Book Texts – Pinoy Film Reviews I: Celluloid (Pre-1990s) Era

Exceptions

Kamakalawa
Directed and written by Eddie Romero

Kisapmata
Directed by Mike de Leon
Written by Mike de Leon, Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., and Raquel Villavicencio

Two movies – one by an old-school director and another by a considerably younger one – serve to demonstrate the classic conflict between theme and technique. Eddie Romero’s Kamakalawa is prevented from being entirely effective by its defective production values; Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata, on the other hand, very effectively says little. Kamakalawa is Eddie Romero’s third ambitious production since his auspicious comeback in 1976 (the other two are Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? and Aguila). Set during the local pre-Spanish era, it tells the story of Kauing, a commoner who becomes involved in the intrigues among gods and noblemen. His adventures begin with the assassination of the reigning sultan by a rebel datu, upon which the princess calls on him to accompany her in summoning loyalist reinforcements. The mission is temporarily abandoned, however, as Kauing decides to save some elves and noblemen from the tyranny of the river goddess, in the process unwittingly seducing her. Meanwhile the sea god has to maintain his dominion over people, if not over nature. The river goddess, for her part, will have nothing to do with such to-dos, so long as her territorial concerns are left in order. Inevitably the sea and mountain gods confront and destroy each other, just as their respective mortal armies do. The river goddess’s downfall lies in her love for Kauing, which the fire god will not permit; to solve her predicament she embodies Kauing’s true love, the princess. In like manner, the surviving populace abandons its conflicting causes and acknowledges Kauing for his confidence in and compassion for humankind – a portrait of the leader as less concerned with than ignorant of politics, yet accomplished in the skills of diplomacy.

There is considerable intelligence in the interrelation of divine and temporal issues in Kamakalawa – at least enough to justify the combination of various local mythologies into a new and original whole which will annoy no one except purists. When, for example, the forest god beckons vampires to vanquish his peeves, the realization of a hierarchy among supernatural creatures, which makes them no better than their moral counterparts, is made clear, regional incompatibility notwithstanding. Even Philippine pre-Spanish society in Kamakalawa is somehow tailored to fit the filmmaker’s imaginative fabric. In a specific instance, Kauing, a tiller of soil (“clodhopper,” as the international version’s subtitles translate), proves his prowess over a haughty nobleman by first sparing his life in a royal bout and then saving him from various enchantments wrought by the gods of nature. The consideration of chronology – of the emergence of peasants only after the decline of indentured slavery and its attendant nobility – hardly matters anymore, subsumed as it is under the filmmaker’s interest in the superiority of productive forces over non-productive ones.

Filmic brilliance, however, cannot be confirmed to conceptualization alone. As in any other artistic medium, substance could be either enhanced or subverted by style. In the case of Kamakalawa Romero’s statements are not exactly negated by his direction; nevertheless, considering their scope and magnitude, they have not been handled with the high degree of expertise they deserve either. The most embarrassing examples of technique getting in the way in Kamakalawa are in its use of special effects. To put it kindly, the in-camera tricks and special laboratory processes employed in the movie are inferior to those of local fantasy films of lesser budgets. Care could have been exercised in minor matters such as the depiction of proportions among gods, mortals, and elves, the exploration by Kauing of the river goddess’s lair, or the appearance of a musical ghost. If these instances sound interesting, then the movie’s supernatural highlights are definite downers. The climatic showdown between the forest god and the sea god is appalling – but not because the protagonists lay the landscape to waste; their weapons do not behave like the flashes of lightning they are supposed to be, their clashes are mere washouts, the havoc they wreak could be outdone by faulty firecrackers.

This is not to say, however, that Kamakalawa is downright disastrous. As pointed out earlier, Romero’s healthy humanism is reason enough for the movie to be seriously taken. No other local director would have the sagacity, not to mention the audacity (considering the speaker’s ridiculous costume), to furnish a character, the fire god, with a monologue on power, existence, and eternity – and make it sound sincere enough for comfort.

Kisapmata, meanwhile, has everything it takes – and more, if one were to quantify Vic Silayan’s performance – to succeed where Kamakalawa fails. Taken as independent contributions to a creative collective, the various filmic elements of Kisapmata are, without exception, exceptional. In audiovisual terms, nothing in the film is obtrusive or inadequate – a balancing feat by any technical standard. Hence while watching the movie the viewer would be drawn along from beginning to end by correct composition and consistent visual tone; one would be helped along by sparse but purposeful auditory exploits; one would even be moved by the performances of individual members of the cast. On the whole, however, Kisapmata is nothing more than a narration of the events that lead to a father’s killing of his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and self; any relevant issue – incest, obsession, fascism, rebellion – is treated as an incidental angle, then quickly cast aside in the pursuit of plot.

Mike de Leon (b. 1947), the next Filipino talent to be featured at the Cannes Film Festival, after Lino Brocka.

Consider, say, the incest angle. The act itself is suggested by the father’s entrance into his daughter’s bedroom, with a little help from an earlier confrontation between the mother and daughter confirming the practice within the family. This is a discreet manner of presentation of a social taboo, which no doubt facilitated the movie’s passage through the eye of our rusty censorship needle. Whether it serves the movie’s purpose is a different consideration altogether. In fact the graphic depiction of another social taboo – the killing of kinsfolk – would not be in keeping with this attempt at adumbrating a comparatively lesser aberration. The social issues are just as inadequately treated. Lip service is paid to progressive concerns, such as references to political detention centers and acceptance of police corruption. Mere mention, however, is not the same as discussion: for all the complexity of the issues raised, the movie’s singular dialectic begins and ends with the father’s fatal obsession with his daughter.

