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.
Many years later, Guada’s reincarnation, Sara (Vilma Santos), is now an antiques store manager. She is stranded in a fully-booked hotel, and given a room that turns out to be already assigned to a regular guest, Eric (Ronaldo Valdez), who comes weekly for sleazy recreation. He enters the room using his own key and finds Sara in the shower. Mistaking her as a surprise ‘gift’ from his usual contact, he forces himself on her. She resists to no avail.
It is rape, and it should be shocking and horrible even if it was accidental, but it is depicted in this movie without the gravity that should attend the act. In fact, in the next scene, the first thing an apologetic Eric to Sara says is sorry, I didn’t even know you were a virgin.
Sara comes home, and we learn about a further tragic aspect to her abuse: she is about to be married to Alfredo (Tommy Abuel), a puritanical and possessive man. She tells him about what happened only after the wedding, and the revelation enrages him—but he seems to hate Sara as much as the abuser. He sets out to make her suffer by refusing to touch his new but impure wife. He taunts her, expecting the lack of affection to take its toll on her, that she would eventually seek an affair with another man. It is as if it would be his greatest pleasure to see his wife committing infidelity, leaving him safely alone on higher moral grounds. Alfredo’s character is intriguing because his cruelty comes from his extreme moralizing; after witnessing his brutal treatment of Sara, the accidental rapist Eric now seems to us endearing and gentlemanly. Eric is in fact Enrico’s reincarnation, but he is married to Cristy (Chanda Romero), who like Alfredo is possessive to an almost comical extent, although her jealousy is more insidious than aggressive.
Eric meets Sara again by accident (or should we call it karma?) and through a sufficiently intriguing plot involving money, dishonesty, and terrible telephone services. The latter is a recurrent element, indeed a kind of running joke, in Zialcita’s films: rivals accidentally overhearing private conversations on the telephone because of messed-up circuitry, of inadvertent connections that thicken the plot in a most gossipy manner. In Karma, Sara’s telephone is linked to Eric’s in the same party line, and Cristy (who is still unaware of Eric’s entanglement with Sara) complains to the phone company that they’ve been paying for a private line, so why are they still being given the lesser prestige, the lack of glamour, of a party line?
Karma’s story goes on, sometimes taking twists that are not too novel, but nevertheless satisfying. The same applies to the ending; the question that drives the final act is that, if Guada indeed reincarnated as Sara, and Enrico as Eric, then who is the new Limbo? (The answer becomes predictable as the story progresses.) The plot plays with the reincarnation concept, often making tantalizingly parallel or cyclic turns.
Eric learns about his and Sara’s past lives when he investigates the room where Guada, Enrico and Limbo died; the scene lazily tries to convey an atmosphere of horror, but it is merely spooky. And that is fine, because really the premise of the entire film is just as cheesy. It is Zialcita’s specialty to derive entertainment from ridiculous and juicy affairs, after all, and popcorn goes well with cheese.
Conservative or progressive?
Karma, and Zialcita’s movies in general, is not all about cheese, however.
It is true that these stories can be seen as nothing more than escapism. Zialcita’s career as a filmmaker was almost completely coterminous with Ferdinand Marcos’s rule as president of the Philippines. Under Marcos, particularly in the martial law period, Filipino artists risked censorship or even persecution if they directly tackled political issues, so many of them could only work with safer, diversionary topics. The idea was that the more escapist and non-politically sensational films and literature became, the less preoccupied the people would be with grave social matters. Zialcita was one of those artists who worked in the diversionary domain. His films did tackle social issues, but these were affairs of the racy, personal kind, not those political issues of national scope. As filmmaker Milo Sogueco confirms, Zialcita is known for these “glossy movies” about wealthy people, full of sharp and witty dialogue. The characters’ main concern is more often than not romance, and they effortlessly and naturally switch to English in the midle of conversation to emphasize a point—a glaring marker of affluence. It is easy to imagine the mass audiences in our poverty-wracked country, like the characters who keep on eavesdropping on party lines, deriving voyeuristic pleasure from watching these scandalous stories of the elite.
But none of this warrants dismissing Zialcita as a somehow lesser artist. That his films make almost no mention of the social upheavals of their time does not mean that they have nothing to offer for meaningful discussion. Indeed, more than three decades later, they have become quite relevant now, in this particular point of the film industry’s history—of social history at large, in fact—when gender issues has become a paramount and urgent issue.
At first blush, Zialcita’s films show an appalling, apparent backwardness. In Nagalit ang Buwan sa Haba ng Gabi, he makes a teenage girl hate her mother when she is suspected of being unfaithful, while she forgives her father for the very same sin, because he’s a man anyway, she says. The portrayal of rape in Karma is scandalous at the least, and if the film were made today it could very well stir protests.
On the other hand, also in Karma, Sara is dragged by Alfredo to a doctor-friend to have her checked if she has really been touched. The procedure is so painful and humiliating that even Alfredo asks to stop the check-up, but Sara demands to continue, forcing Alfredo to watch, to shame him. It is a powerful show of Sara’s struggle against Alfredo’s misogyny.
Certainly, Zialcita’s films are provocative. It is natural to ask, what really are his intentions? What is his stand on these social norms and attitudes; ultimately, is he conservative or progressive? Is he a reactionary or a revolutionary?
Perhaps he was simply being tricky. By casting the wealthy in his eminently entertaining stories of scandal, perhaps he meant to mock them, not to glorify their way of life. In portraying the situations his characters find themselves in, the patriarchy of it all, the stinky elitism (Cristy in Karma is of such privilege that she flew off to America on a whim to go soul-searching), he could have intended, subtly, to horrify as much as to delight.
Of course, this is merely an interpretation of the films, on their own. This is a hypothesis about Zialcita’s intentions formed by letting his films speak on his behalf. (Or, put in another perspective, letting the films speak for themselves.) It can easily be a misguided projection. A little research on the filmmaker’s life, reading biographies or listening to any interviews that may exist of him, will more readily answer the question of his personal stances.
But modern audiences who stumble upon Zialcita’s films may very well be uninterested about authorial intents. (An author or filmmaker’s moral character is a more contentious concern.) And this may actually be the compassionate attitude we should take: it is not necessary to ask whether he was ahead of his time or not. We do not have to judge a filmmaker’s convictions to be able to take his films as creative documents of their times, as stories to be discussed so as to illuminate our own present experience.
The poster for the digitally restored movie is by Justin Besana for ABS-CBN Film Restoration.