A little over a decade ago, Philippine cinema succumbed to the inevitable: the outpacing of celluloid production by digital technology, with filmographic and critical evaluators resisting the shift, insisting on recognizing “real” films as opposed to (paraphrasing a Hollywood filmmaker) “TV on the big screen.” As it turned out, the change would be inevitable for the rest of the world as well – the Philippines was merely more vulnerable to this end-time development because it was weaker and poorer than most other active film-producing countries.
As in several other cases of national endeavors, our practitioners persisted in the new medium until the rest of the world took notice – almost the same time that our local taste-mongers did. A little-known fact is that the first Filipino video-feature film, Mike de Leon’s Bilanggo sa Dilim, was made over three decades ago, the same year that the Marcos fascist dictatorship was overthrown. Since the country’s full digital turn, all the exciting film developments have occurred in either independent production or in that liminal space where indies and mainstream keep attempting to coexist despite the unavoidable tensions between them.
The most prominent crossover examples would be where an indie release unexpectedly reaches a mainstream crowd, previously realized two years ago when Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna kept drawing increasingly larger audiences until it finally assumed blockbuster proportion – the opposite of the usual mainstream crowd-drawers, where the audience numbers tend to dwindle as the weeks go by. The latest example of this left-field conquest is Sigrid Andrea Bernardo’s Kita Kita, a romantic comedy set in Sapporo, Japan, with a “temporarily blind” Beauty (played by Alessandra de Rossi) falling for her unlikely Beast (comedian Empoy Marquez). The movie has been criticized for inadvertently validating a stalker situation, but de Rossi is such a confident and fearless performer that she manages to convince viewers that her character’s resistance and eventual capitulation to her co-performer’s insistent courtship was hers alone to make.
The second crossover type of movie is the one where a mainstream actor stretches, so to speak, by gracing an indie project with her or his presence. Of the younger performers, male stars like John Lloyd Cruz and Piolo Pascual have been able to boost their stock by appearing in the European festival winners of Lav Diaz. But when we speak of the previous Golden Age (roughly coinciding with the martial-law period of Ferdinand Marcos), it’s the women who reigned supreme. Local superstar Nora Aunor and her perennial rival Vilma Santos have added Cinemalaya entries to their filmographic lists, and this year it is Sharon Cuneta’s turn, with Mes de Guzman’s Ang Pamilyang Hindi Lumuluha. The film further enhances Cuneta’s bid as mature star-performer, and will be distributed by Star Cinema, the country’s primary mainstream entity, but might be revised based on critical responses from its Cinemalaya screenings (which were nevertheless always full).
A third type deserves to be mentioned: a movie that deserves to cross over but gets lost in the shuffle as well as the vagaries of audience preferences. This occurred in the post-Cinemalaya event, the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino. Pauwi Na is the kind of movie that could move you despite all your doubts about its surface qualities and its (literally) old narrative, drawn from an early 2000s newspaper report. Each performer is provided with her or his moments of grace, and as in all family histories, the mother is the one that holds the whole unit together. To say that Cherry Pie Picache outshines everyone is not to demean an excellent ensemble; it just affirms what has become increasingly evident since the turn of the millennium – that the former distracted and clueless “bold” newcomer has transformed herself into the performer to beat in local cinema, never hesitant about displaying raw emotions, but also consummate in processing those emotions so that they function in precise increments, in perfect consonance with her co-actors and the plot machinery. Sadly, the PPP screenings I attended of Pauwi Na were always less than half-full, which made the audience’s enthusiastic applause at the end feel like small consolation. If you haven’t seen this movie, do yourself a favor and make the acquaintance of something that is whole and perfect after you’ve uncovered it, instead of the usual perfect-looking product that has nothing much worth treasuring inside.
The movie that generates the most excitement, in terms of our discussion, is the one that attempts the example embodied by releases like Heneral Luna: an indie production that, unlike Kita Kita, does not aspire to any existing commercial formula, but instead works out one of its own, introducing the audience to a new form that they could take to heart. In effect, this practice replicates the innovations successfully attempted by such past Golden Age masters as Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal (to name the two most prominent ones). Serendipitously, one such release broke out in this year’s Cinemalaya edition, proffering music and street poetry, drawn-from-headlines incidents, and locales that the impoverished majority of movie-goers would be intimately familiar with.
