Critic After Dark

Bulaklak sa City Jail
Directed by Mario O’Hara
Available soon on Cinema One

IF I REMEMBER right, I saw Mario O’Hara’s Bulaklak sa City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail) on its opening run back in 1984 and thrilled to the story of Angela Aguilar (Nora Aunor), a hapless woman jailed for “frustrated murder.” Based on Lualhati Bautista’s novel of the same name, sequences stayed in memory — Angela’s first night reception (where her cellmates practically raped her); the attempted escape through an old mansion’s garden statuary, her pursuit by police through Manila Zoo. I remember the lurid red of the nightclub where Angela sings, the bleak glow of cellblock lights, the deep shadows of the zoo.

And I remember how in screenings and various Betamax and VHS recordings since how those colors have faded, how the image blurred, has been accompanied by questionable translations (Caged Blossoms?), how watching the film in a special screening at the Hong Kong Film Festival felt like watching the through a muddied window — and this was the only surviving 35 mm print!

Thanks then to ABS-CBN’s digital restoration for bringing those colors back — the lurid reds, the bleak glow, the deep shadows.

Again one is struck by the opening sequence of tight shots — an impressionistic flurry of pouring beer and gin, cigarettes perched on lips, ashtrays and salted peanuts, hand caressing skirted thigh, faces gazing at each other and at Angela singing “I’ve Got a Crush On You.”

Cut without explanation or apology to a typewriter laboriously clacking out “AGUILAR ANGELA,” the platen rolling to reveal “PERSONAL IDENTIFICATION criminal fingerprint card.” Suddenly the singer, who had been crooning longingly under warm red spots has been shoved under the jail’s harsh incandescents, looking like a deer in headlights while guard and convicts stare. The tight shots continue, camera passing from one face to another, their expressions hostile if not hungry.

Much of the film is shot that way and one can think up of a number of reasons why: easier to eliminate the curious stares of extras (Nora being at the height of her celebrity), easier to dress sets, easier to light. But O’Hara’s closeups also evoke the claustrophobia of prison life, how a convict (or not a convict — some languish in jail for years, waiting for sentencing or even trial) can only survive when she narrows her focus to what’s directly in front of her. When Angela learns she’s pregnant, she confides to Juliet (Gina Alajar) that she hopes to miscarry. Unspoken: a child would be a burden here.

Arguably Angela has been myopic all her life. In the nightclub she only has eyes for her lover, Cris (Ricky Davao); on first entering prison she only sees unfriendly faces. O’Hara’s camera pulls occasionally for a glimpse of other women’s lives: the aforementioned Juliet, jailed for estafa (fraud); Viring (Perla Bautista), whose daughter is taken from her as the result of a crackdown (there was a riot at the men’s prison, and a 12-year-old was killed); Lena (Celia Rodriguez) who turns tricks to support her beloved Jun (Jack Antonio); cellblock “mayor” Tonya (the inimitable Zenaida Amador) and her lieutenant Barbie (the intimidating Mitch Valdez). The camera’s eye stands for Angela’s, who in turn stands as mute witness to these women’s stories as they prompt her (gently, gently — O’Hara is rarely if ever insistent) to widen her gaze, look beyond her own predicament.

And Angela learns to speak up. First for herself (turning down the proposal of prison guard Paquito, a.k.a. Cowboy [Tom Olivar] — there might be immediate benefits, but the man looks like a sadist), then for others, especially Patricia (Maritess Guiterrez). In Patricia’s brutal initiation, Angela sees her own, takes the younger woman under her wing — yes, it helps that Patricia is from a wealthy family but that’s the thread of sad realism Lualhati Bautista weaves into her melodrama: in Philippine society status and wealth helps, sometimes more effectively than the established legal system.

A word on Bautista’s story: I have not read the novel (not easy to find and listed on Amazon at a pricy $40) but the screenplay (with some rewrites from O’Hara) adds substance to the characters — Angela’s attitude towards her unborn child undergoes a gradual shift, helped presumably by the example of Viring’s attachment to her daughter and Lena’s dedication to her son. The various vignettes manage satisfying mini-arcs of their own — Viring’s gradual breakdown in the absence of her child; Lena’s cynical disposition cracking when she learns her son has landed in the same jail. Tony Aguilar’s varied music score, chastely applied, helps highlight mood (O’Hara is a veteran radio actor and knows a thing or two about musical cuing).

O’Hara keeps the film moving briskly, the plotlines cunningly interwoven, orchestrates a royal flush of wonderful performances (can’t think of a single weak actor — even TV variety show host German Moreno as an ominously wordless prison warden stands out). Nora Aunor’s Angela is the lead and she’s wonderful but not ostentatiously so; she enters the jail like a lamb to slaughter, only later finds her strength — and when she does, only flexes that strength when necessary. Early in the film when Barbie approaches Angela with Cowboy’s proposal, which the latter brushes aside, Barbie threatens her with a countdown: “One. Two…” “Three,” Angela finishes, flashing those astounding Aunor eyes, and Barbie is flummoxed: who is this tiny woman with the outwardly meek disposition and hidden iron will?

O’Hara keeps much of the film in closeups, occasionally cutting to an overhead shot of Angela stripped naked, or Cowboy tearing Viring’s daughter away from her grasp. O’Hara uses corridor compositions to underline the narrowness of the women’s world: a hallway wide, an eternity long. When a convict stabs a prison guard in the gut, she has to get past three barred doors to freedom: O’Hara’s camera watches from one end of the hallway as she runs through all three, the wounded guard’s gun firing each time.

On occasion, O’Hara serves up an indelible image: the concave bowl of a spoon sticking out of a guard’s spine; the convicts celebrating an escape by banging their tin plates on the bars; Angela’s tear-streaked face as she sits in a pool of blood, looking up at the police flashlights and begging for mercy.

Then there’s Juliet’s escape to see her son. She’s running down a metro train station, a police officer pointing his handgun at her; the weapon fires, and suddenly Angela wakes — arguably one of the most haunting cuts in Philippine cinema. Was Angela remembering what someone had told her of Juliet? Was this Angela’s nightmare recreation of Angela’s fate? Or was it some kind of telepathic flash, a sudden sympathetic rapport between two fugitives from society?

It’s not a perfect print, despite the colors and clarity: Angela’s escape through a garden statuary is truncated, and we’re missing the scene where she finds out she’s pregnant (the film according to IMDb has a running time of 1 hour 50 minutes; this copy runs for 1 hour 44 minutes, or some six minutes short).

As for the Manila Zoo manhunt (womanhunt?): critics back in 1984 ridiculed the sequence but when I ask people about the film that’s the first thing they remember. I think it’s O’Hara at his most noirishly streamlined attempting something baroque and grotesque — where Angela in escaping finds herself in a primeval jungle, Manila before a city was ever established, and still she encounters chainlink fences, steel doors, rusted iron bars. It’s an evocative metaphor, O’Hara suggesting that Manila itself is a prison — has always been a prison, only with more room and greenery, its creatures just as cruelly caged; when the animals smell the scent of Angela’s pain and coursing blood they shriek and roar, as if welcoming one of their own.

What else to say? Not just one of the best films of 1984 but one of the best I’ve seen this year — these past several years.

(The film will soon be available through the Cinema One channel, with English subtitles)