When Ishmael Bernal used the exact same term “Second Golden Age” in his last major interview, with Aruna Vasudev (16-23), I knew that it had effectively supplanted Bienvenido Lumbera’s coinage “New Philippine Cinema” in his “Problems in Philippine Film History” (193-212). Not that that was my intention though; in fact I deliberately maintained a non-titular preference for the uncapitalized “second,” even though I succumbed to standard capitalization practice later. The essay was the opening salvo (to use Patrick D. Flores’s review description) in a series of provocations that I was hoping would initiate productive, even dissentious, exchanges. Yet even the negative responses to The National Pastime seemed willing to accept, or maybe reluctant to question, the premise behind the assertion that the martial-law era ironically provided a fecund playing field for cinema, or shall we say Ciné-mah. My own attempt at questioning the Golden Ages idea was (to me) too late, too rushed, and too reasonable (see “The Golden Ages of Philippine Cinema: A Critical Reassessment”), even if it also happened to be the first to do so. Nevertheless I submit that the following article encapsulates Marcos-era film policy and its overall-favorable impact on film practice, as well as film observers’ urgent need to find useful historical frameworks for further applications (and incidentally, to fellow Nora Aunor fans: “Performances of the Age” is only a section of the present article, not a stand-alone write-up). “A Second Golden Age” was originally published in the October-December 1989 issue of the Cultural Center of the Philippines journal Kultura (pp. 14-26 – p. 14 is below), then edited by Bien Lumbera; its title was modified by the publisher of The National Pastime (where it appeared on pp. 1-17) to include the parenthesized phrase “An Informal History.”
Talk has been current, but not ardent enough, about the recent conclusion of a second Golden Age in Philippine cinema. Of course the notion of a Golden Age has its share of reputable disputants. No less than Eddie Romero, who surged forward at the start of what may be considered our filmic Golden Age II, cited ancient Greece in claiming that no such period of clear and concentrated artistic achievement could be reasonably circumscribed anywhere. On the other hand lies a just-as-ancient necessity of defining parameters for purposes of easier classification and, more important, to enable contemporary observers to draw significant lessons therefrom. Presuming that Golden Ages do exist, no other period becomes more needful in finding out how and why they do than that immediately following the conclusion of such a one.
More to the point of Romero’s argument, however, would be the obvious difficulty in pinpointing specific periods of artistic productivity. The flowering of Athenian culture could be studied intensively within the context of entire centuries of ancient Greek life; true, certain important artists and philosophers were contemporaries of one another – but this was more of the exception, the rule being one major practitioner being followed, chronologically speaking, by another who would either break away from the elder’s school or tradition, or venture completely on his own in a new, unpredictable direction.
The soundness of Romero’s assertion actually derives from the fail-safe construction of his logic. Nothing in human history can ever compare to the Greeks’ cultural exploits – and so, if we grant that they never had a Golden Age, then there never could have been any such thing since. Rather than despair over our modern-day limitations in the face of such insurmountable criteria of excellence, I believe we could do well enough in assessing ourselves for more sober, though perhaps less immortalizing, reasons. By this account a Golden Age need not be a wholly intensive and sustained national outbreak of cultural creativity. A limited period in a specific field, defined according to the concentration of output relative to periods preceding and succeeding it, should prove adequate for the moment.
Golden Age I
The first Golden Age in Philippine cinema has had slightly varied reckonings of its exact duration. All, however, agree to the inclusion of the entire decade of the 1950s. The most important feature of this period was the political stability brought about by postwar reconstruction and the aggressive suppression of the Communist insurgency, paralleled in film by the stabilization of the studio system.
That this phase ever came to a close indicates the short-sightedness of the solutions being applied. Reconstruction commits itself only to the attainment of a previous level of accomplishment (in this case the prewar situation), whereas insurgency addresses itself to the overthrow of a government on the basis of a problem – agrarian reform – more persistent that its leaders’ understandable aspirations to political power. The movie industry’s studio system, in seeking to institutionalize professionalism and (incidentally?) control the means of distribution, overlooked the natural inclination of talents, including stars, to seek more abundant means of remuneration outside the system if necessary, as well as the willingness of independent production outfits to forsake the studios’ long-term advantages and meet the demands of talents in return for faster and more immediate profits.
Hence the interval between the first and the second Golden Ages saw the rise of the independents and the superstars, backgrounded by the revitalization of the peasant-based insurgency and an engineered economic instability that paved the way for the imposition and eventual acceptance of fascist rule.
A Near-Golden Age
The declaration of martial law in 1972 promoted hopes for an end to the country’s political and economic difficulties. It also may have forestalled a creative resurgency in local moviemaking, brought about through a subsequently admitted social experiment by censors chief and presidential adviser Guillermo de Vega, who was latest assassinated under mysterious circumstances.
