Millennial Traversals – Old-Millennium Pinoy Film Reviews II (National Midweek & After)

SECRET LOVE

Mga Lihim ng Kalapati
Directed by Celso Ad. Castillo
Written by Rei Nicandro

That Celso Ad. Castillo possesses a sensibility unique among the ranks of local filmmakers requires no proof more eloquent than his body of work during the preceding decade. That his sensibility has not amounted to much becomes the dismal conclusion with the release of every subsequent Castillo opus with the start of the same period in question. Mga Lihim ng Kalapati, as has become typical of its filmmaker, presents premises that may or may not be conceivable in terms of the immediate reality it depicts. More to the point, if we observe the line of thinking from which Castillo’s concerns have branched off, is that the imperative of verisimilitude, the recognition on the part of the viewer that film (or at least certain aspects of it) may have some bearing on subjective contemporary experience, should not matter in this case. For if the filmmaker were possessed of a reasonable amount of artistry in his skills then he’d be able to evoke a viewing experience that, though non-existent for our knowledge of what has been, is, or will be possible, will be real unto itself.

Castillo’s particular perception takes this still-radical dogma on filmmaking too literally, exclusive of the fact that all successful cinema – in fact, all successful works of art – by virtue of the process of subjective creation, are necessarily lacking in perfect correspondences with known reality. Film is the most misleading medium in this regard, since its raw material, unlike those of all other art forms, is reality itself. And yet the very process of capturing this reality (presuming that one has not made any deliberate choice) and arranging the captured bits into an artistic whole for presentational purposes, already subverts the original existence of the raw material – transforming it, as it were. A misguided artist who therefore believes that to be unique, he must make sure that his presentation will never be mistaken for a segmentation of familiar occurrences (which might be tackled by other artists anyway), will like Castillo keep striving for material and treatments that result in products that are offbeat at best, and irrelevant at worst: Paradise Inn and Payaso respectively, to cite recent Castillo efforts.

Mga Lihim ng Kalapati falls somewhere between the two, and only because the lesser item was terribly insignificant to begin with. Otherwise Mga Lihim deserves an embarrassingly bent-over commendation as an exercise in basic visual fluency – no mean achievement a few years back, but now an empty exploit in the wake of the dispersion of similar capabilities both within and without commercial film formats. Such indulgence in what has come to be called “pure” film expression has its advantage though, similar to the benefits any writer will derive from engaging in wordplay, no matter how frivolous. A few years back, Castillo unexpectedly returned to the same terrain covered by Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak and, considering the constraints, did amazingly well. Unlike all his others films in the 1980s, Pedro Tunasan was highly conventionalized in its treatment, structure, and save for extremely compromised production values, execution. One wonders what Castillo will make of an even more inspired earlier work, Burlesk Queen, the story of a fallen woman healthily balanced in terms of its moral, social, and psychological perspectives.

As for the disadvantage, one need not point out the painfully obvious unless the subject were as hardheaded as Castillo. The medium in which he practices is an expensive one – hence the danger of being completely locked out is ever-present. It’s been ten years since Burlesk Queen, a work which the objectivity of temporal distance has made more charming than it first seemed to be, but whose over-all valuation has already been exceeded by the output of latter-day practitioners. The irony is that Castillo may have already possessed the capability of making epic “bold” films even before the likes of Boatman and Private Show came out, just as he has exhibited the potential for creating a truly grand revolutionary film-story. But if he continues to subsume the evolution of such skills to the self-conscious pursuits of the allegedly unique in filmic realism, he will only discover (not too late, for his sake we should hope) that there is no such thing, and that his attempts in the same vein will yield no ultimate value.

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

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GRAVE BURDEN

Pasan Ko ang Daigdig
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Rene O. Villanueva and Orlando Nadres

Funny how one can easily lose sight of original intentions. I had entered the moviehouse meaning to lap up whatever entertainment Pasan Ko ang Daigdig seemed to be holding forth, serious film observation be damned. I looked forward to what I imagined could have been the first product of our national cinema definitive of the February 1986 revolution: no shallow literal censorship of eyesore locations, no flinching from the downtrodden as major characters, yet typically post-’86 escapist in an insistent, even vengeful manner. Well, the serious component was around all right, but the other side was nowhere evident beyond casting and material. Sure, Sharon Cuneta was up there, looking none the worse for all her real-life parallelisms, and she did do a lot of singing in the midst of playing a game of, uh, musical chairs among several leading men with strong claims to her pitiably singular and singularly virtuous self. How then could such an easy winner lose? I’d like to venture forth an argument along the lines of over-confidence, but I’m afraid the real reason might be more offending than that.

