Fields of Vision – Speculations

1. Family Affairs

Pido Dida (Sabay Tayo)
Directed by Tony Cruz
Written by Tony Cruz and Roger Fuentebella

The contrast between opposing opinions on Kris Aquino’s first film, Pido Dida (Sabay Tayo), indicates the extent of the polarization between official and independent pronouncements on local culture. Those who want or need to maintain a favored status take the cue from Aquino’s doting mother – who, the more ardent appreciators point out, was just continuing what her late husband, who happens to be our own modern-day Messiah, had started – in proclaiming the presidential daughter’s performance, and the movie by association, adequate at the very least. Those who can afford to do otherwise, for whatever motive possible, resort to any pronouncement along the rest of the spectrum, from adequate downward. In the end Pido Dida’s adequacy will remain unresolved, largely because of the political coloration that has attended its critical reception, compounded by the favorable box-office response. On the surface the film appears to be easily dismissible per se, but this may be the key to the alienation of the elite, especially the intelligentsia, from the masses: if we condemn an item as unacceptable out of our concern for its consumers, what does it make of us (and the item in question) when the consumers themselves refuse to listen?

The fascinating thing about this entire enterprise is that the crucial commercial element in Pido Dida, comedian Rene Requestas, manages to acquit himself, well, adequately, notwithstanding the heaviest creative burden he has been made to bear in his career thus far. In his past films, Requiestas had proved himself inimitable in his capability to draw humor from event the most mediocre lines and situations given him. In fact, his success en solo has given cause for worry to his discoverer, Joey de Leon, as well as relief to the latter’s toilet-humor detractors. Requiestas proves for our place and time what Pauline Kael discovered about Barbra Streisand: not that ugly is (or will ever be) in, but that talent is beauty. No other Filipino of movie-star status has had such a reliable record of stage performances behind him, save perhaps for Roderick Paulate; but where the latter was eventually delimited by his screaming-meemie persona, Requiestas, by his everyday-person projection, would be ideal for the versatility once appropriated by Dolphy – from his (Requiestas’s) current (and deplorable) ugly-clown gimmick to perhaps a foray into Paulate territory or an assumption of a dramatic, possibly even sexy, role, with his falsies all in place of course. If I may be allowed to invest my two-cents’ worth, Requiestas seems to me to consist of far richer potential than anyone before him.

But talent, as Dolphy himself once discovered, can only go so far, especially in a medium as inevitably collaborative as film. We should only hope that in Requiestas’s case he (or his managers) opt for expanding his repertoire to include other approaches to film performance, rather than building on a so-far bankable but increasingly depletive type of role. He could wind up as an industry fixture like Dolphy, recycling past glories in customary productions every so often, though not often enough…but why be merely comfortable when you can be terrific? Pido Dida in itself could constitute a serious warning notice for the Requiestas credit, with the creative team ostensibly out to run down his gifts with the most unimaginative and sluggish lines and situations available – ugly-face jokes, cutesifications, indiscriminate inside references to politics and show business, and worst of all, a patronizing beauty-and-beast romantic angle with Ms. Guess-Who.

On the other hand the movie could also signal the emergence of a reliable competitor to the conservative young-star iconography of Sharon Cuneta. With Aquino, we have the same right-wing political wealth and back-up source, plus the additional advantages of prettiness and earnestness. The terrible reality of this kind of image-building exercise is that it doesn’t much matter to what end these girls have opted to devoted what talent they happen to possess; they could probably even get away with taking its development for granted, as Cuneta has so far managed to do. The ideal entertainment ethic would be for us to relegate these strays from the political corral to their proper positioning according to their potential for contributing to Philippine culture – i.e., straight to the slaughterhouse of collective memory. Unfortunately this presumes that our non-political systems could afford to ignore the influence of establishment politics. So in the meantime that our producers and audiences try to upgrade, consciously or otherwise, their capacity for intelligence and independence, we remain at the mercy of the dictates of those who couldn’t really care less about the quality of our creature comforts. In Pido Dida we see this principle played out in the manner by which a leading lady in a comedy gets handled like a leading lady, instead of a comedienne. Nothing funny that the Aquino character does is of her own volition, unless it be to emphasize her already obvious pictorial superiority to her leading man. In the end this kind of approach – a political decision, actually – becomes (a no-no in comedy) predictable: we get to know when the laughs are coming, indicated as they are by Requiestas’s presence, and when we’re only supposed to smile, which is when Aquino’s around. And when funnybone responses are determined by factors beyond the work’s inner mechanism, then the responses aren’t really that much fun in the end.

It should be of national interest to see the Kris Aquino persona evolve alongside her mother’s political career. If the Sharon Cuneta model is any indication, the daughter could have a better chance of outshining her politician parent, though the latter need not fade away entirely, so long as she learns in turn how to pick up a trick or two from her fair-haired child. We couldn’t do away yet with politically sponsored as aspirants to showbiz stardom, but perhaps a worse scenario – two aspirants instead of only one – might be the next best thing after all: either their rivalry repositions one or the other to a more enlightened political stance, or it rages to the extent of eventually consuming them both, symbols of impositions by an uncaring elite on our popular preferences.

[First published October 24, 1990, in National Midweek]

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2. Sequacious and Second-Rate

Pido Dida 2 (Kasal Na)
Directed by Tony Cruz
Written by Tony Cruz and Roger Fuentebella

Anak ni Baby Ama
Directed by and written by Deo J. Fajardo Jr.

One of the most significant developments in film criticism in 1990 was the emergence of a most unlikely practitioner. Not only was she typically unqualified for the job, she was also coming in from an unexpected fall from popularity. As history would now have it, all Cory Aquino had to do was proclaim herself satisfied with her daughter Kris’s first film, Pido Dida (Sabay Tayo), and Mother Lily had an all-time box-office top grosser. Mrs. Aquino’s lot, however, seems to be confined to beginner’s luck, and it did not take long to be redemonstrated this time. The Pido Dida sequel, subtitled Kasal Na, fared far worse than reasonably expected – which was nowhere near the original’s performance in the first place. No amount of claims to the contrary can reverse the eventual verdict of its financial failure: the Regal publicity machinery’s premature announcement that Part 2 was doing better than Part 1 may have endeared the moviemakers to the First Family, but not, it seems, to the moviegoing masses.

A more basic irony has been superseded in the wake of the film’s resounding disappointment. President Aquino pronounced the sequel better than the first, and incredible as it may sound, she was right. Not that improving on the original Pido Dida was such a big deal to begin with. All one had to do was provide some structural solidity to the plot, subject the sequence of events to dramatic logic, and minimize the leading lady’s condescension to her partner – and one would instantly realize certain (nonmoral) values that were lacking in the first part. Of course this does not make Pido Dida 2 preferable to the original. For one thing, the charm in Part 1 lay in the unpredictability of the story’s direction, whereas in Part 2 we know too much about Kris Aquino (and her mother) to wonder whether her character would break up with her leading man, unbeautiful though he may appear beside her. Consequently Rene Requiestas’s clowning loses much of its effecctiveness, because its potential challenge to prevalent norms and tastes is overwhelmed by our awareness of Aquino’s Christianly resolve. She, or rather her character, will suffer his infirmities and even his animosities, like a Good Filipino Housewife; she will languish when he walks out on her, even if he really did not intend to; she will even bear his child and promise us a Part 3, whether we like it or not, although fortunately it is cash-conscious Lily Monteverde who will have the final say.

