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Oil and water: Complexity of Danny Zialcita

Ricky Torre

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An appreciation of some of the finest work by the late Filipino director

IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. Dindo Fernando and Laurice Guillen in ‘Nagalit ang Buwan sa Haba ng Gabi.’ Photo from the Danny Zialcita Facebook fan page

MANILA, Philippines – Danny Zialcita, who passed away last March 10 at the age of 73, is Philippine cinema’s poet of modern love — a distinction that evolved from his long stint, starting with espionage and his other variations in the ’60s. 

No more melodramas: Farewell, Direk Danny

The most widely discussed facet of Zialcita’s work in the wake of his passing is the writing — the swinging repartee of his dialogue that is by turns smart and shoddy, saucy and snappy. 

This bright, popcorn dialogue articulates the expressive amorality of his characters and also drives the pacing of the narrative, even if it’s not exactly a visual element per se. 

Apart from that compelling feature, a Danny Zialcita film is a delirious and earthy spectacle, evoking the lost art of the hand-painted movie billboard, and animated all the more by his actors, who demonstrate how a great ensemble is itself a visual ingredient.

A filmmaker with a message

Alongside the frenzied unraveling of Zialcita’s stories was his constant undermining of his own craftsmanship, right in the opening credits. 

“T-Bird at Ako,” Zialcita’s landmark 1982 film, starts off with an inspired top billing of its two proud movie stars, Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos, their names multiplied like pixels all over the screen. But the credits roll on until Zialcita’s name pops out right on Nora’s face. 

The opening titles of “Langis at Tubig” (essentially an adultery drama wrapped in legalese about bigamy) can also send one to fall off his seat: “Sining Silangan Inc… Proudly Presents… A Picture With A Message.” And you wonder too why this Atenean filmmaker could be so trite. But this is corny on a grand level that accords with Zialcita’s self-demeaning cinema. 

On the other hand, “Palabra de Honor” is a showpiece exposition by the Jarlego family of film editors, beginning with a car as seen from different cameras heading along a country road at dusk. It’s a fleeting yet somber moment, suggestive of the mishaps that are standard to the melodrama, like Derek Ramsay’s car accident in “No Other Woman.”

Another convention that gains keener poignancy in the course of Zialcita’s brisk narrative is the slow-burn interlude, set to George Canseco’s evocative score. 

That movie still at the top, from “Nagalit ang Buwan sa Haba ng Gabi,” anticipates the lushness of modern Chinese cinema by a decade — its pastel colors intensifying the dreamy lull of that frame, of that film “painting.” 

Pathos of the Chaplinesque variety is also plain to see in FPJ’s action films, and this melancholy spell arguably becomes quite unbearable when it is Vilma Santos who does the crying ― thus altering even a dull “location” like the bathroom.

The taste of juicy dialogue

Some of a Zialcita movie’s action is geared up by his dialogue. 

A good example is the verbal duel between Dindo Fernando and Ronaldo Valdez in “Palabra de Honor” seen in 3:34 of this video.  

Zialcita likewise wasn’t afraid to demolish, with his kalog humor, the complicated tension he has mounted for this story. 

As the perfidy in “Palabra” escalates, Valdez is murdered and Tommy Abuel framed up and thrown in jail. Police investigators looking for Fernando find him in church, praying, then dispensing juicy lines such as “Patay na siya. Pinagdasal ko na ang kanyang kaluluwa,” and “Pareho kaming magandang lalaki. Kaya lang pinaglihi siya sa araw, ako pinaglihi sa gabi,” and “Akala ko ba ang tsismis nanggagaling sa palengke? Lumipat na pala sa presinto.”

In “Langis at Tubig,” Vilma proposes martyrdom to Dindo, in response to the systematic misfortune inflicted on them by Wife No. 2 — Amy Austria. Enraged by the madness of his own making, Dindo goes to Amy’s apartment, douses gasoline all over the front porch and is about to start a fire. “Ayaw mong lumabas, ha! Magbibilang ako hanggang tatlo. ISA! ISA’T KALAHATI! DALAWA!…”

There are also “nothing” moments in Zialcita’s films that take a break from the drama. Here’s Dindo on a field assignment with his chauffer: “Alam mo dito, Boss, karamihan ng mga lalaki ay nagpapari.” / “Siya nga? Eh, mga babae, madre?” / “Hostess. Hindi, biro lang.”

Gaano Kadalas ang Minsan” deserves to be reissued. And also a better copy of “Dear Heart,” a remarkable, multilayered teen romance that is another landmark in our cinema. (The audio is bad in the copies sold at the malls.)

And in “T-Bird” are Nora and Vilma — an almost romance (starting at 1:50 of this video) that could have been a parallel life to their other joint appearance, Bernal’s sophisticated ménage à trois in “Ikaw ay Akin.” 

Real, and surreal, femininity 

The rampant femininity of Zialcita’s films is what finally distinguishes their identity. 

Vilma’s body of work is amazing — with Zialcita, and also with Garcia and Bernal — such that she might have been endeavoring to be a comprehensive interpreter of the contemporary Filipina. 

