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Critic After Dark

Directed by Lamberto Avellana
Citizen Jake vimeo site

(Another LVN Film, available on Mike De Leon’s Citizen Jake vimeo website)

LAMBERTO AVELLANA’s Lapu-Lapu (1955) is about as straightforward a biopic as you can get about the famed Mactan warrior, other than the fact that this was adapted from Francisco Coching’s highly romanticized (to put it mildly) komiks (comics) serial.

Have not read the comic, but there are excerpts online, and one passage has been directly translated to the screen: Lapu-Lapu duels with a Chinese warrior over the hand of Princess Miraha, a duel he easily wins; he’s about to kill his opponent (pausing while he considers the gravity of taking a life vs. his lifelong hatred for foreigners) only for one of the warrior’s guards to take the princess at swordpoint, allowing the party (hostage in hand) to flee on their ship.

Here’s where Coching’s exuberant graphic style takes flight, literally: Lapu-Lapu’s men tie five strong bamboo trees together, the chieftain perched at one end; he’s flung hundreds of feet in the air in a high parabola towards the ship, catches a yardarm to halt his flight, swings deckward at the armed and angry sailors below…


And that’s where the excerpt ends (too bad; I’d love to have finished the story — maybe buy the book if available). Avellana’s big screen version (with Lapu-Lapu played by Mario Montenegro) limits himself to more grounded exploits, alas, for budgetary and logistical reasons, though his feats are no less superhuman: he dives into the sea in pursuit of the princess (played by Delia Razon), catches up to and capsizes the Chinese ship, fleeing on a large rowboat, and attacks the commander he had fought earlier. Avellana, shooting the rare underwater sequence in mostly tight shots, suggests the slow-motion poetry of the combatants’ life-or-death struggle through a swirl of bubbles; a cloud of what looks like blood (the film is black and white, of course) concludes the battle.

I’ve talked about the opening to Avellana’s works: this film features what may be his most elaborate: massive miniatures of three Spanish galleons, sailing into a harbor. The image quality isn’t the best, but judging from production photographs this was a spectacle for movie audiences. It’s Magallanes (Oscar Keesee) arriving at the tail end of his quest to establish a western route to the Spice Islands, incidentally circumnavigating the globe. Avellana doesn’t turn the explorer into a larger-than-life monster slavering at the chance to abuse the natives — rather he’s a somewhat sophisticated traveler who asks the Cebuano chiefs for supplies and possible trade in as courtly a manner as possible, or as courtly as his Western European pride will allow. If one comes away from this film with anything, it’s the sense of stiff backs and proud demeanors all around, not just Magallanes’ and his men but Lapu-Lapu’s as well. Probably the most common way strangers meet, but also a tense powder keg of a situation able to detonate with an intemperate spark.

Not sure if this is Coching’s invention or Avellana’s team of writers — composed of Donato Valentin (Avellana under a pseudonym), Jessie Ramos, Avellana’s younger brother Jose Jr. — but arguably the most interesting element added to the story (little is known about the actual figure) is a love affair between the chieftain’s younger sister Princess Yumina (the fresh-faced Priscilla Cellona) and one of Magallanes’ lieutenants, Arturo (Vic Silayan, who played everything from arrogant warrior to sleazy playboy to parish priest [?!] in Avellana’s films). That complicates matters considerably: Lapu-Lapu, in trying to keep his sister under control, comes across as an intolerant killjoy of a father figure, while the soft-spoken Arturo by default earns the status of most broad-minded male around — or as broad-minded as males can possibly be in this narrative (or era); every once in a while the Cebuanos clash among themselves, and the Spaniards (Arturo included) aren’t that much more mature.

