Monday, January 30, 2012

A Date with Jao Mapa (1999)

A Date with Jao Mapa (Quark Henares, 1999)

If one is to examine the characters Quark Henares has written in his films, one can readily see their strong affinity to Filipino pop culture. Keka, the vengeful heroine of Keka (2003), imagines a world unlike hers that follows the rules of 80’s cinema, where dilemmas end as soon as a musical number concludes in a fantastic freeze frame. The teenage superheroes of Super Noypi (2006) engage in banter about present music fads whenever they are not saving the world and fashion themselves as the more economically challenged counterparts of their comic book idols. In Rakenrol (2011), Odie, consumed by heartache, is salvaged by a dues ex machina in the form of rock legend Ely Buendia who happens to pass by the convenience store where he is busy sulking. Henares’ characters live in a world where pop culture isn’t a mere diversion but a way of life.

Alexa Lindo, from Henares’ early short film A Date with Jao Mapa, is perhaps the prototype of this Henares character. Normal-looking but apparently stricken with an obsession for popular matinee idol turned legendary has-been Jao Mapa, Alexa has deviously planned for herself a date with Mapa, who in the film happens to be an easy-to-get and sex-crazed jerk. The film primarily explores Alexa’s indefatigable fanaticism through what seems to be a not-so-personal video diary where Alexa, speaking directly to the camera, reveals the extent of his insanity.

She belittles the efforts of ordinary fans, declaring her interest for Jao Mapa as “more profound.” The profundity of her adoration is expressed via her stalking the former actor at work, which inevitably leads to him bumping into her, date proposals being offered, a dinner date in an expensive restaurant where what’s spoken is not exactly what’s thought, and an all-nighter that is not as romantic or erotic as what’s expected.

A Date with Jao Mapa has all the faults and all the charms of a student film. Shot in a typical consumer level video camera, the short is not exactly beautiful to look at. There are efforts to make the film look more than just a university project, such as when the camera slowly zooms to show Alexa’s patient face as she waits for Jao Mapa in the restaurant while the rest of the room are idly doing their own business, or when during the film’s climax, clever camera angles manage to add some suspense in the quick surprise. Editing’s functional. Dialogues are too self-aware, too self-consciously witty. Clearly, the film was made with as little money as possible.

The capital spent was mostly composed of wile and creativity, and perhaps, Henares’ very own obsession over the quirks that made Filipino pop culture Filipino. Unlike Henares’ later films which are all plagued by budgetary constraints, studio influence, the burden of expectations for him to be great, or the baggage of being already too involved in the pop culture he delights in, A Date with Jao Mapa is pure and concretely a product of unadulterated ingenuity. One can easily forgive the amateurish qualities of the video because the short has an energy that is still unmatched by any of Henares’ better-produced features.

Henares’ casting of Marie-France Arcilla, or more popularly known as Marnie of the very popular gag show Ang TV, as Alexa is an acknowledgement of his fascination for resurrecting his childhood heroes. Apart from seeing Jao Mapa not as a swoon-worthy leading man but as a man whose glorified past is but a lingering shadow used to bed women, there is a certain excitement seeing Marnie all grown up, acting sophisticated and sexy like some femme fatale from an obscure noir. Perhaps, this is Henares’ self-therapy to absolutely cure him of being swept away by the film and television-fed fantasies of his childhood.

Perhaps the anger that dominates the film’s finale is due to his frustration in seeing and eventually accepting those fantasies that are the cornerstones of the happiness of his growing up dissipate into the very boring reality that all adults have to face and be content with. Rather than making out and making love with just dull fragments of those wondrous icons of the past and quietly accepting them as disappointingly ordinary, he’d rather just kill them, and preserve their greatness as intact and untainted memories.

(Cross-published in Lagarista.)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tanging Yaman (2000)

Tanging Yaman (Laurice Guillen, 2000)
English Title: A Change of Heart

After several years away from the Philippines and her already illustrious career as a filmmaker, Laurice Guillen returned with Tanging Yaman (A Change of Heart), a tearjerker that unabashedly showcases Catholic faith not only as an underlying theme but as a narrative conceit. The film was both a commercial and critical success. Perhaps more than a decade worth of films that delighted in sex and naked bodies has given the Filipino audience a thirst for something more spiritual.

