equally fair adoptive daughter (Matet de Leon) in Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak (1987).

11011To a certain extent this particular instance of indulgence is mitigated by O’Hara’s bravura staging of the most original wedding sequence since such endings recently became de rigueur once more in commercial romantic outings. To be sure, the mise-en-scène appears in this case to be simple enough; it is the working out of the various class reactions, specifically the reverse snobbery of the about-to-be-redeemed ex-prostitutes, that ensures that this wedding scene’s reliance less on pomp than on circumstance will make acceptable its appendage to the movie. The aforementioned reservations aside, Tatlong Ina can stake a short-term claim on memory, if only for its admirable exposition on the underworld milieu, comparable to the same director’s prison portion in his other Nora Aunor movie, Bulaklak sa City Jail. Tatlong Ina’s is more loosely structured, but then it covers a whole lot more territory, and as explained earlier, its upbeat ending fits the entire schema less awkwardly than does the earlier work. If this presages a cautious breaking away from the predictable and admittedly tiresome traditions of social relevance in moviemaking, then O’Hara’s next moves certainly merit closer attention.

[First published September 2, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Beyond the Stars

Oro, Plata, Mata
Directed by Peque Gallaga
Written by Jose Javier Reyes

Directed by Marilou Diaz-Abaya
Written by Ricardo Lee

Something in the stars could have facilitated an ascendency in Philippine film during the last third of last year, when a staggering array of quality productions shone within these shores and beyond. These luminous additions to the growing constellation of local splendor include Batch ’81, Mike de Leon’s entry to the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight; Cain at Abel, Lino Brocka’s successful entry to the San Sebastian Film Festival competition; Himala, Ishmael Bernal’s Metro Manila Film Festival and Catholic Mass Media Awards multi-winner and opening film of the Manila International Film Festival (MIFF); and Relasyon, another Bernal film which merited inclusion in the MIFF’s retrospective of outstanding Filipino films. The two most significant films of 1982, however, have little in common apart from their simultaneous release and subsequent inclusion in the MIFF competition. Yet both films – Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Moral and Peque Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata – lend themselves to related commentaries not so much because of the superiority of one to the other (as is almost always the case in comparative criticism) but by virtue of the lessons they impart on filmmaking which local practitioners and producers of the craft could profit from.

Maurice Claudio Luis Ruiz de Luzuriaga Gallaga (b. 1943), better known as Peque Gallaga.

11011Moral demonstrates how the Filipino filmmaker is capable of working within an industry suffering from economic and political constraints, while Oro, Plata, Mata reveals how this same (nationality-wise) filmmaker would be just as capable of fulfilling expectations accordant to a significant reduction of the abovementioned constraints. In fact, as may readily be gleaned from any casual overview of recent Philippine film history, Oro, Plata, Mata could never have been produced without the relatively limitless budget and minimal politicking ironically afforded by the very entity which has so far failed to accomplish the same for its region of responsibility, the local movie industry. Ethical reservations aside, Oro, Plata, Mata runs along the lines of a genuine spectacle, setting standards previously considered too firmamental for Filipino craftspeople. The movie’s triumph is mainly directorial in nature. Gallaga invests his first solo credit with some of the most impressive visual flourishes ever to appear in a local period film. On the basis of one scene alone – the exodus of an aristocratic household across conflagrant fields – his auspice as a major filmmaker has virtually been assured.

11011Gallaga’s achievement is made all the more remarkable when one considers the many limitations inherent in his material. The structure is chronological as far as succession of events is concerned. Although the title’s ternary constitution suggests a division of the story into three portions, the film itself moves through five distinct phases determined by the location of the action: the urban residence, the country estate, the forest sanctuary, the bandits’ hideout, and the urban residence again. To suggest that the first or the last portion acts as an introduction or recapitulation respectively would be forcing incompatible analogies form another medium: each portion advances from the previous one toward a panoramic design of the aristocracy’s decline, so that the last setting, though physically similar to the first, differs dramatically, among other respects.

