‘Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit’ (1991): evocative beauty and provocative intensity

Old-fashioned both in visuals and in story, this 1991 ‘Goma-Dawn’ film can nevertheless startle even modern audiences.

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Dawn Zulueta and Richard Gomez as Carmina and Gabriel on a balcony overlooking the coast in ‘Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit’ (1991).

Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit is a 1991 adaptation of the classic English novel, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. That novel, while without doubt an excellent work of fiction on its own, almost begs the question: does it owe some of its success, part of its much-celebrated status, to the tragedy of being its author’s first and last novel? (Brontë passed away only a year after her novel was published, and so never came to appreciate her novel’s full success.)

This is not to criticize the novel’s value in any way, because no amount of sympathy for the author’s misfortunes can save a novel if the work itself lacks substance. This is merely to suggest that Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit, in drawing from Victorian literature, also acquires much of its charm in this association with its source material. Like the idea that the appeal of Wuthering Heights, as a creative work, is enhanced by the circumstances of its creation, there is neither criticism nor praise in declaring that its Filipino film adaptation borrows heavily from the beauty of earlier works—there is only acknowledgment, that any work of art cannot escape being part of something larger than itself, of a world beyond the boundaries of the art form.

Rustic, symmetric

True to its source, Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit manifests a vaguely Victorian aesthetic, evoking nostalgia amidst its rustic settings. In the opening title sequence, the film shows a montage of the famed Batanes coastline. Perhaps as a nod to Wuthering Heights‘s title, the film also shows a fascination for the literal heights of the province’s promontories, the iconic hills weathered by wind, and carpeted by grass.

The story begins with the rather whimsical adoption of the orphan Gabriel (Jomari Yllana, later played as an adult by Richard Gomez) by the haciendero Don Joaquin (Jose Mari Avellana). Don Joaquin’s ill-natured son Milo (Gio Alvarez, later Michael De Mesa) is contemptuous of this arrangement, but his sister Carmina (Guila Alvarez, later Dawn Zulueta) takes kindly to Gabriel, and she brings him often to the promontory where she narrates her fantasies of being a princess. When, once, Milo and Gabriel engages on a bloody brawl, the exasperated Don Joaquin banishes Milo to live in the city with a relative.

All is well until the Don’s death, years later. Milo returns to inherit the hacienda, and promptly kicks Gabriel out of the house and into the stable, demoting him to servitude as a farm hand. Nevertheless, Carmina has fallen deeply in love with Gabriel, and against Milo’s commands, she sneaks out to spend days and nights with Gabriel. They declare their love to each other on the picturesque promontory, and consummate their passion in the earthly darkness of the stable.

Dawn Zulueta and Richard Gomez as Carmina and Gabriel on a promontory in ‘Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit’ (1991).
Dawn Zulueta and Richard Gomez as Carmina and Gabriel in ‘Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit’ (1991). Screen capture from YouTube/ABS-CBN Film Restoration.

Up until this point, the first half hour or so of Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit, the film is a forgettable affair, buoyed only by its constant attempt to please visually. The story of a simplistic family drama, and romantic love clashing with the traditional limits of social class, conjures too much of the melodramatic sensibilities that has plagued Filipino dramas, on film or on television. It does not help that, also up until this point, the characters are either tediously one-dimensional, or naive and devoid of redeeming qualities. Even the extensive scenes of passion (in the R-rated director’s cut) feel gratuitous; it is an unconvincing romance, the film having skipped the necessary laying of foundations.

Of course, and fortunately, Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit inherits the sense of equilibrium that shapes much of Wuthering Heights‘ story. Carmina meets the wealthy Alan Ilustre (Eric Quizon), and in his constant adoration of her, his incessant showering of worldly luxuries onto her impressionable hands, she rediscovers her foolish ambitions for a lavish life. She commits the terrible mistake of questioning her love for Gabriel, an intimation which, true to the tradition of these stories, the poor Gabriel overhears.

From here onwards, the plot takes an unceasing ebb-and-flow pattern: one moment it strikes a hopeful note, drawing closer back to the precarious, better days of Carmina and Gabriel’s innocent love; then, in the next moment, it plunges back into the dark, increasingly violent path to corruption. The film is quickly possessed by this tension, this oscillation in search of an equilibrium and a resolution. The initially gentle rocking gives way to full back-and-forth blows; the later half of the film is thus filled with an excess of movement, as it explores heavy themes of violence, abuse, and obsession. It can leave the viewer feeling battered, like the rocky, eroded coast near Carmina and Gabriel’s promontory-haven: it is a terrifying and awful sight to watch their love worn down by the unceasing smashing of wave after wave of misfortunes.

