Author Archives: Joel David

About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.]

Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic

Please click on image for enlargement.


From the INTRODUCTION (pp. 17-24):

As soon as I started the professional life that I had yet to fully chart, Manila by Night was ready to mark my steps. I had just completed the first of two bachelors degrees  at the University of the Philippines (declared the national university in 2008), but my preparation for a career in journalism did not work out as I (and my circles of friends) thought it would. The anti-dictatorship movement I had participated in prescribed a brand of Marxism that I later learned went by a few names, with “orthodox” being the less-offensive term. I decided to distance myself from the political and economic analyses on which I’d built my name as a campus journalist, and focused on cultural reporting. My internships also alerted me to the existence of values that I knew I could never take seriously – the cultivation of sources (the more exclusive or exceptional, the better), for example, and the drive to out-scoop everyone else. I decided to give freelancing a shot, and when I couldn’t shape a sufficiently interesting story out of a cultural (usually film) event, I’d turn in a review instead.

By late 1979, I’d made enough of a buzz to be invited to the award-giving film critics circle. I also heard of a movie about Manila nightlife – which I’d been discovering on my own as a restless, hyperactive insomniac. When I was invited to a preview of Manila by Night, I was stunned to discover a lot of the personalities, locales, and lingo that I’d familiarized myself with since college. It was like I didn’t have to wait until nightfall any longer: I could just step into the screen, and that would be the city I had come to know. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it was electric, erotic, vulgar, violent, dangerous, and loving, all in ways that the US-supported and Catholic Church-sanctioned dictatorship of Ferdinand E. Marcos would find embarrassing, if not outright immoral. It was too good to be untrue, so to speak, so I resolved to watch it as often as I could in case the regime decided to destroy all existing copies and consign the film to oblivion.

Which nearly came to pass. Before I could arrange to watch another preview, news came out that the movie had been banned by the then-militarized Board of Censors for Motion Pictures, a body that had tussled with Manila by Night director-writer Ishmael Bernal a few times already for too-earthy sex scenes in his previous films. “No worries,” said those in charge of the film, since the movie would be making its debut in an international venue anyway, having just been personally selected by Moritz de Hadeln to compete at the Berlin International Film Festival. Bernal, whom I’d met as a critics circle member, provided me with cassette tapes on which a playback of the audio track was recorded, with instructions to transcribe the dialog and provide a literal translation to be used as a guide by the German subtitler. The tapes were low-end, obviously second-hand, and I had to return them right after using them; if I’d known they would be the source of the only available “integral” version of the film, I would have asked for a better recording. A “where-are-they-now” epilogue was also hastily assembled by the producers for the Berlinale screening, to mollify the censors by making the claim that the intransigent characters were punished while the rest became upright citizens worthy of Ferdinand Marcos’s “New Society.”

After I turned in my work, a grapevine report circulated in film circles, about Imelda Marcos, with her typical flair for the dramatic, watching the movie and breaking down afterward. Everyone’s worst fear was confirmed: the movie would remain in limbo until the First Lady could be persuaded otherwise. I requested the copy of the transcription I made from Bernal so it could be printed, “uncensored,” in the March 1981 issue of The Review, a now-defunct monthly periodical in which I wrote and occasionally edited special issues. In November 1980, a few months before the script came out, the movie itself was approved for local release, with a four-page censors’ permit – the longest that had ever accompanied a Philippine screening. Since all mention of “Manila” (dubbed “City of Man” by the increasingly unstable Imelda) was disallowed, the movie’s title was changed to City after Dark.

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The deliberation session for the critics’ annual awards was understandably turbulent. Along with a few other members, I insisted that any recognition given to City after Dark would be tantamount to validating what the censors had done. This resulted in a surprising inconsistency in the awards results, including a win for Best Picture but a loss for Best Director (one senior member mentioned that Bernal deserved to be “taught a lesson” regarding the lack of surface polish in his work). The logic was certainly bizarre – if the mangled version of the film deserved to win, then its strength derived primarily from its directorial virtues. From this point onward I began to question the Hollywoodian logic behind the critics’ awards activities, and have since sworn to premise my critical output on the assumption that, among other things, their earlier methods of multiple screenings and intensive deliberations may be useful, but their divisive, formalist, and canonical social-realist approach to award-giving deserved nothing but condemnation, if not contempt.

Meanwhile, the publicity team behind Manila by Night continued to conduct previews of the uncensored version – and I continued to attend as many of them as I could. I’d seen Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), Bernal’s takeoff text, during its week-long run in Manila, and began paying close attention to attempts by other filmmakers, as well as by Bernal himself, to replicate this specific approach to the multiple-character film narrative. Despite the trauma experienced by Manila by Night, the multicharacter film format succeeded so well that it became a recognizable and distinct genre in Philippine film practice, with filmmakers (and a few critics) describing its samples as “milieu movies” and producers as well as talent managers introducing new faces in batches meant to appear as equal lead performers in as many film projects as they could sustain.

A few years later, the anti-dictatorship movement began to pose a serious challenge to Ferdinand Marcos’s presidency. I was working at the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP), the government film agency, and was surprised by the ease by which I was able to circulate a request to screen Manila by Night (not City after Dark) and process the paperwork for its release. The agency also assigned me to complete the then newly introduced undergraduate film program at the national university. Even before the people-power uprising of February 1986, the ECP was dissolved, but my new degree enabled me to start teaching as an instructor, and eventually helped me wangle a Fulbright grant for graduate studies in the US. My doctoral dissertation dealt, predictably enough, with the multicharacter film format.

During my last trip to Manila, I had an informal discussion with Bernal (a mini-interview of sorts), and managed to extract from him a promise to sit for an interview for my dissertation on multicharacter cinema. I told him I’d be drafting a set of questions and would send them to him before my next trip home. While I was away, he passed away from cerebral aneurysm, joining the legendary realm where Manila by Night continues to flourish. I decided to forgo all trips outside the US until I had completed my dissertation. My residency deadline was looming, and I was hastily drafting my manuscript on September 11, 2001, when my parents called to ask if everything was all right. The first tower crashed right after I turned on the television, and from that point on I knew that returning to the Philippines might not be the best option, but it was the only definite line of action that would be open to me in the near future. Bernal had been gone for over half a decade, and Philippine cinema was about to abandon celluloid production and embrace the digital era for good.

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From ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. 9-10):

Profuse thanks to Patricio N. Abinales, Thelma E. Arambulo, Tina Baluyut, Joey Baquiran, Vicky Belarmino, Bernardo Bernardo, Pete Bilderback, Karen Blackstein, Marivic Buquis-Tjardes, Flor Caagusan, Patrick F. Campos, Veronica Caparas, Robert Cerda, Mel Chionglo, Leloy Claudio, Sylvia Estrada Claudio, Divine Go David, Gigi Felix-Velarde David, Jek Josue David, Nestor de Guzman, Nicolo del Castillo, Archie del Mundo, Lizbeth de Padua, Jojo Devera, Cynthia Estrada, Patrick D. Flores, Peque Gallaga, Alfredo Garcia, Melanie Joy C. Garduño, Paul Grant, Ju-Yong Ha, Maurine Haver, J. Pilapil Jacobo, Marne Kilates, Ricardo Lee, Bliss Cua Lim, Sergio Lobo, Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon, Juan Miguel Manansala, Gina Marchetti, Ibarra Mateo, Joe McElhaney, Toby Miller, Carla Montemayor, Roselle Monteverde, Jude Ortega, Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, Ellen J. Paglinauan, Vanessa Pallarco, Haesuk Park, Inkyu Park, Shin-gu Park, Sybil Jade Peña, Elwood Perez, Theo Tisado Pie, Benjamin Pimentel, Ethel Pineda, Jane Po, Rowena Raganit, Winston Raval, Lore Reyes, Ramon Reyes, Roselle Leah K. Rivera, Ninotchka Rosca, Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III, Angela Stuart Santiago, Aida Santos, Bayani Santos Jr., Teresita Santos, Ophelia Miller Segovia, Vincenz Serrano, Minsun Shim, Irene Balucos Sia, Boemshik Son, Robert Sklar, Francis Sollano, Robert Stam, Lauren Steimer, Chris Straayer, Lulu Torres-Reyes, Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., Violeda A. Umali, Charmian Uy, JC Velasquez, Taeyun Yu, Jovy Zarate, and Zhang Zhen.

I’ve been fortunate to work with some outstanding editors in the past, but with Matthew Hays and Thomas Waugh, I saw my early manuscript shape-shift in ways I couldn’t always anticipate, with the revised version always a new text whose acquaintance I was happy to make. They’ve been at this task for nearly a decade, without any remuneration, so while I imagine that the impending end of the Queer Film Classics series may be a relief of sorts, it would also open up a gap that other people ought to consider filling. Publishers Brian Lam and Robert Ballantyne, editors Susan Safyan and Tara Nykyforiak, and designer Oliver McPartlin are also part of the series, and while I interact mainly with professors Waugh and Hays, I occasionally correspond with the other participants in the project; as the book begins to take final shape, I can only be grateful that their commitment is just as complete and indispensable. (Portions of this manuscript have appeared in my articles in Kritika Kultura and Plaridel.)

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Contents of the Queer Film Classics Edition
© 2017 by Joel David & Arsenal Pulp Press; All Rights Reserved

PRELIMINARIES

Title Page; Copyright; Table of Contents; Dedication: For Ishmael Bernal (1938-96); Acknowledgments; Synopsis; Credits; Introduction (1-24)

BODY TEXT

Chapter I. Manila by Day: Fifty Years of Hollywood (25-69)

Movies and the Philippines
Master’s Tool
Language without Words
“Ishma” and Manila by Night
The Origin of Manila by Night
Controversies
The Berlinale Connection
The Other Manila Movie

Sidebar: A Pinoy Queer-Cinema Mini-Canon (70-75)

Chapter II. Manila by Night: City of Mania (76-115)

Many-Peopled Narratives
The Philippine Moviegoer
A Perverse Approach
Technique as Politics
Voyeuristic Restlessness
The Queering of Technique
The Mirror Effect
Sound Logic
Wow and Flutter

Sidebar: A Multicharacter-Movie Supplementary List (116-119)

Chapter III. Beyond Manila: Cinema & Nation in Crisis (121-158)

Locale as an Entity
Babies and Beauties
Triangulations
The Multicharacter Movie Genre
Road Not Taken
Milieu Realism
A “Straight” Way Forward
Gender Types
The Other(ed) Queer Character
Radical Potential

END MATTER

Conclusion; Appendix: Manay Revisits Manila by Night: An Interview with Bernardo Bernardo; References; Filmography & Theater Productions; Index; About the Author; About the Editors; Titles in the Queer Film Classics Series (159-208)

Links

• A special folio on the film now opens this blog’s Extras section.
• To purchase a copy of the book (at Amazon), please click here.
• To read the book lecture “Queerness as Defiance in Manila by Night,” please click here.
• For a detailed storyline originally drafted for this book, please click here.

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Book Launch Lecture: Millennial Traversals

Millennial Traversals had a long and involved narrative behind its emergence. Invited to lecture during the website launch of the University of Santo Tomas’s UNITAS journal, I took the opportunity to discuss what turned out to be two volumes’ worth of special UNITAS journal issues. This occurred less than a week after I delivered a lecture on another recent book of mine, Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic. (To enlarge the pics at the bottom, please click on them. To go to the Millennial Traversals book feature on this blog, please click here.)

THE MILLENNIAL TRAVERSALS OF MILLENNIAL TRAVERSALS

Thank you for attending this occasion and allowing me the honor to speak in commemoration of the launch of the UNITAS website. My own contribution comprises two volumes of Millennial Traversals, which I had originally uploaded as an open-access book on my own website. I’d had occasion to go over this book several times – from conceptualizing it to finalizing it for its digital version to correcting, revising, and updating it further for what would now be its so-far final version.

Some of you might be able to read the finer (or shall we say bloodier) details of how Millennial Traversals took shape in its present form on the UNITAS website, so I might as well own up to certain motivations that I had to be careful in expressing on the page. Since the originally intended volume was non-print, I wanted to take advantage of certain freedoms unavailable to me during the times I was preparing my earlier book manuscripts for what we now call dead-tree publications. That explains the extra-long complete title, which goes Millennial Traversals [colon] Outliers [comma] Juvenilia [comma, ampersand] Quondam Popcult Blabbery – all this even before we get to the title of each part. For the same reason, I put together a digital manuscript that was a few times longer than any book I had previously published, whether as author or as editor.

What I did not anticipate, of course, was the fact that UNITAS was now being handled by a long-term acquaintance of mine. Professor Lulu Torres-Reyes and I had been coordinating since the start of the current decade, on articles, lectures, and special issues for Kritika Kultura, the journal she founded and edited at the Ateneo de Manila University. But we had actually started out as casual acquaintances for almost four decades, when we would join informal film screenings and discussions organized by mutual friends of ours. So it was no surprise to me that she had proved receptive to film-studies materials, and that when she tried her own hand at film scholarship, she met with resounding success here and in Korea, the country where I work.

When the process of transforming Millennial Traversals into the edition that can now be found on the UNITAS website was completed, I stepped back and considered what significance the project might have had, if any. I was of course thrilled that I could claim to have a book that first took shape as an open-access digital text, and wound up in a printable version afterward. All my previous books took the opposite course – from print editions in their original incarnations, to online versions on my website. I don’t know of any instance of a Philippine text that observed the format shift that Millennial Traversals underwent, although the possibility might exist somewhere. At this point, all I care to announce is that it happens to be the first local film publication that first came out in digital format. It would also be the first that passed through a print format, and wind up in still another digital format, in another website.

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What proved uncanny for me was when I finally stared at the book covers, I flashed back to the first few journal issues I ever bought, as a high-school student at the University of the Philippines. I realized later that these must have been dissertations that were deemed outstanding at the time, but each one provided me with the double satisfaction of collecting a book as well as a journal copy in one volume. Millennial Traversals is of course an anthology of my output, in keeping with the nature of all my previous sole-authored publications. It marks my farewell to this arrangement, and has been followed by the manuscripts for a film monograph on Manila by Night (recently published by Arsenal Pulp Press in Canada) and for a canonical listing of Philippine film entries for the publisher of YES! magazine, Summit Media.

Hence Millennial Traversals is and isn’t a book volume publishable as a journal issue. It is physically a UNITAS publication, in two separate issues in fact. But in its original incarnation, it was intended as a blog feature, then-unique in the Philippines, with several ambitious and probably ultimately imperfectible goals:

• first, it sought to compile my responses to Filipino films from the late 1970s to the present: of over 30 titles covered, about ten are hard to track or possibly permanently lost;

• second, it also aimed to demonstrate certain ethical functions that were part of my self-valuation as a film critic, including my insistence on financial independence from investors, the attendance of theatrical screenings with a paying audience, the re-watching of titles I planned to review in order to take down detailed notes on the text and its spectators, and the cultivation of an audience perspective that requires the readers’ participation by watching any film being commented on, regardless of my subjective response;

• third, it refused the then-fashionable practice of standing apart from practitioners in the industry, because of the so-called intentional fallacy – when in fact the author should be a primary source of the work’s always-complicated journey from conception to exhibition; and

• fourth, it gestured toward basic critical attempts concerning certain cherished beliefs among film critics, starting with certain notions that implicated myself and resulting in a few awkward examples of self-deconstruction.