11011Up to roughly the middle of the middle portion the film benefits from confident, if conventional, storytelling. Thence it introduces a conflict apparently intended to catalyze its thematic concerns. Herein figures the film’s weakest item, when the issue of divisiveness is raised on the foundation of disputatious class relations. The subsequent reappearance of the oppressed transformed into organized brutes capable of murdering members of their own class and kin further adds to the viewer’s discomfiture regarding the same characters’ psychological makeup and emotional motivations. To Gallaga’s credit, the film never flounders in the face of its shortcomings. His flair for venturesome visual delights may result in occasional narrative lapses (as in the disappearance of some characters and the appearance of others), but begs indulgence in the long run, if only for the consistently professional level of craft which he maintains. For this reason the movie’s climax, in which the newly primed lead character wipes out a whole band of bandits with the aid of a speech-impaired guerrilla, may have been considerably diluted in its efficacy by the confusion of conflicts, but nevertheless stands on its own as a showcase of virtuosic production, becoming more of a genre-within-a-film, if not an integral part of the whole.

Peque Gallaga orchestrating the opening party sequence (at that point the longest single take in local cinema) in Oro, Plata, Mata (1982).

11011All these merits notwithstanding, Oro, Plata, Mata, as earlier stressed, was created within an artificial setup. Its achievements therefore attest to the capability of serious artists working in an environment once removed from the present industry’s existent ills. For such gifted practitioners, potential embarrassments can be converted into audacities which may go well with some and poorly with others, but never sink to the depths of the dismissible. Moral, the other movie under consideration, anticipates Oro, Plata, Mata’s accomplishments by authenticating the aspirations of progressive artists in backward systems: that a major movie can be made from minor resources, so long as the parameters of human experience are effectively explored, exploited, and expanded. In this regard one may begin at the end by noting that various misimpressions have attended the critical reception to Moral. Perhaps the most serious is the charge that the film, dealing as it does with contemporary women’s problems, fails to furnish a serviceable scheme for feminism. As it turns out, Moral commences with a set of conflicts which intensify with each attempt at abatement, and concludes with the characters’ collective realization of the irresolvability of their respective situations.

11011To take the inevitability of such ambiguities as the film’s only intent, however, is to negate the transcendence it achieved in the course of characterization. Moral presents modern existence as a series of contradictions and endorses perseverance as a means of transforming unsatisfactory options into more viable, though not necessarily ideal, ones. Hence the undertone of melancholy at the film’s close – an acknowledgment that strength may have been found, yet compromise remains the order of the day. The film breaks off at precisely the juncture where the desperation of the situation meets the characters’ maturation as individuals. That the major ones happen to be women serves not only to unify the issues discussed therein but also to provide a multi-levelled mainspring of causalities.

11011Nevertheless what triggers off the conflicts in Moral is the contemporaneity of the situation more than the femininity of the characters: the junkie sleeps around as a denial of commitment, the singer allows herself to be exploited to compensate for her mediocrity, the housewife deserts her abusive husband to be able to demand time for herself. Even the ex-wife who remains devoted to her homosexual spouse attains an exceptional degree of civility only after a tragicomic encounter with her lover’s mistress. It is Moral’s refusal to polemicize that contributes to the heightening of the emotional dialectics in its approach to the conflicts it presents. The instance held by viewers of various political persuasions (unfortunately including the censors) as the sole exception becomes, upon closer inspection, a means by which the film’s basic beliefs are affirmed and upheld: for just as the female activist derives ennoblement from having to cope with the summary execution of her husband, so must the now-reformed junkie she lives with necessarily cope with her own exclusion from the personal and political involvements of the same man, whom she loves. In fact at this juncture the ex-junkie proves herself the moral equal of her true love’s wife by sharing, apart from material elements like money and shelter (which she would not care for, anyway), the latter’s grief for the loss of the man, now necessarily an ideal, that they live for.

11011All these perspicacities Diaz-Abaya makes palpable by supplying for the viewer a dense overlay of affective texture, primarily through ensemble performances and stratified editing. The combination, admixed with keen-witted wordplay, has resulted in a literacy of so high an order that it comes close to cleaving itself from the film’s visual values. Sometimes the strain of synthesizing the abstract with the medium manifests itself through a theatricality of execution; other times it becomes evident in excessive verbalization. But as in the instance of Oro, Plata, Mata, such violations of aesthetic conventions in Moral can be considered to have been controverted, this time by the subsistence of an intelligent benevolence which, as far as indigent filmmaking is concerned, should permit of a compensatory quantity of crudity. The ideal, of course, is to have the blessings which obtained in the making of Oro, Plata, Mata shower down on the rest of the local movie industry. No less estimable, however, would be the valiance of talent which works its way upward amid regressive propensities. Would that the benefits of the former apply to the fullness of the latter – if the powers beyond the stars allow.

