Book Texts – The Golden Ages of Philippine Cinema: A Critical Reassessment

Philippine film observers use the “Golden Age” approach as a way of periodizing artistic developments in Philippine film history. Generally, contemporary critics agree that there had been two Golden Ages, one during the 1950s’ studio-system era, and the other during the martial-law period of Ferdinand Marcos (early ’70s to mid-’80s), although the government’s arts encyclopedia insists on a third, occurring during the 1930s. This article will present the arguments used by the proponents of the “Golden Ages” in Philippine film, and also attempt to evaluate the heuristic value of such a device. This article was originally published in Cinema Filipinas: Historia, teoría y crítica fílmica (1999-2009), ed. Juan Guardiola ([Andalucía]: Juna de Andalucía, Consejería de Cultura Fundación El Legado Andalusí, [2010]), 217-24; translated in the same volume as “Las edades de oro del cine Filipino: Una reevaluación crítica,” 37-48 (linked to a PDF copy). To jump to later sections, please click here for: Déjà vu; Impure Gold; Only Two So Far; Deconstruction; The Lost Decade; Dynamix; and Notes & Works Cited.

To look at most available histories of Philippine cinema, one would get the impression that the country has been blessed with several periods of sustained creative activity or Golden Ages – at least two, by standard reckoning, or three if we accommodate a government cultural agency’s account, or four if we include the self-valorization of independent (now synonymous with digital) contemporary film artists. The drive to continually celebrate the filmic achievements of popular culture in the Philippines, or in any country for that matter, may not always be motivated by pure aesthetic ideals, but given the industrial and monetary components of film practice, it would be understandable, unavoidable even. This article will seek to delve into the Golden-Age periodizations of Philippine cinema using a basic two-part structure that will inevitably (as it must) resolve in an open ending: first, it will recount the Golden Ages divisions using originary texts; and second, it will attempt a deconstruction of the Golden Ages concept as it had been deployed in Philippine film discourse.

Déjà vu

It is a measure of the success of Golden Age idealizing when the present generation of drumbeaters for the “resurgence” of Philippine cinema unanimously herald (or, at the very least, suggest) the current ascendancy of such a system, without feeling the need to justify their assertions or define their terms. We’d had Golden Ages in the past, their logic seems to maintain, so why should there be any question about one more occurring today? This makes the present-day Golden Age, if it ever even does exist, unusual in the sense that it is the only one so far recognized even while it is still ongoing. More important, the prevalence of such a widespread, possibly uncritical evaluation of what purports to be a critical summation (i.e., so many proofs of excellence allowing us to conclude that another Golden Age holds sway today) makes it even more imperative to inspect earlier accounts that claimed the prior existence of past Philippine-film Golden Ages.

11011What might also be of interest in looking at the Ur-texts of Golden Ages in Philippine cinema is the fact that the articles setting the claims were clustered more or less within a single critical generation, the first in 1972 and the last in 1994. (As a matter of personal disclosure, one of the articles was written by the present author, whose name will hereafter be cited as a matter of historical necessity, per the Foucauldian principle of the author-function.) Even more curiously, the chronology of the articles does not observe the succession of Golden Ages in Philippine film history: if we exclude the present-day Golden Age as so-far unhistoricizable because of the lack of closure, then the first (Golden Age) was actually the last (article).

