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Book Texts – Pinoy Film Reviews II: Late Celluloid Era (The 1990s)

Persistence of Vision

Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali?
Directed by Chito Roño
Written by Orlando R. Nadres

Someone sooner or later has to correlate the current paucity of fresh filmmaking talent with the decline in filmmaking quality, and I think we’ve had enough time – about an academic generation since the 1986 revolution – to arrive with confidence at such a conclusion. The political irony in this case should not be lost on any concerned observer: never was the movie industry more democratic in giving breaks to genuine talents than during the dictatorship, unlike in these, uh, democracy-spaced times. As further proof, the last of the major film talents to have emerged in these here parts is Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali? director Chito Roño – whose debut film, Private Show, was completed way before February 1986 but was released afterward only because of a series of freak (and again ironic, Roño being the son of a Marcos-era minister) occurrences.

Only now does it seem like a near-miracle that most of our best and brightest actually emerged within a few months of one another – Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Jun Raquiza, Peque Gallaga, Butch Perez, Elwood Perez, Romy Suzara, and Danny Zialcita during the early ’70s, Behn Cervantes, Mike de Leon, Lupita Kashiwahara, Mario O’Hara, and Gil Portes during the mid-’70s, and Mel Chionglo, Abbo Q. de la Cruz, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Laurice Guillen, Maryo J. de los Reyes, Pepe Marcos, and Wilfredo Milan during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Of course one can point to at least two worth-watching newcomers since Roño’s debut – Augusto Salvador and Carlos Siguion-Reyna – but until anyone between them comes up with a follow-up comparable to their first films (Siguion-Reyna, in fact still hasn’t followed up so far at all!), I’d rather stick to the larger issue: that one or even two sparrows don’t a unit make.

Figuring out the possible reasons and disentangling them in order to effect a reversal would be worth a discourse in itself, so meantime I guess the next best thing to do would be to point out what we’ve been depriving ourselves of. This I think can be done by inverse implication – i.e., appreciating anything done by the above-named that deserves attention, so as to connote that we could have more such delights if we only had more such names around in the first place. Fortunately certain significant pronouncements can already be made about the last of the majors, this early in his career. This is because Roño clearly belongs to the whiz-kid category – an elite circle in these parts, comprising those whose expressive skills alone could ensure a holistic, if essentially flawed, creation; other names we can count herein are Peque Gallaga, Mike de Leon, and, closer to the fringes, Laurice Guillen.

Roño bears comparison with Gallaga, the most accomplished (in career terms) of the lot, since both of them, to begin with, exhibit a flair for intense, operatic camera-gestures. Not surprisingly, it is Gallaga who, among all Filipino filmmakers, has the most impressive track record in epic filmmmaking, stylistically surpassing those of earlier masters like the late Gerardo de Leon and Celso Ad. Castillo. And then again, when we think of problematic film statements, we also refer to the works of the stylists and the whiz-kids, especially Gallaga. For nowhere than in the creative process is such a situation as “too good to be true” possible: the McLuhanesque aphorism about the medium being the message can get carried to the logical extreme of there being no more message (of import, that is) within an over-elaborated medium. Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali? upholds Roño’s distinction – that among his peers, only he has been able to apply a visual quotient comparable to Gallaga’s, with a psychological bent of an order never seen since the heyday of Castillo. The effect, when you think about it, is pretty awesome. All our major directors, including the whiz kids, require appropriate resources in order to achieve epic feats; in contrast, Roño simulates the properties of the epic by enlarging what are actually modest givens.

These skills were on display as early as the first phase of his career, when he did a series of projects for a number of independent producers. The next phase began when he finally decided, after a series of burns and false starts with other independents, to work with a mainstream outfit, Viva Films. Kasalanan Ba’ng Sambahin Ka? saw him barely maintaining his equanimity, what with a commercialist cop-out in the end. Bakit Kay Tagal, however, more fully exhibits the director’s creative potentials, perched as it is (like the earlier film) between dismissible material and an invaluable, or at least instructive, skills display, with no let-up in the balancing act and a successful steerage of material toward the requisite build-up and denouement.

It would even be possible to appreciate Bakit Kay Tagal as komiks-sourced material, though not in the old sense, wherein the adapter was expected to temper the excesses of the origins. Hence, while Lino Brocka, for example, has been and should be esteemed for his capability to invest visual and episodic (and therefore non-rational and fragmented) material with literary values, Roño in Bakit Kay Tagal may similarly be complimented, albeit for taking the entirely opposite tack – the more dangerous, if usual, one of observing rather than defying the material’s convolutions and disproportions. Normally this approach falls flat but works commercially anyway, since it allows the multitude of komiks readers to recognize in the film the story that they’ve been following in print. Successful local stylistic exercises – Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata, Mike de Leon’s Kakabakaba Ka Ba?, and some lesser works by Castillo – prove that local artists and subject matter could lend themselves to medium-based indulgence, but the lesson provided by Bakit Kay Tagal is that what lies behind these triumphs is actually the komiks spirit.

Bakit Kay Tagal may therefore be regarded as a long-overdue definitive adaptation of komiks material, in terms of the nature, rather than the literary potential, of the original form. A certain thematic strain runs through the film – the satisfying, if overworked, thesis of how class conflicts induce moral transformations in those who survive them; although the proletarian characters win over the rich ones, the movie invokes conservative caution by qualifying that the change in status also alters one’s social constitution – in short, the higher one climbs the class ladder, the more individualistic one becomes (or has to be). There is nothing unique about the sequence of events in this particular story, apart from what can be expected in an adequately structured tale; the actors themselves don’t add much to their roles, since their characters are developed according to contrasting though predictable extremities, either from rich and proud to humble and dead, or from poor and downtrodden to heritable and haughty, with a measure of redemptive repentance in the end. Such grandiosity of vision has been the standard recourse of komiks writers, who compensate it seems for the unwieldiness of their medium by cloaking their stories with all-encompassing draperies, which in turn are rendered flimsy precisely by their functional universality.

As mentioned earlier, in the hands of a less capable (read: typical) director, the inherent limitations of this type of material would have been readily discernible: mere filmmaking competence would focus the viewer’s attention on the more perceivable mechanism of the work instead of its bigger but essentially abstract statements. Bakit Kay Tagal manages to direct viewership concerns where it matters – to the larger though fundamentally trite abstractions, instead of the lapses and illogicalities. I cannot overemphasize the fact that the solution in this instance is really a stylistic one, since this should constitute a warning in itself. The fact that a Filipino filmmaker can finally surmount the deficiencies of her material through sheer skill may be good news in our context, but one only has to look across the Pacific, to Hollywood, to see how an early blessing could easily and naturally metamorphose into a latter-day curse.

In fact, if there’s anything Roño’s achievement in Bakit Kay Tagal imparts, it’s the realization that his approach is far more difficult than the traditional one; in practical terms it would be physically and financially easier to fashion and execute a well or even over-developed script than to figure out how to continually abstractify flawed material using limited technical resources. The key to Bakit Kay Tagal’s effectiveness lies not in how the project required terrific casting and brilliant technical back-up (with a concomitant budgetary complement), but in how the filmmaker provided the illusion of a seamless whole, using technique (matched transitions, expertly timed dissolves, purposeful camera movements) to promote an unusual sensibility.

In the end I guess it would be fair to state that it’s the substance of the style and not the style itself that salvages Bakit Kay Tagal from the unenviable fate of faithful komiks adaptations. The best elements of our most highly praised naturalist product, Oro, Plata, Mata, can also be found herein: an authentic sense of aristocracy, a predisposition toward perverse progressions, a subtle awareness of classic film traditions. Yet Oro, Plata, Mata, which is of more ambitious stuff than Bakit Kay Tagal, could not sustain its strong initial impact. Bakit Kay Tagal I feel will be able to get by primarily because of lesser expectations, but it ought to make us all hope for the day when a Roño project would have the ideal combination of major budget and sober material, to enable him to improve on what may already be good enough instead of merely making do with what can never be momentous to begin with.

[Submitted in 1991 to National Midweek; unpublished]

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Indigenous Ingenuity

Andrea, Paano Ba ang Maging Isang Ina?
Directed by Gil M. Portes
Written by Ricardo Lee

I knew that I’d be involuntarily associated with the project, so I took the opportunity to formalize my participation. It all started when the members of the film-student organization I was advising, unabashedly Nora Aunor fans, could only talk about (and work on) the comeback project of the actress. Never had the heretofore insurmountable challenge of breaking into the local movie industry seemed so easy – due largely to the endorsement of my coadviser, Ricardo Lee, who was also the scriptwriter of the project. My only previous direct experience in a mainstream production was in a Vilma Santos-starrer, where I was, among other things, an atmosphere person. They had inserted some lines for a human-rights lawyer character in the Nora Aunor movie to demonstrate the desperation of the character in seeking help to recover her baby. The lawyer was supposed to be unable to do anything for her, so my role was to have been limited to a one-scene exchange; imagine, I told myself, only two full-length film exposures in my life thus far, and these with Vilma Santos and Nora Aunor….

The day after I did the role, the production folded up, reportedly because the original financier backed out. And with its director Gil M. Portes scheduled to leave for New York soon after, everyone was pessimistic about the film ever getting finished. I relate all this because I never really understood, until this project, how precarious serious filmmaking can be, especially in these times. With a record-setting eleven trophies from the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), plus a Gold Prize, Special Critics Prize, and Individual Achievement awards (Lee and Aunor) from the first batch of the Young Critics Circle winners, it is dangerously easy to assume that the movie, now known as Andrea, Paano Ba ang Maging Ina?, had been fated to be a winner from the start.

It is also just as dangerously difficult to dislike Andrea. The worst thing I can say, in all objectivity, about the film is that it may be existing way past its time. This is, in fact, its primary distinction: not since the boldest years of the Marcos era has there been an overtly anticommercial local production – independently (and indigently) sourced and featuring nonbankable perfomers in nonformulaic material. Rarer still is the circumstance of such an effort reaping such rewards, and I mainly mean the post-Metro filmfest box-office restitution rather than the various prestigious distinctions that invariably followed. The MMFF contribution to Andrea’s fortune may be more than incidental in this regard. For all its past oversights – and these were many and cruel, directed even at some of Andrea’s makers – the MMFF has also honored, exclusively even, some of the better outputs of the local film industry: Celso Ad. Castillo’s direction of Burlesk Queen and Vilma Santos’s performance therein (both the director’s and actress’s best ever), Nora Aunor’s performance in Himala (her best and that of Philippine cinema as well), and Ricardo Lee’s screenplay of Moral (still another all-time best entry).

The value of the MMFF results, which no other award-giving institution possesses, lies in their capability to improve the financial performance of any film on which they bestow recognition. This adds a unique combination of sum and substance to the event’s moral obligation to render credible and well-considered judgments at all times. Conversely, no amount of postfestival revaluation had been able to recuperate whatever results were consequentially incurred by its negligence of such entries as Lino Brocka’s Bona (starring Nora Aunor), Bukas … May Pangarap (with the same director-writer team as Andrea’s), and Chito Roño’s Itanong Mo sa Buwan. As for Andrea, the measure by which the film has succeeded may at least partly be at the MMFF’s expense: not only had some of its personnel previously suffered the lapses in judgment of the jurors of the festival, the director and writer themselves have on record an entry, Birds of Prey, that was disallowed participation some years back on the basis of the ridiculous and inconsistent technicality of its having been financed by foreign sources. Meanwhile, what we have on hand is a product that happens to serve as the juncture of three auteurs – director, writer, and lead performer – at felicitous turning points in their respective careers.

Portes is the Andrea talent whose reputation advances with the film, from project originator to metteur en scène. Actually, though Andrea may be his best, it is not his coming-out film: that distinction belongs to his previous Nora Aunor-starrer, ’Merika, the project that immediately preceded Bukas … May Pangarap. (Andrea, Bukas, and Birds of Prey also feature Gina Alajar, who starred in the latter two as well as in another underrated Portes-Lee collaboration, Gabi Kung Sumikat ang Araw [1981]). The misfortune of Gil Portes is that his flair for uncovering independent production sources has attracted more attention than his growth as a filmmaker. No other Filipino, not even Celso Ad. Castillo, has been able to sustain a directorial career for years on the basis of a few modest hits, and more recently, despite a string of financial flops. Not surprisingly, the major production houses, having drifted toward increased commercialization since the February 1986 Revolution, have closed their doors to the likes of Portes. Other serious filmmakers, notably Brocka (and Lee, to a certain extent), have managed to maintain mainstream status only by accepting the givens and working within them.

The filmmakers marginalized by this shift in the system of local production have practically inhibited themselves – except for Portes. At one point, both he and Brocka sought foreign funding for their respective pet projects, and both similarly found themselves up against the Aquino administration’s deviously self-effacing censorship tactics. Birds of Prey and Orapronobis may yet find their way onto local screens, but meanwhile both Portes and Brocka again made a show of how film artistry could be made to fit opposing modes of production: where Brocka’s Gumapang Ka sa Lusak is 1990’s outstanding mainstream film, Andrea is the same year’s outstanding independent entry.

Significantly, both films were scripted by Lee, and may therefore provide, if only in a literal sense, a common basis for evaluation. Gumapang Ka marks a high point in the appropriation by serious artists of commercial elements in putting across what may be considered a non-commercial theme – that of the depravity of traditional politics. In forced contrast, Andrea proves that a non-commercial approach to commercial (at least in the latent sense) material is feasible. In fact, the more optimistic could argue that at no other point in our recent history would non- or maybe even anti-commercial products prosper that at present, given the mainstream saturation effected by the predominance of monolithic studios since Februrary 1986.

In the case of Lee, the twofold scriptwriting triumph of 1990 (not counting a number of more conventional works, including Brocka’s Hahamakin Lahat [1990]) can be creatively attributed to his return to more literary pursuits, especially journalism and fiction. The scene where Andrea has to hold back her emotions during her husband’s wake, as well as the heroine’s death-by-assassination in both films, all recall similar portions in the scripwriter’s latest, essentially unclassifiable work, the metafictional “Kabilang sa mga Nawawala.” Necessarily, the overall impact of “Kabilang,” where the author had total personal control, is greater, though it still has to be played out more thoroughly since its medium’s potential for popular response is disadvantaged compared to film.

But what Andrea (more than Gumapang Ka) supplies is in effect a preparation for the unqualified treat of works like “Kabilang.” The film constitutes a throwback to a point – perhaps our filmic past, as well as a beyond-Hollywood expansion of appreciation – where cinema defines itself more in terms of dramatic and thematic richness than in the accumulation of plastic-perfect points. Most buffs and historians (the distinction tends to blur in the case of film) would identify this ideal as neorealist, although Andrea, truer to its time and place, evinces a sophistication, not to mention a performance, far removed from the extremes allowed by the 1940s Italian movement.

What will probably outrage partisan viewers of opposing persuasions in another political clime is the same thing that has managed to impress those in today’s: Andrea, though it deals with the plight of a specific stripe of political animal, actually winds up repudiating not the political line, but the notion of politics itself, in order to facilitate a dramatic (as opposed to a purely intellectual) catharsis. Again this resembles the resolution in “Kabilang,” where the child, this time as central character, is orphaned as much by social intransigence as by his mother’s insistence on countering this force. Andrea, centering as it does on the title-character mother, provides the temperance factor in the person of the lead’s best friend. The ploy is slyly though transparently manifested in the standing agreement between the friends to override their ideological differences for the sake of friendship. Andrea’s subsequent martyrdom is all the more ennobled by her submission to solomonic wisdom: at considerable personal anguish, she decides to leave her son to her friend, for the brighter future the latter offers (in contrast to the bleakness of her own), and because the child has revived the friend’s married life.

The movie’s tearjerker outcome is thus provided a crucial dimension of ambiguity: Andrea may have suffered in the hands of a mean-spirited society, but her son will not. Her death provides not only a well-deserved spiritual release for herself, but the necessary means for her son (and his adoptive parents) to start anew. Andrea may therefore be taken as a plea to reconsider a return to unorthodox modes and material in filmmaking. Using this sort of approach has seemed reckless in the past, but it in fact appears now to have been so simply because serious filmmakers seemed intent on alienating the mass audience at all costs. Andrea stands as evidence that given the proper kind of creative and industrial strategizing, local viewers are now ready to be won over to attempts at uncompromised artistry.

On a symbolic plane this argument can be extended to Andrea actress Nora Aunor. I do not refer alone to the fact that, if there ever were an auteuristic performer, Aunor is our one and only. Andrea may yet represent the renascence of the actress, after a series of popular rejections (starting at EDSA) traceable to her ill-advised participation in the Marcos-Tolentino presidential campaign. Aunor has died spectacularly before on film – in Himala, a previous association with Lee. The movie, in retrospect, eerily presages her fall from grace owing to the mortal combination of her awareness of her populist origins and her rebellion against any expectation attendant to this.

Andrea is Nora Aunor’s long-overdue phoenix-like reemergence and successfully contravenes her ugly-duckling ex-superstar has-been status. No way can she hope for a return to the glory days of her teen-idol years; that much was already evident as early as Himala, where she boxed herself, by the sheer magnitude of her histrionic genius, into a category all her own. Andrea proves that she did not waste the intervening years, traumatic though they may have been for her; if anything, it was the years that wasted her – but only, and strictly, on a physical level. In fact the performer in Andrea can be regarded in many ways as superior to the still-too-pretty and sexually tentative creature embodying Himala’s Elsa. Her via dolorosa segment in the earlier film was a triumph of technique, amorphous at best, whereas in Andrea, which consists of one long journey to a final heartbreak, the pain can be visualized as a line traveling straight from her heart to the viewer’s.

Just how precisely accomplished is Nora Aunor as an actress?[1] In the past I would have answered this by sizing up her Himala performance against that of any perceived competitor’s, but this has proved to be too obvious with time. Meanwhile I had been given in Andrea what amounted to a monolog in Filipino, which I had to memorize in a few minutes. Since my memory and my command of the language are both my gravest performative disadvantages, I inquired about the setup required and learned that that scene would consist of one long take, with close-ups for the final one-sentence exchanges. A bottle of beer, one camera rehearsal, and scores of memory aids later, I still could not get beyond the first sentence without directorial prompting. But during the take I connected for the first time with those eyes, and the lines all came to me naturally and clearly, requiring no retakes whatsoever. I marveled at this phenomenon; I was entirely aware of, apprehensive about, and alert to the warning of how strong co-actors tend to upstage weak ones. I was also conscious of the possibility that the opposite could hypothetically exist. But I never expected to so casually come across a performer whose very strength could bolster, rather than demolish, everyone else’s. That’s a tale which, like Andrea, I would not mind turning into a legend.

