main character in Mumbaki (Medicine Man) is the Banawe
Rice Terraces. It dominates the film, and its something
you wont 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: its alive,
with a depth and immensity that swallows your attention whole.
the drama doesnt 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.
goes something like this: Raymart Santiago and Rachel Alejandro
are newly-graduated doctors who visit Santiagos 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.
to give points to Amado Lacuestas script for trying something
different; but it cant seem to make up its mind what it
wants to be, and falls victim to the overstuffing thats
endemic to most local scripts. By turns its 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 wouldnt
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.
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.
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; youre left with admiring
the landscape for minutes at a time.
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 shes
underutilized; theres an air of rebellion about her that
constantly threatens to explode, something shes 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.
protagonist, Raymart Santiago looks lost in most of his dramatic
scenes; hes 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 hes
unleashed in an action scene. His body takes over acting for
him then, and hes very eloquent physically. Likewise with
Angel Aquino, a model in real life who plays Santiagos
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
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...
the film moves you, but its a long wait before you feel
anything even remotely mobile (At least it doesnt boast
of totally off-the-wall psychology like Abot Kamay Ang Pangarap
(Elenas 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
Chronicle, August 18, 1996.
The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review
Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
Click here to order.