The National Pastime – Directors 1: Romero/de Leon

The World According to Aguila

Aguila
Directed and written by Eddie Romero

Daniel Aguila’s world consists of the 7,000-plus islands that make up the Philippines. Here he has led an existence that could provide sufficient material for any major movie. Enter Eddie Romero, film director-writer. Aside from technical expertise, ambiguity has been his most manifest trait. But never has this been more pronounced than in his story of Aguila. Previewed last Jan. 15 at the San Miguel Auditorium, Aguila the movie had its expected share of misgivings – both from its audience, which had its standards graciously low, and from its presenters, who reportedly discouraged subsequent comment. Such skepticism could be traced to the movie’s delicate financial future. At ₱6 million, it is the most expensive production in local movie history. Considering that is has to earn at least thrice that amount to break even, its failure as an economic enterprise is virtually foregone. But however it performs at the box office, Aguila will be in good company. Two other productions, Palawan and the re-edited version of Ang Alamat ni Julian Makabayan, will soon be exhibited but may hardly break even.

What sets Aguila apart from these two others is its quasi-official nature. Intended as the story of the Filipino’s search for himself, it normally would have, in these polarized times, two orientations to choose from: conservatism or radicalism. Eddie Romero, however, steers Aguila clear of any such commitment. His achievement in this regard is the movie’s prime virtue and, paradoxically, its prime fault – depending on one’s own political biases. Aguila is Romero’s fourth movie since his auspicious comeback in 1976. That year, his Gaano Kami Noon… Paano Kayo Ngayon? won the Metro Manila Film Festival and Urian best picture awards, in spite of the fiercest competition ever afforded by any single seventies year. Then came Sino’ng Kapiling? Sino’ng Kasiping? and Banta ng Kahapon, both in 1977. The former was an urbane treatment of marital morals, the latter a commentary on violent election practices.

Romero’s 1977 efforts were better than the average Filipino director’s output, but were overshadowed by the excellence of Ganito Kami Noon. Moreover, some quarters questioned the inconsistency between Ganito Kami Noon and Banta ng Kahapon. For while the former observed radical historian Renato Constantino’s thesis on the evolution of the term “Filipino,” the latter presented the present regime as a favorable resolution of the past – a notion objectively incompatible with its predecessor’s. And yet…and yet there were elements in Ganito Kami Noon which may be seen as reactionary, just as other elements in Banta ng Kahapon may similarly be taken as radical. Recall the former’s contrast between the well-meaning American and the ill-mannered Filipino revolutionary, as well as its uniquely sympathetic depiction of a Chinese national; also the latter’s portrayal of the protagonist’s condition as better off before martial rule and miserable after.

This sense of equivocation is heightened in Aguila. Here the apparent attempt is to state that politics is never a matter of dichotomy, that social contradictions may demonstrate dialectical modes of behavior, but not necessarily according to the expectations dictated by academic idealism. Aguila tells the story of a Filipino, Daniel Aguila, born at about the time of the unfinished revolution against Spain. His mother was raped by a corrupt ilustrado, whom she marries for security after her husband gets killed in an uprising. À la the gospel story, Aguila’s adolescent years are left untold. He is suddenly more or less a man accompanying his stepfather and some American officials to Mindanao. There they divest a Muslim tribe of its property, first through duplicity and then through wholesale massacre. Daniel does not take active part in the undertaking; instead he impregnates an infatuated Muslim lass, who later pursues him to entrust to his care his son by her.

Back home Daniel gets involved in a legal tussle between an anti-American religious sect and his own townspeople. In the process he gets to know a liberal lady lawyer who gets fined and jailed for contempt of court while defending the sect leader. Because he desires to know this lawyer in another sense, he courts her. Some years after they marry, war against the invading Japanese breaks out, and so does Daniel’s wife – that is, with consumption. His eldest legitimate son joins him in the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE), but gets abducted by the Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Hukbalahap), whose leader proposes an alliance with Daniel’s troops to liberate a strategically located town. The allies succeed, but at the loss of, among others, Daniel’s son’s amazon-lover. True to character, the USAFFE takes over and arrests the Hukbalahap soldiers. Later a Filipino commander confirms Daniel’s fear: Filipinos won the war against the Japanese only for the Americans.

