Millennial Traversals – Old-Millennium Pinoy Film Reviews I (Various Sources)

Several reasons account for these entries’ absence in any of my pre-millennial anthologies. The overarching excuse (or shall we say pretext) is that they made an awkward fit, but there’s no reason to deny the obvious: they may have been, to my judgment, too makeshift, half-baked, juvenile, or just plain poorly written. Not that a few anthologized articles weren’t; but the ones here would have stood out – which means that, procedurally, I first attempted to cram everything I had on hand in previous book manuscripts, then eliminated those that didn’t serve whatever point the adjacent articles were supposed to be supporting. I do not venture to explain why other anthologists actually accommodated some of these pieces, sometimes even mangling them further – but if any of these had to be consulted, for whatever reason, I prefer that the current “correctest” versions here be the ones that researchers look up.

BIRDS OF OMEN

Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak
Directed by Celso Ad. Castillo
Written by Celso Ad. Castillo, Iskho Lopez, and Lando Perez Jacob

James Joyce once said that he expected students of literature to devote their lifetime to studying his works. It wouldn’t be much of a feat of the imagination to picture Celso Ad. Castillo sitting up straight and saying, “Well I can make the same demands too!” Indeed wind-raising has lately come easy for the craftsman behind Burlesk Queen: one need only read movie scribes’ (nonsensical) write-ups to confirm Castillo’s conceit. But nothing will illustrate his self-indulgence better than the movies he makes. The latest you might still catch downtown, Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak.

Compared to Burlesk Queen, Pagputi ng Uwak is less of a technical mess. Particularly exceptional are the shots of rustic religious rituals; unfortunately their use does not progress beyond the literal level. This makes for increasing predictability toward the picture’s end, as when the preparations for a military massacre are intercut with recitations of the tribulations of Jesus Christ. Attempts at authenticity appear to have been assiduous, but the project may have also proved too ambitious in this aspect. Thus one can find high-tension wires and Scotch-tinted car windows, not to mention recent beautification accomplishments, making their way into a 1950s period movie.

Performance-wise Pagputi ng Uwak leaves a lot more to be desired. Among the cast, only Mona Lisa manages to pull off a convincing characterization as Bembol Roco’s mother. Angie Ferro and Adul de Leon, as Vilma Santos’ spinster aunts, are no better than caricatures: funny maybe, but quite incredible. Joonee Gamboa has mellowed since his rudimental portrayal of an impresario in Burlesk Queen; his role, however, is far less significant this time, reduced as it is to playing the intermediary between star-crossed characters.

Executive producer Vilma Santos does better outside camera range. Her production is financially and artistically liberal, the sort the local audience has been deprived of since the dissolution of the previous censors board. Her performance though is about as effective as that of a drama guild’s star performer: she renounces her lover like she would a final exam, and later professors love for him like she would a teen idol. The same applies to Bembol Roco, about whose character more will be said later; suffice it to say that he still has yet to employ under-acting to his advantage. Meanwhile he and Santos are the industry’s star couple, and there one has the trappings of the star system at work again.

Is there nothing at all to be said in favor of the movie? Come to think of it, Burlesk Queen did have a saving grace, and it is this same virtue – intention – which redeems Pagputi ng Uwak. In his works Castillo the artist seeks to depict the Filipino as only a fellow Filipino will understand, particularly in terms of pride and sentiment – values associated in Western aesthetics with melodrama. Which is what makes Castillo easy prey for local culture vultures: with technical excellence as a basic requisite for deserving favor, he falls short at first try; infatuation with alien modes of behavior further ensures their alienation from the obviously progressive statements he wishes to make.

Finally, Castillo takes the other half of the blame – for overcomplicating his vision, for leaving it tottering between individualist and populist morality, for attempting to say too many things in one go. Two and a half hours may be tedious for a commercial movie, but insufficient for lessons in two distinct and occasionally clashing camps. As in the case of Burlesk Queen, it is the subplot of Pagputi ng Uwak which promises more potential than the main story itself. Unfortunately it is also the subplot which is insufficiently developed (else it wouldn’t be called a subplot).

Pagputi ng Uwak is set against government efforts, essentially insincere and often blundering, to win over Huk rebels during the administration of President Quirino. Dido (Bembol Roco), after realizing the losses his family suffered from landgrabbers – who happen to be his sweetheart’s aunts, so the plot thickens – and the brutality dealt him by society for being lowly, enlists in the revolutionary movement. Once there, however, he longs for another rendezvous with Julie (Vilma Santos), by whom he has sired a daughter, and manages with the first encounter courtesy of her music maestro – who happens to be her father, so the situation solidifies, more so since the latter was rejected by his late common-law wife’s sisters for conflicting class interests. Dido finally meets Julie and as they have sex, military elements sniff him out and gun him down, along with his sweetheart, mother, and comrades, though not necessarily in that order. Only their love-child survives, but that should belong to another story.

