Nora Aunor: Big-time comeback queenBy Bayani San Diego Jr.
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Talk of comebacks doesn’t faze singer-actress Nora Aunor. Without skipping a beat, she said in eloquent Filipino when asked about the secret of her staying power, “Only the Man upstairs knows the answer.”
Regarded as the country’s superstar, Aunor’s life and career have been defined by amazing highs and heartbreaking lows. She’s currently riding on the high wave of indie films. Indies are giving her career a new lease in life.
“We should all support indie films. The government should give additional assistance to independent producers,” she said.
Recently, she scored another triumph when she was given the Bisato d’Oro award for her performance in Brillante Mendoza’s “Thy Womb,” an entry at this year’s Venice International Film Festival.
She was the first actor and Filipino to receive the honor from the Premio Della Critica Independiente, a critics’ group that is autonomous from the Venice fest, director Mendoza said in a previous interview.
Aunor never imagined that she would be able to revive her career, much more win an international acting honor, when she was still based in the United States two years ago.
“I had no expectations at all when I left for Venice last week,” she told the Inquirer in an impromptu visit at the paper’s Makati City office yesterday. “Even in the past, when I attend an awards ceremony, I never expected to win. I hope, but I don’t assume that I’ll win so that it won’t hurt as much.”
To think, pain is one emotion that she often had to feel both in reel and real life.
Foreign critics from such renowned publications as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter praised Aunor’s ability to convey emotions with raw honesty in “Thy Womb.”
In the indie film, she plays a barren Badjao midwife who makes the ultimate sacrifice: Searching for another woman (Lovi Poe) who can give her husband (Bembol Roco) a longed-for child.
“Anyone can relate to my character’s story,” she said.
Loving too much
She herself has experienced the same heartache, she quipped playfully. “I have also given up my own happiness for the person I love. That has happened at least thrice in my life.”
In the past, her friends often admonished her to focus on work instead of matters of the heart. “Maybe my life would’ve been more peaceful if I didn’t love too much.”
But then again, she has no regrets whatsoever. She said that every setback has led her to where she is now and has somehow helped her grow into the actress that she is now.
All those experiences and emotions were on full display in “Thy Womb.”
“The critics (at the Bisato d’Oro ceremony) asked me how I was able to express those emotions effortlessly,” she said.
Immersion in Tawi-Tawi
Mendoza asked Aunor and her fellow actors to fully immerse themselves in the lives of a Badjao community in Tawi-Tawi.
“Bembol and I would fish in the open sea from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” she recalled. “Toward the end of the shoot, I got dizzy. Na-heatstroke.”
She learned how to fish, weave mats and deliver babies.
Asked how she was able to do the live birth scene in “Thy Womb,” she related: “At first, I was scared. I didn’t want to hurt the baby. But when I saw the baby’s face, I told myself: Wow! It was like witnessing a miracle.”
Miracles have become a recurring motif in her life as well. Apart from “Thy Womb,” Aunor had another film shown at this year’s Venice: the digitally restored “Himala (Miracle),” directed by National Artist for Film Ishmael Bernal.
Aunor said that she was raring to do the sequel of “Himala” onstage. “Kuya Ricky (Lee, the film’s scriptwriter) wrote it. I really want to do a play next year. I want to challenge myself.”
She has three more items on her wish list. “I also want to do a TV show, a concert and a new record,” she said.
Can no longer sing
When talk turned to music, those famous eyes turned misty. “There are nights when I find myself crying because I can no longer sing,” she said, candidly. “Singing was my life. I was able to feed my family because of music. It was my first love.”
Singing was also her solace when her career hit a slump some years back, before she left for the United States. “I would play my old songs and remix them,” she said.
Aunor hopes to undergo surgery and therapy in the US to restore her voice. “I’m saving up for that.”
She’s pretty busy these days. After “Thy Womb,” she is in the cast of Mark Meily’s historical epic “El Presidente,” an entry in this December’s Metro Manila Film Festival and starring ER Ejercito.
This weekend she will be appearing in two TV5 shows. On September 15, she will be featured in “Untold Stories,” as a nun who leaves the convent for a man.
On September 16, she will guest in an episode of the suspense show “Third Eye,” where she plays an exorcist who gets possessed by an evil spirit.
She’s likewise saving up for another indie movie. “I want to go back to producing. Maybe I can direct, too. I want to express all my ideas and use everything I’ve learned from the directors I worked with in the past.”
At one point, the interview sounded like a master class in acting, as she shared her experiences with the country’s best directors: Gerry de Leon (“Banawe”), Lino Brocka (“Ina Ka ng Anak Mo”), Ishmael Bernal (“Himala”), Mario O’Hara (“Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos”) and now Mendoza.
She has been known as the champion of the underdog. In Tawi-Tawi, she shared part of her salary not just with the film’s crew, but also with some of the residents in the community where they shot “Thy Womb.”
She plans to return to Tawi-Tawi and build a health center there. “Some pregnant women who live in the sea need to ride a boat for hours just to get to the nearest clinic. Some die as a result. I hope more doctors and nurses would volunteer there.”
She saw for herself how tough life was in that part of the country.
“But it’s a beautiful place. The people are so kind. It’s not the scary place depicted in the news.”
Before she left for Manila, kids lined up to say goodbye and she gave them small gifts as souvenir. “It made me happy to see the kids happy,” she said.
But surely she has learned to save some of her earnings by now?
“Sometimes I still forget,” she said, laughing. “But that’s my happiness.”
No matter how far she has gone in life, she insists on remaining down-to-earth, the same Nora who used to sell iced water in the train station of Iriga. “In the US, I did my own laundry.”
In Venice, she kept looking for rice. When she was served risotto, she got upset. “Malabsa kasi (It was soggy),” she quipped.
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