Two lovely ladies, gorgeous photography and the film - which by turns a doctor-finding-himself picture; an ethnic documentary; a love story; a tribal war flick and an epidemic movie - fails to lift Butch Perez's Mumbaki (Medicine Man) a couple of notches higher. Noel Vera reviews.


The main character in Mumbaki (Medicine Man) is the Banawe Rice Terraces. It dominates the film, and it’s something you won’t find in any picture, local or foreign, this year. They are an impressive sight, the Terraces, lifting up to the heavens step by step like an endless emerald wedding cake. Director Butch Perez shoots his subject with stunning skill, using wide-angled lenses, deep-focus lenses, and endless magic hour footage. This is hardly the Terraces of picture postcards: it’s alive, with a depth and immensity that swallows your attention whole.

Too bad the drama doesn’t live up to the awe-inspiring background. All sorts of alarms are set off when you learn, early in the credits, that the film was sponsored by John Hopkins Hospital - shades of Mulanay, which was partially funded by the Department of Health (DOH), the movie with the alarming side effect of putting you to sleep and making you feel guilty afterwards.

The story goes something like this: Raymart Santiago and Rachel Alejandro are newly-graduated doctors who visit Santiago’s homeland in Banawe. They find themselves in the middle of an intertribal war between Ifugaos, represented by two chiefs (Rey Ventura and Pen Medina). In between, we get rivalry between Santiago and his Ifugao cousin, Albert Martinez; we get a luscious Ifugao maiden, played by Ruby Moreno; we get a pretty if empty-headed Ifugao virgin, played by Angel Aquino; we get a conscience-stirring DOH volunteer, played by Joel Torre.

You have to give points to Amado Lacuesta’s script for trying something different; but it can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be, and falls victim to the overstuffing that’s endemic to most local scripts. By turns it’s a doctor-finding-himself picture; an ethnic documentary; a love story; a tribal war flick; an epidemic movie. Not that a mix of all of the above wouldn’t have been welcomed, but none of the ingredients blend well. The different characters look like they were barely introduced to one another, much less to the audience, and the result is a lumpy, heterogeneous mess.

The only dangerous emotions
come from a smoldering
Albert Martinez as an Ifugao hothead,
and the always fine Pen Medina,
as a tribal chief who pushes honor
to the point of hell and back.

The photography is gorgeous - how can it not be, with the Terraces before you, and millions of pesos to shoot it properly? Too gorgeous, as the director tends to revere the landscape with tasteful compositions. He seems to be operating on the belief that since this is a Big-Themed socio-cultural movie, the drama should be just as tasteful. The early encounters between tribes lack tension or any sense of dangerous emotions; you’re left with admiring the landscape for minutes at a time.

The only dangerous emotions come from a smoldering Albert Martinez as an Ifugao hothead (he seems to have acquired a healthy tan a la Richard Gomez), and the always fine Pen Medina, as a tribal chief who pushes honor to the point of hell and back. Rey Ventura is equally fine as his opposite number in the enemy tribe. Rachel Alejandro gives a fresh, unmannered performance, but she’s underutilized; there’s an air of rebellion about her that constantly threatens to explode, something she’s never given a chance to do. Ruby Moreno is startlingly serene and sensuous in another underwritten part; by the warm light of the fireplace, she glows with a near-spiritual carnality.

As the protagonist, Raymart Santiago looks lost in most of his dramatic scenes; he’s about as subtle and complex as a board of plywood. When he confronts Martinez, you worry for him; when he actually beats Martinez in a wrestling match, you shake your head in disbelief, and blame the script for being unrealistic. His most persuasive scenes are when he acts as mumbaki (medicine man) and drinks cup after cup of liquor, or when he’s unleashed in an action scene. His body takes over acting for him then, and he’s very eloquent physically. Likewise with Angel Aquino, a model in real life who plays Santiago’s former girlfriend. When her true love dies, the director has to do some fast cutting to make her appear sad (she does succeed in looking mildly disappointed); most of the time, she floats through the film in what looks like a marijuana-induced trance state.

Eventually, director Butch Perez gets things going with two action set pieces. The first takes place between two jeeps perched on a vertiginous mountainside road: Perez succeeds in communicating the terror of facing enemies that can, with the sweep of a bolo, actually hack your arm off. The second, a climactic intertribal battle, is even more exciting than the gun battle in Oro, Plata, Mata; the bodies leap everywhere, and so does the camera, weaving in and out from between the combatants. Perez has a gift for staging action; if he had only thought of applying the same energy and speed to the rest of the picture...

Eventually, the film moves you, but it’s a long wait before you feel anything even remotely mobile (At least it doesn’t boast of totally off-the-wall psychology like Abot Kamay Ang Pangarap (Elena’s Redemption) - the characters are on the dull side, but realistic). The what seems like over two hours running time could have been better spent introducing us to the characters, or outlining the drama a little more clearly, or spicing the film up with more evenly distributed sex and violence. A good film, recommended; I just wish I could recommend it with more enthusiasm.

Note: Manila Chronicle, August 18, 1996. The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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July 24, 2007

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