Category Archives: Film Criticism

Siren Call

Nerisa
Directed by Lawrence Fajardo
Written by Ricky Lee

Among the “new normal” adjustments in media consumption induced by the still-ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the emergence of streaming as a viable, though still far from preferable, option to theater-going was definitely on its way to happening, with the current health crisis only speeding up its inevitable arrival. Not surprisingly, streaming has now become the place to watch out for pop-culture benchmarks, unless one insists on adhering to the increasingly nonsensical insistence of the Philippines’s critical and academic elite (same circle, for the most part) that the high-art presentation of poverty issues is the cinematic ideal to aspire to.

11011Among the country’s streaming participants, Viva Films has resumed its early role as determined new player, the same way it set out to challenge the then-nearly monolithic Regal Films when it first emerged during the 1980s. This time, however, it also seems to be partaking of the innovations that Regal once became known (or notorious) for, including its reliance on commercial (“low” to the critical elite) genres and bare-bones budgeting.

11011I would be remiss if I fail to report that with a currently streaming release, Nerisa (available via Vivamax & other services), it has finally struck gold, the same way that Regal regularly did during its time. Shot on a schedule resembling Regal’s pito-pito (₱2 million, minuscule for 1990s celluloid, for seven days of production plus another seven of postproduction), the project intercepted a young filmmaker, Lawrence Fajardo, on his way to upgrading his fluency in the medium while extending his grasp to material he had not yet attempted.

11011Fajardo’s qualitative shift in directorial expertise was affirmed when his previous project, Kintsugi (the technique of pottery repair in Japanese), shared the Young Critics Circle’s top prize with Raya Martin’s Death of Nintendo. Fajardo started out by specializing in the multicharacter-film format, a challenge that only a select number of filmmakers accepted with regularity, including Ishmael Bernal, the country’s undisputed master of the form. With Imbisibol, an earlier film set in the northernmost (and therefore coldest) Japanese island of Hokkaido, he depicted the lives of undocumented Pinoy migrants – one of whom was played by the luminous Bernardo Bernardo – beset by financial and immigration troubles, and attained a personal best.

11011Nerisa benefits immensely from the narrative treatment shaped by Ricky Lee, who has apparently reworked his script for Laurice Guillen’s Salome (1981), in its focus on the plight of an outcast couple in a coastal village. Since it follows a linear trajectory rather than the recollections in Salome of a crime of passion from the perspectives of several participants, Nerisa enables its characters to position themselves in the violence-prone class and gender dynamics that a patriarchal order imposes on its citizens, and further qualifies the proceedings by articulating (via radio commentaries) the global concerns of our fisherfolk confronted by Chinese vessels overstepping their territorial boundaries and plundering Philippine waters.

11011The townsfolk are far more aware this time of the impact of alien forces taking undue interest in local resources (as has always been the case since the 16th century), with the elders explaining how recent industrial activities cause landslides and pollution that make it impossible for fishes to thrive close to shore. So the scarcity of catch at all familiar distances, coupled with the possibility of superior foreign vessels ramming native fishing boats and leaving the occupants to the mercy of the sea, has made fishing-as-livelihood both difficult and dangerous. Obet, the title character’s husband, badgers his peers to venture beyond municipal fishing grounds in order to be able to purchase his own boat and stop relying on the preferences of boat-owning artisans.

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11011As in Salome, the couple live beyond the pale of their town’s quotidian concerns. Obet was an orphan raised by a childless couple, with his stepsister Lilet (an abandoned child being raised by the same couple) narrating Nerisa’s tale. Nerisa herself was a foundling rescued by Obet from drowning, who cannot remember her past life, and whose beauty is enhanced by her faithfulness to her savior; understandably the men who learn about her develop a fairly strong carnal interest in her, while their wives suspect her of bringing to their island the rusalka-like curse of a seductive yet dangerous mermaid. She finds sororal refuge in the town’s other outcast women – Joni, the independent-minded loner who dares to dispense with her body according to whatever advantage it might bring her, and the aforementioned Lilet.

11011When Obet disappears during a fishing expedition, the trio set out to ask help from Coast Guard officials. The townsfolk thereafter initiate a round of malicious gossip whose outcome anyone familiar with social media can expect to end dismally for everyone involved. Upon his return, Obet gets caught up in the cycle of negativity and works out a form of punishment premised on the kind of homosocial interaction observed by the late queer feminist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Between Men, where same-sex male bonding is facilitated by their use of women as objects of exchange.

11011Fajardo’s expertise in handling these admittedly distressing developments lies in his ability to render passion as a crucial element of survival. Obet’s original intent to punish Nerisa via marital rape is misperceived by her as an expression of his ardor. The other menfolk’s savagery is infused with the anxiety they feel because of the depletion of natural resources that they once took for granted. Yet Fajardo also makes clear whose side he champions: in failing to see how the women in their lives are twice victimized – by the forces of uneven global development as well as by patriarchal ideology – they set themselves up for an ironically satisfying bloody retribution.

11011Nerisa’s brand of cautionary feminism may be yesterday’s news to today’s enlightened viewers, but I would argue that its delineation of a more conflicted mentality among villainous characters, as well as its upholding of women’s solidarity premised on their bodily prerogatives, ought to serve as templates for future rural-set sex melodramas. In addition to these revelations, Fajardo deploys a disciplined minimalism that only the ornery would ascribe to the limited resources he had to work with.

11011There’s a breakout lead performance in Cindy Miranda reminiscent of an earlier beauty queen-turned-actor, Elizabeth Oropesa, who here plays Obet’s adoptive mother, as overprotective of him as she behaves cruelly toward his half-sister (another feminist insight into mothering from an essential circle of authors starting with Jessica Benjamin). I also never imagined a time when Aljur Abrenica would be able to command a film screen with any authority, but if our cinema ever runs out of talent to celebrate, that would be the definite indicator that our surrender to forces beyond our control has been completed.

[First published August 23, 2021, as “In Nerisa, Viva Brings Back Regal’s Low-Budget Blockbuster Formula” in The FilAm]

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An Error in the Urian’s Internet Record

Despite how this article may sound at first, I’m really taking a respite from my usual role as the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino’s most (in)famous tormentor. A well-meaning researcher, possibly even a younger MPP member, must have conducted a search of the organization’s prizes for best films for the decade of the 1970s, and included titles that I was certain were roundly rejected during the final deliberation session.

11011So yes, I’m writing because I was involved in the organization during that period, and as I’ve emphasized in several other articles beforehand, the processes I managed to observe during my Manunuri years helped shape my careful approach to canon-forming activities. I might even add that the group seems to have yielded to a latter-day tergiversation in its methodological purpose, but that’s not really our concern right now.

11011How bad is the resultant placement of wrong information? Awful enough to have affected at least two major internet resources, one general (Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, excerpted below) and another film-specific (the Internet Movie Database). I was close to lobbing another stink bomb aimed at my former colleagues, until I thought of looking up possible online causes for the errant material.

Screenshot of Wikipedia‘s “Gawad Urian Award” [sic] page, as of the current time. Click pic to enlarge. To see the IMDb record, search for a film title and click on the “Awards” link.

11011As it turned out (bear with me now), the data was accurate, drawn from a reliable source: an article published January 10, 1980, in Expressweek, the weekend supplement of the Philippines Daily Express, one of many business concerns that coterminated with the Marcos regime. Titled “Ten Best Films of the ’70s,” it came out in a column (on pages 8, 22, & 34 of this specific issue) allotted to the MPP. This would have been one of the group’s then-persistent attempts to encourage its members to write by taking turns filling up pre-assigned periodical space.

11011The column was titled Urian (what else, right), and I could even deduce who wrote it. From the members identified during the survey-taking session, the only active one not mentioned, except as “this writer,” was the late Mario A. Hernando. (Scanned files of the article were uploaded in 2009 to the Pelikula, Atbp. blogspot and are excerpted below.) The only error I recognized in the report was when it attributed the script of Lino Brocka’s Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (1974) to Orlando Nadres rather than to Mario O’Hara.

Click pic to enlarge. The rest of the post comprises scanned items, like the pic on the left. The typewritten section may have been an attempt at presenting a clearer version of a messy photocopy.

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11011Again, as in most historical problems, the currently available legit-seeming list of the MPP’s choices of the best films of the ’70s isn’t entirely in error: seven of the ten titles were the ones the group officially declared – with no other film missed out. That’s because the members eventually refused to round off the choices to ten. These seven were, in alphabetical order, Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? (Eddie Romero, 1976), Insiang (Brocka, 1976), Itim (Mike de Leon, 1976), Jaguar (Brocka, 1979), Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Brocka, 1975), Nunal sa Tubig (Ishmael Bernal, 1976), and Pagdating sa Dulo (Bernal, 1971).

11011So how could I be certain that the internet list is technically correct yet officially wrong? I could jokily reply that I wasn’t included in the enumeration of participants identified by Hernando, along with other members whom I remember during the final deliberation session but described as absent or inactive in the article. If we resort to a timeline of events, that would make things clearer: although the Expressweek article came out right before the awards ceremony for films released in 1979, no such announcement of “best of the decade” choices was made then.

11011Instead, the decadal prizes were handed out in 1981, during the awards cycle for the movies of 1980, when I became an active member. The full list came out in media reports as well as in two official publications: the program brochure and the first Urian Anthology published much later, plus of course the telecast of the event.[1] That meant that there was enough time – a year, more or less – for a reconsideration of the three other titles in the initial version of the top ten: aside from Tinimbang Ka, these included Behn Cervantes’s Sakada (1976) and Celso Ad. Castillo’s Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak (1978).

11011The process by which we decided on what films to honor turned on their ability to sustain repeat screenings. Pagputi ng Uwak might seem increasingly heavy-handed, but Tinimbang Ka would be unbearably moralistic and reactionary while Sakada would be, shall we say, amusing if it were regarded as a radical-left counterpart of Reefer Madness, minus the latter’s Classical Hollywood expertise. These last two might still be available on DVD (as is Reefer Madness on YouTube) so check them out if you think I’m being unfairly dismissive.

11011In fact, the session where we finalized the entries had an entirely different set of also-rans. I remember Burlesk Queen (1977) emerging as Castillo’s favored entry, and some votes as well for Brocka’s Tubog sa Ginto (1970), Bernal’s Aliw (1979), and get this, Elwood Perez’s Isang Gabi, Tatlong Babae (1974). I must add that any of these titles would still be superior to the original trio, as would a handful of others, some of which unfortunately have been difficult or impossible to locate for some time.

11011Calling for and demonstrating carefulness in canon discourse was only an intermediate aspirational stage for me, however. My idea of an ideal film culture is one in which canonizing concerns become secondary at best – something that the MPP has declared will never happen as long as it’s around. No surprise in how yesterday’s flowers have turned into today’s rotten veggies, but then when they declare that they’re still in bloom,…

Note

[1] The Urian Anthology 1970-1979 (ed. Nicanor G. Tiongson, Quezon City: Manuel L. Morato, 1983) would be the only still-available definitive source of information. Unfortunately the MPP’s collections, numbering one for every decade since its founding, are affordable only to the deep-pocketed – so very progressive of them innit. The seven “best of the ’70s” choices were allotted a page each, but rather than show each title plus immediately adjacent pages, I figured that providing proof of their page numbers should suffice:

Pages v & 397 of the 1970s Urian Anthology. Click pic to enlarge.

11011As shown on page v of the book’s table of contents, the list of films begins on page 397 and ends on page 404, with page 405 announcing the appendices. Page 397 (printed sideways on silver background, for that classy look) heralds the feature and explains how “In 1981, the twelve members of the MPP decided to honor the best films of 1970-1979.” The featured titles per page were as follows: Pagdating sa Dulo, 398; Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, 399; Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon?, 400; Insiang, 401; Itim, 402; Nunal sa Tubig, 403; and Jaguar, 404.

