Book Texts – Pinoy Film Reviews II: Late Celluloid Era (The 1990s)

Persistence of Vision

Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali?
Directed by Chito Roño
Written by Orlando R. Nadres

Someone sooner or later has to correlate the current paucity of fresh filmmaking talent with the decline in filmmaking quality, and I think we’ve had enough time – about an academic generation since the 1986 revolution – to arrive with confidence at such a conclusion. The political irony in this case should not be lost on any concerned observer: never was the movie industry more democratic in giving breaks to genuine talents than during the dictatorship, unlike in these, uh, democracy-spaced times. As further proof, the last of the major film talents to have emerged in these here parts is Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali? director Chito Roño – whose debut film, Private Show, was completed way before February 1986 but was released afterward only because of a series of freak (and again ironic, Roño being the son of a Marcos-era minister) occurrences.

Only now does it seem like a near-miracle that most of our best and brightest actually emerged within a few months of one another – Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Jun Raquiza, Peque Gallaga, Butch Perez, Elwood Perez, Romy Suzara, and Danny Zialcita during the early ’70s, Behn Cervantes, Mike de Leon, Lupita Kashiwahara, Mario O’Hara, and Gil Portes during the mid-’70s, and Mel Chionglo, Abbo Q. de la Cruz, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Laurice Guillen, Maryo J. de los Reyes, Pepe Marcos, and Wilfredo Milan during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Of course one can point to at least two worth-watching newcomers since Roño’s debut – Augusto Salvador and Carlos Siguion-Reyna – but until anyone between them comes up with a follow-up comparable to their first films (Siguion-Reyna, in fact still hasn’t followed up so far at all!), I’d rather stick to the larger issue: that one or even two sparrows don’t a unit make.

Figuring out the possible reasons and disentangling them in order to effect a reversal would be worth a discourse in itself, so meantime I guess the next best thing to do would be to point out what we’ve been depriving ourselves of. This I think can be done by inverse implication – i.e., appreciating anything done by the above-named that deserves attention, so as to connote that we could have more such delights if we only had more such names around in the first place. Fortunately certain significant pronouncements can already be made about the last of the majors, this early in his career. This is because Roño clearly belongs to the whiz-kid category – an elite circle in these parts, comprising those whose expressive skills alone could ensure a holistic, if essentially flawed, creation; other names we can count herein are Peque Gallaga, Mike de Leon, and, closer to the fringes, Laurice Guillen.

Roño bears comparison with Gallaga, the most accomplished (in career terms) of the lot, since both of them, to begin with, exhibit a flair for intense, operatic camera-gestures. Not surprisingly, it is Gallaga who, among all Filipino filmmakers, has the most impressive track record in epic filmmmaking, stylistically surpassing those of earlier masters like the late Gerardo de Leon and Celso Ad. Castillo. And then again, when we think of problematic film statements, we also refer to the works of the stylists and the whiz-kids, especially Gallaga. For nowhere than in the creative process is such a situation as “too good to be true” possible: the McLuhanesque aphorism about the medium being the message can get carried to the logical extreme of there being no more message (of import, that is) within an over-elaborated medium. Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali? upholds Roño’s distinction – that among his peers, only he has been able to apply a visual quotient comparable to Gallaga’s, with a psychological bent of an order never seen since the heyday of Castillo. The effect, when you think about it, is pretty awesome. All our major directors, including the whiz kids, require appropriate resources in order to achieve epic feats; in contrast, Roño simulates the properties of the epic by enlarging what are actually modest givens.

These skills were on display as early as the first phase of his career, when he did a series of projects for a number of independent producers. The next phase began when he finally decided, after a series of burns and false starts with other independents, to work with a mainstream outfit, Viva Films. Kasalanan Ba’ng Sambahin Ka? saw him barely maintaining his equanimity, what with a commercialist cop-out in the end. Bakit Kay Tagal, however, more fully exhibits the director’s creative potentials, perched as it is (like the earlier film) between dismissible material and an invaluable, or at least instructive, skills display, with no let-up in the balancing act and a successful steerage of material toward the requisite build-up and denouement.

It would even be possible to appreciate Bakit Kay Tagal as komiks-sourced material, though not in the old sense, wherein the adapter was expected to temper the excesses of the origins. Hence, while Lino Brocka, for example, has been and should be esteemed for his capability to invest visual and episodic (and therefore non-rational and fragmented) material with literary values, Roño in Bakit Kay Tagal may similarly be complimented, albeit for taking the entirely opposite tack – the more dangerous, if usual, one of observing rather than defying the material’s convolutions and disproportions. Normally this approach falls flat but works commercially anyway, since it allows the multitude of komiks readers to recognize in the film the story that they’ve been following in print. Successful local stylistic exercises – Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata, Mike de Leon’s Kakabakaba Ka Ba?, and some lesser works by Castillo – prove that local artists and subject matter could lend themselves to medium-based indulgence, but the lesson provided by Bakit Kay Tagal is that what lies behind these triumphs is actually the komiks spirit.

Bakit Kay Tagal may therefore be regarded as a long-overdue definitive adaptation of komiks material, in terms of the nature, rather than the literary potential, of the original form. A certain thematic strain runs through the film – the satisfying, if overworked, thesis of how class conflicts induce moral transformations in those who survive them; although the proletarian characters win over the rich ones, the movie invokes conservative caution by qualifying that the change in status also alters one’s social constitution – in short, the higher one climbs the class ladder, the more individualistic one becomes (or has to be). There is nothing unique about the sequence of events in this particular story, apart from what can be expected in an adequately structured tale; the actors themselves don’t add much to their roles, since their characters are developed according to contrasting though predictable extremities, either from rich and proud to humble and dead, or from poor and downtrodden to heritable and haughty, with a measure of redemptive repentance in the end. Such grandiosity of vision has been the standard recourse of komiks writers, who compensate it seems for the unwieldiness of their medium by cloaking their stories with all-encompassing draperies, which in turn are rendered flimsy precisely by their functional universality.

As mentioned earlier, in the hands of a less capable (read: typical) director, the inherent limitations of this type of material would have been readily discernible: mere filmmaking competence would focus the viewer’s attention on the more perceivable mechanism of the work instead of its bigger but essentially abstract statements. Bakit Kay Tagal manages to direct viewership concerns where it matters – to the larger though fundamentally trite abstractions, instead of the lapses and illogicalities. I cannot overemphasize the fact that the solution in this instance is really a stylistic one, since this should constitute a warning in itself. The fact that a Filipino filmmaker can finally surmount the deficiencies of her material through sheer skill may be good news in our context, but one only has to look across the Pacific, to Hollywood, to see how an early blessing could easily and naturally metamorphose into a latter-day curse.

