Saturday, March 25, 2023

Haplos (1982)

... aka: Caress
... aka: House in the Woods, The

Directed by:
Antonio Jose Perez

Away in Saudi Arabia for years working as an engineer, Al Katigbak (Christopher De Leon) arrives back in his small hometown of Buendia to visit his estranged mother's grave and take care of some other family business. The mother has left behind a dark, gloomy house, which Al moves into, and an ice plant that he now has to decide what to do with. The once-thriving business has taken a big financial hit since most people in the city now have refrigerators, the price of oil needed to run the machinery has skyrocketed and many of the customers live deep in the dangerous jungle, which is patrolled by soldiers but still filled with rebels and terrorists, and Al is considering just closing it down. He befriends Goryo (Rez Cortez), the guy who's been managing the plant in his absence, and tries to get settled back into life in the Philippines. Of course, since the singles scene in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia is pretty much nonexistent and he's not getting any younger, finding romance is high on his agenda. Thankfully, some options soon present themselves.

Al reunites with Cristalina Nieto (Vilma Santos), a former childhood friend who's now working for the government agency POPCOM (Commission on Population and Development) running a family planning center in town, though only on a temporary basis. She invites him to her home for dinner so he can meet her widowed mother, Gloria (Delia Razon), and local priest and family friend Father Ocampo (Jaime Fabregas). While Ocampo is incredibly progressive and open-minded for a priest, her mother is old-fashioned and superstitious, talks to her dead sister and doesn't quite understand the younger generation's approach to relationships and sex, nor is she fully behind her daughter's line of work. She also doesn't try to hide the fact she'd prefer Cristy hook up with army lieutenant Jaime Alvarez (Juan Rodrigo) instead of spending time with Al.

Cristy is so popular she even has a third admirer who has yet to make themselves known. Unfortunately, that one's a pervert who likes making obscene phones in a dead end subplot that feels completely superfluous. While she has her options, Cristy is extremely independent and goal driven, not in any hurry to settle down and likes her job because it gives her the ability to travel. Winning over her affections and getting her to stay put won't be easy, but Al is determined and manages to get his foot in the door pretty quickly.

Though Cristy makes a living educating people about safe sex and birth control, she ends up getting caught up in the heat of passion and has unprotected sex with Al. Even so, she's not entirely set on him as a boyfriend just yet. Instead, she dives headfirst into her work. Deciding to stay in the area for awhile and expand her outreach program to remote areas on the outskirts of town, she enlists the aid of Basilio "Ilyong" Valdemor (Eddie Infante), a former zarzuela (musical comedy) actor turned town drunk after the love of his life was massacred by Japanese soldiers during the WWII occupation, to help spread the message to locals using bawdy comedy sketches. Al is supposed to help them out, but finds himself swept up in something else instead...

Returning to his mother's grave, Al runs across a demure, pretty young woman named Auring (Rio Locsin) visiting her parent's gave. Though she's hardly an open book and offers up few insights into her life, he becomes immediately infatuated with her. She claims to live by herself in a nearby house in the woods, which instantly piques his interest because the area is so obviously dangerous. What is a girl like that doing in a place like this all by herself? The two spending several nights together naturally doesn't sit too well with Cristy, who's since decided that she's also in love with him (and is also now carrying his baby), which sends the film into love triangle territory, only with one of the participants obviously being a ghost.

I couldn't quite figure out the what the primary intent of this film was but it's at least thoughtfully-scripted by Ricardo Lee. The narrative frequently contrasts how things currently are vs. how things used to be. It's probably no coincidence that Al's romantic choices are an outgoing, ambitious career woman who has a short haircut, wears pants and has a modern, realistic outlook on sex and dating, and a meek, subservient and traditionally ultra-feminine (long hair and gowns) woman from the past who's content to just stay at home all the time. The film really doesn't side with one option or the other as being the ideal (well, aside from one of the participants technically being dead!), and treats the older characters, who've either adapted to modern times (like the priest) or are trapped in the past (like the mother or Ilyong), in about the same way. No one's necessarily bad or wrong. Everyone's just different.

This also frequently alludes to WWII traumas that still haunt the country forty years later. There's mention of American forces killing 30 children after accidentally bombing a school (which I wouldn't be surprised to learn was something that actually happened), and Japanese forces are the ones responsible for creating the ghost girl in the first place (she was raped and then murdered by Japanese soldiers during the occupation). Remaining remnants from the Spanish colonial period (which ended around the turn of the 20th century) are also heavily focused on, including much use made of a very old (and very cool-looking) Spanish era cemetery.

Being made during an uncertain time in Filipino film history when they were still working out their artistic freedom bugs after a long period of censorship adds some additional interest. This has allowed some flexibility in regards to portraying a more permissive style of church. The priest in this film is shown to be an important, entrusted pillar of the community yet he's also surprisingly non-judgmental and accepting of changes in societal norms; feeling these have no real bearing on one's faith. He's also in favor of birth control to held curb overpopulation and thus curb poverty in rural areas, despite some opposition to this from the mainstream Catholic church.

However, despite all of the interesting stuff lurking in the script and the fact this is generally well-made and acted (great locations, too), it's not entirely successful. Horror fans should take note that this just barely qualifies as a genre film. Sure, there's a ghost, a haunted house, a few mildly eerie moments and a few other genre trappings, but there's also no action, excitement, scares or suspense and the ghost here is tragic, not evil nor vengeful. While that isn't a debit to the film itself per se, the fact this ghost bothers to return for seemingly no other reason than to take part in a weepy doomed love triangle before exiting stage left seems rather silly. It also leaves the film without any sense of immediacy or narrative drive as it trudges along.

Depending on what kind of viewer you are, the unsure depiction of the supernatural here can be quite irritating as well. The ghost's home, for instance, had been burned down by Japanese troops in the 1940s. Now it's sometimes there and sometimes not, and sometimes visible to the naked eye and sometimes not, and only visible to certain characters but not others and for seemingly no reason at all aside from the fact it needs to be, or not be, for the convenience of the plot. If the ghost can control who sees her and her home, then why on Earth would she allow her love rival to even come there in the first place? The home even burns down a second time toward the end (which may just be a hallucination) yet is back again just a few scenes later despite the fact the ghost has already been vanquished.

There's another scene toward the end where Al gets to witness what Auring went through back in the 1940s though I wasn't sure whether he was hallucinating it, she was gifting him the vision, it was being reenacted in present day with terrorists subbing for the Japanese soldiers or if she briefly transported him back the 40s. Who's controlling all of this?! Is it even real? Is there some kind of lapse in time or space? None of it really made much sense. The film is also very talky and runs for over 2 hours. While this gives the filmmakers some breathing room in regards to developing the characters, the film still feels sluggish much of the time and the last fifteen minutes, where Al falls into some kind of post-ghost despondent state, feels both pointless and anticlimactic.

Though an official entry in the 1982 Metro Manila Film Festival, this did not receive international distribution to my knowledge. It's finally been given a digital restoration and subtitles though, making it one of the few Filipino genre films from this time to be made available in decent quality for English-speaking audiences. Alas, there remain tons of seldom-seen Filipino genre films from the 50 through the 80s which have yet to receive a similar release.

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