Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, Mario O'Hara, 1980)

For Nora Aunor's birthday, a reprint from my book Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema

A castle meant to last

Mario O'Hara's Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, 1980) is the story of a boy and a girl. Oscar (Robert "Toffy" Padua) lives with his mother Onyang (theater and radio actress Metring David); Laura (Maila Marcelo) is an orphan, and suffers under stepmother Viring (Bella Flores) and her lover Romy (Mario's brother and character actor Edwin O'Hara), a drunkenly violent man who beats the girl every chance he gets. At one point, Laura confesses that she envies Oscar, who has many dreams and seems to be going somewhere; she, on the other hand, has no place to go. Oscar chides the girl, tells her he'll always take care of her, no matter what; and so their fates are sealed...

O'Hara tells this hard-luck story (from comedienne and scriptwriter Mely Tagasa) with such heartfelt simplicity and directness that the viewer is captivated. Boy befriends girl with a curse; boy and girl help each other, find solace in each other's company. Boy confronts curse, defeats it; with the implacable logic of all fairy tales, curse is lifted from the girl and transferred to the boy, who spends the rest of his youth growing up in reformatory prison.

O'Hara shows us a prison life full of realistic detail and a casual, almost unnoticed lyricism--at one point he has Oscar running through a field of flowers that (we assume) the convicts have planted and cared for over the years. Laura, now staying with Onyang, visits once in a while, and their meetings have the unforced happiness of two childhood friends seeing each other again. Then, almost unnoticed (a quick match-cut from young boy to grown man), the boy becomes Lito Lapid, one of the film's stars, who runs up to meet his visiting "sister:" Nora Aunor, the film's other star.

I described the beginning in some detail because it seems important to O'Hara's concept of the film. Kastilyong Buhangin's prologue painstakingly establishes the fairy-tale tone (perfect for defusing disbelief in a fairy-tale melodrama); presents to us the childhood traumas that shaped the characters; and introduces an all-important fatalist attitude towards destiny--how one may fight and resist it for a while, but ultimately must submit.

It's this prologue with its precisely evoked emotional texture that distracts you--distracts, misdirects, ultimately demolishes from your awareness the fact that this is actually a vanity vehicle for both Lapid and Aunor. Aunor being a singer and actress and Lapid being a stuntman turned action-star, the film is a mélange of pop-song numbers and hand-to-hand combat sequences--an odd combination for a melodrama and usually a fatal one, in that the natural reaction would be to refuse to take any of it seriously. I mean--how can you watch with straight face a cover of "Corner in the Sky" from Pippin (complete with Carpenters-style orchestration and choreography) followed by a deadly gang fight set in a meat market? Somehow you do; somehow you watch not only with straight face but with bated breath, hoping Oscar comes through the meat-market fracas okay--which is O'Hara's achievement. Like the popular song composed by George Canseco that serves as the film's theme and title, Kastilyong Buhangin dives into its emotional core and serves the story up without fuss, shot in O'Hara's uniquely cinematic style.

Aunor's Laura as the rising singer saddled with a problematic lover (think A Star is Born) gives the film its dramatic fire and substance. She's the sensible person hurting because she loves someone much less sensible; she's torn between the urge to abandon that person (the common-sense professional) and the urge to stand by her man (the little girl who still remembers her childhood savior). By this time Aunor was considered a heavyweight drama actress--she had made Ina Ka ng Anak Mo (You are the Mother of Your Child, 1979) with Lino Brocka; Ikaw ay Akin (You are Mine, 1978) opposite rival Vilma Santos (Ishmael Bernal directing); and, of course, Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976), with O'Hara--but there's nothing heavy about her acting here; it's human-scaled and elegantly drawn, with few wasted gestures or unnecessary lines of dialogue. As with Aunor's very best performances, the intensity comes not from her line readings (possibly her weakest moment is when someone is killed, and she cries out, perhaps too theatrically, for a doctor), but from her eyes--huge, dark, eloquent, a silent film actress in a sound picture.

O'Hara, understanding this, gives her moments where she displays this quality--moments like when she suddenly ends a recording session and sits alone in the studio, all wordless glamor and mystery. Or when Oscar comes to her bedroom drunk, and makes a pass at her--Laura rejects him at first, then thinks better of it. The second example is especially fine: you see from the expression on her face that she's a proper girl who really should refuse him--but she loves him, damn it, and she's tired of being so proper. The wine, after all is said and done, must be decanted some time; just this once she wants to live dangerously.

