Sunday, October 06, 2013

Sanda Wong (Gerardo de Leon, 1955)

And the yearlong celebration of Gerardo de Leon's centennial continues with an Oct. 12 at 4 pm screening of this film, at the CCP Dream Theater

Resurrection of a Lost Philippine Classic

Gerry De Leon's Sanda Wong, made in 1955, has been lost for years; only through the efforts of film historian-archivist-distributor Teddy Co, has a print been located in Hongkong, brought home to this country, and with the help of Mowelfund and SOFIA (Society of Film Archivists), restored.

Sanda Wong was a coproduction between Philippine and Hongkong filmmaking outfits (and where are the international co-productions to be found today?)--a strictly commercial venture, out to make a profit. It was conceived as shallow entertainment, and on its own purely mercenary terms, it's a success. This isn't a literary production like Manuel Silos' great Biyaya Ng Lupa (Blessings of the Land, 1959); it isn't even considered to be among Gerry De Leon's best works.

What Sanda Wong is, though--what's so surprising about it--is one of the most sheerly enjoyable Filipino films ever made. I mean--bandits and magic rings! Secret dens, hidden treasures, pythons that pop out of nowhere. This is in the great tradition of Gunga Din, The Thief Of Baghdad, The Adventures Of Robin Hood: gloriously irrelevant confections, filled with contrivances just a step sideways from real life, slightly larger than real life, and as entertaining as hell. I actually enjoyed Sanda Wong more than Thief Of Baghdad--heresy to the ears of a traditional film critic, until you realize that the director, Michael Powell, was hamstrung by a huge, problem-ridden production (input from other directors brought in to fix the problems probably didn't help). Powell's filmmaking in Thief was square in a big-budgeted, Important Picture way; De Leon was working with a larger than usual budget here, but by Hollywood standards it's miniscule--he still had to improvise, and his filmmaking is lean and hungry and evocatively imaginative.

But you don't have to be some kind of film expert to appreciate Sanda Wong; you don't have to exclaim "John Ford!" every time you see a figure framed dramatically against a brilliant white sky, or "De Sade!" every time Wong (Jose Padilla, Jr.) raised a whip against his beautiful Amazon beauty (Lilia Dizon, mother of modern-day leading man Christopher De Leon). Sanda Wong is gripping drama in its own right, a Jacobean struggle between rich landowner Liu Chen (Danilo Montes) and the eponymous bandit king--two men who meet as mistrustful antagonists and part as brothers in blood.

Wong believes he's done Liu Chen a favor by rescuing him from the clutches of a greedy general (Gil De Leon, husband of Ms. Dizon and father of Christopher) out to learn the location of Chen's treasure, but the man is more goading than grateful--the general had raped and driven to suicide Chen's freshly wedded wife (Lola Young), and he wants Wong's help in exacting revenge. Like a troublesome conscience Chen reminds Wong of promises unfulfilled, of deeds left undone, and suggests (without saying so directly) that Wong can be a better man than he thinks he is, that as is he's a heavy-breathing braggart and something of a coward (not that Chen is a paragon of virtue--played by Montes, he's a self-righteous prig and hothead).

De Leon sketches the blackly comic relationship between his two protagonists, two men who couldn't be more different (and couldn't be more conscious of that fact), yet are inextricably entwined; a pulpy romp like Raiders of the Lost Ark, by way of comparison, is a mere cartoon, a fairly well-directed one; you thrill to Jones' exploits, but never feel that Jones has struggled with anything deeper than an archeological dig, or suffered the loss of anything more significant than his floppy hat.

There are flaws--an outrageous one being the scene where Wong, in an extravagant fit of cruelty, strips the Amazon down to her leopardskin (Leopardskin! In China!) and forces her to dance a vaguely African dance choreography. This is a cheesecake scene, of course, designed to show off Ms. Dizon's superb figure (Dizon, incidentally, is sexier and far more sensuous in leopardskin than most Filipina softcore porn stars are in their birthday suits nowadays--one hundred percent natural equipment mind you, no plastic surgery involved).

But to point out historical and cultural errors is to miss the point of B movies (so called because they were (supposedly) a notch below the class-A pictures); it's denying the wild and anything-goes spirit in which these movies were made--and in fact, there is a psychological rationale behind this scene: some shameful act is eating Wong up inside, and he has to lash out at the nearest available scapegoat, in this case his favorite woman. Sadomasochism in a '50s Filipino-Hong Kong co-production? Absolutely.

I love the python, under the control of a magic ring; the python's scenes are entirely believable (this plus the crocodile attack in Noli Me Tangere suggests De Leon had a way with untamed creatures), with every appearance timed to cause the maximum number of gasps. Compare this to the snake scene in the recent magic-realist Sa Pusod Ng Dagat (In the Navel of the Sea): that sorry little reptile simply popped out of the woman's vagina--no attempt was made to prepare you for this unlikely miracle, no attempt made to do anything more with it. In effect the snake in Pusod was a huge bore, the snake in Sanda a small delight.

Sanda Wong is a mix of skillful storytelling, superbly staged action, and sumptuous production design--everything effortlessly balanced against each other, lightly held in the palm of De Leon's masterful hand. Not a great film, but definitely great entertainment.

First published in Businessworld, 3.6.98.

Article reprinted in Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema, available online

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