The conflicts and tragedies of Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit is accompanied and framed by a persistent symmetry. The film starts and ends with shots of its natural settings: of the sea, the promontory, the hills. Both the film’s second scene, and its penultimate, portray burials. Deeper into the story, and closer to its midpoint, there is a pair of wedding scenes that intricately delivers equal but opposite impacts on the characters involved. Gabriel, when he is first seen after his adoption by Don Joaquin, wears peasant clothing, and his face is covered with dirt; at the opposite end of the film, he is last seen on his knees over the ground, clutching dirt in his hands, and also wearing plain clothes—another symmetry that contrasts with his status in the middle section of the film, when he does wear fine clothing and carry a hollow but dignified cleanliness. There are more elements like this in the film, of characters switching fates, and lines of dialogue dramatically repeated in ironically-mirrored situations. The only constant in the story, its beacon of equilibrium, is the promontory: the weathered, wuthering heights, the symbol of everything that Carmina and Gabriel is struggling for, the limbo of their love.

All of these is presented in the film with embellishments evocative of the Victorian aesthetic. In addition to its rustic environments, the movie is a showcase of elegant country mansions and fine costumes (of a Western, non-tropical style, it must be noted). As children, Carmina and Gabriel play out in the fields riding horses—a decidedly Western and pre-modern fashion. The film consciously limits its references to the urban life, and restrains its displays of modernity. The net effect is a distant, otherworldly feel, beautiful in a coherent, albeit un-Filipino, way.

A hacienda and its lawn, in ‘Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit’ (1991).
A scene from ‘Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit’ (1991). Screen capture from YouTube/ABS-CBN Film Restoration.

In relation to this aesthetic, a commentary on Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit would not be complete without praising its masterclass of a cinematography. The camera, under the guide of cinematographer Romeo Vitug, relishes the abundance of pleasant visual material, and the audience can sense that much care was given to the composition of each shot, even those of relatively inconsequential scenes. Notably, the film utilizes at least three specific techniques. First, there are at least two shots of a character menacingly leaning over another, framed in a canted angle—effectively communicating the discomfort and tension of the situation. Second, there are at least another two shots where the lighting is set up so as to illuminate only a character’s eyes or face, against a dark background. In the different contexts where it is employed, it emphasizes either the character’s visible pain, or their threatening appearance. Lastly, there are several shots employing a quick dolly approach to close-up on characters; it is a kinetic, unsettling move that heightens the sense of surprise in the scenes it is used in.

Loves stories and venturing forth

Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit was digitally restored and remastered by ABS-CBN Film Restoration in 2017, more than 25 years after its initial release. The premiere of the restored version in February was attended by many of the film’s cast and crew. Before the screening, the film’s writer, Raquel Villavicencio, said, “They don’t make love stories anymore like they used to.”

Of course it was a statement meant to elevate the film’s value, a call to appreciation for this elaborate work of art. Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit is not perfect: audiences in the 21st century will likely find its first act dreary, and the acting and dialogue throughout can come across as too quaint so as to be unsettling or distracting. But there is no denying the universality of the film’s themes, and the gravity of what it achieves by the end of the story, which compensates for all its old-fashioned flaws; there is no arguing against the “intensity of the material,” as the director, Carlos Siguion-Reyna, phrased it for the audience at the restored film’s premiere.

The new poster for the 2017 restoration of ‘Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit’, on display at the Glorietta cinema lobby during the premiere.
The new poster for the restoration of ‘Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit’, on display during the premiere.

As to whether we should begin creating love stories like this film again is a different matter. Villavicencio, perhaps stricken with nostalgia, probably had in mind the proliferation of rom-coms in Filipino cinema these days, and how they represent everything that Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit is not. Whereas the latter has a rural setting evocative of a distant past, today’s rom-coms live and breathe the here-and-now of our modern cities. Whereas the 1991 romance-drama tackles timeless themes and mostly employs formal, archaic language, 2017’s rom-coms are full of contemporary issues, and speak in the millennials’ colloquial tongue.

There are many arguments for and against either ‘genre’; one way to frame it is that what matters more is the work that speaks to us more clearly, about our present identity and struggles. In that case, our modern rom-coms, born out of our local and present milieu, have the edge over nostalgic films like Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit, which might be criticized for colonial aesthetics or aspirations. But this may be reading too much; furthermore, there are other values or beliefs with which we can decide what kind of love story we would like to continue seeing. The different ‘genres’ can also co-exist. In the end, it is up to our present and future filmmakers to decide what type of film they would like to create, and up to us, the contemporary and future audiences, to tell them what type of movie we want and need.

A concluding note on Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit: the film’s title could be translated, literally, as “I’ll Wait For You In Heaven”. Yet, by the story’s end, we see that hardly any waiting takes place, and that, besides, its characters exhibit too much wickedness to seem to merit passage into heaven.

If there is anything in the film that justifies this titular idea of venturing forth, it is how it starts with simplistic, clichéd, ‘classic’ conflicts, discussing such innocent topics as dreaming of becoming royalty—before sailing on to more tempestuous seas, as the film portrays violence, abuse, and obsession, in relation to the more familiar conflict of love struggling against class differences. This is how the film attains its salvation, how it passes on into a world beyond the boundaries of form and expectations.

Dawn Zulueta and Richard Gomez speaking to bloggers and members of the press, at the premiere of the restored ‘Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit’.
Dawn Zulueta and Richard Gomez at the premiere of the restored ‘Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit’, Feb. 27, 2017.

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