There was real cynicism in Pasan Ko ang Daigdig, the sort that makes you wonder why its creators ever bothered with the project in the first place. The expected convolutions of story were all present, but not reasonably accounted for. Over-all you get the feel of having been taken along for a ride, but without any appreciation of your tolerance for downright, bald-faced manipulation. The story traces the rise of a media celebrity from literally dirt-poor squalor to moral-cum-professional triumph. I wouldn’t exactly dismiss this sort of material per se since you wouldn’t have to look far into the movie system itself to find examples of how easy social mobility in show business can get: Nora Aunor, of course. To a limited extent, Sharon Cuneta even.

But where a more considerate filmmaker would take pains to fill in certain gaps, in storytelling terms or, granting the usual demands of a too-meddlesome studio system, by technical means at least, Pasan Ko has only surface gloss with which to endorse itself. So okay, to get down to specifics, your lead character has grown up in the worst possible living space in the metropolis but she has to make an overnight stab at legitimacy as a completely credible performer, and not just in the Rey de la Cruz sense either – now what do you do? I can only speculate how various other filmmakers would have done it, from revising an aspect of the exposition to adding a dimension of otherness to the performer’s attack, but in this particular instance all you find is a brutalized denizen inexplicably transformed into a classy singer, without the aid of even a magic camison or a blusang itim.

By this measure other more advanced elements in the story, like the now-respectable songstress suddenly cracking a whip with all the fury of a Batang City Jail sadist, get appreciated for the original intentions of presumably sensible craftsmen (I’ll make you see how ridiculous this development is, see, so your laughter in the moviehouses is my way of taking revenge on those unenlightened money-bags who made me do this junk); but the potential of drawing respect rather than mere titillation for a job well done in the face of the odds all goes to waste in this case. Too bad then for the talents involved in this enterprise, and most specifically Lino Brocka, for whom the thematic and psychological concerns of slum-dwellers should have proved familiar territory by now. I always thought Smoky Mountain was as scenic as it appeared in Pasan Ko (I’ve seen it captured better elsewhere; that’s another story), but never for the leery life of me have I imagined how it could ever become so antiseptic.

[First published October 21, 1987, in National Midweek]

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EARTHBOUND

Pinulot Ka Lang sa Lupa
Directed by Ishmael Bernal
Written by Racquel Villavicencio

Pinulot Ka Lang sa Lupa is the second Ishmael Bernal movie to have been released this year, and the third since last year (anno revolucion, by way of easy reckoning). So far this is the closest the director has come to his record output during the early years of the current decade, when in one prodigious year (1982) he could treat his audiences to the likes of Ito Ba ang Ating mga Anak?, Relasyon, and Himala, and still have enough creative juice left to squeeze out at least one well-made movie annually afterward. Of course, Bernal is the genius who came up with Manila by Night (1980), but anyone who understands the singular significance of that work will also understand why I avoid singling it out for comparison with any other Bernal output. I’d rather much see where his works fit in a career that doesn’t seem to have a comparable parallel anywhere in his field and, granting that comparisons with other forms are valid, possibly with those of few other Filipinos working in other media.

The one undeniable certainty in our doubt-ridden movie scene is that no other Filipino director’s filmography can stand up to intense aesthetic scrutiny the way Bernal’s does. This may be getting close to pleading immunity to the constant alarums that plague our film historians, who it seems would love to outdo one another and themselves in seeking to enthrone one dead black-and-white movie director after another as the sole claimant to the title of greatness in film art. After allowing myself to get caught up in the frenzy, I’d find myself conceding to perhaps one or two significant titles every other master – and the rest of the opera consignable to historical footnotes, if not Christmas toy-horns.

By this measure you’ll understand my trepidation in dishing out facile conclusions about the latest Bernal: how many of the critics outraged by Nunal sa Tubig (1976) were able to see how it led to Manila By Night (1980), with Aliw (1979) as an intermediary, experimental try-out? The answer is…none. Not one, painful as it sounds. And after three disturbing consecutive outputs in Gamitin Mo Ako (1985), The Graduates (1986), and Working Girls Part II (1987), the director has returned to form with Pinulot Ka Lang sa Lupa. It would be safer to say that Regal Films has finally appropriated the melodrama formulae of its current rival, Viva Films, although that distinction better belongs to the previous Regal movie, Mel Chionglo’s Paano Kung Wala Ka Na (1987).

I suspect that Ishmael Bernal is working on more ambitious modes of cinematic storytelling, while catching up at the same time with refinements in the plastics of his craft, for which he had often (and unfairly) been penalized by commentators and award-giving groups at one time or another. This places works like Pinulot on the same plane as Broken Marriage – i.e., as an exercise in competence that simultaneously provides a full-proof means of recaptivating the mass audience. As for the work itself, missing is the occasional working-over that Bernal used to lavish on genre-movie assignments. Pinulot is arguably the first successfully minor Bernal movie that doesn’t have any humor to it; recall his previous throwaway efforts like Isang Gabi sa Iyo, Isang Gabi sa Akin or Pabling and you’ll get the drift.