The urgency of foregrounding these values was conveyed to me by friends who were closely observing the then-burgeoning film-blogging scene, complicated by the top academic and critics’ official’s statement that film bloggers deserved to be dismissed if they could not present any degree that would qualify them as film commenters. Considering that baccalaureate-level film education was either too exclusivist (available at the national university) or too expensive (in private universities), the remark was unfair and ironically elitist, given the author’s leftist bona fides.

A few critic and filmmaker friends attempted to convince me to intervene directly, by pointing out the problem in such an assumption, among other horrendous conclusions made by the same official. I opted to time my confrontations carefully, in the form of a book review and a rare exclusive blog statement. But the option of leading by example was always best practice for me, so I set about looking over the never-before-anthologized materials I could compile. I did not expect that the entire undertaking would be treated as a book, but a few netizens informed me that they were printing out the pages I had put together and binding them as voluminous textual collectanea.

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I made sure to warn people on social media that Millennial Traversals existed first and foremost as an open-access internet upload. I preferred that people would explore various categories according to whatever piqued their interest, maybe moving forward or back if any of the contiguous articles seemed worth inspecting further, or returning to the table of contents via a readily available hyperlink in case they wanted to check out another section or approach or issue. Within certain articles I also provided links to other articles, in the same book or in my other volumes, or sometimes to other websites.

I knew that this qualified notion of interactivity could be replicated in a printout of the text, but with much more difficulty. Yet I was also aware that the strictly open-access arrangement was an unstable format. Every semester I would receive a query or two from new social network acquaintances asking whether the digital editions of my books would be downloadable. My answer for nearly the past half-decade has always been the same: eventually. The transformation of digital text files into downloadable material is complicated by the fact that e-books exist in various formats. I would need to set up my own business firm in order to transact businesses with a cover designer and layout artist as well as apply for International Standard Book Numbers, one for each freaking format including the open-access version.

Needless to say, I don’t have the full luxury of attending to these concerns as speedily as I’d prefer. This accounts for my relief in UNITAS enabling Millennial Traversals to reside on its website. The original digital edition is gone for good, except for the few enthusiasts who printed it out. About 20 to 30 percent of the content was revised, since certain indeterminate or open-ended articles could last longer on the internet, given the medium’s wonderful capacity for self-correction or self-updating – a property that academics of my generation are just starting to realize and exploit. On the other hand, a book, even in journal’s clothing, is meant to be forever. As those of us who’ve been publishing might already know, perfection only appears to be an ideal, but it turns out to be too utopic to reach, the more ambitious the writing project becomes.

I’d also proffer here the wisdom I picked out from all the senior authors who’d anthologized their own articles before I started with my first volume in 1990, and which might prove useful to those considering the same kind of project. The principle of perfection-as-mirage applies: it would be impossible to identify your best entries and expect the rest to aspire to the same level of achievement. It would also be highly inadvisable to rank your articles according to your or others’ perception from best to worst or vice versa, and follow that order in anthologizing. The other obvious sequence, the time-determined one of following the articles’ chronology or reverse-chronology, similarly poses the question of the author’s rising or falling level of competence.

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Yet, from my earliest attempt onward, I found that following these problematic procedures worked best in helping me arrive at a useful structure. Counter-intuititively, I also felt more confident whenever I had more material than I could use, rather than picking out only the ones that fit a preconceived theme or thesis. This is because when you start reading more closely in order to fix typos and observe the publisher’s style requirements, you may realize that a section may require the equivalent of breathing space, or that an intensively discursive exercise could do with a stylistic coda – a function best fulfilled by a relatively throwaway article or two.

I apologize to colleagues of mine for whom these so-called lessons might already be old news. I found myself wandering down this introspective path regarding Millennial Traversals, by way of letting everyone know that I’m aware of the manifold difficulties a journal staff undergoes, on a seemingly endless basis. As soon as one issue, essentially an anthology, is completed, the next one has to be set in motion, preferably overlapping with the previous one. I once went through this kind of grind during my undergraduate and early-graduate years, and it brought out a side of me that I prefer to forget. I cannot even imagine having to contend with the additional challenge of preparing multiple volumes for uploading online.

The only source of comfort for me is that Professor Torres-Reyes could not have been any more qualified for this kind of challenge than she is at this moment. When you see her supervising the day-to-day requisites of the job with her usual humor and light touch, you can take my word that her approach comes from a long-drawn-out and contentious experience in her previous station at Kritika Kultura. Thanks to everyone for your attention, and more particularly to Lulu, the UNITAS staff, and the University of Santo Tomas.

Announcement of the event, along with a photo of the turnover of complimentary copies (pic courtesy of Cory Quitoriano); as well as a commemorative pose with UNITAS editor Lulu Torres-Reyes, filmmaker Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, and contributor and educator Bayani Santos Jr. (pic courtesy of E. Ongkeko-Marfil).

(Delivered on August 16, 2018, at the UNITAS Seminar Room, St. Raymund de Peñafort Building, University of Santo Tomas, España Boulevard, Sampaloc, Manila)

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Signal Rock and a Hard Place

Directed by Chito Roño
Written by Rody Vera

Signal Rock is a deceptively simple film whose complications begin with its current emergence in the public consciousness. It is released as an entry to the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, so to single it out as the excellent entry that it is should not be taken as a downgrading of the other entries. To make it worse, the PPP follows yet another event, the older Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, so audiences who already splurged in watching this year’s entries might be understandably reluctant to spend further on the current (and pricier) lineup. PPP also features previously unreleased films from earlier festivals – this time a more definite guarantee of jury approval, notwithstanding the Cinema Evaluation Board’s weirdly moralistic downgrading of a couple of aspirants.

In fact, some of the PPP entries are also regional films like Signal Rock – Tara Illenberger’s Iloilo-set High Tide and Arnel Barbarona’s Manobo tale Tu Pug Imatuy come to mind, as well as the only one I’ve seen of the lot, Khavn’s CEB-victimized Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, which like Signal Rock is also set in Samar. A comparison of Balangiga and Signal Rock would be a useful place to start then. Where Balangiga’s narrative enlarges on the incomprehensible historical trauma of genocidally motivated colonial warfare, Signal Rock demonstrates the impact that globalization has made on even a far-flung Third-World island.

The movie is the director’s and writer’s second project set in Biri island, part of a municipality in Northern Samar – which makes it one of the Visayan islands closest to Luzon. Their earlier Biri film, Badil (2013), featured a young man attending to his father’s unsavory (and ultimately bloody) vote-buying activities during an election period where the still-running mayor asks for support from his cohorts. Intoy, the Biri lad at the center of Signal Rock, is more recognizably provincial, by our usual cynical-urbane standards: laid-back, easy-going, content with helping everyone and indulging in occasional youthful hijinks (with an equally indulgent police chief making sure that he and his homies get their token share of punishment).

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His initiation into worldliness, in more ways than one, occurs when he falls in love with a local lass, whose father regards him as unworthy for a prospective in-law. Intoy’s naïveté catches himself off-guard: he could have known the kind of future he’d be facing if he reflected on the troubles that his sister has been struggling with as the mistress of an abusive foreigner, forced to seek refuge in a foreign land; the lesson becomes even more pronounced in the dilemma of his best friend, whose childhood sweetheart returns as the now-prosperous wife of an elderly Caucasian – upon which his still-besotted friend is reduced to being his ex-girlfriend’s paramour. Intoy’s epiphany, that the women of the town are being groomed to work for (and eventually be claimed by) overseas masters, is something that most Filipino intellectuals have known for some time. Signal Rock’s first singular achievement is in restoring the sting to this revelation, by allowing the kind of Filipino we used to know to be overcome by it.

That insight alone would have been enough to add depth to any number of romantic comedies (and you might find it unusual for me to claim here that Signal Rock is, literally, a romantic comedy – more conventional in fact that the contemporary mainstream versions whose terms were set four years ago by That Thing Called Tadhana, Antoinette Jadaone’s indie-crossover hit). But the director-writer team have a better treat in store: where the usual melodrama, even the long-drawn-out telenovelas, would bypass a bureaucratic process and get by with merely mentioning it, the movie delineates the process itself and draws dramatic tension out of it, as well as some light comedy, essential suspense, and insightful glimpses into small-town relationships. Here the filmmakers manage to traverse the tricky depiction of desperation and corruption among the destitute without falling into the trap of poverty porn, via the still-rare culturalist strategy of refusing to pass judgment on any of the characters and by partaking of any instance in their celebration of their existence, no matter how paltry or seemingly pathetic.

This approach even enables them to engage in reflexive touches, as when the plot follows Intoy’s venture into Manila’s talons of neon, thereby equating his character with that of Julio Madiaga in Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag. In this particular instance, Signal Rock signifies its ideological superiority over Philippine cinema’s global critics’ favorite, just as Christian Bables’s performance as Intoy will prove to be more enduring than Bembol Roco’s still-impressive Julio M.: Maynila may remain one of the most technically accomplished Filipino film epics ever made, but none of its identity problems (sexism, homophobia, racial and anti-lumpen prejudice) mars Signal Rock’s engagement with a wide variety of working-class and lumpenprole types. A mother’s hard-heartedness toward her husband is explained via his past cruelty and negligence toward her; the said husband (Intoy’s father) is able to draw on his limited English-language expertise in order to save his daughter’s own standing as an overseas resident; a hotheaded fratricidal slacker retains enough of a conscience to surrender to authorities thanks to his close relationship with the parish priest, with whom he may or may not be lovers; and so on. The movie’s emphasis on mostly male characters derives not from a desire to heroize them (least of all Intoy), but from the circumstantial result of women abandoning the community in order to earn a living for everyone in foreign jobs.

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The clue to understanding how the film can pull off the delightful hat trick of melding process, lead character, and community into one arresting narrative is in looking over the director’s background. I don’t refer to the fact that he happens to be a Samareño who acquired familiarity with the Philippine capital as well as with other global centers, or that his father was the longest-serving minister of Ferdinand Marcos’s martial-law administration while he oversaw the “alternative cinema” screening schedule of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. Chito Roño is generally overlooked in accounts of still-active survivors of the Marcos-era Golden Age, partly because of the progressive sector’s eagerness to reject anyone associated with the regime, but also partly because he devoted himself to so-called “low” genres, specifically those dealing with sex, horror, lurid melodrama, and action films centered on women.

Those who bothered to look more closely into his output were rewarded with some of the most innovative attacks as well as delectable performances in commercial cinema, in packages that weren’t burdened by the “prestige” imprint. More than Badil, Signal Rock would be the equivalent of David Lynch abandoning his usual offbeat material and methods in order to do his appropriately titled 1999 film, The Straight Story. Yet the same creative and critical sensibility infuses Signal Rock’s “regular” world. Intoy’s awakening to illicit relationships, for example, begins when he witnesses his friend resume his affair with his now-married girlfriend, and intensifies when a respectable businesswoman confides in him the paternity of her son. When he starts witnessing people in unusual and possibly incriminating situations, he learns to practice discretion – a skill that comes in handy when he finally meets up with his girlfriend in the big city.

Roño’s directorial flourishes are more foregrounded in Signal Rock than they were in Badil, yet they remain unintrusive (as discreet as Intoy learns to be) – a sign of the filmmaker’s maturation. In the first few scenes with the title object alone, we already see expert overlappings of image and sound so that more than one event transpires in single scenes; the first time Intoy visits the place by himself, we hear the wind transformed into the sound of a woman weeping. The movie is so full of these throwaway gems that the only advisable response I can provide for a first screening is to sit back and take in the pleasure of a conglomeration of talents who love what they do and know how to go about making it happen.

[First published August 17, 2018, in the Philippine Entertainment Portal]

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Book Launch Lecture: Manila by Night

The summer of 2018 marked my first visit home after three of my four book volumes (actually two of my three books) had come out. I was invited to speak at the book launch of Pro Bernal, Anti Bio, Angela Stuart Santiago’s completion of Jorge Arago’s interrupted biography of Ishmael Bernal; the occasion was titled Queer & Defiant: Ishmael Bernal, Bernardo Bernardo, & Manila by Night. I took the occasion to talk about Manila by Night, the movie as well as the monograph I contributed to Arsenal Pulp Press’s Queer Film Classics series. About a week later I was guest speaker once more, this time at the website launch of the University of Santo Tomas’s UNITAS journal, where I was requested to speak about the two volumes of Millennial Traversals. The Manila by Night lecture below was followed by a percipient set of questions by my colleague, Patrick D. Flores, but unfortunately I was unable to take time to recall them after the event. (To enlarge the pics, please click on them. To go to the Manila by Night book feature on this blog, please click here.)

QUEERNESS AS DEFIANCE IN MANILA BY NIGHT

Facebook announcements. (Courtesy of Katrina Stuart-Santiago)

Many thanks for making the effort to trek all the way to what was once known as the centerpiece of the City of Man, the [Cultural Center of the Philippines] Complex. I used to work at one of the edifices here, the now-condemned Manila Film Center, and even though public transportation then was far more efficient and inexpensive, coming all the way here is not something I can be easily persuaded to do, now that I can find all the excuses I want.

Katrina Stuart-Santiago was extremely patient and encouraging in making all the necessary arrangements, but my interaction with her goes all the way back, in discussing the botched National Artist Awards procedure during the second Aquino regime, and later in going over some points of the book that she worked on with her mother, Angela. My association with Patrick Flores goes even further back, nearly three decades if I’m not mistaken. We were contributors to the review section of National Midweek, and when his review of Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit came out, friends asked me if I resorted to using a pen name again. I told them no – I wasn’t ready to write anything as accomplished as he did on the subject of local melodrama.

We had a conflicted and sometimes contentious relationship, but I bring out this history here so that I might be able to demonstrate to you that the lessons I learned, some of them painful, helped me evolve further as a film commenter and scholar. Some of these lessons still have to be played out more fully – and again, this is not in the spirit of TMI (or too much information) but rather in pointing out that the movie that will be screened after this talk, also suffered and continues to suffer from several hard-to-resolve problems.

As everyone here who lived through the middle period of Marcos martial law would remember, Manila by Night was subjected to the worst censorship case ever visited on a Philippine movie. It was banned for nearly a year, disallowed from participating as a competition entry in the Berlin International Film Festival, and released with the longest listing ever of visual cuts and aural deletions. Since all reference to Manila was prohibited, the title itself was changed, to City After Dark. Unknown to the public, the director had intended to prepare a definitive cut for the thwarted Berlin screening. He was discouraged from doing so by the festival director of the Berlinale – although after Imelda Marcos decided that the movie could not be permitted to represent the country on foreign screens, that issue was no longer even relevant from that point onward.

