Category Archives: Book

Page Excerpt of the Bernardo Bernardo Interview

Above is the first page of the interview I conducted with Bernardo Bernardo, originally posted on this blog and also titled “Manay Revisits Manila by Night.” It is now an Appendix in my Arsenal publication, Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic (Matthew Hays & Thomas Waugh, series eds.). Until a Philippine publisher reprints it, the book may be purchased from North American booksellers including Amazon.



Times Journal interview

In 1991, a few months after The National Pastime was published and a few weeks after it was launched, I was interviewed for a now-defunct daily, the Times Journal. The session was a one-shot two-hour exchange that took place at the office of what was then the Film Department (now the Film Institute) of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication. Not all the points I wished to raise about film criticism came out, but then the purpose of the exercise (arranged by Anvil Publishing) was to publicize the book rather than raise issues.


Distinguishing the Film Critic from the Reviewer
Vanessa B. Ira

Since I grew up reading film reviews before the much-endorsed literary classics, it became my lifelong obsession to find out just what “film reviewers” are. They analyze current movies, fine, but if this were so, where do the “film critics” come in? What is a film “reviewer” and what is a film “critic”?

A call from Joel David, University of the Philippines film professor and author of a new book of “over 50 reviews” called The National Pastime, allowed for either the validation or demolition of personal guesses, observations, and biases. Since I was sure I’d never be the same after an authority set straight my thinking on the matter, I scribbled some of these views, as they say, for posterity.

I repeat, the following definitions are “pre-Joel David,” and do not at all reflect his views or opinions:

Film reviewers use the “I” more than the film critic – draw your own conclusions from here. The word for film critics is “intense,” the words for film reviewers are “casually passionate” (especially when they’re doing the worst of the worst Regal movies).

The film critics’ language takes some getting used to (“putative,” “proferred,” “decontextualizes”) while the film reviewers’ is like, well, ya know, like this. Film critics are name-droppers, film reviewers are “phrase-coiners.”

Film critics are long-distance runners, film reviewers are quick-writes. Film reviewers have more fun and it shows, film critics may have fun doing what they’re doing but refuse to show it. Film reviewers write for moviegoers while film critics write for film critics and film students. Film critics are “teacher-types” while film reviewers are “student-types.”

To be sure, I read the distinguished professor’s (there, I sound like a critic) book before the interview. I did not wish to go out there in UP territory lambasting film “critics” or “reviewers” only to find out that Joel David was one or the other. To be sure too, I asked him point-blank what he calls himself.

“I prefer the badge of honor [to be called a] film critic,” David answered my question.

From there, he distinguished the reviewer from the critic.

“The more serious of film students would probably appreciate critics’ writings more,” David said. “Then again, reviews and criticisms serve different purposes. Reviews show how a person responded to a film so there is this tendency to become personalistic. There is also the tendency for reviewers to get known.”

A critic, on the other hand, owes it to himself to be critical of his own subjectivity. Ideas matter more than any reference to the personal. As a critic, one has the option to “defer judgment.” In a way, one must humble oneself.

If one were to draw two extremes, David, explained, reviewing is to journalism as criticism is to film theory and the application thereof. So it is that there are more expectations for film critics to have some sort of a film education.

The last point was particularly intriguing. I had always wondered how local film critics felt about treating in all seriousness an industry which generally refuses to take itself seriously. In short, isn’t a painstakingly written critique of Pido Dida much ado about nothing? Absurd?

Joel David came alive and caused us to unexpectedly veer away from the original topic of the interview. From thereon, we talked about the film critics in our society. The professor lamented that some local reviewers make their analyses using Hollywood standards. This isn’t practical in a nation that cannot afford slick-looking movies.

“We’re asking Filipino reviewers not to question in the traditional way,” David said. “Because if you do, you’ll wind up condemning the taste of the masses. We cannot rely purely on aesthetics.”

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The goal is to understand Filipino culture and society even better by turning to different approaches in evaluating our films. It works this way: You don’t, for instance, write that “Maging Sino Ka Man is a commercial film that teams up the komiks queen Sharon [Cuneta] with the number one action star Robin [Padilla]. She screams, he hardly talks, just grunts.”

The way of the (local) critic is to take note of the last few box-office hits and compare them with this latest one. What do they have in common?

The way of the critic is to note that Maging Sino Ka Man and Pido Dida have leading men who are poles apart from their leading ladies in character and in looks. That they have politicians’ kids – Kris Aquino and Sharon Cuneta – carrying the films. What does this say then about showbiz and politics in this country? How do these affect the moviegoing habits of the Pinoy?

“Then too, critics should be aware of the aesthetics of poverty,” David said. “It’s a matter of their compensating in other areas such as storytelling, subject matter, and treatment.”

Readers of Joel David’s collection of reviews will recognize the critic’s standards. The reviews in The National Pastime: Contemporary Cinema were written over a ten-year period, since the time David was graduated from UP with a second degree in Film.

“I was supposed to cover film press previews,” he recalled his earlier days. “But because I was usually late for the events, I’d end up reviewing the movies.”

The officers of the Manunuri [ng Pelikulang Pilipino, or the Filipino Film Critics Circle] liked David’s reviews so much that they invited him to join.

“Of all the local critics,” David said, “ I admire Bien Lumbera the most. He came at a time culture, not to mention film, was not taken seriously. He came at a time when the criteria for judging cultural pieces were Western-oriented. But Lumbera rose above that.

“He came up with the insight that one way of understanding Tagalog films is by relating them to traditional forms of Pinoy entertainment such as the zarzuela and bodabil.”

Whenever he thinks of Lumbera, David realizes that his own struggle wasn’t as momentous. David and his colleagues from the recently formed Young Critics Circle come at a time when Filipinos are conscious of defining their identity.

Said David: “We may be semi-confused, but we also have to accept that we are still young culturally. It’s really a matter of determining who we are.”

Isn’t it ironic, I asked, that as the rest of the world is gearing itself for life in the so-called Global Village, here we are, turning inward, and perhaps even defensive about anything not Filipino?

“Not really,” David said. “If we were to compete in international film festivals, for example, we would stand out by showing what makes us unique from the rest of the world. You become interesting to the foreign crowd that way.”

Speaking of filmmaking, does a good critic necessarily make a good movie maker?

“We owe it to ourselves to at least know how to make films, and to actually make them, so we don’t just tear other people’s films apart in our reviews.”

But does this hold true for that other kind of film judge – the film “reviewer”? Find out as soon as we discover ones willing to speak for their sort.

[First published March 12, 1991, in Times Journal]

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Grains & Flickers

Article (with updates and one correction – see final endnote) that appeared in the “Revolution across Generations” section of Remembering/Rethinking EDSA (ed. JPaul S. Manzanilla and Caroline S. Hau, Pasig City: Anvil, 2016), pp. 172-87. Kindly purchase your full copy via Amazon or the Anvil Publishing website.

Remembering - Rethinking EDSA

No sane academic would argue against the prevailing consensus that the Marcos dictatorship, as a socio-economic experiment, had proved unsuccessful, if not downright catastrophic. The irony is that among other major Asian countries, the Philippines had been alone in effectively suffering for nothing. All the other ASEAN members, more or less following the example of Korea, emerged as fast-developing economies during or immediately after their authoritarian ordeals. Koreans, in fact, have proved so grateful for the legacy of Park Chung-hee, Ferdinand Marcos’s counterpart, that they enabled his daughter to become the first female President in their own still mostly patriarchal system. Lee Kuan Yew, for his part, has remained influential decades after the restoration of democracy to Singapore, and has taken upon himself the task of criticizing the Philippines for its refusal to return to an authoritarian arrangement as a developmental strategy.

Over a quarter-century since the ouster of the Marcoses, the present has brought what many commentators worryingly describe as a mellowing of the Filipinos’ perception of the havoc the couple had wreaked on the country. Per this logic, Pinoys supposedly have short memories, or are inherently masochistic or manipulable, or are simply incapable of determining what would be best or worst for them. The same critics would also be the first to acknowledge that most presidencies since that of Ferdinand Marcos have ranged from unexceptional to awful, and therefore these observers unknowingly trip over themselves in the pro-people march they believe they are in step with: if we hold, for our people’s sake, that most post-Marcos Pinoy presidents have similarly betrayed the people’s trust, would it not be possible to accept that the people are just as capable of perceiving this and exercising their judgment by way of voting back to power the same entities that they had earlier spurned, in effect telling the succeeding oligarchs that the latter are no better, if not outright worse, than the Marcoses?

I certainly would be horrified at the prospect of Imelda Marcos or her son being installed as Chief Executive – yet she was precisely the person I voted for, during the only time she ran as President (and the last time I exercised my right to vote). She certainly had a snowball in hell’s chance of winning, but since the satirically motivated University of the Philippines professors’ attempt to nominate perennial nuisance candidate Pascual Racuyal had fizzled during the snap elections that ousted her husband, I figured that no other nuisance would be as flamboyant and annoying as our own Iron Butterfly; and if no one else ever voted for her, then my own ballot would serve, however quixotically, as a voice in the wilderness, heralding not the arrival of any savior, but the impossibility (since confirmed, to my mind) of finding one.

My own mellowness toward the martial-law years has evolved differently. When I ultimately felt myself caught up in the wave of diasporic Pinoy labor, I thought this was the very worst long-term economic legacy bequeathed by the Marcos presidency. What had been intended as a stop-gap measure (the same way it was deployed in Korea – where, aptly enough, my OFW-ness eventually led me) had become the Philippines’ primary source of income and growth. Then I started seeing first-hand how overseas employers were being won over by whatever specific package of social skills and work ethic that Filipinos had grown up with, and I found myself grateful that the home country remained a nicer place to return to than if it had been ravaged by the type of industrialization that would have boosted standard-issue national development. That plus our taken-for-granted near-total press freedom would ensure for us (assuming our luck holds out) that, however belatedly we embark on the path of growth, we would never be subject to the machinations that require sufficient obfuscation in order for dictatorships, transnational interests, foreign-based religions, and other self-interested parties to implement their agenda.

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Personal as Political

The manner in which I arrived at this latter-day position vis-à-vis the Marcos dictatorship was foreshadowed by the lessons I drew from my direct interaction with the period. As a high-school and subsequently a college student at the University of the Philippines, I had early on admired and later emulated the senior students who were committed to the activist cause of criticizing and mobilizing against the Marcos presidency, later the martial-law regime. Momentous events such as the First Quarter Storm and the Diliman Commune filtered down to my level of awareness not via my disapproving though sympathetic parents, but through my firebrand uncle, a scholar at the elite Ateneo de Manila University, for whom they were acting as guardians. I’d had enough of an early association with activist organizations so that when martial law was declared, my mother woke me up to inform me that she had buried my Little Red Book and other paraphernalia in the backyard, and wanted to ensure that I had no other seditious materials tucked away elsewhere.

An intense dalliance with evangelical conversion and missionary preparation made me feel then that I had wasted my early college years, but my return to activism provided me with the readiness to recognize that full orthodox-Marxist commitment entailed a similar suspension of critical and humane judgment, a reliance on faith – in leaders, in organizations, in Machiavellian methods, in a promised form of government, and in an unchanging conception of progressivity. When I realized that such a volatile combination of ideals could result in unwelcome tragedy (described by an elderly colleague as “necessary sacrifices” toward the attainment of revolutionary triumph), I determined that I would never be able to abide such a cost. A bus full of solicitous and comradely soldiers, on a provincial trip I took, drove the point home even more urgently: I would not want these people coming to harm, and I would be unable to refuse mourning them as intensely as I had mourned the death-in-action of an activist acquaintance of mine. The people being served, the working class being upheld, would include the soldier, the jailer, the policeman, the executioner, even if they had been tasked to carry out the basest interests of the state. How that principle can be realized I had no clue about – my introduction to Michel Foucault’s ideas would arrive later – although I had to contend with the fact that the institutional Left as I knew it would never stand for it, just as organized religion would never allow for the possibility of an otherwise undeniably godless universe.

The requisites of everyday survival bore down on me almost immediately afterward, circa the late 1970s. Armed with a bachelor’s degree and an extensive record in what is still known as committed journalism, I found that the only doors that I could open were those of publications willing to accept freelance contributions for little better than a hundred pesos or so each. To play safe, I avoided the political and economic analyses that I had focused on as a student journalist, and turned to cultural reportage. Eventually one of these periodicals, a monthly magazine, hired me, but the media grind of observing deadlines, negotiating with data sources, jockeying with editors, and jostling with fellow writers took its toll. In two years I resigned and was again in search of employment, and the only media-related institution actively seeking interested applicants happened to be the newly launched Marcos film institution, the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines.

The phenomenon of anti-Marcos individuals eventually working for a government institution was such a distinctive commonplace that most activists then were convinced that, if they succeeded as underground figures and survived the dangers of incarceration, they would eventually be “rehabilitated” in one of the several government think-tanks of the period, starting with the University of the Philippines-based Presidential Center for Advanced Studies, and might even be deployed to one of the more people-oriented agencies such as the the one for housing (where my uncle, among others, wound up); they could attempt to maintain their integrity by teaching at the national university instead – which again was in fact still just one more government entity. If not then to death or arrest in armed struggle, or to opting out and climbing the corporate ladder or migrating abroad or living off an inheritance or wealthy spouse, all remaining anti-government roads led to the same profoundly ironic destination: government service.


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Cultural Politics

I was most fully aware of the paradox I had allowed myself to stumble into, despite the fact that I never reached the point of being arrested and forced to join government, when I was scheduled to be interviewed for my security clearance. I had just by then met the late Maita Gomez, a former socialite and beauty queen who had joined the Philippine underground and who years later agreed to undergo interrogation as part of the condition for her resurfacing. I would probably never be able to mimic the authority and confidence with which she responded, but I certainly could make use of the sharp logic she used. So when the same question, “Can you identify some of the people you associated with?” came up, I paraphrased her answer as best as I could: “Everyone, including me – we all used aliases that we regularly changed for our mutual protection. If I recall any of those names right now, they would no longer be the same as they were when I knew them.” Although Maita said that that answer had sufficed in her case, I was still surprised when my own interviewers nodded right afterward and signed my clearance forthwith. For an institution being run by the Marcoses’ eldest child! (By the time an acquaintance told me he believed I had sold him and his friends out, I was capable of formulating my own useful reply: “The fact that you’re still around [and unstoppable in your idiocy, I wanted to add] is proof that you weren’t that important to me or anybody else.”)

Right upon reporting for work, I was introduced to the major fissure that would define how we would function and why the institution (from the perspective of outsiders) would take such weird directions. The institution was the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, formally defined as an umbrella organization that would function as a support agency for the local film industry. The activity we were preparing for was the Manila International Film Festival, which the ECP would support but would refuse to be affiliated with. The personnel of the ECP’s public relations department, where I was head writer, were on detail from the National Media Production Center, just as a few other personnel were from the dreaded National Intelligence Security Agency. The key to our understanding of how the different forces interacted was in observing Marcos family politics, primarily the tumultuous relationship between the two Imeldas (mother and daughter, the latter nicknamed Imee) and the claims they made on Ferdinand Senior, the omniscient and omnipotent martial-law patriarch.

Hence the ECP’s repudiation of the MIFF reflected Imee’s refusal to be associated with the vulgarities and excesses of her mother, although as NMPC employees under the directorship of Gregorio Cendaña (an Imelda protégé), we had not much of an option except to work as much for the international film festival as for the ECP itself. MIFF work, in fact, was more intensive, requiring several late-night and occasionally overnight sessions. During one of these all-nighters, a strong tremor hit the city, and everyone instinctively rushed to the windows of the Philippine International Convention Center to see what had happened at the nearby construction project, the Manila Film Center. By then we were used to unusual spectacles such as full-grown coconut trees materializing overnight at the vast parking lot that both buildings shared. The post-tremor vision, however, was something that anyone who had seen it would remember for the rest of her life: workers were scrambling down the ladders leaning on the Parthenon-inspired structure as well as scurrying down the Odessa-like steps surrounding it, like panic-stricken insects pouring out of an abruptly distressed anthill.[1]

The notoriety of the government’s response would thereafter epitomize the Marcos regime’s gross mishandling of workers’ welfare, with victims of the collapsed scaffolding paying the highest price for the construction’s timely completion. Those trapped but still alive in the quick-drying cement had their limbs amputated, while those who had died were buried under further layers. Up to the present, certain pro-Marcos apologists occasionally affirm the official line that the tragedy could not have been as extensive as the few hundreds alleged by the opposition. Yet the visual evidence that we had witnessed, confirmed by the account of an elderly security guard (who later inexplicably disappeared), was apparently sufficient to alarm Imee Marcos, who was easing into her role as Director-General of the ECP. Prior to moving our offices from the convention center to the new building, she (not Imelda, as erroneously and illogically reported in book accounts) insisted on performing a cañao, a native exorcism ritual.[2]

Urban legends abounded regarding the building. Various staff members reported uncanny sightings of men who looked like construction-site peons – not unexpected from the excitable youthful minds of star-struck theater and office assistants. But when the Imelda associate in charge of the project was driving in Tagaytay and died upon crashing into a tree, conversation dwelled not so much on the fact that she was with her alleged paramour (another prominent and married Marcos official), but rather that she supposedly swerved to avoid colliding with a sudden apparition of spectral laborers. The account first surfaced as a report in Veritas, a now-defunct opposition newsmagazine published by the Catholic Church; the article was anonymously written, but some of us in the public relations department recognized the style as belonging to Eddie Pacheco, Imee’s then-recently resigned (and now recently deceased) speech writer.

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Daughter Rising

The Experimental Cinema of the Philippines flourished for over two years. It had been earlier launched, with much fanfare, in bare form and with a different name as one of the several agencies to be run by Imelda Romualdez Marcos. In a surprise twist, on January 29, 1982, Ferdinand Marcos signed Executive Order 770 creating the ECP, effectively overriding the earlier institution and handing over its functions to his daughter, Imee. The process of its formation was transparent enough, so that the most prominent film artists (who were opposition in association and practice) provided advice; the most vocal Marcos critic among them, Lino Brocka, hailed the choice of Imee in one of his rare local interviews.

The ECP thrived for the nearly three years that Imee Marcos took active charge of its operations. The intra-familial intrigue that centered on her – the kidnapping and rescue of her then-boyfriend, the man who had married and subsequently separated from Aurora Pijuan, a Miss International title-holder much admired for her exceptional beauty – was followed closely within the organization, with a concomitant celebration when Tommy Manotoc finally came out, as it were, with her in an official function. Imee’s insistence on her personal preferences, even to the point of contravening her parents, was consistent with her lifestyle, which could be best described as bohemian – at least as far as her understandably harassed security circle could accommodate it, and which has most likely never been seen before or since in any Philippine presidential family circle.

Her participation in small theater productions and enrollment at the University of the Philippines, circa late ’70s, were socially acceptable enough to be covered in media. (She and I in fact were classmates once, although as a then-aspiring activist I had no inkling that I would eventually be working for her.) Among the several first-hand accounts I remember from friends, her late-night food trips to gang-ridden Chinatown and closed-door pot sessions with artists made her a fascinating subject. She would occasionally walk around in extremely informal garb and spout the semi-obscene lingo exclusively associated that time with gay men (who were its acknowledged source), sex workers, and transgressive artists. Her reputation for intelligent discourse has not diminished through the years, and in fact was enhanced upon her post-EDSA return to public official duties, sharply contrasting with the behavior and character of subsequent presidential children.

At this point I venture to interject a further measure of the loss suffered by the country’s failed authoritarian experiment. Again the basis for comparison is Korea, whose dictator, Park Chung-hee, had a meet-and-greet with Ferdinand Marcos during the 1966 convention of the SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, predecessor of the ASEAN), where Park allegedly felt slighted by Marcos’s condescending attitude. Park’s assassination in 1979, preceding Marcos’s ignominious death in exile by a decade, was followed by even more rapid economic development for his already highly industrialized country, in contrast with the several traumatic years of negative growth that immediately succeeded the Marcos era in the Philippines. Hence while Park Geun Hye, Chung-hee’s daughter, eventually emerged as the strongest contender to her country’s highest elective position, Imee Marcos could only hope to ride as far as the discontent of the Filipino population with successive regimes could propel her and the other surviving Marcoses back to power.

Yet the irony in this situation is that, while Park Geun Hye could only maintain (and succeed with) a conservative political position, the Marcoses, probably to their own surprise, found themselves taking an increasingly open anti-US position once American officials withdrew support for them and cast their lot with the local opposition. Ferdinand Sr. was a virtual prisoner in Hawaii, refusing treatment for the disease that he knew would eventually kill him; Imelda was hauled off to court and mocked severely enough in public to win sympathy from her jurors; Imee, after returning to the Philippines and upon her election to Congress, sided with a Leftist bloc in criticizing such prevalent US interests as joint military exercises and intellectual property issues.[3] If not for the association with her parents (marked by her upholding of her family’s material interests and exacerbated by her reconciliation with her eccentric, possibly borderline-insane mother), we could probably do worse with the recent turn toward dynasticism in presidential choices than selecting someone with the intelligence of Ferdinand, the charisma of Imelda, the experience of decades in Malacañang, an exposure to global realpolitik, an appreciation of the potency of culture, and a willingness to challenge figures of authority, ranging from her parents to the country’s neocolonial bullies.[4] I would definitely not lift at hand if this, by some fantastic turn of events, were to come to pass; but I would also be unable to look away.

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ECP in Focus

A count-our-blessings principle would behoove us to acknowledge the only definite area where Marcos-era government intervention was more positive than otherwise. And once more, the object lesson remains: what a priceless heritage we could have had if the energy, creativity, integrity, and resources of these types of contributions were bestowed on more essential areas of the economy – where future generations could take the cue from their elders and seek, not foreign employment opportunities, but profitable and globally cutting-edge ventures that would position the country as the major Asian player that its pre-Marcos past had promised.

Unlike the Marcos regime’s state- or crony-owned monopolies that debilitated the national economy and depleted the dictatorship’s reserves of goodwill, the ECP sought simultaneously to lead by example and provide the necessary material support for local producers to follow suit. It would conduct an annual scriptwriting contest and produce the winning entries; subsidize productions by providing loans for meritorious projects; grant tax rebates on the basis of quality; screen significant local and foreign films in censorship-exempt venues; conduct extensive education and training programs; and preserve existing productions, restoring endangered ones if necessary.

