Fields of Vision – Creations

1. Three Careers

Umiyak Pati Langit
Directed and Written by Eduardo Palmos

Bago Matapos ang Lahat
Directed by Joselito “Abbo” de la Cruz
Written by Ralston Jover and Segundo Matias Jr.

Ganito Ba ang Umibig?
Directed by Laurice Guillen
Written by Emmanuel H. Borlaza

Time was when support for new filmmakers did not seem premised on the familiarity of their surnames or the influence of their recommenders. This was during the late ’70s, when film producers felt they could afford to take risks, up to the early ’80s, when the Marcos government, as part of its desperate bid for survival, courted the favor of the movie industry with institutional forms of support unseen before or since in these parts. Today we find a number of these hitherto new-blood directors, those who persisted for some reason or other, circulating with much difficulty in the obstructed or bypassed arteries of the movie system; others manage more easily by simply going with the flow. The latest outputs by three such survivors indicate as much: all were reasonable box-office performers, but at the same time they also demonstrate just how far gone our film artists now are from their original ideals.

All three benefited from early institutional backing. Eduardo Palmos was (and remains) the only scholar-trainee of presidential aspirant Joseph Estrada’s Movie Workers Welfare Fund to have practiced as a mainstream filmmaker. Joselito de la Cruz won first place in the second edition of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines’ scriptwriting contest, and shrewdly insinuated himself as his project proposal’s director. Laurice Guillen organized acting workshops for guild members of the Film Academy of the Philippines, activities that flourish up to the present.

The cynical could retort that these three examples, who may represent the rule rather than the exception, actually were industry presences to contend with even before their institutional exploits: Palmos had directed several feature films before his Mowelfund scholarship; De la Cruz was a familiar fixture in some films by Ishmael Bernal, and essayed a strong supporting role in one of the first-year ECP productions, Peque Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata; Guillen, prior to dabbling in dubbing and character parts for the movies, was regarded as a formidable theater talent and, like Palmos, had also directed several feature films prior to becoming further known through the Actors Workshop Foundation.

The difference among them lay in the amount of recognition each had achieved. Each started with a prestige project – Palmos with Saan Ka Pupunta Miss Lugarda Nicolas? (co-directed with Armando Silverio) in 1975, Guillen with Kasal? in 1980, and De la Cruz with Misteryo sa Tuwa in 1984. Palmos and De la Cruz scripted their respective debuts, but only Palmos, among the three, was to pursue this traditional auteurist line of action, as well as create alternative-style short-format works.

With heretofore neither an unqualified artistic breakout nor a major box-office hit to his name, Palmos became part of the independent-circuit roster of directors, of which Gil Portes may be considered the most successful member so far as of these early ’90s. None of Palmos’s works can be called reasonably budgeted; save perhaps for his second film, Nang Bumuka Ang Sampaguita, all of his films prior to the present one exhibited a scrimping on resources that merely magnified the ambitions they could not sustain.

Umiyak Pati Langit, in being more realistic regarding the mergence of scope of resources, has turned out to be the most unified of Palmos’s films. Of course this formal homogeneity was achieved at the expense of innovativeness, so it should not be surprising that Umiyak counts as just another competent tearjerker, just as it has become a moderate hit. In both senses one may call it Palmos’ best, although in another less transient manner, it far from fulfills the promise of its filmmaker’s early works, when a project’s budget could be wagered on the possibility that it could yield gains, in at least the artistic, if not the commercial, sphere.

De la Cruz’s case betokens some caution, but in the other direction: no one else among the three, perhaps even among contemporary Filipino film directors, has regressed so relentlessly. Misteryo’s triumph on paper stemmed from its then-daring critique of social institutions, to which one in particular – the military – was quick to take exception. De la Cruz simply accommodated the textual changes stipulated through the ECP hierarchy, but no amount of production values (the film was the outfit’s biggest-budgeted ever and won critics’ awards for technical achievements) could cover up the essentially fascistic impression of having one character, the military commander, play both moral guardian and avenging angel in an entire town of ignorant and avaricious natives.

Misteryo was followed by a less morally offensive outing, ironically a sex film, Hubad sa Mundo. The outlook this time was more consistently cynical, albeit pettish and perverse as well. Hubad deserved a better fate than either Misteryo or Bago Matapos ang Lahat, De la Cruz’s latest, but it floundered midway between the graphic sex films that were then being forced to countryside theatrical-circuit exhibitions, and the glossy productions that were strangely not making as much money right after the February 1986 revolution; having neither graphic sex nor sufficient gloss, what has been De la Cruz’s best work thus far remains forgotten for the moment.

Bago Matapos is therefore the equivalent of a trump in a three-card deck, not bad considering the odds. It is also a tramp of a trump, slovenly in areas as basic as screen continuity and histrionic consistency. More seriously, it exposes the filmmaker’s persistence in dealing with social deviances, only to eventually top off his presentations with old-hat moralist resolutions. Unlike in his first two works, De la Cruz fails to invest Bago Matapos with the surface sheen that somehow helped to precondition his past audiences regarding his biases by suggesting, through the refinements of his production, whose side of the issue he was on – i.e., the goody-two-shoe officer rather than the scheming underling in Misteryo, the squeaky-clean stud rather than the sex-crazed criminal in Hubad. In Bago Matapos the forces are represented by the “other” sex, but still in polar opposition: man-eating woman competes with true-hearted lass, and guess who gets the prize – a conservative bachelor, no less – in the end?

In short De la Cruz seems to have boxed himself in a position wherein he would accept, at least by big-time establishment standards, the unconventional option of small-time work, and at the same time maintain his conventional attitudes toward psychological issues; in the face of new trails having been blazed long ago by some of his elders (and contemporaries even), his refusal to venture new answers to old questions raise the much older, and sadder, question regarding the ultimate value of his efforts.

Guillen among the three enjoys a stature made more enviable – and worthy of further study – by he fact of her sex. The present system, in being adverse to, or perhaps just ignorant about, the existence of qualified talents whose number has accumulated in the meanwhile, has consequentially practically closed the door of opportunity to female talents in non-exhibitory capabilities. Even the Laurice Guillen credit as the current film generation knows it is far removed from that of her early films: gone are the psychoanalytic explorations of characters and the investigations of levels of reality that made the likes of Kasal?, Salome, and Init sa Magdamag provocative intellectually, if not always dramatically.

The turning point was Kung Mahawi Man ang Ulap, a komiks adaptation that proved to be her biggest hit and that proffered her a genre that has virtually never failed her in her career since. The most that one could do in this kind of game is to tinker with the mechanics of amusement – a frustrating option if you’re coming in form, say, Salome, but not when you’ve dismissed the past as a permanent bygone era. Hence, the early ’80s aside, Guillen can be safely ensconced as our komiks adapter par excellence with a string of titles that could profitably (and how!) provide lessons on how to undertake this still-tricky procedure.

Ganito Ba ang Umibig?, her latest, marks another high point since her adaptational detour. Aside from Celso Ad. Castillo’s underrated Ang Daigdig ay Isang Butil na Luha, this must be the only Romero Vitug-shot project that’s visually appealing but not postcard-pretty. Unlike Daigdig, which balanced Vitug’s usual luster with atypical (for Vitug material) social-realist settings, Ganito Ba holds back the flourishes, in effect allowing the middle-class ostentations to predominate the presentation. Moreover the movie follows through Guillen’s use of original sound – a not-so-sensational discretion, considering our existent level of technology, but still a daring decision in the context of inside resistance to the practice’s promised advantages.