Meanwhile Daniel’s half-sister has been having incestuous relations with his stepfather and even broke his illegitimate son’s heart by sleeping with and then spurning the boy. Daniel finds father and daughter alone in their mansion – she figuratively dead of love, he literally dying of it. Now also in the middle age, Daniel settles down by playing around. His mistress begins taking matters seriously and tries to avoid him, but he has become too serious for even himself. So he runs away from it all. His eldest legitimate son takes it upon himself to look for Daniel, thus providing the narrative motivation for the plot. First however he has a taste of pre-martial rule urban unrest, particularly in his experience as an oligarch. He blackmails a seemingly psychotic instigator by threatening to expose her extra-marital activities, but the trauma proves fatal for his son (Daniel’s grandson). Daniel’s son traces the father through Mindanao (encouraging, peacefully, his Muslim half-brother), the Visayas, and finally Luzon again. There he finds Daniel Aguila working among the Aetas, who had nourished and protected him as an orphaned child. Having inscribed this dramatic and geographical circle the movie ends.

Although the plot involves a series of flashbacks from the seventies, it actually runs betters than it reads, largely because of good pacing and effective evocation of time and place. Occassionally heavy-handedness sets in when the film makes didactic attempts at value reorientation. Even then, some of sermonizing is done tongue-in-check. Production design, cinematography, and sound are above par compared with standard industry output, acting is low-key and works well in most cases. About the only glaring technical shortcoming in Aguila is the aging characters’ faulty makeup – which, over-all, the other aspects make up for. Romero’s straightforward style somewhat falters after more than three hours of utility though, notwithstanding the presence of big-time performers. One could even forgive an operatic build-up and a sensational climax for having stayed put that long. Still Romero did not compromise himself on that score. Which brings us back to his orientation: at least one can be thankful for the absence of some of the New Society’s senile symbols and bovine bromides. In the hands of a less capable director – who wouldn’t have been hard to find – Aguila would have been happily doomed.

Instead Romero opts for a measure of sad success by playing his politics both ways. Although the Hukbalahap fought for land, its leaders wound up collaborating with the government. Although the early seventies’ activists failed in emancipating labor, that was because they were dubiously motivated. Although the recent past was relatively peaceful, it was also less prosperous. In choosing to be neither bird nor beast in his approach to Philippine politics, does Romero in Aguila reduce himself to opportunistic flitting between irreconcilable camps? On the basis of his humanistic emphases here and in his earlier films, one may allow him the benefit of the doubt. Like it or not, Aguila is a major Filipino movie, the industry’s first significant output for an uncertain decade. If only for this reason it merits more than mere critical consideration, whether commendatory or condemnatory; healthy public patronage could to a long way toward the encouragement of similarly high-risk ventures in future.

As for Romero, one can at least admire the daring by which he tackles complex political ramifications, infusing the attempts with a serene diplomacy surprising for its rarity hereabouts. Having gotten away decently with such issues of extremities in Aguila, what will he come up with next? More important, will his dualistic approach work for him again?

[First published February 2, 1980, in Who]

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A Decent Fight

Palaban
Directed and written by Eddie Romero

Palaban is no knockout, although it certainly puts up a decent fight. In this movie, director-writer Eddie Romero tackles domestic issues, a concern he seemed to have abandoned after Sino’ng Kapiling? Sino’ng Kasiping? in 1977. Palaban tells the story of a family whose splintered relationships are mended when their affairs get entangled with those of a so-called hospitality girl; in turn the latter, by striving to meet her more affluent counterparts on their level, realizes material, and eventually maternal, success.