[First published May 1 & 8, 1983, in Sunday Special]

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Searching For Options

Kid … Huwag Kang Susuko!
Directed by Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes
Written by Alfred Yuson

What Peque Gallaga hath wrought in the course of maintaining a stronghold in the beleaguered local industry is something that colleagues and observers alike may be too tired or antagonistic to admit: the distinction of having had the most impressive body of work by any single film director during the past half-decade. How he managed to sneak such an anathematizing achievement in the face of panicky producers and a disputatious community of artists should prove instructive to prospective film practitioners. The most obvious lesson can be drawn directly from the nature of his output. Gallaga is a true film-lover, in a manner that sets him apart from other major local directors who seem to regard the medium as incapable of artistic fulfillment on its own terms (thereby necessitating a fallback on “related” art forms such as theater, literature, even painting) – and that may even account for the oversight of his peers to his accomplishments after his debut. Not one bothered to formally accord Virgin Forest with its objective stature of clear superiority (as will be immediately evident in successive viewings) to Oro, Plata, Mata, although the critics’ group conceded a few technical awards to Scorpio Nights, a lesser achievement, during the same year. His Unfaithful Wife managed to get away with a far more decent treatment last year, but on the understanding that the competition wasn’t as tough as it normally should be.

11011Gallaga’s strategy is, at least so far, to take on each and every challenge to work within a popular genre that comes his way. So after the epic feat (and equally epic financial loss) of Oro, Plata, Mata, he has tried his hand at comedy (Bad Bananas sa Puting Tabing), historical drama (Virgin Forest), softcore (Scorpio Nights), melodrama (Unfaithful Wife), fantasy (Once Upon a Time), and action (Kid … Huwag Kang Susuko!), with a little muscle-flexing in horror (“Manananggal” segment in Shake, Rattle and Roll). But just as his strength lies in his infatuation with the medium to the point where he refuses to shy away from material that other directors with claims to self-respect would never be caught dabbling in, so does his weakness emanate from the movie whiz-kid destiny of having to apply the expected perspective to filmmaking. Not only should the result be exuberant, as befits a true aficionado’s inspiration; it should also be careful not to take itself too seriously. Hence witness the disappointments of Hollywood samples like Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple or Francis Ford Coppola’s later works. The same principle operates for Bad Bananas, “Manananggal,” and, sad to say, most glaringly in Gallaga’s latest, Kid … Huwag Kang Susuko!

11011The problem with Kid in this regard is more a miscalculation than a failure of sensibility. Unlike the case of Once Upon a Time, to cite a precedent, the genre of martial-arts films is too specific in appeal and has been done to death besides, literally sometimes. Where a fantasy can be harnessed to serious commentary with relatively little risk of losing the charm inherent in fancifulness and special effects, a karate movie tends to convey a tiresome impression of easy-way-out exoticism due to the mystifying origins of Oriental self-defense systems. At this point there are no two ways within the possible alternatives: either you pursue the fabular extreme which the system’s premise leads to (the way King Hu has succeeded in doing), or you simply relax and have fun with the genre – even at its expense, for a change.

11011Those who saw Kid were instead served a hybrid that was inflated beyond the limits the genre was capable of sustaining – too complex for the escapist viewer to appreciate, too self-conscious for the reluctant serious film enthusiast, who would welcome a little working-over of a type of movie that had already proved good business for its investors elsewhere anyway, and for far less effort at that. No wonder the villain turns out to be the most interesting detail in Kid – not being made to explain where he stands or comes from, he fits in either the mythological mode or the comic-strip treatment the movie could have appropriated. The rest of the dramatis personae are burdened with tragic notions that don’t sit well at all with the mundane nature of their circumstances, in the process misrepresenting the reality of their positions and our understanding of the dynamics of social forces. The predicament resembles that of Unfaithful Wife, although when we come around to basic sources, melodrama could presumably afford such quirks of character and convolutions of plot which are its staples to begin with.

