Review: Veronica Velasco's TUHOG is a Film that Bridges the Gap Between Smart and Sentimental
In I Do (2010), the dream wedding of two teens is constantly delayed by occurrences beyond their control, pitting their youthful love against youthful impatience. In Last Supper No. 3 (2009), a props-man turns into the butt of an overextended joke when he misplaces a wall décor he borrowed from an opportunistic family for an ad campaign, forcing him to experience the frustrating inanities of the Philippine judicial system. In Maling Akala (2007), which Velasco co-directed with Pablo Biglangawa, a chance meeting between two strangers results in a set-up that would hint of a budding romance that turns out to be nothing but an erroneous assumption. Velsaco and Biglangawa's first feature, Inang Yaya (Mother Nanny, 2006), an emergency forces a nanny to choose between being a mother to her estranged daughter and a nanny to her ward.
Tuhog is spawned from that same obsession with fate's cruelty. This time, the cruelty approaches the macabre, with three random strangers getting impaled by a steel pole when their passenger bus figures in a freak accident. The absurd situation the three find themselves in is that they are now faced with an even crueller responsibility of choosing who among them would have to perish to save the lives of the other two. The rationale for the need to choose is borne out of writer's conceit: there are only two operating rooms in the hospital, leaving the unlucky unattended victim to simply bleed and suffer to death.
Velasco and co-writer Laurel quickly abandon the morbid image of skewered strangers in an ill-equipped emergency room to explore the three lives that through a twist of fate have become the subjects of a debate of life's worth. Tonio (Leo Martinez) is a recent retiree who now finds himself either arguing endlessly with his adult children or reminiscing youth with his best friends over games of cards. His only hope from what seems to be a deadened existence is his sudden dream to put up a bakery. Fiesta (Eugene Domingo) is the toughened conductor of a passenger bus. Her hardened front, a result of having live with her alcoholic and suicidal father, is softened when Nato (Jake Cuenca), her replacement driver who has just recovered from a recent break-up, expresses his love for her. Caloy (Enchong Dee), a student who is far too concerned with his hormones to take his studies seriously, is in a long distance relationship his girlfriend. Having contented himself with the passing pleasures of daydreaming and online flirting in an effort to preserve his virginity for their upcoming anniversary, he now has to face the possibility that his girlfriend has already been sleeping around behind his back.
Beyond the mostly clever writing that rarely feels false or forced, there is also something humorously brutal in the way Velasco and Laurel fashion the three stories with linings of hope and forgiveness only to have them be abruptly suspended with the impalement. There is always that threat that death or some sort of sudden conclusion is just looming around, waiting to foil a life plan, to block a resolution, or to douse a passion.
Unfortunately and perhaps because there are limitations as to what is tolerable in commercial filmmaking, Tuhog never really embraces the darkness that could have complemented its gruesome center-piece. There is very little interaction among the suddenly conjoined victims, considering that their dilemma is one that would naturally excite the demons of self-preservation. Instead, it settles for obvious life lessons, as bluntly mouthed in the film's hurried end by its unnecessary mascot, a destitute drummer boy who every now and then appears in the film to vengefully predict death.
Still, Tuhog is something to behold within the context of a mainstream cinema that shuns experimentation and adventurism. Through convictions and compromises, Velasco and Laurel have come up with a film that successfully bridges the gap between smart and sentimental, eccentric and emotional, quirky and conventional.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Attention.)