Review: The newly restored ‘Magic Temple’

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(From left to right) Marc Solis (Omar), Junell Hernando (Sambag), and Jason Salcedo (Subal) play the main protagonists in "Magic Temple," one of the films digitally restored by ABS-CBN. Screencap from ABS-CBN ENTERTAINMENT/YOUTUBE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Within seconds of seeing the remastered edition of Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes’ “Magic Temple,” there already is an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. The audience gets reacquainted with Star Cinema’s classic logo: a star with seven points or a heptagram, said to be the symbol for perfection, and often used to ward off evil. The initial image projected on the screen felt lifted from a YouTube rip of the film. Is this it?

The last restoration I saw from ABS-CBN’s Film Restoration series was Mario O’Hara’s “Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos” (“Three Godless Years,” 1976). The celebrated period film was worked on meticulously as the print used in the process was badly molded and scratched. Despite the lack of color, the masterful intersection of several lives during the Japanese occupation deserves to be experienced.

A few seconds into "Magic Temple," it hits you: this restoration looks so goddamn beautiful. Seeing it in high definition makes it feel more real — bringing one closer to the material to see the film in all its clarity. This close encounter with the film, which has lived in the collective memories of every kid who has seen it in the 90s, feels chillingly important as its themes of national identity and unity still resonate in today’s politically charged era.

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 12.43.58 PM.jpg The film highlights how unity can help combat evil. While the protagonists' individual powers are getting stronger, it’s in working together that pushes them to reach their goal. Screencap from ABS-CBN ENTERTAINMENT/YOUTUBE

After Samadhi falls into the hands of Ravenal (Jackie Lou Blanco) and her brigade of goons in their classic jeans and black beanie combo, three protégés of Sifu (Jun Urbano) must use their training to overcome each and every quest — and side quests — and restore the balance between light and darkness. Without their master to guide them, Jubal (Jason Salcedo) being the oldest, takes responsibility as the leader. Sambag (Junell Hernando), the crybaby, is the often misunderstood middle child. Omar (Marc Solis), the youngest, who was pulled out by Sifu from a pile of animal excrement, is brash and palaban.

Working as a team becomes tougher as the three must also deal with overcoming their individual issues: Sambag falls in love with a pretty girl named Yasmin (Anna Larrucea), a ghost who can’t lay to rest until her bones are buried. Jubal lacks focus, underperforming as a leader. Omar, a temperamental brat, often questions Jubal’s capacity to lead.

“Magic Temple” seeks unity. Samadhi is a state of “one-pointedness,” a concept found in Buddhism and Hinduism. The names of the three protagonists also bear meaning: Jubal is an Igorot name, an ethnic tribe from Luzon. Sambag means tamarind in Bisaya. Omar is a common Moslem name that hails from the tribes in Mindanao. To rid Samadhi of evil, the three must unite and work as one.

Magic Temple 2.jpg Jackie Lou Blanco plays the character of the villain, Ravenal. Screencap from ABS-CBN ENTERTAINMENT/YOUTUBE

The film wants to highlight how unity can help combat evil. While their individual powers are getting stronger, it’s working together that pushes the protagonists to reach their goal. This lesson is hammered down further by a song that played during the film’s training montage:

Dahil sa ating pagkakaisa huwag kang matakot, huwag mangamba. Kapangyarihan mo'y gamitin mo. Karapatan mo ay ipaglaban mo, ngunit iisa pa rin tayo. (As we unite, leave your fears behind. Use your powers to fight for your right, but together, as one, we remain.)

With the current political landscape looking disjointed and scattered, the film’s cry for unity might be just what we need. Factions and cliques, labels and colors, these things divide further. “Magic Temple” knows that no matter how strong evil is, it’s no match for those who fight together.

Moreover, Gallaga and Reyes’ film remains impressive for combining classic cinematic elements from the East and West. The film is peppered with references and homages to pop culture, but the end product remains distinctly Filipino.

While modern blockbusters rely on mocking the zeitgeist to stay relevant, "Magic Temple" layers these references to make it more familiar. Yasmin is made to look like a porcelain doll with a penchant for Japanese Lolita fashion. One of Ravenal’s forms was an armored samurai, complete with a Menpo, a facial armor, the same thing that inspired Darth Vader’s mask, according to George Lucas. There’s a kid who kicks ass in kung-fu inserted in the film to appeal to the same demographic that made the “Little Shaolin” series a domestic success. Before the planned murder of Omar and Sambag, the villain makes them eat oranges — fans of “The Godfather” will get the implication of the act. We call them pegs these days, but in the context of a 1996 blockbuster, these slight links to Eastern and Western pop culture feel well-meaning and smart.

However, the heavy use of CG was problematic as the low resolution renders culled from the past technology does not match the contrast and clarity of the scenes shot on film. The restoration also amplified some goofs left in the final cut: For instance, during Sambag’s parseltongue scene, it became more obvious that there was a sheet of glass between the boy and the cobra. Nevertheless, “Magic Temple” stood the test of time, and audiences today now have a chance to see the film, warts and all.

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 12.42.57 PM.jpg In 1996, the fantasy-adventure film “Magic Temple” won Best Film at the Metro Manila Film Festival. Today, in a fully restored digital edition, the film withstands the test of time. Screencap from ABS-CBN ENTERTAINMENT/YOUTUBE

It somehow feels like the perfect MMFF movie: something that blends horror and fantasy in a child-friendly package, meant to be devoured by families in droves while still brandishing the important message of standing as one while fighting the scum of the earth. While some might lament the lack of kiddie fare for this year’s festival, perhaps it’s best to ask those who produce films why they stopped making these. “Magic Temple” had the budget and took risks. It ended up winning a whole bunch of awards from Best Float to Best Picture.

Hopefully, the re-release of the film will entertain and inspire a new generation of audiences today.