This disturbing dichotomy between technical wealth and thematic poverty is best exemplified in the relationships among the characters. For in Kisapmata, the excellence of individual performances provides an illusion of successful characterization where there actually is none. The practice of incest, for example, should have introduced psychological changes in the daughter beyond normative dimensions. As it turns out, she responds to her mother’s calls for aid and rebels when she finds out that these are pretenses planned by her father; also, in spite of her conventionality (she resorts to religion regularly), she submits to another man – her husband, with whom she had premarital relations – without discernible traumatic consequences. The father, played with a plethora of nuances by Vic Silayan, comes on as an imposing figure right from the start, and remains that way throughout. In this regard, his fateful outburst at the movie’s climax may be safely logical – but not, by any means, tragic. A serious oversight on the filmmaker’s part prevented the evolution of the father into an understandable figure; before the shootout he is simplistically dismissed by his family as a psychotic. But since he is made to carry out the climax literally and figuratively singlehandedly, his character, to say the least, should have been provided with subjective developments.

Creating sympathy thus for the father would have been less bold than the incest angle, but it would have made the shootout at the end cathartic instead of simply shocking. In this sense Kisapmata can be regarded as representative of the Hollywood influence on contemporary Philippine cinema: technique-conscious, paradoxically to a fault. A return to thematic awareness in the manner of old guards like Romero would be more welcome – presuming, of course, that the filmmaker concerned is already capable of technical competence to begin with.

[First published November-December 1981 in The Review]

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Down but Not Out

Nektar
Directed by Francis “Jun” Posadas
Written by Eric and Susan Kelly Posadas

Tubusin Mo ng Dugo
Directed by Pepe Marcos
Written by Jose Carreon

This year’s first local entries classifiable under the troublesome categories of bold and action indicate some bright spots ahead for post-revolution Philippine cinema. To review recent cultural developments, bold and action films used to be the closest that our serious filmmakers utilized in working out compromises with their financiers; comedy and melodrama were simply considered incapable of presenting “messages,” and therefore generally unworthy of aesthetic attention. I recall how, in a period of only occasional filmic achievement (which was most of the time, then as now), I would go to a name director’s bold or action entry in the hope of encountering sensible discourse, but would disabuse myself of such a notion when it came to comedies and melodramas.

Then came 1986, and notwithstanding pessimists’ claims, things did change, even in the local film scene. Comedy and melodrama took the forefront in both box-office and artistic terms, while bold films permutated into the hard-core quickies reminiscent of pre-martial law times, and action movies ventured in the opposite direction – real-life stories done with the ultimate in production costs. Nektar and Tubusin Mo ng Dugo, bold and action films respectively, seem to point toward a return to the median, as it were, for these temporarily lost film types. I’ll readily own that I might be too optimistic about the first title, but the second can be taken as a case for generic survival: instead of breaking as far away as possible from the films that seem to be doing well, why not figure out how best to adopt the factors that excite the mass viewership about them?

Hence, the spectacle of witnessing some form of industrial osmosis, with a bold film attempting to take on the plot complications and technical competence of melodrama, and an action film spiced (spiked, even) with comic routines. I’d like to be kind enough, at least in print, in pointing out that, the way most current bold films go, Nektar could have been worse. It’s bad enough as it is, but you could sense an aspiration toward, well, making sense. The story’s our well-worn odyssey of the Virginal Barrio Lass getting corrupted by the Big City, with the melodramatic, or at least komiks-influenced, twist of Morality Triumphing in the End. Before you start groaning in your creaky theater seats, let me remind you that this material has proved remarkably resilient through the decades, with each movie generation having its own claim to posterity in a least one such topical example: Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag honors the moviemakers of the seventies in this way, although of course Nektar could only hope to distinguish its own specific period in time, and no more.

There’s an even more painful aspect to the movie, and that’s the care, believe it or not, with which it was executed. Nektar must be the most carefully made bold film since Takaw Tukso two years ago – but one must be careful to take this in the context of the common run of such films, rather than the quality of the specific titles being compared. The difference, and this is where Nektar fails, is that its makers have just not been up to the challenge, meaning the effort shows in the final product. It becomes almost embarrassing to see a movie so sincere yet nevertheless substandard in all respects. A few portions do stand as set pieces, specifically the heroine wandering in the Luneta by night, and then much later discovering how her supposed savior betrayed her.

Of course this only makes the rest of the movie almost unbearable in its pursuit of a reasonable but overworked story framework. I guess in the final analysis, a little figuring out about the specific nature of filmwork could have helped: Maynila, although it resembles Nektar on paper, salvaged itself by opting for a semi-documentary approach; in the other direction, melodrama films contain the potential for degenerating into camp, which though not as promising at least provides a provocative element of fun. How sad to fall in between, losing the interest of both serious observers and escapists – unless a hard-core version exists somewhere; but then that takes the fun out of knowing you did a good movie and showing it to friends and potential acquaintances. In which case how sad again, etc.

After Nektar, Tubusin Mo ng Dugo emerges as a minor cause for celebration. Pepe Marcos, a former editor (who also doubles for the same function in his films) who turned director four years ago, first came up with a passable debut, also a Rudy Fernandez starrer, in Sumuko Ka … Ronquillo! Neither practitioner has come up with totally execrable work since, but in Tubusin I’m happy to report a rarity of sorts – their best individual work so far. The qualifications should not be far behind though. Tubusin’s still a customary product, made for no greater shakes than the usual action entertainment contained in its main plotline. Normally I’d say it suffers from an imbalance in story development, but in fact this is where its strong point emerges. Instead of the usual establishment of good guys being lined up against bad guys, Tubusin takes an expository detour and provides a picaresque description of the lead character’s misadventures within a shrewdly observed social milieu.

Yessir, your average martyr of a mother happens to be a nag, your friendly neighborhood police chief resorts to third-degree, and your noble working-class savage gambles and drinks when he can, and even sets himself up for an occasional hustle! I was bewildered, to put it mildly, and then I started to wonder how long such a good thing could last. My worries were answered as soon as they occurred to me. Turned out that the mother feared for her son’s future, ditto the police chief, and though the hero-son gets to sire a family of his own, his involvement – unwilling, of course – in a big-time crime syndicate leaves him without much choice, were it not for the long, long arm of the law, yawn, yawn. I should have suspected something amiss after the hero rapes his best friend, a butch lesbian, and she forthwith disappears; what do you know, she reemerges much later, converted by her heterosexual encounter and therefore happily married to a poor unsuspecting atmosphere person.

