Arts & Leisure


The Quiet Man passes

Posted on June 29, 2012

He was known, if he was known at all, as legendary filmmaker Lino Brocka’s collaborator; the more malicious wags called him Brocka’s lover (for the record -- no, and there’s a reason why). He acted in several of Brocka’s early films, playing a vivid villain in Tubog sa Ginto (Dipped in Gold, 1971), a neglected son in Stardoom (1971) opposite actress Lolita Rodriguez; four years later he played Rodriguez’s leprous lover in Brocka’s seminal film Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Weighed But Found Wanting), somewhere along the way having found the time to write the film’s screenplay as well.

MARIO O’HARA and Lolita Rodriguez in the acclaimed 1974 film Tinimbang Ka, Ngunit Kulang. -- CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art
He wrote the teleplay that was the basis for what is arguably Brocka’s masterpiece, Insiang (1976); it went on to be the first-ever Filipino film to be screened in the Director’s Fortnight, in Cannes. The film -- about a slum girl raped by her mother’s lover -- is often called a masterpiece of realism, and no wonder; O’Hara claims in an interview that the story happened to his backyard neighbors, in the city of Pasay.

It was ever so in O’Hara’s films and screenplays, his insistence that everything and anything in his works be true, no matter how fantastic.

An outré character (a faded movie actress living in a cemetery crypt), an outrageous occurrence (a famed historical figure falling in love with his literary creation) can be allowed in his films only if they were, by some definition, true. The joke was that you had to watch yourself when talking to the man -- he was liable to put you in a movie someday, sometimes without your permission.

O’Hara would make his directorial debut with Mortal (1975), his fabulist retelling of a real-life murder case, much of it told from inside the killer’s schizophrenic mind; the film was to be one of the first produced by the just-established Cine Manila, under which Brocka had hoped to produce films. The murder victim’s family sued and won, and Cine Manila quickly folded.

O’Hara’s next film was to be his first with popular actress Nora Aunor.

Aunor had been looking for a prestige project to star in and produce and asked for Brocka; Brocka didn’t want to have “anything to do with that Superstar!� and passed the project to O’Hara. O’Hara dug up an old script and on a budget of about a million pesos -- modest for a World War II drama of that scale and ambition -- created Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976), about the three years of Japanese Occupation when, as the title suggests, God turned his face away from the Filipino people. The film -- O’Hara’s sophomore effort -- is arguably the actress-producer’s best performance (they would go on to collaborate on other films) and the director’s single finest feature.

Mario O’Hara was born in Zamboanga City on April 20, 1946, the son of a half Irish-American, half Filipino lawyer named Jaime O’Hara from Antipolo, Rizal and Basilisa Herrero from Ozamis Oriental; at one point early in Mario’s life the family relocated to Pasay City. Jaime O’Hara’s father was a Thomasite teacher, one of the earliest sent to the Philippines, and this fact alone allowed the O’Haras including Mario the chance to earn United States citizenships (Mario turned the offer down).

It was a large family -- eight brothers and three sisters -- and according to O’Hara a happy one, with a childhood fueled by the imaginative power of night-time radio. His neighborhood had an unusual layout -- rich mansions on either side, with a slum directly behind (according to O’Hara many of his TV scripts came out of that backyard slum). One of his brother’s friends owned a movie theater and they watched films for free -- titles included Michael Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, and the Flash Gordon serials.

Radio’s call

O’Hara planned a practical career -- a chemical engineering degree, to be earned at Adamson University -- but the call of that childhood night-voice proved too strong. On his sophomore year he auditioned for a part in a Proctor and Gamble radio show at the Manila Broadcasting Corp. By third year college, he dropped out because he couldn’t handle the load, both studying and performing on radio.

In 1968 O’Hara met Lino Brocka; Brocka in turn used him as an actor on the big screen (Tubog sa Ginto) and on the theater stage, doing productions for PETA (Philippine Experimental Theater Association).

O’Hara came to helm his first feature by criticizing Brocka’s style of film direction. “If you know so much, why don’t you direct?� Brocka finally asked him. Brocka wanted to do an adaptation of Edgardo Reyes’ serialized novel Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (In the Claws of Light), to be produced by Mike de Leon, so he passed on to O’Hara the film Mortal, which he was originally slated to direct.

After the career high of Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos followed the career low of Mga Bilanggong Birhen (The Captive Virgins, 1977), yet another period epic where O’Hara was fired after finishing 95% of principal photography (“I couldn’t see eye-to-eye with the producer,� he said). We would see this tendency time and time again -- a picture of O’Hara’s where the producer started getting involved, and O’Hara allowed himself to be fired, or simply abandoned the project. On a set he’s always described as a hard and determined worker, but the moment you interfere with the control of the picture he was likely to walk away.

Not that O’Hara didn’t have other activities with which to occupy his time. He was still acting for the theater, and for radio; at one point he directed Flordeluna, a television soap, for about a year. In 1998 he won the Philippine Centennial literary grand prize for Ang Palayso ni Valentin (The Palace of Valentin), a memory play about the aging pianist of a decaying theater, and his undying love for the beautiful singing star of that theater. The play -- a zarzuela, a form of indigenous Filipino musical theater -- is O’Hara’s valentine to true love and the theatrical arts. In 2002 he reworked his best-known collaboration with Brocka -- Insiang -- into a stage play, with the action relocated back in Pasay City where he had originally set it (Brocka had shot the film in Tondo) and a hip and funny narrator (much like The Common Man in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons) added.

