ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW
You expect good
things from Carlos Siguion-Reyna and his wife, Bibeth Orteza. He is
an enormously talented director; she, a highly ambitious writer. You
expect them to make good if not great films, the kind no one has ever
seen before, the kind that could put the Philippines on the international
map. They have the skills, they have the will and, sooner or later,
they will have the film.
Too bad it
isnt this film. Abot Kamay Ang Pangarap (Elenas
Redemption) was based on a true story, of a maid who was either
seduced or raped by her Chinese employer. She became pregnant, then
either her employers wife killed the baby or she herself killed
it, depending on who you believe.
From this simple,
straight-forward story, writer Bibeth Orteza fashions a drama that
is, well, beyond description. The Chinese employers become Filipinos;
the seducing husband does make the first move, but not after the
maid has obsessed about him for weeks. The wife isnt a murderous
bitch, but a well-meaning one, short of temper but essentially good
of heart. Ms. Orteza obviously feels for her characters; she cant
bear to have them thought of as out-and-out villains, and she doesnt
want her maid to be just another rape victim. She wants human complexity
and she gets it; at the expense, however, of a good deal of credibility.
uncomfortable job, pointing out whats so painfully, obviously
wrong with this picture (I sometimes wonder if the boy who saw the
absurdity in the emperors new clothes wasnt snatched
up and stuffed in a dungeon the minute he got home). It begins with
Michael De Mesa as a lawyer urging the maid (Maricel Soriano) to
sign a release form. Soriano signs; De Mesa snatches her around
the waist and rapes her from behind. Soriano goes back home to the
province, where her father (Pen Medina) slaps her for bringing shame
to the family. She collapses and starts bleeding between her legs.
When she recovers, she has lost her memory; her mother (Daria Ramirez)
has to read to her all the letters she had written during her stay
in Manila. All this, if you dont already know, happens roughly
during the first 10 minutes of the film.
The rest is
like that: supercharged dramatic situations piled right on top of
each other. The characters cant breathe, let alone grow. You
watch the proceedings become more and more unbelievable; past a
certain point, you find yourself giggling uncontrollably. Not a
comfortable situation to be in, until you realize that the entire
audience is giggling with you. There are the scenes that simply
fly in the face of common sense, like the one where the employer
(Tonton Gutierrez) and his wife (Dina Bonnevie) eat shrimp with
a fork and spoon. Suddenly, Soriano picks up a shrimp and starts
peeling it; Gutierrez looks up to her gratefully, while Bonnevie
looks faintly jealous. "Thats enough," Bonnevie
tells Soriano, waving her away.
Fine, we learn
that Soriano is asserting herself, Gutierrez is enjoying himself,
and Bonnevie is getting annoyed. But ask yourself: how would you
react if a new maid picked up your food and started peeling it with
her bare hands? You might want to be polite and say, "Excuse
me, have you washed your hands?" but your most likely reaction
would be to yell at the top of your voice: "Keep your fingers
off my food!" Or take the scene where Bonnevie talks to Gutierrez
about adopting a child. Suddenly, Soriano appears in the door and
says: "Im pregnant. You can have my child if you want
it," and walks away. Bonnevie runs after her; Gutierrez holds
Bonnevie back, whereupon she turns around and tells him: "Dont
you realize this is our only chance to have a baby?"
feel as if you had wandered into
the local version of The Hand That
Rocks The Cradle by way of
Fatal Attraction, where The Other
Woman has the upper hand...
The film seems to be trying for a
comic tone. But the best black
comedies presented their characters
as weak grotesques, the better to
practice their uniquely sadistic brand
of humor. A black comedy with
sympathetic characters is struggling
against its best instincts. It literally
has nowhere to go but down.
half a dozen people: whats the first thing you ask when someones
pregnant? One, two, three - all together now: "Whos the
father?" Okay; whats the second thing you ask, considering
that Soriano is the one and only maid (cleaning without any apparent
difficulty what looks like a thousand-square-foot house and garden)
and your husband is home all the time? Yep - you turn your head
and ask your husband: "Did you do it?" Bonnevies
character seems at times to be as dense as structural cement. There
is the attempted abortion scene, where the next patient after Soriano
turns out to be the abortionists daughter. "Itay!
(Father!)" she cries out; he proceeds to beat up her boyfriend.
Where did that come from, you ask yourself. Be warned: youll
be asking yourself that question a number of times before the movies
the Flying Baby scene, which has to be seen to be believed. This,
however, is topped by the Flying Father scene, where Pen Medina
in his male chauvinist insensitivity pushes Daria Ramirez over the
figurative edge. She responds by pushing him over a literal edge,
a windowsill, to be exact; he hits the ground hard. Their son runs
to the mans prone body and cries out: "What have you
done to Daddy?" Ramirez, cool as a cucumber, turns to Soriano
and asks: "Now - what were we talking about?"
the release form she signs at the beginning of the film; she will
continue the suit, demanding remedy for her rape and for the babys
death. The rape charge is fine, but what kind of satisfaction can
she get from suing them over the babys death? It was an accident,
and Bonnevie says so. Soriano can sue for involuntary manslaughter,
but the employers are portrayed so sympathetically and Sorianos
maid so ambiguously that you dont cheer for her sudden resolve.
Rather, you feel as if you had wandered into the local version of
The Hand That Rocks The Cradle by way of Fatal Attraction, where
The Other Woman has the upper hand. Ms. Orteza used to write comedy
scripts, and the orientation shows. The film seems to be trying
for a comic tone. But the best black comedies - Lolita, Sunset Boulevard,
Dr. Strangelove - presented their characters as weak grotesques,
the better to practice their uniquely sadistic brand of humor. A
black comedy with sympathetic characters - like those played by
Bonnevie, Soriano and Gutierrez - is struggling against its best
instincts. It literally has nowhere to go but down.
pin the blame on any one person. The cast is talented: Soriano is
intense, Bonnevie believable, and even Gutierrez builds on the streak
of good performances he started with Isla (Isle). Carlos
Siguion-Reynas direction is as assured as ever and even smoother
than in Inagaw Mo Ang Lahat Sa Akin (Harvest Home). Bibeth
Ortezas script, if less ambitious, is more complex, with the
aforementioned attempts at a tragic-comic mix. But somehow, it doesnt
Like the characters, the filmmakers have the best of intentions,
and it all goes wrong. Ms. Ortezas black-comedy aspirations
are fully realized, not in her script, but in the disaster unreeling
before you onscreen. Do I recommend the film? I have to; this is
one of the funniest things Ive ever seen.
Manila Chronicle, August 25, 1996.
The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review
Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
Click here to order.