The glaring lack in the last two batches announcing recipients of the Order of the National Artists of the Philippines was that the most deserving candidate in her field was missing (essential disclosure: halfway around the globe, The FilAm made sure I could come up with the first article denouncing the snub by then-President PNoy Aquino, who has since died). This time around, Nora Aunor leads the pack, and seemingly never forgot to string along some controversies in her recent actuations.
Primarily, this had to do with the candidate she endorsed for President – none other than the scion of the family that ran roughshod over the country’s tentative attempts to attain developed status and left it in tatters. Paradoxically, no other regime has paid culture as much importance as the Marcoses did (the National Artist award was in fact one of their many innovations), and they were sharp enough to realize that the then-young aspirant from the rural South had the potential to become one of the biggest stars the Philippines would ever witness even before film producers took action.
So it was not just Aunor, but Bongbong Marcos (BBM) as well, who effected a comeback. The implications are as profound as they are complex, so those of us who maintain a social-media foothold, openly or otherwise, are privileged with firsthand access to responses from people whose opinions will be shaping discursive responses in the long run. The other, more painful implication, cannot be denied either: traditional media, including once-venerable newspaper and magazine publications, can no longer sustain this function, especially regarding culture issues. You can pick the ones that claim to have the most credibility, submit a nonsensical review article bolstered by buzzwords and a string of impressive-sounding qualifications, and see it come out sooner or later, without a sweat.
From innumerable Facebook posts, I’d venture to mention two of the more crucial ones: professor and book publisher Katrina Stuart Santiago decried the absence of any honoree in the visual arts – film and TV not necessarily fulfilling this requisite, since the nature of and access to fine artworks function according to entirely different premises; critic and festival director Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., meanwhile, asked the updated equivalent of “where’s the beef?” when a rival artist’s followers demanded that their idol be given the same recognition simultaneously or (if they had their way) beforehand. Writings on Aunor in fact can be traced to the very start of regular film-book publications in 1971, as I discovered entirely by accident when I made a comprehensive list of Pinas film books. Of the other Philippine movie stars, Fernando Poe Jr. and Dolphy share a significant-enough fraction of what Aunor has commanded; of the female ones, only Sharon Cuneta has been consistently written about in books and journal articles – in a still-continuing cycle of scholarly attention that she somehow manages to cultivate.
The other charge, raised by an author who had his own skeletons to hide, turned on Aunor’s endorsement of BBM. In fact, all three film winners, by virtue of thriving during the Marcos regime, could be faulted for working on projects that were either fully funded or subsidized by the Imee Marcos-run Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. Even if we set aside the typical counter-argument that they turned in exceptional work, we also see that they encountered censorship and repression (even political detention, in Ricky Lee’s case). Historians of the period should also be obliged to point out how they labored under an entirely unnecessary critical downgrading from then-contemporaneous and self-declared progressive experts, who had covert (though now easily confirmable) reasons to disfavor these three at some point or other. Needless to add, it is these experts who should be pressed to articulate their reasons for upholding the alternative choices they made when the current National Artist winners were coming up with their most significant output and were cold-shouldered for it.
Otherwise, we can see how Aunor’s sympathies become understandable, even though most of us would rather be caught dead than articulating anything along the same line. In the meanwhile, we can and should move on from recognizing past artistic achievements to anticipating future ones. The only entity for whom this holds no irony is the Marcos family: their revision of history can now claim partial validation via the triumph of several members of this batch of National Artists, including even the winners for theater and fashion. But what about the film personalities who handled the BBM campaign and maintained their belligerence in the face of incontrovertible evidence of the harm that the late patriarch had perpetrated during his reign?
For argument’s sake, we can take at face value one mainstream couple’s explanation that they happened to belong to the clan of Marcos in-laws, although Mary L. Trump and, yes, Sharon Cuneta, prove that loyalty to one’s country should take precedence over familial duty, and deserve future honors for the difficult stance they made when it counted. The more popular frontliner also happens to be younger as well as a viral Facebook presence: Darryl Yap, who directed Cuneta’s last film, was previously known for his initially edgy though eventually reactionary video uploads on his Vincentiments blog, along with his occasional fits of pique when more sophisticated netizens trolled him. He parlayed the box-office success of his first full-length film, #Jowable (2019), into a series of potboilers mostly for the Vivamax streaming service, at an average rate of a new film every other month. Many of these, including the Cuneta-starrer Revirginized (2021), are punishingly dreadful to watch.
From the last Filipino film monograph worth reading, Epoy Deyto’s Post-Dilawan Cinema and the Pandemic (downloadable for free at his Missing Codec blog), I stumbled across an endorsement of Sarap Mong Patayin [Love to Kill You], one of Yap’s ten 2021 releases, not counting a TV series. It’s a frankly jaw-dropping discovery; I don’t think it would be precipitate to say that it’s one of the local films maudits whose numbers dwindled to nearly nothing since the death of Celso Ad. Castillo. As to whether it will attain the stature of Elwood Perez’s Silip [Daughters of Eve] (1985) or Mario O’Hara’s Pangarap ng Puso [Demons] (2000), we’ll have to check in every half-decade or so to find out. What concerns me at the moment is how such a seemingly accomplished expression of sexual anarchy proceeded from someone who could never be mistaken for, say, one of the gifted artists and philosophers implicated in the Nazi dictatorship of Adolf Hitler or in the Soviet-era socialist bloc or even in the dominant phase of American imperialism.
What’s instructive at this point is that I didn’t see netizens attempting to engage Yap, by way of encouraging him further in this direction. The prevailing consensus is that he’s pathetically incapable of rising above the small-though-profitable platform he raised for himself, so Sarap Mong Patayin might only be the equivalent of an autistic savant’s scribbles, brilliant by accident, a broken clock getting the time right for once. But what if we’re reading Yap wrong? What if just maybe he intends on having the last laugh when his Maid in Malacañang gets released a few weeks from now? One only hopes for his sake that he’d assimilated the lessons of our National Artists for film, who learned how to survive tyranny with dignity by taking what one hand could while flinging useful mud with the other.