The only positive thing we can note about this whole enterprise is that its improvement over its predecessor, so obvious that Cory Aquino was able to perceive it, was quite easily done. The insight can even be extended to the current state of Philippine cinema. The rampaging commercialism that has characterized Mrs. Aquino’s stint in power has bequeathed unto us a glut of monstrously successful quickies, whose profitability makes the prospect of sequential projects attractive, while their paltriness makes it easy to come up with a comparatively less offensive successor.

The real problem however is how to be more than merely less offensive. A concurrently released sequel, Anak ni Baby Ama, suggests some possible strategies. What the newer title did right, which Pido Dida 2 could never have done at this time, was get together a set of talents far removed from the fifteen-year-old Bitayin si…Baby Ama! In this case, they placed in charge the lead actor’s manager, Deo Fajardo Jr., instead of the original’s Jun Gallardo, who has been inactive lately; Fajardo handled his ward Robin Padilla’s first star vehicle, and appears to possess some heretofore unnoticed aptitude for action-film direction. Less judicious, however, was Fajardo’s assumption of the project’s script requirements, especially since the original’s scriptwriter, Humilde Meek Roxas, has managed these past few years to make provocative and expert vehicles for entertainment out of ordinary action-film assignments.

Then of course they put a performer with all the pretty-boy appeal of Rudy Fernandez in the original, but with a capability for histrionic stylization that had proved successful for the likes of James Dean and Marlon Brando some generations back. Robin Padilla’s reliance on diagonal postures, macho mannerisms, and constipated line readings works because of the actor’s consistency, particularly in a context where most everything else lacks such a quality. Believe me, we could do worse with our action-film stars, and with the rarity of someone who knows how to act (I can only think of Phillip Salvador), someone who knows how to perform might be acceptable enough as an alternative.

Anak ni Baby Ama also manages some psychoanalytic twists, specifically with the lead character’s search for his parents. His epiphany in this case is not foregrounded as prominently as in Carlo J. Caparas’s Pieta, but that is not the only missed opportunity here: somewhere during the exposition, the character encounters a liberated and combative (as in trained in the martial arts) woman, who becomes his love interest, but who unaccountably goes to pieces when her sleazy-rich family decides to kill the couple’s unborn child. Her brother overcomes his hatred for her boyfriend in his desire to exact vengeance on her killers, but he dies before we get more than just a passing acknowledgment of their class-crossed bonding. Finally, the lead character gets thrown in jail, suggesting a scenario richly reminiscent of his father’s, whose legend actually started with his life in prison…and the movie ends.

It’s like Philippine history, in a sense, full of promises that never reach fulfillment. But I rather like the way in which the biggest copout of all – closing the presentation just when the excitement reaches a new plane – also manages to point to a different kind of sequel, one (like Pido Dida actually) that deals with the same character(s). I look forward with as much excitement to an Anak ni Baby Ama 2 as I dread a Pido Dida 3, although I hope that those who will be behind any such projects would have the foresight to do them not just better, but only right.

[Submitted in 1991 to National Midweek; unpublished]

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3. Woman-Worthy

Kasalanan Ba’ng Sambahin Ka?
Directed by Chito Roño
Written by Jose Javier Reyes and Raquel N. Villavicencio

Hahamakin Lahat
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Ricardo Lee

Can the specificities of a film genre dictate the nature of roles available to actors according to their sexual differentiation? In the instance of a specific local genre, melodrama, it appears that not only the nature of the roles but the advantage of the performer is predetermined in a manner opposed to the original foreign norm. Two of the better releases in 1990 by the country’s top competitors for studio supremacy prove this point indirectly, by applying for us one outstanding performance each – both by female actors essaying distinctively female roles.

Viva Films’ Kasalanan Ba’ng Sambahin Ka? has Vivian Velez in what is definitely the peak performance thus far of an underappreciated career, outstripping (quite literally too!) her achievements in her productions, Pieta and Paradise Inn. Regal Films’ Hahamakin Lahat has the reliable Vilma Santos in a successful (in popular terms) modification of her other-woman persona, placing her work here on the order of Tagos ng Dugo and Pahiram ng Isang Umaga. Both films can be roughly classified as melodramas of the Filipino variety, specifically by their emphasis on moral issues, complicated plots, and strong female roles – characteristics that serve the thesis that local melodramas are, for want of a better term, prejudiced in favor of women, complaints from feminists notwithstanding.

This principle contrasts somewhat with the Western, specifically Hollywood, example. Foreign melodramas seem perfectly capable of providing male actors with roles that are as important, if not more, than those of actresses. Of course, the element common to melodrama in general is its consciousness of female, or feminine, spectators: Western and Westernized “women,” in the generic sense, are supposedly trained to be more receptive to moral issues, as opposed to the assignation of social and economic concerns to “men.” But the question is why men can be made central figures in, say, Hollywood melodramas but not in the Philippines, or Metro Manila. I believe the answer lies in the way the genre was transmuted in the process of its adoption and development hereabouts. The Oriental aspect of local culture exhibits a preference for the ornate or, to put it another way, an abhorrence for plainness. This is reinforced in film by the habit of disregarding screening schedules or, in practical terms, of allowing the members of the audience to enter anytime and stay as long as they please.

Hence in Philippine cinema in general, classical construction, with tis emphasis on the buildup of a distinct and distinctive narrative line, is considered infeasible, since a viewer who arrives somewhere at the beginning will feel let down by the relative absence of tension, while another who arrives toward the end will be baffled by the same quietude that presently opens the work. The rule is to hit as strident a tone as early as possible, and sustain the effort until the exhaustive, not to mention exhausting, finish. Now if this form of requirement were to be stuffed with machismo, the local expression of masculinity, the emotional overload would require safety releases that melodrama, with its policy of moral containment, will not be able to satisfy. Fortunately one or another imported genre, the action film or the sex film, allows, in more ways than one, for the necessary outlet, in terms of violence or virility respectively.

Where do Kasalanan Ba and Hahamakin fit into this scheme of things? For starters, both push the ideals of femininity in Filipino melodramas to the opposite moral extreme: the lead characters here are not your traditional faithful-loving-long suffering types, but are as bad as contemporary local female bad can be. The Kasalanan Ba protagonist delineates a psychopathic obsession for a lover over whom she has no legal claim whatsoever, while the one in Hahamakin takes advantage of her superior sociopolitical standing to further her gains in sex and money. The first directs its concerns inward, toward the machinations of the morbid mind, while the second moves outward, into the politics of gender and class stratifications. Yet it is the same object of personal redemption – the ideal masculine catch – that qualifies both discourses on female independence. The Vivian Velez character resists all attempts at matchmaking, while that of Vilma Santos resolves not to fall emotionally for her flavor of the moment; in the end, when Mr. Seemingly Right happens along, all their notions of self-sufficiency get discarded like so much excess baggage, as off they go after the walking incarnation of the True Meaning of Life.

The cop-out is not as serious as it sounds, especially if viewed from a vantage point apart from the female sex itself, mainly because in the end, it is still the men who are made the targets of fulfillment, rather than the other way around. The difference between this instance and that of a Pinoy action film, where the male protagonist idealizes a female object, is that in the latter case, the object can never remain purely sexual; she – it now, really – has to evolve into one of a few possible matriarchal archetypes (motherhood, motherland, maybe mother tongue though never mother-in-law) in order to justify the requisite and inevitable bloodletting. The approach suggests further possibilities for modifying, and possibly improving, the genre. Kasalanan Ba and Hahamakin could have been the vehicles for this sort of exploration, except that both seem to have been assuming an unfair share (considering the talents behind them) of commercial considerations.