The fact that the director has elicited better performances in the past should not get in the way of appreciating what are actually current rarities like well-performed male roles and an above-average delivery from a That’s Entertainment alumna. One might wish oneself blue all over for the equivalent of Gina Alajar’s performance in Salome, or that of Guillen herself in her now-rare screen and even rarer stage appearances, but that would be risking a reproof on the basis of her, well yes, postmodern output. Forget the past, count your blessings, list your qualifiers, foremost of which should be the assertion that…really, that’s entertainment.

[First published March 27, 1991, in National Midweek]

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2. Directors-Editors

Kaaway ng Batas
Directed by Pepe Marcos
Written by Jose N. Carreon, Henry Cruz, and Humilde “Meek” Roxas

Angel Molave
Directed by Augusto Salvador
Written by Humilde “Meek” Roxas

The title of director being the coveted position it is in Westernized cinema, owing to the wide-ranging influence of the so-called auteur theory, it comes as no surprise to find artists in “lower” ranks aspiring toward it. An endless discourse can be provoked by the challenge to resolve which filmmaking credit could best qualify for eventual directorship, myself vouching (for what it’s worth) for the writer, since it’s she who, in the creative sense, starts the film for the director to finish; in fact, when reduced to modern theoretical semantics, the director can be regarded as an extension of the writer in the process of the creation of the filmic text, although an opposing viewpoint could also argue that the writer is merely the starter and the director the perfecter.

In Philippine cinema I clinch my contention, all too easily I’ll allow, by pointing to our world-league filmmakers – Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, and Eddie Romero, plus Mario O’Hara – as proof that the director capable of scriptwriting stands heads and shoulders above the rest. One can of course easily qualify this statement by naming former cinematographer Mike de Leon, production designers Mel Chionglo and Peque Gallaga, and actors Eddie Garcia and Laurice Guillen (plus the late Manuel Conde and Gregorio Fernandez), although I can, if I cared to, retort that De Leon, Chionglo, and Conde also dabbled in scriptwriting at some point in their respective careers.

Then we arrive at the special case of Gerardo de Leon, who won industry awards as both director and editor of the then-controversial but currently lost black-and-white film Huwag Mo Akong Limutin. In actuality a good director is expected to be familiar with all phases of production, although the stiff rivalry for such a coveted position has elevated the requirement somewhat; competence and, better yet, excellence, would constitute indubitable proof of one’s familiarity with any technical aspect in question, and so we stand in awe before the likes of the late maestro, who pioneered in visual innovations as well during his time.

The danger of course is that one’s expertise on the technical level can be so complete that it could leave other, possibly more crucial elements behind. I believe this thesis can be productively pursued in the case of Gerry de Leon, although examples from the here and now can bring home the same point. Two recent films, for example, were directed by former editors, who also happened to edit the said latter works. Both of them had come up with better works before – Pepe Marcos with Tubusin Mo ng Dugo in 1988 and Augusto Salvador with last year’s Joe Pring – although we could just as easily maintain that both titles were simply above-average genre pieces.

Kaaway ng Batas features the same Tubusin Mo performer, Rudy Fernandez, just as Angel Molave features Joe Pring actor Phillip Salvador; both share the same writer, Humilde “Meek” Roxas, who also did Joe Pring, while Kaaway ng Batas features Tubusin Mo scriptwriter Jose N. Carreon as a co-writer. Given its slightly larger accumulation of talent, one would expect Kaaway ng Batas to be the better film. Yet the most that could be said about it is that it’s the better-edited film, and even on this score you’ll have to go into a whole lot of defensive pure-film elaborations.

What then are we saying here? That a good movie may not always be technically perfect, while a technically impressive work may not necessarily result in superior over-all achievement? It’s a measure of how urgently we need to reorient our views on film art when even this kind of basic insight, so old-hat most foreign critics wouldn’t be caught dead wearing it, has to be upheld constantly in local media commentaries, filmmaking circles, and now in film-education institutions. Perhaps a more effective way to start straightening this twisted line of thinking would be to streamline the number of local award-giving bodies and then rectify each one, in the direction of critical thinking rather than the present winner-take-all method.

In the consideration of Kaaway ng Batas and Angel Molave, what needs to be pointed out is how one set of filmmakers, that of Kaaway ng Batas, opted for a strictly generic approach, while the other strove for achievements above and beyond the call of commerce. In this regard what we’re actually measuring is the total success of a safe venture vis-à-vis the partial accomplishment of a risk-taker. When you think about it in abstract terms, the logical conclusion is valuable enough to suggest beyond-aesthetic applications: for an enterprise to make good even partially outside of the usual, it first has to be competent within the usual. Hence it would only be fair to state that Angel Molave provides what (or the equivalent of what) Kaaway ng Batas gives, and then some.

The “some” is what gives it more than just casual significance. Primarily Angel Molave is furnished a social dimension, rather than the personalized vengeance motive typical of contemporary action films, Kaaway ng Batas included. Consequently, latter-day run-of-the-mill action releases have had to overcome the expectations of increasingly jaded aficionados of the genre by escalating their level of violence against their protagonists, in order to justify more intensive reprisals. Angel Molave has taken a welcome way out of this literally vicious cycle, by directing its violence not just inwardly (into the psyche of its lead character), but also outwardly, toward the issue of white slavery of the young. One need not identify then with the movie’s protagonist in order to appreciate the vileness of the villains in his story; the strategy is crucial, since the story itself takes in the urban-based white-slavery development more as an accidental detour rather than the logical outgrowth of the lead’s struggle with his purse-proud father-in-law, a provincial racketeer.

Nevertheless, despite this possibly unwitting cleverness, the movie ensures sufficient credibility by way of powerful performances rather than flashy special effects or high-gear editing. The daughter-victim is invested with childlike fright and bewilderment by Katrin Gonzales, instead of standard bathetic sentimentalities. Efren Reyes Jr. goes for broke in playing villain, and is provided with some of the most obscene lines of dialogue ever uttered in local cinema: invaluably, “obscene” in this instance does not denote the presence of obscenities, but rather the heartbreaking taunt that this kind of evil, one performed, can never be eliminated, that (as he puts it) its perpetrator’s face will always be laughing through its victim’s eyes.

There is a danger in the lead role turning out to be merely reactive to such an overpowering turn of events, but Phillip Salvador gives out one of his best performances in an already commendable career, drawing extensively from past highlights (including Gina Alajar’s crazed breakdown in Bayan Ko [Kapit sa Patalim], where he co-starred), allowing his technique to stand out but not apart from the dramaturgical requirements of every scene.

One may of course object that the movie’s ending, wherein the by-now long-lost father-in-law makes peace with Angel Molave, is too comfortingly conciliatory. I say that, after the foregoing events, any form of comfort would never be enough, and would therefore in a sense be always welcome; after Molave blows up his tormentor to smithereens, the lawmen who’ve been after him for his defiance of the rules of justice agree to cover up his final and bloodiest act of retribution. That may be of some (but again not enough) comfort to Molave, but its implications for both our peace-and-order institutions as well as for us, their supposed beneficiaries, are far from reassuring. And that in itself demonstrates how the raising of painful issues, whether these be resolvable or not, can be made preferable to the painless treatment of commonplace realist fantasies.

[Submitted in 1991 to National Midweek; unpublished]

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3. Maryo J. and Mr. de Los Reyes

My Other Woman
Directed by Maryo J. de los Reyes
Written by Joey Reyes and Jake Tordesillas

Underage Too
Directed by Maryo J. de los Reyes
Written by Jake Tordesillas

Among the local film directors who emerged during the late ’70s, none was invested with expectations greater than Maryo J. de los Reyes. The reasons were clear even then: De los Reyes had what was the closest possible to an industry internship (mainly by way of the movie-struck Philippine Educational Theater Association) and audiovisual training (broadcasting, actually, since film still had to be introduced at the University of the Philippines). Moreover, in his first year as filmmaker, he managed to come up with two commercially successful yet temperamentally opposed pieces (both Agrix-produced and starring Eddie Rodriguez) – the youth film High School Circa ’65 and the stage play adaptation of Gabun (Ama Mo, Ama Ko), a moralist tragedy. The years since have seen him straying rarely from these two extremes, and perhaps even his real-life persona has already assumed as much: as his faculty colleague at the UP College of Mass Communication, I have quickly learned to deal with one Maryo J., toward whom students and teachers gravitate for much-needed moments of merriment, and with another Mr. de los Reyes, over-achieving president of the UPCMC Alumni Association, teacher, film and TV director, evangelizer even.

