Carlitos Siguion-Reyna's Kahapon May Dalawang Bata (Yesterday Children) is another well-produced film that makes you want to tear your hair out. In the film, the actors want to tear their clothes off. In the cinema, critic Noel Vera wants to tear his eyes out.


THE ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW

Talking about innocence... people misunderstand my intense regard for Carlitos Siguion-Reyna’s films. I don’t think they’re bad films exactly, and my reviews aren’t really attacks on their artistic qualities per se. To be honest, I’ve actually grown to enjoy every new Siguion-Reyna film, and the latest, Kahapon May Dalawang Bata (Yesterday Children being the grammatically doubtful translation), is no exception.

Filmmakers like Pedro Almodovar or John Waters earn critical praise for their shockingly bad taste and outrageous comedy, but Almodovar and Waters are fully aware of what they’re doing; they revel in bad taste and outrage. Carlitos Siguion-Reyna belongs to a purer breed altogether: think of Edward Wood, Jr., the famous B-movie director of films like Bride Of The Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Wood’s films are enjoyable because they’re obviously labors of love; at the same time, they’re excruciatingly bad films. The punchline is that Wood himself never had a clue to his true status as a filmmaker; he thought he was destined for artistic immortality and he was right, though not about the artistic part.

Siguion-Reyna is a Wood with real talent; he has huge resources at his disposal, and he wields them with the confidence of a real master. He knows how to tell his story in visual terms. I remember a shot in Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit (I’ll Wait For You In Heaven) where Richard Gomez held the dying Dawn Zulueta in his arms, and a panoramic landscape unfolded below them - a deep-focus shot straight out of Orson Welles’s Lady From Shanghai.

Siguion-Reyna tells his stories visually,
but what stories! They’re usually
melodramatic and overwrought,
with no basis in reality whatsoever...
the plot is just a flimsy excuse:
the film is really about wonderful
production values and amazing
technical wizardry in the service
of a sensibility that’s flown way past
any cuckoo’s nest.

Then there’s this busy scene in Misis Mo, Misis Ko (Your Wife, My Wife) where Edu Manzano was seducing Dina Bonnevie in the background while Ricky Davao was attempting to do the same to Jackie Lou Blanco in the foreground - a scene that could have come from Citizen Kane. I wouldn’t be surprised if Siguion-Reyna deliberately quotes from Welles; he comes from New York University, and Welles is as basic to film school as film is to a camera. I wouldn’t be surprised if he also quotes from Gerry De Leon; De Leon has shots in his films that are positively Wellesian, particularly the deep-focus ones, and Siguion-Reyna has surely seen his share of De Leon.

Siguion-Reyna tells his stories visually, but what stories! They’re usually melodramatic and overwrought, with no basis in reality whatsoever. Bibeth Orteza (the filmmaker’s wife) writes most of the scripts and should share in the blame, but ultimately (if you subscribe to the auteur theory) the fault lies with Siguion-Reyna. He seems to lack judgment - the first requirement for a great filmmaker - or at least a sense of proportion. He apparently can’t tell when a script has left solid ground and floated off into the Twilight Zone, so he floats off after it.

 

Kahapon May Dalawang Bata is a case in point. It’s about two virgins (Ara Mina and Jennifer Sevilla) being eyed by cultists (Ray Ventura and Pen Medina) as possible sexual sacrifices to the gods for rain, to relieve the extreme drought (that’s right, blame it all on El Nino). But the plot is just a flimsy excuse: the film is really about wonderful production values and amazing technical wizardry in the service of a sensibility that’s flown way past any cuckoo’s nest. The film is set in a small town, and every location in the town (Pagudpud, in Ilocos - Siguion-Reyna’s traditional shooting ground) - is so breathtakingly beautiful it’s unreal; it’s almost as if he was filming promotional footage for the Department of Tourism.

Siguion-Reyna’s lighting and staging only aggravate the sense of artificiality: at one point he has Ara Mina whirling through a field at night, a white cloth twirling about her body. The field is as brilliantly lit as a Monday night football game on ESPN; the cloth Mina twirls about her (unbelievably voluptuous) body is so pure and white she could have pulled it out of a washing machine standing just out of camera range. She might be doing an R-rated ad for Mr. Clean.

The dialogue is stylized, with kilometric lines; everyone sounds like they took a master’s course in Filipino Language and, at the same time, suffered from massive logorrhea. At one point my partner leaned over and asked: "Does anyone really talk like that?" "Only in his movies," I answered. He went on to note that the sound recording is incredibly crisp and clean. "They probably don’t want you to miss a word," I said.

The film ends in the classic
Siguion-Reyna manner - a manner
like no other filmmaker on Earth. Gutierrez as the town priest faces his
congregation and asks for forgiveness,
particularly from Ara Mina, with whom
he has had a torrid love affair.
Mina tearfully starts singing "Ama Namin," and soon the whole congregation joins in.
Suddenly it starts to rain...

The cast is talented, with actors like Medina, Ventura, Sevilla, Eva Darren (as Mina’s mother), Tonton Gutierrez (as the town priest opposing the cultists) and Carlos Aquino (as Mina’s cousin) all managing to speak their lines with a straight face. Of the actors, Aquino comes off best; I note this for the record because as far as I can recall, the only other actor to survive the Siguion-Reyna treatment with his dignity (largely) intact was Ricky Davao in Ang Lalaki Sa Buhay Ni Selya (The Man In Her Life).

Even an actress as good as Maricel Soriano went down in flames in Abot Kamay Ang Pangarap (Elena’s Redemption) where she was raped, spat on, slapped, inflicted with both amnesia and a miscarriage - all in the first five minutes of the film. Davao and Aquino’s performances are on a markedly lower key - I can’t decide if it’s because they played them that way or if it’s because Orteza and Siguion-Reyna couldn’t think of more outrageous things for them to do. Apparently, it takes more than talent to give a good performance in Siguion-Reyna’s movies, it also takes a bit of luck.

The film ends in the classic Siguion-Reyna manner - a manner like no other filmmaker on Earth. Gutierrez as the town priest faces his congregation and asks for forgiveness, particularly from Ara Mina, with whom he has had a torrid love affair. Mina tearfully starts singing "Ama Namin," and soon the whole congregation joins in. It’s a direct rip-off of the ending in Priest, where another priest was also in tears, another girl was forgiving him, and another popular song ("You’ll Never Walk Alone") played loudly in the background (extra points to Siguion-Reyna, though, for the guts to use the Lord’s Prayer). Suddenly it starts to rain - which recalls the ending of Leap Of Faith, where another holy man ended a drought with another genuine miracle. Kahapon’s climax recalls the climaxes of so many other movies your head may spin; there’s even a point when Gutierrez starts to tear off his priestly robes, and the film threatens to turn into the finale of The Full Monty.

I know I’ve just given away the ending, but reading about it on the printed page is one thing; seeing it onscreen - with whirling camera, innovative staging, expert editing, and crisply clear sound recording to catch every syllable of "Ama Namin" - is another thing entirely. I recommend the film highly, though I do think that - for a more complete experience - the management should sell overripe tomatoes at the theater door.

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