Dido’s decision to join the Huks should have logically proceeded from the impact of property divestment, as conveyed by his mother. In spite (or is it because?) of Mona Lisa’s understated delivery he goes through the whole trouble of first furtively meeting and then eloping with Julie, without the slightest notion that he might be able to regain his family’s estate thus. In fact he eventually appears to have been catapulted into the people’s army by sheer circumstances, after his rebel uncle saves him from certain annihilation in the hands of police assassins.

Castillo apparently intended to temper the silliness of Dido and Julie’s love story by contextualizing it in an explosive historical era. In doing so he failed to take into full account the fact that ordinary love cannot develop on its own in an extraordinary context. Still and all, by the very rarity of the movie’s sympathy for a much-maligned development in Philippine history, Castillo has proved himself more daring than local filmmakers more adroit than himself. Given more expertise in similarly promising material (for which humility would be a helpful requisite), he may yet realize his delusion as the country’s greatest filmmaker. At the moment, one will have to be content with the many lows and few highs of Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak.

[First published July 26, 1978, in Philippine Collegian; anthologized in The Urian Anthology 1970-1979]

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COMMERCIALISM TRIUMPHS AGAIN

Bongga Ka ’Day
Directed by Maryo J. de los Reyes
Written by Jake Tordesillas

Bongga Ka ’Day is director Maryo J. de los Reyes’ vindication of his commercial prowess after his first and so far his only box-office flop Disco Madhouse. More important, it provides another argument aggravating the allegations that de los Reyes can do no better than his first effort, High School Circa ’65. The story of Bongga Ka ’Day, to begin with, is nothing much: a bunch of college students undertake a Hotdog concert tour to be able to raise funds for subsequent projects. In the course of their activities, they all realize the need to carry on with whatever they have accomplished – in terms of work, play, and love.

Such a broad premise has to be complemented with depth – a treatment which de los Reyes forsakes for the sake of pulling off well-executed individual scenes. This is best embodied by the lead character, Freda (Nora Aunor), who is supposedly hung up on being the sister of a renowned literary columnist and an aspiring architect. Naturally she takes advantage of her position as class president to slave-drive her classmates into fulfilling her (unspecified) personal ambitions. But even before her classmates point out her weakness to her, she readily acquiesces to their clamor for disco dancing, and even sings for them. Hence after the revelation of Aunor’s trim bearing and confident dancing is appreciated, her usually sharp characterization is sorely missed.

Then she is made to fall in love first with Ruffy (Rolly Quizon) and then with Dave (Lloyd Samartino), a singing duet which breaks up without having once sung; but if only because of Quizon’s inadequacy in acting and Samartino’s stiffness in dancing, their singing may not be that badly wanted anyway. To create the semblance of a pattern, the rest of the cast take the cue from Freda and the duet, and fall in love with whoever is blocked nearby. The pairings are then finalized in the wedding of Bernie (Roi Vinzon) and Yogi (Debraliz), for whom love triumphs after a series of metaphysical doubts. During the ceremony, however, Freda indulges in an over-extended fantasy sequence with Dave through a garden frolic, a roll in the grass, another wedding, and two separate disco scenes, before returning to the reality at hand.

The list of similar confused developments, like Freda’s fantasy, could go on and on. The audience is made to watch, for example, a transition from San Fernando to Olongapo to Angeles City, and made to listen to such lines as “Kahit anong gawin natin, kaya nating gawin” [Whatever we want to do, we’ll be able to do] and “I don’t really give my full self into it” – both of which may have been the intentions of the movie’s makers. Indeed commercialism seems to have been Bongga Ka ’Day’s primary concern. This inevitably results in the subordination of logic to saleable staples.

A blatant instance in the movie consists of the forced insertion of Hotdog numbers. After Glen (Dandin Ranillo), the queer classmate, discovers his father’s death in Angeles and consequently realizes the futility of seeking a father image, he launches into a fantasy sequence comprising a Hagibis and Paper Dolls spoof. The number in itself is tolerable if only because of its attendant music; but in no way does it reasonably fit its immediate situation without sidetracking the audience from the rest of the movie.

