Love never dies
Richard Abelardo's Mutya ng Pasig (Pearl of the Pasig, 1950) at first glance plays like a musical version of Wuthering Heights (Dona Sisang's LVN Pictures was known for its musicals): the star-crossed lovers forcibly separated (this time by a false accusation and a prison term); the woman marrying another; the death in mid-narrative; the man haunted by ghosts of memories past--all accompanied by the occasional song (including the haunting eponymous melody* composed by Nicanor Abelardo, Richard's cousin) and dance number.
Mercedes (Rebecca Gonzalez) and Delfin (Roger Nite) are the aforementioned unlucky lovers, though when the film opens they don't start out as such. It's the town fiesta and Mercedes has been crowned 'Mutya ng'--Pearl of--the Pasig river (what town or which fiesta I failed to catch; the audio's far from clear, and towns celebrate the feast of one saint or another every weekend of the year).
That's about as much good fortune as the film allows; Delfin is accused of stealing property from Don Modesto (Jose Padilla, Jr.) and jailed. Modesto, who always had an eye for Mercedes, manages to talk her into marrying him instead; she agrees and gives him a baby girl. Delfin is released early and meets with Mercedes, causing the townsfolk to gossip. Modesto is furious; he banishes mother and child from the house and--an extravagantly cruel touch--sets his dog on them. Mercedes, running, falls into the Pasig and drowns; the baby lands on a nearby lily pad and is carried away.
The story doesn't generate the same level of tempestuous passion as Bronte's immortal novel--Delfin and Mercedes when they meet talk, nothing more--but does manage to produce an equivalent Heathcliff figure in Modesto (ironic name!). Only Modesto--who shares Heathcliff's towering pride and streak of vengeful sadism--functions as the Edgar Linton of the narrative, the in effect unwanted spouse. Where on text Catherine is caught between wildly jealous lover and pallid husband, onscreen Mercedes contends with pallid lover and wildly jealous husband; both women are drawn to the more turbulent figure but Heathcliff plays passive-aggressive while Modesto reacts with all the rage of an affronted Filipino male. He functions as the story's anti-hero, the dark figure that precipitates the crisis and sustains the conflict from one generation to the next, all the while standing (unlike Heathcliff) at the pinnacle of his social pyramid, as town doctor and wealthiest citizen. His loneliness is more extreme than Heathcliff's--at least Bronte's lovers clung to each other till the end, despite misunderstandings; Modesto's rejection is self-righteous and absolute, inappropriate in the eyes of Filipino society only in its extravagant intensity.
The film comes into its own with the succeeding generation (unlike the book, which tended to fumble for much of its second half). The baby is found, adopted, named Consuelo (later growing up into the lovely Delia Razon), finds her own rather wan and courteous lover in Basilio (Teody Belarmino); Modesto grows older and more crippled, but when the two meet they're disturbed by faint stiffings of recognition. Father and daughter form the most visually striking pair in the film--one radiant and pure, the other bent low by the weight of his remorse; for better or worse Consuelo becomes a more radiant (and melodic) Cathy Linton and Modesto has completed his transformation into haunted Heathcliff.
This is Jose Padilla, Jr.'s picture of course; he looms over the riverside town the way Bronte's protagonist looms over his heathery estate. We will see his features coarsened and grown monstrously inward some thirty-one years later in Sgt. Dadong Carandang, the ruling patriarch in Mike De Leon's classic psychological horror-comedy Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye)--appropriately Mike is a grandson of Dona Sisang, and considers Mutya one of his favorite films.
And yet there's a streak of stubborn integrity to Modesto--given the opportunity he refuses to give false testimony against Delfin, even if this would help him with Meredes; when twice faced with town gossip he reacts without hypocrisy, with the full force of his wounded emotional self. If we regard him as a tragic hero I'd say his flaw is not just excessive pride but excessive honesty: he says what he feels and feels what he says instantly and completely. There's much to admire in such a person; there's also much that must be tolerated--his servants and especially Mercedes must be saints to have lived with him for so long.
Director Richard Abelardo started out as a painter in Universal Studios and later Warner Brothers and MGM; as with most Filipino immigrants he (presumably) learned much of the tricks of the trade, bringing them with him to LVN. You see the influence of classic-era Hollywood: his use of special effects, often in a subtle manner (Mercedes' banishment, for example, is accomplished in the middle of an animated downpour), often with eerie lyricism (Mercedes' face imposed over darkly swirling water), sometimes with a glancing beauty (shot of Consuelo riding a bangka down the river with a vast painted backdrop behind her, of a cordillera of clouds capped by a gemstone moon).
But camera tricks no matter how sophisticated or primitive should serve the narrative--an idea most modern filmmakers ignore or have forgotten, but which Abelardo applies here with masterful skill. His atmospheric effects build in visual drama and impact till they culminate in the simple (because it just is--no tricks involved) yet startling (because of all the careful visual and narrative preparation beforehand) shot of the long-dead Mercedes sitting alongside the enchanted river, singing her unearthly song. At that moment magic and emotion are as one, and you feel the pull of the current drawing turbulent lives to their inexorable inescapable destiny.
*(Nicanor Abelardo composed the lovely lovely theme, but oddly portions of the soundtrack sound as if they had been borrowed from Miklos Rozsa's score for Hitchcock's Spellbound--a cost-saving measure perhaps? A common industry practice? Possible idea for future research? Works well enough here, only if you're familiar with the source film it's a little distracting)
First published in the Staying In section of Businessworld Weekender 4.27.17