SPOTLIGHTby Ophelia San Juan
FILM REVIEW: A FILIPINO SPECTACULAR
(The Weekly Nation, November 19, 1965)
PILIPINAS KONG MAHAL would have been more aptly titled Magallanes Kong Mahal or Mahal Kong Susan, since its World War II action seems to have centered mainly on the fictional town of Magallanes with no discernible strategic value to the Philippine defense, and its drama appears to be made up solely of the charming if unmemorable love story for leading lady Susan Roces -- but the film has Fernando Poe, Jr. for leading man, and this gives it the national significance that the story fails to provide.
The popularity of this neither extraordinarily good-looking nor evidently accomplished actor is nothing short of phenomenal; one has just hear the gasps of excitement at his super-daring exploits and the sighs of collective vicarious thrill at his timid love scenes to be personally convinced of the meteoric box-office success statistics that Tagalog movie producers ascribe to him: because of this, one gets to wondering how much more solidly his claim to matinee idol supremacy can be established, and his acting capabilities stressed, when given significant, worthwhile roles.
For while Pilipinas Kong Mahal has all the external trappings of a real Filipino movie spectacular, its chief spectacle remains to be the star as he came into the picture, and not the actor as he emerges out of the film nor the soldier as he is depicted to display courage.
By way of assessment, Pilipinas has the most impressive cast of stars among local movies nowadays. Fernando Poe, Jr., who does not need any characterization to draw sizable crowds to any two-hour movie, is a lieutenant of the Philippine Army and, later, of the guerrilla movement somewhere in the Philippines in this three-hour re-rendering of the occupation and resistance that has no highlights and no abysmal defects either. And Susan Roces, who received a P30,000 salary for this picture, compensates for it amply with sweet good looks, an even keeled portrayal through happy moments and sad, and a dutiful mouthing of lines that were supposed to be touchingly romantic when they were not being fierily patriotic as the waiting sweetheart of the young soldier gone to battle.
Oscar Keesee, as the typical pro-American Filipino of pre-World War II days, Vic Silayan as the gentlemanly officer of the Japanese Imperial Army, and Lito Anzures as the plucky soldier fighting beside Fernando Poe, Jr., are the characters who live in the film and carry its story among the three of them from its opening scene to the last.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the town of Magallanes completes its preparations for the following day's celebration of the feast of Our Lady of the Immaculate Concepcion. There are children's games and lechonada parties, band parades and fireworks displays, and these provide fortuitous fodder for the Eastmancolor cameras' protracted play and pointless pyrotechnics. It is also the birthday of leading lady Susan Roces -- and an occasion for the appearance of one of the most eyeful of the guest stars of Pilipinas: stage-tv-nightclub songstress Pilita Corrales, who renders a bewitching Spanish number.
Downstairs, spouting the typical pro-American opinion of Filipinos in the middle and literate classes who believed the war too far away from the Philippines and the United States too strong and rich an ally and protector of the Commonwealth, Susan's father, Oscar Keesee, receives her guests and extends the traditional Filipino hospitality and glad hand to acquaintances, including Mr. Saito (Vic Silayan), a Japanese resident in the Philippines, and the drunken panhandler with long hair and unkempt clothes (Johnny Monteiro). Monteiro, receiving his liquor and, presumably, his food for the day, reels away thick with thanks; Mr. Saito, demurring with dignity and good manners that do not seem ever capable of offending, quietly tells Oscar Keesee not to think of Japan as too small and insignificant beside the United States' might.
December 8 dawns with the announcement of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Keesee reassures his family that America will pulverize the Nipponese attackers. When the Japanese land, he states that the American will be back, triumphant, in three months' time.
His optimism is not shared by his daughter, who spends her time moping about the fate of her sweetheart, Fernando Poe, Jr., on the battlefield. She should not have worried. Poe Jr., as everybody knows, is invincible, and Pilipinas Kong Mahal shows some of the best proofs of this invulnerability.
Before the onslaught of determined Japanese attackers, Poe Jr. is wounded, it is true, but only ever so slightly, in the exact spot where Jesus was nailed by the palm on the cross -- to which crucified figure Director Efren Reyes, in a moment of over-devotion to clever cinematics, bluntly and forcibly cuts to go back to the pretty face of Susan praying.
