One of Gil Portes's more satisfying films, Mulanay is a serious subject of healthcare in the provinces that is given a comical, ironic twist. Noel Vera enjoys this film somewhat...


Mulanay is about barrio doctors, an important and oft-neglected subject. It features Jacklyn Jose and Gina Alajar, two actresses we should see more often in starring roles, and often don’t. It marks the end of a long period of silence for writer Clodualdo Del Mundo (who wrote the classics Kisapmata (Blink Of The Eye) and Maynila Sa Mga Kuko Ng Liwanag (Manila In The Claws Of Neon)) and director Gil Portes (Merika).

It would be a pleasure to report that these talented names have put their heads together and come up with a stunning film. Unfortunately, Mulanay is the kind of movie that earns more respect than admiration - a two-hour public-service recruitment ad for health care and the environment.

The problem starts with the premise: rich doctor (Jacklyn Jose) goes to province to have her consciousness raised. Putting things mildly, it’s been done - Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard is probably the best example; Northern Exposure the most recent. The challenge these films faced was how to treat the doctor character: Red Beard solved this by reducing the young intern to a mere foil for Toshiro Mifune’s larger-than-life, scarlet-bearded medical practitioner. Mifune was accused of playing a Japanese Dr. Kildare, of making his doctor too good to be true (a charge all too easily leveled at Jose’s physician).

What saves Mifune’s interpretation, however, is anger: Red Beard’s reaction to poverty and suffering is an all-consuming fury: a kind of single-minded determination to fight suffering that burns away all sentimental implications from his dippy do-goodism. In this sense, he’s flawed (he manages to alienate the young intern with his brusqueness); he’s also believable.

Northern Exposure pushes the concept even further: Rob Morrow’s Dr. Fleischman is not only not likable; he’s a whining, self-centered, cowardly heel. The joke is he doesn’t even want to do good; he’s heroic in spite of himself.

Mulanay might have taken the daring step of turning its ploddingly sincere drama into a comedy (do I have to mention that a comic treatment is not necessarily a less serious treatment, and that irreverence can be a sharper tool for exploring tired, old issues?). It wouldn’t be an Exposure rip-off, not if it retained the wonderful images of everyday living in the little barrio (really the best scenes in the film). The filth and misery of Mulanay, Philippines would be a good corrective to Exposure’s unbelievably benign and beautiful Alaskan Never-never Land.

Jacklyn Jose tries valiantly but can’t bring much life to her ill-conceived barrio doctor. Gina Alajar manages to look right at home among real barrio people, but her subplot - something about her and an unforgiving husband - sticks out like a sore thumb in all that realism.

Don’t get me wrong - Jose and Alajar are wonderful actresses, the best working in local - or any - cinema. Both have appeared in films that weren’t worthy of their talent (Jose gave the single best performance in The Flor Contemplacion Story; Gina Alajar was the saving grace of the awful Delia Maga Story). Sad to say, Mulanay is more of the same.

The cast is rounded off by a host of excellent character actors and actresses: Nonie Buencamino has his most substantial role yet as a two-timing fisherman whose wife is an OCW (Overseas Contract Worker). Robert Arevalo and Rosemarie Gil make good, if much too brief, appearances as Jacklyn Jose’s parents. Tommy Abuel makes his short but sweet as the slyly corrupt municipal governor.

Near the film’s end (please skip this paragraph if you plan to see the movie), Jose realizes she can’t make a difference in the villagers’ lives; only they themselves can. She calls a town meeting to tell them this, then tells them that tomorrow she is going back to the mayor to plead for money for a deep well one more time before she gives up and returns to Manila. Early the next morning she crosses the sea on a banca; she lands on the other side, but before she can go to the mayor, she is joined by the townspeople, who have followed in their own boats. Doctor and patients march forward in a show of newfound solidarity.

It’s a wonderful conclusion - in theory, if not practice. The scene might have played better if the people had made up their minds during the night and followed her in the morning - if, say, they hadn’t waited until Jose had left her banca. The way the scene plays now, you end up asking: how did they catch up with Jose, who had what looked like half an hour’s head start? You start trying to figure out the cruising speed of different types of sea vessels and how much time a sea crossing has to take for an entire village to experience a change of heart.

The virtues and flaws of the ending is typical of the rest of the film: wonderful broad strokes, sloppy details. The filmmakers have their hearts in the right place; they just haven’t mustered the skill to match their sincerity.

Note: Manila Chronicle, June 21, 1996. The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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December 11, 2007

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