By Carmen Aquino Sarmiento

MMFF Movie Review
Miracle in Cell No. 7
Directed by Nuel C. Naval

THIS FILIPINO remake of the beloved 2013 Korean hit by Lee Hwan-kyung is just what we need for Christmas. Of course, it’s mostly fantasy, with its cuddly convicts improbably getting along in their still livable cells — a distant alternative reality from the usual hellish scenes in most Philippine penitentiaries where sweaty, scabies-ridden bodies pile on top of each other, and violence is the norm. The prison setting resonates as we have an inordinate number of low budget movies set in prisons, to judge from the daily morning lineup on a major network’s free movie channel. We’ve had at least four presidents who were in prison at some point in their lives. Here is a very different kind of prison from what the movies usually bring us. Escapist entertainment, indeed, but then we all need a break.

The Korean version had a modest budget by their standards, but the Philippine version was obviously made for even much less. There is no full-scale re-trial scene here. Instead, Atty. Yesha Gopez (Bela Padilla) vindicates her late father Joselito’s, better known as Lito (Aga Mulach effortfully dumbing himself down) honor in what looks like an intimate chamber recital. There isn’t any opposing counsel, nor anyone else present in the court room except for the judge and her late father’s cellmates. But it’s Christmas. We are in a good mood, and willingly suspend intuitive logic and disbelief. At least once a year, we may allow ourselves to be comforted that somewhere out there, even in the unlikeliest of places, kindness and justice still exist.

The title might be a nod towards another beloved Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street (1947) which also had an engaging little girl, Natalie Wood, among its leads. It also echoes Life is Beautiful (1997, by Roberto Benigni) which spun the even unlikelier yarn that a little Jewish boy managed to survive for an extended period of time, and to have fun with his father in the horrors of a Nazi Concentration Camp, before his inevitable execution in the “showers.” The Jewish father went to his death jauntily, but in the Miracle in Cell No. 7-PH, the father goes full tilt for the (melo)drama: yelling, bawling, groveling, and flailing about in anguish, while the audience cooperatively weeps. It only takes the slightest twitch to tug at our heartstrings, but this film has experts doing the tugging.

It was easy to pull off with its powerhouse cast of character actors, journeymen players emoting in harmonious ensemble: John Arcilla as Prison Warden Johnny San Juan projects a bedrock decency and dignified humanity. Ronnie Lazaro as the greasy, skeezy police investigator, though, still gives us the sense that in his rundown headquarters, they have one of those infamous Wheels of Torture hidden away somewhere. He and Tirso Cruz as the arrogant, ruthless, and brutal Secretary Yulo, are reminders that this is still the Philippines after all.

Joel Torre as the cell boss Soliman has a touching vulnerability beneath his hardened, gruff, tough guy exterior. He masked his illiteracy with his bullying, part of which was ordering his inferiors to read all correspondence aloud to him. It takes the child Yesha to get him to let his guard down and admit to his shame. He finally lets her tutor him. J.C. Santos as Mambo is a revelation as a comic actor — quite a departure from his recent roles as a lover boy in Open, and as a psychotically violent cop in Babae at Baril. Give him an A for versatility. He and Jojit Lorenzo as Bong, the resident fall guy, obviously enjoy playing off each other. Soliman Cruz as Tatang Celso is reassuringly venerable. He seems to have found peace within the prison’s walls. Mon Confiado as Choy, is not given very much to do, but it was good to see him nonetheless. At least, his is not a jarring presence. Eppie Quizon has a cameo as the prosecutor in Lito’s trial.

It turned out to be a serendipitous choice for Bela Padilla to replace Nadine Lustre, who had to forego the plum role of present-day Yesha, as Ms. Padilla and the child actress Xia Vigor, do resemble one another. Both are light-skinned, doe-eyed mestiza (mixed race) types whereas Ms. Lustre was more of the morena (brown complexioned) sort. Little Ms. Vigor as the child Yesha, is precociously self-possessed and owns the screen every time she appears. Her character does smile much more than the original Korean version, but this is probably cultural, as Filipino audiences might be put-off by a pensive and solemn child.

We accept highly implausible key incidents such as how little Yesha first got into the prison simply because we are willing to play along with the unlikely scenario that a smart little girl would raise no outcry if she was suddenly snatched by an unknown thug in prison orange, thrust into a covered receptacle, then trundled around on a rickety cart to God-knows-where. The audience is in on the game and plays along. It is also easier to believe in the Philippine rather than in the Korean version, that the orphanage where Kesha has been staying would be so inept as not to notice that she was not among the van passengers on the return home from their prison sortie, and that she remained missing for at least two more days after. After all, in real life the orphanage where the Azkals player Simone Rota was left as an infant had not bothered to keep any record of who had surrendered him into their care, which became a big problem when he wanted to trace his birth mother. Oh, here’s a new baby… plenty more where he came from (see the documentary Journeyman Finds Home: The Simone Rota Story).

Miracle in Cell No. 7 is good news at a time of both natural and man-made catastrophes, when we badly need to believe that there is light at the end of this seemingly never-ending tunnel. Here, redemption comes even though it took at least 20 years, or enough time for Yesha to grow up and become a lawyer. The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice, no matter if it comes too late for the innocent victim. We still believe.

MTRCB Rating: G