Millennial Traversals – Period Enders

Like my reports on film festivals, these summations helped me record my impressions of the period under review; collected here, however, they also demonstrate a careful veering away from institutional preferences, starting with award-giving critics circles. In a few instances I noted where my opinion of certain specific films ultimately departed from even my own initial assessment.

LOCAL CINEMA 1980

Moviegoing in the Philippines, if developments and trends during the past year provide any indication, will continue to be one of the most popular pastimes in the country. Notwithstanding another recent increase in the price of theater admission, the local movie industry realized booms – and not just because of bomb threats either. Local producers this past year saw their box-office records being broken by their own recent productions. Among the bigger hits were Gil Portes’s Miss X for Sining Silangan and Eddie Romero’s Aguila for Bancom Audiovision Corp. In fact the last, an all-star epic spanning a century of Philippine history, scored points as both the most expensive production and the highest box-office earner among local movies.

Spurred on by the outcome of Romero’s five-million-peso gamble, other local producers began investing in big-budget productions of their own. None, however, was as expensive – or, for that matter, as profitable – as Aguila. Agrix Films attempted to duplicate Bancom’s feat with Romy Suzara’s Palawan but failed. Attempts by LVN Productions and Regal, on the other hand, were more successful in that they met with critical acclaim for Mike de Leon’s Kakabakaba Ka Ba? and Ishamel Bernal’s Manila by Night (preview version) respectively. Both films also figured in controversies with the board of censors for motion pictures (BCMP), which first banned both movies then approved them with cuts.

The only other local production which had as much trouble with the BCMP was a 1979 film, Lino Brocka’s Jaguar, which won the Famas and Urian awards for best picture. The Bancom production had difficulty getting a permit for its exhibition in the 1980 Cannes Film Festival. There it repeated the success Brocka’s Insiang enjoyed two years earlier – that is, all acclaim but no award. The Philippines, however, can hope for a better showing at Cannes in 1981 with the screening of Brocka’s Bona, an NV Productions presentation.

Meanwhile, the trend for big-budget productions could extend well into the next year, when the first Manila International Film Festival will have been held. Bancom, for example. has Celso Ad. Castillo’s Uhaw na Dagat ready for release, while MVP Productions is considering a big-time project with Brocka. Other newer production outfits are expected to follow suit, some with big-budget projects as their initial releases. Such optimism is apparently centers on the certainty of the international filmfest, which has marketing as its avowed primary purpose. The fact that the date for the first festival was postponed to a year later lends credence to its organizers’ commercial intentions.

New (& Not-So-New) Blood

Another significant trend in Philippine cinema last year was the readlines of producers to provide breaks for new directors. But from about a dozen beginners, only three have had follow-up projects. Of these three, only two have enjoyed critical success as well. Both are women. Marilou Diaz-Abaya and Laurice Guillen both had their second films, Brutal and Kung Ako’y Iiwan Mo respectively, in the running for the Metro Manila Film Festival. Brutal was Diaz-Abaya’s second movie after Tanikala, a box-office bomb, while Kung Ako’y Iiwan Mo was Guillen’s successor to Kasal?, one of the year’s better sleepers.

The only other new directors with a follow-up project was komiks writer Carlo J. Caparas, who counted on box-office performance alone for Kung Tawagin Siya’y Bathala. Manuel Lapid, better known by his screen name Lito Lapid, may go the same way Caparas did with Ang Pagbabalik ni Leon Guerrero. The rest are faced with the double challenge of proving box-office or critical worth (or both) and getting another directorial assignment in the first place. Among the more significant first-timers were Eddie Romero’s son Joey with Iwahig, Laperal mainstay Lando Perez-Jacob with Wild Animals, fashion designer Christian Espiritu with Alaga, and scriptwriters Jehu C. Sebastian and Ruben Arthur Nicdao with Sa Akin Ka…Magpakasal! and Ano ang Ginawa ng Babae sa Ibon? respectively.

The trend for hiring new directors may either continue or peter out this year, depending on the performance of those already established in the industry and on the availability of new talents. One would-be director whose debut has spilled over into 1981 is Mel Chionglo, whose Playgirl failed to find a profitable screening schedule late last year. The ballyhooed debut of one last aspirant, stage director Rolando Tinio, simply failed to materialize. Others in the know would list another stage director, Anton Juan, and cinematographer Romy Vitug among the younger hopefuls.

Nineteen eighty also saw the comeback of two outstanding directors of the past decade. One was de Leon with Kakabakaba and the other was Mario O’Hara with Kastilyong Buhangin, starring debuting director Lito Lapid. Two other comebacking directors, Butch Perez and Manuel Conde (known for his Juan Tamad series), still have to realize their respective projects. Producers might also consider enticing Lupita Concio, the only other competent Filipina director available, to return to the country for another attempt at filmmaking.

In terms of acting (or what passes off as such), Regal has maintained a monopoly on star build-up. The truly new faces were those of the actors: Alfie Anido, Gabby Concepcion, Jimi Melendez, William Martinez. Of the actresses, only one was in every sense a newcomer: Dina Bonnevie, who reportedly broke Regal’s box-office records with Katorse, then set an even higher record with Underage – both campy Gosiengfiao movies. The other actresses were child performers who were re-introduced as nymphets: Gina Alajar, Maricel Soriano, and Snooky. Tet Antiquiera and Myrna Castillo, the only non-Regal entry, became has-beens in a matter of months.

Momentous Movies

The decade began auspiciously for Philippine movies, with a concentration of quality films rivaling, if not actually surpassing, the turnout in 1976. A tentative listing of the year’s must-see movies would include the following:

Aguila. An ambitious attempt at delineating the Filipino’s search for identity which somehow falters toward the end but is nevertheless consistently engaging throughout.
Bona. A gripping tale of a woman’s awakening from oppression, featuring an impeccable performance from one of the country’s most capable actresses at present, Nora Aunor.
Brutal. A fiercely feminist film that piles up points without resorting to polemics.
Kakabakaba Ka Ba? Japanese imperialists and Filipino collaborators are taken to task in a visually dazzling and audibly pleasing satire.
Manila by Night (uncensored version). Tough luck for the majority of movie-goers who were not able to attend any of this masterwork’s previews; a hard, innovative and ultimately affecting study of perversion and brutality in the big city.

