BILANGIN ANG BITUIN SA LANGIT... A Compelling Love Letter to Cinema

Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit  (Regal Films, Inc., 1989) has a lush yet aching beauty that seems to saturate as you watch it. I’m not just talking about visual beauty. I’m speaking of dramatic beauty, the exquisite moment-to-moment tension of characters who reveal themselves layer by layer, flowing from thought to feeling and back again, until thought and feeling become drama. Director Elwood Perez made a rare movie that evokes not just the essence of a great Filipino melodrama, but the experience of it. We are also enveloped, at every turn, in the hidden pulse of his characters’ motivating passions.

The union of art and sensation, intellect and feeling, mass appeal and aesthetic refinement is something the movies are uniquely able to promise and occasionally, when a filmmaker possesses the right mixture of calculation and compassion, able to deliver. Perez is fiercely devoted to his actors. From the moment you see her here, Nora Aunor exudes a new, womanly radiance. As Magnolia de la Cruz, Aunor does full justice to a heroine who loves deeply and helplessly. Tirso Cruz III delivers a beautiful nuanced performance. He seemed a tad opaque in the opening scenes, but peels back the layers of his character as the film progresses.

In Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit, Ricardo Jacinto, in a glorious demonstration of all that cinematography can be, floods the screen with color. Lutgardo Labad's score punctuates key moments with expert precision, complimenting the tone of the characters’ voices and the traumas written on their faces. By observing and even, to some extent, exaggerating, Perez gives the film an emotional impact that could not have been achieved by conventionally realistic means. And this, in effect, is what Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit accomplishes for its characters. It rediscovers the aching, desiring humanity in a genre too often subjected to easy parody or ironic appropriation. Elwood Perez has given us a compelling love-letter to cinema itself.

IKAW PA LANG ANG MINAHAL... Beautiful and Absorbing

Carlos Siguion-Reyna's Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal  (Reyna Films, 1992) demonstrates the filmmaker’s keen eye for composition as a means of enhancing his actors’ performances. The ornate home at the center of the film is befitting of the considerably successful Dr. Maximo Sevilla (Eddie Gutierrez). Yet the ample space left between objects in a room hints at a hollow, impersonal atmosphere that envelops Dr. Sevilla’s daughter, Adela (Maricel Soriano). Plain, naive and shy, Adela comes across as a woman so socially awkward and insecure that the coldness of the family home seems comforting compared to the world outside. Despite Adela’s shyness, the young woman does want to socialize and she accompanies her father one night to a party where she meets David Javier (Richard Gomez), a handsome but hard-up young man. If Adela’s array of nervous tics, widened eyes, reflexive but forced smiles alienate her from others, David’s magnetism is such that everyone is drawn to him. He takes a keen interest in Adela and effortlessly carries the conversation when she gets flustered and doesn’t know what to say. Soriano painstakingly captures Adela’s manic, disbelieving glee at seeing a man talk to her and in this moment, the camera moves more than it does for the remainder of Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal, not only in sync with the dancing at the party, but with Adela’s sudden rush of infatuation. David thoroughly charms her and even puts on a face of mock dejection. When he calls on Adela the next day, their courtship turns into an engagement in short order.

Adela’s impending nuptials should be wonderful news for Dr. Sevilla who rejects the union on the grounds that no man as handsome and suave as David could possibly be interested in his dull, homely daughter and as such must simply want her for her inheritance. The disdain that Dr. Sevilla reveals for Adela shocks her to the core and to make matters worse, her father may be right about David. The dual blow of discovering that the men in her life see her largely as an object is shattering and if Siguion-Reyna’s mostly static compositions first communicated her introversion, slowly they come to reflect her abject misery. Some shots endure for so long that you can almost see as Adela’s sorrow and humiliation harden into bitterness in real time. Siguion-Reyna’s willingness to set up a shot with exacting formal precision, then cede prominence to the actors who move within the space of the frame, results in a multivalent study of not only the story’s characters, but of the markedly different styles of acting. Gutierrez portrays even Dr. Sevilla’s more subtle gestures of contemptuousness with the most theatrical of cadences. Elsewhere, Gomez’s facility with intoxicating yet repellent characters stresses the ambiguity of David’s devotion and the longer any of David’s scenes last, the harder it is to tell whether he’s manipulating Adela or genuinely interested in her. There’s even the character-actress bawdiness that Charito Solis brings to Paula, Adela’s widowed aunt whose genuine affection for her niece belies her own exploitative tendencies, as she lives vicariously through the younger woman’s romance. Then, of course, there’s Soriano. Here she upsets common expectations by pushing Adela’s innocence to parodic levels before shifting into a tragic-heroine mode worthy of Philippine cinema’s greatest depictions of emotional despair. Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal is mysterious when it comes to characters’ intentions, but it’s downright confrontational in the brutal impact of its protagonist’s struggle for social acceptance. The finale, in which Adela finally gains agency in her life only by consciously walling herself up in the very home that previously served as her cage, is an act of cruelty perpetuated as much against herself as those who wronged her.

This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution from a 35mm master negative. The results are quite pleasing, but not as stunning. The high-definition presentation is a tad light on grain, but diffuses clarity. Romeo Vitug's cinematography still looks great thanks to deep blacks that heighten detail levels and enhance depth. Close-ups appear sharp showcasing fine facial features. Shadow delineation is good no nicks, marks or scratches mar the source material. Though this rendering certainly outclasses previous home video transfer, it falls just short of expectations. The stereo track sounds quite good. Ryan Cayabyab's romantic score gives his music plenty of room to breathe on both the high and low end. Dialogue is clear and well prioritized while subtle atmospherics nicely caress the action. Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal is a quiet, intimate film and thankfully no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle intrude during pregnant pauses or whispered exchanges. Though the audio doesn’t make a statement, its seamless integration into the film’s fabric makes it all the more impressive. Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal focuses on a painfully shy spinster’s fraught relationships with two men, her brilliant, aloof, often critical father and a dashing suitor who may or may not be after her fortune. It's an absorbing and beautifully photographed film that examines delicate relationships with maturity and insight.

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.