Thursday, November 10, 2022

Ibong Adarna (The Adarna Bird, Manuel Conde and Vicente Salumbides, 1941)


What Filipino hasn't heard of the Ibong Adarna, the magical bird whose sweet singing puts the unwary listener to sleep and whose droppings turn said listener into stone? Narcisa 'Dona Sisang' de Leon (grandmother of filmmaker Mike de Leon) certainly did, and knew just how much Filipinos loved the story-- so much so that she was willing to risk money on a lavish (for Filipinos anyway) film adaptation. She was right too-- the production was a hit, the first Filipino film to gross over a million pesos. 

The film credits Vicente Salumbides as director-- but Nick Tiongson's 2008 book on Manuel Conde claims the latter directed and gave the credit to Salumbides, keeping a 'technical supervision' title for himself. Not sure how true this is, but a quick peek at their respective filmographies shows Conde had more films under his belt at this point, had worked on several productions with sound, one of which (Mahiwagang Biolin-- The Magic Violin) is presumably fantasy and presumably involves special effects. 

Not sure, who knows-- that's a common mantra heard while writing on Philippine cinema, the documentation poor to nonexistent. 

Film follows the adventures of Prinsipe Juan (Fred Cortes) and his brothers Diego (Ben Rubio) and Pedro (Vicente Oliver) as they seek the legendary Ibong Adarna to cure their ailing father. The three meet a beggar along the way; two dismiss the old man but Juan shares his food, and here Salumbides (who's on record as having done the adaptation) adds a clever touch: where the beggar annoys the two brothers, Juan is solicitous to the point that the elder is forced to shake him off. The little revision helps set Juan apart, make his unalloyed goodness more believable (as Stephen Hillenberg might put it, living with a pure heart is possible, they're just impossible to live with). 

The beggar rewards Juan with cunning advice (turns out a bit of lime squeezed over self-inflicted wounds keeps one awake long enough to catch the bird). Juan not just fulfills the mission but saves his brothers; they repay him by knocking him out with a club and taking the bird (and the credit) for themselves. When the ruse is exposed, Juan pleads on behalf of his brothers (as mentioned: pure of heart and irritating as hell); Pedro pays him back yet again by releasing the bird and framing Juan for carelessness; Juan goes off yet again to recover the bird-- and so it goes.  

The Adarna bird accounts for perhaps a fourth of the film's running time; the remainder has Juan descending into the underground kingdom of Armenia and battling a giant to win over Princess Leonora (Ester Magalona); has him traveling by giant eagle to the distant kingdom of Reino de los Cristales to woo Princess Maria (Mila del Sol)-- man does get around. The transition from Leonora to Maria feels particularly disturbing-- are princes so fickle? Actually this isn't a case of too many revisions to the script but of the script being faithful to the source material. The trope of a royal prince seeking and staying with his One True Love seems to be a recent Disney development; in the Grimm fairy tales lovers switched loyalties all the time, usually as a result of some enchantment-- though one might consider said 'enchantment' to be more of an excuse than an explanation. 

Thus Juan-- otherwise of excellent character, to the point of being exasperating-- seems wanting in the fidelity department. He falls for Leonora but soon as they're separated, falls for Maria instead; when he leaves Maria at an inn and bumps into Leonora he forgets Maria and falls for Leonora again, forcing Maria to barge her way into the royal palace and remind him of previous (or subsequent previous) commitments. Bewildering fare for those used to Disney puritanism but to these eyes feel more contemporary than anything, down to the self-absorbed alpha male buffeted by the conflicting desires of two strongwilled women. 

Plus: Pedro, who betrays his brother and is once, twice, three times forgiven, finally-- finally!-- shows some impulse at reform. Character development and redemption in a fairy tale! How progressive can you get? Given his past record, you wonder how long reformation will last, tho Pedro is the rare villain with valid motivation-- he was passed over in favor of young Juan in the line of succession, and may be content to settle down with a kingdom of his own. 

The film itself looks odd, Middle Eastern ambiance (sets by Gumercindo Buencamino and Teody Carmona, music by Francisco Buencamino (his second ever score)) with strong Western European feel (a magic carriage that might have rolled straight out of Disney's Cinderella; a royal guest room sporting pine tree motifs; an inn fitted with Arabic windows and suspiciously Swiss-looking stairway, fireplace, chandelier). 

The array of special effects, everything from hand-tinted color sequences (when the Adarna sings the bird turns into a rainbow of bright hues) to forced perspective (Juan fights a near-naked giant on his way to winning Leonora's hand) to intricate models and background paintings joined to live action by means of an optical printer. Alas, the hand-painted colors are gone; ABS-CBN, who has otherwise done us a service by cleaning up the film print, can only manage digital coloration, and you miss the flickering brush strokes of a real paint job. The forced perspective effects still work fine, and the optical printer has this added benefit-- when the princes first leave to seek the Adarna, the towers and turrets of the kingdom of Berbania loom in the distance, and the slightly misty look gives the realm a mirage-like miraculous feel.

Arguably the film's best sequences are the early ones; when the Adarna starts singing (sweet warble by Angeles Gayoso), the monochrome image gives way to an unearthly radiance that affirms one's belief in the miracle of cinema, where anything-- even the magic of rainbows-- is possible onscreen. And it's not just effects for effect's sake; the parable of the Adarna bird warns us against being lulled by pretty lights and lilting melodies, a warning that we Filipinos fail to heed time and time again, have failed to heed just this year. Stay focused, the film tells us; and if you've fallen asleep-- for God's sake, wake up.  

First published in Businessworld 11.4.22

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