By Stefano Ortiz
In honor of the late Peque Gallaga and his distinguished body of work, we have chosen to revisit his 1982 classic Oro, Plata, Mata. Often considered his masterpiece, Oro, Plata, Mata won the Gawad Urian awards for 'Best Picture,' 'Best direction,' 'Best Cinematography,' 'Best Production Design,' 'Best Musical Score' and 'Best Sound.' The film also won the Luna Awards for 'Best Production Design' and 'Best Supporting Actress' (Liza Lorena).
Oro, Plata, Mata (1982)
Directed by Peque Gallaga
Available on iWant, iTunes and Amazon Prime
Oro, Plata, Mata opens with scenes bathed in sweetness and light—to borrow from Matthew Arnold’s phrase as Nick Joaquin did in the film’s epigraph. In the introductory scenes of Peque Gallaga’s renowned classic, the camera weaves through a bustling party featuring the pre-world war two Philippine aristocracy. Japan has just bombed Pearl Harbor, and the Philippines and the United States have been brought into war.
The older men predict a brief conflict fully trusting American success and the young men have enlisted with a sense of pride and enthusiasm, donning uniforms, and unafraid. The wealthy women gossip and the children run around and the band plays their music for people to dance. The night—a celebration of Maggy Mendoza’s (Sandy Andolong) birthday—abruptly ends with the news of the sinking of SS Corregidor. Swiftly, the Japanese enter the Philippines. War becomes reality.
The remaining duration of Oro, Plata, Mata displays the collapse of this opening scene of wealth and aristocracy. Briefly, the families’ wealth allows them an escape into a provincial hacienda, with their many servants and maids, where they maintain a life of luxury. When the Japanese advance, the characters are forced into hiding in a forest—their status rapidly devolving as the war persists.
Gallaga’s classic is truly a war epic—reminiscent of Gone With the Wind in its exploration of an aristocracy’s experience with the emergence of war and featuring a running time of nearly three and a half hours. Such a lengthy runtime is not wasted, however, due to Oro, Plata, Mata’s powerful character developments among its different protagonists alongside its explorations of class and privilege that become simultaneously heightened and minimized in significance due to the wartime conflict.
Without showing us the status of the battlefront, Oro, Plata, Mata presents the raw gruesomeness of war. From the countryside, our protagonists encounter the bloody soldiers and the viciousness war brings out in common people as they become opportunistic bandits. At some point, the gruesome injuries and violence Gallaga shows us become pornographic—but such images only bring out the point: such gore is the reality of war.
The wealthy characters are privileged and spoiled, and reliant on their workers to survive the practicalities of daily life: they sit and chatter and quibble while playing Mahjong. But they are also shown capable of courage and patriotism, as when they aid the injured soldiers who happen upon their home in the forest. The workers work: they cook, they butcher the pigs for eating, they run the different necessary errands, but they are not heroes—shown to be just as capable of viciousness as any enemy. Meanwhile, the only Japanese figure shown—ostensibly the easy enemy—is an injured man looking for help. He is understood as an enemy and ruthlessly murdered as an act of heroism and masculinity.
If it has not yet been done, Oro, Plata, Mata could serve as a bountiful space for gender studies, as the film displays rather interesting portrayals of masculinity and femininity further emphasized by the film's wartime setting. Gallaga’s unromantic depictions of sex and desire, most prominent among the film’s younger characters, remains fresh and truthful—and an excellent antithesis to the all too often naive portrayals of love in Philippine movies.
Apart from its telling of a war-movie, Oro, Plata, Mata also presents the coming-of-age of Trining Ojeda (Cherie Gil) and Miguel Lorenzo (Joel Torre) (often called Miguelito). With the war looming in the background, Trining and Miguel’s sexual development—and movement into adulthood—emerge into the foreground. Trining, initially an inexperienced and naive adolescent embarrassed at kissing becomes a sexually forward young woman and later abandons her family to join a group of bandits. While Miguelito—the only young man who didn’t join the army due to an overprotective mother—grows from his status as an ineffectual, emasculated figure when he affirms his courage by pursuing the bandits as he and Hermes (Ronnie Lazaro) search for Trining.
Through all its conflicts, Oro, Plata, Mata avoids moralizing. Gallaga romanticizes neither war, nor sex, nor ethics. In this lies the film’s excellence: because Oro, Plata, Mata does not stand as a cautionary tale, nor as an indictment of the upper-class, nor as a historical representation nor as a political commentary. The film tells the story from the vantage point of the upper-class, of a drama in the midst of war, and bares out certain ugly truths, unpolished but genuine—and beautiful.
When the war ends, the characters return to their lives of luxury and ease. But we understand this life now for what it is: an empty facade, a shadow-play filled with artifice. Trining is correct when she says near the end of the film: “Naging hayop na ang lahat sa’tin. Ang digmaang ito, ginawang hayop tayong lahat.” Following the truths uncovered by the brutality of war, there can be no turning back.