SA INIT NG APOY... Making the Tangible Scary and the Intangible Scarier

Sa Init ng Apoy (Trigon Cinema Arts, 1980) forgoes campy self-awareness in favor of reverential faithfulness. Demonic possession is revealed as a malevolent force with which newlyweds Laura (Lorna Tolentino) and Emil (Rudy Fernandez) must ultimately reckon. Before that confrontation can occur, however, Sa Init ng Apoy proves content to simply spend time in Laura’s company. And though she’s a rather one-dimensional audience proxy, Romy Suzara’s leisurely depiction of her exploring Casa Morteja, allows his story’s dread to slowly creep under one’s skin. If Suzara’s unhurried pace can occasionally be trying, his refusal to indulge in cheap jolt scares or force his protagonist to behave in ludicrously nonsensical ways elicits fear from a sense of macabre unease that spews forth among other moments, the spirit’s (George Estregan) initial conversation with Laura and Emil, or their unsettled looks directed upward at an imposing face cut off by Suzara’s frame. Throughout, the director employs conventions with an assuredness that’s never tainted by look-at-me egotism, his fidelity to the genre marked by an admiration that carries through to the very, bloody end, which true to its forbearers is mildly anticlimactic, resorting as it does to images of monstrous satanic evil that can’t quite match what one’s own imagination had already cooked up. No matter. As evidenced by the care taken with its establishing chapters, Sa Init ng Apoy knows that, even with regard to hell, the destination isn’t half as terrifying as the journey.

This is another impressive restoration, one that offers a nicely organic appearance and an incredibly lush palette (take a gander at some of the screenshots accompanying this review and pay special attention to primaries especially reds). Detail levels are often quite expressive and with the film's emphasis on ornate patterns, the precision of fine detail is especially notable. The opening sequence looked a tad rough and the grain field is fairly gritty looking throughout the presentation. There's also some minor and passing crush in a couple of dark scenes, including some night scenes toward the end of the film. That said, there are no real issues with compression anomalies and I noticed absolutely no damage whatsoever. The sound effects do tend to date the film, but I enjoyed them for their inherently quaint qualities. Both dialogue and the score by Jun Latonio are rendered with excellent fidelity and there are no problems in terms of damage or distortion. Sa Init ng Apoy makes the tangible scary and the intangible scarier, which the more explicit horror films rarely did.

INIT O' LAMIG... Intensely Persuasive

In Init o' Lamig (Cinex Films Inc., F Puzon Film Enterprises Inc., 1981) Gina Alajar’s portrayal of Melissa, a gifted concert pianist with Hansen’s disease, is so intensely persuasive that once you’re engaged by her wrenching ordeal, you mostly forgive the movie’s emotional manipulation. Init o' Lamig begins with an engagement party. Melissa and her fiancĂ©e, Pete (Dindo Fernando) are blissfully in love and surrounded by friends. When Melissa sits down at the piano to play, she notices a tremor in her fingers. Baby Nebrida's screenplay effectively blends poignant drama and mordant humor in its depiction of the relationship between the characters, even if it's less effective with such tangential subplots. Portrayed with admirable subtlety are her new friendship with Linda (Chanda Romero), an emotionally exuberant fellow sufferer of the disease, Tala Leprosarium’s resident physician, Dr. Ramon Manalo (Joseph Sytangco), and her growing estrangement from the friends she had in her former, pre-illness life. Such moments as when Melissa asks if a patient can hold her baby with disastrous results prove intensely harrowing, even as she finds a newfound emotional looseness in response to Pina's (Elizabeth Oropesa) free-spirited attitude towards life. Director Eddie Rodriguez handles the periodic shifts in tone with expertise, with only the scenes involving Melissa's Aunt Pacing (Charito Solis) having an occasional forced quality.

