Category Archives: Film Criticism

A Formative Sojourn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Á!


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saan Ako Nagkamali

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

Kahit Na

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Lies Above: A Mini-Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Á!

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Every Tier a Victory; Or Why Film Awards Don’t Have to Be So Divisive

I endeavored to provide this postmortem-of-sorts of a film event that I wrote about just recently (specifically my October 30, 2021, contribution to The FilAm, reprinted in its newsmagazine’s December 2021 issue). The awards results, which are too bulky to contain within the body text, will show up as the equivalent of appendices in the endnotes.

One of the this year’s FACINE Gold winners for Best Film. [From the FACINE 28 Facebook page.]

This late in the year, a set of film awards has been generating social-media buzz, though it’s not from any of the usual sources: it’s from a preselected (film-festival) collection, and it’s not even Philippine-based. It’s also the second year that the annual festival of the Filipino Arts & Cinema International or FACINE handed out its highly modifiable tiered arrangement of winners.[1] After what seemed like collective head-scratching last year, you could look up the winners’ online posts at this time and see how a lot of mutual relief and bonding has been fostered by the results.

11011A “tiered” system may be just an approximation of the awards results that the FACINE has been presenting, since the term still refers to fixed categories that allow for a multiplicity of levels of achievements. Film awards of course have always proved fascinating for the general public, since they grant recognition in several more-or-less permanent categories. But the FACINE’s tiers not only adhere to rationalized recategorizations and more than one level of achievement within a category; they also accept multiple winners, when the evaluators agree that more than one talent deserves to be upheld.

11011My appreciation of the warm public response toward FACINE’s tiered system derives from more than just the satisfaction of knowing I helped promote the right kind of event. Believe it or not, a decades-long stretch of nostalgia’s at play in my case, from the time during the late 1980s when I and Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., FACINE’s founding director, counted ourselves as stragglers from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino or Filipino Film Critics Circle. Since a number of active film critics had also resigned from or were refusing to join the MPP, we thought that organizing an alternate group could provide innovations that the earlier body was by then already too calcified to implement.

11011One of our several extensive discussions with a growing number of prospective members, in consultation with progressive film practitioners, raised the issue of how a system of recognition could avoid the MPP’s hypocrisy in claiming to support a community of artists, only to have them resenting one another after only one winner per fixed category has been declared. (“We still live in a capitalist society,” one highly reputable elder told me after I expressed my objection to the winner-take-all concept, “so we have to provide a system that capitalist subjects can recognize.” There’s more where that came from but we’ll leave the more exciting stuff for later.)

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11011Did alternative models exist? Not in the Philippines at that time, although regular attendees at the year-round film screenings of Goethe-Institut Manila were aware that the Federal Republic of Germany’s national film awards handed out gold, silver, and bronze appraisals to deserving film titles from any given year. When the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines’s Film Ratings Board started classifying film applicants in terms of their quality achievements in order to qualify for tax rebates (i.e., A for 50%, B for 25%, and C for nothing), the practice proved so popular that the FRB can be considered the only ECP agency in continuous operation since 1982, even after its supervising organization was dissolved a few times over (it was renamed the Cinema Evaluation Board during the early aughts – see Butch Francisco, “The Birth of the CEB,” Philippine Star, January 6, 2003).

11011Hence the Young Critics Circle, with Mau as founding chair, started out by declaring, minus a nomination process, winners in Gold and Silver categories, with performances conflated in one gender-blind arrangement that dispenses with the usual actress/actor, supporting/lead, and multiple/individual divisions; only the second innovation is still observed by the group, while FACINE, to maximize celebrity presence, listed the traditional categories while maintaining the more-is-merrier approach.[2] The difficulty of introducing a hitherto non-existent system is twofold: the year under consideration might not require too much complexity and potential rewards; and the attempts at announcing new or shifting categories could prove tricky for the evaluators themselves.