The obvious connection of such a conglomeration of functions with the present lies in an occasionally acknowledged point made by historically inclined observers: that when Philippine movie production, along with the country’s few remaining minor industries, collapsed from the pressures of neoliberal globalization during the late-’90s Asian crisis induced by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank’s interventions, the only means by which film was revived was via a close observance, mostly by the private sector, of the ECP strategy. In fact one could provide a checklist (herewith alphabetically arranged) of the aforementioned ECP functions and easily find one or more contemporary counterparts:

  • Alternative screenings. The ECP’s Alternative Cinema Department was the organization’s most active arm (more impressive considering that videocassettes had not yet proliferated), scheduling daily screenings at the Manila Film Center’s main theater and twin regular theaters, and occasionally at the several classroom-sized screening rooms, where workshops would also be conducted. These venues’ exemption from censorship reached a point where the government revised its film-censorship arm to one that purportedly reviewed films and left the task of regulation up to the producer or distributor. Nevertheless, film artists were able to find sufficient inspiration and organization to mobilize protests, openly supported by the ECP, against the Board of Review for Motion Pictures and Television as an incompatible and conflictive government entity; its chair, Maria Kalaw Katigbak, retaliated by asserting her stature as a direct appointee of the Office of the President, thereby declaring that her office could be abolished only by the President himself. The contemporary venues that partake of the MFC’s censorship-free status would be the two far-less-active government film-exhibition outlets, at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the University of the Philippines Film Institute’s Adarna Theater.

  • Archives. Then as now, this has been the most difficult operation to maintain, owing to the combustible nature of early celluloid and the deteriorative properties of latter-day stocks. The problem extends to other original forms of media (newsprint and video), all of which conspire to turn Philippine media (and mediated Philippine) history into an increasingly urgent race against the ravages of time and weather. After my personal copies of the ECP’s extensive annual reports (which I had written, aptly in coordination with the Film Archives of the Philippines) were lost to the elements, for example, I could not find copies stored anywhere else. A reconstruction of these basic documents would entail a close surveying of the mostly now-defunct newspapers active during the period – incomplete copies of which were stored in disarray. The other, more vital sources, those of tabloids, were in far worse condition for those attempting to conduct research into the period. The media industry’s recent digital turn has fostered a false sense of archival security among practitioners; they witness the permanence of print or audiovisual material on drives and the electronic cloud and believe that these could outlast analogue versions, when in fact data decay occurs faster than properly stored celluloid or paper. With increasingly unpredictable global climate conditions, electromagnetic disturbances could conceivably endanger entire swatches of vulnerable data repositories. Whenever possible, analogue storage ought always to be the preferred means, with digital versions serving only as backup and disseminative material.
  • Education. The ECP envisioned an expansion of its Film Education Department’s workshops to eventually include accreditable college courses, with bachelor’s and graduate degrees to follow. During ECP’s last year, the University of the Philippines announced the country’s first undergraduate degree program in film, a fortuitous preemption of the ECP’s plans, considering how transitory the agency turned out to be. A measure of how innovative the ECP’s officials were can be seen in their response to this development: since I already held a degree from not just the same university but from the mass-communication institute (now college) that offered it, the Director-General’s office granted me the privilege to pursue a second degree in the new major while drawing salary for fulfilling specific assignments – in effect, becoming a working scholar of the agency. Two years later, when I had completed the requirements, I was the country’s first (and only) film degree-holder, with a few other academic distinctions to show for it…but by then the Marcos regime was no longer around, having been ousted by the people-power revolt of February 1986. Another plan, that of introducing film appreciation at earlier school levels, has since then similarly become run-of-the-mill enough to be taken for granted in the country.
  • Funding. The ECP’s Film Fund Department, responsible for granting subsidies for private producers, suffered from the political favoritism that characterized areas in the organization that were dominated by Marcos’s wife, represented in this case by a Blue Lady whose studio-mogul parents had been associated during the 1960s with the hagiographic film-bios of the Marcos couple’s electoral campaigns. The department’s process of evaluating proposals in terms of their combination of merit plus profitability was honored more in the breach than in the observance, resulting in films that were mostly critically ignored if not panned, and even worse, that failed to recover their producers’ (and ECP’s) investments. The solution, as practiced by contemporary institutions such as Cinemalaya and CinemaOne, was to determine choices on the bases of the results of open scriptwriting contests (see film production listing below), and to subsidize significantly inexpensive (and potentially more profitable) digital productions.
  • International film festival. The Manila International Film Festival’s editions started with the MFC’s construction disaster and ended with pornographic film screenings – a reprise of the bread-and-circuses tactic exploited by the Marcos presidency during the early-’70s Leftist unrest that preceded the declaration of martial law; just as the earlier sex-film trend bore a term, bomba, drawn from the period, so did the later MIFF editions and post-Imee screenings generate their own descriptor, penekula (a portmanteau comprising “penetration” plus “pelikula”). The privately funded Cinemanila International Film Festival, even at over a decade old, cannot hope to attain the MIFF’s top ranking with the global film festival federation – a distinction that, outside of Europe, only Manila had shared with the major film festivals of Cannes, Venice, and Berlin. The current stop-gap solution, already generating its own set of problems, is to enable outstanding local films to join foreign festivals, to the problematic point where local filmmakers can already completely dispense with the need to court the patronage of the Philippine audience. A more noteworthy achievement, showcased in the final still-named MIFF of 1983, was a module of a few dozen Philippine movies selected by a group of experts, of which new 35-mm. prints were processed and subtitled; a few of these entries now stand as the only remaining integral copies available, despite their expected color-fade and vinegar syndrome. A contemporary institutional counterpart effort still has to be realized on the same scale, notwithstanding the significantly more affordable availability of digital technology.[5]
  • Production. Like the ECP Film Fund, the Film Production function, this one directly under the Office of the Director-General, proved to be unsustainable after two years. However, the impact of this activity continues to be felt to the present. The ECP’s announcement of a scriptwriting contest to determine the choices for full production support created a model that has been regarded since as best practice for institutions with interest in and the capacity for implementing prestige projects and introducing new talent. As proof, its first batch of films, Ishmael Bernal’s Himala and Peque Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata (both from 1982), continue being hailed as successful samples of epic-scale cinema with contrasting values (one current and the other period, one by a veteran and the other by a debuting director, one with the country’s top star and the other with a number of new performers, one socially critical and the other celebratory, etc.). The lessons here may be cautionary in nature: in order to sustain this type of activity (which faltered during its second year of operations and folded up afterward), the ECP should have paced itself more slowly until it had been able to accumulate a pool of sufficiently trained talent, the way that today’s prestige-festival producers draw from the countless film programs and workshops of various universities and academies. On the other hand, the current emphasis on relatively affordable digital media yields to mainstream outfits the privilege of producing big-budget celluloid projects, in effect preempting any possibility for Philippine cinema to return to alternative epic-scale productions.[6]
  • Ratings for tax rebates. By far the most exemplary and least controversial of the ECP’s departments, the Film Ratings Board only needed to be revived, title and all, and implemented in the present in order to continue servicing local cinema without calling attention to itself, in the exact area, taxation, where the industry has been experiencing greater burden than most other major film capitals around the world. By calibrating the level of tax relief according to a select group’s perception of a film product’s quality, the FRB encourages at least a token measure of production values, and implicitly critiques the proliferation of award-giving bodies by appending a practical advantage to the recognition it provides. Like any workable type of merit-based government support, it remains susceptible to influence-peddling and ideological containment, typically of conservative and middle-brow persuasion. Constant media attention and occasional extensive revaluations may be the best possible way of maintaining the optimal performance – not just of the FRB but of other self-serious canon-building bodies.

  • Support activities. The MFC provided rental space for several film agencies, not all of them commercially oriented. The Movie Workers Welfare Fund’s Film Institute held office at a basement floor, where it would conduct workshops for super-8mm. production, then screen the results at the ECP Annual Short Film Festival. Upon the ECP’s closure, the “parent” institution, the Cultural Center of the Philippines (the MFC was located in what is still known as the CCP Complex), continued the short-film competition, in what has turned out to be the closest to an unbroken ECP activity. The ECP’s Public Relations Division published Sinemanila, while the Film Ratings Board came up with Filipino Film Review – both of them outlets for articles, reviews, and criticism. Even in mainstream film activity, several titles all the way to 1986, after the ouster of the Marcoses, were ECP-related, either as winners or finalists in the scriptwriting contest, subsidized projects of the Film Fund, and/or graded productions by the FRB. Personalities associated with the agency made bigger names in various industry, media, and educational capacities after their stint in government.

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Way of All Flesh

The ECP was fairly fortunate in not having had to endure the disgrace of being formally shut down or privatized along with the rest of the Marcos-era government agencies and corporations. This occurred through a technicality: upon her election to the Batasang Pambansa (the Marcos-era National Assembly), Imee Marcos decided to focus more intently on her legislative responsibilities and resigned from her ECP position. In order to effect changes in accordance with a different set of interests (mostly associated with international-festival plans, uncensored film screenings, and co-productions with foreign financiers), the ECP was dissolved by presidential decree on September 30, 1985, and a new institution, called the Film Development Foundation of the Philippines, set up in its stead.[7]

The same set of core personnel were given the option to remain with the FDFP, although for some of us at the National Media Production Center, production work for the government’s TV station suddenly seemed more attractive after all. How implicated was the NMPC in the raging controversy of the decade – the assassination of Benigno S. Aquino, Jr.? It was responsible for the airport security cameras, which suspiciously turned out blank during the precise date and time that the event took place. A few key personnel, also initially involved with the ECP, resigned during the period between the assassination and the 1986 snap presidential elections. No one doubted the close links between the First Lady and the NMPC director, particularly during periods when Mrs. Marcos would embark on her foreign shopping sprees and we the employees would find our salaries delayed by a few days, sometimes up to a week.

Not surprisingly, several familiar faces from the Manila Film Center offices materialized at the people-power barricades of February 1986. The dictatorship, which had continued in practice even after its formal lifting around the time that the ECP was founded, was finally genuinely vanquished. My dreams as student activist had been suddenly realized, with the symbolically afflicted Manila Film Center initially abandoned and presently condemned. I had thought the price to be paid, a suspension of my other set of dreams, this time as cultural activist, might be set down as an updated category of necessary sacrifices. I set out to write the first article declaring the closure of a filmic Golden Age, endeavored to cover the intervening period as its most active film critic, and attempted some continuity with the ECP’s ideals via the UP film program. I had to give up on these aspirations one after another at some later point, but that tale awaits a further telling.

A Note on Sources

Several materials on the Marcos dictatorship, plus a few on the Marcos family’s interventions in Philippine film culture, can now be accessed from online material. A few of this article’s other sources are in Korean-language books and websites, researched and translated for me by Lee Kumchong of the University of Queensland. The article was not intended as a comprehensive summary or a definitive history; such a task needs to be accomplished, but could not be accommodated within the terms of the subjective tone that I’d opted to deploy. I wish to acknowledge the assistance provided by Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon, who had originally directed me to her ECP contacts in addition to freelance opportunities; Nena C. Benigno and Guia P. Yonzon, my ECP supervisors; an online circle comprising Bayani Santos, Jr., Flor Caagusan, Oona Thommes Paredes, Daisy Catherine Mandap, Antonio VA Hilario, Frank Cimatu, Marian Pastor Roces, Ronald Rios, and Gigi de Beaupré, who helped me thresh out the difficulty of being Ma. Imelda “Imee” Marcos; Bliss Cua Lim, who alerted me to the “revival” of the ECP in the so-called contemporary Pinoy indie movement; Ernie de Pedro, Director of the Film Archives section, and Theo Pie, who assisted me with the ECP’s annual reports; and Toby Miller, who introduced me to and instructed me in the concept of cultural policy. To Marilou Diaz-Abaya, who sought to reconcile polarized forces in her work, always aiming true and often succeeding beautifully, this article is dedicated.

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Notes since the publication process
of Remembering/Rethinking EDSA

[1] In Marcos Martial Law: Never Again (Pasig City: Anvil, 2016), Raïssa Robles quotes “Abdon Balde Jr., who supplied ready-mix concrete for this project. He suspected that in the rush to complete [sic], cement was poured in sections with insufficient shorings and scaffolding, causing these to collapse in the early morning hours of November 17, 1981” (159). Balde’s explanation overlooks the tremor that hit the city during the said date.

[2] In an interview, Nena C. Benigno, then the Director of the Public Relations Division, said that “Imee refused to occupy the building. ‘Ayoko pumasok diyan!’ [I don’t want to enter that place!] She ordered all these exorcism rites. Or else we would never step in there” (Tats Manahan, “What Lies Beneath,” Rogue [November 2015]: 86-93). For added information on the origins of the Manila Film Center and the agency that would eventually reside in it, see “The Manila National Film Centre,” a 1981 UNESCO Technical Report.

[3] Ruben Carranza, former commissioner with the Presidential Commission on Good Government, explained why the surviving Marcoses harbored resentment toward the US: “they [refused] to pay the $2 billion judgment against them won by 10,000 victims of human-rights violations during the Marcos dictatorship. They were cited in contempt by a US court. [In addition] they were ordered to pay a fine of $100,000 per day for the 10 years between 1995 and 2005 – and counting – that they refused to pay that judgment” (Facebook post, April 10, 2016).

[4] The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ April 3, 2016, report identified Imee Marcos and her three sons by Tommy Manotoc as associated with offshore shell companies listed in the leaked documents of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. This was in addition to an earlier ICIJ exposé, the 2013 Offshore Leaks Probe, which also revealed Imee Marcos as the beneficiary of a secret trust, Sintra, formed in the British Virgin Islands. The apparent Marcos family strategy was to maintain a clean name for Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in order to enable him to restore the family to political power.

[5] Since this article was drafted, three types of restoration activities have taken place, all digital in nature. In increasing prolificacy, these would be: international, as typified by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project’s efforts (in coordination with the Film Development Council of the Philippines) for Lino Brocka’s Cannes Film Festival entries; institutional, undertaken mainly by the “Sagip Pelikula” [Save Our Films] program of ABS-CBN Film Archives and Central Digital Lab, for a large proportion of their products as well as works they consider classics; and private initiative, exemplified in the Magsine Tayo! Tumblr postings of video collector Jojo Devera.

[6] While I would hesitate recommending non-commercial blockbuster budgets as a matter of principle, I would recognize that creativity may now extend to the realm of financial sourcing – e.g., foreign co-productions or festival-circuit distributions have proved to be feasible options even in the past, and may be enhanced with more new-millennium options such as internet-based fund-raising or alternative video distribution strategies.

[7] The print version of this article mistakenly cites the name “Film Development Council of the Philippines,” which is the contemporary incarnation of the FDFP. Many thanks to Ramon Sixto C. Nocon for reminding me of the difference.

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The Reviewer Reviewed

I responded to a review of my work only once, with decidedly mixed feelings. I would have preferred to keep quiet, as I had earlier, regarding more vicious and unfounded attacks on my work and person. At this point, however, I felt that I could not bypass the opportunity to point out the differences between the reviewer’s expectations and the objectives that should have been readily discernible in the book being reviewed. Unfortunately (probably because of the bad blood I had accumulated from enduring earlier attacks), my response had an unnecessarily sharp edge that I now wish I could have blunted before sending the letter. For this reason I decided to conceal the details of publication, which I am certain the author, a senior colleague, would have preferred as well.

Unfocused View of RP Cinema
[Author anonymized]

Reading Joel David’s Fields of Vision can produce a feeling like that generated by a lively intellectual conversation: the sense of challenge and excitement that comes from an encounter with a fine mind thinking deeply about important matters. One may disagree with some of his opinions and applications, but one can hardly avoid being stimulated by the scope of David’s scholarship and reasoning.

This book is a learned and provocative work, precisely because it raises so many questions that get at the heart of the challenges on the study of Philippine cinema. That it does not answer all the questions it raises is far less important than that it calls the reader into the conversation on different terms.

The book is neatly divided into three parts: Panorama, Viewpoints, and Perspectives. Part I is an overview of the New Cinema in retrospect, tracing the effects and influences of neorealism, cinéma vérité, film noir, and surrealism on Philippine cinema. This chapter is the most informative and a welcome contribution by the scholarly author to our deeper understanding of our own local cinema.

The big problem I encountered not only in this chapter but throughout the book is, David’s train of thought is something difficult to follow because of his peculiar style of writing and his penchant for unfamiliar words and ambiguous phrases, such as “imbricated” (ix), “multiplicity of participations” (3), “high-gear editing” (40), “shimmying exoticism” (13), “overscaled meddling” (108).

Part II contains the main body of the book. It is divided into sections with some titillating subtitles: “Demachofication,” “Sequacious Cebuano,” “Movable Fists,” “Mudslung.” Under each heading are listed the movies under consideration.

This chapter, though, creates some problem for the readers who are not familiar with the movies of the 1970s and ’80s. For instance, how could the reader understand what the author is talking about a certain a movie, if he does not know anything about the movie?

Take this example: “Nevertheless the device in Hot Summer has been wisely confined to the movie’s expository portion. Once the entire framework has been set up, the finishing touches admirably point up to a sound internal logic at work, employing the same principle of sensible character-based development observed in Paano Kung Wala Ka Na” (53).

I myself have not seen either Hot Summer or Paano Kung Wala Ka Na. An example of a scene or scenes from either or both of the movies cited would enable the reader to understand and appreciate what David is trying to say.

David could have given an excerpt from the movie Biktima to illustrate what he calls “an excessive cocksureness of approach” (95), which he averred victimized that movie.

For me, the best part of the book is Part III, where David proposed a list of Filipino film highlights (“Worth the While”) to prove that film as a medium still contains the country’s most consistent artistic achievements.

Noteworthy also is “Ten Best Filipino Films Up to 1990,” a credible selection of the ten best collated from the individual choices of more than thirty respectable film artists, film critics, directors, producers, and academicians.

The Ten Best list is sure to generate controversy. David himself, after collating and tabulating everything, concluded that the number of respondents was still not exhaustive, that there is still a critical community somewhere left untapped. But the list should be regarded as the beginning of a healthy debate, rather than the final word on the matter.

Taken as a whole, the book is a gold mine for which film students and film buffs can only be grateful. What the book perhaps lacks in focus is amply compensated by a wealth of informative material about Philippine cinema. It will be a most welcome addition to any film library here and abroad.

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Letter to the Editor

[Date & addressee anonymized]
Dear [Editor] –

I received a copy of a review of Fields of Vision in [your publication] through my publisher, but I didn’t have the time to write a response until today’s US holiday, Independence Day, ironically liberated me from my work sked. [The] review was appreciative and encouraging, and also evinced an attempt to be critical at the same time. I have not had problems with critics expressing reservations about my books, although for the first time, I feel that I need to contest a number of [the reviewer’s] premises.

To begin with, [the reviewer’s] complaint that the writing uses “unfamiliar words and ambiguous phrases” is something that may be expected from a layperson. However, any academic ought to be able to determine the meaning of a word like “imbricated”; a media professor ought to be able to know what “high-gear editing,” “multiplicity of participations,” and “overscaled meddling” refer to, unless film, performing-arts, and cultural-policy terms happen to lie outside her or his sphere of expertise. Someone urgently needs to introduce the poor fellow to that basic research tool called a dictionary, upon which he might realize that whatever is “unfamiliar” and “ambiguous” about these examples may have all been a function of his hazy sensibility.

Even more serious is the clear possibility that [the reviewer] may not have been reading carefully enough. For one thing, he misquoted one of the book’s articles’ titles – i.e., “Sequacious Cebuano,” which is meaningless, was a mix-up of two different titles, “Sequacious and Second-Rate” and “Sedulously Cebuano.” Furthermore, he ascribed to me the phrase “shimmying exoticism,” when in fact in the published text it is in the plural, enclosed in quotes, and attributed to John Grierson in the latter’s description of the work of Robert Flaherty. More glaringly, “multiplicity of participations” is not only similarly quoted and attributed, but is also immediately followed in the book by a paraphrase of Roland Barthes’s semiotic redefinition.

The surest indicator that [the reviewer] may have been expecting a book of reviews when in fact he was presented with a body of criticism was when he demanded that the articles should have presented “an example [sic] of a scene or scenes from … the movies cited [to] enable the reader to understand and appreciate what David is trying to say.” The premise in reviewing is that the reader may be encouraged in or discouraged from watching a current release; in criticism, on the other hand, the reader is expected to have seen the item being discussed (or eventually make the effort to watch it), regardless of the author’s appreciation of or antipathy toward it.

Moreover, when did serious discourse ever make a claim to accurately represent the texts it was dealing with? A critique of, say, Crime and Punishment or The Bridges of Madison County (either the books or the films made from them) could never hope to fully recount their texts’ contents, and would only waste space and printer’s ink in trying to do so, when a journal or index or annotated bibliography might be able to provide that same function more effectively. If supplying a plot summary were necessary to the discussion, then by all means such a summary should be expected. But when [the reviewer] gripes that he does not understand what an “excessive cocksureness of approach” means and expects to find it in the movie’s narrative, he just might be in the dark regarding the embarrassingly antique insight that film is primarily a visual medium.

I would not even bother to speculate as to the possible reasons why [the reviewer] thinks that an anthology should have “focus,” and what he thinks this focus should be. It saddens me to note that [the reviewer] has not grown much in the intervening years. Is his notion of film theory still a matter of (mis)taking the elements of film in the context of classical Hollywood practice as the theory of film? Does he still refer derisively to Philippine movies when searching for samples of “bad” or “failed” applications in relation to the Hollywood model? Does the fact that a university press decided anyway to publish my manuscript indicate anything to him about how far gone the times have changed in relation to his ideas?

Thank you for providing this opportunity to engage in dialogue with one of your reviewers. I could have hoped for a more constructive exchange – a “multiplicity of participations” in effect, post Barthes – but my responses were imbricated in the excessive cocksureness, resulting in overscaled meddling, of the said reviewer’s “shimmying exoticisms,” to borrow once more from the late great Grierson.

Sedulously yours,

Joel David
New York City

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Book Texts

The books I’d written as sole author were meant to be read chronologically (according to date of original publication). However, as several undergraduate students and laypersons made clear to me, that kind of effort would require an investment in which they did not (yet?) have the time or effort to commit. Hence I thought of providing Book Texts: A Pinoy Film Course, essentially a select list of recommended articles – not so much a “best of” and more of an appetizer course, pardon the semi-academic pun. This should not be construed as an introduction to Philippine cinema (although I do have a forthcoming book, SINÉ, that attempts to fulfill that function). Neither should it be considered an introduction to Philippine film criticism, or even that evasive creature that we may call “Joel David’s film criticism.” I provided a descriptor in the subtitle, and that ought to sum it up, with emphasis on the first word (cum letter) in “a Pinoy film course.”