Alajar registers every subtle change in Melissa’s body and mind as her condition worsens. You feel the despair of a musician whose abilities are taken away and her rage and humiliation when she discovers that Pete has betrayed her. Although Oropesa tends to overplay Pina's wanton behavior in her earlier scenes, she becomes increasingly effective as the character gradually settles down. Fernando infuses intriguing grace notes into his portrayal of the uptight Pete, who can't quite stand by his woman. Sytangco employs his natural charm to fine effect as Melissa's wannabe love interest. Romero is more vital and wholly believable as a fellow disease sufferer in just a couple of upbeat but sad, gasping scenes. Rodriguez clearly knows what he’s doing and has the actors to pull it off, but he’s tasteful to a fault. Great melodramas achieve the sublime by risking ridicule, something which Init o' Lamig does only once. Without that crucial element of exaggeration, the movie’s sappiness registers as, well, sappy. Pina shows Melissa how to be more assertive while Melissa teaches Pina about the importance of not letting opportunities pass her by. And yet, every now and then, it cuts to a close-up of Melissa’s hands struggling or her face as guests at a party shake her hands, making the viewer wish that Rodriguez was less restrained and more willing to use his practical-creative sense expressively. Init o' Lamig isn't entirely successful in avoiding a teleserye style predictability in its depiction of its central character's incapacitating illness. But its superb performances and emotional complexity ultimately elevate its familiar themes.

The Sparks of an Emotional Connection in MINSAN PA NATING HAGKAN ANG NAKARAAN

Most romantic movies are so determined to chart the course of a love story, how boy meets girl leads to happily or unhappily ever after that they miss the intensity and import of beginnings. But Marilou Diaz-Abaya's Minsan Pa Nating Hagkan ang Nakaraan (Viva Films, 1983) lingers on the initial sparks of an emotional connection. The film captures a truth most others only imply, to meet a potential partner is also to rethink who you are, an invitation to shape and refine the self you wish to be. It’s not an exaggeration to say that almost every scene in the film feels pivotal, momentous, in much the way that the characters experience their attraction. Split-second decisions carry enormous weight, small gestures mean the world. Character-driven dramas are not supposed to make a show of backstory, but in the genre of romance focused on Helen (Vilma Santos) and Rod (Christopher de Leon), two people for whom the rest of the world has fallen away, there is nothing more natural than exposition. Much of Minsan Pa Nating Hagkan ang Nakaraan is devoted to defining these characters or rather to watching how they define themselves in streams of free-flowing but perfectly calibrated talk. With an ear for naturalistic dialogue, Abaya embeds several discoveries along the way most crucially, the catch that immediately lends its meandering conversations a heightened urgency.

Abaya is working within the form of a traditional romance of missed opportunity and uses certain tropes expected of that kind of film to contain moments that are anything but traditional. We know that Abaya and her actors are working in a more intimate emotional realm than usual from the first conversation Helen and Rod share. This conversation is so specific and so unapologetically personal that even progressive audiences may feel uncomfortable. The writing and the acting aren’t stylized or at least they aren’t stylized in a manner that’s inappropriate to the context. Helen knows she’s pushed something in Rod, that they’ve done something with a level of intensity that challenges Rod’s comfortable, casual disengagement. This scene is Helen’s show, at least it is at first, as she’s stunned when she sees that Rod is willing to match her combative form. Rod startles Helen, allowing the real dance to begin. Minsan Pa Nating Hagkan ang Nakaraan would be worth seeing for the delicacy and perception of the opening ten minutes alone, but Abaya never allows the tone to falter. Every moment advances the push and pull between Helen and Rod, which represents the classic argument between two romantics who repress that romanticism in differing fashions. The film’s biggest triumph is a scene that begins as a wide shot and then slowly zooms into a tightly framed close-up. It signals an important moment of character development and delivers a powerful emotional surge for the audience. Tia Salud (Mona Lisa), off-screen yells at Helen's husband Cenon (Eddie Garcia) that is almost directed straight at the audience. In a brilliant masterstroke, Abaya drowns out a piece of key dialogue with on-screen noise. It results in a moment so private that not even the audience get to fully share it. Abaya's unadorned observational style means entrusting her actors with the sustained ebb and flow of scenes that are highly dependent on minutely calibrated nuances and the payoff is enormous. 