[Submitted in 1991 to National Midweek; unpublished]

Note

[1] Surprisingly, my attempt to answer this question led to verbal denunciations in the national university, including from my own colleagues (who should have known better, but then the place has never moved much past its status as a bastion of self-proclaimed progressive orthodoxy). The incongruity between advocating for Marxist praxis yet feeling disgusted about practitioners who refuse to cling to the immaculacy of criticism by immersing in the activities of their objects of criticism – whether artists or audiences – accounts in large measure for the persistently sorry state of critical practice in the country.

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Head Held High

Gumapang Ka sa Lusak
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Ricardo Lee

When Lino Brocka walked out on the 1986 Constitutional Commission it seemed like an act of futility, a typical if outsized artist’s tantrum. Predictably, the Concom carried on, drafting a document that met with popular approval, thereby paving the way for the return of authentically elected officials to power. What we mostly failed to realize was that Brocka intended to continue conducting his side of the political debate in the venue where his expertise lay – the mass medium of film – and more menacingly, that his decision to do so would be accompanied by a quantum leap in his creative faculties. Both developments have been long overdue. Political discourse in local cinema since the 1986 revolution tended to falter by the tradition of anti-Marcos dissent, which tended to be either too frontal for comfort (especially the artist’s) or too subtle to be appreciated in relation to the work’s over-all merits. Brocka himself took a leading role in this kind of perilous undertaking, but the business of surviving in an extensively controlled local industrial system as well as developing an international audience must have distracted him from paying full attention to the nature and potentials of his medium.

Of course he was not alone; he merely led in his specific field, and I maintain that the fact that many were able to follow proves that the Marcos government, for all its hard-nose ways, had a soft spot for film. Philippine cinema thereby assumed a schizoid character, awfully harmless in its commercialist aspects and awesomely threatening in its serious phases. The gravest possible consequence then was the displeasure of government authorities. But when these cultural boneheads were ousted by people power (only to be replaced by a similar set), the long-term effects of this split-level one-on-the-other approach became clear: the film artists could not relate with their audience, who in turn quickly learned to reject all old-time attempts at serious film presentations.

Hence the much-lamented dry spell in serious (normally associated with politicized) filmmaking. Even the real film artists took on a good measure of critical scolding for openly indulging in generic movie-making, at best turning out items that could be considered good only if one accepts the premises of mainstream local cinema. In Brocka’s case, this meant a string of extremely successful melodramas that could never quite break away from the imperatives of mass entertainment, save perhaps for the first, Maging Akin Ka Lamang. And even then….

Well since then Brocka came up with the still-to-be-released Orapronobis, and has followed up with his latest hit, Gumapang Ka sa Lusak, and in the purest filmic terms both titles are indistinguishable from his post-revolution crowd-pleasers. In both cases he also drew from his Marcos-era specialization in film noir, but basically he has hewn close to the plot twists and character entanglements that commercially rehabilitated him. In so doing, he advanced a proposition audacious even for himself: Philippine politics, per Brocka’s latest, is more than just a matter of intrigues and chases and shoot-outs; it is actually one big noisy and unending melodrama. Everyone gets to participate; unlike in Brocka’s gangster films, the political figures are this time identifiable and given active roles to play. The gods have now been invested with feet of clay, very wet ones at that.

It is an indication of the gap between our officials and the masses they claim to represent when no one among the former thus far has raised a peep about the wholesale (and well-deserved) defamation being visited upon them by our movie-makers. All of a sudden, politicians have become commercially viable – as villains. The two Brocka films are merely among the better-intentioned ones so far, and something must also urgently be said about the way the mass audience laps it all up. For too long, and especially since 1986, the Filipino movie-goer has been the object of scorn among the intelligentsia, who find no difficulty tracing the sorry state of local cinema to its market. No matter that the producers happen to agree; even the highest Marcos cultural official, Madame Iron Butterfly, prescribed the production of wholesome love stories among the true, the good, and the beautiful (though pretty would do), following the collapse of the martial-law era’s “developmentalist” requisites. In short, everyone agreed (many still do) that the movie-going masses are too bull-headed to take even themselves seriously. No bitter pill will they swallow, unless candy-coated and brightly colored; in which case why risk the danger of contaminating their brazen delights with the acridity of nourishment? Actually the evidence of past artistic works occasionally making money belies this notion, just as the people can take disapprobation if they have to: after all, who elected those officials in the first place?

Brocka’s Gumapang Ka sa Lusak, which has completed the filmmaking process from inspiration to exhibition, evinces a careful working out of viewership psychology, particularly when placed in the context of its director’s body of work. Inside information alleges that the project was originally intended as a sequel to Jaguar, which was written by Gumapang Ka’s Ricardo Lee and Orapronobis’s Jose F. Lacaba. Jaguar was a Brocka landmark in the strict sense that it was scripted by his most productive collaborators and first enabled the country to be represented in the Cannes Film Festival competition; in another equally significant area, the box-office, it flopped. The Jaguar re-viewer though will readily realize that Gumapang Ka is more than just a decade removed from its predecessor. As already mentioned, it’s not as straight-faced as one would be led to expect, given the scary social premises of Jaguar. Gumapang Ka is as grave as Brocka has been known to be, make no mistake; yet its lead character, who this time is female, and who dies along with the (re-named) Jaguar character, gives out what may arguably be the most blissful smile ever seen in local cinema, right before she expires.

A happy ending? In a serious film? By Lino Brocka?! And there’s more: you can even play the game of name-that-historical personage. I went as far as recognizing Dovey Beams and Rolando Galman and Carlito Dimailig (Imelda Marcos’s bolo-wielding assailant, here transmuted into an elderly woman), plus the female lead’s assumption of the former First Lady’s amnesiac attitude toward her childhood destitution, and still had enough room in my head to allow for a catch in my throat when her moralist admonition was replayed over the last shot of the “next” Jaguar – her naïve and sentimental and, yes, comic-Platonic lover. The most obvious explanation is that with Orapronobis, Brocka remembered to grow in his medium; with Gumapang Ka, he remembered to relax. Not since Jaguar has there been a dramatically involving villain in a Brocka film, and in Gumapang Ka there are even three of them: the Marcos couple and Fabian Ver equivalents. And where in the past his stories could not allow for loose ends, or otherwise resulted in an embarrassment of loose ends, here the frills – the in-jokes, the performance numbers, the open ending – are part of an expertly constructed design.

The means by which such frivolity in the midst of social grimness could be facilitated harkens back to Brocka’s disillusionment with politics. He returned to showbiz, of course, and in Gumapang Ka he set one against the other. The politicians dominate the opening gambit (like they always do in real life), with the mayor plucking his mistress from a checkered career in sex films and the couple recruiting their main henchman from a stable of stuntmen. But by living out her fantasy of justice, the mistress attains a moral triumph that makes her payment with her life, not to mention that of many others, seemingly worth the price. In this manner does Gumapang Ka attain its unique brand of salvation. As opposed to Jaguar it doesn’t run away from fantasy, but instead utilizes non-credible elements to build an expansive yet sturdy framework that allows for a whole lot of valid connections with historical reality. The fact that this approach happens to sit well with local audiences indicates some drastic re-thinking for media practitioners in the immediate future.

As if that weren’t bonus enough, Gumapang Ka also proffers generally high-caliber performances. Dina Bonnevie stakes a privileged position in an already impressive roster of local female lead performances, with hers ranking the highest in sensuality; never had she been so effective before. Her antagonists provide the flint by which she lights her fire: in a reversal of the real-life conjugal dictatorship, Eddie Garcia exhibits the charm and Charo Santos-Concio the intelligence. Come to think of it, the Gumapang Ka production outfit was once suspected of executing Imelda Marcos’s conceits for Philippine cinema, using funds whose release were made possible by her all-encompassing influence. How ironic that in violating her vision and almost her person, the producers have managed to come up with their best picture so far.

[First published June 20, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Family Affairs

Pido Dida (Sabay Tayo)
Directed by Tony Cruz
Written by Tony Cruz and Roger Fuentebella

The contrast between opposing opinions on Kris Aquino’s first film, Pido Dida (Sabay Tayo), indicates the extent of the polarization between official and independent pronouncements on local culture. Those who want or need to maintain a favored status take the cue from Aquino’s doting mother – who, the more ardent appreciators point out, was just continuing what her late husband, who happens to be our own modern-day Messiah, had started – in proclaiming the presidential daughter’s performance, and the movie by association, adequate at the very least. Those who can afford to do otherwise, for whatever motive possible, resort to any pronouncement along the rest of the spectrum, from adequate downward. In the end Pido Dida’s adequacy will remain unresolved, largely because of the political coloration that has attended its critical reception, compounded by the favorable box-office response. On the surface the film appears to be easily dismissible per se, but this may be the key to the alienation of the elite, especially the intelligentsia, from the masses: if we condemn an item as unacceptable out of our concern for its consumers, what does it make of us (and the item in question) when the consumers themselves refuse to listen?

The fascinating thing about this entire enterprise is that the crucial commercial element in Pido Dida, comedian Rene Requestas, manages to acquit himself, well, adequately, notwithstanding the heaviest creative burden he has been made to bear in his career thus far. In his past films, Requiestas had proved himself inimitable in his capability to draw humor from event the most mediocre lines and situations given him. In fact, his success en solo has given cause for worry to his discoverer, Joey de Leon, as well as relief to the latter’s toilet-humor detractors. Requiestas proves for our place and time what Pauline Kael discovered about Barbra Streisand: not that ugly is (or will ever be) in, but that talent is beauty. No other Filipino of movie-star status has had such a reliable record of stage performances behind him, save perhaps for Roderick Paulate; but where the latter was eventually delimited by his screaming-meemie persona, Requiestas, by his everyday-person projection, would be ideal for the versatility once appropriated by Dolphy – from Requiestas’s current (and deplorable) ugly-clown gimmick to perhaps a foray into Paulate territory or an assumption of a dramatic, possibly even sexy, role, with his falsies all in place of course. If I may be allowed to invest my two-cents’ worth, Requiestas seems to me to consist of far richer potential than anyone before him.

But talent, as Dolphy himself once discovered, can only go so far, especially in a medium as inevitably collaborative as film. We should only hope that in Requiestas’s case he (or his managers) opt for expanding his repertoire to include other approaches to film performance, rather than building on a so-far bankable but increasingly depletive type of role. He could wind up as an industry fixture like Dolphy, recycling past glories in customary productions every so often, though not often enough … but why be merely comfortable when you can be terrific? Pido Dida in itself could constitute a serious warning notice for the Requiestas credit, with the creative team ostensibly out to run down his gifts with the most unimaginative and sluggish lines and situations available – ugly-face jokes, cutesifications, indiscriminate inside references to politics and show business, and worst of all, a patronizing beauty-and-beast romantic angle with Ms. Guess-Who.

On the other hand the movie could also signal the emergence of a reliable competitor to the conservative young-star iconography of Sharon Cuneta. With Aquino, we have the same right-wing political wealth and back-up source, plus the additional advantages of prettiness and earnestness. The terrible reality of this kind of image-building exercise is that it doesn’t much matter to what end these girls have opted to devoted what talent they happen to possess; they could probably even get away with taking its development for granted, as Cuneta has so far managed to do.[1] The ideal entertainment ethic would be for us to relegate these strays from the political corral to their proper positioning according to their potential for contributing to Philippine culture – i.e., straight to the slaughterhouse of collective memory. Unfortunately this presumes that our non-political systems could afford to ignore the influence of establishment politics.

So in the meantime that our producers and audiences try to upgrade, consciously or otherwise, their capacity for intelligence and independence, we remain at the mercy of the dictates of those who couldn’t really care less about the quality of our creature comforts. In Pido Dida we see this principle played out in the manner by which a leading lady in a comedy gets handled like a leading lady, instead of a comedienne. Nothing funny that the Aquino character does is of her own volition, unless it be to emphasize her already obvious pictorial superiority to her leading man. In the end this kind of approach – a political decision, actually – becomes (a no-no in comedy) predictable: we get to know when the laughs are coming, indicated as they are by Requiestas’s presence, and when we’re only supposed to smile, which is when Aquino’s around. And when funnybone responses are determined by factors beyond the work’s inner mechanism, then the responses aren’t really that much fun in the end.

It should be of national interest to see the Kris Aquino persona evolve alongside her mother’s political career. If the Sharon Cuneta model is any indication, the daughter could have a better chance of outshining her politician parent, though the latter need not fade away entirely, so long as she learns in turn how to pick up a trick or two from her fair-haired child. We couldn’t do away yet with politically sponsored as aspirants to showbiz stardom, but perhaps a worse scenario – two aspirants instead of only one – might be the next best thing after all: either their rivalry repositions one or the other to a more enlightened political stance, or it rages to the extent of eventually consuming them both, symbols of impositions by an uncaring elite on our popular preferences.

[First published October 24, 1990, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] This remark must have sounded irresistible at the time. Since then Sharon Cuneta has demonstrated how precipitate (and therefore unfair) it was. She had been in the process of completing her four projects with Lino Brocka and was about to hire herself out to producers other than Viva Films, solidifying her independent-woman stature in a number of Star Cinema productions before attempting a series of noteworthy digital-indie projects. Jerrick Josue David, film scholar and close Cuneta observer, coined the term “dulsita,” a portmanteau of “dulce” (sweet) and “maldita” (catty) to describe the adjustment she made in her persona, as a way of preparing the public for the less-wholesome characters in the roles she took on. See his “Dulsita, ang Kabuuan ng Kontradiksyon ng Imahen ni Sharon Cuneta sa Pelikulang Pilipino [The Totality of the Contradicting Images of Sharon Cuneta in Philippine Cinema],” Kritika Kultura 25 (August 2015): 314-43.

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Men and Myths

Bala at Rosaryo
Directed by Pepe Marcos
Written by Olivia M. Lamasan and Humilde “Meek” Roxas

The danger in becoming aware of the ancient conflict between so-called high art and mass culture is the acquisition of the convenient misimpression that both sides are essentially irreconcilable. Nowhere in modern times has this dialectic been more successfully demonstrated than in cinema, and the Philippines is no exception: on the one hand we have the world-renowned (a past Guinness edition, to be specific) movie-going habit of our people, and on the other lies what must be another world record, given our context of film output, viewership, and Third-World status – an excess of movie award-giving bodies.[1] What this has resulted in is a positioning of a handful of “prestige” practitioners, favored for some reason or other (and not always fairly, it must be stressed) by one or more award groups, vis-à-vis, well, The Rest. The first always strive to put in some well-meaning elements in their output, while the rest remain content with the politics of survival.

A whole lot more improvement – and by this I refer to criteria of both art and commerce – would be realized if both sides dispense with this deplorable dichotomy. Our film-as-art practitioners were forced to explore local popular preference by the breakdown of official cultural pretensions wrought by the 1986 revolution; the larger challenge remains of convincing the much-maligned “commercialist” majority that quality can be both fun and profitable. A recent random release illustrates this point. Bala at Rosaryo is done by the same producer-director team that gave us the most significant lesson in the mergence of imaginativeness and mass appeal in action films after EDSA, the unfortunately underrated Tubusin Mo ng Dugo. Pepe Marcos et al.’s strong suit still surfaces occasionally in their recent effort, but the entire enterprise bogs down from the combined weight of defective structuring (the material was komiks-derived) and conventional moralizing – nothing that a good rewrite couldn’t have remedied.

Actually Bala at Rosaryo comes close to literate entertainment precisely when it veers too close to its danger points – i.e., when the plot detours into its gangster-and-virgin subconcern and the protagonists pretend that their respective positions of righteousness and mercy matter above everything else; the mass audience, who of course see through the charade, are titillated by its interplay with our folk-Catholic wisdom, which means they know that both parties are merely undergoing a courtship ritual whose sexual climax will offset the initially dominant religious stance. These “encounters” between the avenging hero and the pretty novice who falls for him are, well, blessed with a dramatic tension heightened by the use of satirical humor, particularly when the hero mistakes the hell-driving sister for his blood-feud enemy and, later, dreams of sexually conquering her under the usual tacky circumstances (he takes a bath under a waterfall and discovers her there), only to be awakened by the very object of his lust.

Meantime the peasant-class hero also has to contend with a too-circumstantial involvement with a landed family’s internal conflict. The fact that he’s used by the villain as scapegoat for a fratricidal crime doesn’t hold up too well; of course he’s paroled as reward for good behavior, and look Sis, it doesn’t ever occur to him to blackmail his tormentor once the facts clear up. Eddie Garcia bears his mark of Cain with gleeful malice; he’s finally been given full rein to go to town with his trademark hamminess and the result is one of those rare instances where the performance gets better as it gets worse. How can a pair of stuffy symbols surmount such infernal inspiration? Bala at Rosaryo attempts an answer by showing us the sound and fury of Good Overpowering Evil in the End. It’s strictly a technical answer, though, and I’m sure most viewers would prefer a full-scale resurrection of the Eddie Garcia character to a sequel of the now-sanctified union of the purged-to-pureness couple. Or maybe if we restore to them their original-sin sense of guilt, and this time exploit their fall from grace for all the laughs that modern existence could wring from it, I’m sure Garcia would make a terrific serpent.

[First published June 6, 1990, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] Several years later, a study of the “modern” award (with the Nobel as precursor) argued persuasively that the future portends proliferation, not streamlining: “Prizes, an instrument of cultural hierarchy, would themselves come increasingly to describe a hierarchical array, a finely indexed system of greater and lesser symbolic rewards, the negotiation of which constitutes a kind of second-order game or subsidiary cultural marketplace” (54). See James F. English, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

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I.O.U.

Kahit Singko Hindi Ko Babayaran ang Buhay Mo
Directed by Jesus Jose
Written by Joji Vitug

Lito Lapid during his heyday was somehow worth watching if only for the promise of a well-made action epic. The subject himself had something to do with the semi-serious attention: among successful local action stars, he alone was (and still is) readily identifiable as Pinoy in the traditional brown-skinned, not-too-tall, well-stocked model. The closest a Lapid movie ever came to fulfillment was Celso Ad. Castillo’s Pedro Tunasan, although a handful of smaller works, notably Mario O’Hara’s Kastilyong Buhangin, were more systematic in maximizing his competence as actor. Given a two-decade-long career that was mostly characterized by his absence from the moviemaking scene, he must have decided to go the way of Fernando Poe Jr. by taking matters into his own hands and directing a project starring himself.

