Mario O’Hara occupies an odd position in Philippine cinema, in that he has directed films, as well as written and acted in them, but if you ask him what he is most comfortable doing, my guess is that his answer would be something along the lines of “performing in a theatre play”, or “doing voices for radio”. He can go for years without directing a film, but every year you can see him on stage in at least one theatrical production (either for PETA – the Philippine Educational Theater Association – or for Tanghalang Pilpino, the residential theatre group of the Cultural Center of the Philippines), and if you listen to enough daytime radio dramas, you can spot at least one of his many voices, giving life to a whole range of personalities. O’Hara the theatre and radio actor is nothing if not versatile.
In short, Mario O’Hara appears to have a tangential relationship with filmmaking – he has had something to do with it at one time or another, but it isn’t the ruling passion of his life. Likewise official historians of Philippine cinema acknowledge that he has made one or two significant contributions (usually as the director of Three Years Without God [Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos] ) but otherwise one can take him or leave him without too much fuss.
Which is why it’s easy to overlook him in any list of the Philippines’ finest filmmakers, a list which usually begins with Lino Brocka (the best-known Filipino filmmaker), or, for the more knowledgeable, Ishmael Bernal (possibly the second best-known, and arguably – sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t – the better one). The list may include the names of usual suspects, from Mike De Leon to Eddie Romero to Celso Ad. Castillo, to perhaps even some of the newer ones: Tikoy Aguiluz, Raymond Red, Peque Gallaga, Maryo J. delos Reyes, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Joel Lamangan, Gil Portes. Almost never O’Hara, though.
Something I’ve always argued about regarding O’Hara is that while his contributions to Philippine cinema may seem incidental they are anything but, and while filmmaking may seem to be a secondary occupation for him, an examination of his films will show that he’s every bit as demanding and precise and passionate as any great Filipino director, perhaps even more so than most.
O’Hara is, after all, not just a director but a writer, often collaborating with Brocka on his ’70s films. He wrote the screenplay for Brocka’s You Were Judged and Found Wanting (Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang) (1974), one of Brocka’s rare attempts at a broad canvas, about life in a small provincial town – a conflation of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and Jose Rizal’s social epic novel Noli Me Tangere. The Last Picture Show provided what I thought was the most cliched and least successful element in the film – the young protagonist (Christopher de Leon) undergoing a rite of passage into adulthood, along the way earning the right (falsely, I felt) to judge the townspeople; Noli Me Tangere, on the other hand, inspired what I felt was the film’s true source of greatness – the story of Koala (Lolita Rodriguez), the homeless woman driven mad by the loss of her child from a failed abortion (she’s based on the character of Sisa, who in Noli wandered about looking for her children).
Sisa had a husband in Noli, transformed in this picture into Berto, the town leper. In Brocka and O’Hara’s treatment of the character, you see a rare (for Brocka’s films) ambiguity – Berto in his loneliness and sexual hunger is a somewhat frightening presence; when he first looks at Koala, it is with a predatory glint in his eye. We later learn of Berto’s true nature – shy, sensitive (or rather, oversensitive), full of an affection for others that he doesn’t dare express. It’s a fascinating character, especially as Brocka had asked O’Hara to play him; O’Hara agreed, and does a magnificent job. Which is as it should be, because as people in the know put it, he was really playing himself.