Fantastika with Wonder Woman (Prima Productions/Petersen Film, 1976) follows Fantastika (Pinky Montilla) and Wonder Woman (Alma Moreno) as they attempt to defeat an evil sorcerer with immeasurable powers. It's pure good against pure evil. A farcical premise but as the film progresses, you realize that it’s not the plot that matters but the jokes. Let’s start with the lead stars. Montilla has her eureka moment but is easily fooled. Yet, she carries all of this in stride and is never crestfallen, remaining unfazed and calm even when the odds are stacked against her. Montilla is a wooden performer but her genuine warmth and sincerity perfectly serves the preposterous nature of the role. Moreno, on the other hand offers a stilted and painfully forced performance as Wonder Woman. Sure, Fantastika with Wonder Woman is haphazard and unconventional, but then so is the entire movie. The performances from the villains are memorable and you can’t argue with the brilliant cast of actors who depict their key nemeses. Johnny Monteiro, Marissa Delgado, Celia Rodriguez and Odette Khan treat their characters like theatrical exercises. Fantastika with Wonder Woman is wild, absurd and ridiculous with acting that teeters from awful to over the top and a plot that is pretty nonsensical.

Fantastika with Wonder Woman is something of a joke. Perhaps it wasn’t originally intended to be when it was first conceived, produced and then released. This is a favorite for those into bad cinema and I'll admit that a film this schlocky is quite fun to watch, even if it's just to admire how bad it really is.  Debates may rage on as to whether the creators of the film intended this to be a campy bad film or if they earnestly tried to make something good, but regardless of the conclusion, there isn't much entertainment to be found in anything other than the inanity of it all. None of this matters, and here's why. If the storyline had been played even faintly seriously, the film would have been a naff, self-important turkey. Fantastika with Wonder Woman is not designed to be taken seriously or to have allegorical connotations. The closest it ever comes to having any kind of message is in the big final showdown, with all the various people uniting against the evil sorcerer.

ALYAS BATMAN EN ROBIN... Camp and Over the Top

Tongue-in-cheek humor prevails in Alyas Batman en Robin (Regal Films, Inc., 1991), a witty homage to the Dynamic Duo’s exaggerated exploits. The Caped Crusaders emerge when criminal masterminds The Joker and Paenguin wreak havoc in the city of Gotham. The film manages to embrace Batman’s inherent campness and potential for ridicule. Everybody involved in making the film, so it seems, understood the nature of the Batman they were trying to capture. From over-the-top acting to the energetic score and cut, the film manages to convey a singular vision. And sure enough, you will find yourself sucked into the world of this Batman. However, in order to enjoy Alyas Batman en Robin, one needs to realize that director Tony Y. Reyes’ take on the Bat is not meant to be taken seriously. The film doesn’t advance the storyline or explain the character. It serves more as a fun retrospective on the development of the Batman property.  In this version, Batman/Kuya is portrayed by funny man Joey de Leon. The best thing about his performance is the way he plays straight man to everything. Despite the wackiness around him, he always plays everything straight, delivering all of his lines with level headed clearness. Same goes for the way Kempee de Leon plays Robin/Kevin. While he does have a more naive sidekick persona, he plays his part with as most conviction as Joey does.

The real noteworthy cast members are the villains. Panchito makes for a great Paenguin. He brings an air of sophistication to the part, as well as injecting it with a lot of energy. And speaking of energy, Rene Requiestas is off the wall with his portrayal of The Joker. Overall, the villain performances are great and probably the best part of the film. In spite of all the goofiness, the actors all managed to capture the core essence of each villain. There’s never a dull moment. Everything seems to fall naturally into place without any awkward shifts. Part of this is because of the insane nature of the film, almost nothing feels out of place, no matter how bizarre. This incarnation of the caped crusader was camp, fun and over the top. Alyas Batman en Robin used grandiose language bordering on the absurd, had a dead-pan expression and wore wonderfully camp costumes. There was also very little separating Kuya from his alter ego, effectively they’re one and the same. They speak the same, have the same mannerisms and share affection for Daily Sun journalist Angelique Legarda (Dawn Zulueta). Of course Batman also has a ton of gadgets, ones ranging from the useful to the downright inane. There’s also a sense that Batman’s a far superior force than his villainous counterparts. The fearsome duo’s target is world domination, but they perennially state their plan can’t be achieved as long as Batman’s in the way. Even when they seem to have the upper hand, they barely lay a scratch on Batman and he easily escapes their contrived traps, but there’s also a general sense of absurdity and farce.