Their cause of confluence is a child born out of wedlock to the girl and the family scion; the latter’s sister purchases the child to infuse her brother with a sense of responsibility. Impatient with her own strategy of self-development with which to impress the family, the girl decides upon the drastic solution of kidnapping her son. Apprehended before she could leave town, she discovers that the lawyer who volunteered to defend her in court was the estranged husband of her lover’s sister. The lawyer, in defending his client, presents in the process his case to his wife and manages to effect a reconciliation between them. The movie ends with the girl winning the baby, and the couple each other, with the antagonists befriending each other as a gesture of gratitude for their mutual maturation as social animals.

Such a story calls for a careful and conscious consideration of character – a requisite not fully developed in the movie. When the lawyer maneuvers the courtroom discussion in the direction of his domestic affair, the audience is prepared to sympathize with him only as far as his wisecracking and dropping of double ententes are concerned. In fact the same courtroom scenes, considering the tongue-in-cheek tone of the preceding scenes, render all the succeeding ones anticlimactic. After the lawyer’s self-conscious sermonizing, it somehow seems inappropriate to return to the same surface-level satire the movie had earlier indulged in. Moreover, as in its publicized take-off movie Kramer vs. Kramer, Palaban’s courtroom scenes misrepresent the legal process. For one thing, the child was never called in to testify, and for another, the judge ruled too readily in favor of the natural mother despite the latter’s lawyer’s off-tangent oratories. The most glaring oversight, however, lies in the movie’s ignorance of the legal mother’s best defense: that of questioning the claimant’s attorney – he after all being her estranged husband. It might be asking too much to expect perfect logic from Palaban, just it is demanding too much to expect the same from the law. A real bargain from the movie may best be realized by simply sitting back and enjoying one of our better local film craftspersons at work. This way disappointments can be safely averted, inasmuch as Palaban proffers competent cinematic skills and commendable values which never seek to call undue attention to themselves.

There may be nothing really outstanding about the performances, but then casting never was Romero’s forte. At least Palaban has glamorous actors who manage to whet sensation-hungry moviegoers’ appetites through parallelisms between their screen and real-life existence. Then there are Romero’s peripheral parodies of social slip-ups: the propensity for scandal, the condescending attitude toward recently successful aspirants, the excessive regard for English as an indicator of upward social mobility. Romero has even taken pains to improve his poor command of Filipino – a defect which made Aguila’s high-flying surmises soar perilously close to absurdity. His use of language in Palaban, though sometimes well-nigh without what the situations actually call for, is nevertheless consistently adept, providing an otherwise loose plotline with a semblance of tightness.

In all, Palaban is one of Romero’s better-crafted films since his remarkable comeback four years ago. If since then he has been badly wanting in his treatment of material, with Palaban he has at least proved that the same cannot be said about his stance, even when fighting trim.

[First published June 28, 1980, in Times Journal]

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Romero’s Flip-Flop

Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi
Directed by Eddie Romero (Philippine version),
Hsiao Lang and Chou Lili (Chinese version)
Written by Hsiao Lang and Eddie Romero

As far as local achievements go, Eddie Romero’s career would be comparable to those of a select group of artists for whom nationality has become a secondary issue, having lived as they did relatively meaningful and meaningfully productive lives. A great work or two, a distinct aesthetic progression in one’s game plan, plus an abiding faith in humanity – I suppose most prodigies initially believe they could do better, but from the evidence available to us, the most old guards could hope for would be a little more time on this earth, if only to be able to advance to another stage in their effort. And so the most senior among our active film directors decreed some time ago that he deserved a better reputation (and the treatment that presumably accompanies it) than just a Hollywood “B” listing, regardless of the reverse snobbery involved. He chose to implement this transition in his very own homeland – to the mutual advantage of himself and our heritage, in the form of Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon? Here his heretofore underrated (outside of specific industry contexts) skills as storyteller complemented the reasonably attainable demands of period filmmaking – a balance that was never to be his privilege again.

