Thirty five years after the movie was made
Revisiting Mike De Leon’s best and only known love story on film has taken me on a tour of my own time as a UP student and my vacations to Baguio City. Guilt over nitpicking aside, I cannot review the film and say anything that “we don’t know beforehand,” as the crushing criticism by Rolando Tinio about the film goes but let me try and offer another perspective that Tinio has not. I strongly agree of course on his point, on the basis that his criticism is invested on theory and was published almost immediately after its release. This may seem like an easy game of counter-acting a dead critic’s input in hindsight, but let me go on, nevertheless.
For college guys and girls then and now, escaping to the cool mountain-resort is the perfect idea of relaxation and fun. It’s cheap and as far-away as you can get from Manila in less than a day by bus. The first time I saw ‘Kung Mangarap ka’t magising” was during my freshman year at the UP Film Center along with a roll of movies that have characters who are also UP students such as Moral (1982), Mangarap Ka (1995) and Dekada ’70 (2002). I remember seating at the back row to see these movies depicting generations of UP students as young scholars, activists and lovers. I guess the main purpose of these film showings were to expose to students how the public perceives the university through cinema. Kung Mangarap ka’t magising (1977) is an easy favourite among state-university types; initially for its light-hearted humour, distinct cinematic quality and perhaps for its MTV appeal. Tinio wrote that Joey de Guia (Christopher de Leon) and Anna Abello’s (Hilda Koronel’s) characters are not upper-middle class and their problems do not reflect them as such. Fact is, nobody said they were. Tinio merely assumed this. But whether or not we would like to deal with technicalities of social class, the details in this movie, if you are quick to catch it are impeccable that you can’t help but relate to it.
Its fun to note that most movies made about UP are love stories. I’m almost certain that everyone who entered the special screening of these movies must have surely been affected by these relics of a very different time, with people recognizable from our shared past. Christopher de Leon, must be my father’s age. Just like the ordeals of college life there is something unsettling about human relationships within a certain social class and their conventions presented in this movie.
Another film critic Noel Vera wrote that Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising is more of a character-driven piece than Itim, (another Mike De Leon movie) delineating a love affair between a young man and an older married woman, Anna (Hilda Koronel). What Vera said was true except the fact that Hilda Koronel’s character is not an older-woman but was in fact a younger-woman trapped in the world of grown-up responsibilities after getting married straight out of high school. Why Vera even compares Itim with Kung Mangarap still puzzles me.
Be that as it may, being a character-driven movie, it quite bitingly captures times as long and winding as Kennon road with thoughts and preoccupations when I was in college a generation after this movie was made. The problems are the same: you spend most your college life bumming around, taking up a course that parents probably don’t want you to take and busy falling in and out of love more than attending class. Funny thing is that, Joey doesn’t just fall in love with a classmate as regular college guys do. But with a woman who happens to have a baby or as he says in the movie, “may sabit.” Now why does this sound so familiar to me and why do I not flinch about this quirky relationship? Maybe I had some friends who fell in love with MILFS or had girlfriends who had babies. Maybe a friend of a friend. Though I didn’t write songs or strummed a guitar, I wrote poetry about her, which I eventually threw away realizing that it was so emo of me or that no one was going to pay me for writing them.
Sometimes or most of the time, life is like that, it imitates movies more than movies imitate life. It copies your fictions. Like Joey’s college life, mine was filled with comic-relief, drama and confusion. Is it any wonder why one can almost never escape college life without falling in love with the wrong person?
So at this point, I disagree with Tinio (and encourage you to read his review about it) to understand my reasons.
One may simplistically agree with another review about the movie that it “portrays a saccharine view of love, focusing on a young couple in Baguio City.” But I am most struck by Mike De Leon or should I say one college guy’s experience through rose-tinted glasses and the self-aware bourgeoisie milieu. One can otherwise interpret this story in this synopsis: a twenty-three year old overstaying student who falls in love with the wrong person drops out of school and never gets the girl. Tinio calls Christopher de Leon’s character a “bum”. And he is right.
