(Belated tribute to Janice O'Hara, 1980 - 2016)
To say Janice O'Hara's Sundalong Kanin (Rice Soldiers, 2014) is clumsy isn't I think a false or fatal flaw--it is clumsy. But it's also by story's end an engaging, suspenseful, even powerful film, fitting successor you might say to her late uncle Mario O'Hara's wartime classic Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God), which dealt in its own way with the moral ambiguities of war.
The film tells the story of four friends: Nitoy, Benny, Carding, Badong, the first ten or so minutes devoted to a cliche depiction of their youth. The four are pushed around by Dado's rival gang, retaliate by stealing said gang's clothes while they swim in a river; the audience enjoys this warm if fragile portrait of innocence to the strains of TJ Ramos' nostalgia-inducing score.
One early sequence suggests that this won't entirely be that kind of film, though: Carding's father Tomas is the school principal; when Tomas learns that Dado--son of Tonyo, the school janitor--had bloodied his boy, the furious father marches to his employee's hut and threatens the family with a gun. It's an uncomfortable moment with none of the sentimentality of the previous scenes, and presents in stark relief the hidden class tensions and privileged thin-skinned machismo holding the community's social order together.
That order is flipped upside-down by the Japanese of course. They're a rumor at first, then a news bulletin on the radio; finally when Lt. Tanaguchi and his soldiers march into town and up Tomas' wide staircase they're as implacable and enigmatic as the townsfolk fear they might be. Tomas makes the mistake of welcoming them like fellow Filipinos, with warmth and open arms; he gets slapped in the face for his pains. Tonyo having learned Japanese from a previous employer is promoted to the position of liaison and translator, becoming the town's de facto leader.
Tomas the principal is now a marginalized figure pleading mercy for himself and his son; Tonyo the janitor in turn is now the town authority, and unlike in more soft-focused depictions of poor folk the change unbalances him. When a Japanese soldier is murdered and mutilated Taniguchi through Tonyo holds the town accountable: the killer must be surrendered, Tonyo declares, or everyone suffers.
Even in this new regime though appearances are misleading at best. A brief scene reveals that Taniguchi abuses Tonyo the same way Tonyo abuses his neighbors; the former janitor is driven not just by power lust but by a very real fear of failure, and of facing the officer's wrath. Later Taniguchi himself reveals a hidden sense of compassion--when someone finally confesses to the crime the lieutenant praises the culprit's bravery:
"You should be a soldier."
"I don't want to kill anyone."
Taniguchi carefully considers this reply. "That's very wise of you."
The film goes on, weaving a spiraling web of intrigue and and betrayal and vengeance and sacrifice that recalls Vittorio de Sica's Shoeshine, only with higher stakes than a mere horse. By film's end the choice to begin with lyrical music and a relatively idyllic childhood is fully justified--call it pastoral contrast for the heartbreak to follow. By film's end Filipino is pitted against fellow Filipino, with Japanese retribution looming like a Damoclean threat over all.
The cast of adults is excellent: Paolo O'Hara as the swaggering (later craven) Tomas; Marc Abaya as the simple (later volatile) Tonyo; Art Acuna as the rigid (yet somehow appealing) Lt. Taniguchi; Peewee O'Hara as Carding's tragically foresighted grandmother. The children are less consistent but Nathaniel Britt as Nitoy, Akira Moroshita as Carding, Elijah Canlas as Badong and Gelo Martinez as Dado all have their standout moments; even the young Isaac Cain Aguirre (who plays Nitoy's younger brother Benny) is effective just kneeling on a riverbank, weeping.
I mentioned a handful of O'Haras--Jerry is Janice's father, who adapted a script by older brother Mario (the biggest change being the children's ages lowered from fifteen/sixteen to ten/twelve) and co-produced with daughter (and Janice's twin sister) Denise. Paolo is Janice's older brother, almost unrecognizable from the sweet-souled farmer he played in Free Range. Younger brother Heber provided the end-credit vocals. Actress Peewee is Janice's mother, and her little speech indicating her grandson's possible fate as hated Japanese collaborator is a painful portrait of helpless lucidity.
But accusations of nepotism would be laughable; the O'Haras (like the Redgraves or Barrymores) apparently have creative fire--acting writing filmmaking--coursing through their veins, are comfortable working off against and with each other; who would deny them this small accommodation, if the results are this good?
And it is good; more, it's recognizably a Mario O'Hara script. The large cast of characters, deftly sketched, each with their own narrative arc (much like his Bulaklak sa City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail) or Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof)); the inability to categorize anyone as definitively 'good' or 'bad' because we know their tangled motives and twisted histories too well (Insiang, Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos); the dilemma where one wins or loses or lives or dies at the expense of another but since you've come to care for or loathe everyone you anticipate or dread each outcome with equal keenness (practically all O'Hara films).
According to Denise, Mario had wanted to do this for the longest time but died in 2012 of leukemia. Janice loved the script, took up the challenge of trying to realize it, but the project for one reason or another still met resistance (director too inexperienced; production too expensive to realize; story too dark with little uplift). When Janice eventually learned that she faced a deadline she decided to push through no matter what.
Janice may have seen a few films--I've mentioned Shoeshine and in addition see traces of Rome Open City--but seems to have learned the most from her uncle on how to direct actors; how (with the help of cinematographer Nelson Macababat doing--like Janice--his first full-length feature) to shoot and stage a scene; how (with legendary production designer/art director Fiel Zabat) to evoke place and period with minimum budget. The elaborate youth gang battle opening the film may be its least impressive setpiece, an attempt at anarchy a la Zero for Conduct that feels too wholesome to succeed; but the confrontation between Tomas and Tonyo is quietly powerful, depicting Tonyo's humiliation with painfully extended takes, and a later meeting between Lt. Taniguchi and a young girl in a darkened room is, simply put, devastating. He gazes down at her; she stares blankly back, lying flat and torn on a table. His jaw tightens as he whispers an apology.
As for the film's supposed flaws--I remember talking to a writer about Mario O'Hara's Sisa, which I thought brilliant; she conceded the imaginative nature of the concept (Jose Rizal in love with his most famous fictional creation) but believe O'Hara should have waited for more money. "And then what?" I replied. "Let the screenplay sit on his desk, moldering? He had a chance to do the project for very little time and money (some sixty thousand dollars shot in ten days), and now here it is, a film not a script. Some pictures I enjoy for 'production values' 'professional acting' 'beautiful cinematography;' others I value for their ideas and imagery. Sisa is the second kind, and what it offers in my book outweigh any flaw you see onscreen."
Well maybe I replied only in my head; she's a good friend. But my response to her complaint would be my response to complaints about Sundalong Kanin, with the additional observation that Janice can pass on regretting the many little failures peppering the film, instead of regretting the one enormous failure of never having made the film at all.
First published in Businessworld 1.26.17