Even the title song, a smart sally on conditioned consumer preferences, is not pursued as a theme anywhere in the movie. Neither is there any character who is at least fond of bongga or who is an Inday. Instead there are remarks like “Bongga siya, ’day” and “Bongga ka na rin, ’day” which wrench the song from its intended context. This (mis)treatment calls to mind the non-realization of the social commentary on disco as an escapist fad in Annie Batungbakal: the movie (also by de los Reyes) chose to dwell instead on the well-worn theme of unrequited love.

The same charge of commercialism helps explain the movie’s technical weaknesses. Whatever passes off as editing only serves to force the next episode into view. Even the challenge of capturing local rusticity has been abandoned in favor of conventional shots and injudicious use of slow motion and zooms. On the whole, Bongga ka ’Day is slovenly and incoherent, unworthy of the promise de los Reyes has been holding forth for over a year now. But if commercial success is all he has been after, then he can be content, even this early, with his achievements, and spare his audiences further frustrations.

[First published August 1, 1980, in Times Journal]

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EFFECTIVE SATIRE

Kontrobersyal
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Tony Perez

Kontrobersyal so effectively satirizes the shortcomings of members of the movie industry that those who have been spared, movie critics included, should be relieved. The movie comes on with a rage so relentless that it renders its factual incidents stranger than fiction. Publicity stunts, exploitative arrangements, media corruption – all these and more appear with sufficient logical consistency to dishearten any well-meaning newcomer to the field.

The darker side of moviemaking in Kontrobersyal is embodied in a character, Mers, a shrewd and heartless producer-director-star builder. Upon desertion by her signature star, she chances upon a hopeful extra from among the latter’s rushes. The discovery, it turns out, is perfect for Mers’s purposes: young (16 years old), poor (Baryo Mandaragat resident), and willing. Mers renames her latest property Karina Da Luz and signs her up for a minimal fee with an exclusive three-year contract. She then proceeds to initiate Karina in the tricks of her trade; the latter, for her part, though sometimes having to be forced to cooperate, nevertheless always manages to catch on.

The Mers character raises the movie’s most disturbing issue: are intelligence and artistry in local cinema incompatible? If, like Mers, those entrenched in the system could afford to publicly profess that they couldn’t care less about critical reacctions as long as their movies make money, where does this place those who do care? Certainly not in the successfully satirical world of Kontrobersyal, whose questions are posed not for its inhabitants but for its audience – which should, like it or not, include the movie itself.

Profundities aside, the movie is also worth watching if only for Charo Santos’s performance as Mers, particularly in several scenes where she undergoes total emotional reversals in a matter of seconds. With her performance Santos raises the heretofore unconsidered possibility that her past performances could have suffered from the inadequacy of role or direction rather than her capacity as performer. Karina, on the other hand, is portrayed persuasively enough by Gina Alajar up until her transition from innocence to corruption; thence her performance suffers from an imbalance in the development of her character. She cracks up after the abortion of her child by Mers’s live-in lover Alain, then attempts suicide after Mers videotapes her drug-induced sex scenes; right after her hospitalization, however, she demands of Mers her independence in terms of pay, choice of projects, and romantic decisions. The transition is not helped in any way by Alajar’s assumption of her show-must-go-on stance in a manner that is more dolorous than decisive; furthermore, she is made to interact with the least credible character in the movie: a self-righteous boyfriend who readily gives Carina up while, as he himself put it, thousands of other men would readily exchange places with him as the object of her affections.

The Karina character prevails in comparison with Alain. Phillip Salvador in the role has a harder time than the rest mainly because he is made to hold up to Santos’s self-assured performance. Although Alain, for example, is the only character capable of making Mers cry by leaving her, his stare is about as clueless as Karina’s during one of the latter’s emotional breakdowns. This is most unfortunate when one considers that some of Salvador’s performances in other Brocka movies – as Poldo in Jaguar and Gardo in Bona – rank among the best in recent memory. Nevertheless he is considerably aided by Brocka’s flourishes in Kontrobersyal, notably in his walkout from the hospital where Karina is confined. Here a succession of images – of Karina cadaverously made up for noisy movie reporters in her room, of an emergency patient being wheeled in the corridor, of a mother sobbing over her baby in the elevator, and of more reporters crowding outside the hospital door – all help drive home, in impressionistic fashion, Alain’s alienation.

In these and many other scenes Brocka gets able assistance from his ever-reliable cinematographer Conrado Baltazar, whose use of garish and colorful lighting enhances the excesses in Tony Perez’s material. Current commercial scores are also parodied in Max Jocson’s music, which is as deliberately crude and calculationg as the titles of Mers’s movies: Darling, Wild Girl, Rape Victim, The Betamax Queen. Such virtues virtually negate lapses like the continuity in Karina’s nicotine habit or the anonymity of Alain after his falling out with Mers. After all, any movie which dares to decorate a devious director’s office with industry statuettes deserves, by any means possible, to complete what statement it wishes to make.