Kasalanan Ba, possibly in order to distance itself from a similar American hit, Fatal Attraction, infused its story with a provocative psychological background, which resulted in a fascinating alternation between suspense and drama. The intelligent expectation is for these two inclinations to combine in the end, one intensifying the other in a way that Fatal Attraction never managed to. Unfortunately the less substantial (though more cinematically impressive) element, suspense, dominated at last. In the case of Hahamakin, the presence of big stars must have used up whatever else could have been allocated for the expansion of the story’s physical resources. Compared with the director-writer teamup’s previous effort, Gumapang Ka sa Lusak, Hahamakin manages to go deeper into the psyche of the female oppressor (a secondary character in the earlier film, which concentrated on the victim instead). On the other hand, several crucial establishing details in the latter work had to be relegated to lines of exchanges, and a demonstration of how social cancer spreads through the body politic is never pulled off, precisely because the filmmakers had to confine themselves to the major characters.

Nevertheless both recent films, plus Gumapang Ka, represent our state-of-the-craft when it comes to melodrama moviemaking, and I can think of no higher compliment than posing a challenge for the future: since every conceivable female lead role has been explored, with varying degrees of success, in local melodrama, and since action films have long allowed for strong women characters even in lead capacity, how about refashioning the former genre to suit nonfemale leads? The clash between gender and genre might yet result in certain long-overdue insights into love and anarchy as only a truly confused culture can make it.

[First published October 17, 1990, in National Midweek]

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4. Demachofication

Kristobal
Directed by Francis “Jun” Posadas
Written by Humilde Meek Roxas

This early I think one could make a case for Ferdinand Marcos’s ill-advised campaign strategy of relegating women (presumably including his then-opponent Corazon Aquino) to the bedroom as the turning point, from the popular perspective, of the local confrontation between the sexes. By clear though perhaps unwitting association, the defeat of the Marcos machinery could also have signaled for Filipinos the end of Old-World machismo, if not anything else. It was a hard-won and well-earned victory, although by whom may be an entirely different issue altogether. The feminist sector would have been the logical responder to this kind of challenge, but as it turned out, it was an entire nation that reacted. I’m sure one day a cultural historian will argue that, with Marcos laying it on the line, machismo never stood a, well, Chinaman’s chance; the Oriental aspect of Filipino culture – non-confrontational and motherly – were transmuted into overpowering forces, anti-confrontational and matriarchal, that may yet require another complex of factors to induce a mellowing down. Meanwhile machismo, as proof of its desperation, sought refuse in its traditional hotbed: right-wing military causes, religious revivalism, and, relevant to our discussion, male-dominated pornography.

What it failed to reckon with, however, was the all-encompassing range of Oriental thought processes; in particular, the off-limits aspect of the concept of private property this time had to give way to a perceived need to institute improvements in existing set-ups, though certainly not to the extent of upsetting the set-ups themselves. Such isolated phenomena then as the military closing ranks behind a female leader, who in turn has appointed a number of well-received female subordinates and proclaimed a female general; the moderate Catholic sector appropriating the strategies of televangelism and even developing a strong fellowship of devotees in show business; and the banishment of the penekula-film trend to the dustbin of disreputable circuits and cheap formats and its replacement with an entirely new innovation in the mainstream sex genre – all these, along with the more minor spectacles of action stars shedding tears in their films, male writers outdoing women in the finer literary forms of fiction and poetry (and women conversely excelling in journalism), point to one and the same announcement: machismo, as it used to be known, is out.

One may at first wonder how a sex trend in films could ever be non-macho since it could never be pro-woman to begin with. Actually the nature of an artistic medium inherently provides ways out of such blind alleys. In terms of the sex-trip (ST) trend, the upgrading of women performers constituted the first indication that a wholly different kind of creature was afoot; this can also be seen in terms of the aspiration of the movie-goers toward better economic circumstances, and explains the outrage (more intense this time, it seems, compared with the reaction to the penekula trend) of opinion leaders as partly due to a class-based threat. With all the old Pinoy sex films, we were at the very least assured that the masses were indulging in decadence among themselves, as was evident in the types of actresses they patronized; but in the ST films they’ve come to prefer upper-class morsels, a prospect that wouldn’t be far removed from seeing one’s classmate or girlfriend or sister or (if one were older) niece or daughter reclining on a bacchanalian platter.

But then another ST feature emerged in time to temper the potentially explosive (pardon the pun!) preference for well-bred beauties. For the first time since the late-’60s bomba era, when sexual themes became organized obsessions in local cinema, the image of the male actor has begun to matter. Of course in a sense it was always imperative that the sex-film stud be well-equipped, but this requirement used to be defined according to body built, hirsuteness, vocal gruffness, and other such indicators of what a “real” man would envision another “real” man to be. The ST trend drastically modified this requisite by adding something that non-“real” men, including women, would demand: classically dictated beauty. Gone are the Tito Gallas and George Estregans (literally too, bless their souls) of yore, and in, in more ways than one, are a couple of actors with faces and complexions pretty enough to compare to their leading women. A debate is bound to arise regarding whose main responsibility for such a change it was – increased female attendance for sex films, or the predominance of gays in industrial practice; meanwhile the phenomena of classy women and pretty men in sex films – these things remain, and where they could go from here is boldly suggested by the latest ST product by the trend’s instigator, Seiko Films.

Kristobal manages to push ST closer to its logical extreme ironically by disguising it as another genre – i.e., an action film. Here the women are depicted as man-eaters, often in worse (or better) than the usual cannibalistic sense, always ultimately willing to bring their imperturbable male partners to dizzying rounds of pleasure. In fact, all things considered, what the male lead and his main antagonist have in common are their pulchritudinous miens and an environment of hot and hungry women. Contrary to the expected moralist slant, the wayward lasses in Kristobal are not served their share of comeuppance. One of them dies, but she does so along with her true love; another mourns the loss of her loving though aging husband, but she had earlier partaken of both the hero and his mortal enemy (separately, of course) precisely as a result of her marital dissatisfaction. The hero finds no rest from either gangsters or voluptuous voluptuaries: his provincial girlfriend abandons him only after making sure that his interest in her doesn’t match hers in him while his city-slum steady, whose tomboyish ways he had successfully suppressed, is happy enough to stand by him even during lovemaking.

This kind of dismissal of moral adventurism would normally have met with a strong measure of denunciation, if not actual censorship. Kristobal, however, manages to justify its cavalier treatment of sexual issues by situating its male characters in life-and-death complications that reduce sexual experience to the status of a much-needed diversion. Only once, when the hero’s long-lost kid brother taunts the antagonist by disclosing how he’d laid the latter’s girlfriend, does the sexual underpinning become part of the main concern; even then the act serves as nothing more than an insult, quickly exceeded by the hero’s discovery of his brother’s identity and consequent assumption of the role of sibling guardian-protector. What all of this points to is the possibility of more sophisticated discussions of sex and morality in local cinema – which is not the same as advocating a return to the dated Freudian or Marxist treatments our past achievements in the genre used to appropriate. Take out all the action ingredients in Kristobal and you’d have the premises of a European art film or naturalist novel, not to mention an American porn comedy. That in itself already says a lot about the Filipino’s threshold for new and cleverly packaged statements on life – and love.