Guillen’s crafts her most religious film not from the point of view of one who is holier than thou, but from the eyes of an ordinary person who has most likely dabbled in various sins. Her characters are less than perfect. Loleng (Gloria Romero), the family matriarch, is a devout Catholic and spends her days hearing mass and communing with her fellow faithful. Danny (Johnny Delgado), her eldest son who stays in the family home to take care of her, seems satisfied of his modest position in life. Art (Edu Manzano), the middle child and clearly the most successful and financially capable of the siblings, is quietly jealous of his older brother who has always been the favored child despite his lack of any real successes in life. Grace (Dina Bonnevie), the only daughter who migrated to the United States, is too concerned of her family’s finances that she has neglected the real needs of her family.

When an opportunity to sell the farm, the family’s remaining asset, arose, repressed anger and other emotions start to surface, threatening the already fractured family to crumble further. This pushes Loleng, in a desperate attempt to rescue her family, to sacrifice herself, leading the characters in Guillen’s well-orchestrated melodrama to reconcile and live the rest of their lives like true Catholics.

As with all films that are inspired with overly good intentions, Tanging Yaman is enveloped by an atmosphere that predictably directs the narrative towards its amiable conclusion. From the light effects that drown the face of Romero during her moment of self-sacrifice that has been done and redone in various films for comedic effect to the use of mass songs to provide a sense of overt religiosity in the plot, the film is too littered with significant details that nearly push the film from being merely a portrait of a family nearly torn to pieces by greed and envy into a proselytizing sermon that seeks for its audience a result that is more likely achievable in a sharing session than inside the darkened halls of a movie theater.

Thankfully, the film is balanced enough to be enjoyed even from the perspective of a viewer who has no intention of being pulled into religious didactics. It is exquisitely put together. Guillen, who has always laced her films with a certain sensuality that can only be fleshed out by a feminine mind, only subtly suggests that kind of sensuality here. In one scene, Hilda Koronel’s character talks of her dreams of travelling to the United States to her humble husband, dancing with her husband to the romantic song from the radio. The scene by itself seems very ordinary, but as framed by Guillen, and as acted by both Koronel and Delgado with enough levels of playfulness and domestic mischief, it results in something subtly sweet and tender.

Films with religious motivations are often criticized for being too disconnected with the realities of human imperfections to be of real effect. They cater mostly to those who are already religious, reconfirming for them the faith they have sworn to uphold. Fortunately, Guillen is too much a humanist to overestimate the Catholic faith. Tanging Yaman has for characters men and women who dream, sin, fight, lie, love, hate, forgive, cry, and laugh for all the correct reasons and aren’t judged negatively precisely because of these very human acts. Without the miracles and the preaching that the film relies so much on, the film is just simply a well-crafted, brilliantly-acted, and elegantly directed family drama.

(Cross-published in Lagarista.)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

2011: Philippine Cinema

2011: Highlights in Film

2011 will probably be remembered as the year when analogue film formally gave way to digital. The last of the motion picture film cameras were made in 2011, following an announcement by top manufacturers of film cameras that they are no longer making analogue film cameras to make way for digital film cameras. In the Philippines, where the advent of digital film has sparked a creative revolution within the film community which has long been taken hostage by the capital of mainstream studios, 2011 saw several films which regarded the use of analogue film in filmmaking as an adjunct of reminiscence. Perhaps the most important of these films is Shireen Seno’s Big Boy, which created an aesthetic landscape composed of very loosely connected images weaved together by merely a semblance of a plot that was adapted from the converge of the memories of various members of Seno's family.

The movement towards digitalization of filmmaking has of course created a sort of debate among filmmakers and critics who perceive analogue and digital film as distinctly different mediums that should be utilized appropriately. While there are films such as Big Boy or Raya Martin’s Buenas Noches, España, an experimental film that explores the forgotten love affair between Spain and the Philippines through fragments that compose childhood memories, that separates analogue and digital in terms of utility and aesthetics, there are films like Loy Arcenas’ beautifully crafted Niño or Alvin Yapan’s seductively ambiguous Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa (The Dance of Two Left Feet) or Mes de Guzman’s arrestingly lyrical Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa (At the Corner of Heaven and Earth) or Jade Castro’s shockingly irreverent but undeniably hilarious Zombadings: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington (Zombadings: Kill Remington with Fear) that are all very classic narratives and could have worked whether or not they were shot in analogue or digital.

