Friday, April 29, 2011

Bagong Hari (1986)

Bagong Hari (Mario O'Hara, 1986)
English Title: New King

With the possible exception of Fernando Poe, Jr., no other actor who made a career as an action star can evoke that very rare mix of gravitas and ruthlessness in his characters as Dan Alvaro. Alvaro has a very pleasant and handsome mug, more befitting a matinee idol than a wronged crusader. Perhaps it is because of the incongruence of his angelic face, his stuntman’s body, and the diverse roles that the then unpredictable Filipino film industry has given him that turns Alvaro into such a wildly intriguing and probably underexplored screen personality.

In Mario O’Hara’s Bagong Hari (The New King), Alvaro plays Addon, the quintessential Filipino anti-hero, the bastard son of a corrupt police officer who purposely meddles in the very dirty political war between the governor (Elvira Manahan) and a town mayor (Celso Ad Castillo) in an unnamed province. Made for the 1985 Metro Manila Film Festival but only released the following year, the film left its producers, who were more used to producing comedies that are sure hits especially in a time when escapist entertainment was prime commodity, unable to recoup the capital put into the film.

The film has been lost for several decades, with the wild rumor of the remaining print of the film being thrown into the Pasig River by its frustrated producers surfacing every now and then, until a VHS copy was discovered by New York-based Filipino film preservationist Jojo de Vera, and through the efforts of the Society of Filipino Archivists for Film (SOFIA), was recently screened after a couple of decades worth of absence.

Bagong Hari benefits the most from Alvaro’s distinctly curious presence. Addon, previous to being forced into being deeply involved in the corrupting political state, exists within some sort of modest and humble paradise, where his conflicts are mostly personal and his pleasures are absolutely simple. O’Hara fluently paints that quaint existence, making use of the most sensual of visual and aural stylizations to enunciate sexual fantasies and other modest delights of Addon’s erstwhile peace. The marked difference between that seemingly idyllic life and the violent and bleak existence that he suddenly finds himself in punctuates the harshness of O’Hara’s not-so-fictional version of the Philippines. That the bearer of that entire world’s physical and emotional turmoil is a man of boyish features makes the bleakness of O’Hara’s vision even more poignant, more heartbreaking.

Deaths are so commonplace and only made momentarily significant by the strange sentimentality that the characters who seem to be enamoured with the pretence that there is something more to their lives than the hell that they have been living have reserved for them. Violence, on the other hand, becomes more than a requirement for survival. It is the way of life. The capacity to both resist and inflict violence becomes the barometer for one’s value. The country itself is moved by violence. The quiet decision-makers engage in gambles that involve brutal fights to the death. The struggle to the top political post is ridden with not only dirty dealings but also mindless massacres.

Bagong Hari, timely resurrected from a demise caused by both fate and neglect, proves to be a still potent portrait of a country wallowing in despair and hopelessness.


Noel Vera said...

Good stuff on Dan, Oggs--he seems even more taciturn than Lito Lapid, who sometimes did comedies, and hence seems more mysterious.

Also liked Celso here. More Erap than Erap, even.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Noel. I find his quietness disquieting. Agree on Celso, and I'd like to add Joel Lamangan, that's a terrific performance right there. My only problem would be Joel Torre, though I'm not sure if it's because of his performance or because he's character's notably underwritten.

Anonymous said...

Dan Alvaro has an uncanny resemblance to Lito Lapid. Sometimes I get these two confused. Next to Bulaklak sa City Jail, this is my next favorite O Hara movie.


Noel Vera said...

Belated response:

Oh, I think Joel's written to be weak in character, strong only because he has family money to buy him guns and goons, and horribly spoiled, making him monstrous in appetites. Sounds familiar? Mario always deals in recognizable social figures.

What did you think of the action?

Oggs Cruz said...

I thought the action scenes were marvelous. I've never encountered an action film that is this grimy and stylized at the same time. My favorite scenes would have to be the initial chase above the shantytown's rooftops (which might have inspired Brillante Mendoza in Tirador, I don't know). I also enjoyed the shootout in the ice factory. But nothing beats the opening sequence for sheer grace in violence.

Noel Vera said...

Good stuff. Philip Cheah loves the shantytown fight because of the tender lullaby tune playing in marked contrast to the violence.

My preference is for the arena fight--I remember watching this when it was in the theaters, and having a visceral response when Ruel Vernal is crucially wounded--you know what I mean. With the meat hook.

Oggs Cruz said...

Oh, that lullaby made that shantytown chase all the more surreal, sweeter and stranger.

The arena fight's a winner too.