Laura may be the dramatic spine supporting the film, but Oscar is its central consciousness, its heart. Which is amazing, as from the little I've seen of his other work, Lapid's range as an actor is strictly limited--he has always played this shy, likeable probinsyano (provincial) who comes to the big city, mainly because it's the only part he can play. And O'Hara uses this; he counts on Lapid's shyness and apparent innocence to keep the audience on his side while O'Hara sketches a darker, more complex side to the character.

In effect Oscar, who's eventually released on parole, has adjusted so well to the claustrophobic cells and strict regulations of prison life that the open spaces of the world outside gives him a kind of agoraphobia; he can't help but shrink back in fear. From whiling away the days with his convict friends, he's now expected to go back to school, get a job, become a responsible human being (expectations so daunting to us ordinary people they must seem near impossible to an ex-convict).

And Oscar can't deal with it; he resorts to drinking heavily, falls in with all kinds of dubious friends, gets into all kinds of trouble. In effect, Oscar never left prison--he's just graduated to a larger one with more complex regulations, the locks and restraints applied mainly to his mind where they can't be picked or broken. In one telling scene friends get him drunk, and he responds by giving them a floor show--the kind of gyrating dance men learn from nightclubs and strip joints. Eventually his dancing suggests something more--the release of pent-up emotions, of energies long repressed. Finally he's merely whirling in place, his arms and legs flailing about while he fruitlessly seeks escape, relief, a mammal running helplessly on a treadmill until he collapses, weeping in anger and frustration. He literally has no place to go. 

Through Oscar director O'Hara shows us that innocence is not enough--that in fact innocence will pull us out of step with the world (which is essentially corrupt), will trip us up and bring us down. O'Hara gives us a portrait of a man drowning, and surrounds him with loving, caring people (Laura, Onyang) who can only watch helplessly as he gradually chokes to death.

A word on the violence in this film--there's plenty of it, mainly because Oscar spent most of his time in prison learning (as far as I can tell) a combination of boxing, Karate, and streetfighting. The tragedy is that he might have learned too well; if he wasn't so good at defending himself, if he had been beaten up a few times early on, maybe he wouldn't be so fearless about getting himself into trouble.

As it is, the fight scenes are intricately choreographed, coherently shot and edited, and relentlessly realistic; they mark a major difference between O'Hara and his one-time collaborator, Lino Brocka. While Brocka made noir films (Jaguar, Macho Dancer, Hot Property), and song-and-drama flicks (Stardoom), he could never do action (an essential element of noir) very well--he leaves that to a fight choreographer to arrange, then photographs the results indifferently.

O'Hara is clearly more familiar with violence; he shoots it with flair and a real filmmaker's eye, and in Kastilyong Buhangin it is a major contributor to the grim visual texture. O'Hara even has a final setpiece, a riot in a prison shower room, that outdoes anything I've seen in Ringo Lam's Prison on Fire movies, looks extremely difficult to choreograph and shoot (O'Hara takes advantage of the fact that almost every one in the shower room is an accomplished stunt man to do the near-impossible--and on wet tiles, yet). The musical accompaniment to this orgy of violence is a sad, tinkling little melody, the kind likely to evoke childhood memories--as if Oscar's thoughts had gone beyond the body-blows and splashing blood, to a time when he could be both innocent and happy with the ones he loved.

Kastilyong Buhangin was a big hit, possibly one of the few times the Filipino public would find O'Hara's dark sensibilities so palatable (the song, an anthem to the transience of life, would endure through the years to become a sentimental classic). In later works like Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986) and Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000) O'Hara would push further into violence and brutality, almost uncaring as to whether the public would follow. They wouldn't, but these films remain as signposts marking off the forbidding territories Philippine cinema--or at least one practitioner of the art--is willing to explore.

Menzone, July 2002 


Anonymous said...

As a Nora Aunor fan, I've always admired her work. This is actually my favorite of all of her movies. What a tearjerker. I think it was critically underrated even though it made money at the tills.

Rest in peace, Direk. Love you, my Nora Aunor.

ed said...

I viewed this film many years ago and considered it one of the best Filipino films. How I wish the people behind this film are still ALL ALIVE and young for a sequel. Proud to be a Filipino.