11011As for Peque Gallaga, the options also happen to lie in two directions: either he can return to the genres he failed or triumphed in to be able to redeem his efforts in the first case or outdo himself in the second; or he can conduct an inquiry into possible film genres to combine, using the lessons gained from handling the individual ones. Not only would the latter option play on the desperation of today’s film producers – it would also open up for Gallaga, as for everyone else, newer possibilities in film discourse and presentation. Here’s to the last of kowtowing to forms that never were indigenous, much less valid, in the first place. Kid, huwag kang susuko.

[First published August 19, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Film as God

Isang Araw Walang Diyos
Directed by Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes
Written by Don Escudero, Peque Gallaga, and Lore Reyes

After Lino Brocka, Peque Gallaga could be the only other major Filipino filmmaker ready to regain his pre-1986 people-power status. For all their ideological polarities, both have several things in common: they opted to buck a more highly commercialized system, release their artistic “comebacks” at about the same time, and may have been cautious enough for their own good, but too cautious in fact for the final worth of their projects so far. Brocka’s Macho Dancer would be the operative example in this instance, with the promise of more unqualified triumph in Orapronobis, plus a by-now irrefutable track record in crowd-drawing melodramas. In Gallaga’s case, Isang Araw Walang Diyos recalls his astounding early breakthroughs, particularly with Oro, Plata, Mata and Virgin Forest; at the same time he has virtually monopolized the horror-filmmaking genre (a territory once held, albeit with a more psychoanalytic bent, by Brocka’s international-circuit confrere, Mike de Leon). Macho Dancer and Isang Araw also exhibit the strengths as well as the weaknesses of their directors’ dabblings in the film formulae that they have become associated with.

11011Nevertheless, both titles remain the year’s outstanding outputs so far, and may be taken to reflect the serous local filmmaker’s conscious attempt to break free of commercialist expectations while at the same time refusing to alienate the audience he or she has developed. The artistry of the works themselves has become the dispensable factor for the meanwhile – and so the definitive confirmation that the best moments of the pre-revolutionary era have returned will have to be embodied by a forthcoming movie, very likely by Brocka and/or Gallaga. It may be as near in the future as the still-to-be-released Orapronobis, or as far away as, goddess forbid, the past. Isang Araw has done a lot to raise this expectation. It is more ambitious and cohesive than Macho Dancer, so inveterate optimists could only hope that the next major Filipino movie would sustain the progression. As it has turned out, advanced reactions to Orapronobis tend to stoke whatever ember of excitement has remained in anyone’s observation of Philippine cinema. More excitingly, Isang Araw and the forthcoming Brocka oeuvre deal with the same subject matter of right-wing rural vigilantism. The prospect of undergoing extremely emotional ideological debates presented in highly accomplished artistic forms is too good to be true, especially after an overly extended fallow period. What a way to end the decade, and usher in the next one!

Richard Gomez and Alice Dixson, as soldier and civilian conjoining their alliance against paramilitary vigilantes, in Peque Gallaga & Lore Reyes’s Isang Araw Walang Diyos (1989).

11011Political themes in Philippine movies have seen rough sailing since the 1986 storm. Isang Araw proves what the success of politicized comedies and the failure of films on rebel lives and the US bases have been suggesting so far: that the shift in political systems necessitates a change, if not an advancement, in moviemaking sensibilities. Where the Marcos regime may have made us cynical, unfeeling even, about politics, the current democratic spirit requires a passion for ideological discussion. Hence people would rather watch seemingly frivolous comedies and melodramas and the now practically dormant countryside-circuit sex films, in which issues of human relationships are pursued with some form of fervor, rather than the heavy-handed treatments of more identifiably political topics (some of which had been saved only by the generous infusion of the generic elements of action movies). In the process the movie-going masses have been accused, unfairly now it appears, of having been miseducated by producers, exploited by the political system, or incapable of simply remembering a three-year-old glory; and except for the last, the charges may even be true.