Of course, melodrama, to be tolerable, should first be taken seriously, on its own terms. But with a filmmaker who had taken further steps in the direction of courting the thinking viewer’s appreciation by providing the dramatic distance that comedy affords, Pinulot comprises an apprehensive step backward. So much for the larger scheme of things. Less bulgy-eyed observers would have pointed out by now the commendable production values, plus the admirable second-wind performance of Lorna Tolentino (after her previous Viva movie) and a remarkable step-up in the screen presence of Gabby Concepcion. The less considerate ones would have commented on the grievous miscalculation of Maricel Soriano in her attack on the expository passages of the film. Cross then your heart and your fingers on what M. Bernal might spring on us in the near future, which, in his case, should be just exactly what comes up next.

[First published November 18, 1987, in National Midweek]

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IMAGE-BUILDING

Huwag Mong Itanong Kung Bakit
Directed by Eddie Garcia
Written by Emmanuel H. Borlaza and Gina Marissa Tagasa

After a series of perfunctory melodramas (with equally perfunctory box-office results), Viva Films seems to have taken a serious accounting of its audience preferences, not to mention its archival potential. The outcome is Huwag Mong Itanong Kung Bakit, and although every other local movie observer must have had her turn by now in wordplaying with the title, I can’t resist my own contribution: I won’t ask why the movie turned out the way it did, but I’ll have to raise some questions about the system that led to its eventual production and release. And before you start wondering and venture another dreadful pun, let me hasten to answer that although Huwag Mong Itanong could use some narrative repair, it stands up pretty well to the average local melodrama – which, as I tend to mention too often, is virtually synonymous these days with saying “the typical Viva movie.” For that matter, it’s the most serviceable Viva story ever put out since the Presidential Commission on Good Government came along, and that doesn’t reflect too well on both the outfit itself as well as the rest of the industry.[1]

I wouldn’t say that it’s the executors of the dramatic framework – that is, the performers – who provided the crucial factor in maintaining a semblance of realism, although they do hand in some of their best work here. Armida Siguion-Reyna and Ricky Davao as a mother-and-son Oedipal tandem attack their roles with theatrical relish, and it’s a relief to behold Cherie Gil doing a lot of reacting for a change. But in the active characterizations of the romantic leads, the material betrays its crossed purposes. The hero is the usual noble-hearted scion who bleeds for the downtrodden, specifically those whom his brother abuses, one of whom turns out of course to be the heroine. It’s still disconcerting, though perhaps inevitable for this type of film, to find the moral inclinations drawn right down the middle of the hero’s upper-class family (across the brothers’ mother, in fact), but it’s even more disturbing to find that no such divisions obtain in the heroine’s lower-class origin.

The statement, if I could force one, is clear: as audience member, you may enjoy all the onscreen opulence and ostentation, but just in case you wind up hating your own deprivation afterward, we’ll obviate your condemnation of our participation by throwing in this blessed-are-the-poor angle; after all, if it worked for the church…. I’d like to beg off, though, from pursuing this controversy in the direction from which I originally approached it. I thik the contradictions in the Viva set-up were manifested all too clearly in Huwag Mong Itanong precisely because of the movie’s inherent accomplishment: it’s a fine visual treat actually, too much for the treatment the material deserves, but just enough to make the entire project literally appear valid. I can think of only two other instances where the Filipino cinematographer’s hand has practically perfected an otherwise dismissible undertaking – in separate works by black-and-white specialist Mike Accion and the more contemporary Conrado Baltazar. With Huwag Mong Itanong, Romeo Vitug has completed his portfolio for cinematographic deanship, and whatever else anyone, including myself, can say about the movie, his reputation as a master of the local movie camera should be sealed and delivered, once and for all.

But I’ll have my say anyway. This notion of steadying a shaky dramatic foundation by resorting to plastic polish is a rather old one. From the very beginning filmmakers have been enthralled by the challenge of proving they can do magic any time – gimme any story, or even no story at all, plus total financial resources of course, and I’ll gives you a Work of Art, or my name ain’t Genius. The matter is complicated by the fact that a movie has to be experienced through a definite time span – hence the track record, unique among all art forms, of successive coups de maître in cinema, where too much premium is placed on first impact (which is usually all one gets of most works anyway). In the Philippines this plastic-coverup approach has been institutionalized, at least so far, by the Viva production machinery, but before we start calling for the dismantling of the studio, it would serve us well to keep in mind that selling technical competence per se to the local audience was formerly considered an impossibility.

I submit that the Filipino moviegoer’s standard needs to be constantly upgraded. But at the same time we better have some output that could serve to remind us all that technique isn’t everything. Our Hollywood imports supply us the prime example, on one level the state-of-the-craft which we may aspire to, and on another the paradox of running out of things to say or figure out, just because the system can run itself into perpetuity on a technological basis. Is this something to be desired at all cost? I’d like to register a strong dissenting opinion and maintain that…aw, all right, huwag mong itanong kung bakit.

