Source Exchange for Review of Vampariah

Vampariah was the closing film of the 2016 Filipino Arts & Cinema International, which I attended as recipient of the Gawad Lingap Sining (Art Nurturer Award). FACINE founder and director Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr. introduced me to Matthew Abaya, whom I sought out after the screening to congratulate and ask if he didn’t mind my reviewing it. When I told him that that could entail some Q&A exchanges, he indicated his willingness to participate. As soon as I recovered from the trip, I initiated a Facebook Messenger discussion thread that included Mauro Tumbocon. I edited the exchange below to exclude superfluous or redundant material. My own messages are indented. The review itself came out in early 2017.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016, 8:24 PM

Joel
Hi Matthew (with Mau listening in), I know that if I keep aiming to complete prior assignments I’ll never be able to get around to reviewing Vampariah. So I’m writing to you now to see if we can arrange for this. I normally require at least two screenings of any film, since the 1st is where I allow for my subjective take and observation of audience responses and the 2nd is when I write notes. That means I need one more screening – doesn’t have to be theatrical this time; if you have a screener or a link to an online posting, that would be fine. I assure you that it won’t circulate beyond me. The other matter is venue. I have only one ready outlet, the NY-based TheFilAm.net, which is edited by a friend of mine. I usually ask whether the film will be having a Tri-State or North American release so I can refer to it in my review. Other producers or directors prefer a different venue and time frame; they just tell me where and when (for example, for a Philippine daily by such-and-such a date), I write the piece and give it to them or to their contact person in the publication. Since I’m in neither Pinas nor US, I can’t cultivate these contacts myself. But I do prefer to tailor my writing to specific readers (in terms of vocabulary, length, tone, etc.), even in the case of TheFilAm with its 1,500-word limit. I don’t ask for payment because at this time I won’t need it (plus it’s always insultingly low, although I used to rely on the $30-per-review checks I would get as a resident reviewer during the late 1980s). If a check’s available, I always request the editor or producer or director to donate it to any favorite charity. As I prepare the review, I’d also often ask anyone in production (usually the director) about certain background info on the project, or list any issues I might find regarding the text, for them to answer if they wish to. Most critics, and some of my graduate-school classmates, consider this a wrong procedure, but it always worked for me, and I suspect they’ve come around to doing it, if they wanted to be productive in the long term. I still have to meet a film person who felt this interaction was unnecessary, so that confirms for me that it’s just the right thing to do. Will look forward to your response. Best regards.

Thursday, November 24, 2016, 4:09 AM

Matthew
Thank you. You can watch Vampariah again [at this online venue]. Let me know if it plays OK. Thanks again for giving the film a good look. There are many layers to the film and I am happy to talk about them. I don’t think any reviews have been made with the subtext of post-colonialism which is a major theme of the film. With the current climate of political relations between the US and the Philippines, I would be curious as to your interpretation.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016, 8:48 AM

Joel
Thanks for the link. Just a quick clarification: no, I don’t (wish to) get paid for reviewing. If you’ve got a budget for it, just donate it to a lesbian POC NGO, if one exists. So TheFilAm.net as outlet will be OK with you? (Some of their articles get picked up by Philippine media.) Is there any future screening or release of Vampariah I can point readers to? Last, have you got any write-ups (by you or others) about yourself? Salamat. Hope to get this done soon!

Matthew
Sounds good. As far as future screenings and distribution goes, we are still sorting out distribution options. We are planning more US and international screenings next year. A homecoming to the Philippines is in the works. Nothing is solid yet.

Joel
So would a review be useful at this time or would you prefer to wait? I can work with either option. If you want the review timed for some event, just let me know. Otherwise I’ll just mention your plans for the film as you’d written.

Matthew
Hmmm. Good question. At this time I kind of would like to get as much exposure as we can. We don’t have anything to report for next year just yet but it would be nice to get film festivals and audiences excited to see it happen in their town. I think we are lacking a lot of good reviews on the internet as a whole. At least we have some good radio podcast but nothing in writing. The best one we have is with SF Sonic.

Joel
OK then, I’ll let [the editor] know that I’ll be drafting a review, maybe by next week. She tends to rush me but that’s OK – it forces me to work more quickly.

