Magic Of The Universe
aka Salamangkero: The Magician, Monster Of The Universe
Director Tata Esteban Writers Tata Esteban, Grace Hill Serrano
Cast Michael De Mesa (Lolo Omar/Professor Jamir), Tanya Gomez (Lovina), Tom Tom (Bojok), Sunshine (Freza), Armida Siguion-Reyna (Mikula)
What is known of Filipino director Tata Esteban (real name Steve Regala) has been coloured by his own much-publicised personal narrative, carefully constructed following his conversion to revivalist Christianity as an almost cartoon-like fall from Grace and subsequent redemption and salvation. A “hardcore womanizer, flesh trader and shabu addict”, he is described on a Christian ministry's website, “promiscuous since he was 13, and constantly wallowing in money as he traded and bedded women, and showed off their wares in his hit nightclubs and movies...” A stroke, several heart attacks and his two year-old son asking for a hit of daddy's Shibu, reportedly turned his life around in 2000, before a final heart attack in 2003 claimed Esteban for good; friends and colleagues remember him prior to his conversion as a talented if troubled artist whose personal demons no doubt got the better of him.
It's tempting to draw parallels between Esteban's turbulent private life and his skewed filmic fantasies. Starting with the demented sex-horror Alapaap (aka Clouds) in 1984, his work tended toward the erotic, and is most notorious for the samurai sword-in-vagina sequence from Hubo Sa Dilim (aka Naked In The Dark, 1985). In context, Esteban's startling filmography makes his 'kids' fantasy Magic Of The Universe that little bit disconcerting.
Esteban cast two of the leads from Alapaap, Michael de Mesa (son of Rosemarie Gil, brother of Cherie Gil) and bold star Tania Gomez, as Jamir the Magician and his wife Lovina. The film opens at a circus with Jamir's vanishing act going horribly wrong – their daughter Freza (Sunshine) has truly disappeared without trace. The couple venture deep into the jungle with their tubby child assistant Bojak (played by Tom-Tom – and no-one properly explains where HIS parents have vanished to) to consult a shaman. He proceeds to carve up one of his monkey companions with a machete, and invites the party to scoff fresh steaming brains out of the convenient monkey-skull desert bowl for divine inspiration. The child, it appears, has slipped into another more magical realm, and Lovina soon vanishes too, leaving Jamir and Bojak wondering what to do with their ever-diminishing family act.
Jamir is visited by the spectre of his great grandfather Lolo Omar (also played under a landslide of latex by Michael de Mesa). He tells Jamir of the family's mystical lineage, and how Omar's black-hearted acolyte Mikula - the Root of All Evil - is holding the Magical Realm hostage. The audience's descent is sudden, plunged head-first into a universe resembling a Duran Duran filmclip by Russell Mulcahy (but in fact co-designed by Magic's AD and future auteur Brillante Mendoza), populated with slobbering pig-people, monkey-men and dwarves in white-face, and presided over by the demented Mikula, she with the domed skull pulsing so wildly it threatens to send her headdress into orbit. “I am an animal, it's true,” Mikula declares to her court's menagerie, “but I RULE!”
It's a strange amalgam of influences at work in Magic Of The Universe. From
There are serious pacing issues, not to mention large fissures in the film's internal logic which prevent it from straying too far from the mundane. Its 1986 Metro Manila Film Festival slot, and the economic imperatives that come with such a responsibility, also tend to dampen Esteban's darker impulses, which are naturally given full rein in his more adult features. There's also a regulation stream of superfluous name stars who serve little more than marquee value: Dick Israel as forest dweller Arbutus with his stone wife Madera (Odette Khan), Liza Lorena as Kleriga, Mikula's wildly painted nemesis, and Gina Alajar as Siddha, the grail keeper of the Regalia, a wand designed to defeat Mikula and thus restore the balance of Goodness and Justice in the Magical Realm.
The film has moments of intentional absurdity: Mikula's court suddenly drops everything for an Oingo Boingo-styled musical number, the singer in snake dreads gargling San Miguel beer for vocals, and guitars made from human bones. For the most part, however, it's a grim affair, and far too grim to be considered 'light entertainment'; poor eight-year old Sunshine looks genuinely terrified for her entire performance, and I'm certain she's not that intuitive an actress. Severed heads are boiled for Mikula to absorb their strength – and let's not forget brains slurped out of monkey skulls! Then there's the goofy muppet Gondo, a jibbering flap-eared vision from my own personal Hell draped around a black and white TV, which I assume is both his torso and narrative function. For a tittering gargoyle it's given a fair amount of screen time, and presumably Esteban didn't want to waste a single inch of his Satanic-inspired rubber creation.