What ‘Ang Larawan’ tells us about the Filipino identity

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The period piece and musical “Ang Larawan” premiered to sold out screenings at the Tokyo International Film Festival. The film is adapted from the stage play with a libretto written by Rolando Tinio, a National Artist for Theater and Literature and is based on a three-act play by another National Artist for Literature, Nick Joaquin. Photo from ANG LARAWAN/FACEBOOK

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The long production for the much awaited musical film “Ang Larawan” began in 2013, but singer Celeste Legaspi, its producer and star, thinks that everything began when their company Culturtrain Musicat Productions produced a theatrical adaptation of Nick Joaquin’s acclaimed three-act play, “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino,” in 1996.

Culturtrain, which Legaspi put up with manager Girlie Rodis in the late 1980s, was originally a production company for original Filipino musicals. Among their productions are “Katy!” and “Sino Ka Ba Jose Rizal?” “Ang Larawan” was Culturtrain’s fourth musical. The libretto was written by poet Rolando Tinio, a National Artist for Theater and Literature. The music written by Ryan Cayabyab was originally for a six-piece band because that was all they can afford. The cast included Legaspi, a celebrated singer in her own right, as Candida, one of the protagonists of the play.

“We always considered it as a masterpiece because it was based on the work of Nick Joaquin, and then it was translated into a libretto by Rolando Tinio so between the two of them, we already had such wonderful moments onstage,” says Legaspi, who is the daughter of National Artist for Visual Arts Cesar Legaspi.

Culturtrain became inactive in 2002 (“I got tired of doing the same thing and it was very hard work,” says Legaspi) but in 2013, Rodis brought up the idea of turning “Ang Larawan” into a film.

Ang Larawan Rachel Alejandro plays Paula Marasigan in "Ang Larawan." Photo from ANG LARAWAN/FACEBOOK

“At first, I was telling her, ‘Forget about it, it’s too hard, we have to raise too much money,’ but finally, I saw that if we’re able to do this, we would have done a wonderful service to the country because the work of two National Artists would be documented and that would be such a great challenge to dedicate our lives to. So that’s what we did.”

The hard work also included putting Tinio’s three-hour libretto into a two-hour film. The process took about a year. Loy Arcenas was brought in as the film’s director. Arcenas directed the Cinemalaya films “Niño” and “Requieme!” and is also an award-winning theater set designer and director in the U.S. A fortuitous sponsorship by the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra made Cayabyab rearrange the music for the film.

The film was shot for 15 days in 2015, but it involved a year of rehearsals for the entire cast. Another year for post-production took place. The film was submitted for consideration for this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival. However, it did not make the initial cut.

ang larawan Joanna Ampil was chosen to play Candida in "Ang Larawan" for her work in London's West End in musicals such as "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon." Photo from ANG LARAWAN/FACEBOOK

In October, the film made its world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival. The screenings were sold out and Hollywood trade magazine Variety called it “a class act,” “impeccably performed and crisply photographed,” and “beautifully decorated and top-notch in every technical detail.”

Set in pre-war Intramuros, the film tells the story of Candida and Paula Marasigan, daughters of high-profile painter Don Lorenzo Marasigan, and their struggle to sell — or keep — their father’s last self-portrait, which is being chased by socialites, art critics, and politicians.

Among the film’s cast are Joanna Ampil, Rachel Alejandro, Paulo Avelino, Sandino Martin, Rayver Cruz, Cris Villonco, Nonie Buencamino, Menchu Lauchengco, Dulce, and Noel Trinidad. Ogie Alcasid and Zsa Zsa Padilla also appear in cameo roles.

CNN Philippines Life sat down with Legaspi a few days before she left for the Tokyo International Film Festival, and talked to her about the long journey of “Ang Larawan,” and what she hopes the film will be for the country’s youth. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Ang Larawan "We were very careful with whom we cast as Tony Javier," says Celeste Legaspi of Paulo Avelino's character in "Ang Larawan." "He’s a pivotal character in the play and he would provide contrast to Candida and Paula." Photo from ANG LARAWAN/FACEBOOK

You mentioned that director Loy Arcenas’ process was a little difficult. Can you tell us more about that?

