Thursday, May 22, 2014

Banaue: Stairway to the Sky (Gerardo de Leon, 1975)

Pictures thanks to Video48

(On the occasion of Gerardo de Leon's yearlong Centennial celebration, there will be a screening of his Banaue: Stairway to the Sky (1975) at the CCP Dream Theater, May 17 Saturday at 4 pm.

The film is also available on DVD here--sadly without subtitles)

Stairway to heaven
As individuals director Gerardo 'Gerry' de Leon and lead actress Nora Aunor couldn't be more different. One was a respected lion of Philippine cinema whose career was on the wane; the other was the winner of a singing contest who parlayed her golden voice and morena good looks into a lightning strike of a multimedia pop phenomenon--countless gold singles, a long-running television variety show, over seventy movies in a mere eight years.

What Aunor didn't have despite her meteoric rise was artistic respect, though she did get favorable notices and an acting nomination for her multiple-role performance in the omnibus film Fe, Esperanza, Caridad, the director of the final segment (Caridad) being de Leon. Aunor reportedly liked the experience of working under him so much (the notices and award nomination didn't hurt) she asked to work with him again, this time on a much more ambitious project--Banaue: Stairway to the Sky, an action-adventure epic set at the dawn of Philippine history and, with a budget estimated at 1.6 million pesos, arguably the biggest Filipino production ever up to that point. The film would prove to be the master's last completed feature, an epic that I consider (despite its many flaws) badly underrated today, and in dire need of reappraisal.

Possibly Aunor didn't quite know what she was doing (after over seventy features this was her first ever large-scale project) and gave de Leon free rein; he reciprocated by shooting much of the picture with colored gels framing the images, the blurry edges of the screen adding a level of stylization almost unforgivable in its strangeness (though it must be noted that when a contemporary young Turk like Carlos Reygadas does it the effect is considered brilliantly avant-garde).

There's also something antediluvian about De Leon at this stage of his career, the maddeningly solemn way his characters often gaze offscreen, intoning their lines as if it were holy writ (by way of contrast, the slangy dialogue in Lamberto Avellana's Esperanza portion of the aforementioned omnibus film sounds as current as ever). When you have fresh faces like Aunor's Banawe, Christopher de Leon's Sadek, and Johnny Delgado's Pugnoy reciting what sounds like Old Testament text the disconnect is distracting, to put it mildly.

And yet the film remains compulsively watchable, in part because de Leon has lost none of his talent for visual majesty. The terraces are probably the most impressive achievement of pre-historic Filipinos, and as de Leon's camera pans up and down their sinuous slopes one can't help but look with awe (you need to ignore the travelogue-style narrator though, speaking in an irritatingly plummy American (presumably because they couldn't afford someone British) accent). 

Throughout the course of the two-hour plus film (my copy clocks in at a hundred and fifty-three minutes; not sure what the official runtime is, and IMDb is unhelpful) de Leon's camera continues to give us glimpses of grandeur: a huge boulder tumbles down a slope towards the camera, and as it crashes a wizened arm claws at the screen in agony (Sadek's parents have just been crushed to death); heads loom out of one corner of the frame to counterbalance smaller noggins at the opposite corner--an oddly pleasing demonstration of visual asymmetry--and a charge of electricity crackles up your spine ("yes--He still has It").

Where grandeur fails, surrealist horror blooms. A patriarch is decapitated, and his head journeys from one tribe to another as macabre prize (we see the head pronged on split bamboo, slowly liquefying with the course of time); back home, the patriarch's wife circles her husband's seated, festering corpse as she prays for the head's return (shades of Peckinpah's Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, only on a relatively larger scale).

When battle breaks out (which it often does) de Leon shoots head-on, the fighting happening on different planes of action at once; when focused on one-on-one combat de Leon cuts and frames for maximum clarity (as in a dance sequence), the combatants showing a speed and physical prowess impossible to fake with digital enhancement, or unsteady camera, or ADHD editing. "Those are axes and spears and machete blades they are wielding" you find yourself thinking, "with nothing but loincloth and amulet to keep them from harm!"

Banaue would make a rousing war movie if Aunor's Banawe didn't raise the stakes to a whole other level. As de Leon (and writer Toto Belano) conceive her and Aunor incarnates her, Banawe might be the Philippines' first proto-feminist--she's no shrinking violet flinching in a corner as her lover Sadek is wounded and her father's head carried away; she accuses Sadek of cowardice, then organizes a strike force of lightly armed women to attack the enemy camp, hopefully win her father's head back. When one of the women complain that she doesn't have any combat skills, Banawe responds: "Doesn't take much skill to hold a man close, then stab him in the back!" 

If Banawe reserves the right to fight for her father's head, she also reserves the right to choose her lovers--Christopher de Leon's Sadek is the obvious choice for mate (the actors married during the film's production), only the two are separated early on; she meets the fierce Pugnoy, is unimpressed, meets Aruk (Ronaldo Valdez) who whips her--that gets her attention--only the joke is on Aruk, as he ultimately and hopelessly falls for Banawe (Aunor plays a variation of her celebrity persona, a woman irresistible to men--a persona not too far off from reality, as her complicated private life might suggest). 

Gerardo de Leon (and Nora Aunor) might be pointing up one aspect of aboriginal culture, that marital fidelity is not a do-or-die proposition, for entertainment or even prurient purposes--but I don't believe it. Banawe meets different men, but she's sincere in her regard and affection for them; she loves them for their different virtues (and sometimes equally varied flaws), she values what they bring to her life. If they hurt her or she hurts them or they hurt each other, it's not deliberate but part of the course of life. I might go so far as to say Banawe is pretty sophisticated about her love life (reflecting the actress' own), showing flexibility, maturity and restraint as needed (maybe not always, but when it counts). I suggest that de Leon (and Aunor) present this aspect of tribal society as an alternative to strict Christian monogamy (a monogamy practiced by many Christians, I might note, more in the breach than observance); not that one should immediately set aside one's wife (or husband) to love other women (or men), but that one should at least be aware that there are other ways of thinking about companionship than the black-and-white "till death do us part." 

It's a complicated way to live; at one point a man, exasperated, cries out to Banawe: "Who do you love more--me or him?" and she replies: "you--him--but more than either, my people." Banawe reserves the right to love not just any man but all men; reserves the right to transcend the merely sensual and strive for the wholly societal--a remarkably complex and thought-provoking thesis for what was supposed to be just another caveman drama, with a popular Filipina celebrity at its center. 

A remarkable achievement in both performance and film production, by a young woman who at the time of the film's release had not quite turned twenty-two. I imagine that if the real Banawe somehow crossed the thousand years separating her age and ours to watch this film, she'd wholeheartedly approve of what Aunor had done--not just established a long and fruitful career as daring film producer and even more amazing actress, but given an old master one last chance at creating a masterpiece.

First published in Businessworld, 5.15.14

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