Millennial Traversals – Old-Millennium Filmfest Summaries

I remember looking forward to film festivals since I’d be able to write shorter commentaries per film and still wind up with a complete article. In compiling my film-festival articles, however, I realized that, first, having less space to write is potentially a disadvantage, and second, the range of style that this allows may be wide but also less useful. After my post-grad studies return to whatever periods I could free up for festival attendance, I discovered that I could not bear to tolerate equally each and every entry any longer; the prospect of griping about a movie that I should have known better than sit through felt like an unproductive activity. Reader be warned: there’ll be movie-page reportage every so often – although I do hope to compensate for that by providing an extensive study in a separate article.


In describing the last Metro Manila Film Festival, sell-out is the word. Appropriately, it is a compound word, just as the festival can be said to have compounded the already serious problems of the Philippine movie industry. The filmfest was a sell-out because the profits realized by some producers more than made up for the losses of the others. Moreover, it was also a sell-out because its entries, without exception, took no chances trying for an easy passage.

These conclusions were concretized when last December 29, 1979, the event’s board of judges named the best three entries: Kasal-Kasalan, Bahay-Bahayan, Ina Ka ng Anak Mo, and Kadete, in descending order – the only possible arrangement. Of the 10 entries, only five may be construed as well-intentioned. These were, in alphabetical order, Alabok na Ginto, Ang Alamat ni Julian Makabayan, Ina Ka, Kadete, and Modelong Tanso. The rest – Ang Lihim ng Guadalupe, Ang Sisiw Ay Isang Agila, Bugoy, Kasal-Kasalan, and Mamang Sorbetero – employed proven formulae for box-office success. These five, not coincidentally, were primarily either action pictures or comedies.

What then could the filmfest board of judges have had in mind when it chose Pablo Santiago’s Kasal-Kasalan as best picture? How is Kasal-Kasalan anyway? In a word, mediocre. Its commercial intentions are immediately flaunted in its use of so-called superstars. Comedy is derived from the mispairing of two love teams and their attempts at correcting the error, as well as in parallelisms between reel and real situations. The only significant message which the film may have believed in is in fact a dated one: the sanctity of marriage; yet among the many other things the film overlooks is that the average Filipino moviegoer would have to do some incredible stretching of the peso to be able to afford the amorous adventures portrayed onscreen. At least Santiago’s (mis)direction makes no pretense at munificence, content enough portraying movie idols in silly situations, with an ending as happy as its expected box-office returns.

Ina Ka, for its part, seems to have had this in mind. It offers realistic dialogue, passable-to-excellent acting, competent direction. In fact it is, for a serious movie, extremely well-behaved. How can Lino Brocka go wrong with a plot that has proved successful, critically, for Insiang (1976), and commercially, for Init (1979)? Mother and daughter fight over lover, with tragic consequences. For Ina Ka, the gravest tragedy has befallen Brocka, who by playing safe may succeed only in stagnating.

As for Kadete, the sooner dismissed, the better. The movie’s failure is assured by its attitude toward its subject matter. Kadete is simplistic about military training, in much the same way that Borlaza’s Kampus? (1978) was about academic life. Brutality, for example, is considered a psychological aberration severely dealt with in the Philippine Military Academy; beachside ruminations on “animal instincts,” instantly allayed by superiors, are supposedly typical cadet reactions to warfare training. Why then does the Philippines under martial rule have a human rights problem? Borlaza makes no attempt at exploring such contradictions; instead he makes outright PMA propaganda, with a pet cause (homosexuality) thrown in for good measure.

Now the losers. The biggest, of course, was the filmfest audience, but they were never given a chance to participate on the first place. Among the non-winners, Jett C. Espiritu’s Bugoy and Augusto Buenaventura’s Mamang Sorbetero bagged the biggest booties. Of these two, one should have been a non-festival movie, the other a non-movie. Bugoy is a mean-spirited comedy extolling the virtues of an overused Dolphy character, the underdog. Religious overtones notwithstanding, it does not hesitate to resort to vulgarisms and toilet humor to elicit laughter. The title itself is a misnomer, “bugoy” being actually a corruption of the Tagalization of “bourgeois,” but whether the movie’s makers intended irony deliberately is doubtful. Mamang Sorbetero fares better only because it is more tastefully done. Occasionally this story of a rich girl who woos and wins an ice-cream vendor gets too saccharine, but otherwise is bland enough for fair fare. For digestion, both outings are quite toxic, preaching as they do that poverty is personal polity, that the poor have only themselves to blame and one another to turn to – but never allowing their condition to inveigh upon the powers-that-be. The two action movies, Jun Gallardo’s Ang Sisiw Ay Isang Agila and Armando A. Herrera’s Ang Lihim ng Guadalupe, enjoy more or less equal footing, each trying hard to inject socially redeeming values into cadaverous contexts – Ang Sisiw with righteousness, Guadalupe with religion. Both also explicity extol machismo, something best confined to disco dancefloors and TV ad spots, in a society where the emancipation of women still remains an ideal.

