Saturday, May 07, 2022

Bagong Hari (The New King, Mario O'Hara, 1986)

King of pain

Mario O'Hara's Bagong Hari (The New King) was released in early 1986, a singular moment in Philippine history. It was produced and released during the final days of the Marcos regime, when the dictator's hold on things was seriously weakened (though few realized just how much), and the level of ferment was at an unprecedented high-- was at a level not seen since Marcos declared Martial Law fourteen years before. It was also-- though few knew it then-- the final days of what we might call the '70s and '80s golden age of Philippine cinema, a period that I believe started with Lino Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged But Found Wanting, 1974) and continued past the end of the decade with Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye, 1981) and Himala (Miracle, 1982).

The 1983 assassination of Marcos' political opponent Ninoy Aquino threw the economy into chaos and brought anti-Marcos sentiment out in the open, long-simmering emotions the dictator struggled to staunch but never managed to stop. Partly as a result of his troubles, partly as a way to appease people bread-and-circus style (at the same time appearing more liberal) Marcos eased censorship restrictions. Films containing scenes of graphic sex and violence bloomed; people felt it was a sign of the times-- end of the world for all they knew-- and profound change was imminent, maybe desirable.

One of the most intense expressions of this sentiment was Peque Gallaga's Scorpio Nights (1985), about a housewife downstairs and a college student upstairs having an affair, practically under the nose of her security-guard husband. The allegory was clear-- youth and woman defying authority figure for sex-- but it was the sex that sparked the audience's imagination; staged and choreographed like action sequences, the sex was imaginative, passionate, thrilling, like nothing Filipinos have ever seen before or since.

But if Scorpio Nights captured people's hunger for sexual rebellion, Bagong Hari perfectly captured the regime's corruption and systemic use of violence, and our need (hunger if you like) for a hero to rise; if in effect Scorpio Nights was Philippine cinema's ultimate statement on sex, Bagong Hari was that same cinema's ultimate statement on violence. Ironically, while Scorpio was a boxoffice hit Bagong Hari was a financial failure-- the film, meant for the 1985 Metro Manila Film Festival, was denied entry due to censorship issues, and received an early 1986 release instead with little publicity (I do remember a quarter-page news ad featuring Addon (Dan Alvaro) in cruciform pose, wearing a barbed-wire crown on his head). A pity, because O'Hara had meant it to be popular (albeit dark) entertainment, with sharp even prescient things to say about Philippine politics at the time-- or, for that matter, all times. 

The setting is a powerful unspecified province (Metro Manila); the governess (the late Elvira Manahan doing a more elegant version of Imelda Marcos) is accused of overspending on construction of a palatial library (obviously the Manila Film Center). Her rival in the coming elections is Mayor Aguila (filmmaker Celso Ad. Castillo in a witty villain role), an actor-turned-politician with a reputation for being an intellectual featherweight (hello Joseph Estrada). 

Caught in between is Addon Labrador (Dan Alvaro), son of Isagani Labrador (Robert Arevalo), Mayor Aguila's right-hand man. Addon doesn't share in his father's political success (his mother left Isagani years before, presumably for serial womanizing) but he does share one of his father's talents-- he's a gifted killer adept at all weapons, including the balisong (butterfly knife).

Violence is almost a given during election season in the Philippines (if anything the number of incidents has increased); more, violence is one of the oldest means of interaction between men, with the skilled fighter revered, worshipped, granted larger-than-life status. O'Hara acknowledges this in his opening, a hand-to-hand duel between two men on a beach. Fists crunch into bone, heels ground into faces, faces in turn are buried deep into wet sand; O'Hara keeps the body parts in giant closeup then freezes the image, in part to distance us from the pain in part to aestheticize the violence. Grunts, groans, howls suggest the violence continuing behind the frozen frame; the duel ends with the abrupt snap of a spinal cord. Reasons for the clash are hinted at: prize money, a gintong balisong (golden butterfly knife), the title of hari (king)). Call the sequence the opening chord in what is meant to be a symphony of brutality.

The film is a collection of fight sequences. The first on the beach had an existential quality (we fight, therefore we are); the second is set along the Pasig River, and starts with 
Addon in a urinal (a makeshift cubicle hanging precariously from the riverbank directly over the river) being attacked by three men; he jumps up a tilted truck bed (one thinks of Carol Reed only here it's the flooring that's askew), runs across a series of shanty rooftops (long shot of rooftop horizon as the figures skip and leap and collide) to finally end (nice symmetry) in another overhanging urinal, all to the accompaniment of a tender guitar melody. The fight is hardly gratuitous, either; Addon is being auditioned, presumably for a bigger fight.