In the 1980s, O’Hara would hit his stride on the big screen. His Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, 1981) was a vehicle for both actress Nora Aunor and stuntman-turned-star Lito Lapid, a bizarre yet spirited cross between George Cukor’s A Star is Born and Ringo Lam’s Prison on Fire. His Bakit Bughaw ang Langit? (Why is the Sky Blue? 1981), about a shy young woman (Aunor again) who falls in love with a mentally challenged young man, is O’Hara directly challenging mentor and friend Brocka in his own social-realist territory. And then there was what might arguably be called his Manila noir trilogy:

Condemned (1984), about a brother and sister (Aunor, again) on the run from a dollar smuggling gang; Bulaklak sa City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail, 1984), about a pregnant woman (Aunor) incarcerated in the city’s hellish prison system, and Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986), about a man tasked to unwittingly assassinate his own father. The three films represent a grim and gritty portrait of the city of Manila (the last film earning an “X� rating from the censors, for extreme violence), and might arguably be called the zenith of Filipino noir.

Pito-pito films

In 1998 “Mother� Lily Monteverde, head of Regal Films, with the help of filmmaker/producer Joey Gosiengfiao established Good Harvest, a subdivision of Regal films designed to churn out pito-pito pictures, the term (which translates literally into “seven-seven�) referring to the speed with which the films were to be made (seven days of shooting, seven of post-production). The idea goes something like this: Mother Lily gives the filmmakers a tiny amount of seed money and an insanely tight schedule with the only stipulation being that the films should show some commercial appeal (some violence, some choice eroticism); otherwise, the filmmakers have carte blanche approval to do whatever they want.

The pito-pito system helped some filmmakers produce their best work, other filmmakers do their debut work; O’Hara did, not one, but two films in 14 days, for a mere $62,500 each. Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof) was O’Hara’s adaptation of Agapito Joaquin’s grimly realistic play, expanded to become a eulogy to the Filipino film industry; Sisa is O’Hara’s tribute to Filipino hero Jose Rizal, with the conceit that Rizal did not fashion his most famous literary creation out of whole cloth but actually knew her, as a living, breathing, red-blooded woman; and that this woman was the love of his life (like Shakespeare in Love, only with a fraction of the production budget and a far more bizarre (read: insanely imaginative) approach.

In 2000 O’Hara directed his final pito-pito film: Pangarap ng Puso (Demons), basically a genre-bending retelling of recent Filipino history as a love story, horror film, and war drama; it’s also a celebration of Filipino poetry. In 2005 he made Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2003) about the homeless folk who live along Manila’s breakwater -- again O’Hara straying into Brocka territory (Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag) only with a strong strain of magic realism running throughout, and a singer-narrator (Yoyoy Villiame) commenting on the onscreen action. His Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (The Trial of Andres Bonifacio) takes the minutes of the actual trial (much like Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc), takes a much neglected contemporary of Jose Rizal (Bonifacio) and gives him the long-delayed, low-budget, magic-realist due he deserves.

O’Hara’s reunion with his muse Nora Aunor (their work together was not unlike the collaboration between a major filmmaker and his favorite actor/actress) would prove to be his last: Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother, 2011), a mini-series retelling recent Filipino politics in teleserye format that turns on the brilliant conceit that much of the melodramatic excesses of the contemporary Filipino soap opera -- the drama, the betrayals, the sex and violence -- reflect the excesses of contemporary Filipino politics (the drama, the betrayals, the sex and violence). His health may not have been what it used to be; he co-directed this tremendous effort (25 hour-long episodes in one month) with Jon Red, who also did all the series’ action sequences.

O’Hara’s significance to Philippine cinema is a challenge to assess.

Unlike his more outspoken contemporaries Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal, O’Hara did not like to discuss the ideas his films are supposed to express; he much preferred to stay in the background, cup bearer to the industry’s gaudier princesa. But he was a crucial collaborator of Brocka’s, and it’s possible to argue that he introduced a note of moral ambiguity to Brocka’s best work (Insiang). He took on Brocka’s social-realist mode of storytelling head-on (Bakit Bughaw ang Langit?) and introduced baroque, even fabulist variations (Mortal), sometimes fashioning a mode of cinema inimitably his (Pangarap ng Puso, Sisa).

He is arguably one of Philippine cinema’s finest filmmakers.

All that passion, all those sleepless nights, the massive strain on O’Hara’s health (at one point shooting Babae sa Bubungang Lata and Sisa back-to-back) could not have come without a cost. He was rushed to the emergency room of the San Juan de Dios hospital less than a week ago, due to leukemia; the family, respectful of his retiring nature, withheld the name of the hospital. His brother Jerry O’Hara reported that he had responded well to chemotherapy. On the morning of June 26 he succumbed to a cardiac arrest; the quiet man was quiet at last.

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