Book Texts – Non-Film Reviews

Home Sweet Home

In My Father’s House
Playwright Elsa Martinez Coscolluela
Directed by Tony Mabesa

As an extra-active in-house editor for the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP), I was once assigned to the screening committee of the third (and last) scriptwriting contest. Only two winners were chosen, both of which were endorsed to the board of judges by none other than yours truly. The inside news, however, was that the preferred top-prize winner was disqualified on a double technicality: not only did the script proposal require a more-than-modest budget (for which the consideration of a few other entries would have to be set aside), it would also have duplicated the themes and setting of the first ECP production, Oro, Plata, Mata. Flashforward to the present, when one of the contest’s judges, out of a refusal to allow the ECP’s demise to negate its noteworthy aims, convinces the writer of the said screenplay to revise her work for the medium out of which he has made a lifetime career: the theater.

11011Like Oro, Plata, Mata, In My Father’s House has seen rough commercial sailing. And if we take an optimistic course and regard its ultimate destination as the celluloid product it was originally intended to be, then its odyssey from judges’ favorite to future film product through the legitimate stage may well be one of the most unusual transitions in contemporary local culture. To be sure, In My Father’s House stands several cuts above the disturbing succession of stage plays that actually aim for ultimate preservation on film (or even just video, via television). Our local playwriting contests have much to answer for in this case; works are judged according to how they read, not how they may be performed, and in several depressing instances writers who employed misappropriated cinematic techniques tended to impress their respective jurors, who should have known better.

11011I hope I don’t sound too condemnatory in pointing out that these cinematically obsessed playwrights were in a sense the predecessors of our so-called independent film practitioners, who dabble in media or formats apparently alien from the mainstream movie industry, but actually aim for stable long-term employment within (as evidenced in their output as well as the number who grab too eagerly at opportunities for commercial film assignments). Nothing wrong with having to survive, I submit, except that sometimes the struggle has resulted all too often in a hierarchism of media forms and assignments: this here’s a mere short film (or play or article), it could get me some attention so I could get away with a little slothful artisanship – after all, this isn’t the big time … yet.

11011Hence my sense of appreciation and gratitude for In My Father’s House. The play’s film-script origins are still detectable, particularly in the inordinate number of blackouts (equivalent to the film medium’s fadeouts), but the whole presentation has amounted to a cherishable and well-grounded discourse on the dehumanizing effects of war on the best intentions of those caught up in it. The story details the plight of a Negros-based family, chronicling the members’ confrontation with the realities of the Japanese occupation from the start of the war until the impending liberation (or, as per Renato Constantino, the re-occupation) of the country by American forces. The siblings find themselves in opposing camps, though hardly by the passive nature of their characters: one realizes firsthand the effectiveness of the enemy’s brutality and decides to collaborate to preclude whatever further harm may be committed against his loved ones, while another is outraged by the very same reports, though from a comfortable distance, and decides to join the guerrilla movement.

11011The worst that the invading forces visit upon the family is the occupation of their residence by an officer, who is never seen; instead he is represented by his clown of a deputy. In the end the tragedy that befalls the family is directly caused by the guerrilla offering to save his collaborator-brother but inadvertently betraying him to a rival unit. An acknowledgment of classical traditions pervades the entire production, with deaths occurring offstage and the action being continually summarized and assessed by the survivors. The only onstage tragedy, the suicide of the fiancée who could endure repeated rape by the Japanese officer but not the contempt of her guerrilla-lover, serves to maintain the essential context of the drama – i.e., that the enemy, no matter how harmless in appearance, is capable, on a near-bestial level, of the civilized but still-harmful actuations of his captive hosts, and that in a sense this doesn’t make him any different from them after all.

11011Such perceptions about the wartime behavior of the bourgeoisie could only have come from finely observed and fully felt experience, and whatever the arguments against the dangers of romanticism, there ought to be room for such theses in the first place, the better to form possible answers from. In My Father’s House can be taken on its own, with the reservations (and then some) I already mentioned, but it can also be appreciated as a creative inspiration’s long (and unfinished) journey to realization. I suggest viewing it as a companion piece to Oro, Plata, Mata, with the notion of the voyeuristic peek into the bourgeoisie’s not-so-discreet charms this time replaced by an Areopagitica of sorts, a plea for tolerance and soberness from a people who are still figuring out what to do with themselves.

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

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Time and Again

Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic, and Temporal Critique
By Bliss Cua Lim
(Durham: Duke University Press, 2009)

No less than feminist film and trauma specialist E. Ann Kaplan has hailed Translating Time as one of the most influential books in the field of cinema studies, a distinction made more remarkable by the fact that Bliss Cua Lim’s volume has only recently been published. Kaplan cites Lim’s achievement in drawing on “genre theory, feminist film research, postcolonialism, and feminist cine-psychoanalysis to think through the meanings that emerge in films about fantasy” (2009: 190). Well on its way to solidifying its early stature as a classic in the field, Translating Time bears the prestigious imprint of a John Hope Franklin Book Award, an annual honor given by Duke University Press to four books selected from the hundred-plus titles that it publishes every year. (Personal disclosure: Lim and I were classmates and fellow Fulbright scholars in graduate school.)