Aguila and Kamakalawa, which along with Ganito Kami Noon were supposed to constitute a trilogy on the search by the Filipino for her national identity, fell by the weight of either one or the other factors that Romero required to be able to maximize his capabilities. The first had storytelling requirements that were way beyond his admittedly superior but still conventional approaches, while the second could only be created within a setup that afforded the latest in special-effects technology. Nevertheless a trilogy of impressive Romero film-stories still exists – that is, if we replace Aguila with Sa Atin and Daigdig (directed by the late Cesar J. Amigo but produced and written by Romero, as per the film’s credits), and only the unforgiving would preempt a truly accomplished practitioner’s prerogative of demanding more from himself.

Here we go anyway. Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi obviously belongs to Romero’s phase of going respectable, in the specific sense of big-budget, Hollywood-glossy acceptability. And for the first time I should be happy to report that he has managed to attain it. Yet I couldn’t help wishing that Romero, old and wise as he should be, own up to the fact that in striving for something that we may not even need in the first place, he could get shanghai’d along the way, and we along with him. I’m sure that deep within the recesses of his honorable person, he knew that all the multimillion-peso undertaking would amount to, at best, would be a commemoration of a minor political event between two neighboring Asian countries, and that the considerable but still discussible upheavals that took place in the intervening centuries could not be raised directly enough for relevant dramatic purposes, for salient diplomatic reasons.

Plus there was also a danger that he may not have anticipated, although the final product practically assaults the viewer with the fact of its presence: that down-home truths, which would only be a self-respecting narrative artist’s last recourse, could get swept away and rendered useless, if not ridiculous, by the excesses of visual spectacle. This is one among many possible instances in the exasperatingly complex medium of film where a good sense of story won’t suffice, unless good sense itself were exercised in the first place. Then again, who’d presume to tell a master what he should have done? With the utmost deference I believe that Romero should try taking seriously the only-apparently humble dimensions of the industrially limited filmmaking practice whence he emerged. Greatness in a work, as all available examples in the medium so far indicate, is more a matter of enlarging one’s concerns from within rather than supplying mind-boggling resources from without. Ganito Kami Noon proves one aspect of it, the positive side, while Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi demonstrates the other. And from all appearances and purposes, what is desirable in this instance also, and quite happily, happens to be the more feasible.

[First published September 23, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Exceptions

Kamakalawa
Directed and written by Eddie Romero

Kisapmata
Directed by Mike de Leon
Written by Mike de Leon, Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., and Raquel Villavicencio

Two movies-one by an old-school director and another by a considerably younger one – serve to demonstrate the classic conflict between theme and technique. Eddie Romero’s Kamakalawa is prevented from being entirely effective by its defective production values; Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata, on the other hand, very effectively says little. Kamakalawa is Eddie Romero’s third ambitious production since his auspicious comeback in 1976 (the other two are Ganito Kami Noon… Paano Kayo Ngayon? and Aguila). Set during the local pre-Spanish era, it tells the story of Kauing, a commoner who becomes involved in the intrigues among gods and noblemen. His adventures begin with the assassination of the reigning sultan by a rebel datu, upon which the princess calls on him to accompany her in summoning loyalist reinforcements. The mission is temporarily abandoned, however, as Kauing decides to save some elves and noblemen from the tyranny of the river goddess, in the process unwittingly seducing her. Meanwhile the sea god has to maintain his dominion over people, if not over nature. The river goddess, for her part, will have nothing to do with such to-dos, so long as her territorial concerns are left in order. Inevitably the sea and mountain gods confront and destroy each other, just as their respective mortal armies do. The river goddess’s downfall lies in her love for Kauing, which the fire god will not permit; to solve her predicament she embodies Kauing’s true love, the princess. In like manner, the surviving populace abandons its conflicting causes and acknowledges Kauing for his confidence in and compassion for humankind – a portrait of the leader as less concerned with than ignorant of politics yet accomplished in the skills of diplomacy.

