It's been two years to the day
Mario O'Hara RIP
Here is an old interview (reproduced from my book Critic After Dark) I did, the very first time I met him:
Three Men Drunk In A Dimsum Shop
WE MET OUTSIDE of Shakey's, which was Mario O'Hara's suggestion. "Then I thought 'Wait a minute,'" he told me, "'Shakey's, on a Friday night--a basketball night. We won't get a table.'" Indeed we didn't: there was a line of customers waiting to be seated. We ended up in a dim sum shop outside of Glorietta's Streetlife, ordering pitchers of beer from a nearby bar.
I was with my friend--call him Mang Philip--and we had collared the elusive Mario O'Hara backstage of the last performance of his latest play, Wilfredo Ma. Guerrero's Ulilang Tahanan (Orphan Home). Mang Philip took one arm, I took the other, and we twisted until O'Hara agreed to meet us: which is, it turns out, the only way you can convince him to give an interview.
Backtrack one year: when I had first met Mang Philip, we had spent the whole night talking about, well, everything you can imagine; one of the things we talked about was films. "Everyone is a thief and a fake," he informed me. "Celso (Ad. Castillo), Mike (de Leon), Ishmael (Bernal), Lino (Brocka), Gerry (de Leon)--all thieves and fakes."
"I don't know," I told him, "They're not that bad."
Mang Philip shook his head. "The only one who's any good is Mario O'Hara. I can't remember the title of the movie I saw of his--what's the matter?"
The matter was, I had just seen Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos, (Three Years Without God) and I was more or less thinking the same thing--not that O'Hara's the only one who's any good, but that he's the best filmmaker we have.
The realization came gradually. As early as '86 I had seen Bagong Hari (The New King) and I was blown away: the film's action sequences were far more thrilling, far more exciting than anything I had ever seen in a Filipino film, almost--well, almost Japanese in intensity. I'd decided that if Brocka is our best film director, at least visually, O'Hara is his superior.
When I saw Lino Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged and Found Wanting, 1974), I was dumbstruck. Not in his agitprop films Bayan Ko (My Country) and Orapronobis (Fight for Us), not in his acknowledged masterpiece Maynila Sa Mga Kuko Ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon) did Brocka realize the epic sweep, the intimate detail that he did in this pitiless, passionate portrait of a small provincial town. He even had a pair of lovers--Lolita Rodriguez as a crazed woman, Mario O'Hara as a leper--in a dramatic duet so powerful they took over the film. It was after seeing the film (I was late for the opening credits) that I had my mind blown away yet again: the film had been written by O'Hara.
Name me the best Filipino directors, at least of the 70's, and the list is short: Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Mike De Leon, Celso Ad. Castillo. O'Hara's name is rarely mentioned, yet he is always there, lurking in the credits like Frankenstein's monster. Of Brocka's three greatest films (Maynila, Tinimbang, Insiang), O'Hara wrote two: Tinimbang and Insiang, and he gave the best single performance in Tinimbang. The man can act, can write, can direct--a triple threat. What else was he capable of?
Then I saw Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos, and I was blown away for the third time.
When the pitcher of beer arrived, I filled our mugs, then asked him about the film, and how it was received back in 1976.
"Not very well," he admitted. "Mainly because everyone was asking: who's he? I'm from Adamson University, and all the filmmakers and Manunuri critics were from UP.
"The best-praised film that year was Lupita's (Kashiwahara) Minsa'y Isang Gamu-Gamo (Once There Was a Moth). Socially relevant films were very in then, and Tatlong Taong wasn't very socially conscious."
No it wasn't, I told him. I added that the film was also unique for another reason: it portrayed Japanese soldiers as human beings. As far as I can tell, we're the only country in the world that has suffered under the Japanese Occupation and made a film like this.
"Christopher De Leon's Japanese officer," I concluded, "is like no other character I've ever encountered in Filipino films. How did you create him?"
O'Hara smiled, "I knew him."
"You knew him?"
"Or someone like him. I knew a Filipino who had raped a woman, then felt guilty, cared for the woman, and became a good father to their baby. Every character I write is from someone I know."
"How about Insiang?"
O'Hara started to laugh. "Insiang happened at the back of our house in Pasay."
Mang Philip interrupted: "Mario, I loved Insiang, except for one thing: I cannot believe it can happen in Tondo."
"It didn't," O'Hara said. "It was set in Pasay. Brocka changed it to Tondo."
"You should have insisted on Pasay," he said, refilling our empty mugs.