The risk seems to have paid off so far in the literal monetary sense in Kahit Singko Hindi Ko Babayaran ang Buhay Mo, much better at least than in Pedro Tunasan, wherein Lapid was producer. The influences of Castillo and Poe (who was directed by and has also considerably drawn from the former) are very much in evidence, particularly in the build-ups toward scenes of violence and the staging of agitated masses of people moving across picturesque panoramas. Where Castillo retains an upper hand over his actor-successors is in his appropriation of Gerardo de Leon’s diagonal deep-focus compositions, which in turn were adapted from international trend-setters long before most of us were born. Kahit Singko is the usual morality play that lends credence to the generally unsatisfactory thesis that our action films are ascribable to the komedya tradition. The characters are rounded out as far as one-dimensional premises would allow them to, and interact according to rules of conflict that pit goodness against evil; one or the other triumphs in the end (this time it’s goodness), but in Kahit Singko I somehow came to realize why such a profoundly dissatisfying simplification of dramatic issues is more deeply rooted in this genre than in any other.

Provide the characters with the requisite reasonable motivations, and you negate the necessity of looking for other solutions to resolve their conflicts. Meaning to say, once the situation becomes dramatically valid, then all you’d ever really need is a dramatic resolution – and if you append the climactic apocalypse that action aficionados always expect, your movie would have ended way before the last frame. If on the other hand you deprive the audience of real dramatization, you could hook them until the finish with increasing doses of violence and give them a semblance of having closed the issues through the sheer relief of eliminating the cause of any further shootouts. There’s one easy way of ensuring that the formula always seem new, and this is what has contributed to the perpetuity of the genre: the constant updating of issues. In Kahit Singko, two related thrusts enable the film to make a bid for historical, or at least journalistic, significance: the use of an elected government official as villain, and the portrayal of a law officer as torn between loyalty to political authority (his professional superiors) and principle (his family). A provocative contrast is set up between the hero and his best friend, also a policeman, who succumbs to an overwhelming barrage of invitations to petty corruption.

The movie doesn’t pursue its concerns to their logical extremes, which is why I couldn’t be enthusiastic enough given its critical slant. The weak-willed police partner gets killed off almost as soon as he agrees to play dirty, his fate foreshadowed by what happened to an even more notorious colleague within the same precinct. Our hero’s moral dilemma actually arrives at a pinnacle at this point, but he’s pushed back to the comfortable side of righteousness by the bad guy’s psychotic actuation in having the rest of the policeman’s family massacred during a wake already caused by his goons. The Lapid character does a Dirty Harry – surrendering his badge prior to going on a rampage – without a realization of the underlying appeal of the Clint Eastwood creation. Dirty Harry succeeds precisely because he’s true to his name: the liberal-humanist “system” of justice has taught him, a subversive from within, to resort to brutal and illegal methods in dealing with crime. Kahit Singko’s avenger turns out to be too much of an angel to be distinguishable from the rest of the canon, beyond the fact that he looks like Lito Lapid.

Along the way we get treated to the simpler pleasures of listening to a small-person’s debate on human rights and to all the characters addressing the central object of hatred as “Congressman.” In the moviehouse where I saw the film, a trailer from a rival production outfit showed another villain whom everyone called “Mayor” and whose wife looked and behaved like Imelda Marcos. The forthcoming title was by Lino Brocka, and I could swear that the unusually quiet attention being paid to it by the lower-class audience who filled the theater meant that they were busy making serious connections, as we all ought to be doing, between one movie experience and another yet to come.

[First published June 6, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Movable Fists

Walang Awa Kung Pumatay
Directed by Junn P. Cabrera
Written by Jun Lawas and Enrique Mariano

Iisa-Isahin Ko Kayo
Directed by Francis “Jun” Posadas
Written by Erwin T. Lanad

Apoy sa Lupang Hinirang
Directed by Mauro Gia Samonte
Written by Joe Carreon and Mauro Gia Samonte

Action films are back with a vengeance. Actually, Filipino action films, wherever they happen to be around, are almost always with vengeance – as a central theme, that is. It wasn’t of course always thus. What I remember of old action films was their emphasis on the instability of their violent characters’ psychological constitution, the premise dwelling on the officiated view that normal people commit no harm. Once in a while an action film would dare to be different by presenting a normal person misunderstood by the establishment (Robin Hood must have been the prototype in this instance), but this only served to reverse the preceding attitude rather that challenge it. I guess the contemporary Pinoy action film can be traced to the first item that acknowledged that a character can (and should) change in the course of her development, even if necessary to the extreme of the opposite of her original self. It may be difficult, perhaps impossible, to pinpoint a singular source, although by the end of the ’70s what was once daring and occasionally subversive (remember Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag?) became commonplace enough to become a staple ingredient in the action-film formula.

What we’re witnessing at the moment is the local consequence of what obtains once a once-suppressed tendency becomes, to use the appropriate poststructuralist terminology, dominant: said idea, in observance of the inevitable dialectical mode of progression, demands to be successfully challenged in its turn, just as it had once successfully challenged the very idea it had supplanted. In concrete terms, this can be observed in how the vengeance pattern, which had taken the place of the psychotic-gangster approach, is now undergoing permutations and qualifications with each action-film output, rather than its formerly straightforward application. With three recent action releases, just as many distinct reformulations of the vengeance principle are presented us. Walang Awa Kung Pumatay provides the easiest innovation – a technical one, which I doubt was deliberately worked out right from the start. The project’s premises seem to be safely dismissible: a fair-to-middling story, inadequate budget (resulting in below-average production values), and mannered delivery from its lead performer, Robin Padilla.

But instead of devoting attention to improving its most reliable and inexpensive element, the filmscript, Walang Awa opted to fall back on expert editorial execution, and in this manner managed to somehow salvage its one other weakness. In the year or so since his emergence, Padilla quickly learned the ham-acting local action stars use to enhance the excessive stylization required by the genre. In his case, however, Padilla built on his cutesy-boyish features, which in overextended takes (as what happened in his previous film, Barumbado), gives rise to an obnoxious projection – Sean Penn, as it were, trying to impress the critics. In Walang Awa, Padilla’s mannerisms, like the film’s defective production values, are cut right before they cross the line separating bravura from brazenness. What ensues is a lead performance charming in spite of itself (and the film as well), capable of carrying the uncritical appreciator over abundant moral, sexual, and geographic blunders, and making the requisite shootouts seem like impressive set-pieces by their contrast with the foregoing deficiencies and their deployment of Padilla’s lissome maneuvers.

Iisa-Isahin Ko Kayo has a heavier-set lead actor traversing the same Lethean course as Walang Awa. In fact, Iisa-Isahin lead Ronnie Ricketts suffers the burden of being too handsome in the conventional macho tradition, replete with broad features that don’t seem disposed toward nuances; his role in the film has been tailor-made for his capabilities – a whole lot of hell-raising, instead of strategizing, constitute the responses to what essentially are workable conflicts. It is in this instance, however, that the film manages to extenuate its efforts. Both Walang Awa and Iisa-Isahin need to have done better by their respective materials, although in a sense the same statement holds true for local action films in general: add a perceptible amount of beyond-competence complexity to an action-film framework and you’ll have something like a Peque Gallaga epic, which wouldn’t be classifiable anymore under the same genre, as defined by current standards.

The difference between Walang Awa and Iisa-Isahin is that the latter’s creators didn’t wait until their footage had been accumulated before figuring out their project’s salience. Iisa-Isahin appropriates, on a smaller scale, the strategy used by Wilfredo Milan in Anak ng Cabron some years back: I must say that the attempt works better this time around, since the film starts with a relatively realistic tone and builds up toward a totally anarchic climax, with some semiotic insights – notably one involving the Supreme Court building’s symbol of Blind Justice – neatly worked in. Yet the requisite of proper dramatic treatment eventually does Iisa-Isahin in: the good-guy police lead’s brutality is justified by his excessive enthusiasm for the implementation of law and order; the bad cop’s moll, whom he abducts, admires him for not responding to her sexiness, eventually deciding to save him at the expense of her life; and just to make sure that we all get on the side of righteousness, a couple of street kids are thrown in to save the hero and comfort his hostage and get killed by the goonies. We all know that some cops and tarts and street urchins can’t be as bad as they may seem to be in real life, but can they ever really be so wholesome as to individually profess wonderment at all the evil around them?

The last title, Apoy sa Lupang Hinirang, is the most interesting among the three, primarily because its makers did their homework where it mattered – at the conceptual level – and effectively exploited a once-sacrosanct ideological framework in the process. Students of Philippine political history will readily recognize the consistent and expert observation of the orthodox Marxist analysis of local class relations here, though only the most fanatically committed will fail to make out the glaring cynicism with which it was appropriated. Apoy also manages to get by with an entirely inexpedient set of actors by making them perform what their too-pretty features seem useful for: kissing and coupling, with the political interventions serving as obstacles to the literally sexual climax, which is quite demurely suggested in the end. I cannot help but approach the film with the ambivalence of cold comfort, since its source is anything but aesthetic. On the one had I’d survived those days when the merest acknowledgement of Apoy’s political framework could physically endanger its advocate, so my nostalgic response originates from witnessing formerly forbidden but still-familiar material being presented not just in a creative manner, but in a popular medium as well. On the other hand, its insufficiency in redeeming the work in question, which may not necessarily negate its adequacy in real-life practice, assures me, as it should assure those who worry about the current decline of culture as the national priority it should be, that there still exist problems that politics alone won’t solve.

[First published November 28, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Sedulously Cebuano

Eh … Kasi … Bisaya!
Directed by Junn P. Cabreira
Written by Cabreira & Associates

There are less divisive forms that regionalist fervor could take other than a staunch refusal to use Tagalog-sourced Filipino. The obvious logical recourse is to use whatever language happens to be appropriate – and in narrative discourse that’s set in most of the Visayas and Mindanao, this would usually entail Cebuano. There’s a type of narrative presentation that used to thrive in the region (and occasionally beyond) that also happens to have an industrial base perfect for the drive toward economic expansion in the South. We’re talking about Cebuano-language cinema, of course, which historically has been the only viable local alternative to Manila-based film production. The difference thus far has been strictly geographic and linguistic, but that doesn’t mean that more preferable differences couldn’t be worked out, or that more appealing similarities couldn’t be enhanced.

The latest Cebuano production, Eh … Kasi … Bisaya!, may be forgiven on a number of counts, all premised on the reality that the last Visayan film was released about eight years ago – too far back for anyone to even imagine the possibility that the region was doing its own films as early as the 1930s, reigning supreme over Manila and even foreign films whenever and wherever they happened to compete. Several major Filipino film talents, mostly in the field of acting, were recruited from Cebuano cinema, and a whole lot of innovations in terms of production and promotions has been tried and tested in the region. Somewhat more qualifiable are the titles themselves, the more reputable ones including the late Natalio Bacalso’s Salingsing sa Kasakit, Emmanuel H. Borlaza’s Anino sa Villa Lagrimas, Amado Cortez’s Gimingaw Ako…, and Leroy Salvador’s Badlis sa Kinabuhi. The cause of dissatisfaction can be traced to the fact that the Cebuano market, although highly dependable, is not as large (and therefore not as profitable) as that for Tagalog films.

Hence, it’s the cost-cutters who’ve attracted more attention: the past two decades, for example, saw the likes of Borlaza’s The Batul of Mactan, which revived regional production through its combination of a faded Manila star, Eddie Peregrina, and a rising one, Chanda Romero; Joe Macachor’s Ang Manok ni San Pedro, which was shot in super-8mm. and blown up, grains and all, to 35mm., thus inexpensively providing the region with its first color film; and Borlaza’s Rosaryohan sa Kasakit, the last Cebuano film previous to the current one, which enabled its producers to invest handsomely afterward in Manila-based production with Shake, Rattle & Roll, then lose disreputably with a less-than-adequate skin flick.

With Bisaya! a form of incentive long denied the Manila-based industry has supposedly been extended: the film was reportedly exempted from paying taxes. If this is true (or legally possible), then we ought to see more financiers following the example of the Bisaya! producers, plus perhaps an Iloko-language film or two, what with northern regional production boasting of a grand total of two titles on record (Karayo in 1941 and Soldado in 1978, as per a report by film historian Teddy Co).[1] Cinema should always go beyond reviviscence whenever possible, and one can only hope that Cebuano cinema could eventually serve to demonstrate its people’s claims to self-sufficiency. Any incentive granted to Bisaya! may be made to apply to future Cebuano productions, this time with emphasis on qualitative achievements. Even better, a Cebuano-language film retrospective can and should be organized, prior perhaps to the holding of a Cebuano-language film festival consisting of all-new entries.

Manila-based practitioners may find reasons to work in the South, and these should not necessarily be always monetary in nature. Cebuano officials might find that the idea of offering greater creative freedom could prove to be the crucial turning point in upgrading the stature of Cebuano-language cinema from a mere adjunct of Manila’s to a valid global capital in itself. Some future producer might want to retain the regional language in a Manila release, providing translations through subtitles.[2] Other just-as-urgent measures would be the provision of formal film education and training in Visayan schools as well as the completion of a comprehensive filmography of Cebuano-language films drawn, since not all such films were released in Metro Manila, from regional sources instead. The possibilities for growth are numerous, and we haven’t even begun to consider what themes and materials can be put to good use, given such a conscious and feasible alternative to Manila centralism. Bisaya! itself hints, daintily as it were, at the intrusions of both Manileños and Manilanized Visayans in the lives of ordinary Southern folk, and it isn’t even half-serious to begin with … or is it? In any case, we could hardly go wrong with expanding our boundaries of national film practice, tinood lagi, and there are entire islands of speakers, a linguistic nation practically, waiting to hear and see themselves onscreen once more.

[First published November 28, 1990, in National Midweek]

Notes

[1] See Teddy Co, “In Search of Philippine Regional Cinema,” Movement: Towards a New Visual Literacy 2.1 (1987): 17-20.

[2] Circa the present (2014), the emergence of the more accessible digital format resulted in a number of significant regional-language film texts. Strangely, however, these works originated as proposals selected and funded by Manila-based film festivals. With the recent introduction of the country’s second full-blown film program in Cebu, appropriately enough, it may be a matter of time before full-steam regional production can get under way once more. In contrast with the spectacle of the Cebuano-language prints of Bisaya! being pulled out of Manila theaters after non-Cebuano-speaking audiences complained that they couldn’t understand the dialogue, it would also be a far simpler and less costly matter to ensure that the releases feature translations for non-Cebuano viewers.

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Black & Blue & Red

Bayani
Directed and written by Raymond Red

Not much has already been written about Bayani, considering its significance in the local context, but what we’ve got may be enough to start off a long round of discussion. I don’t think the debate could center on its merits as film, since even a first screening could yield some pretty obvious (and painful) lessons on the nature and purpose of cinema, or any cultural vehicle for that matter. One also has to lay aside of course the arguments of the film’s apologists, who may be seen to come from a direction similar to most religious or political fundamentalists – namely, that the film is automatically validated by the very fact of the nobility of its origin and its maker’s intentions. The difficulty in assessing the achievement of Bayani from a strictly formalist standpoint lies precisely in its conformity to a long-outmoded notion of cinema as art, one that ascribes the medium to its technological parent, photography, and thence to its spiritual forebear, painting, by way of the realist mode.

This is not surprising considering the filmmaker’s background, but it also serves as a commentary on the difficulty (or perhaps futility) of film study and training within academically prescriptible methods. As it stands, Bayani is an impressively realized work of visual art, and it just-as-impressively struggles toward cinematic realization, but it somehow falls – not flat, but short. Considering its impossibly minimal (by mainstream industry standard) Php 2-million budget, as well as its unwieldy technical process (35mm. blown up from 16mm.), one simply ought to give it to Raymond Red et al. for turning natural light sources and field recording into a semblance of acceptable competence and occasional brilliance.

Yet one has to deal with the experience of Bayani as film, and without even counting in the Filipinoness of the material and its audience, the work urgently requires a raison d’être bigger than itself. Which fortunately exists: for, if nothing else, Bayani can rest on the historical claim of being the first assault of a highly vocal (and critical) circle of authentically independent film practitioners who, it now turns out, do possess aspirations to supplanting the mainstream after all. This may account for the holy-as-thou response of those who purport to represent the “popular” side of the conflict – a response that could backfire if one takes into account the actual potential of the group, or even of Raymond Red alone.

I would agree with the consensus of those in the know that Red has done far better work in the short format, but I would hasten to add that it’s actually misadventures like Bayani that provide clearer lessons and incentives for growth, especially for those who stake their reputation on art above all else. Red was totally ill-advised to venture on a historical feature with nothing more than technical prowess under his hat, even if it were (and this I could believe) the biggest hat of its kind in the country at the moment.

What Bayani has resulted to can therefore be attributed to the greenness of Red’s preparation in two crucial areas: history and drama, which conspired in rendering the end-product no different from an action-genre sample, complete with strictly observed moralistic judgments (Bonifacio and his followers on the saints’ side and “Heneral” et al. on the sinners’) and the requisite tragic bloodbath. Typical of Red’s self-captivity is his refusal to enjoy what is after all a formula for entertainment, as well as his perception of gender roles according to subjective heterocentrist positioning: the good guys are wholly masculine, Bonifacio most of all (with smashing looks for safe measure), while the bad guys are performed with theatrical drag-queen flourishes – fie on them for not knowing, unlike Gregoria de Jesus and her friends, where women ought to belong.

Yet to castigate Bayani for its incapability to understand what Philippine cinema, historically speaking, has been all about (not to mention a whole heap of identity-politics complications), may be drawing a bit too much from the lessons of what is after all our model industry, Hollywood. Not that Red didn’t promise a lot in the first place; but if we look forward to whiz-kids conquering our industry before their maturation (as Steven Spielberg and the Hollywood brats had managed in the US), we may just be consigning ourselves to a future of nothing but terrifically prepared and packaged popcorn fare. It says a lot about Bayani’s choice of subject matter that Red would refuse to settle for such an easy triumph. And perhaps the last laugh belongs to those who would hesitate to conclude, Bayani notwithstanding, that local cinema’s Red scare is over.