Each title is followed by the originating book title, abbreviated as follows: NP for The National Pastime (1990), FV for Fields of Vision (1995), WC for Wages of Cinema (1998), MT1 for Part I of Millennial Traversals (2015), and MT2 for Part II of Millennial Traversals (2015). After the book source is the year of publication (not of the anthology, but of the article). A short annotation, which may or may not overtly indicate the urgency of reading the article, ends each entry.

[Original digital edition: © 2016 by Joel David & Ámauteurish Publishing; All Rights Reserved.]


Essays that look intensively at specific films or at film-intensive issues.


Personal write-ups that could help people understand the writer’s psychology, to dispel any lingering illusion of objectivity.

  • World’s Shortest Prequel (NP 1990). Or why my writing turned out the way it did, if childhood experience were ever capable of explaining anything.
  • The Last of Lino (FV 1995). What the death of a major local practitioner signified to someone (like me) who had always regarded his output with some reservation and ambivalence.
  • A Cultural Policy Experience in Philippine Cinema (WC 1998). In the slipstream of a distinctive degree of cultural patronage, that of a film “support” agency mandated by the Marcos dictatorship.
  • Small World, Big Apple (MT2 2005). Graduate studies (and survival) in New York City, during the eve of 9/11.

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Pinoy Film Reviews I – Celluloid (Pre-1990s) Era

The core of any critical practitioner derives from the active consumption of cultural output within an extensive time frame – never an easy or affordable option. This was the period when local film flourished, then floundered, because of the instability wrought by the defeat of the Marcos dictatorship.

  • Exceptions (NP 1981). A comparative review of Eddie Romero’s Kamakalawa and Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata (both 1981), that still relied on the style-vs.-substance approach.
  • Down but Not Out (NP 1988). Another comparative review, this time of Francis “Jun” Posadas’s Nektar and Jose “Pepe” Marcos’s Tubusin Mo ng Dugo (both 1988), that looks at genre products with still a nod to issues of formal quality.
  • Chauvinist’s Nightmare (NP 1987). Mike Relon Makiling’s Kumander Gringa (1987) and why its under-the-radar commercialism allowed it to get away with potshots aimed at a few sacred cows of the time.
  • O’Hara Strikes Again (NP 1987). Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak (1987) as a demonstration of its director’s capacity to draw pleasure from formulaic material.
  • Mellow Drama (NP 1987). An attempt to draw from literary history in reviewing Mel Chionglo’s Paano Kung Wala Ka Na (1987).
  • Campout (NP 1988). Camp (actually campiness) as a determinant of preference in evaluating Lino Brocka’s Natutulog Pa ang Diyos, Emmanuel H. Borlaza’s Paano Tatakasan ang Bukas?, and Artemio Marquez’s Sa Puso Ko Hahalik ang Mundo (all released in 1988).
  • After the Revolution (NP 1989). Lino Brocka’s Orapronobis (1989) engendered controversial responses among, predictably, conservative sectors, but even members of the intelligentsia had their misgivings; this review seeks to bridge the differences between the film and its better-intentioned interlocutors.

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

The film industry recovered after the people-power uprising, enough to recall the Marcos-era glory years and still unaware of the forthcoming storms to be induced by globalization trends, specifically the late-’90s Asian economic crisis and the digital turn in film production.

  • Persistence of Vision (FV 1990). The culmination of my attempt to describe and uphold an operatic sensibility in cinema, via Chito Roño’s Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali? (1990).
  • Indigenous Ingenuity (FV 1990). My effort at foregrounding my personal participation in Gil Portes’s Andrea, Paano Ba ang Maging Isang Ina? (1990) resulted in censorship by an editor who should have known better, and in expulsion from the publication (without the courtesy of a letter informing me of the decision).
  • Head Held High (FV 1990). A review that welcomed a successful turn in Lino Brocka’s Gumapang Ka sa Lusak (1990), from his usual separation of box-office projects from political statements, to a film that demonstrated that contradictory elements need not be jettisoned from one’s intended undertaking.
  • Family Affairs (FV 1990). The emergence of a politically sponsored star and her genuinely talented sidekick is interrogated in this review of Tony Cruz’s Pido Dida (Sabay Tayo) (1990).
  • Men and Myths (FV 1990). A state-of-the-genre look at the action film (with dramatic and comedic elements adding extra spice) as embodied in Pepe Marcos’s Bala at Rosaryo (1990).
  • I.O.U. (FV 1990). One of the occasional progressive trends that emerged in Pinoy action cinema (see “Head Held High” earlier), evaluated alongside the movie’s director-star’s persona, in Jesus Jose’s (a.k.a. Lito Lapid’s) Kahit Singko Hindi Ko Babayaran ang Buhay Mo (1990).
  • Movable Fists (FV 1990). Further possible twists in the treatment of action material, in Junn P. Cabreira’s Walang Awa Kung Pumatay (1990), Francis (Jun) Posadas’s Iisa-Isahin Ko Kayo (1990), and Mauro Gia Samonte’s Apoy sa Lupang Hinirang (1990).
  • Sedulously Cebuano (FV 1990). The last pre-digital Cebuano-language movie, Junn P. Cabreira’s Eh…Kasi…Bisaya! (1990), deserved a commemoration all its own.
  • Black & Blue & Red (MT1 1992). In the tradition of short-format filmmakers who graduate to full-length projects, Raymond Red’s Bayani (1992) acquired the additional cache of representing a movement with messianic-artist claims.

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Pinoy Film Reviews III – Digital Era

By the end of the first decade of the new millennium, local production had gone totally digital – unknowingly foreshadowing what more developed countries would eventually be doing.

  • Heaven in Mind (MT1 2004). The new Pinay and her journey, tracked and celebrated in Joel Lamangan’s Sabel (2004).
  • Survivor’s Guilt (MT1 2009). Why the personal is social, and how a filmic discourse on trauma such as Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil’s Boses (2009) can provide insight and entertainment without compromising one for the other.
  • Sighs and Whispers (MT1 2009). The fullness of the aesthetic potential of the debut film, as emblematized by Armando Lao’s Biyaheng Lupa (2009).
  • On the Edge (MT1 2013). Pinoy action cinema redux, featuring Erik Matti’s On the Job (2013).
  • A Desire Named Oscar (MT1 2013). Among other distinctions, 2013 was the year that three countries submitted films featuring Filipino characters for Oscar consideration: Singapore with Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo, UK with Sean Ellis’s Metro Manila, and the Philippines with Hannah Espia’s Transit.
  • Antonio Luna’s Fall and Rise (MT1 2015). The historical epic, and a misunderstood (anti)hero, are recuperated in Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna (2015).
  • Ice with a Face (MT1 2016). Jaclyn Jose’s Cannes-winning performance provides (among many other things) a starting point in assessing Brillante Ma. Mendoza’s new level of achievement in Ma’ Rosa (2016).

Foreign Film Reviews

I maintain that an appreciation of foreign cinema should mainly assist in understanding local products, not the other way around; my grad-school exposure to a wide array of world cinema and film styles further affirmed this conviction.

  • Form and Function (FV 1987). Mike Newell’s Silent Voice (a.k.a. Amazing Grace and Chuck) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (both 1987) provide insights on the necessary specificities of war themes in contemporary cinema.
  • …And the First Shall Be the Last (FV 1990). A typically Catholic neurosis in pop culture, where an allegedly heretical text turns out to be ultimately pro-religion (though not always pro-Church), obtains in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
  • Wet Noodles (MT1 2009). Orientalism by a fellow Oriental? Something to ponder in Trần Anh Hùng’s I Come with the Rain (2009).
  • Two Guys, While Watching Avatar (MT1 2009). Plato as stand-up comedian, an approach that once more horrified square print editors, in my review of James Cameron’s all-time money-maker Avatar (2009).
  • Hit in the (Multi)Plexus (MT1 2011). A Korean blockbuster, Lee Han’s Wan-deuk-i [Punch] (2011), based on a novel with a Vietnamese migrant-wife character, whose nationality in the movie was changed to Pinay.

Non-Film Reviews

Film is a language, as are all other forms of cultural expression. Appreciating one specific form while rejecting all others is a sign that the critic urgently needs to move forward.

  • Home Sweet Home (NP 1987). A theater presentation, Elsa Martinez Coscolluela’s In My Father’s House (1987), which was originally submitted as a film proposal.
  • Disorder & Constant Sorrow (MT2 2012). The martial-law era recounted as family saga, from the experiences of the Quimpo clan, in Subversive Lives (2012).
  • The Novel Pinoy Novel (MT2 2011). Language, memory, imagination, identity – all deliriously blended into an unforgettable experience, in Ricky Lee’s Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata (2011).
  • High Five (MT2 2012). An excellent English-language short-fiction sampler, Gang of 5: Tales, Cuentos, Sanaysay (2012), from expat national treasure Ninotchka Rosca.

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Film is culture, and therefore culture impinges on film, directly or otherwise. No film issues get raised in the later articles, which I guess buttresses the point I’m making; but it also helps any kind of reader to know that the writer proceeds from a specialization in cinema.

  • People-Power Cinema (NP 1987). A year after the February 1986 uprising that restored democratic processes, the film industry had yet to fully recover – the films that commemorated the event were paradoxically unpopular.
  • Studious Studios (NP 1988). A short (numerological) reconsideration of the political economy of the Philippine studio system.
  • Shooting Crap (FV 1990). The controversial toilet-humor trend and its alleged purveyor, Joey de Leon; or why the carnivalesque can’t always be dismissed out of hand.
  • Firmament Occupation (FV 1990). A redefinition of the much-maligned star system, to take into account the implication of the word “system.”
  • Blues Hit Parade (FV 1990). A pathologization of producers’ obsession with blockbusters.
  • A New Role for Korea (MT2 2009). Or how the Philippines could have turned out, given a different set of historical circumstances.
  • Crescent Tense (MT2 2009). The massacre in Maguindanao as an index of long-simmering Muslim-Christian tensions.
  • Asian Casanovas (MT2 2010). “Cablinasian” Tiger Woods, Korean Lee Byung-hun, and Pinoy Manny Pacquiao as randy celebs, positioned at the intersection of race and gender.
  • The Sins of the Fathers (MT2 2010). The ending of innocence, courtesy of duly certified shepherds of the flock.


Pinoy film people, all in the mainstream. No apologies on my end.

  • Love Was the Drug (MT2 2009). The introduction to the anthology left behind by the genuinely beautiful Johven Velasco.
  • The Dolphy Conundrum (MT2 2012). The difficulty of ascertaining whether the country’s top comedian deserved to be honored as a National Artist.
  • The Carnal Moral of a Brutal Miracle (MT2 2012). The insufficiently appreciated Marilou Diaz-Abaya, thoroughly prepared (as always) for the end of life.
  • A National Artist We Deserve (MT2 2014). Nora Aunor, deprived of an honor that belonged to her before anyone else.


A more intensive type of feature, where the voice of the subject is foregrounded.


The criticism of film criticism, from “scientific” to “social” approaches.

  • Film Critics Speak (FV 1990). A statement on the condition of film criticism in the country.
  • Ten Best Filipino Films Up to 1990 (FV 1990). An exercise in canon-building, too successful for its own good.
  • One-Shot Awards Ceremony (FV 1991). A declaration of all-time achievements in specific categories – an idle exercise, admittedly, but also one that immerses in the pleasures of film evaluation.
  • Levels of Independence (MT2 1990). The genealogy of what might actually constitute “independent” local cinema.
  • Pinoy Filmfests ca. 2013 (MT1 2013). A look at the sudden proliferation of film festivals during the era of digital film production, with focus on the first Sineng Pambansa entries (specifically Peque Gallaga & Lore Reyes’s Sonata, Joel Lamangan’s Lihis, and Elwood Perez’s Otso).
  • A Lover’s Polemic (MT2 2013). Film criticism in the Philippines.


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Millennial Traversals – Foreign Film Reviews II (Exertions)


Silent Voice (a.k.a. Amazing Grace and Chuck)
Directed by Mike Newell
Written by David Field

Full Metal Jacket
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford

The beauty of a work inevitably raises the issue of the purpose of the effort expended in attaining it: the more powerful the result, the greater the call for a purpose. If Einstein had handed over his theory of relativity to artists, the nuclear clouds they would have created would still give rise to the military-industrial complexes responsible for the arms race that threatens the very existence of life at present. The sheer beauty of nuclear explosions would have quickly become irrelevant. Such basic insights into the irony of modern existence aren’t the concerns of the latest no-nukes film, Silent Voice. The movie follows the liberal bent of politicized Hollywood filmmaking that once gave us daring but ultimately unbearable moralist pieces like John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath (1940), Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), and the Stanley Kramer titles of the 1950s. The late ’70s saw a resurgence of committed films like Hal Ashby’s Coming Home and Being There (1978 and ’79 resp.) and Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae (1979), with another but more shrill no-nukes effort, James Bridges’s The China Syndrome (1979).

The trouble with too politically committed approaches to filmmaking is that the medium itself lies in danger of being regarded as not only divorced from, but even secondary to, the statement being made. Film therewith becomes a medium for essentially social-scientific discourses, where the audience is expected to respond according to the requirements of mass education – hence the reduction of narratives to “scientific” principles that would yield results according to the greatest common factors. Silent Voice observes this tradition of sincere exploitation for political purposes. The sincerity is exuded right from frame one, but the exploitation becomes apparent only to those who’ve learned to love film experience for its own sake. There’s no doubt in the minds of the filmmakers as to who the good types and the bad types are. To make sure that the arguments against nuclear disarmanent get minimal airing, initially neutral elements like the lead character’s father and the President of the United States, you better believe it, get converted to the cause.

I object to the treatment not because I disagree with the movement against nuclear weapons. It’s just that film here is presented as an orchestration of disparate technical elements, and is thereby served with utmost competence. These days it’s still surprising to realize that even in the most technologically advanced circles the actual dramatic potential of film cannot be treated with deference, much less appreciated for what it can achieve. The people you find in Silent Voice aren’t made to act as individuals; they’re all subject to forces beyond them, and so the bravery of the heroes and the villainy of the baddies get unintentionally exonerated in the end.

Aside from the obvious convenience this provides of doing away with intelligient characterization, the necessity of raising the obvious philosophical question is dimissed in favor of a happy ending: once all those warheads are dismantled, what’s to keep people of the same persuasion that gave rise to the military-industrial complex from going it on their own, under wraps if necessary? The pre-nuclear age of innocence has been lost forever, but in Silent Voice we are asked to believe that we could go back to it by simply feeling for it. The intention may be laudable, but the impracticality of it all may ultimately prove dangerous for dreamers, whichever side of the camera they may find themselves straddling.

The most effective no-nukes movie is still the one that ends with the world getting blown up, with a strong dose of black humor for the faint of heart and stylistic experimentation for the non-believers in the capabilities of film, to make the journey to the end easier to bear. The same brilliance that informed the said work, Dr. Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), can still be gleaned from the same director’s latest output, Full Metal Jacket. Unfortunately Stanley Kubrick manages to sustain this milieu-documentation approach for the extended expository portion of his film, then gives out to universalized points about the horrors of war that pale beside the older film’s comparatively easy achievements in story and character construction. I suspect that adaptational problems (the present movie’s based on one of the scriptwriters’ novel) had much to do with the turnout of what could have been the most innovative war movie yet.

Come to think of it, discourses on the failed American involvement in the Viet Nam conflict were made possible through the same wave of committed filmmaking mentioned earlier. Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) may be considered the Godfather of them all, with Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) as something of a fairy godmother. (Full Metal Jacket could then be the love child that suffered disorder and early sorrow.) I guess filmmakers intending to make the definitive movie statement on war will have to contend with the propensity of cinema to work on surfaces – faces, bodies, objects, landscapes, etc. – and that war gives the impression of these surfaces opening up, but only literally and not necessarily in essence.

Meaning: in war someone or something may get blown up, but this doesn’t always provide an enduring truth except in the manner that everyone has become familiar with already. While watching Full Metal Jacket I acquired what I thought was a fanciful notion – why limit ourselves to treating war as a real event? The raw material will suffice to fulfill the requisites of realism, but what’s to stop an inspired film creator from breaking up the space-time continuum that’s getting to be a scourge in imaginative presentations? Then I suddenly recalled having seen Les belles de nuit, a fairly old (1952) film by Rene Clair, in which some characters are endowed with the supernatural ability to move continually through time and space. The suspension of disbelief was made possible through the use of charming humor and song, but along the way some points about love and power were made.

The moral of it all? Nothing is ever truly new. It’s what we make of things that provide them with the capability for transformation. Would that we manage to realize this principle even in such a mundane activity as film appreciation.

[First published April 6, 1988, in National Midweek]

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Mississippi Burning
Directed by Alan Parker
Written by Chris Gerolmo

They Live
Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Frank Armitage

Mississippi Burning may seem to be a throwback to the heyday of post-World War II Hollywood social realism, which a number of observers tend to hold in a fondness that’s easily dispelled by a casual acquaintance with any of the period’s alleged masterpieces. A second attempt at social realism in the wake of the Viet Nam War was more successful, but by then more advanced formulations had overtaken such well-worm simplifications. The shift was brought about primarily in academic circles, the same community of scholars that attained a measure of prestige and influence with the success of the so-called Hollywood brats (Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Speilberg, et al.) during the ’70s. Briefly put, post-social realist film thinkers figured out, correctly it seems, that the medium possesses a vitality all its own, capable of enhancing or subverting any message according to how it (the medium) is handled.

The implications were quickly put to good use on the other side of the Atlantic, and applied, with much success, by American cinema about a decade after. What the new formulation meant was that politically acute or even radicalized content may be laudable but not enough. Mississippi Burning can be taken as one form of reaction to this challenge. The treatment – period, chronological, tragic in the classical manner – can hardly be called new, although it may have seemed that way when the Greeks first tried it. What’s different in Mississippi Burning is the material, which is actually a re-working of earlier practice.

Racism is one issue that can hardly be contained with the same emotional and intellectual fervor that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela once commanded; in fact the recent internal criticism of Mandela’s wife indicates that the issue of apartheid in modern-day South Africa won’t resolve as neatly as did American civil rights in the ’60s. Mississippi Burning takes stock of a more cynical but still-sincere perspective and transposes it to the earlier era. In the process it takes some liberties with the real-life set-up on which the story is based – one of which, the heroic depiction of Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, has been castigated by well-meaning sectors. But viewed within the terms of the film itself, the use of J. Edgar Hoover’s henchmen as god’s gift to African Americans turns out to be consistent with the filmmakers’ heightened sense of paradox.

In fact I was surprised to discover that a more damaging detail – the attribution of black people’s misery to sheer cowardice and ignorance on their part – was let by, apparently because of the casualness of the presentation. All of which builds up to the ultimate contradiction: in the face of the Ku Klux Klan’s decided advantage in its use of strong-arm tactics, the good guys finally agree to wage war on similar terms, and win. Along the way a number of notions cherished by American (and, we can presume, Philippine academic) intelligentsia get demolished like so many scarecrows before the storm: effete city types (FBI agents) hang tough when provoked, simple country folk (Klansmen) display a flair for evil, and for good measure, down-home Christianity (crosses and biblical verses) proves flexible enough to serve in justifying the oppressiveness of an irrational system.

Mississippi Burning acquires its power from making us believe that such a system is being questioned for the first time – and it is, although the movie’s presentation of “the system” is actually closer to the here and now than what its physical and temporal setting might suggest. They Live, on the other hand, deals with what seems to be a future, or at least a situation neither past nor present, in a most engaging science-fictional way. What makes the effort work is precisely its effortlessness, unlike the same director’s other futuristic hit, Escape from New York (1981). Mississippi Burning of course dispenses the very seriousness absent in They Live, but the rationale for the difference lies in what each is trying to convey. Where the former was updating ancient (or at least generation-old, which could sometimes mean the same thing) concepts of justice using ancient (or at least generation-old, etc.) material, They Live does the exact opposite.

This time around a sci-fi scenario (written by the director himself, using a pseudonym) is employed to sound out an anti-totalitarian warning – something social realists could have done given the same fund of insights and technology. Ideological manipulation is ascribed to the machinations of alien life forms, which is all right by mainstream radicals I suppose, given the leeway by which the bogey of imperialism could be conjured, and the irony this presupposes in a country which has come to epitomize such prerogatives of power. What redeems They Live from the crunch of run-of-the-mill futuristic fables is its tongue-in-cheek attitude toward the whole enterprise. “Tongue-in-cheek” would be rather too close for comfort, considering the depiction of the invaders as physically human save for the skin-deep aspect that we tend to take for granted, disparage even.

The irreverence goes beyond epidermal layers though. The hero shacks up in a community whose montage of faces establishes it as international, with delegates from each major race and culture, all sharing the same poverty-stricken status and helping out one another in a spirit that would make the United Nations a billion-dollar superfluity; after the residents are brutally evicted by government personnel, the hero catches on to the obsession of the anti-alien underground movement seeking refuge therein, and our Third-World UN is forthwith forgotten, the remnants transformed into a guerilla army. The villains for their part engage in Big-Brother propaganda, made subliminal so as not to arouse the suspicions of religious fanatics and working-class brutes – as if those types would be perceptive enough and the better-off citizens reluctant to collaborate. As it turns out, the hero, who, er, unearths the deception through the mediation of a magic pair of shades, proves too combative for his own good, while a number of yuppieish earthlings sell out themselves and the world, ostensibly for the thrill of interplanetary travel.

The ultimate cop-out consists of the elimination of all the major characters, protagonists as well as antagonists, in a climax cathartic in many ways, leaving the viewer receptive to anything that should follow – and what does follow is a coda that confirms the put-on behind the foregoing businesses. In a series of parallel developments, the heretofore disguised aliens lose their cover and succeed in scaring most of humanity, which may be the first step in a retaliation of poetic dimensions. The final exposé in the plot comprises a female earthling making the discovery while sexually servicing an alien lover. The notion is at once funny though gross, with more substantial insights brought about by the very fact of its grossness. The masters of our fates may be so loaded that it becomes next-to-impossible to see them for what they are, but certain vital-though-unpleasant truths can still manage to lurk in the detritus of trash sci-fi.

[First published June 21, 1989, in National Midweek]

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The Last Temptation of Christ
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Paul Schrader

If Christ could have seen what his ministry would have led to, he night have become the world’s first existentialist. Much of the worst (aside from the best) aspects of modern civilization are premised on the observance of what is supposedly the definitive compilation of his teachings – the biblical testaments. The irony began as early as Jesus Christ’s own era: before and after the gospels which narrate what is undoubtedly one of the most moving accounts of any historical entity, we find fire-and-brimstone pronouncements alternating with manic-paranoid (and sometimes psychedelic) formulae for “true” salvation. Anne Frank being coopted in the midst of Nazi occupation could serve as a terribly apposite analogy.

