Friday, August 10, 2018

Mamang (Denise O'Hara)

A boy's best friend

Filipino filmmaker Mario O'Hara passed on in 2012. His niece Janice O'Hara chose one of his scripts (rewritten extensively by father Jerry O'Hara) to be her debut feature (Sundalong Kanin (Rice Soldiers) arguably one of the best of 2014). Janice died two years later leaving us the one film, compelling us to ask: is there some kind of curse on this family that blesses them with filmmaking and storytelling talent, but relatively fragile lives?

Now Janice's twin sister Denise--who helped produce Sundalong Kanin--has dared that so-called curse by writing and directing her own debut feature.

Where Janice's feature was an ambitious drama set in a small town during the Japanese Occupation, Denise's is an intimate contemporary character study. Mamang (Mama, 2018) is the story of Celeste Legaspi's eponymous character, confined mostly to her darkly gorgeous 19th century house, an aging wife and mother left by her job-seeking son Ferdie (Ketchup Eusebio) to dwell on her memories.

Only her memories turn out to be more than just vague daydreams. She smashes garlic, fries them in hot oil (you hear--and could almost smell--the sizzling garlic), adds the old cold rice (the best kind for frying). Crisps dried fish and eggs, transfers them to a plate, lays them on the kitchen table. Gently shoves the hot rice on a plate, turns, lays the plate on the table--and only then realizes there's a uniformed man (Paolo O'Hara, the director's brother) sitting there, starting on the fish and eggs. 

Who is he? Frightened mother wakes son, but when Ferdie finally gets up to take a look (Mamang following close behind hacksaw in trembling hands) the soldier is gone. Ferdie is now faced with the possibility that his Mamang is suffering from dementia--from hallucinations caused by degenerating functions of the brain, due to her age.


Right away you think of Michael Haneke's Amour, but where Haneke's stripped-down horror film--his in my book most unsettling and finest work to date--is a relentless descent into madness Denise's takes a different approach: Mamang not only learns to deal with her 'phantoms' but gives back as good as she gets. She realizes they are figures of her past (Except for that soldier--who is he? He never speaks, never explains himself)--there's her husband Heme (Alex Vincent Medina), handsome and amorous (he first appears to her naked and wanting sex while she is taking a shower); when she rejects him he takes to bringing young (presumably just as ghostly/imaginary) girls to the house. There's the mysterious Amado (Gio Gahol)--from hints dropped here and there a Huk rebel who emerges from his hideout to serenade her. There's others--the point being that rather than random supernatural visitations Mamang seems to be reliving her past, remembering old loves and quarrels, trying to take advantage of an apparent second chance to resolve a long complicated life.

Interesting concept but god--or the devil--is in the details and if anything Denise has equaled if not bettered her twin in overall execution. Not that the earlier film is necessarily weaker but Janice's production felt hurried and awkward, the cinematography necessarily plainspoken to better accommodate the powerful script. This debut has a sumptuous distinctive look thanks in large part to cinematographer Lee Meily (who supervised the camerawork in visually striking films like K'Na the Dreamweaver; Santa Santita (Magdalena); American Adobo; cut her teeth on the even smaller-scaled if still lovely Sana Pag-ibig Na). Meily's fluid camerawork is used to good effect--for example following Mamang who moves from one room to another, suggesting passage from the normal to the paranormal world (or alternately, from objective reality into the intricate passages of her own mind); the subtly tinted lights accentuating the beauty of the old house, all rich narra flooring high airy ceilings bright capiz-shell windows.

Have to mention the earthquake that might or might not have occurred in Mamang's imagination. Denise sells us the reality of what the elderly woman experiences (as opposed to just shaking the camera--a tired convention--or resorting to digital effects) through brilliant use of two simple details: a terrifying deep bass rumble and a violently shaking lamp and bedstand.*

*(If it's just the camera why is the bedstand shaking? If it's digital why does the solidly heavy lamp jump so?)

Speaking of accentuated beauty...difficult to dispute Ms. Legaspi's; she was lovely back in the '70s is remarkably handsome still, especially when she fixes her hair in a wavy 'do tilts her head just so and flashes that thousand-watt smile. She's done theater work, done film work, has not really focused on either (she's best known as a singer). One wonders why--possibly she was never inclined to the medium, or felt lightweight compared to the likes of Gina Alajar or Nora Aunor and wasn't compelled to compete. Not necessarily that she's incapable but she has a light touch, a gift not for heavy drama but light comedy. 

I'm guessing Denise had seen her uncle Mario's rare comedy film Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak starring both Nora and Celeste, and while the premise (three women trying to raise a foundling child) sounds funny enough the film itself is (unsurprisingly) dark and noirish, with Nora playing straight arrow and Celeste playing eccentric. At one point she decides to commit suicide and Mario plays the scene matter-of-factly, with Celeste making repeated attempts and the child with its endless crying frustrating her every time.

Presumably taking her cue from the scene in that particular film, Denise has Celeste's character confronted with everything from the unusual to the supernatural to the so-grotesque-it's-funny; the actress earns comic mileage by facing them (after being initially spooked) with the same deadpan pragmatism--if she ever cracked a smile or winked as if to say 'Isn't this hilarious?' the film would have immediately deflated. She's so good (helps to have a director who perfectly understands her wayward appeal) that she manages to achieve a surprising poignancy--the bitter sting hidden in a comic souffle.

Flaws? Someone noted that the film's depiction of dementia is not especially deep but I suspect the condition is more a device (a MacGuffin if you will) used by writer-director to pry open her more famous uncle's close relationship with his mother (her grandmother). 

This and not the hallucinations is the film's true heart, I submit: the warm troubled generous needy bond between mother and son, whose roles have in many ways been reversed: the son cares for the mother now, is forced to seek work outside of Manila due to some unspecified scandal. He has to leave her behind to better support her, and the loneliness is almost too much for her to bear. 

And when we learn the true nature of things (Skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the film!) you realize the film is more of a fantasy than you first thought. All this time Mamang was dreaming of a Ferdie who always told the truth holding nothing back, a Ferdie willing to sleep beside her in bed every night, a Ferdie willing to put up with her many eccentricities, a Ferdie who doesn't worry so about unemployment that he would be willing to leave her (bonus: she gets to console him in his so-called disappointment), a Ferdie who on the other hand is ready to move to the provinces on her say-so. Her Ferdie is an ideal--everything the real Ferdie was not--with only one significant flaw: he isn't real. When she accuses him of disappointing her he can only hold her and cry, uselessly.

Mamang in the end cedes nothing to the claustrophobic pathos of Haneke's masterpiece, but does so in its own sweetnatured yet cleareyed yet roundabout way, an achievement all its own. I am suitably impressed, and not a little enchanted. 

First published in Businessworld 8.10.18
 

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