Matthew
Haha thanks. [laugh]

Joel
Not to be too big-headed about it, but if you read the NY Times review of [Jerrold Tarog’s] Heneral Luna, it sounded suspiciously close to what I wrote for TheFilAm. [link provided]

Thursday, November 24, 2016, 10:30 AM

Matthew
For real? Wow.

Joel
Just my conceit. Or maybe delusion haha.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016, 12:53 PM

Matthew
I think it might’ve been lifted from your review.

Joel
Some basic insights were what I recognized. I don’t mind, since mine came out 1st, and ideas can’t be copyrighted anyway. Some of my earlier declarations got propagated in the past, but not my 2nd thoughts or reversals about those same ideas – like the statement that the Marcos era constituted a Golden Age of cinema. BTW, where can I find some basic info about you?

Mauro
I love that statement about the Golden Age of [Philippine] cinema.

Matthew
I can send you my bio. Yes I love the Golden Age.

Joel
Sige, pls send me a copy. I tried repudiating that Golden Age statement but it didn’t take off. Maybe I should conduct a stronger self-deconstruction. [smile]

Mauro
It will be all right as long as you are clear about its meaning, and at the same time, are cautious about its use one way or another. It’s also important to periodize our history.

Joel
My point was: the 1st Golden Age “theory” resulted in an underappreciation of 1960s independent cinema, so the 2nd one shouldn’t distract us from inspecting any productive efforts that were done after February ’86.

Mauro
You mean, post ’86 pre-digital.

Joel
Yes, the periods between supposed Golden Ages. Many directors did some of their best output during those moments – Gerry de Leon, [Lamberto] Avellana, [Cesar] Gallardo, [Cesar] Amigo during the 1960s, [Chito] Roño, [Marilou] Diaz-Abaya, [Carlos] Siguion-Reyna, a few others during the ’90s.

Matthew
Wow [smile]. Was ’86 the beginning of digital?

Mauro
Digital may have started in 1999 with Jon Red’s Still Lives.[1]

Matthew
Yeah that’s when I remember digital becoming more a trend.

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Mauro
Hence 1986 to 1999 is indeed fertile ground for study, the period immediately preceding the surge of independents via digital – which was of course, immediately post-martial law.

Joel
It became standard industry format a few years after, around mid-2000s.

Friday, November 25, 2016, 3:35 AM

Matthew
Check this out [link given]: my film won 2 awards at the same event in the feature-film category alongside [Pedring Lopez’s] Nilalang which is another Filipino monster film. I’m looking for more write ups like this. I picked up three [comments] in the last week and there’s actually no press on it.

Saturday, December 31, 2016, 1:50 AM

Joel
Hi Matthew – I tried to watch [what you provided] but the website said the password was incorrect. (I copied and pasted what you wrote, then I typed it out – same result. I’ll be leaving in less than two days so I’m trying to watch it before I wind up with the Philippines’s slow internet speed.) [After Matthew provides a fix.] Thanks and advanced Happy New Year! Sorry it took me this long to start watching!

Matthew
No worries. We will be going into 2017 with a distributor so it would be really good to have a review.

Joel
I’m also thinking of catching the better entries at the Christmas film festival so that when I make a declaration about Vampariah, I would have a basis for making the assertion. But if that takes too long, then I’ll just draft the review and turn it in to The FilAm.

Matthew
Thank you so much. I definitely want to go back to the Philippines.

Joel
I’ll be there until late July [2017, for a] half-sabbatical. Let me know if you’ll be in town. Maybe you can interest one of the local festivals in showcasing it? Cinemalaya & the Metro Manila filmfest are the ones where non-mainstream entries have a chance of having some audience patronage. Otherwise you’ll be up against the majors in cahoots with the theater owners, and only a handful have been able to buck that system.

Matthew
Will be really nice to get into those festivals but I don’t have a good in [frown]. I need to find a way get their attention. Having more written about the film would be helpful.

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Joel
Will see what I can do. Plus there’s the stuck-in-the-’60s brand of nationalism, where if you’re not homegrown or home-produced, you get ignored at best or criticized at worst. Better to take careful steps. Mau might also be able to help out. I’ll see what I can do by way of generating some buzz for it.

