MMFF review: 'Miracle in Cell No. 7' is a tear-jerking tsunami of a movie

David Dizon, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 27 2019 12:21 PM | Updated as of Dec 27 2019 07:55 PM

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"Miracle in Cell No. 7" starring Aga Muhlach and Xia Vigor tells the story of a mentally handicapped single father, Joselito Gopez, who is wrongly accused, tried, and sentenced to death for the rape-murder of a school girl who happens to be the daughter of a high-ranking police official.

Joselito gets thrown into maximum security, but an act of kindness convinces his fellow inmates that he is innocent. These hardened criminals start working to bring Joselito’s daughter, Yesha, into the jail cell, hence the "miracle" part. 

As the clock ticks toward an execution date, the inmates and even the prison director must find out the truth about the death of the young girl.

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That's the basic set-up in the Lee Hwan-kyung original, and the "Miracle in Cell No. 7” remake by director Nuel Naval follows it to a tee. Many of the scenes are lifted straight from the original but given a locale change. Instead of an icy street in Korea where the alleged "crime" happens, we get a rain-drenched corner near a shopping mall. 

I was also fascinated by the location of Joselito and Yesha's house somewhere near Pasig River, easily a place where I can imagine hundreds of fathers bring their kids to school every morning. The prison used for the movie, actually a soundstage in Cainta, is a little too spacious -- but that’s a small matter.

What it also does differently is localize the drama. There is a very Pinoy vibe in the relationships between Joselito, Yesha, and the other inmates. For example, there is a short scene in the 2013 film that is absent in the remake, an understandable omission since it would not work in a Filipino setting. 

The humor in the movie is also very Filipino, and it helps that "Miracle in Cell No. 7" is packed with dramatic heavyweights to deliver the laughs. Joel Torre is menacing as the cell "mayor" Boss Sol, Mon Confiado plays the second-in-command Choy, Jojit Lorenzo is the surly Bong, Soliman Cruz is the timid Tatang Celso, and JC Santos is the hilarious Mambo. 

Torre, Confiado, and Cruz are veterans in the film business who could probably do these roles in their sleep, but they’re not doing shoddy work here. This is an ensemble that clearly enjoys playing off each other, and each one gives ample dramatic heft to the roles they play. 

I always enjoy seeing Torre doing toughie roles with a heart of gold, and here he gets to do it again as his fierce facade melts in the face of this little girl and her doomed father. On the other hand, Lorenzo gets a little bit more meat in his role; while he has the longest journey, his transformation from surly to sunny is beautiful to watch. He also gets to deliver one killer line that had the biggest laugh in the movie. And then we have Santos, who is given one of the more challenging roles and just runs with it. I’m not familiar with Santos,' work but his hilarious role here makes him an actor to watch.

While I had some questions about the "I am Sam" setup of the movie, Muhlach and Vigor smoothed over those doubts because they are dynamite as Joselito and Yesha. 

The older Muhlach is right at home doing these father roles -- tatay na tatay talaga. But the former "Bagets" star very nearly gets overshadowed by his adorable co-star Vigor, who is every bit the charm magnet. Her perkiness just brightens every scene she's in, but I also noticed there's something a little bit extra when she's acting with Muhlach. They may not be real-life father and daughter, but the emotion is totally believable. 

Also for Muhlach, while he never takes a backseat to Vigor, he really ups the ante during a pivotal scene near the end. Fans of the original "Miracle" will know that scene, but Muhlach's full-on desperation made me go: "Crap, sobrang galing ni Aga umarte."

One casting decision that I loved in this movie is John Arcilla as the jail deputy director Johnny San Juan or Mang Johnny. Having Heneral Luna as your jailer was an inspired choice. Johnny San Juan may look calm as a cyborg, but underneath the calm demeanor is a rage that threatens to explode at any time. His transformation from anger to concern to determination, and finally a sorrowful acceptance, is one of the movie's secret weapons, and Arcilla is absolute fire in the role.

Other actors also get short but memorable roles: Bela Padilla plays the role of an older Yesha, while Mark Anthony Fernandez plays the scary leader of a rival prison gang. Tirso Cruz III plays the grieving Secretary Yulo who loses a child, while Jeffrey Quizon and Ian De Leon play prosecutor and defense lawyer.

Some of the story beats copied from the original "Miracle" don't work. For instance, a climactic scene involving a hokey escape plan was already a tad too fantastic in the original; here it becomes unbelievable. What's worse, the remake doesn't quite have the budget to give us the scenic payoff -- a beautiful sunset, thousands of inmates below, dad and daughter above. They CGIed that way too quickly. 

I figured I was safe from the emotional pull of "Miracle in Cell No. 7." My shields were up, I already knew the story after watching the 2013 original. There was no way this movie was going to get its hooks in me. 

And man, I had no idea. A couple of minutes into the movie, a pack of ninjas started cutting onions in the cinema. May pitik na kaagad sa puso. And that was just in the very first couple of minutes, when Joselito and Yesha go about their business at the start of the day. 

By the end of the movie, I lost count how many times this story had broken my heart and put it back together. This is the power of "Miracle in Cell No. 7" -- slowly and surely, this tear-jerking tsunami disarms you with its many acts of kindness, its trust in the power of a story well told, of love victorious over cynicism until all your defenses are down.

I mentioned the "Pinoyness" of this version of "Miracle." In a key scene in the 2013 original, there is a part where the inmates bow their heads or turn away so that the little girl does not see their emotions. She asks one uncle: "Are you crying?" And he answers no. 

In this remake, the inmates weep openly, hearts out for all to see. The camera lingers on each face: hardness broken by kindness, hurt turned to healing. And we weep with them -- yes, with sorrow, but also a little joy.