11011A hint of the second can be seen in the first set of YCC prizes. After we decided on the first two sets of winners, we felt that one final release deserved some kind of runner-up status. It was given a prize for direction, which of course was entirely not its distinction. The next year, Mau and I set up Kritika, again with him as chair, with the purpose of designing results that were as flexible as they were fair, as responsive to the year’s output as we could make it.[3] We were fortunate in that the two films that impressed us the most that year happened to be a superstar genre vehicle and a short art film (also in the literal sense, since it focused on an outstanding female sculptor).

11011Said art film was also arguably a documentary, but the Silver group affirmed our resolve to break down the boundaries that separate formats, modes of distribution, screening length, and the feature/nonfiction binary (with the local industry’s and critics’ prizes finally following suit exactly three decades later, with last year’s best-film win for Alyx Ayn G. Arumpac’s documentary Aswang). That time also, a particularly noteworthy entry too minor to include in either Gold or Silver category was declared exactly that: Particularly Noteworthy. In the list of individual achievements, we had a writer who was cited for two films as well as two winners in the performance category (one of whom won for three titles); this turned out to be the only critics’ prize ever given to Elwood Perez, until FACINE declared him a life-achievement winner in 2015. Finally, we also decided to provide certificates of appreciation for the foreign-film distributors who released some of the better non-Filipino entries of the year.

11011Up to the end, all the recipients of these tiered prizes kept remarking how grateful they were for the recognition. If you ever hear from the FACINE jurors what a tough assignment it was, believe them; the MPP might claim their awards system is the best they could come up with, but that’s either a load of bunk or an indicator of the limits of their imagination. By the end of 1992, nearly all the Kritika members had left or were preparing to leave for various purposes – overseas graduate studies in several cases, migration on Mau’s end. As a US resident and naturalized citizen, he was able to continue his organizational activities, with a global-showcase film event as his cynosure this time, while I plug along elsewhere in my sinecurish tenured post. So the good vibes over the FACINE awards announcement? That’s always good news, even if it’s no longer news to me.

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Notes

[1] From the Facebook page of FACINE 28:

Film

Gold: Lockdown (For the Love of Art Films); Midnight in a Perfect World (Globe Studios, Epicmedia)
Silver: Isa Pang Bahaghari [Another Rainbow] (Heaven’s Best Entertainment)
Bronze: Nerisa (Viva Films)

Direction

Gold: Joel Lamangan (Lockdown)
Silver: Dodo Dayao (Midnight in a Perfect World); Joel Lamangan (Isa Pang Bahaghari); Irene Emma Villamor (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)

Writing

Silver: Eric Ramos (Isa Pang Bahaghari)
Bronze: Dodo Dayao & Carljoe Javier (Midnight in a Perfect World); Irene Emma Villamor (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)

Lead Actress

Gold: Bela Padilla (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)
Bronze: Jasmine Curtis-Smith (Midnight in a Perfect World)
Special Citation: Elora Espano (Love and Pain in Between Refrains); Kim Molina (Ikaw at Ako at ang Ending [You and Me and the Ending])

Lead Actor

Gold: Paolo Gumabao (Lockdown); Jerald Napoles (Ikaw at Ako at ang Ending)
Silver: Oliver Aquino (Love and Pain in Between Refrains); Phillip Salvador (Isa Pang Bahaghari); JC Santos (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)

Secondary Actress

Gold: Rio Locsin (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)
Silver: Bing Pimentel (Midnight in a Perfect World)
Bronze: Sheree Bautista (Nerisa); Elizabeth Oropesa (Nerisa)

Secondary Actor

Gold: Jim Pebanco (Lockdown)
Silver: Michael de Mesa (Isa Pang Bahaghari)
Special Citation: Dino Pastrano (Midnight in a Perfect World)

Editing

Gold: Renard Torres (Ikaw at Ako at ang Ending); Law Fajardo (Nerisa)
Silver: Gilbert Obispo (Lockdown); Lawrence Ang (Midnight in a Perfect World)

Cinematography

Gold: Joshua Reyes & Jess Lapid Jr. (Nerisa)
Silver: Pao Orendain (Ikaw at Ako at ang Ending); Albert Banzon & Gym Lumbera (Midnight in a Perfect World); Pao Orendain (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)