Many other local movies were worth a good viewing, though these were not on the same level of artistry as those listed. These include (in chronological order) Kasal?, Castillo’s Totoy Boogie, Bernal’s Sugat sa Ugat, and Brocka’s Angela Markado.

Old-timers who can still recall the countless Continental imports in the 1950s will find no consolation in the likely persistence of American imports well into the decade. At least the Lumauig Bill, now destined for oblivion, will not be around to further limit the market. Some foreign film enthusiasts have meanwhile found choice selections conveniently concentrated in film revivals. Commercial revivals were for a time the exclusive feature of the Ali Mall theater in Cubao. When after a half-year hiatus a September revival proved to be the most successful ever, a throng of revival groups rushed into reservations with the same and other theaters. for some reason or another these subsequent attempts were not able to parallel the success of the September activity.

Cinephiles, however, can take to the special festivals organized by the various active foreign embassies in the country. Although these were neither as numerous nor as varied as those in recent years, anything of the sort would always be better than nothing. Among the more outstanding ones held in 1980 were an Indian festival featuring the works of Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal; a Japanese festival featuring the works of Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi; a British festival featuring the works of Lindsay Anderson, John Schlesinger, and Tony Richardson; and two separate French festivals featuring the works of Jacques Rouffio and Roger Pigaut. The most active foreign cultural center in terms of film screening has been the Goethe-Institut Manila. Last year it was able to sponsor several festivals featuring the works of Wim Wenders, Reinhard Hauff, Hark Bohm, Rainier Fassbinder, as well as early film classics by Josef von Sternberg, Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau, and G. W. Pabst.

A further development toward the uplift of film standards has been realized through the regular weekly screenings of various foreign cultural centers. Aside from the years-old Friday screenings at Alliance Française and Saturday matinees at the Goethe-Institut, other centers began holding film screenings for the first time. The British Council screens movie on Mondays, Ayala Museum on Tuesdays, and the Soviet Embassy on Fridays. Local film buffs would appreciate similar programs by the Japanese and Italian embassies, considering the high quality of films available in the countries they represent.

Such arrangements, apart from being free of charge, provide worthwhile alternatives to the B-movies, spaghetti westerns, disaster flicks, and celluloid romances that continue to crowd commercial movie screens. Meanwhile…what’s on TV?

[First published January 1981 as “New Directions for a New Decade” in The Review]

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LOCAL CINEMA 1986

Another occasion this is for the masochistic ritual of evaluation. Local cinema never had it so bad, at least during this generation, but doomsday observers were making this very same pronouncement a year or two too early – when the political situation was bad but local cinema was, relatively speaking, healthy.

The experience calls to mind the early ’70s situation, when people were bemoaning the state of Philippine filmmaking despite evidence to the contrary, until martial rule was declared and a crisis extended effectively enough to threaten the extra-commercial rationale for the existence of the industry. In 1972 (and most of 1973), as in 1986, the complainants seemed to have been stunned beyond articulation, confronted as they were with a worsening of what they thought was already the pits. The fact that the year prior to the political upheaval saw the emergence of Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka (and straight-faced debuts by Joey Gosiengfiao, Elwood Perez and Romy Suzara) as well as the shift toward artistic consciousness by Celso Ad. Castillo – these did not suffice to temper the cavils about bomba releases and silly musicals; it would have been more honest to admit that the raging of the First Quarter Storm then tended to affect one’s concentration, in movie-houses and elsewhere, just as the period from the Aquino assassination to last year’s snap elections lessened one’s threshold for entertainment.

Nevertheless the records show that serious reviewers were less satisfied with the local film industry’s output between 1983 and 1986, when specific titles would elicit condemnations for simply being bold, commercial, or obscure (one rule of thumb held that anything shown at the Manila Film Center would be fair game for moralists – which led to less recognition for Tikoy Aguiluz’s Boatman and Peque Gallaga’s Scorpio Nights and Virgin Forest [all 1985] than these movies deserved). When the results became as bad as the reviews alleged them to be, the individual writers must have run out of creative derogatory remarks to publish; conveniently a revolution, or what appeared to be one, had just been consummated – in a sense providing serious writers on film with an excuse to be distracted from their profession to attend to the higher call for nation-building, as if such a dichotomy existed.

Only toward year’s end, when the inevitable – a well-attended festival of inconsequential viewing fare – occurred, a group of judges who enjoyed the privilege of legal sanction pointed out the decline. The withholding of festival prizes to dramatize the concern may have been beside the point, but more important, the act itself (seconded by the critics’ and concerned artists’ circles) may have been a bit too late. During the early period of martial rule, it took a concerted effort on the part of artists themselves, expending not just creative but also political and financial resources, to be able to bring about the aesthetic triumphs from the mid-’70s to the early ’80s.

Such a strategy seems to be under way already: the best output of the past year have all been alternative in nature. The closest to mainstream releases would be Chito Roño’s (a.k.a. Sixto Kayko’s) Private Show and William Pascual’s Takaw Tukso, both of which are of the “bold” (sex-melodrama) genre and therefore, because of the threat of censorship, intended in principle for specialized theatrical releases (once the MFC, now replaced by the local countryside circuits). Next to these one would be hard-put to place other mainstream titles of comparable achievement; what comes to mind are flawed items by Marilou Diaz-Abaya (Senswal), Ishmael Bernal (The Graduates), Tata Esteban (Flesh Avenue, Materyales Fuertes, and Salamangkero), and Mario O’Hara (Bagong Hari and Halimaw’s “Halimaw sa Banga” episode). And where a debut movie or two would, in the past, have joined at least the ranks of the also-rans, the most we had for ’86 was a less-than-satisfactory work by Christopher Strauss de Leon, Halimaw’s “Komiks” episode.