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Acceptance message for the 2021 Gawad Balagtas for Film Criticism

The Covid-19 global pandemic necessitated an online program for the recognition ceremony of the annual awards of the Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas (Writers Union of the Philippines). With three minutes set as the limit for the recorded acceptance message, I read out the text below.[1].

An anachronistic pabebe wave to everyone.[2] I will admit that my response to the news of winning the Gawad Balagtas was immensely moving, partly because it reminded me that people at home were keeping tabs on me, and partly because these people represented an organization for whom criticism used to be distinct from and less essential than literature. The big secret I’ve kept to myself was that I never regarded criticism as any different from other forms of literature. I could sense throughout my career that some artists and authors appreciated the efforts I invested in my output, just as I also admired them when they were able to critique their own work and plow back their lessons and insights in their future products.

11011The reason why the UMPIL recognition is meaningful for a still-active critic like me is that the field where I function has been making occasionally valiant efforts at moving forward, to keep up with advances in other areas of criticism as well as in art and literature. But the distractions of more lucrative options in public relations as well as the dangerous assumption that film criticism should never challenge its readers’ intelligence all conspire against introducing new ideas and approaches.

11011This is why whenever I step back to assess how far I’ve been able to arrive, my journey was extensive only in terms of time and space. As public intellectual, I always feel like I’ve barely moved from where I started. I am hopeful that UMPIL will allow me the option of meandering down new pathways, playing with new concepts, championing practitioners who I feel have been overlooked, stumbling around once in a while, and maybe looking like I’m having too much fun – because I’ve learned that that’s the best way that difficult innovations can be announced and implemented.

11011I always delight in pointing out how I keep attacking canon-formation activities but ironically have to set up canons the right way in the first place. And at this stage in my life, I find myself being canonized as well, sometimes by institutions whose premises and motives I find necessary to contend with. This of course is always the risk we face when we announce our approbation of individuals who are still capable of, and intent on, changing.

11011For all the timeliness of the Gawad Balagtas, the careful deliberation that I’m sure must have gone in deciding to add me to the roster, and the symbolic consequence of being cited by the most credible and accomplished community of Pinas citizens, considerately extending their reach overseas, in defiance of a still-ongoing historic health disaster: my sincerest gratitude, lubos na pasasalamat sa inyo, 여러분 정말 더럽.[3]

Notes

Thanks to the people who provided advice on what I should (and shouldn’t) be saying: 박신구, 박해석, and 손범식, as well as to 권성진 for helping me pick out an appropriate final greeting. Special shoutout to UMPIL Board Member Louie Jon A. Sánchez, who made sure I had enough time to prepare for the occasion.


[1] The text of the citation was in Filipino and appears in the preceding illustration. It may be translated as follows:

For his vigilant advocacy of his field of practice, his faithful guidance in its nationalist and democratic aspirations, and his interventions in upholding film as a vital component of the everyday life of Filipinos and as a crucial factor in the unfolding of the history of the Philippines.

11011He is not only foremost in his field, but also the primary developer of [Philippine] film criticism, which has become a flourishing and indispensable art form because of his tireless contributions.

[2] “Pabebe” is a Taglish term that may be approximated as “trying to be baby-like.” It was first used for the popular phenomenon on Philippine TV that enjoyed its own coinage, AlDub. The baby-ism specifically referred to a voiceless character appropriating the beauty-queen wave, which in turn was an imitation of the Queen of England’s distinctive hand wave.

[3] The standard utterance, “yeoreobun jeongmal dureob,” is a comic insult that translates to “you’re all really dirty.” The L and R sounds are represented by the same letter (ㄹ) in the Korean featural system, so with the adjustment of a consonant in the last word (to “duleob”), the statement aurally registers as “you’re really all the [ones I] love” in Konglish. Understandably, the wordplay will be recognizable mostly to younger generations of Koreans.

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NUT’s Kernel

When I started looking out for bylines of prolific Filipino writers in English, Nestor U. Torre’s was the one I wound up reading most often. His writing style could be summed up in a string of adjectives that would soon be considered embarrassing, if not unacceptable, for anyone caught up in the call to resist Ferdinand E. Marcos’s then-emergent fascism.

11011He didn’t help matters for his standing among progressives when martial law was finally declared, and he moved from the opposition’s already-shuttered Manila Chronicle to the Philippines Daily Express, edited by a brother of the First Lady. Yet this was the period of the ascendancy of Torre (or NUT as he preferred to refer to himself) as film commentator. He was also known as the director-writer of Crush Ko si Sir (1971), a pre-ML vehicle for Lino Brocka’s muse Hilda Koronel. A few years later, a movie by another gifted critic-director, Ishmael Bernal, would attempt the same sly reference to Macoy’s womanizing, but the censors by then were sharp and fast enough to take action: Aliw, Sir! simply became Aliw [Pleasure] (1979).

11011These connections will become significant later, but not enough focus was placed then on NUT’s film writing, just as it was relegated to the background in nearly all the tributes paid to him by his colleagues in theater. This was the moment when film was setting out to stake its claim as a creative activity worth taking seriously. Most reviewers, then as now, claimed academic credentials and wrote accordingly. Like Bernal, however, NUT stepped in from an immersion in pop culture. Academia eventually came around to appreciating that kind of orientation, but it was too late for NUT.

11011Hence the (usually self-serving) drama of asking after theoretical foundations and political allegiances was just about to assert itself, but NUT first made sure that the local intelligentsia would be enthralled and challenged by the prospect of film analysis and evaluation written for its own sake. He published film reviews in a breezy, amused, occasionally ironic, sometimes self-deprecating manner (hence his acronym), in a style that serious students of English literature recognized as highly accomplished. Of his Chronicle-era batch, only Bernal came close, but then “Ishma” eventually pulled away by attaining success as a filmmaker.

11011When a NUT review appeared in the Express, some of my classmates and professors would engage in discussion about it. I remember a senior stating that his take on Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) was better than what came out in foreign newspapers – so I did spend some time afterward at the national university’s main library to check out the claim. Around this time an announcement involving NUT came out, one that I was still too young to realize was ominous: he and the other reviewers published by the Express were forming a critics’ organization, with NUT as founding chair.

11011I was to subsequently become a member of this group, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (Filipino Film Critics Circle), which was how I learned about NUT’s departure. He was able to work on his last film project, Ang Isinilang Ko Ba’y Kasalanan? [Is It Wrong to Give Birth?] (1977), the year after the group launched its still-ongoing annual awards. At the meeting where it was discussed, the other members raised questions pertaining to its lack of political content and its derivative quality. He walked out and never showed up again.

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11011The MPP prided itself on objectivity and admitted being harsher on its own members who aspired to industry practice. NUT’s misfortune was that he was the first to be subjected to this type of critical interrogation; ironically another founding member, Behn Cervantes, released Sakada [Plantation Peons] during the year of the MPP’s founding.[1] It had enough so-called social relevance to be considered subversive and was eventually banned by the government. Not surprisingly, it elicited rave reviews from the MPP members and was able to receive citations in major film categories, though its later unavailability excluded it from the awards competition.

11011Still another founding member, Pio de Castro III, came up with Soltero [Bachelor] in 1984 and was rewarded with nominations from the group for direction, performance, and technical categories. Yet although AIKBK was completely bypassed, it had qualities that placed it a cut above the other two films: it featured eight women at a well-known halfway house for unwed mothers-to-be, and although the narrative finally gave precedence to the male superintendent burdened by empathizing with the expectant mothers, several of the individual stories succeeded in focusing attention on the plight of outcast women.

11011I remember AIKBK coming out a few months after Brocka’s Lunes, Martes, Miyerkules, Huwebes, Biyernes, Sabado, Linggo [Monday through Sunday] (1976), which had almost the same number of female characters but which more easily capitulated to the central tale of a son seeking his mother and discovering how she worked as a has-been hooker in Olongapo. Unfortunately these last two films may be lost for good, so we have no way of revaluating the merits of NUT’s entry vis-à-vis the others. All I can attest, to the best of my recollection, is that it left a far more positive impression on me than all the other films I mentioned except for Aliw, which finally succeeded in interweaving its fallen-women tales into an impressive equal-opportunity balancing act.

11011I had only one interaction with NUT, years after he gave up most “creative” film activities including his distinctive brand of film reviewing.[2] We were covering a 1980s film set troubled by serious conflicts among the artists and producers. Upon arriving, he immediately launched into an expertly parodic performance of film buffery (not all that far removed from buffoonery): he would mention an obscure decades-old movie title and state what its opening-day gross was, then he would start mentioning bit players no one ever heard of, as well as running times of ancient films no one had seen. “Isn’t it great to waste everyone’s time with information no one will ever need?” he went.

11011I later asked him what he thought film critics should be doing if they wanted to make a positive contribution. “Make sure to connect,” he said, “and don’t take things too seriously.”[3] Bibeth Orteza, whom I remember made the strongest impression in AIKBK (where she was ironically only one of two newcomers), once mentioned that NUT was determined to compile an anthology of his early articles – so at least his stature as film critic could be recouped. This was before he had his stroke in 2018, after which his mother died, he contracted Covid-19, and passed away last April 6, at 78. He was determined to recover from his stroke, but got exposed to the pandemic virus via his physiotherapy program. He will be remembered for several accomplishments like public relations and theater activities, but not for far more significant ones, which will remain one more cultural anomaly in our time that demands to be redressed.

Notes

First published April 14, 2021, as “NUT to Film Critics: ‘Don’t Take Things Too Seriously,’” in The FilAm, and reprinted as “Writer, Director, Critic Nestor U. Torre, 78,” in the May 2021 issue of The FilAm: Newsmagazine Serving Filipino Americans in New York. The author acknowledges discussions on NUT with Lulu Torres Reyes, Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., and Jerrick Josue David.

[1] The only social-media posts that acknowledged NUT’s stint as founding chair of the local critics circle came first from Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., head of the FACINE International Film Festival, and later from the Directors Guild of the Philippines. All the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino came out with was a post announcing the birthday of its oldest founding member.

[2] One positive result for Pinas pop-culture commentary was NUT’s turn to television criticism, explicated in Louie Jon A. Sánchez’s exemplary assessment in Filipino, titled “Kritisismong Pantelebisyon at si Nestor U. Torre Jr. [Television Criticism and Nestor U. Torre Jr.]”: “During Torre’s active period, he was the only one who focused insistently on reviewing programs in the hurried and impatient medium. When his byline started appearing less frequently starting in 2018, after he suffered a stroke, there was also a decline, in my view, of a high quality of commentary on television in our publications” (Squeeze News Agency Services, April 14, 2021; my translation). See as well “Mga Kislap-Diwa: Ilang Tala sa Mga Gawa ni Nestor Torre Jr. [Ingenious Insights: Some Notes on the Output of Nestor U. Torre Jr.]” by the same author (also SNAS, April 14, 2021). [Usage note: Since Torre’s more recent bylines eschewed the suffix “Jr.,” I have opted to drop it as well. Always NUT, never NUTJ.]

[3] As someone who occasionally gets scolded for supposedly incompatible elements in my writing, I can confirm for myself, and anyone who cares to take notice, that I don’t always faithfully conform to the prescriptions of my predecessors. (Sometimes I even perform the exact opposite of what they advice, but that’s a subject for another article.) The incompatibility I mentioned hinges on my pursuit of useful – and inevitably serious – insights while aspiring to wield the airiest tone I can muster. This constitutes my guarantee to myself that every writing activity poses a formal challenge constantly in danger of failure. Certain contexts are more permissive than others in allowing this anomalous combination (blogs included, fortunately), and such precarious balancing acts don’t always succeed, but I draw some lines whenever necessary: against airheaded whiners who think I should settle for simpler ideas, and against high-minded pretenders who disavow the usefulness of laughter.

