"Mother stands for comfort Mother will hide the murderer"
- Kate Bush
Written by Mikey Sutton
Motherhood is the pulsing beat but also dark heart of the Philippine soap opera Onanay.
Clocking in at 160 episodes on the GMA Network, Onanay twists teleserye conventions instead of indulging in the cliches their competition ABS-CBN still dishes out. Its protagonist is played not by a matinee idol but relative unknown Jo Berry. Her title character is afflicted with Achondroplasia, a genetic disorder that results in dwarfism. Filipino soaps are often wrapped in tragedy, usually from the very beginning. It's the central and immediate hook. But Onanay (a Tagalog play on words for dwarf mother) bravely doesn't hold back from the grimness. Onanay is raped by an intoxicated stranger, whose identity is known to viewers but a secret bomb that threatens to tear its main love story apart. Onanay's rapist is actually her handsome suitor Lucas Samonte (Wendell Ramos), a successful attorney whose newly found affection for is questionable - is it true love or actually guilt?
However, the troubled and odd romance between Onanay and Lucas is not the nucleus of the show, another way it bends audience expectations. Rather, it's the blood-hot hostility between Onanay and Helena Sanchez-Montenegro, portrayed by Cherie Gil with unyielding rage yet deep emotional complexity. Helena blames Onanay for the death of her son, for which she steals their daughter Natalie (Kate Valdez) in retaliation, convinces everyone she died, and raises her as her own. At this point, many Pinoy dramas would probably leave it there and merely keep on picking at that scab; instead, Onanay layers on the agony, peeling away one problem after another, leading to more violence and death. Onanay gives birth to Maila (Mikee Quintos), and the rapist is her father.
When it was initially announced, Onanay was hyped as the return of Philippine acting legend Nora Aunor. Such a respected veteran like Aunor knew this was a winning project, and she doesn't disappoint. She is the moral center of this program, the Catholic voice that casts light in the gloom. As the wicked witch, Gil tears up the screen with evil intensity but she can be unusually warm as well when it comes to Natalie. Helena is scarily possessive of Natalie; even with her all of her wealth, nothing matters more to her even if takes psychotic means of keeping her under her watch.
With vibrant eyes, lovely cheekbones that look like they were carved by Amazons, and dynamic eyebrows, Valdez is a true find, a huge star in the making. She is a diamond in bloom. Valdez finds the kind soul trapped inside of Natalie, who is brimming with selfishness and arrogance. Valdez makes Natalie likeable even when she does horrible things. It's a fragile balancing act that Valdez pulls off with a maturity and grace beyond her 18 years. When Natalie temporarily loses her eyesight, Valdez puts on an acting clinic with her subtle visual expressions. Valdez is absolutely dynamite. After she becomes temporarily blind, Valdez captures the blackness she also sees in her soul.
Directors Gina Alajar and Joel Lamangan have an empathetic perspective on their young actors here as the chemistry between Valdez and the terrific Quintos have the love/hate conflicts of real siblings. When Natalie and Maila are stranded on an island, it seemed as if they were able to put their issues behind them but a serious misunderstanding simply makes it worse. There's an unmistakable bond of real-life friendship between Valdez and Quintos that works so well here and it makes the eventual falling apart between their characters more devastating. Of the two, Natalie changes the most because she needs to; it is to Valdez' credit that Natalie evokes such sympathy despite her misdeeds, which were mainly caused by the woman who raised her.
Loyalty, or lack thereof, is the link between everyone on Onanay. Natalie feels indebted to Helena no matter what, looking past her crimes with stubborn denial until sharp truths were unveiled. Perhaps the saddest of all is Gilleth Sandico as Soleng, whose undying devotion to Helena masks the unrequited love at its core.
Created by John Borgy Danao, Onanay shows that the price of blood relations can be blood itself. And it's not love that conquers all, but rather the love of mothers.