[First published July 1, 1992, in Manila Standard]

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Book Texts – Commentaries: Pinas

People-Power Cinema

To begin with, there isn’t any celluloid commemoration, whether factual or fictionalized, of the February 1986 revolution. The only one ever attempted, Four Days in February (Marilou Diaz-Abaya directing from Jose Dalisay Jr.’s script) has been shelved and, due to the recent reversals in the political fortunes of the Armed Forces “reformists,” has been for all practical purposes rendered stale as yesterday’s pan de sal. All this may be for the better. For one thing, the revolution is widely perceived by all its major participants, regardless of their positions on the political spectrum, as still finished, although I shudder to think what further upheavals await us. More important, those heady days 20-or-so months ago (more like a generation since, you’ll agree) seem better consigned to memory: at least there’ll be a multitude, millions literally, of versions of what actually transpired, rather than a few interpretations unfairly imbued with the aura of credibility through plastic manipulations.

A problematic, however, can be sensed from the fact that local film criticism has been thrown into disarray by what outputs actually turned up, rather than by what have been turned down or out. Not a single serious product made since February 1986 – serious releases immediately after, but those could only have been made before the revolution! After is what matters, and the trail so far is littered with melodrama and fantasy, hardly the stuff for the sensible artistic discussion we used to know…. Well, not quite, if we count in the occasional bold and action film. But save for last year’s critics’ awardee Takaw Tukso, the former has been nothing if not the now-standard exploitation vehicle, while the latter has evolved into that most unsatisfactory mutant, the real-life hero’s story.

There may be a more positive stance one can take, and I believe it’s not only practicable, but absolutely indispensable, if our so-called critics are to assume once more their relationship of mutual nourishment with the industry. The problem is that the dark days of dictatorship, pardon the bromide, fostered in us an equation of grimness with seriousness. The fact that our culture is predominantly Catholic didn’t help: what comes easy is always suspicious, if not downright sinful, so value increases in proportion so suffering. The application of this sometimes-but-not-always valid assumption to film criticism becomes painfully obvious if we re-view (watch all over, that is) the titles that seemed to matter during the Marcos years. Admittedly a handful of great ones will continue to stand out, but I’ll bet my sense of vision that a disturbing proportion will emerge as having been admirable for some form of political or social daring, and nothing more. To an extent more than we care to admit, we were actually putting a premium on titles with an eye to watching the powers-that-were, who never had enough good taste to begin with, squirm from the references. Artistic achievement assumed secondary value, the icing on the pie in Imelda’s face, and sometimes, especially in the case of genre (standard box-office) titles, even became a liability because of its threatening nature. Why, if a bold or fantasy or action or melodrama movie were to be given serious consideration, who’ll pay attention to the latest academically engineered agitprop work of what’s-his-name, when his budget, not to mention his skills, couldn’t even begin to compare with the industry’s full-blast capabilities?

Of course this entire state of things became possible only because the viewing public occasionally made known its support through its patronage, and so our sociological framework of the masses seeking enlightenment during a period of oppression comes full circle. But now they’ve come to prefer escapist entertainment, and our pinpointing responsibilities on film- and policymakers will only amount to so much barking up the wrong signpost. The February 1986 revolution remains, after all, a happy memory, a veritable dream-come-true no scripted theatrical experience could ever hope to match. The desire to somehow extend the good feelings, even if only in the confines of a movie house, is where we’re starting from. If we’re loaded with titles that provide nothing but happy endings – which is actually the current case, even among our favorite pre-revolution filmmakers – then we better start looking for new values to champion, rather than imposing old ones. And if I may add the obvious, this is a good an opportunity as we’ll ever have to return to simple virtues of classicism in cinema – the well-told tale done with utmost competence, adding appropriate points for imagination. Where this will take us is anybody’s guess, including mine, but what matters right now is that film artistry, though always somehow with us, has never had, for reasons often beyond our control, its proper place in our hearts.

[First published October 28, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Studious Studios

The return of the studio system used to be one of the most abused bogeyisms brandished before us by prophets of gloom of various persuasions and motivations in the local movie industry. The scare died down recently, for the simple reason that the threat of studio re-domination never really returned. That was then, of course, and now all developments, to use a euphemism, indicate that no other setup exists other than that founded by and upon our modern-day movie moguls.

To be sure, the early confusion may have been numerological in nature. The last time a studio system flourished, it was manifested in the form of a trinity: a major, a rival, and an underdog, more popularly known as Sampaguita, LVN, and Premiere after the war. Movie stars, in an apparently instinctive bid to appropriate the axis of power among themselves, contributed greatly to the reshuffling, by attempting to violate the rule against shuttling from one outfit to another. The collapse of the studio system may have been due to the studios’ resistance to the upward mobility of their personnel, including their most prized possessions, their contract stars. All that was needed was for an entire pack of aspiring underdogs, then as now calling themselves independents, to provide lucrative options for discontented performers who’d break away from their mother companies only to find themselves blacklisted (as a form of collective protection) by the other biggies.

The star system, however, never really prospered beyond an individualized basis, for roughly the same reasons that the independents eventually yielded to the superstars: the individual entrants were too self-sufficient to coalesce or forge alliances, and the local market could only accommodate so much – three at a time, it seems. In a manner of speaking, the industry’s system has never really been based on independents or stars, not once; only on studios. Once the inadequacies of the alternatives between independents and superstars became clear, the time was ripe for another season of studio domination. Three at a time, then. With Agrix and Bancom Audiovision battling for supremacy during the 1970s, and a number of worthy stragglers, notably Crown-Seven, striving for third place, warnings began to be raised. Agrix folded up, so did Crown-Seven, leaving Bancom at the top and Regal, for a time an underdog, the closest rival. Bancom was then dissolved along with its larger conglomerate, and the apparent jinx suffered by those in the position of major was enough to pacify the pessimists.

Without much fanfare Regal took top place, while Viva came on strongly enough to claim the status of rival. Only an underdog-newcomer, the Marcos government’s Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP), made enough noise by way of threatening to dislodge both occupants, and the rest of the movie industry as well, from their profitable circumstances. It took the February 1986 upheaval to eliminate, among others, this last obstacle in the re-establishment of the studio system. Seiko assumed the unlamented ECP’s underdog role, and happy days, at least for the mogul-owners, were here again.

So far all the evidence favors the reincarnated versions over their predecessors. They’ve been wise enough to allow the sharing of contract stars among themselves – to the detriment of the personalized social-cum-thespic training the old studios used to proffer, impose even, on an in-house basis. Lately they’ve even outdone themselves on a conceptual level. For where the old studios employed certain generic trademarks with which to identify themselves – LVN with musicals and costume spectacles, Sampaguita with fantasies and tearjerkers, Premiere with gangster stories – the present ones have taken to exchanging their corporate images with one another: Viva, which prided itself on gloss, has been attaching its name, rather than that of its sister company Falcon, to low-budget crime stories like Ex-Army and Boy Negro (formerly associable with Seiko) and recently came up with a Regal staple, a quickie musical comedy, in Buy One, Take One; Regal, on the other hand, has been taking tentative steps toward comparatively big-budget but komiks-based products (after its quickie formula failed to work in recent succession), with Nagbabagang Luha and the forthcoming update of Dyesebel; Seiko likewise has begun glossy productions in earnest, what with the satisfactory box-office returns of Hiwaga sa Balete Drive (more Regal in its comic-horror bent) and Isusumbong Kita sa Diyos (definitely a Viva formula).

Bernard Bonnin and Susan Roces, and Sharon Cuneta and Richard Gomez (left to right) as one another’s generational counterparts in Pablo Santiago’s Buy One, Take One (1988).

Most of these efforts were premised on the prospects of renewed moviegoer interest after the usual approaches became too predictable for (financial) comfort. No doubt the novelty of the old images carrying over into the new offerings had something to do with the encouraging turnout of viewers: Viva’s Sharon Cuneta and Phillip Salvador shedding their long-cultivated glamor, Seiko’s struggling also-rans suddenly basking in lustrous production values, Regal’s campiness to be enhanced (or perhaps defeated) by an uncharacteristically big budget. What is left for these modern-day mammoths to do is confront their one last impediment to immortality. In more than just the spiritual sense, the old studios passed away along with their founder-owners. The way the present ones are being run, it becomes easy for opponents to hope, if not in the progressive enlightenment of the moguls, in the eventual demise of Mother Lily, the del Rosarios, and Robbie Tan – a sure thing anyway, given the still-limited lifespan we have all been heir to. Decentralization may be the immediate logical response, although there remains one better strategy, the very factor that keeps certain First Golden Age titles in the consciousness of current film observers despite the virtual inactivity of the original producers: the word – but are we ready for it? – is, of course, quality.

[First published July 20, 1988, in National Midweek]

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Shooting Crap

When Joey de Leon claims he couldn’t care less about critics’ complaints regarding his use of toilet humor, the issue doesn’t revolve on the soundness of his argument. Toilet humor, as used in the context of this debate, is unofficially understood to be a sub-category of obscenity – in direct opposition to our moral guardians’ shibboleth of wholesomeness. By extension, the argument goes, toilet humor, as a form of obscenity, is socially undesirable and therefore should be subject to suppression. No one has ventured to raise the issue of legality so far, although this would clinch the controversy in a convenient way. Anyone, de Leon included, could easily answer that the antiquated nature of our censorship laws renders such an approach amorphous at best; still, the issue at stake remains unarticulated.

Joey de Leon gets away with toilet humor – has the right to it, in a manner of speaking – simply because he has been so darn successful of late. During the early days of his trio with the Sotto brothers he might have taken the pounding with, well, a grain of salt; their always moderate and occasionally pleasing box-office returns could serve to ease the sting somehow. But now he has struck it rich, and it’s not so much the power he holds over the characteristically purchasable movie press: appearances to the contrary, he’s not that crude, and he need not be so in the first place. It’s the implication of so fail-safe a formula on so financially frank a system, when any project without de Leon’s pretensions to satire – without de Leon himself, even – could now be assured of record-shattering box-office returns by merely purveying shit jokes on primetime.

In short, the moguls owe so much quantifiable gratitude to Joey de Leon for this good-as-gold discovery. Not even Imelda Marcos’s pera-sa-basura [money-in-trash] projects could prove as conclusively as Starzan et al. did that the sound of cash registers ringing could compensate for the fumes of unflushed concepts. And even if a movie writer had enough sense (and guts) to dismiss the big-timers’ current sanguinity with what may eventually be known as the de Leon formula (endless swigs of castor oil following entire plateloads of goodies, with a movie crew on the alert), a rebuttal happens to be waiting in the wings from the opposite direction. The logic runneth thus: to question a person on the basis of principle is a simple thing to do, but when that principle happens to enjoy popular support, then the possibility of claiming to be better than the majority, antithetical to the democratic premise of raising questions on their behalf in the first place, emerges. This puts the de Leon “critic” in a position too awkwardly similar to that of the cultural censor, who derives his raison d’être from the perverse notion that the people, even (or especially) in a democracy, could not know what is good for them.[1]

There may be two ways out of the impasse that both sides find themselves ranged against at the moment. One is that of historical materialism – which basically posits that nothing lasts forever, least of all a thing of no real value. Just as Dolphy’s piss jokes and Tito, Vic and Joey’s snot jokes saw their respective heydays come and go, so will Joey de Leon’s fecal fixations – if not in the near future, then along with de Leon himself, may his sould find peace (no critics in heaven?) come the time. The trouble with this attitude is of course its superciliousness, consciously partaking as it does of the same judgmentalist approach that it initially seeks to distance itself from. The only other option, which may seem the least desirable because of its passivity, used to be impossible to adopt because of the polarizing consequences of the previous political dispensation; if Marcos were still around, the toilet-humor controversy would have been resolved in favor of one side or the other, eventually depending on the perceived benefits to the state.

It may be time for a little more sophistication then. How about regarding such devices as attempts at cultural innovations, the breaking down of taboos in preparation for possibly more serious discourses in future? Part of my reservations about de Leon’s objectors is the sneaking suspicion that the campaign would not have taken on a strong degree of outrage had Starzan, if not the rest, been a Critically Defensible Work of Art. But what if, then? Would we have expended all our intellectual resources defending a crap scene (as was proved aesthetically viable in an early Wim Wenders exploit, Kings of the Roads) – eyeball-to-eyeball with Manuel Morato if necessary, just because art’s sake was at stake in this instance?

One way of looking at the situation is through the perspective of guerrilla strategy. Filipino film censors have traditionally been suckers for artistic provocation; the best way to get their danders up in the past was to inject an offensive aural or visual detail in an otherwise integral prestige project. But beyond the delight of watching them mouth the most culturally illiterate justifications for the imposition of already ill-advised policies, the consequences – stricter censorship procedures, mangled or banned products – were definitely too exorbitant for all those involved. Since in their view the less artistically minded products pose proportionately less harm to the community, why not allow such items to take the lead in toppling the ramparts of convention? Come the time when a real and responsible filmmaker will find it absolutely necssary to put in a cussword or a toilet scene or a subversive idea, the precedents would have been set, the producers would have been satisfied, the masses would have been bored with the usual treatment, and everyone might be a bit happier with the attempt. Had Ishmael Bernal done Manila by Night (whose entire toilet pick-up scene, among countless others, was deleted in the original release) late last year, he might have to thank, among others, Joey de Leon for the trophies he’d now be collecting.

[First published April 4, 1990, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] Viewers of the TV program where Joey de Leon found himself fending off attacks from both political positions would have recognized Manuel L. Morato, designated chief censor by then-President Corazon Aquino and subsequent candidate for the presidency, representing the conservative sector; and Behn Cervantes, theater and film director, critic, actor, and professor, and former political detainee, representing orthodox progressives.

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Fleshmongering

One of the early distinctions, dubious though it seems, of the 1990s is our latest designation of what we’d all known the past two decades or so: that the sex film is marketed primarily for its audience’s carnal titillation. Ever since institutional controls on the treatment of sex eased up (though gave up would be the more satisfactory description) during the ’60s, our film practitioners had been relying on a series of merely suggestive, sometimes even coy, labels for what were in a sense products of a worldwide and continuing cultural revolution. The first word was bomba, drawn from the political turbulence of the period of its emergence, the pre-martial law years. One would expect that the original namesake – the pro-activist sector, not Roger Arienda (whose nickname would not have stuck had his public ignored him) – would have resented the industry’s adoption of one of its virtues to refer to a diametrically opposed form of passion, personal rather than social. Instead, both sides seemed to have arrived at an understanding that they had more in common as subversives committed to certain material ends, and so demonstrators then were not averse to patronizing the latest sex flick, just as the more sensible bomba practitioners, particularly Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, and Celso Ad. Castillo, would turn out socially critical subjects once 1081 had effectively closed the season of open expression for both camps.

Bold, the next term, served to consolidate a number of mildly descriptive labels, among which “wet look” proved to be the most graphic (and therefore most popular). “Bold” is of course antediluvian relative to bomba; even Gerardo de Leon’s FAMAS record-setter, Huwag Mo Akong Limutin, which copped out on an abortion scene (reputedly its most shocking feature), was called worse things by the censors – and this was during the 1950s.[1] But what revitalized the genre, allowing it to even surpass its predecessor, was precisely the aforementioned social consciousness that our filmmakers developed along the way. No bold film was ever as, well, frontal as the typical bomba movie was; on the other hand, no bomba product could equal in significance the best martial law-era movies that employed sex either as additional come-on or as legitimate topic for filmic discourse.

The decline of the Marcos regime made possible an approximation of the bomba era, while the fall of the Marcoses led to a complete backslide. Obviously “bold” wasn’t bold enough anymore. The acronym penekula (from penetration + pelikula) was coined ex post facto, with the renewed moralism generated by the 1986 revolution plus the cheaper resources afforded by video combining to making graphic sex films too notorious and small-time for a reputable and long-term undertaking. And so we now have sex trip, although where it will take us is really the big question. The name is still too novel for generalized considerations, associated as it is with an aspirant-to-major studio, Seiko Films, which still has to pay its dues for industrial success by way of awards-worthy projects. If the term sticks, it won’t be the first time a studio engineered a classifiable trend in movie-making: if my memory serves me right, Regal Films, then also a struggling outfit, identified itself with bold-film production, to the point of incurring the ire of a culture-meddling Imelda Marcos.

The main difference, however, is that all these titles – bomba, bold, even penekula – managed to redeem themselves with projects memorable for more than just their extent of skin exposure, while “sex trip” just happens to be more frank a description than the rest.[2] Nothing on the order of Nympha, Pagdating sa Dulo, or Tubog sa Ginto from the bomba era, Aliw, Brutal, Burlesk Queen, Karnal, Moral, Salome, Sinner or Saint, or Manila by Night from the bold period, or Boatman, Private Show, Scorpio Nights, or Takaw Tukso prior to (but within the spirit of) the penekula trend can serve to so far justify the sex-trip films as worthy of, say, aesthetic appreciation by the year 2000. Not even the emergence of a performer comparable to Yvonne, Chanda Romero, Rio Locsin, Amy Austria, Lorna Tolentino, or Jaclyn Jose, or the spectacle of an established star like Eddie Garcia, Vic Vargas, Rita Gomez, Vilma Santos, or Gina Alajar trying on genre for the possibility of career enhancement.

A kind remark is in order, though, and it is the recognition of the fact that the sex-trip trend is laboring under a severely imposing tradition. Any self-respecting artist would think twice, to say the least, before allowing her product to be called, under whatever currently fashionable appellation, a Pinoy sex film. What the name “sex trip” has going for it, however, is something stronger than a mere sense of history: there appears to be the promise of profit in the term, not to mention the convenience of an abbreviation. How far the potential can be contracted, pardon the puns, should give way to every imaginative attempt at its expansion.

[First published April 18, 1990, in National Midweek]

Notes

[1] Sharing this admittedly anecdotal detail regarding what may be Gerardo de Leon’s other major missing film (aside from Daigdig ng mga Api): the scriptwriter of Huwag Mo Akong Limutin, Jose Flores Sibal, turned out to have been a distant relative on my father’s side. We had our first and only conversation literally on the eve of his departure as migrant to the US – I didn’t know then that I would have my own opportunity to pursue graduate studies in the same country a few years later, and got too busy when I arrived to be able to contact anyone. Before he left he turned over a copy of his script for the missing de Leon title, which I read before depositing the manuscript with the University of the Philippines Film Center. It deserves a more extensive discussion, but I might opt to provisionally echo the same response when I read how dismayed Petronilo Bn. Daroy was when he managed to watch Daigdig before it got lost. The narratives that de Leon was handed could only hope to touch on sensitive material (agrarian reform in Daigdig, abortion in HMAL). Daroy was the best culture critic of his generation and de Leon the best Filipino film stylist who ever lived. Cold War culture abhorred any hint of resistance to contemporary patriarchal authority – which is why one will have to search elsewhere for evidence of a successful collaboration, starting with de Leon’s subsequent project with Sibal, the period adaptation of José Rizal’s El Filibusterismo.