Note

[1] After the February 1986 “people-power” uprising, the post-Marcos government, as its first “revolutionary” act, created the Presidential Commission on Good Government to investigate shortcomings committed by the previous regime and seek appropriate measures of redress or recovery. Viva Films was suspected of having been organized with the support of the Marcoses, specifically Imelda, with funds allegedly funneled via the Cultural Center of the Philippines. A few years after a series of investigations, the order sequestering the company was lifted, with a prominent Marcos oppositionist, Lino Brocka, directing a few of his last few projects for the outfit.

[First published February 3, 1988, in National Midweek]

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KOMIKS WITHOUT PAIN

Saan Nagtatago ang Pag-ibig?
Directed by Eddie Garcia
Written by Armando Lao

At the tail-end of the series of screenings for the Film Academy of the Philippines’s annual awards ritual, I managed to watch one last 1987 title that reliable acquaintances claimed had been left out of my best-of-the-year listings (see National Midweek’s Feb. 3, 1988, issue); as a counter-defense I pointed out that one of my choices, Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak, wasn’t in the FAP’s listings either – but then they don’t have the benefit of intensive personal discussion in print just as I don’t have the publicity mileage their awards night generates, so there really isn’t any basis for mutual exchanges. Anyway there I sat, viewing a Viva production that I avoided during its regular run because it was komiks-sourced, it had Vilma Santos in another of her living-saint roles and Tonton Gutierrez as a retardate, and to a certain extent my misgivings about its limitations were confirmed. For possible “persona” reasons, the lead characters were rendered so chaste that they could have been walking around with halos on their heads and no one would have been outraged by the physical incongruity.

In contrast, the immediate peripheral characters ultimately made the entire outing worth the effort of sitting it out to the end. Instead of the usual moral balance of supplying the sweetmeats with carnivores through which their aromas could surface, the film took the relatively radical option of providing the contravidas with that rare and elusive property called motivation. As a result, none of the characters succeeds in posing as antagonist – honest compliment; of course, there’s a quibble of a qualifier in the, er, person of the family matriarch, who for all practical purposes stands for the pragmatic materialism that the leads are up against. Fortunately she comes on too infrequently to develop as either theme or character, and finally gets rejected by the other women in the movie (in academese, the act symbolizes non-symbols rejecting a symbol).

Which brings us back to the problem with the leads. The main female character is made to marry the mentally challenged brother of the lover who impregnated her, so the family can get the best of both worlds: the virile scion would account for his misdemeanor by giving his family name and a technically invalid union to someone he could marry later, while the family could pay off its debts once the same son fulfills his grandmother’s condition of passing the bar without walking the aisle. The said son turns out to be well-meaning yet immature, the mother who accedes to the arrangement reveals a deep-seated fear of her in-law derived from a sexual guilt that resulted in her now-damaged child, and the proceedings are complicated by two other women: a self-righteous daughter who becomes humiliated by an unwanted pregnancy and an old-maid aunt whose bitterness with the mother’s actuations (the boy’s father was originally her betrothed) gets dispelled by the disabled son’s efforts to reach out to everyone. By a twist that’s logical in the reckoning but still surprising considering the chauvinist traditions in melodrama, the men get edged out – the handicapped son dies, his brother is spurned by the widow, and their mannish grandma is told off by the wife with the mother-in-law’s support – and the women even get to act out a farewell scene that’s the movie’s most moving portion, its power derived from as much the foregoing emotional buildup as the cultural connotations of women in black ritualistically bonding together.

The two leads team up for much less reason than had provided the rest: the guy’s too disadvantaged to decide for himself, while the woman’s too nice to resist caring for the man she was forced to marry, telling off the brother who had not only gotten her into this predicament but who also becomes jealous when her attention gets distracted. How could such a partnership lose? The consequence may have been tragic, but the audience’s sympathy is left with absolutely no options. One possible solution, probably the easiest, would be something that the late Gerardo de Leon, a master of the pulp cinema form if there ever was one hereabouts, would have resorted to: interlacing the development of the leads’ attraction to each other with a nourishing eroticism. This way they share in the guilt of the other characters, but their rising above it becomes all the more poignant and innate. With this in mind I admittedly half-wished the drying-out scene between the wife and her “husband” could have progressed beyond the Madonna-and-child blanket-draped composition accorded it, into a discovery of the real reason why film characters, like their human counterparts, connect with one another.

