Kung ako’y mahal mo (Gregorio Fernandez, 1960)

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Kung Ako’y Mahal Mo (If You Love Me) is a charming romance melodrama with an incredulous narrative plot. I know all melodramas require some stretching of your suspension of disbelief but this one takes the prize.

Ramon (Nestor de Villa) is a car mechanic who hears a cry for help from Lydia (Charito Solis). Ramon gets down his truck and sees Lydia being raped along a dark area in the roadside. A rape in the roadside? Well, all things considered, this was 1960 and highways then were not that lit. I thought this was a reference to the well-publicized Maggie de la Riva rape case but that was yet to occur in 1967. I’m digressing: Ramon tussles with the rapist. The rapist pulls out a gun but it was snatched away by Ramon. A gunshot is heard and both fall to the ground but after a few seconds, Ramon struggles to get up and approach his truck. Lydia, in shock, speeds away in her corvette and flees to the United States the next day, leaving Ramon alone to face police investigators who promptly (read unbelievably) arrive at scene of the crime. Without Lydia to testify to his defence of a stranger alibi, Ramon languishes in jail for two days and then eventually for two years out of the eight years sentence meted out to him. Struck by grief, Ramon’s mother becomes paralyzed from the waist down.

A person with some knowledge of how police investigations work might immediately flag some lapses. Did they do a ballistics test? Wouldn’t the case be resolved if the owner of the weapon was established? Also, the rapist is one of Lydia’s suitors and no stranger to her. It wouldn’t take much inquiry to find the whereabouts of the woman he attempted to rape if they just follow the line of evidence. Adding to the incredulity is the fortuitous circumstance of having the Lydia’s father as the judge assigned to the case of Ramon and another of Lydia’s suitors as the attorney for the plaintiff. Assuming the case was fairly tried, wouldn’t it be easier to prove self-defence than manslaughter? I’m not a lawyer so these are just speculative questions that will do well for a storywriter to ask himself.

If you manage to stretch the suspension-of-disbelief, you would be treated to the onscreen chemistry of Nestor de Villa and Charito Solis. Nestor de Villa, though, is best remembered for his iconic tandem with Nida Blanca and his dancing skills. Charito Solis would go on to be known as Asia’s Queen of Drama, as one the earliest female actors to be recognized in the Asian Film Festival (1967). Fans of vintage, might find the American muscle cars, which figure significantly as the occupation of the Ramon, fascinating. Charito Solis looks every bit the classic Hollywood screen siren. As a “modern society girl,” she gets to wear milliner hats, gloves, and Sunday best dresses even inside her own house. She also drives her own car (unusual for women in Manila during this time but probably not the case for the upper class? I mean, Charito Solis actually knows how to drive the car.)

Lydia returns from studying abroad and needs some repairs for her car. She calls the talyer (mechanic shop) of Ramon who is recently out on parole. Charito finds Ramon attractive despite the grease on his face, and asks him out to dinner that same night. He refuses, and she calls for him the next day under pretense that her car needs another repair. They fall in love quickly as beautiful people in cinema should and it seems like the perfect romance until the past catches up with Ramon.

I mainly stayed watching the movie for its excellent locations. I was delighted to see how Manila looked like in the late 1950s when this movie was shot and I don’t mean the tourist sites but places I actually lived in and know. I got to see Highway 54, now EDSA, where the famous bloodless revolution happened in 1986. A segment of the couple’s budding romance sequence was shot inside the Balara Filters Park, not far from my parent’s house and where I attended University in Quezon City some ten years ago. The filtration plant was built in 1938 and the park for the community was built in 1953. The pool and the pavilions are preserved and were re-opened with limited access to the public since 2003. It was closed during the long years of the Marcos dictatorship. The Balara Filters Park has other amenities: an ampitheater where bodabil star Atang de la Rama once performed, a water fountain replica of the one in Carriedo made by Napoleon Abueva, and a windmill which is not shown in the movie but I remember seeing this some years back.

The movie ends predictably with the revelation that Ramon was the knight in shining but greasy armor who saved Lydia from her rapist. Considering that the story remains incredulous until the end, we get a glimpse of some truths not overtly stated by the filmmakers. Take for example, class relations in Manila during this time and the notion of “lipunan.” We find out in this movie that “lipunan” only really meant a handful of elite families living in enclaves and suburbs. Hence the remark “Nawala sa lipunan” when Charito elopes with Ramon. Newspapers still had society pages that were filled with mundane updates about the city’s “burgis” families, such as so and so’s daughter going abroad to study. These things no longer appear in papers but in magazines catered to the very same people they feature in these magazines and social climbers.

As late as the 1970s, horse-drawn carriages or calesas were still being used as one of the main modes of transportation which I thought was rather quaint. It figures prominently in the title sequence of Maynila: Sa mga kuko ng Liwanag. In Kung ako’y mahal mo, we see the occasional jeepney but it seemed everyone was driving a car. I was also surprised to hear a middle class home by today’s standards be called decrepit and unfit for a young couple in the movie. I thought: Wow! How far we have fallen back. Filipinos back then maybe poor but they can at least afford to have decent living spaces. And this is backed up by facts, a 1,000sqm bungalow in the Projects area was catered to government workers. By today’s standards, that’s a 15sqm studio-type condominium by SMDC.

Kung ako’y mahal mo reveals several middle-class misconceptions of our justice system and also reflects the values which are progressive and conservative in the “lipunan”. That Charito was depicted here as a modern worldly woman who can ask the man she likes directly and drive her own car did not appear strange even to audiences of that time. Attitudes, though very subtly conveyed or veiled in euphemisms, seem to point certain stigmas around rape. That Lydia fled the scene of the crime and did not bother to report to the police is telling of the reality that women get to be a cause celebré for such transgressions.

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