In Noel Vera's new book, Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books), one of the movies highlighted is Gerry De Leon's classic Sanda Wong. The film, made in 1955, has been lost for years; and only several years ago restored. Sanda Wong was a co-production between Philippine and Hongkong filmmaking outfits - a strictly commercial venture, out to make a profit. It was conceived as shallow entertainment and, on its own purely mercenary terms, it's a success. What Sanda Wong is, though, is that it is one of the most enjoyable Filipino films ever made.


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Pelikula At Lipunan '98 ended with the premiere of a restoration of a Filipino classic, Gerry De Leon's "Sanda Wong." The film, made in 1955, has been lost for years; only recently, and through the efforts of film historian-archivist-distributor Teddy Co, has a print been located in Hongkong, brought home to this country, and with the help of Mowelfund and SOFIA (Society of Film Archivists), restored.

"Sanda Wong" was a co-production between Philippine and Hongkong filmmaking outfits - a strictly commercial venture, out to make a profit. It was conceived as shallow entertainment and, on its own purely mercenary terms, it's a success. This isn't a literary production like Manuel Silos' great "Biyaya Ng Lupa;" it isn't even considered to be among Gerry De Leon's best works.

What "Sanda Wong" is, though, is that it is one of the most enjoyable Filipino films ever made. I mean - bandits and magic rings! Secret dens, hidden treasures, pythons that pop out of nowhere. This is in the great tradition of "Gunga Din," "The Thief Of Baghdad," "The Adventures Of Robin Hood." Films like these are gloriously irrelevant confections - filled with contrivances just a step sideways from real life, slightly larger than real life, and as entertaining as hell.

Gerry De Leon was working with
a larger than usual budget here,
but in Hollywood terms, it's miniscule -
he still had to improvise, and his
filmmaking is lean and hungry and
evocatively imaginative.

I actually enjoyed "Sanda Wong" more than I did "Thief Of Baghdad" - heresy to the ears of a traditional film critic, until you realize that the director, Michael Powell, was hamstrung by a huge, problem-ridden production (input from other directors brought in to fix the problems probably didn't help). Powell's filmmaking in "Thief" was square in a big-budgeted, Important Picture way; De Leon was working with a larger than usual budget here, but in Hollywood terms, it's miniscule - he still had to improvise, and his filmmaking is lean and hungry and evocatively imaginative.

But you don't have to be some kind of film expert to appreciate "Sanda Wong;" you don't have to exclaim "John Ford!" every time you see someone framed dramatically against a brilliant white sky, or "Marquise De Sade!" every time Sanda Wong (Jose Padilla, Jr.) raises a whip against his beautiful Amazon beauty (Lilia Dizon, mother of modern-day leading man Christopher De Leon). "Sanda Wong" is gripping drama in its own right, a Jacobean struggle between rich landowner Liu Chen (Danilo Montes) and the bandit king Sanda Wong - two men who meet as mistrustful antagonists and part as brothers in blood.

Wong believes he's done Liu Chen a favor by rescuing him from the clutches of a greedy general (Gil De Leon, father of modern-day leading man Christopher De Leon) out to learn the location of his treasure. But Liu Chen is more irritating than grateful - the general had raped and caused the suicide of his newly-wedded wife (Lola Young), and he wants Sanda Wong's help in exacting revenge. Liu Chen acts the part of Wong's conscience, reminding him of promises unfulfilled, of deeds left undone, and Wong hates it. Chen is a constant reminder to Wong that he can be a better man than he is, that as is he's a heavy-breathing braggart and something of a coward (not that Chen is a paragon of virtue - played by Montes, he's self-righteously priggish and a real hothead).

De Leon sketches the blackly comic relationship between his two protagonists - two men who couldn't be more different (and couldn't be more conscious of that fact), yet are inextricably entwined. "Raiders Of The Lost Ark," by way of comparison, is a mere cartoon, if well-directed; you thrill to Indiana Jones's exploits, but you never feel that Jones has struggled with anything deeper than an extensive archeological dig, or suffered the loss of anything greater than his floppy old hat.