Modern times have served to heighten the extent to which people would appropriate nobility of the spirit for purposes of the flesh. The US’s Republican Party ethos thrives on the assertions of the ultra-Christian on the basis of a hierarchy – US citizen first, then male, then white, then wealthy, then heterosexual, and so on down the line, arriving last and least at poor black homosexual Third-World Communist woman, where such wondrous combinations could exist. The Last Temptation of Christ attempts to overturn conservative conventions by presenting Christ as poor, Third-World, possibly Communist, and unconventional in his sexuality, or at least definitely unhomophobic. Historical, including biblical, evidence tends to support these traits, plus one crucial thing left out by central casting – that Christ was in all likelihood dark-skinned.

The expectations that Last Temptation raises place it closer to a skeptic’s speculation on what the historical personage may have actually been, necessarily rejecting the traditional sources. This is where its problems, aesthetic and circumstantial, begin, departing from the usual celebrated censorship controversies regarding works with literary merits. Madame Bovary, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Ulysses all rested their cases on the skill by which their respective authors justified the use of then-disallowed language and subject matter. Last Temptation takes the cue from the subject himself by constructing itself as an intense if cryptic reflector – one that throws back on any objector her or his own inability to perceive its affirmation of faith in the Abrahamic deity.

The method is, of course, admirably postmodern: from Christ’s dictum that “no one comes to the father but by me,” the filmmakers create a “me” that’s exclusively an imaginative one – a literary character, in short, who determines his own course of resolving the challenge of giving himself up for the sake of humankind. Nowhere is the fastness of their faith more evident than in the movie’s most controversial (extended) sequence of the hero enjoying a conventional lifestyle, complete with an active-though-legitimate sex life, before dismissing the entire excursion as a fantasy, his last temptation, and returning to the reality of death by crucifixion.

Gifted individuals (real artists especially, I imagine) would agree wholeheartedly with the decision of the Christ character in Last Temptation – that is, better the uncertainty of unconventional choices than the predictability of the normative. But the majority of nominal Christians have not been and can never be as daring, as Christ-like even, as Last Temptation exhorts his followers to be, and it is in this demonstration of the difference between conformity and individuality as an essentially Christian issue that gets the goat of the chosen flock: how can we expect converts to, well, strengthen the church when such an interpretation of Christ posits that they must seek god’s will not in terms of institutional prescriptions but as they believe they are called? This is the very reason why traditional Christianity is based on the life of Christ plus a surfeit of supposedly similarly holy writings that actually serve to temper, and in several instances reverse, the challenge of his example. Witness how as recently as a few years after Christ’s purported ascension, the former Saul of Tarsus, claiming to have been converted, qualifies (though sets aside would be more accurate) his master’s dictum of unconditional love by disparaging in no uncertain terms intellectuals, dark-complexioned folk, women, homosexuals, and a wide spectrum of nonconformists and nonbelievers alike.

Censorships are based on the same perversion of Christ’s offer of salvation through faith: he never wavered in his, but he nevertheless answered all questions and went to the extent of accommodating Thomas. Today’s so-called Christians would have banished such a doubter from the fold if it didn’t seem like such an un-Christianly thing to do, so they perform the next best thing by keeping all possible sources of critical questionings at bay. Unlike its predecessors in literary-censorship cases, the film version of Last Temptation cannot flourish on artistic merits alone. Most of its individual scenes are impressively executed in state-of-the-art-house manner, with attendant emotional content. The entire presentation, though, meanders too much, especially in detailing the hero’s angst and the aforementioned accumulation of a last temptation that doesn’t really turn out that tempting at all in the end. All cards were stacked, too safely it seems, in favor of a Christian, or more appropriately (seeing how Christian could refer as much to a televangelist as to a liberation-theology follower) a Christ-based, faith.

The next step in this Thomasic exercise of creative doubting would be a work – the medium may assume secondary importance, but the more active the more provocative and therefore effective – that dispenses with faith altogether, at least for the duration of its presentation, something like Last Temptation minus the main character’s triumph in the end. This would elevate the test of faith to the individual viewer’s personal capability in the face of a convincing testament to the contrary, and incidentally serve to correctly classify Last Temptation as an independent thinker’s confirmation of belief – in a Christ who, like only the best of us and in another sense like no one else, conquers what no one thought would ever be possible before.

[First published March 14, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Casualties of War
Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by David Rabe

American discourses on the Viet Nam War are getting to be as inviting as visits to the dentist: the experience, for all the pain involved, is likely to do you good, but meantime any excuse not to go yet will do. Casualties of War leaves little room for hem-hawing though. The last Brian De Palma release seen locally, The Untouchables (1987), suggested that the master of hysteria was going straight in an impressive manner, and wasn’t David Rabe the playwright who dealt winningly with the issue of Viet Nam when it was still unfashionable to do so? As additional incentive, Sean Penn, considered one of the more promising new American actors, comes in directly from the trauma of celebrity divorce (from Madonna, like golly), so the prospect of watching fireworks going off external and internal fields of battle makes Casualties of War the theaters-of-war project of the decade, pace the disappointment of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) and the small-scale proportions of Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986).

A three-way triumph among director, writer, and actor would undoubtedly make Casualties of War the war movie of the 1980s, but even an accomplishment in any single area would place the movie within the same league as the other aforementioned titles, and a few steps behind Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978). Worthy company indeed, if imperfect in many respects; as it turns out, Casualties of War comes closer to a particularly (and, I suspect, unnecessarily) painful dental session – and all of a sudden Dressed to Kill (1980) seemed like a genuinely radical alternative: if you have to suffer, better to laugh through it than cry afterward.

The first warning signal about Casualties of War is sounded out by its choice of subject matter: on the way to a field operation some young Yankees abduct a native villager for the purpose of getting their rocks off, then dispatch her when she gets to be too distracting for military convenience, failing to reckon with a do-right comrade who brings them to trial and subsequent justice. The morality angle in this outing proves to be too irresistible, eventually developing into an all-embracing curve that reaches lofty heights at the end, courtesy of a heavenly choir accompanying a breathtaking view of a paradisiac American cityscape.

The expertise behind the project cannot be slighted, an although this doesn’t make it any different from all the other serious Viet Nam movies, the urge to tear out of all the whiny masochism gets tempered by the too-obvious subtext; careful now, this here’s a Serious Social Documentation of an Abiding Universal Concern. When the scoundrels are apportioned their share of comeuppances by a disembodied god-the-fatherly stern voice, I was ready to do penance for not giving in totally to the delicious delirium of Dressed to Kill ten years earlier, although I did manage to enjoy De Palma’s previous treaties on telekinetic nonsense, Carrie (1976) and The Fury (1978).

The real problem behind Casualties of War happens to demonstrate how a national malaise has affected cultural expression; no one can stake a claim on any war experience better than the losers themselves, but no American could take such a unique and prominent defeat lightly either. We’re doomed for the moment, of course, to the likes of Casualties of War, unless the Vietnamese begin to regard themselves as losers too, and take to confronting their past with typical Oriental inscrutability that comes across as humor – dark, maybe, but funny nonetheless.

Somewhere in the future lies the prospect of a truly daring treatment of the Viet Nam Cold War fiasco, and I suppose a lot of intelligent American couch potatoes are hoping that their native talent for musicals could be harnessed for such an undertaking. What would be more seriously anti-serious than Broadway song-and-dance – not in the manner of Miss Saigon, goddess forbid, but closer to the spirit of, say, Sweeney Todd? The transposition to film would be a bit tricky, as was the case with Francis Coppola’s attempt at film-opera in Apocalypse Now. A dose of satire might do the trick: not just her characters(s) but the filmmaker will have to believe that the war was fine – and, more perversely still, fun. The requisite climactic light-show should be celebratory rather than sober, and a sequel should be promised even if it never gets fulfilled.

With such a development perceptions on and approaches to the issue might begin to change, and the old Viet Nam war movies will begin to be seen as the expected instances of conventional cinema that they really are. And coming as we do from seconding the initiatives of our erstwhile colonizers, what a difference that might make on our real-life biomovies.

[First published May 9, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Directed by Edward Zwick
Written by Kevin Jarre

Considered one of the most important accomplishments of First-World Marxists is the influence they have managed to wield on education, specifically on the tertiary level upward (one American bestseller alleges that the educational system has been divided up between the Left and the Right, with the latter controlling the primary and secondary levels). The impact this has had on cultural discourse is reflected in the permutations of recent communication theory, which appears to keep changing on the principle of increasingly radicalized applications. The irony lies beyond methodological considerations though – right in the core of film practice. For when Leftist, or even liberal, imperatives were persecuted in the spirit of the Cold War, artists were compelled to resort to formalist innovations in order to package statements of social dissent according to the terms of “bourgeios” appreciation. Some time afterward, controversy and social consciousness became essential to all sensible evaluators, so much so that what was once dangerous became safe, and vice versa.

American movies during the preceding decade exhibited these disturbing reversals. Draw up a list of the most appreciated films of the period, and you’d be hard-put to locate them anywhere along the spectrum from Left to Center, outside of their successful experimentations in the medium; on the other hand, the big topical cinematic disappointments – Viet Nam, feminism, low-life stories (including exploitative prison biographies) – could hardly be faulted for their political sentiment, their creativity quotients aside. The latest in this series of well-meaning exercises in film convention is Glory, which attempts to strengthen its horrors-of-war slant (a standard Viet Nam-movie thrust) with a dramatic framework of racial nobility, apparently trying to improve on two earlier opera which were denounced for not being radical (and were therefore reactionary?) enough: Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), which dealt with the effects of the Viet Nam War, and Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988), which attempted a revisionist view of a minor civil-rights development.

The trouble with such a righteous orientation is that the moralizing amounts to an overkill, which is facilitated in Glory through one of the oldest forms of cheating in dramatic assignments: don’t bother with the baddies, just give the good guys the development they “deserve.” Since all the major characters have been earmarked for slaughter, the rule prescribes that they be portrayed as pure as lamb; some try to be ram-tough, but what the heck, underneath the military imposed wolf’s clothing, they’d still bleat when bled, so get out them hankies and prepare to be moved. The manipulation can be admired in several respects, specifically in terms of period authenticity and the performances of the African American members of the cast: in one instance the all-black troopers conduct an impromptu spiritual session, and it’s at this point where the movie goes beyond the usual liberal bent, toward a reclamation by their race of the passionate fervor that had since been appropriated by white televangelists and pop singers.

The insight may be the movie’s only truly original contribution; the context, however, aggravates rather than complements this segment. Only the white sainthood candidates have any real sympathy for the blacks (since Abe Lincoln, who never appears but interacts through official correspondence, would subsequently be assassinated, then he’d be part of the heavenly team as well); other blacks who still have to undergo the purification process remain in a state of savagery, compounded by the heartlessness of their white officers; most glaring of all, no enemy soldier is given a chance to even look decent, for chrissake. The perfectly in-step, nattily dressed blacks are never once confronted with the very reason why they required an about-face in character in the first place; you’d think, after seeing waves of white-trash secessionist troops, that the exodus of colored refugees from South to North was due to the poor fashion sense of the plantation masters and their flunkies.

As if to ensure that we get the point, a heavenly choir descends once in a while to envelop us with the musical strains of what must surely await our, well, unsung heroes. Only once, in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), did I appreciate how a chorale assumed filmic significance, contrasting as it did its ascetic clarity with the sordid confusion induced by the main character’s dementia. In Glory the choral music is assured a visual counterpart through the lyrical orchestration of the explosions of cannons and guns, as if to say worry not, see how their death is itself their own reward. This is certainly idealism of a brave kind. If only the movie itself were just as brave in confronting its central dramatic issues, instead of being content with holding aloft the banner of Left-of-Center right-mindedness.

[First published July 4, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Born on the Fourth of July
Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic

The quest for the prototypical American movie on the Viet Nam experience has finally found fulfillment, about two decades since it started, with the release of Born on the Fourth of July. The quest itself has been a source of wonder for film observers all over the world: how could such a country, the center of filmic expertise and enterprise, take so long to present a work that could exhibit even just the barest minimum of credibility on a topic which has constituted the core of its recent modern history? Whatever the possible answers are, they may have to be set aside in the meanwhile that the new Viet Nam war movie has to be appreciated first. Fourth of July is undoubtedly that long-overdue specimen, the successful mainstream filmic discourse on our neighboring conflict, and just to prove how easy an achievement it could have been, the word “successful” has to be qualified in this instance by its minimum requisites.

Fourth of July works primarily on the level of avoiding the omissions and excesses of its predecessors. In short, correctness is the key to understanding its contribution to movie lore: the Viet Nam natives are presented as victims, not rendered faceless or brutal as were the previous tendencies, or overtly pathetic as in Casualties of War; more important, the Central American figure undergoes a maturation within the proper perspective of his country’s awakening to his (and presumably countless others’) plight. For some reason, such a simple stance of objectivity could not be mustered by American movie-makers in the past. Viet Nam heroes were always presented larger-than-life, with Rambo as the logical extreme of otherwise admired presentations such as Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) and Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). Implicit in these works is the stagnancy of the core of American society in response to the realities of the war: the most anyone had previously suggested was that a handful of others had seen the light, as in Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), but in general the attitude was that Viet Nam vets were bringing home something no other American ever had.

The better previous Viet Nam war movies modified this approach by reversing the value of the experience – depression and decadence, rather than Rambo’s moral and physical vitality, were the homecoming gifts – but this only served to reinforce the singularity of American consciousness vis-à-vis the unarticulated possibility that something was also being done to those on the other side. Fourth of July doesn’t go far in depicting the war’s Other, just as it stops in acknowledging that upheavals were also taking place on the home front. At a certain point in the narrative, the lead character, based on real-life Viet vet Ron Kovic’s bestselling self-portrayal, is disabled by an injury sustained during his last battle, and his temporary passivity allows him the realization that his sector of society has outstripped him (and its political leadership) in its repudiation of interventionist policies in Viet Nam.

By this means we are granted the spectacle of witnessing a social turmoil that surpasses its participant’s limitations. In this context does the Kovic character’s flight to proletarian pleasure resorts in Mexico acquire significance. Fourth of July director Oliver Stone makes sure that we get Kovic’s point of not returning from Viet Nam by appropriating the handheld style used during the battle sequence during the other crucial turning points in the person’s life. This is a rather literal attempt at demonstrating a message already assured by the narrative itself, but an impression of sincerity is conveyed nonetheless by the utter subjectivity of camera usage (which effectively violates the traditional technical discipline exercised in the “omniscient” portions), plus the stops-out delivery of an ensemble led by an admirably deglamorized Tom Cruise. The parallelism suggested by the movie – of the masses of Americans opposed to militarism just like their counterparts across the Pacific – will suffice at this point in assuring Fourth of July’s primacy in the Hollywood Viet Nam war genre.

A ticklish sub-issue is raised in the process, however, and no matter how one mulls over the dialectics of the work, it seems like so much unnecessary provocation left unresolved. This occurs when the story’s element of reaction is embodied by the lead character’s mother, whose conflict with liberal values is brought to a head when she throws her son out of the family residence. The point is underlined by the lead’s moving reunion with his father and male buddy, and the subsequent marginalization of women in his life (due mainly to the sexual debilitation brought about by his paralysis). The fact that Kovic’s story eventually ties in with the major political issues of his day – via his exploitation of media coverage during presidential conventions – still doesn’t answer why this other, more sensitive form of exploitation had to be necessary. Perhaps in the final reckoning, no one can argue with the retort that that was what actually happened to him, and this whole enterprise was based on his life, remember? Yet I suppose this instance of misogyny detracts from the appreciation of a work whose value rests primarily on its political correctness.

It’s of course a minor objection to a minor achievement that assumes major proportion in the context of its origin. We can tentatively pose the issue, but only for the benefit of some future creative work: for all the common struggles against dominant political and ideological structures, are the Viet Nam and feminist issues essentially incompatible with each other? The blacks, the poor, the non-Americans, all male, all go down famously with Kovic in Fourth of July. So to reformulate the question: what were the (internal, external, and cross-cultural) sexual tensions attendant to the Viet Nam controversy, and why do such issues lead to such cataclysmic changes?

[First published August 22, 1990, in National Midweek]

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I Come with the Rain
Directed and written by Trần Anh Hùng

As a scholar of global culture, I was intrigued by a recent release, probably still screening in some theaters. The movie sports at least four titles as of the moment, three of which are translations of its English title, I Come with the Rain (나는 비와 함께 간다 in Korean). The cast list also reads like an actors’ assembly convened by the United Nations, complete with that august body’s usual marginalization of women: an American (Josh Hartnett), Japanese (Kimura Takuya), Korean (Lee Byung-hun), Canadian (Elias Koteas), Chinese (Shawn Yue), Spaniard (Eusebio Poncela), token-female Vietnamese (Trần Nu Yên-Khê, the director’s wife), plus a handful of gun-toting Filipinos and a roomful of naked Filipinas presumably standing in for all the other nationalities left unrepresented.

Trần Anh Hùng, who wrote as well as directed, had done a few films earlier, mostly set in Viet Nam (including The Scent of Green Papaya [1993], actually shot in France), and generally well-received by art-film connoisseurs. I Come with the Rain appears to be his bid to acquire hit-maker status, drawing on his ability to interweave a wide array of characters in fascinating Oriental locales. Unfortunately, the attempt misfires so resoundingly that only a marvel greater than what Kimura’s miracle-working character can conjure up will enable the film to achieve wider release elsewhere before it shows up on video and the internet.

I Come with the Rain isn’t wanting in good intentions, so I found myself rooting for it to take off even after its hopelessly anachronistic climax. The challenge of maintaining exclusivist high-art aesthetics must have clashed with the thriller genre’s requisite of catering to as wide a viewership as possible, and while this may have resulted in an occasional masterpiece – witness Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) or Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – in this instance what emerged is an indeterminate hybrid comprising several arresting concepts that fail to coalesce in the end.

The movie’s narrative signals its problems from the get-go. After a cleverly misdirected opening, where Kline, a detective, is overpowered and vampirically bitten by an angst-ridden serial killer, we flash-forward to a couple of years later, where Kline, now permanently traumatized, is summoned by someone who claims to own the world’s biggest pharmaceutical company. This man is never seen by Kline or the audience, preferring to convey Kline’s assignment via a menacing lens and speaker set.

We learn that the CEO’s son, Shitao, has fled to Asia, and Kline has to track him down in his last known whereabouts, an orphanage in Mindanao. Upon reaching the place, Kline is informed by another detective that Shitao had been killed by the henchmen of a powerful mine operator, but Kline replies that he has evidence that Shitao has turned up in Hong Kong, where he intends to go next. Why Kline does not fly directly from Los Angeles to the former crown colony is anyone’s guess – I thought at first that the director was preparing to link the US with its neocolonial stronghold, the Philippines, as well as with its war-on-terror campaign on the country’s Muslim minority.

As it turns out, Mindanao’s main function is to provide scenic contrast with the First-World settings of the US and Hong Kong: jungle foliage and fauna, muddy roads, congested slums, sleazy expats, sapphic go-go girls, youthful killing machines, oh my. Far be it for me to espouse political correctness and positive images for any group, but one wonders what a fellow Asian might have in mind when he insists on depicting misery in the Third World: just in case the people living there had no idea how underdeveloped their condition is, perhaps?

I Come with the Rain sustains this impressive display of cluelessness upon reaching Hong Kong. The major Asian characters, presumably long-term residents if not natives, speak mostly English even to one another (Lee Byung-hun valiantly compensates with well-timed outbursts of rage, from all those TOEIC review sessions maybe). And if Trần Anh Hùng had any symbolic purpose in casting a Korean to play a sadistic Chinese gangster who literally crucifies a supposedly genuine faith healer played by a Japanese – well, these bouts of against-the-grain inspiration are just beyond me.

Trần may have also missed out on the lament of most Hong Kong film scholars – that recent movies made by their own enfants terribles tend to portray a universalized space that is no longer recognizably Hong Kong in character. This is a trend increasingly being manifested in national cinemas that have succeeded in appealing to a global audience, starting with the festival distribution circuit: filmmakers no longer need to connect with their own mass audiences so long as their output can be supported by a large enough number of fans in the West. The fact that I Come with the Rain isn’t home-grown in Hong Kong points up this problem even more egregiously.

What makes thrillers and horror films ultimately worthy of attention is their willingness to face abjection, an all-too-human condition that more wholesome genres shy away from. I Come with the Rain provides its share of hair-raising situations, but winds up advocating a redemptive ending modeled on the passion of Christ. How Trần ever came to believe that such a resolution (an Asian Messiah, how radical-chic) would complement his too-precious notion of infusing a “low” genre hybrid with high-art values is a lesson on the dangers of intellectual inattention. Apparently the early-Church memo stipulating that salvation was meant for everyone (the secular definition of “Catholic”) missed him by a millennium or two. I Come with the Rain, sure, but I got trapped in the puddle of my own pretension.

[First published November 9, 2009, as “Clueless Global Hybrid, Now Showing” in JungAng Daily]

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Directed and written by James Cameron

At a screening in downtown Seoul.

“I can’t believe you convinced me to watch this movie again. It wasn’t so great the first time we saw it.”

“You said you had nothing better to do, so I thought why not get another pair of tickets since we’re already here anyway.”

“Yeah but don’t you feel uncomfortable? I mean we’re in a dark hall surrounded by all these foreigners.”

“You know you better stop calling these people foreigners. We’re in their country, so here we’re the foreigners.”

“I remember in my hometown the cheapest grocery was run by a bunch of these people, and we always called them foreigners. I only figured they were Koreans after I came here.”

“Quiet, the movie’s started. Aren’t you going to put on your glasses?”

“Thanks, but I got 20/20 vision.”

“They’re for the 3-D effect. Just put them on.”

“Oh, so that’s how they function. I thought they were meant to dim the brightness on screen. What’s the guy saying? These glasses are cool.”

“You mean the hero? He traveled almost six years in deep sleep and when he wakes up it’s 2154.”

“That’s just like the time I went to high school. What kind of planet would you call Pandora anyway? Sounds like it was named by some Wiccan tree-hugger.”

“I knew an ex-Marine like the main character, all stoic just like that, strong but quiet.”

“I envy that kind of manly, totally macho culture. What’s he doing now?”

“You mean my friend? It’s a she. Married, with four kids.”

