Monday, January 03, 2005


Familiar sight from Loboc River (Photo by

(My apologies to Paulo Coelho)

By Dylan Yap Gozum
December 28, 2004

Film: Panaghoy sa Suba (Cry of the River)
Screenplay: Cris Vertido and Cesar Montano
Production Outfit: CM Films

It was with great excitement that my mom and I went to the mall to finally see the much-talked-about Visayan-language film Panaghoy sa Suba (Cry of the River) produced and starred in by the quintessential actor Cesar Montano.

I mean it’s not often in a lifetime that one can watch a Filipino film done in a local major language (Cebuano being a language in itself, and all other Visayan tongues as derivatives of Cebuano, save for Waray and Ilonggo). I have always dreamed of a Kapampangan film ever since I read Rizal’s Noli in that language when I was in Xavier University, but I guess that has to wait. For now, I’m going to see a Cebuano film while trying to ignore the obtrusive English subtitles.

Awesome Photography

And what a sight it was! I must admit that this film was beautifully shot. Although I wish they took more aerials to show that the town concerned doesn’t look like it’s the only one existing in the whole of Bohol, the shots from the river were beautiful; the sunsets and sunrises make one want to go on a summer vacation immediately. The rest of the film showed the Director for Photography’s dedication to his craft. He was not afraid to try new angles and these, despite the film’s 1940s setting, gave it a “very now” feel, with the clarity and color that is sometimes ignored by other directors doing period films. A period film, after all, doesn’t have to look old if only to prove a point.

Wonderful Cast

Many will admit that aside from the novelty of watching a Cebuano-language film (although it really didn’t sound very Cebuano to me, having lived long enough in that paradise island to know the language well, but the way it is spoken must have changed much since then), the main attraction is still Cesar Montano, the actor’s actor from whom we all demand nothing less than a spartan and exemplary acting. And he didn’t disappoint.

The next person who caught our attention was admirable Ronnie Lazaro, whose role as a lunatic (Must every town had to have one? Just asking.), although nonspeaking, was not one which incites jeers from among the audience but rather a sense of respect, because he seems to keep most of the town’s secrets close to his heart, and his smiles and grins reflect his complete understanding of his surroundings. He represents the sensitivity in the way Director Montano has handled parts of this film, including that of the death of his mother, and the restrained way he showed his feelings towards Icet (Juliana Palermo, as the perpetually bad-hair-day town lass everyone is after).

Daria Ramirez is effective here, if only because she – once again – gives us a brave and strong face to the Filipino image of a long-suffering mother (aside from the fact the she isn’t even Visayan but spoke her lines convincingly enough). We really look forward to her doing some other roles that does not require her to die in the middle of a film. She’s been “killed” and made to suffer so many times in the past (the last one before this was in Toro a.k.a. Live Show) that maybe, just maybe, she could get a role that gives justice to her talent.

Joel Torre is wasted in this film. He should have been given an active role.

Caridad Sanchez, however, should be rapped on the head with her sandok if only to remind her to stop yelling all the time, even during dinner. She was terribly overacting, and while effective as the aunt who was “selling” Iset to every boyfriend rivaling the United Nations at every opportunity she gets, I honestly don’t think the way she acted reflected the gentility of the Boholanos or the Visayans in general. We Visayan-speakers may talk loudly at times (I prefer to use “animated”) but we don’t yell at each other over the dinner table, thank you very much. Good thing she didn’t engage in histrionics when the priest was shot or else I would have entered the screen and slapped her silly. Enough said.

Appropriate Setting but with a Little Distraction

The setting of this film is a small town in Bohol in the early 1940s until after the Japanese occupation; and from the film, one can imagine Loboc (the actual site of the filming) as totally idyllic and charming. I wish to visit its church if given the time and see that river too.

The famous Loboc Children’s Choir, which provided portions of the musical score, comes to Manila too often so there’s no need to go to Bohol to hear them. The entire town, I guess, was authentic and this added to the plus points of this film. If anything, this brought Filipino architecture in the provinces to the fore, making us wonder at how these houses can withstand storms while allowing scores of people to actually live in them. Perhaps Manila residents should take notice.

In the film, Duroy (Cesar Montano) said something about bringing Bikay, his younger sister (she is one of the child actors in Muro Ami, Rebecca Lusterio) to a town hall but where is this town hall?

Oddly enough, this town didn’t even have a mayor (or so it seems) or individuals with police power when they badly needed it (especially during the habulan that happened when Ibo (Reiven Bulado), Duroy’s younger brother, ran after and attacked the American John Smith with a bolo).

Hundreds of years after the Spanish came to the Philippines, and during this period as a Commonwealth under the Americans (1935-1946, the film setting was 1941-1946), there were no police or persons of authority in the area to conduct investigations or maintain peace and order? (The Philippine Constabulary was established in August 8 of 1901 by the way).

Surely when that puny group of Japanese soldiers appeared in Loboc’s horizon, there was an authority (aside from the priest) who they could have met up first and talked to? Because in this film, the Japanese general (Jackie Woo as Fumio Okhohara who, despite his name’s weak allusion to the word “fume,” was actually a pacifist) went straight to the people and talked to them in the Catholic Church.