[First published April 3, 1981, in Times Journal]

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OVERSIMPLIFYING CLASS CONFLICTS

Burgis
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Jose Dalisay Jr.

A socialite mother blames her son’s propensity for trouble on the lifting of martial rule; when later he gets mauled, she demands that a certain “Johnny” be called in to bring round justice. Such is the politicized approach that attempts to distinguish Burgis from the usual run of youth-oriented movies. Yet this one, like the rest, succeeds only in so far as it struggles with the stolidity of its material.

Burgis starts out by cashing in on the recent popularity of girl-pretty Gabby Concepcion in the role of an aimless scion who finds direction through a consciousness of class differences. (In the process Concepcion gets to deliver some of the movie’s flattest jokes – one on the death of Magellan a week after his introduction, another on the simulation of the sounds in a Central Park mugging). Concepcion plays Juanito Locsin, Juni for short, a consistent elite-school dropout who is brought by his parents to the Eastern Colleges of the Republic prior to his leaving for the United States. At the decidedly lower-class institution Juni stands out because of his breeding and accessories. He falls in love with classmate Nedy (Amy Austria) to the point of eventually breaking off with his girlfriend Cheryl (Isabel Rivas). In the end he decides not to proceed to the US, to face the challenge of living as a Filipino first.

This narrative logic (or absence of it) is further compounded by a subplot involving Bogart (Rez Cortez), the school bully who gets to mug Juni by first defacing and then de-wheeling his car; in turn Juni refuses to squeal on Bogart but instead works out then befriends Bogart by defeating him in a square match. A more substantial twist consists of Juni buying back Nedy’s good graces, after humiliating her in front of rich friends, by selling enough ballots for her to win the school’s beauty contest. When he starts getting serious with her, however, she turns him down.

The standard complaint concerning Lino Brocka movies for their oversimplification of class conflicts again applies herein. To represent the rich, Elvira Manahan was cast in the role of Juni’s mother, apparently to exploit the authenticity of her poise and gestures; yet she merely manifests a self-mocking approach which works against the case for her side of the class war. This is not to say that the poor are pretty perfect in Burgis. Backward material has been injudiciously imbued with progressive complexities, resulting in the misdirection of issues, as when the aforementioned refusal to reconcile class differences prevents the celebrities, as built up through the Juni character, from partaking of the flexibility of youth.

Evidence that such inconsistencies span various classes can be found in the dialogue: Nedy’s roommate, a Makati employe, spouts swardspeak without having been presumably exposed to a lower-class gay milieu, while Cheryl speaks sometimes straight Filipino, other times Assumpta lingo. As usual Conrado Baltazar’s cinematography makes the movie more interesting than irritating through competent use of conventional techniques – excepting a gimmick-laden credit sequence, that is. Unfortunately the sound, which in some parts consists of crudely engineered live recordings, does not match the movie’s visuals.

Initial reports indicate that Burgis did not do well as the box-office, where the previous Brocka movie, Kontrobersyal, made a killing. Kontrobersyal had no highly bankable stars, but it had artistic integrity where Burgis has none. That should provide a lesson of sorts for those who sunder the commercial from the artistic in film.

[First published August 1, 1981, in Who]

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NAKED DEBUT

Hubad na Gubat
Directed by Lito Tiongson
Written by Ed Maranan

No objections to Hubad na Gubat on the level of the ones raised against Ang Babae sa Ulog are likely to result from a casual comparison of the two. For Hubad na Gubat has sufficient logic and loftiness of purpose to elevate it from the usual run of tribal movies intended to capitalize on the subject’s exemption from censorship of breast exposures. Initial viewings of the film will readily demonstrate that the people behind it have made the difficult but commendable decision to meet the movie industry’s commercial exigencies only half-way in the casting of Tetchie Agbayani as a major character.

Having settled the more mundane issue thus, the film failed to resolve the next set of contradictions that proceeded therefrom. This involved the question of whether to present the tale of Aniwas (Agbayani’s character) either as a legend with its roots in reality or as a realistic story which gives rise to legendary material. Such confusion emanated from a multiplicity of incompatible devices employed in the telling of the story. Aniwas, for example, turns out to have been the daughter of Linongan, a Balitok who the elders believed was abducted by their version of the bogey-man, Kumao, but was actually raped by a lowlander, Sauro (Charlie Davao) and, having lost her senses, mortally delivered under the care of a hermitic forest dweller.

