Saturday, May 17, 2008

Santiago! (Lino Brocka, 1970)

It's odd thinking of Lino Brocka directing a big-budget action epic, much less directing the late action-star-turned-presidential-candidate Fernando Poe, Jr. in a World War 2 epic--but there you are; even if you watched Santiago! again and again, it still feels odd.

The film is difficult to like at first. Oh, it starts well enough, with Brocka taking a page from Jules Dassin's Du Rififi chez le hommes (Rififi, 1955): a nighttime attempt to sabotage a Japanese munitions store in the little town of Santiago, done without music or dialogue. But then comes the shock: Gonzalo (Fernando Poe, Jr.) discovers that the schoolhouse they are about to blow up is filled with women, old men, and schoolchildren (put there discourage exactly what they're trying to do); the school explodes, and Gonzalo is knocked unconscious.

Almost wished I was knocked unconscious too. At the moment of Gonzalo's realization Brocka cuts to the children, to the saboteur's panicked face, to the sparking fuse, each shot shorter and shorter in length as if to suggest the increasing sense of urgency building up inside the man. Problem is, it isn't very well edited--Brocka's films are almost never sharply edited (the one exception being in my opinion the French financed (and edited) Orapronobis (Fight For Us, 1989))--this sequence in particular is cut as if Fernando Poe's thought processes suffer from mental hiccups. Doesn't help that Brocka pours on the music, and it's a typical Lea Productions score, full of bathos and easy emotion; doesn't help either that Brocka shoots footage of the school burning in excruciatingly slow motion, as if he knew that this was a money shot, and he'd better have as much of it onscreen as he can.

Doesn't help that Gonzalo upon coming to his senses seems hysterical, or at least as hysterical as Poe is able to manage. FPJ (as Poe is affectionately called) is a gift of an action star, in that he's exactly as he seems to be: no facades, no Method acting, none of that nonsense. He's metal of the purest kind, and asking him to do something beyond the chemical properties of his particular element is like asking a fish to walk or a pig to fly; the fish just lies there, flopping, and the pig will patiently wait for you to feed him. You can ask FPJ to suggest a surprisingly large palette of emotions through his ever stolid face, but you cannot make him act them out for you, clearly and explicitly, as if in a soap opera or on a theater stage.

It does help that Brocka had for cinematographer the great Conrado Baltazar. You could tell it's Baltazar from the way he shoots domestic night scenes--he was a master at creating incandescent lighting, at making you believe a room was lit by two thirty-watt bulbs and little else. For the burning schoolhouse he manages to capture the rich orange glow, the lazy way the flames lick at the rooftop--like some fiery predator squatting atop the school, feeding on the people underneath.

The film's second half shifts the action to a small coastal town. Gonzalo has found amongst the wreckage of the schoolhouse a survivor, a seriously burnt girl (Hilda Koronel, in one of her earliest roles). Gonzalo asks a young man (Jay Ilagan) for help in carrying the girl to the young man's home; there for the next few months, Gonzalo with single-minded intensity nurses the girl back to health (shades of Douglas Sirk's Magnificent Obsession (1954)). During the few months the girl spends under Gonzalo's care she falls in love with him--which is a problem, as the young man has in turn fallen in love with her. To complicate things, the young man's older sister (Boots Anson-Roa) has also fallen for Gonzalo, even if she's already engaged to another man (Dante Rivero).

Outside of the young man's home, Gonzalo walks among the villagers like an out-of-place titan; the locals look at him with awe, and not a little jealousy. Rumors fly, of course, and quite a few malicious stories are cooked up and spread around. It's interesting watching Brocka orchestrate the dynamics of rumor-mongering, and how the community's sentiment seems to waver, then draw itself together against Gonzalo. It helps that Gonzalo's character has been backed into a role Brocka identifies with intensely, the outsider who provokes local gossip (Brocka was born an illegitimate child, and for a time lived with--and was maltreated by--his mother's relatives). Brocka would deal with the subject on a broader yet more detailed canvas in his first genuine masterpiece, Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged But Found Wanting, 1974); here it's interesting to see Brocka direct a community's scorn not at a leper, or a mayor's illegitimate daughter (as in Tinimbang), but at a folk superman. Poe as Gonzalo handles the burden with becoming grace and humility, and it's in these later scenes that his performance, well within his comfort zone, really shines.