Early in De los Reyes’s career as director (and in mine as critic as well), I made the mistake of echoing the then- and still-fashionable charge that he has done nothing more significant than his first film. The statement becomes harder to defend the more we view High School in relation to De los Reyes’s subsequent body of work, although here most observers would simply point to the successors of Gabun: Tagos ng Dugo, Kapag Napagod ang Puso, and most recently My Other Woman, all post-1986 titles. Contrary to current critical opinion, I maintain that the more enduring of De los Reyes’s films are the ones he made as Maryo J. The trouble is that these happen to be more numerous too, and that some of the better ones are distinguished by innovations outside of their intrinsic merits: Annie Batungbakal contains Nonoy Marcelo’s only mainstream-format animation effort, while it and Bongga Ka ’Day contains some of the best Hotdog music, satirical pop for now people, ever made; both films plus a number of others feature Nora Aunor as comedienne – a skill that has definitely enriched the artist’s repertoire.

De los Reyess’ breakthrough work is of course Bagets, a move that modernized the surface characteristics of youth-oriented outings; with it, a whole set of then still-foreign trends – notably new-wave rock, androgyny, and gay-lingo appropriation – tumbled down from an elitist perch and became fair game for the rest of the urbanized local masses. Bagets then was dismissed for being too flighty, and I suppose it can still be dismissed at present for being too, well, politically retrogressive, particularly in its handling of authoritarian and feminist issues. But it had something that no Maryo J. film, not even the only-apparently love-triangular High School, could boast of: the ability to weave several disparate character-based lines of action into an integral work.

Again, the accomplishment could only pale in comparison with the local explosion of multiple character format led by Ishmael Bernal with Manila by Night. Nevertheless, De los Reyes, or rather Maryo J., has proved that he can still keep the flame even this late and with the shorter fuse provided by such a project as Underage Too. The obvious question is why he reserves this relatively modern approach for such easy-going projects, then reverts to a conventional storytelling mode for more serious material, My Other Woman included.

One possible explanation can be deduced from the sensibility common to the major De los Reyes films. All of them, regardless of where they belong, whether in the lineage of High School or that of Gabun, exhibit the same moralist imperatives; at the most, they can be perfectly regarded as saints in sinners’ clothing, with the resolution leaving little doubt as to their nature. Hence one could speculate that De los Reyes equates seriousness with conservatism, possibly owing to the traditional definition of classicism; the corollary – modernism being associated with frivolity and light – is also supported by the subject matter reserved for the Maryo J. movies.

Yet examples that prove otherwise abound. De los Reyes himself has one title that probably deserves more critical attention than Bagets – Anak ni Waray vs. Anak ni Biday, which uses the same traditional narrative approach that his more serious films employ; apart from its intelligent integration of local film lore, Anak ni Waray provides a form of entertainment worthy of the more inspired moments of our black-and-white master filmmakers. On the other hand, you have the aforementioned serious multi-character films that prove that one can (should, even) seek to update material with recent advances in form and treatment, or that one may also furnish radical forms of expression with similarly novel subject matter.

This much can be said about De los Reyes mainly because he clearly has the potential shared by so few in our day and age, to merge difficult form with serious content. And those films, if and when they arrive, will be worthy of a true virtuoso’s entire credit; let no one then say these would have been made by either Maryo J. or Mr. de los Reyes.

[Submitted in 1991 to National Midweek; unpublished]

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4. Persistence of Vision

Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali?
Directed by Chito Roño
Written by Orlando R. Nadres

Someone sooner or later has to correlate the current paucity of fresh filmmaking talent with the decline in filmmaking quality, and I think we’ve had enough time – about an academic generation since the 1986 revolution – to arrive with confidence at such a conclusion. The political irony in this case should not be lost on any concerned observer: never was the movie industry more democratic in giving breaks to genuine talents than during the dictatorship, unlike in these, uh, democracy-spaced times. As further proof, the last of the major film talents to have emerged in these here parts is Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali? director Chito Roño – whose debut film, Private Show, was completed way before February 1986 but was released afterward only because of a series of freak (and again ironic, Roño being the son of a Marcos-era minister) occurrences.

Only now does it seem like a near-miracle that most of our best and brightest actually emerged within a few months of one another – Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Jun Raquiza, Peque Gallaga, Butch Perez, Elwood Perez, Romy Suzara, and Danny Zialcita during the early ’70s, Behn Cervantes, Mike de Leon, Lupita Kashiwahara, Mario O’Hara, and Gil Portes during the mid-’70s, and Mel Chionglo, Abbo Q. de la Cruz, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Laurice Guillen, Maryo J. de los Reyes, Pepe Marcos, and Wilfredo Milan during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Of course one can point to at least two worth-watching newcomers since Roño’s debut – Augusto Salvador and Carlos Siguion-Reyna – but until anyone between them comes up with a follow-up comparable to their first films (Siguion-Reyna, in fact still hasn’t followed up so far at all!), I’d rather stick to the larger issue: that one or even two sparrows don’t a unit make.

Figuring our the possible reasons and disentangling them in order to effect a reversal would be worth a discourse in itself, so meantime I guess the next best thing to do would be to point out what we’re depriving ourselves of. This I think can be done by inverse implication – i.e., appreciating anything done by the above-named that deserves attention, so as to connote that we could have more such delights if we only had more such names around in the first place. Fortunately certain significant pronouncements can already be made about the last of the majors, this early in his career. This is because Roño clearly belongs to the whiz-kid category – an elite circle in these parts, comprising those whose expressive skills alone could ensure a holistic, if essentially flawed, creation; other names we can count herein are Peque Gallaga, Mike de Leon, and, closer to the fringes, Laurice Guillen.

Roño bears comparison with Gallaga, the most accomplished (in career terms) of the lot, since both of them, to begin with, exhibit a flair for intense, operatic camera-gestures. Not surprisingly, it is Gallaga who, among all Filipino filmmakers, has the most impressive track record in epic filmmmaking, stylistically surpassing those of earlier masters like the late Gerardo de Leon and Celso Ad. Castillo. And then again, when we think of problematic film statements, we also refer to the works of the stylists and the whiz-kids, especially Gallaga. For nowhere than in the creative process is such a situation as “too good to be true” possible: the McLuhanesque aphorism about the medium being the message can get carried to the logical extreme of there being no more message (of import, that is) within an over-elaborated medium. Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali? upholds Roño’s distinction – that among his peers, only he has been able to apply a visual quotient comparable to Gallaga’s, with a psychological bent of an order never seen since the heyday of Castillo. The effect, when you think about it, is pretty awesome. All our major directors, including the whiz kids, require appropriate resources in order to achieve epic feats; in contrast, Roño simulates the properties of the epic by enlarging what are actually modest givens.

These skills were on display as early as the first phase of his career, when he did a series of projects for a number of independent producers. The next phase began when he finally decided, after a series of burns and false starts with other independents, to work with a mainstream outfit, Viva Films. Kasalanan Ba’ng Sambahin Ka? saw him barely maintaining his equanimity, what with a commercialist cop-out in the end. Bakit Kay Tagal, however, more fully exhibits the director’s creative potentials, perched as it is (like the earlier film) between dismissible material and an invaluable, or at least instructive, skills display, with no let-up in the balancing act and a successful steerage of material toward the requisite build-up and denouement.

