Monday, June 25, 2007

Ambitious failures

For the ambitious failure blogathon (and the perfect companion piece to oggsmoggs' article on Jose Rizal (Marilou Diaz Abaya, 1998):

If I had to define 'ambitious failure,' it would have to be Sisa (Mario O'Hara, 1998). A tiny film (roughly seventy thousand dollars) shot in ten days, it didn't have much expense to recoup, yet it bombed at the tills, closing on its opening day. I saw copies of the VCD for a while, and (I still have nightmares about this moment) actually held the print in my hands (oh why oh why didn't I run with it--it was even in good condition), before I returned it to Regal Films, where it disappeared into their warehouse (where hundreds of other prints sat in the Manila heat, slowly turning into vinegar) forever.

Anyway--here's my contribution, an early assessment of the film:

Excerpt from:
Minimalist moviemaking, or: "Look Ma, no cash!"

And then there is the multitalented, maddeningly maverick Mario O'Hara, who has been making movies since the 1970's. It's been over a year since he made the largely ignored (not entirely without reason) Manananggal In The City (Monster in the City), after which he's maintained a profound silence. Given P3 million (about a fourth of the budget of an ordinary, present-day Filipino drama) and fifteen shooting days and what does he decide to do? A remake of the Gerry De Leon classic, Sisa.

O'Hara, who wrote the screenplay, has an intriguing premise. Sisa--the Sisa in Rizal's novel Noli Me Tangere--is a memorable character, a great character, and O'Hara believes there's no such thing as a great character that wasn't based on real life: who then was Sisa? Rizal's diaries mention a "Binibining L.," a mysterious woman who he praised for her mysterious beauty and come-hither eyes; O'Hara's conceit is that this character is, in fact, Sisa, and that this woman was the great love of his life.

It's a daringly, imaginative idea, a brilliant idea. Possibly too brilliant: O'Hara obviously thought that the idea was strong enough to make a film, no matter what the budget, so he went ahead and did it.

The resulting film has divided audiences: some call it a great film, most call it unmitigated crap. People point out the plywood sets, the styrofoam skulls, the wine bottles with plastic twist-off caps; they jeer at the modern-day light switches plainly visible in the background and the horse-drawn carriage that passes over a concrete bridge. I've heard someone say "First lesson in making a period film: if you don't have the money, don't make it."

I don't buy that for a minute: how do you know it's possible--how do you know anything is possible if you don't at least try? Sisa is as hugely ambitious as its budget is small: O'Hara is clearly banking on his screenplay, his ability to direct, and his cast to carry the film. The more valid criticisms against the film were aimed at these three elements.

Sisa's premise is strong; the story, which switches back and forth between Rizal's past and his imprisoned present, between reality and fantasy and meta-reality, is complex, but ultimately coherent. I think the dialogue, for the most part, is a model for writing period films--everyday dialogue, plain and straightforward, with just the slightest stylized lyricism to hint that the people are of a different, more gracious time.

As for direction--O'Hara tries to defuse disbelief at his no-budget production design by emphasizing the lack of a budget, by proudly wearing the poverty of his production on his sleeve, as if it were a style; at the same time, he attempts to distract our attention with a dazzling display of his filmmaking prowess. He almost succeeds: his editing is fluid and his staging masterful--except in the unfortunately comic scene where Dona Consolacion (Evangeline Pascual) is pushed out a window. The audience laughed; I couldn't say I blamed them.

I'm not as happy with his decision to brightly light the sets. He's probably daring us with his lighting, pushing the cheapness in our face, but it doesn't work--shadows would have been more evocative, more appropriately Gothic. There's a nightmare involving styrofoam skulls and wooden swords that should look pathetic, but the grainy black-and-white photography transforms the sequence and gives it genuine menace. Maybe the whole film should have been shot in black and white.

As for the performances: Aya Medel captures the essential innocence of Sisa, but she has difficulty with long dialogue scenes, and the subtler changes of emotion required. Gardo Verzosa makes for an intense Jose Rizal, but he sometimes holds his body awkwardly and, like Medel, lacks sophistication. It's another daring idea, in a film full of daring ideas, to cast bold stars in a Rizal film (Medel strips in her movies for Regal, while Verzosa is a regular in Seiko's notorious sex flicks), but a film like this--naked, and without sets or costumes to distract the eye--lives or dies on your ability to accept Verzosa and Medel as Jose Rizal and his Sisa. Most people couldn't take the plunge.

For some reason, I did. Despite their awkwardness, I thought Medel was was an enchanting Sisa, Verzosa an intense, passionate Rizal (it might have helped that I haven't seen many of his Seiko films).

Everything followed from there: the moment I believed, I found myself open to every idea O'Hara threw at me, and it was a thrilling ride. I loved the way O'Hara explodes every cherished, fossilized concept we have of our national hero. It's difficult, for example, to think of Rizal as sadistic, but there he is in one scene, beating the life out of Sisa's husband; it's impossible to think of Rizal--whose overcoated figure stands in practically every town square in the country--lying naked in bed with a woman, yet there he is on top of Sisa, pumping away, beads of sweat popping out all over his bare buttocks. Rizal is human after all, and in a way I don't think any previous Rizal film has ever shown, or even attempted to show.

But that's my opinion; the common consensus is that Sisa is, at best, a brave and interesting failure, and "if you don't have the money, don't make it." O'Hara dares to make the completely unheard-of statement that "money doesn't really matter, talent does," but his message seems to have been garbled in "Sisa." I think it's a worthwhile, wonderful message; I wish more people could hear it.

Businessworld, 10/9/98


Oggs Cruz said...

Darn, I really want to see this. I hope I can find a VCD somewhere. I remember seeing a VCD of Hesus Rebolusyonaryo selling for P99 in Astrovision Megamall. I didn't buy it since I had exactly P100 that day and I hadn't eaten lunch. Next day, it was gone... Now I wish I starved instead.

Noel Vera said...

"I wish I starved instead."

Yep, I've been there.