[2] The sex-film trend that succeeded Seiko Films’ sex-trip was termed titillating film, intended to designate more open anatomical depictions, including female and male genitalia. This predictably resulted in conflicts between liberals and moralists, with the Catholic church (via the interventionist Cardinal Sin) weighing in at one point. Significantly, both sex-trip and titillating-film trends constituted the first instance of more than one sex-themed fad being initiated by the same studio (Seiko Films, whose hype was handled by seasoned publicist Oskee Salazar – per Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., founding chair of the Young Critics Circle and founding director of the US-based Filipino Arts & Cinema International). José B. Capino, in “Soothsayers, Politicians, Lesbian Scribes: The Philippine Movie Talk Show,” ascribed the new trend to “more relaxed censorship laws” (Planet TV: A Global Television Studies Reader, eds. Lisa Parks and Shanti Kumar [New York University Press, 2002], 262-73).

Caution should be exerted in the historical exercise of recollecting the acronyms carefully and cleverly formulated by Salazar. ST for sex-trip was meant to evoke a jokey Taglish vulgarism, “standing titi” or erect penis (the masculine counterpart of HP or “happy puki”), while titillating film was shortened to TF and nothing more; the immediate pop-culture referent in this case was “talent fee” – an utterly innocuous expression, inasmuch as the transgression was already performed in the very descriptor “titillating,” as suggested in the foregoing ST. The claim by a film authority that the actual abbrevation was TT Film must be regarded as culturally illogical and therefore spurious, erroneous, and presumptive.

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Firmament Occupation

Generally but strangely regarded as one of the perennial problems of Philippines cinema is what has come to be called the “star system.” Stars, or extremely successful movie performers, demand astronomical figures that invariably limit a project’s allocations for other aspects of production. The obvious logical lapse in this formulation is the way performers are distinguished from the rest of the elements of film – as if directing, scriptwriting, cinematography, editing, and clapboard operation, among other activities, can contribute to a movie’s excellence, while acting cannot. Worse, this assumes that characters, the central feature of commercial cinema and a whole lot of non-commercial movies as well, are separable from all the other things that go into the completion of a filmwork.

The problem lies in the fusion of two highly charged terms to a situation that isn’t remediable by any long shot, much less a close-up. “Stars” exist wherever intense human activity is complemented with high visibility; cinema happens to be the most obvious and permeative modern-day example, but one can have stars in other contexts too – politics, academe, religion, fashion design, smuggling, entomology, etc. The absurdity of aspiring toward a star-less ideal can be seen in the execution of a political system that averred as much: first, the masses themselves became the supposed stars; eventually, the leaders, in the guise of representing their constituencies, assumed for themselves positions of prominence. The other word, “system,” is the one that compounds the problem. As far as movie histories anywhere have exhibited, there may have been vacillations between a studio system and an independent system (and a trend toward total government intervention locally during the latter part of Marcos rule), but there has never been so far such a thing hereabouts as a star system. Strictly and analogously speaking, a star system depends, in full material terms, on the existence of stars – meaning, stars not only facilitate productions by the guarantee of their presence, but also provide the wherewithal for the productions themselves.

The combination is crucial. A star may have been the entire motivation for a particular project, while on another occasion she may have engaged in film production, but unless she invested her own money in the first instance and carried enough box-office clout to be the movie’s main attraction in the second, then she would never have been essential part of the movie system; she’d be just a star, if that were semantically possible, in the first place, or a star who happened to produce in the second.[1] In the beginning it wasn’t all that simple, precisely because matters were much simpler then. Anyone who had both money and ego could go into movie-making: one could cook up her own project, assemble a production staff, direct them and herself, and collect the returns in good time. The giants of early Hollywood cinema – Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith – and their local counterparts – Jose Nepomuceno, Vicente Salumbides, among others – were virtual one-person studios, with every possible filmmaking skill, including lead performing, arrogated unto one and the same individual.

To a certain extent we still have devotees of this almost-ancient era who try to keep the faith when they can: America’s Woody Allen and our very own … well, Celso Ad. Castillo. Filmmaking, however, and turn-of-the-millenium life too, have becoome too complex and fast-paced and expensive to allow for integral approaches to anything, especially creative endeavors. This we saw for ourselves with the story of our studio system. The producers, three of them actually, who had enough foresight and managerial skill to allow for specialization and long-term planning, eventually dominated the industry, giving rise to a so-called Golden Age of stability and consistency of output during the 1950s. But because the Big Three moguls refused to recognize the even more specialized claims of movie workers, including stars, to extreme fluctuations in income, insisting instead on fixed salaries as the basis for industrial professionalism, the less principle-obsessed outfits were able to bid for the services of the talents who mattered, and consequently toppled the system of studios.

These more pragmatic producers, who called themselves independents, gave rise once more to the possibility of self-production, this time with a more lucrative twist: not only would a star entitle herself to the proceeds of her own film, she would also be able to guard against creative sabotage and, most important, boost her stocks further in the market for acting services. The rate of a Fernando Poe Jr. or a Dolphy would now be computed on the basis of the profits either of them could realize if the FPJ or RVQ production houses took charge of the projects, rather than how much their previous films had made for their respective financiers. Hence what we have at present is really a historical confluence of two opposing systems – studio domination (three major outfits) and independent production, with a highly distinctive and restricted (and aging) star subsystem subsumable under the latter; there also happens to be an even smaller but less definite circle of performers who produce films, but not necessarily themselves in these films, and much less themselves to sell such films.

Are these categorizations always significant? Not so much in the consideration of how the presence or absence of a star in her own production provides any form of psychological (or now-emergent ideological) modifications, but more in the area of pinpointing what constitutes a problem for study, rather than an occasion for well-worn rhetoric. Take out censorship or taxation, and you could conceivably realize some forms of improvement in film production, if not in film quality; Marcos-era experiments in industry control provided more-than-adequate proof of the workings of such dynamics. Eliminate stars, and if they don’t get replaced, then maybe the movie system itself has burned out.
[First published May 30, 1990, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] I was not surprised to learn later that this insight had already been articulated, although I first heard the name Edgar Morin as the co-director of Jean Rouch of the pioneering cinema verité entry Chronique d’un été (1961). In a later class on film stardom, I read an English translation of his 1957 book Les stars – which was not the first time a notion I’d worked out turned out to have been affirmed (or challenged) by a previously articulated idea.

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Blues Hit Parade

What may soon evolve into a form of cultural schizophrenia, if it isn’t at that stage already, is the current contrariety of attitudes toward the state of Philippine cinema. On the one hand are the pessimists, who resumed their lamentation once it became clear that the four-year-old 1986 revolution was not going to result in anything on the order of the best outputs of the Marcos years; on the other hand, the optimists point out that, after the revolution’s alarming dead stretch, local movie producers never had it so good, with one box-office record after another being broken in rapid succession. I must stress at the outset that my sympathies lie with the latter group, and that the lure of lucre just happens to be one obvious and too-practical reason. For too long the critics of Filipino movies took their calling in an adulterated sense – i.e., judging severely instead of judging fairly, which is the primary definition of criticism. What we may be hearing now is a reassessment of the worsening portion of Marcos rule as the glory years of local cinema, but if you go back to that era, you may have difficulty distinguishing the condemnatory tone of critical writing then from what you may be able to find today.

The upshot is that since our industry practitioners were not made aware of the excellence of their collective performance then, they had to accept the rejection of their situation along with the system that spawned whatever merits it contained. In short, after the change in political administration, everyone was completely in the dark as to where to begin: a return to active institutional support (Marcos’s example) was out of the question, while on the other hand the movie-going public seemed to have fled along with the regime, leaving almost a year-long period of nothing but box-office traumas.

Congratulations then are in order for our industry leaders, for the success of their concept of a turnabout. I feel confident enough to even bet that no other local industry has managed its own resurrection in as financially triumphant a manner as did our movie practitioners. Balancing the absence of absolutely reliable box-office reports with the assurance that no one in her right mind would readily boast of grand profits owing to an ornery tax situation, the recent feats of box-office records being broken much more often than they ever used to be would be something quite phenomenal. And yet…this time our critics are on target in bemoaning the decline in quality of our movies, and we have enough reason to fear that the enthusiasm of local producers may be verging on recklessness. The reason hinges on the correlation of both factors: box-office returns are not enough precisely because of the absence of quality in the outputs that facilitate these returns – not so much because of the absence of long-term or overseas profitability, much less a non-material consideration of the implications on cultural hygiene.

The danger of relying primarily on lighweight material to draw in heavyweight profits lies in the demonstrable possibility that what used to be relatively lighweight may not turn out to be so anymore, especially if it proves profitable enough. The mechanics can result in some truly panicky complications: quickies make more money, so more people want to be in on the action, thereby spreading thin the amount of cash available for profits. Among the interested parties would be the government, which can (and did) increase its share through taxes, thereby diluting even further the profitability of easy movie-making. The possible scenario veers between less box-office winners (and record-setters) and cheaper quickies – with the worst case combining both. And the closer we approach either situaton, the farther away we get from the possible solutions. The decline in local, or more accurately Metro Manila-based, profitability points to the potential of exploring the only regional market that has proved historically viable: the Cebuano-language circuit, now worth another serious consideration because of the economic resurgence of the South; Cebuano movie production, however, petered out in the past precisely because the region could not provide the profits that Metro Manila can offer, so this results in a closed circle, with everyone left out.

The other option is the exportation of our products, and here we must initially contend with both our colonial sense of inferiority plus the slow pace of returns – possibly necessitating the offering of initial titles as sacrifices to the altar of long-term investments. Once these are surmounted, an even greater hitch emerges: the international-scale quickie would of course be Cecil B. DeMillean beside its Pinoy counterpart, and coming from our premise that big-budget production would be too infeasible at this point, camote cultivation might not seem so small-time an alternative after all. A sadder consequence awaits those who appreciate film for reasons that render mammon secondary. The big, proud, expensive movie would be as much a part of the past as the mammoth, its appropriate namesake, while the modest achievement will become too costly to produce on a regular basis. We can fantasize about Hollywood brats coming to the rescue of our masters the way they did elsewhere – until we wake up and realize that the countries these now-needy filmmakers represent once worked hard to create a favorable impression on the international film community, while all we every really did was produce quickies to break our box-office records, with our own government making sure that the profits did not outstrip its capacity for “sharing” them.

Ah well. Maybe then we can all learn to read and write in a common language and arrive at some plateau of achievement, before we discover how to level it down once more, but that would be another (non-filmic) story.

[First published June 27, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Book Texts – Pinoy Film Reviews I: Celluloid (Pre-1990s) Era

Exceptions

Kamakalawa
Directed and written by Eddie Romero

Kisapmata
Directed by Mike de Leon
Written by Mike de Leon, Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., and Raquel Villavicencio

Two movies – one by an old-school director and another by a considerably younger one – serve to demonstrate the classic conflict between theme and technique. Eddie Romero’s Kamakalawa is prevented from being entirely effective by its defective production values; Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata, on the other hand, very effectively says little. Kamakalawa is Eddie Romero’s third ambitious production since his auspicious comeback in 1976 (the other two are Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? and Aguila). Set during the local pre-Spanish era, it tells the story of Kauing, a commoner who becomes involved in the intrigues among gods and noblemen. His adventures begin with the assassination of the reigning sultan by a rebel datu, upon which the princess calls on him to accompany her in summoning loyalist reinforcements. The mission is temporarily abandoned, however, as Kauing decides to save some elves and noblemen from the tyranny of the river goddess, in the process unwittingly seducing her. Meanwhile the sea god has to maintain his dominion over people, if not over nature. The river goddess, for her part, will have nothing to do with such to-dos, so long as her territorial concerns are left in order. Inevitably the sea and mountain gods confront and destroy each other, just as their respective mortal armies do. The river goddess’s downfall lies in her love for Kauing, which the fire god will not permit; to solve her predicament she embodies Kauing’s true love, the princess. In like manner, the surviving populace abandons its conflicting causes and acknowledges Kauing for his confidence in and compassion for humankind – a portrait of the leader as less concerned with than ignorant of politics, yet accomplished in the skills of diplomacy.

There is considerable intelligence in the interrelation of divine and temporal issues in Kamakalawa – at least enough to justify the combination of various local mythologies into a new and original whole which will annoy no one except purists. When, for example, the forest god beckons vampires to vanquish his peeves, the realization of a hierarchy among supernatural creatures, which makes them no better than their moral counterparts, is made clear, regional incompatibility notwithstanding. Even Philippine pre-Spanish society in Kamakalawa is somehow tailored to fit the filmmaker’s imaginative fabric. In a specific instance, Kauing, a tiller of soil (“clodhopper,” as the international version’s subtitles translate), proves his prowess over a haughty nobleman by first sparing his life in a royal bout and then saving him from various enchantments wrought by the gods of nature. The consideration of chronology – of the emergence of peasants only after the decline of indentured slavery and its attendant nobility – hardly matters anymore, subsumed as it is under the filmmaker’s interest in the superiority of productive forces over non-productive ones.

Filmic brilliance, however, cannot be confirmed to conceptualization alone. As in any other artistic medium, substance could be either enhanced or subverted by style. In the case of Kamakalawa Romero’s statements are not exactly negated by his direction; nevertheless, considering their scope and magnitude, they have not been handled with the high degree of expertise they deserve either. The most embarrassing examples of technique getting in the way in Kamakalawa are in its use of special effects. To put it kindly, the in-camera tricks and special laboratory processes employed in the movie are inferior to those of local fantasy films of lesser budgets. Care could have been exercised in minor matters such as the depiction of proportions among gods, mortals, and elves, the exploration by Kauing of the river goddess’s lair, or the appearance of a musical ghost. If these instances sound interesting, then the movie’s supernatural highlights are definite downers. The climatic showdown between the forest god and the sea god is appalling – but not because the protagonists lay the landscape to waste; their weapons do not behave like the flashes of lightning they are supposed to be, their clashes are mere washouts, the havoc they wreak could be outdone by faulty firecrackers.

This is not to say, however, that Kamakalawa is downright disastrous. As pointed out earlier, Romero’s healthy humanism is reason enough for the movie to be seriously taken. No other local director would have the sagacity, not to mention the audacity (considering the speaker’s ridiculous costume), to furnish a character, the fire god, with a monologue on power, existence, and eternity – and make it sound sincere enough for comfort.

Kisapmata, meanwhile, has everything it takes – and more, if one were to quantify Vic Silayan’s performance – to succeed where Kamakalawa fails. Taken as independent contributions to a creative collective, the various filmic elements of Kisapmata are, without exception, exceptional. In audiovisual terms, nothing in the film is obtrusive or inadequate – a balancing feat by any technical standard. Hence while watching the movie the viewer would be drawn along from beginning to end by correct composition and consistent visual tone; one would be helped along by sparse but purposeful auditory exploits; one would even be moved by the performances of individual members of the cast. On the whole, however, Kisapmata is nothing more than a narration of the events that lead to a father’s killing of his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and self; any relevant issue – incest, obsession, fascism, rebellion – is treated as an incidental angle, then quickly cast aside in the pursuit of plot.

Mike de Leon (b. 1947), the next Filipino talent to be featured at the Cannes Film Festival, after Lino Brocka.

Consider, say, the incest angle. The act itself is suggested by the father’s entrance into his daughter’s bedroom, with a little help from an earlier confrontation between the mother and daughter confirming the practice within the family. This is a discreet manner of presentation of a social taboo, which no doubt facilitated the movie’s passage through the eye of our rusty censorship needle. Whether it serves the movie’s purpose is a different consideration altogether. In fact the graphic depiction of another social taboo – the killing of kinsfolk – would not be in keeping with this attempt at adumbrating a comparatively lesser aberration. The social issues are just as inadequately treated. Lip service is paid to progressive concerns, such as references to political detention centers and acceptance of police corruption. Mere mention, however, is not the same as discussion: for all the complexity of the issues raised, the movie’s singular dialectic begins and ends with the father’s fatal obsession with his daughter.

This disturbing dichotomy between technical wealth and thematic poverty is best exemplified in the relationships among the characters. For in Kisapmata, the excellence of individual performances provides an illusion of successful characterization where there actually is none. The practice of incest, for example, should have introduced psychological changes in the daughter beyond normative dimensions. As it turns out, she responds to her mother’s calls for aid and rebels when she finds out that these are pretenses planned by her father; also, in spite of her conventionality (she resorts to religion regularly), she submits to another man – her husband, with whom she had premarital relations – without discernible traumatic consequences. The father, played with a plethora of nuances by Vic Silayan, comes on as an imposing figure right from the start, and remains that way throughout. In this regard, his fateful outburst at the movie’s climax may be safely logical – but not, by any means, tragic. A serious oversight on the filmmaker’s part prevented the evolution of the father into an understandable figure; before the shootout he is simplistically dismissed by his family as a psychotic. But since he is made to carry out the climax literally and figuratively singlehandedly, his character, to say the least, should have been provided with subjective developments.

Creating sympathy thus for the father would have been less bold than the incest angle, but it would have made the shootout at the end cathartic instead of simply shocking. In this sense Kisapmata can be regarded as representative of the Hollywood influence on contemporary Philippine cinema: technique-conscious, paradoxically to a fault. A return to thematic awareness in the manner of old guards like Romero would be more welcome – presuming, of course, that the filmmaker concerned is already capable of technical competence to begin with.

[First published November-December 1981 in The Review]

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Down but Not Out

Nektar
Directed by Francis “Jun” Posadas
Written by Eric and Susan Kelly Posadas

Tubusin Mo ng Dugo
Directed by Pepe Marcos
Written by Jose Carreon

This year’s first local entries classifiable under the troublesome categories of bold and action indicate some bright spots ahead for post-revolution Philippine cinema. To review recent cultural developments, bold and action films used to be the closest that our serious filmmakers utilized in working out compromises with their financiers; comedy and melodrama were simply considered incapable of presenting “messages,” and therefore generally unworthy of aesthetic attention. I recall how, in a period of only occasional filmic achievement (which was most of the time, then as now), I would go to a name director’s bold or action entry in the hope of encountering sensible discourse, but would disabuse myself of such a notion when it came to comedies and melodramas.