A casual view of the products of the pre-martial law seventies reveals what we might have been headed for: socially conscious and psychologically frank products, without a compulsion to alienate the vast majority of moviegoers, even in the most artistic instances. Apparently neutral or even antipathetic projects actually allowed for a lot of leeway in the selection of material and permutations of form and expression. Most significant was the proliferation of bomba or hard-core sex films, the direct result of de Vega’s extreme libertarianism; but just as important were the counter-reactions, the musicals and love triangles, that provided relief in opposing formats, even for serious practitioners. Moreover, regional (Cebuano-language) cinema had mellowed at the latter portion of a wondrously long curve, providing assurances of alternatives for Manila-based practitioners (which included Emmanuel H. Borlaza and Leroy Salvador), as well as an additional stable for the recruitment of onscreen talent, notably the Amado Cortez – Gloria Sevilla and Eddie Mesa – Rosemarie Gil clans.
Ismael Bernal came up with the last major black-and-white Filipino film and the most important debut of his generation with Pagdating sa Dulo. Lino Brocka, who was to share with Bernal the rivalry for artistic supremacy in the Golden Age that was to come, rebounded quick with a pair of highly inspired komiks-adapted titles for his studio base, Lea Productions, namely Stardoom and Tubog sa Ginto, plus an otherwise effective Fernando Poe Jr. epic, Santiago. This era, rather than the mid-seventies as commonly supposed, also signalled the maturation of Celso Ad. Castillo. In another Poe-starrer, Asedillo, as well as in a horrific bomba entry, Nympha, he exhibited a fascination for unconventional visual values and thematic daring, properties that were to serve him well during the latter part of the decade.
Other names associated with academe- and theater-based artist circles made their mark with relatively serious attempts, including Elwood Perez with Blue Boy and Nestor U. Torre with Crush Ko si Sir. Perhaps more significantly, a number of scriptwriters who were to figure prominently during the forthcoming Golden Age first figured here, with either solo or shared credits: Torre with his debut film, Bernal with Luis Enriquez’s Ah, Ewan! Basta sa Maynila Pa Rin Ako!, and Orlando Nadres with Tony Cayado’s Happy Hippie Holiday. Brocka, after writing for Luciano B. Carlos’s Arizona Kid, provided breaks for several scriptwriting aspirants, among them Nadres with Stardoom, Mario O’Hara with Lumuha Pati mga Anghel, and Alfred Yuson with Cherry Blossoms.
Right after Marcos’s martial-rule clampdown, and in a sense a consequence of the aforementioned near-anarchic (and therefore procreative) bent, came names like Peque Gallaga and Buth Perez with Binhi, Romy Suzara with Tatlong Mukha ni Rosa Vilma, Jun Raquiza with Dalawang Mukha ng Tagumpay, and George Rowe with Paru-Parung Itim, Nora Aunor’s first production, serious film, and (it wasn’t to be the last such combination) box-office flop. Rolando Tinio wrote for Bernal’s Now and Forever and Ricardo Lee, using the pseudonym R.H. Laurel, for the late Armando Garces’s Dragnet.
Pre-Golden Age II
Critics currently carping at the discernible decline in the quality of film output relative to the period prior to the 1986 revolution should actually have more to be grateful for, aside from the usual evolutionary benefits of better technology and more formalized media, even film-specific, education. At least an excess of film awards, a heritage of the just-concluded second Golden Age, ensures that truly deserving products will now have a greater chance of acquiring recognition, no matter how belated. In the first half of the seventies all we ever really had was the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS), then suffering a downswing in sensibility from which it has never fully recovered; and so, despite the long list of titles mentioned above, its early seventies best-film winners were forgettables like Kill the Pusher, Mga Anghel na Walang Langit, Nueva Vizcaya, and Gerardo de Leon’s regrettable Lilet.
Keeping the faith were Bernal, Perez, and Joey Gosiengfiao with their usually combinative Sine Pilipino/Juan de la Cruz Productions; Castillo with his horror films; Raquiza with this thrillers; Suzara with his sober dramas; and Nora Aunor with her admirable acting vehicles, including the only project that could boast of crediting both de Leon and Lamberto Avellana, the omnibus Fe, Esperanza, Caridad.
It was Brocka, however, who returned from a period of inactivity with two productions that combined the then-impossible characteristics of being both major and personal, Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang in 1974 and Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag in 1975. The direct beneficiaries of this renewal of artistic consciousness in film included Brocka himself, with his three-in-one Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa; Perez with his three-in-one Isang Gabi, Tatlong Babae!; Gosiengfiao with the last Filipino black-and-white movie La Paloma, ang Kalapating Ligaw; Castillo with his careful revivification of the bomba (later to be called “bold” and initiated with the wet look) in Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa; and Bernal with Mister Mo, Lover Boy Ko.
