Reincarnation is one cinematic theme that had been done to death on the big screen. It has so many possibilities and that includes turning it into a convenient anchor to develop love stories about star-crossed soulmates.
Opening in cinemas this week is Sa Muli, which is also about reincarnation. But how different is it from other movies that had previously tackled this subject matter?
Let’s not even go to Wuthering Heights that had been turned into a film many times over. Doing that is like desecrating this great Emily Bronte novel.
It’s not even fair to compare Sa Muli to Hihintayin Kita sa Langit, Carlos Siguion-Reyna’s local adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Hihintayin, after all, was done at a time when movies were movies. It had a huge budget that made it possible for the production to avail of the services of topnotch cinematographer Romeo Vitug and even Ryan Cayabyab, who would later become a National Artist for Music.
The plot of Sa Muli, however, is not as silly as the 1981 Metro Manila Film Festival entry, Karma, by Danny Zialcita. Karma only works because it is a Vilma Santos movie.
Sa Muli also ups the ante when put side by side with Susan Roces and Romeo Vasquez’ Maruja that was first done in 1967 and remade three decades later with Carmina Villarroel and Rustom Padilla. Its clear edge to Maruja? Well, it goes through three reincarnations. How’s that for ambition?
Fortunately, Sa Muli marvelously succeeds at laying down the blueprint for a story that spans 160 years. Although the two lead characters travel through three different lifetimes, nobody gets lost—not even the audience—in what could have been a complicated cinematic journey.
The story of Sa Muli is presented in the simplest, but clearest manner possible. So we are introduced to two modern-day characters: Pepe (Xian Lim) and a woman who initially doesn’t want to reveal her name (as played by Ryza Cenon).
Pepe has the power to look back through his several incarnations. The woman, however, doesn’t have that kind of ability, which is why she thinks of Pepe as some weirdo let loose in this generation.
As a device to go back in time, the screenplay cleverly fashions Pepe into a book author who writes about two pairs of lovers who lived in the past. The first couple is from the early 1900s. They, in fact, meet exactly in 1900 in the town of Taal in Batangas. Their names are Victor and Aurora.
The movie eventually moves to 1950 to introduce couple No. 2: Nicolas and Belen. The two are from Tayabas in Quezon.
Of course, those people are also Pepe and that woman who doesn’t like to tell her name. She does eventually, so have some patience.
Sa Muli is a film by Fifth Solomon, a product of some reality show on television. He has a twin brother, Fourth, and his older sister is StarStruck alumna Chariz Solomon. Starting out as an actor first, he has now turned filmmaker. Prior to the release of Sa Muli, his most recent movie was Single Bells.
There is so much to say about Fifth Solomon as a neophyte director. As the captain of the ship, a filmmaker is supposed to be very knowledgeable about the different aspects of life. Fifth should have read up a lot and tried to accumulate as much information as he possibly could through printed matter and even cinema (like getting exposed to the works of the masters). Tiktok is not the medium recommended for a young director still grappling his way through the film business.
As a director, he should have an eye for detail since film is, duh, primarily visual. It was best for him to have supervised the production design of Sa Muli because it is the most deficient among the film’s technical elements. Perhaps he did, but clearly doesn’t know any better.
There is this supposedly trivial matter of when diamonds should be worn. Although women of today wear diamond jewelry at all hours of the day, the fine ladies of bygone years strictly followed etiquette and wore this hardest of gems only in the evening. Never in the morning.
In Sa Muli, Aurora’s mother, played by Marissa Sanchez, is depicted as a woman of means during the turn-of-the-century. And yet, she is shown wearing brilliant-studded earrings even during the day.
You may say that this is already nitpicking. But is it? Filipino viewers are a tolerant lot. We’ve let all those wrong details in production design slide. It’s about time production designers did their job properly and that includes research, research and more research.
There is now a trend in movies and TV that brings fictional characters to the past. One fine example is the hit series Maria Clara at Ibarra. Everything about this GMA series (now on Netflix) is good, even great: the storytelling, performances and especially the message about love of country. Its production design, however, is a nightmare.
Sa Muli is no different. And so there is this tableau that serves as backdrop for the first meeting between Aurora and Victor. The design is tacky. To make matters worse, there is an abundant use of what looks like Ecuadorian roses that did not exist on Philippine shores in the early 1900s.
It is also a shame that Fifth seems to have very little interest when it comes to Philippine history. There is this scene in the movie, for example, that takes place in 1900 – during the early years of the American Occupation. And yet in the background is a uniformed guardia civil so identified with the Spanish era.
The biggest historical error here is the use of Taal town as the setting of the Victor-Aurora love story. Heck, the Fil-American war was raging in Batangas that time.
And was there a major earthquake in the whole of Luzon in 1950? In Sa Muli, there was and it shook badly the church of Tayabas. Can Fifth invoke cinematic license here? Hell, no! He uses real locations and so he must be accurate with his storytelling.
That is a pity because Fifth’s strength lies in his ability to tell a story on film coherently. Minus the historical inaccuracies, Sa Muli has a good screenplay that plays out well and is never confusing. After a few more film projects, expect Fifth to become an accomplished director because he is an excellent storyteller.
He generally does a good job here in Sa Muli because he has a grip on his material. Fifth truly knows the film medium, but should steer clear of period movies. At least, until he learns Philippine history and the Filipino culture.
He’s good at composing his shots and gets creative when framing them. Of course, he should also have exercised some restraint by minimizing some of the smoke effects in the cinematography of Sa Muli.
The principal actors here also seem to have been properly guided by the director. And you have to give it to Xian Lim for agreeing to do his Victor scenes in spite of that ridiculous hairpiece that makes him look like a Chinese coolie.
Yes, a lot of viewers must have mistaken him initially for a Chinaman, especially since he serenades Aurora while she and her mother are in the table having a midday meal. This may come out politically incorrect, but until recently, people still used the term “ligaw-Intsik” to describe suitors who come a-courting even during the day.
But for all these flaws, Sa Muli is still a joy to watch. Fifth Solomon should be given an A for effort. He tried his best to come up with a good movie and all that work is appreciated. The ending – though very simply done - could draw tears from the audience.
Sa Muli is a very inspired piece of work from a newbie director who is still full of novel ideas. It is a fresh approach to the tried-and-tested formula of reincarnation in cinema.
Three reincarnations in one film? Let’s wait for another director to top that one.
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