Filmmaker Mario O'Hara might be known for his dramas but he also shows a deft touch in the action-revenge tale, Sindak (Terror). Too bad he had to leave before completing the project. It could have been a real contender, says Noel Vera.


Sindak (Terror) is a simple story about a man (John Robert Porter Jr.) beaten, shot and left for dead by a group of four men (Mike Magat, Gardo Verzosa, William Martinez, Allen Dizon) who survives to take revenge on each of the four. Simple story... yet the first half-hour is not a little confusing, with the story jumping ahead a year, then jumping ahead again for another few months; there are over half a dozen characters to follow, not all of them recognizable at first (though Magat with his huge physique, Verzosa with his youthful features, and Martinez with his pretty-boy face - weathered nicely to an early middle age - tend to stand out).

As is usual with recent Mario O’Hara (The Fatima Buen Story, Sisa), he tells a great deal of story in a relatively short amount of time (roughly 90 minutes); almost too little time - you sometimes have to play catch-up with the narrative. O’Hara doesn’t pause or put any extra emphasis on what turn out to be necessary story points; he seems to assume you’re paying (superhumanly) close attention.

There are worse flaws to the film... beautifully vivid colors in one shot, milky-white pastels in the next (a result of careless color timing). Some scenes come out of nowhere, and add nothing to the plot; others go on for too long. Transitions between sequences seem sloppily edited, as if parts of the film were patched together at the last moment. Worse, there’s way too much music, crudely cued, and the sound effects sound off.

O’Hara, it turns out, left during the middle of post-production, after having done a rough-cut. He claims that the final product is not his, which may explain most of the botches - O’Hara is too much a creature of sound (he began his career in radio dramas) not to know when to use or not use music (his silences - in Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God) or Babae Sa Bubungang Lata (Woman On A Tin Roof) - are particularly eloquent). His previous films show too much superb editing (particularly his action masterpiece, Bagong Hari (The New King)) for you to believe the slovenly transitions are entirely his fault.

Rita Magdalena.

Still, it’s hard to know just what he wanted to do with the material on hand. Revenge flicks are an old genre - anyone from Akira Kurosawa to John Ford to Sam Peckinpah to John Woo have done them, and taken them to extremes difficult to match, let alone exceed. Did O’Hara really have something new to show us, or was this just over-confidence on his part? Was he even trying? You can see part of what he was aiming for - a visual and psychological experience in fear so intense audiences would cry out for release - but such an experience lives or dies on its details, and O’Hara didn’t stay with the production long enough to see said details through properly.

Maybe he couldn’t see his way through at all; maybe he took a look at the footage, realized what a mess he had wrought and gave up, blaming it all on the producers. Maybe pressure had been put on him to make changes (there were already rumors of a rift between O’Hara and the producers during the film’s shoot) and he refused to knuckle under, walking away instead of giving in. I wouldn’t know; all I can do is judge the film at hand.

Yet there’s something to Sindak that makes you refuse to dismiss the film totally - for example, the characters. Mike Magat’s character is both sterile and a cuckold - his wife (Rita Magdalena) is bored with him (he’s a lowly racetrack guard, she’s a journalist), and she’s having an affair with her photographer. Gardo Verzosa plays a man whose wife (Aya Medel) was gang-raped, and the sexual trauma threatens to drive them apart. William Martinez is a man living with an older woman and his younger sister, who turns out pregnant (his subplot is strangely left undeveloped). Even the killer is given his moment of sympathy, as he desperately steals food to stay alive. Seems that O’Hara literally cannot not care about his people - he whips up a story for each and deftly weaves it into the fabric of the narrative. You’re not just looking at a collection of serial-killer fodder; you’re looking at people you have come to know and like, being threatened with painful, violent death.

The action scenes seem more or less whole, and are, for the most part, terrific - cleanly staged, wittily inventive. The film shows the distinctively shadowy lighting of Romulo Araojo (The Fatima Buen Story, Sidhi (The Story Of A), parts of Bagong Hari - definitely a cinematographer to watch). It makes good use of Metro Manila locations - the Sta. Ana racetrack, the Quezon City General Hospital, the Film Complex Building - in a way that the city itself is a major character. If the film was more successful I would have been happy to include it in O’Hara’s trilogy of Manila films - Condemned, Bulaklak ng City Jail (Flowers Of The City Jail), Bagong Hari (The New King).

As it is, it’s only a minor work - though head and shoulders above most of the crap coming out of the local film industry in recent months. Catch Sindak if you want an indication, however flawed, of what O’Hara is capable of in the action-thriller genre; also if you’re interested in the grittier, less commercial, more interesting directions the local film industry is capable of going into.

But do it quick: the producers show every sign of having abandoned the film as utterly as O’Hara has. Mid-December is possibly the worst time of the year to release films... and this one was launched with almost no publicity or advertising to speak of. Definitely a flash in the pan - but one worth catching, if you care at all about local cinema.

Note: Businessworld, December 17 , 1999. 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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