The Mano Po Story: God Have Mercy On Us
A Review of Joel Lamangan's Mano Po 6: A Mother's Story
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz
FLASHBACK: The year was 2002. Besieged by film pirates and imperialist Hollywood, film studios like Regal Entertainment look forward to the annual Metro Manila Film Festival, a two-week period during the moneyed Christmas season where all of the metropolis’ theaters are only allowed to screen festival entries, to field what supposedly are their best films. A movie, conceptualized as a film matriarch’s ode to her Chinese-Filipino roots, opened successfully. Directed by Joel Lamangan with as much opulence he can imagine and Regal can provide money for, the film received critical attention only because it feels like the best film in a year of duds.
Melinda (Sharon Cuneta, in a role that fits her like Arnold Schwarzenegger fitting into a ballerina’s tutu) is alone in her office room, deep in contemplation. Olive (ZsaZsa Padilla, in a role that has all the stereotypical traits of a villainous in-law) storms inside, shouting invectives at calm Melinda in Filipino, bastardized by a lousily obvious Chinese accent. Melinda asks Olive to leave, threatening her that if she does not do so within the five counts she generously grants her, she will wreak havoc. Olive shouts and shouts and before you know it, a catfight ensues, with Melinda slapping Olive’s face left and right, before releasing a close-fisted blow on Olive’s surprised mug. This is supposed to be the film’s crowning glory: the triumph of the underdog, the oppressed character’s sweet revenge against her frustrating oppressor. Sloppily conceived, directed with the bluntness of a troll, and terribly acted, the scene feels like it belongs in an afternoon comedy sketch than the big screen.
FLASHBACK: The year was 2003. Enthused by the buckets of cash earned by Mano Po, the matriarch decides to do a sequel. She hires Erik Matti, a maverick of a director who usually churns out handsome films for very little, and comes up with a story about a presidential daughter who ages to look like a cheated presidentiable’s wife. The film, since it was also released as an entry to the Metro Manila Film Fest, made money. While it was infinitely better than Lamangan’s film, it was essentially more of the same: convoluted plots, unnecessary characters, faked chinky eyes and bastardized Chinese.
Carol (Ciara Sotto, who looks, feels, and acts like a tree stump during the entire film), the eldest daughter of Melinda, and Stephanie (Heart Evangelista, who is so pretty I can forgive the slightness of her acting), the other daughter of Melinda who was brainwashed by evil Olive to spite her mother, are talking in a meeting room. Melinda enters and a confrontation with Stephanie ensues. Melinda pleads that Stephanie believe her, but the latter refuses. Carol, on the background, is silently crying. I feel nothing. Joel Lamangan, who industriously directs this Mano Po film notwithstanding the fact that for these kinds of stories that have innate visual potential, his films are drab, flat and plain soulless, is relentless in his mediocrity and relies primarily on a considerably witty interplay of dialogue to bring life to a scene that is otherwise as dull as an unused hollow block.
FLASHBACK: The year was 2004. Lamangan returns to helm the third installment to the series. It’s a love story between two middle-aged Chinese-Filipinos. The woman’s married and with children. The man is a widower. It’s nice to see Vilma Santos fall in love again, and that is basically the strength of the film. It’s the only Mano Po where it didn’t matter that the characters were Chinese.
Melinda is the daughter of a Chinese woman and a Filipino man and because of that, she is unlucky. She marries into a wealthy Chinese family, but since she’s only half-Chinese, the family disowns her husband (played with such unsurprising inconsequence by Christopher de Leon). Melinda, her husband, all of their children, and even Olive, who spites Melinda because of her not being a pure Chinese, all speak in broken Chinese. Daniel (Dennis Trillo), Stephanie’s fiancé who also speaks in broken Chinese despite being a pure Chinese, is an active participant in a human smuggling ring and becomes the impetus for much of the film’s blatant attempts to be current and pertinent. Lamangan doesn’t achieve pertinence but downright annoyance.
FLASHBACK: The fourth and fifth Mano Po films were blurs. Directed again by Lamangan with a lot less excitement than the first Mano Po and more of the “this is just a job” attitude of a corporate ant, the films resembled television productions because of how haphazardly they were conceived and executed. Banking primarily on star-power and the inevitable pull of the Metro Manila Film Festival, the films were moderate box-office successes, evidencing that the Filipino people have grown weary and wary of these incessant mechanisms of translating the richness of Filipino-Chinese culture as a mere fetish, a fad, an entertaining curiosity.
Mano Po 6: A Mother’s Love is such a bland film. While most people would consider it a harmless piece of entertainment, its effects are actually more devastating than the unhindered spreading of a disjointed contentment for substandard filmmaking in the country. It is first and foremost advertised as a mirror of the Chinese culture. Its gorgeous poster, backgrounded by what looks like a Chinese painting, with its posing actors and actresses draped in traditional chiong sam in the center, and Chinese characters adorned everywhere, can be considered as an invitation for an immersion on the culture and history of the Filipino-Chinese community. Unfortunately, the film, or for that matter, the entire film series, is simply a parade of stereotypes that only furthers alienation instead of planting an accurate understanding of the Filipino-Chinese culture. Bad and careless populist filmmaking coupled with ruthless advertising has proven to be very dangerous. Whether or not the intentions are pure is immaterial because subversion may be unintended, and history has proven that even the most innocuous of media can be converted as harsh propaganda.
I digress. As previously stated, Mano Po 6: A Mother’s Love is a bland film. It could have been more than bland but it is what it is. It is a display of Lamangan’s indubitable incapacity to tell a story since the movie’s plot, as simple as it is, is made unbearably convoluted by a stubborn reliance on flashbacks, narration, and other frustrating clichés. While Mo Zee’s cinematography had promise, it was rendered inutile by a lack of any aesthetic integrity (Lamangan is unsure whether he wants to be stately, or hip; and in one scene where Lamangan nearly succeeds in creating authentic tension with a long take that follows characters into an abandoned warehouse for an illegal deal that mutates into a shoot-out, he proves himself to be incompetent with one incoherent cut). Von De Guzman’s music sticks out as the best thing that ever came out of the film or the series (his theme to the Mano Po series, a thunderous melody of clear Chinese influence, is probably the most recognizable Filipino movie theme; it is that music that plays the string that connects the films together: grandiose, well thought-of, and rich).
Where then does the failure lie, in the film’s overworking director, because of his failure to create something fantastic out of individually potent elements; in the film’s producers, for being nothing more than a factory of subpar movie while they have all the resources to be cultural powerhouses; in the present Metro Manila Film Festival, for being a festival that caters only to capitalist sensibilities instead of actual artistic merits; in the mainstream audience, because they couldn’t care less of what’s being produced outside thus, reinforcing the notion of all these directors and producers that mediocrity is lucrative; in the so-called movie press, for either being totally dishonest and parasitic in how they promote these movies, arrogantly displaying their utter lack of taste and in turn, infecting the country with their ignominious brand of idiocy?
FLASHBACK: The date was December 20, 2009. I watched a film entitled Mano Po 6: A Mother’s Love. It’s utterly miserable. It made me miserable. Nonetheless, almost everybody enjoyed it, enjoyed seeing their idols act in the big screen, enjoyed being in the same theaters as the idols who are acting in the big screen. We remain unaware of this cultural bamboozlement.
(Cross-published in ClickTheCity, 25 December 2009 and Philippine Free Press, 9 January 2010)