Golden Age II: Beginnings
Maynila could properly serve as the marker for the second Golden Age of Philippine cinema. It was a more precious and accomplished work than the same director’s Tinimbang, and ushered in a tendency toward new talents and novel projects that was to intensify in the coming year. Brockas’s triumphs, overwhelming even the FAMAS, can be regarded as the conclusive cause, especially in the light of his current and still single-handed renewal of filmic consciousness, this time on an international scale, with his post-’86 works Macho Dancer and Orapronobis.
There are, however, other attributable semi- or even non-industrial reasons for the phenomenon. The relative sanguinity brought about by the sudden infusion of foreign loans (before these assumed malignant proportions), coupled with the enforced stability of early martial rule, encouraged several newly prosperous entities to invest their money in a business that could be both glamorous and profitable. The youthful mass audience of the early seventies was prepared for a divergence and diversification of its favorite diversion, which was to culminate in a sophistication of its command of visual language that may still be extant at present. De Vega’s widow, Ma. Rocio, took over after his death and, for some reason or other, saw fit to return to his pre-martial law policy of libertarianism – which the military was to exploit as an excuse for its small-scale takeover of film-censorship prerogatives.
Maynila’s impact was meanwhile long-ranging enough, boosted as it was by the earlier success of Tinimbang, and a whole new breed of filmmakers came to the fore; in chronological order: Lupita Concio (later Kashiwara) with Alkitrang Dugo, Eduardo Palmos co-directing Saan Ka Pupunta, Miss Lutgarda Nicolas?, Behn Cervantes 1976’s first debutant with Sakada, O’Hara with Mortal, Dindo Angeles with Sinta! Ang Bituing Bagong Gising, Gil Portes with Tiket Mama, Tiket Ale, sa Linggo ang Bola, and Mike de Leon with Itim.
And these were just the ones who either started big or had major follow-up projects. A cursory look at the 1976 Filipino filmography would reveal a handful of other new names which would probably be of interest to those determined to delve deeper into the dynamics of the period. Again, however, the writers ought to sustain more productive study than the also-rans: Clodualdo del Mundo Jr. was responsible for the adaptation of Maynila from the novel by Edgardo Reyes, who himself was to cross over presently into the medium with Bernal’s Ligaw na Bulaklak. Preceding them were newsmen Antonio Mortel and Diego Cagahastian, who co-wrote Mister Mo, Lover Boy Ko, and fictionists Alberto Florentino and Wilfredo Nolledo, who were to be joined shortly by Jose F. Lacaba in Gosiengfiao’s omnibus Babae…Ngayon at Kailanman. Mauro Gia. Samonte was to write for Castillo’s Tag-ulan sa Tag-araw, Jorge Arago for Bernal’s Nunal sa Tubig, and Marina Feleo-Gonzalez for Kashiwahara’s Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo. Lamberto Antonio collaborated with O’Hara on Brocka’s Insiang, Roy Iglesias with Eddie Romero on the latter’s Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?, and Gil Quito with del Mundo (and Ricardo Lee without credit) on Mike de Leon’s Itim.
Sakada would have been the military establishment’s typical target for repression, but it unfortunately enjoyed the endorsement of de Vega; Danilo Cabreira’s Uhaw na Bulaklak, Part II served the purpose even better, deflecting as it did potentially confrontational politics toward the issue of moral rectitude; typically again, both titles had new writers-Lualhati Cruz (later Bautista) and Oscar Miranda for the former, Franklin Cabaluna for the latter.
Guideposts for the Times
Three developments, all of the same kind, served to temper the disheartening reality of the military’s assumption of local film censorship. The fact that the reconstituted body announced itself as “interim” in nature, implying an eventual return to civilian rule, was belied by its initial action of enforcing stricter measures, to the point of requiring the approval of storylines and screenplays and imposing a code that seemed deliberately directed against the output of serious practitioners. An entire catalog of anecdotes, sometimes humorous and often infuriating, primarily comprising dialogs between military censors and intelligent film practitioners, awaits documentation and will definitely help in particularizing the naïveté and arrogance of Filipinos suddenly imbued with power and influence.
The already mentioned developments actually consist of the introduction of award-giving mechanisms by three sectors who were to make bids of varying degrees of urgency on mass media in general, and film in particular: the Catholic Church, government, and intelligentsia. The Catholic sector, in reviving its Citizens’ Award for Television, expanded it to encompass locally existent media of communications. Significantly, the first Catholic Mass Media Awardee for film was Nunal sa Tubig, which had seen rough sailing with the censors. The government, for its part, centralized all the annual city festivals in the newly organized metropolitan area in one major undertaking held during the lucrative spell between Christmas and New Year. The first few editions were either idealistic or disorganized or both, so that sensible film producers tended toward a policy of reserving prestige productions for this season. Despite occasional protestations from the bloc of foreign-film distributors and an ill-advised attempt to require developmental messages during the late seventies, the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) has endured as the government’s singular contribution to the pursuit of quality in local cinema, its awards being coveted not so much for the prestige they bestow as for the free and favorable publicity they afford otherwise commercially imperiled releases.