[First published September 26, 1990, in National Midweek]

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5. Men and Myths

Bala at Rosaryo
Directed by Pepe Marcos
Written by Olivia M. Lamasan and Humilde Meek Roxas

The danger in becoming aware of the ancient conflict between so-called high art and mass culture is the acquisition of the convenient misimpression that both sides are essentially irreconcilable. Nowhere in modern times has this dialectic been more successfully demonstrated than in cinema, and the Philippines is no exception: on the one hand we have the world-renowned (a past Guinness edition, to be specific) movie-going habit of our people, and on the other lies what must be another world record, given our context of film output, viewership, and Third World status – an excess of movie award-giving bodies. What this has resulted in is a positioning of a handful of “prestige” practitioners, favored for some reason or other (and not always fairly, it must be stressed) by one or more award groups, vis-à-vis, well, The Rest. The first always strive to put in some well-meaning elements in their output, while the rest remain content with the politics of survival.

A whole lot more improvement – and by this I refer to criteria of both art and commerce – would be realized if both sides dispense with this deplorable dichotomy. Our film-as-art practitioners were forced to explore local popular preference by the breakdown of official cultural pretensions wrought by the 1986 revolution; the larger challenge remains of convincing the much-maligned “commercialist” majority that quality can be both fun and profitable. A recent random release illustrates this point. Bala at Rosaryo is done by the same producer-director team that gave us the most significant lesson in the mergence of imaginativeness and mass appeal in action films after EDSA, the unfortunately underrated Tubusin Mo ng Dugo. Pepe Marcos et al.’s strong suit still surfaces occasionally in their recent effort, but the entire enterprise bogs down from the combined weight of defective structuring (the material was komiks-derived) and conventional moralizing – nothing that a good rewrite couldn’t have remedied.

Actually Bala at Rosaryo comes close to literate entertainment precisely when it veers too close to its danger points – i.e., when the plot detours into its gangster-and-virgin subconcern and the protagonists pretend that their respective positions of righteousness and mercy matter above everything else; the mass audience, who of course see through the charade, are titillated by its interplay with our folk-Catholic wisdom, which means they know that both parties are merely undergoing a courtship ritual whose sexual climax will offset the initially dominant religious stance. These “encounters” between the avenging hero and the pretty novice who falls for him are, well, blessed with a dramatic tension heightened rather than diminished by the use of satirical humor, particularly when the hero mistakes the hell-driving sister for his blood-feud enemy and, later, dreams of sexually conquering her under the usual tacky circumstances (he takes a bath under a waterfall and discovers her there), only to be awakened by the very object of his lust.

Meantime the peasant-class hero also has to contend with a too-circumstantial involvement with a landed family’s internal conflict. The fact that he’s used by the villain as scapegoat for a fratricidal crime doesn’t hold up too well; of course he’s paroled as reward for good behavior, and look Sis, it doesn’t ever occur to him to blackmail his tormentor once the facts clear up. Eddie Garcia bears his mark of Cain with gleeful malice; he’s finally been given full rein to go to town with his trademark hamminess and the result is one of those rare instances where the performance gets better as it gets worse. How can a pair of stuffy symbols surmount such infernal inspiration? Bala at Rosaryo attempts an answer by showing us the sound and fury of Good Overpowering Evil in the End. It’s strictly a technical answer, though, and I’m sure most viewers would prefer a full-scale resurrection of the Eddie Garcia character to a sequel of the now-sanctified union of the purged-to-pureness couple. Or maybe if we restore to them their original-sin sense of guilt, and this time exploit their fall from grace for all the laughs that modern existence could wring from it, I’m sure Garcia would make a terrific serpent.

[First published June 6, 1990, in National Midweek]

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6. Ma(so?)chismo

Barumbado
Directed by Willy Milan
Written by Humilde Meek Roxas

Kasalanan ang Buhayin Ka
Directed by Francisco “Jun” Posadas
Written by Humilde Meek Roxas

The return of the Filipino action movie betokens a turbulence beneath the seemingly workaday surface of post-Marcos society. Those who’d counter that action films had never ceased being a local moviehouse staple since the 1986 revolution better take a closer look: our real-life “biographical” pictures could more properly be classified as a sub-genre of melodrama, owing to the requisite attitude of fearing the living or revering the dead – and thus paying tribute in the end to the subjects’ self-proclaimed or perceived virtues in contrast with their enemies’ moral shortcomings. Unlike the period biofilms of the 1970s, these self-serving titles were closer in spirit to the Marcos propaganda features of an earlier decade; I guess historical distance must have been its crucial element here, wherein the filmmaker collaborates rather than creates, and more often than not allows someone who cares more about himself than about good cinema to take over what would in the end be a filmic product.

The first inkling I had that our action movie-makers were on to something new was when a 1988 release, Tubusin Mo ng Dugo, combined the usual elements of suspense and bloodletting with a cynicism so intense it was funny. The fact that it never got noticed by any of the year’s award-giving bodies could in fact serve as proof of its headway-making contributions vis-à-vis our evaluators’ inert insistence on pre-revolutionary criteria of excellence. Then a veteran action-movie scriptwriter, Humilde Meek Roxas, made a couple of titles last year that, though inferior to Tubusin, met with better reception: Ang Pumatay Nang Dahil sa Iyo and Joe Pring. This year he has upped his winning streak with two more appreciable consecutive releases, Barumbado and Kasalanan ang Buhayin Ka.

Between the two, Barumbado appears to have the surer potential: unlike Kasalanan, it isn’t komiks-derived and misogynist. Surprisingly, however, it’s Barumbado that leaves a whole lot more questions unanswered, which perhaps make a case for the subordinateness of fashionable assertions to basic issues of form and sensibility. Barumbado isn’t responsibly feminist, to begin with, but it attempts a treatment midway between the old traditional pro-male approach and the newly traditional pro-female slant. The situation dwells on the Oedipal relationship between an attractive man-hungry mother and her sexy young son, who blames his propensity for rowdyism (not to mention the seduction and kidnapping of a young coed) on her public conduct.

Most stages in the development of the mother-and-son story are provocative at lease and moving at most; in fact, an attempted bravura staging of the son breaking down in public while haranguing his mother turns out underdeveloped rather than unnecessary, mainly because of the lead actor’s excessive mannerisms and the utilization of a more capable Pinky de Leon (who plays the mother) as a mere reactor. What gets overdeveloped instead is the hero’s inevitable enchantment with the evils of gangsterism, which conveniently exploits his walk-out on his mother as pretext. This of course is entirely in keeping with the dictates of machismo in action films, wherein professional conflicts are expected to carry more weight than psychological complications. A love angle, in which the hero beds the daughter of his mother’s policeman-lover, comes to a climax without mother and son being drawn together by the psychosexual implications: the policeman’s retaliation, in fact, gets wiped out (in terms of screen time and explosion effects) by a showdown between the hero and the gangsters he has turned against.

Kasalanan provides a more straightforward account of a man confronted with a more personalized form of social menace. We are asked to accept two abuses of license – that the hero is gifted with an unusually acute sense of hearing, and that the good Samaritan who accidentally saves and assists him used to be the common-law wife his mortal enemy. The first implausibility works out in a satisfactory way primarily due to an intelligent and persuasive delivery by Cesar Montano, who in fact helps carry the story over a few other loopholes through the serendipity of his talent. One could in fact go on discoursing on the invaluable merit of personal matureness and formal histrionic training, and only as an afterthought remember that Kasalanan got by at the expense of its female characters: either they’re too weak (Ms. Good Samaritan conceals her past from the hero and her son; the hero’s fiancée becomes his enemy’s kept woman; the enemy’s original moll waxes insane from jealousy) or, far worse, too strong (the enemy belongs to a brood of male gangsters controlled by a brown Bloody Mama).