It would even be possible to appreciate Bakit Kay Tagal as komiks-sourced material, though not in the old sense, wherein the adapter was expected to temper the excesses of the origins. Hence, while Lino Brocka, for example, has been and should be esteemed for his capability to invest visual and episodic (and therefore non-rational and fragmented) material with literary values, Roño in Bakit Kay Tagal may similarly be complimented, albeit for taking the entirely opposite tack – the more dangerous, if usual, one of observing rather than defying the material’s convolutions and disproportions. Normally this approach falls flat but works commercially anyway, since it allows the multitude of komiks readers to recognize in the film the story that they’ve been following in print. Successful local stylistic exercises – Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata, Mike de Leon’s Kakabakaba Ka Ba?, and some lesser works by Castillo – prove that local artists and subject matter could lend themselves to medium-based indulgence, but the lesson provided by Bakit Kay Tagal is that what lies behind these triumphs is actually the komiks spirit.

Bakit Kay Tagal may therefore be regarded as a long-overdue definitive adaptation of komiks material, in terms of the nature, rather than the literary potential, of the original form. A certain thematic strain runs through the film – the satisfying, if overworked, thesis of how class conflicts induce moral transformations in those who survive them; although the proletarian characters win over the rich ones, the movie invokes conservative caution by qualifying that the change in status also alters one’s social constitution – in short, the higher one climbs the class ladder, the more individualistic one becomes (or has to be). There is nothing unique about the sequence of events in this particular story, apart from what can be expected in an adequately structured tale; the actors themselves don’t add much to their roles, since their characters are developed according to contrasting though predictable extremities, either from rich and proud to humble and dead, or from poor and downtrodden to heritable and haughty, with a measure of redemptive repentance in the end. Such grandiosity of vision has been the standard recourse of komiks writers, who compensate it seems for the unwieldiness of their medium by cloaking their stories with all-encompassing draperies, which in turn are rendered flimsy precisely by their functional universality.

As mentioned earlier, in the hands of a less capable (read: typical) director, the inherent limitations of this type of material would have been readily discernible: mere filmmaking competence would focus the viewer’s attention on the more perceivable mechanism of the work instead of its bigger but essentially abstract statements. Bakit Kay Tagal manages to direct viewership concerns where it matters – to the larger though fundamentally trite abstractions, instead of the lapses and illogicalities. I cannot overemphasize the fact that the solution in this instance is really a stylistic one, since this should constitute a warning in itself. The fact that a Filipino filmmaker can finally surmount the deficiencies of her material through sheer skill may be good news in our context, but one only has to look across the Pacific, to Hollywood, to see how an early blessing could easily and naturally transmute into a latter-day curse.

In fact, if there’s anything Roño’s achievement in Bakit Kay Tagal imparts, it’s the realization that his approach is far more difficult than the traditional one; in practical terms it would be physically and financially easier to fashion and execute a well or even over-developed script than to figure out how to continually abstractify flawed material using limited technical resources. The key to Bakit Kay Tagal’s effectiveness lies not in how the project required terrific casting and brilliant technical back-up (with a concomitant budgetary complement), but in how the filmmaker provided the illusion of a seamless whole, using technique (matched transitions, dissolves, slow camera movements) to promote an unusual sensibility.

In the end I guess it would be fair to state that it’s the substance of the style and not the style itself that salvages Bakit Kay Tagal from the unenviable fate of faithful komiks adaptations. The best elements of our most highly praised naturalist product, Oro, Plata, Mata, can also be found herein: an authentic sense of aristocracy, a predisposition toward perverse progressions, a subtle awareness of classic film traditions. Yet Oro, Plata, Mata, which is of more ambitious stuff than Bakit Kay Tagal, could not sustain its strong initial impact. Bakit Kay Tagal I feel will be able to get by primarily because of lesser expectations, but it ought to make us all hope for the day when a Roño project would have the ideal combination of major budget and sober material, to enable him to improve on what may already be good enough instead of merely making do with what can never be momentous to begin with.

[Submitted in 1991 to National Midweek; unpublished]

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5. Cool Film

Hot Summer
Directed by Mel Chionglo
Written by Ricardo Lee

Every film aspirant makes no bones about wanting to become a director – a finding borne out by casual exchanges between film schools as geographically and economically disparate as those of New York University and the University of the Philippines. The dream can be traced to as recently (relative to the history of film) as the 1950s, when a batch of French critics claimed to have theorized the primacy of the director’s role in filmmaking, then promptly proved their point by becoming brilliant directors themselves. The trouble with these critics-turned-directors’ experience is that their filmmaking career – which had so strong an impact that it became an international movement with a still-in catchword, New Wave – occupied them for the rest of their lives so far (the best-known of them, François Truffaut, is dead). If they allowed themselves or were provided the luxury of returning to criticism, they would definitely have made some major changes, if not turnabouts, in their initial theoretical posturing – unless, of course, they chose to ignore the evidence of their output.

Meanwhile their writings, which they called the politique des auteurs and which American importers upgraded in their translation as the auteur theory, proceeded to wield some influence in ivory-tower circles. Actually our example of film directorship now becoming a coveted position was a positive contribution during a time when cinema was not being taken seriously partly because it was regarded as a collective output: then-existent art and literary theories presumed that the singularity of artistic vision best resided in an individual maker. So if film had just one creator, then it could now count as one of the true arts, with its own potential for classicist greatness.

Since auteurism originated in the First World, its harmful tendencies were negated largely by the financial and technological resources available in such parts: directors, in short, could compete with one another in an expensive medium precisely because their economic conditions could afford it. And since the Philippines used to be a developing country (during a time when the category still had to be articulated), our admiration for filmmaking brilliance has been conditioned to be equated with directorial flair. This is the reason why no still-to-be-established director could get away with self-effacement. On the other hand, the logic of well-developed material becomes clear and acceptable only in the case of established filmmakers. In the local Parthenon of auteurs, circa the last decade or so, we bow the knee to Bernal and Brocka and never question why their skills in film plastics do not compare with the best moments of their next-in-line, who are ordered according to stylistic scintillations.

There have been some casualties in this approach to evaluation, and I’d venture to single out two Filipino directors: Gil Portes, who’s peerless when it comes to matching material with independent industrial sources, and Mel Chionglo, who has opted to work within the mainstream. Both have quietly managed to accumulate sober, if not so flashy, bodies of work that I believe conform to the requisites of our current Third-World status. Between the two it is Chionglo who seems to be working consciously at mapping his work according to the demands of material without seeking to break away, for whatever possible reason, from it. One walks away from a Chionglo film with the memory of a good dramatic statement, rather than a series of cinematic highlights. The only time when he managed a distinctly directorial triumph was in Bomba Arienda (with the late Conrado Baltazar in charge of cinematography) – and, in retrospect, the result only confirmed where the director’s assets lay: Chionglo, thus, far, has been too much of a thinker to even consider laying primary stress on what every thinking person knows is after all only a movie’s secondary value, its surface.

It is material that grips the likes of Chionglo and Portes, just as Brocka and Bernal now get by on the basis of how well they temper their skills according to what they want or have to say. Hot Summer, Chionglo’s latest, demonstrates for us what advantages this kind of sensibility holds in store for us. No major expectations are raised and a lot of indulgence is begged for in the beginning, when the conventions of the genre are being painstakingly worked out. Give this material to the equivalent of a Hollywood brat and you’d have some adequate fireworks, or at the very least some fine old camp entertainment.