Meanwhile a few instances of the early part’s humor, coupled with some really fierce action sequences, manage to pull the reluctant viewer through; the mass audience will of course be more forgiving, so I guess I ought to be honest about my admiration of how perceptive the filmmakers of Tubusin have been in their appropriation of current commercial preferences in a film genre that would otherwise have been as good as obsolete. In the end, Tubusin will be remembered mainly for just that – revitalizing a film type to conform to the mood of the times. Like Nektar, it will have acquired the box-office profits it intended to make in the first place, although with much less outrage about competence and entertainment appeal. We should all be so glad Armageddon might somehow take longer than tomorrow.

[First published February 17, 1988, in National Midweek]

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Chauvinist’s Nightmare

Kumander Gringa
Directed and written by Mike Relon Makiling

One cultural paradox of our current national existence is the fact that at this point, close to the second anniversary of the February 1986 revolution, our favorite mass medium still has to yield an unqualified triumph in political discourse. Once in a while, or sometimes too often, the movie industry would come up with an alleged true-to-life depiction of a still-living and militaristically significant political personality. The samples so far have proved to be viable for box-office business, but understandably self-serving for their respective subjects; in short, bad for the spirit in the long run. I hope this sufficies to demonstrate the minimum of cynicism in my appreciation of Kumander Gringa as our most successful post-revolution political movie so far. True-la-la, as the lead character (or more accurately one of two) would say: the item, like its subject matter, is far cleverer than what it would have us believe.

Roderick Paulate as the triumphant gay doppelgänger in Kumander Gringa.

To begin with, Kumander Gringa arrives on the (high) heels of Ako si Kiko, Ako si Kikay, which features not only the same director, Mike Relon Makiling, and performer, Roderick Paulate, but also the same comic premise – that of two characters identical in physical appearance but worlds (well, sexes actually) apart in orientation. Notice the twin defensive measures resorted to here, in terms of intention: not only is the undertaking a comedy, it also features the least offensive of Pinoy stock comic characters. And just in case this still couldn’t serve to appease the moralists in our midst, it further halves the lead character in two, the better to drive home the contrast between sexual differences, playing as it does the comic gay against his straight and serious counterpart.

But where Ako si Kiko was content to exploit this condition for strictly commercial comedic ends, Kumander Gringa pursues a far more ambitious and ultimately more appreciable, if not actually radical, course. Where the aforementioned biopictures were content to simplify political arguments by reformulating the left-vs.-right conflict into a center-vs.-extreme argument, Kumander Gringa provides sex-based embodiments for each side of the debate. Instead of the good-guy peace-lover caught between the bad-guy war-freaks on both sides of the political fence, we’ve got the gay lead straddling the contradictions between the more realizable concepts of civism and militarism, as represented by traditionally defined women on the one hand and similarly self-imposed men on the other. For the first time in any major local movie, both sides are made to succumb to the camp aspects of the gay option.[1]

The limitation of this sort of approach should be obvious to any perceptive social observer. It’s still too schematic to allow for innovation within specific sexual orientations, whether conventional or queer. Where our current biopictures attempt one over run-of-the-mill action movies by imbuing the psychologically motivated protagonists with political significations, the likes of Kumander Gringa in turn transform these political valuations into sexual differences. The approach is actually more analytical than dramatic, and in the final reckoning all these titles share the common property of editorializing in the wrong medium. They strive for the attention-getting appurtenance of thematic novelty without having fine-tuned (and as a consequence they cover up) the essential mechanisms of character and plot development. Using rhetoric metaphor, the machine looks new and therefore potentially workable, but it could never run itself into the long-term required for classical stature.

That would of course be tantamount to expecting Dostoyevskian rewards from a Mills & Boon paperback, and in fact I’d go as far as conceding that a Mad magazine feature would be closer to the nature of Kumander Gringa. But the mere fact that the discussion could initiate this level of polemics indicates that Mike Relon Makiling and Roderick Paulate, and by association contemporary Philippine motion-picture comedy, might be going somewhere. Kumander Gringa will also offer some slight film-educational, or more appropriately performing-arts, insights, particularly on the cruciality of the comic performer’s contribution. Again this carries on where Ako si Kiko, Ako si Kikay had left off, this time with the lesson more pronounced. What I mean is that, compared with most of Roderick Paulate’s previous gay-persona outings, Kumander Gringa to begin with has dangerously weak histrionic support: no Nida Blanca, Tessie Tomas, Nova Villa, not even a Maricel Soriano in close range, just a bunch of well-meaning and congenial talents eager to do their best but whose capabilities definitely fall outside the lead star’s caliber.

Roderick Paulate as a gay military recruit forced to act as a deep-penetration agent impersonating a macho rebel leader in Mike Relon Makiling’s Kumander Gringa (1987).

The risk Makiling took in response to this limitation has paid off in most parts, of which the financial aspect isn’t yet the least. In Kumander Gringa Paulate comes into his own in a definitive manner, proving for all practical purposes that he’s the prime comedian of the day, fully capable and confident in getting away with even the worst conventions his specialized kind of craft can proffer. Shrewdly, as it turned out, Makiling built the movie’s highlights on scenes intended to be carried by one, the other, or both of Paulate’s characters, and in fact allowed his star the bravura opportunity of creating a character-within-a-character, with the gay lead barely though riotously managing to impersonate his macho counterpart.

