Celso Ad. Castillo is an erratic Philippines filmmaker. He made the legendary When The Crow Turns White, When The Heron Turns Black and Burlesque Queen but in The Most Beautiful Creature On The Face Of The Earth, he drowns in misadventure. Film critic Noel Vera struggles out of a wet T-shirt.


THE ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW

A remake is a remake is a remake is a... We’re told that this is a remake of the original Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop Sa Balat Ng Lupa (The Most Beautiful Creature On The Face Of The Earth) back in the ’70s, with Gloria Diaz.

What we aren’t told is that the ’70s skin flick was very much inspired by David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter. Consider: a passionate woman (Sarah Miles) scandalizes a small town set in wild and beautiful countryside (Ireland) by having an affair; wandering through the story is a retarded man (John Mills, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance) instrumental in the woman’s downfall. Ad. Castillo, in adopting the story, multiplied the woman’s single affair by a factor of 10 (for more sex), set it in a seaside village (for wetter shirts), and cuts out all the political conflicts (for a simpler-minded audience).

So what are we to make of this second-hand - actually third-hand - material? You’d think with another shot at the story, director Celso Ad. Castillo would fix the lobotomized characters, unconvincing plot, hilariously hyperdramatic dialogue, but no, they’re still there; you can only wonder why. Maybe because after the failure of his Comfort Women, he felt he needed a hit more than he needed a good film; maybe he’s so sold on the virtues of his original Hayop, he can’t see the termites for the tree.

Maybe control of the film was taken away from him, which you can’t help but hope is the real reason. Celso Ad. Castillo is the most erratic and unpredictable of our great directors. He’s made one undisputed masterpiece: Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak (When The Crow Turns White, When the Heron Turns Black) one lost masterpiece, Burlesk Queen (Burlesque Queen - the print is presently unavailable); and a few good films, including Tag-Ulan, Tag-Araw (Rainy Season, Sunny Season). He can do films like those, then turn around and do something like Comfort Women which, to put it kindly, looks like a cheap exploitation flick. And now this.

There are traces of Ad. Castillo the Filmmaker in this skin fest: Isabel (Ruffa Gutierrez) is found floating in the sea, arms spread wide like a crucifix, in startlingly crystal water. A white horse comes out of the same sea, unexplained and enchanting. Two men, panting in lust, fear and hate, strike dramatic poses against a massive, gorgeous landscape; one chases the other with a machete, and his vicious swipes at innocent banana trees suggests the damage he’d like to do to his intended victim more effectively than any amount of Hollywood prosthetics.

You can see, with the clarity with which he shoots perfect Philippine scenery, what he’s trying to do. A story, simple to the point of banality, elevated by photography and music and passionate performances to the level of Edenic myth. The sun, the sea, the dappled, sultry forest burning and flowing to the ebb and rise of human emotions.

You can see with equal clarity where the vision falls short. The characters are sketchy, their motivations dictated more by plot than by real humanity. The plot isn’t even very inventive: every man is a seething cauldron of suppressed lust, every woman wears wet, skimpy clothes.

The village folk are all full of envy and malice and suspicion towards Isabel. One man kills another for her hand, and the murder is blamed on her; when the real killer is arrested, he blames his misfortune on her too. This happens over and over, with perfect predictability; if E-VAT is ever imposed on this little hamlet, you can bet that they’d take signboards and placards and demonstrate in front of her house. In a scene that parallels Sarah Miles’s humiliation in Ryan’s Daughter, Isabel is chased into the sea and beaten by a group of women: the actresses struggle hard but the knee-deep water only slows them down and makes the whole scene sadly comic. What should have been high drama turns into a Lady’s Wrestling Special, full of splashing limbs, pulled hair, and sodden underwear.

Isabel is presented as a child of nature who effortlessly tames and rides the white horse; the next moment, she’s a ruthless bitch, determined to seduce Simoun (Allan Sia) into taking her away with him to Manila. One minute all hurt innocence; the next, frigidly defiant seductress. Gutierrez’s non-performance doesn’t help explain things; her face is so blank and her lines so melodramatic you drop your jaw in wonder at the incongruity. Allan Sia plays Simoun as a sullen fisherman with head forever cocked to one side: he spits out his lines as if he was choking on them.

Paquito Diaz and Evangeline Pascual come off much better as Isabel’s adoptive parents: in one scene, Diaz begs to make love to Gutierrez while Pascual, hiding, listens in horror; the suggestion of betrayed love, shameless lust, and incest almost manage to give the scene some texture. Dick Israel as the retard turns in the best performance: he almost gives John Mills a run for his money. His squat, clumsy body swivels left, right, firing an empty rifle; his rotted-tooth grin manages to be both funny and unself-consciously tragic.

The film ends with a box of dynamite blowing up, a good way to wake the audience up and remind them it’s time to leave the theater. They seem to leave with a sense of vague dissatisfaction on their faces, as if they had missed something crucial. They have: a director’s lost opportunity to make a truly daring film, charged with the eroticism of believable emotions, not stiffened nipples. There is tragedy in this picture all right, but it’s up there on the big screen, hidden under all the sunsets, seasides, and heaving wet T-shirts.

Note: Manila Chronicle, January 26, 1996. The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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