But then all a Hollywood practitioner ever really need do is build up on these superficies – I’d even go to the extreme of stating that since you decide on this course of action, then that’s the only option left. A Third-World “star” director is many times jeopardized in this respect. For not only would it be difficult to convince a local producer to part with more than the usual share of money for what amounts to artistic indulgence, the local audience could also be baffled by an approach that requires multi-media sophistication and familiarization with analytical tools in film appreciation (presumably more abundant in rich countries). Worst of all, a last-minute change of mind to abandon the previous strategy in favor of the age-old verities of classical unities and a sense of proper thematic development would result in an even more baffling, if not downright disappointing, outing, due to the incompatibility of the sensibilities invoked. In Hot Summer, no such dangers loom ahead. The worst I could observe is the over-reliance on subjective cut-ins, which generally don’t work beyond the level of novelty because of their function as flashbacks; in Paano Kung Wala Ka Na, a previous Chionglo melodrama, made for the same producer and with the same writer, the cut-ins constituted real innovations because of their intended simultaneity with the action at hand, with the viewer left to wonder as to their correspondence with objective reality yet satisfied with their emotional impact.

Nevertheless the device in Hot Summer has been wisely confined to the movie’s expository portion. Once the entire framework has been set up, the finishing touches admirably point up a sound internal logic at work, employing the same principle of sensible character-based development observed in Paano. There’s a feeling of heaviness, though, that could only be traced to the two films’ separate intentions: Paano’s harmonious resolution vis-à-vis Hot Summer’s tearjerker function. The movie itself labored under desperate (and in this sense ill-advised) repackaging coupled with post-earthquake jitters, although we could consider this a physical mainfestation of Mel Chionglo’s dilemma. We need to be assured that a director’s at work, but we cannot accommodate the notion that it takes intelligence, daring, and discipline to recognize and uphold the importance of filmic material, for a change.

[First published September 5, 1990, in National Midweek]

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6. Long Flight

Birds of Prey
Directed by Gil Portes
Written by Ricardo Lee, Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., Herky del Mundo, and Gil Portes

Class distinctions in Filipino film appreciation used to be so crucial that practitioners were forced to point them out and discuss them. Among the enduring terms was bakya, an originally derogatory reference to the mass audience allegedly incapable of appreciating worthier items – meaning a select number of local films and the entire corpus of foreign films.

Bourgeois bias notwithstanding, the awareness engendered by the classification led to the conscious assimilation of the latest in foreign technology and techniques by local practitioners. This awareness also finally brought about a long-overdue crossover of appreciation of both foreign and local products by moviegoers from both sides of the tracks. Today only those on the extremes – the hopelessly snooty or the pathetically parochial – would pass judgment on a film on the issue of its country of origin; more typical are easygoing movie fans who would just as readily patronize a local product as they would an import, depending upon non-originative factors like availability, entertainment value, word-of-mouth endorsement, etc.

Of course certain problems remain. “Imports” hereabouts denote Hollywood products, with a few Hong Kong items thrown in – hardly the ingredients necessary for a truly nourishing native cultural diet. Moreover, a dispiriting common denominator has emerged, where films for exhibition, regardless of country of origin, must fall within a range of high-to-manic entertainment value, strictly surface competence (such as glossy visuals and/or fast pacing), plus an absence of or even outright disdain for social issues. In effect, the local film scene has become an extension of Hollywood’s, with Hong Kong as the model toward which the system seems to be striving.

The cause lies in the strategy for survival of the industry vis-à-vis the threat of total foreign domination: develop and maintain a financial and demographic latitude of profitability, at all costs. The success of the attempt since the 1986 revolution (when it seemed that no Filipino wanted to enter a moviehouse ever again) can be seen in the smug stability of the production houses that kept the faith. (Curiously, most studio and distribution leaders are Chinese Filipinos, which serves to confirm the Hong Kong-as-model thesis.)

There are alternatives to outright commercialism, but it seems they are not as yet being taken. For example, no one seems ready to try regional film production once more, despite the economic upgrowth of the South. Likewise, alternative formats may still be too exotic for the populace, while independent productions tend to be resisted by the major studios, and therefore also by big-time theater owners and distributors. Productions meant for foreign festivals could make a profit beyond ego-satisfaction if these could be harnessed for distribution purposes, but there may not be enough local capability, not to mention determination, in pursuing this course of action: certainly an independent, and much less a major, outfit would prefer the surety of local exhibition to the gamble of investing overseas.

Lately two products have taken the foreign-festival option one logical step beyond, by having themselves produced by foreigners. Lino Brocka’s Orapronobis has been the more conspicuous case, owing to its and its maker’s penchant for controversy and confrontation with local realities. The other title, Gil Portes’s Birds of Prey, finished before but screened locally after Orapronobis, is no less significant if only because of the surprise it springs on longtime observers of Philippine cinema. Birds of Prey serves to confirm what industry practitioners may have lost sight of due to the confidence brought about by the self-sufficiency of local production and exhibition – that the success of self-containment may be better expanded by spreading outward, across local boundaries, rather than by breaking box-office records. In business terms, the point of diminishing returns is considerably closer in the latter case. Moreover, foreign currency during these times would generally have the upper hand over our peso. Thus what a foreign financier may expect to produce on a shoestring budget may be transformed by a local practitioner, used to production constraints, into a highly accomplished result.

Birds of Prey exhibits a directorial expertise unrealized so far in any of its director’s earlier efforts. Its most serious weakness, a reliance on dialogue to convey a longitudinal thematic progression, is mitigated in great measure by a delivery of mute conviction by Gina Alajar, aided by a mostly highly skilled support ensemble. Beyond its already noteworthy intentions, it also manages to inject a whole lot of local color, as well as foreign locations understated in the usual Hollywood output, derived from the use of characters as strangers in the lands they choose to visit.

An even more exciting filmic potential is suggested by the movie, perched as it is between Portes’s past tentativeness in the medium and a potential for mainstream technical competence. Where the average accomplished director would have enhanced local-color footage in the spirit of “heightening” reality, Portes in Birds of Prey falls back on the discipline of documentary training. He does this by making careful selections of available locations (or shooting what’s available then selecting afterward), taking care to preserve the rawness of the material even if this leads to inadequacies vis-à-vis conventional criteria of plastic excellence.

The tension occasioned by still-evident documental skills on the one hand and a striving toward surface gloss on the other may have worked in favor of Birds of Prey. This would seem so at least in the narrow context of the movie’s Third World-vs.-US conflict. That the home country morally triumphs over (though it materially loses to) its neocolonizer proves that certain matters may be more urgent, if painful, than sheer physical comfort. And just as it may be time for all good folk to face the challenge of healing the nation from within instead of seeking to be cured elsewhere, good movie practitioners should similarly be prepared to embark anew on the search for more effective ways of extracting truth from the heretofore unexplored depths of Philippine reality, if necessary, in the opposite direction of Birds of Prey’s logical destiny – easily achievable and establishment-sanctioned expertise.

[First published April 4, 1990, in National Midweek]

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7. Indigenous Ingenuity

Andrea, Paano Ba ang Maging Isang Ina?
Directed by Gil M. Portes
Written by Ricardo Lee

I knew that I’d be involuntarily associated with the project, so I took the opportunity to formalize my participation. It all started when the members of the film-student organization I was advising, unabashedly Nora Aunor fans, could only talk about (and work on) the comeback project of the actress. Never had the heretofore insurmountable challenge of breaking into the local movie industry seemed so easy – due largely to the endorsement of my coadviser, Ricardo Lee, who was also the scriptwriter of the project. My only previous direct experience in a mainstream production was in a Vilma Santos-starrer, where I was, among other things, an atmosphere person. They had inserted some lines for a human-rights lawyer character in the Nora Aunor movie to demonstrate the desperation of the character in seeking help to recover her baby. The lawyer was supposed to be unable to do anything for her, so my role was to have been limited to a one-scene exchange; imagine, I told myself, only two full-length film exposures in my life thus far, and these with Vilma Santos and Nora Aunor….