11011The first article, Jessie B. Garcia’s “The Golden Decade of Philippine Movies,” originally appeared in Weekly Graphic in 1972 and was subsequently anthologized in an Experimental Cinema of the Philippines publication. The second, Joel David’s “A Second Golden Age,” was first published in Kultura (October-December 1989), a journal of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, and presently appeared in the author’s first book (The National Pastime 1-17). The third, “Classics of the Filipino Film,” was a “historical essay” in the film volume of the CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art, thus bearing the equivalent of a governmental imprimatur. Garcia’s article referred to the post-World War II reconstruction decade of the 1950s. David’s, the one that was published closest to the period it defined, dealt with the martial law and post-martial rule years of Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos, or 1975-86, with the “people-power” uprising cutting short the dictatorship as well as the Golden Age. The CCP encyclopedia article is the most problematic, in that it acknowledged the Golden Ages that had already been declared, as it were, and insisted on a third one, roughly the 1930s, prior to the other (now-subsequent) two. This has resulted in terminological confusion for the negligible few who subscribe to the CCP’s version. The term “First Golden Age” has taken hold in referring to the 1950s, while the Marcos years have been known as constituting the “Second Golden Age,” mainly because of the earlier articles’ impact and in defiance of the CCP’s reformulation of the aforementioned Golden Ages as essentially a second and a third respectively, in light of the existence of an earlier one, supposedly the original first, before the other two had occurred.

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Impure Gold

The difficulty that besets a consideration of the 1930s as a Golden Age in Philippine cinema applies to the other periodizations – is, in fact, a feature inherent in a medium that was invented and developed in countries with colder climates. Although a significant number of prints from the martial-law period may be gone, and the remaining number of copies of the 1950s’ studio system has been dwindling at an alarming rate, virtually nothing remains from the 1930s except for what a small circle of observers of highly advanced age can remember. The three still-available 1930s feature films (Eduardo de Castro’s Zamboanga from 1937, Carlos Vander Tolosa’s Giliw Ko from 1938, and Octavio Silos’s Tunay na Ina from 1939) are often mentioned as part of the tragically minuscule number of extant pre-World War II Filipino films (the only other titles would be Silos’s Pakiusap from 1940 and Vicente Salumbides and Manuel Conde’s Ibong Adarna, 1941).[1]

11011In fact, the 1930s “first” Golden-Age section in the CCP article comprises seven medium-length paragraphs, barely a tenth of the article’s total length. It cites six long-unavailable films as proof of the period’s quality achievements, yet two of the films (Dalagang Bukid and La venganza de Don Silvestre, both by Jose Nepomuceno) precede the 1930s – produced, in fact, in 1919, and it includes none of the still-surviving pre-war prints. (The remaining titles mentioned in the article are Nepomuceno’s Noli me tangere, Carlos Vander Tolosa’s Diwata ng Karagatan, Tor Villano’s Ligaw na Bituin, and Ramon Estella’s Huling Habilin.) The article also cites two other filmmakers, Joaquin Pardo de Tavera and Lorenzo P. Tuells, without mentioning any of their significant films.

11011The difficulty – impossibility, actually – in confirming through any available audiovisual form whether or not Filipino filmmakers excelled during this early period has precluded most observers from adopting the terms of the CCP article. This article will therefore be following suit in regarding any claims made about the 1930s as strictly hypothetical, pending more intensive presentation and analyses of data, and referring to the First Golden Age (without quotation marks) as comprising the 1950s and the Second Golden Age as constituted by the period of Marcos dictatorship.

Only Two So Far

Proof that the First and Second Golden Ages (respectively the 1950s and roughly the mid-1970s to mid-’80s) are more defensible in scholarly terms lies in the fact that not only do certain film titles still exist as confirmation, but also productive follow-through studies based on these assumptions have been made. In relation and as response to Garcia’s “Golden Decade,” Bienvenido Lumbera’s “Problems in Philippine Film History,” now regarded as the first useful comprehensive periodization of this long-overlooked field, divides what may be called the studio system era between pre-war and post-war periods, and considers the end of the 1950s as the start of a new, more problematic period. Lumbera describes the (roughly) pre-martial law years of the post-studio system (1960-75) as an era of “Rampant Commercialism and Artistic Decline” (Lumbera 181-84), and thereafter as marked by “New Forces in Contemporary Cinema” (184-86). In fact the more significant insight is that Lumbera’s essay, although necessarily shorter, rectifies several weaknesses in Garcia’s article. Lumbera provides before-and-after context, institutional explanation, explication of internal dynamics, and over-all signification where Garcia’s celebratory piece focused on a seemingly subjective enumeration of highlights.