One last, and perhaps the most positive, indicator of the sorry state of Philippine cinema has been the movement of practitioners toward related formats. As a result, television has been able to realize several commendable projects, whether according to specific specials, particular episodes, entire series, or even non-feature programs.

It is the independent formats, however, which have enjoyed competition-caliber experimentations on the part of local film artists. Mike de Leon’s video-movie Bilanggo sa Dilim, the first of its kind to have been released in the country, is the usual finely crafted piece, a suspense thriller this time, that has come to be associated with its filmmaker, but which will be remembered for its expert deployment of performers and a daring integration of heretofore disparate effects peculiar to the medium. It is both reflective of the disappointing turnout of entries in the recently concluded festival and praiseworthy of de Leon’s capabilities that, were it permitted to compete and even in its inherently disadvantaged format relative to film, Bilanggo would easily have upstaged all the other festival entries.

One last ’86 production, and the most admirable for its having been done independently in every significant sense of the word, is Briccio Santos’s 16mm. film, Damortis. Produced by the director for no other purpose than presumably to be able to finish a project he happened to believe in, Damortis is a wonderfully nuanced discourse on the futility of violating the cyclical nature of rural existence. Contemporary urbanite concerns such as sexual politics, professional exploitation, and cultural conflicts are played against a framework of occultism and the predominance of the life force. The work as a whole is far from an unqualified achievement – a visionary coldness and unnecessarily novel story-telling mode being the two more obvious reservations one could point out – but it is certainly an even farther cry from the more indulgent and pointless Filipino productions in similar formats. If not for anything else, 1986 may well be remembered for the persistence of film artists in the face of apathetic government regulation, cynical mainstream producers, and a less-than-adequately prepared audience. With a little more luck than these same artists have been having, the present alternative trend may yet lead toward another renaissance in Philippine cinema.

[First published February 11, 1987, as “Waiting for a Renaissance” in National Midweek]

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LOCAL CINEMA MID-1987

When it rains it sometimes pours, and judging by the drenching movie observers have been getting lately, it seems like a real deluge is in the offing. Those who thought 1986 was one of the worst years in the current decade – what with only two competition-caliber films (Chito Roño’s Private Show and William Pascual’s Takaw Tukso) plus two significant alternative-cinema outputs (Mike de Leon’s Bilanggo sa Dilim and Briccio Santos’s Damortis) – must be too busy shaking off the chills to express remorse. So far this year, with the first semester just concluded, local movie observers still have to witness the equivalent of last year’s first-half showing of Private Show plus passable entries like Mario O’Hara’s Bagong Hari and Peque Gallaga’s Unfaithful Wife.

A combination of factors conspire to promote this dismal state of things. Concerned artists have decried the arbitrariness of censorship policies, but this is merely a manifestation of a more deep-seated resentment on the part of the present administration toward the movie system. Where legal reform is being worked out in the most vital areas of nation-building, a relatively simple ruling on the unconstitutionality of film censorship was more feasible during the latter term of the deposed regime. More disheartening still, the institutional support that was the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, for all its excesses in terms of the screening of sex films, at the very least made clear that the government was paying attention, if somewhat out of self-interest, to the needs and problems of the industry. And if in the rush for profits through exemptions from censorship a few artists could sneak in satisfactory titles like Peque Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata and Virgin Forest, Ishmael Bernal’s Himala and Manila By Night, Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Moral, Mel Chionglo’s Sinner or Saint, Tikoy Aguiluz’s Boatman, and negotiate for the release of Chito Roño’s Private Show and Behn Cervantes’s Sakada, where are those opportunities now? In the provincial theater circuit?

The brighter side, of course, is that print and broadcast media have only been too accommodating to Filipino artists, who used to congregate around film. Nevertheless the inadequacies of journalism and television for artistic expression must be a painful thing to take, especially to those accustomed to the technically highly developed and multi-levelled properties of cinema. The Cultural Center of the Philippines has been holding occasional revivals and recently mounted a short film festival – all of which amounts to a dim reflection, at best, of the full-power capacity of the late ECP. Tax rebates as incentives for quality, financial subsidies for worthy short-film and full-length proposals, archival services for film research and preservation, even a correctly oriented international film festival – all these do have a place in a national film community which has already proved itself capable of producing works that hold their own with the best from the rest of the world.

And if maybe the present administration opines that the film community has been spoiled rotten with such favors, then the least it could do is play fair in granting freedom of expression to individuals regardless of medium. Understandably, any veteran of the oppositionist struggle against Marcos would be more sympathetic with the printed page, which almost singlehandedly propagandized for democracy when it was most dangerous to do so; even television made a dramatic turnabout at a crucial moment. Film may have been the least cooperative in this regard, but the political needs were primarily informational to begin with, and the medium was too closely guarded besides.

The irony of it all is that the very same strictures that prevented the participation of film artists then also serve to hold them back today, thus effectively placing in question their ability to contribute to larger social concerns. This sort of vicious run-around, which in rural contexts has been generally accepted as a fact of life, has always been questioned by enlightened film practitioners; yet it is the countryside folk who may soon be freed from the contradictions of contemporary existence through land reform, while the film community, which would be only too aware of and grateful for a liberation from censorship, appears to be destined to endure the same drudgery that had characterized the medium since its inception.