I provide a more extensive explanation of how Ishmael Bernal arrived at the particular stylistic decisions he used during the period when he made Manila by Night, roughly from 1979 to 1981. What matters in our looking back on this same period is how his approach was misconstrued as a lack, an inability to measure up to the level of competence exhibited by his contemporaries, including his friendly rival, Lino Brocka. His stylistic choices, which were drawn from Third-World cinema samples as well as his documentary training and internship, resulted in his being penalized by reviewers as well as the award-giving critics. You have the jaw-dropping anomaly of the group acknowledging Manila by Night as the best film they were privileged to recognize, but Bernal losing the prize for direction. After Brocka made a splash at the Cannes Film Festival, the next Filipino lined up for that supposedly most prestigious of all film venues was a much younger aspirant, rather than the filmmaker who was definitely Brocka’s equal, and in all possibility his superior.

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There is one more historical detail that recently re-emerged, as proof of the queerness of Manila by Night’s existence: Bernal made what we might call Manila by Day – a documentary, rather than a feature film, that upheld rather than critiqued the city, commissioned by Madame Iron Butterfly Imelda Marcos, rather than Mother China, Lily Monteverde. A few netizens expressed disappointment with what Bernal did, since it contrasted with the decision by Lino Brocka and Mike de Leon to boycott anything associated with the Marcos martial-law regime. But this overlooks several matters, from Bernal’s sense of duty in securing the good standing of his producers, to the later news of his active participation in the left underground during and after the people-power uprising of 1986.

So the generally positive development of intensive film study and training in the Philippines, an option unavailable during Bernal’s time, also holds a disadvantage for older critics and historians of film. What we have among us is a generation of film participants and observers not only schooled in film, but also adhering to film-school values without the need to start from a wider historical, cultural, and philosophical analysis of their place in the world – a set of values that an earlier generation like Bernal’s and Bernardo Bernardo’s had no choice except to pursue. Instead of measuring friends by their choices of favorite films or music or books as social-network folks do today, they would start by articulating their social or political positions vis-à-vis urgent local or global issues, and proceed to infer which contemporary or classical philosophers, if any, informed their new acquaintances’ opinions.

Bernal and Bernardo – but if you’ll permit me I’d prefer to call them Ishma and BB respectively, to distinguish between them more easily – were exponents of a queer sensibility way before the word “queer” was recuperated in lesbian and gay activism via the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power’s even more radical breakaway group, Queer Nation. Formed in 1990, the group was credited with reversing the derogatory connotation of the word in mainstream media. The term “queer” is intended for oppositional activism, wherein a practitioner can be anyone who or anything that challenges whatever happens to be the acceptable or decent set of values of the moment. As an example, when I mentioned to BB the word and how it was defined in gender politics, in the context of his self-identification as a gay man who had a few celebrated heterosexual romances, he said, “Then I’m definitely not bisexual, but I’m also more queer than gay.”

We would therefore be correct in describing Manila by Night as a queer text even before New Queer Cinema first emerged in the 1990s. (I would even argue that many of the so-called queer cinema films are really nothing more than rom-coms with same-sex pairings, but that would open up a can of worms that we in this kind of event would not be able to wriggle out of.) Crucial to this description would be the kind of bohemian lifestyle that people like Ishma and BB designed for themselves, and that would be evident in their artistic output. They readily crossed boundaries of class – and gender, in BB’s case – and were consequently fluent in a wide variety of lingos, costumes, mentalities, and professions. To paraphrase Terence, nothing Filipino was alien to them.

Yet Manila by Night possesses a distinction shared in fainter degrees by any number of exceptional Filipino movies, including Bernal’s own follow-up projects. Even by global-cinema standards, one would be hard-put to put together a canon of films with multiple-lead characters whose achievement equals or exceeds Manila by Night’s. Robert Altman’s Nashville, Bernal’s direct inspiration, would be part of that list, as would Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game, Mizoguchi Kenji’s last film Street of Shame, and an obscure Italian title, Liliana Cavani’s La Pelle. These are all multicharacter movies, but they move beyond the depiction of a small group or community that has become one of the standard formats of independent cinema. They make use of types rather than characters, since the number of protagonists is so large that it would be impossible to develop any one of them unless the filmmaker abandons everyone else to focus on a few, sometimes on only one, the singular hero.

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And yet, rather than failing from this inability to provide a classically well-rounded character, these films give us a weird, or shall we say queer, impression that a characterization has been achieved. A characterization that does not reside in any of the characters, but rather in the social impression they create, via their couplings and conflicts, their onscreen interactions and offscreen further developments. The impression we get is that of an abstract super-character, one that we may define according to geography – the city of Nashville in Nashville, Manila in Manila by Night, Tokyo’s Yoshiwara district in Street of Shame, Naples in La Pelle. And because no single character is privileged, it becomes possible to define and redefine society according to the perspective of any character we choose to identify with.

Most people would get the impression that queerness in Manila by Night resides in BB’s character, Manay. BB himself affirmed that Manay was meant to function as the movie’s conscience – an unusual one, considering that this moral center indulged in promiscuity without batting the proverbial eyelash. Yet when we pick out Manay as our reference point, we find that the men he sleeps with are straight-identified, and that the women he tries to help occasionally turn out to be undeserving of his kindness. From Manay and through one of his charity cases, we arrive at the figure of Kano, the lesbian drug pusher, the only character in Manila by Night who (as described by my colleague Libay Linsangan Cantor) is never seen during daytime, much less in a home of her own, so totally liminal that all we can do is guess, from her name and origin in the US naval base, about her parentage and childhood. And as if this experience of trauma weren’t enough, several more come up, one worse than the other.

Ishma took pains to explain that all the unusual events in the film were drawn from his or his friends’ experiences. (I won’t go into too much detail so as to avoid ruining your experience of the revelations in the film.) With Kano, he had no definite real-life model, at least from what I remember. Yet it is Kano who resonates with the burning issue of our time – worsening poverty, homelessness, the drug war and its concomitant extrajudicial executions. In the monograph I wrote for the Queer Films Series of Arsenal Pulp Press, I claimed that Kano, by herself and as a focalizer who allows us to reconfigure the other characters, displays the radical potential described by such lesbian theorists like Judith Butler, Teresa de Lauretis, and Peggy Phelan, who argue in favor of invisibility, constant reinvention, and dangerous sexualization.

All that I would like to point out, by way of ending this elaborate argument, is that these qualities, in a Third-World context, raise the specter of guerrilla resistance. For me, this poses a challenge to scholarly colleagues who assert that nothing of political import arises from Manila by Night. It may be not completed according to the preference of its director, it may suffer from the technical weaknesses inherent in its deployment of unpolished surfaces and improvised performances, it may partake of a nihilistic vision packaged with a comically incongruous happy ending. Like some of the most gifted people we’ve known, Ishma and BB included, it is a difficult movie to love, yet it makes itself impossible to dismiss. Thank you everyone for listening.

Above: The author and Patrick D. Flores await their turn during the program. Below: The author, Angela Stuart-Santiago, and Rodolfo Vera (who performed a reading with Noel Añonuevo) pose before a picture of Ishmael Bernal. (Photos courtesy of Dempster P. Samarista)

(Delivered August 7, 2018, at the Silangan Hall, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Roxas Blvd, Pasay City)

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Innocence Regained

Balangiga: Howling Wilderness
Directed [“not a film”] by Khavn
Written by Jerry Gracio, Achinette Villamor, & Khavn

A small town (now a municipality) on the eastern part of Samar island in the Philippines, Balangiga [balan-HI-ga] was the site of the bloodiest conflict during the Philippine war of resistance against American colonization. In 1901, after the capture of “first President” Emilio F. Aguinaldo allowed Americans to hope that the war was nearing its end, Philippine revolutionaries succeeded in overpowering the 9th Infantry’s Company C soldiers stationed in the town, as a retaliation for the harsh measures it imposed to hasten the process of attrition. Less than 50 Americans were killed, but at that point it was considered the US’s worst overseas defeat, and evoked memories of the then-25-year-old Battle of the Little Big Horn (more popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand), where over 270 American soldiers died.

Little Big Horn had massive and far-reaching consequences for Native American opposition to Manifest Destiny, which by then had transmuted into “Indian removal.” The US’s overseas expansion was also premised on this mystical self-serving belief, with several veterans of the wars against Native Americans participating in the subjugation of the first formal European territory in the Orient, then known as Las Islas Filipinas (translated by the next colonizers as Philippine Islands). General Jacob H. Smith claimed to be one such veteran, but had actually only seen action in the Civil War. Deploying racist and apocalyptic language, he ordered his subordinates to “kill and burn … [all persons] capable of bearing arms” on the entire island of Samar (the third biggest in the Philippines, after Luzon and Mindanao). Smith earned for himself the nickname “Howling” by announcing his intention to turn the island into a “howling wilderness.”

The US Army’s retaliation made American newspapers’ term for the account of the Philippine revolutionaries’ attack, the Balangiga massacre, ironic in contrast. A number of Filipino authors have called the retaliation the burning of Samar (with a 1974 Joey Gosiengfiao movie, scripted by novelist Wilfrido Nolledo, titled Sunugin ang Samar). The entire occurrence makes it the precursor of subsequent American atrocities in Viet Nam and the Middle East, but is lesser known than the later media-covered incidents or even the historical recounting of the “pacification” offensives directed at Native Americans. A recent release, titled Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, is premised on the retaliatory campaign, and made its own mark on local film history by winning best-film prizes in both the original academy as well as the original critics’ competitions. (Both groups have selected only five similar best-picture winners earlier, in over four decades of their rivalrous coexistence.[1] The version of Balangiga that they awarded, and which I also viewed, was a work-in-progress prior to being further trimmed to significantly less than its two-hour running time.) The film is scheduled for theatrical release mid-August in the Philippines and will be screened at a few major (non-Euro) festivals, with US screenings still in the planning stage.

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Balangiga details the flight of an old man and his eight-year-old grandson, from whose perspective and consciousness the entire narrative unfolds.[2] The boy’s name, Kulas, links him with another contemporaneous though older character from an earlier film, Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? [As We Were] (1976); both share the (pre-automotive) road-trip structure encompassing their lead characters’ coming-of-age. But whereas the earlier Kulas was also a dispossessed peasant traversing the turn-of-the-century Philippine countryside, good fortune smiles on him at several points in his journey and adequately prepares him for participating in the anticolonial resistance movement suggested by a benevolent and committed Chinese Filipino that he meets along the way. Balangiga’s Kulas, despite his and his grandfather’s flight from conflict, cuts an even more radical figure. The fact that the movie resolutely refuses to share the feel-good humanism of Ganito Kami Noon and strews the otherwise ravishing landscape with dead mammals (mostly human corpses) is only the starting point in articulating this difference.

What makes Kulas transgressive is the authenticity of his participation in the nightmare of war, whenever the opportunity presents or imposes itself. He saves a toddler, the only survivor in a village massacre, and successfully attacks an American soldier-straggler, by way of avenging the murder of Melchora, his beloved water buffalo. Yet in defiance of the war’s horrific reality, he persists in having playful, though understandably surreal, dreams, and plays childhood games by himself and with Bola, the kid he saved and calls his brother. Balangiga is, in a sense, simply a commemoration of Kulas’s rites of passage – confronting death, rescuing Melchora and Bola from harm, contending with older men’s cruelty, learning to pacify a traumatized infant and cook food properly, ministering to the sick, and burying the dead, among other skills that Filipino children have since then been forced to learn on their own.

The narrative also allows Kulas to be haunted by his memory of the massacre of his hometown, with the still-controversial church bells (confiscated by the US Army but being reclaimed by the Philippine government) worked in seamlessly via some of Kulas’s nightmares. The notion of haunting resonates with several turning points in Philippine history, most eloquently (and just as poignantly) with the still-contemporary reputation of Samar as a rebel-supportive territory during the period of growth of the New People’s Army.[3] The reconfiguration of hauntology to mark the end of Communism as a historical option and its subsequent spectral transformation that reminds resisters of neoliberalism and globalization that the past once held a reason to hope in the future: this may be, in a parallel sense, the lesson of Balangiga as well. The US Army retaliation convinced several anti-colonial fighters that resisting the advance of the Americans was futile, when in fact the Balangiga attack can be seen as one of the most forward-looking acts in the history of guerrilla warfare: the freedom fighters cross-dressed in women’s mourning attire and organized a procession of children’s coffins that actually contained the weapons that would be used in the attack.[4]

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The film’s director, Khavn (whose credit is preceded by “This is not a film by”), has made over fifty feature films and over a hundred film shorts (in a list he titles “This Is Not a Filmography”) since the 1990s. Aside from already being the most prolific Filipino filmmaker at such a relatively youthful age, he also has the distinction of presenting the temporally longest Filipino film, the 13-hour Simulacrum Tremendum, classifiable as a poetic, creative, or hybrid documentary screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2016, with the director accompanying the presentation, on the piano. Self-identifying as punk, Khavn collaborated on Balangiga with his partner, Achinette Villamor, as writer and producer, and the gifted queer author Jerry B. Gracio as co-scriptwriter. Villamor and Gracio are articulate, humorous, and (not surprisingly) unruly social-media influencers, while Khavn prefers a more low-key presence. In one of his rare past interviews, he had extolled the system of independent production for how it had allowed him to be extraordinarily productive; some of his more recent work, Pusong Wazak: Isa Na Namang Kwento ng Pag-ibig sa Pagitan ng Kriminal at Puta [Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory between a Criminal and a Whore] (2014) and Ang Napakaigsing Buhay ng Alipato [Alipato: The Very Brief Life of an Ember] (2016), possibly even more impressive a work than Balangiga, already evince a longing to speak to the Philippine mass audience.

Yet it is Balangiga that manages the feat, with little better than a shoestring budget enhanced by percipient performers and audacious cameos by other Pinoy punk celebrities. Khavn deploys cinematic tricks (stop-motion animation, disorienting lenses, startling drone footage, ghostly superimpositions, etc.) as well as basic special effects that serve to emblematize the childhood world of Kulas. His persistent (though inevitably sordid) humor, tenderhearted embrace of Otherness, and contempt for everything represented by modern existence and its enforcement via wholesale genocidal-if-necessary violence – these make of Balangiga all that Filipinos can claim so far as their retribution for the incredible injustice visited on the country’s distant central island over a century ago. Its triumph as a work of art keeps the memory alive, marks the emergence of the first people’s artist from the high-art Valhalla of European film festivals, and calls for further progressive people’s initiatives that the still-ravaged nation will have to find ways of summoning.

Notes

[1] These five were: Celso Ad. Castillo’s Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak [When the Crow Turns White and the Heron Black] (1976); Lino Brocka’s Jaguar (1979); Carlos Siguion-Reyna’s Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal [You Were the Only One I Loved] (1992); Gil Portes’s Mga Munting Tinig [Small Voices] (2002); and Maryo J. de los Reyes’s Magnifico (2003).

[2] “Howling Jake” Smith had originally defined people “capable of bearing arms” as those who were ten years old and above. In the frenzy of carrying out his command, however, US soldiers could no longer allow themselves the luxury of determining the precise age of preteen individuals, or trust the natives’ claims about the ages of their children. Hence a child such as Kulas was in as much danger as any other young teenager, and had to flee the site of carnage that had been his hometown (Facebook Messenger note from Khavn de la Cruz, July 21, 2018).