Most critics cite Manila in the Claws of Neon (Manila Sa Mga Kuko Ng Liwanag) (1975) as Brocka’s best film. It is certainly the best-known, and is mentioned in Geoff Andrews’ Film: The Critic’s Choice as one of “the 150 masterpieces of world cinema”. Brocka’s Manila is great, I agree, but I much prefer his later Insiang (1978, screenplay by O’Hara), about a young woman raped by her mother’s lover, for several reasons: it is more compact (only three main characters: Insiang [Hilda Koronel], her mother [Mona Lisa], and the lover [Ruel Vernal]), more perfectly structured (Manila in comparison has a rambling, Candide-like narrative), more beautifully ambivalent (by film’s end you literally cannot tell who is victim and who is perpetrator), and more unique, in that it neatly turns a classic Filipino theme – indeed, the only major theme in Filipino films (the salvation of the Filipino family) – on its head (for Insiang’s family, as represented by her mother, is exactly what she comes to hate). Insiang is Othello set in the slums of Tondo, Manila, with an innocent angel transformed into Iago; the lust and ferocity of Brocka and O’Hara’s version is startling to see. The film is not included in Andrews’ book, but it did have the honour of being the first-ever Filipino film to be sent to Cannes.
Perhaps the most surprising fact about Insiang is that O’Hara claims it – or at least the basic situation – took place behind his house, at his backyard neighbours’; imagination extrapolated the consequences, and the ultimate outcome. These two screenplays he wrote for Brocka (which I think are Brocka’s truly best works) reveal two important and seemingly contradictory qualities in O’Hara’s storytelling: a sense (as can be seen in his performance of the character of Berto in You Were Judged) of intense identification with and sympathy for his characters, and a sense (as can be seen in the way he takes an actual incident, crops and adds to it as needed, and turns it into Insiang) of cool impartiality, of a pitiless, almost godlike regard of the same characters.
These two qualities can be found in the films he directs, most particularly in the classic war epic Three Godless Years – his (in my opinion) masterpiece and (again, my opinion) possibly the greatest Filipino film ever made. The story of a young woman named Rosario (Nora Aunor) and her struggle to survive the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War Two is told largely in a calm, impassioned manner, as if from a great height; at the same time there are moments when we feel we are inside the woman’s head, looking out from her pained, despairing eyes.
O’Hara’s screenplays, especially for Brocka’s Insiang, defined realism in Philippine cinema – defined, in fact, Philippine cinema (or that cinema created by those generally recognised as artists, as opposed to more commercial fare) as a one of realism long after Brocka’s death by car accident in 1991. Brocka’s legacy is arguably an impossible standard to attain, much less maintain; it frustrates new filmmakers and chokes off approval of any new film that tries something new (all the critics have to say is “Brocka did it like this…” and the newcomer is doomed).
Which is why O’Hara’s recent works are so important. His Woman on a Tin Roof (Babae Sa Bubungang Lata) (1998) was both an elegy for the glory that was once Philippine cinema, and a condemnation of the business it has since become. The film’s final image, of a bruised and bleeding man (Frank Rivera) poring over his lovingly crafted photo album, over the faces of filmmakers and actors dead or alive, is a poignant farewell, particularly to Brocka (the film ends on his photograph). The film itself is mostly directed in Brocka’s realist style, but with moments of gothic fantasy and thematic concerns that take small steps beyond Brocka’s realism.
O’Hara’s Sisa (1999) is yet another a step – you might say a huge leap – away from Brocka in an altogether different direction, a fabulist retelling of the life of Filipino martyr Jose Rizal (Gardo Verzosa) as he falls in love with his most famous creation, the eponymous madwoman (Aya Medel) of Noli Me Tangere. Sisa is O’Hara’s return to an important figure in his life, one he so vividly sketched (and, playing her onscreen companion, loved) in the earlier You Were Judged. The idea for the film comes from O’Hara’s contention that no truly memorable character is created whole cloth from imagination; he must have known her in real life (again, as with Insiang, his insistence on reality and real life as a springboard for his stories). He stuffs the film full of ghosts, prophecies, and magic; gives us a sensual Sisa and passionate Rizal (both Verzosa and Medel are veterans of softcore porn films); pulls the Philippines’ most revered hero down from his pedestal, stripped of clothes and overcoat, and lays him naked atop his woman, pumping away – how much more blasphemous (and insanely imaginative) can a historical biopic get? Yet O’Hara isn’t flying strictly on ether; his film extrapolates from facts, including the idea (possibly suggested by one of Rizal’s own articles) that Rizal may have dabbled in, or at least was familiar with, the occult. Even Sisa herself is given a basis, however slim, for actual existence, as the titles that begin the film mention an enigmatic reference to a “Binibining ‘L’” (Miss “L”, or, according to O’Hara, “Miss Narcisa Liwanag”) in Rizal’s journals.