Of course, the primary rationale towards the digitalization of filmmaking is economy, at least for the Philippines. Simply put, shooting in digital film is cheap, or to be more accurate, cheaper than shooting in analogue film. This has allowed for films that have themes that are not marketable to the masses to be created without any expectation of monetary compensation. Very personal films, tackling aspects that are too intimately connected to the filmmaker to be regarded as universal such as the death of a father in Khavn de la Cruz’s Pahinga (Breather) or the secret life of a man uncovered by his wife through letters he left behind after he passed away in Laurice Guillen’s Maskara (Mask).

Then there are the films from regions that have little to no expectation into becoming markets for film to force them to create their own films. These so-called regional films are more personal reflections for their crafters than products. Busong (Palawan Fate) is for its director Auraeus Solito a summation of his creative life, a long-awaited reunion with his roots as directed by the timeless stories relayed to him by his mother. Sakay sa Hangin (Windblown) may not be considered a regional film since its director, Regiben Romana, is neither a member of the Talaandig tribe or is a resident of the Bukidnon province in Mindanao. However, the film stretches itself from being a mere curious portrait of the ethnographic distinctions of the tribe into a parable that is too authentic and too heartfelt to be conveniently discarded from the category.

Eduardo Roy, Jr.’s Bahay Bata (Baby Factory), a heartfelt foray into the busiest maternity ward in the world, has for its parents the many real-time successes like the many films of Brillante Mendoza. Its obsession for truth seeps towards the method of its filmmaking, mixing documentary footage with a narrative framework to flesh out its underlying agenda of exposing the problems of reproductive health in the Philippines. On the other side of the spectrum is Antoinette Jadaone’s Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, which bends what we conceive as reality, utilizing the form of documentary filmmaking to make it seem that its imagined plot involving a famous bit player who suddenly finds herself nominated for an acting award is grounded on reality, to reveal certain truths about the vices and virtues of the entertainment business.

Lawrence Fajardo’s Amok, Benito Bautista’s Boundary and Lav Diaz’s Elehiya ng Dumalaw mula sa Himagsikan (Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution), on the other hand, are clear works of fiction, owing their existence to the many genre works that have come before them.  Amok is clearly more concept than fiction. Set in the crowded and chaotic junction of two major Manila streets, the film merely gives glimpses of lives quickened, changed, or abruptly halted by a singular act of brazen violence.  Boundary, set mostly within the confines of a taxi, portrays the streets of Manila with a certain level of mistrust, allowing for a storyline that unites top-level corruption with bottom-level criminality. Finally, Elehiya ng Dumalaw mula sa Himagsikan is Diaz’s take on the noir, where typical fractured Diaz characters get embroiled in a story of crime and greed, while a visitor from the past (her reason for existence, for us, is an open-ended mystery) walks the same streets they live in with decades worth of melancholy.

2011 saw all the trends, quirks, and mannerisms that were developed throughout the years evolve to maturity. There are reportedly great films still left unseen, due to the fact that I have to juggle paid fealty to the law, my irreplaceable passion for the moving image, and whatever personal life I have left. Despite that, the fifteen films that have found themselves in this list more or less reflects the fallacy of the concept of Philippine cinema, that there is a direction the so-called national cinema needs to concentrate in, or that there is a single way of writing or shooting films, or that there is a formula for quality as there is a formula for commercial success. Moving towards directions already treaded or pioneering towards areas nobody else has explored, these films deserve to be seen, to be enjoyed, to be discussed.

Top 15 Feature Length Filipino Films of 2011:

1. Big Boy (Shireen Seno)
2. Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (Antoinette Jadaone)
3. Sakay sa Hangin (Windblown, Regiben Romana)
4. Niño (Loy Arcenas)
5. Pahinga (Breather, Khavn de la Cruz)
6. Elehiya ng Dumalaw mula sa Himagsikan (Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution, Lav Diaz)
7. Bahay Bata (Baby Factory, Eduardo Roy, Jr.)
8. Buenas Noches, España (Raya Martin)
9. Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa (At the Corner of Heaven and Earth, Mes de Guzman)
10. Amok (Lawrence Fajardo)
11. Zombadings: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington (Zombadings: Kill Shokot with Fear, Jade Castro)
12. Busong (Palawan Fate, Auraeus Solito)
13. Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa (The Dance of Two Left Feet, Alvin Yapan)
14. Boundary (Benito Bautista)
15. Maskara (Mask, Laurice Guillen)

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Ang Maikling Buhay ng Apoy, Act 2, Scene 2: Suring at ang Kuk-ok (1995)

Ang Maikling Buhay ng Apoy, Act 2, Scene 2: Suring at Kuk-ok (Auraeus Solito, 1995)
English Title: The Brief Lifespan of Fire, Act 2, Scene 2: Suring and Kuk-ok

