Friday, June 22, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Darna! Ang Pagbabalik (1994)

aka Darna: The Return

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

If you want to know more about Mars Ravelo's Wonder Woman inspired yet supremely Filipino superheroine Darna and her different on-screen incarnations, head on over to my fellow agent of M.O.S.S. Todd of Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill, who has spent a lot more time watching and thinking about Darna movies than I have.

The home province of everyone's favourite rural superheroine Darna (Anjanette Abayari) is flooded in a villain-caused (yet not exactly explained by the film) catastrophe. Worse, a large woman clad in green and wearing a turban accosts our heroine in her non-superheroic form as country girl Narda while she's distracted by a snake and clobbers her from behind. The villainess then proceeds to steal the stone Narda needs to swallow to transform into Darna, leaving our heroine for dead and in the rather undignified position of having to be rescued from the rising flood by her Grandma and her little brother Ding (Lester Llansang).

Either the clobbering, the loss of the stone, or the trauma of the natural catastrophe leaves Nards rather addled in the brain, and she spends the following escape of her family to Manila - as well as her first days there - as a happy, mute, loon, though somewhat threatened by various unpleasant males who find her mental state all too inviting and don’t seem to take to the concept of consent. Still, it's like a super hero vacation.

Once arrived in Manila, the family takes shelter in the hovel of Pol (Rustom Padilla), who may or may not be a distant relative, but who in any case once left their country home for the big city.

After various adventures - among them a meeting with local gangster chief Magnum (Bong Alvarez) - a sort of plot develops. It turns out that Darna's arch nemesis, the snake-haired Valentina (Pilita Corrales), is responsible for the loss of Darna's stone. She needs it to keep herself from turning into an - probably ill smelling - heap of goo, it seems.

Apart from that Valentina has bigger plans too. Her - also snake-haired - daughter Valentine aka Dr. Aden (Cherie Gil) has founded a millennial cult playing on the fears of the poor parts of society, promising her followers that Manila will rise into the skies to save them all from the coming destruction of the Philippines by floods, if they just pray hard enough. Valentine's crazy preacher TV programme (she has interpretative background dancers) puts the mind-whammy on Grandma, who soon spends all her time praying and furnishing Pol's hovel with plants. Which is actually an improvement, but hey - evil!

Anyway, while he's out and about sniffing around the cult's lair (why? you got me there), Ding manages to steal Darna's stone back, and soon enough, our heroine is fighting evil-doers again, getting into a romantic triangle with Pol and a cop named Max (Edu Manzano), and saving the Philippines from the snake family's evil plans.

Well, say what you will against the at times plodding pace of this outing of the ever-popular Filipino heroine Darna, but it's still packed full of stuff, some of it interesting, some puzzling, some just plain weird. My plot synopsis has left out various side plots, "comic" distractions and characters - like Ding's female friend Pia (Jemanine Campanilla) - the movie decides to forget halfway through, but really, this is not the kind of film that's interested in a finely crafted dramatic arc. The film's structure is - like in most other films meant for a more rural Filipino audience I've seen - episodic and distractible, and often reminded me of the way 70s Bollywood tried and succeeded to be everything to every viewer. Despite the absence of musical numbers, Darna! Ang Pagbabalik truly squeezes everything and the kitchen sink into its 100 minutes of running time: cute children, low-brow humour, superheroic throw-downs, romance, a bit of horror, some excellent South-East Asian weirdness like freaky snake person transformation effects and an exploding villainess, a bit of social melodrama, and even a bit of religion (not terribly surprising in a Filipino movie, really).

This kind of approach does of course threaten a film's coherence and always risks to annoy a given viewer by spending too much time on the elements she isn't interested in. As a German viewer, I'm certainly not part of the film's core audience, seeing as it is clearly produced with a Filipino audience of the early 90s in mind, playing with and against the anxieties - poverty, religious mania, natural catastrophes - of its time and place. If you look at a film like this as an outsider, you need to bring a bit of patience and a willingness to just accept a slightly different view of the world than you're used to; in this regard, Darna! Ang Pagbabalik is just like a Ramsay Brothers movie or the body of work of Sompote Sands, though certainly more good-natured than the works of the former, and far less painful than those of the latter.

Fortunately, the film - co-directed by Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes - does have more than a few elements that make getting into it quite easy for somebody of my tastes, and, I suspect, the discerning tastes of the typical reader of this column. If there's one thing that speaks a true international language, after all, then it's scenes of a statuesque and likeable beauty in a skimpy yet curiously not sleazy outfit flying around punching evil-doers and monsters. Abayari may not be the greatest of actresses (especially when playing trauma clown Narda), but she's likeable (you seldom see a US superhero grin this much, as if it were an actual joy being a hero, flying and saving people, instead of a pain in the ass), has the right physique for her role and manages to wear a skimpy costume with a degree of dignity that shouldn't be taken for granted.

But even when it isn't clobbering time, Darna! Ang Pagbabalik has more than enough enjoyable, or at least interesting moments. Some of the scenes surrounding the snake women's cult are actually somewhat disturbing in their portrayal of religious mania - those that aren't pretty goofy, that is - and the whole plot line of Grandma turning into one of the cult members is not exactly realistically handled, but quite effective as a play on the fear of losing a lost one to malevolent influences without having the power to do anything about it.

These scenes are pretty dark for what is at its core a family movie, and would be quite unthinkable in a Hollywood family movie (just as the semi-realistic portrayal of poverty and desperation), which is, of course something I do approve of.

And even though Darna! (you gotta love that exclamation mark there) Ang Pagbabalik isn't meant for me, it still made me glad to watch it.

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