I watched Mario O'Hara's Uhaw sa Pag ibig (Thirst for Love, 1983) expecting a mediocre production--no awards, no admiring words from anyone--and for the first thirty minutes or so the film confirmed my suspicions: your run-of-the-mill fallen-woman story where Lala (Claudia Zobel) fights with her mother (Perla Bautista), gets pregnant by her boyfriend (Patrick de La Rosa), plans to elope with said boyfriend (who is stabbed while waiting in an alley), eventually runs away from home.
Which turns out to be the case. Bong is a monster, and through him O'Hara manages to serve up the kind of sadistic cruelty he made so uniquely his own in films like Condemned (1984) and Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986) (here, it isn't so much what they do to Lala as it is the relish they show doing it--the pause, savoring the voluptuousness of the moment, before literally plunging in). Paradoxically, O'Hara himself, from the impression I have talking to him and to everyone who knows him well, is the gentlest soul you can ever meet; where all that cruelty comes from I haven't a clue.
I see bits and pieces of other films woven into this. The scene of Lala with Bong in a darkened room, a bright-red neon blinking outside and O'Hara cutting in such a way that every time the sign blinks a different man pumps away on top of her--evokes Nora's recurring nightmare in Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976); the premise of a daughter oppressed by her mother because she's a reminder (remainder?) of a faithless husband is from Insiang (1976) (Lala could be Insiang's older sister); the idea of two doomed lovers resorting to prostitution seems inspired by Lino Brocka's Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975).
But a good film must be more than the sum of its influences, and Uhaw's unique contribution to Philippine noir is its heroine. Zobel's high cheekbones and unfeminine face are at first off-putting; she comes across as a shallow, self-centered teenager who thinks with her genitals more than her head--which, as O'Hara shows us, she is, and does. It's when she goes out on her own--learning a little, loving a little, suffering a lot--that she eventually earns our sympathy, the kind of gradual transformation (the film's more than halfway through before you realize it) that can only be accomplished through skilled storytelling. The wonder is that O'Hara achieves this not just once, but twice--Bautista as Lala's mother is not a little overbearing when we first meet her; by film's end we're rooting for her to at least catch a glimpse of her daughter one more time.
Then there's Mande as Manuel, Lala's great love; his ultimate departure is foreshadowed by an ex-girlfriend's visit, reinforced by Claudia's confession of love (every time someone professes full commitment in a Filipino melodrama you can expect an equally absolute rejection in reply), and confirmed by an American boyfriend promising citizenship if Manuel would migrate to the United States. We're well prepared for the breakup, for Manuel to prove to Lala and us that he's a perfect asshole, but why the pause in the hallway before entering their room? Is he steeling himself because he finds the coming scene too distressing (a lot of arguing, a lot of yelling), or because he still loves her? Is he perhaps thinking that this is the best way to break up, make it easier for her to forget him? O'Hara teases us with throwaway moments of ambiguity so fleeting you miss them if you blink.
The script, by Mely Tagasa (she plays Miss Tapia in the comic TV series Iskul Bukol" ), doesn't say anything really new; what it does have is the kind of honest characterization and attention to detail that builds up a whole world before you without your really noticing, inhabited by people with motives and virtues and flaws you come to recognize in yourself. Frankly, I'm in awe; her story for O'Hara's Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, 1980) and screenplay for this film suggests that she's an unsung master of intelligent melodrama, at least when O'Hara is directing (he claims to rewrite at least half of every script he handles).
Sergio Lobo's lighting and cinematography is gorgeous, better I think than his work in Manila By Night (but maybe not as hauntingly premonitory as his work in Himala): the shadows are so velvety you could almost sink into them, the lighting harsh when it's not soft, seductive. Details stay in the memory--a jalousied kitchen window through which we peer, like startled neighbors, while Lala's mother beats her black and blue; a wall of mirrored tiles upon which the new Lala first appears, sleek and rouged and (barely) wearing a string bikini, before the camera pans to the girl herself (the pan suggests that while the latter looks more than healthy the former, the reflection--the 'inner self,' if you like--is seriously fractured); a hospital corridor--dark save for a brute spot burning in one corner--echoes the pregnant Lala's cries as she collapses in hysterics.
Uhaw begins with a clip from Manila by Night which Lobo, I suspect, helped procure; possibly this film is O'Hara's reply. Both focus on the underside of Manila's night life but are otherwise opposed: Uhaw stays with one character where Manila follows half a dozen; has a clear, traditional narrative where Manila offers a Nashville-style buffet of storylines and emotional tones (from grim to tragic to absurd, sometimes a combination of the three). Maybe the greatest difference is found in the filmmakers' attitude towards their characters--Bernal serves his up for our amusement, subjecting them to the most outrageous grotesqueries with few attempts at sympathy; O'Hara offers a doubled vision--along with an often distant emotional tone he manages to solicit empathy for his characters, see them as they really are, warts and all, and still root for them to survive.
O'Hara filmed this picture after Ibulong Mo sa Puso (Whisper to the Heart, 1983) and before his great triptych of Condemned, Bulaklak sa City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail, 1984), and Bagong Hari--all set in Manila, all depicting the Filipino underclass in extremis much like that other great Manila noir, Brocka's Maynila. Seems he spent much of the first half of the '80s taking off on both Bernal and Brocka, extending the ground they pioneered, doing tonal and genre variations (from comic to erotic to extremely violent; from neo-realism to horror fantasy), creating memorable imagery (from the corridor compositions in Bulaklak to the monolithic apartment complex in Bakit Bughaw ang Langit? (Why is the Sky Blue? 1981) to the gladiator arena in Bagong Hari); I think some of his work can stand, if not side-by-side, at least in the same class as the two classics. Uhaw may not be his finest work of this period (that would be either Bakit Bughaw or Bagong Hari), but it's still a gem of a film; can't believe it's dropped so completely out of sight.
(First appeared in the now-defunct website Criticine 4.13.06)