Category Archives: Book

Book Texts – Non-Film Reviews

DISORDER & CONSTANT SORROW

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

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

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

The Quimpos achieved fame (or notoriety, depending on one’s perspective) for having had several of them participate in the anti-dictatorship movement during the martial-law regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Since the only genuine opposition during most of this period was provided by the outlawed Communist underground, the Quimpo family, by its association, underwent dramatic upheavals, acute heartbreak, and occasional but still-too-rare moments of grace that would appear almost fantastic had the book been announced as a fiction. The fact that these events actually happened, related by the individuals who directly experienced them, provides the reader with a sense of how irreparably damaging authoritarianism has always been for our particular national experience. I remember how, as a student at the state university, I could always rely on the fact that my smartest classmates would be sympathetic, if not involved outright, with student-activist causes – in sharp contrast with the situation I later observed as a teacher. Subversive Lives provides a panoramic chronicle of how the militarized dictatorship, profitable only to foreign and mercenary local business and religious interests, upheld the worst legacies of colonial education and magic-patriarchal morality: backward thugs armed, fed, and protected by the machinery of an irredeemably corrupted state were allowed to wield life-or-death mastery over the very people in whom, by virtue of their capacity to exercise discernment, creativity, and determination, the future of the nation would have resided.

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

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

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

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

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

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THE NOVEL PINOY NOVEL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[First published November 8, 2012, as “High Drama and Low Humor in Ricky Lee’s New Fiction about a Cross-Dressing Manananggal” in The FilAm]

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HIGH FIVE

Gang of 5: Tales, Cuentos, Sanaysay
Ninotchka Rosca
New York: Mariposa Center for Change, 2013

While awaiting the international availability of Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite, I placed some orders for a number of dead-tree editions – which also ran into unexpected delays. Meanwhile a packet arrived in the mail, containing a slim volume titled Gang of 5: Tales, Cuentos, Sanaysay. The author, Ninotchka Rosca, was someone I’d never met in person, although anyone with even a remote association with progressive literary circles in the Philippines would have heard her name sooner or later.

My personal regret is my failure in going beyond the opening pages of her first novel, State of War – I was then preparing for overseas graduate studies and ran out of time to read all the then more recent Filipiniana titles (mostly eventually damaged by the elements) in my collection. After having made the author’s acquaintance on a social network, I recognized certain qualities I’d grown familiar with from an earlier generation of activist authors, with whom I once hung out as a way of furthering my unsentimental education. Assertive, impatient with detractors, firm in her convictions, unsparingly self-critical, she would nevertheless surprise everyone with a graciousness that could only have come from a first-hand familiarity with people-oriented service – from gestures as casual as sharing pictures (of her home, or her past) that made her happy, to helping an infirm neighbor abandoned by everyone else, to offering assistance to anyone devastated by natural calamity.

My Gang of 5 copy will never leave my personal book shelf, mainly because of the author’s signature succeeding a handwritten quotation from Conrad Aiken – and also because of the text, “Limited Edition,” affixed above the title. In an exchange, Rosca said that the book will be available to a general readership by mid-year, and however one cuts the argument, it would be a major loss for readers of Philippine literature if it weren’t. For this, out of all the several anthologies of Pinoy English-language short fiction ever put out, will satisfactorily serve as the all-purpose single-volume introduction to local writing that anyone will ever need. None of the five pieces is less than inspired, each one represents a writing challenge distinct from the rest, and everything builds up to the larger anticipation of greater pleasures awaiting in the output of other Filipino authors – final proof of Rosca’s generosity of spirit in honoring her colleagues by providing evidence of how equal they are, as she is, to the challenge of literary excellence.

The book, as far as I can surmise from her social-network postings, was another of her selfless exercises in pursuit of a worthy crusade: it was intended as a giveaway for donors to the Mariposa Center for Change’s Stand with Grace Campaign, a so-far successful effort to prevent a corrupt and abusive Congressman from forcing his mistress, who had sought asylum in the US, to return to his overeager clutches. Such a cause-oriented origin should not mislead the reader into expecting a series of feminist philippics; rather, the pieces are feminist in the best updated sense, some of them even abandoning the literal prescription of center-positioning a lead female character, and in one case even revealing an otherwise strong and politicized woman as a villain – a lesson well-learned from the never-ending “positive images” debates of whether Others should always be depicted as virtuous, unblemished, normative, wholesome, victims-but-never-victimizers, etc.

In fact one can just as well imagine a scenario where an enterprising publisher announces an extensive search for women’s writing in diverse genres, selecting the best entries submitted, and discovering too late that they had all been written by the same author. The collection opens with an account of the musings of a murderously inclined male sociopath, an achievement noteworthy if only for its success in comprehending the morbid mind, without recourse to the generic solutions of depicting the character as evil or abnormal; the story’s ultimate source of terror lies in how such a person emerges as normal, even respected, in the Third-World milieu where he operates. The collection then shifts gears – another country, another gender – and provides a feel-good (in the well-earned sense, for which my word will have to suffice for now) tale of what it means to be a Filipina within an imagined community, even among people who have precisely nothing else but their imagination to follow-through this exquisitely complex construct.

Rosca maintains the central story, “The Neighborhood,” as a link to her past and future as story-teller. It comes from her earlier highly acclaimed anthology The Monsoon Collection (which I also have not read, to my continuing chagrin). Here she orchestrates the interactions of one of the metropolis’s several slum neighborhoods, a colony within a colony; a possibly magic-realist event closes what is necessarily an open-ended account, so it makes perfect sense that the central character’s narrative will be continued, per Rosca’s declaration, in her forthcoming novel, The Synchrony Tree (whose excerpts she has posted on her blog Lily Pad, a pun on the Filipino expression “about to fly, or take off”). The last two pieces focus on women’s heartbreak, one a semi-nouvelle à clef seemingly based on a famous Philippine multimedia pop star’s self-exile in the US, the other an autobiographical-sounding account of a mother’s abandonment of her helpless, oppressed daughter. Rosca refuses the facile options of resorting to victimological formulations of these characters’ respective plights; the reader is assured of her sympathy precisely because of her willingness to cast a cool, almost clinical eye on the inner conflicts of these personae, familiar from the stock repertory of soap fictions yet unnervingly represented with flesh-and-blood tangibility in these texts.

Rosca recalled how Julie de Lima, wife of the founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines, once remarked that “Only Ninotchka can render Joma [Sison] speechless.” The occasion was a public exchange on the use of English as a medium for expressing the ideas and sentiments of Filipinos, with Sison asserting the standard nationalist line that only a native language will fulfill the challenge of depicting, say, a slum child’s innermost concerns. Rosca, by her own account, maintained that “language – any language – [is] a malleable tool, per the writer’s skill. I then asked him whether reading Mao Zedong, [who came from] a Chinese peasant family, in English translation implied a loss in the thoughts of the revolutionary leader…. The question is why we accept reading scientific, philosophical, or political tracts in a foreign language [yet] demand that literature restrict itself to a first-level reality.” The incident reveals the little-known willingness of Sison in welcoming adversarial discussions, but it also cost Rosca the respect of some of his more fanatical followers.

Gang of 5 is, among many other things, elegant proof of her defiant stance regarding the utility of the language she happened to have at her command. Its achievements would have needed no further justification beyond the serendipity of reaching an extensive readership, but Rosca typically allowed it to shoulder a wide range of objectives – from assisting a battered woman, to embodying her convictions on language, even serving as a conduit in her once-and-future fiction projects – and like all major works of literature (even the shortest ones), the collection itself abides. Somewhere there’s a lesson for the country’s political and economic leaders, if they could find enough time and humility to draw inspiration from a few dozen pages of wondrously well-wrought prose.

[First published February 21, 2013, as “High Five for Ninotchka Rosca’s Sanaysay Anthology” in The FilAm]

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Book Texts – Foreign Film Reviews II

WET NOODLES

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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TWO GUYS, WHILE WATCHING AVATAR

Avatar
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?”

“Okay.”

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

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HIT IN THE (MULTI)PLEXUS

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 ABS-CBSNews.com]

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Book Texts – New-Millennium Pinoy Film Reviews

My millennial reviewing activity was necessarily intermittent, owing to the lack of a regular outlet (shout-out here to the historic National Midweek), the difficulty of accessing niche-market digital products, my foreign-country semestral responsibilities, and the need to attend to “higher” scholarly pursuits. My old-school orientation is also part of the baggage, since I once tried relying on a screener submission and found the viewing experience inauthentic, to put it kindly; I also took note of blog-originated material for regular media outlets to pick up (or, more accurately, was alerted to it by concerned filmmakers) and realized immediately that I could engage in this kind of writing for most types of editors and imagined readerships except myself. Where this set of goals and obstacles will lead me to is the still-to-be-resolved question.

HEAVEN IN MIND

Sabel
Directed by Joel C. Lamangan
Written by Ricardo Lee

Sabel is the type of film, now rarely produced, that ought to serve as reminder to local commentators that film criticism is more than just a matter of collecting their share of booty from annual awards-night telecasts. The movie presents difficult analytical and ethical challenges in a deceptively lyrical, bittersweet, and compassionate manner, a throwback to the original ideals of the French New Wave and its immediate aftermath in Prague Spring cinema.