Visual Design

Gold: Production designers Benjamin Padero & Carlo Padije, art director Katrina Napigkit, costumer Nikki Tabije, visual effects supervisor Vladimir Castanedo (Midnight in a Perfect World); production designer Law Fajardo, art director Ian Trafalgar, costumers Bryan Bermudez & Andi Balbuena, make-up artists RJ Coste Reyes & Barbie Rotschild (Nerisa)
Silver: Production designer Jay Custodio, art director Rodel Calimon, make-up artist Ruffa Zueta, wardrobe supervisor Rosel Cuarentas (Lockdown); production designer Ferdi Abuel, art director Patrick Topacio, set designer Mace Cruz, costumers Benedict Fajardo & Fernando Quilala, make-up artist Shiela Villegas, visual effects supervisor Ogie Tiglao (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)

Aural Design

Gold: Musical supervisors Malek Lopez, Erwin Romulo, & Juan Mguel Sobrepena, sound supervisor Corinne San Jose (Midnight in a Perfect World)
Silver: Musical supervisor Alfredo Ongleo, sound supervisor Albert Michael Idioma (Lockdown); musical supervisor Angeline Carlos, sound supervisor Andrew Milallos (Love and Pain in Between Refrains); musical supervisor Peter Legaste, sound supervisor Kaye Balmes (Nerisa)

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[2] From the Sine Sipat annual awards program brochures of the Young Critics Circle:

YOUNG CRITICS CIRCLE
(1990 Film Awards)

Gold: Andrea, Paano Ba ang Maging Isang Ina? (dir. Gil M. Portes; MRN Films)

Silver: Bakit Ikaw Pa Rin? (dir. Emmanuel H. Borlaza; Viva Films); Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali? (dir. Chito S. Roño; Viva Films); Hahamakin Lahat (dir. Lino Brocka; Regal Films); Kasalanan Ba’ng Sambahin Ka? (dir. Chito S. Roño; Viva Films)

Individual Achievements: Augusto Salvador (direction of Angel Molave); Ricky Lee (screenplays of Andrea & Hahamakin Lahat); Nora Aunor (performance in Andrea); Jun Pereira (cinematography of Bakit Kay Tagal); George Jarlego (editing of Gumapang Ka sa Lusak)

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[3] From “Some Words on Film Awards,” Millennial Traversals: Outliers, Juvenilia, & Quondam Popcult Blabbery (Part 2: Expanded Perspectives), UNITAS 89.1 (May 2016), pp. 136-49 (for first four entries only):

KRITIKA
(1991 Film Awards)

Gold: Ang Totoong Buhay ni Pacita M. (dir. Elwood Perez; MRN Films); Yuta (dir. Hesumaria Sescon; Julie Lluch Dalena)

Silver: Huwag Mong Salingin ang Sugat Ko (dir. Christopher Strauss de Leon; Viva Films); Ynang-Bayan (dir. Nick Deocampo; Goethe-Institut Manila, Mowelfund Film Institute, Philippine Information Agency); Masakit sa Mata (dir. Jo Atienza, Ditsi Carolino, Cesar Hernando, Joseph Fortin, Mario Guzman; Goethe-Institut Manila, Mowelfund Film Institute, Philippine Information Agency)

Particularly Noteworthy: Ipagpatawad Mo (dir. Laurice Guillen; Viva Films)

Individual Achievements: Elwood Perez (direction of Pacita M.); Ricky Lee (screenplays of Pacita M. and Huwag Mong Salingin); Nora Aunor (performance in Pacita M.); Christopher de Leon (performances in Huwag Mong Salingin, Ipagpatawad Mo, and Makiusap Ka sa Diyos)

Citations for Foreign Film Releases [reconstructed]: Distributors of Beauty and the Beast (dir. Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise); Boyz n the Hood (dir. John Singleton); Cape Fear (dir. Martin Scorsese); Dreams (dir. Akira Kurosawa); Flirting (dir. John Duigan); JFK (dir. Oliver Stone); Man in the Moon (dir. Robert Mulligan); Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme); Thelma & Louise (dir. Ridley Scott)