The third, and for our purposes the most important, film awards for this period consist of those handed out by the reviewers’ circle, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (MPP), organized in 1976 and barely in time for the first flowering of the second Golden Age. The Urian awards, as these were called, served to recall and amplify the impact of the first MMFF in their echoing of the latter’s best-picture choice, Ganito Kami Noon. In fact the FAMAS, so as not to be left too far behind, selected another MMFF entry, Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo, for its top-prize winner, and observed the Urian’s dark-horse selection of Nora Aunor as the year’s best actress for her performance in her latest flop-production, O’Hara’s Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos. The Urian remained the most serious award-giving body for the most part of its first decade of existence, employing a system of viewing assignments, repeated screenings, and exhaustive deliberations that would have proved perfect had it been implemented conscientiously and consistently. Whatever the turnout of the MPP’s choices for any given year, the fact remains that its nominations were generally reliable reflections of the industry’s achievements in the medium, and thereby serve as better indicators of the state of the art than the awards themselves.
This point was to be driven home as early as the next year of its existence. Where the MMFF actually defied the cultural establishment, which responded by withdrawing the prizes it handed out to Castillo’s Burlesk Queen, the Urian responded against the film as a representation of the MMFF’s process, selecting an academically defensible but less artistically vital entry as its year’s winner, and coming around to the Burlesk Queen filmmaker by awarding his next-year entry, which like the previous year’s winner was period and epic in scope. Such subjectivity of vision, coupled by a preference for underdog nominees, prompted Brocka, the fourth best-director awardee, to castigate the group and reject its future commendations. Nevertheless, as mentioned earlier, the MPP’s process right up to the deliberation of prizewinners was refined enough to ensure the accommodation of accomplishments major by the reasonably highest possible standards of filmic evaluation.
By this account it becomes evident that the performance output of the local film industry’s best and brightest tended to observe peaks and valleys, instead of a consistent (and therefore easily predictable) plateau or slope. The first was of course the already described beginning, that yielded Maynila on one end and Ganito Kami Noon on the other. The second was a good four years after, when the highest artistic point of the Golden Age and, by reasonable extension, of Philippine cinema thus far, was attained with Bernal’s Manila by Night. Afterward major-status entries on the order of Bernal’s innovations with filmic milieu arrived with regular frequency, with Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Moral two years later; Brocka’s Miguelito: Batang Rebelde still another three years after would close the era, curiously with the same director who helped open it.
This regularity of productivity was in fact cut short by the 1986 revolution, in much the same way that Proclamation 1081 ended the early seventies’ creative outbursts. Sociopolitical upheavals may be the most obvious, but definitely not the only, similarities between the periods in question. Prior to 1986, as before 1972, an era of moral permissiveness held sway in cinema. Immediately after the upheavals, audiences tended to shy away from moviegoing, and had to be lured back with blatantly commercial products that all but outlawed conscious attempts at artistry. The second Golden Age in this regard was distinguished by some of the riskiest filmmaking projects in local history: during the turn of the decade, one movie after another vied in laying claim to being the most expensive Filipino production ever, with audiences seemingly willing to reward these efforts if only for the sheer audacity of the claims.
Each artistic peak mentioned, in fact, also had clusters of other big-budget, even period productions attending it. Maynila was period by necessity, since early martial rule forbade derogatory references to the Marcos regime; Ganito Kami Noon combined an ideological concern – the origin of “Filipino” as a historical designation – with the period of its metamorphosis, the transition from Spanish to American colonial rule. Romero was to further flesh out his pursuit of the identity of the Filipino with some other big-budget and period titles: Aguila, which covered the current century; Kamakalawa, which was situated during the pre-Spanish mythological era; and Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi, which was begun during but released after the Golden Age, and set also during the pre-Spanish era of regional trade relations. None of these other movies attained the balance between technical competence (Aguila would have been the closest) and storytelling superiority (Kamakalawa excelled only in this aspect) manifested by Ganito Kami Noon, and meanwhile Romero, who was a movie-generation removed from Brocka and Bernal, was exceeded in medium-based modernization by the practitioners who were to follow.
Brocka, on his part, responded to international exposure with a deliberate and sometimes disconcerting minimalization of his filmic abilities. Insiang, Jaguar, Angela Markado, Bona, PX, Cain at Abel, and Bayan Ko (Kapit sa Patalim) (in order of release) all may have followed Maynila chronologically, but actually antedate it in terms of the filmmaker’s capability of matching sweeping social concerns with an appropriately expansive vision. Aside from this, their distinction of having had international exposure in various festival venues here and abroad could perhaps only develop a case for Brocka as an auteur in the now-conventional sense of the word, where one work will have to be viewed in relation to all the rest before it could be appreciated. Miguelito, on the other hand, as a vastly improved reworking of Tinimbang Ka, is a contemporary but still-critical view of the body politic with its social and, more important, dramatic distensions intact, rather than deflated to microcosmic dimensions as Brocka had been wont to do in the case of the other films.
