The oppressed farmer-turned-bandit with a hoard of jewels already makes an interesting tale. But when a young woman is caught between the bandit chief and his men in this Gerardo De Leon classic, sparks will fly. Throw in a magic amulet and even pythons can be summoned. Mystified Noel Vera reviews.


If Gerardo De Leon’s Sanda Wong was a (fairly) big-budgeted fantasy co-produced with Hong Kong, Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo (The Python In The Old Dome, 1952) was the great original that very possibly helped inspire it.

And where Sanda was all about the love-hate relationship between two men compelled to look at each other as brothers, Sawa focuses on only one man, but an outsized one: Tulume (again, Jose Padilla Jr.), a former farmer driven to banditry when Spanish "Guardia Civil" (Civil Guards) kill his wife (the film is set during the years of Spanish rule). Now he’s leader of his own bandit gang, with thousands of pesos in bounty put on his head.

Tulume (a variant on Tamerlane?) is the kind of great character Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwarzenegger would have loved to play, a taciturn anti-hero with magic powers (he uses an amulet to call down deadly pythons), a bitter past and undeniable sex appeal. Padilla, in fact, combines the laconic leanness of Eastwood with the wall-to-wall chest muscles of Schwarzenegger, plus the subtlety of a genuine acting talent (think Daniel Day Lewis’s deft interpretation of Hawkeye in The Last Of The Mohicans).

If Tulume is ruthless, Padilla suggests that it’s a ruthlessness borne of necessity, to evade the "Guardia Civil" and retain control of his band of rowdy, not-too-loyal outlaws; if he seems furious, Padilla suggests that the fury was totally provoked, that on the whole Tulume would prefer a quiet life, if only his wife were still alive...

And, in fact, people nearby (and this is where Teodorico Santos and Pierre Salas’s script, from the komiks story by Amado Yasona, feels uncannily perceptive) seem to pick up on this; they know if the bandit in hiding is truly a criminal or is someone strong that you can count on for help.

As the film begins, Tulume’s men bring to him a young woman named Sabel (Anita Linda). She has come to Tulume seeking his aid in rescuing her father, who has been arrested by the "Guardia Civil". The rescue is a failure (the father dies before they reach him), but Sabel remains with Tulume, as a goad to his conscience and better nature (much like Montes’s Liu Chen was to Sanda Wong), and as a possibly dangerous source of tension between Tulume and his men, and Tulume and Marta (Rita Gomez), jealous daughter of the gang’s former leader.

Everything comes to a head when Tulume finally decides what he will do with his treasure, a fabulous hoard of jewels he has hidden in an old bell tower (that belongs to a century-old church in Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur), guarded by one of his magical pythons (hence the film’s title). The way he resolves his problem tells us much about Tulume’s attitude towards his hoard, towards wealth and power in general - how it can be both powerful blessing and corrupting curse.

Sawa works fine as a fantasy; de Leon adds to the enchantment with his inimitable visual style (aided by cinematographer Emmanuel Rojas, who also shot Sanda Wong), all low camera angles (when Padilla leans exhausted against his horse, the shot is framed so that he looks like he’s straining to keep from plunging down the mountainside) and long tracking shots with tiny figures lost under an enormous sky.

But what makes it transcend its genre - what makes it feel fuller, more substantial than most local fantasies churned out by one or the other local action star - is the rootedness of the fantasy, the way it sprouts from common history. We know of the tyranny of the "Guardia Civil," of how hard life was for Filipinos (called indios or "monkeys") in those days; we know of men driven to banditry by the cruelty of the Spanish authorities; when we look at Tulume, we feel his struggle is ours as well.

It’s our story, the history we grew up and grew familiar with (Tulume recalls Cabesang Tales, the oppressed farmer-turned-bandit in Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo, which de Leon also turned into a great film), but with a judicious twist of magic added to make it new and exciting.

Note: Menzone Magazine, December 2003. The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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November 13, 2007

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