11011On the other hand, Garcia’s insistence on personalities and projects conformed to the canonizing requirements of such periodizing efforts, whereas Lumbera only managed to come up with a short list of names: Gerardo de Leon, Gregorio Fernandez, Lamberto V. Avellana, Ramon Estella, and Manuel Conde, with “new directors like Eddie Romero, Cesar Gallardo, Efren Reyes, and Cirio Santiago [showing] great promise” (180). Many succeeding elaborations of the First Golden Age, including those of Lumbera himself, would follow Garcia’s lead in pointing to the projects that made an impact in foreign festivals: Conde’s Genghis Khan at the Venice Film Festival, and the films that dominated the Asian Film Festival: de Leon’s Ifugao, Avellana’s Anak Dalita and Badjao, Fernandez’s Malvarosa, Manuel Silos’s Biyaya ng Lupa.

11011David’s “A Second Golden Age” uses Garcia’s strategy in announcing the recent conclusion of a productive filmmaking period, combines it with Lumbera’s systematic presentation of empirical and analytic concerns, and suggests the titles of films and names of auteurs (including scriptwriters and performers) that could constitute the basic canon, most of which would still be familiar to anyone with a passing familiarity with recent Philippine film history: Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka and their city-film projects (Manila by Night and Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag respectively) in addition to a large body of work; Celso Ad. Castillo for Burlesk Queen, Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak, and Paradise Inn; Mike de Leon for Itim, Kisapmata, Batch ’81, and Sister Stella L.; Eddie Romero, a straggler from the First Golden Age, for Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon?; plus the first significant female filmmakers, Laurice Guillen (Kasal?, Salome, and Kung Mahawi Man ang Ulap) and Marilou Diaz-Abaya (Brutal, Moral, and Karnal). David named Nora Aunor (star of Bernal’s Himala) and Ricardo Lee (author of Himala, Salome, and Diaz-Abaya’s canonical films) as the outstanding performer and scriptwriter respectively of the period, and pointed to then-emerging filmmakers such as Peque Gallaga (Oro, Plata, Mata), Chito Roño (Private Show), and Tikoy Aguiluz (Boatman) as people who might be able to sustain quality output even beyond the end of the Second Golden Age.

11011Fields of Vision, the book by David that followed the one where the Second Golden Age essay appeared, may in fact be considered the first Filipino volume premised entirely on the recent conclusion of such a period. It starts out by echoing Lumbera’s still-to-be-concluded observation of the emergence of what he called a “New Philippine Cinema” (cf. “The ‘New’ Cinema in Retrospect,” Fields of Vision 1-36), thus connecting a first Golden-Age follow-up study with a second one. Necessarily Fields of Vision covered film releases since 1986, but several of its major-length studies, including aesthetic assessments of Philippine film products (highlighted by a so-far definitive ten-best film survey), served to focus attention on both Golden Ages, with the second Golden Age regarded as triumphant enough to have overshadowed the first: a per-category all-time best-of (mimicking an awards report), for example, asserted that the best picture, direction, script, performance, and technical achievements in Philippine cinema were, with only one exception, products of the Second Golden Age (see “One-Shot Awards Ceremony,” Fields of Vision 137-42).

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At this point, the issue of the usefulness of what we may call the Golden Ages approach in studying Philippine history ought to be confronted. There may be positive and negative ways of responding to this issue, but most of the advantages would have been elucidated in the preceding discussion: asserting the existence of a Golden Age brings about scholarly and creative excitement, as may be gleaned in the belief (whose validity is a question that will have to be deferred) of so-called independent filmmakers that the current period is such a one. The faith of academic and film practitioners in an ongoing Golden Age functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy, compelling scholars to devote serious attention to the study of film phenomena and film creators to carry on with innovative and relevant productions.