Here the potentially powerful parallelism which ensues from the rape attempt by Sauro’s son Jake (Raul Aragon) on Aniwas is mitigated by the fact that the latter, instead of Jake’s father, was originally mistaken for Kumao. The rony, on the other hand, would have led to a conflict of sympathies: Jake’s rape attempt, unlike his father’s, fails. But to have gone further than the failure would have necessarily negated the foregoing portrayal of the lowlanders as the villains in the story.

The most sigfinificant instance of this inconsistency of vision lies more in the final scene, rather than in the anti-climax of Aniwas’ origin being traced without the benefit of point of view. The climax consists of Sauro’s attempt to divest the tribe of its wealth being thwarted by Balitok warriors. In the light of the realistic treatment of the Kumao legend (the personification of which is eventually embodied in Sauro), such a development demands further clarification of not only how the tribe managed to overpower a martially superior unit but also how the new legend that arose from the conflict might be tempered by another realistic turn of events.

Debuting director Lito Tiongson seems to have exceeded his reach in less lofty senses as well. His use of the hand-held camera, coupled with a reliance on editing for build-up, has resulted in some dizzying establishing shots. (In the first place a hand-held would not have let itself to ideal tacking shots in mountainous terrain.) Also his performers could have contributed to an easier visual understanding of the story, but, with the exception of Phillip Salvador (as Aniwas’ tribal suitor) and Charlie Davao, did not. Agbayani played both mother and daughter without a hint as to whose turn it was to be ravished onscreen, while Aragon tackles with inhumanity an already inhuman role.

Still, the failure that is Hubad ng Gubat compares favorably with the successes of most local directors. If only for this reason Tiongson has made himself worthy of further attention.

[First published August 1982 in The Review]

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A HALFWAY SAMPLE

Maestro Bandido
Directed by Reginald King
Written by Bonnie Paredes

Of late a curious type of action film has been filling the void caused by the inhibition of the local stock of serious filmmakers whose creative energy has been diverted by the need to respond to arbitrary and capricious censorship (a redundancy in terms, considering that censorship is in itself an arbitrary and capricious undertaking). The commercial and critical lapse of the last release by a prestigious Filipino director – Lino Brocka’s Strangers in Paradise – has in a long-drawn sense been mitigated by the appearance of several action releases which provide hope for directors previously regarded as significant only for box-office purposes.

Some in fact can be confidently counted as their makers’ best efforts so far: Carlo J. Caparas’s Pieta indicates astute judgment of extremes of character. Danny Ochoa’s Sa Bawa’t Tunog ng Kampana exhibits a casual appreciation of storytelling values. Nilo Saez’s Sumuko Ka, Ronquillo! demonstrates a willingness to tackle grand-scale social issues. All these, of course, pale in comparison to the capabilities of, say, Lino Brocka again, who with Cain at Abel and Jaguar can hardly be doubted as a true master of gangster films. Even initial viewings will readily reveal the absurdity of plot developments in Pieta, the inadequancy of production values in Sa Bawa’t Tunong ng Kampana, and the shallowness of characterization in Sumuko Ka, Ronquillo!

If a common denominator for these failures must be pointed out, some sort of half-way approach to serious action filmmaking will emerge as the likeliest culprit. Thematic gravity characterizes most material with sociopolitical ambitions. Yet the reluctance of financiers to invest in such ventures tends to abort the committed observer’s total appreciation of the finished product. Maestro Bandido is a case in point. It is director Reginald King’s 10th project, a refreshing improvement over the kung-fu fantasies which helped establish – and the cowboy creations which helped sustain – its lead star Rey Malonzo’s bankability.

The story runs along one of the most difficult sub-genres in the action repertory: vendetta. Maestro Bandido contributes no innovations to the formula of the angry young man who sets out to avenge himself on the socially advantaged culprits responsible for his losses. However, this does not negate the film’s own good intentions. The superiority of Maestro Bandido to run-of-the-mill local releases lies in several precious insights, executed often in a humorous vein. Most memorable are the instances when the lead character’s superior, in a case of mistaken identity, almost shoots him down, and when the same lead is refused entry into the villains’ territory by a terrified tricycle driver. Both cases play upon weaknesses in the psyche of characters who get involved in gangland affairs, while providing subliminal linkages to the tragedy about to erupt.