“What a shame. I mean, why would they let women join that kind of outfit? It compromises American masculinity. Just like all these foreigners with their feminine culture, where even the guys wear pink.”

“I don’t think cultures have genders. And you better be quiet, or they might get offended.”

“Are you kidding? They hired us to teach them English, so as long as we talk fast I’m sure they won’t have a clue as to what we’re saying. Get a load of this character, the colonel. Last time we watched I thought he was going to be the hero.”

“Well he wanted to destroy the planet to get their resources, so the ex-Marine had to fight him in the end.”

“Wait a minute, now I’m getting the drift. The corporation calls in the military so they can acquire this unobtainium thingy, but the movie makes a hero of the guy who stops them, right? And he does it by joining up with these Na’vi people of color?”

“Actually everything’s just fictional, so the Na’vi aren’t real people of color because no one on earth right now has blue skin.”

“Whatever. Hasn’t anyone figured this out yet? It’s a pro-Taliban movie! No wonder the Na’vi language sounds like Arabic. I can imagine Kim Jong-il smiling while watching this.”

“North Korea isn’t Muslim, it’s Communist. They don’t believe in religion.”

“You mean there’s a difference? If you’re American, all your enemies are the same. They all want to destroy us, and they’re all foreigners like these people here.”

“One more time, they’re not the foreigners, we are, okay? And a lot of destruction in the U.S. was done by locals. Some of them were even in government and the private sector.”

“Oh, I know what you mean – the liberals. Hollywood’s their propaganda machine.”

“Well this is a Hollywood movie we’re watching. Oh good, here comes my favorite character, the Latina hottie.”

“Yah, she really rocks. Too bad the colonel has to shoot her down. But it’s her fault, trying to save these Na’vi sympathizers. Hey, did you notice the resemblance? Na’vi, naughty, Nazi –”

“I think you’re over-reading. There’s some interesting psychology in the movie though. See how the colonel keeps calling the ex-Marine ‘son’? Makes it more ironic when they wind up trying to kill each other.”

“Just like that mythology guy, Narcissus. I did learn something in high school, after all.”

“I guess it’s worth becoming a Na’vi just like the ex-Marine does with his avatar, just to be able to ride one of those flying dinosaurs.”

“They’re dragons, man. And hey, they’re purple. James Cameron and his gang must have been ingesting some serious substances when they proposed this project. I mean, whoever heard of jellyfish and mountains that float on air? And trees that operate like the World Wide Web?”

“Now that you mention it, I kind of like the way the Na’vi communicate with nature by plugging in with special strands in their hair.”

“I do that all the time, with my USB flash drive. So that’s really how we’re supposed to feel? That the Na’vi are better than the Americans?”

“The invaders are called ‘sky people’ by the Na’vi, but in the future we can’t really be sure if Americans will be in outer space, or if the U.S. will be around at all.”

“Don’t tell me you’re taking the side of these hostiles! The U.S. of A. has been here for over 200 years, so why shouldn’t it be around forever? It’s still the king of the world, that’s for sure.”

“That reminds me, do you think the movie will win the Oscar? Cameron’s up against his ex-wife, you know.”

“Yeah, but she made that anti-war movie, plus he should win because he’s got the bigger hit, and he’s the guy.”

“Movie’s over, let’s step outside and get more popcorn.”

“Omigosh, my celfone’s gone! It must have dropped out of my pocket on my way here! Great, now I can’t find out where I’m supposed to meet my students this evening, on top of having watched this lousy movie with a bunch of, of…foreigners! What do you suggest we do this time?”

“How about we stay on and watch Avatar again?”


[Submitted February 2010 to JungAng Daily, originally intended for Oscar awards week; unpublished]

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Wan-deuk-i [Punch]
Directed by Lee Han
Written by Kim Dong-Woo

The latest Korean blockbuster film is a departure from the disaster releases that had been dominating the local box-office since Bong Joon-ho’s Gwoemul [The Host] set an all-time record in 2006. What is even more surprising about the current hit, Lee Han’s Wan-deuk-i (hereafter Punch), is that it is nothing like its title at all – closer to an air kiss from a distant lover on a dreamy autumn afternoon.

Yet Punch also partakes of the same elements that marked the disaster-film cycle set off by Gwoemul: it is insistently and daringly populist, and it looks at Korea during an age of global interaction (on which more later). More important for practitioners of film everywhere, it demonstrates the admirable willingness of Korean talents to grapple with the exigencies of genre production, constantly searching for ways to infuse difficult and complex material with accessible treatments. The manner in which Punch reconfigures melodramatic requisites, for example, exhibits its makers’ expert grasp of the strategies of excess and containment – i.e., one should provide an unusual amount of the genre’s primary element (chills in horror, laughs in comedy, tears in melodrama, sex in pornography, etc.), yet also ensure that the narrative eventually returns to a condition of normality in order for the viewer to achieve catharsis and closure.

Surprisingly, the element that Punch elects to overindulge in is the exact opposite of what its genre stipulates. Lee (drawing from a recent best-selling novel) provides a series of comic set-ups that serve to subtly foreground the pathos endured by the characters, so that toward the end, when the central tearjerker scene is staged, one could hear even male viewers unable to hold back their sniffles – a smiling-through-tears tactic more devastating than what manipulative Hollywood dreck like James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), for all their outsize budgets, are able to achieve. The ending, happy but not (yet) triumphant, confirms that although the movie might have masqueraded for the most part as a comedy, it has remained true to its melodramatic ideals.

The plot concerns a street-smart young man, Wan-deuk (the Korean title is a jokey variation on his name). Generally well-behaved although unable to control his bouts of rage, Wan-deuk remains devoted to his diminutive hunchback father and struggles to maintain a decent performance in high school. Unfortunately for him, his teacher, Dong-joo, insists on singling him out in and outside the classroom, and harasses him even at home, since he lives across from the rooftop quarters Wan-deuk shares with his father and “uncle,” a mentally challenged man his father befriended and trained for his dance performances. As a child Wan-deuk used to wander the provincial cabaret where his father tap-danced, but since the father believed that his son will have a better future by studying in Seoul, he decided to move there (near Dong-joo’s place, as it turned out) and earn a meager living by selling trifles at markets outside the city.

The turning point arrives when Dong-joo, also a minister at a church that assists illegal immigrants, discovers that Wan-deuk’s mother is a Filipina who abandoned her family right after weaning her son from breast milk. The news traumatizes Wan-deuk, who already resents Dong-joo seriously enough to pray in church for his teacher’s demise. The process by which the narrative illustrates how these estranged characters manage to accept one another and discover reserves of strength in themselves is enabled by an impressive traversal of the delicate line separating humor from tragedy, without tumbling over into either extreme.

Key to the success of this type of undertaking is the performances. The title character is played by (from the perspective of world cinema) a newcomer, Yoo Ah-in, whose credibility as a mature-beyond-his-years teenager derives from parallel real-life experience as a high-school dropout. The actual lead, however – the character responsible for driving the plot forward – is Dong-joo, played with flourish and acute comic timing by Kim Yun-seok, previously identified with violent, even literally bloody film noirs. The supporting cast – Park Su-young and Kim Yeong-jae as father and “uncle” respectively, and Park Hyo-ju and Kang Byeol as Dong-joo and Wan-deuk’s respective love interests – partake of the same bounteous reserve of colorful representation steeped in what hip-hop artists would describe as dope realness.

Even a seeming anomaly like the casting of Yoo Ah-in, whose character looks like neither of his parents (and better than both, actually – star-is-born alert, everyone), makes complete sense for people who marry inter-racially as a matter of course – not among Koreans, but among Filipinos. The fact that he is endowed in several other respects adheres to the biological principle, recognized in Philippine culture (and recently being acknowledged in the US), that positive traits tend to emerge more prominently in hybrid offspring.

Yet as mentioned earlier, a successful genre project also requires the curse of containment. In Punch this is brought about in the portrayal of Wan-deuk’s mother, who functions more as cipher than as character, remorseful over her initial abandonment, resolved to make amends to her husband and son, relieved that through them she might finally find some ease over her hardscrabble existence. The rupture in this formulation derives from the fact that the role is essayed by Jasmine Lee, who in real life started as an immigrant wife in Korea but succeeded in becoming a national celebrity after the untimely death of her husband.

The source novel’s character was actually Vietnamese, although the temptation to change her nationality to Filipino was understandable: the Philippines has virtually become an extension of the southern island of Jeju-do, the primary warm-weather destination for vacationing Koreans, many of whom choose to stay longer (for English training and business investment), sometimes for good. Yet where most other Asian wives would have remained helpless, hampered by differences in both culture and language, the typically Westernized and English-speaking Filipina would have been able to clamber her way up the social ladder one way or another, especially if she’d had the “good education” that Wan-deuk’s father quietly boasted to his son.

A kinder way of responding to this potential shortcoming is by answering that first, gender politics cannot be a national priority in a country that is technically still at war and whose economy lacks a Third World that it can exploit, thus situating its population in a perpetual crisis position even amid its First-World prosperity; and second, a culture whose pre-modern Confucian ideology is even more resolutely patriarchal than its current conservative-Western aspirations has no model for feminist enlightenment anywhere within itself. (Indeed, a previous all-time Korean blockbuster, Lee Jun-ik’s Wang-ui namja [The King and the Clown, 2005], is an example of how internalized misogyny can inadvertently ruin any well-intentioned queer text.) Like Gwoemul, Punch compensates in the next best possible way, by presenting its male characters as society’s Other, feminized in relation to the relatively powerful and wealthy majority. It remains then for Korea’s Asian Others – Filipinos and other immigrant populations – to continue demonstrating how and why gender progressivity is not merely ethical, but in fact beneficial and indispensable in strengthening the strands of the social fabric.

[First published November 28, 2011, as “Punch Tackles Fil-Korean’s Search for Mother” in]

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Millennial Traversals – Problems in Philippine Film Awards

As a member of the faculty at the Philippine national university, I provided a few statements that never failed…to be ignored. (One colleague reportedly tossed a letter I wrote directly into the nearest trash bin.) My purpose was to make sure I articulated my position, especially if said position happened to be unpopular with everyone else’s. In this instance, the statement also got dismissed by administration officials and the college went on to institute a singular annual life-achievement prize, which turned out to affirm the interests of the critics’ group (and the orthodox Communists controlling it) – but a critique of that specific prize will have to await some further study, and a quick evaluation of the aforementioned organized critics was one of the incidental findings in my later article, “A Lover’s Polemic.”

Film awards perform a privileged function in a national cinema as historically significant as that of the Philippines.[1] Among several by-now-all-too-common observations, two items stand out, effectively bookending the history of Philippine cinema in the 20th century: first, the medium was introduced by Spanish colonizers and utilized by the Americans as a means of modernizing local culture; and second, Filipinos remain some of the most avid movie-goers (and movie producers) in the world.[2] This position statement is proffered to my faculty colleagues at the University of the Philippines Film Institute, in line with the plan of the current Dean of the College of Mass Communication to strengthen the college’s presence in Philippine media through the provision of annual awards for noteworthy achievements and significant modes of practice.[3] In the course of discussion I will be looking at the history of movie awards in the Philippines, with particular emphasis on those dispensed by film critics; I will then attempt to evaluate existing awards practice using critical thinking and dissemination as a controlling ideal; finally I will propose ways in which our institute’s awards for film can constitute an improvement over current practice.

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Early Years

The proliferation of Filipino movie awards is a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact the earliest local awards on record coincide with the available celluloid history of post-World War II Philippine cinema – serendipitously, some of the first winners also happen to number among the earliest preserved films.[4] It is worth mentioning that the awards referred to, named after José Rizál’s heroine Maria Clara, were organized and administered by media commentators, as were the awards that succeeded the Maria Clara and that held sway for over two decades, those of the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (hereafter FAMAS).

Lest we overlook the role exercised by a just-as-important player, the Philippine government, city-based awards started to be handed out during the second decade of the FAMAS’s existence.[5] Both types of awards – government and press – continue, with varying degrees of credibility and occasional bouts of controversy, to the present. A difference in purpose distinguishes one from the other: at best, the commentators’ award provides recognition for works which may have been overlooked commercially or critically during their initial run, with a strong credibility factor compensating for the belatedness of the acknowledgment; at best, too, the local-government prize may be limited to a handful of entries, but the winners, if genuinely deserving of the prize, enjoy a boost in their box-office earnings.

A third type of award is what may be called the openly institutional award. The FAMAS, although nominally an academy, did not really exclusively consist of film practitioners; the local filmfest awards, while sponsored by local governments, could display partisanship only at the risk of being criticized by oppositionists in mass media. Only one institution with equivalent political clout claims for itself a moral supremacy beyond the judgment of mortals: the Catholic Church, which, through the Catholic Mass Media Awards, provides the “good cop” counterpart to the “bad cop” of its historically determined tendencies toward censorship.

The FAMAS remained the force to be reckoned with into the so-called Second Golden Age of Philippine cinema. Without the self-critical perspective that could have been provided by members of the industry, and with the increased commercial activity brought about by the rise of the independents after the collapse of the studio system during the 1960s, the results of the FAMAS began exhibiting signs of wear, possibly of internal corruption.[6] Even the recognition that the organization gave Lino Brocka’s consecutive mid-’70s triumphs, Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (1974) and Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975), did not guarantee in the public’s estimate that the FAMAS would be able to sustain the same consistent credibility that it did during the peak of the studio system’s best and brightest, notably Gerardo de Leon’s.[7]

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Enter the Critics

Thus was the stage set, so to speak, for the emergence of film critics. The Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (Filipino Film Critics Circle), in the public mind, promised an alternative to what was then the only major player in Philippine film award-giving, the FAMAS. The MPP’s Urian Award promised reform in principle and in practice, with both areas so self-idealistic that their observation had been as flawed in some years as they had been perfected in others. Ideologically, the Urian subscribed to a still-prevalent misreading of Maoist prescriptions on art and literature, with form regarded independently of its purportedly superior partner, content.[8] Thus, “in the case of two films which are equally well-made, the film with the more significant subject matter [was] to be preferred” by the group.[9]

Methodologically, the critics announced a two-part system consisting of intensive film coverage, with re-screenings prescribed for front-running titles, and of decision-making by consensus. Such a mode of practice had had the effect of upending and sometimes reversing expectations for so-called critical favorites, when films without strong initial impact but which proved capable of sustaining multiple screenings won over early long-term favorites.

To see where the MPP had been, in practice, boxed in by its own declarations, one will have to return to its “Criteria for Evaluation.” Its tenets, on the one hand, merely expound on the importance given to content using nationalist ideals, expressed as “a truthful portrayal of the human condition as perceived by the Filipino [dealing] with the Filipino experience to which the greater number of moviegoers can relate.”[10] On the other hand, its prescriptions for form enumerate criteria according to conventional categories drawn from standard local and international practice – i.e., picture, direction, screenplay, acting, cinematography, production design, editing, sound, and music.[11] The increasingly lavish spectacles indulged in by the group point to the soundness – and profitability – of this strategy.

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Corrective Attempts

Encouraged by the MPP’s success vis-à-vis the FAMAS, a number of other sectors in Philippine film and media sought to institute their own awards system, using the same political strategy the MPP provided: pinpoint an existing awards group (usually still the FAMAS), evaluate the group’s shortcomings and weaknesses, and present a new-and-improved version. Thus the Film Academy of the Philippines, which laid claim to being the true local movie academy by virtue of its formation by industry-based guilds, came up with the FAP Awards. The Philippine Movie Press Club, in frankly admitting that its membership comprised film journalists rather than critics or industry practitioners, set up its Star Awards.[12]

One last award-giving group took on the challenge of rectifying what it perceived were the errors of the Urian. As one of the Young Critics Circle’s founding members, I and Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., another former MPP member, concluded that what could have been the YCC’s strong suit – its claim to having academically trained members – turned early enough into its liability, when the ivory-tower tendency of a number of colleagues manifested itself in the form of highbrow arrogance directed against industry practitioners. More insidiously, the use of fashionable Western-derived theory became the weapon by which such self-proclaimed nationalists caused irreparable damage in their relations with serious-minded practitioners, all the while lacking the critical willingness to train such deconstructive approaches on the theories themselves. Since the theories as applied remained distinctively associated with their hemisphere of origin, the YCC’s deconstructive project (itself a Western-derived methodology) can be seen as nothing more than a transmutation of colonial mentality in its use of center-derived frameworks applied to a Third-World margin’s progressive cultural concerns.

The YCC projects an image of scholarly seriousness, coupled with disdain for the showbiz trappings of all the other awards ceremonies. However, the limitations of its members’ origins in non-film-specific disciplines comes out in its illiberality, particularly its refusal to recognize mainstream achievements even as it directs attention to a few maverick, possibly deceitful, accomplishments. Its own ceremonies enact a symbolically disturbing spectacle of coercing industry personalities to go to the State University and face a seminar-type crowd that hypocritically downplays the trappings of celebrity in favor of straight-faced discourse.

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Genuine Scholarly Recognition

The UP Film Institute therefore enjoys a position of having critically engaged faculty who also happen to be involved in the medium as teachers, observers, commentators, and practitioners.[13] The UPFI faculty members also have access to a film theater and a flexible screening program that could facilitate the revaluation of the year’s achievements, in addition to film-viewing privileges outside of UP. Their use of theory can be guaranteed as rigorous in terms of both aesthetic evaluation and sociological discourse. Best of all, their relationship with the industry does not have to be premised on an us-or-them binary, a long-running and fruitless form of self-policing that actually had its roots in the MPP’s defensiveness regarding some of its members’ avowed intentions to become industry practitioners. Since the UPFI faculty, by virtue of the impending publish-or-perish requisite coupled with recognition for creative output, will have to be at least occasional practitioners, the prospect of guarding against members “crossing over” to the other camp becomes moot and, literally, academic.

My proposal to my colleagues at the UPFI does not differ much from the same set of reforms I presented verbally to the YCC (rejected in print by the group’s then-chair, who was running a series of attacks against members perceived as critical of the YCC core’s self-proclaimed “deconstructive” project). Listed are the various elements of the proposal:

  • The US model of critics’ awards, which proceeds from a rough tallying of members’ choices, does not improve on the local version, since the constituency of each US critics’ organization is too large to allow for consensus-by-deliberation. European practice is more feasible. The German critics’ awards, which recognize films according to categories such as “Outstanding” and “Noteworthy,” are closer to a democratic ideal, since any number of winners (including a no-winner decision) can be declared.
  • Films should not be classified according to budget, length, or mode of production. The time may also be apt for dispensing with the barriers between celluloid and digital, between installations and screenings, and between broadcasts and theatrical presentations. Hence, any number of short, alternative, digital, even full-out experimental works may be recognized alongside any number of full-length commercial releases, instead of prominence being handed to the latter and the former being relegated to a comparatively minor category (i.e., Best Short/Student Film).[14]
  • Prizes for individual achievement are conventionally delimited in current practice by fixed categories and by single-entry recognitions. In this instance, international festival practice is more apposite. Categories may be opened according to their relevance for the year in question, rather than in observance of the standard requisite of having a definite number awaiting nominations and singular winners. Also, practitioners can be recognized for a clutch of achievements, if such happens to be their contribution for the year, instead of the usual practice of the awards body singling out just one representative accomplishment for each person.
  • Institutions may also be recognized, in order to encourage their leadership in promoting progressive film awareness and culture.
  • Foreign-film distributors may be given recognition for releasing non-Filipino movies regarded as difficult or daring because of their aesthetic or ideological content.
  • The recognition should not take the form of trophies. Short citations on parchment can be handed out to each winner. The announcement of the awards could also easily incorporate these citations. The nomination process should be deemed essential only for award-givers bent on arousing public curiosity in order to sell a show; for a truly discourse-oriented system as the UPFI’s should be, the announcement of nominees should be skipped altogether.
  • A recognition ceremony does not need to manifest the pretension of a discursive session. Since the citations were already publicized, the winners may just be invited to a celebratory event, preferably including a meal for the honorees, possibly in coordination with the CMC’s larger awards event. (In the event the CMC cannot yet implement its college-wide awards system, the UPFI can hold its own until it becomes possible for the college to integrate its awards programs.)

Membership in the UPFI Film Awards Desk, although de facto in the sense that it consists of the country’s film faculty, should also be allowed a certain degree of versatility and voluntariness. Hence, a call for participation in the Desk should be made annually by the UPFI Director; the Desk members elect a Chair, who then serially assigns Desk members (including herself or himself) to cover current film releases, local and foreign, as close as possible to the opening date. Film coverage consists of earliest-possible dispatches by the assigned viewer on whether the release should be seen by the rest of the Desk members, and whether the release raises issues that need to be addressed by the Desk. Quarterly citations may be announced, and at year’s end films being considered for awards should be shortlisted (the equivalent of being nominated) and re-viewed, but not publicized.

Desk members should be able to challenge any other member perceived as involved in films under deliberation, if such involvement induces a bias on the part of said member, whether for the film or against rival entries. Such a member will then have to inhibit herself or himself, if necessary via a memo from the Director, from the Desk’s deliberation processes.

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Looking Forward

A system of award-giving that allows itself flexibility in determining formats and categories will be in tune with still-evolving changes in film technology. Moreover, it will emphasize the fluid nature of aesthetic preferences and the collaborative nature of film-production activity. In order to stress the importance of critical discursiveness, however, the UPFI awards should operate within the context of a vital and continuing research agenda, where, as an example, the awards’ citations function as encapsulated insights for full-length articles. The awards themselves would then serve as enticements for the general public to read up on writings by the members of the faculty, with a possible mechanism for feedback to be set up eventually.

The future direction of film may be regarded as dead-ended, if the decline in local production were to be taken pessimistically. However, said decline may also be seen as parallel to the historical drop in book production when journalism first emerged, and the retreat into safer commercial strategies when television started to challenge the cultural hegemony of film. The provision of narrative pleasure continues to the present anyway, whether in print or via imagery, regardless of past challenges. In fact the turn-of-the-millennium example in American popular music might be more instructive: although the production of studio-style efforts declined, the actual number of new CD releases set historical records, precisely because of the democratization of the means of production and dissemination. Once this access to formerly exclusive (and unreasonably expensive) production and distribution applies to filmmaking, the complaint by local moguls that they could not make as many movies as they used to will be drowned by the ready availability of personal films everywhere.

The system of awards proposed in this statement will be unique from the outset, and potentially responsive, liberal, and discourse-oriented. More important, in recognizing the unpredictable nature of collaborative endeavors, it assumes a position of humility in relation to popular culture while inviting the best contributions from some of the best-qualified evaluators in the country. The UPFI faculty ought therefore to proceed forthwith.