11011Prior to Translating Time, Lim was known for her volumes of poetry in her native Philippines, and her expertise in this mode of expression enhances the present book’s correlation of seemingly disparate concerns, unified by the much-vilified yet inevitably overriding element of pleasure – the same factor that links Translating Time with an impressive array of feminist predecessors, from Laura Mulvey (who, in calling for the destruction of pleasure in Classical Hollywood, motivated an entire generation of scholars to revaluate its importance and function) down to the present and, from what we can discern from current media studies trends, far into the future.

11011Translating Time reworks Henri Bergson’s philosophical critique of so-called homogeneous time, regarded as the primary ideological mechanism for the historical ascendancy of European modernity, by infusing it with a postcolonial critique. Lim recounts how, starting with the late thirteenth-century invention of precise timepieces, homogeneous time became ensconced as the standard universal method of reckoning temporal experience, pervading all available areas of human endeavor within and outside Europe via the mechanisms of state control and colonial expansion. Crucially, she argues that homogeneous time overlays human societies with the twinned processes of measuring everyone, without exception, according to the timeline of Eurocentric development, as well as excluding from historical significance any form of anachronism – thus resulting, for example, in the refusal to accept people falling within certain categories – such as the “savage,” the “primitive,” the “superstitious,” and the “premodern” – as belonging to the present. Homogeneous time means that people who exist, as it were, in periods marked as “past” by Eurocentric development cannot be considered of this moment, unless they were “modernized” one way or another. This reminds me of one of the standard arguments that links the colonizer with the rapist: the purported victim was merely being claimed by patriarchy in order to protect it (the nation) or her (the woman) from other claimants, as well as to provide it or her with the benefits of modernist progress presumably unavailable to those cursed with “backwardness.” The narrative of the centuries-long quest of homogeneous time for global preeminence would sound fantastic in itself if it were told to, say, a Renaissance-era subject or a contemporary Third-World tribesperson. Lim’s retelling captures the appropriately fantastic quality of the now-seemingly-inexorable advance of this phenomenon.

11011Lim initiates her departure from Bergson’s critique by propounding a concept of immiscible times, which she defines as “multiple times that never quite dissolve into the code of modern time consciousness, discrete temporalities incapable of attaining homogeneity with or full incorporation into a uniform chronological present” (12). As she puts it:

an anti-colonial critique of homogeneous time points out that the modern notion of progress and its corollary, the accusation of noncontemporaneousness, translate multiple ways of inhabiting the world into a single, homogeneous time. This translation is arguably a deliberate mistranslation in that the allochronic gesture – the appraisal of the other as an anachronism – served as a potent temporal justification for the colonial project. (83)

Tellingly, inasmuch as Bergson had prematurely denounced film as the culmination of the popular perception of homogeneous time, Lim finds useful samples of immiscible times imbricated in the cinema of the fantastic. By her own admission, she incorporates Bergson further by resisting him at this juncture, specifically his dismissal of cinema for its collusion with homogenized, spatialized time, as well as its deceptive re-presentation of duration as an atomized succession of still moments.

11011Lest one acquire the misimpression that Lim’s espousal of immiscible heterogeneous times could play into the cynical religious revivalism of conservative political leaders (as exemplified in the U.S. Republican Party’s deplorable turn-of-the-millennium strategies), she takes the trouble to point to examples of what we could obversely term real fantasies, like the studies of Jean and John Comaroff on the “enchantments of capital” (2002: 782-87) in the Third World, wherein “amid glaring asymmetries . . . the enigmatic appearance of ‘wealth without work’ . . . is felt by the disenfranchised in particular to be opaque, occult, spectral” (135).

11011Translating Time is exceptional as an extended study not only for what its so-far mostly western appreciators prize it for, but also for what mainly subaltern scholars will be able to perceive: Lim’s thorough immersion in postcolonial culture, to a point beyond mere familiarity, well within the realm of (for want of more appropriately academic terminology) sheer and unadulterated passion. A disheartening number of cultural studies scholars in particular, once they realize the exploitative potential of the Philippines’s unique status as the U.S.’s only ex-/neo-/post-colony, tend to indulge in the country’s popular culture only to come up with undeniably well-meaning but erroneous, if not preposterous or potentially injurious, interpretations of local phenomena. Perhaps the most famous example was Fredric Jameson’s one-time incursion into Third-World, including Philippine, popular culture in The Geopolitical Aesthetic (1992), whose long list of Filipino objectors included Lim (1993).

11011While explicating her take on Bergson (partly by way of Gilles Deleuze – on which more later), Lim proceeds to survey the fantastic in cinema, beginning with a Philippine “Second Golden Age” prestige production, Mike de Leon’s Itim (1976), coursing through Etienne-Jules Marey’s proto-filmic motion studies and Fatimah Tobing Rony’s personal experimental film On Cannibalism (1994). Her bravura readings of the recent aswang (segmented viscera-sucking monster) horror-film cycle of the Peque Gallaga and Lorenzo Reyes directorial team (commencing with their eponymous 1992 blockbuster), and the female specters of Butch Perez’s Haplos (1982) and Hong Kong filmmaker Stanley Kwan’s Yin ji kau (English title Rouge, 1987), are models of close textual inspections that enrich the too-scant literature on these largely overlooked marvels of Asian film-genre productions, even as she painstakingly develops her notions on the values and limitations of immiscibilities in subaltern cinema.

