I remember watching Takaw Tukso (rough translation: Passion Play, directed by William Pascual, written by Armando Lao) in a wretched 16 mm print years ago: the film would skip and skitter, and jump (it seemed) entire scenes. Had the vague notion that Boy (Gino Antonio) married Debbie (Anna Marie Gutierrez), and later Nestor (Julio Diaz) married Letty (Jaclyn Jose); also had a notion that Anita Linda played Boy's mother Aling Conching, but just what happens to her by story's end wasn't all that clear.
What was clear was four extremely attractive people lusting after each other, husband for wife and vice versa--though not necessarily husband for his legally married wife (or vice versa); four young men and women coupling in a variety of combinations and positions, scratching an itch they can't quite reach. By the time of the film's violent climax (at least I think it was violent--the print wasn't very legible by this point) I came away with the impression of a compelling chamber drama, set in a house beside a small auto repair shop in one of the less affluent neighborhoods of Manila--Bergman transposed to Southeast Asia, all sweaty and squalid and begrimed.
Having seeing the film in reasonably complete form can't say my impressions were off the mark, just incomplete. It's a marvelously nimble little melodrama touching on the social rules among and between the sexes back when we recognized only two; on the natural trajectory of people subject to the pressure-cooker conditions of the lower middle class (with their accompanying expectations aspirations affectations)--in a word: unhappy. Bergman I imagine would have approved.
I'd also call it a clever little study on how the human character works out its problems under differing circumstances. Debbie is a spoiled brat, unhappy with her at times tyrannical at times selfish mother (Eva Darren) who vaguely sees her (when looking at her at all) as a potential sexual rival (shades of Brocka's Insiang, only Lao's script moves quickly moves past the initial similarity); Boy is equally spoiled, lackadaisically studying for his commerce degree with his tuition paid for by his mother--at first glance the newly married couple seem perfect for each other, until Aling Coching makes it clear that she hates Debbie for entrapping her son, and expects the young bride to do much if not all of the housework.
Aling Coching supports her son but holds unspoken affection and respect for Nestor, the nephew she adopted who has become the shop's best mechanic. Nestor is the eternal outsider, envious of Boy's relatively higher social status (the family was comfortably middle-class until the father's death), grimly conscious of how much he earns day by day, with each headlamp bulb replaced, each valve scoured, each engine painstakingly re-assembled (he even on occasion collects the payment for repairs).
Letty is arguably even more of an outsider--poor and a woman. She loves Nestor, but Nestor's dating Debbie; when Debbie after a spat with her mother runs away with Boy, the two are hurriedly married, with Nestor in the uncomfortable position of living in the same house with his former girlfriend, now wife of his employer, cousin, best friend. What does poor abandoned Letty do? Get impregnated by Nestor (Letty's the sweeter and simpler of the two girls but when push comes to shove she's as nimble a manipulator). The four live under Aling Conching's roof, in a tense little dance around past and at each other, the severe tin-and-concrete walls encircling them physically and emotionally.
Pascual enhances Lao's script by having the camera come close in, emphasizing the cramped quarters (production design by filmmaker Dante Mendoza). When couples make love the women are often backed into corners while the men surge forward, brown buttocks pumping away; the rare occasion of outdoor sex it's night and we see them in long shot, the surrounding darkness (shadows and light by cinematographer Joe Tutanes) a blessed liberating relief.
As Debbie, Anna Marie Guiterrez is all arched brows and elfin mischief; her scheming after Boy while dating Nestor is what starts all the complications in the first place and alas when she realizes marriage only elevated her to the status of glorified housekeeper, she goes on scheming manipulating prodding others this way and that, trying to finagle the right mix of people and circumstances that will allow her that impossible moment of perfect happiness in her life.
Jaclyn Jose as Letty has the less showy yet braver role, as Debbie's undesired ugly-duckling best friend (though calling her 'undesirable' and 'ugly' is a stretch, she is a skilled actress). She's saddled with the near-impossible challenge of making Letty's simple unalloyed love for Nestor interesting; she does so with an intense emotional directness.
Julio Diaz as Nestor keeps a fragile balance between heedless libido and watchful caution: on one hand he wants what he lost, now tantalizingly within reach, on the other he's wary of his position in the household--despite Boy's trust and Aling Conching's affection he knows what their reaction would be if he should ever betray them.
Gino Antonio's Boy is perhaps the simplest character with the most interesting twist: a passive weakling who when faced with pressure (in this case unpaid bank debts) buckles easily; he's never had to stand on his own, and his unthinking response only leads to disaster. How then, Lao asks us, might Boy react to the idea of his wife's infidelity?
I see two main weakness to the film. The '80s convention of slow leisurely sex with a saxophone playing in the background hasn't aged well; Pascual apparently hasn't bothered to integrate these sequences into the film's dramatic arc (not that I mind--far from it--but when viewing the narrative as the film's structuring bones and not an excuse to string a series of softcore sex scenes together it's distracting). The second weakness I find more serious: the film fails to find that extra something--a motif perhaps, or an overall look--to elevate it beyond being a well-made visualization of an excellent script.
The climax (skip this paragraph if you plan to see the film) happens suddenly, the way most violent confrontations go...but there's sudden and then there's sudden--a slow-motion sense of impeding disaster as you pump your useless brakes and your wheels start to skid sideways vs. a surprise collision with little impact because you haven't been adequately prepared. The film's showdown seems to be of the latter sort; while you know Boy is capable of violence (to Debbie for one) and you know he's aware of Nestor's betrayal, you're not sure why he chooses that particularly moment to confront Debbie, nor have you been persuaded he can be violent to Nestor (a cousin and friend from childhood, and a man capable of defending himself). Pascual does redeem himself considerably (if not completely) with what follows: the camera roving over the desolation that was the repair shop, accompanied by a tolling bell; later the women meeting at the graves of their respective husbands, two widows whose lives have been so inextricably bitterly linked with literally nothing to say to each other. Presumably the censors board had insisted on adulterers and murderers being punished (while allowing us to enjoy all the sex and violence they commit)--the same censors that had insisted on changing the ending to Mario O'Hara's Bagong Hari (The New King), released earlier that same year.
That said the fact that one feels the film's failures keenly actually speaks well of Lao's script, the cast's performances, and Pascual's overall directing--that it's so good you want it to be perfect (again that impossible moment!). One of the best films of that decade, Filipino or otherwise.
First published in Businessworld 4.21.17