Ishmael Bernal’s PAGDATING SA DULO (1971) opens in a medium tight shot of Chin (played by Ms. Rita Gomez). She dances rigidly in this seemingly clenched opening frame. Though fully dressed and glamorously made-up, Bernal immediately established a strained central character in this early claustrophobic shot. She moves towards her audience – a group of nameless ordinary folk, mostly men – and she dances her way to each of the tables. They slowly strip her: gloves, skirt, blouse, shoes and all. By the end of the opening scene, Chin is back in the same gripped frame, however this time, bare and exposed.
In the next scene, we join Chin inside her house. As she climbs the stairs to her bedroom, Bernal strategically positions his camera at the top of the staircase and we see Chin drag herself as she climbs. Both Bernal and Gomez take their time, and we watch Chin painfully scramble as she walks up to her bedroom. She drags herself to her bedroom and undresses, drinks a shot of bedside brandy and lies down. She sighs. And then, the scene cuts back to the main door. Enter Pinggoy (Vic Vargas). Bernal positions his camera again in his strategic position on the top of the staircase and we watch Pinggoy climb the same path laboriously. He reaches the bedroom. Undresses, and climbs to the bed.
It is at this moment when Chin opened her eyes and sighed the film’s opening lines: “Sawang-sawa na ako sa buhay ko!”
Even as early as its 7-minute mark, Bernal establishes his story about one’s scrambling journey to the top and the tragedies that await in one’s dreams.
And so as promised, Bernal tells how Chin made her way up from a regular striptease to becoming the movie star Paloma Miranda . Pinggoy, her lover also got his break as a sexy actor and eventually made a name for himself. But as the story unfolds, the ugly face of show business creeps in and strains our characters. Chin and Pinggoy will have to decide as to what is good for them, or else tragedy awaits.
PAGDATING SA DULO is Bernal’s first commercial film, and it cuts close to the bone, drawing so directly from life that many Filipino film enthusiasts and historians would recognize personal details. Take for example Eddie Garcia’s role of the Director in the film. He is the “ideal” artist, one who willingly sacrifices fame and profit for the arts. He respects his craft and worships his art. In one scene he repeatedly reminds everyone to address him as Direktor instead of the showbiz jargon Direk. “Hindi ako katulad ng iba na puro short-cuts!” he says in one scene, pertaining to the commercial trend of the era where sexy and B-movies gather more following than well-reflected films. Garcia’s persona reflects Bernal’s own sentiments. Known for being one of the rebels in Philippine Cinema, Bernal used Garcia’s character to be his mouthpiece as he prepares for his oeuvre of films that will span more than two decades.
As the two central characters journey to their dreams, we simply watch and see and learn. Their dreams are just within their grasps, but its realization is another thing. Though from a 2016 perspective, PAGDATING SA DULO seems like a familiar Cinderella story of a budding actress, it is good to note too, how Bernal wonderfully orchestrates a film that juxtaposes a struggling society on the brink of a Martial Law proclamation.
In PAGDATING, we see the stunning contrast of the impoverished poor, and Bernal’s own statement on hypocritical artistry. Consider the scene where Paloma and the Director talks about the art of filmmaking at the CCP ramp. The Director explains that one doesn’t need education to know and create art. He/She only needs to understand life, and find ways on how art could heal and uplift it. As they continue their discussion, they march down the ramp, silently symbolizing a rebellious detachment from the institutionalized arts of the time.
Much can be said, of course, about Gomez’ spell-binding portrayal of the ambitious Chin/Paloma Miranda. In her, we see the stereotyped striving actress, ready to sell her soul to the devil just so she could escape the grips of a miserable past. Gomez’ performance is at times, flamboyant, unapologetic, ill-mannered, and gothic. Reminds me of Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Wilder’s SUNSET BLVD (1950). Gomez was 36 when she did Paloma Miranda in PAGDATING SA DULO, but she looks like she’s a ravishing gal of 28. Vargas is dashing; a screen-thrill and a sight to follow. He is the unconventional lover, cruel at times, yet extremely lovable for his loyalty.
And Bernal saves the best for last. In the much talked-about final scene, the players climb another set of stairs only to freeze in an unforgettable trapped frame. In its silence, the closing shot of PAGDATING SA DULO echoes a multitude of tragedies and dead ends. For our characters, there is no way out; their dreams fulfilled are their own funerals.
Yes. Bernal knows better.
THE GOOD NEWS: The Film Development Council Philippines in cooperation with the Cinematheque Centre Manila will feature the restored version Ishmael Bernal’s PAGDATING SA DULO as its opening film for this year’s World Premieres Film Festival. It will be shown on June 29, 3pm at the Cinematheque Centre in Kalaw St. Manila (formerly Instituto de Cervantes). This is a rare chance to see this masterpiece. Don’t miss it.