11011After duly disclosing how early colonial chroniclers insisted on the feminine nature of the aswang as a way of demonizing the baylan (pre-Hispanic female shaman), Lim proceeds to discuss the politicized peasantry’s conflation of World War II’s Japanese occupation army with the contemporary Philippine Constabulary (hence Haplos’s always-already doomed revenant), and acknowledges CIA operative Edward G. Lansdale’s (1972, rpt. 1991) possibly fictional and definitely self-aggrandizing psy-war exploitation of the aswang myth in his counter-insurgency operations in the Philippine countryside. More to the point of feminist interest, Lim owns up to the necessarily patriarchal containment which Haplos’s and Rouge’s resolutions build toward, yet insists on pointing out how the real-life female characters find themselves attracted to their supernatural rivals, to the point of even fusing with the specter, as in the case of the ending of Haplos.

11011In advancing toward Rouge, in fact, Lim might initially appear to be falling into the same predicament of engaging with the unfamiliar that scholars like she and I excoriate overeager outsiders for. Yet Lim’s differences – as woman, as Chinay (Chinese-Filipina), as gender and queer theory specialist – secure for her an enviable position from which to read not just the spectrally inflected relations between Hong Kong as a former crown colony (not quite a nation yet not fully striving for integration) and the People’s Republic of China, but also the role that the larger regional area of East Asia has played vis-à-vis the cannibalization of the Asian horror cycle by Hollywood. By looking at the trajectory of particular examples like Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on (2002) as well as its U.S. remake, The Grudge (Shimizu, 2004), she manages to point out how such a ground-breaking scholar of national cinema as Andrew Higson (1989) “remains regrettably one-sided” (230) in discussing the role of Hollywood:

His argument emphasizes Hollywood’s contributions to national cinema, especially national-popular cinema, but he fails to mention the converse: Hollywood’s debts to other national cinemas, its founding reliance on émigré talent, its appropriation of aesthetic hallmarks, its practices of borrowing and remaking, and its eye on foreign markets. (230)

Just as it had done with earlier film trends in Europe, Hollywood’s appropriation of story material and qualities associated with Asian genre cinemas results in a deracination via the process of transforming “mark[s] of innovation, of originality, of newness or novelty greeted by vigorous, profitable audience demand” into signs of iterability (222-23) that result in a “softening of contrast, the quickly accomplished reduction of the distance between generic innovation and generic repetition” (223).

11011As a detailed demonstration of a home-grown achievement whose qualities would prove immiscible when (as it actually turned out) a Hollywood producer attempted to remake it, Lim discusses a Korean horror film, Kim Ji-woon’s Janghwa, Hongryeon (English title A Tale of Two Sisters, 2003), an experience that “slowly unfurls its secrets, yielding narrative clues and formal motifs whose significances are only apprehended on repeated viewing” (243). The scandal of the DreamWorks remake (Charles and Thomas Guard’s appositely titled The Uninvited, 2009, repudiated by Kim), wherein the production pitch “was based only upon having watched the trailer – not the entire source film – beforehand” (304n), thus resulting in divergent second halves between the two versions, is aggravated by the fact that such a supercilious approach was never even exposed and regarded as a scandal in the first place.

11011Lim concludes her book by recounting similar predicaments experienced by Bergson and a subaltern scholar who explored a postcolonial critique of homogeneous time: Bergson described how, in the midst of writing Time and Free Will, “the hour strikes on a neighboring clock but my inattentive ear does not perceive it” (1889, trans. 2001: 127; qtd.: 247); Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000: 102-03), from another place and period, recounted how an ironically sympathetic historian had wound up distorting a rebel leader’s account of political agency in an anti-colonial uprising, only because the leader had expressed his tribe’s action in supernatural terms. Given such lapses in even the most well-intentioned people’s best efforts, Lim echoes Elizabeth Grosz’s call to restore ontology “to its rightful place at the center of knowledges and social practices, [inasmuch as] the ways in which ontology has been previously conceptualized – as static, fixed, composed of universal principles or ideals, indifferent to history, particularity, or change – require transformation and revitalization” (2005: 5; qtd.: 251).

11011Within the specific area (film studies) that it sets as its donnée, Translating Time fills a gap noticeable in the otherwise densely constructed work of Gilles Deleuze, who had set out in two volumes (1983 and 1985, trans. 1986 and 1989) to reclaim Bergson for film, but whose critique of homogeneous time’s insidious valorization of European modernity is severely blunted by his use of canonical samples from art cinema (mostly European, with the usual Hollywood favorites such as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane [1941], the standard all-time critics’ favorite, thrown in). As a cineaste-come-lately, Deleuze may have been understandably swept up by what David Bordwell (1994) has termed the “standard version of stylistic history” and its aftermath, in which the aesthetic innovations that radicalized film style originated in Europe; such a formulation required the existence of Classical Hollywood film as a mode of practice that had dominated world cinema for the better half of the previous century – and which indeed was challenged and eventually overturned roughly by mid-century Euro art-film practice. What Deleuze could not overcome was the limited range of his subjective universe of western film culture, so when he in effect celebrates the deconstruction of Classical Hollywood film language enabled by filmmakers who could trace their inspiration, if not their training, to such movements as Italian neo-realism, the French New Wave, and avant-garde filmmaking, he is actually upholding a higher stage of modernism over an earlier one – in effect locking his argument within the same sphere of Eurocentrism that he had sought to contest.

