The National Pastime – Genre: Melodrama

Return of the Melodrama

Kung Aagawin Mo ang Lahat sa Akin
Directed by Eddie Garcia
Written by Jose Javier Reyes and Gina Marissa Tagasa

If we were a little more conscientious and a lot less snooty about our film history, we would be able to draw out helpful lessons on how a community of film artists manages to acquire an acceptable level of competence within certain filmmaking genres. The corollary would prove even more significant: the movie-going masses necessarily develop a taste for quality or at least a tolerance for intelligent dramatic discussion, and the process by which this is brought about should provide invaluable insights beyond the realm of aesthetics. Those who slummed around a great deal in movie-houses during the last two decades will agree with me that the late 1960s had an abundance of above-average Pinoy Western (or koboy) movies; the mid-seventies, a wealth of alternative-style attempts; and the early eighties, a series of inspired gangster films, bringing us full circle to the early sixties coming-of-age of the genre with the antics of the now-antiquated Lo’-Waist Gang. Those with predispositions toward academic complications will even be able to point out three related observations: First, koboy movies were the same gangster movies masquerading under another form to evade the expansion of censorship powers during that period. Second, the last decade’s experimentation may have been brought about by the challenge of a cultural breakaway resulting from the declaration of a new society by the past regime. And lastly, the resurgence of gangsterism onscreen would be indicative of the movie system’s longing for an age of innocence after the disillusion effected by the militarization of the censors body.

So it’s a new era all over again, but this time local moviemakers are treading the path of filmic progress too carefully, so much so that they have reverted to an even more ancient convention in movie presentation – the melodrama, which, from the available evidence, reigned supreme during the fifties. On the other hand, the generic elements of Pinoy melodrama circa the mid-eighties are being refined to the point where, save for a few exceptions (offhand I could name only one, Gregorio Fernandez’s Malvarosa), the current crop of such movies has already surpassed its 1950s counterparts. If the present trend develops further, and if this trend gets reflected in reality (in fact our political experience is already beginning to exhibit the same plot twists and character reversals typical of high melodrama), then the period after last year’s revolt may yet be known as an extended season of melodrama.

Kung Aagawin Mo ang Lahat sa Akin would be a representative sample; a more accurate rendering would be the same statement, but with the title replace by “the typical Viva movie.” Granting the limitations inherent in generic formats, particularly the ones that get in the way of thematic and character development, one should grant that no other outfit does it better than Viva Films. One could name a number of relatively superior works – Laurice Guillen’s Kung Mahawi Man ang Ulap and Maryo J. de los Reyes’s Saan Darating ang Umaga?, to name a couple – but this kind of hairsplit distinction would be tantamount to much ado about something that doesn’t deserve too much fuss in the first place. To be pedantic about it anyway, I’d rank Kung Aagawin director Eddie Garcia’s Sinasamba Kita somewhere above this confection; for additional controversy, I’d say he’s improved a lot, artisanship-wise, since Atsay. At least Kung Aagawin progresses from an awful opening to a less offensive conclusion, although a final concession to unqualified happy-ending requisites (the heroine meets her Prince Charming in the most unlikely location) has been appended, as if pleading to more critical observers not to be carried away by preceding achievements.

The only trouble with melodrama, compared with the other genres mentioned so far, is that it could become reactionary to the point of giving anti-hero characters a most difficult time. In Kung Aagawin, the only liberated character, the heroine’s natural sister, is saddled with Electra-complex motivations and an unbelievably moralistic comeuppance. That snide aside, I suppose one could let down one’s defenses for a genuinely unproductive but perversely engaging outing with this piece of, er, pastry? Next shouting match, please.

[First published March 18, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Mellow Drama

Paano Kung Wala Ka Na
Directed by Mel Chionglo
Written by Ricardo Lee

Reviewing early this year a movie titled Kung Aagawin Mo ang Lahat sa Akin, I recall having given the much-maligned genre of melodrama more potential than most critics were willing to concede. Just to give you an idea of how ivory-tower snobbish mainstream film observation can get, what I’d written was tantamount to saying that melodrama could achieve its intention to entertain without being downright insulting. Maybe it was because the film under discussion then happened to have flowed out of the run-of-the-mill melodrama-maker, which in these shores can only be equated with a singular production outfit: Viva Films. Well, I had some quibbles then about the title being reviewed, and the only constant reaction I’ve had to Viva melodramas hadn’t differed before and hasn’t differed since. Somehow, somewhere, something just doesn’t work out, usually in terms of story development, internal logic, or characterization – or what the academically inclined would call the classical values in narrative craft.