These virtues, in any case, hardly detract from the film’s several basic deficiencies, particularly its failure to evoke its intended era (pre-martial rule) and the incredulous developments, including the relegation of females to decorative digressions. In fairness to the filmmaker, such creative gaps abound even in foreign productions, no doubt sanctioned by pressures to conform to generics requisites – the shootout, the chase, the love scene, the showdown, etc. Given this condition, the Filipino filmmaker could do one better over her or his foreign counterpart by relying on tighter story construction instead of technical flourishes and shock effects.

The most discomforting manifestation of these defects consists of complications arising from the introduction of political outlaws led by a ridiculously psychopathic commander. The apparent eagerness to appease censorship officials by depicting rebel leadership as outright crazy works against the main conflict’s efficacy by providing a justification for the character’s criminal excesses. Maestro Bandido may yet be remembered for the pitfalls it did not stumble into, notably the usual indulgence in martial-arts action choreography, as well as the exploitation of more sensational than substantial material. If only for these, plus the promise of fluency in film style as evidenced in several spots, Reginald King – who is actually one and the same person as Rey Malonzo himself – should, like the rest of his colleagues recently converted to the pursuit of quality, derive encouragement from having made an otherwise lean stretch in Philippine film history worth noting more intently.

[First published August 15, 1983, in Times Mirror]

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REPRESSION AND REBELLION

Pedro Tunasan
Directed and written by Celso Ad. Castillo

The recently released Pedro Tunasan is an occasion for broad encouragement on the part of observers and participants in this lean stretch in Philippine filmic history. Among institutions, none should be more elated than the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, which wisely acted upon the opportunity of financing the project through the Film Fund and granting it a 50-percent tax rebate by awarding a “Class A” distinction through the Film Ratings Board. That the film in many ways surpasses even then most outstanding outputs of the past year bespeaks well of the much-maligned capabilities of its director Celso Ad. Castillo, who in several senses contributed to the misimpression through his indulgence in ego and pornography. Yet Pedro Tunasan may not have proved too imposing for Castillo. The issue of feudal class relations he has already handled adequately in Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak (1978), while the film’s basic plotline resembles that of Ang Alamat ni Julian Makabayan (1979).

Nevertheless Pedro Tunasan succeeds where the latter two do not: it is coherent where Pagputi ng Uwak was garbled and complex where Julian Makabayan was one-sided. Technically, it does not measure up to the cinematographic superiority of the other two, which were shot by an extremely capable Romeo Vitug. Castillo, however, makes up for some glaring shortcomings in terms of lighting and costuming in Pedro Tunasan through the confident exploitation of his remarkably astute visual sense, as evidenced in compositional values – i.e., camera angles and movements.

More important, the film has been bolstered with the most solid script ever enjoyed by a Castillo movie since the underrated Totoy Boogie (1980) and the most inspired since Burlesk Queen (1977). Most of the director’s recent significant films – Pagputi ng Uwak and Julian Makabayan plus Aliw-iw: Ang Dalagang Pinagtaksilan ng Panahon (1979) – were circular in structure, where the cyclical nature of repression and rebellion is driven home through the suggestion (often literal) of birth and renewal toward the end. Castillo’s restless eclectic style, however, is better suited to stories that break free of the desperate situations which he so effectively delineates, as in his urban-centered items: the suicide of the hapless stripper in Burlesk Queen, the realization of class limitations by the social-climbing dancer in Totoy Boogie.

In Pedro Tunasan a triumphant finality is evoked in the face of the massacre of the lead character by Fil-American forces when his mestiza wife gives birth to a boy. The child, it is implied, will not have to undergo the same hardships that Pedro Tunasan and his father before him went through owing to social and intellectual inadequacies. The true and final liberation of the Filipino from colonial encroachment and local collaboration will be attained not through a rejection of progress but first an acceptance and then a transcendence of it.

Such a premise is more radical than what big-time oppositionists might allow and, paradoxically, too conciliatory to serve the purposes of functional conservatism. It is the conveyance of such satisfactory ambiguities that only the mature artist can be capable of. Celso Ad. Castillo might come up with a better work before his public and colleagues adjust to his artistic sweep and political daring – such is his propensity for self-redemption during the least hopeful of situations (for the industry as well as himself). Meanwhile, he has made what may be his most momentous contribution so far in Pedro Tunasan, the closest he has come to perfection on an epic scale, a singular instance of no mean achievement which has done the ECP proud to be associated with.

