By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento
Movie Review
Oda sa Wala
Directed by Dwein Baltazar
THIS is the realism of dreams, not of mundane reality. It makes as much sense as the illogic of longing and inexplicable desire, the obverse sides of which are primal fear and uncontrollable rage at random fate. In the humble life of Sonya (Marietta Subong a.k.a. Pokwang) these fears, desires, longing, and rage which make up the human condition are oddly manifest: she is bereft of her parents’ love, without friends, unworthy of anyone’s lust. A merciless moneylender Theodor (Dido Dela Paz) turns up without warning, even in the middle of the night, like a demoniacal bangungot squeezing the life out of her by taking all her earnings and later, even her home.
Sonya makes a sparse living running a discount mortuary all by her lonesome from the entresuelo of her moldering ancestral home. She does it all: embalmer, makeup artist, florist, hearse driver. Her busy hands also fry up burnt offerings of tocino for her distant father Mang Rudy (Joonee Gamboa). He ignores her, except to stingily switch off the light in her room, after she has gone to bed. Sonya likes to keep the light on, as do those who fear death, against that thief who comes in the night. She might as well be dead to her father and to the rest of the world as well. It has passed her by, an apathetic spectator at her window, seeing but unseen.
Sonya who makes her living off the dead, struggles to survive. In seeming desperation, she keeps biting off and violently spitting out the edges of her fingernails, the dry skin at the corners of her lips—dead tissue she must discard, to be truly alive. Marietta Subong gives a tour de force performance, self-aware of how painfully ridiculous Sonya is, but imbuing her with innate dignity nonetheless. When the object of her unrequited affections, Elmer (Anthony Falcon) the magtataho turns his back and walks away from her, Sonya’s bravely insistent but futile cries of Taho! fail to bring him back. It is pathos without bathos, a very hard thing to do, but Subong manages to do this and much more throughout the film.
The director Dwein Baltazar was partly inspired by Jim Libiran’s poem with its biblical cadences of Genesis:

bago ang Lumikha
ay wala. ang lahat-lahat, nagmula
sa wala. pero di pa rin mawawala
ang wala. naririyan bago ka dumating,
pag-alis mo’y naririyan pa rin.

Before the Creator
Was the void; the source of All Things
was the NO THING. Forever eternal and
everywhere existing. All being was
before you be coming
with you gone, All will BE still

(English translation by Menchu Aquino Sarmiento)

The coming of a nameless old woman’s corpse is transformative. Sonya finds companionship. Mang Rudy rouses himself to make a pallet of scrap wood, enshrining the strange visitor as a vertical Santa Entierra with her place of honor at the head of their dining table. With this Every Wife or All-Mother as a foil, he talks to his daughter once more. Poignantly, Sonya dances for her father to the Chinese folk song she plays like a lullaby at bedtime, just as she might have danced as a schoolgirl forty years ago. Maybe the only time he ever really loved her or approved of her was when she was that little. In his eyes, it is her tragedy that she has lived on for so long.
In Sonya’s psychic stew of mixed emotions—love, fear, longing, rage—we sense bits and pieces of our selves or of those whom we know too. What could be more terrible and yet more usual, than to have the ones whom you love and who love you best die on you? That’s life, but then, there’s death too. It’s enough to drive one mad, and yet it is what makes us most fully human. We can relate to Sonya. She could be us. We could be her. She is family.
MTRCB Rating: PG