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Critic After Dark

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Movie Review
Dahling Nick
Directed By Sari Dalena

Sari Dalena’s Dahling Nick, some 20 years in the making, is clearly a passion project. If it has any virtues, they stem mostly from what one senses is a filmmaker heedlessly in love with her subject matter (writer Nick Joaquin was both a friend to her father and constant visitor to her childhood home); if it has any flaws they flow from the same abundantly adoring source.

The film doesn’t waste much time, straightaway staging an encounter between a man and a beautiful naked woman walking a crab; the woman faints; the man looks back; the crab clambers up the woman’s breast, its claws poised on either side of a stiffened nipple. The odd, quietly comic, startlingly erotic sequence captures the flavors of Joaquin, whose prose conjures sepia portraits of grandmother and grandfather in stiff poses hiding shameful secrets, faded photographs of horse-drawn calesas (carriage) rolling past dark wood houses — and that lone figure cloaked in deep shadow looking out a capiz window. As was pointed out about Joaquin: he’s like a Spaniard writing in English, with the poise of a foppish gentleman who knows the value of a well-turned phrase.

Comparisons have been made with the better-known Gabriel Garcia Marquez, particularly the passages of “magic realism”; I’d like to point out that not only did Joaquin anticipate  much of what Marquez wrote but did so in English, and his prose — to these eyes anyway — reads far more fluidly than translations of Marquez do (even if translator Gregory Rabassa is so good the author reportedly preferred Rabassa’s version over the original Spanish).

Making those comments? Among others, F. Sionil Jose, Butch Dalisay, Jimmy Abad, Krip Yuson, Greg Brilliantes, Bienvenido Lumbera, Pete Lacaba and his wife Marra Lanot, Erwin Castillo, Recah Trinidad, painter Danilo Dalena (the filmmaker’s father).

Sari Dalena uses their voices to give presence and context to Joaquin, and arguably the MVP of the group is Jose, who seems closest to the writer (of the mourners he appears to be the most stricken) — but they could be reciting the PLDT phone directory and I’d still appreciate their presence. In my book, the prime value of this docudrama — after introducing and dissecting the life and works of its titular artist — is in gifting us with recorded testimonies of some of the best Filipino writers alive. They — how do I put it? — feel like an embattled, even endangered species, longform warriors in this age of brief scribblings on Twitter and Facebook. Seeing them speak and joke and hang mournful expressions on their faces as they remember their friend and colleague is almost — almost — as welcome as seeing them in the flesh.

The subject matter himself is represented by amusing audio recordings and (briefly) video footage at a podium; in the gorgeously shot dramatized sequences he’s played by Raymond Bagatsing, who captures not just his lean darkbrowed beauty as a young man but also his high flung hand gestures, his drawling delivery as literary elder (the older Joaquin reminds me of William Hickey’s Don Corrado Prizzi, only much wittier, and very much in the joke). I remember how Bagatsing electrified the screen with his anguished, preternaturally quiet lead performance in Serafin Geronimo: Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion 22 years ago. This is the diametrical opposite — a bigger-than-life louder-than-life sketch of a titan of Philippine literature.

The film’s dramatic high point I’d say is the National Artist brouhaha in 1976. Marcos’ Martial Law was in full swing, and dissidents including Pete Lacaba languished in prison. Joaquin didn’t want anything to do with Marcos, but the dictator was persistent: he needed Joaquin’s literary prestige to gild his corrupt regime. Joaquin’s solution was elegant and flamboyant both as he stood at the podium, hands outstretched crucifixion style.

Are there flaws? Well — yes. As mentioned, Sari shows such obvious love for her subject you can imagine her hard pressed to trim her film, reduce the material on Joaquin. To be fair there’s plenty — I think The Woman Who Had Two Navels was short changed and there is no mention of the two other film adaptations of Joaquin’s short stories: Tikoy Aguiluz’s Tatarin, which, for all the quips about modern dance choreography, is a handsomely photographed and produced take on “The Summer Solstice”; and Johnny Tinoso and the Proud Beauty, based on the short story of the same title, which for all its budgetary limitations (the enchanted spirits dancing in the night are basically torches hung on wires) is an evocative retelling of Beauty and the Beast (Beast as a grave melancholy figure, Beauty a witty acid-tongued spoiled brat).

The three hour length doesn’t really bother me, but the sense of shapeless overindulgence does. The material needed more discipline to go down easier, I felt, a clearer structure or direction, perhaps a livelier pace — something that the newcomer or casual reader can hang on to while plunging deep into this expanded Joaquinverse. Between this overflow and the usually sparse documentary segments you see cobbled together for Filipino TV shows or magazines, however, I’d definitely prefer this: a labor of love that offers too much of the man and his writings to easily digest at one sitting. Joaquin — never known for his restraint — deserves at least this much. 

*In my opinion a canny marketing term for “fantasy” which (again in my opinion) is what distinguishes Marquez** from Joaquin: canny marketing.)

**I do like Marquez, for the record; I think his One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the great books of the 1970s. But there is only one Nick Joaquin.

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