11011Several other types of cinema whose recuperation is being spearheaded mostly by feminist critics – trash, porn, camp, in short anything subsumable under “pleasure” including even select Classical Hollywood titles – have already been reinscribed, with varying degrees of success, as emblems of transgression in popular culture. With Translating Time, Lim manages to liberate Bergsonian critique by convincingly demonstrating how resistance to an ultimate western temporal ideal finds its most useful samples in similarly pleasurable products that originate in places far removed from the center. In doing so, she contributes her share to a valiant multi-generational project, one initiated by Bergson himself over a century ago but only recently being tackled in earnest, in acknowledgment of struggles by European and non-European peoples that have somehow persisted all the way to the present. On the one hand, one may argue that this proves that homogeneous time is an exceedingly difficult system to dismantle (and in fact just now I remember telling Lim, when she first described her project to me, that she was confronting an ultimately impossible task). On the other hand, it may be precisely the excessive, extravagant nature of the challenge that has yielded material as wondrous and forward-looking as the works of the authors Lim has engaged, with her own volume taking its rightful place in a deservingly exalted but still-too-short list.

[First published Winter 2009 in Asian Journal of Women’s Studies]

Works Cited

Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. 1889. Trans. F.L. Pogson. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2001.

Bordwell, David. On the History of Film Style. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff. “Alien-Nation: Zombies, Immigrants, and Millennial Capitalism.” South Atlantic Quarterly 101.4 (2002): 779-805.

De Leon, Mike, dir. (1976), Itim [Black / Rites of May]. Scr. Clodualdo del Mundo Jr. and Gil Quito. Cinema Artists, 1976.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image. 1983 and 1985. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson, Barbara Habberjam, and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986 and 1989.

Gallaga, Peque, and Lore Reyes, dirs. (1992), Aswang [Viscera Sucker]. Scr. Pen P. Medina and Jerry Lopez Sineneng. Regal Films, 1992.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

Guard, Charles, and Thomas Guard, dirs. The Uninvited. Scr. Craig Rosenberg, Doug Miro, and Carlo Bernard. DreamWorks SKG, Cold Spring Pictures, MacDonald/Parkes Productions, Montecity Picture Co., Vertigo Entertainment, Medien 5 Filmproduktion, 2009.

Higson, Andrew. “The Concept of National Cinema.” Screen 30.4 (1989): 36-46.

Jameson, Fredric. The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Kaplan, E. Ann. “Toward Interdisciplinary Film Studies.” Cinema Journal 49.1 (2009): 188-91.

Kim Ji-woon, dir. & scr. Janghwa, Hongryeon [A Tale of Two Sisters]. B.O.M. Film Productions & Masulpiri Films, 2003.

Kwan, Stanley, dir. Yin ji kau [Rouge]. Scr. Lillian Lee. Golden Harvest and Golden Way Films Ltd., 1987.

Lansdale, Edward G. In the Midst of Wars: An American’s Mission to Southeast Asia. 1972. New York: Fordham University Press, 1991.

Lim, Bliss Cua [as Felicidad C. Lim]. “Perfumed Nightmare and the Perils of Jameson’s ‘New Political Culture.’” Philippine Critical Forum 1.1 (1993): 24-37.

Perez, Antonio Jose, dir. Haplos [Caress]. Scr. Ricardo Lee. Mirick Films International, 1982.

Rony, Fatimah Tobing, dir. & scr. On Cannibalism. Women Make Movies, 1994.

Shimizu, Takashi, dir. & scr. Ju-on [Ju-on: The Grudge]. Pioneer LDC, Nikkatsu, Oz Co., & Xanadeux Co., 2002.

———, dir. (2004), The Grudge. Scr. Stephen Susco. Senator International, Ghost House Pictures, Vertigo Entertainment, Renaissance Pictures, & Fellah Pictures, 2004.

Welles, Orson, dir. Citizen Kane. Scr. Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles. Mercury Productions & RKO Radio Pictures, 1941.

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Disorder & Constant Sorrow

Subversive Lives: A Family Memoir of the Marcos Years
By Susan F. Quimpo & Nathan Gilbert Quimpo, with David Ryan F. Quimpo, Norman F. Quimpo, Emilie Mae Q. Wickett, Lillian F. Quimpo, Elizabeth Q. Bulatao, Caren Q. Castañeda, Jun F. Quimpo, & Maria Cristina Pargas-Bawagan
(Manila: Anvil Publishing, 2012)

In the process of finalizing the current issue of Kritika Kultura, Ateneo’s online journal, on Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night, I went over some of the notes I took during the too-few interviews I had with the director. One of the statements he made, that our stories as a people are better told as a collective, became the basis of several articles and an entire dissertation I wrote on the film and its author. The format, which we can call by its description “multiple-character,” is a tricky one to pull off. Seemingly “social” fictions like Gone with the Wind or, closer to home, Noli Me Tangere typically begin with a large group of characters, then reduce the narrative threads until they focus on a hero, sometimes with a romantic interest or against an antihero, or (in the case of GWTW) a love triangle—which, by presenting a character torn between two options, invites singular identification and thus maintains the heroic arrangement.

11011The multicharacter film format actually originated in literature, so it would not be surprising to find it deployed more readily in fiction and theater, where the “star” demands of cinema can be more easily ignored. The more ambitious samples, like Manila by Night (and Bernal’s avowed model, Nashville), succeed in portraying, via the interaction of its characters, an abstract, singular, social character that embodies the conflicts, frustrations, and aspirations that the milieu text’s figures represent. The unexpected delight of my current Pinoy reading experience, in this wise, was in recognizing several of these qualities (and then some) in a recent book, titled Subversive Lives. Listing Susan F. Quimpo and Nathan Gilbert Quimpo as authors, the Anvil publication actually comprises contributions from the Quimpo siblings and the widow of their brother.

