Sarong Banggi (Emmanuel dela Cruz, 2005)
English Title: One Night
Emmanuel dela Cruz's first feature film Sarong Banggi derives its title from a Bicolano folk song that one of the characters used to sing to her baby as a lullaby. It's a melancholic song that sets the mood of the film, which partakes of the song in different variations in tempo and rhythm. The film, is by itself, more interesting than profound. It has the quips of Filipino independent cinema that I hope these young directors would eventually drop or outgrow. Other than that, it's pretty harmless. It tries too hard to emulate but falls flat when it suddenly treads on originality. It's not really a successful film, but it deserves much kudos as it was made with an almost non-existent budget and it does include a truly memorable performance by Jacklyn Jose.
Melba (Jacklyn Jose) is an aging prostitute who is hired by a group of friends for Nyoy (Angelo Ilagan), the group's birthday boy and only virgin. When they discover that Melba isn't actually the mid-twenties hottie she described herself to be, they diss her and head out to the nearest bar to catch younger girls for the birthday boy. Nyoy who seems to have something more in his mind, wanders from the bar and back to Melba. Melba and Nyoy develop a bond that we later discover, is something more than friendship.
It is quite obvious that dela Cruz's influence is Wong Kar Wai. Benefitting from Mayor Lito Atienza's lighting up campaign of the infamous Roxas Boulevard, dela Cruz was able to film as much colorful neon lights to serve as backdrop to his tale. Dela Cruz also frequently uses slow motion and mirror images (which reminds me very much of In the Mood for Love). Again, it's not entirely successful. Dela Cruz is bound by the limitations of digital filmmaking and at times, his Doyle-emulating techniques looks more messy than beautiful.
The tremendous shifts in visual tone jar what could've been a point of heightened emotion. The slow motion sequences look really terrible and I thought dela Cruz could've done without these techniques. Music plays an important role in the film. There are beautiful moments where music and the incongruent visuals match up in a delightful marriage but these moments seem off-place. Dela Cruz derives excitement from making use of the title song and its many versions that it's quite offputting.
There's one wonderful scene in the film though that I thought was enough to consider the film not entirely unsuccessful. Ala Wong Kar Wai, dela Cruz's characters speak up their mind in witty yet in-character narration. Melba, while waiting for the group of kids who hired her services, try to entertain herself by creating stories out of the people walking by her. It's a lovely device, I thought. It opened up Melba's character more than the implausible machinations dela Cruz would have the character suffer through later in the film (I really disliked the illogical twist which I thought ruined the serviceable first half of the film). It showed Melba as a woman who has ripened enough to be confident of the woes and facades of life, that she is able to render judgment and stories of people just by looking at their faces and their actions. Sadly, when Melba and Nyoy meet up and discuss, Melba asks Nyoy to do the same. Nyoy does a fantastic job in making up a story about a man dressed formally and Melba says th Nyoy that he might be a writer someday, like Ricky Lee, one of the most successful Filipino screenwriters. I suddenly remember my screen writing class under Ricky Lee where he taught the technique of making up stories out of the ordinary people we see everyday. I suddenly had a notion that Sarong Banggi is a complete product of that exact exercise taught by Lee. Dela Cruz seeing a seductively dressed yet middle aged woman sitting next to a normal and naive looking teenager, and cooks up this wildly imaginative tale on how those two met, and the bunch of links they may have with each other. Wong Kar Wai, Doyle, Ricky Lee, twist plot developments, not really original, I thought.