Monday, October 17, 2011

Sa Ngalan ng Ina (Mario O'Hara, 10/3/11 - 10/14/11)

In the name of the artist

Filipino actress Nora Aunor works best with Filipino filmmaker Mario O'Hara.

There, I've said it. Oh, Aunor--a multimedia, multi-awarded giantess in the '70s and '80s--has done excellent work with other directors (Bona (1980) with Lino Brocka, Himala with Ishmael Bernal, 'Merika (1984) with Gil Portes), but arguably her finest films were with O'Hara (Condemned (1984); Bulaklak sa City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail, 1984); the great Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976)). If Brocka had his favorite actors (Philip Salvador, Gina Alajar) and Bernal his (Vilma Santos, Maricel Soriano), O'Hara's is possibly Nora. More than a filmography they share a quiet sensitivity, a kind of shyness; they would rather avoid the spotlight if they could help it (but when it falls on them, they step up with the confidence of veteran professionals). In temperament they could conceivably be brother and sister, having practically grown up together as workers and artists in a pitilessly changing industry. 

Talk about pitiless, O'Hara and Aunor have not worked with each other for some twenty-four years, and time has taken its toll--O'Hara has gained a mane of white hair, Aunor''s expression has grown solemn, even careworn. The actress has spent almost eight years out of the country, in seeming exile, trailed along the way by stories of bankrupt finances and a drug possession charge. Now she's come home, and judging by all the media fuss she seems bigger than ever, and we (at least those who've never really forgotten) wait with bated breath for the results of their first collaboration in decades. Will lightning strike yet again? Is the magic still there? 

It is. Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother) is that rare creature in Philippine television, the political melodrama. Longer and more complex soap operas have been mounted on Philippine television before, and politics has been touched upon before, but far as I can recall there has never been a series (the exact name of the genre is, I believe, the teleserye) fully driven by politics, hinging upon the election into office and subsequent administration of the main character. This particular production will run for only the month of October--meaning the production budget (which is lavish) can and has already be measured out, and the storyline guaranteed, more or less, not to run out of gas (a common complaint, apparently about many a teleserye--that they have overstayed their welcome).

It's a whirlwind of a melodrama--without much wasted breath O'Hara and co-director Jon Red (brother of independent filmmaker Raymond Red) take material written by Dinno Erece, Jerry Gracio, Benedict Mique, Pamela Miras, and establish the dozen or so characters of the story, their often conflicting motivations, the tumultuous milieu in which they operate. 

Philippine elections have traditionally been a chaotic affair, to put it mildly; I'd call it a cross between an endless town rally and a three-ring circus, with the occasional rival-gang shootout interrupting the festivities. The idea of setting a melodrama during a province's gubernatorial elections is, to put it mildly, genius--the marriage of tone and substance makes such perfect sense it's a wonder no one's ever thought of it before. Complex machinations and even more complex plot twists? Nefarious treacheries and lurid sex? Vicious confrontations among political rivals, long-time friends, blood brothers? Torture, car chases, assassination attempts? Either you're watching a lengthy melodrama (with a Hollywood-sized budget I'm guessing The Godfather, Part 1 and 2) or it's election season in the Philippines, baby; don't forget to wear a raincoat (for the mudslinging and spittle) over your bullet-proof vest.

This is familiar territory for O'Hara; his Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986) is set in a large and powerful (if fictional) province, where two rival factions vie for the position of governor of the land. The fictional province is Manila, the office of governor a stand-in for the office of President of the Philippines; the relatively small-scale struggle (relatively; I thought O'Hara had wrought a rarity among noir films--the noir epic) served as metaphor for the nationwide struggle to wrest power away from former president Ferdinand Marcos. 

Sa Ngalan ng Ina while lighter in tone (Bagong Hari received an "X" rating from the censors board for its extreme violence) is broader in scope, ranging from housewife-turned president Cory Aquino's rise to power (she was chosen to run against Marcos for the sentimental value of her husband Ninoy's death--presumably assassinated under orders from Marcos' wife, Imelda), through her struggles as naive Chief Executive (both traditional politicians (trapos) and the military (here represented by the province's police force) alike constantly underestimated her). The series even throws in a subplot involving secret recordings--a reference to the "Hello, Garci" tape scandal that marred former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's administration. 

