Superstar Nora Aunor built her fandom on her innocence and vulnerability. While ham-fisted director Joel Lamangan tends to overdo his films, Aunor's performance in The Story of A makes this one of his best works. Noel Vera unclenches his fist.


THE ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW

Nora Aunor is one of the most cinematic actresses in the country, in a very special sense. She’s good enough with dialogue, she’s no-nonsense funny in comedy, but when she’s asked to act without speaking a word - when the camera closes in on her and there’s nothing onscreen but her face - there’s hardly anyone who can touch her.

She’s 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.

In Joel Lamangan’s latest film Sidhi (The Story Of A), Aunor plays a mute (but not a deaf one) who’s married to an unredeemable bastard (Albert Martinez). The role should have been perfect for Aunor; trouble is, having found the "secret" to Aunor’s acting, Lamangan doesn’t 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 aren’t helped by the die-hard Noranians in the preview audience, lustily cheering their idol on every five minutes).

When she screams in despair at the end of the film, it’s the same undermotivated, existential-type scream Bernardo Bernardo gave voice to in Manila By Night; either time you can’t help but lean back from the screen. Aunor’s finest moments - and, incidentally, the finest in the film - are the simplest ones, when she’s 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 Locust.

 

There’s 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 doesn’t 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).

Martinez’s character here is cruel but lazy, and a born opportunist. When Aunor’s father (Ray Ventura) offers her to Martinez, he consents because of the seven hectares of land that come with the offer. When he can’t afford the rent on his other farm, he takes his other wife (Glydel Mercado) and brings her to Aunor’s 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 he’s brutal and blunt, making his point with clenched fists.

Whatever I think of Lamangan as a director can’t alter the fact that he’s 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 Rizal’s three-hour running time).

In 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).

Lamangan loves to act - you can see it on his face, plain as day - and he seems to love actors; it shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that he’s 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.

 

Mercado seems to be that rarest of talents, an actress who’s 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 doesn’t 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 - Martinez’s lambs silent not out of fear, but out of post-coital fulfillment.

There 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 it’s 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.

The 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, there’s something to Sidhi. Maybe it’s 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 nurse’s uniform, and day-old spaghetti). Maybe it’s the sight of Aunor giving her best performance in recent years, or the excitement of discovering a real actress in Glydel Mercado.

I can’t 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 Lamangan’s best work to date and, aside from the wildly imaginative Sisa, the best Filipino film so far this year. Of course, it’s only February.

Note: Businessworld, February 5, 1999. The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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