Matthew
I’ve been told to expect a lot of criticism. I guess the film fights up and [claims] a very interesting spot, being an American movie done by Filipinos who were born and raised here. I appreciate your wisdom on this.

Joel
I’ve seen Fil-Ams go through that predicament before, where they’re never “authentic” enough for either culture. That’s why I found Vampariah’s embrace of the liminal so true & refreshing.

Matthew
Authenticity is definitely an issue related in the film. That’s awesome. [applause]

Joel
It’s raised as an issue in a few other Fil-Am productions, but this is the 1st time where even the stylistic elements demonstrate the struggle. Will show you the draft when I’ve finished it for your comments &/or corrections.

Matthew
Exactly. I definitely feel a strong connection to films like [Rod Pulido’s] Flip Side or [Gene Cajayon’s] The Debut, albeit a very different kind of film.

Sunday, January 1, 2017, 12:55 AM

Joel
Hi Matt (saw this nickname in one website but if it’s wrong pls let me know) – would you mind if I ask some questions about the movie? I’ve looked at the press materials but they weren’t comprehensive (and didn’t have to be). No need for a quick answer, just do it when you have the time. I’m supposed to be in transit myself, from Korea to Pinas, by tomorrow.

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Sunday, January 1, 2017, 12:55 AM & 7:49 AM

Combined Q&A between Joel & Matt:
1 – The 1st supernatural creature was “Kouji” (from the credits at IMDb) – a creature that hops in order to get around. Is this based on a local or regional “lower” myth in the Philippines? It seems similar to some early Euro accounts of undead movements.
Kouji is a hunter. He dies when Bampinay kills him for trying to hunt down Mahal. Mr Fang is a Chinese vampire called a jiangshi – 殭屍. Hack Daddy refers to him as a kyonshi, which is the Japanese pronunciation. The character uses this word because it is easier for him to pronounce. I always found it interesting that 2 creatures I loved to watch movies about in my teen years, aswangs and jiangshis, never faced off in a movie before. Mr. Fang is somewhat-tragic comic relief. He lost everything and is left to wander aimlessly hunting and being hunted. In the end he is sort of released and begins to recapture part of his humanity.

2 – The hunters stick some yellow sheets with what appears to be Oriental (Chinese?) characters on them. Are these Buddhist prayers similar to how East Asian cultures vanquish their supernatural monsters? There’s also what appears to be shadow puppetry that resembles wayang kulit – let me know if I’m wrong, or if this was unintended.
Mahal apparently has some old magic in her. Vampire films often follow European traditions and it seems she knows how to deal with a Chinese vampire like Mr. Fang. (Mr. Fang’s name is a homage to Mr. Vampire films from Hong Kong.) [The use of] wayang kulit was intentional. I had written this lengthy backstory to be sort of like Scrooge’s haunting by the ghosts of [Charles Dickens’s] A Christmas Carol, but the scene required us to take a dramatic yet bold way to tell a long backstory without running up the production budget. I always wanted to incorporate Asian shadow puppetry in the film. Aureen Almario (Bampinay) and players at Bindlestiff Studio often incorporate [ethnic material] into their stage plays. She was instrumental in the construction of the scene.

3 – The TV aswang explorer who gets killed – was that meant to be a reference to Steve Irwin? More on references – was Blade an influence? (I’m not against the idea of homage.) Because I’m thinking of calling it by the same genre, punk horror. Also, the main characters are “half-breeds.”
“The Cryptid Hunter” John Bates is based on Josh Gates of the show Destination Truth. I used it as a criticism of expats and “whitesplaining.” You can say we killed it.

4 – The monsters that Michele creates – are they zombies, or zombified vampires?
They are both, but mostly missing disinters who don’t agree with a hidden master plan designed by the faceless male voice that controls Michele. [Incidentally,] Michele Kilman is intended to resemble Michelle Malkin.

Blade, Underworld, Interview with the Vampire, The Lost Boys, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula must have been my biggest influences.[2] Blade and Underworld feature martial arts, a goth-punk driven score, and a vampire protagonist. It seemed like a great template for a more complex story and capable of making a story about identity relatable. Clearly a homage to my favorite vampire films while introducing something entirely different to the American landscape. It wasn’t merely trying to explain it to non-Filipinos and non-Asians.