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[1] Submitted to the faculty of the University of the Philippines Film Institute on July 4, 2003 at the College of Mass Communication, Diliman, Quezon City. I expressed appreciation to my then-junior colleagues at the UPFI – specifically Roehl Jamon, Edic Piano, and Johven Velasco – for their comments and encouragement.

[2] For a summary of the introduction of film in the Philippines, see Ernie de Pedro, “Overview of Philippine Cinema,” Filipino Film Review 1.4 (Oct.-Dec. 1983) 26-27. A past edition of the Guinness Book of World Records cited Filipinos as most consistent movie-goers in the world, based on the average number of times a citizen goes to the movies during a certain period. Current editions use absolute measures (total number of citizens who go to the movies), which results in China topping the list. Re production activity, instead of the usual total number of films (which has resulted in India being undisputed topnotcher), one might set said number against total population for a per-capita figure. In this case, even with lessened film-production activity, the Philippines would still be “more active” than India. See Joel David, “Primates in Paradise: The Multiple-Character Format in Philippine Film Practice,” unpub. diss., New York University, 2001.

[3] Nicanor G. Tiongson, “Vision, Mission, and Goal Presentation,” submitted to the Nomination Committee for the Deanship Search of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication (Quezon City, March 19, 2003) 6.

[4] The Manila Times, after declaring in its past pages its choices of best film, set up its Maria Clara Awards, which lasted two years, in 1950. The last winner, Gerardo de Leon’s Sisa, is still available as a duplicate print. See “Exhibit Module 7: Filipino Film Awards” in Cinema Paraiso: An Exhibition of Cinema Artifacts and Memorabilia, exhibit catalog (Manila: National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2003) n.p.

[5] The Manila Film Festival was established in 1966 and expanded to include other cities and municipalities as the Metro Manila Film Festival in 1975 (“Exhibit Module 7: Filipino Film Awards” in Cinema Paraiso, ibid.). The MMFF’s Christmas-season playdate, however, was first realized in 1976 – a watershed year in many other ways, yielding as it did a bumper crop of quality productions before as well as during the festival itself, and heralding the first Urian awards. See “Filmography: Philippine Movies 1970-1979” in The Urian Anthology 1970-1979 (Quezon City: Morato, 1983) 501.

[6] The startling breakout films of Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal, Tubog sa Ginto (1970) and Pagdating sa Dulo (1971) respectively, received only token FAMAS prizes (direction and screenplay resp.) during their years of release, overshadowed by such conventional blockbusters as Armando de Guzman’s Mga Anghel na Walang Langit (1970) and Gerardo de Leon’s Lilet (1971).

[7] Another way of looking at the FAMAS’ predicament during this period was that it insisted on rewarding the likes of Gerardo de Leon, even after the master’s evident decline – cf. Lilet’s win as best film.

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[8] The binaristic separation of form and content in progressive Philippine cultural writing was first formulated in the texts of Amado Guerrero (pseud.), who maintained that “[a revolutionary national culture] must adopt certain traditional and modern cultural forms and infuse these with content that enhances the national-democratic revolution” (Philippine Society and Revolution, 1970 [Hayward, Calif.: Philippine Information Network Service, 1996] 119-20). For all its similar reductiveness in its approaches to aesthetic and literary problematics, no such configuration can be found as a controlling framework in Mao Zhedong’s “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art” (May 1942), Mao Tse-Tung on Literature and Art (London: Anglo-Chinese Educational Institute, n.d.) 1-44. I am grateful to Professor Wei Jiang for helping to clarify that such a misreading of Mao was prevalent even among native Chinese Communists.

[9] “MPP Criteria for Film Evaluation,” The Urian Anthology 1970-1979 2.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. In further subservience to Western dimorphic and hierarchic practice, local acting awards, including the MPP’s own, are subdivided according to gender (actor/actress) and prominence (lead/supporting). Such a surplus of awards for performances is also evidence of star personalities holding sway over the proceedings, at the expense of more productive auteurist considerations such as the contributions of directors, writers, and craftspeople. In the face of this concession to populist preferences, conservative containment is evident in the insistence on matching one performance per performer (a premise that promotes commodity fetishism) as well as in the refusal to acknowledge gradations and fluctuations between the sexes and between leads and non-leads.

[12] The most highly regarded among these newcomers was at one point the PMPC’s Star Awards, and the reason hinged on the worthiness of the example set by the MPP: the PMPC also observed the same practice of multiple screenings and consensus-based decision-making, in some years generating better-received results than the Urian. Implicit in this proliferation of local movie awards is the set of circumstances that made the development paradoxical: these were the worsening years of martial rule, when other forms of mass media suffered unstinting repression by government and military forces. The government of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, however, zeroed in on film as their preferred showcase of libertarian democracy, even setting up a support system, the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, which eventually challenged the government’s own censorship board. Hence no one was surprised when even the Metro Manila Commission enlarged, geographically and monetarily, on the concept of local-government festivals by launching the Metro Manila Film Festival during the most profitable season, the yearend Christmas break, and when the country further expanded its film scene in global terms via the short-lived Manila International Film Festival.

[13] Here of course I am shamelessly deploying flattery and in danger of lying through my teeth. The members of the UPFI faculty who have any measure of intellectual and ethical integrity can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and the rest are marked by scholarship that ranges from questionable to nonexistent and by an administrative record that veers from callous to corrupt.

[14] The MPP came around shortly after I circulated this statement and recognized digital products, a few years before local industrial production turned exclusively digital. It also continued including extra-length films (all by Lav Diaz), although it has continued to segregate “short” films in a separate category. I make no claim to having influenced the group by this or any other form of commentary: if they kept refusing to recognize digital products, they would have wound up without a “job,” in the form of their profitable annual awards ceremony. I should also mention here that a third local critics group (where I also participated), called Kritika, operated for a few years in the early 1990s and adhered to all these procedures, including the ones in succeeding entries on this list.

[Submitted in December 2003 to the College Executive Board (care of the Dean) of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication]

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Millennial Traversals

Millennial Traversals
Millennial Traversals: Outliers, Juvenilia, & Quondam Popcult Blabbery is my first book of the new millennium, and like most contemporary claims, that one can be deconstructed at every point: the millennium’s no longer that new, I’ve done other books since 2000 (mostly as editor, but also as dissertation author), and…the present volume is not, or not yet, a book, at least in the printed dead-tree sense that my previous solo-authored ones were. Moreover, aside from my diss, I’ve never really written, much less published, an extensive monograph, which would be the type of book I’d prefer to uphold. Although I expended conscious efforts to ensure that my previously published compilations had as much internal consistency as they could handle, they were still essentially anthologies, as this current one is; and maybe the distinction of Millennial Traversals is that its pretensions reside elsewhere, no longer in trying to appear like a deliberately planned and duly parsed product. My rationale for insisting that the present exercise is still part of the continuum provided by my previous volumes is simple (shaky maybe, but simple): The National Pastime, Fields of Vision, and Wages of Cinema all exist in revised and updated form on my archival blog, so Millennial Traversals merely skipped the paper-and-ink stage and got to be introduced to its readership in digital format. (I’m still planning to have “publishable” PDF versions of all the texts I’ve mentioned here, but I can’t foresee right now how soon I’ll be able to work that out.) In this manner, virtually all my non-academic (and a few academic) film and culture articles will have been compiled in book form.

The positive aspects of creating a strictly open-access book revealed themselves in separate stages. I knew that I wouldn’t have to deal with publishers’ and editors’ and readers’ quirks, which for some reason assume creative dimensions when they confront popular culture material; that included the corollary advantage of having the longest manuscript text I ever compiled, nearly double (in terms of number of articles) that of The National Pastime, my previous longest book. When I cooked up a title, I realized I could formulate something that any sensible publisher (or her accountant) might faint upon hearing, and I could lump together anything I wanted without worrying about possible objections like why foreign films? why incomplete period coverage? why the shifts to other media and even to non-media? why the wide divergence in analytical approaches? I could improve on the texts at any time and place, although I do hope to minimize my tinkering once the manuscripts go public. I won’t need to strengthen an opening essay that I knew was too lame by my standards, since I felt when I was writing it that it just needed to be placed out there in order to temper, if not overturn, my very first book’s unexpectedly influential first essay. The foreign-film reviews still seem rather perfunctory, which was why I had no problem eliminating them from my earlier books – but they somehow assumed increasing usefulness the longer I kept at them. The local film reviews similarly dropped out from the pre-millennial books because of their uncertain significance in relation to the rest of my output, although they still could function as markers of an era; in Millennial Traversals they serve to indicate my interest in as wide a variety of film types as Philippine cinema makes available.

Thanks are owed to my previous book publishers (Ma. Karina A. Bolasco, Esther M. Pacheco, Laura L. Samson), my previous editors (Lulu Torres Reyes, Jo-Ann Maglipon, Patrick Campos, Clarissa David, Violeda A. Umali, Cristina del Carmen Pastor, Daisy Catherine L. Mandap, Benjamin Pimentel, Leloy Claudio, Bienvenido Lumbera, the late Raul Ingles, Caroline Hau, Flor Caagusan, Cristina S. Cristobal, Cathy Rose Garcia, Ricky Lo, Berroth Medenilla), and my current editorial assistant, Theo Pie. I had early associations with two still-thriving critics organizations, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (Filipino Film Critics Circle) and the Young Critics Circle; despite my sometimes passionate declarations of differences with them, I will also be unable to deny that I drew some foundational strengths, sometimes by resisting their methods but also from following some of their then-sensible practices. To them I dedicate this “book,” such as it is, and for what it may be worth. [Cover design: Karl Fredrick M. Castro; cover pic: Tiyanak publicity still (dir. Peque Gallaga & Lorenzo A. Reyes; Regal Films, 1988); author’s pic: Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil. For larger image, please click on picture above.]

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Contents of the Original Digital Edition
© 2016 by Joel David & Ámauteurish Publishing; All Rights Reserved


First Closure

The Golden Ages of Philippine Cinema: A Reassessment


Local Cinema 1980
Local Cinema 1986
Local Cinema Mid-1987
Local Cinema 1987
Local Cinema 1988
Local Cinema 1980-89
Foreign Cinema 1980-89
Local Cinema 1990

Old-Millennium Filmfest Summaries

Metro Manila Film Festival 1979
Manila ’81
Metro Manila Film Festival 1976-86
Regal Fest
Metro Manila Film Festival 1987
Metro Manila Film Festival 1988
LGBTQ Filmfests

New-Millennium Filmfest Summary

Pinoy Filmfests ca. 2013
Sonata (2013)
Lihis (2013)
Otso (2013)

Old-Millennium Pinoy Film Reviews I (Various Sources)

Birds of Omen
Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak (1978)
Commercialism Triumphs Again
Bongga Ka ’Day (1980)
Effective Satire
Kontrobersyal (1981)
Oversimplifying Class Conflicts
Burgis (1981)
Naked Debut
Hubad na Gubat (1982)
A Halfway Sample
Maestro Bandido (1983)
Repression and Rebellion
Pedro Tunasan (1984)
Missed Opportunities
Dope Godfather (1984)
Mysterious Pleasure
Misteryo sa Tuwa (1984)
Historical Lessons
Virgin Forest (1985)

Old-Millennium Pinoy Film Reviews II (National Midweek & After)

Secret Love
Mga Lihim ng Kalapati (1987)
Grave Burden
Pasan Ko ang Daigdig (1987)
Pinulot Ka Lang sa Lupa (1987)
Huwag Mong Itanong Kung Bakit (1987)
Komiks without Pain
Saan Nagtatago ang Pag-ibig? (1987)
Balancing Acts
Hati Tayo sa Magdamag (1989)
Roño’s Rondos
Itanong Mo sa Buwan (1988)
Si Baleleng at ang Gintong Sirena (1989)
Film on Film
Big Flick in the Sky (1990)
Black & Blue & Red
Bayani (1992)

New-Millennium Pinoy Film Reviews

Heaven in Mind
Sabel (2004)
Domestic Worth
Serbis (2009)
Survivor’s Guilt
Boses (2009)
Sighs and Whispers
Biyaheng Lupa (2009)
On the Edge
On the Job (2013)
A Desire Named Oscar
Ilo Ilo (2013)
Metro Manila (2013)
Transit (2013)
Beyond Borders
Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (2014)
Antonio Luna’s Fall and Rise
Heneral Luna (2015)
Roads Less Traveled
Lakbay2Love (2016)
Ice with a Face
Ma’ Rosa (2016)

Foreign-Film Reviews I (Warm-ups)

A Clockwork Yellow
The China Syndrome (1979)
Kramer vs. Women
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Brainless Love
Endless Love (1981)
Manila Event Short Take I
Ragtime (1981)
Manila Event Short Take II
Man of Iron (1981)
Epic Soapbox
The Mission (1986)
Exploring the World of Dreams
Dreamscape (1984)
Bloody Fine
The Untouchables (1987)
The Devil to Pay
The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

Foreign-Film Reviews II (Exertions)

Form and Function
Silent Voice (a.k.a. Amazing Grace and Chuck; 1987)
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Life after Life
Mississippi Burning (1989)
They Live (1988)
…And the First Shall Be the Last
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Soldier Blues
Casualties of War (1989)
Gloria in Excessus
Glory (1989)
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Wet Noodles
I Come with the Rain (2009)
Two Guys, While Watching Avatar
Avatar (2009)
Hit in the (Multi)Plexus
Wan-deuk-i [Punch] (2011)

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Non-Film Reviews

The Value of Humility
Philippine Prehistory (1975)
Adaptation Comes of Age
La Bohéme (1992)
Disorder & Constant Sorrow
Subversive Lives (2012)
The Novel Pinoy Novel
Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata (2011)
High Five
Gang of 5: Tales, Cuentos, Sanaysay (2012)

First Persons

Ordinary People: Movie Worker
Love Was the Drug
The Dolphy Conundrum
The Carnal Moral of a Brutal Miracle
A National Artist We Deserve


Glad Gliding
Cartooning in the Philippines
Star Builders on Parade
The Fantasy World of Rey de la Cruz
Perseverance in a Neglected Dimension
The Critic as Creator
Critic in Academe


Pinoy in Gangsterland
Big Hopes for Short Films
Classics for College Kids
Levels of Independence

Culture at Large

A New Role for Korea
Kim Dae-jung & the Aquinos
“Pinoy imnida” (JungAng Daily): Crescent Tense
“Pinoy imnida” (JungAng Daily): Asian Casanovas
“Pinoy imnida” (JungAng Daily): The Sins of the Fathers
A Benediction in the Offing

Foreign Scenes

Tarriance in Thailand
Empire of the (Risen) Sun
Small World, Big Apple
Unease in the Morning Calm


How to Become a Film Critic
Some Words on Film Awards
Problems in Philippine Film Awards
A Lover’s Polemic

Last Closure

Reflections on a National Pastime

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Millennial Traversals – A Lover’s Polemic

The difficulty in tracking the development of film criticism in the Philippines is that the practice tends to take after the volatile developments in the mass medium it seeks to cover. One could argue that it started out as an elevated form of advertising (or what cynical media professionals during martial law called “praise releases”), then sought its own institutional independence in the counterpart medium of print, then specialized further in the form of dedicated organizations, until it arrived at the current internet-facilitated Babelesque proliferation of individual and group voices. I would not claim to have done sufficient research in pursuit of this notion, and the urgency of figuring out the modern-day whys and wherefores of local film criticism would be formidable as it already is.[1]

What compounds the activity is the reality, as many an aspiring film practitioner discovers to her distress a few weeks into formal studies, that film criticism is hardly the only language that requires one’s attention; it is actually a minor, relatively easy mode of practice in the field of film scholarship, itself a subcategory of the larger field of cultural and literary studies. Hence when students realize that one more language – that of film itself as medium of expression – awaits mastery, too many of them retreat into this technological fortress, stepping out only when necessary (and mostly only to like-minded confreres) and using the only means available to them, the increasingly inadequate vocabulary of filmcrit agitation and canon formation.[2]

In American graduate school, I was able to witness firsthand how this separation between film scholarship and production resulted in specialists who suffered from serious lack in whatever realm they opted to work in: practitioners who started out thoroughly clueless about histories of and issues specific to the medium, and academics who were hostile to the possibility that their object of study could have real-world (especially monetary) significance. So when my colleagues in the national university were planning at one point to accommodate the film students’ understandable (but misplaced) resistance to literary and foreign-language studies, I felt I had no choice except to side with colleagues outside the program who derided their proposal to transform a full-blown degree into a glamorized certificate course.

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I would caution readers in other professions, not to mention other media, against bearing down on the admittedly pretentious and occasionally infantile excesses of contemporary Pinoy film artistes. The world that opens up to people who participate in film activity has been shifting for some time, in ways that differ considerably from critics who operate in other areas. Where the always-perceptive literary critic Caroline S. Hau could write, in this same publication, that “Rarely do Philippine books find a larger audience beyond the home country’s book market and a few area studies departments in American and other universities,”[3] most Filipino film scholars have to contend with a disadvantage in the opposite direction: the preemption and sometimes negation of homegrown responses by foreign commentators, who maneuver from within systems that adequately fund research and handsomely reward the publication of journal articles.

To be sure, this globalized state of affairs may have once been an indispensable survival strategy for local practitioners. Asian and (for innovative B-film releases) US markets had initially already been accessible venues for Filipino producers, with or without foreign co-financiers;[4] with the crisis situation induced by the implementation of martial-law policies, however, a more rarefied outlet – European film-festival exhibition and distribution – began to be reconfigured on both ends (i.e., by Euro organizers and US-dominated Third-World filmmakers) as the perfect safe haven: First World (and therefore profitable) but non- or even anti-American, with artistic cachet as fallback justification for “subversive” expressions.[5]

Hence the Pinoy film-buff’s world at the time (circa the so-called Second Golden Age roughly concurrent with the martial-law period), for all intents and purposes, comprised Manila as a site of struggle, Hollywood and its Asian satellites as sources of “safe” (i.e., politically uncommitted) profit, and the major film capitals in Western Europe, primarily Cannes in France, as nirvana, the ultimate destination for the worthiest among us. Small matter then that an undisputed master, Ishmael Bernal, was unceremoniously shunted aside at this venue, or that the festival’s fave Pinoy, Lino Brocka, had already started to exhibit the mentality that has since become the knee-jerk prophet-rejected-by-the-natives response of today’s so-called indie crowd.[6] More seriously, the present-day rush among wide-eyed cineastes to replicate the Brocka model overlooks the fact that, although he continued to be defensive about his global successes, he quietly undertook a careful repudiation of his missteps in terms of identity politics (specifically his racism, sexism, and homophobia) and was building up toward major projects that would have restated his reconsidered positions minus his previous disregard for the local audience’s generic preferences.

This imaginary geographic reconfiguration has become even more decentered and mutable at present, with Hollywood (via Sundance and the Oscars) finally being recuperated as just another playing ground, and the long-defunct Philippine-based outlet, the Manila International Film Festival, supplanted by the annual Korean festival in Busan. Pinoy filmmakers launch their auteurist vehicles, appropriately enough, via local “independent” festivals, supplementing their efforts with their individual or group weblogs and social-network websites. To say, therefore, that film criticism has arrived is true, in the sense that one may be able to find it anywhere (mainly in new media) wherever this community congregates, and largely just as untrue, if by criticism we refer to people who commit themselves to the practice without the ulterior motive of self-promotion and exploitation of press functions as a way of defending personal interests.

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A Genealogy

Much as I had pledged to acquaintances that I would refrain from my own knee-jerk tendency to bash organized colleagues, blame for Pinoy filmcrit’s arrested development will have to be laid squarely at the swanky doorstep of the original critics’ circle, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (MPP). Just as filmmakers had earlier resorted to foreign filmfest participation as a means of resisting fascist state repression, so did the first batch of MPP members find at least one noteworthy purpose in banding together: the awards they were able to institute acted as a long-overdue corrective to the corruption-ridden and mislabeled industry prizes doled out by the print media-controlled Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences or Famas, which was then further debilitated by its leaders’ flirtation with the dictatorship’s film-centered cultural ambitions.

In nearly forty years of award-giving and decadal coffee-table book publishing, the MPP has barely managed to elevate everyday critical discourse in the country. Its members’ standard awards-checklist evaluation of individual films (providing a rundown of a film’s categories as a way of judging its overall worth) is not only embarrassingly sophomoric and impressionistic, milking public interest in the group’s cash cow, the annual awards ceremony; it was also already old when it first appeared: T. D. Agcaoili could be excused for writing this way back in the 1950s, when New Criticism was still fairly literally new, and even Ishmael Bernal had stylistically superior samples during his brief career as pre-MPP critic.[7] The group has apparently decided to self-devolve into a highly exclusive kaffeeklatsch confined largely to high-brow academic personalities who probably count themselves lucky (or not) that they could desist from the gossip writing churned out by their most prolific member.[8]

Having once been part of this circle, I can understand the remaining members’ predicament even if I remain unsympathetic. Observing that most former members’ output as critics generally improved, in quantitative and qualitative terms, once they left the group, I set out to follow their example. (Warning: from this point the article will turn increasingly subjective; pretend if you can that the “I” that follows is the persona that I-as-author also wish to subject to critical inspection.) With a few other MPP renegades, I set out to form rival groups in hopes that the trend of the MPP taking on aspects of the Famas, which it had sought to replace in spirit, would turn out to be a tendency that could be bucked. Either I was wrong about this particular instance of historical determinism, or I could not function with individuals who depart too extensively from my predilections; at this point I can only work effectively outside any long-term institutional situation, with the exception of basic bread-and-butter arrangements.

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Critical Protocols

As Hau had stressed in her Manila Review article, criticism proffers discourse beyond an elaboration of the writer’s personal responses. Within our current terms, the latter type of output is designated as film reviewing and serves the laudable function of informing the potential consumer of whether a current release is worth patronizing or not. The problem with this concept, as many a frustrated reviewer (or a faithful reader of reviews) discovers early enough, is that in the age of the blockbuster release, audiences seem to decide on their film preferences irrespective of reviewers’ opinions.

All this would be to the benefit of the social scientist, actually, since it makes the box-office performance of any major film release as close to a popularly determined phenomenon as can be readily found in any cultural context. (One measure of any film enthusiast’s naïveté is how earnestly she or he perceives the artistry of “indie” releases as a value to be defended against the supposed vulgarity of the blockbuster movie. A useful rule of thumb would be to point out the contradiction in the person’s concern for the masses’ uplift vis-à-vis her or his rejection of the very sample[s] that they had decided to embrace; those who insist on reading this logic as a defense of the capitalist order ought to be regarded as beyond any kind of cultural assistance for the meantime.)