The one-year rehearsal. We did not expect that in the production budget. So all of a sudden we had a one-year rehearsal that we had to find money for and it’s a good thing that Mother Lily [Monteverde of Regal Films] allowed us to use her venue in San Juan and she didn’t make us pay anything. But we were feeding people for one year, the whole cast.

[The director] also wanted the cast [to] feel comfortable in their clothes. So a year before the shoot, we had to have clothes already, so they would be rehearsing with their shoes, etc., which also turned out to be a blessing in disguise because when we did finally shoot, the clothes really looked worn-in, especially for Candida and Paula, and Tony Javier, who was played by Paulo Avelino. He was feeling comfortable na with his hat and with suspenders, things like that. Kasi we don’t go around dressed like that anymore, so they really needed time to get into their clothes and feel the part.

When we finally got to the Villavicencio house in Taal, they were very comfortable na with their characters and with each other because we had been rehearsing for one year. Whereas in other films, you talk about the script, maybe you have a reading and then it’s already shooting.

IMG_9596-Edit EC.jpg "By making 'Ang Larawan' into a movie, we would have done a wonderful service to the country because the work of two National Artists would be documented and that would be such a great challenge to dedicate our lives to," says "Ang Larawan" actress and producer Celeste Legaspi. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Why do you think it’s important to tell a story like “Ang Larawan” now?

It allows us to see our past and it allows us to understand why we are like this. It allows us to see what we lost — that’s the number one thing that I take away from “Ang Larawan” even from the first time I saw it;  that we lost something and we’ll never regain it. But it’s important too for us to know what we lost so we can move into the future with that knowledge and perhaps it will make a difference in our country, especially for our youth, where everything’s about materialism.

It was very pleasant to see our ancestors were steeped in culture during that time. They would always have tertulias every week, [there’s] always one in certain days of the week. They have music, dance, they talk about literature, really deep into arts and culture. Now … it’s so different.

We have traditions like Candida and Paula, they’re spinster sisters because they were the younger siblings of the family and they were assigned to stay single and take care of the parents, which is really quite unfair because you’re left behind, you don’t have a family. And that was happening, I think until the late ‘50s because I had cousins who were spinsters or were assigned careers to take up. They were very unhappy about it. And I was lucky to be in the generation that could already choose what we wanted to do. But that was very true for our country for the longest time.

"It allows us to see what we lost — that’s the number one thing that I take away from “Ang Larawan." — Celeste Legaspi

You mentioned that you and Girlie [Rodis] wanted to make something for the youth.

Yes, they’re exactly our target market. We would like very much to be able to show our film at the Manila Film Festival because that’s the biggest audience that you can have at one time, as our responsibility to our investors. But our marketing is really for the students. We have been in talks already with several schools.

Was there a Plan B after “Ang Larawan” was rejected in the Metro Manila Film Festival?

The first requirement of the MMFF was to submit a screenplay. And we were thinking this is Rolando Tinio’s screenplay. Eh natalo kami. I mean, I was surprised beyond words. How can Rolando Tinio’s work be just thrown aside for … whatever? But then they said now you can submit the finished film. Because we’re humble we said, ‘Sige, we’ll submit the finished film.’ But if they still don’t like us, we’ll show in February already. We’re very fortunate that our world premiere is in Tokyo. Our screenings are sold out.

How does it feel that you’re premiering in Tokyo?

Funny? [Laughs]. Exciting, of course. I’m very proud of that. We’re all excited to be in our first international film festival. So it’s all that. We don’t know how exactly we’ll fare. We’re in competition in the [Asian Future section] so who knows ... But as long as we’re able to show our film and get good feedback and reception, I’ll be happy with that. My main goal in really immersing myself in this project is really to put down on film the works of Nick [Joaquin] and Rolando [Tinio] and Ryan [Cayabyab], and share it with young Filipinos.

la laval ang larawan.jpg A recreation of the La Naval procession in "Ang Larawan." Photo from ANG LARAWAN/FACEBOOK

How do you think the international audience will react to “Ang Larawan”?