What enables the film to withstand critical scrutiny is its daring plunge through the thickets of radical gender politics. Where it winds up is as far from a politically correct normative position as it’s been possible to depict onscreen in local cinema. (Warning to those who prefer their film surprises unspoiled: a few revelations are coming up.) The eponymous central character undergoes an odyssey that takes her in directions even she could not anticipate. Such unpredictability, coupled with the filmmakers’ refusal to pass judgment on her decisions, may be the key to the largely belligerent responses of film reactors so far.

How far does Sabel (the movie’s lead character) wind up from the norm? To modify the response of a character made famous by the late Marlon Brando, how many norms have you got? I managed to count class, gender, sexuality, legal status, social respectability, ethnic affiliation, even nomenclature, as the character we first encounter as Sabel insists in the end on being called by some other name. Her extreme self-transformations of identity mark her journey as more than queer, a concept that originally drew from feminist and gay ideals but now stands independent of and occasionally opposed to them. So more-than-queer, in fact, that she embodies the most radical position possible in the identity-political game, that of lesbian theory and practice.

At some point in the past I attempted to articulate how, in refusing the reacceptance of norms (also known as mainstreaming) undertaken by the feminist, gay, and now even queer movements, lesbian activism has proved to be the most resistant to civil-rights containment – i.e., the willingness of liberal authorities to provide a place at the table, so to speak, in exchange for good behavior. Although the film-text I was then reading, Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night (1980), literalized its queerness by fragmenting its narrative structure, Sabel performs an even queerer reversal by intertwining two strands that I did not imagine could be integrated in the same young-Pinay body: the sexual and the political.

In short, where I had simply observed that the political lesbian, by embracing her historical “lack” and exploiting what has been regarded as her weakness by precisely insisting on her right to constant mutation, can be equated with a similar long-running revolutionary, the Third-World guerrilla, the film Sabel presents both options within the same person. And although the twists and turns in the main character’s story could amaze – or dismay – those seeking full understanding from the get-go, the signposts are all in place, ready to be acknowledged if one grants the movie a second screening: the character’s volubility, her bouts of inarticulate rage, her insistence on solitude, her reliance on the support of “sinful” men, her capacity for strategizing, and her recognition of the variable uses for one’s body, starting with her decision, early enough in the narrative, to undress in order to calm down a hysterical male prisoner.

In fact, the potentially explosive feminist issue of rape is what provides the film with its most carefully calibrated distinction: although as a nun, Sabel allows her own rape to take place (which, by most legal definitions, decriminalizes the act), she refuses to forgive the land-grabbing lawyer who ravages her lesbian lover. Rape, in this sense, is separated from rough sex by the fine line of personal consent, in much the same way that Freud described the inevitable interrelatedness of pleasure and pain. In this way the movie takes a position regarding the standard American feminist debate on pornography, wherein the right-wing pro-Moral Majority camp insisted on its synonymity with rape and the queer wing took the broader view of considering women’s sexuality a potentially enabling and liberating force.

So what have we got so far from the film? A clutch of ironies, actually: a teen slut who falls deeply, near-suicidally, for one of her casual pick-ups; a rebellious daughter who protects her neurotic mom from an abusive husband by setting up his downfall; a nun who turns out to be complicit in her own sexual violation; an absentee wife who admits genuine love for the father of her child; a life-long urbanite who finds solidarity with oppressed tribespeople; an exonerated prisoner who had actually committed the crime she was imprisoned for; a sexual sophisticate who rejects the fashionable trend of lesbian chic in favor of a butch-femme arrangement. Such a head-spinning combination of contradictions makes sense only if we accept that a character could be radical on her own terms, and Sabel’s Sabel proffers terms that are as unorthodox as they come.

In comparison with other feminist Filipino films, notably the same scriptwriter Ricardo Lee’s early ’80s output for Marilou Diaz-Abaya plus her more controversial though still indispensable later output (especially Sensual [1986] and Milagros [1997]), Sabel unequivocally demands to be taken as an integral part of the canon. It improves on Brutal (1980) by first seemingly reversing the gender of its investigator, from female to male, then ensuring that this person is sufficiently de-masculinized – as an ex-prisoner castigated by his fiancée’s mother and rendered reverential (feminist, in a sense) by the sacrifice of the nun he thought he had raped and by the love of an ambitious and capable woman – prior to allowing us to share his gaze. More important, it corrects the only sour note in the otherwise pitch-perfect Moral (1982) – the depiction of a minor character, one strong woman, among other strong women, whose only “fault” was that she happened to love other women.

Per the Internet Movie Database, this is the director’s and writer’s eighth collaboration. Most of the Joel C. Lamangan films I have seen evinced an admirable willingness to tackle ambitious themes with the heavy-handedness of a self-consciously classically oriented artist. Sabel is that wondrous creature, a work that pulls in issues from all over the map with the skill of an accomplished raconteur, one unafraid to deploy standard-issue devices (jump cuts and quick dissolves, flashback indicators, dramatic echo effects, etc.) for the sake of easing the narrative along. When the genuinely subversive resolution becomes apparent – the conciliation between the less-patriarchalized straight man and his former lover turned lesbian avenger, one accused of murder and the other getting away with it – it registers first as a warm, feel-good moment, sustained by the closure of the other characters’ stories, before the shocking implications take over.

Past Lamangan films, whatever their limits, could not be faulted for his direction of actors, but in Sabel he elicits career peaks from all the major performers. Wendell Ramos appears to have correctly judged how to attack his role by utilizing a childish affect during his emotional highlights, instead of the now-hackneyed (and predictable) sensitive-male approach, while Sunshine Dizon demonstrates authority as a medical professional and confidence as a soft-spoken butch lesbian. Most impressively, Rio Locsin turns in a radiant, witty, and mercurial performance as Sabel’s mother, all raw-edged neurotic tenderness that threatens to exterminate anyone unfortunate enough to share screen space with her: when she turns on the charm for her daughter and prospective son-in-law, then turns on him to express her unmitigated disapproval, one can completely understand how he can be spellbound enough to smile through her insults and later consult with her on how to find her missing daughter.

How does the lead actress fare in relation to such expert deliveries? It would be nearly impossible to find reference points for evaluation, given the singularity of the character in local cinema. One could attempt a commutational exercise by imagining how, say, the young Nora Aunor could have further enriched the role by lending it the discursive wealth of her persona or how the young Rio Locsin could have added a crucial measure of sensuality, but this also indicates how Judy Ann Santos’s achievement as Sabel is worthy of comparison with our very best talent. I was first appreciative of how unconcerned she was about her looks, considering how far from conventionally beautiful her features are. As she continued to immerse in the difficult metamorphoses of her character, I realized how hard-working this young talent was, and how much justifiable pride she manifested in a job well done. And yes, she does manage to hold her own before the force of nature that is Rio Locsin. If ever, and if only, unapologetically transgressive women characters become a staple in local fiction, Santos’s performance will serve as yardstick not because she was first, but because she made it memorable.

One final female auteur has to be cited: she shares story credit for the film, and is its producer as well. Lily Yu Monteverde has never gotten her due as the most productive mogul in our country’s colorful film history, largely because she also has a contradictory reputation as a disruptive producer. But now that even the trashy products of Regal are developing cult reputations, people better start rethinking whether, like Sabel’s, “Mother” Lily’s success wasn’t well earned after all. I’d say, on the basis of previous prestige projects (Mike de Leon’s Sister Stella L. [1984], Lino Brocka’s Makiusap sa Diyos [1991]), the main character’s nunhood phase was her contribution. But the larger contribution was the production itself. When Sabel insists that everything is part of a larger design, one that she later admits she herself could not completely discern, which creator could the filmmakers be referring to?

[First published July 12, 2004, in Philippine Star]

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SURVIVOR’S GUILT

Boses
Directed by Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil
Written by Froi Medina and Rody Vera

Boses is not the first noteworthy film shut out of awards recognition in Cinemalaya – anyone ever heard of Arah Jell G. Badayos and Margaret G. Guzman’s 2006 Mudraks? It joins a long and still-lengthening list of works, local and foreign, film and non-film, overlooked upon initial release, whose reward(s) would arrive, sooner or later, in the form of belated acclaim, discursive attention, extended shelf-life, or, best of all, a mix of all three. What distinguishes Boses is that it also serves to indicate a peak in the Cinemalaya ideal: the hope that talent from the margins could eventually overrun the mainstream even while playing by the latter’s rules.

This may be the reason why the festival jurors may have felt alienated, embarrassed even, by Boses’s accomplishments. Boses takes a grim situation (child abuse), matches it with high-art therapy (classical music), and unfolds the narrative with a strong dose of pleasure, as startling in its effectiveness as it is unexpected, given the nature of its material. In this manner the film betokens not just some of the best moments of the local industry, but also that of Classical Hollywood – the dominant 20th-century film movement that the rest of world cinema attempted to topple, with the European New Wave finally managing the feat just a few decades ago.

But what became Boses’s liability also turned out to be the source of its instant turnaround: already the current Cinemalaya top-grosser, it appears capable of attaining blockbuster status, with repeat viewership boosted by word-of-mouth commendation, occasionally hysterical responses even in the staid venues (Cultural Center of the Philippines, University of the Philippines Film Institute) it has graced so far, and star-is-born adulation lavished on its gifted and charismatic child performer, Julian Duque.

