Tag Archives: Auteurs

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

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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, select the appropriate category below and click on the relevant entry:

Films that Feature Nora Aunor:

Bad Bananas sa Puting Tabing (1983);
Bakit May Kahapon Pa? (1996);
Batu-bato sa Langit (1975);
Beloved (1985);
Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit (1989);
Bona (1980);
Dalaga si Misis, Binata si Mister (1981);
Dementia (2014);
Greatest Performance (1989);
Himala (1982);
Kinabukasan (2014);
Kung Ako’y Iiwan Mo (1980);
Maalaala Mo Kaya? (1973);
Magnanakaw (1995);
’Merika (1984);
Minsan, May Isang Ina (1983);
Minsa’y Isang Gamu-Gamo (1976);
Naglalayag (2004);
Padre de Familia (2016);
Palengke Queen (1982);
Sidhi (1999);
Taklub (2015);
Tatlong Taóng Walang Diyos (1976);
Thy Womb (2012);
Ang Totoong Buhay ni Pacita M. (1991); and
Mga Uod at Rosas (1982).

Non-Films that Feature Nora Aunor:

• “Bubog na Dangal” (Lovingly Yours, Helen episode) (1983);
• “Kahit Konting Awa” (with song performance, 1985);
La Aunor … Beyond Time (with video excerpts, 1994);
Sa Ngalan ng Ina (2011);
• “Saan Ako Nagkamali” & “Kahit Na” (with song performances); and
• “Serye” (Star Drama Presents Nora episode, 1993).

Films that Feature Other Performers:

Baby Tsina (2004);
Brutal (1980);
A Hard Day (2021);
May Nagmamahal sa Iyo (1996);
Memories of a Love Story (2022);
Minsan Lang Kita Iibigin (1994);
Minsan Pa Nating Hagkan ang Nakaraan (1983); and
Sensual (1986).

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, July 26, 2022)

At its simplest, Chito Roño’s “Serye” (1993), 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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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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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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by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, August 20, 2022)

The final image of Mara (Nora Aunor) in Dementia (2014), Perci Intalan’s arresting horror debut, isn’t particularly scary. But it’s easily one of the most unsettling, ambiguous, and unusual movie tableaus I’ve seen in some time. From its ominous opening, the movie proves successful, even wrenching, in how it considers dementia as a bedrock of horror. What is more horrifying than losing your own sense of self, or watching a loved one on such a depressing journey? Intalan demonstrates a strong handle on tone as he carefully charts Mara’s emotions with tension going unsaid, but remaining evident in Aunor’s moving performance. Mara oscillates between moments of sharp clarity, fuzziness, and sudden rage as her failing memory begins to outpace her; Aunor deftly carries all of Mara’s swinging moods and her heartbreaking desperation as the lights of her mind begin to burn out. Dementia as the bedrock for a horror film is an intriguing idea given the ways it’s primed to explore dramatically shifting moods, the loss of self, and the heartbreak of witnessing someone you love become a stranger. Intalan and his collaborators – writer Renei Dimla, cinematographer Mackie Galvez, and editor Lawrence Ang – are cunning in their ability to craft the dread that is instilled from the very beginning. But if you’re looking for answers to the film’s ambiguities, you won’t find them. In its place are a surpassingly creepy atmosphere and a patiently ratcheting unease as the movie deftly merges the familiar bumps and groans with a potent allegory for the devastation of dementia.

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by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, August 23, 2022)

A hit-and-run incident lands a detective in more trouble than he could have ever imagined in A Hard Day (Viva Films, 2021), a thriller that finds director Law Fajardo handling a taut yet elaborately plotted narrative with control and near-faultless technical execution. The resourcefulness and resistance to intimidation of Edmund Villon (Dingdog Dantes) makes us root for him, despite his professional conduct and lack of moral fiber. In a morbid example of necessity being the mother of invention, Villon hits upon a novel way of disposing of the victim’s body in an extraordinary stunt sequence. With increasing freneticism, Fajardo moves Villon relentlessly forward in the face of an obstacle course filled with pop-up hurdles and an occasional kick in the gut. Dantes’s disciplined performance ties all of A Hard Day’s inventivenesses together, investing the film with visceral panic. He plays Villon as a henpecked nice guy, this delusion serving as self-fulfilling prophecy.

11011At just about the time it seems Fajardo should soon be running on empty, he introduces a new threat, Lieutenant Ace Franco. Played by a spectacular John Arcilla adding a bespoke dash to the villainous picture, he slips into the story and soon engulfs it. Arcilla has a face that can freeze into a stone-cold slab of pure malice, even as Fajardo keeps the chaos moving at a breathless tempo. He’s a remarkably fluid orchestrator of action kinetics, always springing his surprises a beat faster than one expects, only to occasionally slow things down to prevent the viewer from acclimating to his quicksilver timing. An explosion is timed with nightmarish precision perhaps because Fajardo caps a phenomenal, self-consciously Hitchcockian set piece with an unexpected commonplace payoff. Throughout, the images are sleek and silvery, informing the debauchery with an aura of impersonality. A Hard Day is ultimately a parody of self-entitlement, though the carnage dramatically registers. The filmmaker walks as many tightropes as Arcilla does, and one gratefully submits to both artists’ dexterity.

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by Jojo Devera
(Facebook, August 24, 2022)

In Joselito Altarejos’s Memories of a Love Story (Viva Films, 2076Kolektib, 2022), love paves the way to personal growth, creating a keen sense of one’s self-worth. Altarejos presents the romance between Eric (Oliver Aquino) and Jericho (Migs Almendras) within a frame of Eric’s memories of it. Despite notable differences in background and interests, Eric and Jericho bring out something in each other both emotionally and physically. Great partners teach us new things about ourselves, and MLS really gets that element of human relationship without overplaying it. Altarejos’s approach is tactile without feeling exploitative or manipulative. Actually, one could argue that parts of MLS are too low-register, but that’s reflective of its protagonists’ personality in a way that keeps this love story from devolving into melodrama when it could do so at several points. Almendras is very good here, but the movie really belongs to Aquino, who reminds us how incredible he can be with the right material. He avoids every single trap into which his character could have tumbled. There’s so much grace and nuance in this performance that it could be studied to consider all the decisions that Aquino makes in each scene. He conveys an overwhelming amount of inner conflict. It’s never once forced or manufactured. And Almendras matches him beat for beat, especially in the second half of the film. He too has been changed, but responds to that change differently. Newcomers Awin Valencia and James Ramada convey so much in discrete movements and muted words, lending their characters dimension in their every scene. Altarejos allows awkward moments and intimacies to unfold naturally, as if we’re watching them in real time, undetected and yet somehow invited to observe. MLS is authentic, stirring, heartfelt. As the camera closes in on Eric crying, we find ourselves profoundly moved. MLS offers enduring images not just of longing – Eric suffers, but he also exults, and this is why we watch movies.

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A Season of Comebacks

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.

11011Primarily, 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.

11011So 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.

11011From 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.

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11011The 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.

11011Otherwise, 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?

11011For 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.

11011From 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.

11011What’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.

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Appendix: An Archival Summary of the Gregorio Fernandez Filmography

This stand-alone entry is intended to provide additional information for the draft of an article titled “A Missing Installation in the Philippine Pantheon.” Barring further discoveries or corrections, the Internet Movie Database record on Gregorio Fernandez provides entries in three categories: as director, actor, and writer. The website’s information on the productions of LVN Pictures is fairly accurate, possibly a result of the close supervision by filmmaker Mike de Leon, grandson of the founder Narcisa vda. de Leon, over the family studio’s legacy. Since the lists are grouped according to decreasing number of output, we find only two credits for Fernandez’s writing (one of which, Higit sa Lahat, is still available), and several credits as actor. Nearly half of his acting credits, in fact, were for his own films: in one instance, despite his name appearing after those of the other stars, he was actually one of the lead actors in Kontrabando. One of the films, Carmen (uncredited, 1941), may also have been Fernandez-directed. In all, Fernandez participated in over 60 film projects, with 14 or possibly 15 of them in dual capacity.

