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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Apr 3, 2016

Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis Review: An Expressionistic Masterpiece For Cultured Hardcore Art Film Lovers, But For Ordinary Viewers Like Us...

Ely gets to sing some songs here then he’s suddenly killed. The film then jumps from one character to another to keep the narrative going. A great deal of the movie is given to Oryang (Hazel Orencio), who is abused by a local official while her husband Andres Bonifacio is wounded. Andres is shown being murdered and Oryang looks for her body with Caesaria Belarmino (Alessandra de Rossi) who has deep guilt feelings for betraying the Katipunan.

Another character is Piolo Pascual as Simoun, a fictional character in Rizal’s “El Fili” who is presented here as a real character who is an agitator but also connives with Spanish officials (his scene with Bart Guingona is great). Then there’s John Lloyd Cruz as Isagani, a poetry-reciting student who is influenced by Simoun. There are also three tikbalangs (Cherie Gil, Bernardo Bernardo, Angel Aquino) who meddle with the human characters and do not help forward the narrative at all. 

The film is very heavy on dialogue written in old Tagalog (that sometimes sound quite pompous) and occasionally, the characters speak in Spanish and English. A lot of scenes are shot “tuhog” style, while the camera is just stationary. You’d really marvel at the actors for memorizing their kilometric lines and all their blocking in shooting these long, long takes.

The problem with this meandering movie is that it is not exciting to watch. The black and white cinematography has many lethargic scenes shot in darkness that you cannot even figure out the face of the actors. Parang nagtitipid sila sa ilaw o wala talagang budget for better lighting. Lacking coherence, it is so sleep-inducing (the ‘hele’ or lullaby in the title is so apt) we often find ourselves drifting into slumberland, so we have to shake our head vigorously to keep ourselves awake. A lot of static scenes are “daldalan” galore, with characters discussing the destiny of our country and its people, or arguing full of rhetoric on the significance of art as a tool for political change. 

The film can best be described as expressionistic, didactic, combining history with myth, folklore and poetry. We’re sure that cultured hardcore art film lovers/ aficionados will sing it praises and proclaim it as a work of art, a masterpiece. Honestly, though, it qualifies more as a niche film that caters to a limited arthouse market than a mainstream offering for the majority of local viewers who just want escapist entertainment and will likely be more alienated by this kind of very “artsy and artistic” endeavor. At eight hours, it just rambles on and on (a good editor can tighten the film) and can only have one screening a day in its theatrical run so it’s already a losing business proposition. We doubt if distributors abroad would scramble for this with that kind of protracted running time and excessive directorial indulgence. 

We’re sure some people will prefer watching it on video right in the comfort of their own homes where they have the magic of the fast forward button. Just one press on that button when the proceedings are getting so burdensome and the pacing becomes faster! But inside the movie house, we don’t have a remote control so, after several hours of patiently watching and hoping the movie will get better, we realized that we’re not pretentious enough to be an artistic culture vulture, so we decided we’ve had enough and left without finishing it.