Film criticism, then, marks the step away from film reviewing, at best preparing the reader for the more difficult stage of tackling film scholarship. In requiring the author to be conversant with theoretical issues in film and culture, even when she decides not to foreground these in the written text, it makes demands that impressionistic responses do not impose on both writer and reader.[9] As in film scholarship, criticism does not seek to subject the text to consumerist standards of excellence; it assumes that the reader has seen the film, or intends to watch it eventually, for questions beyond (or including) the rewards of spectatorship.

The good-news corollary to this seeming limitation is that, since criticism is not quite (or not yet) scholarship, the critic has an entire arsenal, provided by reviewing in particular or journalism in general and literature as a whole, at her discretionary disposal.[10] Most film critics, not just in the Philippines, fail to exploit this potential and wind up writing with the stiff impartiality of “good” proper scholars. From what I can recollect, the list of Filipino film critics who had bothered with stylistic flourishes, for example, is both dismayingly short and short-lived: Bernal; MPP founding member Nestor U. Torre in his early period; ex-MPP members Ricardo Lee, Alfred A. Yuson, and Tezza O. Parel; and Raul Regalado. Almost all of them have virtually abandoned the practice (Bernal had passed away in 1996), and none had produced enough filmcrit articles for a book-length compilation. Tellingly, the surviving individuals (with the exception of Torre) have careers outside film journalism, areas of practice that require the study and application of creative technique, including the underappreciated element of humor.

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Working at Play

The type of critical experimentation I had in mind, once I had unfettered myself from the MPP’s institutional expectations, was to engage in mostly still-foreign exercises, partly as a way of demeaning the value of annual awards by saturating the culture with canonistical declarations,[11] and mainly to induce a state where resistance and deconstruction can be initiated. Here is where I realized how popular responses can take on a life of their own: although a few of my minor assertions found their detractors, the “Second Golden Age” declaration I made not only took off but also generated what to me were unnecessary permutations. Also, in the last couple of years, any Pinoy film blog and Facebook group suffused with a sense of historical self-worth has been engaging in variations of all-time-best listings. Strange indeed to learn that I had been mothering all along the monster that I should be slaying.[12]

Outside of these still-to-be-resolved dilemmas, I managed to get some favorable feedback for a number of film-focused commentaries I generated originally for a number of publications, particularly as resident critic for the now-defunct National Midweek. The procedure I observed was something that occurred naturally (so to speak) to me from the beginning, as a yet untrained film specialist: the research would consist not just of the film release to be commented on, viewed at least twice, but also of the industrial and social contexts of its emergence. I was only to realize later that most people do not start out in this manner – indeed, that it would be a matter of pride for a film commentator to announce that she or he required just a single screening followed by a single draft,[13] without the need to inspect the filmmaker’s related texts as well as the shape of the intended audience’s responses.

The fact that I never hesitated to contact any available practitioner to inquire about her or his objectives rubbed up against the notion of intentional fallacy, where the critic upholds the author’s motives as the only correct interpretation of the text. Serendipitously, this applies adequately only when a text is indeed “authored” by a single individual. Feature films rarely exhibit this condition, since they are always collectively configured. Moreover (and way before my classroom encounter with Michel Foucault’s formulation of the “author-function”[14]), the best Pinoy film practitioners know better than to resent well-intentioned negative observations, and are always only too glad to divulge insights into the creative process. The twin rivals for local canonical supremacy, both dead before their time, provided a study in contrast: I used to remark half-jokingly how a few minutes’ conversation with the always-available Ishmael Bernal would be enough to raise anyone’s IQ by a few points; whereas one of Lino Brocka’s very few shortcomings was his constantly defensive stance toward the working press in general and critics in particular, deliberately making himself scarce (except to his closest associates, many of whom were foreigners) and creating what outsiders felt was a fairly unpleasant cordon sanitaire around himself.

The other major element in my preparation – one I found myself always pursuing even when I could not contact any of the participants in production – is the one (to my constant perplexity) guaranteed to occasionally elicit angry responses among fellow critics and scholars, even among non-Filipinos. This is where I seek out actual mass viewers at random, mention the film I plan to write about, and ask them about their honest responses and their reasons, without interjecting my personal reflections. Not a single one has made the admission that affirms the biases of local intellectuals, even in supposedly progressive circles: no one has said so far, “Oh sure, I want to watch [or not watch] this or that current release because I’ve got no taste or my knowledge is limited.”

I take pains to spell this out at every opportunity because this way of thinking lies behind a lot of well-intentioned remarks that are always in danger of attaining critical mass (pun incidental), at worst eventually coalescing into educational and cultural policy. The insight that this essentially anthropological approach provides into “strictly commercial” film projects, where the practitioners cannot even be bothered to engage in dialog about their output, would be indispensable to articulating a special, sometimes heretofore hidden type of cultural logic. The fact that a now-pervasive means to evade this challenge – digital production and exhibition – was once unavailable to a generation of filmmakers means that our elders had learned to always, always keep a finger on the pulse of the mass audience, or else risk career stagnation or worse. They might have welcomed a system that rewarded them with “independence,” but the question must be asked: independence from what, or whom?

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[1] The article’s present title is derived from an observation made by Leloy Claudio, who was instrumental in persuading me to write on the topic. This article was made possible through financial assistance provided by the Inha University Faculty Research Grant.

[2] For this reason, outsiders who attempt film scholarship without adequate preparation similarly negotiate the field at their peril; witness the clunky regurgitation of dated theory anchoring already widely available data in Raymond J. Haberski, Jr.’s ambitiously titled “It’s Only a Movie”: Films and Critics in American Culture (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001). A subsequent footnote will mention relevant canonizing projects.

[3] Caroline S. Hau, “Reviewing the Reviewers,” Manila Review (14 December 2012).

[4] For an in-depth study of a specific practitioner’s output, see Bliss Cua Lim, “‘American Pictures Made by Filipinos’: Eddie Romero’s Jungle-Horror Exploitation Films,” Spectator 22.1 (Spring 2002), pp. 23-45. For a more comprehensive presentation, we may have to await the completion of a dissertation in progress, described by its proponent Andrew Leavold in his “Bamboo Gods and Bionic Boys: A Brief History of Philippines’ B Films” (South East Asian Cinema Conference paper, 2008).

[5] The association of European film practice with “art cinema” is espoused early enough in standard film-studies curricula, in one of the introductory textbooks, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s long-running (since 1977) Film Art: An Introduction (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012).

[6] The only Brocka interview article fully worthy of its subject is Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon’s “The Brocka Battles,” from Lino Brocka: The Artist and His Times, ed. Mario A. Hernando (Manila: Sentrong Pangkultura ng Pilipinas, 1993), pp. 118-54. At one point the always-beleaguered director points out how the British Film Institute’s Sutherland Trophy prize for his Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim (Malaya & Stephan Films, 1985) proved that a Filipino critic’s complaint about the film was in error (p. 147).

[7] See T. D. Agcaoili, “Movies,” rpt. in Philippine Mass Media in Perspective, eds. Gloria D. Feliciano and Crispulo Icban, Jr. (Quezon City: Capitol, 1967), pp. 133-61. Samples of Ishmael Bernal’s film criticism have been compiled in the appendix of Bayani Santos, Jr.’s M.A. thesis titled “Ishmael Bernal: The Man and the Artist as Revealed in His Works” (Manuel L. Quezon University, 2010).

[8] As a fan of such personalities as the late Giovanni Calvo or the Village Voice’s (recently terminated) columnist and blogger Michael Musto, and an insistent re-reader of Petronius’s Satyricon and obsessive purchaser of the occasional celebrity biography, I ought to clarify here that I do not disparage gossip writing per se; only its failed instances.

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[9] Several major American film critics have discussed the differences between reviewing and criticism extensively. The acerbic John Simon typically provided a bellicose distinction by stating that “Perhaps it is easiest to begin by defining the commonest kind of bad criticism, which is not criticism at all but reviewing”; from “A Critical Credo,” Private Screenings (New York: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 1-16.

[10] Phillip Lopate, proceeding from Stanley Cavell’s metacritique, concludes that “the best film criticism verges on the personal essay, where the particular topic matters less, in the long run, than the companionable voice” (“Film Criticism Comes of Age,” Columbia College Today [November-December 2006]; excerpted from the editor’s introduction to American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents until Now [New York: Library of America, 2006]). I would counter though that if we regard filmcrit as typically suffering from too much bookishness, then this prescription merely serves to reposition and confine the activity at the opposite end.

[11] A study of the proliferation of awards in the Philippines (mainly in the area of cinema) would be capable of sustaining a singular article of its own, with or without other forms of canonization. For a useful perspective on global trends that, for the most part, may have affected local developments, James F. English’s The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Value (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005) provides an effective summation.

[12] The article that started this scandalous flurry of activities had a playful title that I have since forgotten; the publisher insisted instead on the far more dignified-sounding “A Second Golden Age: An Informal History” (The National Pastime: Contemporary Philippine Cinema [Pasig City: Anvil, 1990], pp. 1-17). I attempted a repudiation of the Golden-Ages concept in a lamentably inaccessible volume – “The Golden Ages of Philippine Cinema: A Critical Reassessment,” Cinema Filipinas: Historia, teoría y crítica fílmica (1999-2009), ed. Juan Guardiola, ([Andalucía]: Juna de Andalucía, Consejería de Cultura Fundación El Legado Andalusí, [2010]), pp. 217-24. The canonical exercises I mentioned constituted an entire section, pp. 119-42, in my next volume, Fields of Vision: Critical Applications in Recent Philippine Cinema (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1995). Among the noteworthier canonizing projects since then are Top-100 lists by two Facebook groups, Cinephiles! (spearheaded by Adrian Dollente Mendizabal, covering global cinema including the Philippines) and Pinoy Film Buffs (led by Archie del Mundo, ongoing as of this writing), and a Top-50 listing initiated by Skilty Labastillas at the Pinoy Rebyu blog.

[13] Pauline Kael is famous for her claim that she watched a movie only once, then wrote out her review the same night, in longhand – pp. 18-19 in George Malko, “Pauline Kael Wants People to Go to the Movies: A Profile,” Conversations with Pauline Kael, ed. Will Brantley (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996), pp. 15-30. Rarely noticed are the qualifications to this remark: that she would scribble furiously in the dark during the screening, often taking all night to finish writing a review, and that she would moreover pick a film to write about only after having seen a number of contemporaneous releases. To me, this explains both the gut-feel immediacy of her writing, as well as the breezy, witty, yet complex manner in which she conveyed her ideas: as a connoisseur of jazz, she appreciated the need both to keep performing at one’s best level, revising as often as necessary, and to spare the audience the details of the process by which the final product was created. The ability to form a take on a film in one viewing is something I have yet to acquire, even if I still find myself following all her other methods (except for writing by hand); then again, Kael was herself one of a kind in critical literature. On the other hand, Brecht Andersch narrates the account of Lawrence Chadbourne, who attended the New York critics’ screening of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980): “As the lights dimmed, a woman squeezed into the seat next to him, pulled out a notebook and pen, and commenced furious note-taking. She spent half her time with her head bent down to peer at her incessant jottings, as they were streaming out. When the lights came on, Larry recognized his seatmate as Pauline Kael. Given her famous modus operandi of never seeing a film more than once, it would be safe to say she wrote her scathing piece – one amongst many, to be sure – without even having truly seen it once” (Facebook post, March 6, 2016).

[14] Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 113-38.

[First published August 2013 as “Pinoy Film Criticism: A Lover’s Polemic” in The Manila Review]

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Millennial Traversals – Old-Millennium Pinoy Film Reviews II (National Midweek & After)



Mga Lihim ng Kalapati
Directed by Celso Ad. Castillo
Written by Rei Nicandro

That Celso Ad. Castillo possesses a sensibility unique among the ranks of local filmmakers requires no proof more eloquent than his body of work during the preceding decade. That his sensibility has not amounted to much becomes the dismal conclusion with the release of every subsequent Castillo opus with the start of the same period in question. Mga Lihim ng Kalapati, as has become typical of its filmmaker, presents premises that may or may not be conceivable in terms of the immediate reality it depicts. More to the point, if we observe the line of thinking from which Castillo’s concerns have branched off, is that the imperative of verisimilitude, the recognition on the part of the viewer that film (or at least certain aspects of it) may have some bearing on subjective contemporary experience, should not matter in this case. For if the filmmaker were possessed of a reasonable amount of artistry in his skills then he’d be able to evoke a viewing experience that, though non-existent for our knowledge of what has been, is, or will be possible, will be real unto itself.

Castillo’s particular perception takes this still-radical dogma on filmmaking too literally, exclusive of the fact that all successful cinema – in fact, all successful works of art – by virtue of the process of subjective creation, are necessarily lacking in perfect correspondences with known reality. Film is the most misleading medium in this regard, since its raw material, unlike those of all other art forms, is reality itself. And yet the very process of capturing this reality (presuming that one has not made any deliberate choice) and arranging the captured bits into an artistic whole for presentational purposes, already subverts the original existence of the raw material – transforming it, as it were. A misguided artist who therefore believes that to be unique, he must make sure that his presentation will never be mistaken for a segmentation of familiar occurrences (which might be tackled by other artists anyway), will like Castillo keep striving for material and treatments that result in products that are offbeat at best, and irrelevant at worst: Paradise Inn and Payaso respectively, to cite recent Castillo efforts.

Mga Lihim ng Kalapati falls somewhere between the two, and only because the lesser item was terribly insignificant to begin with. Otherwise Mga Lihim deserves an embarrassingly bent-over commendation as an exercise in basic visual fluency – no mean achievement a few years back, but now an empty exploit in the wake of the dispersion of similar capabilities both within and without commercial film formats. Such indulgence in what has come to be called “pure” film expression has its advantage though, similar to the benefits any writer will derive from engaging in wordplay, no matter how frivolous. A few years back, Castillo unexpectedly returned to the same terrain covered by Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak and, considering the constraints, did amazingly well. Unlike all his others films in the 1980s, Pedro Tunasan was highly conventionalized in its treatment, structure, and save for extremely compromised production values, execution. One wonders what Castillo will make of an even more inspired earlier work, Burlesk Queen, the story of a fallen woman healthily balanced in terms of its moral, social, and psychological perspectives.

As for the disadvantage, one need not point out the painfully obvious unless the subject were as hardheaded as Castillo. The medium in which he practices is an expensive one – hence the danger of being completely locked out is ever-present. It’s been ten years since Burlesk Queen, a work which the objectivity of temporal distance has made more charming than it first seemed to be, but whose over-all valuation has already been exceeded by the output of latter-day practitioners. The irony is that Castillo may have already possessed the capability of making epic “bold” films even before the likes of Boatman and Private Show came out, just as he has exhibited the potential for creating a truly grand revolutionary film-story. But if he continues to subsume the evolution of such skills to the self-conscious pursuits of the allegedly unique in filmic realism, he will only discover (not too late, for his sake we should hope) that there is no such thing, and that his attempts in the same vein will yield no ultimate value.

[First published September 23, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Pasan Ko ang Daigdig
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Rene O. Villanueva and Orlando Nadres

Funny how one can easily lose sight of original intentions. I had entered the moviehouse meaning to lap up whatever entertainment Pasan Ko ang Daigdig seemed to be holding forth, serious film observation be damned. I looked forward to what I imagined could have been the first product of our national cinema definitive of the February 1986 revolution: no shallow literal censorship of eyesore locations, no flinching from the downtrodden as major characters, yet typically post-’86 escapist in an insistent, even vengeful manner. Well, the serious component was around all right, but the other side was nowhere evident beyond casting and material. Sure, Sharon Cuneta was up there, looking none the worse for all her real-life parallelisms, and she did do a lot of singing in the midst of playing a game of, uh, musical chairs among several leading men with strong claims to her pitiably singular and singularly virtuous self. How then could such an easy winner lose? I’d like to venture forth an argument along the lines of over-confidence, but I’m afraid the real reason might be more offending than that.

There was real cynicism in Pasan Ko ang Daigdig, the sort that makes you wonder why its creators ever bothered with the project in the first place. The expected convolutions of story were all present, but not reasonably accounted for. Over-all you get the feel of having been taken along for a ride, but without any appreciation of your tolerance for downright, bald-faced manipulation. The story traces the rise of a media celebrity from literally dirt-poor squalor to moral-cum-professional triumph. I wouldn’t exactly dismiss this sort of material per se since you wouldn’t have to look far into the movie system itself to find examples of how easy social mobility in show business can get: Nora Aunor, of course. To a limited extent, Sharon Cuneta even.

But where a more considerate filmmaker would take pains to fill in certain gaps, in storytelling terms or, granting the usual demands of a too-meddlesome studio system, by technical means at least, Pasan Ko has only surface gloss with which to endorse itself. So okay, to get down to specifics, your lead character has grown up in the worst possible living space in the metropolis but she has to make an overnight stab at legitimacy as a completely credible performer, and not just in the Rey de la Cruz sense either – now what do you do? I can only speculate how various other filmmakers would have done it, from revising an aspect of the exposition to adding a dimension of otherness to the performer’s attack, but in this particular instance all you find is a brutalized denizen inexplicably transformed into a classy singer, without the aid of even a magic camison or a blusang itim.

By this measure other more advanced elements in the story, like the now-respectable songstress suddenly cracking a whip with all the fury of a Batang City Jail sadist, get appreciated for the original intentions of presumably sensible craftsmen (I’ll make you see how ridiculous this development is, see, so your laughter in the moviehouses is my way of taking revenge on those unenlightened money-bags who made me do this junk); but the potential of drawing respect rather than mere titillation for a job well done in the face of the odds all goes to waste in this case. Too bad then for the talents involved in this enterprise, and most specifically Lino Brocka, for whom the thematic and psychological concerns of slum-dwellers should have proved familiar territory by now. I always thought Smoky Mountain was as scenic as it appeared in Pasan Ko (I’ve seen it captured better elsewhere; that’s another story), but never for the leery life of me have I imagined how it could ever become so antiseptic.

[First published October 21, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Pinulot Ka Lang sa Lupa
Directed by Ishmael Bernal
Written by Racquel Villavicencio

Pinulot Ka Lang sa Lupa is the second Ishmael Bernal movie to have been released this year, and the third since last year (anno revolucion, by way of easy reckoning). So far this is the closest the director has come to his record output during the early years of the current decade, when in one prodigious year (1982) he could treat his audiences to the likes of Ito Ba ang Ating mga Anak?, Relasyon, and Himala, and still have enough creative juice left to squeeze out at least one well-made movie annually afterward. Of course, Bernal is the genius who came up with Manila by Night (1980), but anyone who understands the singular significance of that work will also understand why I avoid singling it out for comparison with any other Bernal output. I’d rather much see where his works fit in a career that doesn’t seem to have a comparable parallel anywhere in his field and, granting that comparisons with other forms are valid, possibly with those of few other Filipinos working in other media.

The one undeniable certainty in our doubt-ridden movie scene is that no other Filipino director’s filmography can stand up to intense aesthetic scrutiny the way Bernal’s does. This may be getting close to pleading immunity to the constant alarums that plague our film historians, who it seems would love to outdo one another and themselves in seeking to enthrone one dead black-and-white movie director after another as the sole claimant to the title of greatness in film art. After allowing myself to get caught up in the frenzy, I’d find myself conceding to perhaps one or two significant titles every other master – and the rest of the opera consignable to historical footnotes, if not Christmas toy-horns.

By this measure you’ll understand my trepidation in dishing out facile conclusions about the latest Bernal: how many of the critics outraged by Nunal sa Tubig (1976) were able to see how it led to Manila By Night (1980), with Aliw (1979) as an intermediary, experimental try-out? The answer is…none. Not one, painful as it sounds. And after three disturbing consecutive outputs in Gamitin Mo Ako (1985), The Graduates (1986), and Working Girls Part II (1987), the director has returned to form with Pinulot Ka Lang sa Lupa. It would be safer to say that Regal Films has finally appropriated the melodrama formulae of its current rival, Viva Films, although that distinction better belongs to the previous Regal movie, Mel Chionglo’s Paano Kung Wala Ka Na (1987).

I suspect that Ishmael Bernal is working on more ambitious modes of cinematic storytelling, while catching up at the same time with refinements in the plastics of his craft, for which he had often (and unfairly) been penalized by commentators and award-giving groups at one time or another. This places works like Pinulot on the same plane as Broken Marriage – i.e., as an exercise in competence that simultaneously provides a full-proof means of recaptivating the mass audience. As for the work itself, missing is the occasional working-over that Bernal used to lavish on genre-movie assignments. Pinulot is arguably the first successfully minor Bernal movie that doesn’t have any humor to it; recall his previous throwaway efforts like Isang Gabi sa Iyo, Isang Gabi sa Akin or Pabling and you’ll get the drift.

Of course, melodrama, to be tolerable, should first be taken seriously, on its own terms. But with a filmmaker who had taken further steps in the direction of courting the thinking viewer’s appreciation by providing the dramatic distance that comedy affords, Pinulot comprises an apprehensive step backward. So much for the larger scheme of things. Less bulgy-eyed observers would have pointed out by now the commendable production values, plus the admirable second-wind performance of Lorna Tolentino (after her previous Viva movie) and a remarkable step-up in the screen presence of Gabby Concepcion. The less considerate ones would have commented on the grievous miscalculation of Maricel Soriano in her attack on the expository passages of the film. Cross then your heart and your fingers on what M. Bernal might spring on us in the near future, which, in his case, should be just exactly what comes up next.

[First published November 18, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Huwag Mong Itanong Kung Bakit
Directed by Eddie Garcia
Written by Emmanuel H. Borlaza and Gina Marissa Tagasa

After a series of perfunctory melodramas (with equally perfunctory box-office results), Viva Films seems to have taken a serious accounting of its audience preferences, not to mention its archival potential. The outcome is Huwag Mong Itanong Kung Bakit, and although every other local movie observer must have had her turn by now in wordplaying with the title, I can’t resist my own contribution: I won’t ask why the movie turned out the way it did, but I’ll have to raise some questions about the system that led to its eventual production and release. And before you start wondering and venture another dreadful pun, let me hasten to answer that although Huwag Mong Itanong could use some narrative repair, it stands up pretty well to the average local melodrama – which, as I tend to mention too often, is virtually synonymous these days with saying “the typical Viva movie.” For that matter, it’s the most serviceable Viva story ever put out since the Presidential Commission on Good Government came along, and that doesn’t reflect too well on both the outfit itself as well as the rest of the industry.[1]

I wouldn’t say that it’s the executors of the dramatic framework – that is, the performers – who provided the crucial factor in maintaining a semblance of realism, although they do hand in some of their best work here. Armida Siguion-Reyna and Ricky Davao as a mother-and-son Oedipal tandem attack their roles with theatrical relish, and it’s a relief to behold Cherie Gil doing a lot of reacting for a change. But in the active characterizations of the romantic leads, the material betrays its crossed purposes. The hero is the usual noble-hearted scion who bleeds for the downtrodden, specifically those whom his brother abuses, one of whom turns out of course to be the heroine. It’s still disconcerting, though perhaps inevitable for this type of film, to find the moral inclinations drawn right down the middle of the hero’s upper-class family (across the brothers’ mother, in fact), but it’s even more disturbing to find that no such divisions obtain in the heroine’s lower-class origin.