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Auteurs & Amateurs: Toward an Ethics of Film Criticism (Lecture Version)

Many thanks to the International Association for Ethical Literary Criticism for inviting me to deliver a plenary lecture on ethical film criticism. I may not also be everyone’s idea of a film critic, especially if you bump into me during more casual occasions than a literary conference. In my own feeble defense, I would begin by mentioning that what we might count as the basic output of a film critic, the movie review, was one of my earliest articles as a campus journalist, over forty years ago (David, “Birds of Omen” 43-45) – but let’s keep that scandalous detail to ourselves, shall we.

11011Since then, my odyssey as a Filipino film critic was marked by a few firsts: first fresh college graduate to be invited to the Filipino film critics circle, first former student activist to work in the Marcos dictatorship’s film agency, first and only graduate of the country’s undergraduate film program (my second degree actually), first to publish a local prizewinning book in film criticism, first Filipino to be accepted to a doctoral film program, first director of the national university’s film institute; although one last first – to teach a graduate course in pornography and feminism – will again be probably not to everyone’s liking or appreciation.

11011I take this personalized narrative-based mode because the lessons I learned about ethical practice in film criticism were hard-earned and initially defiant of then-existing values and ideas. But before we move on to what those insights might be, allow me to point out a problem, more of a kink really, in the expression “ethical practice in film criticism.” What I mean by this is that, contrary to commercial practitioners’ expectations, and in line with the thrust of the conference, film criticism always-already presumes ethical practice. This would be its most vital, though also most obvious, resemblance to literary criticism.

11011I may also need to make clear this early that I depart from the premise of what we term ethical literary criticism in a crucial manner. One way of understanding why this distinction must be made is in the industrial definition of film production as opposed to literary activity. To better comprehend the comparison, let’s consider each sphere during the recent past when media technologies had yet to begin converging in digital formats, and were therefore distinct from one another. In literature, the entire manufacturing activity comprising the use of all types of printing and copying machines, plus binding and distribution systems, can never be fully equated with actual literary production. A significant, unknowable, but possibly greater amount of literature is necessarily created privately, almost entirely by individuals, and an invaluable amount resides in the collection and maintenance of written material, not all of it printed in the still-contemporary sense.

11011Film, on the other hand, is emblematic of what we should really call the post-literary mass medium, in the sense that without the presence of an industry, it would not exist – except, at best, as theater. From beginning to end of the filmmaking process, one or more machines are operated by technical specialists, even in the case of the simplest possible type of production, the home movie. In fact the most distinct type of movie we recognize today, the film event, is premised on industrial spectacularization, with its megabudget appropriation, cast of thousands, reliance on preexisting commodities such as hit prequels or comic books, and global distribution system, with a showcasing of the latest digital-graphic applications as an essential component of its attraction.

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11011My sentimental education regarding this matter proceeded from my stint in the Marcos-era film agency, heightened by my film-school internship, and concretized in the year-long freelance work I conducted, in effect replicating what I did right after completing my first degree, in journalism. Allow me to interject here that freelancing in media is the one thing I would never recommend to any fresh graduate, unless she or he has a masochistic streak. Nevertheless, I had enough of a background in student activism and government service to sustain me with a few overweening delusions: first, that scouting the field for the best option can be done while earning a living; second, that media outfits would be fair enough to reward hard work rooted in academic training; and third and most unreasonable of all, that a free radical could effect some changes significant enough to improve the system.

11011In my short autobiographical account of my stint as production assistant for a mainstream studio, I mentioned a notion I’d hoped for that somehow became a reality: today, graduates of any of the country’s few film programs get hired by film and media outfits on a regular basis (David, “Movie Worker” 13). An even luckier few of these degree-holders manage to skip an on-the-job training process and make local and sometimes global waves with their first few film projects. Yet the lesson that impacted my practice as film critic did not appear in this account I wrote. It was something I formulated later, after returning to film commentary by being designated the resident film critic of a prominent weekly newsmagazine.

11011I will admit that I wished that when I first stated my newly formulated ethical premise, my colleagues hailed me as harbinger of a useful and progressive insight. In reality, I collected a number of verbally abusive responses then, and still do so occasionally today. Strangest of all, for me, is the fact that these almost entirely come from representatives of the national university, bastion of claims to Marxist ideals in the country. My aforementioned premise runs as follows. Because of its industrial nature, film practice enables individuals to support themselves and their families and acquaintances. We kid ourselves if we merely focus on the high-profile examples of celebrities and producers and major creative artists: the majority of people working on any sufficiently busy project would actually be working-class, as I had been when I worked in the industry.

11011When a project ends, one could sense a festive atmosphere, with people simply relieved that the struggles and headaches that they sustained through several weeks, sometimes months or even years, of mostly physical labor, have finally come to an end. Yet on the ground, there would also be palpable anxiety: which upcoming project can they latch onto, in order to be able to continue maintaining a decent source of income? Corollary to this is their hope that the project they just finished earn back its investment, if not become a hit, because this means the producer would be able to bankroll a future film, with the strong possibility of rehiring them.

11011I tracked this logic to its extreme conclusion and realized that its ethical core was solid enough to apply to any kind of project. Even a supposedly aesthetically dubious undertaking, like a genre film, or a socially disreputable effort, like a trash or pornographic entry, still represents a godsend to any impoverished member of the film crew. And if the said dismissible output makes a killing at the box-office, this may be unwelcome news to society’s moral and aesthetic guardians, but it certainly portends nothing but glad tidings for the project’s collaborators – its producers and artists, of course, but its workers as well, silent though they may be.

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11011I was taken aback, and still tend to have the same response, by the magnitude of the hostility exhibited by academe-trained experts whenever I attempted to articulate this critical premise. In retrospect, of course, I can see where my should-be colleagues were coming from. The class-based orientation of orthodox Marxist training behooves them to focus on the role of captains of industry – producers, financiers, investors – and subject their judgment of a film product to the moral depredations wrought by capital. As a consequence, profitability, according to this view, should be its own reward already, so a movie that hits pay dirt ought to meet higher expectations or face critical dismissal. Bound up with this judgmental mindset would be the known political sympathies of the major entities behind the production, as well as the operations of narrative formulas, with genre projects suggesting a questionable set of motives, and “low” or “body” genres confirming the producers’ and filmmakers’ surrender to decadence.

11011The one auspicious and relatively recent development on this front is that a progressive strain in feminist thinking, which we might call the sex-positive anti-censorship school (Kleinhans and Lesage 24-26), has set out to recuperate these modes of practice that once resulted in what we might term film detritus, or types of movies that so-called respectable experts and institutions would have jettisoned from any canon-forming activity; some of the more familiar examples would include pornography, horror, tearjerker melodrama, toilet-humor and slapstick comedy, home and diaristic movies, even advertising and propaganda.

11011This development was affirmed on several institutional fronts during the last few years of the 20th century. For example, of the over 200 titles classified as “condemned” or “offensive” by the US Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency from 1936 to 1978 (Catholic News Service), several showed up in the so-called Vatican Film List (SDG), which were supposedly endorsements to the faithful of nearly 50 titles, presented by the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications on the occasion of cinema’s first centenary in 1995. What this meant was that movies once regarded as immoral by religious standards, were later admired as insightful windows into the human condition. When I was in the process of completing my cinema-studies doctorate, the top-ranked American film schools started announcing courses on US skinflicks of the 1970s, now regarded as a Golden Age in porn production; a previously X-rated film, John Waters’s Pink Flamingos (1972), was an arthouse hit, as was an even earlier entry, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), described as Russ Meyer’s tribute to bosomania. Films with outright pornographic sequences can at present be submitted to compete in the A-list film festivals of Europe, and even win major awards for the effort.

11011What this made evident to me was the fact that in popular culture, no pre-existing judgment is guaranteed to last forever. Just as the historical heroics and Biblical epics and costume dramas that once dominated US Academy Awards are only screened for camp amusement today, and the downgraded B-movies of that same era are now considered essential to studies on the development of film language (Monaco 7-10), so can we indulge in the engaging exercise of identifying which contemporary forms of audiovisual media happen to endure the disapprobation of authorities in government, academe, and corporate-sponsored institutions. Only those among us who still cling to beliefs in eternal verities in approaches to popular culture, will be dismayed by the constant revision and repudiation of standards that mark contemporary evaluations of film and cultural artefacts, and will probably be surprised when today’s so-called trash items become tomorrow’s objets d’art.

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11011I might need to clarify, however, that my insistence on recognizing the cruciality of continuing film-production activity to the sustenance of an industry, does not imply that I desisted from formulating negative commentary during the six-year period when I had to turn in reviews on a weekly basis. What my premise precluded, in my personal practice, was the use of sweeping condemnations like “worst movie ever made,” unless I could mix in tonal shadings of irony or camp. Put another way, anything that could lead to the conclusion that such-and-such a release should never have been made would make me think more than twice: I could just as well be commenting on the potboilers I had worked on, and if they’d never been made, how would I have survived?

11011How then should I evaluate the moral worth of a film that I had to review? The answer to this entailed a two-stage procedure, one building on the other, and once more provoking unusual controversy. The first necessitated a bout of critical self-awareness on my end, a condition that applies as much to resident critics as to contemporary bloggers, especially those who set out to cover sudden concentrations of new or old releases, such as film festivals or retrospectives. When an editor or publisher stipulates that the critic must review everything on a given slate, the latter ought to initiate a constant negotiation regarding which releases are accordant with her level of competence or interest, and which ones lie beyond the scope of her abilities. I was fortunate during my resident-critic years that the movie industry was churning out up to four local releases a week, not to mention the far bigger amount of foreign releases that were being distributed. So picking out a film or two or more, out of five to ten choices, was a far better ratio than the one-to-one requirement imposed by some internet websites on their reviewers.

11011The second stage, as I mentioned, was when troubles would arise – not with my casual readers, but with my self-appointed critics. The method I observed took shape after the usual formal-slash-sociological, form-and-content approaches I used, left more questions than answers in their wake. Mostly these would revolve on another bout of self-doubt: how sure was I that any declaration I made was certain to hold up through an unpredictable future? As an example, a canon-creation project for Philippine cinema, ongoing for nearly a decade already, yielded several surprises when we went through the few major films of the past half-century (David and Maglipon). Among the movies released during the martial-law period of 1972 to 1986, for example, several titles acclaimed for their political daring felt, in retrospect, like melodramas in desperate search of significance. What stood out today, with some of them increasing in stature and integrity, were the honest-to-goodness flat-out melodramas, dismissed by film critics of the time for being flighty, apolitical, decadent, tending toward camp, and produced by a studio suspected of reveling in covert sponsorship from the dictatorial regime.

11011The ideal critical approach would therefore set down any conclusion we can make about a movie as strictly provisional, subject to further developments in cultural and political history. But what about the more problematic film-texts I mentioned earlier – i.e., the movies that enjoyed popular patronage? Would there be a means of presenting findings about these releases without falling into the trap of the high art-vs.-low culture binary? The only method I could think of during the time was to contact actual members of the mass audience. When I’d encounter friendly get-togethers in the congested neighborhoods where I resided, I’d approach the people I knew and chat about the movies they just watched or were planning to watch. Refreshingly, these were people who were unconcerned about my academic intent or the impression they would give about themselves among the intelligentsia. So when I asked them for the reasons behind their choices, they never felt obliged to genuflect before the altar of moral worth or aesthetic significance. What they’d provide instead was a unique though residual form of cultural logic, more helpful in elucidating why any current box-office hit was raking it in, regardless of its critical standing.