In terms of feminist readings the choice then is between an acknowledgment of, or at least a concession to, women’s issues in a less-than-satisfactory product on the one hand, and a roughshod dismissal in a highly entertaining diversion on the other. At the risk of sounding safe or even insensitive to urgent questions, I’d like to think that enough room exists for both types: just as content needs to be overhauled, quality has to be improved – and more often than not, one or the other could be the sole accomplishment of the moment. The fact that both titles made a killing – at the box-office, specifically – points to the gladsome receptiveness of the mass audience toward simple virtues of filmic treatment and execution, even with one exclusive of the other. Even better is the prospect of a future project which combines responsible female characterizations with expert and entertaining storytelling; remember, the common factor in Barumbado and Kasalanan happens to be the person in command of both functions. It could only be a matter of patience, fortune, and manful inspiration.

[First published May 23, 1990, in National Midweek]

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7. I.O.U.

Kahit Singko Hindi Ko Babayaran ang Buhay Mo
Directed by Jesus Jose
Written by Joji Vitug

Lito Lapid during his heyday was somehow worth watching if only for the promise of a well-made action epic. The subject himself had something to do with the semi-serious attention: among successful local action stars, he alone was (and still is) readily identifiable as Pinoy in the traditional brown-skinned, not-too-tall, well-stocked model. The closest a Lapid movie ever came to fulfillment was Celso Ad. Castillo’s Pedro Tunasan, although a handful of smaller works, notably Mario O’Hara’s Kastilyong Buhangin, were more systematic in maximizing his competence as actor. Given a two-decade-long career that was mostly characterized by his absence from the moviemaking scene, he must have decided to go the way of Fernando Poe Jr. by taking matters into his own hands and directing a project starring himself.

The risk seems to have paid off so far in the literal monetary sense in Kahit Singko Hindi Ko Babayaran ang Buhay Mo, much better at least than in Pedro Tunasan, wherein Lapid was producer. The influences of Castillo and Poe (who was directed by and has also considerably drawn from the former) are very much in evidence, particularly in the build-ups toward scenes of violence and the staging of agitated masses of people moving across massively picturesque landscapes. Where Castillo retains at upper hand over his actor-successors is in his appropriation of Gerardo de Leon’s diagonal deep-focus compositions, which in turn were adapted from international trend-setters long before most of us were born. Kahit Singko is the usual morality play that lends credence to the generally unsatisfactory thesis that our action films are ascribable to the komedya tradition. The characters are rounded out as far as one-dimensional premises would allow them to, and interact according to rules of conflict that pit goodness against evil; one or the other triumphs in the end (this time it’s goodness), but in Kahit Singko I somehow came to realize why such a profoundly dissatisfying simplification of dramatic issues is more deeply rooted in this genre than in any other.

Provide the characters with the requisite reasonable motivations, and you negate the necessity of looking for other solutions to resolve their conflicts. Meaning to say, once the situation becomes dramatically valid, then all you’d ever really need is a dramatic resolution – and if you append the climactic apocalypse that action aficionados always expect, your movie would have ended way before the last frame. If on the other hand you deprive the audience of real dramatization, you could hook them until the finish with increasing doses of violence and give them a semblance of having closed the issues through the sheer relief of eliminating the cause of any further shootouts. There’s one easy way of ensuring that the formula always seem new, and this is what has contributed to the perpetuity of the genre: the constant updating of issues. In Kahit Singko, two related thrusts enable the film to make a bid for historical, or at least journalistic, significance: the use of an elected government official as villain, and the portrayal of a law officer as torn between loyalty to political authority (his professional superiors) and principle (his family). A provocative contrast is set up between the hero and his best friend, also a policeman, who succumbs to an overwhelming barrage of invitations to petty corruption.

The movie doesn’t pursue its concerns to their logical extremes, which is why I couldn’t be enthusiastic enough given its critical slant. The weak-willed police partner gets killed off almost as soon as he agrees to play dirty, his fate foreshadowed by what has happened to an even more notorious colleague within the same precinct. Our hero’s moral dilemma actually arrives at a pinnacle at this point, but he’s pushed back to the comfortable side of righteousness by the bad guy’s psychotic actuation in having the rest of the policeman’s family massacred during a wake already caused by his goons. The Lapid character does a Dirty Harry – surrendering his badge prior to going on a rampage – without a realization of the underlying appeal of the Clint Eastwood creation. Dirty Harry succeeds precisely because he’s true to his name: the liberal-humanist “system” of justice has taught him, a subversive from within, to resort to brutal and illegal methods in dealing with crime. Kahit Singko’s avenger turns out to be too much of an angel to be distinguishable from the rest of the canon, beyond the fact that he looks like Lito Lapid.

Along the way we get treated to the simpler pleasures of listening to a small-person’s debate on human rights and to all the characters addressing the central object of hatred as “Congressman.” In the moviehouse where I saw the film, a trailer from a rival production outfit showed another villain whom everyone called “Mayor” and whose wife looked and behaved like Imelda Marcos. The forthcoming title was by Lino Brocka, and I could swear that the unusually quiet attention being paid to it by the filled-to-the-rafters lower-class audience who filled the theater meant that they were busy making serious connections, as we all ought to be doing, between one movie experience and another yet to come.

[First published June 6, 1990, in National Midweek]

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8. Mudslung

Ibabaon Kita sa Lupa
Directed by Toto Natividad
Written by Joji Vitug

Ayaw Matulog ng Gabi
Directed and written by Carlo J. Caparas

It’s not as if the practice had never been done before. Fact is, the occasional politically controversial movie during the Marcos martial-rule era would make direct or indirect reference to then-reigning officials, acquiring in the process the generous admiration of serious observers for the sheer audacity of doing so. Either our observers have been too overwhelmed by the relatively expansive democratic space still available at present, or our officials have somehow managed to increase their threshold of tolerance for criticism. However you look at it, politician-bashing in Philippine cinema never had it so good. I first caught wind of the phenomenon after the nth consecutive hit of Lito Lapid since his latest comeback – a feat in itself even when viewed against the actor’s track record, incidentally. Since I somewhat smugly expected another rapid-Lapid flash in the pan, I felt obliged to check out what was making him blaze a lot longer than usual.

Kahit Singko Hindi Ko Babayaran ang Buhay Mo demonstrated everything I expected – simplified moral choices, arcane lines of dialog, and a whole lot of safer stunts, if that were possible, from a heavier-set though still natural performer. The crucial difference actually lay outside Lapid himself, in the manner by which the villain was addressed: “Congressman,” and this in a contemporary setting. Then came the Congress-aspiring mayor and his Lady Macbeth of Gumapang Ka sa Lusak, which was different, I thought, because of the Lino Brocka credit, although even Orapronobis didn’t have anything this frontal. The latest Lapid title, Ibabaon Kita sa Lupa, made me regret my earlier affectation, since at the moment only a true-blue Lito Lapid fan can outdo this critic in confirming whether the actor’s political mudslinging was a conscious strategy from the very beginning of his latest comeback.

