Aga Muhlach changes gears and plays a mentally-challenged character in Miracle in Cell No. 7, Viva Films’ official entry in the 2019 (45th) Metro Manila Film Festival.
Ma-Aga ang Pasko
CONVERSATIONS - Ricky Lo (The Philippine Star) - December 22, 2019 - 12:00am

Christmas came to Aga Muhlach much earlier than the start of the “ber” months when Jose Mari Chan, now known as “The Harbinger of Christmas,” colors your and my world with his heart-warming song Christmas In Our Hearts. Aga got his “surprise” Christmas gift in the form of a movie called Miracle in Cell No. 7 which is predicted to give the seven other entries a run for the money and Aga the chance to duplicate his back-to-back feat (read on!) almost three decades ago when he last joined the MMFF.

In the movie directed by Nuel Naval, Aga plays a mentally-challenged person wrongly accused of sexually assaulting and murdering the daughter of a high-ranking official. The movie is the Filipino version of the 2013 Korean movie directed by Lee Hwan-kyung (see accompanying story) which is ranked No. 7 in Korea’s top-grossing movies of all time.

Miracle also stars Xia Vigor as Aga’s daughter (who grows up to be Bela Padilla, a lawyer), Tirso Cruz III as the high-ranking official; John Arcilla as the prison chief; and (also featured last Friday in this corner) Joel Torre, Jojit Lorenzo, Mon Confiado, JC Santos and Soliman Cruz as Aga’s co-prisoners.

In this Conversation, Aga talks not just about Miracle but also how it feels to be back in the MMFF after 28 years.

What’s the difference between joining the MMFF now from 28 years ago?

“The fact that I’m able to join again after many years of absence in the industry. I’ve always wanted to join the MMFF again but with what project? When I did Seven Sundays in 2017, that got me thinking about joining the MMFF. So why not a family drama na may kurot, may puso? Something that will make people laugh and then cry.”

Any fond memory about your first MMFF experience?

“It was a back-to-back thing — May Minamahal with Aiko (Melendez) and Bakit Labis Kitang Mahal with Lea (Salonga). Both were money top grossers and I won Best Actor for both. When you are younger, joining the MMFF was parang normal lang. This time, it’s something big for me…parang binigyan ako ng chance to look for a good project. Miracle in Cell No. 7 is the perfect material.”

What did you find attractive about it?

“When I read the script, I said I was gonna do it. Hindi pa sa festival dapat ‘yun. Until one day, Boss Vic told me, ‘Aga, gusto mo isali natin ito sa MMFF?’ So, nagulat ako. Sabi ko, ‘Aba parang matutupad ang mga pangarap ko.’ So they presented the script to the MMFF screening committee and we got accepted. After a month, I received the news na oo natanggap ‘yung Miracle.”

How different is Miracle from your other films?

“Well, to play a mentally-challenged character is tough, especially at this point in my life. You know, when you’re a lot younger, in my 20s, parang nandiyan pa ‘yung lahat ng pangarap mo na gusto ko ‘yung mga ganitong pelikula. Ang dami mo ng nagawang ibang klaseng pelikula, and to be given this challenge again at this point, I’m like, ‘Do I still need this?’ May ganoon ka, eh.”

Was it hard internalizing the character?

“It was tough, so much anxiety on my part. I was kinda stressed. Thanks to my experience I knew how to handle it. I kept quiet. I just cut ‘yung mga extra-curricular activities ko. Stop lahat ‘yon. I just focused on the movie. I was just home with the family. I was just preparing quietly.

“I just had to ask my director Nuel (Naval) and my writer, Mel (Mendoza-del Rosario). I told them, ‘Alalayan ninyo ako. Basta kapag mali ang ginagawa ko, let me know kaagad.’ I was ready for the challenge. Fortunately, everything went on smoothly. It became light, it became fun, it became nice. It also helped that I was working with great actors. Ang galing! We helped each other, we supported each other. Nuel Naval is big in this movie because siya ‘yung naging ankla naming lahat, eh. He set the tone. He didn’t put any pressure on us, didn’t make us feel that the movie was ‘heavy.’ Instead, he made it all feel light. It felt real. It was all coming from the heart.”

As a dad, how much from real life did you draw in playing your role?

“There’s a big part there because before when you were younger, ‘pag nag-motivate ka ng mga nakakalungkot na eksena, ang iniisip mo parati you start with, ‘yung girlfriend mo nasaktan, hihiwalayan ka, malungkot love life mo. That’s where you drew sadness. But now it was easier for me because of my children. Because I am dedicating my life to them. So it was kinda easier to motivate myself for this movie because all I did was think of my children. It’s as if nagke-create ka ng malungkot na eksena sa totoong buhay. That helps me motivate myself for every scene with Xia.”

Aga in a scene from the movie in which he plays a mentally-challenged character imprisoned when he was wrongly accused of raping and killing the daughter of a high-ranking official

In the touching reunion scene with Xia, what real-life experience came to your mind?

“It’s a daily thing for me. When we’re in the room…every time my daughter or my son comes into the room. That’s pure joy! There’s pure excitement. ‘Atasha! Andres! Come to my room!’ It’s always the excitement of seeing your children. You just draw from that.”

Have you seen the Korean movie; how did you make your performance similar to or different from the actor in it?

“I didn’t watch the movie. I just followed the script. I wanted to watch it but when we had our story conference, direk Nuel advised me not to watch it para daw hindi ko daw magaya. But he had to explain to me the core of the film. I will watch the original movie now that our own film is done. Pero nakakasilip naman ako from time to time ng mga three or four scenes.”

About Christmas, what have been the changes in the celebration now that your children are grown?

“Christmas has always been simple for all of us kasi we’ve spent the past 12 Christmases and New Year out of the country. We have a place in the States that we always go to. Every year, we would stay there for about three months when the kids were younger, kasi puede pa silang mag-absent sa school ng mahaba. And then, of course, noong tumatanda na sila, nagbibinata’t dalaga na, mahigpit na sa eskuwela nila. So ‘yung stay nila umiigsi na.”

So this year, you’re home for Christmas…

“This is the first time that we’re spending Christmas here after 13 years because of this movie. We’re all so busy promoting that I haven’t started to feel that it’s Christmas. Besides, my children are 18 na, graduating (from college) next year. Times are different now. They have their own thing na. May mga lakad sila. But all our Christmases are simple lang. We always celebrate quietly. We’re always together. Simple lang pero masaya.

What would you consider as the best gift you have received in your 54-year existence?

Hindi siya material, eh...it’s my family and the friends who care, and the people I love, and knowing who your God is. Knowing that God is a big part of your life. He is top priority. That alone is a gift. Also, anything that my family does. Like my daughter sent me a message recently and I had to post it. Hindi ko naman ginagawa ‘yun, I’m very private. Nabigla lang ako when she messaged me about the movie and then sinabi niya na parang I know the hard work you put into that film and you were amazing. Because we never talk about films! Para banggitin nila ‘yun parang, wow! Eighteen na nga sila. Adults na. So ‘yun. My family and God.”

(E-mail reactions at rickylophilstar@gmail.com. For more updates, photos and videos, visit www.philstar.com/funfare or follow me on Instagram @therealrickylo.)

AGA MUHLACH MIRACLE CELL NO. 7
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