Captive in a POW camp, he proposes a mass escape in loud stentorian tones that are a surprise at being inaudible to the Japanese guards. Together with Lito Anzures, who gives the semblance of a soldier fighting and fearing for his life, wearying of it and taking heart because of it, he escapes unscathed beneath a hail of high-powered bullets from the more advantageously situated Japanese sentries. Wonder of wonders still, the supposedly starving and diseased prisoners of war easily capture an arsenal of firearms, and wipe out the whole garrison force before disappearing into the jungle to become brave guerrillas!
Poe's Fighting Prowess
The brave, but apparently thoughtless, guerrillas launch an attack on a Japanese held town and occupy it, for whatever military reason an audience never gets to know, unless it is to display once more the incredible fighting prowess of Lt. Poe Jr. (he charges at the enemy without bothering to take cover once in a while -- and does not get hit; he fires a Thompson sub-machine gun with one hand, while running, and never once stumbles on the long road he traverses from one end to the other; he goes up the steps of a well-manned garrison, and the Japanese fall over each other to be shot by him, not one of them levering his rifle in readiness as every soldier who had gone through one minor battle instinctively does; he leads a line up troop to attack, and not one of them is felled by a single lucky bullet -- only the Japanese are killed faster than one can say rat-tat). The town the guerrillas enter is, naturally, Magallanes -- where else would the hero, though he be an escapee from Capas, be but with the heroine? And, naturally, the Japanese command of neighboring towns move to eject them. When the civilians, whom the guerrillas had not thought to warn or evacuate during their own raid, get hit by stray mortar from the enemy, everybody blames it on the Japanese, perhaps because they are supposed to know the elementary rules of military operations and the guerrillas not, and on Monteiro, who is now collaborator mayor of Magallanes.
There follows the Judas scene which Monteiro has been doing admirably for the last five years or so, on stage and in countless movies, come Lent or All Saints' Day, in which he recognizes his guilt and repents for it. Only this time, he gets more behind-the-lines support: Susan Roces mouths some of the lines of his conscience, the soundtrack dramatically underscores with solemn sentences his bravura acting, and the church altar suspiciously booms with the crucified Christ's remonstrance.
When he hangs himself, the otherwise delicate Susan Roces looks at the grim sight without wincing, and sententiously declares she could not have compassion for a traitor. Her indomitable heroism, far surpassing that of Tandang Sora's, is even expressed in an unbelievable defiance of Mr. Saito's controlled cold fury, and in a staccato restatement of Nathan Hale's immortal "I regret only that I have but one life to give to my country."
The heroics of the film are actually the hardest to take; once past them, one can even see the results of the obvious efforts to make Pilipinas Kong Mahal stand out among most Tagalog movies.
Director Efren Reyes's use of well-known guest stars to appear in cameo roles is one attempt at colorful entertainment that succeeds well. The one scene appearances of Zaldy Zshornack as another Philippine Army officer, Joseph Estrada as a hot tempered guerrilla leader obviously destined to be a Hukbalahap later, Jose Padilla, Jr. as a ranking guerrilla commander, and Eddie Garcia as a Filipino-looking US army officer are greeted with enthusiastic audience cheers each time.
The battle scenes are very well done, too. The special effects, specially, are worthwhile, and leave nothing to be desired of war scenes.
What the battles, raids, and skirmishes of Pilipinas lack are tension and the significance which should have been their raison d'etre. The groping story and the suspenseless script did not seem to have set out to create these, and the director has done no apparent effort to acquire them for the film.
When Poe Jr. frees the Magallanes civilians from three lone, bewildered Japanese survivors guarding the church, for example, one is disappointed to find all his bravery and much exploited battling genius wasted on a limp, anticlimactic situation that had not built up to any decent tension.
With the death of Mr. Saito, Pilipinas has no choice but to bury his bloodless corpse and let the characters of Fernando Poe Jr. and Susan Roces be the last unwithered flowers on the bed of discolored blooms. Even the pretentious and unnovel epilogue that unreels to the strains of the theme hymn at the end does not detract from this beautiful image of the two popular stars.
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