Essential O'Hara: 10 films you should watch

by Vladmir Bunoan,

Posted at Jun 26 2012 09:17 PM | Updated as of Jun 27 2012 05:40 AM

MANILA, Philippines -- Mario O'Hara, who passed away on Tuesday morning from acute leukemia, started his career as a close collaborator of the late Lino Brocka.

He wrote Brocka's greatest films, "Insiang" and "Tinimbang Ka Nguni't Kulang" and even acted in Brocka's "Tubog sa Ginto" and also in "Tinimbang."

But O'Hara was not just a writer and actor. He also directed some of the best movies in Philippine cinema, many of them with his friend and muse, Nora Aunor, such as the World War II drama "Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos," considered by critics as among the finest Filipino films ever made.

"Few of his films are available in commercially released or even  decently rendered DVD; some of his films do not have a  surviving film print, a sad comment on the state of preservation of our nation's great cinema," film critic Noel Vera told

Here are some of his best movies:

Tubog sa Ginto (1971)

O'Hara's role: Actor

What's it about: Lino Brocka's "Tubog sa Ginto," based on Mars Ravelo's komiks novel, tells of a millionaire Don Benito (Eddie Garcia), a closet homosexual who is having a secret affair with his driver, Diego (Mario O’Hara).

What they say about it: "O'Hara here has the easy arrogance and physical charisma of a young Brando, even Brando's pansexual appeal: when he confidently allows Emma to run her eyes up and down his near-naked body, you can't help but think of Viven Leigh or even Marcelle Hainia, their eyes rolling upwards from the sheer sexual heat." -- film critic Noel Vera

Tinimbang Ka Nguni't Kulang (1974)

O'Hara's role: Actor and writer

What's it about: "Tinimbang Ka Nguni't Kulang" is the story of a young boy (Christopher de Leon) growing up in a small town and the unusual friendship he develops with a leper (Lolita Rodriguez) and the village idiot (Mario O'Hara).

What they say about it: "When I saw Lino Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang, I was dumbstruck. Not in his agitprop films 'Bayan Ko' and 'Orapronobis,' not in his acknowledged masterpiece 'Maynila Sa Mga Kuko Ng Liwanag' did Brocka realize the epic sweep, the intimate detail that he did in this pitiless, passionate portrait of a small provincial town. He even had a pair of lovers--Lolita Rodriguez as a crazed woman, Mario O'Hara as a leper--in a dramatic duet so powerful they took over the film. It was after seeing the film (I was late for the opening credits) that I had my mind blown away yet again: the film had been written by O'Hara." -- film critic Noel Vera

Insiang (1976)

O'Hara's role: Wrote the original teleplay and co-wrote the screenplay

What's it about: Lino Brocka's "Insiang," the first Filipino film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival, tells the story of a beautiful girl (Hilda Koronel), who lives in the slums of Tondo with her mother (Mona Lisa). After she gets raped by her mother's new lover (Ruel Vernal), she exacts revenge.

What they say about it: "Despite considerable censorship from the government in the Philippines that forced Brocka to re-shoot the ending, 'Insiang' remains a stinging indictment of the squalor and desperate conditions suffered by the poor during the martial law era of Ferdinand Marcos' regime. ...Brocka creates a tactile sense of the oppressive claustrophobia of the environment: flimsy shacks housing multiple families, huge piles of garbage on the road, complete lack of privacy and every action an object of gossip." -- film critic Christopher Bourne
Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (1976)

O'Hara's role: Director

What's it about: Set during the Japanese Occupation, it tells the story of Rosario (Nora Aunor), a young schoolteacher engaged to be married to Crispin (Bembol Roco). When Crispin leaves to fight the Japanese as a guerilla, Rosario is raped by a Japanese-Filipino officer (Christopher de Leon).

What they say: "'Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos' holds many records for the film industry, in content and in form, in its intertextual powers. I do not think there is another film where you can see two actors in the persons of Christopher de Leon and Rafael “Bembol” Roco flesh out their characters with such endearing subtlety. I don’t know if it is the film or the direction —- or that the two actors were, at the time, fresh and had not developed tested but tiring and tiresome mannerisms." -- film critic Tito Genova Valiente

Bulaklak ng City Jail (1984)

O'Hara's role: Director

What's it about: Angela (Nora Aunor) lands in jail after her lover's wife charges her with frustrated murder. When she finds out that she is pregnant, she escapes and gives birth inside the zoo. She is arrested and promptly sent back to prison. Eventually, she is allowed to go out on probation.