This time we’ve just had another output that contains all the elements of the melodrama we’ve come to be suspicious, if not intolerant, about. Happily, for the purposes of my thesis, the film works in several crucial areas, except maybe for the fact that it wasn’t produced by the company I was hoping would be able to perfect the form. Paano Kung Wala Ka Na has a beginning and ending that are unmistakably happy, unless you’re one of the few misanthropes around who denies the celebratory tone commonly associated with partying. All the main characters are unmitigatedly and unforgivably rich, and by that token could pass for being beautiful; the fact that they are physically so increases their distance from us lesser mortals.

They enjoy the luxury of playing at love, though not as intricately as the old French romantic comedies could depict it, but then who among our audiences have been exposed to this tradition, much less understand French? When these characters cry their hearts out, which at the most occurs roughly every other scene, only the heartless can resist agreeing that such perfect specimens don’t deserve such cruelties of fate. Even the hoariest convention in contemporary romantic works – the Lovers’ Interlude, a meaningless montage of a young couple having their fill of life (to the tune of the movie’s theme, for which reason blame MTV) – can be considered herein a mere irritant, a distraction if you will, justifiable only in the sense that the film’s plot complexities could use some breathing space. The best part of all, the one aspect which local melodrama, for some strange reason, finds difficulty in presenting, is the fact that all the characters are as it were given equal time – not in the literal sense, but according to a great classicist’s dictum that everyone, most especially a character in a well-told story, has her reasons for acting (the dramatic, not the histrionic sense) the way she does.

In Paano Kung Wala Ka Na this realization is pursued through a clever ploy. In the guise of allowing the marital problems of elderly couples to reflect on their young, the movie proceeds to develop the oldies’ stories into a finely woven tapestry held taut by a commanding sense of irony. The fact that the young ones’ love triangle inadvertently reverts to a disconnecting triteness is one way in which truly creative film artists could subvert conventions while seeming to indulge in them. In this sense Paano Kung Wala Ka Na could still be considered at best a transitory milestone, whose final goal would be a product that manages to discuss the problems of the elderly according to updated notions of morality, without having to resort to young stars seemingly being taken seriously for understandable (though not always acceptable) box-office reasons. More important, it points the way for current state-of-the-craft melodrama-making: that twists and reversals associable with the genre are best employed in the service of humane characterization rather than the plot complications that typify current approaches. I’m sure someday someone will castigate Paano for making all melodrama characters predictably likeable, but for the moment such a device is innovative enough, and therefore desirable in itself.

The film’s director-writer team-up (Mel Chionglo and Ricardo Lee respectively) has had some even more commendable output before, including Playgirl and Bomba Arienda, plus what I consider one of the most underrated movies of the current decade, Sinner or Saint. What an assuring development to realize that their decision to play around with current conventions of commercialism has provided them with invaluable skills and insights into that kind of challenge, and some sensible entertainment for the viewing public as well.

[First published October 14, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Failed-Safe

Walang Karugtong ang Nakaraan
Directed by Leroy Salvador
Written by Rene O. Villanueva and Raquel N. Villavicencio

A season of blockbusters they called it, with not one or two, but three or four mega-stars (Fernando Poe Jr., Dolphy, Sharon Cuneta, and possibly Christopher de Leon) vying for box-office supremacy: a Christmas film festival ahead of schedule, as certain drumbeaters alleged. As to the potential for good cheer – well, three satisfied producers out of an industry patronized by millions couldn’t be too bad a statistic; even a savage yearend typhoon could cancel school and office activities but never (and only in the Philippines, I’ll bet) the opening-day movie-going ritual. There must have been a whole lot of head-scratching among audiences who valued their money. All three movie projects were komiks-sourced one way or the other: the Dolphy and Sharon entries were adaptations actually, while FPJ’s involved a komiks writer outright, the better perhaps to save on expenses for purchase of copyrights.

I went for what I thought would have been the choice of those who’d have been aware of the said ritual but wouldn’t have the most ideal option of rejecting it altogether. Walang Karugtong ang Nakaraan had two sensible writers working on a relatively acceptable komiks story, plus some promising thespic talents. And all right, I confess I was lured as well by the prospect of discovering Sharon Cuneta’s breakout movie as a serious actress, having sensed a qualitative difference in her capabilities since her last two or three projects. Alas, I was to lose out in most every way, save for some minor observation or two about the current state of melodrama moviemaking. First lies on the creative level of story formation: that is, a plot can be made too agreeable for its own good. The characters in Walang Karugtong ang Nakaraan spend practically all their screen time tying up preceding developments and foreshadowing future ones, and for the genre in which they function, that amounts to a near-impossible task. To the characters’ credit they succeed admirably, especially in the crucial instance where the lead male explains to the lead female that he never noticed her virginity because he was too obsessed with his late wife.

