The canniest move Mervin Malonzo’s aswang comic Tabi Po makes is to set everything in the universe of Noli Me Tangere, not only slanting the familiar trope at enough of an angle to make it both familiar yet unique, but enabling its own tangential post-colonial critique on, among others, the misogyny and hubris of the clergy. The comic will eventually get to the present-day but the way Malonzo has it plotted out, Tabi Po will be nine books long with each arc breaking down to three books each. The third book in the first arc just came out.
There are four aswangs in the book. Elias, our de facto hero, the one whose story we essentially follow, is a man without a past, literally springing out of a gnarled tree, fully-formed and at first unaware of what he is, until his flesh-eater pangs take him over. Eventually he meets Tasyo and Sabel, who are both over 300 years old, and Salome, who we first see stark naked and chained to a bed, a sex slave to a lascivious friar.
Tabi Po was the crossover story of domestic independent comics and it’s easy to see why. There’s a classical rigor to Malonzo’s narrative aesthetic, linear and coherent but averse to lapsing into the formulas and clichés of the trope, while the art is jittery, wild, primal, and despite the severity of the blood and gore and violence, weirdly lush and beautiful. Quite frankly, the push and pull is intoxicating and it’s what makes Tabi Po cinematic. A film based on it was almost a no-brainer.
Almost because the very qualities that make it such a tantalizing prospect for transitioning to cinema are the very qualities that also make it such a tricky proposition. “You have a period setting, you have practical gore effects, you have action sequences, you have full-on nudity, sometimes all at the same time. It’s very...challenging, to say the least.” says Paul Basinilio, director of the forthcoming TV series based on the comic, who is all too aware that he’s not so much shooting a six-episode show as he is a six-hour movie, a fact that went a long way to ease Malonzo into letting Viva Films, the studio that’s footing the bill, shepherd his comic into a new platform.
When Malonzo first sat down with producer Val Del Rosario, he was admittedly iffy about the idea of the adaptation, not least because the extreme nudity and violence might have to be diluted to the point that it misrepresents the source, but also because he isn’t exactly a fan of local TV, and you can’t entirely blame him. “I don’t like the quality of local teleseryes, their shoot-today-air-tonight way of doing things. But I was convinced by Viva’s vision, how they wanted to raise the bar.”
But Viva has a pedigree when it comes to brokering comic-to-film transitions, their iconic back catalogue is all but built on that. “We’re always looking out for standout source material we could turn into a film or a series,” Del Rosario is talking about what has now become every film studio’s perpetual and competitive search for original content. “Tabi Po was not in bookstores yet. Good thing one of the members of my staff was a fan. It was exactly what we were looking for.” That was two years of development and extensive prep ago. In the interim, the Tabi Po series has moved from Viva’s own cable channel PBO to their joint venture with Cignal, the Sari Sari Channel. “The search for content is in its highest form right now. The old way is already broken somehow.” Basinilio is ruminating on the growing sophistication among audiences, the evolving media landscape and how Viva sees Tabi Po as part of a long game in what may well be the auxiliary future of cinema. “It all depends, of course, on how long Mervin’s story is going to run.” Del Rosario interjects.
At some point, the TV series had to go off-book, enlarging certain side characters, expanding a few side stories and taking one major liberty. “There are now two timelines, the Spanish period and the present-day. That’s the major difference. The comic will eventually get to the present-day but not for awhile.” explains Malonzo. What this does is spin off an entirely new universe that’s somehow autonomous from yet tethered to the comic, and it’s a sandbox Malonzo is keen on playing in. AJ Muhlach, who plays Elias, did find the time-hopping a little daunting. “First I read the whole script. Then I read the parts set in different timelines separately. Then I read them together again. I wanted to be true to the comic. I was always texting Mervin about Elias: his speech patterns, his posture.” Phoebe Walker who plays the nomadic Sabel, never got a chance to read the comics, though, and took a slightly different approach instead: “We were asked to think of an animal that we could relate to our character. Salome’s very feminine and very ruthless. I picked lioness.”
“We had to expand because we’re telling a longer story and there were so many interesting permutations,” Basinilio explains, “But we always revert back to the creator when making these changes. It’s his vision. We have to respect that.” A crucial part of honoring the vision was not to half-ass anything. In playing Salome, Jordaine Castillo admits that sticking close to the emotional and physical brutality the character was undergoing in the comic took a lot out of her. “The nudity, the torment of being raped, the rage, acting all that out was the most difficult part.” For Luis Alandy, who plays the 300-year-old Tasyo, the most difficult part was doing all the flesh eating live. “We had to eat “flesh” on location in the nude. Situations like that, you just throw all your inhibitions away.”
The decision on Basinilio’s part to do nearly everything with practical effects was both an aesthetic and logistic one. “The secret to good VFX is time. If you don’t have the time, don’t do it. The production will only suffer.” This wholesale aversion to the easy way out on the entire production team’s part may be the reassurance Malonzo needs to assuage his teleserye iffiness. “It’s very difficult and it’s also very risky,” says Basinilio, not mincing words. “But we believe in the story.”
This story was originally published in the August 2017 issue of FHM Philippines.
Minor edits were made by the FHM.com.ph editors.