At this year’s CinemaOne Originals Film Festival, an often forgotten 1984 film finds renewed appreciation from a brand new audience after its beautiful restoration and remastering through the efforts of ABS-CBN. The film, Abbo dela Cruz’s ‘Misteryo Sa Tuwa’ is a gorgeously-shot dark fable about greed in the 1950s.
‘Misteryo Sa Tuwa’ was one of the films produced by the now-defunct Experimental Cinema of the Philippines and was a contender for Best Film in the 1984 Metro Manila Film Festival (where it lost to Mario O’ Hara’s ‘Bulaklak sa City Jail,’ which has also been restored by ABS-CBN and is premiering this week at CinemaOne Originals Film Festival). While it never received the same sort of acclaim as other ECP films like ‘Oro Plata Mata’ or ‘Himala,’ I have always had a special connection to ‘Misteryo Sa Tuwa’ because the film’s poster was hanging in the walls of my home when I was growing up as my mother is the line producer of the film, my dad has an acting cameo, and the director and writer, Abbo dela Cruz is a family friend.
I’ve never seen the movie, though I’ve heard the stories of the production, and I’ve seen still pictures from the film in a photo album at home.
Now, with the restoration and remastering of the original prints by ABS-CBN, ‘Misteryo Sa Tuwa’ finds a whole new audience and can be appreciated with a new frame of reference and vigor.
The film is about a village community living in the mountains in the 1950s. They are kaingeros or illegal loggers who live side-by-side with an army camp and, in the forest where they cut down trees, are the Hukbalahap (or rebels). The story begins with a celebration of a child’s baptism but the revelries are cut short when a plane crashes into the forest nearby and the celebrants rush to the crash site to steal whatever they can find.
When three men, played by Tony Santos Sr, Johnny Delgado, and Ronnie Lazaro) find a suitcase filled with cash,it starts a chain of events that leads to kidnapping, torture, and death.
The film’s simple plot becomes the foundation of a social commentary about the fringes of Philippine society: about the lives of people so far removed from the big city that the rule of law is by the gun. The military is the strongest legal force in the area but even they are beholden to the government in these parts and with the town so distant from Manila, the governor (played by Mario Taguiwalo) rules with his own set of rules.
‘Misteryo Sa Tuwa’ is unapologetic with its depiction of Filipino nature as very straightforward and very practical. When the three men take the money from the plane crash, it is an act of survival without any real sense of right and wrong at play. Out there in the wilderness, there is no right or wrong. Just survival and putting food on the table. The military have the power to put order but none of them are really interested in being there, hoping that they’d get assigned somewhere else. In this wild and unlawful place, even the politician takes matters into his own hands, thinking only of himself.
The film is all its restored glory is a testament to Director of Photography Roddy Lacap’s magnificent composition. Almost every shot in ‘Misteryo Sa Tuwa’ is a huge set piece. Every frame almost like an Amorsolo painting. Shot entirely in the forest with available light, the film shows off the grandeur of the Philippine countryside and peppered with humanity scrambling about like ants. The imagery is magnificent as we are seeing nature marred by human indiginities like war and violence.
What is so striking is that for a film written and produced in 1984, the themes and storyline still holds true until now. The straightforward practicality of the characters in ‘Misteryo Sa Tuwa’ still creates an authentic statement on contemporary society. We are still like this. Nothing has changed. Our world has not gotten any better.
And this is the magic and the beauty of ABS-CBN’s restoration project. We get to revisit forgotten gems like ‘Misteryo Sa Tuwa’ and restored in a way that harkens back to its former glory. Of the many film reels in line to be restored, this film took 3,600 hours of work just to bring it back to this version. There is a full reel (over 20 minutes) where the burnt areas could not be saved but the framing and composition of each of those scenes are still a testament to Filipino artistry all the way back to the 80s.
Personally, I’m very happy about being able to see this film; a film I’ve only heard about and, now that I’ve seen it, am amazed by all the takeaways that come with the story. 25 years later and the story still stands. It still resonates and this alone is the reason why we have to continue restoring and properly archiving our cinema.