Similarly, what the non-winning dramatic films (Modelong Tanso, Alabok na Ginto, and Julian Makabayan) have in common are disappointments. Cirio H. Santiago’s Modelong Tanso is another of those Electra-complex explorations which lately have become so strangely fashionable in local cinema: in fact one of the festival winners, Ina Ka, falls in the same category. Modelong Tanso is about the conflict between a materialistic mother and an idealistic daughter, each of whom gets what she wants and pays the proper price for it. Santiago also pays a price: stereotypical acting, carelessly executed multiple roles, and embarrassing approximations of social sophistication. As in the other entries, Modelong Tanso attempts at significance through developmentalisms (i.e., favorable references to the barangay and the Bagong Lipunan Sites and Services program); as in the other entries, the attempts deservedly fail. Antonio C. Martinez’s Alabok na Ginto may have been the festival’s dark horse, a love triangle consistent in many ways, mostly technical. Thematically, it falls short of realizing the ambitious statements it makes about fairness (or the lack of it) in love and war. As its title suggests, the movie glitters, but it certainly isn’t gold. As least it is better than the uneven alloy Modelong Tanso turned out to be.

Last and least, Celso Ad. Castillo’s Ang Alamat ni Julian Makabayan could have been the festival’s biggest disappointment, were it not for the larger disappointment of the festival itself. But why should this expensive and daring project be comparable to the rest? Because like the rest, it sells out. From its apologetic title to its defensive last words, Julian Makabayan makes sure that the incumbent ruling elite is spared its severe and sweeping judgments. Castillo, a promising director who until recently has been the daring of its intelligentsia, fails to fulfill his and others’ expectations engendered by Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak (1978). In Julian Makabayan, he even indulges himself by playing the Julian, Sr. role, in what may be the festival’s most singularly self-conscious performance. This is not to say, however, that as a director Castillo is any better. His pacing is exasperating and his development of character insincere. Critics who complained of the technical inadequacies of Burlesk Queen (1977) and Pagputi ng Uwak will find less cause for crowing here. But what is The Internationale, the proletariat’s anthem, doing is a movie about peasants? And so on and so forth. Whatever the turnout of criticism, Castillo has once more managed to provoke controversy, this time as the expense of a struggling industry which believed in his messianic claims.

Castillo’s case is symptomatic of the Philippine movie industry in general. Last year’s filmfest, for example, would not have been so disappointing (despite being far better than this year’s) had there not been a good showing three years earlier. Even then, new-wave heralds underestimated the malignant effects the runaway success of F. H. Constantino’s Barok (1976) would have on succeeding installments. The government itself, seeing in the medium the potential for propaganda, lost no time in stipulating blatantly partisan themes (love of country, dignity of labor, respect for elders, honesty and sincerity, civic consciousness). From the very first Rajah Soliman Award for Gerardo de Leon’s Ang Daigdig ng mga Api (1965) to 1979, local-government movie festivals have been running an erratic course. If what is “true, good, and beautiful” were determined, as it is today, by those whose aims run counter to meaningful aesthetics, then we may as well give up on our aspirations of a truly progressive movie industry.

[First published January 19, 1980, as “A Festival to Forget” in Who]

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The recently concluded Manila International Film Festival dry run, otherwise known as the Manila ’81 Event, was a gamble which the festival organizers lost but which the local film audience won. No amount of shabby handling on the part of the former deterred the latter from attending the worthier foreign films screened January 15-20 at the Philippine International Convention Center. Though not everyone could afford the outrageous Php 200 season pass, people braved sun, dust, and rain to trek from PICC to the farthest Philtrade cluster to get whatever tickets were available for free. Often the ticket supply would run out by noon during the festival dates; nevertheless the unfortunate majority of the festival audience would wait in line to get in after the screenings started.

The films were shuffled and reshuffled so often that by the third day no one knew for sure the exact schedule for the remaining films. Hence it became a matter of taking chances with the scheduled screenings, especially after Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed Raging Bull (1980) was shown in place of Li Jun’s Serfs (1963), a People’s Republic of China movie which disappointed its audience when it was shown last year. The organizers’ preference became apparent in their screening of Jerry Jameson’s Raise the Titanic (1980) as festival opener. The movie was, in more ways than one, a disaster. At least, to the organizers’ credit, they refused to trust in the judgment of foreign critics.