The day after I did the role, the production folded up, reportedly because the original financier backed out. And with its director Gil M. Portes scheduled to leave for New York soon after, everyone was pessimistic about the film ever getting finished. I relate all this because I never really understood, until this project, how precarious serious filmmaking can be, especially in these times. With a record-setting eleven trophies from the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), plus a Gold Prize, Special Critics Prize, and Individual Achievement awards (Lee and Aunor) from the first batch of the Young Critics Circle winners, it is dangerously easy to assume that the movie, now known as Andrea, Paano Ba ang Maging Ina?, had been fated to be a winner from the start.

It is also just as dangerously difficult to dislike Andrea. The worst thing I can say, in all objectivity, about the film is that it may be existing way past its time. This is, in fact, its primary distinction: not since the boldest years of the Marcos era has there been an overtly anticommercial local production – independently (and indigently) sourced and featuring nonbankable perfomers in nonformulaic material. Rater still is the circumstance of such an effort reaping such rewards, and I mainly mean the post-Metro filmfest box-office restitution rather than the various prestigious distinctions that invariably followed. The MMFF contribution to Andrea’s fortune may be more than incidental in this regard. For all its past oversights – and these were many and cruel, directed even at some of Andrea’s makers – the MMFF has also honored, exclusively even, some of the better outputs of the local film industry: Celso Ad. Castillo’s direction of Burlesk Queen and Vilma Santos’s performance therein (both the director’s and actress’s best ever), Nora Aunor’s performance in Himala (her best and that of Philippine cinema as well), and Ricardo Lee’s screenplay of Moral (still another all-time best entry).

The value of the MMFF results, which no other award-giving institution possesses, lies in their capability to improve the financial performance of any film on which they bestow recognition. This adds a unique combination of sum and substance to the event’s moral obligation to render credible and well-considered judgments at all times. Conversely, no amount of postfestival revaluation had been able to recuperate whatever results were consequentially incurred by its negligence of such entries as Lino Brocka’s Bona (starring Nora Aunor), Bukas…May Pangarap (with the same director-writer team as Andrea’s), and Chito Rono’s Itanong Mo sa Buwan. As for Andrea, the measure by which the film has succeeded may at least partly be at the MMFF’s expense: not only had some of its personnel previously suffered the lapses in judgment of the jurors of the festival, the director and writer themselves have on record an entry, Birds of Prey, that was disallowed participation some years back on the basis of the ridiculous and inconsistent technicality of its having been financed by foreign sources. Meanwhile, what we have on hand is a product that happens to serve as the juncture of three auteurs – director, writer, and lead performer – at felicitous turning points in their respective careers.

Portes is the Andrea talent whose reputation advances with the film, from project originator to metteur en scène. Actually, though Andrea may be his best, it is not his coming-out film: that distinction belongs to his previous Nora Aunor-starrer, ’Merika, the project that immediately preceded Bukas…May Pangarap. (Andrea, Bukas, and Birds of Prey also feature Gina Alajar, who starred in the latter two as well as in another underrated Portes-Lee collaboration, Gabi Kung Sumikat ang Araw [1981]). The misfortune of Gil Portes is that his flair for uncovering independent production sources has attracted more attention than his growth as a filmmaker. No other Filipino, not even Celso Ad. Castillo, has been able to sustain a directorial career for years on the basis of a few modest hits, and more recently, despite a string of financial flops. Not surprisingly, the major production houses, having drifted toward increased commercialization since the February 1986 Revolution, have closed their doors to the likes of Portes. Other serious filmmakers, notably Brocka (and Lee, to a certain extent), have managed to maintain mainstream status only by accepting the givens and working within them.

The filmmakers marginalized by this shift in the system of local production have practically inhibited themselves – except for Portes. At one point, both he and Brocka sought foreign funding for their respective pet projects, and both similarly found themselves up against the Aquino administration’s deviously self-effacing censorship tactics. Birds of Prey and Orapronobis may yet find their way onto local screens, but meanwhile both Portes and Brocka again made a show of how film artistry could be made to fit opposing modes of production: where Brocka’s Gumapang Ka sa Lusak is 1990’s outstanding mainstream film, Andrea is the same year’s outstanding independent entry.

Significantly, both films were scripted by Lee, and may therefore provide, if only in a literal sense, a common basis for evaluation. Gumapang Ka marks a high point in the appropriation by serious artists of commercial elements in putting across what may be considered a non-commercial theme – that of the depravity of traditional politics. In forced contrast, Andrea proves that a non-commercial approach to commercial (at least in the latent sense) material is feasible. In fact, the more optimistic could argue that at no other point in our recent history would non- or maybe even anti-commercial products prosper that at present, given the mainstream saturation effected by the predominance of monolithic studios since Februrary 1986.

In the case of Lee, the twofold scriptwriting triumph of 1990 (not counting a number of more conventional works, including Brocka’s Hahamakin Lahat [1990]) can be creatively attributed to his return to more literary pursuits, especially journalism and fiction. The scene where Andrea has to hold back her emotions during her husband’s wake, as well as the heroine’s death-by-assassination in both films, all recall similar portions in the scripwriter’s latest, essentially unclassifiable work, the meta-fictional “Kabilang sa mga Nawawala.” Necessarily, the overall impact of “Kabilang,” where the author had total personal control, is greater, though it still has to be played out more thoroughly since its medium’s potential for popular response is disadvantaged relative to film.

But what Andrea (more than Gumapang Ka) supplies is in effect a preparation for the unqualified treat of works like “Kabilang.” The film constitutes a throwback to a point – perhaps our filmic past, as well as a beyond-Hollywood expansion of appreciation – where cinema defines itself more in terms of dramatic and thematic richness than in the accumulation of plastic-perfect points. Most buffs and historians (the distinction tends to blur in the case of film) would identify this ideal as neorealist, although Andrea, truer to its time and place, evinces a sophistication, not to mention a performance, far removed from the extremes allowed by the 1940s Italian movement.

What will probably outrage partisan viewers of opposing persuasions in another political clime is the same thing that has managed to impress those in today’s: Andrea, though it deals with the plight of a specific stripe of political animal, actually winds up repudiating not the political line, but the notion of politics itself, in order to facilitate a dramatic (as opposed to a purely intellectual) catharsis. Again this resembles the resolution in “Kabilang,” where the child, this time as central character, is orphaned as much by social intransigence as by his mother’s insistence on countering this force. Andrea, centering as it does on the title-character mother, provides the temperance factor in the person of the lead’s best friend. The ploy is slyly through transparently manifested in the standing agreement between the friends to override their ideological differences for the sake of friendship. Andrea’s subsequent martyrdom is all the more ennobled by her submission to solomonic wisdom: at considerable personal anguish, she decides to leave her son to her friend, for the brighter future the latter offers (in contrast to the bleakness of her own), and because the child has revived the friend’s married life.

The movie’s tearjerker outcome is thus provided a crucial dimension of ambiguity: Andrea may have suffered in the hands of a mean-spirited society, but her son will not. Her death provides not only a well-deserved spiritual release for herself, but the necessary means for her son (and his adoptive parents) to start new. Andrea may therefore be taken as a plea to reconsider a return to unorthodox modes and material in filmmaking. Using this sort of approach has seemed reckless in the past, but it in fact appears now to have been so simply because serious filmmakers seemed intent on alienating the mass audience at all costs. Andrea stands as evidence that given the proper kind of creative and industrial strategizing, local viewers are now ready to be won over to attempts at uncompromised artistry.

