Monday, December 28, 2009

Darna! Ang Pagbabalik (Philippines, 1994)



When we last checked in on Darna, Vilma Santos, the most beloved actress to play the Filipina superheroine, was bidding farewell to the role with her appearance in 1980's Darna at Ding. After Darna at Ding, Darna would take a somewhat lengthy sabbatical from the big screen, not returning until 1991, when the series would be revived with the Nanette Medved fronted Darna. That film apparently did well enough to merit a sequel, and so, in 1994, came Darna! Ang Pagbabalik (Darna! The Return), a film that would add former Oakland Raiders cheerleader and beauty queen Anjanette Abayari to the list of actresses whose turn at playing the sparsely attired heroine would only last through one picture.

The eruption of the Philippines' Mount Pinatubo in 1991 seems to have provided the inspiration for Ang Pagbabalik's opening sequence, in which Darna alter ego Narda's tiny village is devastated by volcanic mud flows ("lahars") from a cataclysmic eruption. Compounding matters is the fact that the villagers were unprepared for the catastrophe thanks to the unspecified actions of a gang of slick racketeer types whom Darna is seen giving the business to as the credits fade. Unfortunately, Darna is unable to further protect her neighbors from the disaster, because, no sooner has she returned to her human form as Narda than she is attacked by a mysterious, green garbed figure who steals the magic stone necessary to her transformation.

Given no choice but to flee, Narda, her little brother Ding (Lester Llansang), their Grandma, and their water buffalo Blackie -- amid much sorrowful lamentation over the sad hand that fate has dealt them -- all join in the mass migration of the villagers across the arid plains toward safety. This exodus eventually leads Narda and her lot to the slums of Manila, where they find shelter with family friend Pol (Rustom Padilla). And from this point, Ang Pagbabalik plays out as much as a melodrama about the hardships faced by provincials in the big city as it does a superhero adventure.

Darna! Ang Pagbabalik is the first Darna film I've seen that features Darna's arch nemesis from her comic book incarnation, the Medusa-like Valentina. This is not to say that Valentina had not appeared in any previous Darna films, because she had. Unfortunately those films -- such as Vilma Santos's debut as Darna, Lipad, Darna, Lipad! -- all appear to be lost now, and are hence unavailable for viewing by me or anybody else. In any case, despite the presence of Pilita Corrales in the role of Valentina, it is Valentina's daughter, Valentine -- as played by veteran Filipina actress Cherie Gil -- who really takes center stage here.

It seems that Valentine, masquerading as a wealthy Televangelist named Dr. Adan (and hiding her mane of snakes under a turban which has a tendency to pulsate at inopportune moments) has come to hold the majority of the city's poor and downtrodden in an almost hypnotic grip. Preaching of a coming "day of redemption", Adan tells the faithful that Manila will be spared from the coming catastrophe in a rapture-like event, one that will see the city lifted up into the heavens and then returned to Earth once danger has passed. "Don't worry," she tells them. "Pray and wait." And so, a continuous stream of refugees from the volcano-ravaged outer provinces pours into the city, all and sundry hoping to be spared from the rapidly advancing lahars.

Little do these huddled masses know that Manila, in actuality, will provide them with no such shelter, and that, if everything goes according to Valentina and Valentine's plan, the entire population of the Philippines will be wiped out once the mud flows inevitably arrive. When even their beloved Lola (that's grandmother to you) falls under Dr. Adan's sway, it becomes imperative for Narda and Ding to locate the stolen magic stone so that Darna can get busy and get to the bottom of this massive religious scam.

Given that the Philippines is a place where life for many is hard, and whose populace, partly as a result, is not immune to excesses of religious enthusiasm, Ang Pagbabalik's none-too-subtle message -- that praying is not always the answer -- is not one to be taken lightly. Nor is its depiction of a corrupt power exploiting the faith of the common folks for its own ends. In this sense, the movie struck me as being similar to the Gamera films that Shusuke Kaneko was making in Japan at roughly the same time, in that it seems like an attempt by its director to infuse a timeworn pop cultural figure with a new, more cutting-edge relevance. And I have to say that the attempt was largely successful, adding a whole new layer of interest alongside the self conscious campiness and cheeseball spectacle carried over from earlier entries.

In an earlier review, I referred to former Darna stars Vilma Santos and Eva Montes as having a boyishness that contributed to their takes on the character having an agreeable, kid sister-like quality. Anjanette Abayari, on the other hand, is, as they used to say, built like a brick shithouse -- really and truly gifted with the kind of body that makes me weep for my lost youth. Even if Ang Pagbabalik were a much less entertaining picture than it is, the promise of Abayari's next transformation into Darna, with the marriage of her ample proportions to meager fabric that that entails, would be enough to keep most heterosexual men riveted throughout its 105 minute running time.

That said, Abayari impressively overcomes such distractions to give us a very likeable performance, imbuing her Darna with the same air of guileless approachability that we've come to expect from this people's superhero. She even manages to convey Darna's intrinsic wholesomeness, despite her appearance's potential for inspiring evil thoughts. Also present is Darna's appealing, street-level cockiness -- so key to Vilma Santo's take on the role -- which to my mind is best exemplified by an exchange in which a criminal goon tells Darna that he enjoys hurting women, to which she replies, "Hurt me. See how much you will enjoy."

All in all, Darna! Ang Pagbabalik was a pleasant surprise. Having previously seen clips of the film, I was expecting to dedicate a much larger portion of my word count to praising the majesty of Anjanette Abayari's rack. However, it turned out that the film had enough going on in it that I was engaged on levels beyond that more basic one (though on that one, too, of course). The direction and acting are generally quite good if you allow for the comedic mugging and hand-wringing OTT-ness that are part and parcel of the Darna experience. And the moments of calculated melodrama are often surprisingly effective, such as the scene in which Narda is trapped amid the crush of Dr. Anand's worshippers as her two competing love interests -- the virtuous village boy Pol and the big city policeman Max -- try to reach her from opposite edges of the crowd. (If you're familiar with the rural populism of these films, it won't be too hard for you to figure out who ends up winning out in that competition.)

Of course, all this is not to say that Ang Pagbabalik doesn't come with its fair share of cheesiness. But if you're the kind of person who can forgive pitiable flying effects and a shabby sounding synth score -- and, if you're not, I'm not entirely clear on why you're reading this blog in the first place -- there's much here worth celebrating. See how much you will enjoy.


5 comments:

Michael Barnum said...

Wow, that certainly is one hot Darna! And I am pleased to know that the 90s Darna is as much fun as the earlier ones.

Todd said...

Me, too! I've been putting off watching this movie for ages, because I was pretty much expecting it to be awful. As I said, I was pleasantly surprised.

sunil said...

How can Wonder-woman inspired comic NOT be good? :)

Todd said...

You're right. I'm quickly realizing that Darna spells awesome no matter what form she comes in.

prof. grewbeard said...

she could hurt ME, and i would enjoy!...