What they say: "With 'Bulaklak sa City Jail,' Mario O’Hara has begun his bid for major-league filmmaking. And at no sooner a time than the present: too long a period has elapsed since the viewers had such an opportunity to sharpen their critical faculties to be able to keep up with progressive artists who, by their long daring strides, set the pace for Philippine cinema." -- film critic Joel David

Condemned (1984)

O'Hara's role: Director and co-writer

What's it about: Yolly (Nora Aunor) and her brother Efren (Dan Alvaro) move to Manila only to find themselves in the underbelly of the city, with Dan working as a driver and hit man for money launderer Connie (Gloria Romero). But when Yolly witnesses a rape and murder done by Connie's son, Efren decides to double-cross his boss.

What they say: "The film is not only Filipino film but a fine one in practically every respect, starting with the gripping screenplay which comes to life under the adroit direction of Mario O' Hara. It is a flawed jewel but a finely polished one nonetheless. It is a refreshing departure from the predictable and the prosaic elements that one encounters in many, if not most, Filipino films. For the most part, it veers away from the cloying melodramatic acting coaxed from our Filipino actors. -- Film Ratings Board

Bagong Hari (1986)

O'Hara's role: Director

What's it about: Addon Labrador (Dan Alvaro), a tugboat worker caring for his ailing mother, is forced to participate in a game of death. But after he defeats his opponent, he earns the ire of the murderous son of small town governor, who orders his goons to abduct Addon.

What they say: "The marked difference between that seemingly idyllic life and the violent and bleak existence that he suddenly finds himself in punctuates the harshness of O’Hara’s not-so-fictional version of the Philippines. That the bearer of that entire world’s physical and emotional turmoil is a man of boyish features makes the bleakness of O’Hara’s vision even more poignant, more heartbreaking." -- film blogger Oggs Cruz

Babae sa Bubungang Lata (1998)

O'Hara's role: Director and writer

What's it about: A struggling stuntman (Mike Magat) and his young wife (Aya Medel) live in a Manila cemetery, where they meet other movie veterans.

What they say: '[O'Hara] stages much of the drama inside the Manila North Cemetery, a vast landscape of tombs and crosses and silent, weeping angels, where most of his characters -- so poor they can’t afford a house -- live. Against monuments of famous Filipino presidents and statesmen we watch these people eke out a living; amidst edifices of stone and black marble we watch them struggle to survive. It’s a marvelous conceit, a brilliant coup de theatre." -- film critic Noel Vera

Babae sa Breakwater (2003)

O'Hara's role: Director and writer

What's it about: Screened at Cannes, the movie is set in a poor village by the Manila Bay breakwater, where two brothers reside after escaping from the violence at home. There they meet a prostitute Pakita (Katherine Luna) and become close with her.

What they say: "Director Mario O’Hara’s intense and absorbing film, 'Babae sa Breakwater,' is a cinematic enterprise that displaces any fixed and idyllic models of Philippine society. Rather than a superficial articulation of the poor’s predominantly devastated existence, O’Hara’s movie cultivates a squalid and provocative portrait of the lower classes in Manila’s bustling and overcrowded metropolis. -- FilAm Star review

Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (2010)

O'Hara's role: Director

What's it about: The movie promises the untold story of the trial of Andres Bonifacio (Alfred Vargas) under the revolutionary government of Emilio Aguinaldo (Lance Raymundo). Two two men fight for freedom for the Filipinos against the dominant rule, fought for a cause and for a reason to be one nation.

What they say: "My must-see movie of Cinemalaya 2010: Mario O’Hara’s 'Ang Paglilitis Ni Andres Bonifacio.' There should be a law compelling Mario O’Hara to make at least one movie a year. ...Fantastic. Masterful. Essential. This is filmmaking as vital historical tract. Nakakawasak." -- columnist Jessica Zafra