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11011Even today, one could see this deplorable and potentially tragic separation between the chattering classes, which would include all of us here, and the mass audience, or the public at large, or what we increasingly recognize as the majority of online netizens. When confronted with the reality of inconsistencies in voters’ choices, our colleagues would tend to explain this away by describing them as uneducated, unsophisticated, devoid of higher moral senses, vulnerable to petty corruption, oblivious to the consequences of their decisions. This type of academically acceptable though horrifically anti-progressive approach was what I attempted to evade via the admittedly casual anthropological research I conducted before setting out to articulate my responses to any contemporary film release during my time as resident critic. Once again, for reasons that I cannot (and prefer not to) fathom at this time, colleagues tended to react violently when I set this out as a prescription.

11011The first time I laid it out, rather than used it as a means of explicating specific popular films, a trend in Philippine cinema was arousing the ire of people across various political divides, even opposing ones. This was during a time, a few years after the world-famous February 1986 “people power” uprising, when the surest guarantee of box-office performance was for any movie to resort to toilet humor (David, “Shooting Crap” 109-10). Characters would be seen on prime-time TV trailers clutching their tummies or butts, rushing to toilet cubicles, with diarrheic sounds emanating from inside and characters in the vicinity responding to what appear to be unpleasant odors. The exponent of this funky trend was a comedian named Joey de Leon, still-popular today, whose latest exploit was a wildly successful comic-romantic setup that played out during the real-time real-life segment of a noontime variety show (Zamora).

11011Gamely accepting the challenge to defend his use of toilet humor on a TV talk show, de Leon found himself confronting the right-wing pro-Church chair of the censors board, as well as a leftist academic famed for being occasionally censored and thrown in jail by the martial-law government of Ferdinand Marcos. During a time when the members of the left-leaning Concerned Artists of the Philippines were conducting a series of rallies to protest post-Marcos censorship policies, this was the one remarkable moment when representatives of both sides came together for a common cause – to castigate de Leon’s reliance on a borderline-obscene strategy for provoking audience laughter. I criticized the spectacle via the following remark:

to question a person on the basis of principle is a simple thing to do, but when that principle happens to enjoy popular support, then the possibility of claiming to be better than the majority, antithetical to the democratic premise of raising questions on their behalf in the first place, emerges. This puts the … “critic” in a position too awkwardly similar to that of the cultural censor, who derives his raison d’être from the perverse notion that the people, even (or especially) in a democracy, could not know what is good for them. (David, “Shooting Crap” 110)

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11011One direct aftermath was that a few years later, I encountered the aforementioned artist-academic during my graduate studies in the US, and got berated by him for violating some code of bourgeois behavior that I could not decipher. I later figured out that it might have been because of the article I had written: I had taken extra care not to mention him by name, but there was certainly no denying the widespread coverage of his full-on theatrical performance as offended moral guardian on live TV. What I could have explained, if he had been able to simmer down and engage in a sober discussion, was that the moviegoers I had talked with certainly did not regard themselves as cultural dupes longing or willing to be taken in by a possibly cynically motivated comic talent. The key lay in the still-prevalent euphoria over the people-power event, when the country’s major artists all focused on projects that would commemorate the ouster of a long-entrenched tyrant and the restoration of democratic institutions.

11011The movie audience responded to these predictable and frankly sanctimonious texts by withholding their patronage of local film releases. As a result, from an average of nearly 170 films produced during the Marcos years, sometimes hitting as high as over 230 productions in one year, the local industry came up with 120 titles the year after people power and barely 100 the year after (David, “Annual Filipino Film Production Chart”); many of these in fact were sex films intended for the minimally policed rural circuit. The country’s most successful studio, Regal Films, managed to persuade audiences to resume their movie-going habit by providing comic fantasies featuring a breakout child actor, Aiza (now Ice) Seguerra (“Aiza Seguerra”). While these appealed to women and child viewers, Joey de Leon found a means of filling the gap for more mature audiences, including males, by seizing on a deliberately uncouth rejection of the spiritualistically inspired religious revivalism induced by what people still refer to today as the “miracle at EDSA.”

11011The difficulty of pursuing this particular configuration of critical framework cum method is further complicated by the stylistic demands it makes on expression. The principle I follow stems from the differentiation between academic writing and criticism. The only Filipino film critic recognized as a National Artist, Bienvenido Lumbera, prescribed an approach to writing criticism that conflated it with scholarship: “the writer must not be imprisoned by cuteness or [snark]. I think that’s a very strong tendency when one is beginning to write, when you fall in love with a manner, an expression, a point that you want to make, and you put that across and sacrifice the object you’re talking about” (Lumbera 72).

11011My own response, as a graduate-studies scholar confronted with the demand to observe an “objective” and “impersonal” presentation of research findings, was to constantly seek ways to query, if not subvert, this requirement, rather than allow an entire arsenal of literary possibilities to go to waste. In doing so, I managed to realize that the process of deconstructive jouissance can operate beyond analytics, via the mechanics of style. In criticism, especially in reviewing for a general readership, the playpen covers a far wider territory. The expressive demands may be greater, but the potential to involve the reader in formally discursive challenges, with the commentary providing a fixed reflexive coordinate to the film or films being discussed, would be worth the extra effort of drafting what we may call the creative critique.

11011The ideal to strive for would be an industrial intervention, where the critic helps articulate, for the artist as well as the audience, the film-text’s historical significance and significations, the development of the project’s auteur or auteurs, the industrial limits posed by budget, technology, and training, and how these may be overcome, and the larger social, political, cultural, regional, and global concerns (if any) where text, auteur, and audience may position themselves in pursuit of further insights or benefits. Such instances of intensive interactions among critics, creatives, and consumers have been few and far between, in the experience of Philippine cinema. Nevertheless, they have been known to happen, and have generally proved fulfilling for all parties concerned. The goal in observing a useful and progressive ethical approach to film criticism would be to ensure that critics’ contributions to the growth and development of cinema become a more-or-less permanent feature of creative cultural activity.

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Works Cited

Aiza [sic] Seguerra.” Wow Celebrities! (August 1, 2008).

Catholic News Service (Media Review Office). “Archived Movie Reviews.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. No date.

David, Joel. “Annual Filipino Film Production Chart.” Ámauteurish! (February 25, 2016).

———. “Birds of Omen.” Philippine Collegian (July 26, 1978): 3, 6. Reprinted in Millennial Traversals: Outliers, Juvenilia, & Quondam Popcult Blabbery (Part I: Traversals within Cinema) in UNITAS: Semi-Annual Peer-Reviewed International Online Journal of Advanced Research in Literature, Culture, and Society 88.1 (May 2015): 43-45.

———. “Movie Worker.” National Midweek (November 4, 1987): 15-16. Reprinted in Millennial Traversals: Outliers, Juvenilia, & Quondam Popcult Blabbery (Part II: Expanded Perspectives) in UNITAS: Semi-Annual Peer-Reviewed International Online Journal of Advanced Research in Literature, Culture, and Society 89.1 (May 2016): 13-16.

———. “Shooting Crap.” National Midweek (April 4, 1990): page(s) unkown. Reprinted in Fields of Vision: Critical Applications in Recent Philippine Cinema (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1995): 109-12.

David, Joel, and Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon. SINÉ: The YES List of 100+ Films That Celebrate Philippine Cinema. Summit Media, 2019 (forthcoming).

Greydanus, Steven D. “The Vatican Film List.” DecentFilms: Film Appreciation and Criticism Informed by Christian Faith. No date.

Kleinhans, Chuck, and Julia Lesage. “The Politics of Sexual Representation.” Jump Cut 30 (March 1985): 24-26.

Lumbera, Bienvenido. “Critic in Academe.” Interview. National Midweek (April 4, 1990): 20-22, 46. Reprinted in Millennial Traversals: Outliers, Juvenilia, & Quondam Popcult Blabbery (Part II: Expanded Perspectives) in UNITAS: Semi-Annual Peer-Reviewed International Online Journal of Advanced Research in Literature, Culture, and Society 89.1 (May 2016): 65-74.

Meyer, Russ (director). Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Scriptwriter Jack Moran. Performed by Tura Satana, Haji, Lori Williams, Ray Barlow, Susan Bernardo, Mickey Foxx, Dennis Busch, Stuart Lancaster, Paul Trinka. EVE Productions, 1965.

Monaco, James. The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette. Oxford University Press, 1976.

Waters, John (director & scriptwriter). Pink Flamingos. Performed by Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivan Pearce, Mink Stole, Danny Mills, Edith Massey, Channing Wilroy, Cookie Mueller, Paul Swift. Dreamland, 1972.

Zamora, Fe. “Netizens Go Gaga over AlDub.” Philippine Daily Inquirer (August 17, 2015).

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Tears Go By

Ang Pamilyang Hindi Lumuluha
Directed & written by Mes de Guzman

The narrative of Philippine movie stardom attained a final, irrevocable peak with Sharon Cuneta. One may validate this statement by dissecting the manifold categories that made possible the preeminence of Nora Aunor, the biggest star in the country’s history, and inspecting how the other aspirants measure up. From star-texts scholar and close Cuneta observer Jek Josue David (no relation), the three most crucial aspects would be multimedia (or multifunctional) expertise, longevity, and persistence of fan devotion. This would make Cuneta Aunor’s only contemporaneous match, following a number of mostly male predecessors: Fernando Poe Jr., Dolphy, and (from an earlier batch) Carmen Rosales. I would add that most of these names, from the 1960s onward (and thereby excluding Rosales), had their own production outfits.

11011Aunor’s edge over most stars is that she commuted effortlessly between mainstream and independent projects (although in a technical sense, outfits set up and owned by stars made them not just independent, but literally part of a star system). Cuneta’s own difference was that the production outfit associated with her, Viva Films, was actually a major studio rather than a company where she could call the shots for other people’s projects. It would be erroneous however to presuppose that she never had any so-called indie projects. Her very first starring role, in fact, was in a Sining Silangan Production, and prior to this she had short appearances in a number of other non-studio movies. Since the present millennium, she also appeared in a Unitel as well as an OctoArts film.

11011Ang Pamilyang Hindi Lumuluha (hereafter APHL) is the closest Cuneta has come to an Aunor-type indie undertaking: not only does the production company bear (half) her name, but the project itself partakes of several elements reminiscent of her earlier indie-project attempt, Mark Meily’s Crying Ladies (2003): proletarian material, offbeat handling, moral ambiguity. Yet in this instance, APHL also exhibits the same difficulty that digital-era indie-filmmakers have with legends like Aunor. Perhaps overwhelmed by their stardom and dedication to excellence, the newer generation seems hesitant in (perhaps incapable of, but let’s hope I’m wrong) crafting roles that would challenge these performers, enabling them to break out of the mold that their personas invoke.

11011In this specific instance, Cuneta starts out as a landowner abandoned by her husband and children, who displaces her heartache and longing by attempting to reunite the supposedly propitious title clan in her unoccupied guesthouse, and winds up banishing the family members upon realizing how they had tricked her into believing the folk-mystic claims about them. The benevolent-hacendera character suggests a throwback (or perhaps, though less likely, a tribute) to her erstwhile rival Kris Aquino’s familial circumstances. The situation also enables her character’s dramatic highlight, a breakdown scene where the issues she repressed finally surface – and it is a measure of Cuneta’s ability that she remains as grounded in this openly melodramatic resolution as she is in the rest of the film.

11011The missed opportunity in this case is suggested by the presence of the sidekick character Bebang, played by Moi Marcampo (surnamed Bien in the credits). Cora, Cuneta’s character, is actually presented from Bebang’s perspective – which results in Marcampo having more screen time. More significantly, she winds up with a greater opportunity to indulge in wacky antics with concomitant witty lines while embodying an essentially tragic figure, recognizable to OFWs, of a migrant worker forced to endure alienation and abuse out of filial devotion to an utterly self-interested parent. Interestingly, Cuneta had portrayed several aspects of Bebang before: not just as a migrant worker in Chito S. Roño’s Caregiver in 2008, but also as an Aunor-type rags-to-riches aspirant during the end of her onscreen romantic partnership with her ex-husband. (For an exhaustive evaluation of this period, see Bliss Cua Lim’s article “Sharon’s Noranian Turn.”)