11011Malvarosa (my transcription here) may be the closest to a complete Fernandez film, although several others do not suffer significantly from missing portions. The following are the IMDb-listed works attributed to Fernandez, arranged in chronological order, with additional information on his other roles in the projects as well as their availability and state of completion (where no directorial credit is indicated, the entry should be understood as made by Fernandez):

As actor (all pre-1937 films were directed by Jose Nepomuceno for Malayan Movies, with Hot Kisses, Ang Lumang Simbahan, and Ligaw na Bulaklak listed as silent): Hot Kisses and The Filipino Woman (1927); Ang Lumang Simbahan [The Old Church] (1928); Ang Anak sa Ligaw [Child Out of Wedlock] (1930); Ang Lihim ni Bathala [The Secret of the Pagan God] and Moro Pirates (1931); Ligaw na Bulaklak [Wild Flowers] (1932); Ang Kumpisalan at ang Batas [The Confessional and the Law] (dir. Rod Avlas, Filippine Productions, 1937); Taong Demonyo [Demonic Person] (dir. Tor Villano, Filippine Productions, 1937).

As actor and/or director: Asahar at Kabaong [Wreath and Coffin] (also as actor, Filippine Productions, 1937); Celia at Balagtas [Celia and Balagtas] (Excelsior Films, 1938); Ang Magsasampaguita [The Sampaguita Vendor] (Sampaguita Pictures, 1939); Tatlong Pagkabirhen [Three Virgins] (X’Otic Films, 1939); Palaboy ng Dios [God’s Vagrant] (as actor, dir. Eduardo de Castro, X’Otic Films, 1939); Takip-Silim [Nightfall] (as actor, dir. Don Dano, Sampaguita Pictures, 1939); Colegiala [Female Coed] (as actor, dir. Eduardo de Castro, Sampaguita Pictures, 1940); Katarungan [Justice] and Señorita [Mademoiselle] (also as actor, both Sampaguita Pictures, 1940); Princesita [Little Princess] (also as actor, Sampaguita Pictures, 1941); Carmen (as actor but directorial credit missing; Sampaguita Pictures, 1941); Principeng Hindi Tumatawa [The Prince Who Never Laughed] (as actor, dir. Manuel Conde, LVN Pictures, 1946).

11011All films in the preceding lists are considered lost. The following lists will indicate Fernandez’s participation (aside from directing) and will also indicate whether copies, or excerpts, are available:

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LVN Pictures productions

Dalawang Daigdig [Two Worlds] (also as actor; 1946)
Garrison 13 (also as actor; 1946)
Ang Lalaki [The Man] (1947)
Miss Philippines (also as actor; 1947) – video transfer available
Krus na Bituin [Cross-Shaped Star] (1948)
P 1,000 Kagandahan [Thousand-Peso Beauty] (also as actor; 1948) – short entry; video transfer available
Puting Bantayog [White Monument] (also as actor; 1948)
Capas (also as actor; 1949) – video transfer available
Florante at Laura [Florante and Laura] (as actor; dir. Vicente Salumbides, 1949) – video transfer available
Hen. Gregorio del Pilar [General Gregorio del Pilar] (1949)
Kampanang Ginto [Golden Bell] (1949)
Candaba (1950)
Kontrabando [Contraband] (also as actor; 1950) – video transfer available
Pagtutuus [Reckoning] (1950)
Bayan o Pag-ibig [Country or Love] (1951)
Dugo sa Dugo [Blood to Blood] (1951)
Bohemyo [Bohemian] (1952)
Rodrigo de Villa (also as story writer; 1952) – video transfer available
Dagohoy (1953) – video excerpt available
Philippine Navy (1953)
Squatters (1953) – video transfer available
Prinsipe Teñoso [Prince Teñoso] (1954) – remastered copy available
Singsing na Tanso [Silver Ring] (1954) – video excerpt available
Dalagang Taring [Cranky Maiden] (1955)
Higit sa Lahat [Most of All] (also as scriptwriter; 1955) – video transfer available
Gintong Pangarap [Golden Dream] (1956)
Luksang Tagumpay [Mournful Victory] (1956) – video transfer available, missing final sequences
Medalyong Perlas [Pearl Necklace] (segment “Kapalaran” [“Fate”]; other segments dir. Lamberto V. Avellana & F.H. Constantino; 1956)
Hukom Roldan [Judge Roldan] (1957) – video transfer available
Sampung Libong Pisong Pag-ibig [Ten Thousand-Peso Romance] (1957) – video transfer available
Ana Maria (1958)
Ay Pepita! [Oh Pepita!] (1958)
Casa Grande [Grand Dwelling] (segment “Gerilyang Patpat” [“Skinny Guerrilla”]; other segments dir. Manuel Conde & F.H. Constantino; 1958)
Malvarosa [Geranium] (1958) – remastered copy available
Panagimpan [Daydream] (1959)
Awit ng mga Dukha [Song of the Dispossessed] (1960)
Emily (1960) – video excerpt available
Kung Ako’y Mahal Mo [If You Love Me] (1960) – video transfer available

Post-LVN Pictures productions

Dugo at Luha [Blood and Tears] (Premiere Productions, 1961)
The Macapagal Story (MML Productions, 1963)
Ang Nasasakdal! [The Defendant!] (Kamagong Films, 1966)
Daing [Dried Fish] (Tower Productions, 1971)

Availability and contact info: A summary of the available works of Fernandez, all from LVN, is as follows: Miss Philippines (1947); Isang Libong Pisong Kagandahan (1948); Capas (1949); Kontrabando (1950); Rodrigo de Villa (1952); Dagohoy (1953, excerpted along with Singsing na Tanso & Lou Salvador Sr.’s Doce Pares [both 1954]); Squatters (1953); Singsing na Tanso (1954, excerpted along with Dagohoy [1953] & Lou Salvador Sr.’s Doce Pares [1954]); Prinsipe Teñoso (1954); Higit sa Lahat (1955); Luksang Tagumpay (1956, missing final sequences); 10,000 Pisong Pag-ibig (1957); Hukom Roldan (1957); Malvarosa (1958); Emily (1960, excerpts); and Kung Ako’y Mahal Mo (1960). Video material may be found at Mike de Leon’s Citizen Jake pages (on either YouTube or Vimeo). Remastered and subtitled copies of Prinsipe Teñoso and Malvarosa may be ordered from the Facebook page of ABS-CBN Film Restoration, while the YouTube page of ABS-CBN Star Cinema occasionally posts censored copies of the organization’s collection.

End of Appendix

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A Missing Installation in the Philippine Pantheon

I have decided to attempt the drafting and revision of an article whose final form I am still uncertain about. It will have elements of what we might recognize as basic film research, so it may wind up as a formal essay or a scholarly article. Depending on the terms that any prospective publisher might specify, this article may be pulled out (“embargoed” I think is the technical term) before it can be considered finalized. I will of course alert readers where and when it will be published. For the foreseeable future, I expect to add bibliographic notes, to be minimized if I can help it, and illustrations, as much as I can compile. I also prepared an appendix summarizing the archival status of the auteur subject’s films, but I could not include it in this post without extending the article as well as distracting from it. For now, it appears as an independent upload.

Colleagues in academe: I admit to being tempted to call this post a preprint, but it departs in too many significant ways from the standard sample. I appreciate the comments that have pointed out ways to improve the article, although I find my having posted it just as useful for soliciting pointers from other experts. Better to regard it then as an preprint wannabe, or whatever we call drafts before they can be considered fully ready for formal peer review.

To jump to later sections, click here for: Contentions; “Yoyong”; Family Tragedy; Showpieces; and Notes & Works Cited.

I must begin with a personal paradox: I started in film studies during a time when auteurism (or the “auteur theory” for those who prefer Andrew Sarris’s mistranslation of the politique des auteurs) had its heyday and persisted mostly in the minds of what today’s cultural snobs would call fanboys. I participated in such activities as a way of demonstrating the many lacks that local critical practitioners brought to their activities, and saw the millennial generation pick up on the mechanics but not the critique that I thought would make people hesitate or avoid auteur politics altogether.

11011I subsequently became aware that the prevalent trend in pop-culture activity will always be toward more prestige markers, not less (definitively explicated in James F. English’s The Economy of Prestige). In undertaking what I hoped would be my ultimate – and therefore final – stab at canon-formation (see David & Maglipon), I came to understand a significant aspect of its appeal: in recounting a work we have cherished, the more exclusively the better, we get to replicate the pleasure we experienced in appreciating the piece, along with the satisfaction of knowing, or hoping, that our writing might persuade other people to reconsider their differences with us.

11011The canon project I had been working on (formally as consultant for a publication team) affirmed for me the collected names of appreciated filmmakers – or what Sarrists would call a Pantheon, an assemblage of worthies – along with occasional additions or tweaks, mainly in the direction of rectifying the constant and predictable errors of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, the original Filipino critics circle. This process has become so commonplace that most of the better young film bloggers could figure out for themselves how to evaluate films and bodies of work without falling into the established critics’ self-laid traps.