[3] More than a year prior to the attack by Filipino revolutionaries on the US unit in Balangiga, a guerrilla group laid siege to the town of Catubig, in what is now Northern Samar; the US Army’s efforts to regain control of the island accounted for the harsh measures that built up to the so-called Balangiga massacre. From another period, in “The Fate of the People’s War,” an interview with Denis Rogatyuk in Jacobin Mag, José Mariá Sison said of the New People’s Army “that there is always a region which shines during a certain period. It shines in terms of being effective during offensives…. The most conspicuous development was Samar in 1976, with the NPA repeatedly taking over the police stations and construction companies in a few years’ time” (July 28, 2018). The most popular global impression of Samareños derives from the song “Waray-Waray” (recorded by Eartha Kitt and available in her 1965 live album, In Person at the Plaza), which uses the popular term for the people and their language, and reinforces their typology as a hot-headed and always battle-ready ethnic group.

[4] In A Question of Heroes (1977, rpt. Mandaluyong City: Anvil, 2005), Nick Joaquin disputes the “[Gregorio] del Pilar legend: how [in 1897,] he and his men entered Paombong dressed as women, carrying their arms dressed as babies, and heard Sunday mass along with the unsuspecting guardia civil, on whom, at the bell of the Sanctus, they sprang with knife and gun, slaying the Spanish soldiers and making away with their arms” (p. 192). The fact that revolutionary sentiment at the moment of the inception of the nation found cross-dressing a feasible weapon against the invading American troops should require a scholarly treatment of its own.

[First published on July 16, 2018, as “Amid the Nightmare of War, a Coming-of-Age” in The FilAm]

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Book Texts – New-Millennium Filmfest Report

Pinoy Filmfests ca. 2013

This year would be as good as – better, actually, than – any in many a Pinoy’s lifetime to talk about local cinema.[1] This early (last quarter, as of this writing), 2013 will be remembered as one of the major watershed moments in Philippine film activity, of which the most impressive ones transpired during the Marcos dictatorship: 1976, followed by the even-numbered years of the early ’80s: 1980, 1982, and 1984. Actually closer inspection of any of this era’s readily available filmographies will support the argument that some of these “years” were in fact longer than 12 months. The first period, for example, began in 1975 with Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, while the early 1980s was actually a sustained half-decade of growth, with the culminating year, 1984, extending way to the end of 1985. Sadly, for someone who had gone through those years, I’d tend to associate 2013 not with 1976 (when the country was benefiting from the then-recent stability provided by the implementation of martial law, but with 1984, when Pinoy film artists were performing at their peak right at the moment when the nation was reeling from the economic trauma wrought by widespread corruption and civil disobedience, exacerbated by the US-activated global economic recession.

The disasters of 2013 may have been partly environmental rather than entirely political this time around, but it should never be too premature to call attention to the productivity of local filmmakers, again because of the way that the 1980s anti-dictatorship movement overrode most reasonable responses to Pinoy film achievements: the early ’80s seemed impressive enough only in retrospect, mainly because what succeeded the Marcos era was several years of sub-quality productions followed by a spell of near-total inactivity and the studios’ inevitable attempts at profitability via the desperate measures of infantile fantasies, toilet-humor comedies, and exploitative sex dramas. If one were to read mainstream film commentary during the late Marcos period, it would seem that nothing of import was being done then – an attitude meant to reflect on the decline of the regime as a whole.

Hence any responsible observer would be obliged to declare that the evidence of quality film production in 2013 has so far been solid enough so that, if nothing else gets released during the rest of the year except for the middlebrow romances and funny-face comedies that established studios had been leaning on for the past couple of decades, we would still have more than enough reason to commemorate the year. Fortuitously, the promise of interesting productions has not been entirely exhausted: the very last event, the Christmas season’s Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), has been attempting a throwback to its glory years via its “New Wave” module, a side event of lesser-budgeted “independent” projects.

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Festivities

In ironic contrast with the present, the MMFF’s past role had been central to so-called Golden Age activity, with 1976’s first December edition yielding Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon? and Brocka’s Insiang, and subsequent editions showcasing some of the best output of their respective years, all more or less deserving of canonical stature: Celso Ad. Castillo’s Burlesk Queen in 1977, Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Brutal and Brocka’s Bona in 1980, Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata in 1981, Ishmael Bernal’s Himala and Diaz-Abaya’s Moral in 1982, Diaz-Abaya’s Karnal in 1983, Mario O’Hara’s Bulaklak sa City Jail in 1984, and Castillo’s Paradise Inn in 1985 (two of the better festival franchises, the Panday and Shake, Rattle & Roll series, were also initiated during this period). From 1986 onward the MMFF had to struggle mightily but only wound up at best with also-rans, finally surrendering to the prerogative of stipulating box-office success as a major awards criterion about a decade ago, right at the point when it assumed a national character by appending “Philippines” to its name (MMFF-P). The process by which the event squandered its founding ideals should be an urgent problematic for any serious student of local cinema; unfortunately, the auteur-infatuated and canon-obsessed orientation of most local film scholars tends to preclude any initiative toward this end. Instead, the response of concerned individuals and institutions seems to have mirrored their reactions to the limitations of award-giving bodies: that is, first draw up a series of complaints about the flawed organization, then introduce a new award-giving system claiming to be an improved version of the earlier one – which in turn would be subject to the same dynamics that result in another process of deterioration, leading once more to the formation of still another group introducing its claim to award-giving validity.

Hence during the early 2000s, when film production had dwindled close to single-digit levels, there were actually more awards in existence than films produced annually;[2] similarly, there appeared to have been a subsequent trend toward the proliferation of film festivals, with 2013 marking the year when their numbers began to escalate. The critical response to the MMFF’s problems was immediate, expressed as early as the year it first introduced commercial performance as a measure for artistic recognition. Yet the formulation of a solution to its problems arrived only after several other MMFF-inspired festivals had sprouted, and only as an apparent afterthought, with the December festival being required to showcase “digital indies” (à la Cinemalaya, Cinema One, and Cinemanila) – as a pre-festival side event rather than in direct competition with the main entries.

One may argue (persuasively, to my mind) that film festivals are more directly productive than award-giving activities. More films being produced is always good news, and I’d maintain that in the most progressive sense, quality should become at best a secondary consideration: industrial activity always signifies that some people, few though they may be, are being gainfully employed, so no matter how loud the complaints against MMFF rise up, there will always be voices, belonging to the least privileged participants in the festival’s film projects, who will have been grateful for the event’s continuance simply because at the end of the day, they were able to earn an adequate living from a legal undertaking.

Yet the dangers of unreflective festivalizing (per Kanye West’s useful coinage) ought to have been inferred from the problems that awards activities have faced: not for nothing has an award-giving component been institutionalized in standard filmfest arrangements. So when an innovation like the MMFF can be bowdlerized to the point where in its current phase it could never be recognized as a kindred spirit by any of its earlier versions, the first issue to keep in mind is a paradox: that its current failure actually proceeded from its earlier success. The current iterations of the project-subsidizing merit-conscious festivalization of noteworthy film output stand at a remove from (and assert their superiority to) the MMFF in large part because of their inability to amass the same amount of profits – i.e., their moral superiority is perceived by critical observers in direct proportion to these events’ symbolic distance from filthy lucre. Once these admittedly enormous differences dwindle enough to relieve the seeming atrociousness of the older festival, there had better be mechanisms (not based on the personal preferences of their founding leaders) in the younger events to ensure that these do not follow the MMFF’s disgraceful about-face.

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Sample “Fringe” Events

As long as the MMFF is around, any of the newer events can claim to be an Other type of undertaking: the “Cine” triumvirate of Cinemalaya, Cinema One, and Cinemanila are only begrudged a limited measure of institutional support, while 2013’s Juanas-come-lately share the earlier trio’s troubles, plus they have to operate in their predecessors’ shadows.[3] Yet, if I may beg the reader’s indulgence, I would like to demonstrate how festival Otherness can never be pure, and can always be a matter of what anyone – organizer, participant, even observer – can be capable of imagining. In doing so we might be able to run through a few significant products of one of these events, so we’d even be returning to the auteurist and canonical issues that I had attempted to shunt aside earlier.

The redundantly titled Sineng Pambansa National Film Festival, like the MMFF, is more overtly a government-sponsored undertaking than, say, Cinemalaya, which is run by a team of outsiders in a government agency. The Sineng Pambansa organizer’s clout was demonstrated when the Film Development Council of the Philippines managed to wangle a full week’s run at SM Cinemas, the country’s top movie-theater chain. Also, all the names in its so-called All Masters Edition (hereafter AME) would be recognized by the relatively elderly among us as veterans of the MMFF, either as direct participants or as the latter’s contemporaries, and with an early winner (Celso Ad. Castillo) represented posthumously. How then does this event become its own Other?

From the fairly basic process of tracking its participants’ career trajectories. Inasmuch as the MMFF itself, as we noted earlier, had transmogrified into the very condition – excessively commercial film practice – that it had originally sought to rectify, the auteurs who had been its prestige era’s most successful players would have had to give way to more mercenary colleagues or newcomers, or to their own less illustrious tendencies. Since the newer digital-indie festivals stake their reputation on the breaks they provide younger practitioners (Cinemalaya and Cinema One even reverse the MMFF’s tokenism by allowing side events for masters – which in fact results in the same kind of Othering for the same group of people), we can provisionally conclude that at this point, it is the favored practitioners of yesteryears, the names that get listed immediately after the local Parthenon’s top-ranked Brocka and Bernal, who get marginalized when it comes to festival film production projects.

The AME’s decision to dispense with the standard award-giving procedure (performed via the equalizing decision of declaring all the directors winners) has distinguished it further from both the MMFF and its “Cine” rivals. In a sense, this forces us to appreciate what this festival has been able to achieve that the others will be unable to: a throwback to the old MMFF, wherein even the least successful entries guarantee the mass-identified viewer that she or he is not going to be regarded as unworthy of understanding whatever statements the texts wish to make. In this instance, one’s disappointment will always be tempered by a personal longing, the same way one gets let down by a close friend; we are able to understand the intention behind the effort, and wish that the person had been up to the challenge, or had been capable of the kind of reflective and ego-free honesty that would have prevented this kind of waste of time and money. In terms of the type of disappointment one occasionally encounters in a contemporary digi-indie filmfest, where even an otherwise impressive display of school-trained skills could not mask the sense that the filmmakers would rather skip the local screening process and fast-forward to the Euro-filmfest circuit, I would be willing to rewind to a few decades back and slap around my younger self for having wished for more of this type of sensibility.

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Masters’ Degrees

About half of the AME entries – a higher average actually than the typical local festival, except for the exception-that-proved-the-rule 1977 MMFF – may be regarded as noteworthy, in both the positive and the negative resonances that such a term conveys these days. In fact, in the case of Mel Chionglo’s Lauriana, Chito Roño’s Badil, and Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes’s Sonata, the worst that can be said is that these filmmakers had done better work – capable of laying claim to lengthy lists that would be the envy of any directorial newcomer – in the past. In the case of Jose Javier Reyes’s Ano ang Kulay ng mga Nakalimutang Pangarap?, Joel Lamangan’s Lihis, and Elwood Perez’s Otso, one could even make the more brazen assertion (beyond contention, in the case of Perez) that these were their respective directors’ career best.

I had been able to focus on half of these aforementioned titles mainly because these were the ones I was able to rewatch, for highly subjective as well as pragmatic reasons; given a freer schedule and even freer budget, I would gladly reacquaint myself with the rest as well. Nevertheless, we could begin by taking note here of the manner in which two of these six constitute throwbacks to the debates on cultural politics circa the Marcos era. Gallaga, whose Oro, Plata, Mata launched the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines’ production scheme (the mother of all quality-determined film-subsidy programs in the country) in 1982, experienced pushback from leftist quarters for his alleged empathy for the plight of the landed class in his home province. This perspective belies the arguably stronger sympathy his debut film extended to the movie’s underclass characters, including the disgruntled and sexually exploited lumpen gang whose (initially successful) response lay closer to anarchy than to principled revolt; this would conceivably have aggravated the critical perception of any concerned-though-Orthodox Marxist observer, enough to override the film’s larger achievement as a triumph of naturalist cine-aesthetics.

Sonata references Oro, Plata, Mata in a literal manner, by setting the narrative not just in Bacolod but also in the very house, in the older film, where the extended family and their servants had their extensive idyll, before the incursion of the Japanese Imperial Army forced them further into the jungle and incited the behavior that one character described as asal-hayop or beastly. In contrast, Sonata presents a major character (played by the same actress who essayed the asal-hayop character, and who also happened to be the first female face to appear after the opening credits, in the earlier film) without the benefit of the perspective of secondary characters; the fact that she happens to be an eccentric crisis-ridden global artist – a middle-aged woman alienated from her society and culture, one eager to interact with social outcasts since she perceives herself as one – ought to have clued overeager commenters to the warning that the narrative is not meant to be read as a “correct” allegory of class relations.

The Gallaga-Reyes command of feature filmmaking craft has reached a point where one may note the ways in which the filmmakers tread on possibly politically contentious territory yet revel in the seductive pleasures of high culture, scenic bounties, childlike innocence, and honest emotions foregrounded in the film, held together by the larger-than-life delivery of Cherie Gil, who in her prime has been towering over her gifted clan and who, in a just system, should now have several other bigger stars begging for her mercy and producers begging for her service. As a way of further qualifying my notions about Sonata, I decided to rewatch Behn Cervantes’s Sakada (1976), which purported to depict the aspect of sugar plantation workers supposedly neglected by Gallaga (prior to and with Reyes), and a curious event took place: I witnessed a film where the harshness of hacenderos was received without humor or goodwill from otherwise sufficiently mature characters on both sides of the divide; the area they lived in was devoid of natural attractions, except for the grotesquerie displayed by the lords of the place; and in its world no perversion, much less perverse pleasure, could thrive beyond always-politicized decadence. I would believe myself capable of accepting both versions of reality proffered by these two conflicting texts, but I might have to state that one of them might be closer to the real-life existence I had been able to observe in my peripatetic lifetime; and once Sakada eventually qualifies its political agenda by laying conflictual blame on middle persons rather than on the enlightened and essentially well-meaning plantation owners, I knew that at least in this regard, the Gallaga texts display a more progressive attitude.

Another AME entry, Lihis, set me off in another direction, this time the recent past through a still-to-be-realized future. Joel Lamangan had announced a few years ago that he had decided to embark on a series of projects that would constitute his legacy as Pinoy filmmaker: a coverage, via digital feature-film texts, of organized resistance to institutional repressions, as a means of commemorating (and in the process redefining) people power.[4] The few that I had seen among his half-dozen installments so far evince a mature artist seeking to grapple with new technology as well as material that walks a tightrope in bypassing the generic excesses of commercial practice while acknowledging its audience’s entertainment expectations. In particular, one of the early texts, the Cinemalaya entry Sigwa (2010), goes to the extent of acknowledging the internal divisions that had effectively balkanized the once-monolithic Communist Party of the Philippines, although one’s receptiveness would depend on what position one would take regarding the legitimacy of the organization’s founding leadership.