Ibabaon is a somewhat less inspired job than Kahit Singko, which also says something about Lapid’s creative capabilities (he directed the latter). Something’s too technical about the more recent release, with most of the movie’s impact derived from tightly paced sequences and showy prosthetics. Ibabaon’s potential, however, is richer in the sense that attempts are made to depict the going-on in the boardrooms of municipal councils and, more important, to involve the lead character on a personal level with the villain, also a mayor this time. This is facilitated by making the mayor’s son the hero’s childhood chum, and promptly compromised by a loud silent-era delivery by the performer in question. Worse, the hero himself stays passive too long after his refusal to participate in his employer the mayor’s deadly shenanigans. Nevertheless, the fact that Lapid scored financially one more with Ibabaon might yet give him the distinction of being the first local action star to sustain a career at the expense of political officials.

Not that anyone else would mind. Rudy Fernandez, for example, pits against himself, in his latest film, Ayaw Matulog ng Gabi, no less than a provincial governor. To perhaps put one over the Lapid series, the villain is treated the same way that of Gumapang Ka was. That is, just as the latter’s conjugal rulers were given enough distinguishing characteristics to identify them as similar to our twenty-year-long First Couple, so was Ayaw Matulog’s main bad guy obviously based on someone who made the tabloids for some time in the recent past: in the papers, as in the movie, he took on a pretty mistress, beat her up during fits of derangement, accused his men of having affairs with her, and cursed in Ilocano. The real-life mistress, a one-time movie actress (as if our ontologies weren’t confusing enough), had a happier ending: true to her escapist origins and duties, she simply upped and ran, or rather flew, away, and to the United States at that; and if she’s now in Hollywood, I’ll refuse to be surprised. The Ayaw Matulog heroine parallels the larger disappointment of the movie as a whole. She pines away all throughout the story for a lover from whom she was snatched away on their wedding day, and all the governor’s men couldn’t get them apart in the end.

Ayaw Matulog proves the antediluvian principle that something, in this case some people, can be too good to be true. Both the leads are intercepted in their quite pathological obsession to consummate their romance by two different characters, both male. His turns out to be a golden-hearted toughie, while hers, as already described, is a soft-hearted bully whom only a previously battered woman could understand and accept; since our moon-crossed lovers insist on their one last lay even at the expense of overriding the more psychologically interesting situations provided by their respective co-actors, they probably deserve their fatal reunion, though Goddess knows we could have been spared their later-than-last encounter in the afterlife. Still, whatever else one may venture to add by way of criticism, Ayaw Matulog, like Ibabaon and all the other politician roasts I’ve sampled thus far, were fragrant enough to meet with the strong patronage of the mass audience, so a few more insights in this direction might prove valuable. For all we know, the next election superstar may yet be the candidate who took the trouble to inspect, if not relish, a series of seemingly escapist fare.

[First published September 19, 1990, in National Midweek]

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9. Movable Fists

Walang Awa Kung Pumatay
Directed by Junn P. Cabrera
Written by Jun Lawas and Enrique Mariano

Iisa-Isahin Ko Kayo
Directed by Francis “Jun” Posadas
Written by Erwin T. Lanad

Apoy sa Lupang Hinirang
Directed by Mauro Gia. Samonte
Written by Joe Carreon and Mauro Gia. Samonte

Action films are back with a vengeance. Actually, Filipino action films, wherever they happen to be around, are almost always with vengeance – as a central theme, that is. It wasn’t of course always thus. What I remember of old action films was their emphasis on the instability of their violent characters’ psychological constitution, the premise dwelling on the officiated view that normal people commit no harm. Once in a while an action film would dare to be different by presenting a normal person misunderstood by the establishment (Robin Hood must have been the prototype in this instance), but this only served to reverse the preceding attitude rather that challenge it. I guess the contemporary Pinoy action film can be traced to the first item that acknowledged that a character can (and should) change in the course of his development, even if necessary to the extreme of the opposite of his original self. It may be difficult, perhaps impossible, to pinpoint a singular source, although by the end of the ’70s what was once daring and occasionally subversive (remember Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag?) became commonplace enough to become a staple ingredient in the action-film formula.

What we’re witnessing at the moment is the local consequence of what obtains once a once-suppressed tendency becomes, to use the appropriate poststructuralist terminology, dominant: said idea, in observance of the inevitable dialectical mode of progression, demands to be successfully challenged in its turn, just as it had once successfully challenged the very idea it had supplanted. In concrete terms, this can be observed in how the vengeance pattern, which had taken the place of the psychotic-gangster approach, is now undergoing permutations and qualifications with each action-film output, rather than its formerly straightforward application. With three recent action releases, just as many distinct reformulations of the vengeance principle are presented us. Walang Awa Kung Pumatay provides the easiest innovation – a technical one, which I doubt was deliberately worked out right from the start. The project’s premises seem to be safely dismissible: a fair-to-middling story, inadequate budget (resulting in below-average production values), and mannered delivery from its lead performer, Robin Padilla.

But instead of devoting attention to improving its most reliable and inexpensive element, the filmscript, Walang Awa opted to fall back on expert editorial execution, and in this manner managed to somehow salvage its one other weakness. In the year or so since his emergence, Padilla quickly learned the ham-acting local action stars use to enhance the excessive stylization required by the genre. In his case, however, Padilla built on his cutesy-boyish features, which in overextended takes (as what happened in his previous film, Barumbado), gives rise to an obnoxious projection – Sean Penn, as it were, trying to impress the critics. In Walang Awa, Padilla’s mannerisms, like the film’s defective production values, are cut right before they cross the line separating bravura from brazenness. What ensues is a lead performance charming in spite of itself (and the film as well), capable of carrying the uncritical appreciator over abundant moral, sexual, and geographic blunders, and making the requisite shootouts seem like impressive set-pieces by their contrast with the foregoing deficiencies and their deployment of Padilla’s lissome maneuvers.

Iisa-Isahin Ko Kayo has a heavier-set lead actor traversing the same Lethean course as Walang Awa. In fact, Iisa-Isahin lead Ronnie Ricketts suffers the burden of being too handsome in the conventional macho tradition, replete with broad features that don’t seem disposed toward nuances; his role in the film has been tailor-made for his capabilities – a whole lot of hell-raising, instead of strategizing, constitute the responses to what essentially are workable conflicts. It is in this instance, however, that the film manages to extenuate its efforts. Both Walang Awa and Iisa-Isahin need to have done better by their respective materials, although in a sense the same statement holds true for local action films in general: add a perceptible amount of beyond-competence complexity to an action-film framework and you’ll have something like a Peque Gallaga epic, which wouldn’t be classifiable anymore under the same genre, as defined by current standards.

The difference between Walang Awa and Iisa-Isahin is that the latter’s creators didn’t wait until their footage had been accumulated before figuring out their project’s salience. Iisa-Isahin appropriates, on a smaller scale, the strategy used by Wilfredo Milan in Anak ng Cabron some years back: I must say that the attempt works better this time around, since the film starts with a relatively realistic tone and builds up toward a totally anarchic climax, with some semiotic insights – notably one involving the Supreme Court building’s symbol of Blind Justice – neatly worked in. Yet the requisite of proper dramatic treatment eventually does Iisa-Isahin in: the good-guy police lead’s brutality is justified by his excessive enthusiasm for the implementation of law and order; the bad cop’s moll, whom he abducts, admires him for not responding to her sexiness, eventually deciding to save him at the expense of her life; and just to make sure that we all get on the right side, a couple of street kids are thrown in to save the hero and comfort his hostage and get killed by the goonies. We all know that some cops and tarts and street urchins can’t be as bad as they may seem to be in real life, but can they ever really be so wholesome as to individually profess wonderment at all the evil around them?

