“Sana Maulit Muli:” A Film Review

It’s easy to accuse Filipino films of “crimes” that are easy to pin down, perhaps for the dearth of quality, the economic realities of Pinoy cinema, or instances of self-loathing (because y’know, it’s easy to review movies these days on the basis of a trailer). There are linear and almost formulaic plots, poor cinematography, and the stigma that comes with the typical local blockbuster. Yet every once in a while there are movies that sort of invalidate the criticism by making those tropes and preconceived notions work in its favor.

The formulaic plot is necessary to charge scenes with nuance. The poor cinematography is proof of a (what was then) young industry stunted by the poverty of support for it. The stigma is there: the movie industry is still, after all, a business that relies on star power and marketing.

Yet that ease of criticism stands in the way of the spirit of cinema. In “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema,” the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek puts it best: for us to understand the world, cinema provides us with the lens to see the reality which is more real than reality itself. For all the accusations of “poverty porn,” extreme melodrama, and linear plots made to put Pinoy cinema in the stocks and pillory, it’s not without merit.

And not without timelessness, either. In an industry that spews forth countless titles—and MMFF sequels—in a year, it takes a certain mindset to find enduring ones. And, in a society that puts as much stock on emotion as the Philippines, we need to find endearing ones.
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“Sana Maulit Muli,” directed by Olivia Lamasan and starring Aga Muhlach and Lea Salonga, is one of them.

*****

The movie is, of course, 20 years old, set at a time when Ortigas was still a bustling hub of business and careers were still bent and broken in the lathe of traditional advertising. This was 1995: Aga Muhlach—the template of today’s matinee idol—played the role of Jerry Morales, an account executive (or manager?) facing the problems of the ordinary Filipino working man: despite being quite successful in his career endeavors, Jerry confronted the problems of reaching his struggling family’s hopes and dreams. Lea Salonga played (to a tee) Agnes Sarmiento, a needy and immature (in today’s parlance, “pabebe”) young woman, forced to move to San Francisco because of the wishes of her mother.

Any long-distance relationship faces its problems, but it is in this movie where the Filipino milieu gains facets and dimensions. Jerry’s mother does not approve of the relationship between her son and Agnes, while Agnes struggles with the pressures of loneliness in America. For four years, with the hopes of a wedding looming in the distance, Agnes faces everything from loneliness to attempted rape to the seeming indignities of her caregiver job, to rise up to become a successful and independent California realtor. Meanwhile, Jerry sees the long-distance relationship as an opportunity for him to further his career: his constant absence (coupled by his mother’s disapproval of the relationship) becomes his path to success, at the expense of a deteriorating relationship with the woman he loves.

It is here where “Sana Maulit Muli” truly shines as a classic of our times: love, after all, is the highest articulation of affection over time and space, and everything else in between. Love is charged even further when those times differ, and those distances become greater. To prove his love to Agnes, Jerry suffers the ignominy of trading off a successful advertising career for a bunch of menial jobs as a “TNT” in America. However, Agnes thrives as a realtor, bringing to the surface Jerry’s own insecurities from his own family’s history. Not to mention triggering Jerry’s insecurities, knowing that his affections are rivalled by Agnes’s boss.

For a critic more well-versed in movies than I am, it’s here that the movie becomes somewhat predictable: would Agnes continue to love Jerry despite his own feelings of inadequacy? Would Jerry stand up for his pride, and at the same time win back the affections of the woman who once thought of him as a lover lost to time and distance? Would Agnes love Jerry again, despite her newfound success and confidence and her doubt (fueled by distance, disapproving friends and family, and her own struggles with the Land of Opportunity)?

Could love, somehow, be sweeter the moment it is rekindled? Or does love, like sand castles in the shore, wear down and erode from the forces of every hour and every mile spent away?