But instead of leaving Paulate to assume the burden of taking the movie to climax in this one-upmanship manner, Makiling eased the project itself onto parodic territory. I wonder how aware the filmmakers were of how close to radical the movie’s climax was, wherein the gay survivor delivers the lines and actions so far reserved for our most revered male movie personae. The incongruity is downright outrageous, but no one who has ever been moved, as I’d sometimes been, with all those mythologizing endings in our action movies will fail to feel that almost-reflexive swell of emotion. On the other hand, if everything were deliberately done, at least as much as would be enough to hold up under this sort of scrutiny, then the movie couldn’t have been as casual, as disarming even, as it turned out to be.

Then again on further thought the literal notion of disarmament is made a vital part of Kumander Gringa’s denouement. I guess clever’s the word, and I mean it as a compliment, true-la-la, but somehow I couldn’t help suspecting that there might be more where this came from.

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

Note

[1] One of the films made in the wake of the groundbreaking success of Mar S. Torres’s 1954 Dolphy starrer, Jack en Jill, was Tony Cayado’s 1962 Kaming mga Talyada, where seven effeminate brothers are transformed into masculine heterosexuals via army training coupled with the endangerment of their potential objects of desire; the very last shot, however, depicts their hyper-masculine commanding officer as having been “infected” with the effeminacy that he had sought so desperately to eliminate in his charges, as he follows the now-normativized couples with a distinctly waddling gait. That it took a quarter of a century before this (for want of a better term) condition could be acknowledged as vital enough to induce its proponent to undertake heroic action and transform an entire army camp into happy campers may be read in two ways: as merely a reaction to the recent spate of (again pun incidental) straight-faced people-power heroicizing biofilms; or, on a broader scale, as an expression of relief that the masculinist nightmare of martial rule has finally been dispelled.

A further development must also be brought up here: the final doppelgänger roles essayed by Roderick Paulate was in Maryo J. de los Reyes’s Bala at Lipistik in 1994. This takes a step back from political discourse and focuses on the several comic predicaments that may be the stock-in-trade of the action film set-up, notably the abduction of the gay twin after being mistaken for his long-lost toxic-masculine gangster brother. Where it compensates is in the crucial aspect absent in the Makiling films: the beauty-parlor proprietor is partnered with a gay-for-pay stud, who proves chivalrous enough in upholding his sugar parent’s social respectability, despite the standard resolution where he has to settle for the best biological female who comes his way and require his same-sex partner to acknowledge the arrangement.

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O’Hara Strikes Again

Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak
Directed by Mario O’Hara
Written by Mario O’Hara and Frank Rivera

Mario O’Hara’s problem also happens to redound to the advantage of the sensible viewer. Either his films are worth sitting through from the beginning, or they warn you when a walkout is in order right from the start. Like his contemporaries when they were at or approaching their peak, O’Hara refuses to create any middle ground. Give any of his latest titles the benefit of a quarter hour or so, and you get assured that your money will be well-spent, or else you’re given the option of refusing a nonsensical product.

He also seems to have found the ideal level of balance between working on a moderate budget yet making the most out of his own storytelling and his performers’ histrionic potentials. Of particular interest over the years are his collaborations with Nora Aunor, and since his resumption of a directorial career during the 1980s, his batting average of roughly one well-made movie annually during the past four years places him on a par with no other local director except Peque Gallaga. For belligerence’s sake, I suppose one could list down the latter’s Virgin Forest and Scorpio Nights (both 1985), Unfaithful Wife (1986), and Once Upon a Time (1987), and on the other hand name Condemned and Bulaklak sa City Jail (both 1984), Bagong Hari (1986), and add Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak as O’Hara’s 1987 entry. Funny, as a final sidelight, how one happens to be identified with the art-for-art’s sake camp, while the other’s associated with the social-realism group – reflecting the earlier dichotomization between the public personae of Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka.

Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak isn’t exactly a movie one should rave about indiscriminately – let’s reserve that reaction for the first title that recalls the glory days of the early eighties. What Tatlong Ina does is provide a conventional good time (an irony for a film whose main characters are illegitimate kids, sex workers, and gangsters) – and it sure reflects tellingly on the state of the industry when a movie without any major ambition turns out to be in many ways the year’s best so far. The strange thing about Tatlong Ina, coming as it does from a filmmaker with a presumably progressive political orientation, is the property it shares with O’Hara’s other recent good films: happy endings. (Of instructive socio-psychological value would be a comparison between these and Gallaga’s serious efforts, which in contrast, except for Once Upon a Time, present tragic resolutions.) Although suffused with film noir stylizations, especially in an overabundance of shadows and equally shady characters, O’Hara films are entertaining to a degree that would definitely appall dogmatic proponents of social realism.

Never has his strategy become more obvious than in Tatlong Ina, where the happy ending finally ties in most satisfyingly with all the preceding developments. For all its realist imagery and subject matter, the movie is actually a proletariat’s fantasy – a wide-eyed daydream on how personal virtues operating within the proper social circumstances might just suffice in surmounting classic class conflicts. As further proof of Tatlong Ina’s political sophistication – or cleverness, depending upon your preference for the conventional – the proletarian heroes encounter opposition from not only the orthodox villains, the bourgeoisie, but also the so-called bad elements from whom they (the heroes) may initially be indistinguishable. The unlikely team of golden-hearted prostitutes and noble-minded bums subdue kid-snatchers and snobbish aristocrats through the use of force and charm respectively, with sexual attraction for each other and sympathy for a fallen comrade’s love child as motivating force.

The abstraction does sound ridiculous, and isn’t helped any by a series of coincidences that help propel the major characters toward ultimate victory. Only an artist’s strong convictions in the face of all this silliness could create a semblance of integrity through technical consistency. Which, luckily, O’Hara provides, by way of skills rooted in theater and well-hewn in cinema.