11011The Quimpos achieved fame (or notoriety, depending on one’s perspective) for several of the siblings having participated in the anti-dictatorship movement during the martial-law regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Since the only genuine opposition during most of this period was provided by the outlawed Communist underground, the Quimpo family, by its association, underwent dramatic upheavals, acute heartbreak, and occasional but still-too-rare moments of grace that would appear almost fantastic had the book been announced as a fiction. The fact that these events actually happened, related by the individuals who directly experienced them, provides the reader with a sense of how irreparably damaging authoritarianism has always been for our particular national experience.

11011I remember how, as a student at the state university, I could always rely on the fact that my smartest classmates would be sympathetic, if not involved outright, with student-activist causes—in sharp contrast with the situation I later observed as a teacher. Subversive Lives provides a panoramic chronicle of how the militarized dictatorship, profitable only to foreign and mercenary local business and religious interests, upheld the worst legacies of colonial education and magic-patriarchal morality: backward thugs armed, fed, and protected by the machinery of an irredeemably corrupted state were allowed to wield life-or-death mastery over the very people in whom, by virtue of their capacity to exercise discernment, creativity, and determination, the future of the nation would have resided.

11011The Quimpo children, in this respect, may be regarded as representative of the country’s best and brightest, had they emerged in another place, another time. Starting out as stereotypical overachievers, the only source of pride of their financially distressed parents, they grew up just when the storm clouds of tyranny were gathering; having moved to a cramped apartment near the presidential palace, they were initially witnesses, then active participants, in the increasingly violent protest actions then taking place in their neighborhood.

11011One of the most powerful dramatic undercurrents in the book is how the Quimpos’ parents coped with the spectacle of several of their children giving up their scholarships, then their bright futures, by moving from school dropouts to wanted figures, hunted down and tortured by the military. One of the sons recollects his reconciliation with his father at the latter’s deathbed, and his story suddenly breaks free of the storytelling mode, addressing his father in the present as if he were still alive, and as if no reader would wonder: “Talk to me. I’m your son…. Why don’t you express all your heartaches, disappointments, and frustrations?” The siblings never shake free the realization that the paths they chose were not what their parents had hoped for them. If their parents lived long enough, they would have seen that the Quimpo children had been able to attain impressive career trajectories, covering several continents and participating in impactful projects (of which the book serves as group memoir) that would have been the envy of the more privileged families with their utterly predictable and vision-impoverished choices.

11011Even the sister who had opted for life as an Opus Dei numerary found inevitable parallels between her Order and the fascist system that her siblings were struggling against. The story of the retrieval of their brother’s body is hers to tell, and one would probably wind up smiling, in the face of the long-anticipated heartbreak, at how she had managed to muster enough reserves of strength to confront and intimidate the military officers who felt like aggravating her and her grieving female companions, just for the heck of it. When, famished after the confrontation, one of them mistakenly brings one too many orders of Coke and the driver of their vehicle innocently asks whom the spare bottle is for, then they turn toward their brother’s body and cry all over again, I could not help turning as well toward the best moments in Pinoy cinema, where our film-authors are so casually able to incite these tender combinations of humor and warmth amid overwhelming sadness.

11011The book ends with a controversy that has shaken up, and continues to do so, the Philippine revolutionary movement. The Quimpos who were then still involved were major participants, and express the opinion that the leadership they challenged had taken on qualities of the dictatorship that they had fought against and (in a sense) succeeded in ousting. Like the best Filipino multicharacter texts, Manila by Night foremost among them, Subversive Lives is sprawling, occasionally meandering, sometimes indulgent, and necessarily open-ended. It is also gripping, heartfelt, insightful, and forward-looking, so much so that the aforementioned “flaws” would be a small price to pay for its still-rare literary largesse, just as the Quimpo children’s rebellion has made the country’s journey to a more meaningful present a trip for which we as their witnesses ought to be grateful.

[First published September 18, 2012, as “The Marcos Dictatorship and the Irreparable Damage to a Family and the Filipino Experience” in The FilAm]

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The Novel Pinoy Novel

Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata
By Ricky Lee
Quezon City: Philippine Writers Studio Foundation, 2011

The results of the recently concluded American presidential elections seemed guaranteed to make everyone happy—except for the Republican Party and its now less-than-majority supporters. American conservatives could have spared themselves their historic loss if they had taken the trouble to inspect the goings-on in a country their nation had once claimed for itself, the Republic of the Philippines. The admittedly oversimplified lesson that Philippine cultural experience demonstrates is: when conservative values seek to overwhelm a population too dispossessed to have anything to lose, the pushback has the potential to reach radical proportions.

11011This is my way of assuring myself that a serendipitous sample, Ricky Lee’s recent novel Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata (Amapola in 65 Chapters), could only have emerged in a culture that had undergone Old-World colonization followed by successful American experimentations with colonial and neocolonial arrangements, enhanced by the installation of a banana republic-style dictatorship followed by a middle-force uprising, leaving the country utterly vulnerable to the dictates of globalization and unable to recover except by means of exporting its own labor force—which, as it turns out, proved to be an unexpectedly successful way of restoring some developmental sanguinity, some stable growth achieved via the continual trauma of yielding its best and brightest to foreign masters.

