I remember seeing Peque Gallaga's Oro, Plata, Mata (Gold, Silver, Death) on the big screen back in 1982--an impressive picture, back when our idea of a Filipino film was Lino Brocka's social-realist melodrama Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon), or Ishmael Bernal's multinarrative tapestry Manila By Night. Gallaga's epic was something else entirely: a period piece set in World War 2 full of endless tracking shots, slow motion, and (outside of the independent films of Kidlat Tahimik, or the occasional surreal experiment by Bernal) visual poetry for the sake of visual poetry, never mind that it was rarely justified by the narrative.
The movie followed the lives of two upper-class families in the island province of Negros, the Ojedas and the Lorenzos. The Oro of the title described the conditions of life at the start of the war (extravagant parties, mansions full of servants, banquet tables groaning heavily with food); Plata describes the Ojedas' visit to the Lorenzo's countryside hacienda to escape the oncoming Japanese (fields of grain, hordes of water buffalo, a rooftop observatory under the vast constellated night sky); Mata goes deep into the war and deep into the rain forest, where the Lorenzos maintain an airy but relatively modest vacation lodge, and where both families take refuge for the remainder of the war (chicken coops, hunting trips, regular swims in crystal-clear streams). More successfully than any other Filipino filmmaker Gallaga is able to evoke the luxury of the upper-class Negros lifestyle, possibly because he came from that society (but is not, apparently, a card-carrying member), and paints a broad canvas full of nostalgia and great affection, and not a little good-natured ribbing (the Lorenzo scion Miguel (Joel Torre), when faced with the prospect of free sex, responds with astronomical gibberish; his mother Inday (Fides Cuyugan-Asensio), when faced with the prospect of Japanese occupation, prays desperately to her menagerie of plaster saints).
It's beautifully structured, with the trajectory of the families' fate described in the title (gold, silver, death); the characters are fascinatingly conceived, their leisurely ways meant to be seen as too chivalrous and impractical to survive the ordeal of wartime. In a way the script takes a page from David O. Selznick's superproduction--this too is an age gone with the wind. Gallaga matches Jose Javier Reyes' ambitious script with a style appropriate to the material: a tracking camera that glides easily, casually from one room to another, following one guest after another, eavesdropping on one conversation after another. The shot evokes everything from Orson Welles' great The Magnificent Ambersons to Bernardo Bertolucci's gigantic if flawed 1900 to Luchino Visconti's tremendous Il Gattopardo (The Leopard)--and in fact at one point the guests start a conga line, evoking the wedding sequence in the latter film.
If Gallaga's picture doesn't quite touch the heights of Il Gattopardo that's perhaps because he hasn't developed the layers of metaphor and symbolism found in Visconti's masterpiece. Visconti's Prince is the last of his line, painfully conscious of the changing winds of history and the crumbling of his own exalted class; Miguel in Oro, Plata is barely conscious of his own budding sexuality, much less the winds of change. There's a poignancy to Miguel's own story, a kind of bildungsroman, but the problem is that Miguel's character dwindles instead of expanding, growing more complex--when confronting sexuality he panics and turns timid (he has to be coaxed into making love, not once but twice); faced with opposition and violence he counters with even more violence, an emotional excess that seems to come out of nowhere (does sexual repression cause that much neurosis?). Miguel doesn't consider that perhaps the opposition--embodied mainly by his mother's former majordomo Melchor (the late Abbo dela Cruz)--may have another point of view, may have their own justifications for doing what they do.
Coming to perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film--Melchor is clearly meant to represent the lower classes, and his assault on the Lorenzos and Ojedas are meant to show us an old war irony: it's not always the foreign invader that commits the worse abuses, but one's own countrymen (a point Gallaga may have learned while giving a wonderful performance in an earlier Filipino war film, Mario O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976)). Except Melchor is not just a fellow countryman: he's also a member of the lower classes, and expresses the resentment and anger of the lower classes. At one point Melchor asks his son to join him, an offer his son rejects (like Scarlett O'Hara's servants in Gone With the Wind, the son has the mentality of a good slave) to which Melchor replies bitterly: “all right, be a prisoner, then.”
Melchor comes practically out of nowhere to shake the roots of the Lorenzo's and Ojeda's deeply rooted, long-established balete tree with a force even the Japanese could not muster; the script's failure is to capitalize on that tremor, to show us the darker side of upper-class Negro society as it exploited peonistic servitude to fund its high-maintenance lifestyle. Abbo dela Cruz is an excellent actor handicapped by an underwritten role: there are no differing sides to his villainy, no point or justice to his rebellion other than as an excuse to depict wartime atrocities inflicted by fellow countrymen on each other (actually the revenge of the poor inflicted on the rich--which makes it, of course, a fantasy). This is every upper-class Filipino's nightmare, and is presented unambiguously as such.
If the characters fail to grow and the narrative fails to develop layers, the imagery does increase in beauty and complexity--Miguel, who has finally (after an unconscionable delay) grown a pair finds nothing will satisfy his newly found manhood save a full-blown massacre, Wild Bunch style; Gallaga with the help of production designer Don Escudero and cinematographer Rody Lacap fashions a ruined-hospital nightmare of dark hallways and twisted rubble on which to stage the final shootout; the violence recalls Peckinpah (though without matching his exuberant poetry) and Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now (the deep shadows, the oranged light), albeit at a fraction of either filmmakers' budget.
If I've come down hard on the picture's flaws, I feel it's a needed corrective to its burnished (and in my book somewhat inflated) reputation, adding that there is, after all, a happy conclusion to all this--Gallaga, I suspect, learned from the experience and addressed his issues not just well but brilliantly in his true masterpiece, Scorpio Nights (1984). Flimsy characters? Have them shut up and fuck. Simplistic narrative? Do away with story entirely! Excessive violence and sexuality? Have them fuck more, then end the film with a multiple homicide!
And it works--the premise (a student and a housewife conduct an affair under the very nose of her security guard husband) and the tone of thick sensuality (inspired by Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses, though I believe Gallaga trumps Oshima here in terms of tension and psychological realism) are strong political metaphors for life under the fascistic Marcos administration. The lack of story points to the lovers' need to erase her oppressive husband, erase the outside world, erase the very narrative of their lives with sex, constantly aware of the consequences should the husband ever find out (they are literally fucking in the face of death). Oh, Gallaga has learned, all right--instead of turning away from his appetites he faces them head-on, and the result is one of the greatest Filipino erotic films ever made.
In the meantime there's this: a masterpiece not of narrative or social analysis perhaps, but of epic imagery, cinematography, and production design. I have not viewed the restoration; having seen the original in all its big-screen glory, I can't imagine the digital version being superior, no matter how high the definition. But I'm sure it'll look great.