******

The undercurrents of why these things have to happen often take a back seat: perhaps because the pursuit of the American Dream is, for all intents and purposes, a struggle. It’s not as evident for the native as it is for the immigrant, and is at its highest for the illegal. In their desire to succeed on their own terms, both Jerry and Agnes pretty much live stages of the American Dream on their own terms (Jerry representing its failure, and Agnes representing its success). Every property sale that Agnes makes in the name of independence is punctuated by every resignation that Jerry makes on the basis of principles; as Agnes makes her way up in the ladder of America, Jerry continues to hold that ladder down through every menial job he takes. As Agnes basks in the glow of triumph, Jerry (quite literally) washes down his pride.

More important (perhaps because of the commercial aspect of filmmaking) is the emotional undertow that makes this movie what it is. “Kilig”—as we know it here in the Philippines—is hard to capture from the lens of Hollywood. Blockbuster romances from America are often caught by the desire to perfect the execution—for passionate kisses and almost philosophical dialogue—more than to tell the story. Yet often, those stories are perhaps more important than the torrid bed scenes and sexual encounters that are part and parcel of Hollywood films (of which “Sana Maulit Muli” has none of).

It’s here where we realize that “Sana Maulit Muli” creates the template that creates OFW/TNT love stories, and many other in the same line of experience. As personalities change, so do loves: Agnes becomes headstrong, as Jerry loses himself (but not without threatening his Pinoy boss with a cleaver towards the end), and these roles start changing and reversing when Jerry moves to America to “talk to” Agnes. Love, while undying and immortal in this story, is not without its moments of uncertainty and fear. It’s also here that the movie acts as a circle of silent social critics: from the cramped apartment that Agnes lives in before her struggles ultimately end in triumph, to Jerry living in his cousin’s home realizing that they both failed in the American Dream.

The ending, while “corny” to some, is perfect: the act of love is clear in Agnes returning to the Philippines, after Jerry goes home after realizing that the American dream is not for everyone. If Jerry would do it for Agnes four years before, then Agnes would definitely do it for Jerry, as well. Perhaps, to live up to that promise made by Agnes’s fireplace months before.

(Perhaps the most heart-wrenching scene: to see Jerry push Agnes away, just before he was to go back to the Philippines, and just after he bids her in one of the most kilig-worthy embraces I’ve ever seen, after watching X-number of these films over the years.)

*****

The “digitally-restored” edition is not something I’m quite happy with: I was expecting higher definition, but the end result was somehow grainy (it’s a lot like projecting the TV from my condo to the screens of Power Plant’s cinemas), but that’s something I would ascribe to the limitations of film. Yet the storyline—which is enough to elicit “awws” and “uuuys” from the small crowd that gathered in the theater—was still spot on: it’s no small wonder why ABS-CBN would call this a “classic,” despite being a fairly recent film. And it’s hard to deny the chemistry between Lea Salonga and Aga Muhlach: for showbiz-minded people, it’s one of those what-could-have-been love stories that would never fail to tug at the heartstrings of even the most manhid of hearts out there, including mine.

That despite distant spaces and different time zones, that despite time changing our personalities, that despite that desire changing across different real and emotional changes in our world, love triumphs. When we’re in love—and when that love is undying—we give up “all,” and that “all” means so much more than what is rational or sane or acceptable. Or love and its cycles: what we do for the one we love, we’ll do over and over, just as the one who loves us will do the same (perhaps even more).

Again: the ease of criticizing movies stands in the way of the spirit of cinema. If anything, “Sana Maulit Muli” earns its classic status because of the moral lesson implied in the entire thing: our sense of place defines our sense of love. Any relationship that has distance factored in it—no matter how short or how long, literal or metaphorical—can benefit from the lesson taught to us by Jerry and Agnes: that true love always finds a way to bring us closer, despite the many goodbyes we make along the way. To use Žižek again: not to teach us what to desire, but how to desire.

That “how to desire” part, perhaps, is what “Sana Maulit Muli”—after 20 years and so many showings and a digital restoration later—does so excellently.

Plus, it’s really kilig to watch, after all these years.

*****

“Sana Maulit Muli” is part of a special screening of digitally-restored films by ABS-CBN, presented at Power Plant Mall in Rockwell, Makati. For screening schedules, please refer to this link: “Sana Maulit Muli” will show till Tuesday night. BTW, this is not a paid or sponsored post.

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