Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ang Panday (Philippines, 1980)

Fernando Poe Jr. has hair that you could break a board on, each strand like a tiny, pomaded bicep. I could say that this is the reason for his god-like status in his home country -- but I have yet to discuss the sideburns, lush and verdant, forging ever onward toward the hard, masculine mouth. Am I envious, you may ask? Well, let me put it this way; time and circumstance have left me with hair of a downy softness, my head to the touch like that of a duckling. This may qualify me for inclusion in some kind of human petting zoo, but in a follicle against follicle cage match, Fernando's do would literally mop the floor with mine.

In my review of Alupihang Dagat, I touched upon FPJ’s iconic status in the Philippines. And in the years since that review was written, that status has been given further testament with the erection (word?) of a statue in his honor in Manila last year. Like that statue, Ang Panday, based on a comic book by Carlo J. Caparas, is an integral part of Poe’s legacy, a hugely successful film that spawned a trio of official sequels along with various knock-offs, remakes and, of course, spoofs -- because, in the Philippines, you’re no one until Dolphy or Joey Deleon has made a dumb pun out of your name. In the process, Poe -- who produced, directed, and starred in the film -- created a character that etched his role as a dedicated populist and hero of the people into the pop cultural DNA of his homeland.

The title Ang Panday translates into English as “The Blacksmith”, and here Poe indeed plays a blacksmith, named Flavio, who serves a small seaside village. As in Alupihang Dagat, Poe shows a gift for depicting the particulars of day to day village life in affectionate detail, and the result gives these sections of the film -- in which we watch the villagers fish, tend to crops, etc. -- an amiable and inviting rhythm. Of course, the mood in this particular village is far from bucolic, as they are under the jackboots of an army of red shirted bandits who treat them as slave labor, responding to any perceived infraction with murderous zeal. Before you can even ask just how bad these bandits are, Ang Panday rushes to the punch line by giving us an opening scene in which a terrified and hysterical child is strung up and has an “X” scorched into his chest with a red hot brand. This is how the bandits mark the villagers as their property, and it is the job of Flavio, as the town blacksmith, to do the branding, even though he does so under extreme duress. When, later in the film, he refuses to brand the back of a small girl, the bandits’ leader, Tata Temio (Lito Anzures), gives him a merciless beating.

In addition to some impressive muscles and a wardrobe full of sleeveless shirts in which to display them, Flavio also has a makeshift family of sorts. This includes his girlfriend Monica, played by Dolphy discovery Liz Alindogan, a daft old coot named Pilo (Paquito Diaz) and Lando, a kid, played by popular child star Bentot Jr., who we also saw as the sidekick/brother to Vilma Santos’ Darna in Darna vs. the Planet Women. It is Pilo who sets Ang Panday’s origin story ball rolling when, after an earthquake, he stumbles across an ancient tome that has been unearthed. Now, because I watched Ang Panday without subtitles, I can’t tell you what was in that tome, but I’m going to guess… hmmm… prophecy? I say this because when, a couple scenes later, a meteor crashes to earth in Flavio’s backyard, he knows exactly what to do with the molten metal inside.

And what he does with that metal is forge it into a magic dagger, which we later learn can transform into a magic sword when plunged into the earth. Possession of this weapon emboldens Flavio to take on Tata Temio, to whom he deals out harsh justice – though I cannot stress enough that he does this, not with the magical dagger, but with those very same impressive muscles that were well in evidence when Tata Temio somehow was able to beat the living crap out of him. Anyway, with Tata Temio out of the way, it is now time for Flavio and his crew to face their true nemesis, a shape shifting sorcerer named Lizardo (Max Alvarado) who lives on an island just offshore from their village. And if you think that at this point Ang Panday has taken a bit of a left turn, you are not alone.

The magic dagger proves handy in *apparently* dispatching Lizardo, at which point Ang Panday launches into a bunch of random episodes in which it is revealed that what lies beyond the borders of Flavio’s humble village is a supernatural hell world. First we have Flavio and his friends investigating a spooky cave filled with zombies, and then little Lando is chased through the fields in the pitch of night by a horrifying flying vampire lady. Subtitles would have helped me to determine whether these bits were in any way tied to the goings on in the movie’s first hour, but my instinct, having seen other Filipino films from this period that were similarly structured (Darna at Ding), is that they were not. What I do know is that Fernando Poe Jr., being a populist, was well aware that what the people wanted -- along with freedom from tyranny, the right to pursue their dreams, and affordable food and shelter -- is not to be bored by overly preachy movies masquerading as action films. And so, with these sequences, he pulls out all the stops, in the process flooding the aisles of the Philippines’ movie theaters with the urine of terrified school children (seriously, that vampire lady is hella sceery).

Eventually, things get back on track when we learn that Lizardo was not killed in the initial skirmish with Flavio (Max Alvarado would, in fact, return as Lizardo in all three Ang Panday sequels) and is now in command of what appears to be an army of Mongol warriors – no doubt played by the “Thunder Stuntmen” touted in the credits. It is here that Ang Panday earns its cred as a true Filipino “Goon” film, as, during a desert showdown, FPJ sends dozens of anonymous stunt actors flying every which way with each thrust and parry. When it’s all over, Fernando Poe Jr. and his hair are once again free to grow and thrive, whether buzzed or pompadoured, with only their consciences and vanity to guide them.

Seriously, though. While I, a weak man, cannot risk the temptation to mock Fernando Poe Jr., a man strong, righteous and definitively masculine, as some kind of caricature, I have to admit that he was one hell of a good action director. It’s rare that I can make it through an almost two hour long movie in a language I don’t understand while being consistently entertained, but that was the case here – and I think I owe FPJ thanks for that. It’s easy to see why so many Filipinos believe that, when Poe took his populist vision to the polls in 2004, running for president against incumbent Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, he was robbed of the title by voter fraud. Which is to say that, yes, I would have voted for him to hold the highest office in the land simply because he made a movie that was not boring despite my not understanding a single spoken word of it and which included zombies and flying vampires.

Now, do you want to pet my head?

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