Some notes on Celso Ad. Castillo's Ang Mahiwagang Daigdig ni Pedro Penduko (The Magical World of Pedro Penduko, 1973)
Watching Celso Ad. Castillo's fantasy epic you can't help but think the whole thing was basically thrown together, the film morphing like a doped-up lycanthrope from musical to fantasy to domestic drama to action-adventure, to epic fantasy. A coherent response, then, is difficult if not impossible--perhaps even unjust--to this bizarre, yet often compulsively entertaining, work.
Song and dance - music by Ernani Cuenco, lyrics by Levi Celerio, the kids' dance sequences are bright and cheerful, basically simple band numbers you imagine were written in the style of Small Seaside Town. Not sure who did the choreography--possibly Celso, last-minute--but it's equally kid-friendly, and later (when circumstances call for it) inventive.
The bridging songs--which describe the action onscreen and the characters' thoughts--seem laughably literal, but similar charges have been leveled before, at the songs in Enzo Castallari's lˆKeoma (possibly where Celso got the idea). Didn't buy it then, don't buy it now; I see this as less gratuitous repetition (Pedro goes to sea while the singer wails about his sea travels) and more audiovisual reinforcement, less narrative clarity and more poetic effect. It's like being in a fable where you hear the storyteller announce Aladdin about to enter a cave, and gaze at a picture of both him and cave; or like a Robert Bresson film where you see a priest writing into his diary the same time you hear the words he writes.
Laughs - broad, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. I remember Erik Matti's Pedro Penduko, Episode II: the Return of the Comeback (2000) as being a (relatively) more sophisticated comic work, a parody of the fantasy and action films of the time; the concept wore out quickly--the fantasy and action films of the period weren't all that good--and maybe the best moments are when Pedro (Janno Gibbs) would do an (I assume) last minute ad-lib. Celso's approach is more haphazard but lightly applied, easier to take overall.
There are a few comic gems here: Panchito as Mang Tasyo mugging for the camera does rise--or fall--to the occasion (as when he confronts his supposedly dead son). Sometimes Tasyo does more than rise--for most of the film's first half, we see him as a bellowing bully of a father, often verbally abusing Pedro (Ramon Zamora). When Pedro is pronounced dead--assumed drowned during a storm--Tasyo gets soakingly achingly drunk, and the dialogue is inspired:
Igno: Sir Tasyo, don't take it so hard. That's life. When it comes to death, whoever gets there first, right?
Mang Tasyo: If we all get there the same time there'll be no one to bury us.
Townfolk: Sir Tasyo, what Igno means is that death comes for all of us. It just so happens your Pedro got there first.
Mang Tasyo: You're wrong!
Townfolk: Why sir?
Mang Tasyo: All his life Pedro's been a screw-up, so he's going to screw his death up too.
Not sure if this was scripted, or if Celso had mostly asked Panchito to improvise (imbibe?) as he went along, but it's exactly how a drunk would talk, complete with slurred dignity and circular logic, and you feel exactly how Panchito would act, if he'd actually lost a loved one.
Drama - Unspoken through most of the film: Pedro is an abused child, constantly humiliated and beaten by his father; he's also simpleminded, if basically goodhearted (One wonders if he was born that way or if Mang Tasyo was responsible, thanks to the beatings).
What gets me--the sting in this little melodrama--is that they do care for each other. When the father believes he's lost his son, he gets mournfully drunk; when the son drinks too much in turn he (in a scene that sticks out, yet is all the memorable for being so intense) screams his frustration at how his father treats him. "I dare you! I dare you!" he yells, the father knowing better than to call his bluff. Pedro acts like a child having a tantrum; startling to see the protagonist of a fantasy act this way, but then you think: why yes, it makes sense--powers and magical talismans often fall in the hands of the unlikeliest people, shepherds and farmer's sons and totally clueless youths. Even young men with the mind of a child.
Monsters - Far from ideal. Thanks to what I assume is a modest-size budget the creatures are hardly recognizable and can barely move (the liveliest of the lot, a merman, looks as if The Creature from the Black Lagoon had grown obese from marathon sessions of cable TV and snack chips). The dragon though breathes real fire (which doesn't seem to frighten actor Ramon Zamora for a second) and is big enough an onscreen presence to inspire genuine awe.
Action - The film's true source of poetry. When Eddie Garcia as the Kapitan and his goons step in, Celso puts aside the pratfalls and does straightforward action, complete with a sadistic torture session (two men holding a third and attempting an impromptu full-spinal manipulation) and intricate sequences (Pedro and his kiddie friends playing band music while they weave in and out among goons and townfolk in a desperate rescue attempt). His style shines through clearest here, his lenses isolating the combatants under an airless sand-strewn, blue-tinted dome, like a pair of fighting fish tussling in an aquarium. On occasion the camera tilts up to catch a gloriously perfect halo of light round the noon sun (an image he confidently repeats in Return of the Dragon)--as if reminding us of the source of all that light he puts to masterful use.
Celso isn't the first Filipino filmmaker to adopt Franciso V. Coching's classic comic series;* Gerardo de Leon did so in 1954, and while I haven't seen that version (print unavailable assumed lost) I can guess (on the basis of films like Sanda Wong and Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo that 1) the special effects are jawdroppingly realistic, the style--which Celso acknowledges without even trying to hide the influence--memorably dynamic, all tilted unstable compositions linked by smooth-as-silk editing.
That said, Celso also has something to bring to the party--an eye-popping palette of colors (De Leon worked mostly in black and white), a whimsical comic-book sense of fun (De Leon couldn't crack an onscreen joke to save his life), the grip of an artist (fellow filmmaker Mario O'Hara once called him 'the finest eye in Philippine cinema") who doesn't exactly know what he's doing, but knows he'll do it like no one else has ever done before. Or ever will.
*(yes, we Filipinos also look to comics--or 'komiks'--for inspiration, and I submit that our output (Pedro Penduko; Dyesebel; Stardoom; Tubog sa Ginto) is comparable if not superior in quality to Hollywood's (Daredevil and Catwoman anyone?))
Conclusion - Not perfect but memorable (which can pretty much be said of most all of Celso's films). If you can accept the papier-mache monsters, the inconsistent level of filmmaking (from soaring lyricism to strictly amateur hour), the wildly swinging emotional tone, it's actually enormous fun.
First published in Businessworld, 3.19.15
First published in Businessworld, 3.19.15