On the other hand, the price paid for such a full-safe method is twofold: first, the essential logic behind melodramatic developments – that of keeping the viewer from knowing what comes next – loses its raison d’être, since in this case the viewer tends to rely on the characters to figure out for her benefit why something has happened and what next could transpire. Bad melodrama of course does nothing except confuse in this regard, but Walang Karugtong proves that the solution lies between minimizing the confusion and sustaining the unpredictability, rather than providing all of one at the exclusion of the other. A more serious consequence, particularly for the movie under discussion, is that the characters become so able in defending themselves that they all turn out similarly wholesome. Once more, as I’ve pointed out earlier (than this review, in fact), better this sort of approach than the usual fallback of stereotyping. But best of all to find ourselves full circle in upholding the primacy of social and psychological imperatives as these impinge upon our self-conceived notions of goodness.

A tall order, you might say, for a not-as-ambitious undertaking as Walang Karugtong, and I have to agree. The other minor comment would be more in the direction of such an assembly-line product. I refer here to the use of original sound in the film, which simply means that in some instances, the filmmakers opted for the field recording of the actors’ delivery instead of dubbing in their voices in the sound studio. In the case of such artifice-laden performers as Christopher de Leon, Carmi Martin, and Tommy Abuel, this works out just fine. As might be expected, however, the use of the technique is downright haphazard, relying it seems more on whether the field recording could cut down on post-production expenses rather than capture what has come to be called “original emotion.” As a result, the actors in Walang Karugtong enjoy some moments of histrionic credibility, aided in no small measure by the replay of their voices during their on-location performances. Other times the self-consciousness that the sound studio promotes comes through, and we get to thinking if the past is really as disjointed as the title maintains. Indeed, Walang Karugtong ang Nakaraan, and so much for advanced Yuletide treats.

[First published December 16, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Reversals

Misis Mo, Misis Ko
Directed by Carlos Siguion-Reyna
Written by Bibeth Orteza

The best local motion picture debut since Chito Roño’s Private Show two years back also happens to be Viva Films’ best output so far. Now that his uneasy business of declarations has been done with, a qualification is in order. Misis Mo, Misis Ko, for all its inevitable association with its production outfit, is far from being a melodrama. From this observation does the movie derive its strong points, which are considerable, and its weaknesses, which deserve further qualifications. It would be easy to commend Misis Mo for not doing the things we’ve come to expect of Viva Films, not to mention local cinema. The countless plot twists and the over-scaled production values are two items in particular that are mercifully spared the sensible viewer. But it would be unfair for both the filmmakers as well as concerned film observers to admire the work for merely being daring enough to run counter to expectations; if so, Misis Mo would have been in all probability pretty boring, conditioned as we’ve been to the visceral and emotional excesses of local cinema.

Actually Misis Mo creates an impact that could best be served by re-viewing or by post-viewing discussion, rather than by the very act itself of viewing. Only after the last plot point, a genuinely affecting coda where two couples at odds with each other meet again after a few years, does the realization occur that the entire foregoing body of development was intended as a comedy of manners. Sure, the humorous moments were all there all right, but roughly in the same proportion that may be found in typical melodramas. What’s problematic in Misis Mo is the amount of dead space relative to the absence of laughs – and by this I don’t mean the belly-natured slapstick-cum-witticisms that we’re treated to on the surface. Misis Mo is the sort of work that relies in the main on the credibility of its performers’ functions and interactions; you could probably dispense with the premise of a filmic reality and still come up with an acceptable work – which in fact is what the French court dramatists, by force of circumstance (film hadn’t been invented yet), had managed to do. The fact that the filmmakers correctly decided to emphasize close-ups demonstrates this point all the more clearly. It’s a measure of how accomplished all the other elements in Misis Mo are when one makes a statement to the effect that none of the four leads delivers satisfactorily, although all of them meet the level of competence required by melodrama.

