Luisito Lagdameo Ignacio's Broken Blooms (Bentria Productions, 2022) follows a volatile relationship as it flowers and wilts, thinking about what went wrong. It sounds like the cruelest sort of dissection, like pulling a butterfly apart by its wings, but Lagdameo and his actors, Jeric Gonzales and Therese Malvar have not made a cold or schematic film. They aim instead for raw emotional experience, one that's full of insight into the ways a relationship can go astray, but mostly feels like a slow-motion punch to the gut. Broken Blooms amplifies the intensity a notch or two above the expected, it leaves the actors looking bruised and exhausted, like Vilma Santos and Christopher de Leon in Ishmael Bernal's Broken Marriage (1983). Sometimes the effect is too mannered, but in an independent landscape, Broken Blooms unfolds with a directness that's bracing. The passion between these young lovers is incandescent, but even in the best of times, Ignacio finds the seeds of their destruction. Though Jeremy (Gonzales) grows into a devoted husband and father, his chronic immaturity is apparent from the beginning of their married life. Cynthia (Malvar) just chooses to look past it, just as she does the marital discord within her own family. 

     Nothing out of the ordinary happens in Broken Blooms and that, together with the vital, untrammeled performances of the two leading actors is the root of its power. This demonstrates that Broken Blooms is that rare creation, a love story that doesn’t ignore its consequences or droop into pointless fantasy. The acting is exemplary. Gonzales brings a preternatural understanding of people to his performance and Malvar is amazing in the way she keeps trying to deny and conceal emotion, even as she's showing us. There's a moment in which they sing Jingle Bells together with their friends and it's clear, even as she's pretending otherwise, that she had to go through the motions. Jeremy wanted to be married to Cynthia and he still does and he still is. Cynthia can't stand that, she is a woman who has lost her pride of body and self. It's Jeremy's inability to care for Cynthia, right here, right now, because when she married him, she became exactly the wife he required. Ignacio gives the film a heartbreaking resonance. Broken Blooms sets course for a collision and measures the full weight of its impact.


     Romance, so I’m to understand the term (and I don’t), is predicated on petite, strategic lies. It’s the confluence of many different slightly altered postures and highly self-moderated presentations, all calculated to either aid or discourage further amorous fission. It means that the person one falls in love with isn’t necessarily the person one has fallen in love with and vice versa. But we know this all too well, otherwise we wouldn’t expect something different and exciting from our fictions, both real and imagined. The quintessential tenet of romantic movies is that they feature characters who are either kept apart by their own deceptions or brought together by their total, yielding allowance of casting aside all that bullshit and opening up to another kindred soul. We eat that up, all the more voraciously for knowing it isn’t so simple. And so when it comes to real life, we spend as much time constructing the barriers as we do peering around them to see who’s on the other side and we wonder why everyone else is doing the same thing.

     Laurice Guillen's Kasal? (Trigon Cinema Arts, 1980) uses flashbacks to chart two days worth of push-pull surrounding the wedding, back and forth with revelation and evasion. But, this being fiction, is mostly revelation. Joel (Christopher de Leon) and Grace's (Hilda Koronel) conversations appear to have all the hallmarks of research both can file away for next time, but Grace's outburst gives it away. She’s intends Joel to emerge from his shell. And emerge he does, from there, the lovers connect again and again, physically, emotionally, intellectually. They invariably swim with the current of the whirlpool and are carried closer and closer to that holy grail of total, mutual understanding. The longer you spend inside Kasal?, the more its fictions seem apparent. De Leon and Koronel along with Jay Ilagan and Chanda Romero are, of course, incredibly attractive people who, despite their characters’ hang-ups and foibles, are approachable and easy to watch. But Mario O'Hara’s screenplay isn’t just perceptive to these fictions, it shows how they function in reality, narrowing the gap between the movie’s idealized representation and its audience’s own capacity to do the same. It’s nearly as galvanizing as the moment Grace finally opens up. It’s in moments like these that Kasal? nudges fantasy just a little bit closer to reality.    

