Mother’s ghosts

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By Noel Vera

Movie Review
Directed by Denise O’Hara

MARIO O’HARA passed on in 2012. His niece Janice O’Hara chose one of his scripts (rewritten extensively by her father Jerry O’Hara) to be her debut feature (Sundalong Kanin [Rice Soldiers, 2014]), arguably one of the best of 2014. Janice died two years later, leaving us that one film, compelling us to ask: is there some kind of curse on this family that blesses them with filmmaking and storytelling talent, but relatively fragile lives?

Now Janice’s twin sister Denise — who helped produce Sundalong Kanin — has dared that so-called curse by writing and directing her own feature.

Where Janice’s feature was an ambitious drama set in a small town during the Japanese Occupation, Denise’s is an intimate character study of essentially one person. Mamang (Mama, 2018) is the story of Celeste Legaspi’s eponymous character, confined mostly to her darkly gorgeous 19th century house, an aging wife and mother left by her job-seeking son Ferdie (Ketchup Eusebio) to dwell on her memories.

Only her memories turn out to be more than just vague daydreams. She smashes garlic, fries them in hot oil (you hear — and can almost smell — the sizzling garlic), adds the old cold rice (the best kind for frying). Crisps dried fish and eggs, transfers them to a plate, lays them on the kitchen table. Gently shoves the hot rice on a plate, turns, lays the plate on the table — and only then realizes there’s a uniformed man (Paolo O’Hara, the director’s brother) sitting there, starting on the fish and eggs.

Who is he? Frightened, she wakes Ferdie, but when her son finally gets up to take a look (Mamang following close behind with hacksaw in hand ready to swing) the soldier is gone. Ferdie is now faced with the possibility that his mother is suffering from dementia — from hallucinations caused by degenerating functions of the brain, due to her age.

Right away you think of Michael Haneke’s Amour, but where Haneke’s stripped-down horror film — his, in my book, most unsettling and finest work to date — is a relentless descent into madness, Denise O’Hara takes a different approach: Mamang not only learns to deal with her “phantoms” but gives back as good as she gets. She realizes they are figures of her past (Except for that soldier — who is he? He never speaks, never explains himself). There’s her husband Heme (Alex Vincent Medina), handsome and amorous (he first appears to her naked and wanting sex while she is taking a shower); when she rejects him he takes to bringing young (presumably just as ghostly/imaginary) girls to the house. There’s the mysterious Amado (Gio Gahol) — from hints dropped here and there a Huk rebel who emerges from his hideout to serenade her. And there’s others — the point being that rather than random supernatural visitations, Mamang seems to be reliving her past, remembering old loves and quarrels, trying to take advantage of an apparent second chance to resolve a long, complicated life.

Interesting concept but god — or the devil — is in the details, and if anything O’Hara has equaled if not bettered her twin in overall execution. Not that the earlier film is necessarily weaker but that production felt hurried and awkward, the cinematography necessarily (and appropriately) plainspoken to better accommodate the powerful script. This debut has a sumptuous distinctive look thanks in large part to cinematographer Lee Meily (who supervised the camerawork in visually striking films like K’Na the Dreamweaver; Santa Santita (Magdalena); American Adobo; cut her teeth on the even smaller-scaled if still lovely Sana Pag-ibig Na). Her fluid camerawork is used to good effect — following, for example, as Mamang moves from one room to another, indicating passage from the normal to the paranormal world (or alternately, from objective reality to the intricate passages of her own mind); the subtly tinted lights accentuating the beauty of the old house, all rich narra flooring, high airy ceilings, bright capiz-shell windows.

I have to mention the earthquake that might or might not have occurred in Mamang’s imagination. O’Hara sells us the reality of what the elderly woman experiences (as opposed to just shaking the camera — a tired convention — or resorting to digital effects) through brilliant use of two simple details: a terrifying deep bass rumble and a violently shaking lamp and bedstand.

Speaking of accentuated beauty… it is difficult to dispute Ms. Legaspi’s; she was lovely back in the 1970s, is remarkably handsome still, especially when she fixes her hair in a wavy ‘do, tilts her head just so, and flashes that thousand-watt smile. She’s done some theater work, done some film work, has not really focused on either (she’s best known as a singer). One wonders why — possibly she was never inclined to the medium, or felt lightweight compared to the likes of Gina Alajar or Nora Aunor and didn’t feel the need to compete. Not necessarily that she’s incapable but she has a light touch, a gift not for heavy drama but for light comedy.

I’m guessing Denise O’Hara had seen her uncle Mario’s rare comedy film Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak starring both Nora and Celeste, and while the premise (three women trying to raise a foundling child) sounds funny enough, the film itself is (unsurprisingly) dark and noirish, with Nora playing straight arrow and Celeste playing eccentric. At one point she decides to commit suicide and Mario plays the scene out matter-of-factly, with Celeste making repeated attempts and the child with its endless needs frustrating her every time.

Presumably taking her cue from the scene in that particular film, Denise has Celeste’s character confronted with everything from the unusual to the supernatural to the grotesque-to-the-point-of-funny situations; the actress earns comic mileage by facing them (after being initially spooked) with the same deadpan pragmatism — if she ever cracked a smile or winked at us as if to say “Isn’t this hilarious?” the film would immediately deflate. She’s so good I submit (helps to have a director who perfectly understands her wayward appeal) that she manages to achieve a surprising poignancy. Mamang in the end cedes no territory to the claustrophobic pathos of Haneke’s masterpiece, but does so in its own sweet natured yet clear-eyed yet roundabout way, an achievement all its own. I am suitably impressed, and not a little enchanted.

The movie is showing in select Ayala cinemas.