11011Yet the practice of lionizing selected periods also requires that certain other periods be excluded, and it is here where the inadequacies of the Golden Ages approach are as obvious as they are overlooked. Between the First and Second Golden Ages, for example, lies the entire decade of the 1960s and the first half of the ’70s, and in order to point up the remarkability of the favored periods, evaluators wound up devaluing the intervening years. Lumbera had set the tone by describing this period as characterized by “Rampant Commercialism and Artistic Decline” (Lumbera 181-84), and all succeeding Philippine film historians followed suit. One by-product of the anti-1960s bias is the fact that, while useful resources covering the beginning of Philippine cinema to the 1950s, and critics’ anthologies listing films from the 1970s onward, are available to the public, no comprehensive filmography of the ’60s is available. The problem stems from the practice of subjecting only aesthetic material (films and auteurs) to critical analysis and neglecting to extend its application to the study of structural phenomena.

11011The First Golden Age, for example, is ascribed to the stability enforced by a limited number of studios – i.e., since they were assured of full control over local releases, their annual profits were permanently guaranteed; as a result, they could afford to fund prestige projects geared toward local-awards and foreign-festival competitions every so often. Studies that mention the insidious underside of such a monopolistic system – the blacklisting of unruly talents, for example, or the marginalization of competitors who could not match the vertically integrated resources of the majors – were often relegated to biographical write-ups on specific participants, never in relation to discussing the problems of Golden-Age production. The end of this studio system, brought about by the busting of the production-and-distribution monopoly (following the Paramount decision in the US) and the rise of actor-moguls (representing a more powerful type of independent producer), did result in the “rampant commercialism” decried by Lumbera, but the question of “artistic decline” is another matter altogether.

The Lost Decade

In fact the decade of the 1960s was characterized by an impressive, pioneering, taboo-breaking, politically charged vulgarity, of a sort never seen before or since in the country, and that would be essential to explaining why the Second Golden Age held far more promise and managed to meet more expectations than the First. Moreover, most filmmakers who made their mark during the First Golden Age actually produced what a number of people would consider their best products during the subsequent non-“golden” years[2] – Gerardo de Leon with The Moises Padilla Story, El Filibusterismo, or the long-lost Ang Daigdig ng mga Api; Avellana with Scout Rangers;[3] Cesar Gallardo with either Kadenang Putik or Geron Busabos: Ang Batang Quiapo (starring former President Joseph Estrada); Eddie Romero with The Passionate Strangers as well as producing and writing Cesar J. Amigo’s Sa Atin ang Daigdig; and Leroy Salvador’s remarkably overlooked Cebuano-language masterpiece Badlis sa Kinabuhi. The sheer proliferation of innovation alone would be worth a compendium all its own – transformation of actor-producers, as already mentioned, into auteur-moguls, triple-digit annual production, transitions to color, regularity of Cebuano production and international co-production (including links with US blood-island and blaxploitation films), eager bandwagoning by politicians (including then-presidential aspirant Ferdinand Marcos), depictions of heretofore unseen images of graphic screen violence, musical-teen-idol unruliness, social turmoil, and straight and queer pornography.

11011A highly qualifiable additional item may be mentioned as well – the emergence of the leading lights of the Second Golden Age, Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal, with the latter producing what is arguably the best debut film by a Filipino filmmaker, the reflexive Pagdating sa Dulo. More significantly, at least three other talents – Elwood Perez, Mario O’Hara, and Gil Portes – who would be active during the Second Golden Age but some of whose major achievements would be produced thereafter, also made their presence felt this early. Like the First Golden Age, the second was marked by a measure of stability brought about by the entrenchment of studios – three at a time, same as during the earlier era, but this time with independents occasionally claiming a share of the market and the government providing a mostly supportive, though occasionally threatening, intervention.[4] Similarly, the current (potentially) Golden Age of digital productions shares with the Second Golden Age all of the latter’s institutional features, with two crucial modifications: most of the government’s subsidiary functions have devolved to private agencies; and digitalization has taken over, with the major studios focusing mainly on television and only occasionally on film projects, and the independents entirely utilizing video format.