If in the film's early parts we glimpsed bits of Brocka's immaturity poking through all the glamorous production values (the fast (if erratic) cutting; the attempt at making FPJ 'act;' the frequent and at times unnecessary flashbacks*), several later scenes reveal early signs of Brocka the great Filipino dramatist. One sequence I particularly admire begins with Gonzalo's adopted family sitting around in their living room. It's a quiet scene, with not much action--dramatic or otherwise--going on; the younger brother, guitar on hand, starts to strum the lovely folk song Ikaw (You). Yet from the despondent expressions on the peoples' faces; from their body language and languid gestures; from the way they seem to listen--and yet not listen--to the song; most of all from the way the seated figures are arranged (like ikebana cuttings) before the camera, you can tell that there's a tension in the air, a sense of electricity, of anticipation.

And then you realize it's not that they're waiting for someone that's coming, it's that they're waiting for someone that's missing. And just when that realization blooms in one's mind, Brocka (with--this time, anyway--a supreme sense of timing) cuts to a shot of Gonzalo sitting outside, the camera angled just so that to the upper left of the screen you see the window of the very living room where the people who care about him sit, waiting.

A beautiful sequence, and not the least among its achievements is the fact that if the scene works no one should notice anything--yet everyone watching is undeniably, if unknowingly, moved.

The film's latter half devolves--harsh word, I suppose, but after a scene like that--into a series of standard-issue (if well produced) action sequences, including some low-key if impressive stuntwork, and a lengthy tracking shot of villagers crossing a flooded underground tunnel to safety. FPJ mows down his share of Japanese villains--you know the drill: a vigorous sweep of the semiautomatic and everyone with slanted eyes drops to the ground. Interestingly, when Celso Ad. Castillo directed FPJ in Asedillo (1971) the star refrained from any superhuman acts of killing; he was just a schoolteacher turned rebel hero, and if anything seemed outsized and near-mythical about him it was probably due to Ad. Castillo's expressive direction (the film's theme, after all, was the making of an ordinary man into a legend) and Sergio Lobo's larger-than-life cinematography. Interesting too, that when Gerardo de Leon and Eddie Romero directed FPJ in Intramuros: The Walls of Hell (1964) the film had realistically staged (if inventive, even tense) action sequences. FPJ there was like a Latin James Dean, all tilted head and youthful arrogance and the camera (and audience) can't help but love him, but no, no wholesale slaughter of the Japanese at the pull of a trigger.

To be fair, De Leon, Romero and even Ad. Castillo when they worked with FPJ were already veterans; Brocka on the other hand was a neophyte director making his sophomore effort. He was lucky to land an assignment with FPJ, and if the star of the production wanted to kill scores of soldiers in a single sweep, who was Brocka to say otherwise?

Still, Santiago! has its place in Brocka's oeuvre: an early draft for Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang; a rare moment in the man's career when he stepped outside of his melodramatic domain; an honest attempt at epic period filmmaking a la Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, Mario O'Hara, 1976). And one can see how Brocka, even with the burden of a large-scale production full of extravagant special effects (unlike Tatlong Taong or Intramuros, this film boasts of large, intricately detailed models of churches and bridges being blown up with genuine explosives, not New Year's Eve firecrackers--always an expensive undertaking), even with star producers dictating terms, even with the limitations of the war drama genre, still manages to make the film somehow personal, somehow his own.

* On those flashbacks--I'd say they were mostly unnecessary save one, a black-and-white, wordless interlude where Mario O'Hara and Caridad Sanchez play a married couple whose happiness is torn asunder by the Japanese. What is it with Brocka's intensely told side-stories (especially when O'Hara is acting in them (see also: Tinimbang)), that they often steal attention from the rest of the film, and are often more interesting than the main narrative line?


The Mysterious Ad[ B)e;ta]m.a.x. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Noel Vera said...

As requested, deleted your link.

It's cute. Are you really attached to that announcement at the beginning? Far as I can tell it doesn't really relate to anything and only raises false expectations. Or did I miss something? Personally I think the film works better without it...