Monday, December 29, 2014

Kung Mahawi Man ang Ulap (Should the Skies Clear, Laurice Guillen, 1984)

Family planning
(WARNING: storyline and plot twists discussed in detail)
Laurcie Guillen's Kung Mahawi Man ang Ulap (Should the Skies Clear, 1984) is yet another popular komiks series (adapted by Orlando Nadres and Lualhati Bautista from a serial by Gilda Olvidado) about young Catherine Clemente (Hilda Koronel), upset that her mother Minda (Gloria Romero) has fallen for newcomer Pablo Acuesta (Eddie Garcia). Catherine's boyfriend Rustan (Christopher de Leon, almost a required name for middle-class melodramas) scoffs at her fears but Catherine won't be placated; she knows Pablo and his progeny--Chona (Isabel Rivas), Rita (Amy Austria), Jojo (Michael de Mesa)--are up to no good. 

Instructive to compare this to Mike de Leon's Hindi Nahahati ang Langit (The Heavens Indivisible, 1984) his crystalline take on a komiks series: where de Leon's is climate-controlled to within an inch of its life, Guillen's veers wildly from the implausibly confrontational (Catherine outside of Minda and Pablo's bedroom, demanding that they explain Pablo's P30,000 personal loan) to the sublimely melodramatic (Rustan in the rain begging for forgiveness while Catherine huddles in her bedroom, weeping). De Leon's film is of a piece; the plot is logical, the details authentic (loved it that when the characters talk about the construction business, it's really about construction, complete with technical jargon and involved accounting concepts). Guillen doesn't have that kind of precision--when Pablo starts beating women and children, you wonder where his violent streak comes from (he earlier showed himself to be craven when Rustan pulls out a gun); later developments--a mother's demise, a child's suffering at the hands of relatives--aren't excessively outrageous, but the tone is so insistently despairing you have to suppress a giggle: there's such a thing as too melodramatic, and this crosses the line once, twice, several times. 
About midway into the film Guillen stages a sexual assault, and the scene is so dragged-out brutal, so bruisingly realistic the giggles fall away like so much rain. Later comes the trial, and while the usual practice in Filipino dramas is to cast real lawyers or cheap extras to play prosecutor or defense attorney woodenly (we're not talking professional thespians here), this time we have veteran character actor Tommy Abuel as prosecutor, and he's magnificent: sly, sarcastic, even cunningly gentle when questioning Catherine (never pays to browbeat a rape victim), he sells the possibility that a clear-cut case of self-defense will be waylaid into a manslaughter conviction (only one problematic detail: the door was clearly forced--wouldn't this have been taken into account?). Again breakdowns and lamentations--it's a komiks serial after all--but Catherine's final cry for help and Minda's anguished response (Guillen's camera capturing all in a series of extended shots) feels harrowingly honest

The second half, much of which is set in prison, feels like an altogether different (and better) picture. At one point Catherine stands tall amongst the dried grass in her convict orange uniform, Guillen's camera regarding her from a low-angle shot--with not a little awe, a monument to martyred women everywhere--her knees buckle, her hands clutch her belly, her face tilts heavenwards in agony as labor pains begin. Later her child (now ten years old) screams as he's being abused; Guillen cuts to Catherine sitting on her bunk, the screams like a haunting reminder echoing in her head. Mike de Leon for all his precision and intellect would never attempt anything this emotional, this directly elemental. He makes no major mistakes; he also fails to achieve anything so improbably intense--for that you need to take a few emotional and dramatic risks.

The film might also recall Mario O'Hara's classic women-in-prison film Bulaklak sa City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail) done that same year. Where O'Hara's is a portrait of the urban prison as one of the lower circles of hell, Guillen's is relatively innocuous (the food looks bad, the guards stern but not violently abusive); where O'Hara's Angela (Nora Aunor) hardens her resolve in the forge of incarceration, Guillen's Catherine remains one vast open throbbing wound--more passive perhaps, but also more vulnerable to the pain of loss.  

Interesting to compare Koronel's performance here to one of her most famous early roles, as the eponymous Insiang in Lino Brocka's classic film--there she seemed as French critics would famously say "too beautiful for the slums" (Brocka's reply being equally well-known (she "is from the slums!")); here her beauty seems more developed, more complexly flavored. Can't make the case that Guillen's melodrama is better than Brocka's masterpiece (it isn't) but I think I can make the case that Koronel back then was raw and inexperienced, her performance rather callow; here the girl is now a woman grown, and her suffering seems to come straight from experience, and not a director's insistent coaxing. 

The rest of the cast is generally fine, with the villains enjoying a distinct advantage in the fun department: I've mentioned Mr. Abuel but there's also drop-dead sexy Amy Austria, the only Acuesta willing to use her brain (she doesn't get very far--you wonder why she never realized her sob story to Rustan would be easy to fact-check--but at least she got somewhere); Eddie Garcia is deliciously unscrupulous as the spineless Pablo, and enjoys one great moment--when Catherine strides into the sagging old mansion she once lived in to confront Pablo in his sickbed (shades of Pip confronting Mrs. Havisham, with the sexes reversed). Not a great film by any measure, but Guillen's ability to add such grace moments helps make the picture at the very least a memorable entertainment. 

First published in Businessworld 12.18.14

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