I recently helped organize (with the indispensable support of Philip Cheah) a small retrospective on the works of Filipino filmmaker Mario O'Hara for this year's Singapore International Film Festival, and it was while watching 'Insiang' (1976, directed by Lino Brocka, written by O'Hara) that I came to a realization: 'Insiang' was the epitome of Philippine social-realism. After this film--and perhaps a handful of others, mostly by Brocka--Filipino filmmakers had little more of substance to add to the genre. What was needed was a new direction.
I believe Mario O'Hara's "Demons' (Pangarap ng Puso, 2000) points out one such direction. The film is about a pair of young lovers, Nena (Matet de Leon, adopted daughter of Filipino film star Nora Aunor) and Jose (Alex Alano), doing their best to live and love in an increasingly hostile world. Nena (a lovely child grown into lovely young woman, giving a surprisingly lovely performance) is from a rich family in the Negros provinces that owns a series of fishponds; Jose is from one of many poor families commissioned to clean and operate those fishponds. The film traces their relationship as it develops through the years, from childhood into adulthood, from prosperity into deep recession, from a time of peace into a time of violent political turmoil.
Nena and Jose's reactions to that turmoil is complex--steeped all their lives in Negros mythology, they gradually equate present-day rebels and corrupt army officers with the demons and monsters of their youth. They reply in a number of ways, each according to his or her nature: through political protest, civil activism, armed rebellion, even the composition and recitation of some (very beautiful) Filipino poetry.
It's a bizarre mixture of grim reality and highflown lyricism, of terrorist violence and supernatural horror--the fiction of Gabrial Garcia Marquez, set in the Philippines and adapted for the big screen. Some of it doesn't work--O'Hara does his best with a helicopter scene that has no helicopter in it, and a sequence that takes place in Manila feels totally unnecessary...but considering the resources and budget available (P3 million, or roughly $65,000.00, where an ordinary Filipino film is made for P15 million), I'd say O'Hara did a remarkable job.
The ending--doing my best not to give it away outright--is to say the least interesting, even if not everyone I've talked to really likes it. Just as interesting are the reasons why they didn't like it--one thought it should have ended with a shot of Nena's mother dancing (life goes on, uncaringly); another thought it was an excessively violent condemnation of the Philippine military; yet another found it horrifying, grotesque beyond belief ('which is exactly why I liked it,' I told him whereupon he moved away from me as if I had grown fangs). Whatever their reasons, I suspect the film affected them deeply, if not always pleasantly.
Even Regal Studios probably didn't know what to make of the picture--they were responsible for changing the original title "Whispers of the Demon' to the present "Hope of the Heart,' possibly in an attempt to play up the romantic angle (the original has been restored for international release). The gambit failed; the film closed on its opening day, was (despite its small budget) a financial failure, and was totally ignored by critics and local film award-giving bodies.
And yet I believe in the film. It's actually three films in one--an ingenious exercise in supernatural horror with almost no budget; a scathing condemnation of war and of the military's rapacious mindset; and a celebration of the beauty and lyricism of Filipino poetry. If, as one viewer said, the film tries to do too much, I much prefer this courageous excess to something too timid and fainthearted to risk anything at all. 'Demons' looks like no other film--Filipino or otherwise--I've seen in recent years; in terms of originality, of deeply felt emotions, of sheer imagination, I believe it's the best, most exciting Filipino film ever made in recent years.
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