The explanation for how such a mix of factors could facilitate artistic productivity would constitute material for a separate study in itself, but once more the question of why what may be called the “wilderness years” (between one Golden Age and the next) should never be dismissed once more proves urgent. If we grant that the digital period in Philippine cinema (roughly since the turn of the millennium) might be eventually celebrated as the Third Golden Age, then the years since the 1986 revolution through the entire decade of the ’90s and early 2000s raise the question of any similarity with the 1960s.[5] And the most significant response – that certain practitioners came up with their peaks during the interregnum – once more, perhaps not surprisingly, becomes arguable.

11011Several aforementioned pre-Second Golden Age practitioners were able to present impressive, perhaps career-best, work: Elwood Perez with Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit and Ang Totoong Buhay ni Pacita M.; Mario O’Hara with Bagong Hari, Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak, The Fatima Buen Story, and Pangarap ng Puso; and Gil Portes with Andrea, Paano Ba ang Maging Isang Ina? (all but Fatima Buen and Pangarap ng Puso, interestingly, starring Nora Aunor – arguably the country’s first-rank pop-culture performing artist, who also emerged during the “rampant commercialism and artistic decline” period of the ’60s). Several other Second Golden Age practitioners came up with works equal to, if not exceeding, their Golden Age output: Lino Brocka with Orapronobis and Gumapang Ka sa Lusak, Ishmael Bernal with Pahiram ng Isang Umaga, Marilou Diaz-Abaya with Milagros, Peque Gallaga (with Lorenzo Reyes) with Tiyanak, Chito Roño with Itanong Mo sa Buwan, Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali?, and Curacha: Ang Babaeng Walang Pahinga (a sequel to Private Show), Eddie Garcia with Saan Nagtatago ang Pag-ibig?, Tikoy Aguiluz with Segurista, Pepe Marcos with Tubusin Mo ng Dugo, Augusto Salvador with Joe Pring, Wilfredo Milan with Anak ng Cabron, and Mike de Leon with Bayaning Third World. Finally, just as during the Golden Ages, several filmmakers emerged during this non-“golden” period, quickly creating material that rivaled the best of any age, including their own subsequent output: Carlos Siguion-Reyna with Misis Mo, Misis Ko, Hihintayin Kita sa Langit, and Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal, William Pascual with Takaw Tukso, Lav Diaz with Serafin Geronimo: Ang Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion and Batang West Side, and Jeffrey Jeturian with Sana Pag-ibig Na, Pila-Balde, and Tuhog.

11011What all this indicates up to this point is that any Golden Age may be a necessary, but also necessarily illusory, romantic ideal supportive mainly of auteurist and aesthetic ambitions. The production of “great” work (definable first and foremost in the context of any specific filmmaker’s oeuvre) may take inspiration, and more significantly funding, from the ferment that invariably obtains during these celebratory periods, but creative inspiration may also happen without any structural preparation, and may even be the more impressive for all that. What this article recommends, by way of a provisional conclusion, is for scholars to leave any Golden-Age hoopla to producers and artists, and evaluate all available periods and their products with equal fairness, rigor, and thoroughness … so that in effect the hope that Philippine cinema itself might constitute an unbroken Golden Age could be realized.

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[1] An extensive study by Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. pointed out that none of the still-available 1930s films may be considered as rising above the level of entertainment and therefore fail when compared with Hollywood masterworks (121-23) – a potentially problematic framework that nevertheless holds value in any consideration of aesthetic worth. The Facebook page “Casa Grande Vintage Filipino Cinema” posted an “Excerpt from Tunay na Ina (1939)” video post (December 22, 2017) but excluded Zamboanga in the posting’s enumeration of “four (so-far) pre-WW2 Filipino films that have survived”; queried about the oversight, Mike de Leon (or someone who claims to be him) states, problematically and without clarifying his terms, that Zamboanga “has been transformed into an American B-movie and that is its present and permanent state. Are we so desperate that we have to quibble over such unimportant matters?”