11011With earlier film samples, the provision of proof becomes more burdensome, mainly because of the country’s archival travails. One might stumble across the claim of certain oldtimers (some of them now gone) that Gerry de Leon’s the all-time greatest Pinoy film talent, were it not for the loss of his reputedly best entry, Daigdig ng mga Api [World of the Oppressed] (1965). Yet when I reread a vital article by the best among the first batch of MPP members, Petronilo Bn. Daroy, he expressed serious reservations regarding this film, and instead upheld Lamberto V. Avellana’s Anak Dalita [Child of Sorrow] (1956). Lamentably, the latter film exists, in a remastered condition … and will probably be unable to sustain more than a single screening with audiences who do not share its church-fomented biases against slum residents, lumpenproles, and racial minorities.

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Interestingly, these first two winners of the Order of the National Artist represented not just rival studios but also different sets of creative associates and political affinities. Although both (along with another National Artist, Eddie Romero) directed episodes of Tagumpay ng Mahirap [Triumph of the Poor] (1965) for Diosdado Macapagal’s ultimately failed campaign against Ferdinand E. Marcos, Avellana managed to switch sides quickly and effectively enough to be able to get his National Artist recognition ahead of de Leon.

11011The one last studio-era National Artist, Manuel Conde, also labors under the loss of his “best” entry, the series of political satires that feature his version of folk trickster Juan Tamad, as well as his celebrated color musical, Bahala Na (1957); the few Conde musicals I’ve seen, including the now also lost Ikaw Kasi (1955) and Basta Ikaw (1957), suggest that his work in this genre may be an even bigger loss than his later homiletic output. What remains in his name is the charmingly problematic Genghis Khan (1950), evidence of the Philippines’s once-confident cosmopolitanism in appropriating a “lesser” culture’s heroic figure and devising rollicking entertainment premised on the legendary exploits that led to the rise in power of Temujin Borjigin, prior to his Eurasian expansion of the Mongol Empire during the 13th century.

11011Hence, via a process of elimination, the First Golden Age film that most contemporary film buffs have been holding in highest regard for the past few decades would be Manuel Silos’s Biyaya ng Lupa [Blessings of the Land] (1959).[1] Like Anak Dalita, it was produced by LVN Pictures, famed for its costume epics. Another quality both pictures share is an insistence on social conservatism as vital to the definiton of nationhood, along with the open and violent rejection of marginal characters. It would be tempting to conclude that Filipino film observers tend to revert to reactionary values in evaluating the past, although I would caution against such a headlong conclusion. It may be safer to assume that whatever tools they may have devised for appreciating contemporary releases seem to them to be inappropriate for older films.

11011For this reason I have insisted on maintaining the vital importance held by Gregorio Fernandez’s Malvarosa (1958). I also submit that its modernity gestures toward our present, which is why it appears anachronistic, capable of baffling viewers of early cinema who expect the samples to be genteel, virtuous, placid, and old-fashioned, possibly out of understandable and well-placed empathy for their elders.[2] Nevertheless such sentiments are beyond me, for better or worse, so my own uphill struggle to convince colleagues to keep rewatching these titles until they arrive at a level of familiarity that breeds either contempt or admiration can only be assuaged by the fact that Malvarosa will be capable of leaving behind most of them, and a lot of latter-day cinema besides.

11011A major part of the difficulty of championing Malvarosa is the figure of its director. Gregorio Fernandez was celebrated for his mid-1950s output, which when regarded by the acclaim bestowed by the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences Awards would have indicated a declension: from a sweep of the major categories for Higit sa Lahat [More than Everything] (1955), to a best film and technical prize only for Luksang Tagumpay [Mournful Victory] (1956), to nominations for the direction of Hukom Roldan [Judge Roldan] (1957) and Kung Ako’y Mahal Mo [If You Love Me] (1960), with an “International Prestige Award of Merit” (presumably for foreign film-festival recognition) for Malvarosa.

11011As anyone familiar with award-giving trends might be able to infer by now, these prizes do not track Fernandez’s achievements with satisfactory accuracy. His first incontrovertible world-class masterwork arrived before the FAMAS took notice, in Prinsipe Teñoso [Prince Teñoso] (1954), dismissed then presumably for being an overtly commercial adaptation of a literary form, the metrical romance, introduced during the Spanish colonial era and previously filmed in 1942, also for LVN Pictures, by Manuel Conde (who takes story credit in the Fernandez version). From available evidence, Higit sa Lahat would be a gendered twist on the Hollywood melodrama perennial Stella Dallas (silent, dir. Henry King, 1925; B&W/sound, dir. King Vidor, 1937; color/sound version titled Stella, dir. John Erman, 1990), but the succeeding films up to Malvarosa demonstrate even more admirable and often successful risk-taking.[3]

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Born in 1904, Fernandez died before he reached 70, in 1973. This was about a year after the Order of the National Artist of the Philippines was first introduced. Considering the many other Filipinos who were able to acquire the distinction posthumously, Fernandez is certainly highly qualified. In fact, with the ready availability of several of his major projects for his home studio, LVN Pictures, one could easily make the argument that Fernandez has been severely underrated and unfairly overlooked. (For these and all other general filmographic and archival references, please refer to the Appendix.)

11011The prevailing assumption about Fernandez is that he shone brightest during the 1950s, the height of the First Golden Age, with a number of his films dominating the so-named academy prizes, in a way that would only be surpassed by Gerardo de Leon, an early National Artist Awardee, in the 1960s. The comparison between the two filmmakers goes beyond the acclaim they received during this period. They were both actors, held advanced health-science degrees (de Leon in medicine and Fernandez in dentistry), provided unforgettable roles for actresses, and had clan members who also became prominent in the local industry.

11011While de Leon’s productive streak continued way after the collapse of the studio system in the early 1960s, Fernandez’s output became scarcer until he seemingly gave up on making films altogether. Unlike de Leon, who was still working on an unfinished epic (Juan de la Cruz, for Fernando Poe Jr.) when he died, Fernandez worked on a hagiographic bio-picture for Diosdado Macapagal and a few sex-themed films. De Leon also did Daigdig ng mga Api for Macapagal’s campaign and a number of genre projects, but he seemed to weather the collapse of the studio system better than Fernandez, making films for the actor-producers who dominated the independent-production system as well as B-films for the US drive-in market.

11011The relative inactivity of Fernandez may have baffled serious observers during the time, but all we have are a few reports posted online as well as the accounts of some of his now-elderly contemporaries. (People were understandably more discreet during this period.) His daughter Merle forged ahead of the aspiring sex sirens of the late 1960s by pioneering in the trend known as bomba, which were erotic melodramas that were premised on the more (literally and figuratively) frontal depictions and discussions of carnal situations that originated in Western cinemas.

11011While the founding elders of the MPP decried the collapse of the vertically integrated studio system (and the First Golden Age along with it), I have pointed out elsewhere that the tendencies they considered most deplorable – bomba films and teen-idol musicals, both products of low-budget “quickie” efforts – actually betoken a progressive sensibility in the local mass audience. Because the new urbanites, comprising rural migrants working in factories and domestic labor, demanded a new breed of stars who resembled them more closely (non-white females rather than the studios’ emphasis on Euro-manqué males), the standard old-time mestizo performers were forced to immerse in taboo-busting material.

11011We ought to take note of the fact that a National Artist for Literature, Bienvenido Lumbera, once stressed (in “Pelikula” 216) that bomba films deserve to be revaluated in light of their overt challenge to the strictures of conservatism and denial of women’s prerogatives in acting on their desires and preferences. (Fernandez’s last film, in fact, starred his daughter, possibly accounting for an abhorrent rumor that both engaged in an incestuous relationship.[4]) With the declaration of martial law in 1972 by President Ferdinand E. Marcos, bomba-film production ended, as did Merle Fernandez’s acting career for the most part. Instead, she provided contacts and support for her younger brother Rudy, who became one of the country’s top action stars, renowned for his ability to combine stunt scenes with serious drama.[5]

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Family Tragedy

Interview articles on Gregorio Fernandez during this period situate him in his hometown, where he earned another kind of renown – as an expert cockfighter. He may have worked this out as his way of retiring from industry practice, although this may also indicate some degree of estrangement (from his familial and work circles). One might want to speculate that his professional troubles may have started from the suicide of his wife, Pilar Padilla, whom he had directed and performed with in a 1946 title, Dalawang Daigdig [Two Worlds] (per the Internet Movie Database). The tributes that came out after Rudy Fernandez’s untimely death from cancer mention how he was the first family member to encounter his mother’s body – a traumatic experience, considering he was 5 years old when she died in 1957.