Then came 1986, and notwithstanding pessimists’ claims, things did change, even in the local film scene. Comedy and melodrama took the forefront in both box-office and artistic terms, while bold films permutated into the hard-core quickies reminiscent of pre-martial law times, and action movies ventured in the opposite direction – real-life stories done with the ultimate in production costs. Nektar and Tubusin Mo ng Dugo, bold and action films respectively, seem to point toward a return to the median, as it were, for these temporarily lost film types. I’ll readily own that I might be too optimistic about the first title, but the second can be taken as a case for generic survival: instead of breaking as far away as possible from the films that seem to be doing well, why not figure out how best to adopt the factors that excite the mass viewership about them?

Hence, the spectacle of witnessing some form of industrial osmosis, with a bold film attempting to take on the plot complications and technical competence of melodrama, and an action film spiced (spiked, even) with comic routines. I’d like to be kind enough, at least in print, in pointing out that, the way most current bold films go, Nektar could have been worse. It’s bad enough as it is, but you could sense an aspiration toward, well, making sense. The story’s our well-worn odyssey of the Virginal Barrio Lass getting corrupted by the Big City, with the melodramatic, or at least komiks-influenced, twist of Morality Triumphing in the End. Before you start groaning in your creaky theater seats, let me remind you that this material has proved remarkably resilient through the decades, with each movie generation having its own claim to posterity in a least one such topical example: Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag honors the moviemakers of the seventies in this way, although of course Nektar could only hope to distinguish its own specific period in time, and no more.

There’s an even more painful aspect to the movie, and that’s the care, believe it or not, with which it was executed. Nektar must be the most carefully made bold film since Takaw Tukso two years ago – but one must be careful to take this in the context of the common run of such films, rather than the quality of the specific titles being compared. The difference, and this is where Nektar fails, is that its makers have just not been up to the challenge, meaning the effort shows in the final product. It becomes almost embarrassing to see a movie so sincere yet nevertheless substandard in all respects. A few portions do stand as set pieces, specifically the heroine wandering in the Luneta by night, and then much later discovering how her supposed savior betrayed her.

Of course this only makes the rest of the movie almost unbearable in its pursuit of a reasonable but overworked story framework. I guess in the final analysis, a little figuring out about the specific nature of filmwork could have helped: Maynila, although it resembles Nektar on paper, salvaged itself by opting for a semi-documentary approach; in the other direction, melodrama films contain the potential for degenerating into camp, which though not as promising at least provides a provocative element of fun. How sad to fall in between, losing the interest of both serious observers and escapists – unless a hard-core version exists somewhere; but then that takes the fun out of knowing you did a good movie and showing it to friends and potential acquaintances. In which case how sad again, etc.

After Nektar, Tubusin Mo ng Dugo emerges as a minor cause for celebration. Pepe Marcos, a former editor (who also doubles for the same function in his films) who turned director four years ago, first came up with a passable debut, also a Rudy Fernandez starrer, in Sumuko Ka … Ronquillo! Neither practitioner has come up with totally execrable work since, but in Tubusin I’m happy to report a rarity of sorts – their best individual work so far. The qualifications should not be far behind though. Tubusin’s still a customary product, made for no greater shakes than the usual action entertainment contained in its main plotline. Normally I’d say it suffers from an imbalance in story development, but in fact this is where its strong point emerges. Instead of the usual establishment of good guys being lined up against bad guys, Tubusin takes an expository detour and provides a picaresque description of the lead character’s misadventures within a shrewdly observed social milieu.

Yessir, your average martyr of a mother happens to be a nag, your friendly neighborhood police chief resorts to third-degree, and your noble working-class savage gambles and drinks when he can, and even sets himself up for an occasional hustle! I was bewildered, to put it mildly, and then I started to wonder how long such a good thing could last. My worries were answered as soon as they occurred to me. Turned out that the mother feared for her son’s future, ditto the police chief, and though the hero-son gets to sire a family of his own, his involvement – unwilling, of course – in a big-time crime syndicate leaves him without much choice, were it not for the long, long arm of the law, yawn, yawn. I should have suspected something amiss after the hero rapes his best friend, a butch lesbian, and she forthwith disappears; what do you know, she reemerges much later, converted by her heterosexual encounter and therefore happily married to a poor unsuspecting atmosphere person.

Meanwhile a few instances of the early part’s humor, coupled with some really fierce action sequences, manage to pull the reluctant viewer through; the mass audience will of course be more forgiving, so I guess I ought to be honest about my admiration of how perceptive the filmmakers of Tubusin have been in their appropriation of current commercial preferences in a film genre that would otherwise have been as good as obsolete. In the end, Tubusin will be remembered mainly for just that – revitalizing a film type to conform to the mood of the times. Like Nektar, it will have acquired the box-office profits it intended to make in the first place, although with much less outrage about competence and entertainment appeal. We should all be so glad Armageddon might somehow take longer than tomorrow.

[First published February 17, 1988, in National Midweek]

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Chauvinist’s Nightmare

Kumander Gringa
Directed and written by Mike Relon Makiling

One cultural paradox of our current national existence is the fact that at this point, close to the second anniversary of the February 1986 revolution, our favorite mass medium still has to yield an unqualified triumph in political discourse. Once in a while, or sometimes too often, the movie industry would come up with an alleged true-to-life depiction of a still-living and militaristically significant political personality. The samples so far have proved to be viable for box-office business, but understandably self-serving for their respective subjects; in short, bad for the spirit in the long run. I hope this sufficies to demonstrate the minimum of cynicism in my appreciation of Kumander Gringa as our most successful post-revolution political movie so far. True-la-la, as the lead character (or more accurately one of two) would say: the item, like its subject matter, is far cleverer than what it would have us believe.

Roderick Paulate as the triumphant gay doppelgänger in Kumander Gringa.

To begin with, Kumander Gringa arrives on the (high) heels of Ako si Kiko, Ako si Kikay, which features not only the same director, Mike Relon Makiling, and performer, Roderick Paulate, but also the same comic premise – that of two characters identical in physical appearance but worlds (well, sexes actually) apart in orientation. Notice the twin defensive measures resorted to here, in terms of intention: not only is the undertaking a comedy, it also features the least offensive of Pinoy stock comic characters. And just in case this still couldn’t serve to appease the moralists in our midst, it further halves the lead character in two, the better to drive home the contrast between sexual differences, playing as it does the comic gay against his straight and serious counterpart.

But where Ako si Kiko was content to exploit this condition for strictly commercial comedic ends, Kumander Gringa pursues a far more ambitious and ultimately more appreciable, if not actually radical, course. Where the aforementioned biopictures were content to simplify political arguments by reformulating the left-vs.-right conflict into a center-vs.-extreme argument, Kumander Gringa provides sex-based embodiments for each side of the debate. Instead of the good-guy peace-lover caught between the bad-guy war-freaks on both sides of the political fence, we’ve got the gay lead straddling the contradictions between the more realizable concepts of civism and militarism, as represented by traditionally defined women on the one hand and similarly self-imposed men on the other. For the first time in any major local movie, both sides are made to succumb to the camp aspects of the gay option.[1]

The limitation of this sort of approach should be obvious to any perceptive social observer. It’s still too schematic to allow for innovation within specific sexual orientations, whether conventional or queer. Where our current biopictures attempt one over run-of-the-mill action movies by imbuing the psychologically motivated protagonists with political significations, the likes of Kumander Gringa in turn transform these political valuations into sexual differences. The approach is actually more analytical than dramatic, and in the final reckoning all these titles share the common property of editorializing in the wrong medium. They strive for the attention-getting appurtenance of thematic novelty without having fine-tuned (and as a consequence they cover up) the essential mechanisms of character and plot development. Using rhetoric metaphor, the machine looks new and therefore potentially workable, but it could never run itself into the long-term required for classical stature.

That would of course be tantamount to expecting Dostoyevskian rewards from a Mills & Boon paperback, and in fact I’d go as far as conceding that a Mad magazine feature would be closer to the nature of Kumander Gringa. But the mere fact that the discussion could initiate this level of polemics indicates that Mike Relon Makiling and Roderick Paulate, and by association contemporary Philippine motion-picture comedy, might be going somewhere. Kumander Gringa will also offer some slight film-educational, or more appropriately performing-arts, insights, particularly on the cruciality of the comic performer’s contribution. Again this carries on where Ako si Kiko, Ako si Kikay had left off, this time with the lesson more pronounced. What I mean is that, compared with most of Roderick Paulate’s previous gay-persona outings, Kumander Gringa to begin with has dangerously weak histrionic support: no Nida Blanca, Tessie Tomas, Nova Villa, not even a Maricel Soriano in close range, just a bunch of well-meaning and congenial talents eager to do their best but whose capabilities definitely fall outside the lead star’s caliber.

Roderick Paulate as a gay military recruit forced to act as a deep-penetration agent impersonating a macho rebel leader in Mike Relon Makiling’s Kumander Gringa (1987).

The risk Makiling took in response to this limitation has paid off in most parts, of which the financial aspect isn’t yet the least. In Kumander Gringa Paulate comes into his own in a definitive manner, proving for all practical purposes that he’s the prime comedian of the day, fully capable and confident in getting away with even the worst conventions his specialized kind of craft can proffer. Shrewdly, as it turned out, Makiling built the movie’s highlights on scenes intended to be carried by one, the other, or both of Paulate’s characters, and in fact allowed his star the bravura opportunity of creating a character-within-a-character, with the gay lead barely though riotously managing to impersonate his macho counterpart.

But instead of leaving Paulate to assume the burden of taking the movie to climax in this one-upmanship manner, Makiling eased the project itself onto parodic territory. I wonder how aware the filmmakers were of how close to radical the movie’s climax was, wherein the gay survivor delivers the lines and actions so far reserved for our most revered male movie personae. The incongruity is downright outrageous, but no one who has ever been moved, as I’d sometimes been, with all those mythologizing endings in our action movies will fail to feel that almost-reflexive swell of emotion. On the other hand, if everything were deliberately done, at least as much as would be enough to hold up under this sort of scrutiny, then the movie couldn’t have been as casual, as disarming even, as it turned out to be.

Then again on further thought the literal notion of disarmament is made a vital part of Kumander Gringa’s denouement. I guess clever’s the word, and I mean it as a compliment, true-la-la, but somehow I couldn’t help suspecting that there might be more where this came from.

[First published January 13, 1988, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] One of the films made in the wake of the groundbreaking success of Mar S. Torres’s 1954 Dolphy starrer, Jack en Jill, was Tony Cayado’s 1962 Kaming mga Talyada, where seven effeminate brothers are transformed into masculine heterosexuals via army training coupled with the endangerment of their potential objects of desire; the very last shot, however, depicts their hyper-masculine commanding officer as having been “infected” with the effeminacy that he had sought so desperately to eliminate in his charges, as he follows the now-normativized couples with a distinctly waddling gait. That it took a quarter of a century before this (for want of a better term) condition could be acknowledged as vital enough to induce its proponent to undertake heroic action and transform an entire army camp into happy campers may be read in two ways: as merely a reaction to the recent spate of (again pun incidental) straight-faced people-power heroicizing biofilms; or, on a broader scale, as an expression of relief that the masculinist nightmare of martial rule has finally been dispelled.

A further development must also be brought up here: the final doppelgänger roles essayed by Roderick Paulate was in Maryo J. de los Reyes’s Bala at Lipistik in 1994. This takes a step back from political discourse and focuses on the several comic predicaments that may be the stock-in-trade of the action film set-up, notably the abduction of the gay twin after being mistaken for his long-lost toxic-masculine gangster brother. Where it compensates is in the crucial aspect absent in the Makiling films: the beauty-parlor proprietor is partnered with a gay-for-pay stud, who proves chivalrous enough in upholding his sugar parent’s social respectability, despite the standard resolution where he has to settle for the best biological female who comes his way and require his same-sex partner to acknowledge the arrangement.

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O’Hara Strikes Again

Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak
Directed by Mario O’Hara
Written by Mario O’Hara and Frank Rivera

Mario O’Hara’s problem also happens to redound to the advantage of the sensible viewer. Either his films are worth sitting through from the beginning, or they warn you when a walkout is in order right from the start. Like his contemporaries when they were at or approaching their peak, O’Hara refuses to create any middle ground. Give any of his latest titles the benefit of a quarter hour or so, and you get assured that your money will be well-spent, or else you’re given the option of refusing a nonsensical product.

He also seems to have found the ideal level of balance between working on a moderate budget yet making the most out of his own storytelling and his performers’ histrionic potentials. Of particular interest over the years are his collaborations with Nora Aunor, and since his resumption of a directorial career during the 1980s, his batting average of roughly one well-made movie annually during the past four years places him on a par with no other local director except Peque Gallaga. For belligerence’s sake, I suppose one could list down the latter’s Virgin Forest and Scorpio Nights (both 1985), Unfaithful Wife (1986), and Once Upon a Time (1987), and on the other hand name Condemned and Bulaklak sa City Jail (both 1984), Bagong Hari (1986), and add Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak as O’Hara’s 1987 entry. Funny, as a final sidelight, how one happens to be identified with the art-for-art’s sake camp, while the other’s associated with the social-realism group – reflecting the earlier dichotomization between the public personae of Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka.

Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak isn’t exactly a movie one should rave about indiscriminately – let’s reserve that reaction for the first title that recalls the glory days of the early eighties. What Tatlong Ina does is provide a conventional good time (an irony for a film whose main characters are illegitimate kids, sex workers, and gangsters) – and it sure reflects tellingly on the state of the industry when a movie without any major ambition turns out to be in many ways the year’s best so far. The strange thing about Tatlong Ina, coming as it does from a filmmaker with a presumably progressive political orientation, is the property it shares with O’Hara’s other recent good films: happy endings. (Of instructive socio-psychological value would be a comparison between these and Gallaga’s serious efforts, which in contrast, except for Once Upon a Time, present tragic resolutions.) Although suffused with film noir stylizations, especially in an overabundance of shadows and equally shady characters, O’Hara films are entertaining to a degree that would definitely appall dogmatic proponents of social realism.

Never has his strategy become more obvious than in Tatlong Ina, where the happy ending finally ties in most satisfyingly with all the preceding developments. For all its realist imagery and subject matter, the movie is actually a proletariat’s fantasy – a wide-eyed daydream on how personal virtues operating within the proper social circumstances might just suffice in surmounting classic class conflicts. As further proof of Tatlong Ina’s political sophistication – or cleverness, depending upon your preference for the conventional – the proletarian heroes encounter opposition from not only the orthodox villains, the bourgeoisie, but also the so-called bad elements from whom they (the heroes) may initially be indistinguishable. The unlikely team of golden-hearted prostitutes and noble-minded bums subdue kid-snatchers and snobbish aristocrats through the use of force and charm respectively, with sexual attraction for each other and sympathy for a fallen comrade’s love child as motivating force.

The abstraction does sound ridiculous, and isn’t helped any by a series of coincidences that help propel the major characters toward ultimate victory. Only an artist’s strong convictions in the face of all this silliness could create a semblance of integrity through technical consistency. Which, luckily, O’Hara provides, by way of skills rooted in theater and well-hewn in cinema.

It wouldn’t be too pedantic then to maintain that Tatlong Ina, as typical of O’Hara at his best, is an effective accumulation of finely observed and captured incidents with above-average performances providing the crucial credibility factor. His storyteller’s sense of proportion fails him this time in only two instances, both of them admittedly minor in relation to the movie’s overall accomplishment. One is the use of the child as commentator, when her narrative functions at the start would have sufficed. Of course the expansion of the precocious Matet’s role fits in with her lead-star status, which in turn has served as the movie’s main come-on; but the problem of explaining real time – when, where, and why is she telling the story of her “mothers’” uphill struggles? – eventually emerges, and is never given even a perfunctory explanation. Secondly, and more seriously for the film’s narrative purposes, the story suddenly permutes into the standard (and, by now, quite kinky) Nora Aunor requisite of pairing off a mousy character with an extremely improbable mestizo-type; the fact that the Adonis in Tatlong Ina also happens to come from old-rich stock practically promises to be the movie’s undoing.

Nora Aunor, positioned between her usual fair-skinned male partner (Miguel Rodriguez) and her equally fair adoptive daughter (Matet de Leon) in Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak (1987).

To a certain extent this particular instance of indulgence is mitigated by O’Hara’s bravura staging of the most original wedding sequence since such endings recently became de rigueur once more in commercial romantic outings. To be sure, the mise-en-scène appears in this case to be simple enough; it is the working out of the various class reactions, specifically the reverse snobbery of the about-to-be-redeemed ex-prostitutes, that ensures that this wedding scene’s reliance less on pomp than on circumstance will make acceptable its appendage to the movie. The aforementioned reservations aside, Tatlong Ina can stake a short-term claim on memory, if only for its admirable exposition on the underworld milieu, comparable to the same director’s prison portion in his other Nora Aunor movie, Bulaklak sa City Jail. Tatlong Ina’s is more loosely structured, but then it covers a whole lot more territory, and as explained earlier, its upbeat ending fits the entire schema less awkwardly than does the earlier work. If this presages a cautious breaking away from the predictable and admittedly tiresome traditions of social relevance in moviemaking, then O’Hara’s next moves certainly merit closer attention.

[First published September 2, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Mellow Drama

Paano Kung Wala Ka Na
Directed by Mel Chionglo
Written by Ricardo Lee

Reviewing early this year a movie titled Kung Aagawin Mo ang Lahat sa Akin, I recall having given the much-maligned genre of melodrama more potential than most critics were willing to concede. Just to give you an idea of how ivory-tower snobbish mainstream film observation can get, what I’d written was tantamount to saying that melodrama could achieve its intention to entertain without being downright insulting. Maybe it was because the film under discussion then happened to have flowed out of the run-of-the-mill melodrama-maker, which in these shores can only be equated with a singular production outfit: Viva Films. Well, I had some quibbles then about the title being reviewed, and the only constant reaction I’ve had to Viva melodramas hadn’t differed before and hasn’t differed since. Somehow, somewhere, something just doesn’t work out, usually in terms of story development, internal logic, or characterization – or what the academically inclined would call the classical values in narrative craft.

This time we’ve just had another output that contains all the elements of the melodrama we’ve come to be suspicious, if not intolerant, about. Happily, for the purposes of my thesis, the film works in several crucial areas, except maybe for the fact that it wasn’t produced by the company I was hoping would be able to perfect the form. Paano Kung Wala Ka Na has a beginning and ending that are unmistakably happy, unless you’re one of the few misanthropes around who denies the celebratory tone commonly associated with partying. All the main characters are unmitigatedly and unforgivably rich, and by that token could pass for being beautiful; the fact that they are physically so increases their distance from us lesser mortals.

