Thursday, April 17, 2014

Darna (Philippines, 1991)

Actress and model Nanette Medved, born in Hawaii to a Chinese mother and Russian father, stands alongside Eva Montes as one of the few one-time movie Darnas. Though she had other roles, this seems to be the most noteworthy thing about her career, as it is one of the first things mentioned in almost every biography of her that I could find, alongside her apparently controversial marriage to a Filipino tuna magnate.

Prior to Medved’s series debut/swan song in 1991’s Darna, the character of Darna had not appeared in Philippines cinemas since 1980’s Darna at Ding, the last of four Darna films starring Vilma Santos, who is widely agreed to be the quintessential screen Darna. By comparison to Santos, who brought a playful, tomboyish quality to the role, Medved’s lithe femininity – abetted by her more revealing costume – marks the beginning of a, for lack of a better word, “sexification” of the character that culminated with the casting of the starkly bodacious Anjanette Abayari in 1994’s Darna! Ang Pagbabalik. This is just one of a number of changes to the Darna canon that Darna attempts, most of which didn’t stick and only served to prove that canon’s durability.

Some sources describe Darna as a remake of the original Darna film, 1951’s Darna, which was directed by Fernando Poe Sr. (father of you know who) and starred Rosa del Rosario in the title role. As that film seems to have been lost to the fires of time, that’s a difficult claim to verify. Suffice it to say, then, that the film is enough of a reboot to warrant yet another retelling of Darna’s origin story (already retold in at least two of the other Darna films I’ve seen). This time that origin is especially evangelical in nature, with young village girl Narda (played by 9 year old Anna Marie Falcon) receiving a literal visitation from an angel before her fateful encounter with the meteor that delivers to her the magic “Darna” stone – which amusingly flies into her mouth of its own accord to affect her initial transformation.

For some reason, director Joel Lamangan and/or writers Eddie Rodriguez and Frank Rivera felt a need to give Narda two little brothers rather than the traditional one. Thus, in addition to her familiar sidekick, that cocky little whelp Ding, we also have the older and more cautious minded Dong (get it?). I can’t over stress how mysterious the motivation for this is, given the fact that the brothers, when not acting in concert, seem pretty interchangeable, and are effectively benched when both become captives of the villains for the latter part of the film. Beyond that, young Narda’s home life is pretty much what we’re used to seeing, if a wee bit more upscale, with her and her siblings living along with their sweet old Lolo (Lorli Villanueva) in an actual house, as opposed to the usual modest hut. I was unable to determine whether her family was actually in on Narda’s secret identity, though they are clearly on familiar terms with Darna. There is even a remarkable scene of Darna towing the whole brood along with her as she flies over the city, Grandma hanging on for dear life.

After these youthful shenangians, we cut forward a dozen years or so to find Narda all grown up. Darna takes the classic B movie route of showing us how at once virginal and hawt our young heroine is by depicting her innocently bathing in a placid river -- clothed in a flimsy white shift, as you do – while being spied upon by a group of leering cretins. This means that we get to see Darna beat up a gang of potential rapists, a scene that culminates in a between-the-legs, “pussy power” shot of Darna’s groveling foes that Telegu master of nuance KSR Doss would surely applaud.

But this grown up Narda (now played, of course, by Medved) is no longer the humble country girl we’ve become so accustomed to seeing in Darna movies. On the contrary, she has left her rustic beginnings behind to choke on her careerist dust and moved to the Big City, Manila, to work as a journalist. Darna can certainly be called to account for borrowing from Wonder Woman -- check out our heroine’s oh so familiar bullet repelling bracelets – but the other American comic book property from which this particular scenario is lifted is difficult to mistake. Narda’s big city reporter is both bespectacled and reserved, and has a co-worker/love interest, fellow reporter George (Tonton Gutierrez), who, while literally shouting his love for Darna from the rooftops, barely registers Narda’s existence. At least, that is, until midway through the film, when Narda predictably doffs the glasses and dons a slinky cocktail dress, signaling to the world that she is actually glamorous model and actress Nanette Medved.