The trouble with Boses’s context of emergence is that it requires critical observers to weigh the film’s merits vis-à-vis those of the other Cinemalaya entries, especially this year’s winners. One strategy would be to point out the weaknesses of the prize-winners, but this would imply that the goal of figuring out a single “best” film is correct and satisfactory, when all it is, in a situation overwhelmed by an excess of achievements, is individualist in the worst tradition of auteurism (the New Wave “theory” that posited that films can be evaluated according to singular creative contributions, rather than collective efforts). In pursuit of this exercise, a circle of fellow cineastes helped me figure out what ailed the major winners (and, possibly by extension, the current crop of indie practitioners): a valorization of technical supremacy and over-reliance on deconstructive methods by the best-film winner, an endorsement of bourgeois middle-brow ambitions by the best-direction winner, and an infantilizing of outsiders (literalized by depicting them as children, with characters from the nation’s capital providing conflicting versions of modernist enlightenment) by the special jury prize-winner.

Yet this type of winner-take-all exercise presents its own form of danger, in the sense that Boses, for all its counter-acclaim, also partakes of some of the winners’ weaknesses. In fact our position as responsible observers makes it necessary to point out that a more radical handling of its material would have us understand, to the point of empathy, the abuser’s dramatic condition, the abused child’s reason for willing to have remained a victim for so long, and the tensions in the social worker’s position of class privilege in relation to abuser and abused. And we still have to bring up its filmmaker’s admission that she had to significantly sanitize the situation, not to mention the language, familiar to real-life child-abuse perpetrators, victims, and therapists. Plus it appears to uncritically question the pro-choice option.

With all the ways it might have fallen short, why does Boses remain the favorite of many, me included, anyway? One clue lies in the movie’s first end credit: a dedication to Johven Velasco, a film artist, teacher, and scholar who languished in academe until his sudden and tragic demise about a year ago, unknown to the rest of the world except for a handful of students and friends who swear by his selfless dedication and willingness to share everything he had, even at the expense of his own welfare. The fact that Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil makes this connection between the lives of her characters and that of an actual acquaintance indicates that she recognizes and upholds the power of love, a value that, even more than film pleasure, tends to upset film experts, used as they are to the constant and facile ways it gets exploited in the medium.

Indeed the core relationship in Boses, between the young survivor of parental abuse and the violinist who awakens the former’s talent and in the process attains his own closure from a personal tragedy, is what provides, for want of a less corny metaphor, the film’s heartbeat. Not only does the interaction start cute and end passionately, complete with initial misunderstanding, close calls, near-breakdown, and bittersweet separation, it also occasions bravura performances by the actors involved – as thespians and as musicians. Even more surprising, though perfectly logical, was Ongkeko-Marfil’s onstage acknowledgment, during the film’s UPFI screening, that Coke Bolipata and Julian Duque are violin mentor and student respectively in real life.

Though Boses benefits immeasurably from the chemistry between the pair’s star turns, the high level of quality displayed by the rest of the film’s cast proves that Ongkeko-Marfil’s background in stage arts (specifically the Philippine Educational Theater Association, where she and Johven Velasco started out) has helped complement the impressive evolution of her cinematic skills. Her earlier films, Angels (2001) and Mga Pusang Gala (2005), already generated appreciative buzz among indie-film observers. With Boses, she hewed close to what Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal, misrecognized among indie filmmakers as foreign-festival and anti-mass audience innovators, struggled to achieve throughout their extensive careers: the unapologetic provision of spectatorial pleasure alongside their inevitably intelligent handling of material.

The mode that Ongkeko-Marfil chose constituted her gravest challenge to serious film evaluators: melodrama, a type of genre that belongs to the larger group of “body” films, so-called because of their ability to provoke corporeal, as opposed to cerebral, responses – i.e., tear-jerking in this instance, goose bump-raising in horror, sexual arousal in pornography, laughter incitement in comedy. Feminist critics, for the greater part of the last couple of decades, have been spearheading the campaign to recuperate these much-derided genres, but their uphill movement shows no signs of reaching level ground in high-art (and therefore essentially conservative) culture, the indie-film scene included.

Boses evinces a systematic working-through of the elements peculiar to the local practice of melodrama, but the mechanisms, subtle as they are, become evident only upon further viewing. I even managed to jot down, in the dark of the screening venue, the Pinoy terms used by native practitioners: kilig, tampuhan, tawanan, kantahan (with violins instead of voices), habulan, and pagwawala,[1] in chronological order as well as according to increasing level of involvement. The penultimate sequence – spoiler alert! – between the teacher and student protagonists encapsulates the film’s earlier depiction of the shifts in their relationship: from farewell bonding, to panic, to relief, to hysteria, to music-making, to a brief comic exchange, to a final display of open-air (and -water) exuberance. One might wish that the performers had been seasoned enough to allow Ongkeko-Marfil to use a single take (a much-abused property of digital technology), but my first impression was that the scene had unfolded in one continuous action covered by multiple cameras (another advantage of the new technology) – such was the brilliance of the said sequence’s nearly wordless conception, grand in its romantic dimension yet sad in its recognition that the just-bonded individuals will never be this close again.

In fact the musical number that ends the narrative succeeds precisely because it refuses to provide definitive closure for any of the characters: the teacher will have to contend with his newfound dependence on the validation provided by his prodigy, the child will have to work out his loyalties toward his two needy father figures, the biological father will have to face the reality of his son challenging his vulnerable manhood, the social worker will have to start worrying whether her decision to reconcile the family would work out for the kid, the young girlfriend will have to find a way to attain sexual normality … just as people who have experienced these lives will have to return to places they call home and rethink the relationships they might have taken for granted up to this point.

A few films (even Filipino ones) may have incited revolutionary change, but the inward turn that Boses inspires, at a time when many of us have learned to muddle through with severely lowered expectations, ought to be fulfillment enough for the talents behind it. Most local digital practitioners will continue to aspire to attain festival honors in foreign lands, but this is the first movie made by a colleague of theirs that, more than anything else, truly belongs nowhere else but home.

Note

[1] The Filipino terms may be translated, in order of enumeration, as follows: titillation, sulkiness, laughter, musicality, pursuit, and rampaging fury.

[First published October 16, 2009, as “Boses Is for the World” in Philippine Daily Inquirer]

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SIGHS AND WHISPERS

Biyaheng Lupa
Directed and written by Armando Lao

The much-ballyhooed emergence of digital film production in the Philippines has brought with it several paradoxes. On the one hand, while it has enabled critics to celebrate the revival of local cinema, the fact remains that genuine industrial-scale production has remained moribund, save for the occasional ultra-commercial event movie that would always, and continues to, embarrass the said critics (on which more later). On the other hand, largely because of the still-evolving shape of the dynamics of production and exhibition, more and more individuals are able to come up with their own releases, here and now, without having to go through the old eye-of-the-needle difficulties posed by then-prevalent but too-expensive celluloid production. Yet, also a consequence of such a sanguinary situation, too few of these would-be innovators see no problem in going over the heads of the local audience, as evidenced in nearly everyone’s eagerness to attain personal artistic validation by opting to make a mark in high-brow, preferably foreign venues.

These are problems whose solutions demand immediate attention, if only those in a position to attend to these issues could themselves take a step beyond self-aggrandizement. But one further paradox must be pointed out first, since it may be the most relevant in terms of Biyaheng Lupa. This proceeds from the preceding one, wherein digital production has provided an ever-growing number of prospective filmmakers with directorial breaks – so consistently, in fact, that eventually there might no longer be such a creature as a frustrated filmmaking aspirant. As in writing, where the fairly easy access to a typewriter (now a computer) nullifies any would-be author’s material excuses, so does digital film technology provide any auteur hopeful with a dwindling number of reasons to hesitate in taking her or his first directorial step.

Yet the now-unlamented tyranny of monolithic celluloid-dependent production was in fact capable of instilling in some of the best filmmaking candidates certain qualities that today’s film institutions, eager as most of them are to prove the worthiness of their respective trainees, wind up only paying lip service to: a solid grounding in the humanities, a thorough grasp of classical traditions, a philosophical engagement with issues both current and past, an enduring respect for the exigencies of financial risk-taking, and a willingness to engage the mass audience by entertaining and challenging them in turn, or simultaneously whenever possible. For this reason most old-school filmmakers, like today’s young Turks, could come up with creditable first projects … yet the old-timers could also sustain life-long careers by virtue of their intense personal commitment to complete artistic preparation, prolonged by the years, sometimes decades, of awaiting their respective breaks, whereas most of the names populating contemporary Filipino filmographies will be known mainly for the films they first came up with, and will be overstaying their welcome sooner or later.

It therefore also makes sense to maintain that the best local debut film, Ishmael Bernal’s Pagdating sa Dulo (1971), had not been surpassed for the past three decades, even in the face of the wild proliferation of first-timers since the turn of the millennium. Pagdating signaled the emergence of a talent distinguished by precociousness, reflexive criticality, intensive interest in social issues, and empathy for Otherness, with comic distance from profound institutional tragedies providing the equivalent of icing on the cake. And it also makes just as much sense to aver that Biyaheng Lupa shares all of Pagdating’s merits and then some, considering the fact that its director-writer, Armando Lao, has had close to a full career in scriptwriting – over a quarter-century, in fact – and had even then already embarked on an unrelated career or two elsewhere beforehand, much like many of the celluloid-era filmmakers once did.