Lihis allows for an externalized critique that may be shared by outsiders, a fact which might have enhanced its achievement as the most successful box-office performer among what we might provisionally term Lamangan’s progressive film series. The primary reason for its appeal is its clever reconfiguration of the inseparability of the personal from the political, in situating a then-disallowed preference, homosexuality, within the set-up of the still-disallowed New People’s Army. From observing the mostly young and presumably straight mass viewers who watched it, I’d speculate that their shock of recognition lay not in the now-tolerated display of male queerness, but in the intense romanticism that it could engender, with the idealism of a liberation army, ennobled by its opposition to the fascist dictatorship then ensconced in the country’s seat of power, affirming the tendency’s righteousness (per Foucauldian discourse) paradoxically by repressing it.

Thus, just as Marxist principles had to struggle against right-wing forces, so did queer desire set out to prove that an organization claiming to uphold radical change had its own limitations to confront. That it succeeded in doing so redounds to the NPA’s credit, inasmuch as it soon thereafter opted to recognize same-sex marriage, and in fact preceded the US, the object of its anti-imperialist critique, in introducing this socio-legal innovation. Lihis primes an audience conceivably less sympathetic to the historically demonized options of communal commitment and queer love by relying on capable storytelling as well as strong performances; Jake Cuenca in particular had my memory scrambling for any previous depiction in local cinema of such an intense combination of male longing and frustration – and when I finally remembered an equivalent sample, it was (not surprisingly) Eddie Garcia’s in Brocka’s Tubog sa Ginto. The other means by which Lihis makes a connection with unaffiliated viewers is through its feminist advocacy, not just in framing the narrative via the investigative research of the daughter of one of the gay male characters, but also in allowing the daughter’s mother, excluded by the inevitable fruition of her husband’s same-sex relationship, to express her disappointment not in her eventually divorced husband’s preference but in the hypocrisy of the movement’s leadership in declaring the relationship wrong but condoning it anyway for militaristic reasons.

Lamangan continues to earn flak for having once been extremely successful as a commercial player in the industry. In this regard, he has risked his own recuperation as Pinoy film artist by selecting material that requires the very opposite of flashy style – the cinematic “value” that over-schooled critics and aspirants regard as proof that one is not (or is no longer) profit-oriented, as if wasting producers’ currency and consumers’ patience were the whole point, or even a major part, of justifying one’s participation in industrial activity. A major local filmmaker, Ishmael Bernal, had been similarly penalized for resorting to aesthetic strategies that were more apt for Third-World contexts, and it would be tantamount to critical arrogance to maintain that Lamangan’s previous modes of practice and the stylistic decisions he makes for his progressive film series belong in the same realm just because they share the same credit. One could be disabused of this notion by watching the series chronologically; a still-forthcoming but already completed entry, Burgos, might soon be available and boasts of an even more subtle command of what may be described as a resolutely stylish stylelessness, with the same clutch of strong performances (Lorna Tolentino first and foremost playing against type, to surprisingly effective results) that help propel the narrative toward an open ending filled with grace and wonder.

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Power of Two

With Elwood Perez and Otso, the AME could claim that it has performed a signal intervention in the historical narrative of Philippine cinema. Otso is the kind of work that incites observers to return to the filmmaker’s early output, usually in order to search for evidence of how she or he had been dropping hints of the genius that had lately just bloomed and taken everyone by surprise. Allow me to simplify the hunt by stating that it gets easier the closer we get to the present. In his early years Perez was identified, whether rightly or wrongly, as part of a circle of “camp” filmmakers that, in its most basic configuration, included Joey Gosiengfiao and Cloyd Robinson; not only was the group mislabelled (they used some elements of camp and were therefore campy in style whereas camp, in contrast, could never be deliberate by definition), the membership was not one of equals, with poor Robinson the least significant of the three. Gosiengfiao peaked early and came up with at least one successful genre satire; those puzzled by the current cult devotion paid to Temptation Island (1980) can rest easy, since it’s Underage (from the same year) that I’d champion, for its gleeful skewering of the poor-little-rich-kids tearjerker movie without having to resort to easy misogyny and sloppy execution.

More relevant to the issue of reception, Gosiengfiao and Perez (and, why not, Robinson) were generally ignored, if not reviled, by serious commentators of the time for indulging in what were perceived as frivolities – humor, soft-core sex, reflexivity, genre send-ups, avoidance of or cynicism toward political issues – and, even worse for the critics though obviously not for the producers, profiting considerably from these attempts. This was the period when martial law was starting to worsen, after all. The price extracted from Perez must have stung since, after the Marcos regime, when Robinson and Gosiengfiao were becoming less active, he came into his own, possibly by accident, the same way that Otso appears to have been unexpected. In 1989 he completed the final installment of Regal Films’ revival of the Guy-and-Pip musical romance and provided the definitive sample of how a genre that seemed irredeemable, for having been excessively profitable for so long that it had gone out of circulation and had to be forcibly revived, could be reconceptualized as an epically proportioned social melodrama. Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit ought to have had a continuing impact, especially in today’s artificial separation between “artistic” indie practitioners and “commercial” romantic-comedy specialists, but it was downgraded by the critics’ group during its annual recognition ceremony in favor of a decidedly minor achievement by the more highly statured Bernal.

Bilangin ang Bituin, unlike, say, Bernal’s Pahiram ng Isang Umaga (the film that the organized critics preferred), exhibited a number of emotional high points, customary characterizations, plot coincidences, and anticlimaxes that might have doomed its chances for people still unable to appreciate the creative rigor required to pull off generic transformation. Its prefiguration of Otso can in fact be seen in one of its most audacious (and consequently heavily criticized) stunts, that of casting the same love-team performers to play their own respective children, who in turn attempt to form a love team of their own, and who assuage their heartbreak upon discovering their relationship as siblings by counting out 2,001 stars in the night sky and driving off a cliff.

Perez’s movies thereafter seemed bent on insisting on such a predilection for the perverse, which he had been able to indulge previously only in his sex-themed films.[5] With Otso he had come across a kindred spirit in the film’s writer and performer, Vince Tañada, and finally had an opportunity to bring together fantastic symbolism, absurd logic, slapstick humor, surreal developments, substantial in-joke references, and that intangible element, the ability to continually tickle and titillate the audience so that they wind up forgiving the movie’s several flights of fancy and pretentions to meanings that often get overturned in the end. Who could have imagined that a Pinoy film could present a full character’s conflicted existence and multi-levelled disputes with political and showbiz figures without requiring several hours’ worth of footage, and without aspiring to deaden its viewers’ sense of fascination and discovery?

With Otso, Perez brings himself, and the rest of Philippine art and literature, to what we might be able to hope would be one of several peaks in postmodern practice. It should be made required viewing for the filmfest greenhorn hoping to impress occasionally even more clueless jurors on who should be the actual appreciators of cinematic achievements, just as mainstream filmmakers need to study it closely to learn how they can provide entertainment and still wind up with artistic self-respect. Tall order, I know, and it would be far easier to simply begin revising the assessment of Elwood Perez’s significance. And if works with Otso’s quota of audacity, substance, and pleasure can be ensured in future film festivals, then I’d be willing to revise my doom-and-gloom assessment of their future possibilities: let a hundred filmfests bloom.

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Notes

[1] The author wishes to express gratitude for help extended by Mauro Feria Tumbocon, Jr. and Patrick Flores; Peque Gallaga, Joel Lamangan and Ricardo Lee, Elwood Perez and Vince Tañada; Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil; Ronald Arguelles, Tammy B. Dinopol, and Nestor de Guzman; and Leloy Claudio.

[2] The late Johven Velasco, author of Huwaran/Hulmahan Atbp. (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2009), pointed this out to me in 2002, when I first returned to the country from graduate studies in the US. Since the movie press and original “academy” had not yet split up into schismatic rival blocs with their own award-giving mechanisms, and the academe- as well as the internet-based organizations still had to emerge, I wondered how he could say that the dozen-or-so award-giving bodies could exceed the few dozens of local titles being released, even if the non-celluloid productions were then still being excluded from the award-givers’ major prizes. He replied that I was thinking in terms of singular “best film” trophies, when in fact each awards entity would have several other prizes at stake, with the smallest number, those handed out by the Young Critics Circle, starting at six (film including direction, screenplay, performance, “cinematography and visual design,” editing, and “sound and aural orchestration”).

[3] Among the newly launched or relaunched occurrences are: an additional digital independent event (Cine Filipino); a few local-government revivals; a number of regional fests; auteur retrospectives; and foreign screenings of Pinoy products, highlighted by the twentieth anniversary of the Filipino Arts & Cinema International in San Francisco, California.

[4] Apart from the movies discussed in this section, the films that Joel Lamangan set out to direct as part of his legacy project are Dukot from 2009; Patikul from 2011; and Migrante from 2012. In an interview with the author, Lamangan stated that he has no plans so far of determining at what point the series will end, and that he hopes to be able to focus on the plight of rural workers in future assignments.

[5] Another distinction that Elwood Perez had, relative to his “camp” buddies, was his willingness to depict ambitiously narrated sexual kinks and anomalies, thus aligning himself with such innovators as Ishmael Bernal and Celso Ad. Castillo. Disgrasyada in 1979 solidified Regal Films’ status as purveyor of the “bold” trend, and supposedly instigated a dressing down of producer Lily Monteverde by Imelda Marcos (in her infamous though possibly apocryphal “bamboo” speech castigating “Mother” Lily for being, in effect, un-Filipino); Shame launched Claudia Zobel in 1983 as the hottest sex kitten of her time, her career cut short in the next year by a fatal car accident; Silip (1985) rode on the censorship-exempt Manila Film Center’s propensity to offer increasingly extreme material.

[First published February 2014 in The Manila Review]

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Book Texts – Levels of Independence

LEVELS OF INDEPENDENCE

The current catchword in film circles is independence, and it’s a measure of how far film awareness has progressed when the sector laying claim to the term intends it to refer to a format-based difference vis-à-vis commercial-gauge products. But first a few technical clarifications. The fact that [circa 1990] film exists in varying formats, measured in widths, is ascribed to the practicality of various industry-based purposes: super-8mm., an improvement over 16mm.-halved 8mm., was home-movie stock until video became far more economical; 16mm. serves specialized industrial purposes, mainly advertising; 35mm. is for what may be called mainstream production, normally national but preferably international in scope of distribution; outside the country lies the possibility of 35mm.-anamorphic projection (which expands to twice the image width with the use of the proper lens) plus its real-thing equivalent, 70mm. wide-screen, for roadshow presentations.

Such a convenient availability for most conceivable filmic requirements belies the historical origins of the medium. Film formats differed not because usages varied, but because every investor who had the money and foresight was racing to get his standard – which may have been the first clear instance of the desperate competition that the medium has been exhibiting since, without letup, this first century of its existence. One way of providing some value to the numbers is by scaling them from least to most, and assigning some factors that observe the same principle of ascension or descension. Super-8mm., 8mm. and 16mm. provide maximum individual freedom at minimum cost, while 35mm. and 70mm. provide maximum profitability and audience exposure.

From the extremes it becomes immediately clear that both sides could formulate claims to the ideals of independence, presuming that such an ideal matters in this sort of undertaking. A practitioner in super 8mm., or even video (a non-filmic medium which could accommodate certain basic principles anyway), could point to the minimalization of authorship problems on the basis of the fewer workforce requirements of such a format; on the other hand, a mainstream person could counter that the essence of freedom is material-based, and so only those with sufficient financial, industrial, distributional, and popular support could achieve social change – which, after all, is (or should be) the goal of independence.

Proponents of 16mm., including film-educational institutions, have come up with their rationalization for its increased usage: assuming that both sides of the extremes’ arguments are valid but not necessarily conflicting, 16mm. offers a resemblance to mainstream technology at considerably affordable cost; though several times more expensive than super-8, it also happened to be more accessible in this country since 1985, when Kodak Philippines phased out local Super-8 processing.

Within mainstream practice, however, the issue of independence also assumes as many possible claims as there are self-conscious institutions. “Independence” actually originally referred to the production outfits that were relegated to the fringes during the post-war heyday of the studio system up to the early 1960s; once the majors were weakened by internal problems (talents’ dissatisfaction leading to labor problems) and external pressures (busting of production-and-distribution monopolies), the so-called independents closed in and instituted a system, if the word could still apply, of free-for-all enterprise. A subsystem of outfits based on stars, who were eventually distinguished from the rest of the constellation by the term superstars, has proved more enduring – and in fact constitutes what we can consider the mainstream independents of today.

Of course, the big three – Regal, Viva, and Seiko – in our current studio-dominated system all started out as independents relative to now inactive or defunct production houses. As mentioned earlier, any of these giants could claim, if they had a mind to do so, to being the true exponent of independent cinema in the country: all they have to do is admit that they don’t care to exercise this prerogative at the moment, and offer a genuine industry break to anyone who’d challenge their stature. The mad scramble for assignments in itself could serve as proof of the dissenters’ double-minded acknowledgment that, yes, enslavement to filthy lucre does liberate one from the poverty of cheap formats.

Meanwhile, there are the past and future processes of mainstream independence to contend with. Until as late as the early 1980s certain filmmakers could break free of, well, the Filipino language at least, by doing regional cinema in the Cebuano or, though rarely, Ilocano tongue. The system of distribution – outside the Tagalog region (and the attendant demands of Metro Manila moviegoers) – also enabled drastic reductions in budget costs and the use of non-stars: the profitability of such an option is still being realized by today’s countryside-circuit penekula or hard-core sex-film investors; in fact, the first color Cebuano film (and one of the last as well) was actually shot in super-8 and blown up, grains and all, to commercial-gauge 35mm., reportedly clobbering Manila and even foreign releases at the box office wherever it was shown. There’s a disturbing analogy somewhere, though, for future film scholars to ponder on: since we could say that regional movies have been replaced by sex films, does this mean that our provincial folk have “progressed” in their preference for spoken language to the inarticulate dictates of the, er, heart?

Finally, the most promising aspect of independence thus far almost became a local tradition were it not for the reckless conduct of an international film festival by the previous regime during the early 1980s. Exhibition in foreign film circuits proved favorable for Filipino directors fortunate enough to have been invited by patrons, but the problem is actually greater than the sanguinity of local producers in the sufficiency of the local film makers: Filipino authorities are pathetically simple-minded about the prospects of exporting our most impressive cultural body of work, preferring to dwell on the implications for the national image, as if that were all that the medium is good for.

The opening up of international film opportunities (confirmed by a corresponding ferment in film-theory circles) to Third-World cinema might find the Philippines typically left behind in an endeavor where we were in a sense pioneers – cf. our participation in foreign festivals during the 1950s. It’s a good thing that certain individual practitioners have gone as far as preempting both local producers and officials, notably the censors, in getting their dream projects produced not by themselves or by fellow Filipinos, but the foreign entities who’d have better access to worldwide distribution.

Such a notion of relying on foreigners for institutional support is, of course, profoundly antithetical to the concept of independence in the political scheme of things – which only goes to prove that the ideal of film may be more than merely material, or even political. In Japan, the world’s most economically independent nation, the best directors (Akira Kurosawa and Shohei Imamura, among recent examples) look toward non-Japanese investors for aesthetic salvation. Tokyo also happens to be the closest capital where we can get super-8mm. films processed. Something like having one’s sushi and sashimi, too.