Seriously missed was the representation of West German cinema, which has been undergoing a tremendous phase of creativity since the late 1960s. Rumors of Volker Schlöndorff’s Cannes winner The Tin Drum (1979) being considered for exhibition died in the hands – or, more precisely, the mouths – of mongers. And where were the censors? They and other narrow-minded, self-righteous personages should have been around to witness the overhead shot of a nude fantasy sequence in Ingmar Bergman’s Aus dem Leben der Marionetten (1980), the mashing and suckling of humongous female breasts in Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), the incestuous foreplay and masturbation scenes in Bernardo Bertolucci’s La luna (1979), the countless copulations in Maurice Pialat’s Loulou (1980).

And then again, good thing they were not around. If their record for arbitrary judgment of local and foreign movies were to be taken into account, the festival might not have lasted beyond the first few screenings. As another example of bureaucratic inefficiency, phone calls made to various fest departments yielded conflicting information on the availability of seats and the certainty of screenings. About a hundred people had to be turned away from the meeting-room screening of Fellini’s Amarcord, while irrelevant entities like Brooke Shields and Franco Nero were provided access to every corner of the metropolis they felt like occupying.

[First published February 1981 as “A Festival to Omit” in The Review]

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Purists may carp: the Metro Manila Film Festival may be traced to as far back as 1965, when the first Manila festival pronounced Gerardo de Leon’s Ang Daigdig ng mga Api best picture. But truth to tell, the track record of city-wide film festivals doesn’t seem comparable to that of the MMFF, the de Leon obra aside. The most to be had then were earnest entries, most consistently by Augusto Buenaventura, who later had difficulty measuring up to the competition in the MMFF; and though we may take note that Ismael Bernal, Lino Brocka, Celso Ad. Castillo, and Jun Raquiza had one entry each in various years during their period of emergence prior to the first MMFF, their titles then were not distinguished enough to make the grade within the respective festivals they joined – much less would those same titles be even considered for those same filmmakers’ retrospectives. Once we distance ourselves from the trauma of the MMFF’s formative years, negating in the process the occasional results of its awards contests, we would have on hand a name-droppable and, more important, viewable list of films whose contribution to the development of artistic consciousness in the mainstream of the local movie industry cannot be discounted.

Held in 1976, the first Christmas-season MMFF[1] realized a coup – or, more accurately, a series of coups (how connotations could change in the span of a decade!): aside from the fact that the festival itself managed to absorb all the city-based festivals within the metropolis, it also acquired the lucrative Christmas season playdate – an achievement that was to be contested by lobbyists for foreign distributors as late as last year. Brocka proved how vital his second wind was with Insiang, coming as he did fresh from two consecutive years’ triumphs with Tinimbang Ka Nguni’t Kulang (1974) and Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975). Lupita Aquino Kashiwahara (then Concio) came up with Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo, widely admired for its open anti-imperialist stand (a rarity at the time), but less impressive in retrospect. The real winner was of course Eddie Romero, whose Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon? eliminated the has-been implication in the word comeback; the film went on to win the first critics’ best-film prize, and set standards for overall quality that still have to be surpassed by subsequent MMFF entries.

Romero’s achievement turned out a mixed blessing for the next year’s (1977) festival. In no other year were the entries 100-percent serious, but the expectations generated by the previous year’s edition led to so much strife and fury that the then First Lady stepped in and, in a move that should have been regarded as ominous, resolved the brouhaha by simply recalling the results. So much then for intelligent solutions; the line-up consisted of the best-film winner, Castillo’s Burlesk Queen, a much-maligned work that, upon recent re-viewing, has unexpectedly aged well; Romero’s entry Banta ng Kahapon and Mike de Leon’s Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising, which along with Castillo’s film garnered critics’ nominations; Bernal’s Walang Katapusang Tag-araw, Brocka’s Inay, Joey Gosiengfia’s Babae…Ngayon at Kailanman, Mario O’Hara and Romy Suzara’s Mga Bilanggong Birhen, and Gil Portes’s Sa Piling ng mga Sugapa.

As a result, serious industry practitioners seemed to have shied away from the MMFF. The next year, 1978, featured Eddie Garcia’s best film winner Atsay and a slightly better one by Brocka, Rubia Servios; the year after (1979) had Ina Ka ng Anak Mo by the persistent Brocka and a flawed Ang Alamat ni Julian Makabayan by Castillo. The incursion of out-and-out commercial products was to characterize the MMFF since the Burlesk Queen fiasco, but the 1979 event contained a more insidious development: strict adherence to the authoritarian regime’s stipulation of a “developmentalist” criterion. The year’s winner was a genuinely inconsequential population-control mishmash, Kasal-Kasalan, Bahay-Bahayan. The next year (1980) had another earnest Buenaventura effort, Taga sa Panahon, held aloft over two objectively superior titles, Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Brutal and Brocka’s Bona, as well as a number of relatively still-superior commercial works, specifically Laurice Guillen’s Kung Ako’y Iiwan Mo, Danny Zialcita’s Langis at Tubig, and Ronwaldo Reyes’ first installment of his Ang Panday series.