It wouldn’t be too pedantic then to maintain that Tatlong Ina, as typical of O’Hara at his best, is an effective accumulation of finely observed and captured incidents with above-average performances providing the crucial credibility factor. His storyteller’s sense of proportion fails him this time in only two instances, both of them admittedly minor in relation to the movie’s overall accomplishment. One is the use of the child as commentator, when her narrative functions at the start would have sufficed. Of course the expansion of the precocious Matet’s role fits in with her lead-star status, which in turn has served as the movie’s main come-on; but the problem of explaining real time – when, where, and why is she telling the story of her “mothers’” uphill struggles? – eventually emerges, and is never given even a perfunctory explanation. Secondly, and more seriously for the film’s narrative purposes, the story suddenly permutes into the standard (and, by now, quite kinky) Nora Aunor requisite of pairing off a mousy character with an extremely improbable mestizo-type; the fact that the Adonis in Tatlong Ina also happens to come from old-rich stock practically promises to be the movie’s undoing.

Nora Aunor, positioned between her usual fair-skinned male partner (Miguel Rodriguez) and her equally fair adoptive daughter (Matet de Leon) in Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak (1987).

To a certain extent this particular instance of indulgence is mitigated by O’Hara’s bravura staging of the most original wedding sequence since such endings recently became de rigueur once more in commercial romantic outings. To be sure, the mise-en-scène appears in this case to be simple enough; it is the working out of the various class reactions, specifically the reverse snobbery of the about-to-be-redeemed ex-prostitutes, that ensures that this wedding scene’s reliance less on pomp than on circumstance will make acceptable its appendage to the movie. The aforementioned reservations aside, Tatlong Ina can stake a short-term claim on memory, if only for its admirable exposition on the underworld milieu, comparable to the same director’s prison portion in his other Nora Aunor movie, Bulaklak sa City Jail. Tatlong Ina’s is more loosely structured, but then it covers a whole lot more territory, and as explained earlier, its upbeat ending fits the entire schema less awkwardly than does the earlier work. If this presages a cautious breaking away from the predictable and admittedly tiresome traditions of social relevance in moviemaking, then O’Hara’s next moves certainly merit closer attention.

[First published September 2, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Mellow Drama

Paano Kung Wala Ka Na
Directed by Mel Chionglo
Written by Ricardo Lee

Reviewing early this year a movie titled Kung Aagawin Mo ang Lahat sa Akin, I recall having given the much-maligned genre of melodrama more potential than most critics were willing to concede. Just to give you an idea of how ivory-tower snobbish mainstream film observation can get, what I’d written was tantamount to saying that melodrama could achieve its intention to entertain without being downright insulting. Maybe it was because the film under discussion then happened to have flowed out of the run-of-the-mill melodrama-maker, which in these shores can only be equated with a singular production outfit: Viva Films. Well, I had some quibbles then about the title being reviewed, and the only constant reaction I’ve had to Viva melodramas hadn’t differed before and hasn’t differed since. Somehow, somewhere, something just doesn’t work out, usually in terms of story development, internal logic, or characterization – or what the academically inclined would call the classical values in narrative craft.

This time we’ve just had another output that contains all the elements of the melodrama we’ve come to be suspicious, if not intolerant, about. Happily, for the purposes of my thesis, the film works in several crucial areas, except maybe for the fact that it wasn’t produced by the company I was hoping would be able to perfect the form. Paano Kung Wala Ka Na has a beginning and ending that are unmistakably happy, unless you’re one of the few misanthropes around who denies the celebratory tone commonly associated with partying. All the main characters are unmitigatedly and unforgivably rich, and by that token could pass for being beautiful; the fact that they are physically so increases their distance from us lesser mortals.

They enjoy the luxury of playing at love, though not as intricately as the old French romantic comedies could depict it, but then who among our audiences have been exposed to this tradition, much less understand French? When these characters cry their hearts out, which at the most occurs roughly every other scene, only the heartless can resist agreeing that such perfect specimens don’t deserve such cruelties of fate. Even the hoariest convention in contemporary romantic works – the Lovers’ Interlude, a meaningless montage of a young couple having their fill of life (to the tune of the movie’s theme, for which reason blame MTV) – can be considered herein a mere irritant, a distraction if you will, justifiable only in the sense that the film’s plot complexities could use some breathing space. The best part of all, the one aspect which local melodrama, for some strange reason, finds difficulty in presenting, is the fact that all the characters are given equal time – not in the literal sense, but according to a great classicist’s dictum that everyone, most especially a character in a well-told story, has her reasons for acting (in the dramatic, not the histrionic sense) the way she does.

In Paano Kung Wala Ka Na this realization is pursued through a clever ploy. In the guise of allowing the marital problems of elderly couples to reflect on their young, the movie proceeds to develop the oldies’ stories into a finely woven tapestry held taut by a commanding sense of irony. The fact that the young ones’ love triangle inadvertently reverts to a disconcerting triteness is one way in which truly creative film artists could subvert conventions while seeming to indulge in them. In this sense Paano Kung Wala Ka Na could still be considered at best a transitory milestone, whose final goal would be a product that manages to discuss the problems of the elderly according to updated notions of morality, without having to resort to young stars seemingly being taken seriously for understandable (though not always acceptable) box-office reasons. More important, it points the way for current state-of-the-craft melodrama-making: that twists and reversals associable with the genre are best employed in the service of humane characterization rather than the plot complications that typify current approaches. I’m sure someday someone will castigate Paano for making all melodrama characters predictably likeable, but for the moment such a device is innovative enough, and therefore desirable in itself.

Snooky Serna and Miguel Rodriguez as young lovers whose elders play out a more complex roundelay of relationships in Mel Chionglo’s Paano Kung Wala Ka Na (1987).

The film’s director-writer team-up (Mel Chionglo and Ricardo Lee respectively) has had some even more commendable output before, including Playgirl and Bomba Arienda, plus what I consider one of the most underrated movies of the current decade, Sinner or Saint. What an assuring development to realize that their decision to play around with current conventions of commercialism has provided them with invaluable skills and insights into that kind of challenge, and some sensible entertainment for the viewing public as well.

