Put a comedy writer on a human drama and you get Carlos Siguion-Reyna's Elena's Redemption (Abot Kamay Ang Pangarap). It takes a sheer belief in the impossible to swallow this film that you end up choking with mirth. Noel Vera enjoys it in spite of himself.


THE 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 isn’t this film. Abot Kamay Ang Pangarap (Elena’s 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 employer’s 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 isn’t a murderous bitch, but a well-meaning one, short of temper but essentially good of heart. Ms. Orteza obviously feels for her characters; she can’t bear to have them thought of as out-and-out villains, and she doesn’t 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.

It’s an uncomfortable job, pointing out what’s so painfully, obviously wrong with this picture (I sometimes wonder if the boy who saw the absurdity in the emperor’s new clothes wasn’t 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 don’t 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 can’t 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. "That’s 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: "I’m 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: "Don’t you realize this is our only chance to have a baby?"

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...
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.

I’ve asked half a dozen people: what’s the first thing you ask when someone’s pregnant? One, two, three - all together now: "Who’s the father?" Okay; what’s 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?" Bonnevie’s 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 abortionist’s daughter. "Itay! (Father!)" she cries out; he proceeds to beat up her boyfriend. Where did that come from, you ask yourself. Be warned: you’ll be asking yourself that question a number of times before the movie’s over.

Then there’s 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 man’s 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?"

Soriano retracts the release form she signs at the beginning of the film; she will continue the suit, demanding remedy for her rape and for the baby’s death. The rape charge is fine, but what kind of satisfaction can she get from suing them over the baby’s death? It was an accident, and Bonnevie says so. Soriano can sue for involuntary manslaughter, but the employers are portrayed so sympathetically and Soriano’s maid so ambiguously that you don’t 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.

You can’t 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-Reyna’s direction is as assured as ever and even smoother than in Inagaw Mo Ang Lahat Sa Akin (Harvest Home). Bibeth Orteza’s script, if less ambitious, is more complex, with the aforementioned attempts at a tragic-comic mix. But somehow, it doesn’t jell.

Like the characters, the filmmakers have the best of intentions, and it all goes wrong. Ms. Orteza’s 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 I’ve ever seen.

Note: Manila Chronicle, August 25, 1996. The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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November 14, 2006









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