I had actually intended to evaluate the industry’s artistic accomplishments from January to June this year, but the consideration of causes simply overwhelmed the original subject. Anyway, in providing a listing of the more acceptable items, it would serve our purposes well to keep in mind that these titles were originally greeted with expressions of disappointment and frustration, with only passing acknowledgement of their respective merits – to which I now most carefully give mention. In alphabetical order then:

Balweg (Butch Perez, dir.): a revisionist approach to the depiction of peasant war, with an expertly controlled attitude toward the handling of onscreen action.
Hubad na Pangarap (Abbo Q. de la Cruz, dir.): film noir outside traditional urban settings, complemented with creative presentation of erotic scenes.
Kid…Huwag Kang Susuko! (Peque Gallaga and Lorenzo Reyes, dirs.): martial-arts material made more sensible through dramatic arguments.
Once Upon a Time (Gallaga and Reyes, dirs.): fantasy done the way it should be – with care, humor, and a contemporaneity that doesn’t intrude too brazenly with the preoccupation with the usual universal scope and issues.
Tagos ng Dugo (Maryo J. de los Reyes, dir.): kinkiness rounded out with psychological backgrounding and propelled forward with a sense of conviction and sympathy for the plight of the subject.
Operation: Get Victor Corpus, the Rebel Soldier (Pablo Santiago, dir.): epic sensibility enlarging a humane treatment of a political tale.

Publication note: The concluding section of this article was truncated and the original printout and digital files are lost. I have opted not to reconstruct this section, since the vital points were raised prior to the final listing.

[First published August 26, 1987, as “Mid-Year in Review” in National Midweek]

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LOCAL CINEMA 1987

Future film observers with any measure of sympathy for local cinema will probably prefer to consider the past year as an extension of the post-revolution hangover of February 1986. Of course, current critical opinion is harsher, with certain organized quarters threatening to withdraw their traditional means of bestowing recognition for film achievement (that is, awards, what else); on the other hand, such myopic tendencies merely serve to overlook the actual accomplishments outside the confines of serious commercial filmmaking, as well as reinforce the commercialist sector’s impression that quality is an entirely dispensable consideration in the practice of the craft. As for so-called serious mainstream production, the behavior of the outstanding instances of cinematic output since 1986 clearly indicates that the category, as we used to know it, is obsolete for the moment, or is at least undergoing a transformation that bodes well for any prospective resurrection of the activity.

For where our more intelligent filmmakers used to go into “serious” filmmaking with complete disregard for the essentials of the medium-as-industry, in 1987, as in 1986, they for the most part chose to work within local cinema’s industrial givens, particularly the imperative of determining the particularities of local entertainment factors. For a quick and easy confirmation, witness the relative disappointments of ostensibly serious attempts like Celso Ad. Castillo’s Payaso or Eddie Romero’s Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi – noteworthy undertakings, no doubt, yet in a sense irrelevant, in terms of their misconceived notion that the local audience would still willingly forsake its preference for entertainment in exchange for high-culture conceits in film.

Not that creative thinking wasn’t being done elsewhere. In fact, real film achievement the past year took on a more difficult challenge, but one that was long overdue anyway: instead of pushing for new forms with which to contain filmic narratives, our practitioners somehow managed to explore the as-yet virgin areas of conventionalized territories, specifically the ones offered by commercial movie genres – action, bold, comedy, melodrama, and combinations thereof. As could only have been expected, they won some and they lost some. The first two genres, action and bold, proved difficult for current sensible discourses, in contrast with their adaptability during the previous political dispensation. Comedy and melodrama were the more congenial genres to work within – which may also account for our film critics’ outrage over the seeming frivolity of it all.

But then who’s to tell if a genre in itself should be worthy of critical judgment? Better to regard these film-types as objective formats that possess no intrinsic value unless they’ve been imbued with the proper creative configuration. Each type would of course have its distinguishing characteristic, which if scrutinized closer would prove the essential neutrality of the categorization. Action and bold films are more frontally social in orientation, dealing as they do with the seamier (and steamier) aspects of contemporary existence; on the other hand, they also tend to lend themselves to so much portentousness, which is a few steps away from pretentiousness. Comedy and melodrama, of course, flirt with the obvious danger of triviality; but the other side of the argument lies in their capacity for subtleties of presentation, as well as their considerable entertainment potential.

Hence, my list of notables for the year include, in alphabetical order, Peque Gallage’s Once Upon a Time, Mel Chionglo’s Paano Kung Wala Ka Na, and Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak.[1] Strictly by coincidence, the first happens to be a comic fantasy, the second a melodrama entry, and the third a combination of the first two, with a little action thrown in; if only for the difficulty of executing such a combination, my personal preference goes to Tatlong Ina as the past year’s best over-all accomplishment, with Once Upon a Time as a more distinctive directorial feat and Paano Kung Wala Ka Na as a triumph of film-scripting. Once Upon a Time also contains the year’s best performance – that of Dolphy as a mythological creature who turns out to be more human than his earthling counterparts (as well as, by my own malicious implication, film critics who should know the craft better).

For more specific attainments, I’d single out Lino Brocka’s Maging Akin Ka Lamang (lessons in histrionics for melodrama, with the year’s female performance in Lorna Tolentino), plus two other titles which I’m sure will encounter violent disagreements: Mike Relon Makiling’s Kumander Gringa (radicalization of comic premises) and Ishmael Bernal’s Working Girls Part II (exploration of the possibilities of multi-layered storytelling, the only attempt of its kind this past year). If we expand our appreciation of film to include non-mainstream formats, there’d be no way to ignore Nick Deocampo’s super-8mm. documentary, titled Film Trilogy on the Theme of Poverty and Prostitution. Where in the past, alternative film items had always threatened an otherwise confident film establishment, since the revolution such outputs have come into their own. Briccio Santos’ 16mm. feature Damortis and Mike de Leon’s video movie Bilanggo sa Dilim started the trend in 1986, standing up well enough to that year’s only significant mainstream products, Chito Roño’s Private Show and William Pascual’s Takaw Tukso.

Unfortunately no mechanism exists to give satisfactory recognition to works that reflect the intelligentsia’s desire to singlehandedly take on the movie system and emerge all the better for it.[2] And irrespective of such gaps, the best and the brightest in local cinema march on, more likely toward a revitalized application of the lessons learned within and without commercial assignments, into the areas of temporarily abandoned experimentations in the medium.

