Critic After Dark

Pag-asa (Hope)
Directed by Lamberto Avellana
Citizen Jake vimeo site

MIKE DE LEON mentioned in passing that “Huk, despite the propaganda, in my opinion, remains one of the best Avellana films. Along with Pag-asa.”

Which aroused my curiosity; which compelled me to look it up. Turns out it’s a gem — arguably the most likable of Avellana’s films, or at least of those readily available for viewing.

(Lamberto Avellana’s Pag-asa or Hope, 1951, is available on Mike de Leon’s Citizen Jake vimeo site, and is one of decent clarity, with English subtitles.)

Celing (Priscilla Cellona) and younger brother Piding (Ike Jarlego, Jr.) arrive at the mansion of Don Paco (Paco Zamora) with a letter: their father has died and entrusted them to his care. Care however means in the hands of Don Paco’s wife Doña Esperanza (Naty Bernardo) who yanks at Celing’s hair and threatens to send Piding to Lulumboy. Later in bed Piding explains why the threat terrifies him so: “They’ll cut off my tongue, my nose, and my ears!”

That little detail, explained with wide-eyed fear by an adorable child missing his front teeth, helped explain to me the appeal of this film, a somewhat light melodrama about the sufferings of an oppressed young girl — this is basically the tale of “Cinderella,” the prospect of slicing off little bits of face recalling the casually gruesome cruelty of the Grimm Brothers (Charles Perrault’s earlier, more famous version did not insist on slicing anything).

Avellana (under the pseudonym Donato Valentin), his wife Daisy and brother Jose Jr., hit upon the notion that Celing would suffer considerably more if she had a scrawny younger brother hanging from her neck like an albatross, who she would nevertheless cherish as family (aside from, presumably, her dad). I think the addition works wonders: Ike Jarlego, Jr. is a lively little performer, his Piding full of bravado and initiative and quick, often dead-accurate, intuition — the way he latches onto Victor (Armando Goyena), for example, despite Victor’s cross words at them for sneaking into his carnival ride (the classic Caterpillar, once found in all amusement parks, now down to only two left in the world still operating), or his instant bonding with Victor’s mother Aling Teria (the always lovely Rosa Aguirre), who treats them as her adopted children. He seems to know what the situation (and peril) is and who to trust, and takes it on himself to initiate the two actions that irrevocably change the siblings’ lives.

Which brings us to the fairy tale’s second act: Cinderella (following Piding, who runs away from Doña Esperanza’s home) meets her Prince Charming at the aforementioned carnival. Unlike Disney princes, Victor is far from wooden — Goyena has a boyish yet intense looks that predates Joseph Estrada’s slicked-hair machismo and James Dean’s hidden sensitivity; I assume his comic timing is all his own. Seen bickering with Piding, or Teria, or garrulously alcoholic neighbor Mang Sebio (Gregorio Ticman), you can lean back and relax, confident that you’ll enjoy the company of Victor and his folks — chuckle at their silliness, the unmistakable if unfussed-over affection on display in this randomly assembled yet closeknit little community.

It’s Sebio — presumably sleeping off a hangover — who discovers Celing’s talent for singing and appoints himself her manager, kicking off the film’s third act: her growing fame and blossoming love for Victor, and his unaccountable lack of enthusiasm in response. Then bossy, bullying Doña Esperanza steps back into the picture, attracted by the fuss over this rising radio star, and pushes matters to a frenzied froth.

For a fairy-tale/romantic comedy/rising-star drama there is, at the heart of this film, a remarkably poignant unburdening. Cellona’s Celing at this point has pretty much functioned as a prop — pretty and appealingly affectionate but sidelined by all the louder actors. Suddenly (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the film!) her kid brother (running away a second time) has an accident and dies (much as you wish he wouldn’t, Avellana follows narrative and dramatic logic unrelentingly). It’s a more moving death than a similar one in Anak Dalita partly because Ike in the part of Piding is a funnier, more emphatic actor (or at least is written and directed that way), partly because Celing seems to care for him so much more — you can imagine Tita sending Ipe on dangerous or at least risky solo missions on his own and he seems perfectly capable of taking care of himself, but Piding represents Celing’s exposed heart — when he passes to a better world, something of Celing’s soulfulness passes too. When Victor explains to Celing how everything isn’t his fault, she turns and unloads her long hidden bitterness at him like a double load of buckshot: “What do you know about love?” she demands, throwing his macho pride, his self-centered anguish (an accusation I’d apply even to James Dean), his unspoken jealousy of her success back at his face. It’s a jawdropping moment, one that makes one wonder if this isn’t some kind of anachronistic progressive feminist tract, dropped here in the early 1950s by a time-traveling filmmaker. For good measure she does the one thing Victor (and we) doesn’t want her to do — goes back to Doña Esperanza. Talk about scorched earth and burnt toppling bridges, of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face — Celing doesn’t go for half measures, a tribute in its way to her love for Piding.

It ends happily as most commercially successful melodramas do — Avellana can hardly be blamed for (again) upholding the status quo on social norms. Though, when you think about it, is this still status quo? Wouldn’t Celing with her considerably larger income call most of the shots? Wouldn’t the suitably chastened Victor allow her to do so (and if he resists and she insists wouldn’t that make for a fascinating sequel)? When they invoke Piding’s name he gazes down on them (and us) like a benevolent child-god, and it’s a fascinatingly meta moment — the actor, of course, would grow up to leave an outsized footprint in Philippine cinema, becoming the legendary editor of Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos, and Himala among many others. A fairy-tale ending if you like, just not quite the one we were expecting.