Mario O'Hara's Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle Of Sand) does the impossible. It's a fairy-tale melodrama filled with songs and action scenes that makes you suspend your disbelief completely. It's a film about innocence and corruption. Critic Noel Vera watches superstar Nora Aunor in one of her early roles and the stuntman Lito Lapid, and marvels at what a big hit this film was.


Mario O’Hara’s Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle Of Sand, 1980) is the story of two children, a boy and a girl. The boy lives with his mother (theater and radio actress Metring David); the girl is an orphan, and suffers under a stepmother (Bella Flores) and her lover (Mario’s brother and character actor Edwin O’Hara), a drunkard and violent man who beats the girl every chance he gets.

At one point, the girl confesses that she envies the boy, who has many dreams and seems to be going somewhere; she, on the other hand, has no place to go. The boy chides the girl, and tells her that he’ll always take care of her, no matter what. And so their fates are sealed...

O’Hara tells this hard-luck story with such heartfelt simplicity and a directness that is captivating. Boy befriends a girl with a curse; boy and girl help each other, find solace in each other’s company. Boy confronts curse, and defeats it; with the implacable logic of all fairy tales, curse is lifted from the girl and transferred to the boy, who spends the rest of his youth growing up in reformatory prison.

O’Hara shows us a prison life full of realistic detail and a casual, almost unnoticed lyricism - at one point he has the boy running through a field of flowers that, we assume, the convicts have planted and cared for over the years. The girl, now staying with the boy’s mother, visits once in a while, and their meetings have the unforced happiness of two childhood friends seeing each other again. Then, almost unnoticed (a quick match-cut from young boy to grown man), the boy becomes Lito Lapid, one of the film’s stars, who runs up to meet his visiting "sister," Nora Aunor, the film’s other star.

I described the lengthy beginning in some detail because it seems important to O’Hara’s concept of the film. Kastilyong Buhangin’s prologue painstakingly establishes a fairy-tale tone (perfect for defusing disbelief in a fairy-tale melodrama); presents to viewers the childhood traumas that shaped the characters; and introduces an all-important fatalist attitude towards destiny - how one may fight and resist it for a while, but ultimately must submit to it.

It’s this prologue with its precisely evoked emotional texture that distracts you - distracts, misdirects, ultimately demolishes from your awareness the fact that this is actually a vehicle for both Lapid and Aunor. Aunor being a singer and actress and Lapid being a stuntman turned action-star, the film is a mélange of pop-song numbers and hand-to-hand combat sequences - an odd combination for a melodrama and usually a fatal one, in that the natural reaction would be to refuse to take any of it seriously. I mean, how can you watch with a straight face a cover of "Corner In The Sky" from Pippin (complete with Carpenters-style orchestration and choreography) followed by a deadly gang fight set in a meat market?

Somehow you do; somehow you watch not only with straight face but also with bated breath, hoping Lapid comes through the meat-market fracas okay - which is O’Hara’s achievement. Like the popular song composed by George Canseco that serves as the film’s theme and title, Kastilyong Buhangin dives into its emotional core and serves the story up simply, sincerely, shot in O’Hara’s uniquely cinematic style.

(The film's) prologue painstakingly
establishes a fairy-tale tone
(perfect for defusing disbelief
in a fairy-tale melodrama);
presents to viewers the
childhood traumas that shaped
the characters; and introduces
an all-important fatalist attitude
towards destiny - how one may
fight and resist it for a while,
but ultimately must submit to it.

Aunor as the rising singer saddled with a problematic lover (think A Star Is Born) gives the film its dramatic fire and substance. She’s the sensible person hurting because she loves someone much less sensible; she’s torn between the urge to abandon that person (the common-sense professional) and the urge to stand by her man (the little girl that still remembers her childhood protector).

By this time Aunor was considered a heavyweight drama actress - she had made Ina Ka ng Anak Mo (You Are The Mother Of Your Child, 1979) with Lino Brocka; Ikaw ay Akin (You Are Mine, 1978) opposite rival Vilma Santos (Ishmael Bernal directing); and, of course, Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976), with O’Hara - but there is nothing heavy about her acting here; it’s human-scaled and elegantly drawn, with few wasted gestures or unnecessary lines of dialogue. As with Aunor’s very best performances, the intensity comes not from her line readings (possibly her weakest moment is when someone is killed, and she cries out, perhaps too theatrically, for a doctor), but from her eyes - huge, dark, eloquent, a silent film actress in a sound picture.