The other aspects of production tie in nicely with melodrama’s current demands. The plot has largely been confined to the concerns of the decaying-rich family, so the subdued elegance so often misrepresented in movies of this type is both justified and exploited in the positive sense. Romeo Vitug’s cinematography is one step away from his holistic achievement in a later movie, Huwag Mong Itanong Kung Bakit (also by Eddie Garcia), but this subordinate approach to visual technique works best in strong stories. I appreciate his control here; and when he lets go, as he did in the victim-son’s wide-awake fantasy sequence, his calling attention to the camera’s prowess in covering plotholes actually has the reverse effect of pointing up deficiencies in storytelling, coming as these do amid comparatively solid progressions.

Where then does Saan Nagtatago ang Pag-ibig? fit in my yearend evaluation? Were it not for the problem with the main characterizations, I’d place it among the likes of Tatlong Ina, Mel Chionglo’s Paano Kung Wala Ka Na, and Peque Gallaga and Lorenzo Reyes’s Once Upon a Time. But then I had a secondary ranking as well, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it between these first three and the also-rans. Saan Nagtatago brings to mind those seemingly lost years when komiks adaptations didn’t necessarily connote excesses, particularly in the case of de Leon and the early Lino Brocka films with Lea Productions. I’d also concur with earlier reactions calling the movie its director’s and production outfit’s best work up to that point. And if it could serve to usher in another era of sensible komiks-into-film attempts, I guess that would be sufficient reason to hope it figures prominently in the FAP awards derby.

[First published April 13, 1988, in National Midweek]

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BALANCING ACTS

Hati Tayo sa Magdamag
Directed by Lupita A. Kashiwahara
Written by Armando Lao

More than a decade, the promo materials pointed out: it took a period of self-exile, the murder of her brother, and a people’s phenomenon before the country’s first major female director could come back and catch up with her sisters in the field. And though the ballyhoo over who she is may seem all out of proportion to her latest work, that may only stem from the fact of her having been away too long. For from a more sober perspective, it appears that her early films were the ones that required reputations out of all proportion to their actual worth. The critic’s dilemma lay in the responsibility of pointing out that Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo wasn’t even worthy of being called a film, vis-à-vis the larger social need of shoring up symbols of protest against the now-ousted dictatorship. As every dedicated film observer knows (or at least ought to know), the painful secret in Lupita Kashiwahara’s director’s closet was that for all the limitations of her first film, Magandang Gabi sa Inyong Lahat, she hadn’t done anything better since.

That is, until Hati Tayo sa Magdamag. As Kashiwahara’s first truly filmic enterprise, it also stands as another commercial-but-passable product from the local melodrama factory, Viva Films. A study ought to be undertaken as to how far this production outfit’s ventures into sensible presentations could go, considering that the only previous cases of successful film quality in these parts have so far come from studios that allowed free rein in creative treatment. Meanwhile we’ve had, in the space of less than a year, entertainments like Saan Nagtatago ang Pag-ibig? and Misis Mo, Misis Ko, and now Hati Tayo sa Magdamag – items that try their best to minimize insulting intelligent members of the audience while providing the requisite elements that the masses expect to find in films of this kind. Part of the formula seems to be the hiring of writers who share this sort of concern: Misis Mo had Bibeth Orteza, who did an admirable job in an earlier Lino Brocka movie (Palipat-lipat, Papalit-palit), while both Saan Nagtatago and Hati Tayo sa Magdamag share the same scriptwriting credit, Armando Lao, first known for winning during the last scriptwriting contest of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines and best known for Takaw Tukso two years back.

Careful scripting does all the difference in melodrama, and Hati Tayo proves it. This doesn’t seem too far-fetched a notion when we consider that melodrama is essentially a matter of making movie characters go through one plot development after another – and therefore a writer predisposed toward this sort of approach will be able to make a silly premise, as in Saan Nagtatago, or perfunctory developments, as in Hati Tayo, go a long way with both critical and box-office responses. Not surprisingly, both Lao-scripted films are komiks in origin. After the early Brocka films, and right before Saan Nagtatago, this used to be tantamount to saying that the writer had been either too destitute or too naïve to avoid the assignment. An admirable mechanism must be at work in the Viva offices, for having been able to tolerate a sensibility that would be considered compulsory in academe but the height of audacity in the movie industry.

But don’t get me wrong here. The way the movie goes, the writer’s contribution to Hati Tayo sa Magdamag seems to have been only the first stage in what has turned out to be the only recent Viva quality output that retains the frame of mind crucial to an explication of the commercialist imperative; meaning among the three aforementioned titles, it is Hati Tayo that masks its narrative intelligence most effectively. The dedicated melodrama observer will be treated to not only the requisite scenes of confrontation, breakdown, and reconciliation, but even lurid lovemaking and externalized monologues!

More often than not the attempts to pander to the so-called mass viewership get too barefaced for comfort, but then the accumulation of decent developments promotes acquiescence aided in no small part by the performance of the by-now redoubtable Jacklyn Jose. In theory the formulation may sound valid, but aside from the case of Jose (and to a certain extent Gina Alajar), I still have to recall another instance in our local movie scene where the consistent rejection of a stylized approach to acting could result in a series of effective performances. The other two leads in the love triangle obviously gave their best, manifested primarily in their willingness to deglamorize themselves; but then an ensembles-type of group performance never really takes off, ironically because one performer happens to be far superior to the others.