Bernal benefited the most from the effervescence of this period, mapping out a strategy that may have seemed erratic during the time but which denotes in retrospect the most impressive directorial figuring out and working over of the medium since Gerardo de Leon adopted the principles of deep-focus realism. Like de Leon, Bernal proceeded to adopt a foreign trend, this time the then-emergent character-based multi-narrative process, first experimenting with limited success in Nunal sa Tubig then introducing commercial elements on a more modest scale in Aliw. The greater profitability of the latter, in terms of both audience and critical reception this time, most likely emboldened him enough to return to large-scale businesses in Manila by Night, which in turn may have overstretched his technological capabilities somewhat but also served to accommodate his contributions to an international filmmaking mode, in a way that de Leon never managed to.
Manila by Night in effect proved that a personalized and multi-stylized approach to this manner of presentation of subject matter was possible, and that the filmmaker could choose to oppose the expectation of a final and logical conclusion and still justify an open-endedness in terms of his material. After such an accomplishment a more conventionalized orientation overtook Bernal – one that drew from the domestic dramas and comedies he directed prior to Manila by Night, the most memorable being Ikaw Ay Akin. His only other epic-scale project since, Himala, recalled Nunal sa Tubig in its choice of material (the eternal countryside, as contrasted with the contemporary big city in all of his other films), but the treatment this time observed classic unities rather than the versatilities which had brought him attention in the first place. Bernal’s other multi-character projects fared even less triumphantly, among them Ito Ba ang Ating mga Anak?, Working Girls, and The Graduates. A Working Girls sequel, released after the Golden Age, so dismayed everyone involved that Bernal has since tended to inhibit himself from such ventures, concentrating instead on small-scale projects where he had considerable success right after Manila by Night: Relasyon, Broken Marriage, and Hinugot sa Langit, among others.
Expediently for Brocka and Bernal, as well as Romero and, in a sense, Castillo before them, the second Golden Age lent an aura of legitimacy to the infusion of new blood into the system. Early on Mike de Leon and O’Hara persisted with always prestigious and occasionally remunerative projects; with the arrival of the eighties, the splashy debuts of women directors Marilou Diaz-Abaya and Laurice Guillen recalled the heyday of Kashiwahara, then already inactive.
It was Peque Gallaga, however, who demonstrated that even newcomers could buck the system and turn it to their advantage: first he won the scriptwriting contest of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP) for the storyline proposal of Oro, Plata, Mata, then acquired the right to direct it, and saw it right through copping a special jury prize from the Manila International Film Festival (MIFF) as well as major Urian awards, including best film. Curiously, however, succeeding aspirants could not duplicate Gallaga’s procedure; the closest anyone came to doing so was in using the ECP venue, the Manila Film Center (MFC), as Tikoy Aguiluz did for Boatman, rather than directing ECP productions, as Pio de Castro III and Abbo Q. de la Cruz were to discover after finishing Soltero and Misteryo sa Tuwa respectively; in this instance the dynamics of governmental support for the industry supplied the causative factors, and a thorough investigation of the matter would yield invaluable lessons for the future.
Before Gallaga’s virtual one-man coup, the female directors managed to call attention to themselves as viable entities; but how much of the appreciation was prepared by prevalent feminist sentiments still has to be quantified. Guillen had a modest and well-appreciated hit with her first film Kasal?, then after a box-office trauma went on to a more notable achievement with Salome, which won the Urian best-film prize. Diaz-Abaya, on the other hand, saw her first production, Tanikala, sink to the depths of anonymity – and her investment along with it, but rebounded vigorously enough with the MMFF multi-awardee and box-office placer Brutal.
In common with the early ascendency of these two was their scriptwriter, Ricardo Lee. Coming from a shared distinction (with Jose F. Lacaba) for Brocka’s box-office bomb but Urian winner and Cannes Film Festival competition entry Jaguar, Lee had his first solo masterstroke with Brutal and followed up in an even bigger way with Salome. His association with Bernal cemented as consultant for Manila by Night and writer for Ito Ba, Relasyon, and Himala, he proceeded to devise a female-humanist (typically mistaken for feminist) milieu movie, Moral, which Diaz-Abaya directed. Moral stands as the only other Golden Age product clearly in the same league as Manila by Night; the other possible sharers of this category would be Miguelito and, from the first Golden Age, Gregorio Fernandez’s Malvarosa – both of which suffer inadequacies that disallow declarations of unqualified masterliness. Thereafter Lee’s collaborations with Diaz-Abaya would result in relatively less satisfactory products, particularly Karnal and Alyas Baby Tsina. He subsequently realized higher degrees of literacy in cinema in his scripts for Mel Chionglo’s Sinner or Saint and Chito Roño’s Private Show, produced at the tail end of and released after the Golden Age; more fulfilling accomplishments, however, were awaiting him in other film-related media, notably journalism, metafiction, and playwriting, all of which he would turn to after the Golden Age.