This is where I think the movie embodies a uniquely medium-based tension. Apparently someone forgot to tell the actors that although they were in a Viva production, the project itself required something far different from Viva acting. All throughout the characters do mostly mugging of the mannered sort, but don’t get me wrong here – this approach could excel given the appropriate kind of vehicle, which unfortunately Misis Mo doesn’t happen to be. Among the four leads the relatively minor roles of the underprivileged couple are easier to take. Ricky Davao falls back on well-honed technique, while Jackie Lou Blanco works well precisely when she doesn’t try to, which is about half, the first half in fact, of the time; the other half she goes into a tremulous hard-edged whine that would normally pass off as melodramatic intensity, except that such an approach constitutes a misreading of character in this case. The rich kids, for their part, are completely off in their attack: Edu Manzano plays for glamour without comic reserve, while Dina Bonnevie is merely haughty where she has to be snooty. Such subtleties may be dispensed with in traditional melodrama, where the sheer narrative momentum helps cover up and in many cases even negate such lapses, but never in drama of a sophisticated order, to which Misis Mo comes admirably close. For this reason any foil-player with the correct balance of intellectual distance and emotional involvement can upstage any of the above – which is precisely what Jacklyn Jose, for all her prior restraint, does in her highlight of a confession to Manzano.

I’ve already mentioned the well-advised use of close-ups in relation to how it exposed the movie’s less-than-adequate histrionic properties. One other technique has to be discussed as well: the filmmakers’ awareness of the so-called mirror potentials of their medium, in which it could be allowed to comment on itself by self-referential devices. In Misis Mo this is facilitated by setting the couples in an audiovisual profession, where they encounter both creative personnel and final creations, and do some creating themselves; this echoes the scriptwriter’s first effort in Lino Brocka’s Palipat-Lipat, Papalit-Palit, but this time there’s a conscious effort to provide contrast and suggestion (too much of the latter, though). Again a more filmically alert ensemble would have found ways to maximize this contribution by intelligent interaction with their environment – but then, of course, they would still have to surmount the problem of presenting themselves and relating with one another to begin with.

This last feature, the movie’s throwback to the mirror-construction propositions in recent film theory, shows the benefits obtainable in formal film study and training. The ability to draw out appropriate responses from otherwise capable actors is something that comes from life in the round, but considering the dire need for new and well-informed talents in the industry, what we’ve got in Misis Mo will do. I might have a whole lot more points to raise about the movie’s ideational orientations – its notions about women, for instance – but I’ll be the first to admit to the subjectivity of my motives here; besides, conflicts between the sexes date back to antiquity and still have to be resolved with finality anyway. What’s more feasible is the expression of responsible support for a needful situation, so meantime I’d rather think the stars (heavenly, of course) for whatever blessings I’ve been able to count so far.

[First published March 2, 1988, in National Midweek]

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Progressions

Isusumbong Kita sa Diyos
Directed by Emmanuel H. Borlaza
Written by Orlando Nadres

Kapag Napagod ang Puso
Directed by Maryo J. de los Reyes
Written by Jake Tordesillas

Nagbabagang Luha
Directed by Ishmael Bernal
Written by Raquel Villavicencio

Proof of how difficult it is to handle melodrama can be seen in the fact that no follow-up successes to Misis Mo, Misis Ko have been released this year – taking into account last year’s midyear outputs Paano Kung Wala Ka Na and Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak as gauges. Three successive releases, however, are more than just conveniently alphabetical in their chronology. They also serve to demonstrate for us certain lessons regarding the inherent and implicational aspects of film craft, on a level so basic that one might at first wonder how somewhat mature filmmakers could have overlooked them. These titles are Isusumbong Kita sa Diyos, Kapag Napagod ang Puso, and Nagbabagang Luha, although for the purposes of our framework we could begin by enumerating them according to decreasing technical competence: hence, Nagbabagang Luha, Isusumbong Kita sa Diyos, and Kapag Napagod ang Puso. One by one then.

Nagbabagang Luha must be the year’s model of plastic perfection, superior in this respect to its producer-director-writer team-up’s predecessor, Pinulot Ka Lang sa Lupa. Multiple credits for its visual elements – three cinematographers, two production designers – attest to the production’s concern for surface quality. The cynical could contend that this also indicates that the movie may have taken too long to finish, but this only confirms what has already become a rarity in these times: Nagbabagang Luha was definitely not intended to be a quickie. Before it came along, however, the year’s standard of competence was set by Isusumbong Kita sa Diyos, whose cinematographic achievement is more impressive in the sense that it observed a stylistic consistency. My objection to this, however, is easier to formulate, and so this is where the discussion really begins. Isusumbong actually employs film technique to compensate for an entire absence of verisimilitude. By the last polysyllabic term I don’t strictly mean the reincarnation angle on which the film plot turns.