But every actress in the alluring roster of Zialcita’s canon has wielded her singular, tonic presence ― from Beth Bautista, torchbearer of the Charito Solis school of acting, to Lyka Ugarte, a flighty embodiment of the spirit of Zialcita’s sex comedies, to several other ladies.

Let’s not forget the kikay Suzanne Gonzales, a solid supporting actress who was liberally allowed her flash of comedy and rage. “Hoy p**a kang lalaki ka ha? Sa akin mo gawin ’yan, makatulog ka lang, putol ‘yan!” 

What a sharp weapon, our language, unlike the barrage of F (and N) words to which we’re already desensitized, say, in a Tarantino picture. 

And the dialogue heralds nothing less than a battle royale among the sexes that terminates, as one believes every war does, in its conflicting dissolution: in the confusion of altered sexuality (“Mahinhin vs. Mahinhin” and “May Daga sa Labas ng Lungga”) or in the women altogether devouring their men (“Karma”).

It’s clear, as one revisits his films, that Zialcita indulged the fanciful notion about strong women being the stuff of great art. Such reverence for womankind, in today’s politically correct context, is also deemed limited and even patronizing, which the men would be happy to affirm anyway. 

Then we have the men in Zialcita flicks flaunting their asexual range. 

Eddie Garcia’s gay roles (from Brocka’s “Tubog sa Ginto” to George Rowe’s “Star?” to Zialcita’s “Nagalit ang Buwan,” to the recent “Bwakaw” by Jun Robles Lana) were the most diverse; whereas Ronaldo Valdez’s, one of the sexiest men of his generation, was the most flamboyant. Think Derek interpreting Vice Ganda. 

But it was Dindo Fernando who could convey his inherent femininity alongside his macho-loverboy mode; and no great actor among his peers had that seductive baritone and those dark Noranian eyes. 

Masters of cinema, feeding off each other

Jerome Gomez’s thorough profile on Zialcita explains the affinity between Zialcita and Fernando, between director and actor — akin to Kurosawa and Mifune, Fellini and Mastroianni — and why the director’s career practically ended with Fernando’s untimely death in 1987, from which point there was no critical writing on Pinoy cinema that covered Zialcita until recently. 

I’ve mentioned some of the foreign masters because they’re a vital influence on Zialcita and his fellow directors — particularly Francois Truffaut, who is French cinema’s Paul McCartney, the most romantic of his French New Wave peers. 

It’s fascinating to realize the looming shadow of Europe’s cinema over the recent past of our cinema. But we were actually way ahead in the art of improvised filmmaking that would later be identified with Godard; then again, everyone in world cinema really fed off each other’s knowledge — thus Zialcita’s entire melodrama canon, also riffing on Truffaut and Vittorio de Sica.

The influence of foreign cinema goes further back to the sophisticated rom-coms of 1930s Hollywood. That, along with Zialcita’s own background, clarifies his natural feel for the burgis milieu, no matter the unique diction of not a few among his actors which is something we should uphold, if we’re also dazzled by the mangled English of the French.

His fascinations, his disregards

UNLIKELY MIX. Vilma Santos, with Dindo Fernando, draws drama while in a restroom in ‘Langis at Tubig’. Screen grab by Ricky Torre from the Danny Zialcita Facebook page

One aspect that demands evaluation is Zialcita’s blithe disregard of what we now broadly call gender issues, which were perhaps an almost imperceptible consideration in his time. 

However I deride that now-oppressive sensibility called political correctness (PC), I find myself startled just the same by such lines as: “Kayong mga babae, ang papel ninyo ay magluto at alagaan ang inyong mga anak” — uttered by Eddie G. 

And, “’Di lang langis ang mahirap ngayon, pati lalaki. Nagkalat pa ang bakla.” All these lines in one film, “Palabra de Honor” — otherwise the most alluring (that is, among those I’ve seen) of Zialcita’s work, together with “Gaano Kadalas” and “T-Bird.”

“T-Bird” is not Zialcita’s most representative film but perhaps the most revealing of the sensibility behind the writing — credited to First Quarter Storm activist Portia Ilagan, but suspiciously Zialcitan in perspective. 

The story concludes with Nora reforming her lesbian impulses and giving up Vilma to her boyfriend Dindo. And yet the deviant heart of the movie is Nora getting all tensed up watching Vilma’s floor show — a nod to “Burlesk Queen” updated using Queen’s “Body Language.” (Freddie Mercury’s singing was never used to greater effect.) 

Seeing “T-Bird at Ako” 30 years later, one can assume that Zialcita’s fascination for the gay milieu is exploitative in character or at best limited by naïveté, as evident in his also venturing into reincarnation and time travel.

His “sex-coms” won’t sit well either with the LGBT, but here I’ll take an exception and affirm their value instead — not only because of the delightful performances by Valdez and Fernando, riffing on Dolphy, but because today’s gingerly handling of this context shows that PC has finally killed the beast in our pop culture. 

In which case, we should all be happy with our decorum now. Yet it’s still there: the exultation of lust, an impulse much sincerer than falling in love — in the teleseryes cribbing from the melodrama heritage but on autopilot mode, and in Derek and Anne, who may have been reincarnated from “Karma.” 

Until Zialcita’s brand of witticism and filmmaking resurfaces in a more contemporary work by a new generation of writers and directors, he shall remain sorely missed.

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