Thursday, February 20, 2014

Gabby Fernandez's "Mana" - The Stalling Game

News of Doña Concha Villareal’s worsening illness is spreading like wildfire across the sugarcane plantations of a quaint town in Negros Occidental. The once invincible matriarch (Fides Cuyugan-Asencio) of the Villareal clan is in fact confined to her sick bed, spitting blood, spending her waking hours wailing from excruciating pain. This has been a familiar scenario in the last couple of years. Fearing her impending demise, her children rush home. A salient matter needs to be settled soon before it’s too late. But everyone seems to be stalling.  

Rolly (Jaime Fabregas), the eldest, refuses to take the cudgels of the clan’s dilemma. He has been overseeing the hacienda’s operations for the past two decades. Meanwhile, Sandra (Cherie Gil) takes a sabbatical from her world travels to see her mother. 

Her twin Lino (Mark Gil) has taken to the booze to dull out bothersome visions. Mike (Ricky Davao), on a hectic campaign trail for the town’s mayoralty, is taking advantage of the choleric situation to gain publicity (or sympathy) before a concerned electorate. Half-sister Ces (Tetchie Agbayani), tasked to take care of the ailing matriarch, is on the throes of giving up her chores. Successful interior designer Bernie (Epy Quizon) takes his sweet time to head back home which he abandoned a few years ago. 

But time is ripe; they need to gather around to deal with a precarious situation - the bequeathing of a legacy, a family secret that would redefine the influential clan’s role, not to mention turn their briskly dwindling influence around, in a town steeped with tradition, political undertone and superstition.  

Director Gabby Fernandez deftly captures the old-world grandeur of a diminishing oligarchy as he endeavors to examine the intricate mechanics in an upper class family, once mighty and beloved. After the demise of its patriarch, Don Manuel (Leo Rialp), the Villareals' clout is gradually fading. Fernandez wastes no time recreating the delectable world of haciendas and sakadas, taking his viewers to this near-forgotten era of feudal lords and subservient tillers.

The film benefits from the glossy camera work and the perfect setting, allowing the viewers a glimpse of that glorious era of sugar barons and their rolling fields of greens. If you're familiar with those century old mansions of Silay and the surrounding communes of Talisay, then you know what a treat it is to have them "captured" on film. The opening scene alone is a virtual "slide show" framing the story of this once powerful clan, now a spasmic cluster of souls who just want to break free from a seemingly stifling family tradition.

On point of performance, Cherie Gil is a breath of fresh air amidst a flurry of downbeat characters caught in their own personal upheavals. Unlike every one else, she seems to be the only one genuinely happy to see her siblings again which is odd. True, these are some of the most competent actors in the business, but the complete thespic plenary tilts towards being heavy handed, an artifice designed by the story teller. Is this pre-meditated, considering how the story eventually unravels in the end? Maybe so. But something in the narrative structure suffers. When the magútud find themselves in a quandary, over something that is never revealed until the last 15 minutes of the story, they puff away in cigarette heaven. It was becoming droll. As earlier mentioned, most of the allegory stalls, giving us the impression that this narrative buffering has something more explosive than the death of the matriarch. Mostly though, it's a long painful wait.

The impasse in the story is dragged down by its glacially paced retelling. In fact, 40 minutes into the story, nothing was happening. The plot was headed nowhere and the story arc seem to have flatlined. The characters spoke in riddles and the requisite confrontations soon turn into awkwardly blocked theatricalities that eventually bored the shite out of me. At this point, I was tapping my heels impatiently. One hour and 15 minutes later, I was still looking for clues. What was the darn conflict? Why were there images of pernicious evil - church manangs cloaked in black; cryptic writings on the wall ("You promised you would make it easy for your mother..."); a dog with shifting color and luminous eyes; a child who speaks to an apparition; voices in the wind, etc. Is this moving beyond the legal implications of primogeniture?

Assimilating the concept of the aswang ("shapeshifters") with the realm of the hacienda-owning Visayan upper class is a savory affair. After all, the region is replete with folkloric creatures like the blood-sucking sigbin, the night-prowling wakwaks, the cigar-smoking Agta (left), the fire-spewing santelmo, the ungo, etc. The regions of Luzon aren't this rich, are they?

Trouble is, a certain degree of urgency is vital when you're laying down "monsters" on your cinematic platter. You don't get the necessary effect based on mood or atmosphere alone. The dramatic showdown, i.e. the confrontation scene, felt too wayward and misplaced because, frankly, the audience's window of attention or interest has long passed on and expired. When the siblings are finally standing in front of their dying mother's sickbed, I couldn't help but heave a sigh of relief. It was high time to move the story, instead of forever stalling it for a rousing, albeit explosive climax that didn't quite arrive. When Fides finally feeds Cherie the monster's stone (think Darna passing on her "bato" - her stone amulet - to a successor), the scene settled into one lukewarm tableau. Uh, okay, that was the inheritance. Right. Next, please.

They all wait!

And they wait again!

Old world charm of the affluent Negrense.

No comments: