Author Archives: Joel David

About Joel David

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

From Cloud to Resistance (appendix)

“CATEGORY E” SAMPLES

Although a stand-alone post, this section should be read in conjunction with the original article, “From Cloud to Resistance.” Click here for Part 1 (“The Problem of Our Critical Approaches”) and here for Part 2 (“Toward a More Responsive Critical Practice”).

In the same way that I listed titles that came closest to fulfilling the highest ideal prescribed by “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism,” I had a separate listing of films that were arguably seen as “firmly within the ideology and to be completely under its sway, but which [turned] out to be so only in an ambiguous manner.” Not only was this group unwieldy by necessity, I also found it inadvisable to insist on elaborating on the editorial’s fifth category once I had pointed out its importance, rather than wander down the admittedly meandering and subjectively determined pathway that this appendix section explores.

11011Most of the titles in the list I mentioned were drawn from the counter-canon book project I started working on over ten years ago with a now-defunct entertainment publication. The volume is still undergoing finalization and ought to come out in a few months. The process involved the selection of films by an inhouse team of media practitioners, who voted on the titles they deemed worthy of inclusion, rewatching certain entries if they could not arrive at a consensus. The coverage would be comprehensive, starting with the earliest available samples all the way to a recent end date. The target number was one hundred titles, but this was of course impossible to maintain; the final tally is closer to 120. My role as project consultant was to prepare the team for specialized instances of historical, high-art, or low-genre screenings, and write citations for the films that the team approved for inclusion.

11011The fact that several films lionized during their time could not sustain their reputation, while a larger number of overlooked works unexpectedly held up better at present, should not surprise anyone familiar with the complex and contentious canonization processeses that experts encounter in art and literature. Nevertheless, the historical implications of the team’s left-field choices impressed me enough to sound a call for political-economy studies of Philippine film production houses and policy institutions at the close of “From Cloud to Resistance.” Also, although certain already-canonized works were accommodated in the list, many of these turned out more definitely reactionary, borderline or outright fascistic even, particularly in terms of their downgrading or exclusion of Othernesses: Lamberto V. Avellana’s Anak Dalita (1956) and Manuel Silos’s Biyaya ng Lupa (1959) from the First Golden Age, and several of the Filipino Film Critics Circle’s choices through the years.

11011It would prove more rewarding, for example, to jettison the FFCC’s very first best-film winner, Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? (1976), in favor of the same director’s The Passionate Strangers (1966), a film noir that tracks the investigation of the murder of a labor leader and uncovers neocolonial intervention and interracial liaisons in the process. The martial law-era sex films, denounced during their time for allegedly helping the regime distract the mass audience’s attention from the then-percolating anti-dictatorship movement, deserve credit for highlighting the poverty and decadence that induces the least-privileged to seek solace or resistance in carnal gratification: Peque Gallaga’s Scorpio Nights (1985) deservingly recovered lost ground, but Elwood Perez’s Silip (1985) proved to be metatextually indispensable in functioning as a witty and transgressive answer film to the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines’s most celebrated production, Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (1982), while Mel Chionglo’s lesser-known Sinner or Saint (1984) deployed naturalism to track the journey of a defiantly wayward housewife and succeeded in implicating the moralistic society that insists on judging her at every turn. An effective summation of these films’ common theme of courtly love games turning deadly when played by the underprivileged, is proffered by William Pascual’s Takaw Tukso (1986), made ostensibly for the Marcos era’s censorship-exempted Manila Film Center but released after the collapse of the regime.

Back to top

11011The Pinoy sex film was an outgrowth of melodrama, much-maligned historically for its appeal to female viewers (which helps explain the grudging respect accorded sex cinema, for its orientation toward male viewers). Yet certain offbeat samples demonstrate more deconstructive intelligence in this area of practice than in, say, action or art films that tend to be dominated by males on either side of the profit-vs.-prestige divide. Armando Garces’s Sino ang Maysala? (1957), from the First Golden Age, foregrounded its production history by naming the characters after the actors who portrayed them – even calling Paraluman “Carmen” because the role was originally intended for Carmen Rosales – and thereby enabled a reel-to-real correlation when “Bobby” Vasquez was actually arrested for unruly behavior. Leroy Salvador’s Badlis sa Kinabuhi (1969) made use of a dramatic race-against-time recovered testimony of a traumatized underage witness in order to facilitate the acquittal of a woman accused of killing her abusive stepfather.

11011Surprisingly, and unexpectedly, the filmic repudiation of the patriarchal excess fostered by Marcos’s declaration of martial law occurred in two bodies – one an individual’s and another an institution’s, both closely associated with the regime. The individual was Nora Aunor, whose full-scale attempt at critiquing her “superstar” status inhered in her post-Marcos auteurist project, Greatest Performance, which she attempted to rub out before she could finish it; the institution was Viva Films, sequestered (though subsequently cleared) by the Presidential Commission on Good Government after the fall of the Marcoses, which spearheaded a series of glossy strong-women projects and conditioned the fan base of the country’s final movie star, Sharon Cuneta, to welcome her transition from teenybopper to independent woman.

11011The Viva Films output, like that of Aunor, tended to be downgraded by the FFCC because of its association with the regime, among other reasons. This persisted even with Lino Brocka’s post-Marcos (and post-Cannes) switch to developing projects for the outfit, including a number of Cuneta films, as well as his merger of politics and commercial appeal in Gumapang Ka sa Lusak (1990), whose success on both fronts caught him by surprise and led to his attempts to commission a series of similar projects – all cut short by his sudden demise. The first major local artist to accept a Viva-melodrama assignment was Laurice Guillen, whose Kung Mahawi Man ang Ulap (1984) not only affirmed the rich potential available in still-scorned komiks-sourced material but also signalled the audience’s readiness to accept the narrative of a woman directly confronting a patriarchally dominated system, and winning.

11011The Viva contribution persisted beyond the Marcos era and even introduced postfeminist notions: in Eddie Garcia’s Saan Nagtatago ang Pag-ibig? (1987), women realize a solidarity among themselves by rejecting familial arrangements, while in Chito Roño’s Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali? (1990), a network of women succeeds in excluding the interests of men by openly misbehaving against (though eventually reconciling with) one another. In fact, Elwood Perez’s Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit (1989), regarded as the ultimate Filipino melodrama, can be considered an acknowledgment of the triumph of what became known then as the Viva Films house look, a successful branding strategy that relied on surface gloss and visual excess that, to be sure, was used in a number of insidious ways as well.

11011A extraordinary achievement in Philippine melodrama, Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s independently produced Milagros (1997), made use of elements of sex-film intrigues in order to disclose the strength and nobility behind a “ridiculous” woman’s willingness to repay her late impoverished father’s debt by servicing an all-male household while aspiring to consummate a pilgrimage to a mystical destination; more than Ishmael Bernal’s Nunal sa Tubig (1976), Milagros may be espoused as the Philippines’s supreme “category e” sample, operating on several prodigious levels of authorial, generic, narratological, and cinematic aporias. From an institutional perspective, the now-historical millennial success of romantic comedies enjoyed primarily by Star Cinema (including two exemplary mature-woman texts featuring Sharon Cuneta, Olivia M. Lamasan’s Minsan Minahal Kita from 2000 and Jose Javier Reyes’s Kung Ako Na Lang Sana from 2003) can also be traced to the production traditions set by Viva Films. In fact the genre-transformative samples of the primary rom-com practitioner of the present, Irene Villamor’s Meet Me in St. Gallen (2018) and On Vodka, Beers, and Regrets (2020), were both Viva-produced.

11011The institution has dominated the Philippines’s streaming subscription services via its Vivamax arm, and has inevitably participated in the politicization of film-prod discourse mentioned in the opening of “From Cloud to Resistance.” Of the contending filmmakers, right-wing apologist Darryl Yap has in fact provided an indispensable entry, Sarap Mong Patayin (2021), which must be ascribed for now to an idiot-savantish fluke, whereas Vince Tañada’s artistic promise lies in his future attempts. Other directors with avowedly political intentions worth noting would be Joselito Altarejos (with an ongoing trilogy that expresses leftist commitment in terms of queer sexual preferences) and Joel Lamangan, who has been able to recently fulfill an early commitment to infuse entertainment with social discourse. A definite “category e” tinkerer who started out by specializing in Ishmael Bernal’s multicharacter innovations is one more Vivamax talent, Lawrence Fajardo, while long-term practitioner Jun Lana, with his recent non-Viva product Big Night (2021), has proved himself ready to confront the tricky challenge of upending conventional-seeming material with creative handling.

End of Appendix

Back to top


From Cloud to Resistance (2nd of 2 parts)

TOWARD A MORE RESPONSIVE CRITICAL PRACTICE

[Click here for the opening section]

Before concluding our consideration of the applicability of what has proved to be an effective and engaging, though admittedly difficult, set of prescriptions from an avowedly progressive Western sector, I ought to stress that the goal here is not to substitute one set of left-appropriated dogmas (either the orthodox left’s or the FFCC’s) with another. Rather, the goal is to explore a new, necessarily open-ended approach to see what destinations it might lead to, not just for Filipino critics but for local practitioners as well.

11011In the previous half, we considered the types of films that Comolli and Narboni warned against accepting wholesale – those that unironically uphold reactionary material using conventional technique. They caution that even with “political” subject matter (as well as the “realist” orientations advanced by advocates of cinéma-direct, promoted in the Philippines by the UPFI’s predecessor, the UP Film Center), the uncritical adoption of standardized narrative treatments and the assumption that the depiction of what is real is capable of presenting truth: these need to be regarded as complicit with the arsenal of tricks used by the dominant ideology to maintain the delusive goal behind acceptable capitalist entertainment, which is to lull audiences into accepting the certainties that their respective social spheres assure them as the reality they recognize and operate from within.

11011Hence the authors’ opprobrium regarding artists who identify as progressive but who fail to realize that any alternative they set up to replace the system they rail against “takes no account of the fact that any other system is bound to be a reflection of the one [they wish] to avoid.” In much the same way, they assert that “every film is political” (underscoring theirs), which makes it essential to create a category to problematize films “which have an explicitly political content … but which do not effectively criticize the ideological system in which they are embedded because they unquestioningly adopt its language and its imagery.” This categorization would suffice to apply to the general run of nearly all the movies identified as explicitly or metaphorically against the historic martial-law dictatorship, whether made during the Marcos regime or afterward, regardless of the responses of the FFCC or European film festivals. The only challenge here would be to point out how and why these texts fall short.

11011As I also strove to demonstrate previously, not all such attempts failed. But the recognition provided by local taste-mongers would prove to be inadequate barometers of these film samples’ worth: some garnered limited rewards, many more passed under the radar, so to speak, and in a few cases even endured disapprobation from people who should have known better. The case of our most avowedly political filmmaker, Lino Brocka, is instructive: his exposure to an arena of exhibition and distribution that rewarded him for conforming to its idea of what a proper Third-World artist should be, merely served to delay his own growth as practitioner. But even with his too-short persistence into the post-Marcos era, Filipino filmmakers were afforded a useful model for emulation, or even resistance.

Back to top

Continuities

It is in this recognition of Brocka’s own martial law-era discourse extending beyond the first Marcos presidency that we find works like the contemporary contending releases, one favoring and the other disavowing the era of military dictatorship. (The psychosis that induces an artist to believe that any instance of tyranny can be justified deserves its own separate treatment, which this article unfortunately cannot cover satisfactorily; the forces of reaction may resolve to find ways to upgrade their own aesthetic practice, which is tantamount to an oxymoronic pursuit, but the goal for progressive players is to leave them behind, rather than match their mediocrity.)

11011A few locally produced post-Marcos-era texts may be regarded as incontrovertibly fulfilling the requirement of simultaneously challenging both ideological material and ideological form, in effect honoring the legacy of the Second Golden Age practitioners better than most academic write-ups and formal recognition mechanisms (here or in Europe – same difference) have been able to do. Once more, we need to exercise caution in going over these samples: a couple succeeded in garnering institutional honors, but the rest continue to reside in a limbo that local critics have been unable to break open because of their tendency, per Comolli and Narboni, to aim “either for speculation (commentary, interpretation, de-coding even) or for spacious raving[1] … [rather than providing] a rigidly factual analysis of what governs the production of a film (economic circumstances, ideology, demand and response) and the meanings and forms appearing in it, which are equally tangible.”

11011Hence the admittedly delimited practice of post-Marcos “martial-law cinema” will benefit from the close evaluation of works like Chito S. Roño’s Curacha: Ang Babaeng Walang Pahinga (1998), ostensibly a sequel of the same director’s Marcos-era debut, Private Show (1984), but opening with an unexpectedly marvelous incident that implicitly contrasts the Catholic establishment’s seizure of political power with military rebels’ less-successful attempts; Mario O’Hara’s Pangarap ng Puso (2000), a fabular tale that proceeds to subvert historical perception alongside its characters’ political radicalization; Jeffrey Jeturian’s Tuhog (2001), the realization of a script originally intended as a production of the Marcos film agency, which exposes the manner in which sex films bastardize their underprivileged real-life source materials for the sake of maximizing lucrative sensationalism; Khavn’s Balangiga: Howling Wilderness (2017), a dramatization of the country’s first 20th-century colonization trauma that focalizes the unbearable via the perspective of a child responding to his infernal environment with wonderment and courage and heartbreak; and Brillante Ma Mendoza’s Resbak (2021), an ostensibly standardized staging of the impact of bureaucrat-capitalist corruption on a typical slum resident that builds up to the title’s realizable vision of retributive justice in the face of the social order’s self-restoration. For a cinéma-direct sample, I can only name for now a special case, Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil’s Indigo Child (2016), the coverage of a play on military torture wherein the psychiatrically devastated victim’s accounts are complemented by digital mediations that raise essential questions of historical credibility.

11011One may insist on a dogmatic reading of the Cahiers du Cinéma editorial in order to point out a number of other titles I overlooked. At this stage, however, it would be expedient to foreground an assumption whose ubiquity could be taken for granted in French cinema – so much so that it did not have to be articulated beside the many other words of caution specified by the authors. This would be the relative affordability of film production in the First World, coupled with the reliability of film subsidy and patronage in Europe. As a result, a wide array of film practice would be more financially viable in the specific historical context that the article addresses – a condition that the contemporary digitalization of film comes close to approximating, though still with vital differences in place.

11011Hence the added criterion that I took pains to observe, for which I consistently get denounced by apologists for the UPFI/FFCC axis: the requisite of popular appeal or, as perfectly phrased by a Pinay filmmaker, observing a non-negotiable respect for the mass audience[2] (it can never be emphasized enough that capitalists should be allowed to recover their expenses only as a strategic measure, to be able to finance more projects). Not all works that follow this principle garner commercial success, inasmuch as the elements that factor into this type of result are actually rarely perfectly conducive with one another. Yet we should insist on recognizing and respecting any instance where a filmmaker intends to ensure that her production project recover its cost, and once more, just to be clear: not as a means of enriching her investor, but for the sake of maintaining the continuation of production activity.

11011Nevertheless, in what should be regarded as an unnatural, opportunistic, yet also ultimately workable option, a privileged circle of Filipino practitioners has been able to purvey the support of the film-culture elite in Pinas (usually working in conjunction with European filmfest impresarios) into sustaining the production of a series of deliberately alienating material that purports to provide political or historical discourse. Understandably, global scholars without immediate access to Philippine popular culture will have no other choice except to work through this type of output. Filipino scholars who do the same are exercising their right to write according to their preference, but we should hesitate in accepting their claim to progressivity, regardless of the frameworks and buzzwords they trumpet. For if a Philippine practitioner has been able to convince Western (or Westernized) investors that they could assuage their postcolonial guilt by throwing money at a film project that has minimal or no chance of earning back its expense, then that may be counted as a separate though minor victory all its own, with concomitant Western acclaim as frosting on the madeleine. Critics groups might believe that some glamour rubs off on them when they mimic Western award-givers, but the only historical question that must be asked here is devastatingly simple: how authentic is a product that makes use of native elements but guarantees that only non-natives will be able to tolerate it?

Back to top

Final Category

A corollary to this concern for popular acceptance is the manner in which films that belong to the very first category mentioned by Comolli and Narboni – where they described the majority of film productions as belonging to this order of output that neither politicizes its material nor devises ways to expose, if not subvert, the mechanisms of ideology – should be treated. In the era of new media, when the possibility of comprehensive commentary has become increasingly realizable, the act of dismissing an entire group of entries should not be regarded as tantamount to ignoring them altogether. What should be cultivated by what they termed scientific criticism is discursive action, with activism always a potential ideal. A textual failure, for example, requires that film critics “look into the way the ideological system and its products merge at all levels: to study the phenomenon whereby a film being shown to an audience becomes a monologue, in which the ideology talks to itself.”

11011In fact, Comolli and Narboni prescribe a more passive response to their fifth category (out of seven – the final two were covered in the previous section): “we have absolutely no intention of joining the current witch-hunt against [these films]…. They criticize themselves, even if no such intention is written into the script, and it is irrelevant and impertinent to do so for them. All we want to do is show the process in action.” The advantage of hindsight allows us to see that the more mature a national industry has become, the more films than in any category, other than the first, wind up in this category. Unsurprisingly, these films could be mistaken by careless observers as classifiable in the first category, “at first sight [belonging] firmly within the ideology and to be completely under its sway, but which turn out to be so only in an ambiguous manner. For though they start from a non-progressive standpoint, ranging from the frankly reactionary through the conciliatory to the mildly critical, they have been worked upon, and work, in such a real way that there is a noticeable gap, a dislocation, between the starting point and the finished product.”

11011The article’s elaboration on this category, about as long as the first one, turns on an awareness and acceptance of deconstructive principles. This places young Filipino critics at a grave disadvantage, since this now-standard Western approach still has to be introduced in the country’s secondary and core university curricula. Intensive self-study in poststructural philosophies and methods should therefore be part of the basic training for aspiring critical practitioners, inasmuch as the right-wing clericalist domination of Philippine education still has to be dismantled.[3] Other historical and theoretical contexts presumed in the article will also have to be pursued more intensively in specialized film studies, starting with the film-realist concepts of André Bazin and the politique des auteurs of the New-Wave participants in Cahiers du Cinéma (already mentioned in the previous section’s historical contextualizing).[4] All of these will have to be worked through even before the study of deconstruction can be initiated, which in turn will bring the serious critic up to date on the theoretical concepts in film theory right after Bazin effectively declared an end to concerns with the specificities of the medium.

11011For these reasons I would recommend caution in the two opposed tendencies we find in politicized Philippine film criticism: either a leapfrogging from the humanist pseudo-Marxism underlying the auteurism that enables critics everywhere to imagine themselves in conversation with the global film community, to contemporary abstractions in identity or intersectional activism, usually adopted without the authors’ appreciation of how these were rooted in a now seemingly distant call to read Marxist texts anew and reconfigure these discoveries in the constantly evolving present; or a return to some form of Marxist orthodoxy, usually affirmed by organizational practice, with necessarily a resolute denial of how circumstances in the specific ideas’ historical context exposed the weaknesses and inadequacies of the ideas in question, and how these had to be replaced with more useful applications. As usual in materialist cultural studies, a tracking of the circuits of pelf and power will reveal which critical institutions benefit from these twin reactive ideologies of auteurism and high-brow aestheticization of film discourse; concerned critical thinkers owe it to themselves, the mass audience, and outstanding practitioners, to identify the UPFI/FFCC and call to question its members’ claims to progressive credibility, instead of allowing the axis to trap them in an unnecessary, unproductive, and unending orbit.

Back to top

Filmic Implications

All this hemming and hawing on my end though is in fact a prelude to a final spot of brightness. Despite the editorial authors’ near-virtual dismissal of films in this fifth group (sometimes called “category e” – see Appendix), the study of these types of works and the artists who created them has constituted the largest body of film criticism in the West’s politicized journals. It provided an impetus for revaluating the earlier Cahiers batch members’ appreciation of the works of Alfred Hitchcock as well as their recuperation of B-(and lower-)film productions. The challenge is something that only genuine film connoisseurs will be able to welcome, rather than fraudsters who make a pretense at upholding outmoded political ideals and use their commitments as an excuse to spend as little time as possible in repeatedly watching entries that they admit fondness for, delving into the films’ production circumstances, inspecting how these apparatuses reconfigure themselves as transmitters of pleasure, querying how their appreciation of the films’ political achievements matches those of the audience, and so on.

11011One means by which these types of more definitively materialist and observational criticism can be facilitated is via a more intensive awareness of the political economy of the studios and governmental institutions responsible for film production and policy implementation. Even in the instance of “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism,” this lack was immediately noted, critiqued, and addressed by Western film scholars. The not-so-great news for progressively inclined Filipino critics is that these studies will also have to be undertaken, if we desire to have more solid grounding for the practice of post-canonical, anti-auteurist, genuinely politically responsive film appreciation in the Philippines.

Back to top

Notes

The idea of using the Cahiers du Cinéma editorial to critique the state of Pinas film criticism stemmed from intensive discussions with the participants of a short Pelikulove online course held during March-April 2022; thanks to enrollees Manuel A. Alindogan Jr., Ace Balbarez, Roland Cartagena, Luna Sicat Cleto, Christine Marie L. Magpile, Homer B. Novicio, Ryan Oquiza, Josh Paradeza, and Jianne Piguing, and auditors Jerrick Josue David, Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, and Raffy Tejada. The article is for unaffiliated Philippine film critics, among whom Jojo Devera, Epoy Deyto, and Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr. have continued to provide me with useful insights over the years. I can only keep hoping that my output becomes worthy of the high standards they maintain for themselves.

[1] This may have been a typo for “specious,” although the non-literal definition of “spacious” can also make sense, in a less useful way.

[2] This was stated in a number of interviews by Marilou Diaz-Abaya, which I recollected in the obituary I wrote on her. See “The Carnal Moral of a Brutal Miracle,” Millennial Traversals: Outliers, Juvenilia, & Quondam Popcult Blabbery (Part II: Expanded Perspectives) (Quezon City: Amauteurish Publishing, 2019): 24-28.

[3] One of the ironies in the ongoing years-long attempt to revise the country’s education curriculum is that the participants are mostly associated with secular institutions. The members of the conservative left, having been rooted in state universities (where they once epitomized the only radical option during the latter Cold-War era, roughly coexistent with the Marcos dictatorship), now benefit too immensely from the control of perks, positions, grants, exchanges, and so on, to be able to initiate significant adjustments in their ideological positions. This resembles the “retreat” of Western leftists to the halls of academia after May ’68, with one crucial difference: those practitioners made use of a free and stable environment in order to continually develop their critique of orthodox Marxism, to make it more useful for contemporary conditions.

[4] Despite acknowledging André Bazin’s contributions, the Cahiers editorial writers preferred to endorse Sergei Eisenstein’s revolutionary praxis. They also repudiated the phenomenological positivism of the then-fashionable Maurice Merleau-Ponty as well as the mechanical materialism of orthodox Marxists and the debates on economic determinism that it generated, while acknowledging the usefulness of Louis Althusser’s critiques of both Stalinism and Marxist humanism as well as the semiotic tradition that emerged from Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic studies. I am unaware which of Mikhail Bakhtin’s texts were already available in France around this time, although Comolli and Narboni evince an awareness of dialogism. I would strongly suggest an inspection of the carnivalesque for the purpose of furthering progressivity in media practice, but this notion seems to have bypassed the authors.

Appendix: “Category E” Samples
[Posted separately]

Works Cited

Comolli, Jean-Luc, and Jean Narboni. “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism.” Cahiers du Cinéma editorial (October 1969): 11-15. Trans. Susan Bennett. Screen 12.1 (Spring 1971): 27-36.

David, Joel. “Pinoy Film Criticism: A Lover’s Polemic.” Manila Review 3 (August 2013): 6-8.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement Image and Cinema 2: The Time Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson, Barbara Habberjam, and Robert Galeta. New York: Athlone Press, 1983 & 1985.

“On Poetics and Practice of Film Criticism in the Philippines: A Roundtable Discussion.” Ed. Patrick F. Campos. Plaridel: A Philippine Journal of Communication, Media, and Society 13.1 (June 2016): 148-87.

Back to top


From Cloud to Resistance (1st of 2 parts)

THE PROBLEM OF OUR CRITICAL APPROACHES

You are so fortunate, a colleague from my long-ago activist past told me, that the debate over political ideals is now being conducted in terms of rival releases. Typically I neither assented nor disagreed, since I didn’t know how to tease out the implications of the statement. For one thing, I wasn’t in the spaces where the conflicts were taking place – the cinemas of the urban capital, rather than in one or more of the streaming services available to overseas viewers. For another thing, I was familiar with the “canon” of anti-dictatorship texts, most of them films and books, with certain netizens bravely circulating links to digital files intended to showcase the most vital among the films that took a stance against the regime of Ferdinand Marcos (Sr.), some of them even while he was still in power. (A similar collection of PDFs has also been in circulation, and I enjoin readers who have the hard-drive space to download what they can, if only out of duty to liberal commitments, while taking care to continue reading.) Finally the national university’s film institute, which I was instrumental in founding, announced a number of simultaneous courses on film and martial law, which I imagine draw up screenings of works intended to highlight the most exemplary samples, possibly many of the same titles that appear in the aforementioned collection of links.

11011With the essential proviso that I have neither seen the twin battling films of the moment, nor glanced at the still-unposted syllabi of the University of the Philippines Film Institute courses, I maintain that it would still be possible to draw up a critique of contemporary critical approaches to what we might term “martial-law cinema” in the Philippines. The critique necessarily has to begin with the institution that purports to provide guidance in endorsing supposedly appropriate methods for evaluating cinema: the UPFI itself, which was molded by personalities associated with the Filipino Film Critics Circle (hereafter FFCC), whose most senior member claimed critical credibility on the basis of belonging to a group that handed out incorruptible (in his words, non-purchasable) awards. This was apparently in response to a critique of Filipino film criticism that I published almost a decade ago, where I deplored the model proffered by the FFCC – a predictable series of evaluations predicated on the prospect of announcing nominees and winners on an annual basis, premised on the false assumption that a finalized organic work can be broken down and discussed according to discrete creative, histrionic, and technical elements.

11011To the FFCC’s credit, after sponsoring a UPFI “roundtable” held while I had to attend my overseas classes where my points were assailed without naming either me or the article I wrote, the group’s awards started exhibiting a concern for ideological discourse, which their elder members insisted on announcing especially during instances when the result of their choices for winners raised more issues than they resolved. All that this served to do, however, was paper over the larger issue that I raised: that in so far as film criticism should be concerned, award-giving can only be a secondary concern at least, or at best should be of zero concern whatsoever. To make matters worse, the FFCC’s guiding lights appeared to take the cue from their supposedly most highly qualified member, who outlined a prescription for evaluating the worthiness of films. The best ones, he asserted, should deal explicitly with poverty while using high-art principles; works that refuse to eschew what he derided as mainstream aesthetics should be condemned as essentially reactionary.

Back to top

What Dreams Have Gone

One can and should date the source of these progressive-sounding notions. A Western school of Marxism refused the orthodox (Soviet) reduction of artworks and literature to the nature of the economic systems that generated them – which is to say, successful socialist works can only be produced in a socialist system. The positive contribution of this new school – which at one point did call itself New School – was to allow authors to operate within pre-socialist systems, following the orthodox teleology of capitalism eventually succumbing to socialism. You can imagine how such a rejection of orthodox prescriptions could induce guilt in Christianized (especially Catholicized) practitioners, including critics, despite the fact that they were finally permitted to indulge in pop-culture commentary. This is why this school insisted on upholding the “highest” aesthetic standards formulated by modernism, which was after all the ultimate goal of post-capital development. This is the reason why this school’s acolytes in the Philippines could think it only appropriate to select their most-awarded filmmaker as their youngest life-achievement winner; the reality that the mass audience (not just in the Philippines) will never be persuaded to attend the screening of black-and-white movies dominated by extremely long shots with running times reaching up to 11 hours didn’t seem to be an issue whatsoever with these trophy-givers.

11011Hence Filipino movie-goers can be occasionally interested in politicized discourses in films, as they are at the moment and as they had been in the past. But in the general course of film history, they will turn to whatever available fare of “reactionary” material happens to be on offer, whether these be sex, violence, toilet-humor comedy, feel-good fantasies, melodramas on the rich and powerful, regurgitations of the latest global film trend, and so on. Within this scenario, critics and professors will feel justified in their uppity disdain for mass culture and continue insisting on so-called progressive material infused with the exclusivist aesthetics that they presumably studied and assimilated, pointing to mass rejection as proof that they deserve to latch onto their institutional perks while they patiently seek to disseminate their ideals via awards, courses, books, articles, and reviews.

11011This would be the kind of scenario we should all settle for if there weren’t any other option available. But I would not be writing this if this were so. The failure of the UPFI/FFCC axis is in insistently overlooking the aforementioned option, actually a once-new though now long-established progressive tradition, for the sake of maintaining their claims to credibility, premised on handing out recognition to the practitioners they favor (and withholding the same to practitioners they wish to punish, but that’s an entire other can of worms). From this point it should be evident that a bit of overseas historical contextualizing will be necessary, and most of it was overlooked by Noypi progressives – mainly because it didn’t directly involve the then-flourishing socialist bloc and it bypassed the country’s neocolonial centers (specifically the US and Vatican State); its impact on Western film studies, though, was immediate and overwhelming and still persistent, but one would not be able to appreciate its prevalence if one remained ignorant of its origin.

Back to top

Geneses

The event that marked this turning point in Western film discourse was the May 1968 upheaval in Paris. It’s considered the closest instance that a Western country ever came to a Marxist revolution; the fact that it failed became the starting point for reconsidering the principles and strategies behind socialist ideals, with the then-existent systems increasingly labeled as “orthodox” or “vulgar” in their misreadings and misappropriations of progressive thinkers starting with good old Karl. The full-scale collapse of this bloc around two decades later, in a series of mostly peaceful upheavals, led to a renewal of debates and expressions of mourning, with Communism returning to the spectral position that it had earlier assumed in The Communist Manifesto.

11011Progressive cultural scholars did not look on helplessly during all this time; neither were they content to rely on prescriptions that preceded May 1968 (which groups like the FFCC apparently regard as sufficient for their purposes). The male critics who advocated for a dubious filmic revolution, who converged in the early editions of Cahiers du Cinéma, had moved on to flourishing careers as the guiding lights of the French New Wave. If you want to look into the aspiration of film institutions, including the UPFI, to train young people to become film critics who could later succeed as directors, it all derives from an attempt to replicate a cultural phenomenon that should have occurred only once, in a developed society primed for this kind of intervention, with standard film language still straining to break free of Classical Hollywood strictures. To see it being reconfigured as a model worthy of emulation in cultural contexts far removed from Cold War tensions and late-European modernity, is to find parodic elements emerging in the mix; to insist that it can be productively applied to a postcolonial culture necessarily positioned against Euro-American traditions, is to find parody slipping into pathos.

11011By the time the late 1960s rolled around, the original French New-Wave batch was sufficiently ensconced in their country’s film establishment while a new generation of Cahiers critics, politicized yet wary of a wholesale rejection of historical lessons, found its approaches challenged by a more trad-left publication, Cinéthique. In late 1969, Cahiers published its groundbreaking editorial titled “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism,” initially a short dozen pages that ventured to explain its stance toward what constituted films that were worthy of critical attention (a translated copy of which is uploaded here). The article listed seven categories under which films may be classified, with the first three describing the types of films that may be regarded without reservation. The first category, comprising films that should be dismissed, would be works that “are imbued through and through with the dominant ideology in pure and unadulterated form, and give no indication that their makers were even aware of the fact.” Significantly, this covers the majority of productions, “even those whose discourse is explicitly political” (a later category covers this seeming contradiction more definitively). The next two categories, comprising works that the publication welcomed as its objects of study, would be “those [films] which attack their ideological assimilation … by direct political action, on the level of the ‘signified,’ … [and by formal innovation, when they] challenge the concept of ‘depiction’ and mark a break with the tradition embodying it” in one category; and in another, those films which operate like the second case, “whose content is not explicitly political, but in some way becomes so through the criticism practiced on it through its form.”

11011With this enumeration of categories, the editorial authors, Jean-Luc Comolli and Paul Narboni, not only signalled their acceptance of long-standing progressive ideals in aesthetic evaluation; they also engaged in what was even then a problematic reduction of a collaborative product into elements that could be more clearly distinguished before the entire process of production has been completed. The separation of content from form could prove tricky enough in the fine arts and literature, as anyone who attempts to compare, say, a ratty volume of a Sergei Eisenstein collection on stained newsprint with barely stable binding, with one of the FFCC’s ultra-elegant and generously illustrated coffee-table anthologies, will realize. One ought to cost more than the other, but then the FFCC’s, may we say, uncritical acquiescence to the values of (among other things) bourgeois comfort, Western institutional validation, and ideological stagnation – should no longer render surprising their conviction that their decisions are beyond assailment. I would pay more for the Eisenstein, and so should you, but we may have to wait for too long before an FFCC anthology sells at the price it deserves to be pegged at.

Back to top

Refinements

The last two items listed by Comolli and Narboni concern a larger category of a once-flourishing venture called cinéma direct (actually a specialized approach to documentary film practice), so we may mention them next for representing just as small a proportion of output as the favored initial categories. The first, more typical sample would be those that “suffer under the primary and fundamental illusion that if they once break off the ideological filter of narrative traditions … reality will then yield itself up in its true form,” a flawed assumption since “reality holds within itself no hidden kernel of self-understanding, of theory, of truth,” where “ideology goes on display to prevent itself from being shown up for what it really is, contemplates itself but does not criticize itself.” In the second type of “‘live cinema,’ [the] director is not satisfied with the idea of the camera ‘seeing through appearances,’ but attacks the basic problem of depiction by giving an active role to the concrete stuff of his film, [thus making it] productive of meaning and not just a passive receptacle for meaning produced outside it (in the ideology).” The final category, per the authors, deserves the same treatment as the second and third groups mentioned previously, where evaluators are tasked to demonstrate “how the films operate critically on the level of signified and signifiers” – or in so many words, how they succeed as progressive texts.

11011In the case of Philippine films, overt political discourse is extremely rare since an atmosphere of a special type of real-life anxiety (most obviously, political campaigns) first has to be fostered in order to convince viewers to attend to works that purport to deal with provisory issues, just as other films get produced according to certain pop-culture markers: sports or beauty-contest victories, dramatic (preferably bloody) combat stories, rags-to-riches narratives, lurid sex crimes, bedroom-to-boardroom scandals of the rich and powerful, and so on. Hence one has to be prepared to accept a certain degree of awkward, sometimes inadequate technical competence if one were to scout for passable samples, with critical responses sometimes on the mark, more often way off. From the First Golden Age of the 1950s studio system, Gregorio Fernandez’s Malvarosa (1958) presents a large impoverished family, frontlined by their youngest daughter, struggling against a callous and indomitable patriarchal system, while the post-studio system’s Sa Atin ang Daigdig (dir. Cesar J. Amigo, 1965) reworks a similar situation of a poor woman confronting challenges to her social mobility using the unexpected framework of a romantic comedy.

11011The martial-law period (1972-86) of Ferdinand E. Marcos ironically led to a flowering of filmic expressions, primarily because the dictatorship regarded cinema as an ideal showcase for its claims to benevolence, with the country’s artists concomitantly finding in the medium an opportunity to practice their respective professions while being able to earn a decent living. Before Lino Brocka or Ishmael Bernal came up with genuinely progressive texts using Cahiers du Cinéma’s prescription of transforming form alongside content (which, to be clear, Brocka’s 1975 Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag fails on several levels at attempting), Celso Ad. Castillo stepped up with Daluyong at Habagat in 1976, and Elwood Perez countered the next year with Masikip, Maluwang: Paraisong Parisukat (alongside Castillo’s far-less-vital Burlesk Queen). Perez’s work was resolutely ignored by most local observers, while Daluyong at Habagat was bafflingly excoriated by both conservative and progressive members of the FFCC. As a result, several of the aforementioned films, except for Malvarosa and Maynila, are either extremely rare or lost.

11011What tends to trip up local evaluators is the relationship of progressive film discourse with genre. The FFCC and its ilk adheres to a Marxian prescription tethered to the mid-20th-century celebration of the revolutionization of film technique via the innovations introduced by the French New Wave. From the perspective of US-dominated global distribution, these products were initially arthouse material, particularly in contexts (including the US’s) that required specialized handling, including exemptions from censorship. The keyword here is “initially”: once any innovation becomes viable in the sense of being both affordable and profitable, it inevitably gets cannibalized and plugged into a system of blanket commodification. What was posited as the challenge to the hegemony of Classical Hollywood posed by the transmogrification of New-Wave principles to a just-as-hegemonic European art cinema (unfortunately accepted as a progressive standard by an over-eager but surprisingly inadequately prepared Gilles Deleuze in his Cinema books) eventually devolved into a generic formularization that can be deduced from the Brocka “triumphs” at Cannes Film Festival: observant of Classical Hollywood narrative unities, tackling realist subject matter reflective of the country’s Third-World condition, with a nihilistic or defeatist resolution that signals the decadence and/or desperation that a neocolonial dictatorship levies on its population.

11011The reduction of Euro art-film practice to increasingly remunerative generic practice should not be surprising to long-term observers of global film trends. But rather than point out how deplorable this way of all flesh, or celluloid, has turned out, I prefer to point back to the remaining categories in the Cahiers editorial, after this admittedly subjective recollection of what our progressive-film achievements have been. What should not surprise us is how the filmmakers under discussion regarded it as their prerogative to deploy whatever genre happened to lend itself to commercial exploitation at their specific moment of production. The question of worthiness among genres has of course been a constant stumbling block in narrative criticism, preceding film analyses by several centuries of literary practice. Even Comolli and Narboni were experienced enough to describe the “ideological filter” of narrative in no uncertain terms as “not the most important one.”[1]

11011Not surprisingly, it would take Brocka’s breakaway from his Cannes contacts for him to embark on what was an auspicious start in progressive film production, with his multigeneric metatextual Gumapang Ka sa Lusak (1990). Certain gestures toward this achievement were made earlier, in Gregorio Fernandez’s trailblazing Hukom Roldan (1957) as well as Mike de Leon’s shift from metaphorical treatments to the more openly (though timidly) metonymic Sister Stella L. (1984). Prior to these achievements by the country’s globally recognized auteurs, Bernal carved out a vigorous social critique while developing a distinctly homegrown genre, the multicharacter film format, with two films that should more properly be regarded as an originator text and its sequel: Aliw (1979) and Manila by Night (1980).[2] Further studies will need to be done to answer the question of why such a productive individual was never able to attain the several future peaks that these mid-career concoctions promised. Meanwhile we need to move on to the crux of our argument on Philippine political cinema, proceeding from the rest of the categories brought up in the Cahiers editorial.

Notes

Acknowledgments appear in the Notes section of the second (concluding) part of this article.

[1] See Barbara Klinger’s “‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’ Revisited” in the Film Genre Reader (ed. Barry Keith Grant, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986, pp. 74-90) for a provocative – though necessarily dated – formulation of what might constitute a progressive genre film. In a contemporaneous volume titled Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner enact a similar enumeration of properties to identify a progressive film text beyond generic requisites, but include the useful admonition that “the criterion for judging such matters should be pragmatic, one that measures the progressive character of a text according to how well it accomplishes its task in specific contexts of reception. What counts as progressive varies with time and situation, and what works in one era or context might fail in another. Moreover, the notion of progressive is always differentially or relationally determined” (268). The Cahiers du Cinéma editorial may be problematized within these terms, although we can maintain for now that its focus on content and form furnishes it with transhistorical value.

[2] I elaborated on the multicharacter narrative mode, including a discussion of its radical potential as well as its impact on Philippine cinema, in my book on Bernal’s 1980 film, Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017).

[Click here for the concluding section]

Back to top


Artist in a Hurry

There will always be ambivalence surrounding the Filipino word for performer: artista. The word it suggests in English is in many ways opposed to the notion of an artist, who supposedly stands apart from issues of popularity and financial success. This is why the first film star recognized as National Artist, Nora Aunor, underwent such a difficult process that politicians involved in two successive final rounds regarded her omission as no big shakes.

11011Cherie Gil, who died before she could turn 60, started as a star, became an active and reliable supporting actress, left the country to attend to her family, and returned when she found she wasn’t cut out to merely be a wife to Rony Rogoff, a globally renowned violinist. When news of her death broke recently, folks in my limited netizen circle were as shocked as I was that she was already more than the sum of everything she was before she first departed, during the preceding millennium. Gil belonged to the renowned Eigenmann clan of performers, where ironically only her parents and elder sibling, Michael de Mesa, remain after another brother, Mark Gil, passed away in 2014; both he and Cherie were admirably stoical about keeping their illnesses private.

11011Before her mother, Rosemarie Gil, retired from acting, production projects that required a good-looking villainess only needed to decide whether she should be older or younger, then contact the Eigenmanns. Cherie Gil’s film appearances since her comeback were authoritative owing to a renewed seriousness, and radiant from the loveliness endowed by her mixed-race heritage; she opted to teach acting and study scriptwriting, signs of a restlessness of spirit; she produced her own dream project, a reworking of an earlier prestige project titled Oro, Plata, Mata (1982) with the same director, Peque Gallaga, in tandem with Lore Reyes.

11011Sonata, her 2013 Gallaga-Reyes production, brandishes what on paper might seem like a fantasy figure: an opera diva traumatized by losing her voice, who returns to her rural estate and learns to overcome her reclusive state by taking an interest in the several munchkins who hang around the place. Only someone who underwent an equivalent process in real life and resolved to heal her heartbreak by plunging into artistic fulfillment would be able to display the full measure that the character required, and we will always be fortunate that Gil was already exactly that person. She had portrayed a similar role onstage a few years earlier, as a vocally damaged Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s Master Class.

Back to top

11011It was these theatrical forays of hers that the local cognoscenti looked forward to, and Gil accommodated the offers whenever she could. The mass audience still had some catching up to do, but her pre-departure appearances were already proving iconic to different kinds of people. Her role as lesbian drug dealer Kano in Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night (1980) combined a tough exterior with a movingly self-destructive faith in true love,[1] while her performance in Bilanggo sa Dilim (1986), Mike de Leon’s exceptional video adaptation of John Fowler’s 1963 novel The Collector, presaged her triumphant collaboration with the same director’s Citizen Jake (2018), where she demonstrated how malignant damage could be delineated with a minimum of words and gestures.

11011It was her premillennial turn as nasty celeb Lavinia Arguelles, won over eventually by the humility of Sharon Cuneta’s loyal fandom in Bituing Walang Ningning (1985), that inspired generations of drag queens to memorize her single-sentence fulmination, glass of cold water at the ready. Cuneta posted the bittersweet farewell she was able to have in person with Gil – which led to the heavier realization that descended on observers: these were two chums who were able to mature together, in parallel but impressive ways, so many of us hoped it may only be a matter of time before Gil could persuade her BFF to explore the legitimate stage together with her.

11011That, and many other potential treats, will now only have to be relegated to the realm of speculation forever. But the lesson that Gil modeled for her generation of pop-culture jobholders abides: that one can always upgrade one’s craft, and in so doing, leave this world a better place even ahead of schedule. Politicians will always make their self-serving claims and will die off in time, but real art is what will always remain and be worth treasuring.

Note

First published August 7, 2022, in The FilAm, reprinted in The FilAm: Newsmagazine Serving Filipino Americans in New York 55 (September 2022). The author would like to acknowledge the information and feedback provided by Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., Jerrick Josue David (no relation), and Jojo Devera.

[1] In drafting my 2017 monograph Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic, I planned to interview the film’s most prominent then-surviving participants: production designer and script consultant Peque Gallaga, and the primary queer-character performers Bernardo Bernardo and Cherie Gil. Gallaga then had several Facebook posts which I could draw from, while BB proved to be such a printed-word raconteur that the series editors decided to use our Q&A exchange (originally posted on Ámauteurish!) as an appendix. Gil could only reply sparingly, apologetic that she could not remember much about that period of her life, which was understandable; I requested use of a photo that she had with BB for one of their dinner-theater productions and slated her for a possible future career lookback. All three are now gone, a reality that induced a personal degree of regret the moment I learned about Gil’s demise.

Back to top


A Formative Sojourn

The primary difficulty for me in writing this piece is that certain influential personalities are involved. Their ability to strike back (as they once already did) is not what gives me pause. The truth is that they’ve made a number of positive contributions, so I wouldn’t want to override the good they’ve done by providing an account of what they did wrong. I don’t have the expert fictionist’s skill in detailing moral triumph and failure in the same person, so the only claim I’ll make for now is that these were truths whose bases were definitive in my experience, but which I figured out only in retrospect, sometimes after years of doubts and after consultations with colleagues who were in a better position to clarify the issues I was pondering.

11011I’ll make my starting point the now-infamous article where I ascribed the problems of film criticism to the well-intentioned but ultimately calciferous influence of the Filipino Film Critics Circle (henceforth FFCC): it sought to provide a corrective to the corruption-ridden choices of the spurious Filipino film academy (about a half-decade before an actual film academy comprising practitioners’ guilds was formed), but could not extricate itself from the valorization that a supposedly credible awards system provided. My claim to credibility proceeds from the fact that I was once a member of this group, and attempted to redefine my membership to exclude my participation in its awards activity. I was dissuaded by the then-chair (now gone), and I realized, also in retrospect, that the group had no means of recognizing and initiating any activity – say, of advanced learning, which was my goal – that had nothing to do with its annual recognition ceremony.

11011So I strove to function as an unaffiliated critical practitioner, returning to college to pursue the country’s first undergraduate program in film, and garnering a “resident film critic” post in a short-lived weekly periodical (where my initially pen-named reviews led to an invitation to join the same critics’ org that I’d distanced myself from, until the group’s contact person uncovered my identity). It also led to my participation in alternative critics’ groups, with other former members as well as active critics who didn’t relish the idea of being identified with the group I left. After completing foreign graduate studies and returning to the Philippines, I was sounded out by all the existing critics groups that I’d been involved in, including the FFCC. I decided I could operate better by maintaining distance from these orgs, which was how I was able to formulate my critique of Philippine film criticism’s troubles being derived from the backward and unproductive example set by the FFCC.

11011The members’ response was over the top, although I should not have been surprised. Many of the members were officials at the University of the Philippines Film Institute, which I had set up and led until I left in disgust over the politicking indulged in by these same FFCC members. The then-dean said outright that he preferred faculty who got their degrees locally, like he did – a major hint that he wanted other FFCC members to take over my position; when his long-time ally and writer advised me that I was bound for more trouble if I stayed on, I took advantage of the lifting of the standard two-year travel ban for US-educated scholars and accepted an offer from a Korean university, also to be able to repay my graduate-student loans.

Back to top

11011When my critique lambasting the FFCC was published, the UPFI faculty organized a “roundtable” that I was unable to join because my teaching schedule had already begun. It turned out to be a Stalinist-style denunciation session where the UPFI participants cum FFCC members claimed, in so many words, that they did not deserve to be criticized – without naming me or the article I wrote. The same (now-former) dean who wanted me replaced by colleagues (who could not pass their screening committees because of alleged corruption) said that the most credible critics in the country were the ones who proved their integrity by dispensing awards “that could not be bought” (my translation of his words from the Filipino), in a transcription of a discussion that was subsequently deleted from the journal that reprinted the roundtable’s papers. What remained instead was still a carefully formulated set of specifications of “the qualifications that are necessary to be able to analyze and evaluate films well,” including “A healthy respect for other critics in order to encourage dialogue; and ¶Above all, an attitude of balance and fairness, which is free of all personal agenda and self-promotion.”

11011That of course was an intellectual fallacy premised on an extremely problematic assumption – that “other critics” are automatically worthy of respect and thereby deserve “an attitude of balance and fairness.” The more vital question in so far as my own approaches are concerned is: why was I anonymized? This is not a matter of egotism on my end, as those who know me will be able to attest; rather, it disenables the outside observer from tracking the writer’s source of annoyance and checking out the article I wrote, where I set my argument in no uncertain terms. Typically after the fact, I managed to deduct why the writer had to write that way: to put it bluntly, I’m not the one living in a glass house. In the same issue where the article came out, the lecture by that year’s Plaridel Awardee for Film was published. That awardee was Nora Aunor, who was not the first PAF; that distinction was given to Aunor’s rival, Vilma Santos, during the deanship of the same writer who responded to my critique of the FFCC.

11011In fact, the primary social-network controversy over the declaration of Aunor as recipient of the Order of the National Artist centered on why Santos did not get it at the same time, or even earlier than Aunor. Where did this conceit come from? Followers of Santos would need more than just her record as the first PAF, since Aunor was not only the first FFCC best actress winner but also the first in her batch of performers to win the FFCC life-achievement prize. The source of their clamor is: the FFCC gave more best-actress trophies to Santos, and those for Aunor were often shared with other winners. After years of going over the various historical incidents, in consultation with contemporaries who were also close observers during the period of these two performers’ emergence and rivalry, I concluded that I had enough to provide an explanatory account. It will involve exactly the same critical personality I’ve been referring to, regarded at the moment as the most senior authority among FFCC members, and it will not result in a rosy image. Even then, I’ll have to leave out a lot more supporting details just so we can follow the most basic narrative through-line.

11011Fortunately (in the ironic sense), my tenure with the FFCC covered the years when Santos won her first acting trophy, and followed it with two more in as many years – an FFCC record not equalled before or since. This specific personality I’ve been referring to, an FFCC founding member and former chair and subsequently former national university mass communication dean, was the most enthusiastic campaigner for Santos during this entire period. This caused major expressions of outrage during Santos’s first win, since Aunor was defeated for what was subsequently regarded as one of the best performances in local cinema. In fact the films of both actresses had the same director and scriptwriter, and both of them expressed strong disagreement with the results. (Personal disclosure: I was the first person to make this declaration regarding Aunor’s output, in an assessment of film performances during the Second Golden Age, which I was also first to name; I subsequently qualified my upholding of both items in updates to the lead article in my first book, The National Pastime.)

Back to top

11011Why did I and most other people not find anything suspicious about this member’s campaigns for Santos? Because, among other things, he had on record an article, typically old-fashioned in its reliance on dualisms in order to uphold orthodox-left principles. The article discussed a set of values in Philippine cinema, stating that then-current filmmaking practice was lacking because of its reliance on spectacle, martyr characters, optimistic narratives, but first and foremost, fair-skinned performers. The oppositions he raised would be easily deconstructible by college freshmen (though not in the Philippines, sadly) but in case we prove incapable of figuring it out, he proceeded to articulate the solutions. The first, of course, was in upholding “kayumanggi” or brown-colored actors, naming Aunor as first examplar.

11011Fast-forward to the current millennium, after Santos earned her record-breaking FFCC trophies even for performances that were vitally flawed like the first one she won for, and Aunor losing or tying with others during the several decades when she had peaked as performer. Why would this person desist from identifying me when I never hesitated to call out his organization and colleagues for their several problematic actuations? During a casual exchange with a former FFCC member who became a successful scriptwriter with his own gripes against the group, we got to talking about this anomaly and I suddenly made a deduction, which my conversation partner said he was aware of from the beginning. Because what was playing out, specifically with the person in question, was not admiration for Santos, but hostility toward Aunor. This became evident when I thought further back, during the year I first joined the group. Aunor nearly lost her second acting prize – for a film that she had favored for the yearend film festival. The film that she disfavored was the one that the critic in question had scripted.

11011One other conversation I had boosted this new interpretation of events. It was with the only surviving Second Golden Age filmmaker who had never won an FFCC award despite his coming up with the year’s best film at least twice. “They never gave me an award,” he told me, “because of what I did with [the FFCC member’s] script.” He described it as unworkable and even improperly formatted, so much so that he needed to ask a more experienced scriptwriter to help; said veteran writer was associated with non-prestigious commercial projects, so presumably the member felt insulted. This amounted to two people whom the member wanted to penalize, and the FFCC was the means by which he could carry it out. No wonder, after asserting his association with the FFCC and their fairness in dispensing their awards, he needed to be discreet in attacking me. And for the record, I may as well provide the essential conclusion: the relative artistic accomplishments of Vilma Santos and Nora Aunor, among others, were mostly only incidental considerations when it came to the FFCC deciding on whether or not they deserved to win.

Back to top

Á!


The Performances of Nora Aunor et al. (by Jojo Devera)

Click here to go directly to the list of entries.

Jojo Devera was already a highly regarded archivist, with perhaps the most comprehensive collection anywhere of Philippine film and television material on video. For processing some of the rarest significant items in his collection and making them available to the general public at no charge, he received a special prize from the Filipino Arts & Cinema International (FACINE) Film Festival in 2017. Unfortunately lawyers claiming to represent some of the country’s studios forced him to shut down his website, although academics were occasionally still able to avail from him of samples they needed for research. (Said studios posted their own collections on YouTube pages they set up during the pandemic, also for free but often in badly preserved, unprocessed, and/or censored versions.)

11011Since then, Devera focused on posting a series of remarkable reviews of remastered Filipino films on his Facebook account, evaluating the final output vis-à-vis their original celluloid properties, pointing out when necessary how the text’s signification process is enhanced, modified, or even betrayed by technological intervention. He also has an auteurist study of neglected Second Golden Age master Elwood Perez, titled Feel Beautiful, currently awaiting publication (personal disclosure: I agreed to provide a foreword for it).

11011Not long after this year’s announcement of the Order of the National Artists of the Philippines finally included Nora Cabaltera Villamayor, he embarked on a series of evaluations of Nora Aunor’s performance record, one film at a time, followed presently by performances of Aunor’s contemporaries in films made by the other National Artists for film (scriptwriter Ricky Lee and director Marilou Diaz-Abaya). Folks in my long-time critical circle immediately realized that this was one more contribution that had never been provided before in Philippine film commentary. I requested permission from Devera to upload his series in chronological order. It will continue to be updated with his more recent posts, and will be deleted from Ámauteurish! at some future point, when Devera finds a more useful means of compiling them.

11011Collages and audiovisual material appearing below are all from Devera’s Facebook posts. Sidebar pic is from Pag-ibig Ko’y Awitin Mo (dir. Eddie Rodriguez, 1977), also originally uploaded on his account by Devera, who owns copyright on these visual and textual materials. To jump directly to the performance assessment of a specific title, select the appropriate category below and click on the relevant entry:

Films that Feature Nora Aunor:

Bad Bananas sa Puting Tabing (1983);
Bakit May Kahapon Pa? (1996);
Batu-bato sa Langit (1975);
Beloved (1985);
Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit (1989);
Bona (1980);
Dalaga si Misis, Binata si Mister (1981);
Dementia (2014);
Greatest Performance (1989);
Himala (1982);
Kinabukasan (2014);
Kung Ako’y Iiwan Mo (1980);
Maalaala Mo Kaya? (1973);
Magnanakaw (1995);
’Merika (1984);
Minsan, May Isang Ina (1983);
Minsa’y Isang Gamu-Gamo (1976);
Naglalayag (2004);
Padre de Familia (2016);
Palengke Queen (1982);
Sidhi (1999);
Taklub (2015);
Tatlong Taóng Walang Diyos (1976);
Thy Womb (2012);
Ang Totoong Buhay ni Pacita M. (1991); and
Mga Uod at Rosas (1982).

Non-Films that Feature Nora Aunor:

• “Bubog na Dangal” (Lovingly Yours, Helen episode) (1983);
• “Kahit Konting Awa” (with song performance, 1985);
La Aunor … Beyond Time (with video excerpts, 1994);
Sa Ngalan ng Ina (2011);
• “Saan Ako Nagkamali” & “Kahit Na” (with song performances); and
• “Serye” (Star Drama Presents Nora episode, 1993).

Films that Feature Other Performers:

Baby Tsina (2004);
Brutal (1980);
A Hard Day (2021);
May Nagmamahal sa Iyo (1996);
Memories of a Love Story (2022);
Minsan Lang Kita Iibigin (1994);
Minsan Pa Nating Hagkan ang Nakaraan (1983); and
Sensual (1986).

POWERFUL SIMPLICITY
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, June 25, 2022)

In ’Merika (1984), director Gil M. Portes, with screenwriters Clodualdo del Mundo Jr. and Jose Gil Quito, did something quietly daring and different. The framework is refreshingly simple, but it never feels claustrophobic, boring, or lacking in anything. Probably because Nora Aunor breathes life into the plot, channeling a kind of rare and subdued power. I commend the source material for providing Aunor with a backdrop to do incredible work. Because the character of Milagros Cruz had room to be well-rounded and complex, Aunor was able to expand her character by way of an intelligent performance. She does something smart with Mila, something that aids the holistic vision of the film. Aunor imbues Mila with commanding subtlety, so that the simplification becomes an advantage. ’Merika is a film obsessed with identity, as most immigration narratives are, but if the titular character strips herself from belonging to any one place, we are certain that the woman standing before us belongs exactly where she is, onscreen.

11011In my opinion, ’Merika owes much of its success to Aunor. That’s not to say it isn’t a beautiful film, it just relies heavily on its lead to work. Aunor’s nuances, the way the whole narrative is refracted through her movements and at times what feels like just her eyes, carries the film through all its own quiet uncertainties. You can see the wheels spinning, wheels of both deliberation and trepidation, in Aunor’s eyes, as she deals with losing things and gaining others (new friends, a career, romance). It should be noted that Aunor’s chemistry with everyone in the film is palpable and that their performances are stunning. Still, I’d argue it’s only because of Aunor that ’Merika never becomes compromised by its own confinement, but rather heightened because of it. Her powerful simplicity mirrors that of the film, as she steadily grows into something much larger and more meaningful than the sum of its parts. It’s both rare and heartening to see a movie that grasps the poignancy of everyday life decisions, where to live, what job to take, who to partner with, and how to press forward when every road promises something gained and something forever lost.

