When The Heart Sings Again is a no-holds-barred Viva Films extravaganza, with an all-star cast, an ambitious Ricky Lee script and a handpicked team of reliable technicians. No one is taking any chances that this film will flop, least of all, lead actress Nora Aunor herself. Noel Vera counts the beans.


THE ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW

Step two in the resurrection of Nora Aunor’s career: star in a successful melodrama. Which she does: Muling Umawit Ang Puso (When The Heart Sings Again) is a no-holds-barred Viva extravaganza, with an all-star cast, an ambitious Ricky Lee script, a handpicked team of reliable technicians. No one is taking any chances that this film will flop, least of all Aunor herself.

She plays Loida Verano, a big movie star and all-round celebrity - the biggest ever - who falls into obscurity because of substance abuse, then later makes a big comeback. Sounds familiar? But Ricky Lee, expert tale spinner, improves on the story; Aunor is not just playing herself; she’s playing an idealization of herself.

Loida is the perfect superstar: gracious, diligent, talented, and ever so generous to the lower-class fans that adore her. She gives money to hard-luck extras, and shows concern for her maidservant (Janice De Belen), who’s heavily pregnant, and yet insists on taking care of her beloved mistress.

Corn, pure and simple, but corn so carefully chosen and so lovingly cooked that it has a certain irresistible flavor. For most of the film, Lee and Director Joey Lamangan are careful to keep Aunor’s Loida rooted to the ground. They open the film with a terrific first scene: Aunor walks through a crowd of reporters with her longtime rival Glenda (Rita Avila); they exchange sarcastic barbs from the corner of their mouths while smiling and nodding to the cameras (You can spot Frank Mallo, ardent Aunor fan and showbiz scribe, playing a gleeful Glenda supporter).

Aunor’s performance is simple and direct, her trademark intensity kept largely checked: just enough shows through to suggest that she achieved stardom through hard work and sheer force of will. Lamangan seems to take his cue from Aunor: his direction for the most part is spare yet forceful, and the film’s efficient pace allows it to tell a good deal of story in a fairly short time.

Albert Martinez is... a revelation.
Not once does he raise his voice throughout the picture, yet you
can’t take your eyes off him: he has
a quietly commanding presence,
and he uses it to draw you to him.
He has an effect on Nora Aunor...
Their scenes together, hinting at
depths of intimacy, showing a rare
adult honesty, are the best in the film.

But Aunor, Lee and Lamangan are working in a melodrama where, by definition, things happen melodramatically. At a concert, Aunor finds her struggling actor boyfriend Tony (Ricky Davao) struggling passionately with Avila backstage. Aunor is devastated; she rushes out blindly into the audience. The crowd goes wild, shots ring out, De Belen’s hapless pregnant maidservant is crushed and dies giving birth. Again, Lamangan serves the material better than it deserves by rushing it past you so quickly you don’t have time to look close and pick holes. Even the obligatory loving mother/friend/daughter crying over the recently trampled dead is done quietly, and done well.

Lee and Lamangan, however, refuse to dwell on the star’s downfall: her career is ruined the old-fashioned way, through alcohol, not drugs. The blame is laid entirely on a double whammy of guilt (the maid’s death) and trauma (the boyfriend’s betrayal), not on vague feelings of fear and insecurity. But of course: the former causes are easier for an audience to grasp; the latter are subtler, depressingly realistic, and - when done well - far more terrifying.

Even when showing alcoholism Lamangan is strangely tactful: Aunor nods off in her dressing room just before a concert and when she wakes up, she’s alone. There’s a bottle in one hand, but she looks much too good to have drunk herself unconscious; she might have been taking a nap (it’s as if she wrecked her career because she couldn’t get enough sleep). What might have made a vivid horror story is given a light going over, apparently to avoid reopening recently healed wounds.

