Sa'yo Lamang (Laurice Guillen, 2010)
The story of Laurice Guillen’s Sa’yo Lamang (Only for You) is hardly new. An imperfect but seemingly stable family disintegrates into chaos as one by one, the family members figure serious conflicts and secrets, whether from the past or the present, conveniently unravel, threatening the sheen of normalcy that has sustained the family through the years. From Jeffrey Jeturian’s low-budgeted but elegantly staged Sana Pag-ibig Na (Enter Love, 1998), to Wenn Deramas’ lowbrow yet unpretentiously comical Ang Tanging Ina (The Only Mother, 2003), to Joel Lamangan’s middling and intolerably weepy Filipinas (2003), to Brillante Mendoza’s highbrow and provocatively stirring Serbis (Service, 2008), the Filipino family has been exposed, crumbling in the midst of dire needs or expanding generation gaps or the simple passage of time.
The family, considered as an invaluable social element, is a persisting Filipino need. In the absence of it, a typical Filipino, in his desire to find personal comfort by means of being part of a social circle, would always seek a replacement. Thus, the idea of the concept of family dissipating to irrelevance because of very-real-to-the-point-of-being-cliché eventualities like infidelity, jealousy or something as natural as death is a gold mine for cinema. The threat to the family is a fear that is always relatable, no matter how fantastically conceived. Translated to cinema, where there is always the protection of the knowledge that whatever tragedy happens onscreen dissipates as soon as the credits roll and the lights are turned on, the viewer is allowed to be emphatic to aches of the cinematic family despite the differences between his familial history to the fictional one depicted onscreen simply because he can relate.
Sa’yo Lamang, like Guillen’s Tanging Yaman (A Change of Heart, 2000), an earnestly-made soap that explores long-repressed aches among siblings as they claim their respective shares in the estate of their still-alive mother who is slowly losing herself to Alzheimer’s Disease, borrows its title from religious songs whose words, if taken away from the backdrop of Catholicism, can also play like a secular song about love. Sa’yo Lamang, as opposed to Tanging Yaman which is explicit in its religiosity in a way that God actually becomes an actual participant in the narrative, wears its religiosity within the context of a household of sinners. It’s a tricky premise that Guillen interprets deftly and without having to place judgments by sudden changes in moral perspectives and personality. In the film, faith, a concept that is as human as the moral dilemmas and sins that continue to turmoil the film’s various characters, instead of the saving power of the Catholic God, is the thematic center. Because of this utility of something as universally appreciable as faith instead of belief systems that are endemic to the Catholicism, the film’s often brushes with prayers and rituals are never obtrusive. Instead, they become rousing centerpieces of the effectively contoured ensemble drama.
Guillen intelligently frames her actors during the film’s most sublime moments to emphasize their commendable performances. When Coby (Coco Martin), frustrated that his pregnant ex-girlfriend (Shaina Magdayao) has been allowed to stay in the family home, rapes her and in the middle of the rape changes his hateful stares to looks of pity, mercy, and perhaps, love, Guillen communicates the surprising change of heart via an extremely tight close-up, allowing her actors, Martin with his invaluably expressive eyes and Magdayao with her exquisite turn as a woman who has suffered enough to accept anything as simple turns of fate, to take part in the storytelling. In another scene, Dianne (Bea Alonzo), after being sobered by her mother’s wishes that she reconcile with her father (Christopher de Leon), quietly yet achingly explains to her father why it is so difficult to do so. The room is dimly lit, and Guillen smartly makes use of the limited light and the persisting shadows to dictate the mood. From a close-up of Alonzo’s stoic face while uttering words that can only devastate her father, the camera zooms out to reveal De Leon’s profile, humbled by the revelations relayed by his daughter. All one can do is to succumb to heartaches for both the resilient daughter and the apologetic father.
Lorna Tolentino, who gives life to the character of Amanda, the mother who single-handedly raised her children for ten years, consistently delivers a tremendously moving performance. Starting out as a seemingly weak character as she is left in the background by Dianne who dominates the household, she shapeshifts, and little by little, exposing cracks to her character, some of which are reprehensible. By film’s end, without transforming inexplicably, she becomes the most human of all the characters. Inasmuch as Guillen has poured her mastery of the filmmaking craft and her personal convictions as a Catholic mother who has suffered and survived familial hardships through faith to the making of the film, she generously allows her film to also belong her actors who portray their roles with a proficiency and sensitivity that is pleasantly surprising even from the cast-members who’ve already established reputations as great actors.
Midway through the film, Guillen makes use of a flashback, awkward because of the sudden marked difference in aesthetic but awesome in the sense that it is not only a flashback for the character, but also to the film’s viewers. Illuminated differently with the faces of Tolentino and De Leon giving off a cool bluish aura instead of the warm golds and yellows, scripted in a way that every shouted word contains a powerful emotional charge, blocked in a way that recalls the most typical of melodramas, the flashback allows a glimpse of an era where dramas, despite their lack of affinity with how the real world works, always had something to say, or if it didn’t, were at least beautiful pictures that earned every tear, every sob, and every peso they asked from their viewers. The flashback felt like it was scene from Guillen’s earlier films, films where female characters were liberated from the bounds of a male-dominated society and took control of their lives resulting to shouting and crying expeditions, films that can be very good despite the commercial preconditions of their bankrolling studios.
Sa’yo Lamang gives me confidence that Star Cinema and these other mainstream studios will start respecting the genres they mine for cash. It allows me to believe that capitalist and artistic aspirations, although theoretically always at war, can also co-exist as long as integrity, instead of profit motives are the primary consideration. Star Cinema, there is hope for you yet.
(Cross-published in Twitch.)