They enjoy the luxury of playing at love, though not as intricately as the old French romantic comedies could depict it, but then who among our audiences have been exposed to this tradition, much less understand French? When these characters cry their hearts out, which at the most occurs roughly every other scene, only the heartless can resist agreeing that such perfect specimens don’t deserve such cruelties of fate. Even the hoariest convention in contemporary romantic works – the Lovers’ Interlude, a meaningless montage of a young couple having their fill of life (to the tune of the movie’s theme, for which reason blame MTV) – can be considered herein a mere irritant, a distraction if you will, justifiable only in the sense that the film’s plot complexities could use some breathing space. The best part of all, the one aspect which local melodrama, for some strange reason, finds difficulty in presenting, is the fact that all the characters are given equal time – not in the literal sense, but according to a great classicist’s dictum that everyone, most especially a character in a well-told story, has her reasons for acting (in the dramatic, not the histrionic sense) the way she does.

In Paano Kung Wala Ka Na this realization is pursued through a clever ploy. In the guise of allowing the marital problems of elderly couples to reflect on their young, the movie proceeds to develop the oldies’ stories into a finely woven tapestry held taut by a commanding sense of irony. The fact that the young ones’ love triangle inadvertently reverts to a disconcerting triteness is one way in which truly creative film artists could subvert conventions while seeming to indulge in them. In this sense Paano Kung Wala Ka Na could still be considered at best a transitory milestone, whose final goal would be a product that manages to discuss the problems of the elderly according to updated notions of morality, without having to resort to young stars seemingly being taken seriously for understandable (though not always acceptable) box-office reasons. More important, it points the way for current state-of-the-craft melodrama-making: that twists and reversals associable with the genre are best employed in the service of humane characterization rather than the plot complications that typify current approaches. I’m sure someday someone will castigate Paano for making all melodrama characters predictably likeable, but for the moment such a device is innovative enough, and therefore desirable in itself.

Snooky Serna and Miguel Rodriguez as young lovers whose elders play out a more complex roundelay of relationships in Mel Chionglo’s Paano Kung Wala Ka Na (1987).

The film’s director-writer team-up (Mel Chionglo and Ricardo Lee respectively) has had some even more commendable output before, including Playgirl and Bomba Arienda, plus what I consider one of the most underrated movies of the current decade, Sinner or Saint. What an assuring development to realize that their decision to play around with current conventions of commercialism has provided them with invaluable skills and insights into that kind of challenge, and some sensible entertainment for the viewing public as well.

[First published October 14, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Campout

Natutulog Pa ang Diyos
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Orlando Nadres

Paano Tatakasan ang Bukas?
Directed by Emmanuel H. Borlaza
Written by Orlando Nadres

Sa Puso Ko Hahalik ang Mundo
Directed and written by Artemio Marquez

The trouble with prevalent local film criticism is that either it isn’t critical or it is. Either it’s an advertising package, with a usually minimal veneer of subtlety, or it’s the diametrical opposite – a pronouncement of definitive proportions utilizing criteria culled from the dwindling groves of academe. Hence the nature of incentives available to practitioners is encompassed on the one hand by publicity machineries of various makes and capabilities, and on the other hand by awards and ratings bodies, each designed to counter the other side: the academy award(s) for the studio system, the religious award for (presumably) the unscrupulous sector, the critics’ award for the movie press, and the movie press award for what seems to be the critics’ group. Currently the controversies in this aspect seem to center on the propriety of the existence of rivalries. Certainly one or the other so-named academy award group would rather be the only one of its kind, and even having the movie writers’ group divided between the critics and the, well, non-critics correctly implies one set of trophies too many.[1]

Lost in the lollapalooza is the reality that film output is actually more variegated than what the apologies of this state of affairs would have us believe. Never mind the alternatives – those products finished in non-commercial formats for usually non-commercial, or at least non-mainstream, ends. What about the majority – the film products that fall in between by refusing to pander outright to either side of the industry conflict? What we usually take notice of are the extreme instances that justify the polarizations within: the box-office success that proves the necessity of publicity, the artistic triumph that provides another excuse for the annual award-giving ritual, and rarer still, the popular and critically acclaimed product that reconciles both sides for the moment, until the next non-artistic top-grosser or artistic box-office flop comes along.

Few movies, Filipino or otherwise, are unqualified masterstrokes either way, and so for the most part (or so I believe) regular moviegoers actually attend to the national pastime more mindful of one another’s responses rather than what people in media have to say. Which is just as well. It would be the height of absurdity to subject movies like Natutulog Pa ang Diyos, Paano Tatakasan ang Bukas?, and Sa Puso Ko Hahalik ang Mundo to the declaration of the box-office winner, since the mere fact of doing good financially is already a reward in itself; on the other hand, it would also be the height of cruelty to impose criteria of artistry on efforts that may have set out to accomplish something more than just returns on investments, but definitely not “art.” Maybe one could approach them then from the perspective of entertainment? This would admittedly be difficult, premised as it is on pertinent cultural assumptions and connoting a good deal of subjectivity in the process. The easier option is to behave, instead of think, like a typical Filipino moviegoer, but then the responsibility of rendering some insights, however tentative, gets forsaken.

So here goes. Natutulog Pa ang Diyos is surprisingly effective, if you’ve been following Lino Brocka’s progression. Where he used to concentrate mainly on surfaces, testing a technical or technological approach or two while remaining faithful to a predetermined text, here he seems more relaxed about merely being competent and allowing himself or his actors some latitude in on-the-set explorations, and possibly even revisions. (The same atmosphere informed, to more effective results, Mike de Leon’s last commercial-format movie.) Brocka’s attempts are highly uneven, but when they work, they do so in unexpected ways, notably the clowning of Gina Pareño in the suspenseful expository portions and the rejection of reconciliation (and thus predictable sainthood) by the Lorna Tolentino character in the end.

Only time can tell how far Brocka can push this method (and look, no caps!); although widely practiced among local directors, so far only one, Ishmael Bernal, could exploit it and still retain some measure of integrity. Emmanuel H. Borlaza, for his part, has used it to better advantage in the past. Paano Tatakasan ang Bukas? evinces no perceptible amount of conviction whatsoever, save for the regionalist humor of Chanda Romero; the tandem between director and actress recalls their glory days in regional (Cebuano-language) cinema, although Paano Tatakasan may be forward-looking in its own way too. About midway through the story the lead character starts spouting evangelical propaganda, and the others straightaway follow suit. The instance demonstrates the supreme incompatibility of a conservative movement seeking legitimacy via a still-radical medium of expression; it upholds one’s faith in film just as it exposes the hypocrisy of moralists, who just as easily would have us reject the medium for its alleged immoral influences.

The upshot then of this triple-fare viewing is that Sa Puso Ko Hahalik and Mundo may prove to be the least offensive, and therefore the most preferable, of the three. Well, nuts to the naïve. Sa Puso Ko is the most effective precisely because it dares to offend the most, and manages to sustain this mode of presentation, sometimes referred to as camp, to an admirably intolerable degree. Yet there is a value in Sa Puso Ko more felt than visualized. Where previous local efforts in modern-day camp, notably by the likes of Joey Gosiengfiao, proved too calculated (and therefore self-defeating), Sa Puso Ko contains the same deadly sincerity that made the same director’s previous outing, The Untold Story of Melanie Marquez, so difficult to dismiss in the face of its wholly dismissible material.

Sa Puso Ko in fact does one better by having not one but three lead characters delineating impossibly lachrymose tales within the all-too-ludicrous contexts of virginity, proletarian dignity, and filial piety. This plus the added advantage of fictional premises have provided Artemio Marquez with what may arguably be his mortal best, Brocka and Borlaza notwithstanding. And so this is what one sometimes gets for giving a well-intentioned film practitioner a well-deserved break. No mind-blowing mergence of art and craft, or sheer commercialist actuations. Just a curiously convoluted and intellectually refracted achievement of sorts. The mark of a master lies in how easy to make the whole thing seems to be, until you try to figure out a personal project along the same lines. You could just wind up smiling.

[First published November 9, 1988, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] When this article was written, the only available genuine (guild-formed) academy group was the Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP), whose name was shared by the oldest continuous award-giving body, the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences or FAMAS – which in turn actually comprised older movie press members; the younger press practitioners formed the Philippine Movie Press Club (PMPC) with their own set of prizes, called Star Awards; the specialized type of movie press was the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (or Filipino film reviewers circle), which was formed in response to the increasingly detectable influence-peddling in the FAMAS. Since then, the FAP has had a splinter group, as did the PMPC, each of which also hands out awards. The MPP, which is actually dominated by academics, generated two other types of award-givers: a teachers group, and another academe-based group calling themselves the Young Critics Circle. (Personal disclosure: along with another member, Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., I was involved with the MPP and the YCC, as well as with a third critics group called Kritika.)

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After the Revolution

Orapronobis
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Jose F. Lacaba

The inveterate optimist’s reward for enduring an inordinately long dry spell in Philippine cinema, after a commendable inundation that should never have ended (but did anyway), has arrived in the form of, well, a Filipino film that’s alien-produced, concerning a local subject that’s universally topical, and with short-term consequences that should be urgently overridden in the light of significant long-term implications. Orapronobis, Lino Brocka’s latest cause célèbre, stands to be the most significant closing film of an impressive decade in the history of Philippine cinema – and although a handful of other films (Brocka’s own included) may have equal if not greater artistic value, Orapronobis holds the additional distinction of being the first arguably superlative Filipino movie since the February 1986 revolution.

Gina Alajar as an abducted activist who avenges the death of her son in Lino Brocka’s Orapronobis (1989).

It also arrives, like those twin big-city masterpieces – Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night and Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag – in a swirl of controversies complicated no end by the project’s internationality this time around. No doubt discourses on the director’s differences with his foreign financiers and own government, plus the movie’s inherent capability of provoking debates on ideological and public-relations policy issues, contain the potential to continue beyond the resolutions of whatever problems can be formulated, for whatever motives possible. This is the main reason why Orapronobis is being discussed by practically every major opinionist who happens to have an outlet for publication or broadcast. And the determination of the movie’s ultimate worth being buried in the avalanche of articulate, well-meaning, but conflicting points set loose by political perturbations remains, as lawyers love to put it, a clear and present danger.

Orapronobis would probably be a fitting marker for the end of its director’s second decade in his profession – or, for that matter, the beginning of his third. Like any other Filipino filmmaker gifted with vision and intelligence, Brocka would be the last to admit that his career has been a tranquil and restful one. To make matters worse (for himself, that is), he happened to assume the extra burden of pioneering for Philippine cinema in foreign shores. It would be only logical to conclude three things, each proceeding from the other: that Brocka’s artistry, intersected as it had been at about the midpoint of his career so far by international attention, would exhibit permutations unique to his case; that these would be more difficult to analyze than similar case studies of local directors, since internationalized interactions presumably induce a system of dialectics which may be occasionally complementary with, but which may also at other times be tangential or opposed to, that of local dynamics; and finally, it would take even the most sincere and driven director (and Brocka is nothing if not one) quite a time, given these constraints, before he can come up with a definitive body of work.

Orapronobis is proof positive of the last conclusion. Prior to this, the only truly major movies Brocka ever made were Maynila and Miguelito: Batang Rebelde; naturally, the course of his international impaction did not always conform to the pattern formed by these three titles. If anything, Brocka became better – and unfairly, if I may say so – known for efforts that were minor to a fault, minimalist in style, and badly balanced by what could only be explained as an overeager willingness to please an ill-advised combination of foreign admirers and the local masses, neglecting the crucial element of local observers (including the community of artists Brocka belongs to). Ultimately the director will be known as more than just another Third-World filmmaker. With the three aforementioned titles, a case can be made for his versatility in three disparate and difficult film approaches: documentary realism in Maynila, milieu formation in Miguelito, and advocatory moviemaking in Orapronobis. Each milestone holds its own significance with respect to Brocka’s career development. Maynila was a stunning coup d’essai, coming as it did without any antecedent among any of the major talents (apart from Brocka, scriptwriter Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., cinematographer Mike de Leon, and lead performer Rafael Roco Jr.) associated with it; Miguelito displayed the range and extent of Brocka’s discipline in being able to pick up from what he had left off more than a decade earlier, improving on a better-forgotten first attempt in Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang; Orapronobis, for its part, has drawn directly from a number of impassioned works but responded to the need to depart from a scantiness of details and devices on the one hand and a surfeit of bathos on the other.

Of particular interest in this last instance is Bayan Ko (Kapit sa Patalim), the previous collaboration between Brocka and Orapronobis’s writer Jose F. Lacaba. Released locally the same year as Miguelito, Bayan Ko managed to ride a crest of sentiment swollen by the anti-dictatorship movement (which had resulted in the temporary interdiction of the movie and incarceration of its director), sufficient to surpass in critical attention not just its superior contemporary but also a number of other better works. Ironically the 1986 revolution, in negating Bayan Ko’s source of suffering, did the same to its artistic raison d’être, in effect allowing its basic thematic weakness of justifying both proletarian nobility and lumpenist imperatives in the same character to now become a commanding concern. Such historical reversals may soon similarly obtain in the case of Orapronobis, but in the opposite direction. Reviled, at least in certain quarters, where Bayan Ko was admired, the current opus will definitely be capable of prevailing on its own merits as film – that is, if it manages to survive what is turning out to be typical establishment resistance to its divulgence of disillusionment and dissent.

The achievement is all the more noteworthy when one considers that Bayan Ko essentially constituted a throwback to Maynila, in the sense that the intention was for the viewer’s perception of reality to be transformed after the viewing experience; no plastic manipulations were imposed on reality as raw material, and at one point the action was in fact transposed to an ongoing protest march, rather than, as in Maynila, the march being staged for more effective filmic exploitation. Comparatively, Orapronobis consigns documentary events onscreen to the onslaught of a narrative which has drawn voraciously from known facts – hence sandwiching the presentation between history, on the one hand, and realistic imagery, on the other. The method would be daring for those who happen to share the movie’s conclusions, but even those who don’t will have to admit that cleverness of a high order is involved herein: the post-experiential transformation of reality may or may not take place, depending upon one’s ideological position, but in the meantime an alteration has already been accomplished, facilitated by the act of viewing itself, and the return to a stance of disagreement would require a strong (and possibly disturbing) triumph of the will.

The matter becomes clearer when one reduces Orapronobis to its most basic level of argumentation. All possible worst-scenario charges against the existing political dispensation are stacked up front, crowding out in the end any possible apology (as represented by the lead character’s initial frame of mind) for even the minutest offense. There is nothing really dramatic about this sort of attitude: in fact the only motivation, if we may extend our definition, allowed the main antagonist is that he suffers from a psychosis stemming from a lethal combination of colonialism, religiosity, and machismo. Yet in a schematic way the movie manages to convey a cautionary world-view that surpasses even the commonplace businesses that it purports to treat. If domestic relationships are regarded, as well they may be in Philippine culture, as basis for an ideal, then the movie’s protagonists can be seen to function in a context not far removed from the potential for abusiveness and callousness that their enemies have gone over into. The lead’s underground contact turns out to be a hit man who targets a policeman shown as having a family of his own (cf. the more exploitative treatment of this recent urban-guerrilla strategy in the previous Brocka international release, Macho Dancer); more saliently, the lead himself ultimately abandons his wife and newborn child to rejoin the underground movement, more in retaliation for the death of his illegitimate family than from any need for personal security.

The performances constitute a vital aspect in delineating this state of affairs. The legal wife’s predicament works only in retrospect mainly because Dina Bonnevie, despite a strong presence, loses out to the skills of Gina Alajar, who may originally have been intended as a foil, an impetus to the male lead’s change of heart, but actually succeeds in becoming a dominating figure in the movie through the sheer resplendency of her portrayal. Phillip Salvador is for once given again the opportunity to work with a fully rounded character, this time smoothing out the rough edges observable in Jaguar (his first film and the first Brocka-Lacaba collaboration, with co-writer Ricardo Lee). Jaguar though would be more instructive than coincidental this time around: here the antagonist, unlike that of Bembol Roco in Orapronobis, is treated with enough sympathy to create an involving conflict between him and the title character.

Hence the means by which Orapronobis elicits audience alertness is not so much representational as technical. It would be valid, though somewhat pedantic, to say that montage is actually the main actor in the movie – the engrossing alternation between romanticism and paranoia, the intricate correlation between imagery and anxiety, and finally the successful transmutation of symbols of personal comfort (religion, politics, even escapist cinema) into objects of social menace. When an editor – actually three of them in the opening credits – doesn’t hesitate to use jump cuts to compress time, then she knows and appreciates her film language; but when she uses them to facilitate transitions and make narrative commentaries in the process (as in the use of the religious-icon insert in the final rape scene), then she has progressed beyond film language to imaginative storytelling. Mature editorial judgments resist the usual confinements of style and genre; although essentially a political thriller, with several shots timed at split-seconds, Orapronobis’s climax comprises a series of prolonged takes, the longest of which consists of an excruciating yet exhilarating slow zoom into the lead character rocking his dead son in church.[1]

It may be said, on the basis of Orapronobis, that an aspect of Brocka’s artistic persona may have died along with his long-time cinematographer Conrado Baltazar. Gone are the cavernous compositions and light-and-shadow interplay that used to suggest more than what the script was capable of conveying. This is not to say, however, that Brocka has merely returned to the functionalism of his early, pre-Tinimbang Ka movies. What the latest work suggests is that the director has become more confident with the tools of his medium and may now pay more attention to how these can be made to serve the purposes of straightforward storytelling – not in the manner of recreating history in terms of imagery or narratory momentum, but through the realization of a vision whose relationship with actualities becomes secondary to its awareness of and approach to film. All told, Orapronobis bodes both ways for Philippine cinema in the next decade – or what we should all hope to be another Golden Age, if not a continuation of the previous one. It confirms the increasing technical sophistication of Filipino filmmakers even as it dares to challenge and reverse popular notions of existing reality. What ought to be anticipated is the reflexive backlash against such an appropriation of what has long been the jurisdiction of social institutions, rather than entertainment industries: the privilege to uphold or change values or attitudes. No doubt experience has proved that artists do it better, and less painfully besides, but then it’s the other types who maintain positions of influence in the end.