11011Si Amapola is one of those rare works that will fulfill anyone who takes the effort to learn the language in which it is written. A serviceable translation might emerge sooner or later, but the novel’s impressive achievement in commingling a wide variety of so-called Filipino—from formal (Spanish-inflected) Tagalog to urban street slang to class-conscious (and occasionally hilariously broken) Taglish to fast-mutating gay lingo—will more than just provide a sampling of available linguistic options; it will convince the patriotically inclined that the national language in itself is at last capable of staking its claim as a major global literary medium. In practical terms, the message here is: if you know enough of the language to read casually, or enjoy reading aloud with friends or family—run out and get a copy of the book for the holidays. The novels of Lee, only two of them so far, have revived intensive, even obsessive reading in the Philippines, selling in the tens of thousands (in a country where sales of a few hundreds would mark a title as a bestseller), with people claiming to have read them several times over and classrooms and offices spontaneously breaking into unplanned discussions of his fictions; lives get transformed as people assimilate his characters’ personalities, and Lee himself stated that a few couples have claimed to him that their acquaintance started with a mutual admiration of his work.

11011This is the type of response that, in the recent past, only movies could generate—and the connection may well have been preordained, since Lee had previously made his mark on the popular imagination as the country’s premier screenwriter. The difference between the written word and the filmed script, per Lee, is in the nature of the reader’s participation: film buffs (usually as fans of specific performers) would strive to approximate the costume, performance, and delivery of their preferred characters, while readers would assimilate a novel’s characters, interpreting them in new (literally novel) ways, sometimes providing background and future developments, and even shifting from one personage to another.

11011Si Amapola affords entire worlds for its readers to inhabit, functioning as the culmination of its author’s attempts to break every perceived boundary in art (and consequently in society) in its pursuit of truth and terror, pain and pleasure. For Lee, the process began with his last few major film scripts (notably for Lino Brocka’s multi-generic Gumapang Ka sa Lusak [Dirty Affair]; 1990) and first emerged in print with his comeback novellette “Kabilang sa mga Nawawala” (Among the Missing; 1988). More than his previous novel Para Kay B (O Kung Paano Dinevastate ng Pag-ibig ang 4 Out of 5 sa Atin) (For B [Or How Love Devastated 4 Out of 5 of Us]; 2008), Si Amapola is a direct descendant of “Kabilang,” at that point the language’s definitive magic-realist narrative.

11011Despite this stylistic connection, Si Amapola is sui generis, impossible to track because of its fantastically extreme dimensions that abhor any notion of middle ground. The contradictions begin with the title character, a queer cross-dressing performer who possesses two “alters”: Isaac, a macho man (complete with an understandably infatuated girlfriend), and Zaldy, a closeted yuppie. His mother, Nanay Angie, took him home after she found him separated from his baby sister and, notwithstanding the absence of blood relations and any familial connections, raised him (and his other personalities) with more love and acceptance than most children are able to receive from their own “normal” relatives. A policeman named Emil, a fan of real-life Philippine superstar Nora Aunor, then introduces Amapola to his Lola Sepa, a woman who had fallen in love with Andres Bonifacio, the true (also real-life) but tragically betrayed hero of the 19th-century revolution against Spanish colonization. Lola Sepa moved through time, using a then-recent technology—the flush toilet—as her portal, surviving temporal and septic transitions simply because she, like her great-grandchild Amapola, happens to be a manananggal, a self-segmenting viscera-sucking mythological creature.

11011Already these details suggest issues of personal identity and revolutionary history, high drama and low humor, cinematic immediacy and philosophical discourse, and a melange of popular genres that do not even bother to acknowledge their supposed mutual incompatibilities; if you can imagine, for example, that a pair of manananggal lovers could be so abject and lustful as to engage in monstrous intercourse in mid-air, you can expect that Lee will take you there. The novel’s interlacing with contemporary Philippine politics provides a ludic challenge for those familiar with recent events; those who would rather settle for a rollicking grand time, willing to be fascinated, repulsed, amused, and emotionally walloped by an unmitigated passion for language, country, and the least and therefore the greatest among us, will be rewarded by flesh-and-blood (riven or otherwise) characters enacting a social drama too fantastic to be true, yet ultimately too true to be disavowed.

11011At the end of the wondrously self-contained narrative, you might be able to look up some related literature on the novel and read about Lee announcing a sequel. Pressed about this too-insistent meta-contradiction of how something that had already ended could manage to persist in an unendurable (because unpredictable) future time, he replied: “Amapola the character exists in two parts. Why then can’t he have two lives?” Nevertheless my advice remains, this time as a warning: get the present book and do not wait for a two-in-one consumption. The pleasure, and the pain, might prove too much to bear by then.