The other directors fared fairly enough in establishing a respectable level of artistic sensibility in their works. Gallaga had a slightly better epic than Oro, Plata, Mata in Virgin Forest, which met with a counter-reaction probably inevitable considering the earliness and eagerness of the initial response that greeted him. After dabbling in melodrama with Unfaithful Wife, he would make one last epic, the fantasy feature Once Upon a Time, which had the misfortune of being released during the period of transition following the Golden Age, when no movie could hope to recoup its investments. Thereafter he would concentrate on and rise in favor against for expertly handling the horror genre, which would facilitate his return to epic filmmaking with Isang Araw Walang Diyos.
Fringes of the Avant-Garde
Gallaga deserves a more lasting recognition for his revitalization of the sex film in Scorpio Nights, released at about the same period as his Virgin Forest and Aguiluz’s Boatman, and for the same venue, the MFC. In being less defensive about its social conscience, Scorpio Nights turned out to be a more effective evocation of proletarian decadence than any local erotic movie ever made.
Two significant directors, Castillo and Mike de Leon, reached their prime in the medium during the middle part of the Golden Age, then settled for relative obscurity afterward. Castillo came out with a series of mostly sex films that never matched the precocity of Burlesk Queen, while de Leon observed the Stanley Kubrick model, emulated to a lesser extent by Gallaga, of dabbling in one genre after another. His comeback in 1980 after a three-year hiatus resulted in a major-status movie that has managed to outlast all his other works so far, the political absurdist comedy-musical Kakabakaba Ka Ba? Along with Brocka, de Leon became a prominent figure at Cannes, where his subsequent output – the thriller Kisapmata and propagandistic Sister Stella L., plus Batch ’81, his misanthropic contribution to milieu delineation – were exhibited to mostly favorable commentaries. After an excursion into melodrama that disappointed him but not his financiers, de Leon shifted, right with the close of the Golden Age, to video with a feature, Bilanggo sa Dilim, that exemplified his directorial coming-of-age.
O’Hara similarly advanced in expertise as the period wore on. After making a financially fruitful comeback (after an absence about as long as de Leon’s), he came up with a partially successful milieu movie, Bulaklak sa City Jail, and followed up a previous action-thriller, Condemned, with another, Bagong Hari. Mostly O’Hara continued his association with Nora Aunor, who had more resounding results with Brocka and Bernal, but nevertheless managed to augment her store of talent with O’Hara.
One last directorial debutant, Chito Roño, whose Private Show came out almost too late for the Golden Age, bears comparison with the aforementioned names. In the period to come, Brocka, by virtue of his conscious holding back, may have already reprised his role as harbinger of what ought to turn out to be another, or at least an extension of the previous, Golden Age. Chionglo, Gallaga, O’Hara, Roño, and Mss. Diaz-Abaya and Guillen are in a position to assume artistic leadership, with Bernal, Castillo, and de Leon making authoritative contributions alongside Brocka, and Romero upholding the value of verified virtues in the craft.
The writer will be privileged with greater responsibility, as indeed almost all of these enumerated individuals are capable of scripting their and others’ works if desirable or necessary. Ricardo Lee will continue holding forth as a major non-directing filmmaker, with del Mundo, Lacaba, and newer members like Jose N. Carreon (Ikaw Ay Akin, Broken Marriage), Jose Dalisay Jr. (Miguelito), Rosauro de la Cruz (Scorpio Nights, Virgin Forest), and Amado Lacuesta Jr. (Hinugot sa Langit, Working Girls) regularly providing thematic worth and structural strength. A number of other writers, including Armando Lao and Bibeth Orteza, may have had apprenticeships during the Golden Age, but would seem to have considerable opportunities of playing the field thence.
Performances of the Age
Award-sweeping became the in thing, what with the addition of more and overlapping bodies to the already flourishing FAMAS, Urian, MMFF, and CMMA – to wit, the Philippine Movie Press Club (PMPC), with its Star trophy, and the Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP). Two of these, the FAP and the FAMAS, claim to be industry-based recognitions, although the FAP is more systematically organized according to guilds; this advantage of legitimacy also brings with it the disadvantages of the prevalence of popularity choices, just as between the Urian and Star, the former may comprise a number of serious critics, but the latter possesses the humility necessary for thoroughgoing review and evaluation processes.