11011APHL could have been an opportunity for the Cuneta audience to witness how she could have improved on, say, Dorina Pineda of Emmanuel H. Borlaza’s Bituing Walang Ningning (1985) or Lupe Velez of Lino Brocka’s Pasan Ko ang Daigdig (1987). From the 1990s onward, people found increasingly lesser reason to doubt her ability in delineating characters closer to her real-life condition. APHL provides further confirmation of her expertise in essaying a family-centric elderly woman abandoned by her kinfolk, leavening the presentation via the use of astute comic timing and enriching it through judicious deployment of dramatic moments that build up to her final outburst.

11011It will always be worth a sitting, if only for affording the spectacle of Sharon Cuneta inhabiting a distinctly indie-movie universe. She allows herself to be deglamorized, dresses up in robes and pajamas and duds, goes on drunken rants and a climactic hysterical breakdown. Through it all she demonstrates the bottom-line confirmation of stardom: that she can let herself go onscreen, and still retain the allure and incandescence of the same young teen who once devoted herself to a public that could never get enough of the conflicted middle-class strong-woman representation she embodied. Her sun is far from having set, and APHL is proof of her readiness to venture into other modes, other landscapes. Aunor has had enough semi-successful or even failed movies that serve as revelatory treats for her fans when they get tired of her usual fare; Cuneta, in many ways the final Filipino star, is coming up with that kind of legacy for herself.

[First published October 18, 2018, in All Things Sharon]

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Signal Rock and a Hard Place

Directed by Chito Roño
Written by Rody Vera

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

11011In fact, some of the PPP entries are also regional films like Signal Rock – Tara Illenberger’s Iloilo-set High Tide and Arnel Barbarona’s Manobo tale Tu Pug Imatuy come to mind, as well as the only one I’ve seen of the lot, Khavn’s CEB-victimized Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, which like Signal Rock is also set in Samar. A comparison of Balangiga and Signal Rock would be a useful place to start then. Where Balangiga’s narrative enlarges on the incomprehensible historical trauma of genocidally motivated colonial warfare, Signal Rock demonstrates the impact that globalization has made on even a far-flung Third-World island.

11011The movie is the director’s and writer’s second project set in Biri island, part of a municipality in Northern Samar – which makes it one of the Visayan islands closest to Luzon.[1] Their earlier Biri film, Badil (2013), featured a young man attending to his father’s unsavory (and ultimately bloody) vote-buying activities during an election period where the still-running mayor asks for support from his cohorts. Intoy, the Biri lad at the center of Signal Rock, is more recognizably provincial, by our usual cynical-urbane standards: laid-back, easy-going, content with helping everyone and indulging in occasional youthful hijinks, with an equally indulgent police chief making sure that he and his homies get their token share of punishment.

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11011His initiation into worldliness, in more ways than one, occurs when he falls in love with a local lass, whose father regards him as unworthy for a prospective in-law. Intoy’s naïveté catches himself off-guard: he could have known the kind of future he’d be facing if he reflected on the troubles that his sister had been struggling with as an abusive foreigner’s mistress, forced to seek refuge by herself in a foreign land. The lesson becomes even more pronounced in the dilemma of his best friend, whose childhood sweetheart returns as the now-prosperous wife of an elderly Caucasian, upon which his still-besotted friend is reduced to being his ex-girlfriend’s paramour. Intoy’s epiphany, that the women of the town are being groomed to work for – and eventually be claimed by – overseas masters, is something that most Filipino intellectuals have known for some time. Signal Rock’s first singular achievement is in restoring the sting to this revelation, by allowing the kind of Filipino we used to know to be overcome by it.

11011That insight alone would have been enough to add depth to any number of romantic comedies (and you might find it unusual for me to claim here that Signal Rock is, literally, a romantic comedy – more conventional in fact that the contemporary mainstream versions whose terms were set four years ago by That Thing Called Tadhana, Antoinette Jadaone’s indie-crossover hit). But the director-writer team have a better treat in store: where the usual melodrama, even the long-drawn-out telenovelas, would bypass a bureaucratic process and get by with merely mentioning it, the movie delineates the process itself and draws dramatic tension out of it, as well as some light comedy, essential suspense, and insightful glimpses into small-town relationships. Here the filmmakers manage to traverse the tricky depiction of desperation and corruption among the destitute without falling into the trap of poverty porn, via the still-rare culturalist strategy of refusing to pass judgment on any of the characters and by partaking of any instance in their celebration of their existence, no matter how paltry or seemingly pathetic.

11011This approach even enables them to engage in reflexive touches, as when the plot follows Intoy’s venture into Manila’s talons of neon, thereby equating his character with that of Julio Madiaga in Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag. In this particular instance, Signal Rock signifies its ideological superiority over Philippine cinema’s global critics’ favorite, just as Christian Bables’s performance as Intoy will prove to be more enduring than Bembol Roco’s still-impressive Julio M.: Maynila may remain one of the most technically accomplished Filipino film epics ever made, but none of its identity problems (sexism, homophobia, racial and anti-lumpen prejudice) mars Signal Rock’s engagement with a wide variety of working-class and lumpenprole types. A mother’s hard-heartedness toward her husband is explained via his past cruelty and negligence toward her; the said husband (Intoy’s father) is able to draw on his limited English-language expertise in order to redeem his daughter’s own standing as an overseas resident; a hotheaded fratricidal slacker retains enough of a conscience to surrender to authorities thanks to his close relationship with the parish priest, with whom he may or may not be lovers; and so on. The movie’s emphasis on mostly male characters derives not from a desire to heroize them (least of all Intoy), but from the circumstantial result of women abandoning the community in order to earn a living for everyone via foreign labor.

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11011The clue to understanding how the film can pull off the delightful hat trick of melding process, lead character, and community into one arresting narrative is in looking over the director’s background. I don’t refer to the fact that he happens to be a Samareño who acquired familiarity with the Philippine capital as well as with other global centers, or that his father was the longest-serving minister of Ferdinand Marcos’s martial-law administration while he oversaw the “alternative cinema” screening schedule of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. Chito Roño is generally overlooked in accounts of still-active survivors of the Marcos-era Golden Age, partly because of the progressive sector’s eagerness to reject anyone associated with the regime, but also partly because he devoted himself to so-called “low” genres, specifically those dealing with sex, horror, lurid melodrama, and action films centered on women.

11011Those who bothered to look more closely into his output were rewarded with some of the most innovative attacks as well as delectable performances in commercial cinema, in packages that weren’t burdened by the “prestige” imprint. More than Badil, Signal Rock would be the equivalent of David Lynch abandoning his usual offbeat material and methods in order to do his appropriately titled 1999 film, The Straight Story. Yet the same creative and critical sensibility infuses Signal Rock’s “regular” world. Intoy’s awakening to illicit relationships, for example, begins when he witnesses his friend resume his affair with his now-married girlfriend, and intensifies when the town mayor confides in him the paternity of his illegitimate son. When he starts witnessing people in similarly unexpected and possibly incriminating situations, he learns to practice discretion – a skill that comes in handy when he finally meets up with his girlfriend in the big city.

11011Roño’s directorial flourishes are more foregrounded in Signal Rock than they were in Badil, yet they remain unintrusive (as discreet as Intoy learns to be) – a sign of the filmmaker’s maturation. In the first few scenes with the title object alone, we already see expert overlappings of image and sound so that more than one event transpires in single scenes; the first time Intoy visits the place by himself, we hear the wind transformed into the sound of a woman weeping.[2] The movie is so full of these throwaway gems that the only advisable response I can provide for a first screening is to sit back and take in the pleasure of a conglomeration of talents who love what they do and know how to go about making it happen.

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

Note

[1] Because of the Northern Samar islands’ diagonal position in relation to Luzon, Capul island lies closer to Sorsogon Province although Biri is the northernmost Visayan municipality.

[2] Interestingly, the similarly named Signal Hill, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, was named for its setting as the site of the first wireless transatlantic transmission, when Guglielmo Marconi awaited a signal from England on December 12, 1901. See Diana Lambdin Meyer, “Canada’s Vital Role in the Communications Revolution” (September 2, 2017).

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Innocence Regained

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

A small town (now a municipality) on the eastern part of Samar island in the Philippines, Balangiga [balan-HEEga] was the site of the bloodiest conflict during the Philippine war of resistance against American colonization. In 1901, after the capture of “first President” Emilio F. Aguinaldo allowed Americans to hope that the war was nearing its end, Philippine revolutionaries succeeded in overpowering the 9th Infantry’s Company C soldiers stationed in the town, as a retaliation for the harsh measures it imposed to hasten the process of colonial attrition.[1] Less than 50 Americans were killed, but at that point it was considered the US’s worst overseas defeat, and evoked memories of the then-25-year-old Battle of the Little Big Horn (more popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand), where over 270 American soldiers died.

11011Little Big Horn had massive and far-reaching consequences for Native American opposition to Manifest Destiny, which by then had transmuted into “Indian removal.” The US’s overseas expansion was also premised on this mystical self-serving belief, with several veterans of the wars against Native Americans participating in the resubjugation of the first formal European territory in the Orient, then known as Las Islas Filipinas (translated by the next colonizers as Philippine Islands). General Jacob H. Smith claimed to be one such veteran, but had actually only seen action in the Civil War. Deploying racist and apocalyptic language, he ordered his subordinates to “kill and burn … [all persons] capable of bearing arms” on the entire island of Samar (the third biggest in the Philippines, after Luzon and Mindanao). Smith earned for himself the nickname “Howling” by announcing his intention to turn the island into a “howling wilderness.”

11011The US Army’s retaliation made American newspapers’ term for the account of the Philippine revolutionaries’ attack, the Balangiga massacre, ironic in contrast. A number of Filipino authors have called the retaliation the burning of Samar (with a 1974 Joey Gosiengfiao movie, scripted by novelist Wilfrido Nolledo, titled Sunugin ang Samar [Burn Down Samar]). The entire occurrence makes it the precursor of subsequent American atrocities in Viet Nam and the Middle East, but is lesser known than the later media-covered incidents or even the historical recounting of the “pacification” offensives directed at Native Americans.

11011A recent release, titled Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, is premised on the retaliatory campaign, and made its own mark on local film history by winning best-film prizes in both the original academy as well as the original critics’ competitions. (Both groups have selected only five similar best-picture winners earlier, in over four decades of their rivalrous coexistence.[2] The version of Balangiga that they awarded, and which I also viewed, was a work-in-progress prior to being further trimmed to significantly less than its two-hour running time.) The film is scheduled for theatrical release mid-August in the Philippines and will be screened at a few major (non-Euro) festivals, with US screenings still in the planning stage.

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11011Balangiga details the flight of an old man and his eight-year-old grandson, from whose perspective and consciousness the entire narrative unfolds.[3] The boy’s name, Kulas, links him with another contemporaneous though older character from an earlier film, Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? [As We Were] (1976); both share the (pre-automotive) road-trip structure encompassing their lead characters’ coming-of-age. But whereas the earlier Kulas was also a dispossessed peasant traversing the turn-of-the-century Philippine countryside, good fortune smiles on him at several points in his journey and adequately prepares him for participating in the anticolonial resistance movement suggested by a benevolent and committed Chinese Filipino that he meets along the way. Balangiga’s Kulas, despite his and his grandfather’s flight from conflict, cuts an even more radical figure. The fact that the movie resolutely refuses to share the feel-good humanism of Ganito Kami Noon and strews the otherwise ravishing archipelagic landscape with dead mammals (mostly human corpses) is only the starting point in articulating this difference.