On a symbolic plane this argument can be extended to Andrea actress Nora Aunor. I do not refer alone to the fact that, if there ever were an auteuristic performer, Aunor is our one and only. Andrea may yet represent the renascence of the actress, after a series of popular rejections (starting at EDSA) traceable to her ill-advised participation in the Marcos-Tolentino presidential campaign. Aunor has died spectacularly before on film – in Himala, a previous association with Lee. The movie, in retrospect, eerily presages her fall from grace owing to the mortal combination of her awareness of her populist origins and her rebellion against any expectation attendant to this.

Andrea is Nora Aunor’s long-overdue phoenix-like reemergence and successfully contravenes her ugly-duckling ex-superstar has-been status. No way can she hope for a return to the glory days of her teen-idol years; that much was already evident as early as Himala, where she boxed herself, by the sheer magnitude of her histrionic genius, into a category all her own. Andrea proves that she did not waste the intervening years, traumatic though they may have been for her; if anything, it was the years that wasted her – but only, and strictly, on a physical level. In fact the performer in Andrea can be regarded in many ways as superior to the still-too-pretty and sexually tentative creature embodying Himala’s Elsa. Her via dolorosa segment in the earlier film was a triumph of technique, amorphous at best, whereas in Andrea, which consists of one long journey to a final heartbreak, the pain can be visualized as a line traveling straight from her heart to the viewer’s.

Just how precisely accomplished is Nora Aunor as an actress? In the past I would have answered this by sizing up her Himala performance against that of any perceived competitor’s, but this has proved to be too obvious with time. Meanwhile I had been given in Andrea what amounted to a monolog in Filipino, which I had to memorize in a few minutes. Since my memory and my command of the language are both my gravest performative disadvantages, I inquired about the setup required and learned that that scene would consist of one long take, with close-ups for the final one-sentence exchanges. A bottle of beer, one camera rehearsal, and scores of memory aids later, I still could not get beyond the first sentence without directorial prompting. But during the take I connected for the first time with those eyes, and the lines all came to me naturally and clearly, requiring no retakes whatsoever. I marveled at this phenomenon; I was entirely aware of, apprehensive about, and alert to the warning of how strong co-actors tend to upstage weak ones. I was also conscious of the possibility that the opposite could hypothetically exist. But I never expected to so casually come across a performer whose very strength could bolster, rather than demolish, everyone else’s. That’s a tale which, like Andrea, I would not mind turning into a legend.

[Submitted in 1991 to National Midweek; unpublished]

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8. No End in Sight

Kung Tapos Na ang Kailanman
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Gina Marissa Tagasa

It must be the wish of every well-meaning observer of local cinema to have even the most commercial genres dominated by sensible talents. The perceptual problem, however, is that the acquisition of expertise in generic moviemaking comes only over time with the accumulation of experience, regardless of the filmmaker’s orientation. Moreover, the convenience of distinguishing expressly commercial from obviously noncommercial (or what everyone loves to call “artistic”) works oversimplifies the job of evaluating the output of an individual practitioner. By now, all but the most conservative (in pure-film terms, that is) admirers of Lino Brocka realize that the marriage between our most active serious director and the most commercially successful genre of the moment has been consummated with a series of post-revolutionary (1986) projects, and only the truly cynical would grumble that the reception, in the form of one box-office celebration after another, has been too lavish for these times.

The courtship was actually a step toward symbolic reconciliation: Brocka’s original break with his mother studio, Lea Productions, had been facilitated by a series of hit melodramas, with a few flirtations with “bold” (meaning sexually explicit, then called bomba), action, and musical suboptions. The breakup (with both studio and genre) was cemented through a breakaway, a series of box-office risks that at the time constituted his calling card to international recognition. His return to commercialism logically reflected an alienation from the mainstream, so for a long time Brocka was, in more ways than one, neither here nor there – too ascetic in his foreign-festival titles and too desperate in his masses-only outings to be able to relate to those observers and practitioners who happened to be Filipino.

Brocka proved more successful with film noir, a style whose limitations were immediately suggested by his first attempt, Jaguar. Whatever else the movie contributed to local action cinema – the use of shadows and slum settings, greater attention to the characterization of villains, the persona of Phillip Salvador – Filipino moviegoers refused to see it. Despite, or maybe even because of, its resort to social issues, the genre itself was too difficult to work over: action stars eventually get set in highly specific manners, lines of narrative are required to observe strict modulations of development, and character relationships always have to maintain strict dialectical symmetry.

After a series of mild hits and resounding misses, Brocka hit his stride with Maging Akin Ka Lamang (1987). Since then, his instinct for melodrama has been practically infallible. To be sure, his innovative urges were kept to a minimum, but some attempts were perceptible to those who cared to figure them out: improvisatory line feeding in Natutulog Pa ang Diyos (1988), control of hysterics in Kailan Mahuhugasan ang Kasalanan? (1989), and modification of Sharon Cuneta’s sugar-and-spice image in Babangon Ako’t Dudurugin Kita (1989).

Relative to the aforementioned, Brocka has taken his greatest risks with Kung Tapos Na ang Kailanman (1990). I managed to count two minor ones, the integration of musical numbers into the plotline and the provocation of the somewhat taboo premise of an Electra-complex rivalry for the same man (reminiscent of Insiang) – and one significant gamble tantamount to a long-overdue transgression of the rules of local practice. The predominance of komiks over filmic material had something to do with the exhaustiveness of adaptations and takeoffs, notably in Filipino melodramas. Since picture stories had all the advantages of having the last, and even later than the last, development because of their multi-installment nature, contemporary popular storytelling has assumed never-ending forms of anticlimactic stages, introduction of new dramatis personae and complications, and diversifications into all types of genres.

These are not necessarily liabilities in themselves, and the collective efforts of competent local film practitioners since 1986 seemed to have lain in the direction of maximizing the givens rather than branching out from or violating them. Kung Tapos Na marks the first clear and effective (in box-office returns) departure from the norm of completing the storytelling process by pursuing every suggested lead and tying up all plot points to make one self-sufficient package. The advantages immediately suggest themselves, although one wonders why no one seemed to have figured out at least the financial implications early enough. It took a series of profitable sequels in recent action and comedy films before a melodrama project summoned enough guts to deliberately dangle certain story elements in order to allow for a whole new range of possibilities in a whole new possible hit project.

One important moral here is to reformulate aesthetic advantages in commercial terms. At this point in komiks-controlled cultural history, no one can ever hope to convince any local producer of the narratory merits of precipitate endings, even in order to extend the visual language skills of the Filipino moviegoer; the trick, if it ever should amount to one, would be to propose the literally rich potentials of such an innovation, and then take a step at a time, as was the case with Kung Tapos Na. Given the benefit of hindsight, it seems only Brocka could have pulled off the sleight-of-hand required to end the presentation before schedule yet give the impression of having provided the complete range of emotional progressions that overdeveloped stories normally induce. I venture to say that his skill in related fields was indispensable in this instance. The climax of Kung Tapos Na actually consists of a confrontation among those at the corners of the central love triangle distanced by the intervening media of television (which prevents the married couple from physically interacting with the performer) and stage (which allows the performer to attain a form of culmination along with his special viewers).

The tension of wanting to communicate yet not being able to, where even the husband’s mortal illness debilitates him to the point of near-muteness, ensures the effectiveness of the forthcoming emotional wallop, presented as it is in the form of understanding glances and music and thus lending an enigmatic silence preferable to the usual verbalizing these types of films utilize. I can imagine the mass audience eagerly awaiting a Kung Tapos Na II where what was left unspoken at the close of the original could be finally articulated in the sequel’s expository portion. Meanwhile Brocka, Filipino director par excellence, has become to melodrama what Ishmael Bernal became to comedy some time ago and Peque Gallaga to horror-fantasy recently. Such matches, full of light and spark, could just as well have been made in tinsel heaven.

