By Roel Hoang Manipon
Old age can be a daunting and challenging stage in life, depicted in heartbreaking and horrifying ways in the 90-minute drama Mamang (Monoxide Works and Cinemalaya Foundation), currently an entry at the Cinemalaya: Philippine Independent Film Festival of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
A screenwriter with a degree in comparative literature who started writing teleseryes for ABS-CBN 2 in 2004, including Hiram, Sa Piling Mo, Ysabella and Kahit Isang Saglit, Denise O’Hara is adept at unfolding the story of her debut feature film, which she also wrote—throwing in characters and elements until the story gets stranger and stranger, but eventually the pieces falling into place, the spectral becoming a solid history of the main character.
The film is about Mamang, played deftly and endearingly by veteran actress-singer Celeste Legaspi, who lives in an old house with his adult gay son Ferdie (Ketchup Eusebio), who has trouble finding a teaching job. The first part of the film depicts their devotion to each other, showing their daily walks, tucking her into bed at night, how they soothe each other’s fears and bolster each other’s confidence, their good-natured bickering, etc. It also shows signs of Mamang’s senility, particularly her forgetfulness.
Midway into the film, Ferdie goes to a province to apply for a job, making Mamang apprehensive, but she is assuaged when he returns home. Mamang continues to bitterly struggle against the creeping dementia, which now includes hallucination.
Her condition worsens until the house is filled with ghosts of her past—her husband (Alex Medina), her rebel lover (Gio Gahol), an enigmatic soldier (Paolo O’Hara)—appearing in startling ways. This enables audiences to piece together a part of her past, which includes snippets of her childhood, but is largely about her marriage and its breakdown that culminates in the death of a young daughter. The film ends with the revelation that Ferdie has actually died in the middle of the film’s story.
After being a producer of Sundalong Kanin (2014) and Tuos (2016), both Cinemalaya entries, and co-writing Kiko Boksingero and Baconaua, also both entries at the 2017 Cinemalaya and Purgatoryo, for which she won a Best Screenplay award at the 2016 QCinema International Film Festival, O’Hara ventured into directing, becoming one of the very few Filipino female directors.
This first directorial work is both promising and disappointing. For one, Mamang can be a be a strong vehicle for women’s voice, lives and insights, with the director being a woman, assisted by a production team made up substantially of women including assistant director She Andes, cinematographer Lee Briones-Meily and original music composer Teresa Barrozo and a woman as main character.
However, the film does not take the gender thread, and it is interesting to note that the character Mamang and important aspects of her story are shaped and influenced by men—her husband, her lover, her son, the soldier ghost. The other female characters in the film—the neighbors, her occasional caregiver, her husband’s young mistress, her daughter—are negligible and devoid of impact, and her attitude towards them is dismissive and even antagonistic.
Although suffering from loose ends, gaps and unnecessary elements, Mamang is backed by a very compelling and exciting story and concept, which can generate commentaries and insights on women and ageing, via an enlightening growth in Mamang’s character. However, the film is busy in creating mystery, using senility as instrument, and its suspenseful unraveling. In this aspect, the film proves to be effective, bolstered by competent acting and despite suffering from uneven pacing and camera works.
Mamang is currently showing at the Cinemalaya: Philippine Independent Film Festival, from 3 to 12 August at various venues of the Cultural Center of the Philippines and selected Ayala cinemas.