Back to top

MEASURED INTENSITY
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, June 25, 2022)

The heroine of Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Taóng Walang Diyos (1976) is a woman of contradictory attributes that isn’t easy to imagine in the flesh. Rosario would seem too oversized to be embodied by any actress, even by an actress of extraordinary resourcefulness and versatility. Nora Aunor has already established herself as a performer of that caliber. She accomplishes the near-impossible, presenting Rosario in believably human terms. In a role affording every opportunity for overstatement, Aunor offers a performance of such measured intensity that the results are by turns exhilarating and heartbreaking. There is hardly an emotion that she doesn’t touch and yet we’re never aware of her straining. This is one of the most astonishing, unaffected and natural performances I can imagine. She looks more translucently beautiful and what Aunor has wrought, with O’Hara’s help, is a psychological verity for Rosario that is revealed through patterns of motion. She seems to be shunning the close scrutiny of others. Yes, she often faces people, often embraces, converses with them, but the overall impression of her movement is sidling, gently attempting to hide herself in open space. Through this kinetic concept, Aunor gives Rosario an aura of concealment. Sometimes O’Hara hands the picture over to Aunor. The camera fixes on her in medium close-up and, virtually without any change of shot, she tells a story. It’s what Ingmar Bergman has done a number of times with Liv Ullmann and it’s been done before with Aunor.

Back to top

BRASSY, SOUL-STIRRING
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, June 26, 2022)

In Ang Totoong Buhay ni Pacita M. (1991), Nora Aunor created one of the most indelible heroines in Philippine cinema, a rough-around-the-edges woman who can’t quite shake her working-class ways as she does whatever it takes to give her daughter Grace (Lotlot de Leon) a better life. Aunor is terrific as Pacing, injecting much-needed humor playing her image as a gauche vulgarian to the hilt. This is melodrama in its purest, most undistilled form, ruthlessly wringing pathos from its nerve-shredding themes of class, motherhood, and self-sacrifice. Beyond the wonder of Aunor’s performance, which is simultaneously brassy and soul-stirring, the other key to Pacita M.’s magic is that only the audience truly knows her. As a viewer, it feels like a privilege to know Pacing as nobody in her world truly can and appreciate what she decides to do, however questionable or downright deluded her actions are. The other characters are in the dark as we are in the dark too, weeping. Through it all, Aunor is a miracle, pouring the just-below-the-surface vulnerability she’s got into the endearingly crude Pacing, before going in for the kill with the titanic heartbreak of the impossible-to-forget ending. Coupled with Elwood Perez’s skillful direction and Ricky Lee’s memorable screenplay, Aunor’s performance evokes copious tears.

Back to top

ADAPTABILITY AND RANGE
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, June 27, 2022)

Though Lino Brocka’s Bona (1980) might seem like an unlikely place from which to launch a discussion of the craft of one the great Filipino actors, it illuminates several threads that run through Nora Aunor’s body of work. Foremost is her adaptability and range as a performer, which are unparalleled. Bona also demonstrates the centrality of collaboration to Aunor’s practice and the rigorous preparation that facilitates her singular spontaneity and openness to chance in the moment of performance. Her almost otherworldly range has generated certain tropes in reviews of her work: she is said to “disappear into the character.” But this take, which suggests an innate and natural ability for imitation or even an erasure of the self, doesn’t capture the careful calibrations of Aunor’s craft. Rather than disappearing into her characters, she deconstructs the performance process on screen. Aunor achieves layers of reflexivity, performing the character’s own fleeting performance of the self. Her ability to highlight the incongruities within a character without resolving them is one of her greatest strengths as a performer. Aunor’s face has a striking ability to embody that luminous star power while also cracking it open like brittle armor. As Bona, Aunor draws the camera to herself, seducing us like her mark, even as she tilts her face to give in to the sexual advances of Gardo (Phillip Salvador). That same face sours when she claims her bitter revenge. Indeed, across a range of characters, Aunor’s carefully tempered expressions bring to the surface an array of subtle revelations and momentary ruptures. Across many projects, Aunor has embraced different facets of her characters, resisting the temptation to explain them. One is left with the impression that for her, anything is possible, a prospect that is at once thrilling and a bit terrifying.

Back to top

IMMEASURABLE BRAVERY
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, June 28, 2022)

Every once in a while, you witness a performance so brilliant that it leaves you in a state of total awe. It’s the kind of performance which really blurs the line between the actor and character being portrayed. You don’t see any trace of the actor because the latter has succeeded in fully inhabiting a character, as opposed to just playing one. An actor’s job is never easy as it looks, involving the tearing down of those layers we surround ourselves with to protect us emotionally. This requires an immeasurable amount of bravery, and if the actor succeeds in what may seem impossible, you will be left believing that no one else could have played a role as well as the actor did. After witnessing Nora Aunor as Beatrice Alcala in Laurice Guillen’s Kung Ako’y Iiwan Mo (1980), in a performance bursting with emotion, her portrayal is never less than believable. She nails every moment perfectly, never missing a beat. Watching her infinite happiness when she meets Mike (Rolly Quizon), the look in her eyes is beautiful and simply enthralling. I’m still thinking about her long after the movie ended, trying to figure out how she accomplished all of this without falling into the trap of playing a caricature. I can’t stop gushing over how phenomenal she is.

Back to top

COMPELLING AND TRAGIC
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, June 29, 2022)

As good as Charito Solis and Maricel Soriano are, Minsan, May Isang Ina (1983) is Nora Aunor’s film and she owns every moment. Ruth is a repressed character, and yet Aunor makes her both compelling and tragically human. The film never attempts to explain why Ruth is the way she is, but Aunor paints her as a profoundly broken woman, someone so socially malnourished that normal simply isn’t an option for her. This is such a meaty, fascinating role. While the film isn’t especially interested in explaining where Ruth’s dysfunctions come from, it doesn’t try to judge her either, no matter how derailed her psyche becomes. Instead, director Maryo J. de los Reyes just watches, often letting scenes play out as a single shot of Aunor even when a cut might be merciful. It’s an undeniably effective approach. Aunor wears her own face like a mask. Throughout, she registers emotion with minimalist precision. Her performance is all eyes. When feelings escalate, she lets her look dart around the room. In other scenes, the willed blankness of her stare, refusing cues and context, does the same.

Back to top

PRIVACY AND MYSTERY
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 1, 2022)

Despite how inextricable Nora Aunor’s personal pain is from Greatest Performance (1989), the arrival of catharsis twenty minutes in feels audaciously premature. At this point Aunor’s character, an unknown singer named Laura Villa, has been established only in broad strokes. The voice exposes interiority, the inside of a body and self, the very things that get obscured in a genre so invested in surface beauty. But if ever a narrative movie could be said to fulfill some sort of ideal of a singer’s film, Greatest Performance is it, in the way it visually mythologizes the singer in the act. Where most emotionally driven musical numbers serve as outlets for what’s being felt in the heat of a given moment, the anguish surging through “Iisa Pa Lamang” exists independent of any apparent catalyst. Aunor’s voice becomes all the more compelling for having wriggled out of contextual constraints, for stopping us in our tracks without the justifications of narrative or character development. It’s Aunor’s voice that makes it difficult to hear the song as anything other than an authentic cry of pain. And it’s their sharing of this same inimitable sound that makes actor and character impossible to disentangle. The scene assumes that, in Aunor’s hands, any sad love song is inescapably personal. Without her, such an unseemly outpouring would lack all credibility. “Iisa Pa Lamang” lingers like an aftertaste, an agonizingly short-lived moment of clarity that the rest of the film feels all the more poignant for failing to recreate.

11011It’s the self-knowing and effortfulness of the acting, the moment-to-moment decisions moving it forward, that foreground the song’s seemingly inevitable candor. In “Iisa Pa Lamang,” we catch glimpses of a shift in her acting style that becomes more pronounced. Aunor, the filmmaker, in her detached authorial power, has captured what she needs while Aunor, the performer, is left with all that emotional excess roiling inside her. It’s a brief moment, one that evokes its obsessive chronicling of the singer’s transformations in and out of performance and its cold observation of everyone else’s indifference toward the toll it must be taking on her. Greatest Performance honors the chameleonic dexterity and creative agency of the performer whose constant self-making may exist within another’s vision but is never any less her own. Laura becomes a palimpsest of the actor’s accumulated public self and because we know the beauty of the singing originates from the depths of a life lived, we are led to acknowledge an offscreen Laura who for all we know may have suffered a pain that likewise preceded the camera. Aunor’s public life sheds light on the places where her character has been granted relative privacy and mystery.

Back to top

EFFORT AND ACHIEVEMENT
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 2, 2022)

Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr.’s Kinabukasan (2014) is a film composed of gestures and glances, its delicacy a veiled promise of abandon. And it could not exist without Nora Aunor’s extraordinary performance, which summons Ernest’s entire lifetime in those eyes and in the timbre of her voice. Aunor truly comes alive in the subtle changes in her expression. She slowly, gracefully, expertly raises the corners of her lips into a soft smile as her eyes begin to pool with tears. Seeing Ernest slowly revealing her pain is like being invited into her secret world. Aunor has the ability to transform herself vocally, facially, and physically although we’ve already seen how thoroughly she can merge with other people’s bodies and voices, notably as Elsa in Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (1982). She is stellar in wordless scenes. Aunor makes unexpected choices with dialogue too, but she resists the temptation for overstatement, her delivery touching in its directness. What Aunor’s performance exposes is the duplicity intrinsic to the phenomenon of the star; no matter how precise and specific the performance, we never for a second lose sight of the actor, virtuosically performing a different person. The drama on display is the effort and achievement of the acting itself.

Back to top

DISARMING AND DEFERENTIAL
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 2, 2022)

It’s always special when a director is able to create a world that shows off his unique sense of humor in a comedy. With Batu-Bato sa Langit (1975), Luciano B. Carlos has done that in spades. Taken as a whole, in the sum of its dizzy parts, Batu-Bato sa Langit showcases a disarming and deferential comic brilliance. The best comedy has its roots in the painful encumbrances of human existence, the cinema screen being the mirror that delivers to the audience its filmic reflection. It’s easy to imagine Orang’s foibles being exploited for cheap laughs. Certainly the character’s breathy demeanors are easily overplayed external factors, but Nora Aunor’s talent is in humanizing even the most minor behavioral tics. Orang, no hollow comic shell, is a full-blooded creation of the emotional interior. It would be an insult to merely laugh at her or with her and so we respond in complex kind, our hearty guffaws barely concealing winces of individual recognition. Aunor recognizes the importance of moving beyond the symbolic, of trumping hollow laughter and infusing it with depth of feeling. Her comic means are used toward humanistic ends. Despite Orang’s awkwardness, Aunor never invites the viewer to ridicule her character. It’s fantastic to see her completely unaware she is in a comedy. A cut to Aunor’s reactions is the perfect punchline and her line deliveries, masterly.

Back to top

IMPERILED SOLITUDE
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 3, 2022)

Brillante Ma Mendoza’s Taklub (2015) is gripping drama based on a true story. Flinging herself, ego-free and vulnerable, into Bebeth’s shredded soul with utter conviction, Nora Aunor embodies everyday maternal heroism. Hers is a beautiful performance that couldn’t exist without access to the character’s emotional truth. Thanks to her ability in conveying empathy, courage, and motherly love, Aunor has created a moving tribute to the real-life woman she portrays and every single soul affected by the horrific natural disaster that was Typhoon Yolanda. Her utterly exhausting and convincing portrayal of a tragedy-stricken mother is enormously amazing and carries the entire film. For Aunor, it’s as if pain is a renewable resource for her characterization skills and of late, she seems to have specialized in the allure of the imperiled solitude with all the physicality and interiority required, whether or not the movies themselves are any good. Aunor brings that same full-bodied intensity to Bebeth. As survival cinema, Taklub has a certain unpredictable energy which Aunor embodies with a combination of compassion and exasperation. It’s the aftermath, however, in which we learn the root of Bebeth’s experience, that exposes Taklub for the well-intentioned film about grief that it is.

Back to top

WEIGHT AND HEFT
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 4, 2022)

“Bubog na Dangal” (1983) was the 9th anniversary presentation, directed by Mario O’Hara, of the long-running weekly drama series Lovingly Yours, Helen. As the story begins, the unthinkable has already happened. Lourdes (Nora Aunor) is in emotional hell from the first second and, over the course of an hour, finds no relief. The reasons for her torment may change or deepen, but they inevitably find their source in an awful foreboding, a sense of ceaseless guilt. Every frame she shows up in demonstrates her ability to articulate emotions through undefinable facial expressions. Aunor’s presence gives a sense of yearning to accept the fate of the inevitable. Watch out for the passive straight face she makes throughout in spite of the agony and the unspeakable feeling she is undergoing. Aunor makes everything uncomplicated with her ability to explore the character in silence. On camera, she gives a tour-de-force performance, effortlessly conveying every thought racing through her character’s mind. Aunor is is not just the star, but also the larger-than-life presence that lends the episode weight and heft.

Back to top

STAGGERING POWER
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 5, 2022)

Himala (1982), directed by Ishmael Bernal, is a powerful and successful experiment in minimalism. Ricardo Lee’s screenplay takes on a documentary aesthetic, following characters as seemingly nothing of consequence is happening. There is great emotional resonance to the film, particularly in a handful of immensely powerful key scenes. Nora Aunor’s detractors claimed that she did nothing and played a bland character. While these claims are utterly unfounded, it’s not hard to see where they stem from. Elsa spends most of the film being swayed by the currents of other characters’ desires. She almost doesn’t feel like a protagonist due to her passivity. Yet Aunor plays her with immense authenticity. Perhaps it’s because of the similarities between actress and character. Her role as Elsa is a perfect example of an actress not being given the credit she deserves because of quietude. Aunor’s acting is almost masked by her naturalness in the role. It is the best performance Bernal has ever directed. Elsa speaks more than a sentence or two at a time and says nothing at all about life in the village or her childhood. But Elsa remains a cipher, her interests and experiences, her inner life remain inaccessible to Bernal. The spoken word is not cinema’s most powerful tool. As anyone in the field knows all too well, cinema developed originally as a mute medium, dependent on images and editing to convey meaning. Himala is entirely structured around Elsa’s point of view and this is the narrative paradigm that drives the film. I therefore have a hard time accepting the view that it silences Elsa, despite her demeanor. Aunor’s lack of pretense, the naturalism with which she embodies this character is astounding. Elsa is a stoic but complex woman who witnessed hardship largely silently, but when she speaks, she is resplendent. Her final monologue showed she’s reflexive, more aware about her motives and mixed emotions than all the other characters. There are those who diminished the turn as a non-performance, but they are sorely mistaken. Aunor’s work is of staggering power and it is, without question, one of her best.

Back to top

INSECURITY AND GRIEF
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 5, 2022)

A memorably bitter highlight in Adolf Alix Jr.’s Padre de Familia (2016) is the coruscating funeral scene. The tone of this disastrous wake is set by Noel (Coco Martin), whose resentment against his mother, Aida (Nora Aunor), as well as against various others near and dear, gets a thorough and unhinged airing. There’s too much potential in Noel’s outbursts and the revelations they unleash. The last act is a series of gobsmacking handbrake turns practically sending the entire cast off packing. Aida, mother of the family, is probably the most interesting character in the film, played to perfection by Aunor. She stubbornly resists any external show of the emotional turmoil she undoubtedly feels. Aida inexplicably gives priority to keeping up appearances and wants to give no one outside the family any inkling of their troubles. But her pretense extends within the family as well, where she comes across as disconnected, her brittle surface barely concealing the depth of insecurity and grief that lie underneath. The strain between Aida and Noel is written with raw truth, it becomes achingly apparent. In one of the most finely wrought scenes in the film, Aida attempts to bridge the gap, but she possesses neither the energy nor the skill to break through the emotional carapace with which her son has armored himself. When Aida reaches the point where she is ready to confront the issues that have created a wall between them, Noel pushes her away, by obliquely criticizing her relationship with Job (Joem Bascon). Padre de Familia artfully affirms a universal truth about the human condition. It epitomizes what a Filipino independent film can be when the director is willing to abandon the safety net.

Back to top

AMBIGUOUS VOLATILITY
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 6, 2022)

Afflicted with anxiety attacks as well as trust and intimacy problems, Delia (Nora Aunor) is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She’s helpless and Danny Holmsen’s Maalaala Mo Kaya? (1973) is utterly drenched in the feeling of helplessness. Aunor embodies the depths and contradictions of psychological trauma and the hidden strengths it can uncover. Aunor’s performance sears into my being as Delia’s frustration and desperation build. The emotions coursing through the film are palpable. What keeps us rooting for Delia is the quicksilver complexity Aunor brings to every aspect of her performance. A jangle of nerves and manic energy, she infuses Delia with realness and easily invites sympathy as she endures the horrors of confinement in a mental institution. Throughout, Aunor inhabits all the breakdowns necessitated by her role. The revelations are heart-stopping. Aunor’s performance is so rich that she turns her character’s ambiguous volatility into a virtue.

Back to top

UTTERLY CAPTIVATING
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 8, 2022)

Magnanakaw (1995) is built around a towering performance by Nora Aunor that is itself about giving. Not only is she mind-blowingly terrific, her delivery’s a spectacle of facial expressions, primal screams, and howling monologues. Rosing is a mess of hurt trying to find a form of rapture that permits others to transcend loss. As the story moves along, Aunor’s character slowly descends into madness, leaving the viewer, like Rosing, not fully knowing what is going on. As brilliant as Aunor is at suggesting a rapidly compartmentalizing consciousness, her directors Nick Lizaso and Soxie Topacio aren’t taking any chances. Aunor plays Rosing with absolute perfection, alarm, and terror that she embodies from within, an inner commitment to the refusing of anything close to compromise. The stares are another reoccurring ideation, whether it is Rosing facing off against Oca (William Lorenzo) or the detailed monologues in the presence of her best friend (Tetchie Agbayani). There are always two from either gender using their persuasive influence on her. Aunor isn’t afraid to fully commit herself to the madness that’s unfolding within Rosing as well as delve into the very necessary side of acting that captures the impetus of the scene at hand. Her performance is utterly captivating. Aunor’s face can quickly transform into a mask of rage, horror or pain. She also always understands what her directors are up to.

Back to top

SWEEPING AND ELEGIAC
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 9, 2022)

Most great singers, from Billie Holiday to Frank Sinatra to Edith Piaf, tell part of their story in music. The key is to let the song do the work. Nora Aunor did that with her opener, “The Windmills of Your Mind.” Her voice has lost nothing and she seems to understand songs better. Continuing with the classics “What Now My Love?,” “In My Life,” “Kapantay ay Langit,” she delivers beloved songs all night. Watching Aunor perform her “Alpha Hits Medley,” singing “Yesterday When I Was Young,” sounding heart-stopping, tear-jerking, or whatever superlatives you want to throw at it, is a reminder that some legends are legendary for a reason. When she steps up to the microphone and opens her mouth, Aunor’s breezy stage manner, her ability to be silly and sexy within the course of a lyric, to bring you in with a whisper and to belt out a crescendo, are so magnetizing, you can’t look away. For the next hour, Aunor commands the stage, singing and telling jokes. Then she brings out her voice teacher, Louie Reyes, to duet for the first time ever on a live stage, performing a mashup of Seawind’s “Follow Your Road” and The Beatles’s “Let It Be.” Later on, she takes the stage with the Side A Band, singing “Foolish Heart,” before Asia’s Songbird, Regine Velasquez, gets the biggest cheer of the night with their duet of “People.” Aunor’s version of George Canseco’s “Paano Kita Mapasasalamatan” is tender and beautiful. La Aunor … Beyond Time (1994) concludes with her well-known low-key, melancholic take on Florante’s anthem “Handog,” now sweeping and elegiac.

Back to top

VERSATILITY, VULNERABILITY, VALIANCE
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 9, 2022)

Nora Aunor is one of the strongest vocalists of her generation, imbuing her reality into the several songs that littered her life and lit our stages. The songs embody a certain level of engagement and adulation, so her vocals are always committed to the cause they have engaged with. In a career that has lasted decades, she has emerged as one of the most important artists of her generation. The singer has embellished her body of work with a series of striking vocals that show growth and development as a person and as a woman. Aunor shows her versatility, vulnerability and valiance as a person of great composure and poise. Such is the vastness of the work, it goes beyond the restrictions and trappings of mere padding.

Saan Ako Nagkamali

There’s a lot more depth and density to her work in this shimmering ballad by George Canseco. Aunor was strong enough to capture an entirely new form of music. It’s a vocal performance of integrity and assurance, a malleable voice that only grows grander with every passing verse.

Kahit Na

Notable for putting emphasis on the words in question, as the feelings that cement the song are what lead to such a strong vocal. She’s strident and singular in her resolve, capturing the propensity and proclivities of Willy Cruz’s words to bring her truth to the forefront. Emotion soaks through the vocal, veering into more intellectual territory, as the song creates a new pathway for the singer to express herself, both as a musician and, more important, as a woman.

Back to top

FUNNY AND DIMINUTIVE
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 10, 2022)

Many of the most memorable appearances in cinema history have also been among the briefest, as big-name stars take the opportunity to steal the show with a small but perfectly formed cameo. In fact, cameos can sometimes be more memorable than full-length roles. Sometimes cameos enhance a story, at other times they’re just there to make you laugh. In 1983, Nora Aunor had a brief role in Peque Gallaga’s Metro Manila Film Festival entry, Bad Bananas sa Puting Tabing, which was most notable for Aunor’s funny character, diminutive Secret Agent Maria Clara Cayugyug. Her performance was the perfect blend of energy and comedy, without being too over-the-top. Aunor is a great example of a comedic performer making a lot out of very little. Bigger than her tiny frame might suggest, she’s driven and has perfect comic timing. We can only wish there were more of her.

Back to top

SYMPATHETIC AND AGNOSTIC
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 10, 2022)

There is something so enthralling about watching a woman who has gone off the rails. In Joel Lamangan’s Bakit May Kahapon Pa? (1996), Karina Salvacion (Nora Aunor) is training viewers to recognize the sudden changes in her personality to help them understand the real meaning behind her words. Karina is definitely a memorable character not because she’s mixed up. What’s really interesting is how, ultimately, she’s just trying to piece her life together but lacks the mental stability and social understanding to do so. She ends up being a sympathetic character, despite her overbearing and obsessive traits, and the things she’s capable of. Karina is complex. There’s a mixture of her being someone who has snapped yet basically knows what she’s doing. Her need to regain composure and appear normal after she overreacts makes her a unique, tortured character. Karina creates most of her problems, and is aware of it. It’s a chilling portrayal. Aunor interchangeably makes the viewer feel both sympathetic and agnostic about her character. When the narrative careens into pulp territory, she anchors the conflict. Situations become increasingly far-fetched, but Karina reacts to the outrageous circumstances in a true and reasoned way.

Back to top

FAMILIARITY AND EMPATHY
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 11, 2022)

Beautifully written and performed, Mga Uod at Rosas (1982) goes far beyond stereotyping, never patronizing. The film has a static look with many shots of characters talking or sitting and waiting. Ingmar Bergman, one of the greatest filmmakers, used to say he believed the real subject of cinema is the human face. Nora Aunor has an astonishing face that can hold a close-up. The tiny inflections in her face open an overwhelming blend of frustration, patience, determination, her own kind of unpretentious clarity, and above all deep sadness. Tremendously played by Aunor, Socorro is a woman who generally likes to keep her emotions in check. Director Romy V. Suzara makes her face the center of the movie. Many films refer to a lead character’s face – the reaction shot is not a new technique, but here, it’s about as well as it can be done. The real highlight of the film, though, is Aunor. Socorro’s complexity is phenomenally conveyed by Aunor, who is able to portray her character’s internal struggle with a few simple facial gestures. Socorro feels lived in, and it’s the kind of performance that evokes a sense of familiarity and empathy with the audience. Aunor commands the proceedings, and Suzara lets you know it with lingering close-ups of her face, underscoring her beauty and boundless ability to make us care deeply no matter what role she undertakes. Aunor is always good, but performances like this suggest that for all her acclaim, she might actually be underrated.

Back to top

VERVE AND FLAIR
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 12, 2022)

The center in Leroy Salvador’s Beloved (1985) is provided by the finely woven portrait of relationships with all their attendant joy and pain. The screenplay by Orlando Nadres (based on Nerissa G. Cabral’s King Komiks serial) also offers an ending that seems perfectly in tune with the balance of the film. Salvador lets the camera linger on how Adora Bernal (Nora Aunor) looks at her boyfriend of five years, Dindo Tuason (Christopher de Leon). Aunor communicates with her body and face in ways that speak volumes. Adora is a performance of herself, crafted from necessity. Played with raw vulnerability that’s contained by a kind of performative hauteur, Aunor’s Adora makes her sacrifice wrenching, gilded with gestures that give her verve and flair that prove irresistible. She’s packaging herself to be unavailable, protecting herself against rejection should her instincts prove wrong. Aunor’s marvelous performance lets us watch Adora fall in love from the inside out. Her eyes, set close in her achingly open face, register every shock of feeling. Aunor performs with the same precision and masterly calibration as demonstrated by her director. Beloved is a sophisticated and complex drama that stays with its audience long after it cuts to black.

Back to top

FRONT AND CENTER
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 13, 2022)

Loneliness and independence aren’t opposites but twins of each other, gemini states of being that can give even the shyest among us, courage to stride forth. Yet Maryo J. de los Reyes and Nora Aunor, paired as director and lead actor for Naglalayag (2004), capture this not-really-a-paradox in a cerebral pas de deux, as if each has found an unspoken understanding in each other. Their seemingly disparate sensibilities – de los Reyes’s attention to craft and sense of decorum, Aunor’s forthright crispiness, which serves as a fortress for her eggshell fragility – merge in this odd-couple picture. Naglalayag is about how fear of living is more paralyzing than fear of death. Its ending should seem sad, yet it’s piercingly jubilant, like a celebratory cocktail with a complex, bittersweet finish. De los Reyes heightens the film’s tragedy by actively empathizing with all of his subjects, especially Dorinda, whose mild restlessness is treated with profound sensitivity. Aunor beautifully imbues Dorinda with a recognizable sense of discontent (she’s not unhappy per se, but she’s quietly weary of middle-aged life’s doldrums), and de los Reyes supports her performance with warm compositions and delicate close-ups, placing her perspective front and center. Aunor’s eyes always seem to be giving her feelings away, and so every time she widens, lowers, or shifts them, there is a great deal of suspense.

11011Naglalayag is a romance between Dorinda and Noah (Yul Servo), two people in search of an unnameable connection, and we warm to the way they find solace in each other. But the fleeting nature of this affair is its most golden element; it is romantic precisely because it can’t last. In the end, Naglalayag is really a romance of the self, a celebration of the person you can become when someone else touches you deeply. We’re all souvenirs of our own experiences, and what we take away from love affairs is sometimes of more value than what we gain when we try to wrest them into some ill-fitting frame of permanence. A kept memento is a sad thing, but a memory remains alive and supple forever. It’s the flower you don’t catch, the one you never crush by pressing it into a book. Dorinda’s triumph in Naglalayag isn’t a conquering of loneliness – some form of that will always be with her. Dorinda’s victory is that she has said yes – not just to a younger man but to herself. Loneliness can’t be cured, but it can change shape. What appealed to me in the idea of Naglalayag? Loneliness – a more common emotion than love, but we speak less about it. We are ashamed of it. We think perhaps that it shows a deficiency in ourselves. That if we were more attractive, more entertaining, and less ordinary, we would not be lonely.

Back to top

COMPLEX AND REVELATORY
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 14, 2022)

The luminescent tryst between Baby (Vilma Santos) and Roy (Phillip Salvador) in Baby Tsina (1984) remains to be Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s most complex and revelatory examination of unfulfilled love. She doesn’t solely rely on the flashier aspects of her patented style to convey a character’s fated desires or failures. She positions individuals as pieces of a larger mosaic, one populated by burgeoning and disintegrating relationships that reach beyond the frame. This construct produces subtext-heavy conversations containing real conflict and tension at their core. As Baby Tsina turns into a masterly dissection of loyalty, Ricardo Lee’s dialogue expresses the characters’ way of maneuvering around emotional responsibility, of circumventing the betrayals that are lingering in plain sight. This conflict builds for long sequences before erupting in stunning moments of physical violence. In this very banal-looking world, unfulfilled desire turns sour from all the repression and guilt. Baby and Roy’s conversations grow shorter and more kinetic, jumping past traditional banter. The unique ways emotional expression shifts mid-moment really distinguishes the film as an organic work, a morphing cinematic experience that changes with the years to fit our individual perspective of unrequited love. Unlike the showy emotional relationships in Abaya’s other films, the connection between Baby and Roy feels bonded in actual human emotion. Baby Tsina centers on the title character – played with gusto by an always illuminating Santos. Her tremendous poise is visible at once in the opening credit sequence introducing the tone and protagonist of this very different film. The precisely edited sequence serves Santos exceedingly well. Baby Tsina is perhaps one of the most successful protagonists Lee has crafted. Her desires and motivations are clear, her thought process shown in full. And best of all, she feels real.

Back to top

STRENGTH AND CONFIDENCE
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 14, 2022)

Lino Brocka finds the right tone in Dalaga si Misis, Binata si Mister (1981), and it’s not always very easy because he wants to make his film both true and funny, not sacrificing laughs for the truth. But what was the right tone? It gives us the release we need, and sets Nora Aunor’s personality for the movie’s second act, with scenes of loneliness and the beginning of emotional recovery. Brocka isn’t afraid to pull out all the romantic stops at the right moment. He wants to record the exact textures and ways of speech and emotional complexities of his characters. There are scenes so well written and acted that our laughter is unsettling. Aunor takes chances here, never seems concerned about protecting herself, and reveals as much in a character as anyone ever has. Doria Navarro is out on an emotional limb. Aunor is letting us see and experience things that many actresses simply couldn’t reveal. It’s a lesson for critics on the dangers of assessing performance in a movie, a medium in which the actors may be more at the mercy of the other craftspersons than we can readily realize. Rather than solely embodying the strength and confidence of a single protagonist, Dalaga si Misis, Binata si Mister mobilizes Doria’s arc as a signifier of feminist freedom without becoming didactic or trite. Brocka perfects the ending by de-centering his perspective and the audience-centric satisfaction of a nihilistic open-ended conclusion, allowing the protagonist the final say regarding her personal satisfaction.

Back to top

BROAD STROKES
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 15, 2022)

For writers Ricky Lee and Shaira Mella-Salvador, May Nagmamahal sa Iyo (1996) seems like an occasion to tweak familiar formulas, as they exhibit a compulsive need to distance themselves from the story’s intrinsic sentimentality. For director Marilou Diaz-Abaya, it’s a chance to play up that same sentimentality, underscoring emotional moments with excessive bathetic flourishes. Working at cross purposes, these two sides make for a fractious movie whose internal conflicts mirror those experienced by its lead character. Lorna Tolentino stars as Louella, a woman who gave up her son for adoption. Years later, still wrestling with that part of her past, she has become curious about her son’s whereabouts. Louella confides in Nestor (Ariel Rivera), who offers to help, as she begins the journey of discovery. May Nagmamahal sa Iyo features a deeply felt and gripping performance from Tolentino and a supporting performance from Jaclyn Jose, equally brilliant as Edith, that reminds us just how wonderful this actress has been throughout her career. Just a momentary gaze is enough to convey what many actors spend whole hours in a film not-conveying. While the movie sets up the plot catering to our need for nice, neat, and orderly boxes, the story weaves in and out of them, upending our conventional views and presenting us with more questions that drive us further into the narrative. This perfectly mirrors Louella’s frustration as she encounters roadblocks in her journey to find her son. In fact, this arc is the one most powerfully portrayed in the film by Tolentino as she vacillates within the pain she feels. It is the driving force behind her search, and the means by which she finds resolution. The fact that we all have weaknesses and identify in the struggles, hopes, and journeys of others is more indicative of the need for such stories so that we might find the strength to rise up and pursue life’s greater aims. These are the film’s broad strokes, and they are all true. They will make you angry, and tear your heart to pieces.

Back to top

INTERIORITY AND COMPLEXITY
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 15, 2022)

Sa Ngalan ng Ina (2011) was a TV soap opera in which melodrama peers into the public and private lives of political adversaries in the fictional province of Verano. Nora Aunor has long-captivated audiences with her portrayals of complex women. Needless to say, it was hardly surprising to see Aunor deliver a performance that felt as though it had been lived in for decades. Governor Elena Deogracias is a stoic, reliable presence in most episodes, and absolutely dominant when she needs to be. Beyond convincing and unafraid to let things get a little messy if that’s what the moment calls for – Aunor allows Elena to hold her own against biggest rival Lucia (Rosanna Roces), scheming wife of Pepe Ilustre (Christopher de Leon). It’s a wrenching transformation to watch, and one that Aunor turns into the central crux of the story by sheer force of will. She gives the drama a commanding center as a determined woman keen on taking control of her surroundings even as they slowly close in on her. Aunor exudes desperation but never takes it to histrionic extremes; much about the success of the performance extends from frustrated glances and baffled reactions as her stepchildren Andrea (Nadine Samonte) and Alfonso (Alwyn Uytingco) continue to heap discomfort on her life. Her resilience adds a transcendent dimension to the role. It would be even more accurate to say that Aunor’s face becomes the narrative’s primary location. Directors Mario O’Hara and Jon Red set the most pivotal scenes in the actress’s desolate eyes, or in the blank face that’s had all of its expression siphoned out of it. Aunor’s commitment to the part allows the performance to assume the intimacy of watching a loved one confront death. She rises to that challenge with extraordinary interiority and complexity. Aunor weaves joy, sadness and rage all on her quiet face, and with astonishing ease – an effortlessness that turns more suspenseful with each scene.

Back to top

SILENCE AS VIRTUE
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 16, 2022)

Depending on how you look at it, silence can be either a virtue or a weakness. To remain quiet, to not covet attention might seem admirable. This type of silence has been co-opted and leveled at people as a means of oppression. The implication is that those who are silent have nothing of value to say, rather than valuing what they do not say. Silence of this kind is less about what is said and more about who is heard. Choosing to be quiet is different from being made to be so. When silence is used as a tool of oppression, it stamps out the voices of those most in need of being heard. In Joel C. Lamangan’s Sidhi (1999), the issue of when to be silent and when to speak is central. Ana (Nora Aunor) finds pleasure in a situation that looks, initially, to be problematic. Yet she plays a role in defining the parameters of her interactions. She pushes back against the advances of Miguel (Albert Martinez) and draws lines on what she will or won’t do. Lacking dialogue, Aunor has to rely on expression through movement. She captures Ana’s vulnerability while avoiding mawkishness. It’s impossible not to be captivated by the climactic scene between her and Martinez – Lamangan’s camera lingers on Aunor’s face to capture the pain and betrayal in her eyes, then follows the way she stumbles away from his grasp like a wounded deer. Ricardo Lee’s adaptation of Rolando S. Tinio’s teleplay, Ang Kwento ni A, is measured by the quality of the characters and their relationships. Aunor has an austere, powerful presence, like that of the great silent-film actresses, but there’s nothing at all genteel about her face. It’s rough and drawn and it has a hypnotic severity, the features so starkly focused, but Aunor handles it beautifully. She knows how to subtly convey emotion at each moment. We can read what she is feeling or how she interprets a certain situation. Being robbed of her wonderfully expressive voice – not to mention being displaced from the sorts of modern settings in which she shines – turned out more liberating than limiting.

Back to top

PAST AND PRESENT
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 17, 2022)

Textured by the substance of humanity, Brutal (1980) dwells on the inelegance of real-life interactions. Written by Ricardo Lee and directed by Marilou Diaz-Abaya, the film’s capacity for vulnerability bonds its audience to the material. Typically, filmmakers will segue into a flashback in an obvious way so that viewers can instantly make the distinction between past and present. In the case of Brutal, Abaya chose to use unannounced flashbacks. Amy Austria’s interminable numbness draws dimension from flashbacks to Monica’s past, the film’s enduring tragedy that the director never washes over with some artificial, cathartic resolution. Austria carries her wounds under the surface, and in the face of the internalized performance, she manages to evoke incredible emotion through her walled exterior. Rare expressions accompany Monica’s long silences, lending a sense of hope that the character may still heal, but Abaya seems more interested in exploring the pain of someone fully broken. Gina Alajar’s Cynthia eviscerates in her scenes, particularly during an unexpected reunion with Monica that shows the wounds both characters have been carrying around. Monica can barely speak and refuses to connect, while Cynthia falls apart from regret. It’s an exchange where almost nothing of substance is said between them, with both characters seemingly incapable of communicating their pain in any graceful way. So much is touched by the actors in this moment, feeling their way through what will become the film’s most memorable scene.

11011Clara (Charo Santos) brings the same degree of sympathy to Monica’s mother, Aling Charing, working alongside a brief appearance by Perla Bautista. Jay Ilagan also delivers a strong turn as Monica’s abusive husband Tato, though his scenes are mostly in flashback. Brutal is a movie that pays careful attention to detail: note how Cynthia quickly registers as a very different kind of woman from Monica. And watch, through Austria’s ravishingly honest performance, how Monica becomes a shadow in the flashback scenes, wanting to reach out, but unable to take that step. The observations, nuances, and revelations all add up to a masterly narrative structure. Rather than following characters through their day-to-day transactions, Brutal interrupts the flow with its flashback structure. These flashbacks are interestingly integrated with a visual consistency and sharp delineation of actors in middle-distance, beautifully shot by Manolo R. Abaya. The associations that link the past and the present are controlled by Monica’s distant stares. Abaya keeps our minds constantly in gear by making us fill in the blanks the character leaves behind. It is the epitome of what makes film a unique medium: the ability to tell stories through moving pictures.

Back to top

GENUINELY HEROIC
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 18, 2022)

The tricot of cinematography, mise-en-scène and modern narrative style makes Elwood Perez’s Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit (1989) a powerful film. This time, rapturous moments overcome the traditional flow of time, preserved by desire and accessed when longing calls upon the experience. The experience is phenomenological, rooted in consciousness and quieted yearning, an intangible immersion into the nimbus of emotion. The film’s lovers never realize their affections, at least not in the customary manner of cinematic representation, reinforcing Perez’s emphasis on plotting which would not be too pointed to describe as a mood piece. Bilangin contains depth and sophistication beyond other films, a masterly interweaving of texts, including a complex formal approach and historical references. It demands investigation and, like the most venerable works, teases its meaning even as it invites the viewer back to obsess over its intimations. No plot summary could adequately capture the information withheld by Perez, which he communicates in subtle motions and impressions that must be observed and interpreted.

11011Nora Aunor lights up the movie like the polar star lights up the winter sky. She is one actress who understands her own physical beauty as an expressive instrument, and who also has the smarts and intuition to take it somewhere substantial. There have been plenty of portraits of repression in Filipino movies, but they have rarely been as filled-out or as radiant as this one. Aunor understands that the machinery of repression can’t reveal itself too readily, but can only be divined through the character’s strenuous efforts to keep it up and running. She understands the inherent sadness of being a good person. It’s a portrait of beauty in the service of a thankless goal – to draw a veil over a heart that’s sacrificed itself to the happiness of others. Aunor’s is a genuinely heroic piece of acting. Perez develops an interiority to his style, where everything onscreen seems to come from within his characters, specifically Noli. This represents a sharp contrast to his other, more outward displays in films such as Till We Meet Again or I Can’t Stop Loving You, which adopt an uninhibited expressivity. Bilangin operates on instinct and intuition, engendering a tender sensation that is ultimately transient but creates the illusion of permanency. It’s a love story about love itself and how it lingers in the minds of its subjects far longer than any one relationship ever can.

Back to top

NATIONAL TREASURE
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 19, 2022)

Lupita A. Concio’s Minsa’y Isang Gamu-Gamo (1976) is one of those films whose great qualities put its elements in sharp relief. Proof is in Nora Aunor’s performance, a chameleonic disappearance into the role. The way she inhabits Corazon de la Cruz with wounded grace is overwhelming work. Concio employs long takes that let her breathe, and uses close-ups sparingly, but with tremendous effectiveness. A shot of Corazon near the window, watching a funeral pass by, ranks among the best moments in the careers of all those involved. Additionally, Marina Feleo Gonzalez’s dialogue is natural and smart, delivered by Aunor with masterly authenticity. Aunor achieves an outstanding height in this performance. Her voice is tender, lilting, mellifluous. She carefully unravels her character almost with a surgical precision that seems to elevate such a character, one which could easily be written off if done by actresses of lesser talent. Aunor has shown throughout her career that she can do anything. Her face, a mobile canvas onto which she paints angst, confusion, and deep melancholy, is masterly. Minsa’y Isang Gamu-Gamo features what still remains Aunor’s most complex film performance, solidifying her as an actress of tremendous faculties and overall technical prowess. Aunor is not just a superstar, she’s a super-artist. Her range evokes envy and her presence is indomitable. Aunor’s moving treatment of the material is some of the finest screen time she has ever occupied. It established her reputation for tugging at the heartstrings in a film’s final moments with a unique kind of emotional control. In 1976, Nora Aunor was already a national treasure.

Back to top

DELICACY AND PERCEPTION
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 19, 2022)

Most romantic movies are so determined to chart the course of a love story that they miss the intensity and import of beginnings. Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Minsan Pa Nating Hagkan ang Nakaraan (1983) lingers on the initial sparks of an emotional connection. The film captures a truth most others only imply. It’s not an exaggeration to say that almost every scene in the film feels pivotal, momentous. Split-second decisions carry enormous weight, small gestures mean the world. Character-driven dramas are not supposed to make a show of backstory, but in the genre of romance focused on Helen (Vilma Santos) and Rod (Christopher de Leon), there is nothing more natural than exposition. Much of MPNHN is devoted to defining these characters, watching in turn how they define themselves in streams of free-flowing but perfectly calibrated talk. With an ear for naturalistic dialogue, Abaya embeds several discoveries along the way most crucially, the catch that immediately lends its meandering conversations a heightened urgency. Working within a traditional romance of missed opportunity, she uses certain tropes to contain moments that are anything but traditional. We know that Abaya and her actors are working in a more intimate emotional realm than usual from the first conversation Helen and Rod share. This conversation is so specific and so unapologetically personal that even progressive audiences may feel uncomfortable.

11011The writing and acting aren’t stylized in a manner that’s inappropriate to the context. Helen knows she’s pushed something in Rod, that they’ve done something with a level of intensity that challenges Rod’s comfortable, casual disengagement. This scene is Helen’s show, at least it is at first, as she’s stunned when she sees that Rod is willing to match her combative form. Rod startles Helen, allowing the real dance to begin. MPNHN would be worth seeing for the delicacy and perception of the opening ten minutes alone, but Abaya never allows the tone to falter. Every moment advances the push and pull between Helen and Rod, which represents the classic argument between two romantics who repress that romanticism in differing fashion. The film’s biggest triumph is a scene that begins as a wide shot and then slowly zooms into a tightly framed close-up. It signals an important moment of character development and delivers a powerful emotional surge. Tia Salud (Mona Lisa), offscreen, yells an invective at Helen’s husband Cenon (Eddie Garcia) that is almost directed straight at the audience. In a brilliant masterstroke, Abaya drowns out a piece of key dialogue with onscreen noise. It results in a moment so private not even the viewer gets to fully share it. Abaya’s unadorned observational style means entrusting her actors with the sustained ebb and flow of scenes that are highly dependent on minutely calibrated nuances, and the payoff is enormous.

Back to top

A VOICE FOR EVERY SONG
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 21, 2022)

Nora Aunor has sustained an auspicious career as a popular singer for more than four decades. While most of her fame is inextricably linked to her film work, she also has a large and faithful following when it comes to record sales. Her success in the music world is remarkable considering the unusual path she has taken, having had record-breaking singles and live concert exposure. But her repertoire is far from undifferentiated. She clearly prefers songs that tell a story or show a character in development. Attention to the dramatization of narratives points to her acting even when the focus is on her singing: the subtext of the lyric, the multiple layers, the character’s tentativeness while feeling great inner passion. The lyrics of “Kahit Konting Awa” (1995), composed by Vehnee Saturno, illustrate this point. Aunor frequently sings songs characterized by a melody requiring a more advanced singing technique than most popular songs. She has many voices, a voice for every song. Aunor has a remarkable ability to hold notes with solid breath control, and this skill is among her most potent. As compared with earlier performances, in the accompanying music video, Aunor has developed a more standard vocal posture. Her tone is naturally much brighter, projecting a more regal carriage, and greater physical relaxation. Aunor possesses a fine-tuned sense of timbre and dynamic control for word painting. Her ability to meet the interpretive needs of a text or even a single word is exceptional. On the other hand, her style is not dependent on constant variation or mere surface effect. She consistently exhibits strong vocal production throughout, approaching diction from a natural point of view. Still, Aunor indulges a few idiosyncrasies that mark many of her recordings, some even dating back to her teen years. Her vocal success can be summarized briefly by stating that she sings compellingly, and her acting enhances her singing. Many of her faithful long-time fans seem to be drawn to her effortless style and instinctive abilities, both technical and dramatic. Even during the years that only non-visual recordings were available, the listener could still hear the acting in her singing.

Back to top

PAIN AND HOPE
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 22, 2022)

Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s impressionistic, radiant, and feverish romance Sensual (1986), is anchored by the remarkable performances of the film’s two leads. At its heart is an incandescent performance by Barbra Benitez, who captures the mood swings of late adolescence with a wonderfully spontaneous fluency. She conveys not only the intelligence and willpower of a young woman bursting out of her chrysalis like a butterfly, but also the vestigial shyness of a child in the throes of self-discovery, playing the character with honesty and restraint. Benitez brings a sweetness and naïveté to Niña that makes her struggle more compelling. She is introduced in the first scene of the film with her best friend Elsa. In Lara Jacinto, Abaya finds a woman without many a facial feature to note, a blank canvas on which to paint the story, the mise-en-scène and the management of her inevitably intelligent performance. This suggests that Sensual will be exploring an exotic subcultural space, but in fact Niña’s story shares the most basic concerns of coming-of-age narratives: affirming burgeoning sexual identities, negotiating friendships, and learning how to be in the world. It’s also refreshing to see these stories take center stage. The girls’ relationship moves from sisterly to sexual and beyond, into the kind of all-consuming intimacy that makes everything else seem insubstantial. Curiosity quickly develops into an intoxicating infatuation after Niña visits Ariel (Lito Gruet). Abaya’s treatment of the love scene is refreshingly natural, free of any tinge of discomfort with sexuality – in many ways theirs could be an adult relationship. Ariel’s seduction of Niña leads her to believe that she has at last found true love. Sensual closes on a bittersweet note, one that sees Niña transformed, establishing herself not just bound by sexual identity, but by shared pain and hope. Although Abaya reimagines the love story as a tale of evocative romance, she stays true to its fleeting essence.

Back to top

WARM AND VULNERABLE
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 24, 2022)

While ostensibly unassuming, Palengke Queen (1982) is affecting where it counts. Directors Arman Reyes and Freddie Sarrol (who co-wrote the screenplay with Ricky Dalu, based on Pat V. Reyes’s Bondying Weekly Movie Special Komiks serial), tap into the experience of expressing the inexpressible. The resulting confusion creates an infectious form of humor that percolates throughout and leads nicely into the unexpected outbursts of emotions in the closing scenes. It helps that Palengke Queen never distracts from these strengths with overt stylistic indulgences. The swiftness with which the film can swing between funny and serious is astounding. The shifts feel seamless and fitting. By finding this balance, Reyes and Sarrol makes sure their film is affecting but not morose. With her expert comic timing and nuanced dramatic shading, Nora Aunor is, quite simply, astonishing. Tibang is an empathetic personality whose assertiveness is a form of habitual overcompensation for personal issues. All of that can be felt in Aunor’s performance, which navigates these tricky emotional straits with confidence. She keeps things in focus with her innately natural portrayal of Tibang as a woman of integrity and resolve. Aunor doesn’t just sell Tibang’s exterior, she nails the unspoken elements, giving an incredibly multidimensional lead character. It’s easy to like Tibang for the good that she does, but Aunor adds another layer through her naturally commanding and mesmerizing screen presence. Nobody seizes the spotlight quite like Aunor. It’s a beautiful star performance. Palengke Queen is complex without feeling contrived. What could have easily become overwrought or melodramatic is instead warm and vulnerable. There are different ways the ending can make you cry. I’ll settle for one: the bittersweet feeling of having watched someone become a different and in some ways improved version of herself, which is the reason we need movies.

Back to top

UNWORLDLY GLAMOUR
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 26, 2022)

At its simplest, Chito Roño’s “Serye” (1993), an episode of Star Drama Presents Nora, is an account focused on the relationship between television director Vera (Nora Aunor) and her husband Emil (Cesar Montano). Written by Gina Marissa Tagasa, it’s also about the TV industry, with observations about the process of making television dramas. Roño relishes the clash between the sublime and the banal. Scenes of Vera and Emil bickering could come straight from any soap opera, but instead the characters take on an unworldly glamour. The startling point is that none of the aesthetic sensations matter, within the face of emotional devastation where no cultural bauble will distract you from the uncomfortable sight of your deepest interior realms. Our first real introduction to Vera is integral to the story. It gives Aunor such an immediate moment to dig her claws into our sympathies. She acts with all the wound-up fury of a workaholic. Throughout the story, you can see the emotion bubble up inside of her to the point where she can’t do anything else but expel it. Aunor takes the episode by the throat in the dramatic sequences, yet she’s equally compelling in the story’s smaller moments. She flawlessly channels Vera’s open and exposed self, as well as her extraordinary intensity. It is not a self-conscious performance. The story is dependent on the woman at the holding center, compulsively enacted through raw nerves made flesh, powerfully embodied by Aunor’s efforts. Vera thinks she can compartmentalize her emotional needs like she does everything else in her life. She further breaks down potentially frustrating tropes that career women often fall into. Vera immediately inhabits capability and professional talent. These emotional expulsions give background to her character. Vera is aggressively self-assured, but she never becomes the typical workplace harpy dealing exclusively in internalized misogyny. Her self-assuredness is backed up by hard work and striving proficiency, even as her private emotional baggage supplies context.

Back to top

THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, August 9, 2022)

Minsan Lang Kita Iibigin (1994) represents the best of both worlds. It excites the emotions the way a good melodrama should, but it also stirs the quieter feelings of pity and helplessness associated with tragedy. Director Chito S. Roño gives MLKI much more than surface elegance. The choice of angles and colors, his mastery of editing all work to create a unified psychological texture. He’s aided by an unusually honest and perceptive script by Ricky Lee, and by Maricel Soriano, Gabby Concepcion, and Zsa Zsa Padilla, whose performances go to a place of complete emotional nakedness. If the movie allows Padilla to give her best performance to date, it also provides Soriano with a chance to do more. The play of degradation and guilt on her face is the movie’s real story. Soriano’s work in the film’s intriguing second half, however, wouldn’t be possible without Concepcion’s own understated duplicity. As these two circle each other, their marriage held together by the very cycle of forbidden act that’s also tearing it apart, MLKI becomes a thriller myth of the perils of adultery, which few filmmakers can heighten like Roño.

Back to top

REVEALING AND HEARTBREAKING
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, August 16, 2022)

Rooted in deep emotions and life-altering decisions, Thy Womb (2012), under Brillante Ma Mendoza’s skilled guidance, is a mesmerizing, engrossing, and beautifully realized cinematic experience. Nora Aunor is hypnotic as Shaleha. We see the plot develop from her perspective and the story unfold from vantage points close to her face. Ensuing choices and consequences rife with tension and heartache, extreme close-ups convey Shaleha’s internal woes with an earnestness few working actors can match. In her most wrenching scenes, Aunor presents Shaleha as a woman drowning in waves of longing. Still, you feel for her because there’s no way to look into her eyes and dismiss the sorrow that has made a home there. Aunor is at the peak of her acting powers here, conveying incredible depths of emotion with a stare. Thy Womb clearly belongs to Shaleha and Aunor, who does career-best work here as the aging village midwife, whose every expression, every gesture is revealing and heartbreaking. Her body language speaks volumes. Mendoza knows how to use visual and dramatic means to make a milieu palpable to an audience by providing an introduction to the complex blend of emotion that permeates the film. Feel and think through Thy Womb and it will never leave you.

Back to top

UNSETTLING, AMBIGUOUS, AND UNUSUAL
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, August 20, 2022)

The final image of Mara (Nora Aunor) in Dementia (2014), Perci Intalan’s arresting horror debut, isn’t particularly scary. But it’s easily one of the most unsettling, ambiguous, and unusual movie tableaus I’ve seen in some time. From its ominous opening, the movie proves successful, even wrenching, in how it considers dementia as a bedrock of horror. What is more horrifying than losing your own sense of self, or watching a loved one on such a depressing journey? Intalan demonstrates a strong handle on tone as he carefully charts Mara’s emotions with tension going unsaid, but remaining evident in Aunor’s moving performance. Mara oscillates between moments of sharp clarity, fuzziness, and sudden rage as her failing memory begins to outpace her; Aunor deftly carries all of Mara’s swinging moods and her heartbreaking desperation as the lights of her mind begin to burn out. Dementia as the bedrock for a horror film is an intriguing idea given the ways it’s primed to explore dramatically shifting moods, the loss of self, and the heartbreak of witnessing someone you love become a stranger. Intalan and his collaborators – writer Renei Dimla, cinematographer Mackie Galvez, and editor Lawrence Ang – are cunning in their ability to craft the dread that is instilled from the very beginning. But if you’re looking for answers to the film’s ambiguities, you won’t find them. In its place are a surpassingly creepy atmosphere and a patiently ratcheting unease as the movie deftly merges the familiar bumps and groans with a potent allegory for the devastation of dementia.

Back to top

SLICK AND SILVERY
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, August 23, 2022)

A hit-and-run incident lands a detective in more trouble than he could have ever imagined in A Hard Day (Viva Films, 2021), a thriller that finds director Law Fajardo handling a taut yet elaborately plotted narrative with control and near-faultless technical execution. The resourcefulness and resistance to intimidation of Edmund Villon (Dingdog Dantes) makes us root for him, despite his professional conduct and lack of moral fiber. In a morbid example of necessity being the mother of invention, Villon hits upon a novel way of disposing of the victim’s body in an extraordinary stunt sequence. With increasing freneticism, Fajardo moves Villon relentlessly forward in the face of an obstacle course filled with pop-up hurdles and an occasional kick in the gut. Dantes’s disciplined performance ties all of A Hard Day’s inventivenesses together, investing the film with visceral panic. He plays Villon as a henpecked nice guy, this delusion serving as self-fulfilling prophecy.

11011At just about the time it seems Fajardo should soon be running on empty, he introduces a new threat, Lieutenant Ace Franco. Played by a spectacular John Arcilla adding a bespoke dash to the villainous picture, he slips into the story and soon engulfs it. Arcilla has a face that can freeze into a stone-cold slab of pure malice, even as Fajardo keeps the chaos moving at a breathless tempo. He’s a remarkably fluid orchestrator of action kinetics, always springing his surprises a beat faster than one expects, only to occasionally slow things down to prevent the viewer from acclimating to his quicksilver timing. An explosion is timed with nightmarish precision perhaps because Fajardo caps a phenomenal, self-consciously Hitchcockian set piece with an unexpected commonplace payoff. Throughout, the images are sleek and silvery, informing the debauchery with an aura of impersonality. A Hard Day is ultimately a parody of self-entitlement, though the carnage dramatically registers. The filmmaker walks as many tightropes as Arcilla does, and one gratefully submits to both artists’ dexterity.

Back to top

AUTHENTIC, STIRRING, HEARTFELT
by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, August 24, 2022)

In Joselito Altarejos’s Memories of a Love Story (Viva Films, 2076Kolektib, 2022), love paves the way to personal growth, creating a keen sense of one’s self-worth. Altarejos presents the romance between Eric (Oliver Aquino) and Jericho (Migs Almendras) within a frame of Eric’s memories of it. Despite notable differences in background and interests, Eric and Jericho bring out something in each other both emotionally and physically. Great partners teach us new things about ourselves, and MLS really gets that element of human relationship without overplaying it. Altarejos’s approach is tactile without feeling exploitative or manipulative. Actually, one could argue that parts of MLS are too low-register, but that’s reflective of its protagonists’ personality in a way that keeps this love story from devolving into melodrama when it could do so at several points. Almendras is very good here, but the movie really belongs to Aquino, who reminds us how incredible he can be with the right material. He avoids every single trap into which his character could have tumbled. There’s so much grace and nuance in this performance that it could be studied to consider all the decisions that Aquino makes in each scene. He conveys an overwhelming amount of inner conflict. It’s never once forced or manufactured. And Almendras matches him beat for beat, especially in the second half of the film. He too has been changed, but responds to that change differently. Newcomers Awin Valencia and James Ramada convey so much in discrete movements and muted words, lending their characters dimension in their every scene. Altarejos allows awkward moments and intimacies to unfold naturally, as if we’re watching them in real time, undetected and yet somehow invited to observe. MLS is authentic, stirring, heartfelt. As the camera closes in on Eric crying, we find ourselves profoundly moved. MLS offers enduring images not just of longing – Eric suffers, but he also exults, and this is why we watch movies.

Back to top


A Season of Comebacks

The glaring lack in the last two batches announcing recipients of the Order of the National Artists of the Philippines was that the most deserving candidate in her field was missing (essential disclosure: halfway around the globe, The FilAm made sure I could come up with the first article denouncing the snub by then-President PNoy Aquino, who has since died). This time around, Nora Aunor leads the pack, and seemingly never forgot to string along some controversies in her recent actuations.

11011Primarily, this had to do with the candidate she endorsed for President – none other than the scion of the family that ran roughshod over the country’s tentative attempts to attain developed status and left it in tatters. Paradoxically, no other regime has paid culture as much importance as the Marcoses did (the National Artist award was in fact one of their many innovations), and they were sharp enough to realize that the then-young aspirant from the rural South had the potential to become one of the biggest stars the Philippines would ever witness even before film producers took action.

11011So it was not just Aunor, but Bongbong Marcos (BBM) as well, who effected a comeback. The implications are as profound as they are complex, so those of us who maintain a social-media foothold, openly or otherwise, are privileged with firsthand access to responses from people whose opinions will be shaping discursive responses in the long run. The other, more painful implication, cannot be denied either: traditional media, including once-venerable newspaper and magazine publications, can no longer sustain this function, especially regarding culture issues. You can pick the ones that claim to have the most credibility, submit a nonsensical review article bolstered by buzzwords and a string of impressive-sounding qualifications, and see it come out sooner or later, without a sweat.

