An old friend and high school batchmate now teaching film in South Korea, going by the alias Ynnocence, sent some months ago films personally requested for a re-viewing and re-evaluation, which included Eddie Romero’s The Passionate Strangers, set in Dumaguete in the mid-60s.
Now I don’t know if memory plays tricks, but that selfsame film had been scheduled for viewing in the old homestead, back in childhood days in Maginhawa, with a noisy projector and a sheer white blanket as canvas, and since it was for adults, only we were banned from the living room turned into an orchestra section of a movie house. A glimpse of the trailer would reveal why it wasn’t meant for minors: a man driving a car, his hand inching up the leg of the woman beside him. Little did we know until years later that the woman was Celia Rodriguez, trying to seduce a former college classmate in the midst of a classic whodunit, and her uttering that even more classic line: Do you still live with your mother?
Also in the living room at the time was the complete 20 or so volumes of the must-have encyclopedia The Book of Knowledge, and from its pages could have walked out Valora Noland, lead star of The Passionate Strangers, with her mod hair-do and pre-miniskirt doing Austin Powers one better. You might say she was ahead of her time, Valora was, straight out of the book of forbidden knowledge.
Despite co-star Mario Montenegro’s lovelorn hysterics, little is recognizable of the Dumaguete in that bygone age. Tartanilla was a main mode of transport, Silliman chapel and amphitheater already unmistakable landmarks, sugar cane all around in what could be Bais outskirts—according to one oldtimer—you could almost smell the molasses, and the indispensable village fool antedating the later fixture Soldier Blue, indeed any respectable little town should not be without one. Out of the corner of one’s eye can see the fool approaching from a block or two away, so you must prepare a snappy salute and the best poker face. Even if Soldier Blue is pondering how could Valora have told off Mario, in the heat of a passionate stranger, get away from me!
The national artist Romero knew his town well, and it is the little things that count, the devil and then some in the details. The story is of a cuckolded American in the Philippine town of his birth, trying to save his marriage hurtling to the rocks at the speed of sound. It’s a reverse whodunit alright, but with undertows of political patronage, manipulative leftists, hands crawling up skirts in a perpetual twilight that could also be a result of ancient footage, American imperialism and Protestantism, deep kisses of the illicit sort that would make a minor smell the seats in the living room post-screening, trying to catch a whiff of forbidden knowledge.
Many years later, Romero would be sitting in a screening room in Greenbelt 3, evaluating films in air-conditioned comfort, perhaps too air-conditioned it was almost winter, the exact opposite of his hot and humid hometown in the south.
Sitting a row and some seats away was that kid banned from The Passionate Strangers, but who had seen in the selfsame Dumaguete movies more suitable for his age. South Pacific and Flower Drum Song, in the almost forgotten Main and Park theaters along the former Alfonso Trece (not the brandy but the street now Gov. Perdices Avenue), near the park and playground heading toward the boulevard and on the second-floor corridor before entering the balcony were faded colored photos of matinee idols whose names and filmography can only be sourced through Google if not Encyclopedia Britannica, and where you could smoke a filterless Philip brown before screen rolls and Balihai starts calling.
Valora, we later read, would star in episodes of Star Trek opposite the lovestruck Captain Kirk aka William Shatner, where they are suffering from mysterious contusions. Noland would also become a book author, under the name Valora Tree. She died in March this year, age 80.