In fact, if there’s anything Roño’s achievement in Bakit Kay Tagal imparts, it’s the realization that his approach is far more difficult than the traditional one; in practical terms it would be physically and financially easier to fashion and execute a well or even over-developed script than to figure out how to continually abstractify flawed material using limited technical resources. The key to Bakit Kay Tagal’s effectiveness lies not in how the project required terrific casting and brilliant technical back-up (with a concomitant budgetary complement), but in how the filmmaker provided the illusion of a seamless whole, using technique (matched transitions, expertly timed dissolves, purposeful camera movements) to promote an unusual sensibility.

In the end I guess it would be fair to state that it’s the substance of the style and not the style itself that salvages Bakit Kay Tagal from the unenviable fate of faithful komiks adaptations. The best elements of our most highly praised naturalist product, Oro, Plata, Mata, can also be found herein: an authentic sense of aristocracy, a predisposition toward perverse progressions, a subtle awareness of classic film traditions. Yet Oro, Plata, Mata, which is of more ambitious stuff than Bakit Kay Tagal, could not sustain its strong initial impact. Bakit Kay Tagal I feel will be able to get by primarily because of lesser expectations, but it ought to make us all hope for the day when a Roño project would have the ideal combination of major budget and sober material, to enable him to improve on what may already be good enough instead of merely making do with what can never be momentous to begin with.

[Submitted in 1991 to National Midweek; unpublished]

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Indigenous Ingenuity

Andrea, Paano Ba ang Maging Isang Ina?
Directed by Gil M. Portes
Written by Ricardo Lee

I knew that I’d be involuntarily associated with the project, so I took the opportunity to formalize my participation. It all started when the members of the film-student organization I was advising, unabashedly Nora Aunor fans, could only talk about (and work on) the comeback project of the actress. Never had the heretofore insurmountable challenge of breaking into the local movie industry seemed so easy – due largely to the endorsement of my coadviser, Ricardo Lee, who was also the scriptwriter of the project. My only previous direct experience in a mainstream production was in a Vilma Santos-starrer, where I was, among other things, an atmosphere person. They had inserted some lines for a human-rights lawyer character in the Nora Aunor movie to demonstrate the desperation of the character in seeking help to recover her baby. The lawyer was supposed to be unable to do anything for her, so my role was to have been limited to a one-scene exchange; imagine, I told myself, only two full-length film exposures in my life thus far, and these with Vilma Santos and Nora Aunor….

The day after I did the role, the production folded up, reportedly because the original financier backed out. And with its director Gil M. Portes scheduled to leave for New York soon after, everyone was pessimistic about the film ever getting finished. I relate all this because I never really understood, until this project, how precarious serious filmmaking can be, especially in these times. With a record-setting eleven trophies from the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), plus a Gold Prize, Special Critics Prize, and Individual Achievement awards (Lee and Aunor) from the first batch of the Young Critics Circle winners, it is dangerously easy to assume that the movie, now known as Andrea, Paano Ba ang Maging Ina?, had been fated to be a winner from the start.

It is also just as dangerously difficult to dislike Andrea. The worst thing I can say, in all objectivity, about the film is that it may be existing way past its time. This is, in fact, its primary distinction: not since the boldest years of the Marcos era has there been an overtly anticommercial local production – independently (and indigently) sourced and featuring nonbankable perfomers in nonformulaic material. Rarer still is the circumstance of such an effort reaping such rewards, and I mainly mean the post-Metro filmfest box-office restitution rather than the various prestigious distinctions that invariably followed. The MMFF contribution to Andrea’s fortune may be more than incidental in this regard. For all its past oversights – and these were many and cruel, directed even at some of Andrea’s makers – the MMFF has also honored, exclusively even, some of the better outputs of the local film industry: Celso Ad. Castillo’s direction of Burlesk Queen and Vilma Santos’s performance therein (both the director’s and actress’s best ever), Nora Aunor’s performance in Himala (her best and that of Philippine cinema as well), and Ricardo Lee’s screenplay of Moral (still another all-time best entry).

The value of the MMFF results, which no other award-giving institution possesses, lies in their capability to improve the financial performance of any film on which they bestow recognition. This adds a unique combination of sum and substance to the event’s moral obligation to render credible and well-considered judgments at all times. Conversely, no amount of postfestival revaluation had been able to recuperate whatever results were consequentially incurred by its negligence of such entries as Lino Brocka’s Bona (starring Nora Aunor), Bukas … May Pangarap (with the same director-writer team as Andrea’s), and Chito Roño’s Itanong Mo sa Buwan. As for Andrea, the measure by which the film has succeeded may at least partly be at the MMFF’s expense: not only had some of its personnel previously suffered the lapses in judgment of the jurors of the festival, the director and writer themselves have on record an entry, Birds of Prey, that was disallowed participation some years back on the basis of the ridiculous and inconsistent technicality of its having been financed by foreign sources. Meanwhile, what we have on hand is a product that happens to serve as the juncture of three auteurs – director, writer, and lead performer – at felicitous turning points in their respective careers.

Portes is the Andrea talent whose reputation advances with the film, from project originator to metteur en scène. Actually, though Andrea may be his best, it is not his coming-out film: that distinction belongs to his previous Nora Aunor-starrer, ’Merika, the project that immediately preceded Bukas … May Pangarap. (Andrea, Bukas, and Birds of Prey also feature Gina Alajar, who starred in the latter two as well as in another underrated Portes-Lee collaboration, Gabi Kung Sumikat ang Araw [1981]). The misfortune of Gil Portes is that his flair for uncovering independent production sources has attracted more attention than his growth as a filmmaker. No other Filipino, not even Celso Ad. Castillo, has been able to sustain a directorial career for years on the basis of a few modest hits, and more recently, despite a string of financial flops. Not surprisingly, the major production houses, having drifted toward increased commercialization since the February 1986 Revolution, have closed their doors to the likes of Portes. Other serious filmmakers, notably Brocka (and Lee, to a certain extent), have managed to maintain mainstream status only by accepting the givens and working within them.

The filmmakers marginalized by this shift in the system of local production have practically inhibited themselves – except for Portes. At one point, both he and Brocka sought foreign funding for their respective pet projects, and both similarly found themselves up against the Aquino administration’s deviously self-effacing censorship tactics. Birds of Prey and Orapronobis may yet find their way onto local screens, but meanwhile both Portes and Brocka again made a show of how film artistry could be made to fit opposing modes of production: where Brocka’s Gumapang Ka sa Lusak is 1990’s outstanding mainstream film, Andrea is the same year’s outstanding independent entry.