A final similarity shared by both debut films resulted in an outcome that should not have happened then, and that has even less justification for occurring today: both display a sense of innovation so thoroughgoing yet so nonchalant that film evaluators have wound up taking the films’ presence, then as now, for granted. It would be newsworthy in itself if any influential institution were to recognize Biyaheng Lupa as the best Pinoy film debut of our time, just as Pagdating sa Dulo held that distinction for decades once people woke up to the fact. What will prove the current weakness of, say, the local critics’ group’s dynamics would be the inadequacy of its current screening methods – a reliance on individual video screeners, mainly, rather than the theatrical exhibitions that once guaranteed that complex film texts would have the potential to maximize their impact by approximating actual viewing experiences.

Like no one else except Bernal, Lao has infused his very first outing with a recognizable and fully developed aesthetic philosophy. Those who had been able to follow his scriptwriting career will be able to trace where he had been headed, and how he had managed an extensive self-revaluation and, at the same time, a welcome return to his roots. One could form one’s anticipation based on, say, the earthy handling of William Pascual’s Takaw Tukso (1986), the time-based experimentation of Chito Roño’s Itanong Mo sa Buwan (1988), the tragicomic national allegories of Jeffrey Jeturian’s Pila-Balde (1999), and the reflexivity of Jeturian’s Tuhog (2001), but Biyaheng Lupa would still prove more surprising than what any of these major works could presuppose.

Per the filmmaker’s own account, Biyaheng Lupa departs from Lao’s utilization of real-time presentations, notably in his collaborations with Jeturian and Brillante Mendoza. Lao’s real-time narrative strategy was itself a coping mechanism, after the commercial failure of his epic-scale project with Jeturian, titled Minsan Pa (which, like Biyaheng Lupa and Jeturian’s Kubrador [2006], was produced by MLR Films, whose executive producer, Joji Alonso, may yet bid to be the Jesse Ejercito of Pinoy digital productions). Lao has described Biyaheng Lupa as reliant on poetic time, where cosmic principles impinge on the unfolding of the narrative, as opposed to the duration-dependent real time and his earlier deployment of character-based dramatic time. Originally intended as a dramatic-time type of narrative focused on one of the present film’s main characters, the project hibernated, so to speak, as Lao went through his real-time storytelling phase, and re-emerged in the poetically inflected mode it has assumed at last.

Lao and his collaborators had endured varying measures of acclaim and grief – sometimes within the same project, as was the case with Mendoza’s 2008 Cannes entry Serbis. Curiously, Biyaheng Lupa both embodies this materialist orientation and transcends it at the same time, via its initial fragmentation of a close-quartered social unit, the passengers of a southbound bus, and the subsequent revelation of the artist’s motive: an amazing reconstitution of this same unit within the terms of the characters’ inner lives and often in spite of their individual selves, to such a degree that when one of them remarks, “My life is not alone,” it serves as a confirmation of what everyone had refused to accept until the fateful end.

Biyaheng Lupa sets out its contract with its viewers by asking them to accept its sole artificial element, the premise that people think in terms of words alone, rather than in terms of images or, more likely, in audiovisual stretches. Once we accept this, the film takes us on the journey of several characters – sixteen, if we were to go by the list of major performers, or seventeen if we include the anonymous, unseen ultimate determinant, the bus driver … who may or may not be standing in for the author, but the film’s ontological complications do not end here. At some point during the trip, the conductor operates the ubiquitous video player, and the Biyaheng Lupa producer’s earlier film, the aforementioned Minsan Pa, unfolds. Here the filmmaker may be acknowledging the reduction of finances (from celluloid epic to single-set digital) alongside the increase in scale (from hero-centered love triangle to multi-character dramatic discourse), even as the screen-within-the-screen characters, as stars playing “real” people, interpellate the bus passengers – who in turn “respond” by discussing the presentation, but whose comments reach neither the film being shown nor one another, but the film audience.

These polysemic valences come to a head with another video screening, this one more overtly interactive: a sing-along to Louie Ocampo’s pop ballad “Kahit Isang Saglit” [Just One Moment], where the passengers, without their knowing it, literally think of exactly the same thing, thus unconsciously-yet-deliberately forming an extemporaneous community of their own. The measure of Lao’s skill as documentarian is in how he demonstrates this occurrence without the usual humanist throwbacks to shared ideals or unified aspirations. In fact, the characters fall into singing along just as easily as they plot, bicker, judge, reminisce, fantasize, and regret, with one of them even developing at one point a funny-scary paranoid delusion that erupts in a knife-wielding outburst that just as quickly fizzles into abject surrender. One might remark here that, given the radical paring-down of scale and resources, Biyaheng Lupa attempts the same successful delineation of a recognizable Filipino social milieu that Bernal’s Manila by Night (1980) had done, but with more characters, and in reverse: where Bernal started with relative unity and stability and built up toward a monumental breakdown, Lao begins with the more recognizable self-absorbed individuals typical of a harried neoliberal Third-World existence, drifting in and out of their inner lives as they contend with the company of one another.

Yet even as they insist on the primacy of their lives prior to and possibly after taking the present trip, a question of haunting arises. The audience is never provided any assurance that the memories conjured up by any of the characters are real (one of them in fact worries that her illegitimate pregnancy will result in the delivery of a monstrous squid-baby, just like her neighbor did before her), which is why when the film follows some of them after they leave the bus, their situations acquire an uncanny quality that never became an issue when they were still taking the trip. On the other hand, most of them are so caught up in their other lives that the proximity of the other passengers results in intrusions that they dismiss, reject, misrecognize (especially in erotic terms), or at best tolerate; in short, while for us the characters’ pre-trip lives might just as well be fantastic, for the characters the other passengers might as well be specters that could dissolve once this transition in their lives has passed.

Such insights on transience, destiny, and the abiding power of memory are brought to bear in the film’s bravura climax, simple in conception, casual in execution, yet grand in the best possible way, heralded by a mystifyingly long take of the bus crossing a bridge then pausing in the middle. Without giving away (too much of) this vital closure, I ought nevertheless to remark that we witness a series of rapturous textual ruptures and arrive at one of the most incredible final shots in cinema – and yes, I do include global samples in this declaration: a close-up of the last passenger, her face crowded by translations of the monologues of everyone else around her, building up to her final utterance, devastatingly simple, amusing yet heartbreaking, drawn from a fiction whose reality effect surpasses whatever documentations have been made of life in our wondrous, terrible, much-abused yet constantly hopeful existence.

[First published May 2, 2009, in Philippine Star]

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ON THE EDGE

On the Job
Directed by Erik Matti
Written by Michiko Yamamoto and Erik Matti

On the Job (hereafter OTJ) commemorates at least one milestone in the still-evolving narrative of Philippine independent cinema: it is the first digital-era action film to attain the genre’s elusive combination of critical acclaim and box-office profitability, reminiscent of the local industry’s social-realist achievements during the martial law period (roughly the ’70s to the mid-’80s). From my sadly delimited perspective, the project seems to have benefited from a serendipitous confluence of its creative forces, director Erik Matti and co-writer Michiko Yamamoto, each attaining a peak in relatively short careers already marked by several high points.

One measure of the movie’s impact lies in how it has been able to elicit commentary even from Pinoy reviewers who tend to focus on so-called mainstream releases. This is the key to OTJ’s significance as the latest in a still-rare series of independently produced films that fulfill the dream of a community of practitioners who seek to overrun the studio-dominated mode of production and exhibition. Unlike Aureus Solito’s Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (2005), the first digital indie success that turned out to be the exception that proved the rule, all the rest were generically recognizable exercises, notably a pair of comedies (Marlon Rivera’s Ang Babae sa Septic Tank and Jade Castro’s Zombadings 1: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington [both 2011]) and a melodrama (Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil’s Boses [2008]). OTJ claims pride of place in being directed at the patronage-shy male audience while accommodating whatever combination of viewers (female, youth, intelligentsia) still manages to sustain theatrical screenings.

In fact the few negative responses to the film dwell on aspects that the movie had no choice but to observe in order to succeed as a genre sample. One might feel that the fact that a woman co-scripted the material might have been nothing more than a stroke of luck for the project, but that would belie the evidence that Michiko Yamamoto was also responsible for the aforementioned Maximo Oliveros and Zombadings, as well as Maryo J. de los Reyes’s Magnifico (2003): if one were to imagine the men her fictions focused on, they would proceed chronologically from son to gay son to grown-up sexually conflicted teen, so there would be no reason to expect that she would be unable to deal (entertainingly) with mature conventional men.

What makes OTJ a qualitative leveling up, to use contemporary youth lingo, is not so much its close inspections of father-son relationships (also characteristic of the previous Yamamoto-scripted titles) as the proliferation of dramatis personae representing various social strata and performing diverse conflicting functions. The challenge of rendering these potentially schematic types as recognizable denizens of the urban jungles of Metro Manila was up to the director to realize, and Erik Matti proves himself equal to the task by relying (as Ishmael Bernal before him had been wont to do) on the tension that results from fusing a complex, raging narrative voice with a patient and keenly observed documentarian style, his on-the-prowl camera constantly encircling his major characters the same way that new media (in the form of CCTVs and satellites and camera phones, e.g.) ensure that our private moments might be shared by a voracious viewing public.