And why did Duroy automatically take over as leader of the townsfolk when they fled to the mountains? Again, is this because the town has no duly-elected leader or simply a case of “glorifying” the lead actor? Surely there were elders present who were not supporters of the Japanese.

And what is a 30ish American (Phil Anthony) doing in this remote town monopolizing the basket-weaving business? I suddenly forgot that this was a ”river movie” when the story didn’t even revolve around it (I suggest changing the title to A River Supposedly Runs Through It, with apologies to Director Robert Redford).

Medical Segue Way

As an individual in the medical field, I am surprised at the locals’ overdependence on bottled medicines to battle malaria, which has existed in Asia for centuries.

We must be reminded that the use of cinchona bark against malaria was discovered in 1640. In fact, in 1942, American soldiers smuggled roughly 4,000,000 cinchona seeds from the Philippines and brought these to Costa Rica and the US because the cinchona trees in Java were overrun by the Japanese, while the Germans took over the plantations in Amsterdam. And of course chloroquine was eventually discovered in 1935.

When the Americans came to Manila in 1898, among their first official acts was to field sanidads to battle the city’s ever-growing problem with flies and mosquitoes (see Manila, My Manila by Nick Joaquin). Surely this policy has extended throughout the islands.

If neighboring Vietnam, whose topography is exactly the same as that of the Philippines’, discovered that malaria can be cured (or at least bring down the fever secondary to malaria, which has a ring of medical truth to it) by drinking the boiled extract of the fragrant grass tanglad (Cymbopogon citratus), surely the Filipinos – no strangers to malaria, and the last time I checked, the very same race which discovered the healing powers of erythromycin and virgin coconut oil – could have also discovered something of the same from something endemic to the area. Incidentally, tanglad is found all over Visayas and Mindanao. I even found it recently in the belly of a Cebu inasal shared with us for Noche Buena.

It’s the Story, Stupid.

Needless to say (but I’m still saying it), if I was asked to tell the story of Panaghoy, I might have to pause then proceed to diagram it using arrows pointing in all directions. In short, it has an intangible storyline. A moviemaker friend who saw it first, described it as being “here, there and everywhere”. He was so correct.

Attention to detail must be emphasized here because perhaps too much excitement took over early on in the filming. One particularly funny scene that had Mom and I in stitches was when the radioman was, uh, radioing Manila for updates re Japanese movement in the town (or was it in the next?) IN CEBUANO! I’m sorry but even in this day and age, Visayans still speak in either English or Tagalog when talking to ManileƱos, how much more in the 1940s and over shortwave radio at that?

There is also no need for that sex scene. It immediately cuts off all possibilities of this film being promoted to elementary students nationwide (I can hear mumblings. If you have a complaint, please take a number and be seated).

And what’s this gung-ho over revenge? Yes, we Filipinos love to be vengeful (Admit it, man! Our films and politics are full of it!) but only when necessary. Why would Duroy want to kill John Smith when the latter didn’t even mean to kill his brother Ibo? If the police were here to investigate, they would have told Duroy that it was Ibo who attacked Smith first (I don’t know if the police in the ‘40s already accepted bribes. It wouldn’t really matter anyway).

If Duroy killed Smith, I would have declared this film without thinking twice the most stupid I’ve ever seen. Good thing the writers had other things in mind. Really, there is no need to highlight revenge, especially if it is without basis and done with no amount of reasonable thinking (Come to think of it, most revenge are done without giving them much thought but really, should emotional outrage be above reason?)

This morning, a friend chided me by saying that I should excuse the film’s flaws because it is not a Hollywood production. Oh wait, why should we benchmark our films with that of Hollywood’s? They, too, fall into the usual cycle of rehashed classics which turn out bad, predictable outcomes and under- or undeveloped characterization. I really feel bad when we say “Sayang!” when our entries don’t become the Best Foreign Film in the Oscars. Are the Americans the only true cineastes in the world that they should judge which foreign film is best for their tastes?

I had to remind my friend that it is brave and articulate Filipino productions like Magnifico that got a Silver Bear in Berlin, and Panaghoy and future Filipino productions should benchmark, not with foreign films but those of their own. If Magnifico can make it, the rest can.

Panaghoy is a world-class production, no doubt about it. Although I opine that it didn’t have to be a war movie that had nothing to do with the river in its title (it could have taken on an environmental theme, which is hardly novel but more realistic and dear to present-day Filipinos’ sensibilities), it still is worth every peso put into it: great cast, wonderful photography, novel idea. But every film in the world is judged by one definitive category: the stories they tell.
And in this, Panaghoy didn’t live up to expectations.

The real ‘cry’ of the river is attention to detail, and a call for writers with focus. The river is crying for better treatment. Opening the film using a score to be used later in a funeral float was a big mistake, and that set the grim and dark path this film would eventually take. The ending was hardly a liberating experience. Questions and doubts lingered even if the film was trying to close on a light note.

Montano, in his interview with Ricky Lo of The Philippine Star, said he wanted his films to tell our own stories and not aping those from Hollywood. I admire Montano more than ever. He made me proud to be a Mindanaoan who is able to speak and write in Cebuano, but words of advice before he starts filming his next project: Focus, focus, focus. Work on a story that has coherence and which makes sense. All the rest falls into place.

I look forward to watching your next film, sir.

Long live the Visayan language! Long live Visayan films! (And I mean it).

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