11011Isang Araw’s financial performance typifies the confusion. The producer claims that it has lost money, while its filmmakers allege that, as per holdover evidence and distributors’ reports, the number of metropolitan residents who went to watch it would suffice to encourage similar other ventures and, more important, upgrade our assessment of the public’s visual literacy. Another irrelevant point centers on the exact contributions of the directorial tandem that appears on the movie’s credits: rather than be drawn into the worst aspects of authorship controversies, why not abide by the obvious facts that one of the filmmakers has been at it since the mid-1970s, and that the work under discussion, as already described, evokes parallels with the best of his other output? Flippant as the justification may be (but essential to moving forward to more salient matters regarding Isang Araw), this ought to facilitate our consideration of the movie as the latest of Gallaga’s, just as it remains the later of Lore Reyes’s. Moreover, Isang Araw demonstrates a stylistic maturity that Gallaga, for all his early expertise, had been able to simulate only through a recourse to culturally alienating devices. In short, where Oro, Plata, Mata got by on a strong dose of kinkiness and Virgin Forest on a preoccupation with ponderousness, Isang Araw derives its strength from its filmmaker’s incursions into the horrific, through which he has been able to draw out suspense from familiar or even hackneyed imagery – a method more in keeping with the temperament of local audiences.

11011This is of course not the same as saying that Gallaga’s mise-en-scène in Isang Araw is familiar or hackneyed per se. The measure of his capabilities, which has remained unmatched so far in the general course of the decade since his emergence (en solo with Oro, Plata, Mata), lies now in his skill in transforming everyday details, through bold cinematographic realignment, into sometimes shocking, almost always disturbing filmic realizations. This contrasts gladly with his old penchant for devising highly imaginative visuals from material that, for all practical purposes, has been nonexistent for at least some time. In a literal sense this may be taken to refer to the fact that Oro, Plata, Mata and Virgin Forest are both period films, but it may also explain the subtlety of the former’s surrealism and the latter’s symbolisms in Isang Araw. In fact, if we were to force a hierarchy among Gallaga’s works, Isang Araw will have to count somewhere after Virgin Forest, but probably before or alongside Oro, Plata, Mata. And here is where the movie’s complications begin. Isang Araw is such a wonderfully executed series of shots that, like Oro, Plata, Mata, have more regard for their individual content than for their interrelationships. Where Virgin Forest ultimately abandons even a daring dramatic premise – a solution unsatisfactory in itself – to perfect the resolution of archetypes (Indio and Ilustrado, with Inang Bayan cohabiting with both) caught up in the whirlwind of history (Aguinaldo’s betrayal by his own compatriots), Isang Araw presents a similarly provocative admixture of icons, celebrates the combination … and ends therewith.

11011The raw material is once more history, and more accessible because of its recency. The military is drawn into protecting the rights of civilians and the religious (though it perceives the latter as left-leaning), with the media providing a crucial amount of support; the antagonist is represented by the leader of a personality cult whose fanaticism assumes religious proportions (and who, as if to assist the literalist, employs the V-for-victory sign). At least once in Philippine national experience was such a situation both valid and vital, and the more sophisticated objectors to the movie would probably choose to dwell on the first three words of this sentences; less sophisticated objectors to this line of argument might take the cue from the choice of song, “Yellow Submarine,” that the protagonists use to drown out (pun incidental) their enemies’ sacrilegious hymn-singing. The celebration of people power circa 1986, as embodied in Isang Araw, raises relatively minor thematic difficulties in the work itself. “Yellow Submarine,” for example, may be a more significant pop-music item than “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” but its psychedelic content preempts the emotional streamlining that enabled the latter to slip into local pop culture right after the 1983 assassination of Benigno S. Aquino Jr. But the logic of Isang Araw’s makers may be more astute that this concedes. “Yellow Submarine,” by being more specific than “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” implies both the reliance on colonialism and the simplification of issues that actually characterized the popular anti-dictatorship movement then.

11011More serious charges could be raised on the aspect of the movie’s regard for history. Many things have happened since February 1986, and no less dramatic (though no more spectacular) than the ouster of a dictator. Most pertinent of these developments is the dissolution of the multi-sectoral alliance that had proved capable of challenging Ferdinand Marcos in the first place. No way could Isang Araw claim to being anything beyond a tribute to people power, unless it had been careful or thorough enough to at least suggest the instability of the union among civilians, military, religious, and media practitioners on the one hand, and on the other the longevity (so far) of Marcos and his mystique. Yet it can also be maintained that this was the manner in which the artist preferred to exercise his prerogative in interpreting reality: simplicity as the glory of expression – the joy in the fact that the alliance once existed matters more than the pain in its perhaps permanent termination. Another artist (Brocka?) might choose to focus on the handwriting on the wall, and if I may reiterate an always-important principle, the more viewpoints the merrier. Which brings us back full circle to Isang Araw.