With only the entire nine minute-running time of Ang Maikling Buhay ng Apoy, Act 2, Scene 2: Suring at ang Kuk-ok (The Brief Lifespan of Fire, Act 2, Scene 2: Suring and Kuk-ok), filmmaker Auraeus Solito was able to convey the components of Palaw’an culture that ensured its survival amidst the allure of modern culture. Solito, whose mother was one of the few descendants of the shaman-kings of Palawan who were sent to Manila for education following the efforts of the government to reach out to indigenous tribes in the Philippines, was gifted with stories from his wealthy heritage. The short film, which is merely an excerpt from Solito’s own play, is but one of the thousands of tales transmitted aurally from generation to generation. With the power and reach of cinema, Solito has ascertained the preservation of his treasured culture, along with it, the virtues and values his own culture holds dear.

The short film tells the myth of Suring, who casts a spell of immense beauty but is still judged by humanity. She retreats to the forests where she is far from the prying eyes of humans, and there, she befriends the Kuk-ok, a creature who can transform into any form. Solito, acknowledging the essence of the stories conveyed by his mother to be the act of telling and listening, withholds from turning the film into merely a package of visual pleasures founded on the supernatural foundations of the story. The myth is actually told by Suring, relaying with precise emotions her very own tale to the film’s audience. In a way, the audience becomes the direct heirs of the Palaw’an oral tradition, inheriting the knowledge of such tale straight from the being.

The sacred act of storytelling is preserved in the film. Solito only adds visual inflections. Using very crude stop-motion animation which turns Suring’s environment into a troupe of swirling and spinning performers that enunciate the highs and lows of the plot, Solito evokes a definite stance of enchantment in his recreation of how the legend was imparted to him. Leaves conspire to form a magnificent headdress for Suring, turning her into a terrifying presence. Tattoos are magically painted on her face, beautiful blues and yellows to represent her relationship with nature, and black and red to express the corruption dealt by humanity’s cynicism. Seashells, flowers, twigs and branches are turned into delicate brushstrokes and punctuation marks, tools in imparting the subtle complexities of the seemingly simple creation story.

Because of the dazzling colors and movements in the film, one can only surmise Solito’s wonderment when his mother tells him the story when he was a child. In a very mundane city such as Manila, these stories, especially to a boy whose imagination is not limited by the browns and greys of the metropolis, are sure to be sudden bursts of colors and textures. The film is successful in turning Solito’s very personal and private joys as a child astounded by his mother’s beautiful stories into something universal, where anyone can find himself trapped in the pleasures of being transported in a different place and era with only the power of voice and practical cinematic effects, without need of the excesses provided by computer-generated fakery.

Solito has always been a filmmaker who mines his unique circumstance in the world to etch his life as an artist. Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005), although based on a lovely screenplay written by Michiko Yamamoto, is grounded on Solito’s own childhood experiences in his Manila neighborhood. Pisay (Philippine Science, 2007) on the other hand, situates his creativity within his own academic and political coming-of-age in a peculiar science high school. Boy (2009) is a peek into his sexual awakening. Basal Banar (Sacred Ritual of Truth, 2002), a documentary that dutifully details his rediscovery of his Palaw’an roots, lays the groundwork for his narrative films on the bevy of stories he has learned through the years. Busong (Palawan Fate, 2011), the first of the several narrative films he plans, finds Solito in that situation where he returns to Palaw’an, not as a child fascinated by that missing link, or a traveller searching for that missing link, but as an advocate, tasked to perpetuate, the same way his mother and his ascendants did, their heritage through the art of storytelling.

(Cross-published in Lagarista.)

Thursday, January 05, 2012

2011: Philippine Shorts

2011: Philippine Shorts

Criminally overlooked perhaps because their commercial value is limited, short films are like really effective pick-up lines. Within a matter of a few carefully selected words, emotions are captured, leading to what the pick-upper hopes would be a night of satisfying orgasms (or delectable conversations, depending on the moral barometer of the suave pick-upper). Limited to a running time of less than an hour, short filmmakers have the daunting task of creating worlds, forwarding ideas, convincing cynics, and expressing long-repressed feelings, while establishing an aesthetic and motivation that would set them apart from other audio-visual campaigns.

