Misteryo sa Tuwa: A harrowing cautionary tale on human greed

Article by Leo Baltar

There is evil even in the most human places – Abbo Dela Cruz’s “Misteryo sa Tuwa” dissects and reinforces this with clear-eyed precision, as though obliging us to confront and acknowledge the complexities of our humanity.

Rescued from the ravages of time and cinematic decay by the ABS-CBN Film Restoration unit, “Misteryo sa Tuwa” traces the mundane and simple life of a rural community in the Philippines during the 1950s.

The film instantly welcomes us to a feast, where all the people living in the barrio are making the most out of the celebration, with Jaime Fabregas’ stellar music inducing a distinctly provincial atmosphere that is palpable to the audience. Thus, the film’s festive mood is effortlessly established right from the opening scene. 

However, as the camera pans out to a crashing plane, the mood swiftly changes. We begin to observe everyone’s sudden change in behavior. They rush and stumble to their feet to reach the crash site – not to help potential survivors, but only to salvage everything the victims might have left behind.

This looting scene reveals the intrinsic (and almost animal-like) desires of each character – the film’s first attempt to introduce its layered themes. The way Dela Cruz handles such a demanding scene highlights his ability to keep track of his many actors, both main and minor, with keen attention to their nuances. 

Three of the looters, Ponsoy (Tony Santos), Mesiong (Johnny Delgado) and Jamin (Ronnie Lazaro) find a suitcase loaded with cash, which they decide to keep for themselves. From this point on, the film shows how their lives and that of the entire barrio’s are forever changed. 

What makes “Misteryo sa Tuwa” worthy of its newly-restored glory is its meaningful examination of human nature. It never promises to show that humans are morally perfect. It attempts to explain why they are not. 

When we learn of the three men and their families’ motivations not to return the money, we also begin to realize that their reasons are beyond personal – which might be our initial reaction – but a product of more complex socio-political circumstances.

In a way, this justifies their deeds, which makes us empathize with them to a certain degree. The film allows us to interrogate the larger context and the material conditions that influenced the characters’ decisions and actions.

Greed lurks in every frame which Dela Cruz masterfully utilized to build and develop tension during the entirety of the 122-minute film, with a payoff unlike any other.

This seething greed is perfectly captured by Mario Taguiwalo’s portrayal of the town mayor, a force of pure evil. The mayor’s cunning maneuvering with his callous gang of men to retrieve the bag of cash reveals measures humans take for personal benefit – which still rings true today. 

Indeed, Dela Cruz refuses to shy away from violence that is as disturbing as it is necessary. The film makes us think of how people respond in the face of greed; that evil can exist even in places where we don’t expect them to – and perhaps even more dangerous at that. The film requires us to question our principles and the things we value or, more accurately, those we do not. 

As the plot thickens, the film reiterates the moral ambiguity that the characters have been subjected to, especially when women get more engaged in the narrative, which makes it more interesting.

What’s even more impressive is that these female characters are not treated as mere accessories to their male counterparts – a common tendency among male directors. This is evident when Ada (Ama Quiambao) and Pinang (Alicia Alonzo) take it upon themselves to protect their families against the mayor’s violent schemes, no matter the cost. There is nothing dreary or uncalled-for in terms of its writing. 

Coupled with sharp editing and notable production design, Rody Lacap’s cinematography manages to give the film a distinct quality, utilizing the landscape of the mountain area to its full potential, as though we are part of the barrio, too. 

Objectively, the film’s restoration has its own shortcomings. There are scenes that appear to be in sepia, although the rest of the film is in full color. Burn marks and striking lens flares are also visible in some frames, making it hard to watch at certain points.

But it’s undeniable that the restoration process itself contributes to the film’s meaning-making. It tells us that the construction of a film’s message and value goes beyond what is translated on the screen. 

Worthy works indeed take time – a manifestation that brings to light the importance of digitally restoring and remastering films.

Through witnessing masterpieces like this that we once had little of hope of seeing again in its full glory, we begin to grasp a deeper sensibility towards the local art industry. Restoration shifts our perceptions – hopefully to better ones – as it elevates new lenses with which we view a film. We need and deserve more films such as this. 

Rarely do we see a film achieve more impact by overtly trying to achieve more, but “Misteryo sa Tuwa” holds its ground quite successfully. It may seem like a typical crime thriller, but the gravity of its message transcends the genre.

This film is about our humanity above anything else. It is haunting – and destructive to a degree – but there is value in this kind of shattering: one that reconstructs our views about morality and hegemony of what makes us good or evil beings. 

“Misteryo sa Tuwa” is an intricate meditation on what makes us human. It is a clear-cut reflection of the many contradictions that we all struggle with since time immemorial. It is a film that allows us to realize the lengths we are capable to go through in the name of money, family and greed that is ever-resounding and ever-telling.

May it disturb the comforts of our humanity – even in the slightest form – and may we all come out as better human beings from it.

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