11011The movie in particular, and Gallaga in general, hark back to the tradition of film-loving filmmakers whose passion for cinema has moved them in the direction of distilling the properties of the medium and upholding these as an ideal even while wallowing in the depths of crass commercial practice. The so-called film-operas of post-neorealist Italian practitioners would be better examples than the most desperate moments of the Hollywood brats, since the exercise seems to require an instinctive approach that formal film study and training tends to stultify. Film as experience, rather than as entertainment, could serve as keywords here, although the end result – film as a commodity to be savored – has tended to blur the distinction, as reflected in recent theoretical propositions. This makes most of Gallaga’s major films, Isang Araw included, a sensualist’s delight and incidentally a classicist’s nightmare. Given the option between developing his dramaturgy and heightening his audiovisual effects, he has tended to go for the latter, but only to the extent of attempting to overwhelm the competition while maintaining good standing with the arbiters of taste. In effect, this requires an acquiescence to the current sacred-cow status of social relevance, and so all of Gallaga’s epics – from Oro, Plata, Mata through Virgin Forest to Isang Araw – have been as politicized as they come.

11011There are two consequences to this kind of approach. One is that it’s too reactive to facilitate a full appreciation of the man’s capabilities. Within the existing system it makes him appear quixotic in wanting the best of both extremes, reluctant to stake his claim as truly qualified conqueror in the devil-may-care territory explored (though ravaged may be more accurate) by Celso Ad. Castillo, at the same time neglecting his own flair for fashioning a strong solid tale using more modest resources, as he had demonstrated with Scorpio Nights and Tiyanak. In the end what happens is that the project’s concerns are magnified out of all proportion to their human dimensions. In Isang Araw, to be specific, such everyday virtues as friendship and professionalism are converted into grand emotions, while rationality and heroism become subjects for Greek-tragic treatment, whereas all that one really sees onscreen is a bunch of fair-to-middling lead performers who barely have an understanding of what their roles, much less their interrelationships, are about.

11011In the singular instance where a sense of dramatic purpose has prevailed, the movie works with a power nearly beyond articulation. Since no heartthrob would ever dream of portraying or even suggesting a Marcos-based character, much less a loyalist, the filmmaker was apparently able to cast and direct the antagonists’ camp with a perspicacity that could only hint at the project’s greater potential. Foremost among these is the player of the Marcos figure himself, Tito Arevalo (musical scorer of Gallaga’s first directorial credit Binhi), who brings to the role of a power-mad despot a beatific countenance that provides ironic contrast between character and actor. The people-power performers in this regard win in the plot but lose by default. The irony in their presence, where present, is always either incidental or unnecessary – especially when the love team enacts a protracted process of courtship and sexual surrender more in keeping with Scorpio Nights than a siege narrative. The other, younger actors don’t even have the benefit of such histrionic modulations. Mostly they look and act like refugees from Tiyanak, where the strategy of making mediocre talents play second fiddle to environmentalist issues and special effects could function because of the reduction in expectations. In Isang Araw the broader canvas merely serves to blow up these sentimentalisms and paroxysms to intolerable levels, and the horrors-of-war undertone may have been better served had the wondrously effective underage killer dispensed with his drugs and dispatched his contemporaries instead.

11011This may seem like so much petulance, but what does one make of a climactic showdown brought about by an escape aborted because of the need to save each and every surviving star-portrayed character? Much has also been made of the escape vehicle running backward as a metaphor for the country (or, as this review would have it, the revolution’s survivors), but nothing has been raised so far about the choice of driver: the media practitioner, who devised the plan to resuscitate the vehicle and drive the alliance to a new, still uncertain destination, had to forgo his regret over the loss of his story in order to excel in this voluntary assignment. The ambiguity applies to Gallaga and his colleagues. A better job lies in priorities that tend to exclude artistic supremacy, especially, and exceptionally, during a period of crisis. The days of godlessness over, couldn’t there be room for both rally driving and TV reporting? Isang Araw marks a conscious step forward in the Filipinization of the country’s only major “pure-film” director. So to reformulate the question, could we anticipate the day when both medium and material share unconditional mastery over the minions of mediocrity? At the moment, and in the particulars as presented, only Gallaga will tell.

[First published September 1989 in Philippines Communication Journal]

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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