Demons (Pangarap Ng Puso) (2000), by far my favourite of his recent films (and by far my favourite recent Filipino film), continues the work of opening up the possibilities of Filipino cinema by taking testimonies of atrocities committed by the Philippine armed forces in the Negros provinces and mixing them with the folklore and mythology of the region, sprinkled with passages of poetry. O’Hara justifies all this by framing his film as the story of a young poetess (Matet de Leon) and a simple farmer’s boy (Alex Alano): as they grow up and fall in love, their experience of the supernatural creatures in the forest (the “kapre” [ogre], the various spirits) becomes confused with the altogether more palpable, if no less malevolent, figures of current history (government soldiers, communist rebels, outlaw bandits). A love story, horror film, war picture and celebration of Filipino poetry all at once, Demons brilliantly combines the real and the fantastic, the diabolic and the sublime.
O’Hara’s latest film, Woman of the Breakwater (Babae Sa Breakwater) (2003) isn’t so much a culmination of everything he has attempted in his previous films as it is an extension of them. Again, O’Hara starts from factual basis – from the little community of homeless people actually living in shanties built before the Manila Bay breakwater, eking out a living from the debris washed ashore. To this wretched spot arrive Basilio (Kristofer King) and his brother, victims of political violence in the province of Leyte. They meet Paquita (Katherine Luna), a girl who has worked as a prostitute for so long that even at her young age her body is covered with scabs and sores. Basilio and Paquita’s life together is hard – when Paquita suggests that they “eat out”, she means visiting the garbage bin behind a restaurant and dining on what they find. The struggle is made even more difficult by the presence of “Bosing” David (Gardo Verzosa), a former cop who now considers the breakwater area his territory.
The story of the provincial innocent who comes to the big city, ultimately to be destroyed, is a familiar one; is, in fact, the story of Brocka’s Manila in the Claws of Neon. With Breakwater, O’Hara seems to take Brocka’s famous film and rework it into his own distinct vision – paying tribute to Brocka, in effect, the same time as developing themes beyond what Brocka had intended.
Improving on Manila‘s photography is impossible, of course – the work done by Mike de Leon (himself a formidable filmmaker) as cinematographer is perhaps the definitive portrait of Manila as one of the lower circles of hell. O’Hara doesn’t even try; instead he has his camera tilt up to capture the brilliant surfaces of Manila’s ultramodern towers, then come down to peer at the clean asphalt and concrete of Manila’s renovated streets and plazas (Roxas Boulevard runs alongside the bay shore parallel with the breakwater, and is a tourist area full of hotels and office buildings). The juxtaposition of pristine glass structures and the grimy creatures crawling at their feet makes for an interesting visual contrast.
Brocka’s Manila in the Claws of Neon followed a loner in his solitary odyssey through Manila’s streets; O’Hara’s Breakwater focuses on Basilio and Paquita, but also acknowledges a neighbourhood teeming with life surrounding the two lovers. Crackpot women grabbing men’s crotches; elderly hobos prophesying grim futures; troubadours wandering about, strumming banjos and singing plaintive ballads. It’s the troubadour (Visayan singer Yoyoy Villame) that most obviously marks O’Hara’s film distinct from Brocka’s; he functions as a transition device, marking the passage of time, or a change in emotional tone, or a shift in focus from one story thread to another. Sometimes (as in Dennis Potter’s musicals) he acts as a one-man Greek chorus, his lyrics commenting on or acting as ironic contrast to the action; sometimes, as in some of the loveliest passages of the film, he simply sings, and O’Hara fills the screen with images of lovers and children and people walking along the bay, enjoying a quiet moment in their lives.