[Submitted in 1991 to National Midweek; unpublished]

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9. Head Held High

Gumapang Ka sa Lusak
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Ricardo Lee

When Lino Brocka walked out on the 1986 Constitutional Commission it seemed like an act of futility, a typical if outsized artist’s tantrum. Predictably, the Concom carried on, drafting a document that met with popular approval, thereby paving the way for the return of authentically elected officials to power. What we mostly failed to realize was that Brocka intended to continue conducting his side of the political debate in the venue where his expertise lay – the mass medium of film – and more menacingly, that his decision to do so would be accompanied by a quantum leap in his creative faculties. Both developments have been long overdue. Political discourse in local cinema since the 1986 revolution tended to falter by the tradition of anti-Marcos dissent, which tended to be either too frontal for comfort (especially the artist’s) or too subtle to be appreciated in relation to the work’s over-all merits. Brocka himself took a leading role in this kind of perilous undertaking, but the business of surviving in an extensively controlled local industrial system as well as developing an international audience must have distracted him from paying full attention to the nature and potentials of his medium.

Of course he was not alone; he merely led in his specific field, and I maintain that the fact that many were able to follow proves that the Marcos government, for all its hard-nose ways, had a soft spot for film. Philippine cinema thereby assumed a schizoid character, awfully harmless in its commercialist aspects and awesomely threatening in its serious phases. The gravest possible consequence then was the displeasure of government authorities. But when these cultural boneheads were ousted by people power (only to be replaced by a similar set), the long-term effects of this split-level one-on-the-other approach became clear: the film artists could not relate with their audience, who in turn quickly learned to reject all old-time attempts at serious film presentations.

Hence the much-lamented dry spell in serious (normally associated with politicized) filmmaking. Even the real film artists took on a good measure of critical scolding for openly indulging in generic movie-making, at best turning out items that could be considered good only if one accepts the premises of mainstream local cinema. In Brocka’s case, this meant a string of extremely successful melodramas that could never quite break away from the imperatives of mass entertainment, save perhaps for the first, Maging Akin Ka Lamang. And even then….

Well since then Brocka came up with the still-to-be-released Orapronobis, and has followed up with his latest hit, Gumapang Ka sa Lusak, and in the purest filmic terms both titles are indistinguishable from his post-revolution crowd-pleasers. In both cases he also drew from his Marcos-era specialization in film noir, but basically he has hewn close to the plot twists and character entanglements that commercially rehabilitated him. In so doing, he advanced a proposition audacious even for himself: Philippine politics, per Brocka’s latest, is more than just a matter of intrigues and chases and shoot-outs; it is actually one big noisy and unending melodrama. Everyone gets to participate; unlike in Brocka’s gangster films, the political figures are this time identifiable and given active roles to play. The gods have now been invested with feet of clay, very wet ones at that.

It is an indication of the gap between our officials and the masses they claim to represent when no one among the former thus far has raised a peep about the wholesale (and well-deserved) defamation being visited upon them by our movie-makers. All of a sudden, politicians have become commercially viable – as villains. The two Brocka films are merely among the better-intentioned ones so far, and something must also urgently be said about the way the mass audience laps it all up. For too long, and especially since 1986, the Filipino movie-goer has been the object of scorn among the intelligentsia, who find no difficulty tracing the sorry state of local cinema to its market. No matter that the producers happen to agree; even the highest Marcos cultural official, Madame Iron Butterfly, prescribed the production of wholesome love stories among the true, the good, and the beautiful (though pretty would do), following the collapse of the martial-law era’s “developmentalist” requisites. In short, everyone agreed (many still do) that the movie-going masses are too bull-headed to take even themselves seriously. No bitter pill will they swallow, unless candy-coated and brightly colored; in which case why risk the danger of contaminating their brazen delights with the acridity of nourishment? Actually the evidence of past artistic works occasionally making money belies this notion, just as the people can take disapprobation if they have to: after all, who elected those officials in the first place?

Brocka’s Gumapang Ka sa Lusak, which has completed the filmmaking process from inspiration to exhibition, evinces a careful working out of viewership psychology, particularly when placed in the context of its director’s body of work. Inside information alleges that the project was originally intended as a sequel to Jaguar, which was written by Gumapang Ka’s Ricardo Lee and Orapronobis’s Jose F. Lacaba. Jaguar was a Brocka landmark in the strict sense that it was scripted by his most productive collaborators and first enabled the country to be represented in the Cannes Film Festival competition; in another equally significant area, the box-office, it flopped. The Jaguar re-viewer though will readily realize that Gumapang Ka is more than just a decade removed from its predecessor. As already mentioned, it’s not as straight-faced as one would be led to expect, given the scary social premises of Jaguar. Gumapang Ka is as grave as Brocka has been known to be, make no mistake; yet its lead character, who this time is female, and who dies along with the (re-named) Jaguar character, gives out what may arguably be the most blissful smile ever seen in local cinema, right before she expires.

A happy ending? In a serious film? By Lino Brocka?! And there’s more: you can even play the game of name-that-historical personage. I went as far as recognizing Dovey Beams and Rolando Galman and Carlito Dimailig (Imelda Marcos’s bolo-wielding assailant, here transmuted into an elderly woman), plus the female lead’s assumption of the former First Lady’s amnesiac attitude toward her childhood destitution, and still had enough room in my head to allow for a catch in my throat when her moralist admonition was replayed over the last shot of the “next” Jaguar – her naïve and sentimental and, yes, comic-Platonic lover. The most obvious explanation is that with Orapronobis, Brocka remembered to grow in his medium; with Gumapang Ka, he remembered to relax. Not since Jaguar has there been a dramatically involving villain in a Brocka film, and in Gumapang Ka there are even three of them: the Marcos couple and Fabian Ver equivalents. And where in the past his stories could not allow for loose ends, or otherwise resulted in an embarrassment of loose ends, here the frills – the in jokes, the performance numbers, the open ending – are part of an expertly constructed design.

The means by which such frivolity in the midst of social grimness could be facilitated harkens back to Brocka’s disillusionment with politics. He returned to showbiz, of course, and in Gumapang Ka he set one against the other. The politicians dominate the opening gambit (like they always do in real life), with the mayor plucking his mistress from a checkered career in sex films and the couple recruiting their main henchman from a stable of stuntmen. But by living out her fantasy of justice, the mistress attains a moral triumph that makes her payment with her life, not to mention that of many others, seemingly worth the price. In this manner does Gumapang Ka attain its unique brand of salvation. As opposed to Jaguar it doesn’t run away from fantasy, but instead utilizes non-credible elements to build an expansive yet sturdy framework that allows for a whole lot of valid connections with historical reality. The fact that this approach happens to sit well with local audiences indicates some drastic re-thinking for media practitioners in the immediate future.

As if that weren’t bonus enough, Gumapang Ka also proffers generally high-caliber performances. Dina Bonnevie stakes a privileged position in an already impressive roster of local female lead performances, with hers ranking the highest in sensuality; never had she been so effective before. Her antagonists provide the flint by which she lights her fire: in a reversal of the real-life conjugal dictatorship, Eddie Garcia exhibits the charm and Charo Santos-Concio the intelligence. Come to think of it, the Gumapang Ka production outfit was once suspected of executing Imelda Marcos’s conceits for Philippine cinema, using funds whose release were made possible by her all-encompassing influence. How ironic that in violating her vision and almost her person, the producers have managed to come up with their best picture so far.

[First published June 20, 1990, in National Midweek]

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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