In 1981 the practice of artistic compromise in award-giving was abandoned, at least for best-film winners. Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata was the only noteworthy entry though, with less significant entries by Luis Enriquez (Init o Lamig) and Eduardo Palmos (Ang Babae sa Ulog); Zialcita’s Karma ran second, in terms of quality and box-office appeal, to Reyes’ Ang Pagbabalik ng Panday. The next year (1982) threatened to outdo the impact of 1976. Bernal’s Himala was best picture, although Diaz-Abaya’s Moral has proved more satisfying with the passage of time. Two other entries – Romero’s Desire and Butch Perez’s Haplos – were eclipsed by the grandeur of the first two, with a non-festival entry – Peque Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata, screened within the festival period at the Manila Film Center – making waves of its own. Diaz-Abaya acquired belated recognition the year after (1983), when her Karnal was adjudged winner; although not as accomplished a work as Moral, it still outdistanced the competition: Brocka’s Hot Property and Gallaga’s Bad Bananas sa Puting Tabing.

The previous two years were marked by correct decision-making that tended to leave out some innovative entries. O’Hara’s Bulaklak sa City Jail and Castillo’s Paradise Inn won in 1984 and 1985 respectively, while acceptable choices like Tata Esteban’s Alapaap and Bernal’s and Gallaga’s segments in the omnibus Shake, Rattle and Roll acquiring recognition in 1984 and Brocka’s Ano ang Kulay ng Mukha ng Diyos? for last year. A few others, specifically Portes’s Bukas…May Pangarap and Abbo Q. de la Cruz’s Misteryo sa Tuwa in 1984 and Mel Chionglo’s Bomba Arienda in 1985 served to demonstrate how the MMFF has come to require a strong commercial orientation not only within the festival itself, but even among the prospective winners.

This year marks more than just the first MMFF after over a decade of constant but on-the-whole commercial activity. It would also be the first one since the departure of former President Marcos and his meddlesome First Lady. Will it succeed, as most of the rest of the nation has, in effecting a break from usual expectations? Will it also sustain the uneasy mix of commerce and artistry amid the occasional awards controversy? Or will it recede further into the purveyance of escapism, as the movie industry has been doing since February, oblivious to a political situation that purports to be revolutionary in nature? The moviehouses as well as our movie-addicted populace will hold the answer.


[1] This was actually the second Metro Manila Film Festival, and also the last to be known as the Metropolitan Film Festival; the previous year’s MFF was held during the anniversary of martial law in September 1975 – which also happened to be Ferdinand Marcos’s birth month. All subsequent editions retained the Christmas-holiday playdate.

[First published January 28, 1987, as “Ten Years of the Metro Filmfest” in National Midweek]

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A festival of sorts has been gracing, perhaps even grazing, movie screens all over the metropolis this year of the people-power revolution, of a nature specific enough to define and draw conclusions therefrom. With over a dozen well-scattered theaters as venues and slightly less than that amount of films as entries, the series, in double-run exhibitions, is being screened in places under the same theater circuit and, more important, comprises productions made by the same outfit: Regal Films.

This brings us to the first observation – a recently raised objection on the part of independent producers on the allegation that, since the theaters’ owner happens to be closely allied with the films’ producer, and the only other effective film producer hereabouts, Viva Films, happens to dominate most of the rest of the movie-houses, the local film industry is practically controlled by only two competitive commercial institutions. A tired and legally inapplicable term, “monopoly,” has been called back to action, modified by an even more problematic description, “Chinese,” since the other producer is as Filipino as cultural-complex tie-ups could have allowed.

To the objectors’ credit, a few of them still persevere within the system, while most others have been exploring possibilities in alternative venues, formats, or media. The last two modes of practice have been more successful, as witness the active participation of independent producers and film artists in short films and television, or even journalism and the fine arts; as for alternative venues, unless a concept like the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines can be revived, or that of a red-light theater district can be evolved, the resort to provincial theatrical circuits to exhibit sex films will at best be a catch-as-catch-can option. Film censorship, which is the principal issue here, will more likely be around until the exigencies of national development allow for or even require a healthy amount of cultural libertarianism – which is the same as saying that censorship will be around for a longer period of time than we may be able to bear.

So censorship and commerce enjoy at best a symbiotic relationship for the moment. And while the mainstream industry has managed to resume its box-office-based vitality largely through the formulae by which it maintained a stranglehold on the consciousness of the movie-going public during the past regime, concerned observers should join the aforementioned conscientious objectors in pointing out that financial revitalization cannot be considered enough achievement for a system that used to flourish before anyway, and at the expense of its consumers’ long-delayed political maturation at that.