Notes

[1] I had overlooked an entry from the year in question, Eddie Garcia’s Saan Nagtatago ang Pag-ibig?; I provided a separate review, assessing it as next in rank to the three films I mentioned, although superior to the also-rans in this year-end summary. It has since risen in my estimation, and when I rewatched it for a recent extensive canon project (see Short Takes), it was the only 1987 film that I listed.

[2] I had been nostalgic for the then-recently shuttered Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. As of late, however, unacknowledged ECP-inspired innovations such as subsidies for scriptwriting winners, provision of censorship-exempt venues, and full support for non-celluloid formats in government and academe have proliferated and may have been fully responsible for reviving the local industry.

[First published February 3, 1988, as “Quo Vadis?” in National Midweek]

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LOCAL CINEMA 1988

Administrative drumbeaters couldn’t wait for 1988 to end before offering to the public a nosegay of rosy predictions for the forthcoming year. With an overshoot of original estimates of overall economic performance, they had reason to be confident: producers and practitioners could boast that, if trends continue, Philippine movies could only get better in 1989. But in both cases, half the responsibility depends upon the reaction of both moviegoers and non-moviegoers, a.k.a. the public at large. Usually regarded as a passive factor, the public could only resort to electoral and peso votes to indicate its judgment on issues and performances. Once in a rare while it could take to the streets in numbers enough to effect substantial changes, but as a matter of course, the general rule holds: those in positions of power and influence, whether government or cinema bigwigs, always possess the advantage of fostering their will before the rest could take action.

This caveat considered, 1988 can be remembered as a good year only because the preceding ones were far from acceptable. As far as films were concerned, nothing emerged on the scale of the big-budget, sometimes period productions that used to be the norm during the late 1970s and early ’80s. Nevertheless I could count at least five titles that I’m sure would qualify for serious consideration on anyone’s year-end list; in alphabetical order:

Babaing Hampaslupa (Mel Chionglo, dir.): melodrama that redeems itself through careful characterization and an acute sense of visual realism.
Itanong Mo sa Buwan (Chito Roño, dir.): a sex thriller that presents its case through a disjunct time structure and a forceful lead performance by Jaclyn Jose.
Misis Mo, Misis Ko (Carlitos Siguion-Reyna, dir.): comedy of manners minus the pretentions and excesses usually associated with this sort of exercise.
Tiyanak (Peque Gallaga & Lorenzo Reyes, dirs.): horror with a touch of ecological consciousness and a commendable control of special effects.
Tubusin Mo ng Dugo (Pepe Marcos, dir.): action fused with comedy and keen social insights.

There’d be at least two other film titles and a number of film-related products that deserve more than just the usual acknowledgment of jobs well done. Maryo J. de los Reyes’s Kapag Napagod ang Puso provides a welcome refresher on the virtues of raw approaches to film acting, while Pablo Santiago’s Agila ng Maynila makes a strong case for non-dramatic mythopoeic moralization. The other significant pro-morality (the conventional, non-aesthetic sense) audiovisual production of 1988 was, strictly speaking, neither film nor feature nor Filipino. Robert Markowitz’s A Dangerous Life, a six-hour Australia television docudrama, will very likely tend to lose much of its initial impact, what with a flimsy fictional love triangle serving to support the real-life saga of people power. Nevertheless it still deserves to be appended to any year-end, and probably even decade-end, list, if only to act as a standard by which subsequent productions, which we should all pray to be film and feature and Filipino, can be measured.

A final look-back on the year that was won’t be complete without any mention of film-derived works in print. Magic realism was the in thing, and after the English-language sector came up with two novels – Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War and Alfred A. Yuson’s Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café – who should come along but Ricardo Lee, with his best work of fiction ever, “Kabilang sa mga Nawawala” (included in his anthology Si Tatang at mga Himala ng Ating Panahon). The industry should take pride in the fact that Yuson and Lee take time to write screenplays.

And what, in the forthcoming year, have we to look forward to? The return of our major directors, is what. Already in the can are works by the likes of Lino Brocka (Macho Dancer), Celso Ad. Castillo (Pikoy Goes to Malaysia), Gil Portes (Birds of Prey), and Chito Roño (Si Baleleng at ang Gintong Sirena). Laurice Guillen’s year-end hit Magkano ang Iyong Dangal? may lead to another assignment soon. Ishmael Bernal, Mel Chionglo, and the Gallaga-Reyes tandem are at work on promising projects. Nora Aunor’s preparing for her directorial debut, with other once-or-future performers like Tata Esteban, Eddie Garcia, and Eddie Rodriguez ready to give the cue. Knowing that there won’t be any lack for dark horses, all that remains is for the other inactive pros, notably Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Mike de Leon, and Eddie Romero, to rejoin the (rat?) race.

Whatever the turnout of the above-mentioned and further future projects, everything will depend on how the public voices its support or dismay. For the moment, the need is for positive action, regardless of initial intentions, if only for our better local practitioners to be able to regain a foothold in the slippery arena of movie-making.

[First published January 25, 1989, as “Local Cinema ’88” in National Midweek]

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LOCAL CINEMA 1980-89

The last day of the 1980s came and went, and Philippine cinema still had to realize a movie comparable to the first-league titles of the Marcos years. Even in using the decade as marker, one could come up with at least three titles that enlarged their character-based premises into valid and vital social discourses, two conventionally successful period epics, and an armful of small but satisfactory productions, any of which could beat the best of the industry’s output since the February 1986 revolution.