Apart from the generally sympathetic readings of an admirably young cast, there hardly exists credible characterization in a context where logical behavior becomes crucial in advancing the cause of an essentially incredible system. To show understandable human beings responding to such a bewildering phenomenon would have enabled the viewer to identify with most, or at least any one, of the people onscreen. Nagbabagang Luha, for its part, somehow manages to take care in assigning proper background and motivations to its characters. This plus the principle of subsuming the visual factor to the requisites of plot ought to place it on equal footing, if not higher, than Isusumbong.

Yet there too exists a preoccupation with production values at the expense of thematic development in Nagbabaga. The handling happens to be largely a matter of directorial expertise (vis-à-vis the other movie’s cinematographic achievements), and so less obvious lapses are visible here. But the entire enterprise seems to flounder by an abiding lack of conviction in the project, as evidenced in a tendency toward campiness, especially in several lines of dialogue. All that this amounts to, in the case of both Isusumbong and Nagbabaga, is a fear of frank exposure of the limitations of material. To develop some amount of confidence, the filmmakers have overdone the polishing and finishing-touches aspect, with the correct assumption that careless film observers, not to mention the normally harried moviegoer, might either fail to take notice or be too appreciative of the effort expended in what essentially has amounted to a cover-up job.

Kapag Napagod ang Puso stands in stark contrast to these other two entries, primarily because it commits what Isusumbong and Nagbabaga were careful to avoid. As such it should have failed outright at the outset, with no redemption in sight even in the areas where the other two films also suffered. Strangely, however, it is Kapag Napagod that manages to sustain repeat viewings, relative to the other titles in question. By the very act of abandoning artifice, the movie’s creators paradoxically managed to disarm potentially critical audiences, making them more receptive to the smallest treats the medium could offer. If anything, Kapag Napagod might have finally been done in also by its reluctance to control the potential for excess of its merits. I refer here to the obviously improvisational delivery by a number of its performers, which were utilized as dramatic high points in the movie. The device begins to unravel when certain keywords (curses, in one case) get repeated too often for comfort, and in the editorial decision to dwell too long on uninterrupted takes.

Yet I must admit that such an approach has its charms, even for one already too over-exposed to the possibilities of cinema. For one thing, improvisation is rarely done in a serious vein in these parts; the practice is taken so much for granted that is has come to be associated with comedy. For another and more important thing, the sort of improvisation exhibited in Kapag Napagod works according to a mode of sheer rawness, rather than accumulated technique. In fact there is no technique to speak of in the film – whether directorial or histrionic. The movie shifts from carefully staged and rehearsed group scenes to nervous documentations of barely planned-out confrontations, with the acting seeming to dictate the style rather than the other way around. At first I was dismayed by the lack of consistency. Later I realized how necessary a semblance of planning is to fiction, even if only for the quiet moments to serve as breather for the “big,” showier portions.

I could only guess now what a mess the whole movie might have turned out to be if it had relied completely on its performers’ attacks of spontaneity. Besides, as it stands, it somehow supports my conviction that, within certain creative concerns, there is no such thing as correctness. The acting in Kapag Napagod will definitely not pass today’s textbook tests – yet its most powerful moments exceed anything done in recent memory. On the other hand, I dread to anticipate a spillage of improvisations from quickie comedies to high melodramas, as a result of the effectiveness (in box-office terms, that is) of the attempt in Kapag Napagod. Then again there might be some poetic justice in watching the very rich behaving in hit-or-miss method. Ah well, better the unpredictability of change than the complacency of competence. For now.

[First published August 24, 1988, in National Midweek]

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Campout

Natutulog Pa ang Diyos
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Orlando Nadres

Paano Tatakasan ang Bukas?
Directed by Emmanuel H. Borlaza
Written by Orlando Nadres

Sa Puso Ko Hahalik ang Mundo
Directed and written by Artemio Marquez

The trouble with prevalent local film criticism is that either it isn’t critical or it is. Either it’s an advertising package, with a usually minimal veneer of subtlety, or it’s the diametrical opposite – a pronouncement of definitive proportions utilizing criteria culled from the dwindling groves of academe. Hence the nature of incentives available to practitioners is encompassed on the one hand by publicity machineries of various makes and capabilities, and on the other hand by awards and ratings bodies, each designed to counter the other side: the academy award(s) for the studio system, the religious award for (presumably) the unscrupulous sector, the critics’ award for the movie press, and the movie press award for what seems to be the critics’ group. Currently the controversies in this aspect seem to center on the propriety of the existence of rivalries. Certainly one or the other so-named academy award group would rather be the only one of its kind, and even having the movie writers’ group divided between the critics and the, well, non-critics correctly implies one set of trophies too many.[1]

