Pinoy kids raised on afternoon television in the 70s and 80s would remember watching a singing mystical bird whose gorgeous voice is said to have the power to heal. But only if you catch it first; otherwise the singing will lull you to sleep and will turn you into stone. The bird is Ibong Adarna, the title roler in the 1941 epic by Vicente Salumbides. The film was recently scanned in 4k, a high definition resolution. (Update: The film had undergone 2K digital automated restoration in 2020 at the ABS-CBN Film Archives.)
Ibong Adarna is one of the oldest films in the ABS-CBN archives, and one of the rare pre-war Filipino films with a known copy. “Anything made before WWII is significant, because there are so few of them,” says Juan Martin Magsanoc, a collector of Filipino film mementos and advocate of film archiving, when asked why the film is significant. “Second, it’s from a literary classic…And it was the only Pinoy nitrate film that was in existence for a long time.”
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Although originally released in black and white, the film holds the distinction of being the first Filipino movie with a color sequence. Selected scenes were painstakingly handpainted frame by frame, giving life to the titular character as it begins to trill and serenade its potential captors. “It may seem like nothing now but back then, it was a jaw dropping experience for audiences who saw films in black and white,” wrote Leo Katigbak of ABS-CBN Film Restoration Project on his Facebook post.
The Mystical Bird
Based on the original awit at korido (narrative poetry) form of literature, Ibong Adarna tells the story of three princes, Don Pedro, Don Diego, and Don Juan, the sons of King Fernando and Queen Valeriana. When King Fernando falls ill, a doctor advises his family to capture the Ibong Adarna, a mythical bird with a healing voice. Unbeknown to them, when the bird sings, its sound lulls people to sleep. Once asleep, the bird drops its excrement on its victim and turns the person into stone. The protagonist, Don Juan, finds a way to escape the bird’s curse, making his brothers envious of his triumph. The narrative continues on with a few more complex plotlines involving deceit, murder, forgiveness, brotherhood, fantasy, magic, and a love triangle.
Ibong Adarna was produced by Narcisa “Doña Sisang” de Leon of LVN Pictures, and was directed by Salumbides under the technical supervision of Manuel Conde, who would become one of our National Artists. It stars Mila del Sol, Fred Cortes, and Ester Magalona.
For the Small Screen
The journey of the physical film itself is a saga, in its own way.
The film, according to Julie Galino, Head of ABS-CBN Film Archives, was in nitrate form (a highly flammable and toxic film base) when it was stored in an ordinary freezer, inside the film vault of the then-LVN-Pictures property in Cubao, Quezon City.
With funding assistance from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), and with consultation with the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), the nitrate film was thawed and restored by migrating it to a new print form called the 35mm safety film.
At the time, the LVN Pictures property was already for sale. LVN shut down its operations in 2005.
The nitrate film was then returned to LVN’s film vault, but eventually it was disposed through a government agency as no one else wanted to store a highly-combustible film.
In 2005, LVN Pictures sold the cable rights of 102 titles, including Ibong Adarna, to Creative Programs, Inc., a subsidiary of ABS-CBN. All existing film materials of the 102 titles were then turned over to ABS-CBN for storage and safekeeping.
Now in the hands of ABS-CBN Film Archives, Ibong Adarna is being transformed into a high-definition format which, according to Galino, would make the picture “sharper and crisper.”
The film, however, is missing a chunk which is around nine minutes long. It is that part of the film when the bird was intentionally released by Don Pedro and Don Diego, after Don Juan brought the bird back to their kingdom.
Fortunately, there is a U-matic (a videocassette format) transfer of the film, where the missing part can be pulled. This part, although in standard definition format (as opposed to a high-definition format), can be digitized and inserted to the new scanned film. “This may not look as crisp and as sharp as the rest of the parts,” says Galino, “but it makes the film complete again.”