KRITIKA
(1992 Film Awards; reconstructed)

Silver: Andres Manambit: Angkan ng Matatapang (dir. Ike Jarlego Jr.; Viva Films)

Particularly Noteworthy: Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal (dir. Carlos Siguion-Reyna; Reyna Films)

Individual Achievements: Johnny Delgado (performance in Lumayo Ka Man sa Akin); Ike Jarlego Jr. & Marya Ignacio (editing of Andres Manambit)

Citations for Foreign Film Releases [unsure of others]: Distributors of Basic Instinct (dir. Paul Verhoeven); Howards End (dir. James Ivory); Unforgiven (dir. Clint Eastwood)

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Nether Nation

Lockdown
Directed by Joel C. Lamangan
Written by Troy Espiritu

A recent Philippine film release will be easy to overlook because it appears exploitative and merely topical – starting with its title, Lockdown. It recently ended its extended streaming run and has been slated to compete at the Asian Film Festival in Barcelona as well as this year’s FACINE International Film Festival in San Francisco (also with a streaming option). The latter festival has what may be the strongest lineup in any millennial Philippine film event, reminiscent of the glory years of the long-diminished Metro Manila Film Festival.

11011At first glance, Lockdown may be regarded as part of the series of films initiated by Lino Brocka’s Macho Dancer (1988, hereafter MD), where rentboys contend with the sordid realities of Third-World existence. The Lockdown director’s previous film, in fact, claimed to be the first authentic sequel to Brocka’s biggest global hit, as indicated in its title, Son of Macho Dancer.[1] Most entries in this series tended to be weighed down (as MD was) by their insistence on the dignity claimed against all odds by their central characters, as well as by the insularity of the sex workers’ situation. MD nodded toward the degeneracy induced by the presence of US military bases, but abandoned those concerns once the title character set out for the metropolitan center.

Danny lifts his handicapped father. Screen cap from Lockdown (For the Love of Art Films, 2021).

11011Joel C. Lamangan, who played the role of an unruly queer madam in MD, invests Lockdown with the same vision of an infernal underworld, but relocates the community to a coastal district, where Danny, an overseas worker forced to return after the global pandemic shut down the Dubai hotel where he worked, escapes from the mandatory 14-day quarantine to be able to raise funds for the recuperation of his recently handicapped father while acting as family breadwinner. The suburban setting considerably facilitates the mapping of territories that separate the seaside slum from the more affluent (and safeguarded) business centers, as well as the most militarized location of them all: the police compound with its discreet cluster of cottages for legally indefensible activities.

11011Like more aspirational working-class graduates than we realize, Danny worked out a gay-for-pay arrangement with Lito, a young entrepreneur, to be able to complete his studies; but since the pandemic was no respecter of overseas boundaries, Lito’s catering business also had to suspend its operations. The only income-earning activity Lito happened to be aware of was the one sustained by foreign customers, via live video exchanges, where native hunks offer to dance naked and engage in increasingly salacious displays, depending on the price the viewer pays. (The local term, vidjakol, is both a pun for video call and a portmanteau of video and the clipped slang term for ejaculation.)

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Danny auditions for Mama Rene. Screen cap from Lockdown (For the Love of Art Films, 2021).

11011The necessarily clandestine activity is conducted in Mama Rene’s Café, with the proprietor acting as barker, webmaster, trainer, and financier in charge of the performers’ income as well as a police official’s protection payment. Littered with antique appliances, the coffeehouse’s ground floor serves as audition space as well as lounge area for Mama Rene and his stud collection. The income-generating activities take place in crammed cubicles on the next floor, all darkened except for video monitors and spotlights illuminating the on-cam performances. Although initially nauseated by the abject nature of this version of sex work (as opposed to the escort service he used to do), Danny manages to find some professional equanimity in the tasks at hand, motivated by his father’s deteriorating condition and buoyed by the camaraderie of his fellow performers.