While its class politics may not be as blunt as those of other Darna movies, Darna still draws its villains from among the decadent celebrity class. The first of these is “world famous archeologist, businessman, philanthropist, artist and playboy” Dominico Lipolico, played by Captain Barbell’s Edu Manzano. As we see in the prologue, Dominico is a sort of anti-Darna, also finding the source of his supernatural powers at the site of a meteor crash and also answering to voices from the beyond, though, in his case, ones of a decidedly more satanic nature. In fact, part of his scheme seems to be to turn Darna into an evil version of herself, forcing her to transform while under the influence of a dark potion he has made her consume. Until then, however, he is happy just to soil Darna in the eyes of the law – a not too difficult task given that this version of Darna, like Spiderman, is considered a problematic vigilante by the local gendarmes. As a result, Darna actually ends up doing some time in the bucket later in the film.

Of course, what makes Dominico even more dangerous is the fact that he has teamed up with Darna’s arch nemesis, the gorgon Valentina, played with appropriately operatic bombast by Pilar Pilapil. Valentina’s guise as the “first Filipina fashion designer and international model” (Darna, while unsubtitled, is rife with Taglish, which I appreciated immensely) provides for some deliciously disco-y fashion show settings for the action to play out in, all the better to underscore the dissolute-yet-glamorous immorality of these high living antagonists. Indeed the only misstep with this character might be that her familiar, Vibora, is here played by a wise-cracking muppet snake -- voiced by Ruby Rodriguez – that looks like a serpentine incarnation of Waylon Flowers’ Madame. Then again, it does provide a welcome “WTF” element to the proceedings, so I’m not complaining.

In grand Filipino exploitation movie tradition, Darna, despite its family friendliness, does not pull punches when it comes to its horror content, nor to the business of putting tots in harm’s way. At one point, Dominico demonstrates the extent of his malevolence by transforming a timid schoolmarm into a feral, bat winged vampire. This fearsome, constantly screaming creature is later seen luring a little girl to her death by teasingly dangling her teddy bear in front of her, the ensuing slaughter, partially off screen, leaving little to the imagination. I should also mention that this Darna is the same one that we saw in Darna at Ding (I call her “Old Testament Darna”), who blithely condemns law breakers to a death that due process would likely find unwarranted. Keeping it raw, Darna also, after a particularly bloody climactic fight, gives us the rare sight of a bloodied Darna howling for vengeance.

Happily, Darna balances its more disturbing content with generous doses of the risible, such as when Dominico and Valentina rub their hands together in conspiratorial glee over the prospect of interfering with something called the “Boy Scout Olympics”. Ding and Dong, naturally, are among the scouts attending this grand pageant and thus end up in the villains clutches. Elsewhere we have Valentina carrying Vibora around with her like a mouthy purse dog, and the muppet at one point swallowing Darna’s magic stone and transforming into a snake muppet in a little Darna bikini. Then there is the brony-tailed Dominico’s lavish, self celebrating “free party” for all the people of the city, at which he cynically announces the formation of a philanthropic organization dedicated to the betterment of the Filipino people. The guest of honor: “Internationally famous mannequin” Valentina, who, in the course of the runway show, whips off her turban to reveal her writhing coiffure.

I am probably the least reliable person to offer a critique of Darna, because, to be honest, there is literally not a single Darna movie that I have not enjoyed. I am fond not only of the character, but of the fondness with which she is portrayed. The Filipinos, they love themselves some Darna. Just watch the scene in which the passengers of a train which Darna has just helped avert disaster crowd the windows to wave at her as they pass, with her enthusiastically waving in return. Darna at these moments seems less the awesome superhero than she does just plain neighborly. It is for this reason, I think, that Darna’s attempts to urbanize the character didn’t hold, with the following Darna! Ang Pagbabalik actually putting extra emphasis on her humble village origins. Darna, the most approachable of heroes, is nothing if not a country girl at heart.

Still, Nanette Medved, while perhaps not the most charismatic of screen Darnas – and perhaps also at the mercy of some misjudgments on the filmmakers’ parts – does nothing to get in the way of the affection that those filmmakers obviously held for the property. Unlike the action films of Fernando Poe Jr. (who, yes, I understand is a real person and not a comic book character), which are fueled by a sense of rage and underclass grievance, the Darna movies, while occasionally touching upon similar inequities, come from a place of considerably more warmth and humor. My critical faculties thus incapacitated, I can only offer a friendly wave as their star glides amiably by.

1 comment:

Mark said...

This looks like someone's dreams and nightmares all squished together.