Friday, December 05, 2014

Return of the Dragon (Celso Ad. Castillo, 1974)

(Entire film available online, dubbed in English)
Rampage the dragon 

Officially the '70s Golden Age of Philippine Cinema started with Lino Brocka's bildungsroman Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Weighed and Found Wanting, 1974) a commercial and critical success; unofficially it's not so simple. Ishmael Bernal's sophisticated showbiz expose Pagdating sa Dulo (At the Top) screened two years earlier; Celso Ad. Castillo  began directing in the mid-60s and as early as the Fernando Poe Jr. gunslinger drama Asedillo (1971) showed a flair for visual and narrative drama that would mark him an equal to Brocka, Bernal, de Leon and O'Hara, if not their superior.

Don't think I can make the case that Ad. Castillo's Return of the Dragon is in any way superior to Brocka's Tinimbang (its contemporary); the former is an unabashedly commercial mishmash of Bruce Lee martial arts flick (Filipino actor Ramon Zamora cast and coiffed to look like the legendary star) and spaghetti western, the latter a neorealist mural of small-town life. That said, there's an exuberance, a marshaling of forces visual and aural in Return that's exciting to behold--a bold pop style that's not necessarily superior to Brocka's realism but different, with its own more modest ambitions, its own brashly gonzo integrity.

On first look it is bizarre. A band of thugs wearing Mexican Bandit Chic and grimy karategis massacres a (faintly Ifugao-looking) tribal community; Paylon (Ramon Zamora) swears vengeance on behalf of his wife Amihan (Lotis Key) and her deceased family, then proceeds to wipe out said gang, one sneering mustachioed hoodlum after another.

As revenge flicks go this one promises to push limits. A crucifixion-style torture session is performed in parallel with a gang rape; Paylon pinions a thug wheelbarrow-style, then pounds his crotch into steak tartare. Sometimes the violence is outre enough to constitute sadistic poetry, as when Paylon plunges a sword into a man's fundament offscreen, and we see the handle tremble to the rhythm of the man's fading heartbeat. As with the films of Chang Cheh, pain and body mutilation are the price of honor, same time you sense a faint homoeroticism fetishizing the bodies being mutilated (Homoeroticism? But of course! Men bathing at a river are beaten to death, their pubic patches flashing the screen like a bouquet of scattered blossoms; Paylon himself spends much screen time half-naked, his increasingly scarred flesh a scoreboard of progress towards his goal).

First indication that this might be more than just your run-of-the-mill revenge flick: Paylon's face as he plunges a dagger into someone's belly. His face is a portrait not of satisfaction but of agony, as if the knife were twisting in his own gut, and each succeeding death serves not to relieve that sense of suffering but intensify it.

The mystery is explained in flashback: Paylon was a pacifist turned lawman, with a long and bloody career of killing criminals; he had since grown sick of bloodshed and sought a life of peace (hence Amihan and her tribe). Amihan's death changes the situation: he forces himself to resume the violence, each murder in a sense an act of self-destruction as he murders yet another corner of his anguished soul.

It's an interesting dilemma that at the same time helps resolve an issue familiar to pulp revenge flicks: since you know the hero is faster and stronger than anyone, and you know it's just a matter of time till he achieves his goal, where's the suspense? Ad. Castillo substitutes a 'man-vs.-man' type conflict with 'man-vs.-himself:' a pacifist driven to kill despite his beliefs.

The key scene here is his encounter with Joaquin (Joaquin Fajardo). Disarmed and helpless, Joaquin pleads for his life, his wife (who Joaquin only minutes before had been verbally abusing) pleading beside him. Paylon refuses; he walks away with Joaquin's wife hurling curses at him, with a ferocity she never once directed at her husband when alive. Ad. Castillo's retreating camera follows Paylon as he strides away, a tender love song playing in the background. Love for a dear departed is what drives the man--but what of Joaquin and his wife? He yelled at her, humiliated her, but when pinned down she begged desperately on his behalf just the same. Was his love (or hers) any less powerful, or deserving? 

Zamora made his career playing comic roles, but he was perfectly capable of drama: on one level conflicting emotions of remorse and revenge battle it out on his sweat-strained face; then you look closer and realize the conflict has long since been resolved. Joaquin's wife can't move Paylon because whatever she's going through he's already been there; more, there's nothing she can threaten him with--divine retribution or ultimate damnation--that he hasn't already inflicted, again and again, on himself. 

Return rounds out its theme with a plot twist involving the mysterious Rita (Leila Hermosa) and the formidable Leon (Tsing Tong Tsai). By the picture's bloody finale we learn this much about the nature of vengeance: it's not circular, not a spiral; it's a tangle that catches us in a hopeless snarl--everyone victimized, everyone indicted, no one coming away clean. Ad. Castillo and his scriptwriter (Mike Relon Makiling, who in his own directorial efforts never showed this level of narrative sophistication) have basically constructed a revenge picture with its own built-in criticism of revenge pictures: not perhaps the first to have done so but a well-made example nonetheless, and ultimately an affecting one. 

That's the story; it's hardly the film's essence. You don't go to Ad. Castillo for mere story, just as you don't go to Brocka for mere realism, Bernal for mere cynicism, de Leon for mere intellect or O'Hara for mere despair; you go for the poetry, and Return of the Dragon has more than its share elevating it beyond its pulp--the marriage ceremony with its ridiculous rock-thumping ritual, where through near-magical editing the clacking of stones suddenly stands for the beating of newlywed hearts (corny, but with the lovely Ms. Key's soulful eyes boy is it effective); the showdown location, a basin of sand with a pool of water reflecting one of the most dramatic skies I'd ever seen (a mountain range of clouds, a baleful glare of sun); and finally Zamora's deliriously kinetic leaps, simply Zamora crouched and shrieking against a pure azure sky, sometimes framed by a perfectly circular lens flare--you think perhaps Zamora's Paylon needed those uncanny high jumps to touch the sky, to reinvigorate strength and spirit. Brief moments and mere images perhaps, but without them Return of the Dragon would merely be a grave, unusually well-written lecture on the futility of revenge; with them the film is a soaring song on vengeance, its seductive power, its ultimately fatal spell. A great little film, absolutely.

First published in Businessworld, 11.27.14

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