11011We can speculate on the ways that this incident may have affected Fernandez’s frame of mind, i.e. that he still valiantly managed to come up with an early feminist masterpiece the next year, in Malvarosa, and that he lost his enthusiasm for innovative filmmaking afterward, as perceivable in a decline in his later LVN films. This would be a tricky way of applying auteurist principles, however, primarily because his non-LVN films from the 1960s onward are unavailable. To reference once more Gerardo de Leon, I remember how most cineastes tended to uphold his prestige productions up to Daigdig ng mga Api but dismissed his co-productions and genre projects; yet when video copies of these films became available later, many of them constituted major revelations.[6]

11011In Fernandez’s case, we are fortunate to have LVN scion Mike de Leon, who has overseen the video transfers of nearly all existing Fernandez films and selflessly uploaded these on his Vimeo website, open-access style. I would enjoin all Filipino film enthusiasts to go over the Fernandez titles chronologically, to be able to acquire a proper appreciation of his considerable skills as director and actor. The most significant aspect I noticed in the major films was his careful attention to identity issues, both in terms of strong women (and children) roles as well as in a sincere respect for Muslim Filipinos, to the point of providing them with a heroic twist in the spy narrative of Kontrabando (1950).

11011He could not avoid the Cold War tendency to demonize East Asian characters, unfortunately; but in Capas (1949), he brought up the fraught issue of wartime collaboration and provided a conflicted Japanese officer as a way of demonstrating to the Filipino double-agent that people on the enemy side could also be capable of human decency. We may note here that this film came out almost right after the end of World War II, several decades ahead of Mario O’Hara’s comparable (though expectedly better-focused) Tatlong Taóng Walang Diyos (1976).

11011The other primary mark of Fernandez’s films is his willingness to deploy comedy. Even in his serious works, this tendency enables him to approach the material with a light touch, reminiscent of a great Classical Hollywood practitioner, Ernst Lubitsch. Despite its several promotional placements, Miss Philippines (1947) evinces the bemused stance that would sustain Fernandez through the “heavier” material he would tackle later; in fact the situation of the alcoholic mother and the daughter torn apart by filial loyalty and her longing for happiness would subsequently reappear, with fuller social implications, in Malvarosa.

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In the meanwhile, he came up with the only available color film bearing his credit, Prinsipe Teñoso (1954), and it’s a marvel beyond the novelty of its Ruritanian-type romance. Its storytelling is so assured and skillful that the existing print’s archival predicament, resulting in a narrative leap from the title character’s attempt to defy his father to his wandering in another kingdom as a leper whose true form appears when he bathes, becomes an unexpected modernist touch – perfectly in keeping with the film’s championing of women, captives, the outcast, and Islamic outsiders.

11011Fernandez’s major FAMAS winners, as recounted earlier, were Higit sa Lahat (1955) and Luksang Tagumpay (1956), which attempt to spin the genre of melodrama by placing the burden of saving the family on male characters. The first time I saw these two during a late 1980s retrospective, I had the impression (affirmed in Prinsipe Teñoso) of a director who was not content with observing the standard approaches dictated by genres, star personas, even Classical Hollywood stylistic prescriptions. The now-missing final sequences of Luksang Tagumpay had an Expressionistic denouement, where the central male character’s domestic world literally starts falling apart around him. I remembered having just seen a similar sequence in a film whose title escaped me then; when I saw it again later – Mikhail Khalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying – I needed a double-take, because Luksang Tagumpay had preceded it by a year.

11011This was all in preparation for a final Fernandez revelation, heralded by Mike de Leon’s social-media announcement. Hukom Roldan (1957) is the major black-and-white discovery of our time, proof that Fernandez’s maverick impulses led him to attempt narrative and cinematic techniques that heralded a globally influential trend that was just about to break out a year later in France. The fragmentation of linear time, abrupt shifts from one character to another, sudden insertions of direct-address sequences – even the narrative twist in following the title character’s story only to focus more intently on the woman he inadvertently betrayed: when Alfred Hitchcock attempted this defiance of audience expectation a few years later in Psycho (1960), the gender emphasis was in the more conventional direction of disposing of an unruly woman so we could focus on the man who solves the mystery of her disappearance.

11011I am not in the habit of lionizing our local filmmakers so enthusiastically, because I believe that we do them (and ourselves) a disservice by overemphasizing their achievements. With Gregorio Fernandez, I have finally come across a filmmaker whose available body of work can sustain enough appreciation for us to declare, no matter how late in our history, another master film artist. I would rate Malvarosa (1958), for which he is justly celebrated, as superior to all the other existing “best” works – Manuel Conde’s Genghis Khan (1950), Lamberto V. Avellana’s Anak Dalita (1956), Manuel Silos’s Biyaya ng Lupa (1959); Gerardo de Leon would peak in the 1960s, so Fernandez’s films in the 1950s ought to rate more highly than even de Leon’s.

11011Inasmuch as it would take too much time to explicate why Malvarosa deserves more than the significant appreciation it already enjoys (our best black-and-white movie would not be difficult to declare), I should just close for now by pointing out its merits vis-à-vis its contemporaries: its focus on the downtrodden is not “redeemed” by the intervention of society’s superiors; it embraces slum culture – its lingo, pastimes, and aspirations – while slyly and good-naturedly pointing out their limits; it provides warm emotional closure without falsifying the tragic losses that our poverty-stricken compatriots (still) undergo. This may help explain why it has been easier for film commentators to dwell on the other 1950s films: although more identifiably of its time than most of the other entries, the treatment that Malvarosa invests in this material is beyond-classical in its sophistication and naturalistic in its sociological observations.

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[1] In two of the most comprehensive canon surveys covering Philippine cinema, we can track the persistence of the stature of Biyaya ng Lupa. In “Ten Best Filipino Films Up to 1990” (David & Garduño), it was ranked one rung behind Anak Dalita. In the 2013 poll “100 Greatest Pinoy Films of All Time” (Labastilla), it was the only pre-1970s film in the top ten. It also holds the distinction of being the second Filipino film to be the sole subject of a book publication, after my entry Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic (published in 2017), considered National Artist Ishmael Bernal’s most important output. I still have not been able to source the volume, Edward delos Santos Cabagnot’s Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time & Manuel Silos’s Biyaya ng Lupa; a third book, Clodualdo del Mundo Jr.’s Ang Daigdig ng mga Api: Remembering a Lost Film (published 2022) tackled the archival stature of still another “best” film by yet another National Artist, Gerardo de Leon.

[2] Camp may have been around for decades, but its acceptance by evaluators only became possible after Susan Sontag paid tribute to it in her essential 1964 essay. In Pinas film practice, campy humor became the staple, starting in the 1970s, of a loose group of directors who used to convene at the Laperal Apartments and later supported one another in a series of omnibus projects, and whose output was consequently downgraded by high-minded film evaluators. Yet once more, Fernandez preceded everyone. As a sample, in one of Malvarosa’s several familial tragedies, the following exchange occurs between the youngest and only female sibling, Rosa, and her gangster brother Leonides, who has killed a prospective holdup target and is now engaged in a shootout with Philippine Constabulary soldiers (in the provocative spirit of camp, Vic Diaz, who plays Leonides, references his physical appearance):

LEONIDES (opens door and lets her in): Why did you come here? Have you gone crazy?

ROSA: You’re the one who’s crazy! You’re deluded! Don’t you know that the law rules above us all? What you’re doing has no hope of winning! Best that you can do is surrender.

LEONIDES: Surrender? So that they can barbecue me on the electric chair? Leonides hasn’t lost his marbles yet!

ROSA: That won’t happen. You might not know it, but the law is just. If you’re innocent, you won’t be punished.

LEONIDES: Idiot! I’m far from innocent! If I weren’t guilty, why would I be in hiding?

(Scr. Consuelo P. Osorio, trans. Joel David)

[3] While I would generally downgrade quantitative measurements of achievement, especially those based on periodical award-giving, the forthcoming canon project I mentioned in the opening section (see David & Maglipon) has claims to providing more accurate assessments of individual filmmakers’ accomplishments: it allowed for as many, or as few, or even no available titles for every year covering the history of Philippine cinema, with works under contention re-viewed for as many times as would be necessary for a team of sufficiently informed evaluators to arrive at an assessment. While the specifics of the results have been contractually embargoed until the book’s publication, I can generally describe that Gregorio Fernandez had, after Gerardo de Leon, the most number of entries, with all the rest of their contemporaries limited to one or two films each.

[4] Rap Fernandez, grandson of Gregorio Fernandez via his son Rudy and the latter’s wife Lorna Tolentino, replied to my query on the allegation by stating: “I was only made aware of the rumor through the research I conducted for my thesis on Gregorio but I know for a fact that this is blatantly untrue. There were even rumors that my father was Merle and Gregorio’s secret son but that’s just completely false.” A niece of Merle, Jane Po, affirmed not just the falsity but also the implausibility of such a scenario. (Both exchanges were conducted via Facebook Messenger.)

[5] Gregorio Fernandez introduced Rudy to Sampaguita Pictures in time for the musical teen-idol trend mentioned earlier, but the son probably shared his elder sister Merle’s dilemma of being too fair for the preferences of the early 1970s mass audience, aside from coming in when the trend (along with bomba) was at its peak. Rap Fernandez pointed out Merle’s involvement in finding opportunities for Rudy; she also grieved over his death from a terminal illness, maintaining that she had lost someone she deeply cared for (interview with Leavold & Palisa).

[6] It would make sense to place Gregorio Fernandez’s peak in the 1950s, a decade ahead of Gerardo de Leon’s, since the latter actually was nearly ten years younger. Gerry de Leon’s Terror Is a Man (1959), Women in Cages (1971), Kulay Dugo ang Gabi [The Blood Drinkers] (1964), and Ibulong Mo sa Hangin [Blood of the Vampires] (1964) hold varying degrees of admirable regard for cineastes who specialize in B-film production.

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Appendix: An Archival Summary of the Gregorio Fernandez Filmography
[Posted separately]

Works Cited

Cabagnot, Edward delos Santos. Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time & Manuel Silos’s Biyaya ng Lupa. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2018.

Daroy, Petronilo Bn. “Main Currents in the Filipino Cinema.” Readings in Philippine Cinema. Ed. Rafael Ma. Guerrero. Manila: Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1983. 95-108.

David, Joel. Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017.

David, Joel, and Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon. Sine: 100+ Films That Celebrate Philippine Cinema (working title). Mandaluyong City: Summit Media, 2022 (forthcoming).

David, Joel, and Melanie Joy C. Garduño. “Ten Best Filipino Films Up to 1990.” Fields of Vision: Critical Applications in Recent Philippine Cinema. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1995. 95-108. 125-36.

Del Mundo, Clodualdo Jr. Ang Daigdig ng mga Api: Remembering a Lost Film. Manila: Film Development Council of the Philippines & De La Salle University Press, 2022.

English, James F. The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Value. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Labastilla, Skilty. “100 Greatest Pinoy Films of All Time.” Society of Filipino Film Reviewers. Online post, 2013.

Leavold, Andrew, and Daniel Palisa, dirs. The Last Pinoy Action King. Documentary. Reflection Films, Death Rides a Red Horse, and Quiapost Productions, 2015.

Lumbera, Bienvenido. “Pelikula: An Essay on Philippine Cinema.” Tuklas Sining: Essays on the Philippine Arts. Ed. Nicanor G. Tiongson. Manila: Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1991. 190-229.

Osorio, Consuelo P., scr. Malvarosa. Dir. Gregorio Fernandez. LVN Pictures, 1958.

Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968. 1968. New York: Octagon, 1982.

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Dell Publishing, 1966. 277-93.

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National Artist Endorsement for Ricky Lee

Dated October 20, 2020, and addressed to the Order of National Artist Secretariat; forwarded via channels.

I am strongly endorsing Ricardo A. Lee, more popularly known as Ricky Lee, for the Order of the National Artist, for his achievements in the fields of film and literature. I am familiar with several of Lee’s output since our tenure as colleagues in the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, from which we separately organized a film-revival and book-publication proprietorship, Cine Gang. Aside from holding what was then the most successful revival series, we managed to publish a bestseller, a back-to-back edition of Lee’s scripts for Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Brutal and Laurice Guillen’s Salome; the book was not just the country’s first screenplay publication but also won a National Book Award during the first year of the Manila Critics Circle.

11011In the process of my own growth as film critic and scholar, I count as my direct influences Bienvenido Lumbera and Ricky Lee. Lumbera provided me with basic principles in evaluating film samples; Lee encouraged me to work on style, expression, and perception, and taught me that risk-taking was useful even if it resulted in failure, as long as I managed to draw lessons for further growth from it.

11011These were of course the same principles that Lee observed for his own productivity. In undertaking advanced studies in cinema, I determined for myself that Philippine film culture has been fortunate in having three definite contemporaneous geniuses in different fields: Ishmael Bernal in directing, Nora Aunor in performing, and Ricky Lee in writing – by which I refer not just to scripts and fiction but also film journalism and criticism. As you can tell from this list, only one has been honored with the Order of the National Artist, and posthumously at that. I might also add here that my critical duties have not been affected by this conclusion. That is, I still have on record certain work by the three individuals where I expressed reservations or objections to some of their output.

11011My determination of the exceptional giftedness of an artist derives from my study of critical and creative processes. As far as my own praxis has enabled me, I can definitively say that the line dividing criticism and artistic production is an artificial and unnecessary one: as much as I allow myself the benefit of drawing from journalistic and literary modes in writing, I have also learned to be grateful when I can observe artists demonstrating a process of critical self-reflection, deciding on ways to upgrade their output accordingly, and sharing with the rest of society the fruits of what is necessarily difficult-yet-invisible labor.

11011One needs the benefit of time as well as resources to be able to reveal such evidence of constant reflection and innovation. The artist capable of intensive critical processing would be someone whose output can be mapped out over several years, providing evaluators with periods where their concerns remained consistently remarkable, followed by succeeding periods where their approaches shifted, generally for the better. The artist’s initial success in her or his early strategies would be the means by which she or he could be able to harness whatever elements may be necessary for inspiration or execution.

11011This is the reason why in Lee’s case, I would advise evaluators to look beyond his record in film, just as Bernal once participated in theater, television, and journalism, and Aunor has crossed over into theater, television, the recording arts, and now new media. After demonstrating, early enough in his career, an ability to pull off the most challenging literary applications in film scriptwriting, Lee continued providing occasionally rewarding material, but also allowed people who completed his scriptwriting workshops to make names for themselves.

11011Instead of opting to rest on his laurels, he resumed published writing and drew in techniques, insights, even personalities from local cinema, in an impressive array of journalistic and fiction pieces. Hence to list the “best Ricky Lee writing” would involve a dizzying crisscross of genres and formats: Ishmael Bernal’s Himala, Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Moral, and Lino Brocka’s Gumapang Ka sa Lusak, among several others, for screenplay; Si Tatang at mga Himala ng Ating Panahon, for book anthology; Pitik-Bulag sa Buwan ng Pebrero, for published stage play; Trip to Quiapo, for writing manual; Sa Puso ng Himala, for commemorative volume; Para Kay B and Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata, for the novel (admittedly I still have to read his more recent work); “Kabilang sa mga Nawawala,” for metafiction; “Mga Batang Lansangan” series, for reportage; a clutch of short stories, interview articles, and film criticism too accomplished to subject to any kind of ranking among themselves; and so on (with biographical material – his own and others’ – announced among his forthcoming projects).

11011No other Filipino, not even Lee’s mentor Nick Joaquin, has had such a distinctive, variegated, and high-caliber record in a wide array of literary forms (although admittedly Joaquin does put up a good fight in short fiction). I have witnessed Lee occasionally being penalized by award-giving bodies for refusing to be confined to only one style, format, and/or genre. That to my mind is not how critical thinkers should think, or how genuinely creative artists should be permitted to proceed. I have always set out to warn students of criticism, including aspiring reviewers, to never set limits for the output of any artist under study, since the latter’s liberation from the boundaries set by tradition can also release us (as critic-evaluators) from fixed expectations in style and analysis.

11011There may be other significant reasons to endorse Lee for the Order. I trust that letters of endorsement from other individuals or institutions may be able to mention these, although from my own perspective, I can also maintain that excellence in artistic performance cannot be attained without a concomitant impeccability in one’s character. Lee’s personal willingness to assist in the education of children of indigent families is a little-known fact that even he might refuse to divulge or confirm, but it motivated many of his friends, myself included, to pledge to emulate his example when we attained the financial capability to do so.