Raya Martin’s Ars Colonia, which was commissioned by the Hubert Bals Fund, was shot in hi-8 analogue video. Starting with the image of the silhouette of what seems to be a Spanish conquistador backdropped by an a mountainous isle surrounded by raging sees, the film suddenly explodes in what is either a blazing battleground or a fireworks celebration (the dazzling visual of colors bursting resulted from Martin drawing over the actual film with markers of various colors). Also shot in analogue film, Gym Lumbera and Timmy Harn’s Class Picture features various schoolchildren whose yearly class photographs are being taken in the beach. The film, beautifully faded like a memory stored for decades and suddenly rediscovered, evokes the fragile pleasures of reminiscence. Martin’s Ars Colonia, Lumbera and Harn’s Class Picture, and Shireen Seno’s Big Boy has turned analogue film into time machines, transporting viewers to places and events remembered from a respectable distance.

Jon Lazam’s Hindi sa Atin ang Buwan (The Moon is Not Ours) was filmed from a consumer-level video camera. A sequence of images of travel connected by ingenious editing (at one point, the moon bursts into fireworks before putting the audience within the alienated safety of the interior of a taxi with the unnamed protagonist in a moment of longing), the short converts the randomness of vacation shoots into a document of the heartbreak of distance, starting from rapid movements and ending in solemn quietude, as if to visualize what a sigh of romantic ache would sound in a silent film.

In Walang Katapusang Kwarto (The Endless Room), Emerson Reyes mercilessly focuses on the faces of his two outstanding actors (Sheenly Gener and Max Celada) who portray two lovers wasting idle time after what is presumed to be a bout of intense lovemaking. By invading the private spaces of his performers, Reyes concocts a document of voyeurism, where the audience takes intense pleasure in listening to the humorous banter of two persons engaged in an illicit relationship, the same way these two persons take intense pleasure in invading into the private lives of their neighbors, who we will only know through the way they shut their doors.

Filmmaker Jerrold Tarog was commissioned by an advocacy foundation to create a documentary on the Agusan Marshlands, an area in Mindanao that is famed for its various animal and plant life. Neither familiar nor armed with any emotional attachment with the place, he conceived the assignment as an adventure, seen from the eyes of his avatar, Gaby dela Merced. The result is Agusan Marsh Diaries, a delightful documentary that could have been just another tourism ad but ended up as an experience like no other. Unlike Tarog, Cierlito Tabay and Moreno Benigno do not have the task of reinventing the wheel. Undo is a documentary like any other. The only difference here is that Tabay and Benigno’s subject, an artist whose drug addiction is funded by his art and whose art is fuelled by his drug addiction, is more than enough to carry the film. Knowing this, Tabay and Benigno fills the minutes with only the subject, drowning it with his art, his life, even his music.

The stories and messages conveyed by the short films released in 2011 are all diverse. Their methods of conveyance are to say the least, intriguing. From Marianito Dio, Jr.’s Sarong Aldaw (One Day), which tells the all-too-familiar tale of young man leaving the provinces for Manila with immense lyricism, to John Torres’ Mapang-akit, which recounts from visual and aural textures of salvaged footage from another film the tale of a man who is seduced by an aswang, to Chuck Hipol’s Man of the House, which conveys the skewed image of the perfect Filipino through the ads that these families consume, to Nica Santiago’s Awit ni Maria (Song of Maria), a gorgeous tale of a man who falls for a prostitute and lives that admiration through the music he imagines for her, to Jason Paul Laxamana’s Timawa (Free Man), which weaves together fashion photography, filmmaking, impossibly beautiful people and the theme of marital infidelity to come up with a comedy with Lynchian awkwardness, these shorts are not limited by the stories they attempt to tell. Instead, they create stories from the way they tell stories, adding layers upon layers, creating a treasure trove of information within the very short span of mixing creativity, indulgences and everything else that make films more than just a succession of moving images.

Below are eleven notable shorts released and seen in 2011:

1. Ars Colonia (Raya Martin)
2. Hindi sa Atin ang Buwan (The Moon is not Ours, Jon Lazam)
3. Mapang-akit (John Torres) 
4. Class Picture (Gym Lumbera & Timmy Harn)
5. Walang Katapusang Kwarto (Endless Room, Emerson Reyes)
6. Sarong Aldaw (One Day, Marianito Dio, Jr.)
7. Undo (Cierlito Tabay & Moreno Benigno)
8. Awit ni Maria (Song of Maria, Nica Santiago)
9. Man of the House (Chuck Hipol)
10. Agusan Marsh Diaries (Jerrold Tarog)
11. Timawa (Free Man, Jason Paul Laxamana)

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Sanda Wong (1955)

Sanda Wong (Gerardo de Leon, 1955)

Gerardo de Leon’s Sanda Wong was thought to be completely lost alongside its director’s other films. Fortunately, an extant copy surfaced in Hong Kong, allowing the film to gain new life and a new audience. The film, a co-production between Manuel Vistan, Jr. and Ho Chapman, is perhaps one of the earliest film partnerships that crossed national borders. While the only existing copy of the film features dialogue spoken in Hokkien with English subtitles, it is quite clear that the film was shot in Tagalog and just re-dubbed to gain access to the Hong Kong market.