[2] The late critic-historian Agustin Sotto maintained that the 1960s “was also the period when the top directors shot their best works” – Ninth Period, “History of Philippine Cinema (1897-1969)” (n.pag.).

[3] Selected by the late film critic and director Pio de Castro III as superior to the rest of Avellana’s output; in a conversation regarding the selection of Avellana for the Philippine critics circle’s life achievement prize (cf. Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino), de Castro claimed that Avellana had expressed surprise and agreement with his choice (interview with author, Quezon City, June 1981).

[4] Because of periods where newly founded studios overlapped with about-to-be-defunct ones, a number of observers maintain that four is the magic number. Justifications for and speculations on the numerological principle of having three participants – a major, a rival, and an underdog – can be found in David, “Studious Studios,” The National Pastime 126-28. For a first-hand account of the machinations of the Marcos-era’s “umbrella” film agency, the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, see David, “A Cultural Policy Experience.”

[5] In fact in the official award-obsessed critics’ anthology for the decade of the 1990s, the decadal introduction described the period “as one of the darkest…in the development of the local cinema” (Tiongson 2). The article remarks that “It does not take a genius to see how or why the decade of the 1990s could very well be called ‘the worst of times’ in the history of the Filipino cinema because it was the decade when greed, attended by opportunism and compromise, reared its head and ruled in practically all levels and institutions of the movie industry” (35). Revealingly, the article points to trends in the 1960s in order to further condemn the output of the decade, referring to “the slavish and often pathetic imitation of Hollywood blockbusters and directors in order to take advantage of the popularity of the Hollywood originals” and singling out the local industry’s carnivalesque mimicking of James Bond, “Gringo cowboys,” and Chinese martial-arts successes (9).

Works Cited

“Classics of the Filipino Film.” Philippine Film. Vol. 8 of the CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art. Ed. Nicanor G. Tiongson. Manila: Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1994. 50-57.

David, Joel. “A Cultural Policy Experience in Philippine Cinema.” Wages of Cinema: Film in Philippine Perspective. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1998. 48-61.

———. Fields of Vision: Critical Applications in Recent Philippine Cinema. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1995.

———. The National Pastime: Contemporary Philippine Cinema. Mandaluyong City: Anvil, 1990.

Del Mundo, Clodualdo A. Native Resistance: Philippine Cinema and Colonialism, 1898-1941. Manila: De La Salle UP, 1998.

Garcia, Jessie B. “The Golden Decade of Philippine Movies.” Rpt. from Weekly Graphic (April 26, May 3, and May 10, 1972). Readings in Philippine Cinema. Ed. Rafael Ma. Guerrero. Manila: Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1983. 39-54.

Lumbera, Bienvenido. “Problems in Philippine Film History.” Rpt. from The Diliman Review (July-August 1981). Revaluation 1977: Essays on Philippine Literature, Cinema and Popular Culture. 1984. Rev. ed. Manila: University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 1997. 177-87.

———. “Critic in Academe.” National Midweek (4 Apr. 1990): 20-22, 46. Rpt. in Millennial Traversals.

Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino [Filipino Film Critics Circle]. “Natatanging Gawad Urian kay Lamberto V. Avellana” [Outstanding Urian Award for Lamberto V. Avellana]. [May 1981] , accessed January 12, 2010.

Sotto, Agustin. “History of Philippine Cinema (1897-1969).” Pelikula at Lipunan: Festival of Filipino Film Classics and Short Films. [Quezon City]: National Commission for Culture and the Arts Cinema Committee, Film Academy of the Philippines, and Movie Workers Welfare Fund, 1994.

Tiongson, Nicanor G. “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: The Filipino Cinema in 1990-1999.” The Urian Anthology 1990-1999. Ed. Nicanor G. Tiongson. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press and Film Development Council of the Philippines, 2010. 2-43.

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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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