In the Philippines you need only call him “FPJ”, but, to outsiders, Fernando Poe Jr. might need a bit more of an introduction. One of the most iconic stars of Tagalog cinema, Poe was also among the first Filipino actors to seize the reigns of production for himself, producing upward of a hundred self-starring pictures under his FPJ Productions banner and others. Poe was also a frequent director of these films, the 1975 hit Alupihang Dagat being just one of many he helmed under the pseudonym Ronwaldo Reyes.
In Alupihang Dagat, FPJ plays Gomer, the son of a humble fishing village where the men sail out to sea and the women stay behind to dive for sponge. At the story’s outset, we learn that the village has been troubled by a spate of disappearances on the part of its seafaring youngsters. Gomer learns of this upon returning from an extended voyage, and soon sets out in his tiny skiff to get to the bottom of things. Eventually he stumbles upon the island hideout of a band of modern day pirates who, under the leadership of a female captain named Odessa (Elizabeth Oropesa, who would later appear in a considerably more buttoned-down role as the wife of Ramon Revilla in The Killing of Satan), are responsible for kidnapping and enslaving many of Gomer’s friends and neighbors.
As observed by Gomer, the pirates reveal themselves to be a savage and imbecilic lot, fighting amongst themselves for sport and, at one point, staging a fight between two randy male horses that, while foreshadowing a climactic moment in the film, makes Alupihang Dagat guaranteed unpleasant viewing for animal lovers. Eventually Gomer is captured by the brutes and put at the mercy of Odessa, who wastes no time in subjecting him to a series of sexually charged humiliations. However, seeing as FPJ is blessed with the chiseled features and powerful physique that say “matinee idol” in any language (not to mention that he has some truly awe inspiring sideburns), it is not long before Odessa has fallen for Gomer and freed him from his bonds. This act ends up having unfortunate consequences for her, and the film’s last act sees Gomer fighting to rescue Odessa from a vengeful band of her former compatriots lead by the ever-cretinous Vic Diaz.
Poe scores high marks as a director with Alupihang Dagat. He captures the day-to-day life of Gomer’s village with an affectionate attention to detail while making great use of the film’s rugged seaside locales. At the same time, there is a palpable air of melancholy hanging over these opening scenes that, even without the aid of English subtitles, communicates that the villagers have seen happier times. While I don’t have a broad enough experience of Filipino cinema to say for sure, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Poe’s downcast and gritty depiction of the lives of the working poor here was influenced by the recent work of Lino Brocka. The film then neatly switches gears in its final third to become a definitive example of Filipino “Goon” cinema, with seeming armies of mustachioed stuntmen being hurled this way and that as Poe and Oropesa let loose on some especially imposing looking machine guns.
Poe the actor also makes a definite impression here, though I have to admit that, for me, he was somewhat overshadowed by Elizabeth Oropesa in the role of Odessa. I must further admit that this is in no small part due to the wide assortment of short-shorts and fetish boots that the fetching Oropesa wears throughout the film, not to mention the fox stole that she at one point, for some reason, rocks as a hat. (Shades of Wolf Devil Woman.) I am not alone in being moved by Oropesa, it seems, as, soon after Alupihang Dagat’s successful run, she was picked to reprise her role as Odessa –- this time front and center -- in Mariposang Dagat. For those eager to keep apace, recent years have seen the actress reveal a lifelong ability to see spooks and predict the future, embarking on a new career as a spiritual healer and medium, so there’s also that.
As some readers have been quick to remind me, I am long overdue in introducing FPJ to the pages of 4DK. Now that I have -- and have in fact found the process quite enjoyable, with or without Elizabeth Oropesa’s booty shorts -- I hope that it will be the beginning of a long and happy relationship. Alupihang Dagat is a truly engaging piece of Pinoy pop cinema, combining a populist heart with a cineaste’s eye for style while at the same time never forgetting to deliver those oh-so-important cheap thrills.