[First published October 14, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Campout

Natutulog Pa ang Diyos
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Orlando Nadres

Paano Tatakasan ang Bukas?
Directed by Emmanuel H. Borlaza
Written by Orlando Nadres

Sa Puso Ko Hahalik ang Mundo
Directed and written by Artemio Marquez

The trouble with prevalent local film criticism is that either it isn’t critical or it is. Either it’s an advertising package, with a usually minimal veneer of subtlety, or it’s the diametrical opposite – a pronouncement of definitive proportions utilizing criteria culled from the dwindling groves of academe. Hence the nature of incentives available to practitioners is encompassed on the one hand by publicity machineries of various makes and capabilities, and on the other hand by awards and ratings bodies, each designed to counter the other side: the academy award(s) for the studio system, the religious award for (presumably) the unscrupulous sector, the critics’ award for the movie press, and the movie press award for what seems to be the critics’ group. Currently the controversies in this aspect seem to center on the propriety of the existence of rivalries. Certainly one or the other so-named academy award group would rather be the only one of its kind, and even having the movie writers’ group divided between the critics and the, well, non-critics correctly implies one set of trophies too many.[1]

Lost in the lollapalooza is the reality that film output is actually more variegated than what the apologies of this state of affairs would have us believe. Never mind the alternatives – those products finished in non-commercial formats for usually non-commercial, or at least non-mainstream, ends. What about the majority – the film products that fall in between by refusing to pander outright to either side of the industry conflict? What we usually take notice of are the extreme instances that justify the polarizations within: the box-office success that proves the necessity of publicity, the artistic triumph that provides another excuse for the annual award-giving ritual, and rarer still, the popular and critically acclaimed product that reconciles both sides for the moment, until the next non-artistic top-grosser or artistic box-office flop comes along.

Few movies, Filipino or otherwise, are unqualified masterstrokes either way, and so for the most part (or so I believe) regular moviegoers actually attend to the national pastime more mindful of one another’s responses rather than what people in media have to say. Which is just as well. It would be the height of absurdity to subject movies like Natutulog Pa ang Diyos, Paano Tatakasan ang Bukas?, and Sa Puso Ko Hahalik ang Mundo to the declaration of the box-office winner, since the mere fact of doing good financially is already a reward in itself; on the other hand, it would also be the height of cruelty to impose criteria of artistry on efforts that may have set out to accomplish something more than just returns on investments, but definitely not “art.” Maybe one could approach them then from the perspective of entertainment? This would admittedly be difficult, premised as it is on pertinent cultural assumptions and connoting a good deal of subjectivity in the process. The easier option is to behave, instead of think, like a typical Filipino moviegoer, but then the responsibility of rendering some insights, however tentative, gets forsaken.

So here goes. Natutulog Pa ang Diyos is surprisingly effective, if you’ve been following Lino Brocka’s progression. Where he used to concentrate mainly on surfaces, testing a technical or technological approach or two while remaining faithful to a predetermined text, here he seems more relaxed about merely being competent and allowing himself or his actors some latitude in on-the-set explorations, and possibly even revisions. (The same atmosphere informed, to more effective results, Mike de Leon’s last commercial-format movie.) Brocka’s attempts are highly uneven, but when they work, they do so in unexpected ways, notably the clowning of Gina Pareño in the suspenseful expository portions and the rejection of reconciliation (and thus predictable sainthood) by the Lorna Tolentino character in the end.

Only time can tell how far Brocka can push this method (and look, no caps!); although widely practiced among local directors, so far only one, Ishmael Bernal, could exploit it and still retain some measure of integrity. Emmanuel H. Borlaza, for his part, has used it to better advantage in the past. Paano Tatakasan ang Bukas? evinces no perceptible amount of conviction whatsoever, save for the regionalist humor of Chanda Romero; the tandem between director and actress recalls their glory days in regional (Cebuano-language) cinema, although Paano Tatakasan may be forward-looking in its own way too. About midway through the story the lead character starts spouting evangelical propaganda, and the others straightaway follow suit. The instance demonstrates the supreme incompatibility of a conservative movement seeking legitimacy via a still-radical medium of expression; it upholds one’s faith in film just as it exposes the hypocrisy of moralists, who just as easily would have us reject the medium for its alleged immoral influences.

The upshot then of this triple-fare viewing is that Sa Puso Ko Hahalik and Mundo may prove to be the least offensive, and therefore the most preferable, of the three. Well, nuts to the naïve. Sa Puso Ko is the most effective precisely because it dares to offend the most, and manages to sustain this mode of presentation, sometimes referred to as camp, to an admirably intolerable degree. Yet there is a value in Sa Puso Ko more felt than visualized. Where previous local efforts in modern-day camp, notably by the likes of Joey Gosiengfiao, proved too calculated (and therefore self-defeating), Sa Puso Ko contains the same deadly sincerity that made the same director’s previous outing, The Untold Story of Melanie Marquez, so difficult to dismiss in the face of its wholly dismissible material.

Sa Puso Ko in fact does one better by having not one but three lead characters delineating impossibly lachrymose tales within the all-too-ludicrous contexts of virginity, proletarian dignity, and filial piety. This plus the added advantage of fictional premises have provided Artemio Marquez with what may arguably be his mortal best, Brocka and Borlaza notwithstanding. And so this is what one sometimes gets for giving a well-intentioned film practitioner a well-deserved break. No mind-blowing mergence of art and craft, or sheer commercialist actuations. Just a curiously convoluted and intellectually refracted achievement of sorts. The mark of a master lies in how easy to make the whole thing seems to be, until you try to figure out a personal project along the same lines. You could just wind up smiling.

[First published November 9, 1988, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] When this article was written, the only available genuine (guild-formed) academy group was the Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP), whose name was shared by the oldest continuous award-giving body, the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences or FAMAS – which in turn actually comprised older movie press members; the younger press practitioners formed the Philippine Movie Press Club (PMPC) with their own set of prizes, called Star Awards; the specialized type of movie press was the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (or Filipino film reviewers circle), which was formed in response to the increasingly detectable influence-peddling in the FAMAS. Since then, the FAP has had a splinter group, as did the PMPC, each of which also hands out awards. The MPP, which is actually dominated by academics, generated two other types of award-givers: a teachers group, and another academe-based group calling themselves the Young Critics Circle. (Personal disclosure: along with another member, Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., I was involved with the MPP and the YCC, as well as with a third critics group called Kritika.)