First and foremost among our ’80s films is Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night (1980), a hard-edged rumination on big-city perversion and brutality whose brilliance of conception and expansive scope render finical any quibbles about its surface inadequacies. Along the same lines of treatment are two technically superior titles with deliberately delimited concerns – Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Moral (1982, on women in contemporary times) and Lino Brocka’s Miguelito: Ang Batang Rebelde (1985, on small-town intrigues). Peque Gallaga overtook Celso Ad. Castillo as epic filmmaker of the decade, with a precocious debut in Oro, Plata, Mata (1982) and an even better follow-up in Virgin Forest (1985). Evident from this listing is the phenomenon of the quality of output observing peak years – 1980, the turn of the decade, followed by 1982, the period between the only editions of the Manila International Film Festival (which was being legitimized locally through the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines), and an extended season in 1984-85, when the government and business sectors were distracted by the political storm then already brewing.

Among the other titles still worthy of first-time viewing, overseas export, and archival preservation are Diaz-Abaya’s Brutal and Mike de Leon’s Kakabakaba Ka Ba? from 1980; de Leon’s Kisapmata and Laurice Guillen’s Salome from 1981; Ishmael Bernal’s Himala and Relasyon and de Leon’s Batch ’81 from 1982; Diaz-Abaya’s Karnal and Bernal’s Broken Marriage from 1983; Tikoy Aquiluz’s Boatman, Mel Chionglo’s Sinner or Saint, de Leon’s Sister Stella L., Mario O’Hara’s Bulaklak sa City Jail, and Gil Portes’s ’Merika from 1984; and Bernal’s Hinugot sa Langit, Brocka’s Bayan Ko (Kapit sa Patalim), Castillo’s Paradise Inn, and Gallaga’s Scorpio Nights from 1985. One last ’85 production, Chito Roño’s Private Show, was released in 1986, and by this technicality provided the worthiest film title in the current dispensation so far. Other mentionables in the same and succeeding years belonged to other formats or media (and in this strict sense inherently disadvantaged relative to commercial 35mm. cinema), particularly de Leon’s video-movie Bilanggo sa Dilim and Briccio Santos’ 16mm. Damortis in 1986 and Nick Deocampo’s super-8mm. Film Trilogy on the Theme of Poverty and Prostitution in 1987.

Two large-scale albeit uneven productions during the last year, Brocka’s Macho Dancer and Gallaga and Lorenzo Reyes’s Isang Araw Walang Diyos, contrast sadly with better-made but modestly proportioned genre pieces: sex-dramas like William Pascual’s Takaw Tukso (1986) and Roño’s Itanong Mo sa Buwan (1988); an action entry, Pepe Marco’s Tubusin Mo ng Dugo (1988); a fantasy, Gallaga and Reyes’s Once Upon a Time (1987); and a horror film, Gallaga and Reyes’s Tiyanak (1988). Final proof of how far we have declined lies in the expertise our filmmakers achieved in melodrama, the predominant genre of the 1950s, with the better examples comprising Chionglo’s Babaing Hampaslupa (1988) and Paano Kung Wala Ka Na (1987), Gallaga’s Unfaithful Wife (1986), Eddie Garcia’s Saan Nagtatago ang Pag-ibig? (1987), O’Hara’s Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak (1987), and Carlitos Siguion-Reyna’s Misis Mo, Misis Ko (1988). The Filipino melodrama to end all melodramas was recycled in the form of a foreign non-movie, the Australian video production of A Dangerous Life (1988, dir. Robert Markowitz).

A ray of hope may well flicker in our projectors, and our hearts as well. Just as Manila By Night was completed in 1979 but released, courtesy of censorship complications, late enough to grace the ’80s with its most outstanding title, a 1989 production, though already exhibited in other countries, is promising a similar beginning for the ’90s. Brocka’s Orapronobis, if we get lucky enough, could kick off another round of creative endeavor, the way the same director’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag did in 1975; that first salvo lasted more than a decade, and if another one succeeds, we might be able to close the ’90s with the claim that a current Golden Age of cinema was never really cut off from a previous one, but in fact took off after a temporary interruption caused by disquietude in the political realm.

For sheer drawing power, nothing could beat the elderly December extravaganza mounted by our men in uniform. Anyone who could tune in was likely to be doing so; one easy hypothesis why so many kibitzers were willing to risk their lives just to observe the proceedings firsthand could be the fact that our lower classes do not have superior playback equipment – if ever they happen to have access to any such equipment in the first place. Nevertheless, the local movie industry learned the lesson of ’86 well: react or die. Four years ago, when a similar spectacle succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, Filipino movie moguls, like the rest of the country, were too stunned at first to come up with their usual profit-oriented approaches; after all, it was a time for moralist reflection, and to even think of box-office remunerations seemed like an unrevolutionary thing to do.

The result – a truly panicky months-long stretch when no movie yielded any return on investments – raised the possibility that some things, especially in showbiz, may not have changed after all; a consistent turnout of hits afterward till now proved that the change, if it mattered, was for the worse (or the better, if you happened to be an investor): no more can there be real winners in terms of awards or prestige or even personal fulfillment, only in terms of box-office receipts. The setting of record profits continued in 1989, with two movies assuming the all-time blockbuster positions: first Tony Y. Reyes’s Starzan: Shouting Star of the Jungle in the early half of the year, then Ronwaldo Reyes’s Ako ang Huhusga in the latter. The Starzan, er, talents could claim to be the ultimate placers, though, if we take the succession of hit follow-ups (about a dozen so far, including Starzan sequels) they were emboldened to embark on. Ako ang Huhusga, for its part, was itself a sequel to an earlier hit, Kapag Puno na ang Salop (1987), thus proving that some good things are capable of getting better, regardless of whether they deserve to or not.