11011From innumerable Facebook posts, I’d venture to mention two of the more crucial ones: professor and book publisher Katrina Stuart Santiago decried the absence of any honoree in the visual arts – film and TV not necessarily fulfilling this requisite, since the nature of and access to fine artworks function according to entirely different premises; critic and festival director Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., meanwhile, asked the updated equivalent of “where’s the beef?” when a rival artist’s followers demanded that their idol be given the same recognition simultaneously or (if they had their way) beforehand. Writings on Aunor in fact can be traced to the very start of regular film-book publications in 1971, as I discovered entirely by accident when I made a comprehensive list of Pinas film books. Of the other Philippine movie stars, Fernando Poe Jr. and Dolphy share a significant-enough fraction of what Aunor has commanded; of the female ones, only Sharon Cuneta has been consistently written about in books and journal articles – in a still-continuing cycle of scholarly attention that she somehow manages to cultivate.

Back to top

11011The other charge, raised by an author who had his own skeletons to hide, turned on Aunor’s endorsement of BBM. In fact, all three film winners, by virtue of thriving during the Marcos regime, could be faulted for working on projects that were either fully funded or subsidized by the Imee Marcos-run Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. Even if we set aside the typical counter-argument that they turned in exceptional work, we also see that they encountered censorship and repression (even political detention, in Ricky Lee’s case). Historians of the period should also be obliged to point out how they labored under an entirely unnecessary critical downgrading from then-contemporaneous and self-declared progressive experts, who had covert (though now easily confirmable) reasons to disfavor these three at some point or other. Needless to add, it is these experts who should be pressed to articulate their reasons for upholding the alternative choices they made when the current National Artist winners were coming up with their most significant output and were cold-shouldered for it.

11011Otherwise, we can see how Aunor’s sympathies become understandable, even though most of us would rather be caught dead than articulating anything along the same line. In the meanwhile, we can and should move on from recognizing past artistic achievements to anticipating future ones. The only entity for whom this holds no irony is the Marcos family: their revision of history can now claim partial validation via the triumph of several members of this batch of National Artists, including even the winners for theater and fashion. But what about the film personalities who handled the BBM campaign and maintained their belligerence in the face of incontrovertible evidence of the harm that the late patriarch had perpetrated during his reign?

11011For argument’s sake, we can take at face value one mainstream couple’s explanation that they happened to belong to the clan of Marcos in-laws, although Mary L. Trump and, yes, Sharon Cuneta, prove that loyalty to one’s country should take precedence over familial duty, and deserve future honors for the difficult stance they made when it counted. The more popular frontliner also happens to be younger as well as a viral Facebook presence: Darryl Yap, who directed Cuneta’s last film, was previously known for his initially edgy though eventually reactionary video uploads on his Vincentiments blog, along with his occasional fits of pique when more sophisticated netizens trolled him. He parlayed the box-office success of his first full-length film, #Jowable (2019), into a series of potboilers mostly for the Vivamax streaming service, at an average rate of a new film every other month. Many of these, including the Cuneta-starrer Revirginized (2021), are punishingly dreadful to watch.

11011From the last Filipino film monograph worth reading, Epoy Deyto’s Post-Dilawan Cinema and the Pandemic (downloadable for free at his Missing Codec blog), I stumbled across an endorsement of Sarap Mong Patayin [Love to Kill You], one of Yap’s ten 2021 releases, not counting a TV series. It’s a frankly jaw-dropping discovery; I don’t think it would be precipitate to say that it’s one of the local films maudits whose numbers dwindled to nearly nothing since the death of Celso Ad. Castillo. As to whether it will attain the stature of Elwood Perez’s Silip [Daughters of Eve] (1985) or Mario O’Hara’s Pangarap ng Puso [Demons] (2000), we’ll have to check in every half-decade or so to find out. What concerns me at the moment is how such a seemingly accomplished expression of sexual anarchy proceeded from someone who could never be mistaken for, say, one of the gifted artists and philosophers implicated in the Nazi dictatorship of Adolf Hitler or in the Soviet-era socialist bloc or even in the dominant phase of American imperialism.

11011What’s instructive at this point is that I didn’t see netizens attempting to engage Yap, by way of encouraging him further in this direction. The prevailing consensus is that he’s pathetically incapable of rising above the small-though-profitable platform he raised for himself, so Sarap Mong Patayin might only be the equivalent of an autistic savant’s scribbles, brilliant by accident, a broken clock getting the time right for once. But what if we’re reading Yap wrong? What if just maybe he intends on having the last laugh when his Maid in Malacañang gets released a few weeks from now? One only hopes for his sake that he’d assimilated the lessons of our National Artists for film, who learned how to survive tyranny with dignity by taking what one hand could while flinging useful mud with the other.

Back to top

Á!


What Lies Above: A Mini-Commentary

Several global and national changes have been so pervasively eventful that people in positions of responsibility will be devoting part or all of the rest of their lives to tackling the problems raised by these developments. Which is why any publishing milestone will seem understandably insignificant, unless it purported to address one or more of these central issues of our time. It won’t seem to be terribly earth-shaking, for instance, if the worst review ever written of a local film appeared in a national publication – but that’s precisely what just happened, and to my regret, I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t point it out.

11011For an idea of how awful this situation is, when a far milder bit of irresponsible commentary came out in the 1980s, Lino Brocka went on national TV to denounce the writer. The present-day sample focused on the filmmaker’s personality as well as the cirumstances of the screening, with the reviewer not watching more than once to give the text an opportunity to redefine itself if that were possible – in fact the said reviewer didn’t even finish the premiere screening! Several other psychoanalytic complications can be read from the commentary, starting with the reviewer’s charge that the filmmaker was egotistic: the defense mechanism of projection becomes evident when we look at the writer’s other output.

11011As for the film itself, it may be appreciated as a reasonably competent sophomore effort, with the filmmaker’s extensive stage experience and record in historical allegory providing some plus factors. The biggest gamble was in his directing himself as lead actor; only rarely has this attempt succeeded anywhere, and nothing would have been spoiled if one of our many excellent character actors were hired to play the role instead. Far from a stone masterpiece, all in all, but a worthy endeavor nevertheless, with the promise of better work clearly in store for all of us.

11011The real complication revolves on the venue used for this piece of critical embarrassment. It came out in an outlet that has been projecting an image of valor in its contretemps with the outgoing (and presumably the incoming) administration, which is why I’d risk being tagged illiberal or worse, if I were to name it here. Publications of this stature used to be picky even with cultural submissions – critical of criticism, to be smart-alecky about it.

11011It may not be evident from my early record, but the act of my constantly having to revise according to the specifications of editors, eventually enabled me to find my voice and attune it to a variety of publication requirements. Even today, the outlets I consistently agree to write for have editors who read through my text and try to read or watch the products I write about, or have their own system of peer reviews, both of which result, when necessary, in suggestions for revisions that I have to work on.

11011What happened between the period when I could freelance for editors who worried over submissions, and the carelessly inconsiderate present? Nothing less momentous than the overthrow of a dictatorship, the fulfillment of an aspiration shared by the best of our generation. Only to be replaced by a regime whose first declaration, regarding culture, was that it had no interest in it whatsoever. This disdain for cultural production (including cultural commentary) spread throughout the body politic and persisted close to the here and now: I kept in touch over the past decade with a circle of faculty who expended every effort to introduce contemporary literary, cultural, and media studies to secondary education, finding their efforts thwarted by government administrators who had other priorities in mind.

11011And now, when the family whose members were (among other things) Pinas history’s evergreen culture aficionados, whose attitude was rejected by successive regimes because of the association with said family’s rapacity – now that they’re back in power and turning the heat once more on culture, now we find ourselves in a tizzy about what should have been done to preempt the destruction they’re about to wreak.

11011Live and learn, is the one depressing lesson to garner from this mess. Start with the careful oversight of cultural commentary, since that requires nothing more than basic intelligence.

Á!

Back to top


The Studio System’s Final Movie Queen

Susan Roces’s recent passing made me realize at first how she could have been a star in Philippine politics as well, as the best First Lady and First Mother we never had. I’d voted for her late husband, actor-producer and National Artist Fernando Poe Jr., and later for her daughter, Grace Poe, during the presidential runs where they placed first and second respectively, according to their most ardent supporters (in spite of what official tallies announced). The studio that launched her, Sampaguita Pictures, had claims to another aspirant on a similar level: Imelda Marcos, who had screen-tested for them, and whose sudden marriage to the man who would be dictator probably spared them a lot of embarrassment after the couple was deposed by a popular uprising.

11011I went over my files and was surprised to find that I had written her a letter, though not as a fan. The book I edited, Huwaran/Hulmahan Atbp.: The Film Writings of Johven Velasco, was being launched at the University of the Philippines; Johven was such a Susanian that he requested, if his collection were to be published, that he appear on the cover along with her. His most important scholarly essays were about her films, but he also wrote an admirable account of his fandom, invoking Jacques Lacan, Laura Mulvey, and most intensively Jackie Stacey, in order to explain his identification: “not based on pretending to be something one is not but rather selecting something which establishes a link … based on a pre-existing part of the spectator’s identity.”

11011Roces became a star ahead of the generation that finally allowed women to dominate Philippine film production, relegating men to equal status at best, secondary positions more often. The two top movie figures around her time were FPJ (whom she married) and Joseph Estrada, now footnoted as one more deposed Philippine ex-president, although better remembered for his populist antihero roles and empathetic (earlier) performances. Yet again, when I went over the First Golden Age films that were listed by a research team in a forthcoming all-time canon project for Summit Media, two Swanie films were cited: Armando Garces’s Sino ang Maysala? [Who’s at Fault?] and Tony Cayado’s Mga Ligaw na Bulaklak [The Wild Flowers], both from 1957. The latter, in fact, is also figuring strongly in the short study I’m finalizing on working women (the equivalent of the Korean “hostess movie”) in local cinema.

11011I’m sure Johven would have been able to explain how the best movie stars wind up affecting serious students of popular culture, whether they know it or not. During the launch of his book, one reader was an actor he had trained and who was at that time on his way to becoming the biggest independent-to-mainstream crossover star of the moment. Before reading his assigned excerpt, Coco Martin remarked how he made sure to impress Johven by playing up his resemblance to Susan Roces. That was how Johven knew that Coco would also make it big: he had a “face that refreshes,” as Susan was once described. The lady born Jesusa Sonora has gone, reminding us how so much preferable it would be to live with as much dignity and productivity as we could leave to posterity.

[First published May 24, 2022, as “Jesusa Sonora Is Gone; Long Live Susan Roces” in The FilAm]

Back to top


Canon Fire!

Film canons in the Philippines are recent enough so that some elderly Filipinos might be able to remember a time when none had been available. As far as anyone can tell, the first local film canons were, perhaps unintentionally, initiated by award-giving institutions—and so the most well-known ones are still those created and propagated by local academies, organizations, and festivals.

11011Are canons then synonymous with the lists of winners selected by award-giving bodies? Put another way, when an award-giving body is formed, do its jurors envision their selections as “best” choices, not just of the period in question—whether festival, quarter, year, decade, etc.—but also among all other possible all-time choices? As a rule, yes, although there may be significant exceptions: for one, the awards bodies that never persisted long enough to make a long-term impact; and for another, the canons drawn up by individuals and more recently, groups provisionally formed by these individuals.

11011As concrete historical examples, we can point to lost classics—in ancient Greek drama, especially—that we now only remember because they were considered worthy of formal recognition during their time. Sadly, this is reminiscent of how a number of Filipino films can only be recollected but never screened again, because of how they were celebrated during their time, whether via rave reviews or through awards. Also, in the present, we have the spectacle of winners of different awards claiming that their specific awards are better than those won by others, similar to how graduates of certain schools claim to be superior to the alumni of other schools by virtue of their association with their own institutions.

11011Hence if we were to inspect the strengths and weaknesses of film canons, we should begin by looking at film awards. As a distinctly modern phenomenon, film activity bears with it the contemporary notion of awards. Most people who look closely at both phenomena (films and awards) might be unaware of the fact that the first awards acknowledged as modern arrived almost at the same time that films emerged. James F. English, in his in-depth sociological study published in 2005 by Harvard University Press, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, traces the idea of the contemporary award—as opposed to classical prizes—to the Nobel Prize, introduced during the late 19th century, when film was also striving to create its now-permanent long-term impact.

11011A few other insights in J. F. English’s book might help us better understand the condition of film awards, and what we might call the institutional film canon, in the Philippines. For one thing, “prestige,” as we understand it nowadays, often functions ironically. During the Cold War era (roughly the 1950s through the 1980s), people could still believe in the authority of institutions; evidence of irregularities in, say, the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS) Awards were aberrations that could be corrected internally—as in 1974-75 as well as in recent years, when critics and academics were invited to conduct the awards process—or externally, when critics formed their own organization in 1976 as a counterweight to the older institution. Nowadays, when we think of the most highly coveted global awards—the Oscars, the A-list European festivals of Cannes, Berlin, and Venice, even (to step outside of film) the Magsaysay, Pulitzer, Booker, or Nobel prizes—controversy tends to be associated with these institutions’ decisions so often that it becomes the rule more than the exception. J. F. English, in fact, winds up concluding that “the most prestigious awards draw the most intensely critical sniping,” something that any close observer of Filipino movie prize-giving will readily recognize.

11011Another fraught question might appear to be a recent development for us, although it has long become a matter of course for Western countries: the proliferation of award-giving bodies. The primary reason why the number of award-givers stabilized for a long while in the Philippines is the same reason that production of quality film projects also stabilized: while more films may have been produced during the 1960s, the ratio of prestige productions to total output was far lower than during the martial-law regime. Precisely, and ironically, because of the authoritarian intervention by the dictatorship of Ferdinand E. Marcos, film’s status as a favored medium was cemented. Permits for new projects would be granted only upon presentation of written screenplays, thus requiring the services of some of the country’s best writers, and the scandalous proliferation of award-giving bodies could be discouraged. As an example, during that period, schisms in government bodies, notably within the local film academy, were carefully mediated by the presidential daughter, Ma. Imelda (Imee) R. Marcos. Her father would eventually consolidate her influence in her capacity as Director-General of the industry’s support group, the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. How the state of existing Philippine film awards contended with dictatorial influence should be worth a close recounting.

Back to top

Academic Controversies

The main focus of local award-giving controversy was the aforementioned FAMAS, which was evidently falling under the sway of too-influential producers and actors. For its first decade of existence, its choices could be counted on as the result of careful comparative assessment, regardless of the status of its nominees within the industry or in society and politics. Gerardo de Leon was a consistent awardee, with his Daigdig ng mga Api (World of the Oppressed) even defeating the biographical movie of the newly elected President, Iginuhit ng Tadhana: The Ferdinand E. Marcos Story (Determined by Destiny, dir. Conrado Conde, Jose de Villa, and Mar S. Torres), for the 1965 competition. By the time Marcos ran for re-election, the tables had been reversed: Pinagbuklod ng Langit (Heaven’s Fate, 1969, dir. Eddie Garcia), the sequel to Iginuhit ng Tadhana, bypassed at least one superior canonical title, Leroy Salvador’s Badlis sa Kinabuhi (Course of Life, 1968, released in Manila in 1969). The next year, Armando de Guzman’s Mga Anghel na Walang Langit (Angels without a Heaven, produced and written by a future presidential candidate, Fernando Poe Jr. or FPJ), won over three of Lino Brocka’s early films, specifically Wanted: Perfect Mother (his blockbuster debut), Santiago! (his major-budget FPJ starrer), and Tubog sa Ginto (Gold-Plated, included in the present canon listing). The year after, Gerardo de Leon’s less-than-competent Lilet defeated Celso Ad. Castillo’s Asedillo, while Ishmael Bernal’s Pagdating sa Dulo (Reaching the Top) was not even a best-film nominee. Incidentally, the Salvador, Castillo, and Bernal “loser” films are also included in the current listing.

11011Hence for the then-approaching mid-1970s years, the FAMAS strove to recover its lost credibility by relinquishing its awards decisions to media experts, with Gloria D. Feliciano, the founding Dean of the University of the Philippines’s College of Mass Communication (then an institute) acting as chair of its board of jurors. These years coincided with Brocka’s independently produced sleeper hit, Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (Weighed but Found Wanting, 1974), as well as his most widely acclaimed production, Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila: In the Claws of Light, 1975), both of which swept the prizes during their respective years. The recovery of the FAMAS’s reputation was short-lived, however. In 1976, a few members of its “credible” jurors formed the first local film critics’ circle, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, implicitly continuing its members’ occasionally explicit critiquing of the FAMAS, but this time as an independent outfit competing for public attention by conducting its own award-giving activities.

11011The FAMAS’s travails did not end just yet. By the start of the 1980s, an actual Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP) comprising workers’ guilds was founded by presidential decree and mandated to hand out awards selected by the guild members themselves, again as a corrective to the FAMAS claim that it constituted, per its name, an “academy,” when in fact it had mainly comprised movie writers, including scriptwriters and reporters, rather than filmmakers, performers, and technicians. A year after the FAP’s first awards (covering 1983), the Philippine Movie Press Club announced its Star Awards in two events, one for film and another for television. Thus all the claims of the FAMAS—that it was an academy, that its members were capable of criticism, that these same members were movie press practitioners—were contested by the emergence of various groups that arrogated these functions unto themselves, one by one.

11011The most direct challenge, the formation of the FAP—which carried the term “academy” in its name, just like the FAMAS—was overseen by the eldest Marcos daughter Imee, who was preparing to wrest control of the still-to-be-launched Experimental Cinema of the Philippines away from her mother, Imelda.[1] To minimize the tension between the two award-giving groups, Imee declared that the FAMAS would have to be dissolved to make way for the FAP. Only the intervention of the FAMAS multiple winners, led by Joseph Estrada, then the powerful mayor of San Juan City, resulted in the anomaly of having two “academy” awards in the same year.

Back to top

Canons to the Left and Right

With the ouster of the Marcoses after the people-power uprising in 1986, critical film activity underwent a ferment that replicated the several developments that it realized in Western academia. Several now-forgotten local debates raged regarding the function and value of film and other critical discourses in popular culture; inevitably, a few breakaway groups comprising former and would-have-been members of the original film critics’ circle, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (MPP), were founded. Personal disclosure, part 1: I was involved with all the organized critics’ groups.

11011Hence after the academy, the critics were the film participants contending with one another for visibility in the national culture. A difference, however, has to be pointed out: in the case of the FAP vs. the FAMAS, only one group, the former, was technically an academy. In the case of the MPP and its breakaway group, the Young Critics Circle, most members of either group could be considered practicing critics at best, inactive dilettantes at worst. In terms of my personal experience, the challenge was to reconcile the advantage of organizing with colleagues with the requisite of conducting responsible and effective criticism. In 1990, I and a colleague, Mauro Feria Tumbocon, Jr. (currently the festival director of the Filipino Arts & Cinema International or FACINE, the most successful Filipino-American annual film event), contacted other active film critics who shared our differences with the MPP, in order to found the YCC.

11011In short order, further differences arose within the new group, this time regarding ideology and strategy: do we reject the task of providing intermediate (though limited) educational lessons in favor of complete and radical deconstruction?[2] As a concrete example, if we know that creating canons like the present Top-100+ listing might be a futile, potentially misleading, and necessarily open-ended exercise, should we skip this stage and proceed with reading films for their radical cultural-studies value, without worrying about their contribution to a discourse of significance and excellence? This would mean opting for critical exercises, the more intensive the better, leading whenever possible to book-length or multivolume scholarship. Another way of stating this is: when we begin with the basic, immediate critical response to a new movie (called the film review), we may push it in the direction of further critique-based activity: film criticism, scholarship, long-term studies, etc., instead of consumerist recommendations. This is meant to challenge the present direction of most institutional reviewing, which leads to periodic assessments, ending with annual awards results, sometimes extended with longer-period declarations like best of the decade, best of the quarter-century, etc.—until we reach something like the present exercise, which is best of all time. My personal position was, and remains, that both options are not necessarily in conflict with each other, although then again, critics who are organized will find themselves having to uphold one at the expense of the other.