I was lost, and I admitted as much to them. O'Hara explained it to me. "A woman as good-looking as Hilda Koronel's Insiang wouldn't remain poor in Tondo. She would stand out; she would be noticed, wooed, showered with gifts. In Pasay, there are so many prostitutes another one, no matter how beautiful, wouldn't make a difference. She would stay poor."
"Oh." I asked him: "and Nora Aunor's character in Tatlong Taong? The one De Leon raped? Did you know her?"
O'Hara laughed. "There are a lot of women like her in Pasay."
Mang Philip refilled our mugs. I ordered another pitcher.
"I liked you in your very first role," Mang Philip was telling O'Hara, "opposite Eddie Garcia in Tubog sa Ginto (Dipped in Gold). Eddie was with you at the swimming pool. You stripped and dove in. A beautiful scene."
"There's a story about that scene!" O'Hara said. "I was concerned about taking my clothes off. I told Lino: I wanted just Eddie, him, and the cameraman. No one else. When I arrived, the owner of the pool was there; so was his wife, his children, his maids, his neighbors. I talked to Lino again, and he said 'Don't worry, I'll take care of everything.' I was too nervous--it was my first role. So I obeyed him. I took my bathrobe off. One of the young dalagitas--I'm sure she was a virgin--pointed and screamed: 'Diyos ko, ano 'yan?!' (Dear God, what's that?!)"
"A beautiful scene," Mang Philip murmured, caressing the mug with his thumb.
I was trying to establish his writing, directing and acting filmography. "What was your next role?"
I frowned. "And Tubog was--1970, right? Why the gap?"
O'Hara laughed. "Because I was angry! After that swimming pool scene, I said to myself: 'P_k_ mo Lino, just try and put me in one of your films again! Just try!"
Mang Philip roared "P_k_ niya talaga!"
I looked at Mang Philip. "Is that how people from Pasay express themselves?"
"P_k_ nilang lahat!"
"Lino liked to shock people," O'Hara said.
"Lino was an idiot!"
"I thought Halimaw (Monster, 1986) was an interesting film," I said, looking hard at Mang Philip. He was pouring himself another mug of beer. "At least, your half of the film."
"That was during the Metro Manila Filmfest, when Tingting Cojuangco announced that all the films were copies of foreign movies." Mario said. "I said to myself, 'P_t_, I better not win, because if I do, I'm going to say something!' So I walked out."
"But you won anyway, for" I looked at my notes, "best actor, best director, best picture." Actually third best picture; the judges refused to give first best.
First or third, I told him, Halimaw had at least two brilliant sequences. The first had Liza Lorena talking to O'Hara, and ends with Lorena slapping O'Hara's face, again and again. The scene was finely written, flawlessly acted; you had to remind yourself that it was a horror story. The second sequence was even better: a long monologue where Lorena explains to Lotlot De Leon her feelings of jealousy and hate, all the while walking towards Lotlot with chilling deliberation.
"The film was based on Ifugao burial practices. They put their dead in jars, and store them in caves." O'Hara told me. "Tingting must have thought the film was copied from an Amazing Stories episode, where monsters came out of a box."
"Tingting is a--" Mang Philip went into a long, involved speech about exactly what Tingting was.
"And the other half?" I managed to ask. "The Christopher De Leon segment?"
"That was inspired by Ah-ha!s' video, the one where the hero turns into a cartoon character."
Mang Philip was for ordering another pitcher.
"You won the previous year for Bulaklak Sa City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail, 1984)," I noted, filling mugs.
"I thought I might win a third time. But "Bagong Hari was given an X-rating, which disqualified the film."
"You directed Bagong Hari?" Mang Philip asked. "My God!" He pointed at O'Hara "You sir, understand violence. You do! I know everything about the balisong, and I didn't see a single fake moment in the film. Did you pick Dan Alvaro for the role?"
"No, he was picked by the studio. I had to use him."
"He was perfect," Mang Philip declared. "So quiet! Real killers are like that. The loud man walking down the street, I don't notice. I'm afraid of the quiet man." He talked about quiet men and balisongs, balisongs and quiet men, for some time after that.
"It took me three days," Mario finally continued, "to shoot the fight scene at the National Mental Hospital sunken theater in Mandaluyong. The producer asked why it had taken three days. I showed him the fight scene and he didn't like it."
I couldn't believe that, and I told him so. After, of course, Mang Philip had me order another pitcher of beer.
"Actually, the most difficult action scene was the one in the ice plant. I'd forgotten that Dan had his shirt off and was soaking wet. His bare feet kept sticking to the metal floor."