Titled Respeto, the film is directed by Treb Monteras II (introduced via a cameo in the movie as O.G. Birador), a long-time hiphop events organizer. The local rap scene has been documented in indie films before, most famously in Jim Libiran’s Tribu (2007), which like Respeto also won Cinemalaya’s top prize. This time around, the entry focuses on the YouTube sensation FlipTop Battle League, which is the talent competition (founded by Alaric “Anygma” Yuson, son of poet Krip Yuson) for aspiring Pinoy rap artists. The millions of FlipTop fans will recognize stars of the genre like Abra and Loonie (who play lead and antagonist) and several others, and will immediately understand why the movie has probably the biggest number of words ever uttered in any Filipino release: at the level of basic survival, when one has nothing to one’s name except a multitude of problems, the only wealth that one can lay claim to is one’s words.
This is not to say that Respeto has no visual acuity to speak of; on the contrary, it renders the slums of Manila as they’re rarely seen. To say that poverty becomes picturesque in the film would normally be tantamount to accusing the artists of denying the painful realities of depressed and congested living conditions. Yet the quotidian elements in the film help explain why people manage to survive despite poverty and degradation: what Respeto’s images celebrate are not the economic conditions, but rather the sense of community and the striving for betterment of slum residents. An early episode, where the government attempts to demolish the residents’ homes, depicts how the people in the neighborhood – employees, vagrants, even criminals – come together armed with potent yet not-illegal weapons (something that you’ll have to find out for yourself when the movie reaches your screen).
The scene ends an extensive expository section where Hendrix (Abra riffing on his comic bully-prone FlipTop persona) engages a hiphop gang in a street showdown and gets chased for smacking his opponent. He and his homies wind up being shooed away by an ornery bookstore owner whom they eventually call Doc because of his ability in improvisational (pre-rap) poetry, known to scholars and old-time enthusiasts as balagtasan. Doc recognizes Hendrix’s hunger for “respeto” and decides to mentor him in the craft of language. The unusual thing about Hendrix is that when he narrates his own experience, he’s able to rap expertly; but in competitive situations, he all but “chokes” (a term for a tongue-tied word warrior). Hendrix’s model, who also becomes his rival, is Breezy G, a mean and brutal champ who refuses to be outdone by anyone, even outside FlipTop scenarios. Driven to desperation, Hendrix decides to short-circuit his lessons from Doc by cribbing some verses tossed away by the old man.
The interaction between Hendrix and Doc provides the spiritual core of Respeto. Dido de la Paz compensates for his late introduction by investing Doc with a full range of quirks and contradictions that only become clear to Hendrix (and the audience) when he provides a backstory that turns his relationship with his biological son, a corrupt police officer, into a painful paradox (a word that Hendrix initially does not understand). Respeto moves in and out of anti-realist touches – an exchange between mentor and student that turns out to have been rhymed and metered, or between rapper and girlfriend that talks about each other’s pain entirely without words – but its self-assured stylistic expertise allows its audience to take pleasure, rather than feel resentment, in such liberties. Monteras, here making his feature-length directorial debut, has actually been an old hand in music videos, counting over 300 entries; Monster Jimenez, the film’s producer, had also been a writer and documentary filmmaker, and shares with Monteras a progressive political orientation even in such matters as gender issues.
Respeto is Exhibit A in how oppositional and critical politics, highly resisted (for now) by the local population, can be conveyed to the ordinary working-class audience: by using language they understand and places that are recognizable to them, enacted by characters they may have known all their lives. I conducted my own little experiment by bringing a couple of solid pro-administration youths to my second screening, and saw how their delighted response effected a new view toward the negation of due process in the Duterte administration’s deadly drug war. At a time when intellectual responses to policy debates no longer suffice, it is time for true artists, with their freedom from pre-existing ideological biases, to intervene; as Jimenez said in an exchange, “it wasn’t so much a system of ideas that [she and Monteras] were looking for…. We placed the story where violence is so ingrained in the characters’ narratives, they find it no longer shocking and it becomes part of their everyday life.” What Respeto heralds, in an immediate sense, is the emergence of fully formed talents who had been paying their dues in overlooked or disrespected formats. What it may succeed at best is in initiating a long-overdue historical demand for a humane approach to addiction as a serious health problem. This is how change is gladsomely achieved.
[First published August 18, 2017, in The FilAm]