“CATEGORY E” SAMPLES
Although a stand-alone post, this section should be read in conjunction with the original article, “From Cloud to Resistance.” Click here for Part 1 (“The Problem of Our Critical Approaches”) and here for Part 2 (“Toward a More Responsive Critical Practice”).
In the same way that I listed titles that came closest to fulfilling the highest ideal prescribed by “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism,” I had a separate listing of films that were arguably seen as “firmly within the ideology and to be completely under its sway, but which [turned] out to be so only in an ambiguous manner.” Not only was this group unwieldy by necessity, I also found it inadvisable to insist on elaborating on the editorial’s fifth category once I had pointed out its importance, rather than wander down the admittedly meandering and subjectively determined pathway that this appendix section explores.
Most of the titles in the list I mentioned were drawn from the counter-canon book project I started working on over ten years ago with a now-defunct entertainment publication. The volume is still undergoing finalization and ought to come out in a few months. The process involved the selection of films by an inhouse team of media practitioners, who voted on the titles they deemed worthy of inclusion, rewatching borderline choices as many times as necessary until they could arrive at a consensus. The coverage would be comprehensive, starting with the earliest available samples all the way to a recent end date. The target number was one hundred titles, but this was of course impossible to maintain; the final tally is closer to 120. My role as project consultant was to prepare the team for specialized instances of historical, high-art, or low-genre screenings, and write citations for the films that the team approved for inclusion.
The fact that several films lionized during their time could not sustain their reputation, while a larger number of overlooked works unexpectedly held up better at present, should not surprise anyone familiar with the complex and contentious canonization processeses that experts encounter in art and literature. Nevertheless, the historical implications of the team’s left-field choices impressed me enough to sound a call for political-economy studies of Philippine film production houses and policy institutions at the close of “From Cloud to Resistance.” Also, although certain already-canonized works were accommodated in the list, many of these turned out more definitely reactionary, borderline or outright fascistic even, particularly in terms of their downgrading or exclusion of Othernesses: Lamberto V. Avellana’s Anak Dalita (1956) and Manuel Silos’s Biyaya ng Lupa (1959) from the First Golden Age, and several of the Filipino Film Critics Circle’s choices through the years.
It would prove more rewarding, for example, to jettison the FFCC’s very first best-film winner, Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? (1976), in favor of the same director’s The Passionate Strangers (1966), a film noir that tracks the investigation of the murder of a labor leader and uncovers neocolonial intervention and interracial liaisons in the process. The martial law-era sex films, denounced during their time for allegedly helping the regime distract the mass audience’s attention from the then-percolating anti-dictatorship movement, deserve credit for highlighting the poverty and decadence that induces the least-privileged to seek solace or resistance in carnal gratification: Peque Gallaga’s Scorpio Nights (1985) deservingly recovered lost ground, but Elwood Perez’s Silip (1985) proved to be metatextually indispensable in functioning as a witty and transgressive answer film to the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines’s most celebrated production, Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (1982), while Mel Chionglo’s lesser-known Sinner or Saint (1984) deployed naturalism to track the journey of a defiantly wayward housewife and succeeded in implicating the moralistic society that insists on judging her at every turn. An effective summation of these films’ common theme of courtly love games turning deadly when played by the underprivileged, is proffered by William Pascual’s Takaw Tukso (1986), made ostensibly for the Marcos era’s censorship-exempted Manila Film Center but released after the collapse of the regime.
The Pinoy sex film was an outgrowth of melodrama, much-maligned historically for its appeal to female viewers (which helps explain the grudging respect accorded sex cinema, for its orientation toward male viewers). Yet certain offbeat samples demonstrate more deconstructive intelligence in this area of practice than in, say, action or art films that tend to be dominated by males on either side of the profit-vs.-prestige divide. Armando Garces’s Sino ang Maysala? (1957), from the First Golden Age, foregrounded its production history by naming the characters after the actors who portrayed them – even calling Paraluman “Carmen” because the role was originally intended for Carmen Rosales – and thereby enabled a reel-to-real correlation when “Bobby” Vasquez was actually arrested for unruly behavior. Leroy Salvador’s Badlis sa Kinabuhi (1969) made use of a dramatic race-against-time recovered testimony of a traumatized underage witness in order to facilitate the acquittal of a woman accused of killing her abusive stepfather.
Surprisingly, and unexpectedly, the filmic repudiation of the patriarchal excess fostered by Marcos’s declaration of martial law occurred in two bodies – one an individual’s and another an institution’s, both closely associated with the regime. The individual was Nora Aunor, whose full-scale attempt at critiquing her “superstar” status inhered in her post-Marcos auteurist project, Greatest Performance, which she attempted to rub out before she could finish it; the institution was Viva Films, sequestered (though subsequently cleared) by the Presidential Commission on Good Government after the fall of the Marcoses, which spearheaded a series of glossy strong-women projects and conditioned the fan base of the country’s final movie star, Sharon Cuneta, to welcome her transition from teenybopper to independent woman.