The icing on the cake is what probably proved irresistible to mass viewers, who are known to re-watch films that treat them to unexpected doses of pleasure: in OTJ’s case, this would comprise the nearly uniform sterling performances by an ensemble of actors who seemed to have been hungry for the opportunity to shine in sharply drawn characterizations, and proceeded to deliver quicksilver line readings, physically exhaustive maneuvers, and emotionally draining demonstrations. Actually it was only during a second viewing where I figured out that it was mainly the performances that accounted for an impression that the movie had set out to tackle Oedipal conflicts in a failed state, despite the fact that of the three sets of fathers in the film, the least visible son was the only one biologically related to his dad, an upstanding (and therefore professionally unsuccessful) police officer. The pair of prisoners who get spirited out by their militarily appointed handlers observe a mentor-student relationship (that occasionally has the potential to virtually replace the student’s own parents, as most teachers can attest), while the police detective that the Senate-aspiring general’s campaign manager assigns to attend to a series of messy clean-up operations is actually an orphan “adopted” by his father-in-law, the campaign manager.

If the set-up as presented sounds a mite too complex for a standard-issue actioner, that precisely is the contract the film proffers its media-savvy and issue-starved Pinoy audience, in exchange for headline-worthy acts of violence tempered with unexpected moments of gracious humor. That in itself would be sufficient payoff, but OTJ more daringly builds up its case against the state, where the lowliest character hints at the highest office in the land as implicated in unwholesome underworld skulduggery. The manner in which the father-son tensions are resolved is breathtaking in its cold-bloodedness, yet in both mass-audience and student venues that I attended, the viewers cheered at the end (as foreign-festival attendees reportedly also did).

A less forgiving observer might complain that the movie performs as entertainment machine too successfully, trading on its impressive skills display – and while I imagine that for some viewers that would be reason enough to be grateful, I’d hesitate to judge that desire as wrong per se. But I also think that the exchange between OTJ and its audience goes a bit deeper than that: by regarding the viewer as capable of following story threads as endless and labyrinthine as the alleyways and culs-de-sac that the characters keep navigating, hopeful for whatever reward they believe awaits them at the end, OTJ enables its primary audience to realize how Philippine society and its people are imprisoned in an insurmountable system of exploitation. Thwarted by electoral exercises, appalled by high-level corruption, distressed by the prospect of having to follow other people’s commands just to be able to survive – we are what we witness in this sordid, bloody, soul-crushing, painfully funny portrait of the national condition.

[First published September 12, 2013, in The FilAm]

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A DESIRE NAMED OSCAR

Ilo Ilo
Directed and written by Anthony Chen

Metro Manila
Directed by Sean Ellis
Written by Frank E. Flowers and Sean Ellis

Transit
Directed by Hannah Espia
Written by Giancarlo Abrahan and Hannah Espia

The present year (2013) will be memorable for Pinoys mainly for the succession of national traumas it proffered, from the usual showbiz decouplings and sex scandals to pork-barrel exposés, militia violence, and record-breaking natural disasters. On the other hand, those who wish to remember whatever positive developments occurred will have enough to account for beyond the first Miss World (and Miss Supernational) beauty queens and the nth boxing triumph of Manny Pacquiao. In fact the equivalent past year, for those old enough to remember, would be 1984, when the country was in the throes of dismantling a discredited (US-sponsored) dictatorship, yet graced with what may have been the most productive Golden Age year for Philippine cinema. As if to compensate for the greater concentration of troubles that befell the republic this year, 2013 supplied not just more wonderful films than usual, but also more festivals to showcase several of these achievements.

The rest of the world’s film community must have been taking notes, since the Philippines not only claimed to offer “more fun” in its official tourist announcement, but also actually positioned its citizens in virtually all the inhabited areas of the globe. About one in ten Filipinos, or close to ten million in total, constitutes the official count; no other national economy depends as much on overseas income, even if three other countries (China, India, and Mexico) have, in absolute terms, more overseas citizens and consequently larger remittances. In this respect, the overseas Filipino worker or OFW possesses a status crucial to the survival of her home country, not to mention her usually numerous dependents back home. This fact ties in with several other problems whose solutions lie beyond our reach for now: elected officials, for example, will always be confident about plundering the national treasury since the people in charge of the economy will no longer be able to hold off their money-making activities, the way they did during the Marcos era; if the OFWs withheld their remittances, the pork-barrelists may be frustrated – but only after the OFWs’ families had gone without for too long.

Unlike Western and several newly prosperous Asian countries, therefore, the Philippine global presence is far less privileged, manifested by workers in some of the least-preferred stations in their destination countries, rather than by tourists and scholars or professionals on exchange programs. The fascination among foreign cultures with the Pinoys in their midst derives from a recognition tinged with embarrassment and guilt: in an earlier, less-developed period, they could have been us. Hence a lot of conflicted responses to the OFW presence can be explained in terms of how badly the foreign employers wish to deny this reality about themselves, or how sorry they feel for the people who might have been their equal, had history taken other turns (the global response to the victims of supertyphoon Yolanda/Haiyan can also be framed in this way).

Meanwhile, part of the pro-filmic renown that 2013 will be marking was the announcement that three official submissions to the Best Foreign Film category of the Academy Awards happen to deal with Filipino workers. The Filipino and Singaporean entries, Transit and Ilo Ilo respectively, are overtly about OFWs (with another country, Israel, as the setting for Transit), while the UK’s submission, Metro Manila, is about a Pinoy worker’s odyssey in his native land. Transit was the first to be screened locally, during the annual Cinemalaya Film Festival; Metro Manila was screened not long after, while Ilo Ilo will be in Metro Manila theaters by the time this article gets published. It is in reverse order of their Philippine release schedules that I will be discussing each one.

Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo brings with it a number of well-deserved distinctions, including a trophy from Cannes as well as Taiwan’s Golden Horse prize as the best Chinese-language movie of the year. It’s better than what one could hope for, and strengthens the perception of how Singaporeans are attempting to bridge the connections between their people and ours after the several difficulties the Philippines has had with the Singaporean government, from Lee Kuan Yew’s disparaging remarks about OFWs to the Flor Contemplacion tragedy. The earlier OFW-themed Singaporean film, Kelvin Tong’s 2005 horror entry The Maid, was similarly well-intentioned but too derivative and necessarily dualistic in its configuration of the “good” victimized OFW and evil-abusive Singaporean employers.

Since Ilo Ilo proceeds from a recollection of its filmmaker’s formative period with his Pinay nanny, it manages to depict a system where harshness and even outright cruelty can be understood even by the purported victim, with the IMF/WB-induced Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s as the invisible monster that inevitably takes over the country, driving its citizens to increasing levels of panic and frustration. Chen maintains a humane grounding for the family at the center of his narrative, with the usually demonized character, the mother, revealed as the force that keeps the family, materially speaking, together, her jealousy at the developing closeness between her son and his nanny kept in check by her realization that the problems she has to solve are larger than all of them put together, since it will mean their survival as citizens. To its credit, Ilo Ilo is able to advance these potentially melodramatic developments in a subdued, humor-leavened manner, the heartbreak of the family (and their country) falling apart and losing the first “other” friend their son has ever had all kept in check and staying with the viewer long after the screening experience has ended. If you happen to be in the vicinity where the film’s being screened, don’t wonder that people are not buzzing excitedly about it, since it’s not that kind of film; just rest assured that it will provide good old-fashioned substantive entertainment, and head to the nearest venue without delay.

Sean Ellis’s Metro Manila is made of more ambitious stuff, the same way that Danny Boyle presumed that he was in a position to envision the slums of Mumbai as an Oscar-worthy film in Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Alas, just as Slumdog Millionaire could only hope to repackage a proletarian children’s fantasy via all the razzle-dazzle that state-of-the-art Hollywood filmmaking could offer, so does Metro Manila falter in its attempt to portray the Pinoy underclass. The relationship between a British subject like Boyle and the postcolonial material that Mumbai represents can only work to the extent that, say, an author like Rudyard Kipling could only partially (and problematically) succeed with, and do so by devoting his entire life to living in and writing about India. And just as Slumdog Millionaire managed to get by through appropriating elements of Bollywood cinema, so does Metro Manila attempt to make its case by demonstrating how closely its makers had studied certain Pinoy social-realist samples that happened to be accessible to foreign viewers.

What Ellis and his team missed out on was the home-based critique of this tradition. Even worse, they subject the Pinoy psyche to a distinctly Western temperament, when the movie’s central figure (who’s male rather than female) feels shortchanged by the trader who buys his harvest, and decides to trek from faraway Mountain Province to Metro Manila, where he knows no one, bringing his entire family with him. To make things worse, everyone who meets him treats him worse than his rural boss, with a room-for-rent swindle serving as the proverbial last straw; no one even thinks of extending a hand, much less uttering a sympathetic word, at the plight of an incredibly naïve rural migrant – who it turns out can even speak fluent English! Midway through the movie the narrative veers into film-noir territory, so if you can sit out the first hour, you’ll finally be able to appreciate certain developments made more recognizable because of their generic properties.

Finally, Hannah Espia’s Transit stands as one of the most impressive first films in an accelerating list of local films filled with impressive debuts, and more striking since she happens to be the only female filmmaker in this trio as well as the youngest. Transit may not have been possible had the filmmaker lacked extensive preparation in her craft, and Espia’s status as a graduate of the national university’s film program evinces how the faculty, along with the better students, might have been able to assess the errors of the program’s earlier emphases on film plastics and found instead the more useful study materials on time, modernity, thirdspace, globalization, memory, and politics of gender and race. Apparently Espia reached into her own history as the child of Israel-based OFWs, and returned to this past in order to evoke it for people – her own, and others – who might find it less familiar than she does.