Lost in the lollapalooza is the reality that film output is actually more variegated than what the apologies of this state of affairs would have us believe. Never mind the alternatives – those products finished in non-commercial formats for usually non-commercial, or at least non-mainstream, ends. What about the majority – the film products that fall in between by refusing to pander outright to either side of the industry conflict? What we usually take notice of are the extreme instances that justify the polarizations within: the box-office success that proves the necessity of publicity, the artistic triumph that provides another excuse for the annual award-giving ritual, and rarer still, the popular and critically acclaimed product that reconciles both sides for the moment, until the next non-artistic top-grosser or artistic box-office flop comes along.

Few movies, Filipino or otherwise, are unqualified masterstrokes either way, and so for the most part (or so I believe) regular moviegoers actually attend to the national pastime more mindful of one another’s responses rather than what people in media have to say. Which is just as well. It would be the height of absurdity to subject movies like Natutulog Pa ang Diyos, Paano Tatakasan ang Bukas?, and Sa Puso Ko Hahalik ang Mundo to the declaration of the box-office winner, since the mere fact of doing good financially is already a reward in itself; on the other hand, it would also be the height of cruelty to impose criteria of artistry on efforts that may have set out to accomplish something more than just returns on investments, but definitely not “art.” Maybe one could approach them then from the perspective of entertainment? This would admittedly be difficult, premised as it is on pertinent cultural assumptions and connoting a good deal of subjectivity in the process. The easier option is to behave, instead of think, like a typical Filipino moviegoer, but then the responsibility of rendering some insights, however tentative, gets forsaken.

So here goes. Natutulog Pa ang Diyos is surprisingly effective, if you’ve been following Lino Brocka’s progression. Where he used to concentrate mainly on surfaces, testing a technical or technological approach or two while remaining faithful to a predetermined text, here he seems more relaxed about merely being competent and allowing himself or his actors some latitude in on-the-set explorations, and possibly even revisions. (The same atmosphere informed, to more effective results, Mike de Leon’s last commercial-format movie.) Brocka’s attempts are highly uneven, but when they work, they do so in unexpected ways, notably the clowning of Gina Pareño in the suspenseful expository portions and the rejection of reconciliation (and thus predictable sainthood) by the Lorna Tolentino character in the end.

Only time can tell how far Brocka can push this method (and look, no caps!); although widely practiced among local directors, so far only one, Ismael Bernal, could exploit it and still retain some measure of integrity. Emmanuel H. Borlaza, for his part, has used it to better advantage in the past. Paano Tatakasan ang Bukas? evinces no perceptible amount of conviction whatsoever, save for the regionalist humor of Chanda Romero; the tandem between director and actress recalls their glory days in regional (Cebuano-language) cinema, although Paano Tatakasan may be forward-looking in its own way too. About midway through the story the lead character starts spouting evangelical propaganda, and the others straightaway follow suit. The instance demonstrates the supreme incompatibility of a conservative movement seeking legitimacy via a still-radical medium of expression; it upholds one’s faith in film just as it exposes the hypocrisy of moralists, who just as easily would have us reject the medium for its alleged immoral influences.

The upshot then of this triple-fare viewing is that Sa Puso Ko Hahalik and Mundo may prove to be the least offensive, and therefore the most preferable, of the three. Well, nuts to the naïve. Sa Puso Ko is the most effective precisely because it dares to offend the most, and manages to sustain this mode of presentation, sometimes referred to as camp, to an admirably intolerable degree. Yet there is a value in Sa Puso Ko more felt than visualized. Where previous local efforts in modern-day camp, notably by the likes of Joey Gosiengfiao, proved too calculated (and therefore self-defeating), Sa Puso Ko contains the same deadly sincerity that made the same director’s previous outing, The Untold Story of Melanie Marquez, so difficult to dismiss in the face of its wholly dismissible material.

Sa Puso Ko in fact does one better by having not one but three lead characters delineating impossibly lachrymose tales within the all-too-ludicrous contexts of virginity, proletarian dignity, and filial piety. This plus the added advantage of fictional premises have provided Artemio Marquez with what may arguably be his mortal best, Brocka and Borlaza notwithstanding. And so this is what one sometimes gets for giving a well-intentioned film practitioner a well-deserved break. No mind-blowing mergence of art and craft, or sheer commercialist actuations. Just a curiously convoluted and intellectually refracted achievement of sorts. The mark of a master lies in how easy to make the whole thing seems to be, until you try to figure out a personal project along the same lines. You could just wind up smiling.