 

There are flaws - an outrageous one being the scene where Wong, in an extravagant fit of cruelty, strips the Amazon down to her leopard skin (Leopard skin! In China!) and forces her to dance some vaguely African choreography. This is a cheesecake scene, of course, designed to show off Lilia Dizon's superb figure (Dizon, incidentally, is sexier and far more sensuous in leopard skin than Rosanna Roces ever was in her birthday suit - one hundred percent natural equipment mind you, no plastic surgery involved).

But to point out historical and cultural errors is to miss the point of B movies (so called because they were (supposedly) a notch below the class-A pictures); it's denying the wild and anything-goes spirit in which these movies were made. And, in fact, there is a psychological rationale behind this scene: some shameful act is eating Sanda Wong up inside, and he has to lash out at the nearest available scapegoat, the scapegoat in this case being his favorite Amazon. The decidedly sadomasochistic relationship between Wong and his Amazon had been established; now De Leon exploits it, and the results are dramatically, visually, and sexually fascinating.

'Sanda Wong' is a mix of skillful storytelling, superbly staged action, and sumptuous production design - everything effortlessly balanced against each other, everything lightly held in the palm of De Leon's masterful hand.

I could spend pages trying to describe the many subtle, and not-so-subtle pleasures of the film - the way, for example, De Leon integrates the device of a huge python, under the control of a magic ring. The python scenes are entirely believable (this, plus the crocodile attack in "Noli Me Tangere" reveals De Leon to be a wonderful director of animals); more, its every appearance is timed to cause the maximum number of gasps. Set this beside the snake scene in the recent magic-realist "Sa Pusod Ng Dagat" (In The Navel Of The Sea): the sorry little reptile just popped out of the woman's vagina - no attempt was made to prepare you for this unlikely miracle, and no attempt was made to do anything with it. In short, the snake in "Sanda" is a total delight; the snake in "Pusod" a pretentious bore.

"Sanda Wong" is a mix of skillful storytelling, superbly staged action, and sumptuous production design - everything effortlessly balanced against each other, everything lightly held in the palm of De Leon's masterful hand. The movie may not be a great film, but it's definitely great entertainment.

One other film shown in the festival was "Takaw Tukso" (Temptation), a cheaply-made sex thriller that turned out to be one of the best things shown in the festival. It's the story of a spoiled young man (Gino Antonio) who marries a spoiled, amoral young woman (Anna Marie Gutierrez), and lives in the same house with his adopted brother (Julio Diaz) and wife (Jaclyn Jose).

The script by Armando Lao is sharply written, with lean, simple dialogue. Director William Pascual is able to suggest, using an admirable economy of means, the kind of tensions - sexual and fraternal - that can surface in such a closed-in domestic arrangement. The cast - Antonio, Diaz, Jose and Gutierrez - inhabit their characters with a quiet intensity. No melodramatic confrontations, no attention-grabbing histrionics - the acting is so perfectly modulated, you could almost be watching an Altman psychodrama. All in all, an astonishingly accomplished film: one that is ripe, if not long overdue, for restoration - the colors are missing, all the sex scenes had been excised, and what looks like a whole reel is missing. Perhaps the people responsible for "Sanda Wong" can make this one of their priority projects?

Businessworld, March 6, 1998


"Unseen" Films About $ingapore

Tikoy Aguiluz's The Last Wish

Apart from classic Filipino movies such as Lino Brocka's Fight For Us and Manila In The Claws Of Neon; Mario O'Hara's Woman On A Tin Roof, Vera also looks at newer films such as Lav Diaz's Batang West Side (West Side Avenue), Gil Portes's Markova: Comfort Gay and two "unseen" movies about $ingapore such as Joel Lamangan's The Flor Contemplacion Story and Tikoy Aguiluz's The Last Wish, also about Contemplacion who was hanged in $ingapore.
Click here to order Noel Vera's Critic After Dark.



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