11011As it turns out, the further challenges that lie in store for the narrative hero escalate from this point onward, rapidly and terrifyingly. The turning point is occasioned by a comic lovers’ quarrel that turns violent and leads to wholesale betrayal. Throughout these dramatic shifts, Lamangan ensures that we remain mindful of Danny’s plight by maintaining unconditional empathy with the character; his strategy is matched by a performance startling in its fierce commitment from Paolo Gumabao, one of the exceptional local cases where an offspring manages to surpass anything done by his actor-parent, Dennis Roldan.

Camaraderie among fellow performers. Screen cap from Lockdown (For the Love of Art Films, 2021).

11011Even with less-than-ideal material, Lamangan is capable of guaranteeing stellar performances, from himself as well as for others. (For adequate proof, check out his other FACINE filmfest entry, One More Rainbow, where he draws out heart-tugging ensemble work from a trio of now-elderly stars from the Second Golden Age.) In Lockdown, he manages to differentiate a motley mix of vidjakol players via sharp performative strokes: the final sob story, for example, is rendered by a cherubic actor who actually smiles throughout – a masterly touch that indicates how the speaker is aware that he uses the same lines to elicit sympathy (and, consequently, larger tips) from his customers, yet intends to inform his peers without adding to their already overwhelming burdens.

11011PC guardians will be thrown off by the resolutely negative queer imaging in Lockdown, where the higher the out-gay character’s position, the more malevolent he turns out to be. Yet this perturbing state of affairs should be seen as postqueer, rather than homophobic. The characters presume to stake their claims on limited resources and rewards, enabling impoverished local citizens to conduct transactions with better-heeled clients that they would never be able to encounter otherwise in their daily lives. More crucially, the global circuits of cash and power tracked via these personalities demonstrate the inroads made in the lives of our dispossessed by internet media – implicating in no uncertain terms the very same types of viewers who would be ultimately watching presentations like Lockdown.[2]

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Danny as Mama Rene’s special payment. Screen cap from Lockdown (For the Love of Art Films, 2021).

11011A reflexive glance might help us appreciate the movie’s achievement better. Brocka first attempted to depict the underworld of male hustling via an extensively improvised sequence in Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975), most of which was excised after the author of the source novel objected to the contrivance. MD was therefore more of a more carefully planned (though also highly unstable) treatment of the material. Who should turn up as the embodiment of the apex exploiter in Lockdown? None other than Allan Paule, MD’s lead actor, who in effect provides both an extension of the earlier film’s triumphant ending as well as a critical suggestion of where all its desperation and inhumanity could wind up, with a character thoroughly incapable of evoking the warmth and concern he was once able to summon for his fellow sex pros.

11011Considering the defiance and frustration that Brocka expressed right before his unexpectedly sudden death, Lockdown might well be the movie he would have made if he survived into the present millennium and its discontents. No higher accolade can be granted to a Filipino filmmaker than stating that she or he has made a work worthy of Brocka’s highest aspirations, and Lockdown happens to be one such rare instance.

Notes

First published September 27, 2021, as “Macho Dancing Goes Virtual in Joel Lamangan’s Lockdown” in The FilAm and reprinted in the November 2021 issue of The FilAm: Newsmagazine Serving Filipino Americans in New York. Constant thanks to Jerrick Josue David (no relation) and Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr. for alerting me to the creative ascent in the recent output of my namesake.

[1] An interesting sample, exploitative in the extreme but tackling head-on the issue of human trafficking, is Lamangan’s No Way Out (2008), worth tracking down for a look-see. The films regarded as MD’s direct successors, completed and marketed following the same sure-fire circuit as Brocka’s landmark release, are Midnight Dancers (1994), Burlesk King (1999), and Twilight Dancers (2006), all directed by the late Mel Chionglo.

[2, spoiler alert] As further elaborated in the succeeding paragraphs, a comparison with Lino Brocka, this time in terms of his handling of the reflexive potential of media, would be in order: it may be considered a weakness of Brocka that he was unable to subject media to critical reconsideration during his short and abruptly terminated career. In his overtly political films, either the media were inexplicably absent (as they generally were in MD) or they served as empirical chroniclers of history-in-the-making, even occasionally providing a counterweight to government corruption. The presence of a TV reporter in Lockdown, who feeds on the police department’s hypocritical suppression of what they announced as an offense to public decency, and who instructs her crew to film the hapless performers against their will, is given insidious significance once an abusive official repeats her words to justify torturing some of the prisoners.