Of course commercialism is its own excuse for being: the present pseudo-festival, actually a reissue of mostly successful family-entertainment cycles, seems intended to build up toward the Christmas season’s Metro Manila Film Festival, if not the festival producer’s most expensive fantasy movie due for release early 1987, rather than for some extra profit on the part of the exhibitor(s) – although again no one would complain if this turned out to be the only tangible result, least of all the producer. All the same the resort to reissues recalls the sordid scenario of a few years back, when this time the obscene (in more ways than one) success of an international film festival, coupled with a moralistic backlash institutionalized through censorship, caused such a slump in movie production that theaters had to fill in potentially profitable playdates with past proven hits.

Circa the present, when the industry can claim to have regained its influence on what may now be argued as the masses’ worst behavior (granting that the best so far was the manifestation of people power, which thereby puts movie patronage on the same level as attendance at loyalist rallies), the fact that the country’s biggest producer turned to a crisis measure means that somewhere else a slump still exists. Not, as we have seen, on the level of monetary returns, but rather on less abstractible terms, in terms that we can see, literally maybe, once we enter any typical movie-house purporting to present a typical Filipino movie that is supposed to, and only supposed to, represent the times.

[Submitted November 1987 to National Midweek; unpublished]

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Time was when I could watch all dozen or so entries to the Metro Manila Film Festival and emerge all the healthier for my concern for the state of local movie-making. This year (1987) was the second filmfest in which the number of entries had been reduced to only six, but I got sick anticipating my first viewing, a press preview, and suffered a relapse after going through half the entries. Just my way of justifying why I will be dismissing most of the titles I watched. After all, considering what I went through, I guess I had earned the right to a little indulgence, for my health’s sake, mental and otherwise. Generalizations first: in terms of artistic achievement, this year’s MMFF performed far better than last year’s, largely on the basis of a relatively passable quality entry plus a couple of acceptable entertainments – which I’ll qualify later, don’t worry. In contrast, all that last year’s event could muster was one acceptable entertainment and nothing else, and although I disagree with the practice of withholding prizes on the basis of poor performance, I can understand how the judges could have approved of the only entry recognizable as a movie, notions of quality aside.

We’ll begin with the title that best demonstrates the astigmatism which our film evaluators suffer from: the curse of being too easily impressed with good intentions. Jose Antonio Alonzo and Jerry O. Tirazona’s Anak Badjao isn’t only serious politically, dealing as it does with the still-urgent Muslim conflict in the South; it’s also serious in a film-historical sense, referring as its title implies to a rarely seen and somewhat overrated black-and-white entry (Lamberto V. Avellana’s Badjao [1957]). As for Anak Badjao as film – well, it isn’t; it’s earnest, sincere, upright, honest, and equitable – too bad it couldn’t run for public office. Come to think of it, this is one of the rare instances where the movie takes its cue from political aspirants instead of the other way around. And since it only serves to prove that you can seem virtuous on the surface but only wind up concealing your real motives – in a movie’s case, profits through the box-office – I guess I could be kinder to Anak Badjao, even if I know I couldn’t bear to watch it again.

Artemio Marquez’s The Untold Story of Melanie Marquez is a related case, but here the elements that conspired against Anak Badjao work to the advantage of this weird filmbio. Unlike the Muslim problem, Melanie Marquez is a funny and pretty and, at least on the basis of her movie, humane subject. She also has the advantage of having a life story that’s far less complicated than the subject matter of Anak Badjao, with its political and religious ramifications. And when you try fitting Untold Story’s seemingly inconsequential tale into the cinema’s mythologizing dimensions, you’ll wind up with an overblown product in danger of approaching pretentiousness. But then, as I mentioned earlier, Marquez is too much the charmer and besides has too little plastic talent to amount to anything threatening, and so, given a specific frame of mind, you could actually even enjoy her “untold” story. A colleague declared it a camp classic, and although I couldn’t make up my mind about its durability, I most wholeheartedly agree with such a choice of modifier.

All the other entries, except for one which we’ll save for last, are unabashedly commercial in orientation. The advantage is that they don’t have to work too hard in reaching the mass audience: do your thing in the most obvious way, never mind if it might hurt you or them later, and wait for the money to start pouring in. What’s funny when you think about it is that the comedies – Mike Relon Makiling’s 1+1 = 12+1 (Cheaper by the Dozen) and Angel Labra’s Action is Not Missing (Crack Platoon) – were too predictably reliant on routine as to be horrific, while the horror movie, Mauro Gia Samonte’s Huwag Mong Buhayin ang Bangkay, was too predictably etc. as to be comic. Well, I not only had to think about it, dearies, I even had to watch these nightmares masquerading as dreams, spending for my tickets with my own money while nursing an illness, and I don’t need to tell you it wasn’t funny, or do I? All I remember is that I couldn’t imagine how I once could have enjoyed the displays of comic expertise elsewhere by the likes of Dolphy, Roderick Paulate, Susan Roces, and Caridad Sanchez, and that for once, in Huwag Mong Buhayin ang Bangkay, a movie seems to have adjusted itself widely enough to contain Charito Solis’ talent and figure – at the expense of its own effectiveness, that is.

