All in the family
(Restored and with English subtitles, available for a limited time (Dec. 19, 7 AM to 11 PM Manila time, or Dec. 18, 7 PM to 11 AM Eastern))
Kisapmata (Blink) starts off quietly enough, with Mila Carandang (Charo Santos) informing her parents Mang Dadong (Vic Silayan) and Adelina (Charito Solis) that she's getting married to Noel (Jay Ilagan). Harmless enough scene--only why does Mila look like she's about to set off a hand grenade in the living room and why does Adelina pad quietly to the kitchen to fetch an ice pack for Dadong's sudden migraine, flattening her body against the wall when passing his chair?
Little details like that don't just embellish Mike De Leon's film but define it, set a tone that De Leon sustains throughout, that of a horror comedy.
A horror comedy? But let me explain.
The opening premise (based on Quijano de Manila's (a.k.a. Nick Joaquin) news article "The House on Zapote Street" and adapted to the screen by Clodualdo del Mundo, Raquel Villavicencio, and De Leon) is common enough: the beautiful daughter prematurely pregnant; the fuming father, the hapless suitor, the mother standing silent in the sidelines. Mila marries Noel and Dadong bullies his way between the married couple, going so far as to use his wife Adelina to finagle a major concession--that Mila cancel her hotel honeymoon to attend to her mother's latest in an endless series of headaches.
As the film progresses--and really you must watch with a Filipino audience to truly appreciate this--the viewers respond to scenes with a bark halfway between embarrassed horror and recognition. I say 'horror' deliberately; certain folk will cringe, or sink into their seats, or sit bolt upright, having remembered a mother or father like that or--worse--having committed similar social sins themselves. And observing these reactions you're certain you've uncovered something about their family lives, possibly far more than they themselves are willing to admit.
De Leon adds details here there: the barbed wire like thorns crowning the iron gate; the heavy crossbar fitted against the grilled front door. The way Adelina, Mila, and Onyang (Aida Carmona) seem to tiptoe around Dadong as if afraid to wake him from his vexed indolence. The house itself is an open plan, split-level suburban-style structure with high-ceilinged central space observed by a balcony; on one end of the balcony is Dadong's bedroom, on the other is Mila's. Tellingly the stairway angles down from Dadong's end; the house's single phone sits on a little side table directly underneath. Nothing said or commented upon but you know seeing this that Dadong has a vantage over the entire layout.
Horror and comedy aren't mutually exclusive; a director as recent as Jordan Peele has stated that both genres depend on timing to shock or amuse; a filmmaker as far back as James Whale knows how easily the horrifying can become ridiculous, how quickly the ridiculous becomes horrifying. What's so ridiculous about the Carandangs is that their predicament is almost contemptuously familiar; what's horrifying is how far De Leon pushes this predicament to its extreme yet logical conclusion.*
*(And by extreme (skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the film!) I don't mean the introduction of incest and sudden violence. Kisapmata is influential but I think most Filipino films have come away learning all the wrong lessons--presenting incest as a family's darkest secret, topping a movie with a literally bloody climax (Karnal, anyone?). De Leon is less about shock and horror--the original poster by production designer Cesar Hernando actually gives away the ending--than he is about humiliation, manipulation, a sense of sidling dread)
It helps that De Leon above all Filipino filmmakers is brisk with his editing. Most Filipino films are carelessly cut, I submit; even one of our finest, Lino Brocka, prefers to linger over his more emotional scenes to catch every teardrop. De Leon betrays no such sentimentality; his films are cut restlessly, ruthlessly, leaving little narrative fat.
Take the 'pamamanhikan' scene, where the parents of the couple meet over dinner. De Leon has the fathers talking, negotiating the conditions of the wedding, occasionally cutting away from their conversation to Mila's and Noel's often dismayed reactions. When Dadong mentions the ten thousand peso dowry De Leon shifts to closeups, the camera cutting from one face to another, sometimes moving from one face to another to capture the dawning realization between Noel and his father (and the now thoroughly shamed Mila) at just what the man is asking.The scene lasts some four minutes, but in those few minutes we get a sense of the dynamics between the two families, between the two fathers, between the adults and children, between Dadong and the rest of the table.
It isn't all brief shots and sudden cuts of course; De Leon bookmarks both ends of the scene with Dadong sucking on his bottle of cerveza (San Miguel of course), at opening as a bluff and show of braying strength, at close as a gesture of triumph. "I didn't want this you know," he says, in part sarcastically, having gotten exactly what he wanted, in part honestly, as he really is trying to make the best of an unwanted situation.
Later, Noel and Mila arrive for the first time as a married couple at Dadong's, and Mila has already carried a glass of milk up to her ailing mother's room. De Leon has a long take of Noel carrying their bags into the house past Mila's father (who completely ignores his greeting). The camera pauses with Noel to watch Dadong drop the crossbar across the front door, walk to the kitchen; follows Noel as he retires to Mila's room, drifts back down to catch Dadong going back to his room with a bottle of cerveza in one hand. Pan to the right and Noel steps out of Mila's room and goes to the kitchen to--what? Look for Mila? Ask Dadong questions? Finds no one. Stands indecisively in the living room. Climbs back up the second floor headed to Mila's room in what can only be described as resignation when midway across the balcony the lights cut out, apparently by a switch in Dadong's room, leaving Noel in darkness in his brand new home.
