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Mario O'Hara
Mely Tagasa
Claudia Zobel
  Perla Bautista
  Patrick de La Rosa
  Lito Pimentel
[Critic After Dark]: by Noel Vera
Noel Vera's Blog
April 19, 2006

Uhaw Sa Pag Ibig
Thirst For Love
Reviewed by: Noel Vera

I watched Mario O'Hara's Uhaw sa Pag-ibig (Thirst for Love, 1983) expecting a mediocre production-no awards, no admiring words from anyone-and for the first thirty minutes or so it pretty much confirmed my suspicions. It's your run-of-the-mill, fallen-woman story where Lala (Claudia Zobel) fights with her mother (Perla Bautista), gets pregnant by her boyfriend (Patrick de La Rosa), plans to elope with said boyfriend (who is stabbed while waiting in an alley), and eventually runs away from home.

Matters become more interesting once she leaves. She hooks up with Bong (Lito Pimentel) who gives her a dancing gig in a nightclub, then asks her to "entertain" a select clientele of men to the tune of two thousand pesos each (roughly 250, early '80s U.S. dollars). Bong's pimping is just one of his sidelines; there's the suggestion that he's also a drug-smuggler, and when one of his men bursts into his bedroom with a bullet wound in the shoulder and a police officer not far behind, Bong handles the situation with such cool ruthlessness (O'Hara's clean staging and editing of the action reminds you of Sam Fuller, or Raoul Walsh) that you suck your breath in dismay: this guy is bad news, and too damned smart to beat easily.

Which turns out to be the case. Bong is a monster, and through him O'Hara manages to serve up the kind of sadistic cruelty he made so uniquely his own during the '80s in films like Condemned (1984) and Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986) (here, it isn't so much what they do to Lala as it is the obvious relish they feel doing it--the pause they take, savoring the voluptuousness of the moment, before literally plunging in). Paradoxically, O'Hara himself, from the impression I have talking to him and to every person that knows him well, is the gentlest, most sensitive person you can ever meet; where all that cruelty comes from I haven't the slightest idea.

I see bits and pieces of other films woven into this one. The scene of Lala with Bong in a darkened room, a bright-red neon sign blinking outside and O'Hara cutting in such a way that every time the sign blinks a different man pumps away on top of her-that scene evokes Nora's nightmare memory of her rape in Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976); the premise of a daughter oppressed by her mother because she's a reminder (remainder?) of a faithless husband is from Insiang (1976) (Lala could be Insiang's older sister); the idea of two doomed lovers resorting to prostitution at one time or another is a takeoff on the hero and heroine of Lino Brocka's Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975).

But a good film must be more than the sum of its influences, and Uhaw's unique contribution to O'Hara's vision of Manila (or of the world-amounts to the same thing in Philippine noir) is its heroine. Zobel's high cheekbones and unfeminine face are at first off-putting; she comes across as a shallow, self-centered teenager who thinks with her genitals more than her head-which, as O'Hara shows us, she is, and does. It's when she goes out on her own-learning a little, loving a little, suffering a lot-that she eventually earns our sympathy, the kind of gradual transformation (the film's more than halfway through before you realize it) that can only be accomplished through skilful storytelling. The wonder is that O'Hara achieves this not just once, but twice-Bautista as Lala's mother is not a little overbearing when we first meet her; by film's end we're rooting for her to at least catch a glimpse of her daughter one more time.

Then there's Mande as Manuel, Lala's great love; his ultimate departure is foreshadowed by an ex-girlfriend's visit, reinforced by Claudia's confession of love (every time someone professes full commitment in a Filipino melodrama you can expect an equally total rejection in reply), and confirmed by an American boyfriend promising citizenship to Manuel if he would come with him to the United States. We're well-prepared by this time for the breakup, for Manuel to prove to Lala and us that he's a perfect asshole, but why does he pause in the hallway before entering their room? Is he steeling himself because he finds the coming scene too distressing (a lot of arguing, a lot of yelling), or because he still loves her? Is he perhaps thinking that this is the best way to break things off, to make it easier for her to forget him? O'Hara teases us with throwaway moments of ambiguity so fleeting you miss them if you blink.

The script, by Mely Tagasa (she plays Miss Tapia in the comic TV series Iskul Bukol), doesn't say anything really new; what it does have is the kind of honest characterization and attention to detail that builds up a whole world before you without your really noticing, inhabited by people with motives and virtues and flaws you come to be familiar with, even recognize in yourself. Frankly, I'm in awe; her story for O'Hara's Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, 1980) and screenplay for this film suggests that she's an unsung master of intelligent melodrama, at least when O'Hara is directing (he claims to rewrite at least half of every script he handles).

Sergio Lobo's lighting and cinematography is gorgeous, better I think than his work in Manila By Night (but maybe not as hauntingly premonitory as his work in Himala): the shadows are so velvety you could almost sink into them, the lighting harsh when it's not soft, seductive. Details stay in the memory-a jalousied kitchen window through which we peer, like startled neighbors, while Lala's mother beats her black and blue; a wall of mirrored tiles upon which the new Lala first appears, sleek and rouged and (barely) wearing a string bikini, before the camera pans to the girl herself (the pan suggests that while the latter looks more healthy than the former, the reflection-the "inner self", if you like-is seriously fractured); a hospital corridor-dark save for a brute spotlight burning in one corner-echoes the pregnant Lala's cries as she collapses in hysterics.

As for the connection with Manila By Night (Uhaw begins with a clip from that picture which Lobo, I suspect, helped procure)-possibly this film is O'Hara's reply to Bernal's masterwork. Both focus on the underside of Manila's night life, but are otherwise diametrically opposed: Uhaw stays with one character where Manila follows half a dozen; has a clear, traditional narrative where Manila offers a Nashville-style buffet of storylines and emotional tones (from grim to tragic to absurd, sometimes a combination of the three). Maybe the greatest difference is in the filmmakers' attitude towards their characters-Bernal mostly serves them up for our amusement, subjecting them to the most outrageous grotesqueries with few if any attempts at sympathy. O'Hara offers a complexly doubled vision; along with an often distanced emotional tone he at the same time manages to encourage empathy for his characters-to see them as they really are, warts and all, and still root for them to survive.

O'Hara filmed this picture after Ibulong Mo sa Puso (Whisper to the Heart, 1983) and before his great triptych of Condemned, Bulaklak sa City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail, 1984), and Bagong Hari-all set in Manila, all depicting the Filipino underclass in extreme circumstances much like that other great Manila noir, Brocka's Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag. Seems to me he spent much of the first half of the '80s taking off on both Manila and Maynila, extending the ground they pioneered, doing tonal and genre variations (from comic to erotic to extremely violent; from neo-realism to horror fantasy), creating memorable imagery (from the corridor compositions in Bulaklak sa City Jail to the monolithic apartment complex in Bakit Bughaw ang Langit? (Why is the Sky Blue?, 1981) to the gladiator-like combat arena in Bagong Hari); I think some of his work can stand, if not side-by-side, at least in the same class as those two classics. Uhaw sa Pag-ibig may not be his finest work during this period (that would be either Bakit Bughaw ang Langit? or Bagong Hari), but it's still a gem of a film; I can't believe it has since dropped so completely out of sight.


(This article is a preview of an expanded version, to be part of Noel Vera's upcoming book on Mario O'Hara entitled "The Quiet Man")

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