By focusing on a single episode, which may be roughly described as the effects of recent Israeli security policy of deporting the children of migrant workers too young to attend school, and the responses of a small circle of OFW relatives and friends, Espia enables the audience to realize the human cost of such a harsh (through presumably necessary) official decision; like Anthony Chen, she also positions the OFWs’ foreign employers as distinct from their countries’ state forces, and one realizes how well she succeeds with the characters in her narrative when an Israeli employer, a generous and avuncular elderly fellow, suffers an attack – and an OFW child, left alone in the Israeli’s house, now has to risk his resident status by running out into the open to seek for help.

The film’s complexities derive from the characters’ difficult relationships with one another, desirous of constantly expressing the warmth that Pinoy culture ingrains in its citizens from birth, yet wary of the way that this surrender to the dictates of the heart could trip them up in relation to their host country’s wartime rules and regulations. The narrative structure is in fact so simple that it actually helps the “readers” (the film’s audiences) to place where an individual character happens to stand in relation to the others, before her or his private moments reveal what thoughts or emotions she or he might actually be harboring deep inside. The same episode gets played out over and over, and in increasing length, from the perspective of characters who are ranged, chronologically, from oldest to youngest, until it ends up with a person directly affected by the country’s policy, a child below the age of five, and attains full circle cinematically while insisting on an open ending, with the characters changing the resolutions of the stories that they exchange with one another.

Having once taught at the institute where Espia had studied, I never imagined that an undergraduate would be able to configure how film form can be invested with useful discursive valences – so either this is an unusually gifted person who was fortunate in having previously unexploited material, or we might finally be witnessing an end to all these tiresome shallow experimentations that look like painfully prolonged film theses. Like Anthony Chen (and unlike Sean Ellis), Hannah Espia focused on theme, character, structure, historiography, and politics, and never let go of gentle humor. She apparently used admittedly difficult recent readings to find ways to tinker with these elements, and presumably set aside the usual goofing around with lights and mics and lenses and reflexive references. There’d be no other way for her and Chen to grow, full-grown as they already are, except by becoming fuller film specialists.

[First published December 4, 2013, as “The OFW Finds Well-Deserved Recognition in Hollywood” (Part 1) and as “Metro Manila and Transit: Ambitious, Impressive” (Part 2) in The FilAm]

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ANTONIO LUNA’S FALL AND RISE

Heneral Luna
Directed by Jerrold Tarog
Written by Henry Francia, E.A. Rocha, and Jerrold Tarog

By now, any Filipino in any part of the world who has been extensively plugged into the social network of Facebook would have heard of Heneral Luna, the celebrated blockbuster on Antonio Luna. Among several ironies, Luna (1866-99) was reluctant to participate in the uprising against Spain but led the revolutionary army, the Katipunan, in resisting American occupation; like the Katipunan’s founder, Andres Bonifacio, Luna was assassinated by his own compatriots, possibly on orders (or at least with the compliance) of the “first” Philippine president, Emilio Aguinaldo.

The film, directed by Jerrold Tarog and scheduled to screen in the US in a few weeks, boasts of several accomplishments beyond provoking renewed interest in several unresolved century-old controversies: it marked the emergence of vital new players in the burgeoning Philippine film scene; it exemplified ways of reworking a difficult and nearly forgotten local genre, the historical epic; and it demonstrated the material potential of social-network activism, with the movie’s box-office record actually increasing from one week to the next in direct proportion to the buzz generated among Facebook users. (Of special interest to social-science observers will be how this correlation between new-media activity and citizens’ decision-making plays out in next year’s Philippine presidential election.)

Only the most assiduous students of Philippine cinema will be able to assert that, contrary to the general impression, Heneral Luna is not the first successful local historical epic. Several other period films, notably Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? (1976), are fondly remembered even though they do not purport to overtly depict any historical personage; Celso Ad. Castillo’s Asedillo (1972) and Peque Gallaga’s Virgin Forest (1985) deal with personalities involved in the Fil-American War and its aftermath; and several other titles, notably those of Gerardo de Leon, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Mario O’Hara, and Mike de Leon, tackle the novels of Jose Rizal and/or the life of the national hero himself.

Heneral Luna, however, stakes a claim on Pinoy historical-epic production, and not only because it is the first well-received one made since the film industry’s transition to digital format. It evinces careful study of the tradition of an admittedly outmoded genre, one that was much-admired during the early years of cinema but has since been regarded with a certain degree of embarrassment, if not disdain, for its indulgence in “surge and splendor and extravagance,” as described by film expert Vivian Sobchack. By his own admission, Tarog reworked an already finished script not only by translating it from English, but also by adding several scenes and details, including a surprising amount of humor; in this way Heneral Luna manages to recall not just Romero’s work, but an unfairly forgotten early film on Artemio Ricarte by Ishmael Bernal, El Vibora (1972).

Unlike Romero and Bernal, Tarog exhibits a fluency in film language that enables him to bypass several of the standard elements of the historical epic genre. He had managed to work around the more technical requirements – the use of recognizable performers (as Asedillo, for example, had Fernando Poe, Jr.) and the distension of time and space – by casting appealing performers who were capable of larger-than-life delivery without losing histrionic credibility, and by covering so many sociopolitical issues over so much geographic space that the film actually seems to run longer than its barely two-hour limit and seems to be spilling out of the confines of the frame; by the time the American colonial officers congratulate themselves and mock the natives’ attempt at self-determination, and face the audience to deliver their lines, the gesture seems to be so consistent with the film’s disciplined use of postmodern devices that no one feels that some realist contract has been violated.

The more significant contribution of Heneral Luna has been in Tarog’s refusal to follow the historical epic tradition of “writing History” (again per Sobchack), but instead opts to write a (version of) history, admitting to the use of fiction (as announced in the prologue) and even rumor (as admitted in a closing-credit notice). In so doing, the film manages to evade and even subvert the several forms of ideological baggage that encumbered Classical Hollywood samples: the rational humanism, bourgeois patriarchy, acceptance of colonialism and imperialism, and validation of entrepreneurial and corporate capitalism that typified early Oscar winners, for example. More than any previous sample of Pinoy historical epics, Heneral Luna comes closest to what may be termed the counter-cultural extravaganzas of post-Classical Hollywood and European cinema. It also reconnects with another moribund local genre, the action film, by repackaging the eponymous lead character as neither (strictly speaking) hero nor villain, but as a complex antihero: the responses of the secondary characters to his temperamental contradictions subtly mirror an audience dynamic, with the less “critical” mass audience more accepting, and appreciative, of the film, in contrast with pickier, logic-obsessed, PC-insistent commentators.

Hence anyone who scours the internet for every available response to the film would have eventually stumbled on dissenting commentaries, some of them harsh or outright dismissive. This would be understandable in any work of sufficient ambition and coverage: there will always be elements that will rub some people the wrong way, and in Heneral Luna these have arisen in the text’s critique of parochialism (painful for those who happen to be associated with certain tribes or regions identified as the villains of this specific version of history) as well as in the downplaying of American complicity in the revolution’s most contemptible tendencies. For a preferable corrective, I would refer such would-be critics to another fairly recent period film, ironically by an American, John Sayles’s Amigo (2010), which should be viewed as the history-from-below intertext of Heneral Luna.

For it would be to anyone’s future detriment to write off Tarog and his intention of completing a trilogy of filmic discourses on Philippine history. As a non-mainstream filmmaker, he had already come up with a personal series (which he calls his “camera trilogy”), and these indicate a willingness to delve into uncomfortable material via innovative strategies. With Heneral Luna he has managed to be earnest about raising questions of patrimony and identity while remaining playfully distant and allowing the audience to figure out their own takes on the past and on the filmic future. It takes a certain type of commitment (or what the romantically inclined might call “love”) to embark on this kind of long-term project, so anyone about to watch the film better be prepared: displays of love can embarrass, and surrendering to it will be overwhelming.

[First published October 15, 2015, as “Historical Film Depicts Antonio Luna’s Fall and Rise” in The FilAm]

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ICE WITH A FACE

Ma’ Rosa
Directed by Brillante Ma. Mendoza
Written by Troy Espiritu

Brillante Ma. Mendoza’s Ma’ Rosa holds the distinction of being the second Filipino film to win at the Cannes Film Festival’s main competition. Even more impressive is the fact that the previous winner, Kinatay (2009), was also made by Mendoza, who won for direction. Ma’ Rosa copped a “lesser” prize (best actress for Jaclyn Jose), but as any observer of Philippine movie awards will confirm, any performance award makes a bigger splash with the local public, because of the way it plugs into the star system.

Jose’s achievement has the additional allure of the unexpected: among a long list of respected actors, she had long been relegated to secondary status (“supporting,” in awards parlance), although she managed to land a well-received lead role or two every decade since the 1990s. She emerged as an already-accomplished talent in late 1984, and had Lino Brocka scrambling to cast her in as many fallen-women roles as he could commission; in a couple of years, she earned an enviable notoriety for dominating sex-themed films without any compunction about shedding off all her clothes while delivering performances that won her a series of critics’ prizes. (Several of these 1985-86 titles may be found, remastered but unsubtitled, at Jojo Devera’s [now defunct] Magsine Tayo! blog.)