[First published September 1984 in Jario Scenario]

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MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Dope Godfather
Directed by Junn P. Cabreira
Written by Eliseo S. Corcuera

Occasionally an exploitation vehicle, propelled by the crassest commercial considerations, completes the cultural crossing from script to screen, reminding the collective consciousness that nothing can ever be perfected in any industry-scale undertaking. One such item is Junn P. Cabreira’s Dope Godfather, a film offensive enough to convince any first-time observer that no progress is being done in the local action genre – a notion which betrays recent accomplishments of the likes of Carlo J. Caparas in Pieta, Jose (Pepe) Marcos in Sumuko Ka…Ronquillo!, Danny Ochoa in Sa Bawa’t Tunog ng Kampana, Nilo Saez in Pepeng Hapon, Pablo Santiago in Kapag Buhay ang Inutang, and most impressively Celso Ad. Castillo in Pedro Tunasan, a vindication of its director’s much-maligned capabilities.

In contrast with the foregoing, Dope Godfather is an all-out exploitation vehicle, an item whose interest lies solely in its indication of the deplorable conditions incumbent upon contemporary filmmaking in the country. All levels of production serve to point out this assertion, but the most crucial aspect can be derived from the irony of its acquisition of extra-creative support precisely through the flaunting of its artistic compromises; referred to herein is the participation of the military in terms of facilitation of approval and, more apparent onscreen, provision of manpower and locales.

Such readiness to indulge in self-congratulatory undertakings is aggravated by the difficulties undergone by other projects which, in the long run, contribute to the enhancement of the country’s image as a democratic set-up, especially among foreign and local intelligentsia. For in the long run, it is these people who have to be won over to the image of a libertarian system stable and intelligent enough to allow self-critical explorations of its machinations, instead of a smug elite whose paranoia reveals itself in the indiscriminate allowances given to misdirected assurances like Dope Godfather.

The film itself exhibits weaknesses which actually work against its purposes. A blatant rejection of creativity could merely turn off the uninitiated while at the same time instill confidence in the enlightened opposition. Most of these contradictions are embodied in the lead character, who is depicted as a narcotics agent reliant upon the system which employs him yet impatient with its natural sluggishness. In Don Siegel’s right-wing paean Dirty Harry, this approach was heightened by turning the system into the antithesis of the character, thus making him sympathetic in spite of his abrasiveness. Of course the forces behind Dope Godfather could not bear to witness the establishment as a hindrance (even if unwittingly) to the execution of its own functions; hence the unrelieved antipathy conveyed by the lead character, which is hardly helped by Tony Ferrer’s facial twitches as markers of emotional upheavals. The casting error does not stop here, for pitted against the goon-like lead is a clean-cut villain, an artistically interesting situation which is thematically ignored.

The rest of the movie takes the cue from the above deficiencies, piling up one incredible development upon another until the viewer gets totally underwhelmed by the bald-faced dishonesty which informs the entire production. An adolescent character whose excessive intake of drugs has made him insane enough to attempt suicide turns out to be sane enough to deconstruct family problems with his parents in front of the entire neighborhood. An arrested pusher undergoes point-of-view visions of the evil effects of drugs on the youth, yet remains unrepentant enough to resist his execution. Villains consistently (not to mention conveniently) carry dope-filled attaché cases when they get arrested, although no such incriminating possessions can be found on their persons during less tense moments. Den raiders never learn to block off all exits in spite of repeated escapes of a few gangsters each time.

On a pettier level, everyone talks the same way – i.e., mouthing inane dialogue, verbalizing what are already visually obvious, with tokenistic humor thrown in. Characters wear coats and jackets under the tropical sun, though some attempt at consistency by topping them off with cowboy hats. The tackiness of the entire production has not even been mitigated with enough stylishness to at least pass off as camp. Dope Godfather is a mean-spirited mishmash of missed opportunities, a repulsive undertaking which sensible movie-goers concerned with the development of Philippine cinema would do well to avoid.

[First published September 1984 in Times Mirror]

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MYSTERIOUS PLEASURE

Misteryo sa Tuwa
Directed and written by Abbo Q. de la Cruz

After having been kept in the can for some time, the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines’ production of Misteryo sa Tuwa is finally being released. During a year which has seen several outstanding productions succeed one another, Misteryo sa Tuwa is, technically speaking, the best of the lot so far. The material alone ensures that the film is not just another outstanding commercial exercise, but a courageous and exciting foray into filmmaking of a borderline experimental nature.

Perhaps this accounts for the initially controversial reception to the film. For the issues in Misteryo sa Tuwa are treated in such a manner as to make it more of a universalized parable on human nature rather than on specifically Filipino quirks and peculiarities, its misanthropic vision very nearly upended by its out-of-place acknowledgment of military heroism. The plot revolves around the discovery by poverty-stricken peasants of a cache of money from the wreckage of a plane, and the efforts by various other social elements to either recover or steal the literally newfound wealth. The less scrupulous among the latter do not hesitate to resort to the most heartless and murderous improvisatory tactics to acquire what they want. This provides the movie’s centerpiece – a torture sequence which may be considered the most excruciating ever depicted in a local production since Gerardo de Leon’s 1961 landmark The Moises Padilla Story.