[First published November 9, 2012, as “High Drama and Low Humor in Ricky Lee’s New Fiction about a Cross-Dressing Mananggal” in The FilAm]

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Seeds in the Garden of Letters

The End of National Cinema: Filipino Film at the Turn of the Century
By Patrick F. Campos
(Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2016)

It would be easy to subject a text like Patrick F. Campos’s The End of National Cinema to critical reservation, given the scope of the material and the magnitude of the challenges it sets out to confront.[1] Subtitled Filipino Film at the Turn of the Century, the book is definitely the most voluminous debut publication by any Filipino film practitioner, weighing in at 665 pages (including bibliography and index) plus thirteen preliminary pages. Unlike a few initial film books, however, The End of National Cinema (hereafter ENC) is neither a dramatic work nor a celebrity appreciation; it resembles the more typical product, a compilation of film reviews and criticism—except in this case, what we get is a surprisingly small total of nine articles, ten if we include the similarly lengthy introduction. For 550 compact pages of body text, this works out to an average of fifty-five pages per article, a fact that makes possible one more distinction for the book: it actually is a personal anthology—but of monographs, rather than articles.

11011An awareness of the complete life cycle of the academic paper might help us better appreciate Campos’s project. An author would typically draft one for a class or seminar, present it at conferences (preferably published in proceedings), submit it to a journal, and offer it afterward to an anthology of similar material; once the author has made a name, she may decide to compile her articles in one volume in order to provide researchers with the equivalent convenience of a one-stop shop for her material. With ENC, Campos in effect skipped the stage of handing out his journal-published papers to appear in various volumes, thus making himself vulnerable to the question of what authority he had in assuming that he could start out in such a grand manner.

11011At this point I will have to disclose that I recognized two of the ENC articles, the first (post-intro) and the last one, as Campos’s contributions to special journal collections that I had edited. The first, “Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night as Thirdspace,” was so innovative and forward-looking that I knew it would make a near-perfect closing piece for the issue. The rest of the chapters deal with auteurs, specifically Mike de Leon in Chapter 2 and Kidlat Tahimik in Chapter 3; the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival and its attendant Film Congress in Chapter 4; filmic topographies divided between urban realism in Chapter 5 and rural landscapes in Chapter 6; cinematic imaginaries focused on folklore in Chapter 7; historical memory in Chapter 8; and ghost narratives in Chapter 9. Despite Campos’s disavowal of any linearly constructed design, one can already perceive here some gestures toward expanding the book’s coverage, from traditional local concerns (auteurs and film events) to transnational films and issues. In ENC’s introductory essay, after which the book is titled, Campos articulates his argument that national cinema is at an “end”—not so much in terms of the virtually complete phaseout of celluloid production, but rather in the sense that Philippine cinema can be better understood in relation to political and cultural developments in the larger Southeast Asian region and its interaction with Western-determined and -dominated global cinema. His final deployment of the term “end”—as a call to alertness to the purpose of discourses on national cinema—affirms his claim that ENC was not in itself meant to provide any definitive kind of closure.

11011In fact, the book best functions as a quite effective starting point for any film devotee who seeks to discover the contemporary concerns of Filipino film scholarship. I would not suggest that the casual reader run through everything in it in one go (although I had to do exactly that in order to provide a review), and Campos, not surprisingly, makes the same recommendation. Yet the act of finishing the chapters in brisk succession allowed me the advantage of drawing up a list of urgent research tasks in my mind, with the pleasure (and, to be honest, the frustration) of finding ENC carefully and methodically tackling each item on the list.

11011Not every attempt in ENC is as resounding a success as the first chapter, but the ones that work demonstrate Campos’s ability to evaluate a research challenge and formulate a compelling strategy as his response. The Mike de Leon chapter evinces his training in film and literature in his patiently close comparative readings of the director’s output, but his Kidlat Tahimik article breaks down the academically prescribed distance between author and artist, and provides exceptional readings that are enhanced by the access that the director, his family, and his hometown granted him. In conducting survey-like introductions to the other, later chapters, Campos similarly manages to highlight crucial similarities and differences in groups of films—an exercise that can sometimes be let down by any film collection that cannot make sufficiently significant contributions beyond belonging to a notable, novel, and rarely covered area (which is what happens in his discussion of rural-set digital-era titles—[Campos 366-407]).

11011At a certain point in perusing the volume, I realized I could also name-check the several active critics and scholars—including, again for proper disclosure, myself—who emerged (or, in my case, re-emerged) since the book’s coverage, the turn of the century. At the same time, I initially appreciated Campos’s desistance from critiquing his colleagues (who, after all, would also be his rivals), but I started getting the impression that his citations would eventually amount to merely a comprehensive review of related literature. At about this point, almost midway through the book, he brings up a startlingly irresponsible remark made by a major culture official, at that time the dean of his college at the national university, during a Cinemalaya Film Congress (Campos 241), to the effect that independent films should reject “Hollywood” strategies (e.g., suturing) as well as their “middle-class” audiences, and proceed to elevate the mass audience’s film preferences by resorting to alternative aesthetics, as exemplified by the alienating devices and durationally extreme output of Lav Diaz (Tolentino, “Indie Cinema Bilang Kultural na Kapital”). In dismantling the aforementioned position’s premises in the next few paragraphs, the critique Campos performs is subtle, constructive, elegant, and firmly rooted in lived experience, so much so that I found myself looking forward to (and dreading) the time when he would begin clearing more space for his own ideas by being more firmly selective about existent abstractions in and on Philippine cinema.