Breakwater does have its share of suffering, as Manila does – “Bosing” David makes sure of that. But unlike Manila, where the “enemy” was Chinese businessman Ah Tek (Tommy Yap), functioning mainly (and unfortunately) as stock villain and giving rise to charges that Brocka was anti-Chinese, Breakwater paints a more human face on its antagonist. “Bosing” David is a failed police officer, a corrupt cop who was wounded when one of his crooked deals went wrong; he’s not a sanitised villain ready and waiting for eventual redemption – Verzosa plays him with quiet malevolence. He does, however, betray a hint of sadness, a sense of life having long since passed him by, and he takes out his frustration and anger on the people under him. I was never a fan of Verzosa as an actor: his idea of intensity was to overact until the walls came down. But in Sisa O’Hara managed to modulate Verzosa’s forcefulness, to confine it within the limits of his character; in this film, that forcefulness is subtle and remarkably evocative.
O’Hara’s Basilio also shows a marked difference from Julio Madiaga (Bembol Roco), Brocka’s hero in Manila. Both start out innocent, both experience in full measure what Manila metes out to its innocents. But where Madiaga puts all his hopes and energies in his search for a loved one (Ligaya Paraiso, whose unhappy choice of a name translates as “joyful paradise” – almost a parody of a porn star’s name), Basilio is able to put his on god, or in this case, the sea, which Basilio seems to think is one and the same. Like a god, the sea answers Basilio’s prayers with a number of things: serenity and acceptance; renewed inner strength; the odd gold trinket or two. The last is a fabulist’s touch, but one not overly fussed-over; it just happens and O’Hara never attempts to explain it, nor does Basilio exploit this special ability too much. Putting one’s faith in something bigger than one’s self – in some vaguely metaphysical presence – proves to be more advantageous, at least in O’Hara’s view: Madiaga is ultimately crushed, but Basilio is in a way more enduring. He may be oppressed, humiliated, physically destroyed, but he never loses his humanity, his selfless spirit.
Does this make O’Hara more of an optimist than Brocka? Perhaps, but if so I think it’s a qualified, clear-eyed optimism: there is cruelty in Breakwater, as much if not more so than in Manila, and O’Hara leaves open the possibility that Basilio’s belief in god (or the sea) may be misplaced, even deluded, gold trinkets notwithstanding – it’s not the power of the object of his faith (in fact those trinkets caused him the most trouble), but the strength of that faith that helps pull him through. And O’Hara puts his story in context: where Madiaga in Manila is an extreme case (all of Madiaga’s friends seemed to do better than he does), Basilio’s fellow neighbours show the same unremarked, unselfconscious selflessness – they help each other with their troubles even if they barely have anything themselves.
It’s not a romanticised vision – O’Hara’s dramaturgy is too restrained, the grisly, unglamorous details too vivid – but a kind of conclusion O’Hara has apparently come to at this stage of his career. It’s the result of the two tendencies mentioned earlier coming into play: out of a sense of honesty based on years of close observation of his fellow men, he cannot help but conclude that men are basically good, and resilient in the face of adversity; out of a sense of objectivity developed from years of filmmaking, he cannot allow that observation to be glamorised or blown out of proportion in any way – he can only let it arrive, like a train at a station. The film may look haphazard and lighthearted as a result, but it’s not, really – it has all these stories to tell, it has Villame’s music to bind everything together (more or less), and it has O’Hara’s thesis acting as a kind of tidal pull, sending the film (not too quickly, not too obviously) in a definite direction.
There is a lovely match of method and material in Breakwater actually, if you think about it: like Basilio, O’Hara wanders the edges of a vast sea of experience, picking up and putting together objects of beauty and horror and tenderness and tragedy out of the pieces washed ashore.