It helps (again, I’m not sure if this is Coching’s or Avellana’s idea) that when the explorers talk among themselves they are untranslated and unsubtitled. We gawk and have some idea what’s going on (the actors mime and emote clearly enough) but basically the outsiders remain outsiders — incomprehensible, unintelligible, utterly alien (unless you’re fluent in their language, which presumably 1950s Filipinos were, at least compared to today; mine is sadly inadequate). The only relief from the unrelenting Spanish comes from the translator Enrique, who Oscar Obligacion plays as a simple buffoon, alas. Of course Avellana only knows what he knew then, and presumably the thinking at the time was that Enrique must have been some kind of bootlicking collaborator if he came with the Spaniards. But a translator’s is a delicate difficult role — he bridges two worlds, must faithfully deliver a message from one to another without distortion or self-interest; more, he was possibly an enslaved Filipino and his arrival in Cebu was in effect a homecoming — making him (and not his fellow Spaniards) the first man to ever circumnavigate the globe. Kidlat Tahimik’s long-gestating Memories of Overdevelopment subscribes to this more nuanced view of the man, and one wishes Avellana had the prescience or progressiveness to depict the man differently… well, one can always wish.

Oh, there are moments. When Arturo and Cellona’s eyes lock you don’t need help to understand what’s going on; later, when Arturo is freed by one of Lapu-Lapu’s men while the village burns, the former holds his hand out and flashes his dark Silayan eyes, speaking a few phrases of useless Spanish: the latter understands anyway (“I want to help!”) and reluctantly hands over his sword.

Avellana’s contemporary films celebrate democracy and the equality of men (more or less), but his period films allow him to indulge in a little class worship: thus in Badjao it’s the tribal chief’s son (and not some seafaring nobody) who’s allowed to woo the Datu’s niece; here, Lapu-Lapu pretends to be a mere fisherman when he first meets the princess but when his right to fight for the princess’ hand is questioned, he quickly reveals himself to be a Lakan (hooray for royalty!). Likewise, when Magallanes himself falls, (do we need to post spoiler warnings for an event that happened 500 years ago?) it can’t be by the hand of some common warrior but by the chief of Mactan himself.

Much of the fighting is excitingly choreographed and shot, but more interesting than the swordplay is the process by which Lapu-Lapu approaches war: he sees that the Spaniards are armored, and possess spears spouting fire and iron; he can do little about the latter but with a bit of bribery procures an intact set of armor, and sets about developing blades capable of cutting through the heavy metal. Later (an, I suspect, more effective tactic) he also drills the men on fighting techniques that bypass armor, focusing on thighs, arms, and neck. The man is fearless and possessed of extraordinary strength (Ever tried to capsize a rowboat full of men? It isn’t easy.), but also knows the importance of tactical advantage.

As a film Lapu-Lapu is a bit of a mess. Some of the sets and effects are impressive (the miniature galleons, the datu’s soaring triangle-roofed palace) but the final battle is mostly medium shots of men whacking at each other with blades and spears; you get the sense this was more of a skirmish than an all-out battle for the future of a nation. For the finale on the beach, though, Avellana does resort to low-angle shots, giving the men standing in sand and water a suitably monumental look. Perhaps the film’s single most impressive shot happens two-thirds of the way through, when Lapu-Lapu is forced to foreswear allies reluctant to follow him in his campaign against Magallanes. He loudly demands that they leave; the camera retreats from his wrath and assumes a low-angle — almost supplicating — stance beneath his looming sweat-streaked face.

Avellana consistently coaxes strong performances from his leads, and here Mario Montenegro (despite mestizo features and the brown-skin makeup) gives a fiery performance as the eponymous hero; Delia Razon stands by his side as the equally proud princess. The characters don’t seem complex — they’re legendary figures out of history after all, and one tampers with their myth at one’s peril — but that’s where Silayan’s Arturo and Cellona’s Yumina come in, giving us an alternate pair of lovers, younger and more open to possibilities (Enrique was the perfect opportunity — but I’ve already talked at length about him). Enjoyed the film, but can’t help thinking this was a dress rehearsal for a more streamlined effort, where the depiction of a faraway culture approaches offhand poetry, and the clash between heritage and desire is incarnated in one man. That would be two years later, with what I submit is Avellana’s masterpiece, Badjao.