There is considerable intelligence in the interrelation of divine and temporal issues in Kamakalawa – at least enough to justify the combination of various local mythologies into a new and original whole which will annoy no one except exclusivists. When, for example, the forest god beckons vampires to vanquish his peeves, the realization of a hierarchy among supernatural creatures, which makes them no better than their moral counterparts, is made clear, regional incompatibility notwithstanding. Even Philippine pre-Spanish society in Kamakalawa is somehow tailored to fit the filmmaker’s imaginative fabric. In a specific instance, Kauing, a tiller of soil (“clodhopper,” as the international version’s subtitles translate), proves his prowess over a haughty nobleman by first sparing his life in a royal bout and then saving him from various enchantments wrought by the gods of nature. The consideration of chronology – of the emergence of peasants only after the decline of slavery and its attendant nobility – hardly matters anymore, subsumed as it is under the filmmaker’s interest in the superiority of productive forces over non-productive ones.

Filmic brilliance, however, cannot be confirmed to conceptualization alone. As in any other artistic medium, substance could be either enhanced or subverted by style. In the case of Kamakalawa Romero’s statements are not exactly negated by his direction; nevertheless, considering their scope and magnitude, they have not been handled with the high degree of expertise they deserve either. The most embarrassing examples of technique getting in the way in Kamakalawa are in its use of special effects. To put it kindly, the in-camera tricks and special laboratory processes employed in the movie are inferior to those of local fantasy films of lesser budgets. Care could have been exercised in minor matters such as the depiction of proportions among gods, mortals, and elves, the exploration by Kauing of the river goddess’s lair, or the appearance of a musical ghost. If these instances sound interesting, then the movie’s supernatural highlights are definite downers. The climatic showdown between the forest god and the sea god is appalling – but not because the protagonists lay the landscape to waste; their weapons do not behave like the flashes of lightning they are supposed to be, their clashes are mere washouts, the havoc they wreak could be outdone by faulty firecrackers.

This is not to say, however, that Kamakalawa is downright disastrous. As pointed out earlier, Romero’s healthy humanism is reason enough for the movie to be seriously taken. No other local director would have the sagacity, not to mention the audacity (considering the speaker’s ridiculous costume), to furnish a character, the fire god, with a monologue on power, existence, and eternity – and make it sound sincere enough for comfort.

Kisapmata, meanwhile, has everything it takes – and more, if one were to quantify Vic Silayan’s performance – to succeed where Kamakalawa fails. Taken as independent contributions to a creative collective, the various filmic elements of Kisapmata are, without exception, exceptional. In audiovisual terms, nothing in the film is obtrusive or inadequate – a balancing feat by any technical standard. Hence while watching the movie the viewer would be drawn along from beginning to end by correct composition and consistent visual tone; one would be helped along by sparse but purposeful auditory exploits; one would even be moved by the performances of individual members of the cast. On the whole, however, Kisapmata is nothing more than a narration of the events that lead to a father’s killing of his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and self; any relevant issue – incest, obsession, fascism, rebellion – is treated as an incidental angle, then quickly cast aside in the pursuit of plot.

Consider, say, the incest angle. The act itself is suggested by the father’s entrance into his daughter’s bedroom, with a little help from an earlier confrontation between the mother and daughter confirming the practice within the family. This is a discreet manner of presentation of a social taboo, which no doubt facilitated the movie’s passage through the eye of our rusty censorship needle. Whether it serves the movie’s purpose is a different consideration altogether. In fact the graphic depiction of another social taboo – the killing of kinsfolk – would not be in keeping with this attempt at adumbrating a comparatively lesser aberration. The social issues are just as inadequately treated. Lip service is paid to progressive concerns, such as references to political detention centers and acceptance of police corruption. Mere mention, however, is not the same as discussion: for all the complexity of the issues raised, the movie’s singular dialectic begins and ends with the father’s fatal obsession with his daughter.