If there’s any justice, though, 1989 could still be remembered for the re-emergence of world-class movie-making in the Philippines. Two items, already mentioned, stand out for lending superior talents to relatively big-budgeted treatments of relevant social issues: Lino Brocka’s Macho Dancer and Peque Gallaga and Lorenzo Reyes’s Isang Araw Walang Diyos. The fact that each acquired its own measure of controversy could be seen both ways – as either the pettiness of local reactors in responding to serious efforts, or the persistence of concern in having us return to an era (pre-revolutionary, actually) of unqualified triumphs in filmmaking. Macho Dancer suffered lapses in dramatic logic and stylizations, while Isang Araw could have been better performed and proportioned; in either case both titles could best be taken as directorial muscle-flexing prior to the undertaking of really major exertions, with the Gallaga-Reyes movie possessing the advantage of having animated a larger cast over wider terrain. Brocka’s answer to Isang Araw has arrived in the form of his latest international release, Orapronobis, but unfortunately, although a better entry than either title (or anything else produced since the revolution), the movie still has to realize a regular run in these here parts.

Meanwhile the year (and the decade) ended with no other praiseworthy product save for the usual well-made genre pieces: the action film Walang Panginoon (dir. Mauro Gia Samonte) for once, and the superstar-vehicle melodramas Pahiram ng Isang Umaga (dir. Ishmael Bernal) and Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit (dir. Elwood Perez).[1] The practice of risking production capital on less predictable projects like Macho Dancer and Isang Araw will take a lot of patience and good fortune, if not a time warp back to the halcyon years of the Marcos era; a more immediate procedure would be the solicitation of foreign investment, as Brocka managed with Orapronobis. But perhaps we could take a long hard look at the here and now, and hope that with the continuing success of mainstream movies, audiences might grow weary over the meaningless shootouts and sick humor, producers might have enough left over for a period epic or two, and Philippine cinema, this time minus the dangerous interventions of government, might continue its abandoned function of providing us with the most valuable articles of our cultural heritage thus far.

Note

[1] In the flurry of rescreenings for awards groups after 1989 was over, I was surprised to discover Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit, which had been preceded by two similarly profitable fan-oriented films, pulling away from the pack, its deliberate affronts to high culture actually reinforcing its titillative charm, embodied in the paradoxically self-aware yet sincere performance of lead actress Nora Aunor. It was firmly entrenched in my list of fondly remembered releases by the time I drew up Short Takes, my personal canon of Philippine films.

[First published January 24, 1990, as “From Sister Stella L. to Starzan” in National Midweek]

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FOREIGN CINEMA 1980-89

Viewing an entire period’s output would be a next-to-impossible task, even when delimited to the year-long efforts of a specific country. But since I’ve been venturing into year-enders (as well as my first decade-ender) for Philippine cinema, I guess I could tread carefully on foreign areas, with a maximum of qualifiers up front. Aside from the difficulty of setting aside the rest of a short life to watch every film that comes along, one couldn’t sometimes expect every film to come along in the first place, when even Filipino movies can’t make it to local screens in good time. The advent of video has somewhat tempered this argument, but only to the extent of making possible the promise of coming up with a decade-end evaluation after a reasonable period – say, a year or two; by which time the decade may seem too far off in the past already.

On the other hand, I watch when I can, and sometimes even when I can’t. When video technology was still unaffordable I’d attend the embassy cultural-service screenings and thus managed to get by with one free movie every day of the week; then I worked for the Manila International Film Festival and with the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, through which I saw a whole lot more foreign films, some of them eye-popping in certain unspeakable ways; finally I caught up (or is it the other way around?) with the video revolution in my access, as film teacher, to equipment and sources and grants.

Mostly it’s the Hollywood (a synecdoche for America) titles (films, metonymically) that get released hereabouts, but even then…. Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984), the Oscar best-film winner of the ’80s that more than any other such awardee could fully exploit any large-screened hi-fi-equipped theater, still has to premier in Manila. Among the other honorees that distinguished the decade would be similar exponents of the romantic epic, specifically Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa (1985) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987); ironically, the other type of Oscar winner, minor-scale achievements like Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980), Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), James L. Brooks’s Terms of Endearment (1983), and Barry Levinson’s Rain Man (1988), never fail to make it here.

Quite likely the world-class big-budget period project came of age in the ’80s, with the “old-fashioned” Oscar winners plus possibly John Boorman’s Excalibur and Warren Beatty’s Reds (both 1981) and two Japanese products, Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980) and Shôhei Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama (1983), proving that the art of film had arrived at a glorious, if a bit smug, middle age. Critics’ choices have meanwhile also included flawed major-scale items like Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) and Sweden’s Fanny and Alexander (1982, dir. Ingmar Bergman), but for the moment the ones aforelisted, coupled with the advantages of state-of-the-art playback equipment, would I’m sure suffice to convert doubters to the excessive, almost sinful pleasures of cinema.

Commercial (read: kiddies-mostly) efforts fared less fairly. Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) requires increasingly long stretches of time in order to recapture its original heartwarming function, while the Star Wars series (Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back [1980] and Richard Marquand’s Return of the Jedi [1983]), of which the middle trilogy – God forbid any further inspiration! – ended during the ’80s, turned out about and appropriately as nourishing as popcorn; Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) had a more manic sequel (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom [1984]) and a somewhat affecting third installment (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade [1989]), which makes the series slightly more tolerable in the long run. After counting out such dubiously motivated efforts, including the ones initiated by Sylvester Stallone and slasher-film specialists, a curious case would be Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985), which seems to be the best of the commercial pack so far, and has recently had a wildly inventive sequel (Back to the Future Part II [1989]), despite a superabundance of loopholes; the third part might yet be one of the ’90s events worth the attention.

What could have been the American movie of the ’80s, the continuation of the American series of the ’70s, will now have to be relegated also to the ’90s: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III, currently in production. The most interesting Hollywood development during the past decade has been the unexpected combination of quirky intelligence with uniquely cinematic sensibilities evidenced in a lot of personal projects (and critics’ favorites) such as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988), Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard (1980), Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980), and what may be the ultimate mergence of epic scope and personal statement so far, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). Woody Allen did Zelig (1983) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and two other comedies I (and Manila) still have to catch, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Radio Days (1987), during a time when auteurism started running out of fanatic supporters. Martin Scorsese became the Johnny-come-lately among survey respondents, with his Raging Bull (1980) ranking number one in both American Film and Premiere magazine polls; his cause célèbre, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), as disturbing in its own imperfections as his Jake LaMotta biopicture, must have contributed a lot to the last-minute increase in his credibility stocks.

