Love is a closely pondered thing
(Warning: plot and narrative twists discussed in detail)
Trust Mike De Leon not to pursue the usual career trajectory. If most aspiring writers and filmmakers are advised to write (film) 'what you know,' with Itim (Rites of May 1975) he spun a haunted tale evoking Gothic atmosphere with uncanny skill,* demonstrated a mastery of sound and image that made critics sit up and ask "What'll he do next?"
*(There's a rumor--not taken very seriously--that Hideo Nakata once worked in or apprenticed at or at least visited LVN Studios around the time of this film's release. True or not, tickles me pink to think that De Leon's first film may have had an influence on Nakata's own)
Next apparently was a quiet little comic romance, not just intimate but downright confessional. Admit to not having met De Leon or knowing much about him, but Kung Mangarap Ka't Magising (Moments in a Stolen Dream 1977) gave one the impression of an extremely private man allowing a glimpse into his soul.
Christopher De Leon plays Joey a less-than-motivated youth struggling to earn his college degree; actually he's more interested in jamming with his band mates and working on an unfinished song (listed in the credits as 'Joey's Theme'). When he meets Ana who's visiting her cousin Cecile (Laurice Guillen) who happens to be his professor he's intrigued. Ana is smart and beautiful; she has a young son; she stands under the shadow of an unhappy marriage (to Freddie, played by filmmaker Briccio Santos). She is both desirable and forbidden, an irresistible combination for a hormonally turbocharged youth.
Not saying De Leon is being autobiographical but after the almost frightening assurance of his debut feature he pivots to give us this bildungsroman--this slighter-than-air film dewy with romantic idealism, touched with a dollop of melancholy fatalism.
Where the subject matter sounds tailor-made for a budding neophyte the style is anything but. De Leon (through veteran editor Ike Jarlego, Jr.) cuts to a lively beat, at times sustains a shot to allow performers breathing space. As his own cinematographer (with help from Francis Escaler) De Leon frames with the subtlety of Naruse, executes sinuous tracking shots worthy of Mizoguchi--at one point near film's end sending the camera through room after hallway after room to find Joey gazing thoughtfully out a window.
In fact there's something contemplative almost Japanese about De Leon's camerawork here, a sense of mono no aware (appreciation of the transient nature of things). Oddly appropriate considering the setting is Baguio--Japanese laborers helped build the city then established a thriving Japanese community; today you still see their half-Japanese half-Filipino descendants walking up and down Session Road. Baguio enjoys (Enjoyed?) the reputation of being a romantic paradise--verdant pines rich flower beds misted mountain views and all; was De Leon aware of the less-known history perhaps tailored the look and feel of his film accordingly?
Christopher De Leon (no relation) plays Joey as thoughtful if indolent, passive and not a little directionless; we know this because much of Joey's thoughts are expressed in interior monologue, one of the rare times in a Filipino film (Why Mike De Leon does this isn't half as puzzling as why so few other Filipino filmmakers do--are they so focused on surface effects they can't be bothered with a character's inner self?).
Briccio Santos' Freddie is the flip side to young handsome Joey. Where Joey is loose-limbed expressive Freddie is chillingly calm; where Joey is a lifelong screwup Freddie is successful in every aspect of his life except his marriage; where Joey lets circumstances (and Ana) take him wherever he's meant to go Freddie micromanages his life and everyone around him. And where Joey--I'm guessing here--represents what the director would want to be and at times is, Freddie (or so I hear) represents him at other times.
"Who is Mike in his films?" I asked someone once and got an interesting reply: "Everyone, even the women." Either he parcels out traits and ways of thinking among his oscreen people or he so closely identifies with them that a bit of himself shines through all his characters, prismatically.
Hilda Koronel's Ana is the most enigmatic of course, the sole generator of suspense in this rather leisurely narrative (Will she respond to or reject Joey's advances?). We stay out of Ana's head and just to escalate the sense of uncertainty once in a while she'll say something inconsistent--assuring Cecile she won't give in to Joey (later sleeping with him), looking Joey in the eye and saying she loves him (just before leaving him forever). Yet Koronel somehow manages to rise above the contradictions (she says she loves him but manages to suggest her words mean 'goodbye'), keep us on her side, keep us head-over-heels in love with her. Koronel has played younger ingenues (Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang) attacked more challenging dramatic roles (Insiang, where she was a small sensation in Cannes) but has never been as subtle or eloquent or gravely achingly beautiful as she is here.
The film is moving for three reasons: for the faded snapshot of Baguio in the '70s (when I last visited the massive deforestation--to make way for housing projects--the staggeringly heavy traffic the thick pervasive smog all put a dent to my memories of the city); for the complex knot of feelings inspired by the two wistful lovers; and for the sense you get despite all his prodigious sophistication that this is the work of a young De Leon a romantic De Leon, still full of possibility and hope for the future.
Kung Mangarap is not De Leon's best work-- his masterpiece Kisapmata lay some four years into the future, and he would perfect the genre of Sirkian melodrama (corny romance done with keen sardonic eye) in the darker more complex Hindi Nahahati ang Langit (1985). But this is a tasty first course, brightly flavored with a trace of bittersweet, the latter a foreshadowing of the darker fare to come.
First published in Businessworld 8.3.17
(Shown as part of the CineLokal initiative of the Film Development Council of the Philippines and SM Cinema. It is being screened daily until Aug. 10, with shows at 1 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 6 p.m., and 8:30 p.m. at SM Cinemas at SM Megamall, SM North EDSA, SM Fairview, SM Iloilo, SM Southmall, SM Cebu, SM Bacoor, and SM Mall of Asia.)