As for Lupita Kashiwahara, it’s as if she’d never done a movie before – and this, expressed as a compliment. I guess any reaction of disappointment may be due to the romanticism acquired by her familial association with her late brother and now more-famous sister-in-law, plus the fact that we don’t really have any passion for revaluating events in the past. No one promised us a utopia with the expulsion of the previous dictatorship, but a dictator-less existence might somehow do for the moment; and in the case of Kashiwahara’s detractors, I suggest a forcible re-screening of the works she did when she was known by another surname – and better yet, more projects and greater creative freedom if these can be spared.

[First published April 27, 1988, in National Midweek]

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ROÑO’S RONDOS

Itanong Mo sa Buwan
Directed by Chito Roño
Written by Armando Lao

Si Baleleng at ang Gintong Sirena
Directed by Chito Roño
Written by Bibeth Orteza

When the local movie industry attains an acceptably decent degree of professionalism, serious Filipino film directors will not have to go through the humiliation of doing blatantly commercial projects after having proved themselves capable of better challenges. Such has been the trend observable in the body of works of every filmmaker who emerged with the late arrival (circa ’70s) here of the French New-Wave influence. Take Ishmael Bernal, for example, with his 1971 debut Pagdating sa Dulo: his well-received domestic dramas and revolutionary milieu films were several years away then – and all that intervened were the likes of teen-star musicals, kung-fu films, and comic capers. But while Bernal et al. have survived with sufficient dignity, a lot of other serious first-timers have not. How many still remember that Elwood Perez first came up with Blue Boy? Perhaps more tragic is the growing record of directors whose first attempts were respectable enough, but who never since had (or accepted) follow-up offers.

Industry apologists could counter that Bernal himself has become an outstanding commercial director – a direct result of this kind of system. The loophole in their argument is that no other local director can be placed in Bernal’s category, even within this narrow commercial classification; the only possible heir apparent, more than a decade thereafter, would be Chito Roño, but then the issue here is a matter of available opportunities, not numbers. In almost the same period, Roño has made a pair of commercialized outputs that compare favorably with the most engaging dismissibles of Bernal. Were the past year-in-movies not so discardable, his festival film Itanong Mo sa Buwan would not in fact have been among the better titles in competition. As it turned out, Itanong Mo was even the yearend festival’s best entry, contrary to the perception of the board of judges.

This syndrome of subjecting ourselves to formal evaluation was once regarded as a possible remedy to the industry’s ills; in the end, it has only served to aggravate the situation, since local evaluators couldn’t seem to be objective enough. In an industry as perversely cynical as the current movie scene, the result has been nothing short of anomalous, with a redundance of award-giving bodies vying purportedly for credibility but really just for PR. Roño, who ironically was once connected with one of the least controversial local evaluative bodies, the now-defunct Film Ratings Board, immediately had his share of shortchange with his first four films – his biograph so far. His debut, Private Show, was passed up by the critics’ group for major nominations, even if it may have deserved the best-film prize for its year of release. His follow-up Olongapo: The Great American Dream, at least won first best picture in last year’s Metro Manila Film Festival – but Roño’s directorial contribution, which in the end could have been its only merit, went unrewarded.

Itanong Mo sa Buwan, though a better movie than Olongapo, suffers from a crudeness of details, especially in a number of dangling developments. Moreover, its main ontological contribution could only be inferred rather than derived directly – from the ending, wherein the main character proceeds to tell what seems to be a replica of her contradicter’s story, rather than something that would be consistent with her propensity for sleazy fantasy. Curiously, the main objection in the media to Itanong Mo happened to be a non-issue, or at least a non-filmic issue: that it was patterned after the Japanese classic Rashomon (1950, dir. Akira Kurosawa), as well as the latter’s local tribute, Laurice Guillen’s Salome (1981). The ignorance in this regard seems to be more forgivable than the festival judges’ oversight of the film, but then the recent history of similar fiascoes proves that more profound cultural forces are to blame. Salome was itself a victim of charges of plagiarism, and the fact that the creative forces behind both local products are more than acquaintances –Guillen appears in Roño’s Si Baleleng at ang Gintong Sirena, while Itanong Mo writer Armando Lao once finished a scriptwriting workshop under Salome writer Ricardo Lee, who also wrote Roño’s early filmscripts – won’t help any.

