Thursday, June 06, 2019

Pag-asa (Hope, Lamberto Avellana, 1951)

Cinderella story

(Yet another Lamberto Avellana film (Pag-asa or Hope, 1951) available on Mike de Leon's Citizen Jake vimeo site--this one of decent clarity, with English subtitles)

Mike de Leon, in passing: "Huk, despite the propaganda, in my opinion, remains one of the best Avellana films. Along with Pag-asa."

Which piqued my curiosity (Pag-asa?); which compelled me to look the film up. Turns out it's a gem--arguably the most likable of Avellana's films, or at least of those readily available for viewing.

Celing (Priscilla Cellona) and younger brother Piding (Ike Jarlego Jr.) arrive at the mansion of Don Paco (Paco Zamora) with a letter: their father has died and entrusted them to his care. Care however means in the hands of Don Paco's wife Dona Esperanza (Naty Bernardo) who slaps Piding and yanks Celing's hair and threatens to send the boy to Lulumboy. Later Piding sneaks out of bed to pack, in preparation for running away; Celing catches him in the act, and he explains why the threat of Lulumboy terrifies him so: "They'll cut off my tongue, my nose, and my ears!"

That little detail, told by an adorable wide-eyed child missing his front teeth, helped explain to me the appeal of this film, a light melodrama about an orphaned girl--basically the tale of "Cinderella," the prospect of sliced bits of face recalling the casual cruelty of the Brothers Grimm (Charles Perrault's earlier more famous version did not insist on vivisection). Avellana (under the pseudonym Donato Valentin), his wife Daisy, and brother Jose Jr., hit upon the notion that Celing would suffer more if she had a scrawny younger brother hanging from her neck like an albatross, who she nevertheless cherishes as family. I think the addition works wonders: Ike Jarlego Jr. is an expressive little performer toothless gums and all, his Piding brimming with bravado and initiative and quick often dead-accurate intuition--the way he latches onto Victor (Armando Goyena), for example, despite Victor's cross words at them for sneaking into his carnival ride (the classic Caterpillar, once found in all amusement parks, now down to only two left operating in the world), or his instant bond with Victor's mother Aling Teria (the lovely Rosa Aguirre) who treats them like her own. He quickly apprehends any situation (and peril), who to trust in response, and takes it on himself to initiate the two actions that irrevocably change the siblings' lives. 

Which brings us to the fairy tale's second act: Cinderella (who accompanies the runaway Piding) has met her Prince Charming at the aforementioned carnival. Unlike the standard-issue Disney prince Victor is far from wooden--Goyena's boyish yet intense looks predate Joseph Estrada's slicked-hair machismo and James Dean's 'hidden' sensitivity; I assume his comic timing is his own. Watching Victor bicker with Piding or Teria or her garrulous brother Mang Sebio (Gregorio Ticman) you chuckle at the silliness, the unfussy affection found in this random yet closeknit little community.

It's Sebio--presumably sleeping off a hangover--that discovers Celing's talent for singing and appoints himself her manager, kicking off the film's third act: her growing fame and blossoming love for Victor, and his unaccountable lack of enthusiasm in response. Then Dona Esperanza steps back into the picture, attracted by the media buzz over this rising radio star, and matters reach a state of frenzy.

Enjoyable, only in Avellana's hands the froth rises I submit to the level of art. Take the contrast between homes: Dona Esperanza's grand mansion requires a brisk walk to reach the next room, and a small vase on a coffee table turns out to be a valuable purchase from Hong Kong (that Piding accidentally breaks, of course). A Grimm gothic structure, and through Avellana's eye perfect for isolating people in their respective social classes, where the only human contact permissible is a hand reaching out to swat a boy's face. 