The last title, Apoy sa Lupang Hinirang, is the most interesting among the three, primarily because its makers did their homework where it mattered – at the conceptual level – and effectively exploited a once-sacrosanct ideological framework in the process. Students of Philippine political history will readily recognize the consistent and expert observation of the orthodox Marxist analysis of local class relations here, though only the most fanatically committed will fail to make out the glaring cynicism with which it was appropriated. Apoy also manages to get by with an entirely inexpedient set of actors by making them perform what their too-pretty features seem useful for: kissing and coupling, with the political interventions serving as obstacles to the literally sexual climax, which is quite demurely suggested in the end. I cannot help but approach the film with the ambivalence of cold comfort, since its source is anything but aesthetic. On the one had I’d survived those days when the merest acknowledgement of Apoy’s political framework could physically endanger its advocate, so my nostalgic response originates from witnessing formerly forbidden but still-familiar material being presented not just in a creative manner, but in a popular medium as well. On the other hand, its insufficiency in redeeming the work in question, which may not necessarily negate its adequacy in real-life practice, assures me, as it should assure those who worry about the current decline of culture as a political priority, that there still exist problems that politics alone won’t solve.

[First published November 28, 1990, in National Midweek]

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10. Class Clamorers

Too Young
Directed by Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes
Written by Don Escudero, Peque Gallaga, and Lore Reyes

Shake, Rattle & Roll II
Directed by Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes
Written by Don Escudero, Peque Gallaga, Lore Reyes, and Dwight Gaston

Biktima
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Butch Dalisay

Ama…Bakit Mo Ako Pinabayaan?
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Pablo Baltazar

On the basis of their output, Lino Brocka and Peque Gallaga (with his co-director Lore Reyes) have been our major filmmakers since the February 1986 revolution up to this point the turn of the ’90s in local filmic history. Both came up in 1989 with the first major works of the post-Marcos era, Brocka with Macho Dancer and the Gallaga-Reyes team with Isang Araw Walang Diyos. More interestingly, both also happen to occupy opposing positions on the political spectrum, Brocka somewhere on the left and Gallaga-Reyes closer to the center or, relative to Brocka, on the right. That these two parties have survived the highly commercialized imperatives of the present movie-making system points to two possible – and again opposing – conclusions: either they’ve sold out or they’ve found the right recipe with which to serve up what are essentially unpalatable preparations of political panaceas. Whichever conclusion seems more valid may be a function of your personal preferences; but presuming (like I do for myself) that it’s safer in such uncertain times as these to defer such espousals, then your view of our current major practitioners may now depend on which of their products you happen to have most recently seen.

Again, as if these coincidences weren’t enough, both filmmaking sides managed to release two films each within a time span of about a month; and to complete the similarities of their polarities, the first releases were dismal flops while the next ones, both Metro Manila Film Festival entries, were the Christmas season’s top-grossers. There was also some karmic balance observable, although I honestly wouldn’t know what to make of this kind of insight: financially, the earlier Gallaga-Reyes film fared worse than that of Brocka, while on the other hand the latter’s MMFF entry trailed the former’s. More important, for the purposes of critical analysis, are the lessons that may be drawn from the films themselves. The Brocka and Gallaga-Reyes flops were politically pointed, while their MMFF hits were subdued; in fact, the least political film of the four, Gallaga and Reyes’ Shake, Rattle & Roll II, happened to be the highest-grossing, while the same team’s Too Young, which is arguably the most politically involved, performed least satisfactorily box-office-wise.

I ought to clarify this early, however, that Too Young and Brocka’s Biktima are far from being accomplished pieces, even as political tracts. Too Young’s centrist (circa some years back and therefore now relatively reactionary) perspective is employed merely to catalyze some quite impressive suspense sequences, while Biktima begins with a suspenseful premise – a psychotic sex-killer on the loose – only to commander itself into dismally simplistic routes of proto-feminist agitation. Even at this stage the filmmakers’ strengths shine through their works’ weaknesses. In Too Young, Gallaga and Reyes outclass the current competition, excepting perhaps Chito Roño, in their depiction of the sport and glamour inherent in suspense. The film takes Isang Araw’s patronage of Coryist concerns into an urban context, but suffers from the reduction in the number of major players. This may be less the filmmakers’ fault than the producer’s, Too Young obviously having been originally intended as coming-of-age film for its young lead actress.

On the other hand, the contrivance of maneuvering the charmed-living lead character into a lower-class milieu, where she meets her first-kisser and protector-to-be, well, smacks of contemporary political naïveté. All of a sudden the movie abandons its intrigue-laden expository complication along with its affluent locale, and turns into a slum-set Pollyanna fantasy made credible (though still not validated) by expertly seriocomic ensemble deliveries. The return to big-business issues in a literal corporate setting then becomes much too obligatory, given the already-established premises, and predictable, what with our heroine supposedly morally uplifted by her conciliation with society’s noble savages, one of whom even escorts her to face her murderous antagonists. The problem lies not so much in this well-worn (and dangerously vainglorious) aggrandizement of the lower over the upper classes on the basis of romanticized notions of proletarian communalism vis-à-vis top-level selfishness. Too Young suffers from the knowable disparity between its depiction of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (and the administration it represents) as a bastion of ethical propriety, and the evidence of its checkered half-decade existence. Again, it’s history in this case that betrays Gallaga and Reyes: the project was begun during a time when it was too early to draw such qualified conclusions and released only now, when everyone knows still not everything, but better than nothing.

Biktima is, all right, victimized by an excessive cocksureness of approach that apparently deemed intellectual detachment, not to mention casual humor, dispensable. The fault may be as much the performer’s, though: it is hard to sympathize with someone who just cannot connect with her co-actors, especially when the co-actors are made to embody urgent social issues. The isolation of Sharon Cuneta’s persona from the dynamics of the narrative is literalized by her stand-offish garb, and is even more painfully pointed up by the public-breakdown scene of Gina Alajar, who shows how wonderfully she can relate with what is actually a mere montage of reactions while delivering a monologue that requires her to mercilessly cut herself open before an audience of strangers. Brocka exhibits more creative control in Ama…Bakit Mo Ako Pinabayaan? (he is credited as writer in the movie’s print-publicity materials). Here the strategy is to allow the younger set of characters to indulge in sexual (and thereby less harmful) tugs-of-war while leaving class-based clashes to their respective sets of parents. Ama attains moments of poignancy in this manner, despite its komiks origin, as it continually takes care to provide the oldies with at least a minimum of motivations and self-clarifications.

The material of Ama contains the rarely realized potential of socializing domestic conflicts, the filmmaker having triumphed in this kind of challenge before, particularly with Miguelito: Ang Batang Rebelde. What a pity then to have the current release falter with the convenient coincidence of having the long-lost stepsister seduce – unwittingly, love being literally blind in this instance – the wealthy daughter’s boyfriend. And what a waste to have to return to such a silly circumstance, after drawing the class lines admirably taut, just to supply the requisite happy ending; symbolic of the cop-out is the decision to have the blind daughter see with her adoptive father’s eyes – at the cost of killing off the elder character. The latter is delineated by Robert Arevalo with a pathos rare even for a Brocka movie (the only other example I can recall offhand is Tony Santos in Hot Property). The other 30-something-plus performers – Anita Linda, Ricky Belmonte, Suzanne Gonzales – are restrained just as deplorably, though not as violently, from realizing their fullest potentials, to favor the younger stars’ goo-goo coquetries.

