The Great O'Hara
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz
The great O’Hara was taken from us too soon. At age 68, while the entire country was steadfastly praying for Dolphy, he quietly said farewell. It is quite amazing how he died the same way he magnanimously lived his life, just there, quiet in the background. While Lino Brocka was being praised everywhere, while Nora Aunor was amassing legions of fans, O’Hara, an Adamson drop-out in a country that was dazzled by the liberal geniuses of the State University and the conservative wisdom of Ateneo, was just humbly working, churning out masterpieces after masterpieces without hardly a sense of the acclaim those masterpieces could have garnered for him. Sure, he was championed and earned the respect that he deserved. However, he never became a celebrity, or even a figurehead. He did not need it. He only needed to work.
His films are never personal visions. They never felt trapped in a world that he and the people who knew him inhabited. His films were either artful crowd-pleasers or relatable art pieces. They evolved whenever the audience or the market evolved. In the 70’s and 80’s, when the Philippines was busy struggling under the dictatorship, he wrote Insiang (1976) and directed Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986) that showed a world of characters that struggled even harder. In the 90’s, when the only films that could compete with Hollywood were children’s fantasies and soft pornography, he gave us Johnny Tinoso and the Proud Beauty (1994), Manananggal in Manila (Monster in Manila, 1997), and Sisa (1999), which featured a Sisa who had breasts the size of melons.
He made Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2003), which brought the Philippines again to Cannes after decades of absence. Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (The Trial of Andres Bonifacio, 2010) had him experimenting with digital cinematography and the result was more than exhilarating. When the country decided to leave the cinemas for the comforts of their homes, he directed Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother, 2011), a television series that not only heralded Aunor’s return to Philippine showbusiness but also showcased the artistic capabilities of Philippine television most local networks could ever imagine because they are too busy being pandering to the stupidity they have cultivated.
The characters that O’Hara wrote and gave life to are never heroes or villains, they were imperfect human beings victimized by circumstance. The Japanese soldier who raped a village girl of Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos is capable of real love. The baby-faced killer of Bagong Hari graduates from his violent encounters as a hero. The leper he played in Brocka’s Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You were Weighed but Found Wanting, 1974) is the film’s most tragically human figure. The unfortunate dwellers of the Breakwater in Babae sa Breakwater had joie de vivre the most fortunate of us can't never even imagine. The courageous founder of the Katipunan in Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio had the humanity to cry and beg for his life.
O’Hara’s astute understanding of our collective imperfections is laudable. He had no qualms in breaking perceptions, in defying conventions, in shocking conservative sensibilities, to point out that the weaknesses that are only part and parcel of our being only made in the likeness of God are not something to be masked or hidden but exposed and expressed in film and fiction.
After his pitch, O’Hara said his farewell and uneventfully exited the room. I could not help it. I had to excuse myself. Like a rabid fan, I rushed towards O’Hara and awkwardly attempted to start a conversation. “Hi Mario, I am a big fan. I thought Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio is absolutely great.” That was all I could say. In my mind, I wanted to probe his creative processes, I wanted to ask so many questions, I wanted to die out of sheer embarrassment of being put in a position a few minutes ago that I could never imagine I deserve, but sadly, those short and uncreatively constructed sentences were all that my brain could process to deliver to my mouth. He embarrassedly laughed and politely said thank you. He then asked me where the nearest restroom was. I pointed him towards the one beside the gift shop. He again smiled at me and whisked towards the restroom. I excitedly returned to the one of the many rooms in the Cultural Center of the Philippines, ready to hear out a dozen more pitches. Henerala would eventually get the greenlight, but because of lack of investors, he could not make it. I guess we just live in such an unjust, unfair world.
Mario O’Hara had to pee. He also had to die. He was human after all. In fact, there was so much humanity in him, his works radiate with it.
(First published in Supreme, Philippine Star, 30 June 2012..)