It would be easy to commend Salawahan for not doing things we've come to expect of Regal's films, not to mention Philippine cinema. The countless plot twists and the overscaled production values are two items in particular that are mercifully spared the sensible viewer. But it would be unfair for Ishmael Bernal as well as concerned film observers to admire the work for merely being daring enough to run counter to expectations, if so, Salawahan would have been in all probability pretty boring, conditioned as we've been to the visceral and emotional excesses of Filipino cinema. Salawahan is the sort of work that relies in the credibility of its performers' functions and interactions, you could probably dispense with the premise of a filmic reality and still come up with an acceptable work, which in fact is what the French court dramatists, by force of circumstance had managed to do. The fact that Bernal and company correctly decided to emphasize close-ups demonstrates this point all the more clearly. It's a measure of how accomplished all the other elements in Salawahan are when one makes a statement to the effect that none of the four leads delivers satisfactorily, although all of them meet the level of competence required by comic drama. This is where I think the film embodies a uniquely medium-based tension. Apparently, someone forgot to tell the actors that although they were in a Regal production, the project itself required something far different from the Regal school of acting. All throughout, the characters do mostly mugging of the mannered sort, but don't get me wrong here, this approach could excel given the appropriate kind of vehicle, which unfortunately Salawahan doesn't happen to be.
Among the four leads, the relatively minor roles are easier to take. Jay Ilagan (Gerry) falls back on well honed technique, while Andrea Andolong (Sylvia) works well precisely when she doesn't try to, which is about half, the first half in fact, of the time, the other half she goes into a tremolous hard-edged whine that would normally pass off as melodramatic intensity except that such an approach constitutes a misreading of character in this case. The other two are completely off their attack. Mat Ranillo III (Manny) plays for glamour without comic reserve and Rio Locsin (Rina) is merely haughty where she has to be snooty. Such subtleties may be dispensed with in melodrama, where the sheer narrative momentum helps cover up and in many cases, even negate such lapses, but never in drama of a sophisticated order to which Salawahan comes admirably close. For this reason, any foil-player with the correct balance of intellectual distance and emotional involvement can upstage any of the above which is precisely what Rita Gomez (Marianne) for all prior hysteria, does in her highlight of a confession to Gerry. Bernal's awarenesss of the so-called mirror potentials of the medium, in which it could be allowed to comment on itself by self-referential devices. In Salawahan, this is facilitated by setting the characters in an environment where they encounter both creative and final creations and do some creating themselves, this echoes Jose Carreon's effort in 1978's Ikaw Ay Akin, but this time, there's a conscious effort to provide contrast and suggestion. Again, a more filmically alert ensemble would have found ways to maximize this contribution by intelligent interaction with their environment, but then of course, they would still have to surmount the role of presenting themselves and relating with one another to begin with. This last feature, the movie's throwback to the mirror-construction propositions in recent film theory, shows the benefits obtainable in formal film study and training. The ability to draw out appropriate responses from an otherwise capable actor is something that comes from life in the round, but considering the dire need for new and well-informed talents in the industry, what we've got in Salawahan will do. I might have a whole lot more points to raise about the movie's ideational orientations, its notions about women for instance, but I'll be the first to admit the subjectivity of my motives here besides conflicts between the sexes date back to antiquity and still have to be resolved with finality anyway. What's more feasible is the expression of responsible support for a needful situation, so in the meantime I'd rather thank the stars for whatever blessings I've been able to count so far.
Directed By: Ishmael Bernal
Story & Screenplay: Jose N. Carreon
Director Of Photography: Sergio L. Lobo, FSC
Music: Vanishing Tribe
Film Editor: Augusto Salvador
Production Design: Mel Chionglo
Produced By: Regal Films, Inc.
Release Date: September 21, 1979