Significantly, both films were scripted by Lee, and may therefore provide, if only in a literal sense, a common basis for evaluation. Gumapang Ka marks a high point in the appropriation by serious artists of commercial elements in putting across what may be considered a non-commercial theme – that of the depravity of traditional politics. In forced contrast, Andrea proves that a non-commercial approach to commercial (at least in the latent sense) material is feasible. In fact, the more optimistic could argue that at no other point in our recent history would non- or maybe even anti-commercial products prosper that at present, given the mainstream saturation effected by the predominance of monolithic studios since Februrary 1986.

In the case of Lee, the twofold scriptwriting triumph of 1990 (not counting a number of more conventional works, including Brocka’s Hahamakin Lahat [1990]) can be creatively attributed to his return to more literary pursuits, especially journalism and fiction. The scene where Andrea has to hold back her emotions during her husband’s wake, as well as the heroine’s death-by-assassination in both films, all recall similar portions in the scripwriter’s latest, essentially unclassifiable work, the metafictional “Kabilang sa mga Nawawala.” Necessarily, the overall impact of “Kabilang,” where the author had total personal control, is greater, though it still has to be played out more thoroughly since its medium’s potential for popular response is disadvantaged compared to film.

But what Andrea (more than Gumapang Ka) supplies is in effect a preparation for the unqualified treat of works like “Kabilang.” The film constitutes a throwback to a point – perhaps our filmic past, as well as a beyond-Hollywood expansion of appreciation – where cinema defines itself more in terms of dramatic and thematic richness than in the accumulation of plastic-perfect points. Most buffs and historians (the distinction tends to blur in the case of film) would identify this ideal as neorealist, although Andrea, truer to its time and place, evinces a sophistication, not to mention a performance, far removed from the extremes allowed by the 1940s Italian movement.

What will probably outrage partisan viewers of opposing persuasions in another political clime is the same thing that has managed to impress those in today’s: Andrea, though it deals with the plight of a specific stripe of political animal, actually winds up repudiating not the political line, but the notion of politics itself, in order to facilitate a dramatic (as opposed to a purely intellectual) catharsis. Again this resembles the resolution in “Kabilang,” where the child, this time as central character, is orphaned as much by social intransigence as by his mother’s insistence on countering this force. Andrea, centering as it does on the title-character mother, provides the temperance factor in the person of the lead’s best friend. The ploy is slyly though transparently manifested in the standing agreement between the friends to override their ideological differences for the sake of friendship. Andrea’s subsequent martyrdom is all the more ennobled by her submission to solomonic wisdom: at considerable personal anguish, she decides to leave her son to her friend, for the brighter future the latter offers (in contrast to the bleakness of her own), and because the child has revived the friend’s married life.

The movie’s tearjerker outcome is thus provided a crucial dimension of ambiguity: Andrea may have suffered in the hands of a mean-spirited society, but her son will not. Her death provides not only a well-deserved spiritual release for herself, but the necessary means for her son (and his adoptive parents) to start anew. Andrea may therefore be taken as a plea to reconsider a return to unorthodox modes and material in filmmaking. Using this sort of approach has seemed reckless in the past, but it in fact appears now to have been so simply because serious filmmakers seemed intent on alienating the mass audience at all costs. Andrea stands as evidence that given the proper kind of creative and industrial strategizing, local viewers are now ready to be won over to attempts at uncompromised artistry.

On a symbolic plane this argument can be extended to Andrea actress Nora Aunor. I do not refer alone to the fact that, if there ever were an auteuristic performer, Aunor is our one and only. Andrea may yet represent the renascence of the actress, after a series of popular rejections (starting at EDSA) traceable to her ill-advised participation in the Marcos-Tolentino presidential campaign. Aunor has died spectacularly before on film – in Himala, a previous association with Lee. The movie, in retrospect, eerily presages her fall from grace owing to the mortal combination of her awareness of her populist origins and her rebellion against any expectation attendant to this.

Andrea is Nora Aunor’s long-overdue phoenix-like reemergence and successfully contravenes her ugly-duckling ex-superstar has-been status. No way can she hope for a return to the glory days of her teen-idol years; that much was already evident as early as Himala, where she boxed herself, by the sheer magnitude of her histrionic genius, into a category all her own. Andrea proves that she did not waste the intervening years, traumatic though they may have been for her; if anything, it was the years that wasted her – but only, and strictly, on a physical level. In fact the performer in Andrea can be regarded in many ways as superior to the still-too-pretty and sexually tentative creature embodying Himala’s Elsa. Her via dolorosa segment in the earlier film was a triumph of technique, amorphous at best, whereas in Andrea, which consists of one long journey to a final heartbreak, the pain can be visualized as a line traveling straight from her heart to the viewer’s.

Just how precisely accomplished is Nora Aunor as an actress?[1] In the past I would have answered this by sizing up her Himala performance against that of any perceived competitor’s, but this has proved to be too obvious with time. Meanwhile I had been given in Andrea what amounted to a monolog in Filipino, which I had to memorize in a few minutes. Since my memory and my command of the language are both my gravest performative disadvantages, I inquired about the setup required and learned that that scene would consist of one long take, with close-ups for the final one-sentence exchanges. A bottle of beer, one camera rehearsal, and scores of memory aids later, I still could not get beyond the first sentence without directorial prompting. But during the take I connected for the first time with those eyes, and the lines all came to me naturally and clearly, requiring no retakes whatsoever. I marveled at this phenomenon; I was entirely aware of, apprehensive about, and alert to the warning of how strong co-actors tend to upstage weak ones. I was also conscious of the possibility that the opposite could hypothetically exist. But I never expected to so casually come across a performer whose very strength could bolster, rather than demolish, everyone else’s. That’s a tale which, like Andrea, I would not mind turning into a legend.

[Submitted in 1991 to National Midweek; unpublished]

Note

[1] Surprisingly, my attempt to answer this question led to verbal denunciations in the national university, including from my own colleagues (who should have known better, but then the place has never moved much past its status as a bastion of self-proclaimed progressive orthodoxy). The incongruity between advocating for Marxist praxis yet feeling disgusted about practitioners who refuse to cling to the immaculacy of criticism by immersing in the activities of their objects of criticism – whether artists or audiences – accounts in large measure for the persistently sorry state of critical practice in the country.