11011What makes Kulas transgressive is the authenticity of his participation in the nightmare of war, whenever the opportunity presents or imposes itself. He saves a toddler, the only survivor in a village massacre, and successfully attacks an American soldier-straggler, by way of avenging the murder of Melchora, his beloved water buffalo. Yet in defiance of the war’s horrific reality, he persists in having playful, though understandably surreal, dreams, and plays childhood games by himself and with Bola, the kid he saved and calls his brother. Balangiga is, in a sense, simply a commemoration of Kulas’s rites of passage – confronting death, rescuing Melchora and Bola from harm, contending with older men’s cruelty, learning to pacify a traumatized infant and cook food properly, ministering to the sick, and burying the dead, among other skills that Filipino children have since then been forced to learn on their own.

11011The narrative also allows Kulas to be haunted by his memory of the massacre of his hometown, with the still-controversial church bells (confiscated by the US Army but being reclaimed by the Philippine government) worked in seamlessly via some of Kulas’s nightmares. The notion of haunting resonates with several turning points in Philippine history, most eloquently (and just as poignantly) with the still-contemporary reputation of Samar as a rebel-supportive territory during the period of growth of the New People’s Army.[4]

11011The reconfiguration of hauntology to mark the end of Communism as a historical option and its subsequent spectral transformation that reminds resisters of neoliberalism and globalization that the past once held a reason to hope in the future: this may be, in a parallel sense, the lesson of Balangiga as well. The US Army retaliation convinced several anti-colonial fighters that resisting the advance of the Americans was futile, when in fact the Balangiga attack can be seen as one of the most forward-looking acts in the history of guerrilla warfare: the freedom fighters cross-dressed in women’s mourning attire and organized a procession of children’s coffins that actually contained the weapons that would be used in the attack.[5]

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11011The film’s director, Khavn (whose credit is preceded by “This is not a film by”), has made over fifty feature films and over a hundred film shorts (in a list he titles “This Is Not a Filmography”) since the 1990s. Aside from already being the most prolific Filipino filmmaker at such a relatively youthful age, he also has the distinction of presenting the temporally longest Filipino film, the 13-hour Simulacrum Tremendum, classifiable as a poetic, creative, or hybrid documentary screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2016, with the director accompanying the presentation, on the piano.

11011Self-identifying as punk, Khavn collaborated on Balangiga with his partner, Achinette Villamor, as writer and producer, and the gifted queer author Jerry B. Gracio as co-scriptwriter. Villamor and Gracio are articulate, humorous, and (not surprisingly) unruly social-media influencers, while Khavn prefers a more low-key presence. In one of his rare past interviews, he extolled the system of independent production for how it had allowed him to be extraordinarily productive; some of his more recent work, Pusong Wazak: Isa Na Namang Kwento ng Pag-ibig sa Pagitan ng Kriminal at Puta [Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory between a Criminal and a Whore] (2014) and Ang Napakaigsing Buhay ng Alipato [Alipato: The Very Brief Life of an Ember] (2016), possibly even more impressive a work than Balangiga, already evince a longing to speak to the Philippine mass audience.

11011Yet it is Balangiga that manages the feat, with little better than a shoestring budget enhanced by percipient performers and audacious cameos by other Pinoy punk celebrities. Khavn deploys cinematic tricks (stop-motion animation, disorienting lenses, startling drone footage, ghostly superimpositions, etc.) as well as basic special effects that serve to emblematize the childhood world of Kulas. His persistent (though inevitably sordid) humor, tenderhearted embrace of Otherness, and contempt for everything represented by modern existence and its enforcement via wholesale genocidal-if-necessary violence – these make of Balangiga all that Filipinos can claim so far as their retribution for the incredible injustice visited on the country’s distant central island over a century ago. Its triumph as a work of art keeps the memory alive, marks the emergence of the first people’s artist from the high-art Valhalla of European film festivals, and calls for further progressive people’s initiatives that the still-ravaged nation will have to find ways of summoning.

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

Notes

[1] In a social-media post, Rolando Borrinaga, one of the prime movers in the campaign to recover the bells of Balangiga, recalled “what happened on the afternoon of Sunday, September 22, 1901”:

After a tuba store incident wherein two drunken American soldiers who tried to molest the girl waiting on them were mauled by her two brothers, Capt. Thomas Connell, commander of Company C, 9th US Infantry Regiment, then called for a town meeting and ordered the setting up of two Sibley tents off the northwest corner of the municipal building. When the townspeople had gathered, Connell ordered the arrest of all males, about 143 of them, and their detention overnight under the two tents without food and water. This act started the build-up of tensions that resulted in the famous attack one week later on September 28, 1901 and the subsequent taking of the now-returned bells. (Facebook, December 23, 2018)

[2] These five were: Celso Ad. Castillo’s Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak [When the Crow Turns White and the Heron Black] (1978); Lino Brocka’s Jaguar (1979); Carlos Siguion-Reyna’s Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal [You Were the Only One I Loved] (1992); Gil Portes’s Mga Munting Tinig [Small Voices] (2002); and Maryo J. de los Reyes’s Magnifico (2003).

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

[4] More than a year prior to the attack by Filipino revolutionaries on the US unit in Balangiga, a guerrilla group laid siege to the town of Catubig, in what is now Northern Samar; the US Army’s efforts to regain control of the island accounted for the harsh measures that built up to the so-called Balangiga massacre (see endnote 1 for a more recent historical insight). From another period, in “The Fate of the People’s War,” an interview with Denis Rogatyuk in Jacobin Mag, José Mariá Sison said of the New People’s Army “that there is always a region which shines during a certain period. It shines in terms of being effective during offensives…. The most conspicuous development was Samar in 1976, with the NPA repeatedly taking over the police stations and construction companies in a few years’ time” (July 28, 2018).

11011The most popular global impression of Samareños derives from the song “Waray-Waray” (recorded by Eartha Kitt and available in her 1965 live album, In Person at the Plaza), which uses the popular term for the people and their language, and reinforces their typology as a hot-headed and always battle-ready ethnic group. With regard to the bells confiscated from the Church of San Lorenzo de Martir, these were repatriated to the Philippines by the US Department of Defense in December 2018, after 117 years.

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

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Source Exchange for Review of Heneral Luna

I’m including the buildup to the exchange on Heneral Luna between me and Jerrold Tarog, the film’s director and co-writer. I had been introduced to Tarog by Johven Velasco, his mentor at the University of the Philippines Film Institute. He was a major at the College of Music, located beside the College of Mass Communication, and was dropping by for a quick hello. After having been nodding acquaintances for several years (in the course of which Velasco’s sudden departure occurred), I managed to reconnect with him on the social network. [Passages in Taglish were translated to English.][1]

Monday, August 5, 2013, 11:23 AM

Joel
Hi Jerrold, it’s Joel David. Congratulations on the Cinemalaya [Philippine Independent Film Festival] results. Was Sana Dati [which had won best film and director] part of the trilogy that includes Confessional and Mangatyanan? (If so, what’s the title of the trilogy if you don’t mind? I read it somewhere and noted it but I left those notes behind in Korea. Won’t be returning until February next year [when my half-sabbatical ends].) Will there be further screenings lined up for it?

Monday, August 7, 2013, 9:02 AM

Jerrold
Hi Joel. Yes. Last film of what’s called the Camera Trilogy. Theatrical release September 25.

Joel
Thanks! Sent you a friend request.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013, 1:52 AM

Joel
Hello Jerrold, I hope you don’t mind if I ask you directly some questions which I need for fully evaluating Sana Dati. These have to do with the larger work, the Camera Trilogy.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013, 1:52 AM & Tuesday, October 22, 2013, 5:55 PM

Combined Q&A between Joel & Jerrold
1. The 3 films have characters who own & operate cameras. Is that all that unifies these films?

Plot similarities: main character goes to the province, his/her life is changed, comes back with what we expect is a new hopeful outlook on life but actually reaches a compromise. Visual similarties exist particularly in shot composition during certain important events (e.g. the wide two-shot with characters facing each other). They may be trivial but they add to overall visual integrity. I imagine the plots of all three films as clotheslines from which we hang the real concerns of the trilogy, which would be, among other things, the loss of innocence and the resulting compromises we’re forced to make to reach certain truths – maybe there’s some cognitive dissonance at work in the characters’ lives. In Confessional, the conclusions are on a socio-political level. In Mangatyanan, cultural (albeit disguised). In Sana Dati, personal. Side note re Mangatyanan: the film was an attempt at allegorical filmmaking. There’s a reason why Laya’s mother is named Luzviminda. There’s also a reason why Laya chose to forgive her mother instead of her father who molested her.

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2. I can detect some progressive agenda in Confessional (critique of local-govt political roguery) and in Mangatyanan (womanist agency). What I could see in SD was a reworking of the runaway bride narrative, including the expected containment where she accedes to committing to her conventional future. My other problem was that the main character could get away with being a runaway bride mainly because her class position affords her that privilege, and in the end some empathy is directed toward her bridegroom for having the patience to tolerate her. Am I misperceiving the narrative’s intent?
Except perhaps for Sana Dati’s attempt to subvert Pinoy genre conventions, I hesitate to identify a “progressive” agenda in any of the three films primarily because the stories are founded on very cynical roots. All three films present different levels of “giving up,” accepting loss, and moving on with a handicapped position as starting point. Accept that one is damaged then maybe there’s hope afterwards. If that kind of cynicism can be called progressive, so be it. The resulting empathy for Robert Naval in SD is partly borne out of said attempt to subvert genre conventions. Who expects the perceived bad guy to be the real good guy, after all? As for class issues, upper middle class is the film’s milieu. We cannot fault the characters for existing in a privileged position and having no social agenda within the film’s universe at that particular time the story was told. Maybe if the story started with Robert’s attempt to run for governor and focused on the resulting cynicism borne out of his loss (“You can’t be a public servant and a politician at the same time”) there would’ve been class and social commentaries in the film. But there are none, and the film is happy to exist without one.

3. If my previous observation has some degree of accuracy, would it be wrong to say that the trilogy isn’t actually concerned with progressivity after all? Or that whatever seemed progressive in the previous films was just incidental – that these are really texts that seek to uphold specific middle-class individuals as heroes of their own cine-narratives? I’m asking strictly in the spirit of wanting to know what you had in mind. As you might be aware, this line of questioning does not automatically uphold the artist’s intention as the only correct interpretation, but it definitely counts as a privileged perspective, so I’d greatly appreciate being apprised of what your project was all about. Many thanks!
Mostly answered in #2. They cannot be considered heroes. They are middle-class losers, trapped by selfishness (Sana Dati), emotional trauma (Mangatyanan), or ignorance/cowardice (Confessional). In the end, they reach a 50-50 compromise: Ryan Pastor knows the truth but chooses to keep it hidden, Laya forgives her mother (accepts fate as molested country) but not her father, Andrea Gonzaga says “I love you” to Robert even if it’s not completely true (she looks away from Robert at the last shot).

Saturday, October 10, 2015, 8:52 PM

Joel
Hi Jerrold, warm congrats for the success of Heneral Luna, which (as I told [co-producer] Ting Nebrida) I appreciated highly. I was willing to write a review but I needed a 2nd screening, but then I had to return to Korea before it opened in theaters. I keep trying to caution some academic acquaintances to keep in mind that it’s meant as a popular piece, and was received [by the general public] exactly in that way. But then I’m no longer surprised at their insistence on feeling superior to the work. [Brickbat deleted] I’m writing for another reason as well. I was being asked to revise the biography of Johven Velasco for the Cultural Center of the Philippines’s Encyclopedia [of Philippine Art’s 2nd edition], then I saw a review you wrote of his posthumously published book, titled “Velasco’s Legacy.” I remember Ellen [Ongkeko-Marfil] forwarded this to me, but I don’t remember if this got published, and I also googled the title and your name and apparently it’s unpublished. Would you mind if I posted the review on my archival blog? We’ll put your name and announce it as your article. (There are a few other pieces on the blog not written by me, but they’re all duly acknowledged.) Best regards and I’ll be looking forward to your historical trilogy, whatever shape it takes.[2]

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Sunday, October 11, 2015, 12:28 AM

Jerrold
Hi, Joel. Wow. Totally forgot about this. It’s all fine with me. Post away. Thanks for taking the effort to caution academic critics. I find it funny that intelligence doesn’t really make one immune from adopting a myopic viewpoint. Most of the criticism thrown at Luna boils down to what the critics wanted the film to be. Somehow they can’t judge the film based on what it was trying to achieve. Anyway, we just laugh it off over here. Let me know if you’d like to see the film again for review purposes.