[First published April 25, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Book Texts – Critic in Academe

The following comprises the original introduction of this Q&A exchange as it appeared in the April 4, 1990, issue of National Midweek (pp. 20-22, 46):

When Bienvenido Lumbera’s candidacy for the directorship of the University of the Philippines Film Center was announced, he reacted with typical modesty; at least, he told himself, this could be another opportunity for him to carry out some of his proposals for film study and research in the Philippines.

Such self-effacement contradistinguished a critic and scholar whose reputation in certain sober circles in academe and the film industry is almost legendary; this, plus his clarity of purpose, clinched for him the highly visible and passionately contested UPFC post. A professor at the Filipino department of the UP College of Arts and Letters, Lumbera, who holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Indiana University, headed the English and Philippine Studies departments of the Ateneo de Manila University until his stint in prison as a Marcos-era political detainee. He has authored three books on Philippine culture – Revaluation: Essays on Philippine Literature, Cinema, and Popular Culture ([Manila]: Index, 1984), Tagalog Poetry 1570-1898: Tradition and Influences in Its Development (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University, 1986); and Abot-Tanaw: Sulyap at Suri ng Nagbabagong Kultura at Lipunan (Quezon City: Linangan ng Kamalayang Makabansa, 1987), all winners of National Book Awards – and holds a number of distinctions for his other creative and critical output. Now pushing 60, Bien, as he is fondly called, is regarded as the pioneer in modern criticism in Philippine literature, theater, and popular culture in general, but most especially in film.

This interview was originally conducted in two Taglish sessions at his poster-wallpapered UP Faculty Center cubicle, between breaks from his hectic schedule as teacher, center director, occasional lecturer, and creative writer-cum-cultural consultant. Lost in the transcription are the subject’s avuncularity and clearheaded delivery of answer, although an infectious (and youthful) enthusiasm for topics dealing with cultural and criticism, booby-trapped with an ironic sense of humor, can still be detected.

Bien is married to the former Cynthia Nograles, with whom he has three daughters.

To read the original, untranslated transcript of the interview, please click here.

In your early years, it seems you were also doing critiques in other areas aside from film.

I actually started as a student of literature. Then, because of my involvement in the nationalist movement, I slowly realized that many Filipinos are more influenced by cultural forms that cannot be classified as literature – such as komiks, television, and film.

The fact that you have recognized the reality of change – does this mean that you had to adjust your original perceptions as well?

The first time I wrote about film – this was in the early 1960s – I attempted to explain why Filipino films could not be as good as foreign films. Initially I thought that was what was originally described in the circles in which I moved as catering to the taste of the uneducated masses. Like, for example, I would look for what I called the logic of irony. There were only one or two films out of maybe about eight or ten that talked about which I thought answered my demands – Kadenang Putik (1960, dir. Conrado Conde & Cesar Gallardo) and, I think, Huwag Mo Akong Limutin (1960, dir. Gerardo de Leon). Later I realized, if my criteria could allow only a few films to be considered valid for discussion, there must be something askew. Fortunately, by now I think I’ve gotten over this.

Are there certain other things that you wanted then that have been realized today?

I think now we see the application of theory, largely drawn from Western theory, in the films that are shown. When some people view films, they go beyond regarding these as mere entertainment. Films now are being studied for how they reflect culture and society, whether consciously or directly or not.

What would be some other things that disappoint you at present?

One of the things that I hoped would happen would be for more Filipino movies to be of the same weight and quality as those that were produced in 1976. My expectation was that after all, since the industry had been able to produce these films before, perhaps in the coming years more would come out – no longer exclusively for elite viewers or with overt artistic intentions, but with technical polish, thematic sophistication, or subtleties of performance whether in writing, direction, or acting as part of local industry ethics. I think the crucial context here is the system that prevailed during the 1950s: filmmakers were each committed to working for a single studio, so even if their projects were not all highly intelligent or aesthetic, they’d still have the chance to do different types of films in one year.

But there also seems to be a form of studio domination today.

Seiko, Viva, Regal have what they call a stable of directors and actors, but when it comes to giving out assignments, it’s like: “We’ve finally contracted Phillip [Salvador] and we have to do a movie, but what’s hot nowadays? Action? Then let’s make an action star out of Phillip.” No longer do people consider where an actor or actress or director excels, unlike before, when there was more latitude [for one’s capabilities].

Now I’m not saying that Doña Sisang [LVN’s Narcisa de Leon], Doc Perez [Sampaguita’s Jose Perez], [or] Doña Adela [Premiere’s Adela Santiago] was interested only in art, but perhaps during the 1950s businessmen had more confidence in the industry: “If our movie flops, that’s all right. We have a big production scheduled next that will surely draw in the crowds.” Such a procedure essentially is a rational kind of capitalist thinking. I believe at present what we have is a highly manipulative system, essentially exploitive in its use of filmmaking talent, and I’m tempted to call it unprincipled in handling out assignments.

Do you think then we should make moves to initiate a return to the old ways?

No, I do not envision a return to the studio system in the 1950s. Even in the States that arrangement is gone for good; but when that happened, the so-called independent filmmakers were able to do films which had earlier been difficult to produce because of commercial dictates, and standards of technical excellence were carried over. In our case, the independents did not have sufficient equipment to go around, so whoever had larger capital could rent the better machines and facilities, and those who could cut costs did so. Gone are the productions that could instill pride in the industry. For example, if we mention [Regal’s] Mother Lily’s production of Sister Stella L. (1984, dir. Mike de Leon), I’m sure what she remembers is the big financial loss incurred by that movie, and whatever else it achieved, she’s determined not to make that kind of project again. That kind of perspective can’t be helped among those who invest their money, but neither does it contribute to enthusiasm and experimentation and pride in what our filmmakers do.

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But isn’t there a continuity between the system at present and the one that came out with so many quality products during the ’70s?

The ’70s were a conjuncture of several factors. The censors demanded to see a complete script before they could give a permit for shooting, so they could scrutinize film projects as early as the pre-production stage. Studios turned to journalist and creative writers in order to be able to impress the censors. Young filmmakers and writers saw here an opportunity to break into the industry and inject some seriousness in terms of content. Then: “Too bad, these movies don’t make money” – so producers backtracked.

But from that point on, the writers and directors who were able to get in already had a foothold. They’re still disadvantaged at present by the fact that the producers have become safe players. Plus, taxes, both national and local, have increased considerably. This is why producers always aim at having megahits, since only then can they hope to profit from film production. No longer do we have modest pictures that are not going to realize a lot of income but won’t flop entirely either.

Other industry people say that this decline in the profitability of film is just part of an international trend – what is known as the video revolution.

I think that’s definitely true in First-World countries. Few Japanese now watch their own films because most of their stars appear on TV shows. In our case, TV probably doesn’t have the same reach as the movies. Those away from city centers, who’d commute to the province during weekends and watch a movie before leaving – I’m sure they constitute a large number of moviegoers in this country.

So is it in this context – of hopefulness because the masses still patronize our own films, and on the other hand the desperation of the industry in surviving – that you expect academe to step in make changes?

Academe cannot intervene actively and has no power to compel capitalists to make better movies. All that can be done – on this, I can speak with some degree of certainty – is for the industry to be taken seriously, its products evaluated regardless of aesthetic quality, and a report given of what these products tell us about Philippine society.

Wouldn’t you say there has been a trend, at least in politics, to link up with academic institutions – something that the industry tolerates inasmuch as this doesn’t have anything to do with business anyway?

The government doesn’t really have any profound understanding of the workings and implications of moviemaking. They get bothered by films that they think will disturb people, like Orapronobis (1989, dir. Lino Brocka) and, in the past, Batch ’81 (1982, dir. Mike de Leon) and City After Dark (a.k.a. Manila by Night; 1980, dir. Ishmael Bernal), but these are isolated cases. In their consciousness films are produced so that capitalists can make a killing, and so the government should be in on the profits. Those are the simple facts of thinking among bureaucrats about the industry.

The creativity of our filmmakers during the Marcos regime contrasts with those in other countries who benefited more from political freedom; would you say that this indicates a peculiarity in the Filipino psychology?

I think what happened here was not just a matter of individual initiatives on the part of filmmakers. The artist’s discontent, if not assisted by others from outside his circles, becomes a private protest, since she tends more to reflect upon herself than to go out and join groups. I guess that’s what happened in the case of Mike de Leon’s films: Mike is a very private person, as can be attested to by those who observe the local film scene. But his outputs leave no doubt that he has some political consciousness operating, and I would attribute that simply to the fact he knew that – it sounds corny, but – hindi siya nag-iisa [he wasn’t alone], others were protesting and organizing. Assuming a situation where there is no movement, Mike de Leon might just stay put; I doubt if he would have the inclination to put into film his discontent with the situation.

How would you compare the present crop of filmmakers with the previous one?

With Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, and Eddie Romero then, you could separate their narrative since their films purposefully set out to tell a story. But if we consider Peque Gallaga, Laurice Guillen, Marilou Diaz-Abaya – offhand, I notice, they give emphasis to specific qualities of film. You don’t remember them for the materials that they handle, but for what they did to the medium, like Laurice’s attempt at trying to tell different versions [of the same incident] in Salome (1981). Even in [Guillen’s first film] Kasal (1980) there was that kind of exploration of levels of reality and motivations of characters. It seems like their group prescinded from the overtly philosophical, political telling of material; what becomes immediately obvious is the attention they lavish on details that one finds in reality. It’s not so much the material anymore but the approach to reality that matters.

Would you say this has had an effect on film practice?

I would say it is an advancement. They must have seen what Lino and Ishmael had accomplished in the past, so they try to go beyond. It is hoped that there would be an integration of the kind of film work done by the earlier masters in the direction of a more complex use of narrative, if possible, in the future. But more and more, I think the old approach to seriousness in film practice, where the artist does a narrative that has a line that can be easily plotted out, is becoming a thing of the past.

What was the role of film critics in this kind of progression?

Nothing, because you see critics –

– were ignored by the artist?

Yes. And besides, strictly speaking, we cannot talk about intensive critical activity in the local film world since outlets are not available, and critics do not work full time, they dabble only when the occasion arises. That is something that will have to be worked at, possibly in academe: to create activity more productive of critiques and reviews.

Would it be possible to say that Filipino film artists have assumed the functions that should have been performed for them by critics, in terms of evaluating their own work and integrating the lessons in their succeeding output?

Actually, artists are the ones who set the direction for what they want to be doing – assuming that they live in a society which provides them with a sense of history. But the act of taking the cue from critics – I don’t think that has ever happened here.

I remember, in the Manunuri, the time when we had some feedback from the industry saying that the only reason why some of us were into criticism was because we wanted to break eventually into the industry.

I don’t think that’s something that should be begrudged any film critic. I suspect that that was engineered by publicists who had taken advantage of their position in order to advance themselves in the industry. One reason why a person goes into analysis of film is that she’s interested in whatever it is that makes a good film. I think the real criticism is that some people go into criticism so that producers will take notice, then they’d say bad things about certain movies so that the producers will mollify them.

Would you say that the ideal balance between theory and practice was the same reason why you maintained some creative output – doing translations and librettos, writing for the stage, and performing occasionally?

In my case, I never made a strict separation between the creative part of me and the analytic part. My writing for the theater derives from an original urge to do creative writing when I was in college and immediately after. Then I got into teaching, so I began to do more criticism, more history. But essentially, I guess I saw myself as a creative artist.

Some practitioners, I heard, were also into criticism before they went into active industry work.

Ishmael [Bernal] wrote some articles on film, now I remember, for the magazine Balthazar.

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What would be the qualities of a good film critic?

She likes movies; she would have seen a lot of films, not only local but also foreign ones. She has a good eye – meaning if she sees something on the screen, she’s capable of recalling the details and immediately relating the elements of particular image. And also, of course, she knows how to write: her command of style should enable her to communicate her insights. Very important, in my view, is her respect for her intended audience. Once a critic assumes that only she knows whereof she speaks and the audience should be content with whatever her pronouncements are, she’ll make an offensive impression on the reader.

Mel Chionglo once told me that a liberal arts preparation is crucial to a filmic sensibility.

Yes, I think it’s very important that the writer can fall back on a fund of insights and information from previous exposure to the arts. Because if all one can rely on is one’s personal prejudices, the narrow concept of art that can be derived from reading some books, one can’t provide any substantial commentary for even the worst kind of products.

One time when I was speaking at the [Cultural Center of the Philippines] about theater, I said – I gave a number of dos and don’ts – that the writer must not be imprisoned by cuteness or katarayan [snark]. I think that’s a very strong tendency when one in beginning to write, when you fall in love with manner, an expression, a point that you want to make, and you put that across and sacrifice the object you’re talking about. I went through that experience when I was younger. Time magazine in the 1950s had very elegant stylists, so their reviews were always quotable, memorable.

How much further does local criticism have to go before it can assume a significant role in the filmmaking industry?

It’s not so much criticism that has to change but media which has to be more receptive to serious comment on film – meaning to say, not just anymore can be made to become a film reviewer, and the publications themselves have to be prepared to print serious articles that might offend the [advertising] producer. Then there also has to be an adjustment in the economic structure to enable people to become professional critics – like, you’re a newsperson whose beat is the movies, and your reviews are now considered the results of the discharging of your responsibilities. That will not come to be until the country has achieved a certain degree of prosperity, when movie writers won’t need to do press releases or hack-write for actors in order to make a decent living.

You’re implying that theorizing in film will also have to wait, since the practice of film criticism will take some time before it can flourish.

Not wait in the sense of postponing theoretical or critical activity, but accepting that no reasonable compensation can be offered at the moment. You can’t expect to survive on criticism, that the industry will appreciate and accommodate your actuations, and that the rest of society will support what you’re trying to accomplish.

Isn’t your scenario rather grim?

[Smilingly.] Really, there’s no other word for it. It’s a grim world that the Filipino critic lives in. So the fewer illusions she has about the viability of her profession, the better for her.

Do you think we’ll be able to realize a theory on film that we can call our own?

Well, not in my lifetime, because I only have a few more years to live. Right now we have not yet come up with a definitive film history, and you need history in order to be able to propose or suggest a theory of film. The fact that LVN could show a lot of its old films, and Sampaguita also has some of its own left – these are good signs, these are the texts that students will study. From such a study maybe the beginnings of a theory can be proposed; there’s no other substitute for this procedure. When I saw some films in the 1950s and even earlier in the late ’40s, I was watching not as a critic or even as a student of film, I was just an ordinary fan who followed the films of certain actors and actresses whom I liked. When I look back, I simply think of one as a movie in which Oscar Moreno appeared, another in which Paraluman played this kind of role. It was not until the 1970s that I began to think of film as a field of study. For instance, I once saw something by Gerry de Leon, Isumpa Mo, Giliw (1947). Among the movies of the past that I vividly recall, that was it – [it featured] Elsa Oria, Angel Esmeralda, Fely Vallejo. I found it very moving. But I remember only certain moments and highlights, so I cannot discuss the totality of that film as a work of art. That’s a problem with film, it’s such an ephemeral experience, and once the text is lost, it’s difficult to reconstruct.