The film's most distinct battle is at the arena-like Greek Theater at the National Mental Hospital. Addon has been offered fifty thousand pesos (huge sum to Filipinos, a mere two thousand to Americans) to face the fighter we saw earlier (Ruel Vernal at his most villainous). They begin with hand-to-hand, continue with meathooks ("What's this?" Addon asks; "use it," he's told), proceed with balisongs; high up on bleachers the rich place wagers on the outcome.

It's O'Hara at his most baroque: two men in a life-or-death struggle for the amusement of the upper classes; the arena setting and progression of weapons (from fists to meathooks to balisongs) reinforces the gladiatorial feel. O'Hara often perches the camera on the upper steps looking down at the two figures below; the image brings to mind several ideas: that Dante's inferno was also shaped like a bowl; that freedom for the combatants is found outwards and upwards, past the camera (a fact underlined when Addon at one point starts to walk out and is stopped by the sound of a man racking his M16 rifle). Later the king takes a torchlight and swings it at Addon, and O'Hara shoots the two through the spilled flames, as if they were already burning in hell.

The film goes on to chronicle how Addon is forced to commit his most heinous killing, and how his attempts at retribution initiates a cycle of escalating mayhem that leaves few people standing.

The cast of characters includes Addon's former girlfriend Rina (gorgeous full-bodied Carmi Martin, tough of heart and foul of mouth), her present lover Rex, the governess' son (Joel Torre in a hilarious macho parody), and the little girl who adores Addon, and is in many ways the film's mediating viewpoint (we are that little girl, looking up to her hero). The film collects details possible only in Manila: the children perched atop bridges snaking down wire loops to hook valuables-- shoes, radios-- from the barges gliding underneath; the policeman who sets out to investigate a shooting by renting a tricycle; the epic beer-drinking contest in a bamboo shack. It catalogues the even more varied ways violence affects our all-too-human flesh, from an impromptu razor-blade carving to a hospital patient's fresh stitches ripping while she evades her pursuers to a woman's shrieking attempts to breathe while dying of a gunshot wound to the chest. 

O'Hara keeps all elements-- the characters, the political allusions, the unique Manila details, the brilliantly staged action-- working towards an interesting (if debatable) point: if violent revolution ever needed justification the political circumstances surrounding the Philippines from the years '83 to '86 should be as good as any. And if a man were to initiate such a revolt O'Hara presents a rough sketch of one such candidate: earthy, quiet, courteous, gallant to women and children, kind but skilled at dealing death. A champion, in short.

O'Hara's Addon Labrador is no Mike Hammer, looking for the Great Whatzit in Kiss Me Deadly, or Hank Quinlan resorting to doubtful means to catch his quarry in Touch of Evil-- but then O'Hara probably felt that the times didn't call for such brutes. A man taking on the Philippine political establishment would not have the energy for self-doubt introspection cynicism, elements that would only add complication to an already complex plot. The film pits Addon-- and us with him-- against the world, pits classic Filipino virtues (virtues which the film itself possesses) against the vast perversion that is the Philippines today. It's a ray of hope grounded in reality, aspiring to the (somewhat) fantastic, meant to encourage us in our despair.

Bagong Hari is noir, in that it has protagonists struggling in a hostile urban landscape; because it presents such a range of characters-- from the highest offices of power to the humblest river rat-- dominating (or being dominated by) others, I'd say the film belongs to a special subset of epic noir that includes Johnnie To's Election films and Curtis Hanson's 1997 L.A. Confidential (I prefer O'Hara's more modest but stranger and (I believe) visually richer work but that's me).

Despite being a boxoffice failure the film managed to impress the handful of people-- me, included-- who caught it on its brief commercial run. And it has left a mark-- many an action film since has featured balisongs and meat hooks and gladiator combat, has borrowed characters and incidents from recent Philippine history for verisimilitude. Mentor and frequent collaborator Lino Brocka did if not a remake then a rather pallid reworking: Gumapang Ka sa Lusak (Dirty Affair, 1990), with Christopher De Leon as the Addon character and Charo Santos as the Imelda Marcos figure.

A final note: partly as a result of its commercial failure all prints of Bagong Hari have since been lost (the producer himself was looking for a copy), and only a few fugitive video recordings remain. The loss is more than a pity, it's a tragedy; that Philippine cinema was capable of this, arguably the finest Filipino action film ever made and the last great film from a great period in Filipino filmmaking-- is enough to make one weep.



Tinky said...

This sounds like a fascinating film. Kudos to you for lobbying for better conditions for film preservation in the Philippines; I hope your passion is rewarded.