And so we arrive at Olongapo: The Great American Dream. As everyone knows about the nature of such longings, this one makes you go through plenty only to dump you nowhere near the place it promised you. To be fair, however, we first need to set this entry apart from all the foregoing: it still remains the best, which in this case equates to “most tolerable.” Olongapo’s the only filmfest entry that displays some amount of directorial intelligence – although, ironically for filmmaker Chito Roño, direction was one major awards category where it lost. Olongapo also supplied the only sane proceeding for the entire festival, but again you’ll have to look beyond the movie for proof. I refer here to the successful display of activism by its makers in protesting the interference of its producers in imposing what amounted to an inappropriate, not to mention sinister, ideology on the film’s story-material.

And here is where watching finally pays off. You see a geographical area, Olongapo, with the Americans’ naval facilities looming over the place. Characters are made to develop the milieu into something more useful for film discourse – and then the rules of the subject itself take over. It becomes a matter of upholding the autonomy of the individual project really. One can’t just claim, whatever her intention (that word again!), that a pre-existing framework of analysis will suit the story fine; the framework must be tested against the material and be subjected to modifications or even rejection if necessary. The specific dialectics of Olongapo (the movie, not the place) dictate that it pursue the issue of the presence of US bases vis-à-vis the lives of its characters. The dialectics of the medium itself require that the makers stand by their characters, whatever they do or go through. I don’t believe in telling producers how to waste their money, but in this instance those dollars clearly went into making anti-characters out of what could have been effective dramatis personae. You see prostitutes and gangsters thinking like American servicemen, specifically the right-wing sort. It just doesn’t jibe, and it also happens to be quite an emotional issue locally. All I can say is that in the end those foreign financiers, whoever they were, had it coming to them.

[First published January 1988 as “The Curse of Good Intentions” in Conjunction]

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Is this what’s in store for us? The prospect of being encouraged to do one’s best, then being done in by the very same party that promised rewards for a job well done, could be taken as a warning for what government in general may do to society. Fortunately, the last Christmas season’s brazen display of flim-flammery was confined to the metropolitan exercise whose name describes it accurately, though not passionately, enough: the Metro Manila Film Festival. Even more important, the participants involved – cultural bureaucrats on the one hand and industry practitioners on the other – are used to this kind of game, having played it more than once before in the event’s dozen-year-old existence.

The 1988 MMFF also happened to be the third since the 1988 “EDSA Revolution,” and herein lies the basis for a proper castigation of the turn of events. The post-Marcos era began with a decline in both film profits and quality, but where other concerned parties (notably the critics’ group) withheld their encouragement, the government implicitly maintained its optimism by continuing to hold the MMFF. While the previous regime tried to install a full-blown institutional support system that merely crumbled under the weight of its ambitions (an international film festival and the Manila Film Center being the heaviest components), the current dispensation has been understandably wary of innovations that resemble anything that the Marcoses had attempted.

So from a dreary, dismissible performance in 1986, the MMFF participants, reduced in number from ten to a more manageable six, came up with a more tolerable showing in 1987 – and in 1988, the most solid output since 1977. In both editions, no single entry could be accused of outright commercialization; even the most profitable entries had above-average budgets and production values going for them. Significantly, 1977 was the biggest fiasco the MMFF ever experienced, until 1988 came along. The difference, however, lay in the nature of attendant controversies: eleven years ago, the festival judges correctly selected the best entry, whose unpopularity eventually resulted in high-level intervention. Celso Ad. Castillo’s Burlesk Queen, as any recent viewing can confirm, will withstand the test of time admirably. On the other hand, Cesar Abella’s Patrolman, the 1988 winner, will not amount to anything even beside all its other MMFF competitors.

Patrolman shares with the only other box-office hit, Pablo Santiago’s topnotcher Agila ng Maynila, a surprisingly critical view of the city’s police force. That, plus a pathetic impersonation of Agila’s Fernando Poe Jr. by Patrolman’s (and MMFF’s best actor!) Baldo Marro, is where the comparison ends. Agila’s popularity is for once well-earned, with wondrous myth-making by an appropriately low-key FPJ providing an effective counter to the expected morality issues. Moreover, Poe’s usual vigilantism is this time tempered by the possibilities of internal reform; all he needs to complete his transformation to Dirty Harry is a sardonic sense of humor, but better this than Rambo.