     The high definition (1.67:1 aspect ratio) presentation offers a fairly decent scan with age restraining some clarity on the viewing experience. Detail is soft and while cinematographic limitations are present, sharpness feels dull, leading to only passable textures on close-ups and set decoration. Colors are equally unremarkable, skintones are somewhat bloodless and costuming lacks vibrancy even with party outfits. Delineation isn't troublesome, but never exquisite. Source is in decent shape. The 2.0 sound mix doesn't offer the type of theatrical clarity the film deserves, as age had its way with the track, resulting in a tinny, sometimes muddy listening event. Dialogue exchanges aren't where they need to be, with periodic intelligibility issues, especially when characters mumble. Sound effects are hard on the ears, but not that sharp. Some hiss is detected throughout. It's fascinating to watch Guillen's style take shape, there's provocative and passionate work here for study.


     Himala (Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1982) directed by Ishmael Bernal is a powerful and successful experiment in minimalism. Ricardo Lee’s screenplay takes on a documentary aesthetic, following characters as nothing of consequence is happening. There is great emotional resonance to the film, particularly in a handful of immensely powerful key scenes. Nora Aunor's critics claimed that she did nothing and played a bland character. While these claims are utterly unfounded, it's not hard to see where they stem from. Elsa spends most of the film being swayed by the currents of other character's desires. She almost doesn't feel like a protagonist due to her passiveness. Yet Aunor plays Elsa with immense authenticity. Perhaps it's because of the similarities between actress and character. Her role is a perfect example of an actress not being given the credit she deserves because of passiveness. Aunor's acting is almost masked by her naturalness in the role. It is the best performance Bernal has ever directed. Elsa speaks more than a sentence or two at a time and says nothing at all about life in the village or her childhood. But Elsa remains a cipher, her interests and experiences, her inner life, inaccessible. The spoken word is not cinema's most powerful tool. As anyone in the field knows all too well, cinema developed originally as a mute medium, dependent on images and editing to convey meaning. Himala is entirely structured around Elsa's point of view and this is the narrative paradigm that drives the film. I therefore have a hard time accepting the view that it silences Elsa, despite her demeanor. Aunor's lack of pretense, the naturalism with which she embodies this character is astounding. Elsa is a stoic but complex woman who witnessed hardship largely silently, but when she speaks, she is resplendant. Her final monologue showed she's reflexive, more aware about her motives and mixed emotions than all the other characters. 

     I think it is fair to say that time has not been kind to Himala. It is also fair to say that there wasn't a whole lot the restoration team could do to have the film look better than it does. Clearly, there are a number of limitations with the existing master which they had to work with. Some close-ups look quite pleasing, but elsewhere the image is rather soft and textures are problematic. Clarity, however, is mostly adequate and with a few minor exceptions, contrast levels seem stable. Some extremely light grain has been retained, but it is quite inconsistent and mixed up with light noise. The good news is that there are no traces of serious post-production sharpening. Unsurprisingly, the film does have a pleasing organic look. It is often weak but nevertheless a preferable one. Finally, some small damage marks and tiny horizontal lines are occasionally present, but I assume they could not have been removed without dramatically affecting the integrity of the image. All in all, considering ABS-CBN Film Restoration's strong record and dedication to high quality presentations, I think it is fair to speculate that this is likely the best Himala could look at the moment. Generally speaking, the dialog is crisp, stable and easy to follow. The few sequences where the music becomes prominent are also convincing. There is, however, some light background noise that occasionally pops up here and there. It is definitely not distracting, but its presence is certainly felt. There are those who diminished the turn as a non-performance, but they are sorely mistaken. Aunor's work is of staggering power and it is without question, one of her best. 


     What's extraordinary about Separada (Star Cinema, 1994) is that everyone in this story is right, based on their position in the situation. Melissa (Maricel Soriano) is right and Dodie (Edu Manzano) is right. And they are both hurting. Director Chito S. Roño has come about as close as you can get to telling a wrenching story with devastation but no villainy. Everything comes from that sad math. The arrangement in which both parents could be with each other and their kids has simply run out of time, it doesn't work anymore. What comes next will be awful for at least someone, if not for everyone. The meticulous fairness of Ricardo Lee and Tessie Tomas' script is remarkable. This relatively unadorned story could wind up feeling like a filmed play, but Roño's commitment to coming in close to faces, particularly Soriano's and Manzano's is sneakily effective. The tendency of conversations between Melissa and Dodie escalate from polite to tense to furious springs logically from their closely examined eyes and their tentative, layered expressions. Eddie Rodriguez as Melissa's father is wonderful in the way that parents observing marriages often can be. There's regrettably little for Sharmaine Arnaiz to do as Sandy, the other woman, but in an early scene critical to the progress of the separation, she introduces a lightness that recurs now and then, surprisingly, to let the viewer breathe. But in the end, Separada turns on the performances from Soriano and Manzano, both of whom are as good as they've ever been. She is kind with an earned edge, resentful but also empathetic. And Manzano gives Dodie a genuine commitment to doing the right thing and an unending hope that this doesn't have to be as bad as it is. He commits to moments when Dodie is awful and moments when he is extraordinarily tender and it's one of his best performances.