As proof that I’m not being over-belligerent, there’s only one case where the four encounter one another, occasioned by the Arevalo character having killed the upper-class stepbrother and thereby being visited in jail by his own and his victim’s families. The exchange of invectives and recriminations is at once both high melodrama and social-realist statement, powerful enough to negate some of the children’s hysterics, and totally worthy of the Brocka credit. If Ama were divided into self-contained episodes, as Shake, Rattle & Roll II had been, then the aforementioned sequence would be the best short entry of the lot. As they stand (or screen), however, you can take your pick between the occasionally substantial but ultimately spurious values of Ama, or the entirely dismissible yet highly entertaining presentations of Shake, Rattle & Roll II. The Gallaga-Reyes bonbonnière observes the pattern of the original Shake, Rattle & Roll (where Gallaga directed only one episode, the Rosauro de la Cruz-written “Manananggal”) of providing a love story followed by a comedy and closing with an all-out horror piece.

As in the case of the original, it’s “Multo,” the love story, that succeeds the least; the depiction of sex onscreen has been liberalized enough since the ’60s to carry the topic over into franker generic discourses, and so “Multo” has typically fallen back on a special-effects-enhanced blood-and-guts approach less horrific than repulsive in consequence. “Kulam,” the comic piece, draws a lot from the chemistry between its leads, Daisy Romualdez and Joey Marquez, and simulates the fake-but-fun terror of a fairground ride; there’s an indulgent bit of movie-movie cross-reference, consisting of inserts from an earlier Gallaga-Reyes film, Tiyanak, that only serves to remind us what we could have expected had we opted not to box the filmmakers in the short format. “Aswang” is a considerable improvement over “Manananggal” technique-wise, but again, as in “Kulam,” the likehood of advancing onto significant long-term implications is short-circuited for the sake of providing shock, schlock, and (true to the Yuletide spirit) fireworks. One measure of the Gallaga-Reyes expertise is the fact that no other filmmaker at the moment can cause an audience to scream on the basis of protracted static compositions or reaction shots, as exemplified in the highlights of both “Aswang” and Too Young. Too bad the opportunity to parlay such skills on truly worthwhile projects seems contingent on whether the artists can first assure their patrons of financial returns. Much like getting caught between the devilry of moguls on the one hand, and the deep brown sea of movie-going masses on the other.

[First published February 13, 1991, in National Midweek]

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11. Sedulously Cebuano

Eh…Kasi…Bisaya!
Directed by Junn P. Cabreira
Written by Cabreira & Associates

There are less divisive forms that regionalist fervor could take other than a staunch refusal to use Filipino. The obvious logical recourse is to use whatever language happens to be appropriate – and in narrative discourse that’s set in most of the Visayas and Mindanao, this would usually entail Cebuano. There’s a type of narrative presentation that used to thrive in the region (and occasionally beyond) that also happens to have an industrial base perfect for the drive toward economic expansion in the South. We’re talking about Cebuano-language cinema, of course, which historically has been the only viable local alternative to Manila-based film production. The difference thus far has been strictly geographic and linguistic, but that doesn’t mean that more preferable differences couldn’t be worked out, or that more appealing similarities couldn’t be enhanced.

The latest Cebuano production, Eh…Kasi…Bisaya!, may be forgiven on a number of counts, all premised on the reality that the last Visayan film was released about eight years ago – too far back for anyone to even imagine the possibility that the region was doing its own films as early as the 1930s, reigning supreme over Manila and even foreign films whenever and wherever they happened to compete. Several major Filipino film talents, mostly in the field of acting, were recruited from Cebuano cinema, and a whole lot of innovations in terms of production and promotions has been tried and tested in the region. Somewhat more qualifiable are the titles themselves, the more reputable ones including the late Natalio Bacalso’s Salingsing sa Kasakit, Emmanuel H. Borlaza’s Anino sa Villa Lagrimas, Amado Cortez’s Gimingaw Ako…, and Leroy Salvador’s Badlis sa Kinabuhi. The cause of dissatisfaction can be traced to the fact that the Cebuano market, although highly dependable, is not as large (and therefore not as profitable) as that for Tagalog films.

Hence, it’s the cost-cutters who’ve attracted more attention: the past two decades, for example, saw the likes of Borlaza’s The Batul of Mactan, which revived regional production through its combination of a faded Manila star, Eddie Peregrina, and a rising one, Chanda Romero; Joe Macachor’s Ang Manok ni San Pedro, which was shot in super-8mm. and blown up, grains and all, to 35mm., thus inexpensively providing the region with its first color film; and Borlaza’s Rosaryohan sa Kasakit, the last Cebuano film previous to the current one, which enabled its producers to invest handsomely afterward in Manila-based production with Shake, Rattle & Roll, then lose disreputably with a less-than-adequate skin flick.

With Bisaya! a form of incentive long denied the Manila-based industry has supposedly been extended: the film was reportedly exempted from paying taxes. If this is true (or legally possible), then we ought to see more financiers following the example of the Bisaya! producers, plus perhaps an Iloko-language film or two, what with northern regional production boasting of a grand total of two titles on record (Karayo in 1941 and Soldado in 1978, as per a report by film historian Teddy Co).[1] Cinema should always go beyond reviviscence whenever possible, and one can only hope that Cebuano cinema could eventually serve to demonstrate its people’s claims to self-sufficiency. Any incentive granted to Bisaya! may be made to apply to future Cebuano productions, this time with emphasis on qualitative achievements. Even better, a Cebuano-language film retrospective can and should be organized, prior perhaps to the holding of a Cebuano-language film festival consisting of all-new entries.

Manila-based practitioners may find reasons to work in the South, and these should not necessarily be always monetary in nature. Cebuano officials might find that the idea of offering greater creative freedom could prove to be the crucial turning point in upgrading the stature of Cebuano-language cinema from a mere adjunct of Manila’s to a valid global capital in itself.[2] Some future producer might want to retain the regional language in a Manila release, providing translations through subtitles (the Cebuano-language prints of Bisaya! had to be pulled out of Manila theaters after non-Cebuano-speaking audiences complained that they couldn’t understand the dialogue). Other just-as-urgent measures would be the provision of formal film education and training in Visayan schools as well as the completion of a comprehensive filmography of Cebuano-language films drawn, since not all such films were released in Metro Manila, from regional sources instead. The possibilities for growth are numerous, and we haven’t even begun to consider what themes and materials can be put to good use, given such a conscious and feasible alternative to Manila centralism. Bisaya! itself hints, daintily as it were, at the intrusions of both Manileños and Manilanized Visayans in the lives of ordinary Southern folk, and it isn’t even half-serious to begin with…or is it? In any case, we could hardly go wrong with expanding our boundaries of national film practice, tinood lagi, and there are entire islands of speakers, a linguistic nation practically, waiting to hear and see themselves onscreen once more.

[First published November 28, 1990, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] Co, Teddy. “In Search of Philippine Regional Cinema.” Movement: Towards a New Visual Literacy 2.1 (1987): 17-20.

[2] Circa the present (2014), the emergence of the more accessible digital format resulted in a number of significant regional-language film texts. Strangely, however, these works originated as proposals selected and funded by Manila-based film festivals. With the recent introduction of the country’s second full-blown film program in Cebu, appropriately enough, it may be a matter of time before full-steam regional production can get under way once more.

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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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