It all boils down to an awareness of the absence of an indigenous culture complicated by the consciousness of a colonial past: what amounts to a socio-cultural neurosis, an obsession with originality. Local observers don’t bother to realize where Salome and Itanong Mo differ from Rashomon; what concerns them is the similarities, and the possibility that copying had been committed has driven them to frenzies of denunciations. Meantime, Roño has come up with Si Baleleng, which almost became a festival entry, though it really is too insignificant to be taken seriously – else expect a flurry of comparisons with Ishmael Bernal! Si Baleleng, however, is closer to Bernal’s mid-period comedies than Itanong Mo is to Rashomon. Here Roño salvages an utterly compromised undertaking through the use of multi-levelled composition and, more precious and Bernalian, a strangely developed brand of comic sensibility, part morbid humor and part social commentary in its observance of off-the-wall everyday lunacies.

Si Baleleng serves as reminder that any commercial project, regardless of degree of anti-creative impositions, will be able to get by on the strength of its creator’s intelligence. At the very least, the viewing experience, which after all is what moviegoers really pay for, won’t be as painful as the recollecting afterward.

[First published March 1, 1989, in National Midweek; anthologized in The Urian Anthology 1980-1989]

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FILM ON FILM

Big Flick in the Sky
Directed and written by Kenneth M. Angliongto

Film education in the Philippines had another sort of coming-of-age maker during the outgoing academic year’s reconition ceremonies for the College of Mass Communication of the University of the Philippines. Still the only film-degree-granting institution in the country, the UPCMC handed out its usual graduation day awards, with the overall academic excellence prize being copped by Melanie Joy C. Garduño, who also happened to be the five-year-old film program’s first magna cum laude graduate. The year proved to be the most prodigious so far for the college in several senses: the broadcasting and journalism top-notchers also belonged to the same rank, while 30 other students were proclaimed cum laude and 20 finished as graduate students, five of them with Ph.D.s. The real innovation, however, lay in the first-time recognition of the production thesis as another sample of academic achievement. Alongside the traditional award for research thesis, the UPCMC faculty decided from among several possible entries in photo exhibition, slide-tape production, video documentary, and super-8mm. short feature to proclaim a video short feature: film major Kenneth M. Angliongto’s Big Flick in the Sky, the year’s outstanding production thesis honoree.

Angliongto, 23, was the surprise quick-bloomer of his batch of 25. In one year he did a promising directing exercise titled Mine, then completed a special project (an elective I’d been handling) with what he called a “graphic novel,” Bundavarre, finishing off with Big Flick. Mine was essentially silent video short feature (with a no-words soundtrack) that depicted a painter struggling with his canvas, finally drawing inspiration from memories of his childhood; what distinguished it from the products of Angliongto’s contemporaries was a compassion for its one-man subject – an attitude which young intellectuals seem to have difficulty mustering when engaged in artistic production. Bundavarre was a far more ambitious attempt in terms of moving inward to its subject and outward of audiovisual media: a comics artist gets into his wholesome general-patronage world and therein discovers his long-suppressed depravity in the form of another set of characters, who eventually take over his output; the presentation combined drawings with photographs in frames of varying sizes, with logical shifts from color to black-and-white, and exhibited with an ominous mature-audiences-only warning.

Angliongto’s self-referential concerns finally came to a head with Big Flick. The hero was this time a film student whose social and academic life arrives at a stand-still because of a creative block. The resolution is satisfyingly even-handed – the protagonist forges a truce with his Muse (paralleled in his real life by a conciliation with his friends and a female admirer) – but the journey toward it is liberally embellished with jokes and sight gags on films within films, or actually videos within videos, and surreal developments. Much of Big Flick’s impact derives from what Angliongto himself, during a discussion with his defense panel, called serendipity: whatever script he may have prepared was obviously set aside in favor of improvisations that could maximize the potential (or minimize the danger) of using nonprofessional actors as well as verisimilar middle-class locations. Halfway through my role, almost a self-impersonation really, as a high-minded faculty member, I recalled to the filmmaker that I had a similar subject matter for my undergraduate directing exercise, in super-8mm.

The Big Flick premiere during Angliongto’s thesis defense, however, immediately made clear how much I was disadvantaged by my choice of medium: no way could my film camera “enter” a movie in the plot, given the usual technological limitations of our state-dependent university. In Big Flick the video camera fixes internal video material, played back on ordinary television monitors, in relation to the circumstances of the screening, thus complementing the cut-ins from live action to video-transferred footage. What this simply means is that the notion of filmmaking characters interacting with their own and others’ works is pulled off with sufficient credibility, with Angliongto’s offbeat sensibility rounding out the impression of reality at play. “Actually,” he said in an informal interview, “I targeted the UPCMC people – my own primary audience. In fact, I had to tone down a lot of the, uh, strangeness in relation to myself, because I didn’t want people to appreciate Big Flick in proportion to how well they knew me.”