     The newly restored presentation does immensely well with Roño's visual style, capturing the pristine brightness of living spaces and the heaviness of restaurant visits. Primaries are clear, giving costuming a real presence with casual wear. Interior decoration is also vivid, surveying tasteful living spaces with flowery hues. Detail is sharp throughout, with excellent facial particulars that define the subtle emotional weight carried by the characters, while outfits are fibrous. Housing and office decoration are open for study, contrasting the lived-in feel of Melissa's world and Dodie's lifestyle. Delineation is satisfactory. Grain is heavier and film-like. The two-channel sound mix is a largely frontal listening event with dialogue exchanges precise, offering full, deep voices and crisp argumentative behavior. Scoring supports with a gentle orchestral sound. Room tone is present, along with more active urban environments. Low-end reaches about as far as it's meant to. Because Separada is about the process of separation, it would be easy to see in it a bleakness that would make it uninteresting. But the performances are so good and the story so complex that it is, in the end, startling and deeply humane.


     Marilou Diaz-Abaya's impressionistic, radiant and feverish romance Sensual (Regal Films, 1986), is anchored by the remarkable performances of the film’s two leads. At its heart is an incandescent performance by Barbra Benitez, who captures the mood swings of late adolescence with a wonderfully spontaneous fluency. She conveys not only the intelligence and will power of a young woman bursting out of her chrysalis like a butterfly, but also the vestigial shyness of a child in the throes of self-discovery, playing the character with honesty and restraint. Benitez brings a sweetness and naivety to Niña that makes her struggle more compelling. She is introduced in the first scene of the film with her best friend Elsa. In Lara Jacinto, Abaya finds a woman without many a facial feature to note, a blank canvas to paint with the story, the mise-en-scène and the management of her inevitably intelligent performance. This suggests that Sensual will be exploring an exotic subcultural space, but in fact Niña's story shares the most basic concerns of coming-of-age narratives, affirming burgeoning sexual identities, negotiating friendships and learning how to be in the world. It's also refreshing to see their stories take center stage. The girls' relationship moves from sisterly, to sexual and beyond, into the kind of all-consuming intimacy that makes everything else seem substantial. Curiosity quickly develops into an intoxicating infatuation after Niña visits Ariel (Lito Gruet). Abaya’s treatment of the love scene is refreshingly natural, free of any tinge of discomfort with sexuality - in many ways theirs could be an adult relationship. Ariel's seduction of Niña leads her to believe that she has at last found true love. 

     There is a vivid party scene that encapsulates some of the film’s strengths. Niña who is feeling her way through early adulthood and her first serious love affair. As the evening wears on, Abaya conveys Niña's awkwardness with painful subtlety. And yet the scene, which also marks a turning point in the central relationship that mirrors the director’s approach toward the representation of women. Ultimately, it is mainly the electrifying performances that Abaya presumably elicited from Benitez and Jacinto that make Sensual a memorable film. Abaya takes us deep inside Niña’s skin in the film’s more compelling final third and she is especially heartbreaking when she portrays the character’s attempts to move on with stunned dignity despite the crushing physical isolation she feels after the carnal relationship has run its course. It helps here that Abaya keeps the camera tightly focused on Benitez's face. This is the movie’s signature shot and the one it returns to most often. These close-ups are one way of looking and they could best be described as adoring. Perhaps it represents Abaya's gaze, mesmerized by the beauty and talent of her young actress. Perhaps it’s our gaze, especially if we feel similarly. Or perhaps it’s meant to represent Elsa’s point of view, her attitude toward Niña fluctuates throughout the movie. Although Abaya reimagines the love story as a tale of evocative romance, she stays true to its fleeting essence. Sensual closes on a bittersweet note, one that sees Niña transformed establishing herself not just bound by sexual identity, but by shared pain and hope.