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Head Held High

Gumapang Ka sa Lusak
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Ricardo Lee

When Lino Brocka walked out on the 1986 Constitutional Commission it seemed like an act of futility, a typical if outsized artist’s tantrum. Predictably, the Concom carried on, drafting a document that met with popular approval, thereby paving the way for the return of authentically elected officials to power. What we mostly failed to realize was that Brocka intended to continue conducting his side of the political debate in the venue where his expertise lay – the mass medium of film – and more menacingly, that his decision to do so would be accompanied by a quantum leap in his creative faculties. Both developments have been long overdue. Political discourse in local cinema since the 1986 revolution tended to falter by the tradition of anti-Marcos dissent, which tended to be either too frontal for comfort (especially the artist’s) or too subtle to be appreciated in relation to the work’s over-all merits. Brocka himself took a leading role in this kind of perilous undertaking, but the business of surviving in an extensively controlled local industrial system as well as developing an international audience must have distracted him from paying full attention to the nature and potentials of his medium.

Of course he was not alone; he merely led in his specific field, and I maintain that the fact that many were able to follow proves that the Marcos government, for all its hard-nose ways, had a soft spot for film. Philippine cinema thereby assumed a schizoid character, awfully harmless in its commercialist aspects and awesomely threatening in its serious phases. The gravest possible consequence then was the displeasure of government authorities. But when these cultural boneheads were ousted by people power (only to be replaced by a similar set), the long-term effects of this split-level one-on-the-other approach became clear: the film artists could not relate with their audience, who in turn quickly learned to reject all old-time attempts at serious film presentations.

Hence the much-lamented dry spell in serious (normally associated with politicized) filmmaking. Even the real film artists took on a good measure of critical scolding for openly indulging in generic movie-making, at best turning out items that could be considered good only if one accepts the premises of mainstream local cinema. In Brocka’s case, this meant a string of extremely successful melodramas that could never quite break away from the imperatives of mass entertainment, save perhaps for the first, Maging Akin Ka Lamang. And even then….

Well since then Brocka came up with the still-to-be-released Orapronobis, and has followed up with his latest hit, Gumapang Ka sa Lusak, and in the purest filmic terms both titles are indistinguishable from his post-revolution crowd-pleasers. In both cases he also drew from his Marcos-era specialization in film noir, but basically he has hewn close to the plot twists and character entanglements that commercially rehabilitated him. In so doing, he advanced a proposition audacious even for himself: Philippine politics, per Brocka’s latest, is more than just a matter of intrigues and chases and shoot-outs; it is actually one big noisy and unending melodrama. Everyone gets to participate; unlike in Brocka’s gangster films, the political figures are this time identifiable and given active roles to play. The gods have now been invested with feet of clay, very wet ones at that.

It is an indication of the gap between our officials and the masses they claim to represent when no one among the former thus far has raised a peep about the wholesale (and well-deserved) defamation being visited upon them by our movie-makers. All of a sudden, politicians have become commercially viable – as villains. The two Brocka films are merely among the better-intentioned ones so far, and something must also urgently be said about the way the mass audience laps it all up. For too long, and especially since 1986, the Filipino movie-goer has been the object of scorn among the intelligentsia, who find no difficulty tracing the sorry state of local cinema to its market. No matter that the producers happen to agree; even the highest Marcos cultural official, Madame Iron Butterfly, prescribed the production of wholesome love stories among the true, the good, and the beautiful (though pretty would do), following the collapse of the martial-law era’s “developmentalist” requisites. In short, everyone agreed (many still do) that the movie-going masses are too bull-headed to take even themselves seriously. No bitter pill will they swallow, unless candy-coated and brightly colored; in which case why risk the danger of contaminating their brazen delights with the acridity of nourishment? Actually the evidence of past artistic works occasionally making money belies this notion, just as the people can take disapprobation if they have to: after all, who elected those officials in the first place?

Brocka’s Gumapang Ka sa Lusak, which has completed the filmmaking process from inspiration to exhibition, evinces a careful working out of viewership psychology, particularly when placed in the context of its director’s body of work. Inside information alleges that the project was originally intended as a sequel to Jaguar, which was written by Gumapang Ka’s Ricardo Lee and Orapronobis’s Jose F. Lacaba. Jaguar was a Brocka landmark in the strict sense that it was scripted by his most productive collaborators and first enabled the country to be represented in the Cannes Film Festival competition; in another equally significant area, the box-office, it flopped. The Jaguar re-viewer though will readily realize that Gumapang Ka is more than just a decade removed from its predecessor. As already mentioned, it’s not as straight-faced as one would be led to expect, given the scary social premises of Jaguar. Gumapang Ka is as grave as Brocka has been known to be, make no mistake; yet its lead character, who this time is female, and who dies along with the (re-named) Jaguar character, gives out what may arguably be the most blissful smile ever seen in local cinema, right before she expires.

A happy ending? In a serious film? By Lino Brocka?! And there’s more: you can even play the game of name-that-historical personage. I went as far as recognizing Dovey Beams and Rolando Galman and Carlito Dimailig (Imelda Marcos’s bolo-wielding assailant, here transmuted into an elderly woman), plus the female lead’s assumption of the former First Lady’s amnesiac attitude toward her childhood destitution, and still had enough room in my head to allow for a catch in my throat when her moralist admonition was replayed over the last shot of the “next” Jaguar – her naïve and sentimental and, yes, comic-Platonic lover. The most obvious explanation is that with Orapronobis, Brocka remembered to grow in his medium; with Gumapang Ka, he remembered to relax. Not since Jaguar has there been a dramatically involving villain in a Brocka film, and in Gumapang Ka there are even three of them: the Marcos couple and Fabian Ver equivalents. And where in the past his stories could not allow for loose ends, or otherwise resulted in an embarrassment of loose ends, here the frills – the in-jokes, the performance numbers, the open ending – are part of an expertly constructed design.

The means by which such frivolity in the midst of social grimness could be facilitated harkens back to Brocka’s disillusionment with politics. He returned to showbiz, of course, and in Gumapang Ka he set one against the other. The politicians dominate the opening gambit (like they always do in real life), with the mayor plucking his mistress from a checkered career in sex films and the couple recruiting their main henchman from a stable of stuntmen. But by living out her fantasy of justice, the mistress attains a moral triumph that makes her payment with her life, not to mention that of many others, seemingly worth the price. In this manner does Gumapang Ka attain its unique brand of salvation. As opposed to Jaguar it doesn’t run away from fantasy, but instead utilizes non-credible elements to build an expansive yet sturdy framework that allows for a whole lot of valid connections with historical reality. The fact that this approach happens to sit well with local audiences indicates some drastic re-thinking for media practitioners in the immediate future.

