ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW
Aunor is one of the most cinematic actresses in the country, in
a very special sense. Shes good enough with dialogue, shes
no-nonsense funny in comedy, but when shes asked to act without
speaking a word - when the camera closes in on her and theres
nothing onscreen but her face - theres hardly anyone who can
a throwback to the silent era, a reincarnation of actresses like
Mae Marsh (Intolerance), Lillian Gish (Birth Of A Nation, Broken
Blossom, Way Down East) and Zasu Pitts (Greed). Marsh, Gish and
Pitts were waifs with childlike bodies and great, soulful eyes:
they had a delicacy, a subtlety of movement and expression that
women today have lost, and have replaced with (as Gloria Swanson
in Sunset Boulevard put it) "Talk, talk, talk!" Watching
Aunor hold a crowd spellbound in Himala (Miracle) or contemplate
throwing her child into the river bed far below her in Tatlong
Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God) and you tend to
agree with Swanson: talk is just words, and we know what a thousand
of them are worth.
Joel Lamangans latest film Sidhi (The Story Of A),
Aunor plays a mute (but not a deaf one) whos married to an
unredeemable bastard (Albert Martinez). The role should have been
perfect for Aunor; trouble is, having found the "secret"
to Aunors acting, Lamangan doesnt leave a good thing
alone. He sells Aunor hard, throwing her one dramatic high point
after another, plonking her smack in the middle of every frame,
lingering over each salty tear that drops from her eyes (matters
arent helped by the die-hard Noranians in the preview audience,
lustily cheering their idol on every five minutes).
she screams in despair at the end of the film, its the same
undermotivated, existential-type scream Bernardo Bernardo gave voice
to in Manila By Night; either time you cant help but lean
back from the screen. Aunors finest moments - and, incidentally,
the finest in the film - are the simplest ones, when shes
by herself with nothing around to relate to but the camera. Her
lonely play acting with a trio of scarecrows recalls the magically
simple way Chaplin can bring any object to life; the later nightmare
sequences, however - when the scarecrows turn into papier-mâché
giants - recall the more chi-chi moments in The Day Of The
an introduction where a Hukbalahap soldier courts Aunor and gets
killed (after which all reference to the Hukbalahap movement is
inexplicably dropped), but the film doesnt really come to
life until Martinez comes into the picture. Lamangan has had good
luck with Martinez before - he gave a quietly intense performance
in Muling Umawit Ang Puso (When The Heart Sings Again), the
finest in that film, and here he gives yet another interpretation
of the charming sociopaths he played in Segurista (Dead Sure)
and Tatsulok (Triangle).
character here is cruel but lazy, and a born opportunist. When Aunors
father (Ray Ventura) offers her to Martinez, he consents because
of the seven hectares of land that come with the offer. When he
cant afford the rent on his other farm, he takes his other
wife (Glydel Mercado) and brings her to Aunors farm, where
she can live for free. Martinez comes up with the perfect body language
to play his character: always laid-back, always relaxed, never lifting
a finger until something annoys him; then hes brutal and blunt,
making his point with clenched fists.
I think of Lamangan as a director cant alter the fact that
hes great as an actor. He was spellbindingly sinister in Bagong
Hari (The New King) and, in a tiny part in Jose Rizal, he jumped
right off the screen and made me sit up (the only time I ever did
sit up during Rizals three-hour running time).
St. Louis Loves Dem Filipinos, he played a tribesman doomed to wander
the United States until he can find something heroic to do; then
he can come home with honor. The role was one part Ancient Mariner,
one part Te Wheke, one part Jean Valjean, and the combination was
electrifying (actually, Lamangan was so good he threw the entire
play out of whack; you lost interest in the rest of the play and
only wanted more of his story).
loves to act - you can see it on his face, plain as day - and he
seems to love actors; it shouldnt come as a surprise, then,
that hes made an actress out of softcore porn starlet Glydel
Mercado. Mercado is unpromisingly blank-faced at first, bathing
with unbelievable casualness in front of Aunor, in the middle of
a wide-open river (the movie is set in the '50s, in provincial Laguna).
Later, when she makes gestures of friendship to Aunor, and even
better, when she asks Aunor to forgive and accept her as a second
wife and sister, Mercado grows in warmth and presence.
seems to be that rarest of talents, an actress whos unafraid
to be naked, both physically and emotionally, in front of the camera;
you can read every thought or feeling on her wide-open face as easily
as you can read every mole on her wide-open body. Her blooming relationship
with Aunor is the emotional core of the film; for once, sisterhood
in the face of repressive male boorishness doesnt seem so
forced or contrived. You might even complain that Aunor and Mercado
should have gone further - become lovers perhaps, or at least acknowledge
a tentative kind of sexual attraction between them. It seemed inevitable;
it could have been more satisfying - Martinezs lambs silent
not out of fear, but out of post-coital fulfillment.
are basic flaws, one of the most serious being the premise itself.
I can believe a Chinese man or a Muslim marrying a second wife and
having them live together - their culture allowed for it - but a
Catholic probinsyano doing it (in the '50s, yet) sounds like
another European art film conceit grafted onto yet another Philippine
setting. And its too easy for Aunor to get out of her situation
- a word with the parish priest (Tony Mabesa) and they could have
separation papers ready and waiting, with Martinez arrested for
bigamy. Then there are the villagers - why do they blame Aunor for
the arrangement? They should be attacking Mercado, not Aunor, and
Martinez above all.
ending is unfortunate, a hodgepodge of half-a-dozen melodramatic
climaxes worthy of Carlitos Siguion-Reyna; and yet, if you can forgive
the film for so unforgivable a flaw, theres something to Sidhi.
Maybe its the relief you feel that Martinez is back in form,
after the embarrassing Scorpio Nights 2 (where he ended up in a
trash heap wearing thick makeup, a nurses uniform, and day-old
spaghetti). Maybe its the sight of Aunor giving her best performance
in recent years, or the excitement of discovering a real actress
in Glydel Mercado.
I cant consider Sidhi a better film technically than,
say, Jose Rizal, but the film is (fairly) tight and coherent compared
to Rizal, and it does have a story you can respond to. It speaks
to you, heart-to-heart (even if the words are a little garbled),
which is more than you can say for the emotionally mute Rizal. Sidhi
is Lamangans best work to date and, aside from the wildly
imaginative Sisa, the best Filipino film so far this year.
Of course, its only February.
February 5, 1999.
The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review
Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
Click here to order.
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