Thursday, April 29, 2021

Aladin; In Despair; Hantik; Lupang Pangako; Senorito

Notes on a few LVN Films

Dona Sisang was the rare studio chief who 1) was a woman and 2) ran a commercially and artistically successful film studio as if condition #1 was irrelevant. Comedies, dramas, period epics, fantasies--her studio and stable of talents produced year after year, entertained millions with each title, made money in the bargain. She was reluctant to fund prestige dramas but found herself doing so (Badjao and Anak Dalita being the more noted examples), insisting on a touch of Filipino culture (the awit; the corrida; the folk dance) along the way. Anak failed at the boxoffice but won an armful of awards; Dona Sisang was unimpressed, asking if said awards could ever feed anyone. That said, she continued to make the occasional serious project, including Malvarosa, Kundiman ng Lahi, and Biyaya ng Lupa

Notes on a handful of her titles:

Aladin - Vicente Salumbides' adaptation of the classic Arabian tale is hardly the most sophisticated or extravagant; doesn't stop cast and crew from having fun though, and their visible enjoyment is infectious. Salumbides uses forced perspective and a primitive optical printer to create low-budget yet effective effects; he leverages entertainment value from a handsome cast that includes a constantly grinning Jaime de la Rosa and a serene Norma Blancaflor as lovers, and Canuplin (the Charlie Chaplin of the Philippines) as comic relief. The confrontation climaxing the picture may involve absurdly curved scimitars but Salumbides captures the struggle in medium shot, with few cuts; the swordsmen had to know what they were doing--the director was not about to hide any mistakes through editing--and had to make it all look dangerous.

In Despair - Lambert Avellana's melodrama features Jaime De La Rosa as a struggling young composer and Mila Del Sol as his even more sacrificing love (Ben Rubio plays the third wheel with an uncharacteristic heart of gold). Avellana's graceful low-key style stands him in good stead; the love affair and its undoing develops swiftly and unfussily, leaving behind a charming little ditty composed especially for the film (no doubt ruthlessly promoted by the studio to cash in on record sales) and a handful of memorably noirish moments. One of my favorites occurs late in the film: De La Rosa's composer playing piano in a basement to a prospective investor, the sordidness of the situation and the composer's eponymous despair expressed without dialogue in the lighting, the camera's restless movement, the actor's expressively careworn face. 

Hantik (Fire Ant) - Lamberto Avellana's World War 2 drama finds the United States functioning as behind-the-scenes ally and eventual savior of the Philippines, with no small help from Hantik (Leopoldo Salcedo), a revenge-driven guerrilla fighter who has renamed himself to better describe his role: as small-scale but relentless insect, stinging the side of the mighty Japanese war machine till it scratches itself to distraction, and ultimate destruction. Avellana is hampered by Dona Sisang's dictum not to depict extreme sadism or violence, but does manage to capture a bit of the cruelty inflicted on Filipinos not just by the Japanese but--uncomfortable truth--by fellow Filipinos acting as either collaborators or bandits. The print is incomplete alas; just as Hantik swoops in to rescue his lady love the film ends in the worse cliffhanger manner, segueing straight into Gregorio Fernandez's 1949 Capas. Not a little like Netflix, when you think about it, only the blurry prints, black-and-white imagery, and nonstop melodrama convey a more memorably phantasmagoric feel.  

 Lupang Pangako (Promised Land) - filmmaker Mike De Leon notes that this film is oft requested, being one of the best romantic comedies featuring Leopoldo Salcedo and Mila Del Sol. Mila plays a spoiled rich young woman forced by her deceased parents' will to marry or lose her fortune; Leopoldo Salcedo plays the spirited young man with a heart condition who volunteers to be Mila's would-be husband (she's counting on him to keel over early), but has surprisingly progressive (subversive?) ideas of his own on what to do with her money. Susana De Guzman was that rarity in Philippine cinema, the woman writer who managed to rise to the rank of director; she formulated the Frank Capra premise and allowed her attractive stars to make comic hay out of the well-written script--kept trying to guess what's scripted and what's improvised but enjoyed their chemistry together so much I lost track. Being a writer turned director I'd have expected De Guzman to be more focused on acting and dialogue, but her camera has moves, at one point circling Mila as she's surrounded by her entourage of provincial maidens, at another watching two men watch a third mime a woman undressing while two real women sneak past them (the scene with its multilayered action deftly creates suspense with little flutter and even less fuss). Incomplete, alas, but highly recommended for the substantial pleasures it has to offer. 

Senorito (Little Mister) - Manuel Conde and Vincent Nayve's comedy, like Susan De Guzman's, sprouts from a solid Frank Capra-esque premise: warehouse tycoon (impressively rotund Lou Salvador) hires enterprising young woman (played with Barbara Stanwyklike no-nonsense by Delia Razon) to tame spoiled young man (a startlingly limber Conde); of course the two youths fall in love. Three years after Conde wrote, directed, and starred in Genghis Khan (impressing critic/novelist James Agee along the way) the comic filmmaker is still raising hell but on a more contemporary stage. Conde skewers among other things Filipino capitalism, the Filipino sense of propriety, and Filipino patriarchy; more troubling (or more interesting) is the streak of sadism that runs through his films, including a startlingly violent blowup by the father that throws the narrative off course, a detour from which the film doesn't really recover. Conde's a skilled filmmaker, and a great satirist on human folly; I wouldn't consider this a major work but much of it is fun (till the blowup) and all of it fascinating. 

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