This disturbing dichotomy between technical wealth and thematic poverty is best exemplified in the relationships among the characters. For in Kisapmata, the excellence of individual performances provides an illusion of successful characterizations where there actually is none. The practice of incest, for example, should have introduced character changes in the daughter beyond normative dimensions. As it turns out, she responds to her mother’s calls for aid and rebels when she finds out that these are pretenses planned by her father; also, in spite of her conventionality (she resorts to religion regularly), she submits to another man – her husband, by whom she had premarital relations – without discernible traumatic consequences. The father, played with a plethora of nuances by Vic Silayan, comes on as an imposing figure right from the start, and remains that way throughout. In this regard, his fateful outburst at the movie’s climax may be safely logical – but not, by any means, tragic. A serious oversight on the filmmaker’s part prevented the evolution of the father into an understandable figure; before the shootout he is simplistically dismissed by his family as a psychotic. But since he is made to carry out the climax literally and figuratively singlehandedly, his character, to say the least, should have been provided with subjective developments.

Creating sympathy thus for the father would have been less bold than the incest angle, but it would have made the shootout at the end cathartic instead of simply shocking. In this sense Kisapmata can be regarded as representative of the Hollywood influence on contemporary Philippine cinema: technique-conscious, paradoxically to a fault. A return to thematic awareness in the manner of old guards like Romero would be more welcome – presuming, of course, that the filmmaker concerned is already capable of technical competence to begin with.

[First published November-December 1981 in The Review]

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Waiting for Godard

Batch ’81
Directed by Mike de Leon
Written by Mike de Leon, Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., and Raquel Villavicencio

Batch ’81 was a major movie in the making. Almost two years have elapsed between its conception and exhibition, and it was (and remains) MVP Pictures’ biggest budgeted production. Behind it is the same creative team responsible for two promising ventures, 1980’s Kakabakaba Ka Ba? and last year’s Kisapmata. As an added sidelight, it figured in what appears to be the fashion as far as serious local film projects go: a conflict between director and producer which, needless to add, should be of no consequence in evaluating the finished product. As its premier screening last March, the movie held up to reasonable expectations accordant to director Mike de Leon’s past works. Although the version was subsequently declared an “answer print” – that is, subject to further revisions, it exhibited an extremely expert flair for technical proficiency in both aural and visual aspects.

Among local directors no one has been perhaps as conscious (or, for that matter, as adept) as de Leon when it comes to filmic sound and music. The definitive proof would be his comedy-musical Kakabakaba for its overt emphasis on these elements; nevertheless all other de Leon films (apart from the abovementioned, these include Itim, 1976, and Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising, 1977) demonstrate considerable competence in the same direction, and Batch ’81 is no exception. Sound à la de Leon seeks to establish a distinct dimension, related but not subordinated to the film’s visual content. Furthermore it ignores conventional differences between itself and music, occasionally merging and then resolving in sometimes startling, always effective turns. In Batch ’81 de Leon also makes literally visible progress. Its cinematography is the most satisfying of any de Leon film so far, preferable to the prettiness of the earlier works or the novelty of the later ones. Here de Leon derives expressive significance from his use of light – or, more accurately, his disuse of it. This becomes apparent, in more levels than one, in the fraternity rumble sequence, wherein a sense of dreadful finality is emphatically evoked through the gradual dominance of shadows.

Impressive production values alone, however, do not a masterpiece make. In this regard de Leon can be credited with having chosen for Batch ’81 more serious subject matter – the fraternity as a microcosm of society – than those of his previous films (in receding order: thriller, musical, romance, and horror). Also, in Batch ’81, several literate tributes (as distinguished from outright plagiarism, in which the reference, without the benefit of adoptive context, is appropriated as an original device) are made to similarly serious exertions in foreign cinema. All these considerations are, of course, so far still secondary, dealing as they do with what may be seen or heard but not with what may be understood, and it is at this point that the film’s difficulties begin. For there is no real exploration of fraternity life in Batch ’81 beyond what may be arrived at through good research. Sensational but irrelevant incidents are substituted for related but presumably less provocative ones. As a consequence, more time is spent on the depiction of initiation rites than on lead character Sid Lucero’s motive for membership at all costs, when in fact it is his obsession that leads to an escalation of the level of violence in the neophytes’ experience.