The statement, if I could force one, is clear: as audience member, you may enjoy all the onscreen opulence and ostentation, but just in case you wind up hating your own deprivation afterward, we’ll obviate your condemnation of our participation by throwing in this blessed-are-the-poor angle; after all, if it worked for the church…. I’d like to beg off, though, from pursuing this controversy in the direction from which I originally approached it. I thik the contradictions in the Viva set-up were manifested all too clearly in Huwag Mong Itanong precisely because of the movie’s inherent accomplishment: it’s a fine visual treat actually, too much for the treatment the material deserves, but just enough to make the entire project literally appear valid. I can think of only two other instances where the Filipino cinematographer’s hand has practically perfected an otherwise dismissible undertaking – in separate works by black-and-white specialist Mike Accion and the more contemporary Conrado Baltazar. With Huwag Mong Itanong, Romeo Vitug has completed his portfolio for cinematographic deanship, and whatever else anyone, including myself, can say about the movie, his reputation as a master of the local movie camera should be sealed and delivered, once and for all.

But I’ll have my say anyway. This notion of steadying a shaky dramatic foundation by resorting to plastic polish is a rather old one. From the very beginning filmmakers have been enthralled by the challenge of proving they can do magic any time – gimme any story, or even no story at all, plus total financial resources of course, and I’ll gives you a Work of Art, or my name ain’t Genius. The matter is complicated by the fact that a movie has to be experienced through a definite time span – hence the track record, unique among all art forms, of successive coups de maître in cinema, where too much premium is placed on first impact (which is usually all one gets of most works anyway). In the Philippines this plastic-coverup approach has been institutionalized, at least so far, by the Viva production machinery, but before we start calling for the dismantling of the studio, it would serve us well to keep in mind that selling technical competence per se to the local audience was formerly considered an impossibility.

I submit that the Filipino moviegoer’s standard needs to be constantly upgraded. But at the same time we better have some output that could serve to remind us all that technique isn’t everything. Our Hollywood imports supply us the prime example, on one level the state-of-the-craft which we may aspire to, and on another the paradox of running out of things to say or figure out, just because the system can run itself into perpetuity on a technological basis. Is this something to be desired at all cost? I’d like to register a strong dissenting opinion and maintain that…aw, all right, huwag mong itanong kung bakit.


[1] After the February 1986 “people-power” uprising, the post-Marcos government, as its first “revolutionary” act, created the Presidential Commission on Good Government to investigate shortcomings committed by the previous regime and seek appropriate measures of redress or recovery. Viva Films was suspected of having been organized with the support of the Marcoses, specifically Imelda, with funds allegedly funneled via the Cultural Center of the Philippines. A few years after a series of investigations, the order sequestering the company was lifted, with a prominent Marcos oppositionist, Lino Brocka, directing a few of his last few projects for the outfit.

[First published February 3, 1988, in National Midweek]

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Saan Nagtatago ang Pag-ibig?
Directed by Eddie Garcia
Written by Armando Lao

At the tail-end of the series of screenings for the Film Academy of the Philippines’s annual awards ritual, I managed to watch one last 1987 title that reliable acquaintances claimed had been left out of my best-of-the-year listings (see National Midweek’s Feb. 3, 1988, issue); as a counter-defense I pointed out that one of my choices, Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak, wasn’t in the FAP’s listings either – but then they don’t have the benefit of intensive personal discussion in print just as I don’t have the publicity mileage their awards night generates, so there really isn’t any basis for mutual exchanges. Anyway there I sat, viewing a Viva production that I avoided during its regular run because it was komiks-sourced, it had Vilma Santos in another of her living-saint roles and Tonton Gutierrez as a retardate, and to a certain extent my misgivings about its limitations were confirmed. For possible “persona” reasons, the lead characters were rendered so chaste that they could have been walking around with halos on their heads and no one would have been outraged by the physical incongruity.

In contrast, the immediate peripheral characters ultimately made the entire outing worth the effort of sitting it out to the end. Instead of the usual moral balance of supplying the sweetmeats with carnivores through which their aromas could surface, the film took the relatively radical option of providing the contravidas with that rare and elusive property called motivation. As a result, none of the characters succeeds in posing as antagonist – honest compliment; of course, there’s a quibble of a qualifier in the, er, person of the family matriarch, who for all practical purposes stands for the pragmatic materialism that the leads are up against. Fortunately she comes on too infrequently to develop as either theme or character, and finally gets rejected by the other women in the movie (in academese, the act symbolizes non-symbols rejecting a symbol).

Which brings us back to the problem with the leads. The main female character is made to marry the mentally challenged brother of the lover who impregnated her, so the family can get the best of both worlds: the virile scion would account for his misdemeanor by giving his family name and a technically invalid union to someone he could marry later, while the family could pay off its debts once the same son fulfills his grandmother’s condition of passing the bar without walking the aisle. The said son turns out to be well-meaning yet immature, the mother who accedes to the arrangement reveals a deep-seated fear of her in-law derived from a sexual guilt that resulted in her now-damaged child, and the proceedings are complicated by two other women: a self-righteous daughter who becomes humiliated by an unwanted pregnancy and an old-maid aunt whose bitterness with the mother’s actuations (the boy’s father was originally her betrothed) gets dispelled by the disabled son’s efforts to reach out to everyone. By a twist that’s logical in the reckoning but still surprising considering the chauvinist traditions in melodrama, the men get edged out – the handicapped son dies, his brother is spurned by the widow, and their mannish grandma is told off by the wife with the mother-in-law’s support – and the women even get to act out a farewell scene that’s the movie’s most moving portion, its power derived from as much the foregoing emotional buildup as the cultural connotations of women in black ritualistically bonding together.

The two leads team up for much less reason than had provided the rest: the guy’s too disadvantaged to decide for himself, while the woman’s too nice to resist caring for the man she was forced to marry, telling off the brother who had not only gotten her into this predicament but who also becomes jealous when her attention gets distracted. How could such a partnership lose? The consequence may have been tragic, but the audience’s sympathy is left with absolutely no options. One possible solution, probably the easiest, would be something that the late Gerardo de Leon, a master of the pulp cinema form if there ever was one hereabouts, would have resorted to: interlacing the development of the leads’ attraction to each other with a nourishing eroticism. This way they share in the guilt of the other characters, but their rising above it becomes all the more poignant and innate. With this in mind I admittedly half-wished the drying-out scene between the wife and her “husband” could have progressed beyond the Madonna-and-child blanket-draped composition accorded it, into a discovery of the real reason why film characters, like their human counterparts, connect with one another.

The other aspects of production tie in nicely with melodrama’s current demands. The plot has largely been confined to the concerns of the decaying-rich family, so the subdued elegance so often misrepresented in movies of this type is both justified and exploited in the positive sense. Romeo Vitug’s cinematography is one step away from his holistic achievement in a later movie, Huwag Mong Itanong Kung Bakit (also by Eddie Garcia), but this subordinate approach to visual technique works best in strong stories. I appreciate his control here; and when he lets go, as he did in the victim-son’s wide-awake fantasy sequence, his calling attention to the camera’s prowess in covering plotholes actually has the reverse effect of pointing up deficiencies in storytelling, coming as these do amid comparatively solid progressions.

Where then does Saan Nagtatago ang Pag-ibig? fit in my yearend evaluation? Were it not for the problem with the main characterizations, I’d place it among the likes of Tatlong Ina, Mel Chionglo’s Paano Kung Wala Ka Na, and Peque Gallaga and Lorenzo Reyes’s Once Upon a Time. But then I had a secondary ranking as well, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it between these first three and the also-rans. Saan Nagtatago brings to mind those seemingly lost years when komiks adaptations didn’t necessarily connote excesses, particularly in the case of de Leon and the early Lino Brocka films with Lea Productions. I’d also concur with earlier reactions calling the movie its director’s and production outfit’s best work up to that point. And if it could serve to usher in another era of sensible komiks-into-film attempts, I guess that would be sufficient reason to hope it figures prominently in the FAP awards derby.

[First published April 13, 1988, in National Midweek]

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Hati Tayo sa Magdamag
Directed by Lupita A. Kashiwahara
Written by Armando Lao

More than a decade, the promo materials pointed out: it took a period of self-exile, the murder of her brother, and a people’s phenomenon before the country’s first major female director could come back and catch up with her sisters in the field. And though the ballyhoo over who she is may seem all out of proportion to her latest work, that may only stem from the fact of her having been away too long. For from a more sober perspective, it appears that her early films were the ones that required reputations out of all proportion to their actual worth. The critic’s dilemma lay in the responsibility of pointing out that Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo wasn’t even worthy of being called a film, vis-à-vis the larger social need of shoring up symbols of protest against the now-ousted dictatorship. As every dedicated film observer knows (or at least ought to know), the painful secret in Lupita Kashiwahara’s director’s closet was that for all the limitations of her first film, Magandang Gabi sa Inyong Lahat, she hadn’t done anything better since.

That is, until Hati Tayo sa Magdamag. As Kashiwahara’s first truly filmic enterprise, it also stands as another commercial-but-passable product from the local melodrama factory, Viva Films. A study ought to be undertaken as to how far this production outfit’s ventures into sensible presentations could go, considering that the only previous cases of successful film quality in these parts have so far come from studios that allowed free rein in creative treatment. Meanwhile we’ve had, in the space of less than a year, entertainments like Saan Nagtatago ang Pag-ibig? and Misis Mo, Misis Ko, and now Hati Tayo sa Magdamag – items that try their best to minimize insulting intelligent members of the audience while providing the requisite elements that the masses expect to find in films of this kind. Part of the formula seems to be the hiring of writers who share this sort of concern: Misis Mo had Bibeth Orteza, who did an admirable job in an earlier Lino Brocka movie (Palipat-lipat, Papalit-palit), while both Saan Nagtatago and Hati Tayo sa Magdamag share the same scriptwriting credit, Armando Lao, first known for winning during the last scriptwriting contest of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines and best known for Takaw Tukso two years back.

Careful scripting does all the difference in melodrama, and Hati Tayo proves it. This doesn’t seem too far-fetched a notion when we consider that melodrama is essentially a matter of making movie characters go through one plot development after another – and therefore a writer predisposed toward this sort of approach will be able to make a silly premise, as in Saan Nagtatago, or perfunctory developments, as in Hati Tayo, go a long way with both critical and box-office responses. Not surprisingly, both Lao-scripted films are komiks in origin. After the early Brocka films, and right before Saan Nagtatago, this used to be tantamount to saying that the writer had been either too destitute or too naïve to avoid the assignment. An admirable mechanism must be at work in the Viva offices, for having been able to tolerate a sensibility that would be considered compulsory in academe but the height of audacity in the movie industry.

But don’t get me wrong here. The way the movie goes, the writer’s contribution to Hati Tayo sa Magdamag seems to have been only the first stage in what has turned out to be the only recent Viva quality output that retains the frame of mind crucial to an explication of the commercialist imperative; meaning among the three aforementioned titles, it is Hati Tayo that masks its narrative intelligence most effectively. The dedicated melodrama observer will be treated to not only the requisite scenes of confrontation, breakdown, and reconciliation, but even lurid lovemaking and externalized monologues!

More often than not the attempts to pander to the so-called mass viewership get too barefaced for comfort, but then the accumulation of decent developments promotes acquiescence aided in no small part by the performance of the by-now redoubtable Jaclyn Jose. In theory the formulation may sound valid, but aside from the case of Jose (and to a certain extent Gina Alajar), I still have to recall another instance in our local movie scene where the consistent rejection of a stylized approach to acting could result in a series of effective performances. The other two leads in the love triangle obviously gave their best, manifested primarily in their willingness to deglamorize themselves; but then an ensembles-type of group performance never really takes off, ironically because one performer happens to be far superior to the others.

As for Lupita Kashiwahara, it’s as if she’d never done a movie before – and this, expressed as a compliment. I guess any reaction of disappointment may be due to the romanticism acquired by her familial association with her late brother and now more-famous sister-in-law, plus the fact that we don’t really have any passion for revaluating events in the past. No one promised us a utopia with the expulsion of the previous dictatorship, but a dictator-less existence might somehow do for the moment; and in the case of Kashiwahara’s detractors, I suggest a forcible re-screening of the works she did when she was known by another surname – and better yet, more projects and greater creative freedom if these can be spared.

[First published April 27, 1988, in National Midweek]

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Itanong Mo sa Buwan
Directed by Chito Roño
Written by Armando Lao

Si Baleleng at ang Gintong Sirena
Directed by Chito Roño
Written by Bibeth Orteza

When the local movie industry attains an acceptably decent degree of professionalism, serious Filipino film directors will not have to go through the humiliation of doing blatantly commercial projects after having proved themselves capable of better challenges. Such has been the trend observable in the body of works of every filmmaker who emerged with the late arrival (circa ’70s) here of the French New-Wave influence. Take Ishmael Bernal, for example, with his 1971 debut Pagdating sa Dulo: his well-received domestic dramas and revolutionary milieu films were several years away then – and all that intervened were the likes of teen-star musicals, kung-fu films, and comic capers. But while Bernal et al. have survived with sufficient dignity, a lot of other serious first-timers have not. How many still remember that Elwood Perez first came up with Blue Boy? Perhaps more tragic is the growing record of directors whose first attempts were respectable enough, but who never since had (or accepted) follow-up offers.

Industry apologists could counter that Bernal himself has become an outstanding commercial director – a direct result of this kind of system. The loophole in their argument is that no other local director can be placed in Bernal’s category, even within this narrow commercial classification; the only possible heir apparent, more than a decade thereafter, would be Chito Roño, but then the issue here is a matter of available opportunities, not numbers. In almost the same period, Roño has made a pair of commercialized outputs that compare favorably with the most engaging dismissibles of Bernal. Were the past year-in-movies not so discardable, his festival film Itanong Mo sa Buwan would not in fact have been among the better titles in competition. As it turned out, Itanong Mo was even the yearend festival’s best entry, contrary to the perception of the board of judges.

This syndrome of subjecting ourselves to formal evaluation was once regarded as a possible remedy to the industry’s ills; in the end, it has only served to aggravate the situation, since local evaluators couldn’t seem to be objective enough. In an industry as perversely cynical as the current movie scene, the result has been nothing short of anomalous, with a redundance of award-giving bodies vying purportedly for credibility but really just for PR. Roño, who ironically was once connected with one of the least controversial local evaluative bodies, the now-defunct Film Ratings Board, immediately had his share of shortchange with his first four films – his biograph so far. His debut, Private Show, was passed up by the critics’ group for major nominations, even if it may have deserved the best-film prize for its year of release. His follow-up Olongapo: The Great American Dream, at least won first best picture in last year’s Metro Manila Film Festival – but Roño’s directorial contribution, which in the end could have been its only merit, went unrewarded.

Itanong Mo sa Buwan, though a better movie than Olongapo, suffers from a crudeness of details, especially in a number of dangling developments. Moreover, its main ontological contribution could only be inferred rather than derived directly – from the ending, wherein the main character proceeds to tell what seems to be a replica of her contradicter’s story, rather than something that would be consistent with her propensity for sleazy fantasy. Curiously, the main objection in the media to Itanong Mo happened to be a non-issue, or at least a non-filmic issue: that it was patterned after the Japanese classic Rashomon (1950, dir. Akira Kurosawa), as well as the latter’s local tribute, Laurice Guillen’s Salome (1981). The ignorance in this regard seems to be more forgivable than the festival judges’ oversight of the film, but then the recent history of similar fiascoes proves that more profound cultural forces are to blame. Salome was itself a victim of charges of plagiarism, and the fact that the creative forces behind both local products are more than acquaintances –Guillen appears in Roño’s Si Baleleng at ang Gintong Sirena, while Itanong Mo writer Armando Lao once finished a scriptwriting workshop under Salome writer Ricardo Lee, who also wrote Roño’s early filmscripts – won’t help any.

It all boils down to an awareness of the absence of an indigenous culture complicated by the consciousness of a colonial past: what amounts to a socio-cultural neurosis, an obsession with originality. Local observers don’t bother to realize where Salome and Itanong Mo differ from Rashomon; what concerns them is the similarities, and the possibility that copying had been committed has driven them to frenzies of denunciations. Meantime, Roño has come up with Si Baleleng, which almost became a festival entry, though it really is too insignificant to be taken seriously – else expect a flurry of comparisons with Ishmael Bernal! Si Baleleng, however, is closer to Bernal’s mid-period comedies than Itanong Mo is to Rashomon. Here Roño salvages an utterly compromised undertaking through the use of multi-levelled composition and, more precious and Bernalian, a strangely developed brand of comic sensibility, part morbid humor and part social commentary in its observance of off-the-wall everyday lunacies.

Si Baleleng serves as reminder that any commercial project, regardless of degree of anti-creative impositions, will be able to get by on the strength of its creator’s intelligence. At the very least, the viewing experience, which after all is what moviegoers really pay for, won’t be as painful as the recollecting afterward.

[First published March 1, 1989, in National Midweek; anthologized in The Urian Anthology 1980-1989]

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Big Flick in the Sky
Directed and written by Kenneth M. Angliongto

Film education in the Philippines had another sort of coming-of-age maker during the outgoing academic year’s reconition ceremonies for the College of Mass Communication of the University of the Philippines. Still the only film-degree-granting institution in the country, the UPCMC handed out its usual graduation day awards, with the overall academic excellence prize being copped by Melanie Joy C. Garduño, who also happened to be the five-year-old film program’s first magna cum laude graduate. The year proved to be the most prodigious so far for the college in several senses: the broadcasting and journalism top-notchers also belonged to the same rank, while 30 other students were proclaimed cum laude and 20 finished as graduate students, five of them with Ph.D.s. The real innovation, however, lay in the first-time recognition of the production thesis as another sample of academic achievement. Alongside the traditional award for research thesis, the UPCMC faculty decided from among several possible entries in photo exhibition, slide-tape production, video documentary, and super-8mm. short feature to proclaim a video short feature: film major Kenneth M. Angliongto’s Big Flick in the Sky, the year’s outstanding production thesis honoree.

Angliongto, 23, was the surprise quick-bloomer of his batch of 25. In one year he did a promising directing exercise titled Mine, then completed a special project (an elective I’d been handling) with what he called a “graphic novel,” Bundavarre, finishing off with Big Flick. Mine was essentially silent video short feature (with a no-words soundtrack) that depicted a painter struggling with his canvas, finally drawing inspiration from memories of his childhood; what distinguished it from the products of Angliongto’s contemporaries was a compassion for its one-man subject – an attitude which young intellectuals seem to have difficulty mustering when engaged in artistic production. Bundavarre was a far more ambitious attempt in terms of moving inward to its subject and outward of audiovisual media: a comics artist gets into his wholesome general-patronage world and therein discovers his long-suppressed depravity in the form of another set of characters, who eventually take over his output; the presentation combined drawings with photographs in frames of varying sizes, with logical shifts from color to black-and-white, and exhibited with an ominous mature-audiences-only warning.

Angliongto’s self-referential concerns finally came to a head with Big Flick. The hero was this time a film student whose social and academic life arrives at a stand-still because of a creative block. The resolution is satisfyingly even-handed – the protagonist forges a truce with his Muse (paralleled in his real life by a conciliation with his friends and a female admirer) – but the journey toward it is liberally embellished with jokes and sight gags on films within films, or actually videos within videos, and surreal developments. Much of Big Flick’s impact derives from what Angliongto himself, during a discussion with his defense panel, called serendipity: whatever script he may have prepared was obviously set aside in favor of improvisations that could maximize the potential (or minimize the danger) of using nonprofessional actors as well as verisimilar middle-class locations. Halfway through my role, almost a self-impersonation really, as a high-minded faculty member, I recalled to the filmmaker that I had a similar subject matter for my undergraduate directing exercise, in super-8mm.

The Big Flick premiere during Angliongto’s thesis defense, however, immediately made clear how much I was disadvantaged by my choice of medium: no way could my film camera “enter” a movie in the plot, given the usual technological limitations of our state-dependent university. In Big Flick the video camera fixes internal video material, played back on ordinary television monitors, in relation to the circumstances of the screening, thus complementing the cut-ins from live action to video-transferred footage. What this simply means is that the notion of filmmaking characters interacting with their own and others’ works is pulled off with sufficient credibility, with Angliongto’s offbeat sensibility rounding out the impression of reality at play. “Actually,” he said in an informal interview, “I targeted the UPCMC people – my own primary audience. In fact, I had to tone down a lot of the, uh, strangeness in relation to myself, because I didn’t want people to appreciate Big Flick in proportion to how well they knew me.”

Traces of the tension evident in production – drawing from personal reality to relate recognizable truths, employing familiar faces and places, and working under a thesis-film record of below Php 5,000 – can be seen in several spotty instances, especially in the post-production aspects of dubbing and sound mixing. In a larger sense, this also reflects a longtime UPCMC controversy between the extremes of skills training vs. those of ideological awareness. If anything, Big Flick weighs in heavily in favor of beyond-technical values – in this case, imspiration, sympathy, even the modesty of remaining withing the bound of the artist’s personal experience. Angliongto acknowledges Big Flick’s dismissal of Pinoy mass culture. Nevertheless he candidly dreams, along with most of his batchmates, of actively working within the local movie industry. Quoted verbatim: “If I had the resources at this point, I’ll revitalize Darna, but this time she’ll be fighting tikbalangs and aliens from outer space; she’ll be recruited by Marcos and her brother Tengteng would die. Why stick to goody-goody heroes? She’ll be a die-hard Marcos loyalist, charging into Cory’s inauguration and helping coup plotters. But she’ll be anti-American: I won’t compromise on that, that will be her redeeming value. I’ll be also cooking up a new origin for her, something more relevant than swallowing a stone.…”

[First published June 27, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Directed and written by Raymond Red

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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