In contrast Victor and Teria's little shack is a humbler affair of wood frame and thatched walls, where one wall props open to become a bay window and the living/dining room converts into an open-air porch. Avellana, like George Stevens in The More the Merrier, exploits the cramped spaces to force the actors--including the wouldn't-be lovers--to come together and stew in each other's eccentricities. In one shot (see above) Victor is perched on the top step bragging in English: "this guy's made for better things!" Sebio, sarcastic: "That's what I like about Victor, always speaking English!" Celing discreetly turns her look of skepticism (and faint resentment) away. Three skilled actors crammed into Avellana's set, their respective relationships--top dog, bellowing clown, unnoticed reluctant admirer--framed for us by his camera. 

A fairy tale gains I submit by being rooted in the everyday, and Avellana's effortless neorealism--rendered slightly noirish by deep shadows--helps add texture to his fable. Several shots come to mind--an early one introducing Victor as he grasps the brake on his Caterpillar (see above): the look of a rough no-nonsense operator hiding a heart of gold. Later Victor talks with Teria and moody lighting underlines their emotional intimacy. At one point Victor looks shrewdly at his mother (see below), hits home with a simple sharp observation: 

Teria does not respond; Avellana tactfully keeps her face out-of-focus, to veil its emotional nakedness.

Then there's the moment when Sebio discovers Celing's gift for song. When we first meet the man he's loud and boisterous and calls his sister 'Terry' ("My name's Teria!" "Just giving it a modern twist"); she suggests that he had spent the night with St. Michael ("the gin bottle") and should sleep it off. He lays down on a bench with a pillow--helpfully offered by Celing--propping his head. She stands nearby, ironing clothes, and sings the lovely lilting "Ikaw"* (You). 

*(Actually the 1927 song "Charmaine" with Filipino lyrics attached)

Previously all we've seen of the house are rough wood and thrown-together walls; through windows we glimpse mud and scattered garbage, the usual detritus of squatter areas. Avellana for the first time cuts to a reverse shot; turns out Sebio rests in Teria's back terrace and as he listens in wonder he's ringed by sunlight and grass, the surrounding palm fronds and banana trees waving balmy welcome. "I thought I was dreaming," he murmurs; I know how he feels. Easily my favorite bit of visual sleight-of-hand in the film, in maybe any film I've seen recently. 

For a fairy-tale/romantic comedy/rising-star drama there is, at the heart of this film, a remarkably poignant unburdening. Celing has functioned up to this point as prop--pretty and affectionate but sidelined by the louder actors. Suddenly (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the film!) her kid brother (running away a second time) dies in a bus accident (Avellana can be unrelenting in following narrative logic). It's a more moving death than a similar one in Anak Dalita partly because Ike as Piding is a funnier more emphatic actor (or at least is written and directed that way), partly because Celing seems to care for him more. You can imagine Tita sending the resourceful Ipe on dangerous or at least risky solo mission; Piding represents Celing's fragile heart--as he passes on to a better world something of Celing's soulfulness passes  on too. When Victor explains how everything isn't his fault Celing finally turns on him and unloads her longheld bitterness like a double load of buckshot: "what do you know about love?" she demands, flinging his macho pride, his self-centered anguish (a flaw applicable even to James Dean), his unspoken jealousy of her success back at his face. A jawdropping moment, makes one wonder if there isn't some kind of feminist agenda hidden in the subtext; for good measure Celing does the one thing Victor (and we) don't want her to do--return to Dona Esperanza. Talk about scorched earth toppling bridges noses cut off to spite one's face--the girl doesn't do half measures, a tribute to her love for Piding. 

The film ends happily as most commercially successful melodramas do; Avellana can be relied upon to uphold the status quo--though when you think about it is this status quo? Wouldn't Celing with her considerably larger income call most of the shots? Wouldn't the suitably chastened Victor allow her to do so (and if he resists and she insists wouldn't that make for a fascinating sequel)? When they invoke Piding's name he gazes down on them (on us) like a benevolent child-god, and it's a fascinating meta moment--the actor of course would grow up to leave an outsized footprint in Philippine cinema, becoming the legendary editor of Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos, and Himala among many others. A fairy-tale ending if you like, just not quite the one we were expecting. 

First published in Businessworld 5.31.19

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