Misteryo sa Tuwa, however, progresses even further after this singularly arresting highlight. In fact, the movie is structured in a manner which can only be called, for want of a better term, symphonic. The allegro opening depicts the plane crash right off, then subsides into the establishment of dramatis personae and the exposition of their respective concerns. This is followed by the conflict, whereby the negative elements decide on an utterly inhuman scheme to wrest the money stumbled upon by the central triumvirate. No let-up follows the torture highlight, with the movie ending on a scale both grandiose and edifying – granting of course that one welcomes the sudden and untoward intervention of its militus ex machina.

Director-writer Abbo Q. de la Cruz, who has never made a feature film before, provides an all-in-one justification for the continued existence of ECP. It is disturbing to ponder how many such talents have been passed up through the generations by a primarily commerce-oriented industry. His direction of a screenplay, already illuminating in its simplicity, is at once both masterly and confident, relying upon none of the grandstanding or overstatement typical of first-timers. Even more impressive is his handling of performers. The trio of Johnny Delgado, Ronnie Lazaro, and Tony Santos, along with their partners Alicia Alonzo, Amable Quiambao, and Maria Montes could easily be regarded as sympathetic in their roles as desperate and haunted slash-and-burn farmers.

The most remarkable aspect of Misteryo sa Tuwa, as mentioned earlier, is its high level of technical accomplishment. No other director could have made a more impressive splash, just as no other outfit could have supported such a daring experiment. It’s a pity that the film was only provided the status of a guest entry instead of being allowed to compete for awards in the ongoing Metro Manila Film Festival, where its definite technical merits and possible cinematic accomplishments might have been tested against standard mainstream fare.

[First published December 28, 1984, as “Review: Misteryo sa Tuwa” in Bulletin Today]

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HISTORICAL LESSONS

Virgin Forest
Directed by Peque Gallaga
Written by Rosauro Q. de la Cruz

Virgin Forest displays in an amplified manner the strengths and weakness of its filmmaker Peque Gallaga, which were manifested in his debut film Oro, Plata, Mata. Immediately discernible is a surface naturalism which bespeaks of a fascination with and skillful command of the audio-visual properties of the medium. This merit, coupled with an approach which comes close to the Italian-bred operatic scheme, makes for truly exciting film viewing. As in Oro, Plata, Mata, however, Virgin Forest suffers from an apparent class prejudice on the part of its filmmaker. Unlike the former film, in which period was used for atmospheric reasons, Virgin Forest employs a more definite historical context – the betrayal of Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo during the turn of the century to American invaders by mercenary members of Macabebe town – as a commentary on the story at hand – i.e., the political awakening of a Spanish mestizo, a native fisherman, and a Filipina sold as a sex slave.

The progression of the characters’ concerns may be too predictable for the filmmaker’s always-surprising capabilities, but it is the treatment of the historical context that in fact weakens the triumph of the entire undertaking. Noteworthy in particular is the choice of the Aguinaldo incident as a framework for what is essentially a discourse on nationalist consciousness: since the film’s resolutions are catalyzed by the arrest of Aguinaldo by his American captors, it advances the mistaken impression that the general fought along a consistent nationalist line (on the same order, as, say, Macario Sakay).

One means by which this fallacy may have been mitigated would have been the expert exploitation of the ironic angle in the betrayal by the Macabebes of their own compatriots. Unfortunately, the members of the said ethnic grouping are absolved of dramatic guilt by being portrayed as unthinking brutes led on by the machinations of their sly foreign employers and the latters’ local collaborators. The fact that further development in which the Macabebes eventually turn against some of their leaders confirms this point, motivated as they were by the mute desire to return to their homes rather than a rebellion against the injustice they were made to commit.

The choice of historical context for Virgin Forest therefore demanded a more sophisticated treatment on the part of its maker, at least in so far as attention to the ironies in the politics of betrayal is concerned. On the other hand, the aforementioned achievements of the film, especially within the context of the local industry’s panicked situation, must be appreciated properly. This is one period film that rises above the general run of such entries by daring to take a controversial stance vis-à-vis the objective interpretation of history. The impressive production values alone would distinguish Virgin Forest from most other Filipino films, but its attempts at insightful significance, whatever the outcome, are deserving of serious critical attention.

[Submitted in 1985 to Manila Standard; unpublished]

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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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