Despite the propensity of these groups, both collectively and as individual bodies, in setting records for favored artists, the outstanding performance of the period belongs to that of Nora Aunor in Himala, which was honored only by the MMFF. Aunor had been possessed with a search for superior acting vehicles, and threw away a lot of her own money in the process, since in essence she mostly had to run against the preferences of her mass supporters. With Brocka she made perceptible strides in ensuring her lead over the rest of the pack, particularly in Ina Ka ng Anak Mo and Bona. But all that was really required of her was a project that had enough scope to demonstrate her far-reaching prowess, with a minimum of editorial manipulation. In Himala the director and writer seemed to have agreed to a mutual stand-off, thus amplifying the theatrical potential of an expansive locale with protracted takes; stage-trained talents ensured the competent execution of histrionic stylizations, with the climax set on an open-air platform before a hysterical audience. It was a truly great actress’s opportunity of a lifetime, and Nora Aunor seized it and made it not just her role, but her film as well.
Nora Aunor on the set of Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (1982).
Not since Anita Linda in Gerardo de Leon’s Sisa (circa the first Golden Age) had there been such a felicitous exploitation by a performer of ideal filmmaking conditions – and in this instance, Himala has the decided advantage of being major-league and universal. Other consistent stand-outs during the period – and these would be formidable enough as they are – demand to be taken in terms of body of work, not any individual movie: Vic Silayan for Ligaw na Bulaklak, Kisapmata, and Karnal; Gina Alajar for Brutal, Salome, Moral, and Bayan Ko; Nora Aunor for whatever title she appeared in during the eighties, regardless of budget, intention, or box-office result. Record-setters of this period, specifically Phillip Salvador, Nida Blanca, and Vilma Santos, deserve mention if only for the skills and supreme good fortune necessary in attaining their respective feats. Among newcomers, only Jaclyn Jose of Private Show seems to hold forth promise of an order comparable to most of those listed herein.
What factors could have contributed to this concentration of creativity? The only trend that could be cited with confidence is something commonly perceived as a hindrance, its claims to patronage notwithstanding: active governmental intervention. The irony here can be traced from the very beginning (of the second Golden Age, that is) – the militarization of film censorship, and even beyond, if we were to particularize the controls on culture that the declaration of martial law brought about. With the fullest possible flowering of the Golden Age during the turn of the decade, the irony could not but have heightened further. The government then set in motion the machinery of total institutional support that was to be known presently as the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, eventually housed at the aforementioned Manila Film Center (MFC).
The Manila Film Center, site of some of the best and worst excesses of the Marcos dictatorship.
To be sure, a compounded series of half-hearted inclinations betrayed the ultimate objectives of the ECP. First it was founded not to respond to any industrial necessity, but to legitimize the then First Lady’s Manila International Film Festival. Then, to appease a First Daughter angered by the kidnapping of her paramour, control of the legitimizing body was turned over to her; this must have been perceived as a shrewd decision, since Imee Marcos-Manotoc, perhaps partly out of her rebellion against her parents, had been soliciting the advice of Marcos oppositionists in culture, most of whom had castigated the first MIFF. The granting to her of ECP was expected therefore to placate both her and too-outspoken Filipino film artists.
Palace politics in this regard kept the Marcos family too busy among themselves to pay attention to the moves of film practitioners. Film producers meanwhile were lured by the prospect of greater returns on investment with the introduction of an international venue (specifically the MIFF’s film market module) on these very shores. Hence films with big budgets and attendant artistic ambitions began to see the light of, er, theatrical exhibitions.
Marcos-Manotoc herself proved to be sincere about her responsibilities, at least during a crucial early phase of her assumption of ECP leadership. The rejection of the MIFF was just a signal to Malacanang of her sincere intentions. By then she had several projects running simultaneously, most of which had a highly favorable impact on film as artistic endeavor. Witness: the production of scriptwriting contest winners, subsidies for worthy full-length film proposals, tax rebates for deserving productions, exhibition of otherwise shunned or banned releases, plus a number of relatively minor benefits – first-rate screening venues, a library of film titles and books, short-film competitions with cash incentives, book and journal publications, archival research and preservation, seminars and workshops, etc.
The arrangement was too good to be true, and eventually succumbed to the regime’s self-destructive tendencies, embodied in this instance in the irrepressible Imelda Marcos. Once Marcos-Manotoc had been distracted by her election to the so-called legislature, the ECP quickly went moribund, with funds hemorrhaged for the alleged promotion of MIFF in foreign countries and with the MFC operated according to a prohibitive maintenance cost. This meant that not only would all charitable functions cease, including film productions and subsidies, but also only sure-fire highly profitable titles, which then as now denoted hard-core sex films, could be exhibited at the MFC’s exclusive venues.
The expected denunciation by the industry of the ECP’s exemption from censorship and taxation, premised on the grounds of unfair competition, was reinforced in part by a bid for survival by the censors body, which with the ECP had reverted to civilian status; a retaliation was also in order, since the ECP under Marcos-Manotoc had initiated moves to outlaw film censorship. All this controversy served to act as check on the choice of films for MFC exhibition, ensuring that the new leadership would resort to artistic quality (the very same excuse invoked for the MIFF), if nothing else, as defense. The outcome, in practical terms, was a handful of local erotica, including the previously mangled Manila by Night, unmatched in art consciousness relative to any other period in local history.