The only clues ever afforded the audience concerning his peculiar trait are contained in his interactions with women. Here again the observance of character is minimized to make way for catchy detail – the arrogance of his pill-popping mother, for example, or the latent resentment of his hypercritical steady – which, instead of elaborating on the issues at hand, provokes an impression of unwarranted misogyny. As a result, the successful performances of the actresses in Batch ’81 run against the roles. Armida Siguion-Reyna and Charito Solis, as the respective mothers of Sid and his roommate, have only their presence to present in what essentially are walk-on (or, more appropriately, talk-on) parts, while Chanda Romero manages to make use of comic timing and an uncanny regional accent to warm up her stereotypically cold-blooded role as a whore hired by fraternity masters to devirginize a neophyte. In contrast the actors, at least some of them, have the benefit of more sympathetic roles; curiously the less likeable ones come off better, particularly Mark Gil as Sid and Mike Arvisu as Abet, both hard-liners of their respective warring fraternities.

A considerate consensus would probably ascribe this contradiction to some form of ethical nihilism on the part of de Leon, in which his anti-heroes attain fulfillment by refusing to become heroes. On the other hand, he may only be wanting in the craft of characterization – which may explain why Kisapmata, which had better performers, was better acted than Batch ’81. To put it another way, Batch ’81’s “bad” characters are easier to understand simply because they are less ambiguous than the rest. Such reliance on technical virtuosity as a determinant of dramatic development has resulted in fact in a duality of mutually exclusive narratives which share the same highlight – the murder of Sid’s roommate – and nothing else. The technical narrative, on the other hand, begins with Sid’s application for fraternity membership, proceeds through the parallelisms between his persistence and his roommate’s pusillanimity, and ends with the survivors’ initiation. Meanwhile the literal ending, in which the new members undertake the hazing of the next batch of neophytes, demands an entirely different set of developments all its own.

The obvious conclusion here is that technique, when allowed to proceed at its own pace, is liable to lose dramatic drift. By this account de Leon is, if not anything else, still a technician – a terrific one, no doubt, perhaps the country’s best; but once the industry has responded to the standards of technical excellence which only he has been able to meet so far, can he continue to count on craft alone?

[First published June 16, 1982, in Who]

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Return to Form

Bilanggo sa Dilim
Directed by Mike de Leon
Written by Jose Almojuela, Mike de Leon, and Bobby Lavides

Having done something like ten audiovisual works in about as many years, Mike de Leon should be this year’s celebrated candidate for artistic re-evaluation. The fact that of his works, only six are in commercial 35mm. format while the rest are in alternative film (super-8mm. and 16mm.) and video formats makes for even more relevant discussion, with the latest – a “videomovie” titled Bilanggo sa Dilim – all set to open the first Independent Film and Video Festival at the Wave Cinema in Cubao next week. Bilanggo sa Dilim has more things going for it than a Mike de Leon credit (although an influential circle of admirers would be content with that alone); it is the first local Sony Solid Video production to be released, with a couple of others already in the can (or should we say the cassette?) and a lot more in the planning stage (studio?).

Typically the work – I hesitate to call it “film” – like the best of de Leon’s early achievement is the sort of thing that makes technique-conscious practitioners reach for the latest product manual or brochure, so as not to be left behind by the standards of competence it sets anew. In fact, with technical competence being the rare commodity it is these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if observers of Filipino audiovisual works again typically take to Bilanggo sa Dilim as if it were this year’s only qualified entry in the cinema-as-art competition that we so enjoy imposing on our film practitioners. And yet, in the sense that the work is opening an alternative film festival and should therefore be considered in that context first, I agree. Grudgingly, that is; for when in the recent past everyone seemed enamored with Mike de Leon’s displays of virtuosity (enhanced among insiders by a reputation for eccentricity), I had to endure some amount of difficulty in going against the grain, pardon the pun, just to be able to point out that other filmmakers were involved in even more substantial artistic and narratological innovations. I would say the height of irony in de Leon’s career took place when he abandoned his fondness for experimentation with the plastics of the medium and undertook the most conventional serious project he had set for himself – the agitprop film Sister Stella L. – and acquired in return the strongest round of raves and cheers (not to mention trophies) he had ever received yet.