The standard procedure among Philippine film experts is to run a commutation test (following John O. Thompson’s prescription) imagining how the role would have turned out if it had been performed by Nora Aunor. Hard though it may be to believe, certain roles had always tended to lie beyond the reach of the country’s foremost film performer – sex roles, for example, like the ones that Jose once specialized in. Jose in Ma’ Rosa acquits herself sufficiently so that by the end of the presentation, one might still be able to speculate how Aunor could have enriched the role, but one would have to be too much of a Noranian to deny that Jose succeeded in creating an iconic character, one that would have been the logical outgrowth of the poverty-stricken sex kittens that she used to portray.

Jose’s predicament is matched by Mendoza’s. After witnessing how he had a series of increasingly controversial wins (topped by Roger Ebert’s sustained tirades against Kinatay), people now feel righteous enough to point out that his latest outing proffers yet another variation on his “poverty-porn” material. Once more it is anchored by his long-time collaborator (and Ma’ Rosa consultant) Armando Lao’s vérité-inspired found-story approach, focused on the dregs of society trying desperately to make ends meet, with the police force behaving as a sinister and ruthless extension of a negligent state that leaves its vulnerable Third-World populace to be buffeted by the combined forces of postcolonial neoliberalism, climate change, and uneven development patterns.

Yet Ma’ Rosa shares certain properties with some of Mendoza’s best work. It has the suspenseful exposition of Tirador (2007), the warmth of Foster Child (2007), the technical expertise of Serbis (2008), and even casts an actor from his first film, Masahista (2005), to play the same role as a gay sponsor. Jose as the title character and Julio Diaz as her husband appeared as a married couple not just in Serbis but also in William Pascual’s Takaw Tukso (1986), where Mendoza worked as production designer (and performs the same function in Ma’ Rosa, as he did for a number of his previous films).

Even more unexpected is the easy way that the current release lends itself to a second screening. Ma’ Rosa appears to promise further insights beyond what an initial viewing conveys, and dutifully manages to fulfill that promise. We see the worst of the policemen behaving tenderly toward a couple of youthful drug users, and the entire corrupt police force bantering playfully with a gay minor, Dahlia, who acts as their office maid.

Ma’ Rosa herself comes across as an exemplary businessperson, with enough sense (unlike her good-for-nothing husband) to avoid using the very product she dispenses and to keep a detailed sales record that winds up incriminating her; indeed her strong-woman genes seem to have thankfully persisted, with her daughter (played by Jose’s real-life offspring) the only one among her children still in school. Once we know Ma’ Rosa’s sub-rosa activities, and we see her purchasing instant noodles at the beginning of the film, we then find ourselves noting the irony of how certain products cause extensive health damage yet some of them can be acquired legally while others have to be handled with full awareness and acceptance of the risks involved.

An overlooked aspect of Mendoza’s work is his handling of women performers, and Jose’s Cannes prize serves as reminder for us to reconsider the several elderly actresses he had provided with rare opportunities to showcase their abilities: Aunor for Taklub (2015) and Thy Womb (2012), Anita Linda and Rustica Carpio for Lola (2009), Maribel Lopez for Kinatay, Gina Pareño for Serbis, and Cherry Pie Picache for Foster Child; an exceptional case would be Coco Martin, the closest to a Mendoza signature actor, who burst on the scene with Masahista and has become a household name (while occasionally reappearing in Mendoza films) as Philippine independent cinema’s most vital contribution to the mainstream industry.

Jose’s reading of her role is complemented by the high level of performance of the rest of the cast. Mendoza is one of the few indie filmmakers who can command people with leading-role backgrounds to play supporting characters, from Lopez’s single-scene appearance as Ma’ Rosa’s resentful sister-in-law Tilde, to Baron Geisler and Mark Anthony Fernandez as police officers who look snappily elegant when they finally don their uniforms but with Ma’ Rosa’s (and the audience’s) complete understanding of their monstrous potential, and Kristoffer King as Ma’ Rosa’s even-tempered drug dealer who grows increasingly menacing when he realizes how she had betrayed him to their neighborhood’s criminal police gang.

The film’s much-admired open ending, where Ma’ Rosa nearly chokes on street food as she witnesses a fate she’d been trying to avoid (a homeless family with their ambulatory store) also turns on the several problems that await her: insurmountable debt, spiteful neighbors and relatives, military-sponsored enemies, the loss of her primary source of income. Her husband will seek more solace in his drug habit, her daughter will be unable to finish her studies, her eldest son will complete his transition to street thuggery, her youngest will continue selling his body to predatory gay men. The “ice” she sold merely represented a more extensive underlying sociopolitical and moral corruption, and all she had tried to do was keep her home and family together using resources available to her. Through Jose, via Mendoza’s steerage, the cliché about the woman embodying the nation becomes a cold, hard, inescapable truth.

[First published July 14, 2016, as “In Ma’ Rosa, Cannes Best Actress Jaclyn Jose Plays a Meth Dealer with Eloquence, Warmth” in The FilAm]

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Book Texts – Black & Blue & Red

BLACK & BLUE & RED

Bayani
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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Book Texts – Small Worm, Big Apple

Commissioned by a student publication during my exchange stint in Korea. I knew then that other folk would be paying attention, so I did a roundabout way of name-dropping the previous foreign locale I’d lived and worked in.

Small Worm, Big Apple

I could have been one of the many jinxes that started upending the Paradise that was New York City since the nineties. The World Trade Center was first bombed a few months after I arrived and collapsed a few months before I finally left for home. A demented tourist shot a number of sightseers at the observation deck of the EmpireState building – a structure that loomed right outside the office where I worked for almost eight years. An unemployed immigrant also shot several passengers on a train leaving the city for the suburbs. The stock market plunged twice, first because of the Asian economic recession, then because of the overvaluation of dot-com shares.

In all instances except the last, foreigners were considered responsible for what happened. Yet this was one of the contradictions about living in that city, as opposed to living elsewhere in North America: everyone there was a foreigner, or had descended from one. Of course virtually all Americans are non-native, but it seemed that only when they get to New York do they care to point out how, at some point in the past, they actually belonged elsewhere.

The place had a certain way of exacting payback. I was supposed to be able to finish my studies, my share of the all-American dream, through the all-American method of working hard. What didn’t show up in the equation was that the money I’d earn, the largest I’d ever make in my life up to that point, would amount to less than nothing in the face of the exorbitant cost of living. I eventually wound up with my graduate degrees, plus a few thousand dollars’ worth of student loans.

In the face of such an unwelcome and unmitigated disaster, how did I manage to muddle through? If I thought then, as I do now, that the place was just as badly (or even worse) hit than I was, that would have been no consolation. Once I left the city, I’d have to wait out two years working in the Philippine national university before I could find a job that paid decently enough to pay off the loans.

The answer would be self-evident enough to anyone living in New York. The place itself has enough talent and diversity to make even the poorest resident occasionally feel lucky to be alive. A master violinist from a major Chinese orchestra, a black doo-wop trio with remarkable timing and perfect harmony, a female performance artist who could assume unusual poses for long stretches, Peruvian musicians invoking the Andes through their charango and panpipes, and so on … and these were just the characters one could encounter performing for loose change in the subway.

When the major opera houses announced their new seasons, I’d be in line for my student-priced tickets, each one a tenth of what a Broadway musical would cost me. One of the little secrets of long-time “cultured” New Yorkers is that they never go to Broadway, only to the opera, although my reason for attending was that I was a student of the spectacle (of cinema, but before that, historically speaking, there was only the stage). When my out-of-town friends would insist on Broadway shows then complain about how backward the stories were and how old-fashioned their politics played out, I’d try to convince them to try an opera, which would have the same brand of outmoded ideological positions, but with better music, finer singing, and grander staging. Besides, I’d say, Broadway’s origins lay in a lesser form, the Viennese operetta. No go, though; seemed like people in the rest of the world would not respect any of their friends who went to New York and spent their time on presentations that did not feature pop stars and current music.

I always envied those who’d been to the great museums of Europe, but every so often the New York institutions would mount retrospectives that would be the equivalent of the usually-dead artists coming back to rework their magic: Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, the circle of French surrealists, and of course the shock artists whose exhibits Rudy Giuliani attempted to thwart. In my specialization, I’d taken the number of free and discounted film screenings so much for granted that, when my home university asked me for my first-year viewing list, I was amazed to jot down, based on my notes, brochures, and tickets, over 300 titles of the widest possible array of movies, from high art to trash, from festival favorite to disreputable pre-Disneyfied Times Square run, from fun genre sample to structural-materialist cerebration (my favorite, which I made sure to watch twice in its entirety, was two hours of Michael Snow whirling his camera on various axes from atop a Canadian mountain).

There’d be food my friends and I would treat ourselves to when we had the spare funds, categorized according to nationality: Greek (authentic but also occasionally the code word for all-around New York diner), Italian, Mexican, French, Spanish, Ethiopian, Malaysian, Indian, Korean, and the always-reliable Chinese. Wines could be found for as low as $3 a bottle, so I could indulge my alcoholic depression by pretending I was learning vintage and vinification.

All in all the range and breadth of distractions would be enough to make you believe the place was worth living in despite its inadequate services and pugnacious population (and hey, I was one of them too for a time). Enough to sometimes forget what you originally came for, in fact. The first time my late father saw me again, he said: “I can’t believe it – I never thought I’d live to see the day when you grew old.” He said I reminded him of Rip van Winkle, a New York character created by a New York author. And at that point I knew the dream was over. I was finally back home.

