Filipina maid Flor Contemplacion was executed in $ingapore in 1995 for murder. Two Filipino movies show her as a hero and a martyr. Critic After Dark Noel Vera reviews the movies that portrayed Contemplacion as a frightened woman who at first had little idea of what happened to her and why, but later found a dignity and humanity she never had as a domestic helper.


The Flor Contemplacion Story
Dir: Joel Lamangan

The Flor Contemplacion Story, about the arrest, imprisonment and execution of a Filipina maid accused of murder in $ingapore, is an event. It had a high-powered premiere at the New Frontier Cinema in Cubao, a decaying, decrepit old theater where thousands of people crushed themselves against the gates to be shoved around and bullied by rude theater staff. The entire cast glided past the crowd into the theater, jewelry glittering under the brilliant klieg lights of a live television broadcast.

And the film itself? From first frame onwards, Nora Aunor takes command of the screen, and she doesn’t let go: "Mga walang hiya kayo! Putang ina niyo!" she shrieks, hands clutching prison bars in a death grip. At one point she spits straight into a guard’s face. This is the Superstar’s comeback film, and no one is getting in her way. Not even Flor Contemplacion. You watch with bated breath for Aunor to falter, but she maintains her intensity for the length of the film. It’s an impressive performance, but not once do we believe we’re seeing an ordinary woman caught in extraordinarily frightening circumstances.

She struggles heroically every time the $ingaporean guards lay hands on her, and yells insults as they leave. When her children visit her in prison, she fires off motherly advice - commands, really - as if she hadn’t been away from them for years. Even in the torture scenes, she’s shot from overhead and posed like a suffering Christ; in agony, yet somehow untouchable, inviolate. Compelling, but it’s simply not Flor.

Among the star-encrusted cast, Julio Diaz and Jaclyn Jose come off best as husband Efren Contemplacion and his live-in girlfriend, mainly by resisting the general rush to be the most dramatic onscreen. Caridad Sanchez and Rolando Tinio bring some welcome relief with their professional presences; Vina Morales and Ian de Leon - included to appeal to the "Hibanger" crowd - look ridiculous playing siblings to the real Contemplacion twins (their onscreen debut). Ronaldo Valdez, Tony Mabesa, Ali Sotto, Rita Avila and Amy Austria (as Contemplacion’s alleged victim Delia Maga) struggle with underwritten roles to little success.

The script by Ricky Lee is weighed down by cumbersome flashbacks and an endless line of dramatic climaxes - a major disappointment, since a previous collaboration with Aunor resulted in the hallucinatory classic Himala. Director Joel Lamangan heroically manages to hold everything together - he has to, with so much riding on it - but the strain shows. He includes some clever shots to please the critics: Aunor emerging from the dark beyond a mosquito net; Diaz and De Leon sitting in a little bamboo hut suspended over backlit water. But he fails to give the story any momentum, and when Aunor isn’t suffering or being tortured, the movie sags. Overall, Flor is better - somewhat - than Carlitos Siguion-Reyna’s hysterical Inagaw Mo Ang Lahat Sa Akin (Harvest Home), but not quite as good as Chito Rono’s Eskapo (Escape); a pity, because Flor’s story is stronger.

At SM Centerpoint, the lines for Flor rivaled Die Hard With A Vengeance. Hopefully Aunor can go on from this box-office success to work with other directors: Chito Rono, Ishmael Bernal (her director in Himala (Miracle)), and Mario O’Hara (who directed her in the great Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God)). I wish her well; Nora Aunor has been in too many wonderful films to want her gone forever.

Bagong Bayani (The Last Wish)
Dir: Tikoy Aguiluz

Bagong Bayani (The Last Wish) by Tikoy Aguiluz is the underdog of the two films: made in two months on a shoestring budget, it’s been plagued by unaccountable production delays (due to pressure from Viva, perhaps?), and, so far no theater has agreed to release it, so the closest you might get to it is through this review. Which is a filthy shame: Bagong Bayani is the best Filipino film of the year. "But the year’s only half over," you might complain; actually, I think this is the best Filipino film since Orapronobis in the late 1980s.

Aguiluz, as probably no one can remember, did Boatman: Ronnie Lazaro was excellent and Sarsi Emmanuelle (to everyone’s surprise) gave an unsentimental, entirely natural performance as a pair of toreros - live sex performers. As a portrait of two lonely people living at the edge of the hell that is urban Manila, it was one of the finest films - erotic or otherwise - made during the late Marcos years.

Aguiluz sharpened his teeth on documentaries, notably Balueg (not the quickie action flick with Philip Salvador); he pours that not inconsiderable experience into this film. Parts of actual interviews mix with dramatizations of specific episodes; the outside and inside of Changi prison were filmed with hidden cameras (Aguiluz reportedly dressed as a turbaned Indian to film the prison gates; when a guard spotted him, he literally had to run to save the film footage).

From first frame onwards it’s obvious that this is not going to be your usual Carlos J. Caparas massacre flick. Flor Contemplacion (Helen Gamboa) is led, bare-footed, to the gallows; she is followed by a restless camera, seeking her out from every angle - handheld, tilted, low-angled, panning. The execution itself happens swiftly in a series of shots so fluidly cut they have the smoothness and finality of a hanged man’s dying emission.