11011Inasmuch as I mention little-known output, to bring our focus back to the concern of writing: Lee has an entire body of literature that he wrote or co-wrote using aliases or without credit, or ghostwrote for others (including Lino Brocka’s much-reprinted acceptance speech for the Magsaysay Award). Having the stature of a National Artist would enable friends and researchers to dig up as much of this body of work as can be salvaged for proper crediting and archiving, to add to the undiscovered gems that only a select group of people have been privy to so far.

11011I trust I have managed to articulate as much of the justification that I can formulate for Lee’s proclamation as National Artist of the Philippines. Thank you for your attention. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have further questions about this letter.


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Transcript of a Mobile Phone Interview of Peque Gallaga by Monchito Nocon

The following material was provided by Monchito Nocon for the research I was conducting on the making of Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night (1980). On the occasion of Peque Gallaga’s demise on May 7, 2020, I requested Monchito’s permission to post the content on Ámauteurish! for its research value. Everything that follows is what I copied from what he provided. To further enlarge on some of Gallaga’s points, I added some excerpts from interviews he gave for the Brocka, Bernal, and the City exhibit at the De La Salle – College of Saint Benilde in 2019; these appear as endnotes.

Background: In 2012, I was connected with the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), where I was in charge of the Media Desk that, among other responsibilities, published the official newsletter, with me serving as editor-writer. Prior to this in 2009, the Philippines was presented a most generous gift by the Pusan International Film Festival: a scanned copy (2K) of Manila by Night.

11011The FDCP was thus looking at completing Manila by Night’s full restoration, leading up to a possible premier on the big screen. It was to be a potentially big event, and I was tasked with doing a cover story on the film for the newsletter. So I immediately sent an email to Peque Gallaga, Manila’s production designer, who graciously promised to write me something posthaste.

11011However, as it happened, Peque was in the midst of moving house in his native Bacolod, and, in the frenzy, couldn’t find the chance to sit down and write. He offered instead to do a long-distance phone interview, which I welcomed and arranged (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Email reply from Peque Gallaga.

11011The following is the transcript of that interview, which I did on my own volition. As there was no way for me then to record a mobile phone conversation, I had to transcribe everything in real time, by longhand! I also took the liberty of adding headings to make it more comprehensible. Alas, I failed to save the article draft, the publication of which was eventually scrapped as the restoration project never got off the ground.

Peque gives a behind-the-scenes peek into working on Manila by Night

  • [I first worked] with Bernie in Girlfriend – it was love at first sight! We got along well and I brought with me my Bacolod team.
  • It was an ambitious project!
  • [Scriptwriter] Ricky Lee – he marked the whole year [in the film] through the feasts
  • Douglas Quijano, I, and Bernie went to all the night spots – it was an eye-opener – to pick up information.
  • All scenes were shot in Manila after midnight – at 2 a.m. – with the crowd directed [to appear as if it was earlier in the evening].
  • We recreated the vibe [of Manila].
  • We went to a masahista [massage] joint.
  • Bernie did a sit-down with the masahista – did an interview – picking up on what they do. He got into the daily minutiae.
  • She [Cherie Gil] ran the whole stretch in different takes, and covered the geography.[1]
  • They really swam in Manila Bay!
  • [Quotes Bernal in relation to a scene Peque wanted to have reshot – the one with floating candles on Manila Bay. Sergio Lobo, the DOP, failed to properly get his instructions in shooting that scene, and instead of a fuzzy, surreal scene, you could actually see the candles afloat]: “A film can never be perfect. There has to have a rough edge … a mistake … a human aspect.”[2]
  • Does that scene (referring to the above) make sense to you? Concerned with reality.
  • [Along] San Pedro etc. – William [Martinez] pours water over his head – a cleansing – a religious statement.

Peque on Manila, the city

  • It’s not the Manila that it used to be – [you now have] drugs, fringe elements. It just shows that Manila hasn’t changed – the city that hasn’t worked.

Peque on Bernal’s directing style

  • [Bernal] wanted to show reality, not a polished version.
  • He was very classical – close-ups with actors – makes them more dramatic.
  • Long shots tell the story.
  • [He would] sit down with the actors to talk with them regarding the script.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask them [the actors] the most intimate questions.
  • [He created] an intimate bond with performers – not on a boss-employee level but something more personal.[3]


[1] When her character Kano starts being chased by narcotics police, she runs from Sauna Turko along Roxas Blvd. toward Rizal Park, turns right at Mabini Bridge (the side street that traverses the estero of Fort San Antonio de Abad between Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas and Ospital ng Maynila Medical Center) and around the former Harrison Plaza, until she gets cornered and caught at the intersection of Mabini and Vito Cruz (now P. Ocampo) Streets. [Thanks to Dr. Juan Martin Magsanoc for determining the formal name of the Mabini Bridge stretch.]

[2] “I talked to Sergio Lobo who was the cameraman [for Manila by Night]. I said, ‘For their LSD sequence what I want to do is to get those little cups for the candles and float them by fitting them in small Styropors. But is it possible if you can put Vaseline around your lens so that it will just be out-of-focus lights and it’s only the faces of Cherie and William that are going to be seen, so that all of a sudden these lights come on?’ He said ‘Yeah just paint the Styropor orange so that the lights would still be warm.’ So we bought about 200 [candles on Styropor] and on two [small outrigger boats], we lit each and every one of them and swept them with bamboo so that as the scene goes on these things start floating in. When we saw the rushes, I said, ‘Bernie, that’s shit! He didn’t defocus it in any way!’ All of a sudden they were surrounded by stupid candles and Styropors. ‘It’s ridiculous. This is really bad. We have to reshoot it!’ He said ‘No, just remember this scene will keep you humble the rest of your life.’” [From “Brocka-Bernal Interviews, 2018-2019,” for the exhibit Brocka, Bernal, and the City, January 24 to April 29, 2019, at the De La Salle – College of Saint Benilde’s School of Design and Arts.]

[3] “It’s very funny. He called me up and said ‘Peqs! Listen, I’ve been talking bad about you okay, but you have to understand, I’m the old guy, you’re coming up, your movie’s beautiful, I’m jealous, and … it’s only human, OK? We’re still friends.’ And I said, ‘Okay Bernie. I haven’t heard you say anything about it.’ He answered ‘Well I’ll be quoted … but beyond all that, I love you.’ I said ‘I love you too Bernie.’

11011“I don’t think I saw him after that anymore. So much so that when Marilou Diaz-Abaya called me up and said, ‘We need your help, Bernie’s dead,’ I said, ‘I’m busy, I can’t make it, I have to finish something first.’ She said, ‘Come on, that’s Bernie, he’s your friend.’ I said ‘I’m sorry I can’t make it, I can’t make it,’ so she hung up [after] she told me where it was. I stayed there for a while and I said ‘That’s right, Bernie’s my friend.’ So I got in the car and went, not to the wake. His body had just been brought in [to the morgue]. Mel Chionglo was there, Marilou, one or two others. And they said, ‘Oh you’re here, you should be here, we’re his friends.’ I said ‘Yeah, what do you want me to do?’ ‘Well we’re choosing coffins now and everything we seem to choose are six figures – 300,000 [pesos], 250,000. We have to work this out, what can you do?’ I said, ‘I’ll watch his body.’ So I went and sat down and I watched them not only dress him up, but put the big needle to remove all the dead blood, wash him, et cetera. I just stayed there until everything was done and they dressed him up and I remember combing his hair. That’s the last time I saw Bernie.” [From “Brocka-Bernal Interviews, 2018-2019,” for the exhibit Brocka, Bernal, and the City, January 24 to April 29, 2019, at the De La Salle – College of Saint Benilde’s School of Design and Arts.]

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My Peque Gallaga Interview

Maurice Claudio Luis Ruiz de Luzuriaga “Peque” Gallaga (1943-2020). [From the National Commission for Culture and the Arts]

I will admit that I tried, for the longest time, to keep distance between myself and Peque Gallaga. During the publicity blitz for his first solo film, Oro, Plata, Mata [Gold, Silver, Death] (1982), I preferred to interview his wife, Madie, the film’s producer who also happened to be the daughter of my mother’s supervisor at what was then the national sugar institute. He had a reputation for being temperamental and I preferred to avoid celebrity types, although I discovered later that I enjoyed studying them. Since this was the “new cinema” moment when the film world lavished adulation on auteurs, and OPM was a star turn more for its director than for any of its actors, Peque became as much the star of one of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines’ initial productions as Nora Aunor was (then-already) the star of the other, Ishmael Bernal’s Himala [Miracle].