[First published May 2, 2005, as “Growing Old in New York (Or Small Worm, Big Apple)” in The Hallym Post]

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Book Texts – A Lover’s Polemic

To jump to later sections, please click here for: Territorialities; A Genealogy; Critical Protocols; Working at Play; and Notes.

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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Territorialities

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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Notes

[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” (editor’s introduction to American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents until Now [New York: Library of America, 2006], p. xxv). 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 [Mandaluyong 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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Book Texts – Ordinary People: Movie Worker

To commemorate its second anniversary issue, National Midweek announced an “Ordinary People” omnibus feature and asked four authors (including me, as well as Rudy Villanueva, Juaniyo Arcellana, and Melanie Manlogon) to detail our ironically non-ordinary experiences in the arena of labor. A rather cringe-inducing tagline, accompanying an inapposite TV studio setting, announced: “As continuity person, his work was to record everything that went on during the shooting. But he also carried camera equipment, made coffee for the star, parried the verbal abuse of irritable crew members. And he was a University of the Philippines graduate.” I loved my work at the magazine so much it didn’t matter. Curiously, the fantasy I expressed toward the end of the article – that of local film (and media) work acquiring a semblance of professionalism in terms of academic preparation – eventually came to pass, not exactly in the way I anticipated, but then such are the vagaries of fate. [Published November 4, 1987, on pp. 15-16.]

Midweek Movie Worker

Confession of the week: I was an ordinary movie person. Actually I still am, were it not for the impression that film commentators hold significant influence over the industry – a consensus held by most industry personalities including, not surprisingly, film commentators. But to get to the point: I once actually started wondering what all the hoopla over the position of film critic was. I’d been writing more or less regularly on local cinema since the turn of the decade, and had a membership (and occasional officer status) in the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino [Filipino Film Critics Circle], plus employment in the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, to show for it.

Still, there remained that disturbing atmosphere during movie occasions – previews, premieres, parties, and other such assemblages outside of the physical processes of movie-making – that anyone who could be present only at the presentation of a work could not actually have been involved with it and was therefore, for all intents and purposes, an outsider. A critic, for that matter, got away with slightly better treatment, some form of deference really, that to my mind has lost its original basis for existence, but that ought to be another story.

So in 1984, when the University of the Philippines announced the opening of a bachelor’s degree in film – the first not just in the country but in the immediate Asian region as well – I lost no time in re-applying for student status at the mass communication institute which was handling the course program. (Not quite accurate: I lost an entire semester, having learned of the program’s existence exactly when the ’84-85 academic year started, too late to arrange for my return to school.)

I had the advantage of holding an earlier degree (journalism, batch ’79) at the institute, plus the determination to finish as fast as possible whatever the cost, and maybe the first batch wasn’t so appreciative of the distinctions in store; they pointed out my exemption from the thesis requirement (already fulfilled by my earlier degree), but I retorted to myself that, unlike them, I had to finish a final individual film project, which the program’s coordinators justified as my equivalent of a production thesis.[1]

Anyway there I stood, for more than a year the only qualified film applicant in the history of Philippine education, willing to undergo whatever it would take to make me a part of the movie system at last.

What lay ahead, I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. A major outfit sounded out a call for assistants in production, and as far as I knew, I was the only one who responded then. More than a month of follow-ups afterward, I finally got in – as an apprentice, I was forewarned, and for the rival of the company I had applied with. An apprentice, I was made to understand, gets free food but no pay, and is responsible for … well, whatever comes up during production. Break a leg then.

Someone who took charge instructed me to record everything that went on during the shooting – the blocking of everyone and everything on the set (including the lights), the position of everything that appeared in the camera viewfinder, the lines of dialog, the movement of actors, atmosphere people (a euphemism for extras), and physical objects, not to mention the usual details of date and sequence and scene numbers, location and performer(s) – for which I needed to continually refer to the script, a copy of which was provided me much, much later. Continuity, the job was called, although I distinctly recall carrying camera and related equipment, preparing coffee for a certain performer, and parrying the verbal abuse of several particularly irritable crew members. Plus I had to buy a stopwatch (I borrowed one instead) to time the individual takes, and reproduce as many copies of a certain form on which to keep my records.

I finally was able to plead for the reimbursement of the two reams of continuity forms that I had to mimeograph, and the film’s director, who provided me with invaluable recollections of the previously flourishing regional cinema with which he’d been involved, batted for a consolatory sum of money that the producers provided to defray part of my transportation expenses. At this point the creditors, who extended financial assistance so that I could be able to finish my second degree, were impatient for some material results. Without the benefit of clear thinking, I agreed to replace a would-have-been batch mate in a big-budget semi-period piece. As it turned out, the guy and his group mates edged me out in a more substantial fund-raising project, while the movie project I got into got shelved for alleged shortage of funds.

To the rescue came the muse I had abandoned. A colleague in writing, now into editing (while I was contemplating the feasibility of going insane), asked me to write for the publication she was handling. On what? I asked. The movies, she answered, since that’s where you’re now. I lay aside insanity for the moment but it arrived anyway in another form. The first production outfit I had applied with immediately after graduation this time offered me a respectable-enough designation in an out-of-town project. By then I was already making twice as much as the offer (which, I was assured, was already somewhat beyond standard rates) just writing for the publication and a television show on the side. When the movie I said no to got released, it made good box-office business and was reportedly its producer’s critical favorite, while the publication I had cast my lot with folded up and the TV show shut down.

Hope springs eternal even for those who never learn, but I’ll respect whatever way you interpret that: my alma mater somehow remembered it had an only graduate lying around (close to the literal sense) somewhere, who’d not only be the only academically qualified film worker in the country but also the only qualified film instructor as well.

So coming full circle now, what easier way to augment the predictably pitiful (but not for me, you bet) income that teachers receive? Why nothing else, or nothing less, than good old-fashioned semi-scholarly commentary on films. At least, this way I get to torment not only my students but my readers as well, and with a little bit of luck and a considerable amount of self-delusion, even the industry might consider restructuring its professional set-up in lieu of an oncoming onslaught by starry-eyed and financially secure film graduates – and doesn’t that add up quite logically, dramatically even, with this historical era of countless coup attempts? Anyway, till that moment arrives, I’ll be happy where I am. I guess.

Note

[1] After a few other (expected) false starts, the production thesis became a viable option in the eventually upgraded College of Mass Communication. Extremely few undergraduate candidates, in fact, choose the research option.

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Page Excerpt of the Bernardo Bernardo Interview

Above (click to enlarge) 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 the publisher’s website.

Á!


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.

tj-interview

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 corrections – see endnotes) that appeared in the “Revolution across Generations” section of Remembering/Rethinking EDSA (ed. JPaul S. Manzanilla and Caroline S. Hau, Mandaluyong City: Anvil, 2016), pp. 172-87. The book itself won the Best Anthology prize of the National Book Awards from the Manila Critics Circle, administered by the National Book Development Board. Kindly purchase your full copy via Amazon or the Anvil Publishing website. To jump to later sections, please click here for:

Personal as Political;
Cultural Politics;
Daughter Rising;
ECP in Focus: Alternative Screenings;
ECP in Focus: Archives;
ECP in Focus: Education;
ECP in Focus: Funding;
ECP in Focus: International Film Festival;
ECP in Focus: Production;
ECP in Focus: Ratings for Tax Rebates;
ECP in Focus: Support Activities;
Way of All Flesh; and
Sources, Dedication, & Notes.

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.

ecp-id

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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 degradation and corruption occur faster than properly stored celluloid or paper. With increasingly unpredictable global climate conditions, electromagnetic disturbances could conceivably endanger entire swaths 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.[5]
  • 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”). Even at over a decade old, the privately funded contemporary counterpart, the Cinemanila International Film Festival, 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.[6]
  • 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.[7]
  • 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 as 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.[8]


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 (Mandaluyong 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. The most intensive film coverage of the MIFF, Elliott Stein’s “Manila’s Angels” in Film Comment 19.5 (Sept.-Oct. 1983): pp. 48-55, is also unaware of the cause of the tragedy.

[2] In an interview, Nena C. Benigno, then the Director of the Public Relations Division, said that “Imee refused to occupy the building. ‘Ayokong 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 April 3, 2016, report of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists 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] Ward Luarca, Officer-in-Charge of the Film Education Department, took charge of film appreciation and scriptwriting workshops jointly conducted by Rolando Tinio and Pio de Castro III. In a Facebook account, he stated that he “took over the organizing of the Short Film Festival…. Then the series of acting workshops conducted by Laurice Guillen and her group from Actors Company. And also the Film School Board which [Agustin] Hammy Sotto and I organized whose members were from the academe or actual film practitioners who included Gigi [Javier Alfonso] (of the UP film program)…; Manny [Reyes] of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino [Filipino Film Critics Circle] and De La Salle University; Marilou Diaz-Abaya; Eddie Romero; Fr. [Nicasio] Cruz, SJ; and reps from St. Paul University, Philippine Women’s University, and other schools and institutions. We brought film appreciation sessions to students, of which the ECP Cine Club was the agency to reach them…. To be fair, the bomba [sex-themed] films also benefitted us for our salaries and occasional bonuses, when funding stopped after Ninoy’s assassination, and ECP had to be self-funding” (Response to Facebook post of Edward delos Santos Cabagnot, Sept. 26, 2018, 8:40 p.m.).

[6] 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! (now-defunct) postings of video collector Jojo Devera.

[7] 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.

[8] Corrigendum: 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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