As if that weren’t bonus enough, Gumapang Ka also proffers generally high-caliber performances. Dina Bonnevie stakes a privileged position in an already impressive roster of local female lead performances, with hers ranking the highest in sensuality; never had she been so effective before. Her antagonists provide the flint by which she lights her fire: in a reversal of the real-life conjugal dictatorship, Eddie Garcia exhibits the charm and Charo Santos-Concio the intelligence. Come to think of it, the Gumapang Ka production outfit was once suspected of executing Imelda Marcos’s conceits for Philippine cinema, using funds whose release were made possible by her all-encompassing influence. How ironic that in violating her vision and almost her person, the producers have managed to come up with their best picture so far.

[First published June 20, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Family Affairs

Pido Dida (Sabay Tayo)
Directed by Tony Cruz
Written by Tony Cruz and Roger Fuentebella

The contrast between opposing opinions on Kris Aquino’s first film, Pido Dida (Sabay Tayo), indicates the extent of the polarization between official and independent pronouncements on local culture. Those who want or need to maintain a favored status take the cue from Aquino’s doting mother – who, the more ardent appreciators point out, was just continuing what her late husband, who happens to be our own modern-day Messiah, had started – in proclaiming the presidential daughter’s performance, and the movie by association, adequate at the very least. Those who can afford to do otherwise, for whatever motive possible, resort to any pronouncement along the rest of the spectrum, from adequate downward. In the end Pido Dida’s adequacy will remain unresolved, largely because of the political coloration that has attended its critical reception, compounded by the favorable box-office response. On the surface the film appears to be easily dismissible per se, but this may be the key to the alienation of the elite, especially the intelligentsia, from the masses: if we condemn an item as unacceptable out of our concern for its consumers, what does it make of us (and the item in question) when the consumers themselves refuse to listen?

The fascinating thing about this entire enterprise is that the crucial commercial element in Pido Dida, comedian Rene Requestas, manages to acquit himself, well, adequately, notwithstanding the heaviest creative burden he has been made to bear in his career thus far. In his past films, Requiestas had proved himself inimitable in his capability to draw humor from event the most mediocre lines and situations given him. In fact, his success en solo has given cause for worry to his discoverer, Joey de Leon, as well as relief to the latter’s toilet-humor detractors. Requiestas proves for our place and time what Pauline Kael discovered about Barbra Streisand: not that ugly is (or will ever be) in, but that talent is beauty. No other Filipino of movie-star status has had such a reliable record of stage performances behind him, save perhaps for Roderick Paulate; but where the latter was eventually delimited by his screaming-meemie persona, Requiestas, by his everyday-person projection, would be ideal for the versatility once appropriated by Dolphy – from Requiestas’s current (and deplorable) ugly-clown gimmick to perhaps a foray into Paulate territory or an assumption of a dramatic, possibly even sexy, role, with his falsies all in place of course. If I may be allowed to invest my two-cents’ worth, Requiestas seems to me to consist of far richer potential than anyone before him.

But talent, as Dolphy himself once discovered, can only go so far, especially in a medium as inevitably collaborative as film. We should only hope that in Requiestas’s case he (or his managers) opt for expanding his repertoire to include other approaches to film performance, rather than building on a so-far bankable but increasingly depletive type of role. He could wind up as an industry fixture like Dolphy, recycling past glories in customary productions every so often, though not often enough … but why be merely comfortable when you can be terrific? Pido Dida in itself could constitute a serious warning notice for the Requiestas credit, with the creative team ostensibly out to run down his gifts with the most unimaginative and sluggish lines and situations available – ugly-face jokes, cutesifications, indiscriminate inside references to politics and show business, and worst of all, a patronizing beauty-and-beast romantic angle with Ms. Guess-Who.

On the other hand the movie could also signal the emergence of a reliable competitor to the conservative young-star iconography of Sharon Cuneta. With Aquino, we have the same right-wing political wealth and back-up source, plus the additional advantages of prettiness and earnestness. The terrible reality of this kind of image-building exercise is that it doesn’t much matter to what end these girls have opted to devoted what talent they happen to possess; they could probably even get away with taking its development for granted, as Cuneta has so far managed to do.[1] The ideal entertainment ethic would be for us to relegate these strays from the political corral to their proper positioning according to their potential for contributing to Philippine culture – i.e., straight to the slaughterhouse of collective memory. Unfortunately this presumes that our non-political systems could afford to ignore the influence of establishment politics.

So in the meantime that our producers and audiences try to upgrade, consciously or otherwise, their capacity for intelligence and independence, we remain at the mercy of the dictates of those who couldn’t really care less about the quality of our creature comforts. In Pido Dida we see this principle played out in the manner by which a leading lady in a comedy gets handled like a leading lady, instead of a comedienne. Nothing funny that the Aquino character does is of her own volition, unless it be to emphasize her already obvious pictorial superiority to her leading man. In the end this kind of approach – a political decision, actually – becomes (a no-no in comedy) predictable: we get to know when the laughs are coming, indicated as they are by Requiestas’s presence, and when we’re only supposed to smile, which is when Aquino’s around. And when funnybone responses are determined by factors beyond the work’s inner mechanism, then the responses aren’t really that much fun in the end.

It should be of national interest to see the Kris Aquino persona evolve alongside her mother’s political career. If the Sharon Cuneta model is any indication, the daughter could have a better chance of outshining her politician parent, though the latter need not fade away entirely, so long as she learns in turn how to pick up a trick or two from her fair-haired child. We couldn’t do away yet with politically sponsored as aspirants to showbiz stardom, but perhaps a worse scenario – two aspirants instead of only one – might be the next best thing after all: either their rivalry repositions one or the other to a more enlightened political stance, or it rages to the extent of eventually consuming them both, symbols of impositions by an uncaring elite on our popular preferences.

[First published October 24, 1990, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] This remark must have sounded irresistible at the time. Since then Sharon Cuneta has demonstrated how precipitate (and therefore unfair) it was. She had been in the process of completing her four projects with Lino Brocka and was about to hire herself out to producers other than Viva Films, solidifying her independent-woman stature in a number of Star Cinema productions before attempting a series of noteworthy digital-indie projects. Jerrick Josue David, film scholar and close Cuneta observer, coined the term “dulsita,” a portmanteau of “dulce” (sweet) and “maldita” (catty) to describe the adjustment she made in her persona, as a way of preparing the public for the less-wholesome characters in the roles she took on. See his “Dulsita, ang Kabuuan ng Kontradiksyon ng Imahen ni Sharon Cuneta sa Pelikulang Pilipino [The Totality of the Contradicting Images of Sharon Cuneta in Philippine Cinema],” Kritika Kultura 25 (August 2015): 314-43.

