Mano Po 5: Gua Ai Di (Joel Lamangan, 2006)
The series should've stopped at 3, but it just kept going and going. The Mano Po franchise started in 2002 when Regal Films matriarch Lily Monteverde became sentimental about her Chinese roots and decided to produce a film that will celebrate the culture and discuss the issues that pervade Filipino-Chinese life. The term "mano po" is a Filipino gesture, presumably inherited from the Chinese, of respect, where a person takes the hand of the other person and brings it to his forehead .The gesture is predominant during Christmas when godchildren would start their yearly rounds of visiting their godparents to ask for gifts and money. In a way, with all the three Mano Po films, its comedy spin-off Ako Legal Wife (I, Legal Wife), and now this, a romantic-comedy which pairs for the umpteenth time television stars Richard Gutierrez and Angel Locsin, the series suddenly feels like a yearly "mano po" by the film matriarch to her moviegoing patrons with the accompanying asking for their well-earned pesos, which sadly will be blindly given out to the film outfit whether the film is good or bad.
It's not all bad, I think. The first Mano Po (2002), directed by Joel Lamangan, is a skin-deep social commentary on the role the Chinese community has in the Philippine setting; there's an attempt to explain the fencesitting tendencies of the community in National politics by using history. Mano Po 2: My Home (2003) is more competently directed by Erik Matti and still remains to be the best entry to the series. Lamangan takes over Mano Po 3: My Love (2004) and creates a rather involving but ultimately illogical love affair film with Vilma Santos headlining as an unhappily married Chinese wife who rediscovers romance with a former fling. Ako Legal Wife (2005) is a satire about the infidelities of a Filipino-Chinese patriarch with too many issues juggled.
Mano Po 5: Gua Ai Di, which is also directed by hardworking Lamangan, doesn't have the burden of being too deep and has the blessings of being about a topic that is close to the hearts of many Filipinos: the traditionally forbidden relationships between Chinese and Filipino individuals. The film is scripted by Dode Cruz, Abi Parayno and Andrew Paredes, regular writers for television network soaps and shows. The television experience shows in the film's dialogue: it's mostly cheesy stuff, nothing too extravagant to dissuade the typical masses. Also, the script is far too talkative; there's too much dialogue, too much loud and histrionic exchanges of words. It would work for TV wherein you can easily lower the volume, but in a theater, it's just a bit too hard on the ears. The film also dillydallies around too much. Again, that kind of storytelling would've worked on television, wherein there'd be breaks in between scenes, or a continuation the next day. However, in film, that kind of storytelling is simply tedious. The film could've used some trimming, some lessening of characters, a complete revamp of its screenplay with an economic use of screentime.
Let's face it, Lamangan is not the good director he perceives himself to be. He works too hard (he has two projects in the film festival; makes you wonder how he manages to conjure a level of artistry when he treats filmmaking as a mere craft and profession). To give Lamangan some credit, he is a fine actor (he is the saving grace of Mel Chionglo's Twilight Dancers (2006)) and manages to squeeze out decent acting from his actors and actresses. To cover up for his directorial incompetence, he usually has a fine production team behind him. In Mano Po 5: Gua Ai Di, the acting is merely decent. The leads are watchable enough, but at the same time, they lack that certain fresh charm one usually looks for in romantic team-ups. It's probably because whatever charm their cinematic rapport has was already tarnished by overuse: they're playing the same characters over and over again with just slightly different scenarios. It's bound to get tiring.
The film starts promisingly though. Von de Guzman's efficiently picks up the film's light, fast and sure-footed pace. Editing in the early scenes was breezy and crisp. The cinematography is glossy and makes the viewing experience light on the eyes. I honestly thought Lamangan finally got it right; to just play it by the book; no need to inject the film with all the grease and all the starpower this film industry badly needs to lose. Then, the gloom starts pouring. Family members and other characters get introduced, and they're just there, playing cardboard cutouts or flower vases. They're just there for decoration or a slight chuckle the film could've done without. After thirty minutes, the film plateaus, a very low plateau at that --- and it's like that for the rest of the film: a host of screaming, a number of jokes executed unsuccessfully, some dramatic points cheapened by histrionics and shallow acting. The love triangle doesn't provide any steam either. It doesn't help that the character, Felix Yan, an Asian singing idol who returns to Manila to reattach with childhood fling, is underwritten and is portrayed with incomparable dullness by pop singer Christian Bautista.
Mano Po 5: Gua Ai Di is a film that shouldn't have been made; it's television fare and doesn't deserve the amount of money the producers and theater owners ask for it. The topic is something most will relate to; if you haven't dated a Chinese individual, I'm sure you know someone who has or at least have heard the typical tragedies that surround such relationships. With that, the film might work for you at a mere popcorn level, or if you're looking for fairy tale endings for real life scenarios such as the one the film is emulating. I only wished that the fairy tale was told better, and bolder.