I find it rare and funny when movies get their characters correctly. For his prolific college career Joey begins to think of years in semesters “Five-years na siyang kasal, sampung semesters din ‘yun” and the first thing he thinks of especially at the end of these semesters when he wakes up is his overdue term-paper. Kung mangarap ka’t magising is full of these details that seem so natural, one can rush to say that it could’ve been any young man’s love story and not be wrong about it. Though Anna is not an older woman hers is likewise the archetype of a distant persona that women of movies like Summer of ’42 depicted. Her seemingly perfect life represented by her beautiful face slowly crumbles as the story unfolds in flashbacks of her repressive relationship. Two characters who seek to escape from the humdrum of urban life only to be confronted by reality or to be more exact, the impossibility of total and lasting escapades.
The New York Times review of the movie reads something like this: He has an innate love for music that is being thwarted by a domineering father who wants him to become a biologist. Just as he is trying to come to grips with this contradiction, he meets a married woman visiting a friend of his and the two are attracted to each other. Unable to resist their feelings, they form a brief liaison that helps the woman face the inevitability of a divorce from her overbearing husband and equally helps the young man to look at himself in a different light.
I see something really curious about the simplified version of the story above. How and why did we never question the plot of this movie? A guy falls in love and he grows up? Is there even any truth to this other than the one presented in movies?
The notion that most men grow up with a more mature woman cannot be a more idealized Hollywood version of things. It’s no surprise that in the universe of the mainstream, coming-of-age movies always involve forms of romance or sexual encounter. In cinema, growing up is equivalent to your first-real heartbreak.
Perhaps to rationalize this more, later in the movie, it will be revealed that Joey’s confusion is also caused by the sudden death of his girlfriend in a car accident. That’s when “coming into grips with this contradiction” becomes much more palpable with melancholy. I see it as a cheap excuse which the movie could have done away with. A young man does need a dead girlfriend to feel confused or sad or both. Popular psychology today would say that it’s a quarter-life crisis but who cares? We never go deep into a romance movie anyway. Not until it’s a movie by a now revered director like Mike De Leon. This makes the review by Tinio, written when the movie just came out, all the more ambivalent.
One can also place the story more romantically as this anonymous write-up: “Two souls trying to find an exit from the dreary toxic urban life they both lead.” And in romance movies especially if they’re both beautiful as Louis Menand would write, “the two” are almost always instantly attracted to each other. No questions asked. She gives her number and he calls (note: the four-digit telephone numbers in the 70s which I thought was hilarious).
With Kung mangarap ka’t magising, one is frustrated why Mike De Leon did not make any movies like this or why he never did that many movies at all!
The seventies-speak by the younger Buboy Garovillo and Danny Javier of APO Hiking Society in bell bottoms is just charming. The characters say “hostess” for GRO, “dyahe” or “hassle” for practically anything about responsibility or school work, and throw jokes about not taking a bath in Baguio.
The cleaner and more dreamy appearance of Baguio City, unlike the 70s, is now truly a thing of the past. Relaxed and almost always introspective, the movie transports you to a tunnel back to the seventies which means time of youth for the baby-boomer generation.
As the visually seductive frames contrast with the foggy Baguio cityscape, Mike De Leon highlights the confused feelings of the young lovers as he chimes in a confluence of social-cultural influences and the Hollywood movie ideal of a love story. Joey and Anna are both of the “burgis” class and their very middle-class concerns about shopping, dating and what other people will say about their family is strongly reflected in the scenes and dialogue. Sexual tension is addressed by Mike De Leon almost absently save for a totally unsexy love scene which misses out on the best parts and which suddenly takes you to the afterglow where the woman is resting on the man’s arm, white sheet covering her tits. You wonder, did the CD jump or was the roll of film cut?
I recall Edgardo Reyes’s anecdote about a love scene in another movie in which Lorna Tolentino performed her love moves then popularly called “giling-giling.” When LT saw the rough cut, she allegedly said “Naku, magagalit ang mommy ko niyan!” In the seventies movies get cut after being released outside of the Experimental Film Cinema according to the temperament of the censors.