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Men and Myths

Bala at Rosaryo
Directed by Pepe Marcos
Written by Olivia M. Lamasan and Humilde “Meek” Roxas

The danger in becoming aware of the ancient conflict between so-called high art and mass culture is the acquisition of the convenient misimpression that both sides are essentially irreconcilable. Nowhere in modern times has this dialectic been more successfully demonstrated than in cinema, and the Philippines is no exception: on the one hand we have the world-renowned (a past Guinness edition, to be specific) movie-going habit of our people, and on the other lies what must be another world record, given our context of film output, viewership, and Third-World status – an excess of movie award-giving bodies.[1] What this has resulted in is a positioning of a handful of “prestige” practitioners, favored for some reason or other (and not always fairly, it must be stressed) by one or more award groups, vis-à-vis, well, The Rest. The first always strive to put in some well-meaning elements in their output, while the rest remain content with the politics of survival.

A whole lot more improvement – and by this I refer to criteria of both art and commerce – would be realized if both sides dispense with this deplorable dichotomy. Our film-as-art practitioners were forced to explore local popular preference by the breakdown of official cultural pretensions wrought by the 1986 revolution; the larger challenge remains of convincing the much-maligned “commercialist” majority that quality can be both fun and profitable. A recent random release illustrates this point. Bala at Rosaryo is done by the same producer-director team that gave us the most significant lesson in the mergence of imaginativeness and mass appeal in action films after EDSA, the unfortunately underrated Tubusin Mo ng Dugo. Pepe Marcos et al.’s strong suit still surfaces occasionally in their recent effort, but the entire enterprise bogs down from the combined weight of defective structuring (the material was komiks-derived) and conventional moralizing – nothing that a good rewrite couldn’t have remedied.

Actually Bala at Rosaryo comes close to literate entertainment precisely when it veers too close to its danger points – i.e., when the plot detours into its gangster-and-virgin subconcern and the protagonists pretend that their respective positions of righteousness and mercy matter above everything else; the mass audience, who of course see through the charade, are titillated by its interplay with our folk-Catholic wisdom, which means they know that both parties are merely undergoing a courtship ritual whose sexual climax will offset the initially dominant religious stance. These “encounters” between the avenging hero and the pretty novice who falls for him are, well, blessed with a dramatic tension heightened by the use of satirical humor, particularly when the hero mistakes the hell-driving sister for his blood-feud enemy and, later, dreams of sexually conquering her under the usual tacky circumstances (he takes a bath under a waterfall and discovers her there), only to be awakened by the very object of his lust.

Meantime the peasant-class hero also has to contend with a too-circumstantial involvement with a landed family’s internal conflict. The fact that he’s used by the villain as scapegoat for a fratricidal crime doesn’t hold up too well; of course he’s paroled as reward for good behavior, and look Sis, it doesn’t ever occur to him to blackmail his tormentor once the facts clear up. Eddie Garcia bears his mark of Cain with gleeful malice; he’s finally been given full rein to go to town with his trademark hamminess and the result is one of those rare instances where the performance gets better as it gets worse. How can a pair of stuffy symbols surmount such infernal inspiration? Bala at Rosaryo attempts an answer by showing us the sound and fury of Good Overpowering Evil in the End. It’s strictly a technical answer, though, and I’m sure most viewers would prefer a full-scale resurrection of the Eddie Garcia character to a sequel of the now-sanctified union of the purged-to-pureness couple. Or maybe if we restore to them their original-sin sense of guilt, and this time exploit their fall from grace for all the laughs that modern existence could wring from it, I’m sure Garcia would make a terrific serpent.

[First published June 6, 1990, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] Several years later, a study of the “modern” award (with the Nobel as precursor) argued persuasively that the future portends proliferation, not streamlining: “Prizes, an instrument of cultural hierarchy, would themselves come increasingly to describe a hierarchical array, a finely indexed system of greater and lesser symbolic rewards, the negotiation of which constitutes a kind of second-order game or subsidiary cultural marketplace” (54). See James F. English, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

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I.O.U.

Kahit Singko Hindi Ko Babayaran ang Buhay Mo
Directed by Jesus Jose
Written by Joji Vitug

Lito Lapid during his heyday was somehow worth watching if only for the promise of a well-made action epic. The subject himself had something to do with the semi-serious attention: among successful local action stars, he alone was (and still is) readily identifiable as Pinoy in the traditional brown-skinned, not-too-tall, well-stocked model. The closest a Lapid movie ever came to fulfillment was Celso Ad. Castillo’s Pedro Tunasan, although a handful of smaller works, notably Mario O’Hara’s Kastilyong Buhangin, were more systematic in maximizing his competence as actor. Given a two-decade-long career that was mostly characterized by his absence from the moviemaking scene, he must have decided to go the way of Fernando Poe Jr. by taking matters into his own hands and directing a project starring himself.

The risk seems to have paid off so far in the literal monetary sense in Kahit Singko Hindi Ko Babayaran ang Buhay Mo, much better at least than in Pedro Tunasan, wherein Lapid was producer. The influences of Castillo and Poe (who was directed by and has also considerably drawn from the former) are very much in evidence, particularly in the build-ups toward scenes of violence and the staging of agitated masses of people moving across picturesque panoramas. Where Castillo retains an upper hand over his actor-successors is in his appropriation of Gerardo de Leon’s diagonal deep-focus compositions, which in turn were adapted from international trend-setters long before most of us were born. Kahit Singko is the usual morality play that lends credence to the generally unsatisfactory thesis that our action films are ascribable to the komedya tradition. The characters are rounded out as far as one-dimensional premises would allow them to, and interact according to rules of conflict that pit goodness against evil; one or the other triumphs in the end (this time it’s goodness), but in Kahit Singko I somehow came to realize why such a profoundly dissatisfying simplification of dramatic issues is more deeply rooted in this genre than in any other.

Provide the characters with the requisite reasonable motivations, and you negate the necessity of looking for other solutions to resolve their conflicts. Meaning to say, once the situation becomes dramatically valid, then all you’d ever really need is a dramatic resolution – and if you append the climactic apocalypse that action aficionados always expect, your movie would have ended way before the last frame. If on the other hand you deprive the audience of real dramatization, you could hook them until the finish with increasing doses of violence and give them a semblance of having closed the issues through the sheer relief of eliminating the cause of any further shootouts. There’s one easy way of ensuring that the formula always seem new, and this is what has contributed to the perpetuity of the genre: the constant updating of issues. In Kahit Singko, two related thrusts enable the film to make a bid for historical, or at least journalistic, significance: the use of an elected government official as villain, and the portrayal of a law officer as torn between loyalty to political authority (his professional superiors) and principle (his family). A provocative contrast is set up between the hero and his best friend, also a policeman, who succumbs to an overwhelming barrage of invitations to petty corruption.

