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),
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
March 6, 1998