MANILA -- When Viva Films decided to do a remake of the South Korean film, “Miracle in Cell No. 7,” award-winning actor Aga Muhlach was immediately cast to play the a mentally challenged father wrongfully accused of kidnapping, rape and murder. That was fast and easy.
Director Nuel Naval was given a free hand by Viva Films producer Vic del Rosario, to choose the supporting cast. That was after child star Xia Vigor was assigned the role as the daughter Yesha, and Bela Padilla (replacing Nadine Lustre) as the adult lawyer-daughter who defends her father to clear his name.
“When the movie was offered to me, there was no cast yet except Aga,” Naval recalled. “Boss Vic gave me a free hand to choose the cast. I handpicked them. Ipinaglaban ko ang cast.”
Five actors were given roles to play the fellow inmates of Muhlach’s character, Joselito “Lito” Gopez. Joel Torre is Boss Sol, Mon Confiado is Choy, Jojit Lorenzo is Bong, Soliman Cruz is Tatang Celso, and JC Santos is Mambo.
John Arcilla is the jail’s deputy director Johnny San Juan or Mang Johnny, with Yayo Aguila as his wife. Tirso Cruz III essays the role of Secretary Yulo, a high-ranking police officer. Playing minor but equally important roles are Jeffrey Quizon as the prosecuting lawyer, Ian De Leon for defense, and Mark Anthony Fernandez as the leader of a group of toughie inmates against Boss Sol’s clout.
However, the slammer where most of the important scenes in the film – 70 percent – were shot, immediately posed a big problem to the producer. Knowing that prison cells everywhere in the country are crowded with inmates, Viva Films deemed it better to construct a real jail in Cainta, Rizal.
It took two months for the air-conditioned sound stage to be completed, before cast and crew were able to start filming. Production designer was Elfren Vibar, also a TV director on ABS-CBN.
The story happens in 1987, when Lito pleaded guilty beyond reasonable doubt to the crimes, none of which he committed. He becomes Inmate 5483, with a criminal case docketed 8098.
Told in flashback starting from the point of view of the adult Yesha, played by Bela Padilla, the film narrates how Lito grew up, prior to his trial. He was born in January 1961 and was only five years old when his mom died. He never met his dad. He grew up with his aunt and uncle. From the start, he had a tight relationship with his grade school daughter, Yesha.
One morning, Lito follows a young girl who will tell him where to buy a Sailor Moon backpack for his daughter. However, the young girl gets into an accident and dies. Lito was accused of killing and even raping the girl, whom he was merely trying to resuscitate.
Lito was charged with kidnapping, rape and murder, none of which he actually committed. He lands in jail, but subsequently builds friendship with the other inmates in his cell. In return, they all conspired to help him see his daughter again by smuggling her inside the prison.
“Miracle in Cell No. 7” is based on the heart-warming South Korean film of the same title, released in 2013. The film marks the second time Viva produced a remake of another Korean drama, following last year’s “Miss Granny,” with Sarah Geronimo in the lead.
In “Miracle in Cell No. 7,” Yesha, at one point, was left in an orphanage away from her father. The young girl tells Mang Johnny she wants to steal instead, so she will be jailed, see her dad and be with him.
The young Yesha was smuggled inside her father’s prison cell by the latter’s fellow inmates. Even Mang Johnny was compelled to look the other way, to give in to the wishes of Yesha to be with her dad.
Many engaging, if not funny sequences, showed the prison escapades not just of Lito and Yesha, but even the other inmates. Once inside the prison cell, Yesha managed to tone down the things she sees around her, like Choy’s sexy, pin-up photos on the wall that she covered with colorful, Barbie doll outfits.
The inmates later thanked Yesha for the inspiration, hope and for making their lives happy even inside the prison. Her dad gave her a Sailor Moon bag, her long-time dream, that really thrilled her.
Notwithstanding that Cell No. 7 is the “harshest cell” in the maximum security prison, father and daughter, in the final efforts of the other inmates to give an unforgettable moment to the two, were made to ride a hot-air balloon that got accidentally stuck on a wire and failed to really take off.
The film is clearly a three-hankie weepie that will repeatedly send viewers to sniff and wipe their tears, not just after the credits rolled. Early on and even midway into the story, there are heart-tugging scenes that will make viewers cry.
Although this was the first time for Naval to direct Muhlach, the former worked with the actor before as production designer in Rory Quintos’ “Kailangan Kita,” with Claudine Barretto, shown in 2002.
“Aga always made me feel that I was the one on top of the project,” Naval said. “When he would be late, he always informed me. He always came all the way from Alabang to go to our location in Cainta.”
Naval refused to refresh his mind on the original Korean movie even if he had previously seen it in the past. “Nakaka-pressure,” he reasoned out. “Ayokong panoorin ‘yung original, though I’ve watched it several years back. I will treat the script of Mel [Mendoza-Del Rosario] as a fresh project. We did the sensitivity very Pinoy. We were allowed to adjust.”
Naval’s last movie as director was “The Love Affair,” which starred Richard Gomez, Dawn Zulueta and Bea Alonzo. That was shown 2015. In between his film projects, he directed episodes for “Maalaala Mo Kaya.”
Screenwriter Del Rosario defends the Filipino version of “Miracle in Cell No. 7,” a Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) entry of Viva Films. “When you do a remake, people often asked how faithful are you to the original material,” she explained. “There are die-hards who know the original movie by heart. We’re faithful to the story, but we’ll make it our own. From the humor to the dynamics, we made it Pinoy.”
The legal part was the toughest part in the Filipino translation, having to adjust to Korean laws. Del Rosario had to work with a legal consultant in writing the screenplay.
“There are serious subjects like the death penalty,” she pointed out. “It was no longer possible to just get creative license for that or we’ll get instantly bashed. Mahigpit masyado ang social media.”
Still, Viva Films followed what can be realistic to Philippine laws. “We preserved the iconic scenes in the original movie, but Direk Nuel put in some surprises,” Del Rosario said.