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Book Texts – The Fantasy World of Rey de la Cruz

The surge of renewed interest in the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of too-young Pepsi Paloma in 1985 has still not raised any eyebrows regarding what subsequently happened to her rabble-rousing manager, Rey de la Cruz. Shot dead in the optical clinic where he lived, de la Cruz had deliberately cultivated an unsavory reputation – but mainly in his showbiz affairs. When Communist party renegade Felimon “Popoy” Lagman was also slain by unidentified assassins, the Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino, which he led, mentioned that an arrest warrant for him still had to be served for the murder of de la Cruz. So the question of who killed de la Cruz, unlike the issue of whether poor Pepsi was murdered, appears to have been resolved, but only because his supposed killer can no longer attest to or deny the charge. [This article originally appeared in the Business Day supplement New Day (October 6, 1986: 12, 14), with the unqualified support and encouragement of the section editor, Daisy Catherine L. Mandap, who now heads the Hong Kong-based Sun publication; an earlier interview with Rey de la Cruz, along with other star-builders, appears here.]

New Day Ray de la Cruz

A tall leather chair behind an appropriately imposing table provides film personality Rey de la Cruz, incidentally Doctor of Optometry, with a suitable position from which to survey prospective applicants, patients, and interviewers who get to sit on depressed and low-backed receiving chairs. “I have always been a star-builder,” he smiles beatifically, “even when I was still a student. Everything you see here, without exception, comes from the blood, sweat, and tears I invested in my work in the movies.”

“Everything” I took to include an entire floor space of a relatively tall building in the Lilliputian backside of Quiapo, two blocks near the subject’s famed optical clinic, where a rugged male attendant directs correctly credentialed curiosity-seekers like me to search the doctor’s residence downstreet. “You won’t miss it,” he assures me, and sure enough, the first building that seems to assert an air of dignity in this polluted part of the district yields Rey de la Cruz’s name, and nothing else, for the fifth-floor portion of its directory.

The address where de la Cruz holds court will immediately impress the outsider with its overabundance of the trappings of fast accumulated wealth. A pair of gossiping old women, an alert girl Friday, a half-dressed teenage kid, and some children quietly at play make sure that you get ushered into the right parlor, instead of the kitchen, bathroom, or private chambers where, de la Cruz clarifies later, starlets Lampel Cojuangco and Mishelle Zobel, his latest acquisitions – rather, alagas, reside.

Distinctions

Dr. de la Cruz starts out by showing a recent issue of Asia magazine, which featured him in a sidebar on an article on the local bold-movie trend. “I was also voted ‘Most Controversial Guest of the Year’ in See-True[1] – he points to a plaque on a side table – “and was interviewed for Channel 2’s Variety program as well as another international magazine.”

Then he quickly gets to the point. “I don’t understand why people take my controversial status against me. I provide a living for my discoveries, I give the masa the entertainment they want, and I make a living in the process – ano’ng masama duon? I even agreed to become barangay captain of Quiapo to be able to render more and systematic service to my fellowmen, and then a nuisance like Polly Cayetano questions my appointment, charges me in court for exploitation of minors, and calls me a pimp on the air. Sa dami ng sumasakay sa akin, kailangang mag-rationalize ako, otherwise matagal na sana akong nawalan ng pag-asa.”

Sooner or later it becomes clear to even the most casual observer that the very subject of Rey de la Cruz may require some rationalizing too. I had interviewed him a half-decade ago for an omnibus write-up on the state of star-building in the country[2] and, in contrast to pros like Jesse Ejercito and Douglas Quijano, he had seemed much more guarded and tentative way back then.

Marami na akong na-build up,” he continues, “and each time na me kumakalas sa akin, I’d tell myself tama na, ayoko na. And then me bagong dumarating, me responsibilidad na naman ako, balik na naman sa star-building.”

At this point he cannot seem to resist a digression. “Tulad nung case ni Lala Montelibano – hindi ko naman intensyon na mang-iskandalo. I heard she wanted to break away from me, so when I learned she was appearing in See-True, I presented her with her real mother, as if to tell her, ‘We are all responsible for other people in our lives, so don’t forget whom you are responsible for.’ E siguro, her adoptive mother thought the real mother was there to get back Lala, di pati yung thirty-percent commission niya sa bata e mawawala, kaya ayun, nagkagulo na.”

Although aware that the incident has generated a generous amount of public outrage, de la Cruz will admit that at the most “I tell only white lies, in the interest of promoting a movie. Sino naman ba’ng hindi gumagawa nuon? Pero if ever I resort to a gimmick, ginigimikan ko lang ang totoo. Example: yung Tondo-girl gimmick ko ke Myrna Castillo, maraming nagalit doon dahil hindi raw kapani-paniwala na me ganung kaganda sa slum area. Nag-white lie na ako nung pino-promote yung launching movie niya, when I said na me tattoo siya sa boobs, pero it turned out na mas effective yung gimmick ko kesa sa promotion nung pelikula.”

In the long run, he has seen to it that, as far as he’s concerned, only good comes out of whatever vulgarities he foists upon the public to capture their attention. “Hindi alam ng marami,” he explains, “na behind all the publicity, I train my discoveries to become model citizens. Lahat ng social graces ini-introduce ko sa kanila. Pati sa acting, me workshop sila conducted at my expense, exclusively for them.” He proudly points out that two of his female stars have attained well-earned reputations as serious actresses, even though one of them – Rio Locsin – had a painful and public falling-out with him, and another – Sarsi Emmanuelle – has been having difficulty in sustaining her popularity because of alleged professional indifference.

The JQ Connection

“If you still cannot take what I’m doing,” he says between chuckles, “blame Joe Quirino.” As his journalism professor at the Manuel L. Quezon University, the inimitable JQ took him away by introducing him to Mars Ravelo and Jose “Doc” Perez. The former may account for his propensity in plotting komiks-like twists and turns to publicize his wards, but it is the Sampaguita Pictures mogul he credits for teaching him “the ABCs of star-building. All in all Doc gave me ten valuable tips, all of them confidential.”

That was twenty years ago, when the Stars ’66 batch of discoveries had a tantalizing effect on him, coming as he did “fresh from a small town in Cagayan, where I was the seventh among eleven children; ako lang ang bakla, ako lang ang napadpad sa showbiz, at ako lang,” he finishes with relish, “ang nakapagpaaral sa twenty-five na kamag-anak ko, some of whom are now big-timers in the States.”

He strokes a thinning crop of hair and directs his professorial mien toward a forever-gone era of innocence, of roses and lollipops and Zandro Zamora. “I was only twenty when I started out. I had ten thousand pesos, all my savings, to begin with, so I bought my first car, a second-hand Triumph Herald, para maging karapat-dapat kay Zandro Zamora. Bini-build up ko siya pero nasira ang ulo ko sa kanya, masyado ako naging possessive. We parted ways as friends – if he ever considered me a friend – pero since then babae na lang ang kadalasang bini-build up ko. I get too involved with my men, and then they get involved with my female discoveries, as in the case of Gil Guerrero and Myrna Castillo. People get the impression tuloy na pinapares-pares ko yung mga alaga ko.”

After he made it big with Rio Locsin in the mid-’70s, he launched Myrna Castillo (initially as Rio Locsin II, to replace the then already-gone original) and, after she paired off with Guerrero – only to lately return to de la Cruz – he launched his first batch of female starlets. Because of their literally commercialized designations they became known collectively as the “softdrink beauties”: Coca Nicolas, Sarsi Emmanuelle, and the tragic Pepsi Paloma, who figured in a messy rape case (capped by an exploitation vehicle) before she allegedly took her own life. Introduced along with them was what de la Cruz describes as “the only uncola, Myra Manibog.” Then the “hard-drink beauties” followed – Remy Martin, Chivas Regal, Vodka Zobel, and Brandy Ayala; only the last, according to de la Cruz, “has survived in showbiz. The rest are in Japan earning two thousand dollars a month each as live entertainers.”

Trendsetting

De la Cruz’s arrival as a promo personality was accorded a dubious form of flattery during the early ’80s when his concept of launching discoveries in batches was imitated. Into the movie pages (as well as a few actual productions) marched the “street beauties,” who sported such throw-away appellations as Ayala Buendia, Aurora Boulevard, Remedios Malate, Lerma Morayta, and Bridget Jones. A parade of pulchritudinous hopefuls has been following suit since, assuming de la Cruz-inspired sobriquets like Lyka Ugarte, Claudia Zobel (another tragic waste), and, in keeping up with his latest batch, Cristina Crisol and Elsa Enrile.

Yes, he has decided to contribute his share to the political awakening of the country by presenting, on the heels of the runaway Lala Montelibano, the “revolutionary beauties,” complete with farcically flippant anecdote: “Nagkita-kita raw sila sa EDSA during the revolution, hindi na makauwi sa dami ng tao, so they decided to stay together with the rest of people power.” An enumeration of what sound like noms de guerre, instead of screen names, follows, showing that by now, the guy has crossed the line between wordplay and downright irreverence: “Aida Dimaporo, sixteen; Ava Manotoc, Vanessa Ver, and straight from Cebu, Lota Misuari, all nineteen; plus a tribute to my tormentor, Polly Cayetano, seventeen. I chose those names,” he hastens to add, “because I want people to become less emotional about political personalities. I’d like to see them smile when they hear those names.”

But what about the names’ real owners? “My legal research reveals that there’s no law against using other people’s names. Of course I might desist if the origs want me to, pero I’m sure that if they see the girls, with their beauty and sex appeal, baka matuwa pa pati sila.”

What de la Cruz tries his best to suppress is the notion that his girls are “available” – the subject of his interview with Asia magazine. “If ever they do it on their own, I have to make sure na hindi naa-associate yung ginagawa nila sa akin.” He applies the same tack to an even more sensational recent development in local film practice: “Beware, I tell them, if your director wants you to do penetration scenes, because I can’t be around to keep watch all the time. Ask yourselves na lang, in a practical way: gusto niyo ba, type niyo ba yung makakapareha niyo, tama ba yung bayad sa puri niyo, and dapat, money down. Kung maaatim ng kalooban niyo e bakit hindi, basta hindi kayo pinupuwersa. Pero kung ako ang tatanungin kung ano’ng advice ko, sabihin niyong sabi ko, huwag.”

Legacies

By a mysterious coincidence a side door opens, and out drifts a pale and fragile wisp of a girl in housefrock, smiling shyly at everyone present and receding before anyone could figure out what she was about. “Si Lampel Cojuangco,” Rey de la Cruz whispers, almost conspiratorially. “Hindi na ’yan mabobola ng producer sa mga penetration scenes.”

For every extreme development de la Cruz has required a balancing factor; it must be alarmingly reflective of the times that he claims to have resorted recently to, of all things, Bible-reading. “Dito ko kinukuha ngayon yang mga lessons na ina-apply ko sa kanila,” he says, picking up a voluminous edition from his desk and putting it down just as quickly.

One wonders how far he is willing to enforce the scarily stiff Judeo-Christian tradition on his present and prospective talents. “Me male applicant pa nga aka dito from the States” – he takes out photos of a mean-looking Oriental in progressive stages of dishabille and spreads them over the scriptures – “at mahina na yung dalawang walk-in applicants a day, from both sexes, sa akin. That’s because I can claim now that my stars get sold partly on the basis of their association with me. Pati masa nakikilala na yung hitsura ko.”

Talking about his image and popularity leads him to articulate his longing for “a legitimate ‘bold’ center, para magka-outlet ang artistic bold films, para ma-develop ang taste ng local audience, at higit sa lahat, para may pagkakakitaan ang mga taong umaasa sa ganung klaseng hanapbuhay, kesa mapilitang gumawa ng mas masama pa. I don’t understand why people get mad when the censors get strict, tapos they get mad again when there are bold films released. Most of all I don’t mind being associated with bold, pero ayun na nga, it’s always taken against me.”

Maybe you’ve become a symbol of sorts? I suggest. Rey de la Cruz smiles. He seems to like the idea.

Notes

[1] A then-popular TV talk show featuring mostly film personalities, hosted by Inday Badiday (screen name of Lourdes Jimenez Carvajal, sister of magazine editor Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc).

[2]Star-Building Pays,” Times Journal (May 26, 1980): 21, 23.

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Book Texts – The Critic as Creator

Completed on assignment at the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, this interview was seemingly afflicted by the several strokes of ill fortune that befell it, its production agency, and eventually the government that had set up, best intentions notwithstanding, the ECP. As Soltero was being finalized, Senator Benigno S. Aquino was murdered by still officially unknown assailants – and no amount of goodwill from this point onward could ever save the Marcos government. The ECP was dissolved and replaced by a more profit-oriented institution prior to the downfall of the regime. Pio de Castro III suffered a near-fatal stroke a few years later and died thereafter, as did Bienvenido Noriega, Jr.; Jay Ilagan perished in a vehicular accident. The hotel where the bulk of the interview was conducted, Hyatt Terraces in Baguio City, collapsed in 1990, during the last major Luzon earthquake of the 20th century. The article itself was intended for SineManila, an ECP film magazine which was unceremoniously shut down by a turf-obsessed intelligence agent in the organization; it eventually came out in an older outlet of mine, the December 4, 1984, issue of the Philippine Collegian (pp. 4-7), a student paper. As de Castro had feared, critical responses to Soltero ranged from cool to frozen; how much of this may have been due to the media’s civic duty of denouncing any move (including any movie) made by the Marcos government will have to be determined more carefully, at some future time.

Pio de Castro

Anyone who wills himself success in filmmaking must at least be competent in the less compound medium of literature. Hence the several cases of serious writers on film – often lumped together under the dubious heading of “film critics” – who eventually go into film practice, and the occasional instances of film practitioners who set down their thinking on print through interviews or articles or book writing. Not surprisingly, the field is replete with some of the best minds at work in any national art scene, a veritable namedropper’s delight: the French New Wave, the New American Cinema, to cite the more familiar foreign contexts hereabouts. More relevant still are the treats of Ishmael Bernal accommodating any interviewer daring enough to take him on, or Eddie Romero discoursing lucidly on the aesthetics and politics of local cinema under his own byline.

Such rare examples of talent awesome enough to cross over limitations inherent in various media make of us lesser mortals, if not trustful admirers, then suspicious watchdogs of that remote realm of genius. Any artist who distinguishes himself in a particular field cannot repeat his success elsewhere unless he were more than just another diligent craftsman: when Pauline Kael abandoned her New Yorker post, upon which she built a reputation as the most influential critic in America, the entire movie press called itself to attention; when her first project as script doctor, James Toback’s Love and Money (1982), flopped both critically and financially (notwithstanding an impressive debut by its director in Fingers [1978], which Kael was among the few to appreciate), howls of self-righteous protest resounded beyond Hollywood. Smug silence accompanied the still-plucky Pauline’s return from peril to the pages of her all-too-forgiving publication.