So this time around I am genuinely resisting the temptation of going overboard in hailing Bilanggo sa Dilim as Mike de Leon’s return to form, in more ways than one, simply because it is his first videomovie, and his commercial-film record indicates a clear capability on his part to outdo himself. Those who have handled video will respond more readily to the precocity of Bilanggo sa Dilim, and might therefore understand my sense of panic-tinged admiration: video, as we have known it, has never been this accomplished, at least from within our national borders; after Bilanggo sa Dilim, how else could one dare to approach the medium with aesthetic intent? My past reservation about de Leon’s inadequacy (which after all may have been a mere hesistancy) in exploiting the dramaturgical potential of audiovisual media still holds to a certain extent for Bilanggo sa Dilim. Again, though, I must make clear that I measure his sense of drama against his flair for novelty, and not by the admittedly sorry standard obtaining in the commercial industry. For his latest, he has taken an extraneous source – a John Fowles novel – as the basis for his story, and though on the whole his adaptation is less conceited than, say, that of Karel Reisz’s version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, I can safely bet (not having read Fowles’ The Collector) that, from the onscreen evidence, it is de Leon’s bravura orchestration of video’s exasperatingly resistant instruments that saves the adaptation from a too-obviously literary premise. In one singular instance he completely subverts the language of film as we have come to know and accept it – when, in the climactic chase scene, he cuts to a high-angle slow-motion shot of the protagonists; basic cinematographic conditioning ascribes a connotation of detachment for high angles and that of relaxation for slo-mo takes, but in Bilanggo sa Dilim the combined usage of both techniques produces a startling realization of the beauty inherent in outbursts of violence. This is not in itself an original discovery – Arthur Penn and the late Sam Peckinpah, to use Hollywood-based examples, were once accused (an honorable distinction in artist circles) of using the same thing – but it points to something that apparently has never been carefully considered before in local practice: that video, instead of acting as an adjunct to film, can in fact attain more effective peaks of expression by breaking free of the rules of conventional usage, in the manner of the more advanced items in cinema.

That in itself should ensure for Bilanggo sa Dilim more than just incidental stature in an already reputable body of aesthetic achievement in Philippine cinema. The responsible de Leon observer, however, could in addition take notice of the fact that, although the director forsook his credit for his last film, he took care not to do the same with his newfound skill in handling actors. Whereas in the past he used to rely on the relative expertise of his performers as a given, in Bilanggo sa Dilim he has been able to draw out the same harmonious ensemble acting that may be the only claim to posterity of Hindi Nahahati ang Langit; in addition, he allowed one of the protagonists to develop with a sympathetic sensuality (name me any other Mike de Leon film that exhibits this virtue!) that, coupled with the appropriate resources of Cherie Gil, has resulted in the first honest-to-goodness flesh-and-blood character (as opposed to performance) in any de Leon opus yet.

I would like to believe, for snobbery’s sake, that Mike de Leon was merely flexing his capabilities, so to speak, so as not to overstretch himself in the new medium. He has done better, if not entirely satisfactory, efforts in the commercial mode, but I’d rather play safe and say that come the time when the first de Leon work of unqualified greatness, in whatever format, is revealed to the public, I wouldn’t want to be caught off guard in failing to anticipate it. It may be on the order of a more thematically cogent Kakabakaba Ka Ba? or dramatically valid Batch ’81 or presentationally daring Sister Stella L. Or it may be a completely different concern altogether – in which case your prediction will be as good as mine, and we can only hope it matches Mike de Leon’s. Meantime we have an effective melodramatic thriller in our midst, and in the alleged format of the future at that, and maybe we should all be so grateful that its proportions were not major enough to completely overwhelm us.

[First published September 22, 1986, in New Day]

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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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