Easy to equate the characters to their real-life inspirations: Elena Deogracias (Aunor) is the Cory Aquino figure, her husband Amang (Bembol Roco) the martyred Ninoy; wheelchair-bound Pepe Ilustre (Christopher de Leon) is Ferdinand Marcos, the voluptuous Lucia Ilustre (Rosanna Roces) his ruthless wife. The script introduces several interesting changes to the actual story: turns out Elena and Pepe were once lovers (as Aunor and De Leon were in real life), and their children also romantically involved (a la the late Bienvenido Noriega's comedy musical Bongbong at Kris). The script cunningly links not just to recent political history (Aquino vs. Marcos, with a touch of Macapagal-Arroyo) but to recent popular movie history (Aunor vs. De Leon, both having once been married to each other).

So--topical relevance; high production values; a royal flush of excellent actors (along with the main stars there's Leo Rialp, Raquel Villavicencio, Alwyn Uytingco, Eugene Domingo), a solidly constructed, intricately plotted script. Not a bad vehicle, overall--but a television melodrama? How to reconcile this with O'Hara's reputation as one of the Philippines' better filmmakers?

Actually there's nothing to reconcile; O'Hara has always embraced melodrama--it's where he comes from. He got his first break in a Proctor and Gamble radio show in 1963, years before meeting Brocka, and Filipino radio is nothing if not melodrama. He acted on the theatrical stage; wrote scripts for and acted in Brocka's TV series Balintataw. His script for Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos was originally written for the drama series Hilda, a dramatic showcase for Brocka protege Hilda Koronel. At one point he was the director of the hit series Flordeluna, starring Janice de Belen in the 1980s--you might say he improved the series. On occasion I've caught him directing the odd episode of Lovingly Yours, Helen; he did one of the better instalments for Eddie Romero's 1896 TV mini-series, Alitaptap sa Gabing Madilim (Firefly in the Dark Night) based on a Lualhati Bautista script. Far as I know he's still acting onstage, and on radio. 

In short O'Hara does not put on airs, and has not lost touch with his roots--he takes this project seriously, and has lavished it with his distinct visual and narrative sensibilities. You see it in the camerawork--though O'Hara has always maintained that video is a less expressive medium, you wouldn't think it looking at the film's extravagant lighting scheme (all those large-scale night scenes with their need for floodlights are always more expensive to shoot). 

You see it in big ways--the many parties, rallies and large crowds; in several of the action sequences, the biggest to date being the safehouse assault. O'Hara in films like Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, 1980) and the aforementioned Condemned and Bagong Hari has proven time and time again he's a competent action director, and he proves it yet again here. The assault is realistically staged, cleanly shot and edited, and not a little suspenseful (can't help but think that the gang leader's last stand on the mansion's highest alcove is a little bit inspired by the finale of Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-ju, 1957)).

(As it turns out, I am wrong--Red directed this. In which case, kudos to the man; it's a very well done setpiece) 

You see it in subtler ways--the first meeting between Elena and Pepe in an old church, for example. Pepe in his wheelchair sits up and turns to look at the camera; he is limned in light against a dark background. Reverse cut to Elena, a dark silhouette against brilliant sunlight, contrasting light and shadow used to contrast two physically and temperamentally different actors (the dusky, quietly intense Aunor, the mestizo-looking, more easygoing De Leon). Later you have party leader Apo Lucas (Leo Rialp) approaching Elena in a gazebo, and the sequence is shot and framed like a stage production not unlike A Midsummer Night's Dream. Which makes all kinds of sense--Apo will offer Elena the candidacy for governor and it's meant to be a quietly moving moment, the episode's dramatic high point. But Apo's intentions are false; he means to use her as a puppet figure. He assumes Elena has visions of power, and that her ambitions are a mere fantasy he can grant or cause to vanish at any time, much like dreams--or much like, as Puck suggests, most of what happens in Shakespeare's play (If we shadows have offended / think but this, and all is mended / that you have but slumbered here / while these visions did appear).

I can't help but play this game, who's directing what scene--I keep thinking most of the sweeping crane shots are Jon Red's (really beautifully done, some of them), and some of the high static overhead shots are O'Hara's (he occasionally likes to assume a God's eye view of the action, to remind us how small and helpless we really are). I'm guessing all the church scenes are O'Hara's, mainly because they have the feel of his work (locked-down camera, simple setup, sharp mis-en-scene).

I'm guessing some of the sound editing and music cuing are O'Hara's work--as he likes to put it, they're so radio. Conversations from the next scene often overlap the images of the previous scene; at one point the conversation on television runs on in the background while the scene has already cut from studio into the Ilustre's bedroom--a nice way of telling us that, despite all of Lucia's protestations, she does have something to do with what they're talking about on TV.

Perhaps oddest of all is a trick used at least twice, where the image suddenly slows down while conversation runs on ahead. You get a sense of events moving past you, past the characters, past everyone's control, while you're left staring at slowed-down people struggling to catch up. It's easily the series' most disconcerting audio effect.