The Viva Films output, like that of Aunor, tended to be downgraded by the FFCC because of its association with the regime, among other reasons. This persisted even with Lino Brocka’s post-Marcos (and post-Cannes) switch to developing projects for the outfit, including a number of Cuneta films, as well as his merger of politics and commercial appeal in Gumapang Ka sa Lusak (1990), whose success on both fronts caught him by surprise and led to his attempts to commission a series of similar projects – all cut short by his sudden demise. The first major local artist to accept a Viva-melodrama assignment was Laurice Guillen, whose Kung Mahawi Man ang Ulap (1984) not only affirmed the rich potential available in still-scorned komiks-sourced material but also signalled the audience’s readiness to accept the narrative of a woman directly confronting a patriarchally dominated system, and winning.
The Viva contribution persisted beyond the Marcos era and even introduced postfeminist notions: in Eddie Garcia’s Saan Nagtatago ang Pag-ibig? (1987), women realize a solidarity among themselves by rejecting familial arrangements, while in Chito Roño’s Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali? (1990), a network of women succeeds in excluding the interests of men by openly misbehaving against (though eventually reconciling with) one another. In fact, Elwood Perez’s Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit (1989), an Aunor-starrer regarded as the ultimate Filipino melodrama, can be considered an acknowledgment of the triumph of what became known then as the Viva Films house look, a successful branding strategy that relied on surface gloss and visual excess that, to be sure, was used in a number of insidious ways as well.
A extraordinary achievement in Philippine melodrama, Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s independently produced Milagros (1997), made use of elements of sex-film intrigues in order to disclose the strength and nobility behind a “ridiculous” woman’s willingness to repay her just-deceased impoverished father’s debt by servicing an all-male household while aspiring to consummate a pilgrimage to a mystical destination; more than Ishmael Bernal’s Nunal sa Tubig (1976), Milagros may be espoused as the Philippines’s supreme “category e” sample, operating on several prodigious levels of authorial, generic, narratological, and cinematic aporias. From an institutional perspective, the now-historical millennial success of romantic comedies enjoyed primarily by Star Cinema (including two exemplary mature-woman texts featuring Sharon Cuneta, Olivia M. Lamasan’s Minsan Minahal Kita from 2000 and Jose Javier Reyes’s Kung Ako Na Lang Sana from 2003) can also be traced to the production traditions set by Viva Films. In fact the genre-transformative samples of the primary rom-com practitioner of the present, Irene Villamor’s Meet Me in St. Gallen (2018) and On Vodka, Beers, and Regrets (2020), were both Viva-produced.
The institution has dominated the Philippines’s streaming subscription services via its Vivamax arm, and has inevitably participated in the politicization of film-prod discourse mentioned in the opening of “From Cloud to Resistance.” Of the contending filmmakers, right-wing apologist Darryl Yap has in fact provided an indispensable entry, Sarap Mong Patayin (2021), which must be ascribed for now to an idiot-savantish fluke, whereas Vince Tañada’s artistic promise lies in his future attempts. Other directors with avowedly political intentions worth noting would be Joselito Altarejos (with an ongoing trilogy that expresses leftist commitment in terms of queer sexual preferences) and Joel Lamangan, who has been able to recently fulfill an early commitment to infuse entertainment with social discourse. A definite “category e” tinkerer who started out by specializing in Ishmael Bernal’s multicharacter innovations is one more Vivamax talent, Lawrence Fajardo, while long-term practitioner Jun Lana, with his recent non-Viva product Big Night (2021), has proved himself ready to confront the tricky challenge of upending conventional-seeming material with creative handling.
A Note on Sources
The right-wing content of specific titles in the First Golden Age canon was an occasional topic of discussions that I had with filmmaker Lawrence Fajardo. The early left-field properties of specific Viva Films productions as well as the generic achievement of Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit were subjects of exchanges I had with Patrick Flores during the early 1990s. Most of my insights on Milagros derived neither from the recognition provided by the FFCC nor the few reviews by its members, but from discussions with Bliss Cua Lim and the late Agustin Sotto, right after the entry was screened in a Filipino film retrospective at the Lincoln Center in New York City. The text that alerted me to the eccentric merits of Sarap Mong Patayin, along with a few other recent titles, was the indispensable 2021 monograph by Epoy Deyto, titled Post-Dilawan Cinema and the Pandemic (downloadable for free at his Missing Codec blog). Jerrick Josue David cited Big Night as his preferred title for its year of release. During the historical moment when watching films has attained a level of unnecessary difficulty, the recommendation of friends has become the primary means for me to seek out which titles to track down.