Later, Noel goes out late with a friend and is locked out of the house; Mila is in her room praying the rosary when he calls. She gets up to answer the phone, stops. The camera descends ahead of her to reveal what she sees: that Dadong sits by the phone, ignoring its ringing plea.
The long takes have a flowing Mizoguchi beauty to them but serve a specifically De Leon purpose: to show us how Dadong's tendrils like nerves extend throughout the house, controlling lighting access communication. And how all movement in the house, approved or unapproved, will ultimately lead to his massive brooding presence waiting silently at the end.
De Leon marshals all aspects--from performance to cinematography to script to sound to music to (as noted) production design--together to dance his choreography. Like Dadong, he lays out a web of which he holds the threads, tugging and pulling this way and that till the entire scheme is laid out before us; by then of course it's too late to do anything.
But De Leon isn't just all technical prowess and probing intelligence (though those qualities do go a long way); in his best work and above all in this work there's a hint of the personal. The house is comfortably spacious if not luxurious, but the film spends most of its time inside and you eventually feel the confinement, the claustrophobia, the sense (as Noel puts it) of the place as a "military camp" complete with curfew and a strictly regulated front entrance. If, as Sartre puts it, hell is other people, then the people in one's family are a particular circle of hell for De Leon.
Then there's Dadong, who sits at the film's heart of darkness. Dadong is no fool; he knows the ways of the world and has parlayed his knowledge for a house, a jeep, enough money to sustain him and his family. His most obvious flaw is that he knows the world too well, accepts it as it is, doesn't consider the possibility of anything better--that this is the world with him in it and he will enjoy it as much as he can, any way he can.
I've seen a few of Vic Silayan's other performances, mostly in Lamberto Avellana's 50s films--he's a versatile character actor, often able to switch from villainous to sympathetic, but he's also an open straightforward actor (except maybe in Anak Dalita where his role as community priest has ambiguous undertones). Silayan is unrecognizable here: what De Leon has apparently done is wall up this charismatic actor's vitality, shut him down and sealed him like a basement boiler, gathering pressure with every passing minute. You see it even in Dadong's most garrulous moments--when he first receives Noel to his house he shows the prospective groom his worm farm, even taunting the youth to touch one ("Afraid?" he teases). You sense the performative aspect of the scene, how Dadong uses his brassy volume and physical presence to intimidate. It's a show and a bluntly effective one; the real Dadong sits behind the bluster and watches, calculating the effect on his prospective prey.
The secretiveness and manipulation I suspect is an aspect of De Leon himself. The famously reserved filmmaker is known to get inside his actors' heads, drawing out psychologically keen performances. In this instance we get to know Dadong, not from what the man himself lets slip (his long speeches feel more like parodies of macho bragging and received social pieties than anything he actually believes in) but from what other say behind his back. We know little in terms of actual facts; what we sense however is a whole other far darker thing, and the vagueness is unsettling.
Then there's the cruelty. Dadong is perfectly capable of ignoring a ringing doorbell or phone, perfectly capable of creating a miasma of fear that holds the rest of the household in thrall. When Dadong does actually lash out, the violence is sudden and unpredictable; the worst part is the suggestion that he's capable of more.
De Leon is hardly ever explicit, least of all in this film, which allows us to speculate what, exactly, does Dadong represent. The rapacious Marcos regime of course (remember Dadong is a retired officer of that regime's police force); the repressively patriarchal nature of the Filipino family. The film's true horror however lies in the fact that Dadong speaks to us from the conservative center of Philippine society, that much of what he says and does and believes in is based on principles held by many Filipinos, tweaked to reflect De Leon's own personal nature, if not actual beliefs.
In one scene Mila and Noel decide to confront Dadong once and for all, to negotiate a peace. They kneel before a statue of Christ and the camera zooms slowly in on the statue's impassive face, as if seeking a response from our lord and savior
only to dissolve into an image of Dadong staring impassively back, the camera continuing to close in, suggesting--what? That Mila and Noel are praying to an unresponsive god? That the god they're pleading for release and relief from is actually Dadong? The implications of the shot are cruel, as cruel as anything Dadong has done (so far); the shot suggests that De Leon has a streak of cruelty in him as well (you see it in the relentless nature of his darker films), a streak mitigated by the artist in him modulating the relentlessness.
If Dadong has a rival, it's Mila. Mila is arguably Dadong's feminine equivalent, his creation of course but also his equal in courage if not physical strength. Only Mila dares openly defy Dadong; only Mila actually attempts escape. And only Mila shares some of Dadong's other qualities--when Noel complains of the house rules, Mila cuts him off like her father does, though with more diplomacy; when Mila wants something she works on Noel like the manipulator her father is, though less obvious (unspoken: that the marriage itself is a probable sham urged on Noel by Mila, arguably her most elaborate escape attempt). Mila as a victim of Dadong's repression is forced to be inventive in her attempts to defy him; she also possesses an empathy Dadong can never understand. Mila if you like is an improvement on Dadong, the yearning for a better world he refuses to subscribe to, or believe in, or love. If (as I suspect) Dadong is the darker side of De Leon's nature, I submit that Mila represents his more hopeful more progressive side.
'Kisapmata' translates to 'blink,' as in blink of an eye; a swift sudden gesture, and I think key to what the film is saying to us: that De Leon's is a dark forbidding world, full of secrets and ugly unspoken truths, and that the divide separating his world from our own is as brief and delicate as the blink of an eye. Easily Mike de Leon's masterpiece and in my book one of the greatest of Filipino films.
First published in Businessworld 3.27.20