[First published November 9, 1988, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] When this article was written, the only available genuine (guild-formed) academy group was the Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP), whose name was shared by the oldest continuous award-giving body, the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences or FAMAS – which in turn actually comprised older movie press members; the younger press practitioners formed the Philippine Movie Press Club (PMPC) with their own set of prizes, called Star Awards; the specialized type of movie press was the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (or Filipino film reviewers circle), which was formed in response to the increasingly detectable influence-peddling in the FAMAS. Since then, the FAP has had a splinter group, as did the PMPC, each of which also hands out awards. The MPP, which is actually dominated by academics, generated two other types of award-givers: a teachers group, and another academe-based group calling themselves the Young Critics Circle. (Personal disclosure: along with another member, Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., I was involved with the MPP and the YCC, as well as with a third critics group called Kritika.)

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Slugged Out

Imortal
Directed by Eddie Garcia
Written by Orlando Nadres

Ang Bukas Ay Akin
Directed by Laurice Guillen
Written by Ricardo Lee

Convolutions in developments attended by mounting conflicts brought about by an array of star-players and capped with a so-far happy ending characterized the year, and the decade that ends with it, as the most successful Filipino melodrama ever produced. Why, even the international market paid it more than a passing glance, although the return of investments (in terms of additional aid and loans) might have been realized sooner if only our government had the foresight of selling the event per se, as a multimedia product, rather than the issues it raised. Whatever our wizards of movie magic manage to conjure up will never be able to equal the real-life drama that this year’s coup attempt proffered. Many viewers were even willing to risk their very lives to observe the, pardon the pun, shooting – and the cost of production proved so high that some such lives were regarded, at least by certain quarters, as dispensable. Come to think of it, the producers – our political and military elite – outdid not just the local movie industry, or the entire media system, but themselves as well. The only coup attempt that could hope to surpass this year’s performance would be something on the order of the February 1986 revolution, one that would result in political, and not just media, success: next year’s, perhaps?

For its part the industry, true to its survival methods, came up with its usual concerted effort at an all-around filmic counterpart: the annual Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), which has always enjoyed the distinction of closing the year, if not anything else. Its disadvantage, relative to a real-life star-performed crisis, is that viewers have to spend proportionately for the number of film-viewing experiences they want to savor; moreover, not every entry will be worth the expense. The high-minded would have been left with only the twin melodrama entries in this year’s MMFF – which confirms the highly developed state that this particular genre has achieved in these parts. Action films have lately been restricted by the misfortune of having to conform to real-life, usually sensitive, and media-illiterate sources. Comedy could never compete with the everyday routines of our political players, while sex-themed films tend to thrive for those deprived – of either the capacity for doing the roles themselves, or the financial wherewithal to afford basic video technologies.

Melodrama allows by its premises the multiplicity of characters and developments that makes possible the integration of the disparate forms of action and comedy and (softcore) sex, plus the cathartic function of tearjerking. This year’s MMFF melodramas, Imortal and Ang Bukas Ay Akin, also provide extra lessons by which future such products (and coup attempts) could be better appreciated. Imortal takes off on the epic scope and multi-character portrayals of Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit, going as far as pitting against the Nora Aunor-starrer her former husband Christopher de Leon and status rival Vilma Santos. It may be pertinent to observe that what Aunor begins, Santos follows through, and in a more triumphant albeit less artistic manner: the former’s climactic monolog in Himala served as the latter’s model in Sister Stella L. and a number of other outings, and now this. Ang Bukas Ay Akin, on the other hand, crowns Laurice Guillen as melodrama moviemaker of the year – and the end of the eighties, if we count in her MMFF entry last year, Magkano ang Iyong Dangal? Between festivals she came up with an out-and-out tearjerker, Rosenda, and managed to create the only successful breakthrough performance (as serious actress) this year for its lead performer, Janice de Belen, in effect leaving behind such long-time aspirants as Sharon Cuneta and Alma Moreno.