Joe Thompson said...

Noel: This is a heavy meal to digest. Even in San Francisco with a large Filipino population, I heard very little about movies from the Philippines. It is sad to know that such a recent movie, which sounds as good or better than anything contemporary from Hong Kong or Hollywood, is almost gone. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and your passion.

Noel Vera said...

Tinky: thanks.

Joe: It's the kind of problem if you dwell upon it too long it can drive you a little crazy. Hence our optimistic despair.

Noel Vera said...

Incidentally, O'Hara directed another film, Kastilyong Buhangin which I can only describe as a mix of George Cukor's A Star is Born and Ringo Lam's Prison on Fire (only in my opinion, the final fight sequence is better than anything Lam ever did).

Noel Vera said...

And Kastilyong Buhangin far as anyone knows is only available on bootleg video.

Anonymous said...

Hi Noel,

Any news as to the whereabouts of the following films? I've been trying hard to look for them without success. Even as a graduate film student here in the Philippines, our AV library here in Diliman is seriously lacking of important Filipino films. To mention some titles that I'm currently looking for:

1. Hubad na Bayani by Robert Ylagan
2. Dalawang Pugad,Isang Ibon by Ishmael Bernal
3. Tahan na Empoy by Lino Brocka
4. Baby Porcuna by Danny Zialcita
5. Pepeng Shotgun by Romy Suzara
6. Sinner or Saint by Mel Chionglo
7. Anak ng Cabron by Willy Milan
8. Kapag Napagod Ang Puso by Maryo J de los Reyes
9. Ang Pumatay Nang Dahil Sayo by Willy Milan
10. Joe Pring by Augusto Salvador
11. Nympha by Celso Ad Castillo (1971)
12. Batingaw by Pablo Santiago (1974)

Any help would be much welcome. Thanks much!

TG Staff said...

I honestly don't know what to say...

That shit makes me angry.

(on that note, I got to see INSIANG recently... loved the movie, but hated the fact that it was region coded for some reason and I had to view it on my computer; I'm kinda put off by how terrible my order at Cinefilipino went... it took like 2 months to fill it)

Also also, did you get down to seeing the new Scorsese flick?

It was pretty awesome.

eric b said...

I saw this film in its commercial run. I thought it to be great, better than condemned, in fact. I did not consider the parallelism to the then political conditions. I simply evaluated it as it was presented: an action movie with political undertones. If i am not mistaken, at least the Urian nominated it in various categories.

Off topic: have you written a review of Hubad na Pangarap? This is another film which I thought was excellently crafted.

Noel Vera said...


That's an interesting list, but no, have no word on any of those titles. Will ask around.


I don't understand--you got Insiang from CineFilipino? Shouldn't be a problem on our DVDs, region 1. My copy works just fine there.


I think Condemned is more a drama about a brother and sister--the sister is his Achilles' heel, at the same time she's the only thing that keeps him human. Bagong Hari is far more ambitious, but couched on less human, or at least on less human-scaled, more larger-than-life terms. I think it's a tradeoff.

On Hubad--no, haven't written anything on it. Don't know where to score a copy, the names involved sound intriguing.

Noel Vera said...

How does Hubad na Pangarap compare to, say, Takaw Tukso?

eric b said...

Noel: Hubad na Pangarap is technically a thriller (who'd done it? what actually happened?) cum crime of passion. Initial comparison with Takaw Tukso will have to be the sex aspect (the person i watched it with actually walked out!). But other than that, totally different. Whereas Takaw Tukso reminds me of Bergman, Hubad na Pangarap leans toward the early works of Peque Gallaga (Unfaithful Wife comes to mind, but better, I believe).

Noel Vera said...

I can believe it's better than Unfaithful Wife; Peque is not much of a storyteller. Lao's perfectly capable of a noir thriller, I'd say.

And you think Takaw Tukso is Bergman too? Huh. That's another film that needs serious restoration.

Anonymous said...

I just saw Takaw Tukso a year ago at Cine Adarna. The copy's still good.


Anonymous said...

Hi Noel,

I have Kastilyong Buhangin on legit DVD, released by Paragon Home Video. The video quality is not very good though.


Noel Vera said...

vincent: that sure wasn't the print I saw. Could there have been a better one all along, or did they find one recently?

RSE: I think I actually wrote about that one. Getting senile. No, the video quality isn't good, but isn't it a great film?

Anonymous said...

The director himself doesn't even have a copy ?!?
S--t. I've been dying to see this movie.

Noel Vera said...

Directors don't have that high a status. The real powers are boxoffice stars and producers.