Love is a mostly pondered thing

MOVIE REVIEW
Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising
Directed by Mike de Leon

By Noel Vera

(Warning: plot and narrative twists discussed in detail)

Kung-Mangarap-Kat-Magising

Trust Mike de Leon not to pursue the usual career trajectory. If most aspiring writers and filmmakers are advised to write (film) “what you know,” with Itim (Rites of May 1975) he spun a ghost story evoking Gothic atmosphere with uncanny skill, demonstrated a mastery of sound and image that made critics sit up and ask “What’ll he do next?”

“Next” apparently was a quiet little comic romance, not just intimate but downright confessional. I admit to not having met De Leon or knowing much about him, but Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising (Moments in a Stolen Dream 1977) gave the impression of an extremely private man allowing a glimpse into his soul.

Christopher de Leon plays Joey, a less-than-motivated youth struggling to earn his college degree; actually he’s more interested in jamming with his band mates and working on an unfinished song (listed in the credits as “Joey’s Theme”). When he meets Ana who’s visiting her cousin Cecile (Laurice Guillen), who happens to be his college professor, he’s intrigued. Ana is smart and beautiful; she has a young son; she stands under the shadow of an unhappy marriage (to Freddie, played by filmmaker Briccio Santos). She is both desirable and forbidden, an irresistible combination for a hormonally turbocharged youth.

Not saying De Leon is being autobiographical but after the almost frightening assurance of his debut feature, De Leon turns around to give us this bildungsroman — this slighter-than-air film, dewy with romantic idealism, touched with a dollop of melancholy doom.

But where the subject matter sounds tailor-made for a budding neophyte, the style is anything but. De Leon (through veteran editor Ike Jarlego, Jr.) cuts restlessly to a lively beat, sometimes sustains a shot to allow performers some breathing space. As his own cinematographer (with help from Francis Escaler), De Leon frames with a subtlety that recalls Naruse, executes sinuous tracking shots worthy of Mizoguchi — at one point near film’s end sending the camera through room after hallway after room to find Joey gazing thoughtfully out a window.

In fact there’s something contemplative, almost Japanese, about De Leon’s style here, a mono no aware (an appreciation of the transient nature of things). Oddly appropriate considering the setting is Baguio — Japanese laborers helped build the city then established a thriving Japanese community; today you still see their half-Japanese half-Filipino descendants walking up and down Session Road. Baguio enjoys (Enjoyed?) the reputation of being a lover’s paradise, verdant pines, rich flower beds, misted mountain views and all; was De Leon aware of this less-known history and perhaps tailored the look and feel of his film accordingly?

Christopher de Leon’s Joey is thoughtful if indolent, passive, and not a little directionless; we know this because much of Joey’s thoughts are expressed in interior monologue, one of the rare times in a Filipino film (Why De Leon does this isn’t half as puzzling as why so few other Filipino filmmakers do — are they so focused on surface effects they can’t be bothered with a character’s inner self?). He has a secret past — a dead girlfriend — but doesn’t know how to move on from the trauma.

Does Joey represent De Leon? Wouldn’t know, but the director focuses so much attention pours so much detail into his character you can’t help but suspect some of it is autobiographical.

Same with Freddie, the emotionally manipulative chillingly abusive husband — Freddie conforms so closely to whispered stories about De Leon that you can’t help but wonder about him too. Is De Leon like Joey? Like Freddie? Both maybe?

Hilda Koronel’s Ana is more enigmatic of course, the sole generator of suspense in this rather leisurely narrative (Will she respond to or reject Joey’s advances?). We don’t go into Ana’s head and once in a while she’ll say something inconsistent — assuring Cecile she won’t touch Joey (later sleeping with him), looking Joey in the eye and saying she loves him (just before parting forever) — yet Koronel somehow manages to rise above these contradictions, keep our sympathies with her, keep us head-over-heels in love with her (and we do fall in love; almost an axiom of the film that we do so). Koronel has played younger ingenues (Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang), attacked more challenging dramatic roles (Insiang, where she caused a small sensation in Cannes), but has never been as subtle, or eloquent, or gravely, achingly beautiful as she is here.

If the film is moving it’s moving for three reasons: for the faded snapshot of Baguio in the 1970s — when I last visited, the massive deforestation (to make way for housing projects), the staggeringly heavy traffic put a dent to my memories; for the complex knot of feelings inspired by the two wistful lovers; and for the sense you get despite all his prodigious sophistication that this is the work of a young De Leon, a romantic De Leon, still full of possibilities and hope for the future. Not perhaps a great film (his masterpiece lay ahead of him) but a lovely early work nevertheless.

Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising is being shown as part of the CineLokal initiative of the Film Development Council of the Philippines and SM Cinema. It is being screened daily until Aug. 10, with shows at 1 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 6 p.m., and 8:30 p.m. at SM Cinemas at SM Megamall, SM North EDSA, SM Fairview, SM Iloilo, SM Southmall, SM Cebu, SM Bacoor, and SM Mall of Asia.

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