More on the level of Patrolman is MMFF award-sweeper and third best picture, Carlo J. Caparas’s Celestina Sanchez, Alyas Bubbles (Enforcer: Ativan Gang). It reflects a lot on Patrolman to say that Bubbles, for all its fatal flaws, is still a better movie: it has the honesty of true proletarian material, rather than shallow law-enforcement angst, and a consistent performance from Austria and whoever dubbed her. Austria’s role, for all its on onscreen degradations, is never fully developed; the ultimate disappointment lies in our realizing that Bubbles’ haplessness in the face of various social evils resists any active characterization.

Two other entries, Leroy Salvador’s Pik Pak Boom (a two-in-one feature) and Laurice Guillen’s Magkano ang Iyong Dangal?, heighten the formulas observed by Agila and Bubbles, as befits their origins in two of today’s three major studios. Viva Films’ Pik Pak Boom thrives on historical irony: the outfit that used to promote the Imelda Marcos’s “true, good, and beautiful” dictum now has to resort to developmental soft-sell, balancing its caution of excess materialism (in the “Manyika” episode) with an endorsement of small-scale entrepreneurship (“Banana Q”), realizing in the process its first major hit in almost two years. Whatever injury Viva might feel in that kind of remark might be shared by Seiko Films, which weighed in with its Magkano ang Iyong Dangal? The Seiko production, which won MMFF prizes including second best entry, appropriated the very prescription that Viva used in its rise to prosperity. Here we find the rich and famous parrying the slings and arrows of outrageous passions, and ending up still looking glamorous. Topnotch production values and performances make this melodramatic mouthful more palatable than most, but again the more salient qualities of the other entries have succeeded in showing up its irrelevance.

Chito Roño’s Itanong Mo sa Buwan, the sixth and last entry, is 1988’s Burlesk Queen. Having garnered neither box-office nor award supremacy, it in fact belongs to the growing list of MMFF also- or never-rans that often exhibit clear superiority over their respective years’ winners (see appendix). Itanong Mo deploys the same fragmented time structure of Laurice Guillen’s Salome, a 1982 local non-MMFF production, and its forerunner, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950). If anything, Itanong Mo proves how much more potential lies in the approach, and how well it serves the basic purposes of character. The basic difference is the hint that nothing really can be resolved in the end: Itanong Mo lies midway between the outright rejection of subjective versions of reality in Rashomon and the definitive conclusion of Salome. A few loose strands notwithstanding, Itanong Mo is a pretty formidable movie. The cornerpieces of the love triangle are outstanding, as are most of the supporting players, and for the nth time Jaclyn Jose demonstrates that powerful acting can be derived from a judicious rejection of method. Posterity ought to be kinder Itanong Mo, as it will be to Burlesk Queen and the others; but someone should make sure that the MMFF does not let slip such opportunities for redemption in the future.

Appendix: MMFF Winners

Listed after each year are the first-place winners, followed by other entries; those with asterisks were exhibited out of competition (occasionally in non-mainstream, non-celluloid, or even non-metropolitan venues) during the festival period. Only one winner, and a third-placer at that, was declared in 1986, while the awards for 1977 were subsequently revoked.

1976Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?; Insiang; Minsa’y Isang Gamugamo; Itim*
1977Burlesk Queen; Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising; Mga Bilanggong Birhen
1978Atsay; Rubia Servios
1979Kasal-Kasalan, Bahay-Bahayan; Ang Alamat ni Julian Makabayan; Ina Ka ng Anak Mo
1980Taga sa Panahon; Bona; Brutal
1982Himala; Moral; Oro, Plata, Mata*
1983Karnal; Hot Property
1984Bulaklak sa City Jail; Bukas…May Pangarap; Misteryo sa Tuwa*
1985Paradise Inn; Bomba Arrienda
1986 – “Halimaw sa Banga” (episode of Halimaw); Bilanggo sa Dilim (video)*
1987Olongapo: The Great American Dream; The Untold Story of Melanie Marquez

[First published January 18, 1989, as “Filmfest Flimflammery” in National Midweek]

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I am [ca. 2006] a visiting professor at Hallym University in Korea, but my affiliation is with the University of the Philippines (UP). I was an alumnus of the UP undergraduate film program, and on my return from graduate studies in the United States (where I was mainly a queer-filmfest spectator), I helped set up the UP Film Institute (UPFI) as well as its MA film program. As founding director of the UPFI, I was able to oversee a number of regular screenings and retrospectives, including one-shot gay film events. Recently the UPFI just finished providing a venue for the third edition of the Pink Film Festival (subtitled International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival). The eight-­hundred-seat UPFI film theater has the unique advantage of being exempt from censorship, so the incentives for using it as a venue are obvious.