Gallaga directing his films: Oro, Plata, Mata (1982, above) and “Manananggal [Viscera Sucker]” segment of Shake, Rattle & Roll (1984). [From Focus on Filipino Films and Ronald Rios]

11011In fact I’d made his acquaintance earlier, when I had just joined a then-still-studious critics group that decided to invite the members of the newly formed production designers’ guild in order to get pointers on how to properly evaluate their category – for an annual awards system that I also soon repudiated. When the guild president kept arguing that PD practitioners insist on lavish adornments in order to shame producers who skimped on production budgets, Peque spoke out and said that the best kind of mise-en-scène was one that did not draw attention to itself. In effect, he stated that PDs should learn to welcome the challenge of working within narrow budgets, although whether he knew or didn’t, by saying so he contributed one vital brick to the ethical critical structure I was building for myself.[1]

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11011On another occasion, in one of those many self-congratulatory receptions the then-booming industry loved to sponsor, I had occasion to mention to him that I attended the rescreening of a film where he participated as actor. This was Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Taóng Walang Diyos [Three Godless Years], which came out in 1976, the same year he won the critics’ prize for production design for Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? [As We Were]. Over coffee after the screening, one of the founding members asked me if I’d seen it before (I had), and what impressed me about the present viewing. “Peque’s performance,” I said, and he agreed. I said it might be the best of that year for the supporting-actor category, and he agreed again, somewhat sheepishly (I thought, because Peque wasn’t even nominated for it).[2]

11011About a year later, when the agency provided me with a scholarship to complete a second bachelor’s degree in the country’s first academic film program at the national university, I arrived at the office to turn in my output for the day. The whole place was abuzz with the premiere of the first sex film made by Regal Films, the country’s most successful studio. It wasn’t the first so-called bold film, or even the first locally produced bold film, to be exhibited free of censorship at the Manila Film Center; neither was it Peque’s OPM follow-up, since he’d already exhibited Bad Bananas sa Puting Tabing [Bad Bananas on the Silver Screen] (made for the 1983 Metro Manila Film Festival) as well as the soft-core historical allegory Virgin Forest, also a Regal production, earlier in 1985. Scorpio Nights promised to be different though, with its title suggesting an overtly and unapologetically sex-focused product.

11011But the buzz I mentioned was something else. It centered on an event that occurred right before the pricey but expectedly jampacked screening. Those who’d attended said that when it was Peque’s turn to speak, he let go of a volley of curses, naming specific individuals who were officials in the ECP and/or colleagues of mine in the critics’ group. Despite the fact that I’d already forsworn participation in the group’s annual awards after extreme frustration with not just the individual choices but also the hypocrisy and cynicism behind the process, Peque’s outburst made me anxious. At that time, I guessed that it had to do with the backlash by left-leaning critics against OPM, to which our group had given its highest prizes; some of the OPM-bashers were former members, others were later invited to be part of the group.

11011With some hindsight, I later thought that it also may have had to do with the fact that the cash-strapped ECP bypassed its next year’s second-place scriptwriting contest winner, Flores de Mayo [Flowers of May], and favored the third, Soltero [Bachelor] (1984), thus ensuring that Flores would never get done: not only was Flores written by Jose Javier Reyes, the same person that Peque recruited to write OPM as well as Bad Bananas, but Soltero was written by an official of the ECP – one of the names Peque had singled out. Friends at the agency however told me that any hurt feelings were subsequently smoothed over via an apology that Peque issued.

11011I got some measure of assurance later, after I completed the film program and worked up enough nerve to contact him to tell him how much I appreciated Scorpio Nights, how I disagreed with the critics locking it out of their major awards categories, and how relieved I was to drop out of the group so I could finally criticize them as an independent entity. He was effusive with praise for me, pointing out something that didn’t occur to me up to that point: “those people,” he said, “should have done what you did – study the field that they were dabbling in, so they’d know what they’re talking about and earn the right to call themselves qualified.”

Films co-directed by Gallaga: Binhi [Seed] (with Butch Perez, 1973, above) and Sonata (with Lore Reyes, 2013). [From Ronald Rios and Rappler]

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11011Academe gave me the time and inclination (though not the funds) to pursue a career as resident film critic of what was then the country’s most consequential newsmagazine, National Midweek. A foreign graduate-study grant became available right after I published my first book, and I stopped communicating with Pinas industry participants for nearly a decade. I maintained contact with some practitioners of a narrative format that I announced as my dissertation topic, but when the most prolific among them, Ishmael Bernal, died unexpectedly, I decided to stay put in the US until I completed my doctorate.

11011This is my roundabout way of explaining why my most intensive interactions with Peque since the present millennium consisted entirely of social-network exchanges. I knew I could get a great interview out of him, but in the meanwhile what I needed was some information for the book on Manila by Night (1980) that I was writing. I knew some of his stories as its production designer (for which he won his second critics’ prize), and I was aware that he was referring to his work on it when he articulated his principles during the critics’ soirée with the PD guild several years earlier.

11011What stumped me regarding Manila by Night was a different type of design – film sound. I apologetically brought up the topic with him, expecting him to hint at least that I should focus on his visual specialization. What do you know, he did get involved with the movie’s aural design, confirming my suspicion that the film’s extremely accurate and well-timed voices and noises were actually artificially – and painstakingly – recreated in the sound studio.[3] Much like creating a news report using memory and restaging the incidents one wanted to cover, carefully enough so that the total reality effect was replicated.

11011So one of my long-term to-do projects was an all-out Peque Gallaga interview, covering the full spectrum of his participation in film and film-related activities: as project conceptualizer, director (for film, TV, and theater), performer, visual and sound designer, theater-guild founder, professor, and whatever else he might remind me. I just needed to muster the guts to handle what I thought was his contempt for film critics, since he never failed to blast my older colleagues even after they handed him a well-deserved life achievement award about a decade ago. I also take every opportunity to point out their shortcomings, so at least we could have that useful convergence as starting point.

Gallaga and Lore Reyes, his co-director since 1987. [From Lore Reyes’s Facebook page]

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11011The final factor that eliminated all my misgivings regarding his belligerence occurred via a casual conversation I had late last year with his co-director, Lore Reyes.[4] I mentioned, in one of my recollections of the ECP screenings, Peque’s flare-up during the Scorpio Nights premiere. Apparently, according to Lore, everyone else had forgotten about it – but of course I couldn’t, since I had to steel myself for a Peque interview that was never to be, as it turned out. The story involved an otherwise highly regarded personality who was associated not just with ECP but also with the critics group as well as the national university’s film program. I deduced that he was acting with the support or encouragement of people in these institutions, the same people Peque had called out.

11011From our November 21, 2019, exchange: “Did you know? I caught Hammy [Agustin Sotto] cutting Scorpio Nights near dawn on the morning before its ECP premiere. I told Hammy I was going to fetch Peque, he said go ahead, fetch Peque. So I did. Peque punched him and kicked him in the head. It was a scene straight out of a cheap indie movie: a 5,000-foot reel unspooling all over Jess Navarro’s editing room in [the Regal office in] Valencia as Jess and I tried to stop Peque from beating up Hammy.[5] Later that day, [unknown to Manila Film Center head] Johnny Litton and Hammy, Jess restored all the clips that Hammy had cut (we brought a Steenbeck to the ECP parking lot and bribed the ECP projectionist so we could borrow the premiere print). That was where Peque’s rage was coming from, when he cursed all those personalities who were right there in front of him on the first row. They tried to cut his film without his knowledge.”

11011Goodness, I realized, I had nothing to fear at all about the man. He would defy hell itself to fight for something he thought was right. About that interview….


An account of Peque Gallaga’s achievements is recounted in the tribute issued by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts on its Facebook page. An abridged version of this article, titled “Peque’s Rage: A Retelling,” was published in the May 12, 2020, issue of The FilAm; it was also reprinted in the June 2020 issue of The FilAm: Newsmagazine Serving Filipino Americans in New York. (Click on pic below of the newsmag version to open PDF file.)

[1] In Monchito Nocon’s unpublished 2012 interview with Peque Gallaga regarding Manila by Night, Peque quoted Ishmael Bernal’s response when he demanded a reshoot of the Halloween revelers’ frolic at Manila Bay, since the camera operator had forgotten to bring the right lenses: “A film can never be perfect. It has to have a rough edge … a mistake … a human aspect.”

[2] To the credit of the late Mario A. Hernando, with whom I was conversing, he devoted a portion of his newspaper column (Kibitzer, in the now-defunct Times Journal) to raise this very same issue. The incident also alerted me to the dangers of passing canonical judgment based on swift and temporally marked-off considerations such as awards schedules.