11011ENC is, therefore, a conceptual coup, ambitious in providing an overview of scholarly urgencies in contemporary Philippine film studies, modest and painstaking in pursuit of its objectives, ingenious in re-imagining problems that do not seem to promise much in the way of providing conclusive answers, so that these become worthy of careful consideration. At one point, Campos juxtaposes two historians and uncovers an exceptional instance where Renato Constantino, the more avowedly Marxist author, falls short compared to Zeus Salazar, in terms of their discourses on popular Philippine culture (Campos 420-21). In two other separate instances, he astutely points out how two filmmakers usually touted as Lino Brocka’s heirs—Kidlat Tahimik (for his international recognition) and Jeffrey Jeturian (for his movies on the urban underclass)—are actually closer in spirit, by virtue of their use of humor and intellectual distance, to Ishmael Bernal (Campos 155, 290). In fact, given ENC’s consistently clear-eyed and occasionally brilliant insights, lay readers may find it difficult, if not impossible, to perceive whatever errors or inconsistencies the book may have.[2] After finishing the volume, one could reconsider the author’s introduction—disparaged by an early reviewer (Mai 306) as leading to material that Campos addresses only toward the end—and realize that it in effect constitutes a study plan that extends beyond the coverage of the text. ENC thereby functions as Campos’s scholarly mission statement as well as his proof of qualifications. Each of the chapters could serve as a blueprint for a sustained thesis-length effort, and if all other scholars of Philippine cinema suddenly and simultaneously turn inactive right now for whatever reason, film studies in the country will still be able to proceed on the strength of Campos’s forthcoming contributions.

11011I would prefer, however, to suggest one further direction, one that we can glean from Campos’s timely correction of his senior’s conflicted bias (mentioned earlier) regarding art and populism. In ENC, the closest that Campos comes to any recent mainstream output is in the chapter wherein he inspected the folkloric roots of the Enteng Kabisote series. I regard this to be as noteworthy by academic standards as the rest of the book. But while thereby insightful, the argument that the films hinged on the ethnoepic tradition (specifically the Sulod Labaw Donggon saga) would have minimal bearing on the movies’ stature as Christmas-festival audience-pleasers, from the perspective of its makers and consumers. It were as if Campos still needed to step away from film-specific approaches like generic pleasure, narrative design, and multimedia star construction even when these quotidian concerns already inhered in the texts’ blockbuster status and demanded to be taken almost exclusively in those terms. An even more extensive area of practice—what could arguably be the “real” Philippine cinema in terms of audience attendance and box-office results—would be the romantic comedies that have become the closest to a surefire guarantee of return on investment in local film production since the turn of the century. Campos’s determination to pursue national cinema to its ends, beyond the limits of medium, technology, geography, and period, would provide him with the kind of handle that he wielded when he started the book by discussing Manila by Night, a movie packaged as a mainstream commercial release during its time. To extrapolate from ENC, the movement he seems to be making—from periphery to exterior—would yield greater benefits if the center became his ultimate long-term target.

[First published July-December 2017, in Humanities Diliman: A Philippine Journal of Humanities]

Notes

[1] From my Facebook announcement of October 26, 2017: “Essential personal disclosures, aside from the ones in the review: Campos and I were technically non-colleagues at the University of the Philippines Film Institute, since he joined the faculty after I left. Also, as editor of Humanities Diliman, his only participation in this article was in acceding to my suggestion that I review his book; all the editing, proofreading, and peer-reviewing coordination tasks were conducted entirely by HD staff members. In fact I was the one who caught a minor inaccuracy in my first draft – when as book author, he could have been the one to point it out to me. (Which means, whether he read the submission or not, he maintained a hands-off approach.)”

[2] Since the chapters were intended to be capable of existing independent of one another, a question such as the zero-point of digital cinema yields varying responses. Campos first mentions Jon Red’s Still Lives (1999), then Mike de Leon’s Bilanggo sa Dilim (1986), then Cris Pablo’s Duda (2003) in different chapters (1, 98, and 236 respectively); all three are of course valid entries depending on how “first” is defined. Only one name, Ditto Sarmiento (actually Abraham Jr., hence the term “ditto”), is written as “Lito” (99), and only one picture, from Raymond Red’s 1984 short “Hikab,” is mistakenly presented as a still from Red’s 1983 debut “Ang Magpakailanman” (230). The text also uses “self-reflexive” apparently to mean “reflexive,” from a popular semantic slippage (reflexive meaning self-reflective). On the other hand, on the basis of a single run-through, there is a total of zero errors in the use of cultural and film-technological terms, including that of “reification,” a word occasionally misapplied by a prominent authority in the field.

Works Cited

Campos, Patrick F. The End of National Cinema: Filipino Film at the Turn of the Century. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2016.

Constantino, Renato. Synthetic Culture and Development. Quezon City: Foundation for Nationalist Studies, 1985.

Mai, Nadin. “The End of National Cinema in the Philippines?” Kritika Kultura 28 (February 2017): 305-09.

Salazar, Zeus. “Ang Kulturang Pilipino sa Harap ng mga Institusyong Panlipunan sa Pelikulang Bakbakan [Philippine Culture in the Context of Social Institutions in the Action Movie].” Unang Pagtingin sa Pelikulang Bakbakan: Tatlong Sanaysay nina Zeus Salazar, Prospero Covar, Agustin Sotto [First Glimpse of the Action Movie: Three Essays by Zeus Salazar, Prospero Covar, Agustin Sotto]. Manila: Museo ng Kalinangang Pilipino, 1989.

Tolentino, Rolando B. “Indie Cinema Bilang Kultural na Kapital [Indie Cinema as Cultural Capital].” Rolando Tolentino WordPress site (August 11, 2008).

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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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