"I have to urinate," Mang Philip said, and walked out.
"Johnny Tinoso and The Proud Beauty," I said quickly (I knew I didn't have a lot of time), "is half of a wonderful film. Half was poor special effects, the other half was, for me, even more magical than Disney's Beauty and the Beast."
"I didn't want to go too far from the concept of Beauty and the Beast at first," Mario said. "That's why Jestoni Alarcon's makeup was the traditional Beast makeup. When Gretchen Baretto was transformed, I wanted to show her inner nature coming out."
"It was beautiful," I said, "and horrifying. The hand clutching her forehead. The tiny face on her chin, screaming. That I remember: that and the ending. It's the first time I ever saw a dramatic climax where the two stars had their backs to the camera. Why did you do it?"
"She was supposed to transform back to her beautiful self, and I was tired of seeing the magic done in front of you, onscreen. So I had her turn her back instead. You heard the change through her voice, through the words she used. You never saw the magic, but you knew it's happening."
"Which was magical." I said. Mang Philip came through the door, looking suspicious. "Did I miss anything?" We shook our heads.
"Another pitcher of beer," Mang Philip said. O'Hara gently told him he'd had enough. But Mang Philip was stubborn.
"The beer won't be wasted. If you can't finish the pitcher, I will!"
We compromised: one more, but it's the last. Mang Philip agreed. O'Hara went to the bathroom. I told Mang Philip: "We came here to interview O'Hara, but it's turning into an interview of you."
He shook his head. "You saw how shy he is. I'm trying to help you draw him out."
"The shop closes at two. I have just a few hours left to 'draw him out.'"
"You can do it, you'll see."
O'Hara came back smiling. "I went to the men's room in Hard Rock Cafe, and I saw all these people seated. They looked so bored! They were so bored they all stared when I walked by them."
Mang Philip probably felt O'Hara needed a little more "drawing out;" he talked about his travels to France, about meeting Orson Welles, about some university professor named Anton who flashed him in Dunkin' Donuts, thinking he was a boy prostitute (they instantly recognized each other, and were deeply embarrassed).
Eventually, I did see: I saw O'Hara listening to Mang Philip. I saw the line of his body, the tilt of his head, the turn of his knees. I saw the subtly branching fingers on his hands, like tree roots probing deep for water. His whole being was focused on this old man pouring his memories out over a mugful of beer.
"My son," Mang Philip said, "is a son of a b_tch. He's in Japan, he speaks Japanese, he works there."
"You must be proud of him," O'Hara said.
"I hate him," Mang Philip said. "He never sends any money."
O'Hara laughed. "You don't miss his money, you miss his letters! You miss him, don't you? Don't you?" he teased, gently nudging Mang Philip.
"I have to urinate again," Mang Philip walks out.
O'Hara laughs. "While he was talking, I could see his character forming in my head!"
"You mean, you might use him in a script? A film?" O'Hara laughed again. For some reason, I felt more than a little envious. I remember a question I had asked him earlier:
"Was the leper and the crazy woman in Tinimbang inspired by Sisa and her husband in (the Jose Rizal novel) Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not)?"
"But Sisa's husband wasn't a leper!" Mario said, "Not in the book. I created the two lovers, I didn't copy them."
"Did you write the part of the leper for yourself?"
"No. Lino couldn't get anyone, so he asked me."
O'Hara suddenly looked serious. He leaned forward, looked at me, and said: "One thing I am, one thing that's me is, I'm devoted. I'll give a person what he needs. If he needs a friend, if he needs a companion, if he needs to talk, if he needs to cry, I'm there."
The shop was closing. For the umpteenth time, I told Mang Philip that the last pitcher was the last pitcher. "You shouldn't be so literal," he moaned.
O'Hara started to move away. Suddenly, Mang Philip had his arms around his neck.
"Don't go!" he said.
"I won't," O'Hara soothed.
O'Hara being a prodigious beer drinker, knew all the moves when handling a drunk--but so did Mang Philip. He clung to O'Hara's neck. O'Hara relented. The two of us walked Mang Philip unsteadily out of the building.
"I love this man," Mang Philip said. "This man is a genius!"
I asked O'Hara if he'd be all right going home. "I think so," he said. Suddenly, we realize that Mang Philip wasn't with us; he was leaning against a wall, urinating.
"Now's your chance," I told O'Hara, nudging him. He looked puzzled; then he understood. "Thanks," he said, stretching a hand out to me. And he was gone.