As already pointed out in several responses in the previous roundtable,[1] the concept of an LGBTQ-specific film festival cannot escape being associated with the more-generalized practice of globalization. In a Third World setting such as the Philippines, this gets played out mainly as an unfortunate alliance between queerness and a relatively privileged social standing, literalized in emerging indie-­digital outputs where the filmmakers’ entrepreneurial daring is contained by the attention they devote to middle-class characters.

There are several ways to argue how queer festivals may be ultimately superfluous in this type of setting. The Philippines’ best-known film director, the late Lino Brocka, has a couple of foreign-released gay titles to his name, originally introduced to the world-at-large via gay filmfests. Yet Brocka’s gay films remain fundamentally conflicted, riven as they are by the tension between the radical unruliness of queer lifestyles and the normativizing prescriptions of organized leftist politics.

In contrast, the still-fairly active mainstream industry can occasionally still conjure up film texts whose queerness is sometimes compromised but also sometimes impressively enhanced by the circumstances of genre practice. The country’s most celebrated censorship case dealt with such a product, Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night (Philippines, 1980), while a recent city film festival showcased a film, Joel C. Lamangan’s Sabel (Philippines, 2004), whose real-life-based central character transitioned from heterosexual promiscuity through nunhood, wifehood, and motherhood, finally winding up as a righteous guerrilla sympathizer with a lesbian spouse.

One further reason specialized festivals need reconsideration is the fact that local consumers have better ways to access quality products without having to masquerade, as it were, in an aesthetes-only venue whose social dynamics resemble that of a Chelsea singles club. With more genuine risk taking, one could browse through the Muslim flea market area of downtown Manila, risking police raids and petty criminality to purchase the widest possible range of contemporary DVD products, including straight and queer pornography.

The significance of such a phenomenon has not been lost on U.S. Embassy officials and the International Intellectual Property Alliance, which placed the Philippines on its watch list of intellectual property violators. Battle lines are being drawn with increasing belligerence – not just in terms of shootouts between vendors and raiders but also in the spectacle of film artists and scholars “coming out” in mainstream media outlets in support of this particular form of economic transgression. With videos selling at about US$1, as low as 3 percent of the price of the same products in a “legitimate” Philippine outlet, the issue ought to be a no-brainer if not for the profit-at-all-costs machinations of foreign distributors-whose own products, we may do well to add, sell for significantly less in their home countries, as can be seen in the recently announced American line of one-dollar DVDs. Thanks to the pirates (or what I have called, in recent conference papers, anti-imperialist video-dubbing service providers)[2] ordinary consumers can now shop for and program their own personalized film retrospectives.

Finally – and this is where my argument faces a number of interdisciplinary overlaps – perhaps a queer film festival does not really add anything much to a culture that always already partakes of queerness, not just in the film-consumerist sense where working-class porn viewers switch from straight porn to queer products without any compunction to justify themselves. What makes a movie like Manila by Niqht so effective, and still threatening, a quarter century after its release is the fact that its depiction of polymorphous sexualities is recognizable to anyone who has grown up in a Philippine urban milieu. This is where the Philippines (and perhaps some of its immediate neighbors, but I dare not venture into this area for now) departs from being discernibly Asian in terms of its sexual mores and appears more and more like one of the Pacific Island groups with which it shares linguistic properties.

To reconfigure what value a gender-/sexuality-oriented film festival could proffer, and what shape it ought to take, one will have to look more closely at the sundry goings-on in Philippine bedrooms, restrooms, parks, theaters, and other semiprivate spaces, preferably without the binoculars supplied by North American sexual ideologies. More challengingly, such a project will have to determine its scope of beneficiaries: the population at large first and foremost, of course, but then where should we position interested liminal groups such as Western sexual adventurers, cultural anthropologists, and, those odd though still possibly queer specimens, alienated native indie practitioners?

In my years of shuttling between relatively developed countries and my Third World home, the shifts always became more than semantic. When I wanted to watch a queer film, I would buy a ticket to, say, New York’s Mix event. But if it was a queer environment I longed for, I would be more than happy if I could afford a trip back home, in a country constantly fucked over by economic and religious colonizations and learning, however slowly, to create and operate its own technologies of resistance. In this respect, any local festival, any film screening for that matter, could be as queer as it gets.


[1] Written as a contribution to the Queer Film and Video Festival Forum, Take Two: Critics Speak Out section, edited by Chris Straayer and Thomas Waugh.

[2] Joel David, “Cutthroat Archipelago: Video Piracy in and around the Philippines,” Culture Industry and Cultural Capital: Transnational Media Consumption and the Korean New Wave in East Asia: Conference Proceedings (Seoul: Institute for Communication Arts & Technology, 2005) 105-09; and “Condemned Property: Film Piracy in the Philippines” (paper presented at The Film Scene: Cinema, the Arts, and Social Change conference, Hong Kong, April 2006).

[First published 2006 (4th qtr.) in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies]

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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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