Traces of the tension evident in production – drawing from personal reality to relate recognizable truths, employing familiar faces and places, and working under a thesis-film record of below Php 5,000 – can be seen in several spotty instances, especially in the post-production aspects of dubbing and sound mixing. In a larger sense, this also reflects a longtime UPCMC controversy between the extremes of skills training vs. those of ideological awareness. If anything, Big Flick weighs in heavily in favor of beyond-technical values – in this case, imspiration, sympathy, even the modesty of remaining withing the bound of the artist’s personal experience. Angliongto acknowledges Big Flick’s dismissal of Pinoy mass culture. Nevertheless he candidly dreams, along with most of his batchmates, of actively working within the local movie industry. Quoted verbatim: “If I had the resources at this point, I’ll revitalize Darna, but this time she’ll be fighting tikbalangs and aliens from outer space; she’ll be recruited by Marcos and her brother Tengteng would die. Why stick to goody-goody heroes? She’ll be a die-hard Marcos loyalist, charging into Cory’s inauguration and helping coup plotters. But she’ll be anti-American: I won’t compromise on that, that will be her redeeming value. I’ll be also cooking up a new origin for her, something more relevant than swallowing a stone.…”

[First published June 27, 1990, in National Midweek]

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BLACK & BLUE & RED

Bayani
Directed and written by Raymond Red

Not much has already been written about Bayani, considering its significance in the local context, but what we’ve got may be enough to start off a long round of discussion. I don’t think the debate could center on its merits as film, since even a first screening could yield some pretty obvious (and painful) lessons on the nature and purpose of cinema, or any cultural vehicle for that matter. One also has to lay aside of course the arguments of the film’s apologists, who may be seen to come from a direction similar to most religious or political fundamentalists – namely, that the film is automatically validated by the very fact of the nobility of its origin and its maker’s intentions. The difficulty in assessing the achievement of Bayani from a strictly formalist standpoint lies precisely in its conformity to a long-outmoded notion of cinema as art, one that ascribes the medium to its technological parent, photography, and thence to its spiritual forebear, painting, by way of the realist mode.

This is not surprising considering the filmmaker’s background, but it also serves as a commentary on the difficulty (or perhaps futility) of film study and training within academically prescriptible methods. As it stands, Bayani is an impressively realized work of visual art, and it just-as-impressively struggles toward cinematic realization, but it somehow falls – not flat, but short. Considering its impossibly minimal (by mainstream industry standard) Php 2-million budget, as well as its unwieldy technical process (35mm. blown up from 16mm.), one simply ought to give it to Raymond Red et al. for turning natural light sources and field recording into a semblance of acceptable competence and occasional brilliance.

Yet one has to deal with the experience of Bayani as film, and without even counting in the Filipinoness of the material and its audience, the work urgently requires a raison d’être bigger than itself. Which fortunately exists: for, if nothing else, Bayani can rest on the historical claim of being the first assault of a highly vocal (and critical) circle of authentically independent film practitioners who, it now turns out, do possess aspirations to supplanting the mainstream after all. This may account for the holy-as-thou response of those who purport to represent the “popular” side of the conflict – a response that could backfire if one takes into account the actual potential of the group, or even of Raymond Red alone.

I would agree with the consensus of those in the know that Red has done far better work in the short format, but I would hasten to add that it’s actually misadventures like Bayani that provide clearer lessons and incentives for growth, especially for those who stake their reputation on art above all else. Red was totally ill-advised to venture on a historical feature with nothing more than technical prowess under his hat, even if it were (and this I could believe) the biggest hat of its kind in the country at the moment.

What Bayani has resulted to can therefore be attributed to the greenness of Red’s preparation in two crucial areas: history and drama, which conspired in rendering the end-product no different from an action-genre sample, complete with strictly observed moralistic judgments (Bonifacio and his followers on the saints’ side and “Heneral” et al. on the sinners’) and the requisite tragic bloodbath. Typical of Red’s self-captivity is his refusal to enjoy what is after all a formula for entertainment, as well as his perception of gender roles according to subjective heterocentrist positioning: the good guys are wholly masculine, Bonifacio most of all (with smashing looks for safe measure), while the bad guys are performed with theatrical drag-queen flourishes – fie on them for not knowing, unlike Gregoria de Jesus and her friends, where women ought to belong.

Yet to castigate Bayani for its incapability to understand what Philippine cinema, historically speaking, has been all about (not to mention a whole heap of identity-politics complications), may be drawing a bit too much from the lessons of what is after all our model industry, Hollywood. Not that Red didn’t promise a lot in the first place; but if we look forward to whiz-kids conquering our industry before their maturation (as Steven Spielberg and the Hollywood brats had managed in the US), we may just be consigning ourselves to a future of nothing but terrifically prepared and packaged popcorn fare. It says a lot about Bayani’s choice of subject matter that Red would refuse to settle for such an easy triumph. And perhaps the last laugh belongs to those who would hesitate to conclude, Bayani notwithstanding, that local cinema’s Red scare is over.

[First published July 1, 1992, in Manila Standard]

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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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