The movie doesn’t pursue its concerns to their logical extremes, which is why I couldn’t be enthusiastic enough given its critical slant. The weak-willed police partner gets killed off almost as soon as he agrees to play dirty, his fate foreshadowed by what happened to an even more notorious colleague within the same precinct. Our hero’s moral dilemma actually arrives at a pinnacle at this point, but he’s pushed back to the comfortable side of righteousness by the bad guy’s psychotic actuation in having the rest of the policeman’s family massacred during a wake already caused by his goons. The Lapid character does a Dirty Harry – surrendering his badge prior to going on a rampage – without a realization of the underlying appeal of the Clint Eastwood creation. Dirty Harry succeeds precisely because he’s true to his name: the liberal-humanist “system” of justice has taught him, a subversive from within, to resort to brutal and illegal methods in dealing with crime. Kahit Singko’s avenger turns out to be too much of an angel to be distinguishable from the rest of the canon, beyond the fact that he looks like Lito Lapid.

Along the way we get treated to the simpler pleasures of listening to a small-person’s debate on human rights and to all the characters addressing the central object of hatred as “Congressman.” In the moviehouse where I saw the film, a trailer from a rival production outfit showed another villain whom everyone called “Mayor” and whose wife looked and behaved like Imelda Marcos. The forthcoming title was by Lino Brocka, and I could swear that the unusually quiet attention being paid to it by the lower-class audience who filled the theater meant that they were busy making serious connections, as we all ought to be doing, between one movie experience and another yet to come.

[First published June 6, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Movable Fists

Walang Awa Kung Pumatay
Directed by Junn P. Cabrera
Written by Jun Lawas and Enrique Mariano

Iisa-Isahin Ko Kayo
Directed by Francis “Jun” Posadas
Written by Erwin T. Lanad

Apoy sa Lupang Hinirang
Directed by Mauro Gia Samonte
Written by Joe Carreon and Mauro Gia Samonte

Action films are back with a vengeance. Actually, Filipino action films, wherever they happen to be around, are almost always with vengeance – as a central theme, that is. It wasn’t of course always thus. What I remember of old action films was their emphasis on the instability of their violent characters’ psychological constitution, the premise dwelling on the officiated view that normal people commit no harm. Once in a while an action film would dare to be different by presenting a normal person misunderstood by the establishment (Robin Hood must have been the prototype in this instance), but this only served to reverse the preceding attitude rather that challenge it. I guess the contemporary Pinoy action film can be traced to the first item that acknowledged that a character can (and should) change in the course of her development, even if necessary to the extreme of the opposite of her original self. It may be difficult, perhaps impossible, to pinpoint a singular source, although by the end of the ’70s what was once daring and occasionally subversive (remember Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag?) became commonplace enough to become a staple ingredient in the action-film formula.

What we’re witnessing at the moment is the local consequence of what obtains once a once-suppressed tendency becomes, to use the appropriate poststructuralist terminology, dominant: said idea, in observance of the inevitable dialectical mode of progression, demands to be successfully challenged in its turn, just as it had once successfully challenged the very idea it had supplanted. In concrete terms, this can be observed in how the vengeance pattern, which had taken the place of the psychotic-gangster approach, is now undergoing permutations and qualifications with each action-film output, rather than its formerly straightforward application. With three recent action releases, just as many distinct reformulations of the vengeance principle are presented us. Walang Awa Kung Pumatay provides the easiest innovation – a technical one, which I doubt was deliberately worked out right from the start. The project’s premises seem to be safely dismissible: a fair-to-middling story, inadequate budget (resulting in below-average production values), and mannered delivery from its lead performer, Robin Padilla.

But instead of devoting attention to improving its most reliable and inexpensive element, the filmscript, Walang Awa opted to fall back on expert editorial execution, and in this manner managed to somehow salvage its one other weakness. In the year or so since his emergence, Padilla quickly learned the ham-acting local action stars use to enhance the excessive stylization required by the genre. In his case, however, Padilla built on his cutesy-boyish features, which in overextended takes (as what happened in his previous film, Barumbado), gives rise to an obnoxious projection – Sean Penn, as it were, trying to impress the critics. In Walang Awa, Padilla’s mannerisms, like the film’s defective production values, are cut right before they cross the line separating bravura from brazenness. What ensues is a lead performance charming in spite of itself (and the film as well), capable of carrying the uncritical appreciator over abundant moral, sexual, and geographic blunders, and making the requisite shootouts seem like impressive set-pieces by their contrast with the foregoing deficiencies and their deployment of Padilla’s lissome maneuvers.

Iisa-Isahin Ko Kayo has a heavier-set lead actor traversing the same Lethean course as Walang Awa. In fact, Iisa-Isahin lead Ronnie Ricketts suffers the burden of being too handsome in the conventional macho tradition, replete with broad features that don’t seem disposed toward nuances; his role in the film has been tailor-made for his capabilities – a whole lot of hell-raising, instead of strategizing, constitute the responses to what essentially are workable conflicts. It is in this instance, however, that the film manages to extenuate its efforts. Both Walang Awa and Iisa-Isahin need to have done better by their respective materials, although in a sense the same statement holds true for local action films in general: add a perceptible amount of beyond-competence complexity to an action-film framework and you’ll have something like a Peque Gallaga epic, which wouldn’t be classifiable anymore under the same genre, as defined by current standards.

The difference between Walang Awa and Iisa-Isahin is that the latter’s creators didn’t wait until their footage had been accumulated before figuring out their project’s salience. Iisa-Isahin appropriates, on a smaller scale, the strategy used by Wilfredo Milan in Anak ng Cabron some years back: I must say that the attempt works better this time around, since the film starts with a relatively realistic tone and builds up toward a totally anarchic climax, with some semiotic insights – notably one involving the Supreme Court building’s symbol of Blind Justice – neatly worked in. Yet the requisite of proper dramatic treatment eventually does Iisa-Isahin in: the good-guy police lead’s brutality is justified by his excessive enthusiasm for the implementation of law and order; the bad cop’s moll, whom he abducts, admires him for not responding to her sexiness, eventually deciding to save him at the expense of her life; and just to make sure that we all get on the side of righteousness, a couple of street kids are thrown in to save the hero and comfort his hostage and get killed by the goonies. We all know that some cops and tarts and street urchins can’t be as bad as they may seem to be in real life, but can they ever really be so wholesome as to individually profess wonderment at all the evil around them?