A similar posture prevails in the country. About the worst thing you could say of a tried-and-tested film writer who has “legitimized” his status via membership in the local film critics’ circle is that he is using the organization as a stepping-stone for breaking into the industry. All those contacts, all that goodwill, all that theoretical sharpening, where else could everything lead but toward practical application? Sooner than later another founding member of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, Pio de Castro III, will be going the same route attempted by his colleagues Behn Cervantes and Nestor U. Torre Jr. – right into the mainstream of filmmaking. As most frustrated film buffs would delight in pointing out, de Castro’s predecessors – whether deservedly or not – did not meet the expectations accordant to individuals of their stature, proof of which lies in their inactivity as film directors at the moment. (Never mind that perhaps the most successful critical and commercial filmmaker of the moment, Ishmael Bernal, was also a practicing critic before his entry into the industry.)

“You might consider me a bit different,” de Castro clarifies at the outset. “I was into filmmaking way before I went into film criticism. Even as a Manunuri member, I derived my subsistence primarily from commercial filmmaking. My practice of film criticism was more of an avocation, something that followed from my delight in the medium and not the other way around.” Pio de Castro III is the 40-year-old multi-awarded advertising and television director – and erstwhile Manunuri chairman – unanimously recommended by the board of jurors of last year’s scriptwriting contest of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines to direct the third-place winner, Bienvenido Noriega, Jr.’s Soltero. The movie follows the outfit’s first major (1982) successes, Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (from the screemplay by Ricardo Lee) and Peque Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata (from the screenplay of Jose Javier Reyes).

All the awards and distinctions garnered by both only serve to complicate the prospects begin brought to bear on de Castro’s Soltero by an audience already made vigilant with the awareness that the feature film debutant had been and can still be capable of passing reliable judgment on his colleagues-to-be. With the great probability of confronting unreasonably high criteria for aesthetic acceptance, de Castro has decided this early upon a stance of self-effacement. “I’ll be very happy just to get mixed reviews for this film,” the heavily built authoritative director and occasional character actor coolheadedly declares. “If some like it and others hate it, that would be good enough for me.” Such modesty belies what may be the most auspicious motion picture debut since, well, Oro, Plata, Mata although again the absurdity of latching reputations onto first works would be validated in the cases of established artists whose subsequent outputs render even well-received first films less significant, and vice versa.

Post-production observers can attest to the project’s evolution from literary winner to cinematic aggregate, from a disjointed three-hour rough cut to (as of press time) a coherent two-hour interlock. “I wanted to pursue the ‘experimentalism’ of the project by shooting the script exactly as the writer finished it,” says de Castro. “Normally you would have the director revising a script to suit the demands of his particular sensibilities, if not discarding it altogether and retaining just the plotline and the names of the characters. With Soltero it was different. I had to audition for the role of director. I could have been rejected; so the way I saw it, my passing the trial for the position meant my being qualified to direct the script as written.”

De Castro certainly had credibility in so far as being a “soulmate,” a key word in the film, to the central character in Soltero was concerned. He married late, about five years ago, and so was a soltero, or bachelor, for most of his life thus far. Almost immediately upon graduation from Ateneo, he took up his M.A. in film and TV at Wayne State University as a Fulbright-Hays scholar. When he returned to the country in the early 1970s, he applied for and got into Image Film, the advertising outfit with which he is still connected. He also moved into a small apartment near his office at LVN Studios; it was here where the Manunuri used to meet until de Castro, then already married, moved to San Juan where, needless to add, the Manunuri still goes to during sessions.

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Foundations

Soltero the screenplay tells the story of Crispin Rodriguez, a banking executive in this late 20s, whose singular pursuit is that of love in its various forms. In three particular areas of his life – romantic, familial, and professional – he realizes his aim in varying degrees of success. The film, in contrast, focuses on the aforesaid areas according to the amount of personal commitment involved on the part of the lead character – i.e., the most on Crispin’s love life, some on his family, and a few on his officemates. The evolution of emphases from the abstract whole of the screenplay to the more accessible simplification of the earlier mentioned interlock commenced only after it became literally evident that strict observance of the written work would have necessitated a final cut which exceeded three hours in length. “It would have been nice to see what the three-hour-plus finished product would be like,” says scriptwriter Noriega, “but we won’t be able to sell it. Having two versions of the same film – a long one and a short one – would also be financially inadvisable because of the expense involved.”

De Castro and Noriega, in apparent disregard of the traditionally individualistic processes acknowledged in undertakings of “high” art, conferred with expert acquaintances and arrived at the hierarchy of emphases essential to delimiting the running time of the final version.

As it is, however, the film’s present form will be undergoing a few more reconsiderations induced by its problematic transition from script to screen. A rich exposition, for example, appears to raise some issues which are not all pursued, while a few resolutions ask to be expounded on beforehand. “I’m amazed,” says de Castro in a more typically candid mood, “that a lot of people have been passing judgment on the project as if it were already finished. So many things can still be accomplished in the course of post-production.”

He may be merely reacting to a manifestation of the high expectations he had already anticipated. Those fortunate enough to have attended screenings of both rough cut and interlock, for example, will marvel over the remarkable job of restructuring accomplished in the present form, in which shots and sometimes entire scenes intended for mutually exclusive purposes were transposed to other sequences without any noticeable diminution of credulity. Given such expertise, the tendency of insiders to extrapolate their expectations could very well soar out of control. The notion that this course need not apply to established directors who have consistently maintained a level of mediocrity would be patently unfair, but de Castro is not one to take the whole thing seriously. As he announced during audition sessions for the movie, “I just want to do a successful commercial exercise – a ‘bold’ tearjerker!”

As a result of what may be considered the streamlining of the screenplay, lead character Crispin Rodriguez’s story has been constructed to begin with the end of a romantic relationship and end with the end of another one. The multi-leveled treatment carried over from the original screenplay allows for a meaningful overlap of the two women’s stories, not to mention the several ingressions into the affairs of Crispin’s family and officemates, which serve as commentaries on the lead character’s condition. A series of events arranged chronologically provides a throwback to the narrative requisites of commercial cinema, but the overall emotional wallop is more exhaustive without being as blatant as the commonly encountered cases of box-office melodrama, primarily because of the high degree of intellectual involvement demanded by the unconventional storytelling mode.

Yet preview audiences agreed that the product so far has demonstrated more commercial potential than could be expected from a prototype of the existentialist art film, purveyed most capably by contemporary German filmmakers. For with perhaps an eye out for the genre’s absence of appeal among Filipinos (witness, if you can, the availability of Ingmar Bergman releases), de Castro seems to have surmounted its individualistic nature by infusing it with a more popular, and therefore mass, accessibility. Or has he? Experts at home in the territory of personal cinema constantly allude to the humor, the ease with which the best samples are executed; after all, ethereality, when it becomes more than just the subject of the work itself, can never, at least in theory, be mistaken for its antithesis, ponderosity. In this respect, the director of Soltero can be said to have hit the right formula in his approach to the work – that is, to regard leaden material with the levity of familiarity. But then again, would that be a fair remark to make about a presumably perspicacious artist?

Extra-creative factors will determine the permanence of Soltero’s contribution to local filmic history, but at this time at least one declaration can confidently be made: the movie succeeds on its own terms not because of its commercial concessions or its generic faithfulness, but because of its conscious verisimilitude to a heretofore unexplored aspect of Philippine social reality, an achievement which draws a historical affinity through Crispin Rodriguez from other characters of contemporary cinema grappling with the entanglements of their respective social fabrics – e.g., the Kulas of Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon. . . Paano Kayo Ngayon? (1976), the Miguelito Lorenzo of Oro, Plata, Mata (1982), even the Julio Madiaga and the Poldo Miranda of Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975) and Jaguar (1979) respectively. The fundamental difference, however, between Crispin Rodriguez and the other names mentioned is that the Soltero character achieves historical significance paradoxically by his distance from the historical vortex. Whereas the other characters get caught up, whether or not against their will, in the velocity of their respective social eras (and therewith become signposts of some sort for scholars of local culture), Crispin Rodriguez could never attain fulfillment as a realist character except through the mutual exclusion between himself and his particular reality, which, because of its alienating affects, can never be disclosed in any other way.

He may be loath to consider the comparison, but Pio de Castro III bears such a visionary resemblance to Crispin Rodriguez. His wife, the former Joy Soler, describes him as “a very quiet, contemplative, into-Zen person. I’ve never seen anyone so placid. It takes a large amount of negative stimulation to get him angry at something.” The de Castros first met while they were both performing for the Philippine Educational Theater Association during the early ’70s. “He was visiting [founding chair] Cecile Garrucho then,” Joy recalls, “when he got persuaded to act for PETA. In one summer he did Bertolt Brecht’s [The Good Person of] Szechuan, the passion play Kalbaryo where he played Jesus Christ, and an Off-Broadway production, [Gretchen Cryer & Nancy Ford’s] The Last Sweet Days of Isaac.” De Castro’s acting career shifted media when Lino Brocka cast him as the ambitious worker Imo in Maynila, where he garnered critical notices for his sharply drawn portrayal of a single-minded proletarian who leaves his hopeless existence behind for the higher living of a white-collar employee. His last screen appearance was in Romy Suzara’s Mga Uod at Rosas (1982), in which he appeared as a commercial artist who again leaves behind a starvation lifestyle, this time as a serious painter, for the more lucrative lure of advertising.

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Resemblances

Again the parallelisms prove too tempting to resist. “The guy’s determination is fantastic,” avers Joy. “During film festivals where he decided to participate, for example, he could watch movies round-the-clock, sleeping less to watch more, and still retain what he saw for critical discussions” – reference here being made especially to de Castro’s involvement in both editions of the Manila International Film Festival, the second of which he participated in as chair of the committee in charge of a well-received comprehensive retrospective of Filipino films. Unlike his filmic portrayals, however, de Castro does not believe in brandishing his curriculum vitae so readily. “He takes care to keep most of his achievements discreet,” says Joy, without any hint of disappointment whatsoever. “Whenever he gets wind of a big break coming his way, he never tells me unless it’s been formalized. As a person close to him, I have the impression that his expectations are in inverse proportion to his efforts.”

Casual observers can easily corroborate the couple’s selfless dynamicism. Their residence is inadvertently referred to as the Manunuri headquarters even by the members themselves; for most of the group’s profitless subsistence, the de Castros “subsidized” meetings by preparing hearty meals (then as now the main incentive for attendance) for an inadequate token among the members present. Joy maintains that “there was no prior agreement between Pio and myself to support the group as well as we could. The Manunuris are the sort of people I don’t need in my career, but that’s precisely why I enjoy their company so much: they provide a welcome respite, these artistically inclined individuals who are honest and humane for a change. Also I make a deliberate effort to link up with Pio’s concerns, and serving the group is one of the most gratifying ways I know.”

“I learned a few thins while doing Soltero, says de Castro in Baguio, after a day of shooting some pivotal sequences, accommodating an unexpected TV interview in between, taking the ECP public relations staff to a few interesting locations (including a general hospital for the treatment of a member’s eye infection), and staying up past midnight to answer some off-the-record questions while preparing to leave for Manila by early morning. “No, actually I learned a lot. What we see on the screen in movie-house, the things we can criticize so easily after a short period of practice – those weren’t created with as much facility. I believe in film criticism, I believe there’s a place for it not only within the interests of the general public but those of the industry itself; I have always been into filmmaking, but working for the first time inside the industry has given me a different perspective. Whereas before I could assent to some sympathy for local artists, today I might even become vehement about it. I have this newly emerging conviction that if only to help them appreciate first-hand the plight of local filmmakers, all the film critics around us should be given the opportunity to direct.”

De Castro did not exactly push himself forward in a director’s direction, if one were to judge by the number of breaks he broke. One of the more recent ones went to an established director and was shown last year to a good box-office crowd which seemed to have excluded serious film observers, while another has been on hold ever since the local censors demanded a certification from the material’s writer, who has been dead long enough for his works to be made required reading even in institutions where they were previously banned. “I was always on the fringes of the industry, more as a filmmaker than as a critic. In a sense I still am, because of the nature of ECP. I tried my hand in advertising first and TV next, to be able to gauge my capability for film direction. With advertising, I thought that if I could make a minute or less worthy of my client’s money, then maybe I could use longer time to greater advantage; with TV it was more of an experiment: I did a limited series film-style, with more complicated set-ups, matching shots, and so on. When people said I did well, I felt more confident.”

A host of awards of merit and excellence from local and international advertising congresses, plus positive reviews and a Catholic Mass Media Award for the TV series Pira-Pirasong Pangarap[1] all serve to back up the assurance – of production experts if not de Castro himself. “I’m glad I had the opportunity to work with ECP; it’s the only outfit which could have produced a project like Soltero – an unconventional movie without traditional exposition, obvious conflicts, surface climax. I was also given leeway in the casting, except for Jay Ilagan, for whom the screenplay was written and who was specified from the start. I chose the performers solely on the basis of their individual proficiencies.” The actors referred to can likewise enjoy the privilege of a certain amount of pre-judgment. “If anyone asks me how any of the actors performed according to expectations,” says de Castro, “I would say simply that the very fact that they were cast implies that expectations were already met.” Jay Ilagan, who delineates the character of Crispin Rodriguez, may at this point in his life claim to have enacted the role of his career,[2] just as Vic Silayan did in Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata (1982) where Ilagan won his only other acting awards (Metro Manila Film Festival and the Manunuri’s Urian as supporting actor), a year after his MMFF trophy, also for supporting actor, for Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Brutal (1980).

Based on the controversies (or absence thereof) attendant to the production of Soltero, de Castro can assert that the project thus far seems to have acquired the approval of ECP observers. Previous ECP films always elicited adverse reactions regarding budgeting, with Soltero so far the only exception, notwithstanding last year’s economic inflation. “In fairness to finance experts connected with the project,” adds de Castro, “when they saw the results they understood why a few seconds’ take could cost so much and take so long to set up.” In contrast with its spectacle-scale ECP precedents, Soltero may yet chart a new and more affordable course for future productions – both within ECP and, more important, an industry whose audience has been estranged from essential intimacy in cinema…that is, if and when Soltero achieves its expected impact upon film experts and unexpected acceptance among movie-goers.

The movie’s director would rather not be too optimistic about either. “The movie has its moments, to say the least. I don’t want to be disappointed by the way it turns out, artistically and financially.” A performance by the film on both levels as modest as its filmmaker would suffice for the purposes of the film lover who only wanted to do good. The future can be just as modest: “I want to do a gangster film,” for a change of pace. I want to let out all the fury and excitement which I had to keep under control in Soltero.” A slight pause, then “I just hope I did well enough to deserve to make another movie.”[3]

Notes

[1] A moderately successful early ’80s program, rather than the ’90s series with the same title.

[2] After a recent re-viewing of Ishmael Bernal’s Salawahan (1979), I realized that this was Jay Ilagan’s indisputable peak as actor. For some reason, all his performances seemed to decrease in effectivity the further we get from this point.

[3] As it turned out, Pio de Castro III and Bienvenido Noriega, Jr. managed to make one more movie each after Soltero; Noriega in fact had died before one of his plays was adapted for the screen.

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