TL;DR: Ang Panday is a maximalist masterpiece of Filipino cinema, delivering a fresh, sincere, goofy take on the franchise.
Everything about the inclusion of the latest iteration of Ang Panday (The Blacksmith) in Metro Manila Film Festival 2017 seems to embody the worst aspects of the festival.
It was one of the first four entries selected based on their scripts, which wouldn’t be suspect if it weren’t for the fact that the selection process for scripts was a ploy to sneak in commercially viable movies & well-known properties into the festival. It is another adaptation of Carlo J. Caparas’ seminal comic book series – a fantasy epic about a blacksmith who forges a dagger made from a meteorite that fell from the sky to defeat the evil Lizardo – which has been adapted & rebooted numerous times on film & TV, most famously portrayed by The King of Filipino Cinema Fernando Poe Jr. This one also stars & is directed by Coco Martin, currently known for starring in the long-running & ongoing television reboot of FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano, which continues to be a ratings juggernaut.
But Ang Panday is far from a lazy retread. It is a loud, entertaining blockbuster that finds ways to be weird & subversive, pushing this tired franchise into new, exciting directions.
Flavio Batungbakal, the original wielder of the dagger forged from a meteorite & the man who defended the world from the evil Lizardo, was planning to give his dagger to his son Flavio II. He refused, since he wants to live a peaceful life with his wife. It’s going to be short-lived, since their home was attacked by aswangs sent by Lizardo while her wife was giving birth. None of them survived except for their son, also named Flavio, who managed to survive the attack thanks to the midwife who took him away from the province to the streets of Tondo.
However, he grew up to be a good-natured but troublesome man making & selling blades & saws, often causing trouble due to his insistence in fighting for what’s right. He’s fallen in love with Maria (Mariel de Leon), a beautiful singer whose parents have plans to marry her off to someone rich. That person turns out to be the reincarnated Lizardo (Jake Cuenca) who grew up to be a rich, shady entrepreneur with plans to conquer the world. With the world hanging in a balance, it’s up to Flavio to find the dagger & save the world.
It’s not as straightforward as it sounds. It takes a while to set up its convoluted mythology while making room for other stories, such as the blossoming romance between Flavio’s sister Rowena (Elisse Joson) & her suitor, & his brother Diego (Awra Briguela) trying his best to hide his true sexuality to the rest of his family; the latter of which isn’t played for cheap laughs & offers a somewhat neat parallel with Flavio’s arc. All of it is told with the same broad, goofy sincerity as FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano, but adding fantasy elements to spice up its urban setting & getting rid of its occasional self-seriousness, embracing the ridiculousness of the situation. The whole approach works better in a movie about the ultimate showdown between good & evil than a cop show full of political intrigue & conspiracies. The shaky cam aesthetic makes the colorful, fantasy elements stand out while its conflict fits better with its tone, something FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano has a problem with when it dumbs down important topics like corruption, policing & the drug trade. It offers a completely novel direction for the franchise that never turns stale.
This movie even apes the show’s fondness for shaky cam full of quick cuts & close-ups, but gets rid of the excessive zooms & dramatic sound effects. It’s very noticeable in the gripping action scenes, which expands what was capable in the TV series & gives it more finesse, with the help of a bigger production budget. It’s an energetic blur that’s easy to follow, but never giving the audience a time to rest or to take in the scenery. It’s an exhilarating feat that makes it harder to look away, especially when it has Coco Martin riding a motorcycle, killing off aswangs & stopping robberies with the power of his dagger.
But that isn’t enough for the movie. It also takes weird, entertaining digressions like a segue to a music video & an ensuing fight between police officers & squatters that turns into a rap battle about land rights. What ensues is an exhausting, overstuffed smorgasbord, with plots fighting for space in its nearly 2 1/2 hour runtime. It results in a lot of plotholes, jam-packed material the movie doesn’t even know what to do with, & it goes on a mad rush towards the end, but the overall effect is mesmerizing to behold; even if the sound mix makes it hard to distinguish the dialogue at times. It offers the audience almost everything imaginable to keep you from getting bored, & doing it in the broadest, most genuine way possible, without pushing the material towards utter incomprehensibililty.
It helps that the movie doesn’t ignore even the most rudimentary emotional beats nor the mythical roots of the story. It keeps everything grounded & easy to understand, even as it moves away from the franchise’s usual formula. It’s also filled to the brim with a cast who deeply understands how to navigate the movie’s tricky tone that not everyone is given a spotlight. Awra Briguela is given a chance to show off his excellent dramatic acting. Jake Cuenca is magnetic & sleazy as the current incarnation of Lizardo. But the absolute star has to be Coco Martin. He is the connective tissue that holds everything together. He’s like the movie itself: earnest, dopey, a bit corny but wholly endearing. He can sell a man like Flavio killing aswangs with a dagger while riding a motorcycle & telling what has to be one of the corniest jokes in Filipino cinema, but his enthusiasm & how funny he thinks the joke is just beams off the screen, you can’t help but laugh.
In fact, that quality is what makes Ang Panday one of the best movies of 2017. The motives behind making this movie may have been cynical, but it doesn’t reflect the final movie at all. It’s been made by people who knows there’s nothing bad about being entertained, but delivers a movie brimming with such pure-hearted passion, rigourous craft, a willingness not to take itself seriously & giving its audiences what it wants without succumbing to outright pandering, to the point it becomes excessive, it’s hard not to fall for its charms. It just wants us to have a good time at the cinemas – which isn’t too much to ask – & Ang Panday confirms you can do so without sacrificing quality.