In the impoverished village of Santa Fe, some investors capitalize on fish pens growing bangus (milkfish) under the care of Mang Pedro (Ruben Rustia). But for some mysterious reason, the fish are dying. To save the situation, they decide to salt the fish and dry them under the sun. Benjamin (George Estregan), who owns a boat that shuttles passengers to town, has a regular passenger Chedeng (Daria Ramirez), who is going to be a midwife soon. Chedeng has a close friend and neighbor, Maria (Elizabeth Oropesa), but unknown to each other, they are both having an affair with Benjamin. When Maria becomes pregnant, she becomes Chedeng’s first patient and a disastrous situation that ends in tragedy ensues.
A Speck in the Water (Nunal sa Tubig, 1976), aka A Mole in the Water, is one of the films that have stood the test of time. As it often happens in the history of Cinema, Ishmael Bernal, while being held at home as a major pillar of the “renaissance” of Filipino cinema in the 1970s/80s, was largely overlooked abroad at the time, except for two films: City After Dark (1980), and the famous Himala, which was shown at the Berlinale in 1982 (and in Udine in 2018). The bright aura of his main contender, Lino Brocka, whose several films were promoted in Cannes (by the late Pierre Rissient) had casted a shadow on Bernal abroad.
Following years of “purgatory” after his death in 1996, Ishmael Bernal is back in light, with several films being restored (by ABS-CBN, and FDCP), and an important book recently published in Manila (Angela Stuart-Santiago, Pro Bernal Anti Bio, ABS-CBN Publishing, Manila 2017), about him and his friend and script-writer, Jorge Arago. Thus, the restoration of A Speck in the Water is a tangible proof that Bernal was one of the most gifted cineastes of his generation. Through the untiring efforts of ABS-CBN Corporation, the only existing 35mm copy (with Japanese subtitles) of the film that was discovered in Fukuoka City Public Library Archive, has found its way home. Before its restoration, the film had numerous defects of all kinds, which were all successfully eliminated at 3,600 total restoration hours by more than 250 professional restoration artists. A Speck in the Water was scanned in 4K at Tokyo Koon Co. in Japan and digitally restored in 2K resolution at Kantana Post Production (Thailand) in February 2018, before it premiered at the Cinemalaya festival in Manila, on August 8th, 2018.
At a time when a script was a real script, Jorge Arago story of the conflict between poor fishermen and investors, mixing with a love/sex relationship of two female friends with a male lover, shows us the impoverished rural Philippines of the 1970s. Brilliantly mise en scène by Ishmael Bernal, and photographed by Arnold Alvaro, A Speck in the Water is a quiet but pregnant story of personal and collective failures in a doomed island.
As the old man Jacob says once in the film: “Our island is a speck in the water, a mole on the feet on a dive being.” According to Filipino superstition, “a mole on one’s feet” means restlessness and itching for perpetual motion, a life long journey of traveling, with no lasting destination.
With a remarkable main cast such as Elizabeth Oropesa (of Chedeng and Apple, shown in Udine last year), Daria Ramirez and George Estregan, among many others, A Speck in the Water reappears as one of the most personal early works by Bernal, when he was most assured and daring in his innovative style. Today, it looks like a forgotten masterpiece, but at the time of release, the film was very unevenly received by local film critics. Some of them said it was “un-Filipino,” and even looked like “French,” which says it all! However, as one sharp critic, Hernando, wrote: “Nunal sa Tubig is so well crafted, complex, sharp, and to a certain degree, abstruse, that the film requires complete concentration and openness to a new film concept, and, whenever necessary, a willingness to see it again.”
Well, let’s see it again, then.