Cut to a few years later: Aunor lives quietly outside of Manila. Avila and Davao have married; Avila has succeeded Aunor as the country’s most successful actress, and Davao is now a congressman (again, sounds familiar?) Enter Donna Cruz as sweet, pretty Naomi; Aunor decides that Cruz can become another star like her and puts her through a rigorous training program of singing and acting lessons (no dancing, though).

(The ending's) a big letdown from
what was up till then an entertaining
little potboiler; as if the money
ran out to fund Joey Lamangan’s
intense, engaging storytelling
and he was ordered to shoot a
big climax, any way he can.

You’ve seen this story before, from Pygmalion to My Fair Lady to all three versions of A Star Is Born. You wait for Cruz to develop a mind of her own and defy Aunor, but Cruz is such a sweet and pretty actress she doesn’t put up much of a fight; every time they confront each other Aunor blows her off the screen. Better yet is Jennifer Sevilla, who plays a similar young hopeful. She has a short scene with Aunor, and the sight of her face while she relates in a flat, fragile voice the monstrous things she did (or had done to her) to get where she is now - nowhere - sticks out like a sore thumb in its power to unsettle.

The film is full of fine performances. Rolando Tinio as a fallen reporter gets a laugh out of the audience simply by the way he sits, glum and lonely, surrounded by empty beer bottles. Tony Mabesa is hugely entertaining as a corrupt and lecherous senator. Ricky Davao strikes sparks onscreen as Aunor’s suave, smoothly treacherous boyfriend and Mabesa’s sidekick. Rita Avila recovers from her hysterical acting in The Flor Contemplacion Story to play Aunor’s savagely bitter rival. Michael De Mesa as an idealistic director (hello, Lino Brocka) has to struggle through the early scenes with a silly wig he might have borrowed from ex-Mayor Sanchez; later though, his performance gains conviction as he assumes the role of Aunor’s social conscience.

Albert Martinez is Aunor’s second lover, a crusading young news reporter, and he’s a revelation. Not once does he raise his voice throughout the picture, yet you can’t take your eyes off him: he has a quietly commanding presence, and he uses it to draw you to him. He has an effect on Aunor, calming her, making her reach for every kernel of dramatic truth in their dialogue, of which Ricky Lee provides plenty. Their scenes together, hinting at depths of intimacy, showing a rare adult honesty, are the best in the film.

The last half hour starts to come apart as Ricky Lee strains mightily to tie all the plot strings (the Donna Cruz story, the political corruption story, the Rita Avila-Nora Aunor rivalry) into a single unbreakable knot. Cruz has a falling out with Aunor, and jumps over to Avila’s camp, where Davao plans to make a gift of her to Mabesa. Aunor learns that Avila and Davao were responsible for the riot that resulted in her career’s tailspin and De Belen’s death.

Martinez is killed for trying to investigate Mabesa and Davao’s corrupt politicking. Holding back over De Belen’s corpse must have been too much, because this time around Aunor couldn’t help overdoing her weeping-over-the-dead scene a bit (the audience I was watching it with couldn’t help responding to her small indulgence by giggling. Cruel, but there it is).

Aunor and De Mesa march to Mabesa and Davao’s election rally, where Aunor delivers a wild political speech accusing them of Martinez and De Belen’s death; for good measure, she throws in charges of illegal logging, jueteng (gambling) and white slavery. More shots are fired: Michael De Mesa is martyred and joins Janice De Belen in a nearby grave. (I’d love to see a Filipino drama that wasn’t resolved through bullets or tears. Any takers?)

It’s a big letdown from what was up till then an entertaining little potboiler; as if the money ran out to fund Lamangan’s intense, engaging storytelling and he was ordered to shoot a big climax, any way he can. That’s one more down for local film artists, one up for lousy local cinema. The biggest losers, however, are us, the audience, who have to wait for the next good Filipino film to come by. If we can hold our breath that long.

Note: Manila Chronicle, December 30, 1995. The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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June 26, 2007









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