The best ’70s film, Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), saw a reprise in two smaller-scaled (and situationally related) projects, John Sayles’s Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980) and Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983). The milieu-realist format was better off exported to other countries, with two Italian samples, Liliana Cavani’s The Skin (1981) and Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982), and Germany’s Wings of Desire (1987, dir. Wim Wenders) representing some of the better First-World attempts, alongside a number of Third-World efforts: Turkey’s Yol (1982, dir. Yilmaz Güney) for one, plus yes!, a number of Filipino productions. What have we to look forward to from hereon? More ambitious Hollywood series, possibly; conscienticizing products (reminiscent of the ’80s’ Latin American movies) from the new democracies in Eastern Europe; more technically assured and artistically innovative (if we’re lucky – with our government, that is – we could be it) Third-World titles; and the future resulting from rivalries between Americans and the Japanese in updating, exploring, and standardizing converged media and formats. The countdown, in case we haven’t noticed, has already begun.

[First published March 28, 1990, as “’80s Foreign Fare” in National Midweek]

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LOCAL CINEMA 1990

Philippine cinema in 1990 dealt one of the stupefying blows that made active observation of the local scene such an exciting activity during the Marcos years. Specifically this consisted of a consistent turnout of mainstream products, a handful of which were praiseworthy though clearly in the commercialized mold; then, just when we seemed to have no other choice but to assure ourselves that the prevailing system was acceptable enough, if only for its stability and occasional concern for quality, from left (and leftist) field came an independently produced work done by a marginalized director and featuring several performers who’ve been safely (though unfairly) dismissed as has-beens by the industry and its press-for-hire.

Gil Portes’s Andrea, Paano Ba ang Maging Isang Ina? overturned all scientifically formulable conclusions, including my own, regarding the possible directions available to local cinema since February 1986. All factors, up to the last week of last year, pointed to the for-better-or-worse institutionalization of commercialism, with the big studios leading the way. To a certain extent, this had advantages of its own: in contemplating a listing of the better films since the people-power upheaval, one could convince oneself that the old dichotomy between artistry and commerce is gone, since most of the films would happen to be box-office blockbusters as well, and even the flops never really wanted for trying.

Andrea, however, seized the same principle and turned it inside-out to its own advantage. Rather than play into the notions of what may be currently profitable, the people behind it apparently decided that maybe, just maybe, our moviegoers might be ready to patronize something new on their own. The result holds considerable educational value, even for that most obstinate of all creatures, the film mogul: that quality need not always be invested with excessive capital, and that small movies need not always be catapulted to the top of the box-office heap. I think it’s worth introducing our list of 1990’s noteworthy films with this object lesson in sensible production, because Andrea will definitely look out of place in any of the possible post-Marcos pantheons.

As if this distinction weren’t enough, the film also contains what is far and away the best performance of the last, say, decade, exceeded only by the output of the same performer, Nora Aunor, in a more major work, Ishmael Bernal’s 1982 Himala (both histrionic – and filmic – accomplishments were formally recognized, so far at least, only by the Metro Manila Film Festival). Andrea aside, 1990 would still have been a viewer-friendly year, what with a number of products whose entertainment value, if nothing else, could score perfect points on anyone’s list:

Angel Molave (Augusto Salvador, dir.): a structurally flawed action outing that introduces generic innovations through its expansion of personal grievances to social dimensions; featuring the male performance of the year in Phillip Salvador.
Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali? (Chito Roño, dir.): komiks as it should look, read and sound, with all the conviction and none of the cynicism required to justify the gloss and glamor of this successful crossover attempt.
Gumapang Ka sa Lusak (Lino Brocka, dir.): the melodrama of politics, with all the noise, confusion, and decadence in place where they really belong – in the fastnesses of power.
Hahamakin Lahat (Lino Brocka, dir.): politics in melodrama: a revelation of the intrigues and motives of those who seek to gratify themselves at the expense of the helpless.

In addition to the foregoing, one could get by with more than a passing glance on works like Emmanuel H. Borlaza’s Bakit Ikaw Pa Rin?; Mel Chionglo’s Hot Summer; Jesus Jose’s Kahit Singko Hindi Ko Babayaran ang Buhay Mo; Roño’s Kasalanan Ba’ng Sambahin Ka?; and Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes’s Too Young. The entities then who made the most of a peso-wise (though possibly petrodollar-foolish) year would be the Regal and Viva studios, directors Lino Brocka, Chito Roño, and the Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes team, and scriptwriter Ricardo Lee. Difficult to integrate in such a listing are the several action titles that, especially during the early half of the year, managed to tackle politically risky side issues pertaining to the villainy of while men and traditional politicians. And still in overseas limbo are some works that should belong to the center of serious film considerations – Lino Brocka’s Orapronobis and Gil Portes’ Birds of Prey, plus a non-Filipino product, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

And finally, among the more exciting (albeit admittedly subjective) developments are three in which I happened to be connected some way or other: the Young Critics Circle multidisciplinary organization with its first round of annual citations, the University of the Philippines Alternative Film and Video Festival, and the year’s only film book, The National Pastime: Contemporary Philippine Cinema, available in book paper at National Book Store at a ridiculously cheap price, pardon the plug. If we’re lucky, we could have some of these things on a regular basis; but first we have to prove that they’re somehow viable, so please go watch the available Andreas, attend the Circle activities, join the UP festival, read The National Pastime and National Midweek – in short, get Philippine cinema (and popular culture) growing in the best possible and available way.

[First published February 27, 1991, as “Horse Year-ender” in National Midweek]

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About Joel David

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

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