Ang Bukas Ay Akin compares with Imortal on the bases of scope and thematic (as opposed to technical) direction. Both films acknowledge the possibility of larger frameworks modifying the dramatic givens – politics in Ang Bukas Ay Akin, metaphysics in Imortal. The difference lies in the nature of the influence: in Ang Bukas Ay Akin, the issue of bureaucratic corruption serves as initial catalyst, while in Imortal, karmic reincarnation assumes increasing importance as the plot progresses. Critical reaction has been heavier on Imortal, primarily because of the burden it carries as MMFF best-film winner. The movie tries to do Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit one better by providing not two but three double incarnates, with the generations ending not with the past (as in the case of the Guy and Pip characters) but in the future. To see’s to disbelieve, however: Bilangin might have chosen to pass up the potential for politicized involvements during its 1960s State University sequences, but Imortal confronts 1970s Communist insurgency head-on by presenting it as an unworthy alternative to the then-existent Marcos dictatorship; quite unwittingly, most of the peripheral characters sport Russian appellations (including a girl called Vanya, a man’s name), necessitating a double-take. For not only did the insurgency in actuality single-handedly represent the anti-dictatorship movement then, it was also struggling against the Americanization (which is practically antithetical to Sovietization) of Philippine culture.

This oversight is arguably extrinsic to the story, but within, or actually between, Imortal’s structure lies the weight of an incredible prologue and completely preposterous epilogue. First we are asked to accept that a pair of children could look exactly like the parents of their respective sexes; this requirement came after the middle of Bilangin, so Imortal has, and used, the advantage of developing the body of the story in attempting to obliterate this premise via the distracting complications of plot. Then when all’s almost forgiven, the pair dies once more without the benefit of legitimized love but with some illegitimate sex, which apparently was not considered satisfactory by the filmmakers; so we have to flashforward to the next century, where the pair reappears (as children of the children of the first), this time assuring themselves of wedded bliss with outrageous costumes and hairstyles and dopey laser patterns on chapel ceilings as indicators of the period.

Ang Bukas Ay Akin also attempts Rosenda one better by throwing in the political agendum and having a plural, rather than the earlier movie’s singular, cast of leads demonstrate its machinations. The strategy of allowing interrelationships to dictate the course of the story is praiseworthier than the reverse observed by Imortal, but then on a different level, Ang Bukas Ay Akin suffers in comparison with its festival rival and even its predecessor. It’s the age-old malady of central casting, wherein less capable performers acquire the weightier roles by virtue of their perceived box-office clout, often at the expense of realist credibility. The absence of sharper edges in the husband-and-wife lead tandem, contrasted with the steely delivery of a trio (Cesar Montano, Cherie Gil, and Isabel Rivas) of second leads in peak form, has resulted in the usual morality conflict that typifies komiks-sourced material. When the husband acknowledges in the end the dispiriting possession that filthy lucre has arrogated in him, the viewer is hard-put to recall any such evidence of evil, though of blandness there’s plenty. And although the wife was the main target of the dubious intentions of everyone, including her husband, her attack remains just as crucial, since her character disappears for a considerable stretch of the story. As it is, she leaves no imprint whatsoever, and is allowed to return by the others on the too-obvious pretext of reclaiming her child.

What Ang Bukas Ay Akin and Imortal make clear in the end is that, as in political life, conflicting approaches generate misgivings of their own, even if reduced to a question of form. In which case, other criteria may be proposed – sincerity vs. competence, to use the ones in real-life currency – but the devices by which these may be measured can prove even more problematic, considering the subjective factors continually at play. One final standard, economics (translated into per-capita income for the country and box-office results for the industry), is widely accepted as the bottom line. By this token, unlike in the instance of the national conflict, the perpetrators of the MMFF melodramas, by making the audience cry, have earned the right to smile all the way to the bank.

[First published January 24, 1990, in National Midweek]

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An Update

With our serious filmmakers finally taking stock of local melodrama conventions, we expect increased political awareness along with more expertise in the genre. How else can Pinoy melodrama be improved? Some tentative suggestions:

  • Implement strict viewing procedures based on screening hours. The come-anytime arrangement merely reinforces the tendency toward episodic and unstructured treatments, since the viewer’s attention has to be first caught and then sustained at any point within the film, instead of allowing the product to devote more attention to plot logic and build-up.
  • Search for and launch a female melodrama actress who physically personifies the masses. The shock of recognition could result in another coming-of-age on the part of the audience, similar to that of Nora Aunor’s followers when their idol decided to pursue serious artistic concerns. The other, perhaps riskier, option would be to repackage Aunor herself, who after all is thus far irreplaceable.
  • Explore and develop an aesthetic basis for males as melodrama leads. One direction would be to draw from the foundations of the action film, wherein the violence helps justify occasional displays of emotional weakness, and comedy, which distances the lead from the other characters as well as the audience. Currently, men in local melodrama are essentially defined by issues raised by female characters, providing the inaccurate and questionable impression that domestic concerns should not worry men at all.

[First published October 24, 1990, in National Midweek]

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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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