Why Mike De Leon refuses to show any form of sensuality in his movies still baffles some critics who think that he could have done a good job at tackling this in his movies. Even for a movie that tells of the brief encounter, of a man and woman at a crossroads, De Leon employs pans to the scenery, evoking a mildly lyrical dimension to the entire movie but one that makes it also lacking in much needed libido.
Probably the unacknowledged character in this movie is the city of Baguio itself. It was essential to present the pre-1991 earthquake appearance of the city with less people, less crassly constructed concrete buildings in order to further the notion of escape. It was a place that became even more fantastic under De Leon’s misty lens.
Especially in the last part of the movie when the whole scenery seemed like it had just rained. At this point, the protagonists are smiling to each other as they say goodbye (in any other movie this could’ve been filled with tears and corny dialogue). We don’t hear them, only the dry narration of the main character saying that they never saw each other again. A happy ending? Perhaps not. In the final shot we see Joey walking out of his classroom with more confidence. Does this imply that he graduated or walked out from his course. Not many people will recognize that the final scene was shot at UP Conservatory of Music, which means Joey pursued music after all and that he may have finished the song too.
The song “Umaga na naman” figures in the movie in MTV-style before there was any MTV. Screen-writers who teach at university call this “montage.” Until now, I’m still disgusted why they even teach that technique to young film-makers. It’s just a very unchallenging device to show a love story unfolding. Apparently, Pinoy movie makers of VIVA ad Star Cinema must have learned a thing or two from Mike De Leon’s now cliché technique. As a matter of fact, name a romance movie in recent years that doesn’t do this thing? According to Vera, De Leon disparaged the picture, calling it “the proto-Viva Film” years before Viva (known for its glossy middle-class love stories) was established. In another interview, he called it a “Pepsi commercial,” and that it was his least favourite film. I don’t know where this came from but I heard he wanted to take out his name in the credits of the movie (but that could’ve been another movie because the version I watched bannered his name).
In a manner of speaking, De Leon’s film-making as he probably saw it himself, was at its youth in this movie. Youth does not mean a shaking genius or vulnerability of perception but a self-awareness and vision which slowly receded or became firmer with time. Youth maybe a version of yourself that you abhor, that photo of you with the big hair and braces. When the movie was posted on Youtube last month, a flood of comments of appreciations from people who watched it when they were in college trickled in. While Mike de Leon may despise this movie for all its attractive sappiness (as he never made a love story again), it’s striking how his audience never failed to identify this movie with his “style.” Speaking of style, one can even assert that this movie has become a benchmark in the Pinoy romance genre, a movie that launched a thousand other movies, albeit of lesser quality and enduring value.
A line in the movie that strikes me is Joey’s “Di bale na lang…” It’s the kind of expression that presents a whole attitude towards life of an entire generation or of Mike De Leon’s attitude towards film-making. For all its melodrama, the movie was not exactly melodramatic, or perhaps it transcended this. It was a movie that seemed like it had to be made regardless if someone wanted it or not. Now, think of a Baguio love story and this movie would almost immediately come in to mind. Its timeless appeal comes from the fact that the movie talks about dreams and escaping from reality, an idea that De Leon himself had begun to oppose in his later years, evident in his treatment of movies like Sister Stella L. and Bayaning Third World. The irony is that the movie has proven itself to be particularly honest precisely because De Leon practically disowned it. It was straight-forward with its title and devices, allowing the audience to hear the thoughts of the characters (like a good Woody Allen movie). Seen in another way, you can say that the movie was sparse and concise with its dialogue carried brilliantly by two natural actors. The fact that it was made in 1977 and can still relate to audiences of this generation is an achievement in a country that has a long history of forgettable cinema. If there is any fault about this movie that’s worth mentioning is that it is a movie about love. Had it not been about that, Mike De Leon would have no problem with it. I mean, what kind of director wants to be remembered for a telegenic romance movie if you made such other great movies that talks about issues this movie kind of talked about too, only less seriously. I guess Mike De Leon wants to be hatefully remembered than forgotten.