By Thomas Puhr.
A significant piece of Philippine cinematic history, given the royal treatment by Kani.”
The biblical tale of Cain and Abel is fewer than 1,000 words long, with Abel biting the dust a mere eight verses in. “Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field,’” the brutally efficient story goes. “While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.”
Any cinematic reinterpretation of this spare source material, therefore, is bound to take some liberties, and Lino Brocka’s Cain and Abel is no exception. Taking place in a then-contemporary Philippines, the prolific director’s 1982 outing blends soapy melodrama with exploitation, shoot-em-up action, and after-school proselytizing. Though wildly uneven, the film’s cultural significance – its dialogue fuses English, Filipino, and Tagalog – warrants reassessment in and of itself, especially by Western audiences.
Even if you slept through most of Sunday school, you probably remember that Cain kills his younger brother after God favors the latter’s offering. Here, Lorenzo (Phillip Salvador) engages in an increasingly bloody dispute with younger brother Ellis (Christopher De Leon) after their mother, Pina (Mona Liza), bequeaths Ellis the family fortune. Bad blood has existed between the siblings ever since their father died (while breaking up one of their fights, it turns out), but their rivalry reaches a fever pitch when a horrific accident (again, the result of one of their fights) leads to the death of Lorenzo’s pregnant wife, Becky (Baby Delgado). This death, in turn, initiates retaliation against Ellis’ strong-willed girlfriend, Zita (Carmi Martin).
Cain and Abel – which was shot in Lubao, Pampanga – offers a unique fusion of region-specific storytelling and entertainment with broader appeal.”
The film works best when it both celebrates and subtly critiques its (mostly Western) antecedents. For example, screenwriter Ricardo Lee’s blunt-force symbolism (its first shot shows two spiders fighting on a web) at first seems to be little more than a riff on Straw Dogs’ famous opening. But then one of the (many) men entangled in the feud invokes Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 classic as a source of inspiration: “Have you seen Straw Dogs?” he asks, seemingly oblivious to the film’s despairing subtext. “Remember what Dustin Hoffman did to the men who raped his wife? That’s what I’m going to do to them!” These guys think they’re in a macho American action movie, we come to suspect, when their circumstances are really those of a tragedy.
This stark simplicity is muddied, however, by a cavalcade of underdeveloped or underutilized supporting characters. There’s Jumbo (Ruel Vernal) and Tikboy (Joseph Jardinazo), Lorenzo’s small-time mobster friends; Zita’s trigger-happy brother, Robert (Michael Sandico); and many more. The film is overpopulated to such an extent – the henchmen seem to have their own henchmen – that its finest performances (especially those of its women actors) risk going unnoticed. Cecille Castillo, for example, quietly steals the show as Pina’s long-suffering maid, Rina, but her character is relegated to the sidelines when the narrative pivots to its more action-oriented final act.
Nevertheless, Cain and Abel – which was shot in Lubao, Pampanga – offers a unique fusion of region-specific storytelling and entertainment with broader appeal. Beneath the melodramatic veneer, author José B. Capino explains in a video essay accompanying Kani’s new rerelease, is a commentary on “the ideological struggle between the supporters of the fascist Marcos regime and the brave, youthful political dissidents who opposed it.” Such political subtext is part of what makes the film an “elevated version of the action-drama movies that were highly popular in the local film industry.” But even viewers who know nothing of Brocka’s socio-political commentary will find much to admire in his visual approach, and Capino elegantly explicates the director’s careful utilization of deep space focus.
Capino’s video essay is one of many supplements the reissue offers. Also included are recent interviews with De Leon and Martin; together, they provide a multifaceted snapshot of what it was like to work with Brocka. Leon describes him as a “disciplinarian” who was a crucial agent in the “Golden Age of Philippine Cinema,” while Martin commends the filmmaker’s championing of complex female roles. “To find a woman who has a strong personality during the 80s was not so acceptable as it is right now,” she explains. “For me to be given that part and to portray it well, it made me so proud…as a feminist.”
As a significant piece of Philippine cinematic history, Cain and Abel is given the royal treatment by Kani. The Blu-ray cover and accompanying booklet are illustrated by the talented (and increasingly in-demand) Tony Stella, and the booklet includes writing by Capino as well as screenplay excerpts and notes from Lee. This packaging should be a cause for celebration for fans of Philippine cinema, and a gateway into an overlooked world of art for many viewers. Hopefully Cain and Abel – just the second of the company’s releases, on the heels of 2018’s Being Natural – will be the first of many such restorations.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.