O’Hara, understanding this, gives her many moments where she displays this quality - moments like when she suddenly ends a recording session and sits alone in the studio, all wordless glamour and mystery. Or when Lapid comes to her bedroom drunk, and makes a pass at her - Aunor rejects him at first, then thinks better of it. This second example is especially fine: you see from the expression on her face that she’s a proper girl who really should refuse him - but she loves him, damn it, and she’s tired of being so proper. The wine, after all is said and done, must be decanted some time; just this once she wants to live dangerously.

Aunor may be the dramatic spine supporting the film, but Lapid’s character is its central consciousness, it’s heart. Which is amazing, as from the little I’ve seen of his other work, Lapid’s range as an actor is strictly limited - he has always played this shy, likeable "probinsyano" (provincial) who comes to the big city, mainly because it’s the only part he can play. And O’Hara uses this; he counts on Lapid’s shyness and apparent innocence to keep the audience on his side while O’Hara sketches a darker, more complex side to the character.

In effect Lapid, who’s eventually released on parole, has adjusted so well to the claustrophobic cells and strict regulations of prison life that the open spaces of the world outside gives him a kind of agoraphobia; he can’t help but shrink back in fear. From whiling away the days with his convict friends, he’s now expected to go back to school, get a job, become a responsible human being (expectations so daunting, even to us ordinary people, they must seem almost impossible to an ex-convict).

And Lapid can’t deal with it; he resorts to drinking, falls in with all kinds of dubious friends and gets into all kinds of trouble. In effect, Lapid never left prison - he’s just graduated to a larger one with more complex regulations, the locks and restraints applied mainly to his mind, where they can’t be picked or broken.

In one telling scene some friends get him drunk, and he responds by giving them a floor show - the kind of gyrating dance men learn from nightclubs and strip joints. Eventually his dancing suggests something more - a release of pent-up emotions, of energies long repressed. Finally he’s merely whirling in place, his arms and legs flailing about while he fruitlessly seeks escape, release, relief, a mammal running helplessly on a treadmill until he collapses, weeping in anger and frustration. He literally has no place to go.

In Lapid’s character O’Hara shows us that innocence is not enough - that in fact it will be innocence that causes us to fall out of step with the world (which is essentially corrupt), that will trip us up and bring us down. O’Hara gives us a portrait of a man drowning, and surrounds him with loving, caring people (Aunor, David) who can only watch helplessly as he gradually chokes to death.

A word on the violence in this film - there’s plenty of it, mainly because Lapid’s character spent most of his time in prison learning (as far as I can tell) a combination of boxing, karate and streetfighting. The tragedy is that he might have learnt too well; if he wasn’t so good at defending himself, if he had been beaten up a few times early on, maybe he wouldn’t be so fearless about getting himself into trouble.

As it is, the fight scenes are intricately choreographed, coherently shot and edited and relentlessly realistic; they mark a major difference between O’Hara and his one-time collaborator, Lino Brocka. While Brocka has made noir films (Jaguar, Macho Dancer, Hot Property), and song-and-drama flicks (Stardoom), he could never do action scenes, an essential to noir, very well - he leaves that to a fight choreographer to arrange, then photographs the results indifferently.

O’Hara is clearly more familiar with violence; he shoots it with flair and a real filmmaker’s eye, and in Kastilyong Buhangin it is a major contributor to the grim visual texture. O’Hara even has a final setpiece, a riot in a prison shower room, that outdoes anything I’ve seen even in Ringo Lam’s Prison On Fire movies and looks extremely difficult to choreograph and shoot (O’Hara takes advantage of the fact that almost everyone in the shower room is an accomplished stunt man to do the near-impossible - and on wet tiles, yet). The musical accompaniment to this orgy of violence is a sad, tinkling little melody, the kind likely to evoke childhood memories - as if Lapid’s thoughts had gone beyond the body-blows and splashing blood, to a time when he could be both innocent and happy with the ones he loved.

Kastilyong Buhangin was a big hit, possibly one of the few times the Filipino public would find O’Hara’s dark sensibilities so palatable (the song, an anthem to the transience of life, would endure through the years to become a sentimental classic).

In later works like Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986) and Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000), O’Hara would push farther and farther into violence and brutality, almost uncaring as to whether or not the public would follow. They wouldn’t, but these films remain as signposts marking off the kind of lonely and forbidding territories Philippine cinema - or at least one practitioner of the art - is able and willing to explore.

Note: Menzone, July 2002. The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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May 15, 2007

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