The last title, Apoy sa Lupang Hinirang, is the most interesting among the three, primarily because its makers did their homework where it mattered – at the conceptual level – and effectively exploited a once-sacrosanct ideological framework in the process. Students of Philippine political history will readily recognize the consistent and expert observation of the orthodox Marxist analysis of local class relations here, though only the most fanatically committed will fail to make out the glaring cynicism with which it was appropriated. Apoy also manages to get by with an entirely inexpedient set of actors by making them perform what their too-pretty features seem useful for: kissing and coupling, with the political interventions serving as obstacles to the literally sexual climax, which is quite demurely suggested in the end. I cannot help but approach the film with the ambivalence of cold comfort, since its source is anything but aesthetic. On the one had I’d survived those days when the merest acknowledgement of Apoy’s political framework could physically endanger its advocate, so my nostalgic response originates from witnessing formerly forbidden but still-familiar material being presented not just in a creative manner, but in a popular medium as well. On the other hand, its insufficiency in redeeming the work in question, which may not necessarily negate its adequacy in real-life practice, assures me, as it should assure those who worry about the current decline of culture as the national priority it should be, that there still exist problems that politics alone won’t solve.

[First published November 28, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Sedulously Cebuano

Eh … Kasi … Bisaya!
Directed by Junn P. Cabreira
Written by Cabreira & Associates

There are less divisive forms that regionalist fervor could take other than a staunch refusal to use Tagalog-sourced Filipino. The obvious logical recourse is to use whatever language happens to be appropriate – and in narrative discourse that’s set in most of the Visayas and Mindanao, this would usually entail Cebuano. There’s a type of narrative presentation that used to thrive in the region (and occasionally beyond) that also happens to have an industrial base perfect for the drive toward economic expansion in the South. We’re talking about Cebuano-language cinema, of course, which historically has been the only viable local alternative to Manila-based film production. The difference thus far has been strictly geographic and linguistic, but that doesn’t mean that more preferable differences couldn’t be worked out, or that more appealing similarities couldn’t be enhanced.

The latest Cebuano production, Eh … Kasi … Bisaya!, may be forgiven on a number of counts, all premised on the reality that the last Visayan film was released about eight years ago – too far back for anyone to even imagine the possibility that the region was doing its own films as early as the 1930s, reigning supreme over Manila and even foreign films whenever and wherever they happened to compete. Several major Filipino film talents, mostly in the field of acting, were recruited from Cebuano cinema, and a whole lot of innovations in terms of production and promotions has been tried and tested in the region. Somewhat more qualifiable are the titles themselves, the more reputable ones including the late Natalio Bacalso’s Salingsing sa Kasakit, Emmanuel H. Borlaza’s Anino sa Villa Lagrimas, Amado Cortez’s Gimingaw Ako…, and Leroy Salvador’s Badlis sa Kinabuhi. The cause of dissatisfaction can be traced to the fact that the Cebuano market, although highly dependable, is not as large (and therefore not as profitable) as that for Tagalog films.

Hence, it’s the cost-cutters who’ve attracted more attention: the past two decades, for example, saw the likes of Borlaza’s The Batul of Mactan, which revived regional production through its combination of a faded Manila star, Eddie Peregrina, and a rising one, Chanda Romero; Joe Macachor’s Ang Manok ni San Pedro, which was shot in super-8mm. and blown up, grains and all, to 35mm., thus inexpensively providing the region with its first color film; and Borlaza’s Rosaryohan sa Kasakit, the last Cebuano film previous to the current one, which enabled its producers to invest handsomely afterward in Manila-based production with Shake, Rattle & Roll, then lose disreputably with a less-than-adequate skin flick.

With Bisaya! a form of incentive long denied the Manila-based industry has supposedly been extended: the film was reportedly exempted from paying taxes. If this is true (or legally possible), then we ought to see more financiers following the example of the Bisaya! producers, plus perhaps an Iloko-language film or two, what with northern regional production boasting of a grand total of two titles on record (Karayo in 1941 and Soldado in 1978, as per a report by film historian Teddy Co).[1] Cinema should always go beyond reviviscence whenever possible, and one can only hope that Cebuano cinema could eventually serve to demonstrate its people’s claims to self-sufficiency. Any incentive granted to Bisaya! may be made to apply to future Cebuano productions, this time with emphasis on qualitative achievements. Even better, a Cebuano-language film retrospective can and should be organized, prior perhaps to the holding of a Cebuano-language film festival consisting of all-new entries.

Manila-based practitioners may find reasons to work in the South, and these should not necessarily be always monetary in nature. Cebuano officials might find that the idea of offering greater creative freedom could prove to be the crucial turning point in upgrading the stature of Cebuano-language cinema from a mere adjunct of Manila’s to a valid global capital in itself. Some future producer might want to retain the regional language in a Manila release, providing translations through subtitles.[2] Other just-as-urgent measures would be the provision of formal film education and training in Visayan schools as well as the completion of a comprehensive filmography of Cebuano-language films drawn, since not all such films were released in Metro Manila, from regional sources instead. The possibilities for growth are numerous, and we haven’t even begun to consider what themes and materials can be put to good use, given such a conscious and feasible alternative to Manila centralism. Bisaya! itself hints, daintily as it were, at the intrusions of both Manileños and Manilanized Visayans in the lives of ordinary Southern folk, and it isn’t even half-serious to begin with … or is it? In any case, we could hardly go wrong with expanding our boundaries of national film practice, tinood lagi, and there are entire islands of speakers, a linguistic nation practically, waiting to hear and see themselves onscreen once more.

[First published November 28, 1990, in National Midweek]

Notes

[1] See Teddy Co, “In Search of Philippine Regional Cinema,” Movement: Towards a New Visual Literacy 2.1 (1987): 17-20.

[2] Circa the present (2014), the emergence of the more accessible digital format resulted in a number of significant regional-language film texts. Strangely, however, these works originated as proposals selected and funded by Manila-based film festivals. With the recent introduction of the country’s second full-blown film program in Cebu, appropriately enough, it may be a matter of time before full-steam regional production can get under way once more. In contrast with the spectacle of the Cebuano-language prints of Bisaya! being pulled out of Manila theaters after non-Cebuano-speaking audiences complained that they couldn’t understand the dialogue, it would also be a far simpler and less costly matter to ensure that the releases feature translations for non-Cebuano viewers.

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Black & Blue & Red

Bayani
Directed and written by Raymond Red

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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