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After the Revolution

Orapronobis
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Jose F. Lacaba

The inveterate optimist’s reward for enduring an inordinately long dry spell in Philippine cinema, after a commendable inundation that should never have ended (but did anyway), has arrived in the form of, well, a Filipino film that’s alien-produced, concerning a local subject that’s universally topical, and with short-term consequences that should be urgently overridden in the light of significant long-term implications. Orapronobis, Lino Brocka’s latest cause célèbre, stands to be the most significant closing film of an impressive decade in the history of Philippine cinema – and although a handful of other films (Brocka’s own included) may have equal if not greater artistic value, Orapronobis holds the additional distinction of being the first arguably superlative Filipino movie since the February 1986 revolution.

Gina Alajar as an abducted activist who avenges the death of her son in Lino Brocka’s Orapronobis (1989).

It also arrives, like those twin big-city masterpieces – Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night and Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag – in a swirl of controversies complicated no end by the project’s internationality this time around. No doubt discourses on the director’s differences with his foreign financiers and own government, plus the movie’s inherent capability of provoking debates on ideological and public-relations policy issues, contain the potential to continue beyond the resolutions of whatever problems can be formulated, for whatever motives possible. This is the main reason why Orapronobis is being discussed by practically every major opinionist who happens to have an outlet for publication or broadcast. And the determination of the movie’s ultimate worth being buried in the avalanche of articulate, well-meaning, but conflicting points set loose by political perturbations remains, as lawyers love to put it, a clear and present danger.

Orapronobis would probably be a fitting marker for the end of its director’s second decade in his profession – or, for that matter, the beginning of his third. Like any other Filipino filmmaker gifted with vision and intelligence, Brocka would be the last to admit that his career has been a tranquil and restful one. To make matters worse (for himself, that is), he happened to assume the extra burden of pioneering for Philippine cinema in foreign shores. It would be only logical to conclude three things, each proceeding from the other: that Brocka’s artistry, intersected as it had been at about the midpoint of his career so far by international attention, would exhibit permutations unique to his case; that these would be more difficult to analyze than similar case studies of local directors, since internationalized interactions presumably induce a system of dialectics which may be occasionally complementary with, but which may also at other times be tangential or opposed to, that of local dynamics; and finally, it would take even the most sincere and driven director (and Brocka is nothing if not one) quite a time, given these constraints, before he can come up with a definitive body of work.

Orapronobis is proof positive of the last conclusion. Prior to this, the only truly major movies Brocka ever made were Maynila and Miguelito: Batang Rebelde; naturally, the course of his international impaction did not always conform to the pattern formed by these three titles. If anything, Brocka became better – and unfairly, if I may say so – known for efforts that were minor to a fault, minimalist in style, and badly balanced by what could only be explained as an overeager willingness to please an ill-advised combination of foreign admirers and the local masses, neglecting the crucial element of local observers (including the community of artists Brocka belongs to). Ultimately the director will be known as more than just another Third-World filmmaker. With the three aforementioned titles, a case can be made for his versatility in three disparate and difficult film approaches: documentary realism in Maynila, milieu formation in Miguelito, and advocatory moviemaking in Orapronobis. Each milestone holds its own significance with respect to Brocka’s career development. Maynila was a stunning coup d’essai, coming as it did without any antecedent among any of the major talents (apart from Brocka, scriptwriter Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., cinematographer Mike de Leon, and lead performer Rafael Roco Jr.) associated with it; Miguelito displayed the range and extent of Brocka’s discipline in being able to pick up from what he had left off more than a decade earlier, improving on a better-forgotten first attempt in Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang; Orapronobis, for its part, has drawn directly from a number of impassioned works but responded to the need to depart from a scantiness of details and devices on the one hand and a surfeit of bathos on the other.

Of particular interest in this last instance is Bayan Ko (Kapit sa Patalim), the previous collaboration between Brocka and Orapronobis’s writer Jose F. Lacaba. Released locally the same year as Miguelito, Bayan Ko managed to ride a crest of sentiment swollen by the anti-dictatorship movement (which had resulted in the temporary interdiction of the movie and incarceration of its director), sufficient to surpass in critical attention not just its superior contemporary but also a number of other better works. Ironically the 1986 revolution, in negating Bayan Ko’s source of suffering, did the same to its artistic raison d’être, in effect allowing its basic thematic weakness of justifying both proletarian nobility and lumpenist imperatives in the same character to now become a commanding concern. Such historical reversals may soon similarly obtain in the case of Orapronobis, but in the opposite direction. Reviled, at least in certain quarters, where Bayan Ko was admired, the current opus will definitely be capable of prevailing on its own merits as film – that is, if it manages to survive what is turning out to be typical establishment resistance to its divulgence of disillusionment and dissent.

The achievement is all the more noteworthy when one considers that Bayan Ko essentially constituted a throwback to Maynila, in the sense that the intention was for the viewer’s perception of reality to be transformed after the viewing experience; no plastic manipulations were imposed on reality as raw material, and at one point the action was in fact transposed to an ongoing protest march, rather than, as in Maynila, the march being staged for more effective filmic exploitation. Comparatively, Orapronobis consigns documentary events onscreen to the onslaught of a narrative which has drawn voraciously from known facts – hence sandwiching the presentation between history, on the one hand, and realistic imagery, on the other. The method would be daring for those who happen to share the movie’s conclusions, but even those who don’t will have to admit that cleverness of a high order is involved herein: the post-experiential transformation of reality may or may not take place, depending upon one’s ideological position, but in the meantime an alteration has already been accomplished, facilitated by the act of viewing itself, and the return to a stance of disagreement would require a strong (and possibly disturbing) triumph of the will.