Sunday, October 11, 2015, 7:31 PM

Joel
Salamat for the green light. Re acad critics – I didn’t caution them directly, just entirely in passing. But when an extended discussion came out, I could sense that some of them were aware of people’s warning about the paradox of claiming to be pro-people while disparaging something the audience “voted” for. The tone became defensive [as a result]. I continued upholding examples of [netizens] who differed with the film’s statements but whose perspective did not include the sense of penalizing any of the people behind the project. [Further disparagement of organized critics] I got immediate clearance from [editor & publisher] Cri-en del Carmen Pastor to review Heneral Luna for her NY-based The FilAm (my usual outlet). The timing seems right because the film will be released end of October in NYC. So could you send me the link to the [screener file]? I promise to keep it confidential and never to download it. Also, in case I rewatch it and I’ve got some further questions, hope you don’t mind if I ask you.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015, 10:08 AM

Jerrold
[After providing link] Do let me know once the review is out. And, yes, I don’t mind answering further questions.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015, 8:34 PM

Joel
Went thru the movie and still appreciated it, warts and all. I can argue it’s your best, but since that’s a matter of opinion, we’ll leave that for the review. If I may ask some questions, which have been raised by some commenters already.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015, 8:34 PM & 11:29 PM

Combined Q&A between Joel & Jerrold
1. The worst that can be said about focusing attention on Pinoys as our own worst enemy is that it can have a cynical mercenary effect – i.e., it will make the movie palatable even to illiberal American observers, since their country isn’t condemned as heavily as its actual historical role calls for. Were you aware of this possible accusation and how did you work this out?

I was aware that I was leaving many things out, especially regarding the role the Americans played during the war. But that was the whole point of the opening disclaimer. Luna is less a history lesson and more of an indictment of certain Pinoy traits that have been in existence even before the Americans came. Was it the fault of the Spaniards? Maybe. But in our current state, is it really useful to condemn our colonizers and lay the blame on them for our troubles, or should Filipinos get their act together and move forward since we’re already enjoying certain freedoms we never had before? It’s very important to acknowledge what America did but that would be an entirely different film. Clinton Palanca in Spot.ph said it best: [Luna] is a two-hour treatise on the current state of the nation, couched in costumes and poetic intonations of a fictive 1898.

2. A few people I knew who might have been progressive or sympathetic [toward the film] refused to watch. I later figured out that they were Cavite-based, or were born in Cavite. Personally I’m glad the movie refuses to perform the humanist act of sparing everyone from blame. But doesn’t the film plug into the “we’re too parochial to be a nation” argument by criticizing certain participants according to their place of origin?
I will have to refer to one of the film’s inspirations: Nick Joaquin’s A Question of Heroes, where the author identified cavitissmo and regionalism as instrumental to the collapse of the revolution. I think once people read that and Vivencio Jose’s The Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna, they’ll pretty much understand our take on things. Some historians have told me that regionalism doesn’t exist but I beg to disagree. Regionalism isn’t the cause of our troubles now (probably because traditional and social media have done their part in addressing our commonalities) but, back then, when people would proudly identify themselves by their place of origin, I believe it played a big role. However, you can’t deny that Filipinos are still clannish today. Whether that contributes to our feeble sense of nationhood, I’m not sure. Maybe.

3. This is the closest you’ve gotten to a full-length studio assignment, even if it’s an indie studio [that produced the film]. The indicators would be not just the budget and scope, but also the fact that you were hired to work on a script that was written by the producers. How were you able to make sure that the movie would not wind up the impersonal & mechanical metteur-en-scène type of output? Sorry, these queries sound difficult and may not even be resolvable. But I’ll appreciate any light you could shed. Again, I’m not out to judge harshly (or so I hope). I’m also taking the opportunity to learn from the experience of watching and interacting. Maraming salamat! And congrats several times over!
I actually once did a full-length film for [mainstream outfit] Regal called Aswang. Not too proud of that one though. I asked permission from the producers of HL to rewrite the original script, which was entirely in English. I added more humorous bits (especially the dynamics among Luna, Roman, and Rusca), toned down the more theatrical dialogue, added and deleted scenes, and put in every cinematic flourish I could think of that was appropriate to the piece (including the reference to [General Antonio Luna’s painter-brother Juan’s prizewinning masterpiece] “Spoliarium”). That’s how I always turn an existing screenplay into something more personal – by rewriting it and making it somehow my own. I did that in my [omnibus-horror series] Shake, Rattle & Roll projects too.

11011Thanks a lot, Joel! I didn’t mind the questions at all. It’s a breather from the countless questions that have been asked ad nauseam in god knows how many interviews I’ve had. Hope it helped clarify things.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2015, 12:34 AM

Joel
Very honest & admirable answers. I always make a point of understanding where an author’s coming from so that I don’t wind up imposing my own should-have-beens in my reading. Sometimes I quote directly, but generally I just use the author’s intention as starting point. I haven’t seen your horror films so that’s a gap in my familiarity with your output. Also the critical treatment that Heneral Luna deserves right now won’t be one more review (like what I’ll be doing) but rather a scholarly article, to be able to inspect the innovative phenomena that it participated in – social media, historical discourse, indie-mainstream intersections, etc. Times like these make me wish Johven were still around, because he would have found the perfect way to attain the perfect critique. That’s also my ethos in film criticism: the effort should always be worthy of the object that it’s studying, otherwise it won’t have a shot at any kind of long-term significance. Once again, salamat for your effort in formulating your answers. I’ve always maintained that the best artists are the ones capable of critical thinking (which is why critics should also understand the artistic process). That plus connecting with the mass audience – a difficult challenge that only few have been able to hurdle. HL’s Exhibit A for that standard of achievement.

Jerrold
Thank you very much, Joel. Yes, I do wish Johven were around. I would’ve wanted to know his thoughts on everything that’s been happening. I truly appreciate your effort in knowing where the creators are coming from. That helps a lot in the discourse. I’ll be looking forward to your article.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015, 8:52 PM

Jerrold
[After reading a draft of the review] I don’t see any inaccuracies. It’s all good with me. Love the closing statement! Haha.[3]

Notes

[1] The review I wrote, “Antonio Luna’s Fall and Rise,” was published on October 15, 2015, at The FilAm.

[2] The other installations in Tarog’s second formal trilogy would be biopics of Gregorio del Pilar – being produced as of first quarter of 2018 and titled Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral [Goyo: The Young General] – and of President Manuel L. Quezon.

[3] Subsequent discussions in this message thread pertained to Tarog’s participation in a foreign film festival as well as his responses to a takedown of Heneral Luna, attributing the rise of fascist sentiment to the film.

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Source Exchange for Review of Vampariah

Vampariah was the closing film of the 2016 Filipino Arts & Cinema International, which I attended as recipient of the Gawad Lingap Sining (Art Nurturer Award). FACINE founder and director Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr. introduced me to Matthew Abaya, whom I sought out after the screening to congratulate and ask if he didn’t mind my reviewing it. When I told him that that could entail some Q&A exchanges, he indicated his willingness to participate. As soon as I recovered from the trip, I initiated a Facebook Messenger discussion thread that included Mauro Tumbocon. I edited the exchange below to exclude superfluous or redundant material. My own messages are indented. The review itself came out in early 2017.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016, 8:24 PM

Joel
Hi Matthew (with Mau listening in), I know that if I keep aiming to complete prior assignments I’ll never be able to get around to reviewing Vampariah. So I’m writing to you now to see if we can arrange for this. I normally require at least two screenings of any film, since the 1st is where I allow for my subjective take and observation of audience responses and the 2nd is when I write notes. That means I need one more screening – doesn’t have to be theatrical this time; if you have a screener or a link to an online posting, that would be fine. I assure you that it won’t circulate beyond me. The other matter is venue. I have only one ready outlet, the NY-based TheFilAm.net, which is edited by a friend of mine. I usually ask whether the film will be having a Tri-State or North American release so I can refer to it in my review. Other producers or directors prefer a different venue and time frame; they just tell me where and when (for example, for a Philippine daily by such-and-such a date), I write the piece and give it to them or to their contact person in the publication. Since I’m in neither Pinas nor US, I can’t cultivate these contacts myself. But I do prefer to tailor my writing to specific readers (in terms of vocabulary, length, tone, etc.), even in the case of TheFilAm with its 1,500-word limit. I don’t ask for payment because at this time I won’t need it (plus it’s always insultingly low, although I used to rely on the $30-per-review checks I would get as a resident reviewer during the late 1980s). If a check’s available, I always request the editor or producer or director to donate it to any favorite charity. As I prepare the review, I’d also often ask anyone in production (usually the director) about certain background info on the project, or list any issues I might find regarding the text, for them to answer if they wish to. Most critics, and some of my graduate-school classmates, consider this a wrong procedure, but it always worked for me, and I suspect they’ve come around to doing it, if they wanted to be productive in the long term. I still have to meet a film person who felt this interaction was unnecessary, so that confirms for me that it’s just the right thing to do. Will look forward to your response. Best regards.

Thursday, November 24, 2016, 4:09 AM

Matthew
Thank you. You can watch Vampariah again [at this online venue]. Let me know if it plays OK. Thanks again for giving the film a good look. There are many layers to the film and I am happy to talk about them. I don’t think any reviews have been made with the subtext of post-colonialism which is a major theme of the film. With the current climate of political relations between the US and the Philippines, I would be curious as to your interpretation.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016, 8:48 AM

Joel
Thanks for the link. Just a quick clarification: no, I don’t (wish to) get paid for reviewing. If you’ve got a budget for it, just donate it to a lesbian POC NGO, if one exists. So TheFilAm.net as outlet will be OK with you? (Some of their articles get picked up by Philippine media.) Is there any future screening or release of Vampariah I can point readers to? Last, have you got any write-ups (by you or others) about yourself? Salamat. Hope to get this done soon!

Matthew
Sounds good. As far as future screenings and distribution goes, we are still sorting out distribution options. We are planning more US and international screenings next year. A homecoming to the Philippines is in the works. Nothing is solid yet.

Joel
So would a review be useful at this time or would you prefer to wait? I can work with either option. If you want the review timed for some event, just let me know. Otherwise I’ll just mention your plans for the film as you’d written.

Matthew
Hmmm. Good question. At this time I kind of would like to get as much exposure as we can. We don’t have anything to report for next year just yet but it would be nice to get film festivals and audiences excited to see it happen in their town. I think we are lacking a lot of good reviews on the internet as a whole. At least we have some good radio podcast but nothing in writing. The best one we have is with SF Sonic.

Joel
OK then, I’ll let [the editor] know that I’ll be drafting a review, maybe by next week. She tends to rush me but that’s OK – it forces me to work more quickly.

Matthew
Haha thanks. [laugh]

Joel
Not to be too big-headed about it, but if you read the NY Times review of [Jerrold Tarog’s] Heneral Luna, it sounded suspiciously close to what I wrote for TheFilAm. [link provided]

Thursday, November 24, 2016, 10:30 AM

Matthew
For real? Wow.

Joel
Just my conceit. Or maybe delusion haha.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016, 12:53 PM

Matthew
I think it might’ve been lifted from your review.