The film opens in pageantry, with a parade of onlookers welcoming Lan Ying (Lola Young) into the house of her new husband, Liu Chien (Danilo Montes), a wealthy landowner who is about to discover the strange inheritance, including a magical ring that allows its bearer to control snakes. Bandit leader Sanda Wong (Jose Padilla, Jr.), who is also targeting the abundant wealth of Liu Chien, has sent his lady partner, Yuen Fei (Lilia Dizon), a trained dancer, to put up a diversion, as he attempts to rob the newlyweds of their riches. Koh Loo (Gil de Leon), the captain of the garrison, is also interested in Liu Chien’s wealth, and devises a plan to take both Liu Chien’s loot and lady for himself.

Within that same evening when Liu Chien becomes aware of what his father left him, Koh Loo confronts Sanda Wong, which leads to Liu Chien saving both Sanda Wong and Yuen Fei, who falls in love with her recently married saviour, from Koh Loo and his minions, by taking them inside his house. In gratitude, Sanda Wong makes Liu Chien his blood brother, a relationship which is tested when Liu Chien’s quest for vengeance and the love of a woman seem to force them apart.

The film, although brimming with action and adventure, is actually fuelled by romance. Liu Chien and Lan Ying’s love, doomed by lust and greed, is depicted with alluring extravagance, enunciating the emotions that would inhabit Liu Chien when he discovers his wife raped and desperate to die. Montes, who first appears as a naive young man, too enamored by feelings of the heart to be intertwined in the more base motivations of both Koh Loo and Sanda Wong, portrays Liu Chien exquisitely, transforming believably into a revenge-addicted widower and bandit.

Yuen Fei, as the third party to Liu Chien and Lan Ying’s romance, adds complexion to the affair, luring stoic and brash Sanda Wong, whose relationship with Yuen Fei seems to be grounded on attraction, into the fray of unrequited emotions. The result is a story of brotherhood and honor, betrayed by passion and jealousy, but ultimately redeemed. There are scenes in Sanda Wong, such as when the bandit leader leaves a pleading Liu Chien to die in a quicksand or when he forces Yuen Fei to sensually dance in front of Liu Chien which would eventually reveal romantic affiliations, that complicate characters, turning them from stereotypes into actual living, breathing, and relatable personalities.

De Leon’s direction, as always, is sublime. There are scenes that are simply astounding to look at, such as when Sanda Wong’s army of bandits was ambushed by Koh Loo’s men. Shot against the light, De Leon captures the brutality of the ambush through the shadows of men either fighting or falling in battle. Armed with exquisite production design by Jose de los Reyes, effective cinematography by Emmanuel Rojas, and the near-perfect performances of the entire ensemble, De Leon was able to concoct a fantasy that both enchants with its spectacular scenarios and disarms with its emotional weight.

More than half a century after its release, Sanda Wong remains to be an absolute delight, a sterling example of a commercially-motivated production that does not see itself as a mere peddler mere temporary and empty visual marvels. It is an actual film that has a story that is simple but fascinating, characters that are palpable and believable, and real talents both behind and in front of the camera who tie everything together with indisputably brilliant results.


Film historian Teddy Co, who had a major part in both the discovery and restoration of the film, states that the present copy is in Cantonese, not in Hokkien as previously stated in my article. The last two prints, one in Cantonese and one in Mandarin (which is still in Hong Kong), of the film were found by Co in Hong Kong twenty five years ago. The English subtitles were introduced by Teddy Co to the Cantonese version of the film with the help of a Cantonese speaking resident of Hong Kong. He also corrects that the production design was done by Vicente Bonus and not De Los Reyes. Co compares De Leon's distinctive style with that of Akira Kurosawa and Orson Welles', particularly in the scene where the grieving Liu Chien buries his wife in the sea, with both Sanda Wong and Yuen Fei looking from a short distance.

(Cross-published in Lagarista.)