5 – Bampinay drawing Mahal into realizing and accepting her aswang nature – was that intended to be an allegory about Fil-Ams completing their identity via Philippine culture? (It’s a complex issue because Pinas culture is itself highly syncretized.)
Yes indeed.

6 – Where did you have your film training and/or apprenticeship?
The bulk was in community college at CSM (now defunct) – same class as fellow Pinoy filmmaker HP Mendoza. I also took more technical classes at the City College of San Francisco, San Francisco State University. I worked on other feature films as an assistant, to build chops. [Additional remark: Thank you. This film does need a little decoding as it has to be left open to its creative interpretation.]

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Joel
These are all the questions I have for now. I don’t know if you read Tagalog, but the best recent Philippine novel I’ve come across is Ricky Lee’s Amapola in 65 Chapters (Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata), which is also queer-themed but involves a cross-dressing performer as the manananggal hero. (I once wrote a review of it.) Once more, no need to rush with the answers. Thanks and Happy New Year.

Sunday, January 1, 2017, 7:49 AM

Matthew
I hope this adds clarity. You both have a Happy New Year!

Thursday, January 12, 2017, 9:17 PM

Joel
The draft I prepared [is attached]. I forwarded to [the editor] Cri-en Pastor because she asked for it over a week ago, but I can still make corrections in about a day, before she uploads it. Wasn’t able to use all the info I compiled (plus my usual small notebook of scribbles) but it’s always better to have more knowledge than you need. It will also be helpful in more scholarly writing I might wind up doing later, or if I have advisees interested in this type of cinema. Many thanks for the help – and pls let me know if there are urgent/serious errors that have to be corrected.

Friday, January 13, 2017, 2:17 AM

Matthew
Thank you so much. I really appreciate that you mention that we are using a subversive genre as a vehicle and a means of empowerment. It is the main takeaway from the film. What do you think will be different from the final [version of the review]?

Friday, January 13, 2017, 4:08 AM

Joel
Unless I warn Cri-en of any serious errors and give her a revised draft, she’ll upload what I submitted. I provide myself the luxury of a more-final-than-final version (including updates and corrections) via my blog. So I’ll see what else I can improve after a while, and incorporate it in the blog version.

Mauro
Perhaps, if okay with Matt, you may as well qualify – “Bampinay” was not his first short film; he has been doing short films since FACINE started 23 years ago, most of them of the horror/sci-fi genre, except for one called “HoMe,” a collage of photos, the text referring to cultural identity and Filipino iconography, which I love much. Matt, you may add to this too.

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Matthew
Oh yeah. Thanks Mauro. I been also known for music videos [like Mud’s “Careless”].

Joel
Corrected and forwarded the draft already. Don’t be surprised if the publication changes the title. That’s standard practice in journalism, where editors have to fill up available spaces in their page layout. In my books and in my blog, I usually restore the title I suggested if I find it preferable to what the editor prepared. Cri-en said she’ll get it out “tonight” (tri-state area time).

Wednesday, January 25, 2017, 11:35 AM

Matthew
One other thing that’s been hitting me lately in Hollywood is the whole “whitewashing” issue with [the remake of Mamoru Oshii’s] Ghost in the Shell. I made Vampariah to counter that. I hope this one interview I did in NYC comes out where I opened up a lot about that.

Joel
Is this the Japanese anime? I remember watching that after I learned that it was one of the main inspirations for [the Wachowski sisters’] The Matrix.

Matthew
The Hollywood remake. I love the anime.

Joel
Me too. Didn’t know Hollywood remade it, but that’s no longer surprising. Sige, I’ll look it up.

Matthew
Basically I spoke of how 2016 was a challenging year for Asian Am actors and a film like Vampariah if pitched to a Hollywood studio would not get made, mostly for its casting.

Notes

[1] Mike de Leon’s Bilanggo sa Dilim, made in 1986, was produced by the Philippine branch of Sony Solid Video and screened at Wave Cinema in Cubao, which was equipped to screen films shot in video. See my review titled “Return to Form” in The National Pastime.

[2] These films were directed by the following: Stephen Norrington (Blade); Len Wiseman (Underworld); Neil Jordan (Interview with the Vampire); Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys) and Francis Ford Coppola (Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

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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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