The matter becomes clearer when one reduces Orapronobis to its most basic level of argumentation. All possible worst-scenario charges against the existing political dispensation are stacked up front, crowding out in the end any possible apology (as represented by the lead character’s initial frame of mind) for even the minutest offense. There is nothing really dramatic about this sort of attitude: in fact the only motivation, if we may extend our definition, allowed the main antagonist is that he suffers from a psychosis stemming from a lethal combination of colonialism, religiosity, and machismo. Yet in a schematic way the movie manages to convey a cautionary world-view that surpasses even the commonplace businesses that it purports to treat. If domestic relationships are regarded, as well they may be in Philippine culture, as basis for an ideal, then the movie’s protagonists can be seen to function in a context not far removed from the potential for abusiveness and callousness that their enemies have gone over into. The lead’s underground contact turns out to be a hit man who targets a policeman shown as having a family of his own (cf. the more exploitative treatment of this recent urban-guerrilla strategy in the previous Brocka international release, Macho Dancer); more saliently, the lead himself ultimately abandons his wife and newborn child to rejoin the underground movement, more in retaliation for the death of his illegitimate family than from any need for personal security.

The performances constitute a vital aspect in delineating this state of affairs. The legal wife’s predicament works only in retrospect mainly because Dina Bonnevie, despite a strong presence, loses out to the skills of Gina Alajar, who may originally have been intended as a foil, an impetus to the male lead’s change of heart, but actually succeeds in becoming a dominating figure in the movie through the sheer resplendency of her portrayal. Phillip Salvador is for once given again the opportunity to work with a fully rounded character, this time smoothing out the rough edges observable in Jaguar (his first film and the first Brocka-Lacaba collaboration, with co-writer Ricardo Lee). Jaguar though would be more instructive than coincidental this time around: here the antagonist, unlike that of Bembol Roco in Orapronobis, is treated with enough sympathy to create an involving conflict between him and the title character.

Hence the means by which Orapronobis elicits audience alertness is not so much representational as technical. It would be valid, though somewhat pedantic, to say that montage is actually the main actor in the movie – the engrossing alternation between romanticism and paranoia, the intricate correlation between imagery and anxiety, and finally the successful transmutation of symbols of personal comfort (religion, politics, even escapist cinema) into objects of social menace. When an editor – actually three of them in the opening credits – doesn’t hesitate to use jump cuts to compress time, then she knows and appreciates her film language; but when she uses them to facilitate transitions and make narrative commentaries in the process (as in the use of the religious-icon insert in the final rape scene), then she has progressed beyond film language to imaginative storytelling. Mature editorial judgments resist the usual confinements of style and genre; although essentially a political thriller, with several shots timed at split-seconds, Orapronobis’s climax comprises a series of prolonged takes, the longest of which consists of an excruciating yet exhilarating slow zoom into the lead character rocking his dead son in church.[1]

It may be said, on the basis of Orapronobis, that an aspect of Brocka’s artistic persona may have died along with his long-time cinematographer Conrado Baltazar. Gone are the cavernous compositions and light-and-shadow interplay that used to suggest more than what the script was capable of conveying. This is not to say, however, that Brocka has merely returned to the functionalism of his early, pre-Tinimbang Ka movies. What the latest work suggests is that the director has become more confident with the tools of his medium and may now pay more attention to how these can be made to serve the purposes of straightforward storytelling – not in the manner of recreating history in terms of imagery or narratory momentum, but through the realization of a vision whose relationship with actualities becomes secondary to its awareness of and approach to film. All told, Orapronobis bodes both ways for Philippine cinema in the next decade – or what we should all hope to be another Golden Age, if not a continuation of the previous one. It confirms the increasing technical sophistication of Filipino filmmakers even as it dares to challenge and reverse popular notions of existing reality. What ought to be anticipated is the reflexive backlash against such an appropriation of what has long been the jurisdiction of social institutions, rather than entertainment industries: the privilege to uphold or change values or attitudes. No doubt experience has proved that artists do it better, and less painfully besides, but then it’s the other types who maintain positions of influence in the end.

As for the particular artist behind Orapronobis, the time may well be near when a Brocka film could be appreciated fully on its own, rather than as part of an indispensable body of work, no matter how impressively sustained the individual entries may be. In this regard a long-time lesson from that part of the world where he has been introduced to the global film community could serve as appropriate starting point. Not long before Lino Brocka began making films, the French managed to prove, first in theory and then in New-Wave practice, that several styles may be successfully combined in singular works, which in turn would be limited only by their filmmakers’ command of the styles being used. When the next major Brocka movie would be putting to use in one summarist masterpiece his accumulation of skills through the years, instead of the pursuit of too-distinctive modes of expression and content, might just be one of the more welcome developments in the near future of Philippine cinema.

[First published January 10, 1990, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] For some reason one non-Filipino scholar, in writing about Orapronobis, seized on these passages in a Pauline Kael-style demolition of responses by Philippine commentators, minus Kael’s thoroughness (he held up an exception) and expert grasp of filmmaking processes. He described the insight as “keen” and “very astute,” then proceeded to fault the use of “highly aestheticizing language…. While David’s sharp critical comments stand, they are in danger of being lost in the precious supplications of the aesthete” (Beller 159) – a definite consequence if one were to isolate the paragraph from the rest of the review, duh.

Elsewhere the author describes Orapronobis and Manila by Night as instances of “socialist realism” (145 & 159 resp.), an even more mystifying conclusion, since neither presidential regime under which these were produced (Ferdinand Marcos’s and Corazon Aquino’s resp.) was socialist in name or in practice; nor were the directors hard-line members of the Communist Party of the Philippines when the films were made. It would be reasonable to speculate that both Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal would hesitate (to say the least) in appreciating actual samples of socialist-realist cinema and adopting these as worthy models, outside of comic camp traditions. See Jonathan Beller, Acquiring Eyes: Philippine Visuality, Nationalist Struggle, and the World-Media System (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2006).

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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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