11011After helping found still another critics’ group called Kritika, I found my next direction determined by circumstance: I had to leave for foreign graduate studies, while the other members similarly found themselves having to take overseas trips for similar or related reasons. Since then I’ve written about further disturbing trends in award-giving groups, notably the MPP’s consistent abandonment of providing critical output coupled with its current tendency to recruit new members mainly from the media and communication programs of the country’s major academic institutions. This strategy has apparently ensured that the group’s orthodox orientation—where film is regarded as a technical challenge whose form may be evaluated according to discrete categories—can be maintained in educational programs and will continue to enhance and promote the group’s annual award-giving agenda.[3] Hopes for the emergence of dissent with the MPP’s current hegemony lie in the recent proliferation of unaffiliated, though occasionally also inadequately prepared, blogger-critics. The period after the 1980s had seen similar breakaway attempts within the industry and movie press circles, but an even bigger motive for the formation of more award-giving bodies was to emerge after the present millennium arrived.

11011The turning point for film criticism was provided by the sudden technological transition in film production, from exceedingly expensive celluloid to the extraordinarily democratic (because affordable) digital format—including its outlet, the World Wide Web. Seemingly overnight, anyone who wanted to create a movie did not have to shell out millions and arrange for studio-controlled distribution, waiting for decades while slaving away at menial production tasks for just this kind of break; merely whipping out, say, a mobile phone, finalizing the file on a computer, and posting the result on YouTube would suffice to complete the process.

11011This revolution in technology may be qualified because it actually strengthened the position of certain companies and countries and government-surveillance agencies: it provided profits for manufacturers of miniaturized technologies and owners of successful websites; it ensured Western dominance while redefining the global sphere of development to include East Asia; and it enabled security-conscious countries led by the US to eavesdrop into the private affairs of local and even foreign citizens. Nevertheless, several once-near-impossible functions became everyday activities: not just in terms of media production, as already mentioned, but also in the realm of media consumption. For the Philippines, the crucial stepping-stone was the so-called illegal piracy-disc sales center, wonderfully dubbed (by scholar Jasmine Nadua Trice, among others) the Quiapo Cinematheque and defended by every major filmmaker and scholar who had closely studied the situation and who was not receiving some form of largesse from government bodies influenced or pressured by the US’s International Intellectual Property Alliance.

11011Via the Quiapo Cinematheque’s “pirated”—or, from the perspective of cultural education, fairly priced—discs, and later via internet outlets including YouTube, observers of Philippine cinema could gain increasing access to movies from most historical periods, as long as they could understand the language(s) being spoken and forgive uneven surface qualities. Not surprisingly, several blogs that specialized in film commentaries sprouted during the past couple of decades—and here is where the idea of the canon took its latest and, as always, still-controversial turn.

Back to top

Scattered Shots

Although the organized, award-giving critics maintained their own websites—an example followed by other award-giving institutions—individual bloggers had the advantage of maintaining independence from the ideological pressures that organizations impose, overtly or otherwise, on their members. More important, by having their own ready outlets, they had the means to maintain steady, even voluminous, output, according to how the spirit of commentary moved them.

11011Hence although the organized groups continued their annual declarations, the new, decidedly more numerous online critics managed to out-perform their career predecessors in terms of critical output, albeit with far less media fanfare. Individual top-round-number listings, from ten to a hundred, started appearing, and at least three enterprising internet and social-network aggregators announced and conducted extensive surveys. Two of these were completed, one for the Facebook Cinephiles! group and another for the Pinoy Rebyu group blog, both in 2013. The Cinephiles! “Top 100 Favorite Films Poll” included foreign films, with only nine local titles figuring in the total, and the highest, Mike de Leon’s Bayaning 3rd World (Third World Hero, 2000), ranked 22nd. Pinoy Rebyu’s “100 Greatest Pinoy Films of All Time” focused exclusively on Filipino movies, including documentaries, but included already-unavailable choices such as Manuel Conde’s Juan Tamad Goes to Congress and Gerardo de Leon’s Huwag Mo Akong Limutin (Forget Me Not), both 1960 releases. Both provided ranked listings from 1st to 100th, with the Pinoy Rebyu’s first half (1 to 50) accentuated by short paragraphic citations.

11011Although late in monitoring social network activity—forced into it, in fact, by a cyberculture teaching assignment—I managed to observe this peak in internet-based canon-forming frenzy. Personal disclosure, part 2: both surveys acknowledged the groundwork I laid in my earlier stint as resident film critic in National Midweek, with the output, titled “Ten Best Filipino Films Up to 1990,” anthologized in my second volume, Fields of Vision: Critical Applications in Recent Philippine Cinema (published in 1995 by the Ateneo de Manila University Press), and the updated version posted on my archival blog, Amauteurish. The original National Midweek exercise was a survey of local critics and practitioners that I and my students conducted, in which the respondents were asked to submit their list of ten-best films, with the results tabulated and fine-tuned to yield variations on canonical presentations: films most cited as number one, films most cited regardless of ranking, and films most cited according to ranking provided by the respondents.[4]

11011Even that early, for the “ten-best” activity, I already noted certain problems. For one thing, although the number of respondents was the largest in any film survey up to that point (1990), their individual competence could not be determined. I had planned a second phase—which unfortunately did not materialize due to lack of time—where the complete list of all films cited would be returned to the respondents, who would then be asked to indicate which ones they had seen and rank those further, as assiduously as they could. For another thing, the results were not generated according to a group consensus facilitated by exchanges of opinions and ideas; consequently, no justification (in the form of citations or mini-reviews) could be articulated for the specific films that showed up in the results.

11011The most serious lack, to my mind, was the absence of the only useful guarantee I could make about comparative film evaluations: despite the differences between me and the MPP that eventually proved irreconcilable, I managed to pick up a lesson that has proved to be the surest means of determining comparative value. That is, in an instance when two films appear to have equally strong value, repeated viewings will almost always lead to a point where the evaluator can rationalize, however provisionally, the preference for one over the other. Having outlasted the conflictive period I mentioned, when critics with opposed ideological opinions insisted on the correctness of their pet theories, the practice of rescreening films—or, in a larger cultural sense, resampling entries—has turned out to be a far more reliable measure of a text’s worth than conformity to any predetermined framework.

Back to top

Artillery

From this critique of the ten-best exercise I conducted, applicable to the other, more recent exercises as well, I managed to formulate a more ideal form of canon-formation: convene a group committed to the project, instead of listing survey respondents who might be unfamiliar with one another and who would be contacted only a few times; source all available films, using pre-existing canons (i.e., awards listings or surveys) as well as strong word-of-mouth recommendations; watch the films, rewatching those that appear to have so-far indeterminate value, especially when it comes to filling out the remaining slots in a fixed-number list—and be prepared to be flexible about “fixing” the said number; conduct informed deliberations about what films should be preferred and why; list the films without bringing up the further and ultimately frustrating hair-splitting complication of ranking them relative to one another; and articulate, to the best of one’s critical ability, why each specific film was selected.

11011I would have preferred a less-definite, or more mutable, set of guidelines that allow for no limits in terms of year of release and running time and total number of choices—as in, far less or far greater than the target number (over one hundred, in this case), depending on how the finalization of the list turns out. The digital era might make this wider goal easier to accomplish, particularly through the use of a periodically updated website where the results may be uploaded for further future revisions. But for purposes of setting the results of the project in a commemorative volume, more constrictive rules will always be more useful … as long as the project’s proponents foreground enough humility to admit to every possible limitation and commit to any opportunity to do better in future. At this point, for example, I could point out one major advantage in having a for-now “final” canon, rather than relying on the annual critics’ choices that I mentioned earlier: if we arrange the films chronologically, we would notice that “excellent” films do not get released once every year, the way that an annual awards listing would suggest. Rather, noteworthy projects tend to cluster during certain periods, and the talents and audiences that support these projects also subsequently tend to take time off to recuperate, usually after a wearying spell of excessive seriousness or box-office traumas.

11011Hence it would make more sense for any recognition body to note each “deserving” title as it comes along, rather than forcibly compiling a list of, say, five nominees and declaring one of them the year’s only possible winner. Like all the other canonical listings before it, the current listing suggests that certain years might have no release worthy of attention, although most years may yield maybe one or two, and a few fortunate years have gifted the culture with armloads of works to cherish. Given this reality, why should we insist that audiences keep focusing on always-only one “best” film every year, when the honest thing to do would be to admit that the award-givers might need annual public attention in order to, among other things, collect on the publicity benefits of awards ceremonies?

11011Any enthusiast would not find it difficult to locate starting points for future attempts that might seek to improve on the present canon project, although attempting a coverage of expanded canons might take far longer than the five-plus years it took for the present project to be finalized. Short films can be sourced from the early workshop output of the Mowelfund Film Institute[5] and the thesis projects of the country’s film-degree programs: the University of the Philippines Film Institute’s, De La Salle—College of Saint Benilde’s, and University of San Carlos’s in Cebu City. A documentary collection can be compiled from the output of the now-defunct Asia Visions, featuring the works of the now-forgotten Lito Tiongson; the several film-producing non-government organizations—Ditsi Carolino and Sari Dalena would be the names to start with; and the outstanding TV magazine programs, specifically the output of Howie Severino’s I-Witness (2008-14). Television itself promises to be a gold mine—or a mine field, depending on one’s preference—with a whole range of genres to pick from. Just as enticing would be the entire range of now mostly lost regional cinema, a realm of practice that might help us acquire a better understanding not just of Manila-centered production but also of our neighboring countries’ own regional issues.[6]

11011A similarly ambitious film-research project, with its own canon as by-product, can be made of the hundreds of non-Filipino and non-Filipino-hyphenated (e.g. Fil-Am) productions, whether or not shot in the Philippines, that deal with the country in some way or other—as a nation’s or people’s name, as deliberate or accidental linguistic crutch, as anonymous or non-Filipino (especially Vietnam) locale, as overseas presences, or even just as a globally recognizable entity; a corollary, sadder but just as essential, would be studies of films that are lost, or practitioners who have died.[7] One final area worth exploring would be films that may be apparently mainstream feature releases, but which partake of certain marginalized qualities because of their subject matter: queer films, for example, or diasporic projects, or some other still-to-emerge specialized categories. Some of these groups have entries in the present canon list, but their modes of production, talent hierarchies, distribution strategies, and the audience responses they induce will need to be teased out as distinct phenomena vis-à-vis what passes for “regular” Philippine cinema.

11011One of the hopes I expressed when I conducted my earlier batch of canon projects during the early 1990s, including the ten-best films survey, was that the existence of sturdier, more credible options will satisfy the curiosity of critics and audiences and enable us to advance to the more urgent questions of how to achieve a presence in the global cultural community, or how to use popular culture to productively intervene in issues of national identity and development. That is, instead of obsessing over finalizing canons and revising them every so often, we might be able to begin with a fairly acceptable listing and simply keep adding to it as more significant films get released. However, as it turned out since then, even more award-giving groups were to be formed, several of them overlapping in functions, and more canon projects were conducted.

11011A stable system of canon-formation, if that can be achieved for Philippine film culture, will enable scholars and audiences to devote attention to the wider issues surrounding cinema, where the question of quality can be set aside whenever necessary. James F. English, whom I referenced earlier, provides no further assurance when he states, still in The Economy of Prestige, that “each new prize that fills a gap or void in the system of awards defines at the same time a lack that will justify and indeed produce another prize…. There are not only more prospective founders and sponsors of awards than ever before, but also, and less intuitively, more positions on the fields of culture where new prizes can be installed” (emphasis in the original). If any new canons that emerge after this project can claim the same qualities of patient and multiple re-screenings, earnest deliberations, informed rationales, and minimal reliance on institutional influences, then they might yield similar results. That prospect alone ought to suggest that, with a project such as the present one, the biggest future advantage might be an ironic in nature: our eventual liberation from obsessive canonizing, with a stronger interest in in-depth and non-comparative film criticism as an ideal by-product.

Postscript: Since this piece was drafted, the Covid-19 global health crisis intervened and made media streaming the only safe means of consumption for the general public for two years (and counting). A few short works premised on online interaction, mostly so-called Boys Love teleseries but also including the instant-classic Lola Doc (directed and performed by Nora Aunor from the short “monovlog” written by Layeta Bucoy), functioned as reflexive experiences, with actors directly addressing supposed webcam viewers. The claustrophobic effect of having the performer confined within a limited space, along with the frustration of lacking an audience to interact with, ensures that theater attendance will not be permanently supplanted by this particular new-media trend. But the middle way between movie-going and online learning is being claimed and redefined by the streaming—of media, not just of film.

11011It may be possible to stream a film-viewing audience as well, similar to how participants appear in Zoom classes; even more excitingly, the interactive aspects of live theater attendance (ritualistic call and response, for example, or maverick activities in cult screenings) may just be around the bend. And since digitalization lends itself to a level of flexibility whose fuller potential can be seen in the more advanced games that anticipate the just-announced metaverse, “film” as we know it will once more have to confront the question of whether the medium has ended, to make way for a further stage of development, or reiteration, or devolution.

Back to top

Notes

[1] Millennials whose familiarity with the Marcos family has been defined by the strong and affectionate alliance between Imelda and her daughter might be surprised to know that the two women used to have a conflictive relationship. Psychoanalysis would traditionally ascribe this to their competition for the attention of the patriarch, Ferdinand Sr. This division between mother and daughter would explain how artists—including progressive figures, initially led by Lino Brocka—gravitated toward the ECP after Imee succeeded in taking charge of the agency. It also lends credibility to the belief that Imee’s parents were responsible for the “kidnapping” and subsequent “rescue” of their daughter’s paramour Tommy Manotoc—a sportsman, identified with an opposition family, who had then just divorced his wife, 1970 Miss International Aurora Pijuan; the “Communist terrorists” allegedly responsible for the crime were of course killed, supposedly in a firefight with Manotoc’s rescuers.

[2] At that time a new buzzword, deconstruction is a philosophically prescribed critical procedure that attempts to uncover the possible hidden meaning(s) in a text, whether a written or uttered statement, an audiovisual presentation, or any seemingly innocuous cultural product. Based on the theoretical output of Jacques Derrida, among several other authors, it proceeds from the premise that certain individuals and institutions may have vested interests in maintaining or influencing power imbalances in their favor. In order to attain this condition, they create, promote, favor, and/or standardize texts that uphold their points of view. Popular culture is a productive area for deconstructive exercises, because the texts in this field have to address, and consequently uphold, the interests of the audience—which provides opportunities for certain texts to oppose, repress, or question the advocacies of the ruling class.

[3] I have written elsewhere about the MPP’s contribution to Philippine film awareness, as well as its limitations. Since my criticisms clustered around the group’s awards activities, most of the MPP officials tended to take offense and voiced their disapprobation in several outlets and forums. The positive lessons I learned from the MPP are the ones I recount in this article, techniques of viewing and comparative analyses that have proved useful in drawing up a film canon.

11011Re the awards (called the Urian), my remarks merely rounded up already existing comments from various sources, and cover three aspects. First, the Urian uses a form-vs.-content approach, with their best-film criterion stating: “In the case of two films which are equally well-made, the film with the more significant subject matter is to be preferred” (“MPP Criteria” in The Urian Anthology 1970-1979). This separation between technique and “subject matter” is in fact more useful for the film practitioner, rather than the critic; when the work is completed, form is inseparable from content, and the other dynamics—social, political, industrial, financial, global, etc.—that impact the film and influence people’s perceptions should become part of its evaluation. Second, the awards format is misleading because it makes people think that films, after their completion, can still be reduced to distinct categories such as technical, performative, and creative ones, when in fact the work is already functioning as an organic whole. Third, the awards activity’s effect belies its claim: it supposedly supports the community of film artists by recognizing their best output on a regular basis, but in practice, it always insists on singular winners in artificial categories, thus having a divisive effect on colleagues by forcing them to compete with one another and finding ways to lobby for their respective entries. As the present YES! canon listing implies, certain years may be more fruitful than others, while other years may yield no canon-worthy titles. The awards practice therefore of recognizing one film, or one practitioner, per year leads to the problematic impression that each year’s winner fulfills the Urian’s criteria and that all the annual winners are equivalent to one another.

Back to top

[4] This was intended to rectify the incognizance of individual rankings practiced by the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound survey of film critics, regarded as the definitive canon for global cinema and claimed, in a 2012 article by Michael Atkinson, as the originator of published film canons. The results have been announced decadally starting in 1952, with the next one expected around this time, in 2022. Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) was the 1952 first-placer, with all the succeeding decades dominated by Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) except for the last: the 2012 top winner was Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Since 1992, film directors were also consulted, with the top results mirroring the critics’ choices except for 2012, when the directors selected Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) as their all-time best. Final personal disclosure: I participated once, during the 2002 survey, and received responses from all over—including commentaries from the Observer, Slate magazine, and Roger Ebert—for my offbeat choices as well as my questioning of Citizen Kane’s worthiness.

[5] A series of mostly self-produced super-8mm. films by Noel F. Lim is still awaiting rediscovery, along with the short-film entries of various independent film festivals as well as those produced for the Cine Rehiyon festival of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts—not to mention the material commissioned by the hundreds of non-government organizations that proliferated since the collapse of the martial-law regime of Ferdinand E. Marcos.

[6] While the present canon project was fortunate enough to rediscover Leroy Salvador’s Badlis sa Kinabuhi (Hand of Fate, 1968), the impressive showing of contemporary digital-era regional cinema suggests that more celluloid samples of Cebuano movies should be unearthed, if they still exist. The reputed all-time best, Natalio Bacalso’s Salingsing sa Kasakit (Consequence of Pain, 1955) shares the same depressing fate of Gerardo de Leon’s Ang Daigdig ng mga Api (The World of the Oppressed, 1965), both masterpieces that in all likelihood have been lost to posterity. Even several other well-received entries by the likes of Emmanuel H. Borlaza, better known for his Manila-based work; Gene Labella, who never made films outside the region; Leroy Salvador, acknowledged in Manila as an actor; and Amado Cortez, remembered today as Gloria Sevilla’s husband—are nowhere to be found. Scholarly attention being paid to regional cinema would be better late than never, with Paul Grant and Misha Boris Anissimov’s 2016 volume Lilas: An Illustrated History of the Golden Ages of Cebuano Cinema (published by the University of San Carlos Press) as an outstanding sample of a pioneering study.

[7] Preliminary studies, with extensive listings, of non-Filipino productions dealing with the Philippines and/or Filipinos can be found in the “Media and the Diaspora” special issue, dated August 2014, of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication journal Plaridel, as well as in the “OFWs and Foreign Cinema” monograph of the August 2013/February 2014 issue of Ateneo de Manila University’s cultural studies journal Kritika Kultura. Clodualdo del Mundo Jr.’s Daigdig ng mga Api: Remembering a Lost Film (De La Salle University Press & Film Development Council of the Philippines, 2022) constitutes a valiant attempt at reconstructing a long-lost film classic based on the traces it left behind, while Pro Bernal Anti Bio (ABS-CBN Publishing, 2017), initiated by Ishmael Bernal, continued by Jorge Arago, and completed by Angela Stuart Santiago, may be the most impressive Filipino biography ever written.

Back to top