Joel
Some basic insights were what I recognized. I don’t mind, since mine came out 1st, and ideas can’t be copyrighted anyway. Some of my earlier declarations got propagated in the past, but not my 2nd thoughts or reversals about those same ideas – like the statement that the Marcos era constituted a Golden Age of cinema. BTW, where can I find some basic info about you?

Mauro
I love that statement about the Golden Age of [Philippine] cinema.

Matthew
I can send you my bio. Yes I love the Golden Age.

Joel
Sige, pls send me a copy. I tried repudiating that Golden Age statement but it didn’t take off. Maybe I should conduct a stronger self-deconstruction. [smile]

Mauro
It will be all right as long as you are clear about its meaning, and at the same time, are cautious about its use one way or another. It’s also important to periodize our history.

Joel
My point was: the 1st Golden Age “theory” resulted in an underappreciation of 1960s independent cinema, so the 2nd one shouldn’t distract us from inspecting any productive efforts that were done after February ’86.

Mauro
You mean, post ’86 pre-digital.

Joel
Yes, the periods between supposed Golden Ages. Many directors did some of their best output during those moments – Gerry de Leon, [Lamberto] Avellana, [Cesar] Gallardo, [Cesar] Amigo during the 1960s, [Chito] Roño, [Marilou] Diaz-Abaya, [Carlos] Siguion-Reyna, a few others during the ’90s.

Matthew
Wow [smile]. Was ’86 the beginning of digital?

Mauro
Digital may have started in 1999 with Jon Red’s Still Lives.[1]

Matthew
Yeah that’s when I remember digital becoming more a trend.

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Mauro
Hence 1986 to 1999 is indeed fertile ground for study, the period immediately preceding the surge of independents via digital – which was of course, immediately post-martial law.

Joel
It became standard industry format a few years after, around mid-2000s.

Friday, November 25, 2016, 3:35 AM

Matthew
Check this out [link given]: my film won 2 awards at the same event in the feature-film category alongside [Pedring Lopez’s] Nilalang which is another Filipino monster film. I’m looking for more write ups like this. I picked up three [comments] in the last week and there’s actually no press on it.

Saturday, December 31, 2016, 1:50 AM

Joel
Hi Matthew – I tried to watch [what you provided] but the website said the password was incorrect. (I copied and pasted what you wrote, then I typed it out – same result. I’ll be leaving in less than two days so I’m trying to watch it before I wind up with the Philippines’s slow internet speed.) [After Matthew provides a fix.] Thanks and advanced Happy New Year! Sorry it took me this long to start watching!

Matthew
No worries. We will be going into 2017 with a distributor so it would be really good to have a review.

Joel
I’m also thinking of catching the better entries at the Christmas film festival so that when I make a declaration about Vampariah, I would have a basis for making the assertion. But if that takes too long, then I’ll just draft the review and turn it in to The FilAm.

Matthew
Thank you so much. I definitely want to go back to the Philippines.

Joel
I’ll be there until late July [2017, for a] half-sabbatical. Let me know if you’ll be in town. Maybe you can interest one of the local festivals in showcasing it? Cinemalaya & the Metro Manila filmfest are the ones where non-mainstream entries have a chance of having some audience patronage. Otherwise you’ll be up against the majors in cahoots with the theater owners, and only a handful have been able to buck that system.

Matthew
Will be really nice to get into those festivals but I don’t have a good in [frown]. I need to find a way get their attention. Having more written about the film would be helpful.

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Joel
Will see what I can do. Plus there’s the stuck-in-the-’60s brand of nationalism, where if you’re not homegrown or home-produced, you get ignored at best or criticized at worst. Better to take careful steps. Mau might also be able to help out. I’ll see what I can do by way of generating some buzz for it.

Matthew
I’ve been told to expect a lot of criticism. I guess the film fights up and [claims] a very interesting spot, being an American movie done by Filipinos who were born and raised here. I appreciate your wisdom on this.

Joel
I’ve seen Fil-Ams go through that predicament before, where they’re never “authentic” enough for either culture. That’s why I found Vampariah’s embrace of the liminal so true & refreshing.

Matthew
Authenticity is definitely an issue related in the film. That’s awesome. [applause]

Joel
It’s raised as an issue in a few other Fil-Am productions, but this is the 1st time where even the stylistic elements demonstrate the struggle. Will show you the draft when I’ve finished it for your comments &/or corrections.

Matthew
Exactly. I definitely feel a strong connection to films like [Rod Pulido’s] Flip Side or [Gene Cajayon’s] The Debut, albeit a very different kind of film.

Sunday, January 1, 2017, 12:55 AM

Joel
Hi Matt (saw this nickname in one website but if it’s wrong pls let me know) – would you mind if I ask some questions about the movie? I’ve looked at the press materials but they weren’t comprehensive (and didn’t have to be). No need for a quick answer, just do it when you have the time. I’m supposed to be in transit myself, from Korea to Pinas, by tomorrow.

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Sunday, January 1, 2017, 12:55 AM & 7:49 AM

Combined Q&A between Joel & Matt:
1 – The 1st supernatural creature was “Kouji” (from the credits at IMDb) – a creature that hops in order to get around. Is this based on a local or regional “lower” myth in the Philippines? It seems similar to some early Euro accounts of undead movements.
Kouji is a hunter. He dies when Bampinay kills him for trying to hunt down Mahal. Mr Fang is a Chinese vampire called a jiangshi – 殭屍. Hack Daddy refers to him as a kyonshi, which is the Japanese pronunciation. The character uses this word because it is easier for him to pronounce. I always found it interesting that 2 creatures I loved to watch movies about in my teen years, aswangs and jiangshis, never faced off in a movie before. Mr. Fang is somewhat-tragic comic relief. He lost everything and is left to wander aimlessly hunting and being hunted. In the end he is sort of released and begins to recapture part of his humanity.

2 – The hunters stick some yellow sheets with what appears to be Oriental (Chinese?) characters on them. Are these Buddhist prayers similar to how East Asian cultures vanquish their supernatural monsters? There’s also what appears to be shadow puppetry that resembles wayang kulit – let me know if I’m wrong, or if this was unintended.
Mahal apparently has some old magic in her. Vampire films often follow European traditions and it seems she knows how to deal with a Chinese vampire like Mr. Fang. (Mr. Fang’s name is a homage to Mr. Vampire films from Hong Kong.) [The use of] wayang kulit was intentional. I had written this lengthy backstory to be sort of like Scrooge’s haunting by the ghosts of [Charles Dickens’s] A Christmas Carol, but the scene required us to take a dramatic yet bold way to tell a long backstory without running up the production budget. I always wanted to incorporate Asian shadow puppetry in the film. Aureen Almario (Bampinay) and players at Bindlestiff Studio often incorporate [ethnic material] into their stage plays. She was instrumental in the construction of the scene.

3 – The TV aswang explorer who gets killed – was that meant to be a reference to Steve Irwin? More on references – was Blade an influence? (I’m not against the idea of homage.) Because I’m thinking of calling it by the same genre, punk horror. Also, the main characters are “half-breeds.”
“The Cryptid Hunter” John Bates is based on Josh Gates of the show Destination Truth. I used it as a criticism of expats and “whitesplaining.” You can say we killed it.

4 – The monsters that Michele creates – are they zombies, or zombified vampires?
They are both, but mostly missing disinters who don’t agree with a hidden master plan designed by the faceless male voice that controls Michele. [Incidentally,] Michele Kilman is intended to resemble Michelle Malkin.

11011Blade, Underworld, Interview with the Vampire, The Lost Boys, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula must have been my biggest influences.[2] Blade and Underworld feature martial arts, a goth-punk driven score, and a vampire protagonist. It seemed like a great template for a more complex story and capable of making a story about identity relatable. Clearly a homage to my favorite vampire films while introducing something entirely different to the American landscape. It wasn’t merely trying to explain it to non-Filipinos and non-Asians.

5 – Bampinay drawing Mahal into realizing and accepting her aswang nature – was that intended to be an allegory about Fil-Ams completing their identity via Philippine culture? (It’s a complex issue because Pinas culture is itself highly syncretized.)
Yes indeed.

6 – Where did you have your film training and/or apprenticeship?
The bulk was in community college at CSM (now defunct) – same class as fellow Pinoy filmmaker HP Mendoza. I also took more technical classes at the City College of San Francisco, San Francisco State University. I worked on other feature films as an assistant, to build chops. [Additional remark: Thank you. This film does need a little decoding as it has to be left open to its creative interpretation.]

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Joel
These are all the questions I have for now. I don’t know if you read Tagalog, but the best recent Philippine novel I’ve come across is Ricky Lee’s Amapola in 65 Chapters (Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata), which is also queer-themed but involves a cross-dressing performer as the manananggal hero. (I once wrote a review of it.) Once more, no need to rush with the answers. Thanks and Happy New Year.

Sunday, January 1, 2017, 7:49 AM

Matthew
I hope this adds clarity. You both have a Happy New Year!

Thursday, January 12, 2017, 9:17 PM

Joel
The draft I prepared [is attached]. I forwarded to [the editor] Cri-en Pastor because she asked for it over a week ago, but I can still make corrections in about a day, before she uploads it. Wasn’t able to use all the info I compiled (plus my usual small notebook of scribbles) but it’s always better to have more knowledge than you need. It will also be helpful in more scholarly writing I might wind up doing later, or if I have advisees interested in this type of cinema. Many thanks for the help – and pls let me know if there are urgent/serious errors that have to be corrected.

Friday, January 13, 2017, 2:17 AM

Matthew
Thank you so much. I really appreciate that you mention that we are using a subversive genre as a vehicle and a means of empowerment. It is the main takeaway from the film. What do you think will be different from the final [version of the review]?

Friday, January 13, 2017, 4:08 AM

Joel
Unless I warn Cri-en of any serious errors and give her a revised draft, she’ll upload what I submitted. I provide myself the luxury of a more-final-than-final version (including updates and corrections) via my blog. So I’ll see what else I can improve after a while, and incorporate it in the blog version.

Mauro
Perhaps, if okay with Matt, you may as well qualify – “Bampinay” was not his first short film; he has been doing short films since FACINE started 23 years ago, most of them of the horror/sci-fi genre, except for one called “HoMe,” a collage of photos, the text referring to cultural identity and Filipino iconography, which I love much. Matt, you may add to this too.

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Matthew
Oh yeah. Thanks Mauro. I been also known for music videos [like Mud’s “Careless”].

Joel
Corrected and forwarded the draft already. Don’t be surprised if the publication changes the title. That’s standard practice in journalism, where editors have to fill up available spaces in their page layout. In my books and in my blog, I usually restore the title I suggested if I find it preferable to what the editor prepared. Cri-en said she’ll get it out “tonight” (tri-state area time).

Wednesday, January 25, 2017, 11:35 AM

Matthew
One other thing that’s been hitting me lately in Hollywood is the whole “whitewashing” issue with [the remake of Mamoru Oshii’s] Ghost in the Shell. I made Vampariah to counter that. I hope this one interview I did in NYC comes out where I opened up a lot about that.

Joel
Is this the Japanese anime? I remember watching that after I learned that it was one of the main inspirations for [the Wachowski sisters’] The Matrix.

Matthew
The Hollywood remake. I love the anime.

Joel
Me too. Didn’t know Hollywood remade it, but that’s no longer surprising. Sige, I’ll look it up.

Matthew
Basically I spoke of how 2016 was a challenging year for Asian Am actors and a film like Vampariah if pitched to a Hollywood studio would not get made, mostly for its casting.

Notes

[1] Mike de Leon’s Bilanggo sa Dilim, made in 1986, was produced by the Philippine branch of Sony Solid Video and screened at Wave Cinema in Cubao, which was equipped to screen films shot in video. See my review titled “Return to Form” in The National Pastime.

[2] These films were directed by the following: Stephen Norrington (Blade); Len Wiseman (Underworld); Neil Jordan (Interview with the Vampire); Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys) and Francis Ford Coppola (Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

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