‘Women of the Weeping River’: harmony and conflict, grief and forgiveness

Rivers are the arteries of nature, coursing through the flesh of landscapes with life-giving water. But in war-torn lands, they carry a further burden: they run with tears and blood, and like veins they drain scarred countries of mournful spirits.

In Women of the Weeping River, such a river is the meeting place between lands disputed by two clans. The anguished Satra Mustafa (Laila Ulao)—daughter, sister, mother, and widow—once comes to this river seeking refuge, immersing herself in its waters as if to cleanse herself of grief.

The river cuts through the middle of the conflicted lands, evoking dualities of life and death, war and peace, past and present. Indeed, the geography of the film mirrors that word we hear many times from the lips of its characters—harmony. The land that gives and takes, the country that is both the spring of wealth and the source of struggle for its people, is rendered here with reverence, the camera capturing the mystic and mythic images of sacred grounds. There is harmony in the blend between the countryside setting of most of the film (in the forests, rivers, plains and mountains of the Philippine south), and the intervening scenes set in the city (with a focus on the bustle and density of urban life).

Harmony, however, is a product of balance as much as of tension. In Women of the Weeping River, this is already explicit in the struggle between the feuding clans, but a deeper tension comes from the conflict between an individual and her society.

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‘Changing Partners’: postmodern love

The film celebrates, heartbreaking as it is, the universal difficulty of love.

In these times of shifting attitudes and emerging identities, how could films portray romantic love, that most celebrated of human relationships, with its universal allure and unchanging essence as well as its contemporary complications?

Changing Partners, Dan Villegas’ deft adaptation into film of the stage musical by Vincent de Jesus, feels like an answer to that challenge. It is the story of Cris and Alex, lovers separated by 15 years in age; this disparity is only the first among many contrasts explored in this film.

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‘Instalado’: knowledge is power, and power corrupts

Despite its problematic attitude to science, and its shortcomings as a work of cinema, ‘Instalado’ is full of ideas demanding discussion.

The release of every new Filipino science fiction film is cause for excitement, because sci-fi is such a rarity in Philippine cinema. It does not help that the mainstream attempts are often trashy—figuratively as well as literally, in the case of 2007’s Resiklo. Science fiction, or speculative fiction in general, is an engaging medium for discussing important ideas about society. The genre holds great potential for our country, where the people are addicted to escapist entertainment.

We cannot blame a lack of talent and imagination. There is in fact a wealth of excellent speculative fiction in Philippine literature, but these stories remain obscure in a nation with no particular love of reading. (We have great authors like Dean Francis Alfar, who have published stories and books in fantasy, sci-fi, magic realism and every conceivable speculative genre, not just in the Philippines but internationally.) Films, with all their pomp and celebrity, are more effective at penetrating the Filipino consciousness, and thereby is a more powerful channel for disseminating meaningful stories.

Enter Instalado, an entry to the 2017 ToFarm Film Festival. (This festival is itself a fascinating and unique project, with its dedication to the upliftment of Philippine agriculture.) The genius of Instalado is in the premise: it was a brilliant stroke of creativity for its filmmakers to have come up with a science-fiction approach on its way to joining a film festival about farming. Agriculture immediately evokes the pastoral, the rural, and indeed many entries in ToFarm are traditional dramas set in the countryside. Instalado instead recognizes that the struggles of farmers can spill down the road to the city.

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‘Karma’ (Danny Zialcita, 1981): dying to love again

This Vilma Santos-starrer is quite cheesy, but it can be more than just a popcorn movie.

Change is inevitable, but some things are eternal—or at least, they reincarnate. In Danny Zialcita’s Karma, a film that premiered at the 7th Metro Manila Film Festival in 1981 and was recently remastered by ABS-CBN Film Restoration, we see such old, past things as a Makati City with an unrecognizable skyline. There were no cellphones yet, and the characters depended on landline services. For audiences today, the movie offers glimpses at how much life has changed in recent decades—but it also suggests that some things are undying, like love and souls and poor customer service from telephone companies.

Karma opens with a scene of lovers meeting at a clandestine location, part romantic and part spooky. Guada (Leila Hermosa) and Enrico (Dante Rivero) have barely made their amorous overtures when Limbo (Ruel Vernal)—Guada’s husband—arrives and threatens to kill the adulterous pair. He points his gun at the unflinching Enrico who, because of either some mystic foresight or simple, tragic romanticism, says “Bala lang ‘yan, katawan lang ‘to.” Limbo makes good on his threat and shoots the two, before killing himself.

The title credits are flashed in the next sequence, over a montage of babies being born in a hospital, intercut with images of the dying lovers, strongly implying that Guada and Enrico’s souls have reincarnated. Limbo’s crime of passion apparently failed to send them with finality to heaven nor to hell, and not even to limbo.

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‘Ang Larawan’: a triumphant remembrance

The musical is a faithful adaptation of Nick Joaquin’s grand play.

Ang Larawan begins this way: Bitoy Camacho (Sandino Martin), a young, bright man, makes his way down the historical streets of pre-war Intramuros and enters an old house. On his way up to the sala, he pauses and quietly admires the furnishings gathering dust in storage. This film is as flamboyant and loud as any musical, but it remembers to include such moments of stillness. Its story is populated by a full ensemble, but it starts small as it follows only young Bitoy, while he revisits the place of his childhood memories.

Ang Larawan is a proudly, defiantly nostalgic film. It is a period drama, one that is deliberately framed: the story is bookended by black-and-white footage, and it introduces color as a stage would open its curtains. The past that it presents is concerned less with authenticity than with theatricality.

The film adapts National Artist Nick Joaquin’s famous play, A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, and it is as straightforward an adaptation as possible, adorned but unaltered even as it was translated by Rolando Tinio (also a National Artist) into Filipino, and in collaboration with Ryan Cayabyab was transformed into a musical. It is not Bitoy’s story; he only introduces it. At the heart of Ang Larawan are the Marasigan sisters, Candida (Joanna Ampil) and Paula (Rachel Alejandro), unmarried and growing old, living in their house in old Manila with their esteemed but reclusive father Don Lorenzo (Leo Rialp). Here, on the last October before the outbreak of war, the sisters’ peaceful lives are disturbed as various personalities—family and friends and other less-noble characters—come visiting upon news that Don Marasigan, the artist and patriot, has picked up his brush again and completed his first painting in decades.

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