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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.

Foundling rescued by an orphan. Screen cap from Nerissa (Viva Films, 2021).

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.

Short-lived idyllic happiness. Screen cap from Nerisa (Viva Films, 2021).

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.

Traditional mothering: nurtured son, oppressed daughter. Screen cap from Nerisa (Viva Films, 2021).

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 and Marianne Hirsch). 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.

Note

First published August 23, 2021, as “In Nerisa, Viva Brings Back Regal’s Low-Budget Blockbuster Formula” in The FilAm. A word of thanks to Jerrick Josue David (no relation) for his recommendation. The authors and their texts mentioned in the order they appear are: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985); Jessica Benjamin, “The Omnipotent Mother: A Psychoanalytic Study of Fantasy and Reality,” in Representations of Motherhood, ed. Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey, & Meryle Mahrer Kaplan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), pp. 129-46; and Marianne Hirsch, “Mothers and Daughters,” in Ties That Bind: Essays on Mothering and Patriarchy, ed. Jean F. O’Barr, Deborah Pope, & Mary Wyer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 177-99.

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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.[1] (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.[2] 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 believe that they’re still in bloom,…

Notes

[1] As of this writing, the “Gawad Urian Award [sic]” page of Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia lists only part of the current membership and includes two who have since died (Mario A. Hernando and Bienvenido Lumbera, the only lifetime members as far as I can ascertain). The complete roster, as listed in each of the organization’s decadal anthologies, is as follows:

  • 1970s list: founding chair Nestor U. Torre; founding members Behn Cervantes, Petronilo Bn. Daroy, Pio de Castro III, Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., Justino Dormiendo, Mario A. Hernando, Bienvenido Lumbera, Manuel S. Pichel, and Nicanor G. Tiongson; and subsequent members Mario E. Bautista, Isagani R. Cruz, Joel David, Christian Ma. Guerrero, Ricky Lee, Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, Tezza O. Parel, Jun Cruz Reyes, and Agustin L. Sotto;
  • 1980s list: all the preceding plus Grace Javier Alfonso, Paul Daza, Butch Francisco, Alice G. Guillermo, Jose Sevilla Ho, Ellen J. Paglinauan, Miguel Q. Rapatan, Emmanuel A. Reyes, Rolando B. Tolentino, Mauro F. Tumbocon Jr., Alfred A. Yuson, and Joselito B. Zulueta;
  • 1990s list: some of the previous plus Benilda S. Santos and Tito Genova Valiente and excluding Ellen J. Paglinauan, even though she remained active during this and most of the next decade;
  • 2000s list: the current membership as listed in the Wikipedia entry, again excluding Paglinauan.

11011The 2010s anthology is presumably being completed and may include the aforementioned Wikipedia list comprising Alfonso, Francisco, Rapatan, Santos, Tiongson, Tolentino, Valiente, Zulueta, plus (per the group’s official website) new members Patrick Campos, Gary Devilles, and Shirley Lua – that is, unless a name like Paglinauan’s might be inexplicably dropped again (I specified her as the dedicatee of my article “The ‘New’ Cinema in Retrospect” in the 1990s collection, my only condition for having the article reprinted, but her name was also deleted). All the preceding volumes were edited by Nicanor G. Tiongson and were cited as follows: The Urian Anthology 1970-1979 (Quezon City: Manuel L. Morato, 1983), 406-07; The Urian Anthology 1980-1989 (Manila: Antonio P. Tuviera, 2001), 336-43; The Urian Anthology 1990-1999 (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2010), 404-07; and The Urian Anthology 2000-2009 (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2013), 504-07.

[2] The Urian Anthology 1970-1979 (see previous endnote) would be the only still-available definitive source of info. 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 rather idiosyncratic 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…. Seven films emerged as the critics’ choice.” 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 literary 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 the likes of 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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