Easily O'Hara's simplest yet most powerful device would be his musical cuing. No one else I know can cue like O'Hara (he had to help Brocka with the soundtrack of Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975), for example). He'll keep the scene mostly quiet, the acting mostly subdued, and at a key word or phrase or carefully timed moment he'll sneak in the music--and just like that you're trying your level best not to tear up.

Actingwise, there's very little to fault. Eugene Domingo as Pacita presides over Elena's household and governor's office like a born second-in-command; her salty down-to-earth wisdom makes one think of Sancho Panza, supporting the fragile Don Quixote. Leo Rialp as Apo has few scenes, but what few he has stands out (his charming old patriarch act very much caught me by surprised, as I was at one point thinking this political party seemed too squeaky-clean for its own good--Rialp quickly put paid to that misconception). The lovely Raquel Villavicencio as former Vice Governor Dorinda Fernando doesn't have a consistent presence--the script writes her out of entire episodes--but her character when actually there is wonderfully bitchy, a real power-climber and seasoned survivor. Alwyn Uytingco as Elena's stepson Alfonso has the showy role, the prodigal child, and plays it to the hilt; he knows, however, that when called to play differently (as in the aftermath to the assassination attempt gone wrong) that that is his moment, and he comes through wonderfully. Christopher De Leon as Pepe Ilustre reportedly refused to take direction from O'Hara when they did Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos over thirty-five years ago (though for the record I liked him there); he's apparently learned enough to listen now, as his is a largely restrained performance. His scenes with Aunor have a beautiful delicacy to them, as if the two veterans know they only have to do very little to suggest page upon page of intense feelings between them. Rosanna Roces plots and rants and fumes as Pepe's evil wife Lucia, and you can tell she's having the time of her life with possibly the role of her life, as the melodrama's chief villainess. If Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954) is basically a confrontation between two powerful women, so is Sa Ngalan ng Ina (fact is, I think we're ahead of the United States in depicting women taking power onscreen--our women have now reached the level of achievement of Ray's film, in reducing men to pawns and trophy husbands); Roces steps up to the plate across Aunor and delivers an over-the-top performance worthy of Joan Crawford herself.

It's a spectacular success, but what stays in one's memory are the quieter moments. There are the scenes of Aunor and De Leon in church, of course, but then there's the very quiet, very fine scene of Pacita feeding Alfonso, and Alfonso wishing she and not Elena were his stepmother. It's more than just killing time; it helps show us a more motherly side to Pacita, and an altogether more human side to Alfonso--when he does what he does later in the show, we can't forget having seen that side, and it makes his later anger all the more unsettling. Later Lucia confronts Pepe, and we realize that for all her evil machinations and adulteries she does love him, very much; if anything, she does it all out of a sense of love, not hate. You realize you're watching not a virago but a woman after all, flesh-and-blood and full of helpless anguish at the treacheries of the human heart. 

As for Aunor--what else to say about her? When Amang dies on the treatment table the room bursts out in a symphony of grieving. Aunor knows she has to play against that, she has to pull your eyes down, down, down to her diminutive level so you're aware that, while everyone else is being far more demonstrative, the news has hit her the hardest. Later, she has a simple scene with Domingo putting away Amang's clothes where it's her effort not to cry, instead of the usual histrionics and tears, that makes the scene so quietly moving. 

It's not perfect work, and perhaps the most serious flaw in it is Elena's sainted goodness, which is almost too good to be true. But we're only halfway through the series, and hopefully O'Hara, Red, and the rest of the filmmaking team will manage to show us more sides to our heroine, give us the clay feet as well as the halo.

O'Hara helps out; he has Aunor flash out in steely anger more and more often, and I remember a line she delivers to an underperforming police officer that deserves to be an oft-quoted classic ("Remember I had my own son arrested--think what I'd do to someone outside my family!"). Most of O'Hara's work seems to consist of modulating Aunor's glamor, of having the camera treat her thematically, according to the demands of the narrative, instead of protecting her as befits the star of a big production. Often Aunor looks harried and exhausted, and it's heartrending to see her like this (you feel all the problems of the series weighing down on her). Once in a while though O'Hara relents, finds a certain angle...and suddenly she's gorgeous to look at, our Superstar forever, the literal face of Philippine cinema. 

(Cont'd in next part)



Anonymous said...

Excellent review Mr. Noel Devera. I only wish there are more people like you who know how to discern fine arts against pseudo-arts.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks! It's Noel Vera, though. But thanks.

Anonymous said...

lol. did jojo devera married noel vera?

Anonymous said...


Noel Vera said...