The Marcos government, however, could not stem the tide of the anti-dictatorship movement, especially as fortified by the outrage over the Aquino-Galman assassination, and the post-Imee ECP proved to be a most attractive target. In the end the by-now predictable, and thereby ineffectual, Marcos solution of establishing institutions or transforming existing ones to conform ostensibly to legal requisites was applied to the ECP. The body was dissolved and another one, the Film Development Foundation of the Philippines (FDFP), set up in its place, without any change in the organization itself, save for its avowal of now being less public in nature; in fact it was intended to enjoy the best of both worlds – semi-private and thus exempt from censorship, semi-public and thus exempt from taxation.
That the FDFP did not differ from ECP except in name would have induced a renewed struggle for the formation of a truly responsive organ for institutional support, but at this point the nation’s attention was diverted by the snap elections that led to the people-power uprising that in turn expelled Marcos, shut down his film institution for good, and drew to a close the second Golden Age of Philippine cinema.
The futility of pinpointing institutional causes, a legacy of materialist orientations which even artists are prone to resort to, becomes evident when we take other national experiences into consideration. In South American countries, whose colonial and religious histories most closely resemble the Philippines’ own, artistic creativity has always been a direct function of political freedom. The same observation applies to contexts closer to home – in neighboring Asian countries. One would expect that the combination of both features – Hispanization and Orientalism – would only strengthen this correlation between the practice of politics and the production of art.
Not only do the Marcos years disprove this extrapolation; the few years since provide enough dramatic contrast to further affirm this deviation from an otherwise logical deduction. Part of the answer may lie in the Machiavellianism of the Marcos regime, its perverse pleasure in playing cat-and-mouse games with its opponents. In the case of industry-based artists, who themselves are no strangers to such dialectics between ideals and realities, this inculcates a disposition toward subtlety and the sublime.
This answer could of course cut both ways. A practitioner may just as well be cowed by the double jeopardy of having to please both an immediate boss and an Orwellian Big Brother, and if the displeasure of either may already mean the loss of career and prestige – in short, everything for the artist – then the displeasure of both would amount to sheer terror, if not paralysis. In actuality, a number of local filmmakers did exhibit indications of the latter syndrome, but these may on the whole be balanced by the others who found favor with either a producer or the regime, in certain cases one against the other.
In the end we could only grant that a major factor for the occurrence of the second Golden Age lies in the superstructure itself – more concretely, in the confluence of film artists who somehow attained a level of individual maturity and collective strength within roughly a common time frame – a force, in effect, capable of transforming what would normally be political and industrial liabilities into aesthetic assets.
This situation couldn’t be too phenomenal; a similar one was realized in Italy during the neorealist era. Locally, the trend toward the organizing of artists, systematization of training (resulting in one extreme in the introduction of formal film studies at the State University), and the expansion of art consciousness in alternative film and related formats all betoken this contemporaneous ripening of occasional genius, regular expertise, and general resourcefulness in the country’s most popular mass medium. Final and conclusive proof of course lies in the works themselves – over a decade’s worth of major contributions to the art of cinema, on the whole outstanding by any standard, awaiting a comprehensive presentation to a global community that remains all the poorer for not having had the opportunity to strike the proper acquaintance so far.
 Even a foreign “history” volume like Bryan L. Yeatter’s mostly dispensable write-up observes a 1974-85 periodization (129-65) that acknowledges a “Second Golden Era” without any clue about its provenance – a sign that the idea had become paradigmatic. As recent a text as Neferti X.M. Tadiar’s Things Fall Away erroneously ascribes the Second Golden Age idea to Bienvenido Lumbera’s “Brocka, Bernal and Co.: The Arrival of New Filipino Cinema” (Chapter 8, endnote 36), which in fact was an updated version of an article originally published in Revaluation.
David, Joel. “The Golden Ages of Philippine Cinema: A Critical Reassessment.” Cinema Filipinas: Historia, teoría y crítica fílmica (1999-2009). (Andalucía): Juna de Andalucía, Consejería de Cultura Fundación El Legado Andalusí, (2010): 217-24.
Lumbera, Bienvenido. “Brocka, Bernal and Co.: The Arrival of New Filipino Cinema.” Writing the Nation / Pag-akda ng Bansa. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2000.
———. “Problems in Philippine Film History.” Revaluation: Essays on Philippine Literature, Cinema and Popular Culture. Quezon City: Index, 1984. 193-212.
Tadiar, Neferti X.M. Things Fall Away: Philippine Historical Experience and the Makings of Globalization. Post-Contemporary Interventions series. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.
Vasudev, Aruna. “Cast in Another Mould.” Interview with Ishmael Bernal. Cinemaya 27 (April-June 1995): 16-23.
Yeatter, Bryan L. Cinema of the Philippines: A History and Filmography, 1897-2005. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2007.