[3] Abbo Q. de la Cruz, who played the rebellious peasant in Oro, Plata, Mata [Gold, Silver, Death], and whose Misteryo sa Tuwa [Joyful Mystery] (1984) was the first film completed during the second and final batch of ECP productions, was credited for sound effects in Manila by Night. On a Facebook post that was subsequently deleted by the account owner, Peque mentioned how he and Abbo locked themselves in the sound studio and worked themselves to exhaustion, until they felt they had all the possible audio coverage that the director might require.

[4] Another critical issue that besets the Gallaga credit is the directing partnership he maintained with Lore Reyes. This should resolve by itself as Reyes continues making films on his own, as he has done and as he should continue doing. Gregory Paul Y. Daza, in “The Unsung, Ignored Half of the Gallaga-Reyes Movies” (for the September 4, 2015 issue of BusinessWorld), provided what amounts to a useful primer for the Reyes-Gallaga dilemma.

[5] Tina Cuyugan, in a Facebook comment posted on April 10, 2020, narrated that “Peque did mention that he went to that encounter with Hammy brandishing (although not using, in the end) a cane that had been hand-carved by prisoners in Palawan. The type of precise Bakunawan detail that can stick to one’s memory for 35 years.” (“Nelson Bakunawa” was the name Peque used for his account, bakunawa being a mythological serpentine dragon capable of disrupting weather cycles and causing eclipses and tremors; the account has been archived by his family and is no longer available.) My own assessment of Hammy’s extremely conflicted positions as film critic, historian, festival promoter, educator, and aspiring industry practitioner may have to wait until I have been able to ensure my own objectivity about his actuations vis-à-vis the far-from-perfect institutions wherein he operated. For an essential and intensive retrospective report on the production history of Scorpio Nights, see Jerome Gomez’s “Coital Recall,” in Rogue (November 2015): 74-81.

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Manoy Takes His Leave

The sudden end to the long and productive life of actor-director Eddie Garcia was unnecessarily tragic, with corporate negligence compounding the foolhardiness of an artist too game to retire at an age when most other people would have completed two or more entire careers. The evaluation of netizens is on the mark in this case: Garcia’s willingness to take risks, typical of his approach throughout an extended and colorful career, should have been tempered by the studio that had apparently bet on countering the most successful serial program of the moment by showcasing, among other novelties, the physical agility of the country’s oldest active action performer.[1]

11011First appearing as a contract actor by the most star-obsessed among the 1950s First Golden Age studios, Garcia’s unconventional attractiveness positioned him a degree apart from full star stature: he could occasionally headline a project, but never the romantic leads that required the Euro-mestizo prettiness claimed by any number of now-forgotten actors. Having decided to make the most of a range of skills that allowed him to dabble in genres as disparate as horror, action, comedy, even soft-core melodrama, as leading man or villain, he settled on making himself indispensable as a competent ensemble performer who could draw on reserves of brilliance in case the role happened to demand it of him.

11011His filmography of over 650 film appearances (a possible local record) attests to the success of his strategy, but he had a higher purpose in mind: to be able to carve out a parallel career as film director. His choices were informed by the same principle of populist entertainment that he maintained for his acting career. One can see how his efforts could be occasionally penalized for being too mainstream, in a system that prized (then as now) “independent” efforts: when his best film, Saan Nagtatago ang Pag-ibig? (1987), came out, the Filipino critics’ group declared that no film during that year was worth considering for its annual prizes. Saan Nagtatago has since then been regarded as one of the high points in Pinoy melodrama.

11011Observers were also prone to concluding that his expertise as director accounted for his actorly acumen. This may be safely accepted as conventional wisdom, in conjunction with his pronouncement that his original dream was to be a military official. His work ethic, arriving about an hour ahead of call time, lines already committed to memory, was typical of performers of his generation, and those of theater-trained actors even today. Yet there were fault lines in this ultra-professional approach, and it occasionally showed up in his filmmaking record. He directed (and won his first directorial award for) the second biographical campaign movie of Ferdinand Marcos, Pinagbuklod ng Langit (1969). When later, the then-newly founded directors’ guild declared a boycott of the film projects of Gabby Concepcion, Garcia defied guild president Lino Brocka by accepting a Concepcion assignment for Viva Films.

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11011Ironically, Garcia’s acting projects with Brocka constituted his most rewarding body of work. He had memorable roles in the first few films of Ishmael Bernal, showed up in some of Eddie Romero’s more ambitious projects, and endeared himself to camp fans in the sex-comedies of Danny L. Zialcita. But as the most politically committed Filipino director, Brocka required effective representations of political villainy, and no one delivered the goods as well as Garcia, in a series of acclaimed works: Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (1974), Miguelito: Batang Rebelde (1985), and Gumapang Ka sa Lusak (1990), among others. Their collaboration was cemented early on, in Brocka’s second film assignment and first serious work, Tubog sa Ginto (1970), still arguably the highest peak in male Philippine film performance.

11011The mystery in Tubog lies in how Brocka managed to create his best queer film during the period when he still had to come around as an openly queer artist. His later “out” movies, notably Macho Dancer (1988), pale in comparison to the early work. People tended to ascribe some credit to Garcia, to his admission that he conducted intensive research among colleagues in the industry, plus his earlier attempt in essaying a comic version of the closeted authority in Kaming mga Talyada (1962), affirmed by his subsequent willingness to tackle similar roles (comic and dramatic) even in his old age – including his last film assignment, Rainbow’s Sunset (2018). To be honest, the results were always mixed and not as definitive as Tubog itself; in a comic ensemble work, Mga Paru-parong Buking (1985), he was upstaged predictably by Bernardo Bernardo and unexpectedly by George Estregan.

11011Eight years ago, in one of those confluences that make pop culture an endlessly fascinating phenomenon for its devotees, several identifiably masculine actors admitted to past same-sex experiences. One of them was Garcia, who said that his own episode occurred early, when he was 15, as part of a quest to determine his own preference. One could look at the group of confessors and note for the record that they were all extremely accomplished performers. Yet the measure of the audience’s distractability, as well as Garcia’s own volatility, is that most people remembered his queer performances, but not his own acknowledgment of the roots of his appreciation. All in all an occasionally spotty record then, but generously strewn with gems worth treasuring: rarely have we been so lucky.

[First published June 23, 2019, in The FilAm]


[1] In the wake of the tragedy, the studio, GMA-7, announced that its series, Rosang Agimat, was shelved. The new program was intended to challenge ABS-CBN’s long-dominant Ang Probinsyano, where Garcia had (ironically) also been a featured player.

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A Salute to Our Pinay Filmmakers

While preparing for the end, Marilou Diaz-Abaya gave a series of interviews worth re-reading once in a while. Respect the audience, was her admonition to indie practitioners. Work to develop their preferred product, which then as now meant rom-com films.

11011Responses by local gatekeepers melded with Euro-festival jurors to ensure that this crucial bit of advice be downgraded and ignored as quickly as possible. Only high-art, alienating, complex-but-inconclusive films were fielded to foreign filmfests & local critics’ competitions, where they dominated the prizes for the past several years. Filmmakers (often women) who so much as deviated from the poverty-focused extreme aestheticizations that these taste-mongers upheld, were scolded for supposedly betraying progressive ideals.

11011As it turned out, it was women (with an occasional male director or two) who laid the foundations of the Pinoy rom-com in the 1990s, another batch who strengthened it in the 2000s, and still another group hard at work during this decade in transforming it.

11011One would have to be an ideologically arrested thinker to believe that their output is automatically invalidated by the popular acclaim that it so rightfully earns. For one thing, several of the current practitioners did dabble in indie work, and (as if observing Diaz-Abaya’s advice) brought over what strengths they developed to tweak, improve, and revise the rom-com format.

11011The fact that the most prominent Pinoy international film festival, San Francisco’s FACINE, wound up honoring a rom-com entry, its jurors smitten by its unexpected warmth and delicacy, affirms that our women filmmakers are on the right track. The Young Critics Circle also gave their major prizes to women working in documentaries – and in a rom-com project.

11011If progressive is seen as any effort that upgrades the public’s habits by meeting its demands halfway, and regards genre exercises as a means of conveying new insights and possibilities, then this is certainly a trend worth attending to. The promise of viewing pleasure would just be icing on the cake, a reward for finally coming to terms with an audience that is truly our own.

[Posted March 25, 2019, on Facebook]