Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Darna At Ding (Philippines, 1980)

What better way to continue 4DK’s Week Of The Woman than with our old pal Darna? Darna At Ding was the last Darna film to star Filipino screen icon Vilma Santos, as well as the last Darna film, period, for quite a few years, marking the start of a Darna drought that would see the character absent from the P.I.’s cinema screens until 1991, when the series was resurrected with the Nanette Medved fronted Darna. As such, Darna At Ding offers up something of a “Darna’s Greatest Hits” package, emulating the episodic structure that was used in Lipad, Darna, Lipad!, Santos’ hit 1973 debut in the role.

The film begins with a pre-credit sequence recounting, once again, Darna’s origin. Apparently the notion of Darna’s alter ego having a bum leg, introduced in the previous film Darna and the Planet Women, has since been abandoned, as humble village girl Narda is here presented as being once again fully able-bodied. After Narda has found and swallowed the magic space stone that will facilitate her transformation into the titular super-heroine, we’re whisked into a series of brief vignettes in which we see Darna make very short work of both her old foe Hawk-Woman and one of the giants from Darna and the Giants.

Then it’s time for the first half of Darna At Ding’s main narrative, which could easily be called “Darna vs. The Zombies”.

As is typical of the series, Darna At Ding shows Narda’s tiny rural village to be the locus of every imaginable kind of extraterrestrial, criminal and paranormal activity -- and shambling, green slime slobbering ghouls are apparently no exception. The responsible party in this case is an angry lady scientist named Dr. Vontesberg -- played by Marissa Delgado in an eye-flashing, telenovela-worthy performance -- who is addressing a past injustice by raising the recently dead and setting them upon the villagers. This provides for a lot of creepy moments, but also an abundance of funereal comedic hijinks, as a good portion of Darna At Ding is played for laughs. Corny gags abound, boosted by the presence of beloved Filipino comedian Panchito (last seen here at 4DK as the Penguin in Alyas Batman en Robin) in a key role. Gay zombies who shamble with a swish, adjacent funeral parties trying to aggressively out-mourn one another, people running in fast motion from recently resurrected love ones -- no brow, clearly, is too low.

Darna’s little brother and sidekick Ding is played this time around by popular child star Nino Muhlach, and true to his name-in-title billing, Darna At Ding is really his time to shine. The Mars Ravelo website reports that Muhlach’s family owned D’Wonder Films, the production company responsible for the film, but I won’t speculate upon how much that had to with his heavy presence in it. (Although I just kind of did.) In any case, the fact that Narda spends a great deal of the movie’s first half chained up in Dr. Vontesberg’s dungeon frees up a lot of screen time for Ding to take center stage. Thus we have, among other things, a memorable sequence in which Ding swallows Darna’s magic stone and turns into a sort of pre-pubescent male version of Darna -- a first, as far as I’m aware -- and then flies around punching zombies in the head.

Once the zombie threat is wrapped up, we get another brief episode in which Darna and Ding round up a gang of escaped convicts. For the most part, this bit comes off as an opportunity for Vilma Santos’ to display her faux kung fu skills, but then it takes a darker turn, with one of the cons gunning down an innocent bystander. Given that Darna is rarely shown to be ruthless in these movies, it comes as a bit of a shock when she then grimly doles out justice to the offender by swiftly snapping his neck. Elsewhere, the other cons wisely respond to Darna’s reasoned arguments by giving up their weapons. Interestingly, while the film was unsubtitled, it appeared to me that, on more than one occasion, Darna was shown to eschew violence in favor of simply trying to talk sense into her foes in this manner. Darna: so awesome.

Darna At Ding’s final episode sees the pair following a trail of missing children to the doorstep of Lei Ming, an evil Chinese sorceress played -- in yet another eye-flashing, telenovela-worthy performance -- by Celia Rodriguez. Much as with Dr. Vontesberg, there seems to be a tragic dimension to Lei Ming, as she follows many of her acts of evil with extended crying jags. This nonetheless doesn’t prevent her from committing some pretty heinous acts of devilry, such as when she tortures poor Ding with a voodoo doll.

The climax of this “Darna vs. the Dragon Lady” part of Darna At Ding sees Lei Ming conjure up an evil double of Darna to keep our heroine busy while, elsewhere in her lair, a towering robot bears menacingly down upon Ding. It’s a suitably whiz-bang finale to this loopy, kitchen sink confection, and one that makes the long, strange and circuitous route that we’ve taken to get to it seem perhaps less arduous in retrospect.

Still, at a solid two hours, Darna At Ding is an example of a movie that pulls out all the stops, but perhaps shouldn’t have. While it’s combination of horror movie chills, superhero thrills and slapstick spills might have been catnip for the Filipino audience of its day, for the rest of us it might prove mildly exhausting. Nonetheless, I find Vilma Santos so appealing in her role that it’s hard for me to imagine hating any Darna movie that she appears in, and this one’s no exception.


sunil said...

Sounds really fun! Loved that bit about mourners running away from recently undead loved ones. Mordant wit!
Darna vs Hawkwoman and Darna vs the giant looks like great fun.

memsaab said...

She's a tiny little flat-chested (relatively speaking) Wonder Woman! I would almost want to see this just for gay zombies who swish.

Todd said...

Sunil: The Hawkwoman bit is awesome, but, sadly, it lasts about as long as it takes to look at the two screen grabs I made from it.

Memsaab: There are a LOT of gay jokes in Filipino movies, as well as a lot of gay characters. They were doing the female-protagonist's-gay-best-friend character long before it became trendy in Hollywood. It makes for a weird combination of tolerance mixed with derision and moral condemnation.

Prof. Grewbeard said...

hey, even Santo had gay sidekicks! what that has to do with anything, i don't know- i just got here. any food left?...

Todd said...

Sure, Prof. Help yourself to the lumpia. Though I think the pancit has gone a little off.

Keith said...

Santo's gay sidekicks? You mean Superzan?

That first screencap of the wee lad riding atop Darna -- that one speaks psychological volumes, doesn't it?