Well, I’m confident about the music. The music is absolutely fabulous. And [we] worked very, very hard on our subtitles. It took us, I think, eight months to get our subtitles down. It was difficult because we were working with poetry by Rolando, based on Nick, so it was very difficult. You have to do [it] justice. And the subtitles had to be quick and immediate.

We had a big committee of eight plus [people], we had to ask poets to help us, especially with some particular songs. But eventually, it all paid off very well. We’ve had some private viewings, so that we could get feedback. And we had a combination of audiences — some are relatives, and some are our first sponsors and some are of the academe — and they all appreciated the efforts so I’m very confident that it’ll do well.

Can you talk more about how the cast was put together?

Candida was my role in 1997, the way Ryan put it together; it was a very difficult, dramatic role. Very difficult, soprano, very demanding. So we had to make sure that we had the correct Candida. So with Joanna Ampil, with her West End background, she did very well in “Miss Saigon,” “Les Miserables,” and “Cats.” I knew that she would make an excellent Candida.

Rachel Alejandro played Paula to my Candida in 1998, so she’s very well versed with the role. She loves the role so we knew she would do justice to it.

But we were very careful with whom we cast as Tony Javier. He’s a pivotal character in the play and he would provide contrast to Candida and Paula. Paulo Avelino auditioned for the role. He took voice lessons for several months with Mrs. Cayabyab and we had to bring him back several times to the recording studio because I wasn’t happy yet with how he sounded, and all of this he did with much humility and focus and commitment. I like his work in the film.

zsa zsa padilla ang larawan.jpg Zsa Zsa Padilla appears as Elsa Montes, "the woman who brought the conga in Manila" in "Ang Larawan." Photo from ANG LARAWAN/FACEBOOK

So the cast was considered for their ability to play the part and not mostly for star power?

Definitely. Number one, they should be able to sing because it’s a musical. But we also considered star power because we know we have to be commercial, of course, because making films is a business. We’re not naman that crazy. We were very thankful when Paulo auditioned and he was very much willing to work hard.

What are your hopes for the film when it comes out in a bigger release?

I hope that we will be able to inspire us Filipinos to realize that we are good people, that we have our cultures and traditions and we were very elegant. Now kasi parang everybody’s so casual and informal and everybody’s just going around in shorts and pambahay. But actually, we are a people blessed with a lot of music and culture and tradition, so that it will inspire our young people, that we come from good stuff.

And then for foreigners to see it. We had a hard time entering international film festivals because they’re used to entries from our side of the world [as] poverty porn. Very gritty. Parang, “What’s this? Why are they singing? Why are they wearing [those] clothes? They’re supposed to be poor?” So we had a hard time finding the right market for our film.

But it just shows you that Japan sees us in a different light. Perhaps [because] we’re closer to them so they’re willing to see us in another light. And I would like for our music to astound them. If we’re able to accomplish that, I’ll be so happy. ‘Yun lamang. Kasi the music will really, really sweep you away. That’s why we spent a lot on the sound and sound mixing because we wanted it to be really good.

Filipino films are notorious to have bad sound, some film programmers would say.

Yes! And also our theaters are ill-equipped. That’s why I’m sure, when you watch it, kasi I watched “Respeto” and maganda ‘yung music pero parang andun lang sa screen, naka-embed lang dun, hindi siya lumalabas sa’yo. I don’t know if that will also happen with us because it’s the quality of the sound systems that we had. I was already warned. That majority of the theaters here have lousy sound systems. But still we worked hard on making sure that we get the best sound for the film. Kahit na makuha lang nila ‘yung 50 percent of what we put in there, maligaya na ako [Laughs].