The film shifts backwards to Flor’s initial interrogation: she is forced to stand for hours, deprived of food and water, while the CID officer (a convincing Pen Medina) strikes her. Gamboa is riveting as she shows us the extreme state of Flor’s exhaustion without resorting to the standard excess hysterics of Filipino acting.

It’s said that Chanda Romero wants to sue the makers of this film because the part of Flor was promised to her. But her performance (as alleged murder victim Delia Maga) is no disappointment; she’s always been a talented actress, and her acting has never felt more honest than here. The scene where she discovers her ward - the child she had been hired to care for - drowned is especially fine: having a good idea as to what her employer might do to her, she picks up the phone and literally has to force herself to call him; you see the terror in her trembling hands. But her best moments are spent with her fellow actress: Romero and Gamboa establish an easy rapport; we sense the loneliness that draws them together. The fact that their employers allow them to see each other once a week only strengthens the tie.

Aguiluz underlines the enforced isolation by showing us Flor’s room: a tiny cubicle nearly filled up by a single cot, where a hi-tech TV set that must have cost a month’s wages has to sit on the room’s one folding chair. Flor, on being convicted, had merely exchanged one prison for another, living death for a real one. One shot alludes to this visually: as Flor climbs the apartment stairs to meet Delia Maga for the last time, the camera follows her past darkened corridors and bright windows as if she was fading in and out of existence.

One of the film’s finest sequences takes place inside Changi prison, where Flor meets fellow Filipina prisoner Virginia Parumog (Irma Adlawan). Their early scenes have a tentative feel, as Virginia tries to draw Flor out of her torture-and-drug-induced shell. Irma Adlawan as Virginia gives a lovely performance: warm, intelligent, compassionate. She senses Flor’s enormous need, and her strength and sympathy grow to match that need. In one scene, Virginia reads a note smuggled to her by Flor; while Gamboa narrates Flor’s suffering, Adlawan suggests - by the inwardness of her crouch, the bend of her neck - how deeply she feels Flor’s words. Aguiluz clothes her in shadows, implying Virginia’s total immersion in Flor’s state of near-total despair. It’s a tribute to the director and both actresses that with the simplest of devices - a cramped posture, a bit of darkness, a voiceover - they bring us inside the souls of these two women.

It’s instructive to see how The Flor Contemplacion Story and Bagong Bayani stage identical scenes: when the children visit their mother in Flor, Lamangan plunks a glass sheet wide as a panoramic movie screen between them, the better to see Nora act; Aguiluz chooses verisimilitude, using a cramped little barred window similar to what actually exists in Changi. This forces the children to contort uncomfortably to see Flor, making you think: they aren’t even allowed a good look at their mother. In Flor, Lamangan has Nora dominate the scenes; in Bayani, Aguiluz has them talk as people in their situation talk: greetings, then important business, then small talk, then despairing silence, as Flor and her children press their palms together through the glass.

There are a few flaws: the music during Flor’s execution at the film’s start is too dramatic. Aguiluz lessens the impact of the children’s prison visit by repeating it. Pete Lacuna’s otherwise excellent script sometimes tends to speechifying, sometimes uses dialogue to drop plot points.

The mix of dramatization and documentary recalls Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, about the arrest and conviction of an innocent man for murder, but with some differences. Line attempted to deconstruct events, repeating them over and over until you see the contradictions in the prosecution’s case against the accused; Bayani assumes Flor’s innocence, giving the $ingaporean version only a token glance. It might have helped Banyani’s case to adopt a more objective tone, giving time to both sides (but then we wouldn’t have all these wonderful performances). As it is, Bayani doesn’t seem concerned with the question of guilt so much as with depicting Flor’s life, at which it succeeds, vividly. The use of documentary footage broadens the implications of her story, turning it into the story of all Overseas Contract Workers (OCW) abroad.

You feel a kind of impassioned anger, a sort of exalted sadness watching this footage. A pair of $ingaporean youths give their comments to the camera: "I think that Filipinos are overreacting," one of them says. "How can they feel sorry for a murderer who killed a child and a fellow Filipina?" The camera is silent as we watch them smile their pleasant smiles. Then Aguiluz complicates our anger by showing us Filipina OCWs still left in $ingapore. "If $ingapore is wrong, it’s too late - she’s already dead," an office worker pleads, as if nervous that her boss might see this film. "Hello Philippines!" a maid waves gaily, striking a pose - she has a plucky courage - "I’ve been here seven years." Her position on the issue is summed up in one sentence: "If the findings show that Flor is innocent, I’ll go home. If Flor is really guilty, then I hope I can stay and keep working." In other words: I can’t help what happens in politics, but in the meantime, let me feed my family.

June 12 is Independence Day, so let’s ask the fashionable question: was Flor a hero? Yes, according to The Flor Contemplacion Story - Nora plays a defiant martyr who spat in the face of her torturers, acted as Supermom to her children and was failed by everyone from her husband to the Philippine Government. Yes, according to Bagong Bayani - Helen Gamboa plays a frightened woman who at first had little idea of what happened to her and why, but later found a dignity and humanity she never had as a domestic helper. You choose which Flor you prefer.

Note: Manila Chronicle, June 12, 1995. The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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June 13, 2008

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