As for the particular artist behind Orapronobis, the time may well be near when a Brocka film could be appreciated fully on its own, rather than as part of an indispensable body of work, no matter how impressively sustained the individual entries may be. In this regard a long-time lesson from that part of the world where he has been introduced to the global film community could serve as appropriate starting point. Not long before Lino Brocka began making films, the French managed to prove, first in theory and then in New-Wave practice, that several styles may be successfully combined in singular works, which in turn would be limited only by their filmmakers’ command of the styles being used. When the next major Brocka movie would be putting to use in one summarist masterpiece his accumulation of skills through the years, instead of the pursuit of too-distinctive modes of expression and content, might just be one of the more welcome developments in the near future of Philippine cinema.

[First published January 10, 1990, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] For some reason one non-Filipino scholar, in writing about Orapronobis, seized on these passages in a Pauline Kael-style demolition of responses by Philippine commentators, minus Kael’s thoroughness (he held up an exception) and expert grasp of filmmaking processes. He described the insight as “keen” and “very astute,” then proceeded to fault the use of “highly aestheticizing language…. While David’s sharp critical comments stand, they are in danger of being lost in the precious supplications of the aesthete” (Beller 159) – a definite consequence if one were to isolate the paragraph from the rest of the review, duh.

Elsewhere the author describes Orapronobis and Manila by Night as instances of “socialist realism” (145 & 159 resp.), an even more mystifying conclusion, since neither presidential regime under which these were produced (Ferdinand Marcos’s and Corazon Aquino’s resp.) was socialist in name or in practice; nor were the directors hard-line members of the Communist Party of the Philippines when the films were made. It would be reasonable to speculate that both Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal would hesitate (to say the least) in appreciating actual samples of socialist-realist cinema and adopting these as worthy models, outside of comic camp traditions. See Jonathan Beller, Acquiring Eyes: Philippine Visuality, Nationalist Struggle, and the World-Media System (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2006).

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Book Texts – Moving Picture: World’s Shortest Prequel

Floodwaters in certain parts of Sampaloc district would rise chest-high by grade-schooler’s proportions as recently as during the late 1960s, and my brothers and I would wallow through invisible potholes and visible sewage just to be able to get home in time to avoid alerting the household to our absence. It didn’t seem as depressing as it sounds, because soon as we got home we’d drop paper boats from the window sill and marvel at how automobile spillage would form rainbow-colored patterns amid the raindrops and waves. How to convey the values and dimensions of this primal aesthetic experience, beauty in detritus, has been the greater challenge of my work as film critic and teacher. Often my impatience has engendered a style that’s reflective of both aspects of such a childhood impression – didactic, I think, but with an incongruous informality. Formal college-level training dwelled on the incompatibility of the combination, and so my early work tended to assume the tone of Moses mandating monotheism on Mount Sinai, handing down revelations whose densities abhorred loose or open ends.

The further from academe I grew, the less self-conscious my notions of style became; at the same time I could not help but uphold the same standards for the works I selected for evaluation. With the inevitable maturation of my personal faculties, I somehow approached an ideal (rarely achieved, of course) of readability amid discourse complicated even for myself. Necessarily this involved periods of selectivity as well as rest and consolidation, but methinks the consequences are different for critics who rely on exigencies of artistic production, rather than artists who depend on critical evaluation; for in the final analysis, the artist could assume critical functions, at the very least for herself, while the critic can never really work in a vacuum, even (or perhaps especially) when working on theoretical issues.

I do badly regret not having come of age during the start of my self-proclaimed second Golden Age of Philippine cinema during the mid-seventies, although I suspect that more effective groundwork had been accomplished during the more turbulent pre-martial law years. As a college-fresh neophyte who honed my fangs on political and economic animadversions, I could draw from the likes of, say, Aliw and Aguila, but Manila by Night and Kakabakaba Ka Ba? from the same period seemed too intricate to unravel and too deep to reach then. I found sufficient leeway to try various approaches thereafter, but at the expense of otherwise praiseworthy attempts in Angela Markado and Batch ’81. And just when I decided to return to school, for which I had to hold down a job – both as full-time preoccupations, out came a full and consistent flowering of films, unaware even that late of the searing effect of the then-forthcoming February 1986 people-power uprising.

Only afterward could I graduate from chronicler to confident commentator, with the rather desperate optimism that, like what happened after the early post-martial rule dry spell, another Golden Age would not be long in following. Invariably my appreciation of paper boats and grease rainbows made the excursion through Manila’s bloodstreams worth the plunge. Along the way I could get my fill of doing retrospective commentaries, but then the best part consisted of divining what could come next and occasionally seeing it fulfilled in some form or other.

Alternative author’s pic for The National Pastime, taken by National Midweek official photographer Gil Nartea.

My list of great film-writers all have some profound contradictions crisscrossing their works, and this, more than anything else, makes reading them doubly difficult. Given the luxury of a lifetime, I’m sure I’ll be developing a few swivels and turnabouts here and there; already I know which of my past output, aside from the ones I’ve already mentioned, I could renounce in the name of personal progress, but meantime I did write them once, and became interested enough to stand by them even through the trauma of publication. So they appear as they do now, contextualized only by their respective dates of issue, in order to maybe show how far I’ve come (or gone), and perhaps qualify the shortcomings of the worthier items.

There’ll be an entire future to face, marked in the meantime by the impending close of the current century. Film, as I’d written elsewhere, will undergo further and radical transformations in terms of technology and approach, and what we consider Third-World practice is on an ascendency. There won’t be just floodwaters to cross, there’ll be entire oceans to swim, and though by then I might be sounding different, difficult even, I guess we’ll all be lucky, though we’ve long deserved it, to be where it’s at come the time.

[First published October 3, 1990 in National Midweek]

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Book Texts – A Second Golden Age

When Ishmael Bernal used the exact same term “Second Golden Age” in his last major interview, with Aruna Vasudev (16-23), I knew that it had effectively supplanted Bienvenido Lumbera’s coinage “New Philippine Cinema” in his “Problems in Philippine Film History” (193-212).[1] Not that that was my intention though; in fact I deliberately maintained a non-titular preference for the uncapitalized “second,” even though I succumbed to standard capitalization practice later. The essay was the opening salvo (to use Patrick D. Flores’s review description) in a series of provocations that I was hoping would initiate productive, even dissentious, exchanges. Yet even the negative responses to The National Pastime seemed willing to accept, or maybe reluctant to question, the premise behind the assertion that the martial-law era ironically provided a fecund playing field for cinema, or shall we say Ciné-mah.

My own attempt at questioning the Golden Ages idea was (to me) too late, too rushed, and too reasonable (see “The Golden Ages of Philippine Cinema: A Critical Reassessment”), even if it also happened to be the first to do so. On the other hand, my elaboration of the aesthetic issues raised in the present article (via Fields of Vision’s “The ‘New’ Cinema in Retrospect”) appears increasingly defensive and interminable, the longer I look back on it. Nevertheless I submit that the following article encapsulates Marcos-era film policy and its overall-favorable impact on film practice, as well as film observers’ urgent need to find useful historical frameworks for further applications (and incidentally, to fellow Nora Aunor fans: “Performances of the Age” is only a section of the present article, not a stand-alone write-up). “A Second Golden Age” was originally published in the October-December 1989 issue of the Cultural Center of the Philippines journal Kultura (pp. 14-26 – p. 14 is below), then edited by Bien Lumbera; its title was modified by the publisher of The National Pastime (where it appeared on pp. 1-17) to include the parenthesized phrase “An Informal History.” To jump to later sections, click here for:


Click the pic to open a PDF scan of a photocopy of the original article.

Talk has been current, but not ardent enough, about the recent conclusion of a second Golden Age in Philippine cinema. Of course the notion of a Golden Age has its share of reputable disputants. No less than Eddie Romero, who surged forward at the start of what may be considered our filmic Golden Age II, cited ancient Greece in claiming that no such period of clear and concentrated artistic achievement could be reasonably circumscribed anywhere. On the other hand lies a just-as-ancient necessity of defining parameters for purposes of easier classification and, more important, to enable contemporary observers to draw significant lessons therefrom. Presuming that Golden Ages do exist, no other period becomes more needful in finding out how and why they do than that immediately following the conclusion of such a one.

More to the point of Romero’s argument, however, would be the obvious difficulty in pinpointing specific periods of artistic productivity. The flowering of Athenian culture could be studied intensively within the context of entire centuries of ancient Greek life; true, certain important artists and philosophers were contemporaries of one another – but this was more of the exception, the rule being one major practitioner being followed, chronologically speaking, by another who would either break away from the elder’s school or tradition, or venture completely on her own in a new, unpredictable direction.

The soundness of Romero’s assertion actually derives from the fail-safe construction of his logic. Nothing in human history can ever compare to the Greeks’ cultural exploits – and so, if we grant that they never had a Golden Age, then there never could have been any such thing since. Rather than despair over our modern-day limitations in the face of such insurmountable criteria of excellence, I believe we could do well enough in assessing ourselves for more sober, though perhaps less immortalizing, reasons. By this account a Golden Age need not be a wholly intensive and sustained national outbreak of cultural creativity. A limited period in a specific field, defined according to the concentration of output relative to periods preceding and succeeding it, should prove adequate for the moment.

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Golden Age I

The first Golden Age in Philippine cinema has had slightly varied reckonings of its exact duration.[2] All, however, agree to the inclusion of the entire decade of the 1950s. The most important feature of this period was the political stability brought about by postwar reconstruction and the aggressive suppression of the Communist insurgency, paralleled in film by the stabilization of the studio system.

That this phase ever came to a close indicates the short-sightedness of the solutions being applied. Reconstruction commits itself only to the attainment of a previous level of accomplishment (in this case the prewar situation), whereas insurgency addresses itself to the overthrow of a government on the basis of a problem – agrarian reform – more persistent that its leaders’ understandable aspirations to political power. The movie industry’s studio system, in seeking to institutionalize professionalism and (incidentally?) control the means of distribution, overlooked the natural inclination of talents, including stars, to seek more abundant means of remuneration outside the system if necessary, as well as the willingness of independent production outfits to forsake the studios’ long-term advantages and meet the demands of talents in return for faster and more immediate profits.

Hence the interval between the first and the second Golden Ages saw the rise of the independents and the superstars, backgrounded by the revitalization of the peasant-based insurgency and an engineered economic instability that paved the way for the imposition and eventual acceptance of fascist rule.

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A Near-Golden Age

The declaration of martial law in 1972 promoted hopes for an end to the country’s political and economic difficulties. It also may have forestalled a creative resurgency in local moviemaking, brought about through a subsequently admitted social experiment by censors chief and presidential adviser Guillermo de Vega, who was later assassinated under mysterious circumstances.

A casual view of the products of the pre-martial law seventies reveals what we might have been headed for: socially conscious and psychologically frank products, without a compulsion to alienate the vast majority of moviegoers, even in the most artistic instances. Apparently neutral or even antipathetic projects actually allowed for a lot of leeway in the selection of material and permutations of form and expression. Most significant was the proliferation of bomba or hard-core sex films, the direct result of de Vega’s extreme libertarianism; but just as important were the counter-reactions, the musicals and love triangles, that provided relief in opposing formats, even for serious practitioners. Moreover, regional (Cebuano-language) cinema had mellowed at the latter portion of a wondrously long curve, providing assurances of alternatives for Manila-based practitioners (which included Emmanuel H. Borlaza and Leroy Salvador), as well as an additional stable for the recruitment of onscreen talent, notably the Amado Cortez – Gloria Sevilla and Eddie Mesa – Rosemarie Gil clans.

Ismael Bernal came up with the last major black-and-white Filipino film and the most important debut of his generation with Pagdating sa Dulo. Lino Brocka, who was to share with Bernal the rivalry for artistic supremacy in the Golden Age that was to come, rebounded quick with a pair of highly inspired komiks-adapted titles for his studio base, Lea Productions, namely Stardoom and Tubog sa Ginto, plus an otherwise effective Fernando Poe Jr. epic, Santiago. This era, rather than the mid-seventies as commonly supposed, also signalled the maturation of Celso Ad. Castillo. In another Poe-starrer, Asedillo, as well as in a horrific bomba entry, Nympha, he exhibited a fascination for unconventional visual values and thematic daring, properties that were to serve him well during the latter part of the decade.

Other names associated with academe- and theater-based artist circles made their mark with relatively serious attempts, including Elwood Perez with Blue Boy and Nestor U. Torre with Crush Ko si Sir. Perhaps more significantly, a number of scriptwriters who were to figure prominently during the forthcoming Golden Age first emerged here, with either solo or shared credits: Torre with his debut film, Bernal with Luis Enriquez’s Ah, Ewan! Basta sa Maynila Pa Rin Ako!,[3] and Orlando Nadres with Tony Cayado’s Happy Hippie Holiday. Brocka, after writing for Luciano B. Carlos’s Arizona Kid, provided breaks for several scriptwriting aspirants, among them Nadres with Stardoom, Mario O’Hara with Lumuha Pati mga Anghel, and Alfred Yuson with Cherry Blossoms.

Right after Marcos’s martial-rule clampdown, and in a sense a consequence of the aforementioned near-anarchic (and therefore procreative) bent, came names like Peque Gallaga and Buth Perez with Binhi, Romy Suzara with Tatlong Mukha ni Rosa Vilma, Jun Raquiza with Dalawang Mukha ng Tagumpay, and George Rowe with Paru-Parung Itim, Nora Aunor’s first production, serious film, and (it wasn’t to be the last such combination) box-office flop. Rolando Tinio wrote for Bernal’s Now and Forever and Ricardo Lee, using the pseudonym R.H. Laurel, for the late Armando Garces’s Dragnet.

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Pre-Golden Age II

Critics currently carping at the discernible decline in the quality of film output relative to the period prior to the 1986 revolution should actually have more to be grateful for, aside from the usual evolutionary benefits of better technology and more formalized media, even film-specific, education. At least an excess of film awards, a heritage of the just-concluded second Golden Age, ensures that truly deserving products will now have a greater chance of acquiring recognition, no matter how belated. In the first half of the seventies all we ever really had was the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS), then suffering a downswing in sensibility from which it has never fully recovered; and so, despite the long list of titles mentioned above, its early seventies best-film winners were forgettables like Kill the Pusher, Mga Anghel na Walang Langit, Nueva Vizcaya, and Gerardo de Leon’s regrettable Lilet.

Keeping the faith were Bernal, Perez, and Joey Gosiengfiao with their usually combinative Sine Pilipino/Juan de la Cruz Productions; Castillo with his horror films; Raquiza with this thrillers; Suzara with his sober dramas; and Nora Aunor with her admirable acting vehicles, including the only project that could boast of crediting both de Leon and Lamberto Avellana, the omnibus Fe, Esperanza, Caridad.

It was Brocka, however, who returned from a period of inactivity with two productions that combined the then-impossible characteristics of being both major and personal, Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang in 1974 and Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag in 1975. The direct beneficiaries of this renewal of artistic consciousness in film included Brocka himself, with his three-in-one Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa; Perez with his three-in-one Isang Gabi, Tatlong Babae!; Gosiengfiao with the last Filipino black-and-white movie La Paloma, ang Kalapating Ligaw; Castillo with his careful revivification of the bomba (later to be called “bold” and initiated with the wet look) in Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa; and Bernal with Mister Mo, Lover Boy Ko.

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Golden Age II: Beginnings

Maynila could properly serve as the marker for the second Golden Age of Philippine cinema. It was a more precious and accomplished work than the same director’s Tinimbang, and ushered in a tendency toward new talents and novel projects that was to intensify in the coming year. Brockas’s triumphs, overwhelming even the FAMAS, can be regarded as the conclusive cause, especially in the light of his current and still single-handed renewal of filmic consciousness, this time on an international scale, with his post-’86 works Macho Dancer and Orapronobis.

There are, however, other attributable semi- or even non-industrial reasons for the phenomenon. The relative sanguinity brought about by the sudden infusion of foreign loans (before these assumed malignant proportions), coupled with the enforced stability of early martial rule, encouraged several newly prosperous entities to invest their money in a business that could be both glamorous and profitable. The youthful mass audience of the early seventies was prepared for a divergence and diversification of its favorite diversion, which was to culminate in a sophistication of its command of visual language that may still be extant at present. De Vega’s widow, Ma. Rocio, took over after his death and, for some reason or other, saw fit to return to his pre-martial law policy of libertarianism – which the military was to exploit as an excuse for its small-scale takeover of film-censorship prerogatives.

Maynila’s impact was meanwhile long-ranging enough, boosted as it was by the earlier success of Tinimbang, and a whole new breed of filmmakers came to the fore; in chronological order: Lupita Concio (later Kashiwara) with Alkitrang Dugo, Eduardo Palmos co-directing Saan Ka Pupunta, Miss Lutgarda Nicolas?, Behn Cervantes 1976’s first debutant with Sakada, O’Hara with Mortal, Dindo Angeles with Sinta! Ang Bituing Bagong Gising, Gil Portes with Tiket Mama, Tiket Ale, sa Linggo ang Bola, and Mike de Leon with Itim.

And these were just the ones who either started big or had major follow-up projects. A cursory look at the 1976 Filipino filmography would reveal a handful of other new names which would probably be of interest to those determined to delve deeper into the dynamics of the period. Again, however, the writers ought to sustain more productive study than the also-rans: Clodualdo del Mundo Jr. was responsible for the adaptation of Maynila from the novel by Edgardo Reyes, who himself was to cross over presently into the medium with Bernal’s Ligaw na Bulaklak. Preceding them were newsmen Antonio Mortel and Diego Cagahastian, who co-wrote Mister Mo, Lover Boy Ko, and fictionists Alberto Florentino and Wilfredo Nolledo, who were to be joined shortly by Jose F. Lacaba in Gosiengfiao’s omnibus Babae … Ngayon at Kailanman. Mauro Gia Samonte was to write for Castillo’s Tag-ulan sa Tag-araw, Jorge Arago for Bernal’s Nunal sa Tubig, and Marina Feleo-Gonzalez for Kashiwahara’s Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo. Lamberto Antonio collaborated with O’Hara on Brocka’s Insiang, Roy Iglesias with Eddie Romero on the latter’s Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon?, and Gil Quito with del Mundo (and Ricardo Lee without credit) on Mike de Leon’s Itim.

Sakada would have been the military establishment’s typical target for repression, but it unfortunately enjoyed the endorsement of de Vega; Danilo Cabreira’s Uhaw na Bulaklak, Part II served the purpose even better, deflecting as it did potentially confrontational politics toward the issue of moral rectitude; typically again, both titles had new writers-Lualhati Bautista and Oscar Miranda (with an uncredited Reuel Aguila) for the former, Franklin Cabaluna for the latter.

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Guideposts for the Times

Three developments, all of the same kind, served to temper the disheartening reality of the military’s assumption of local film censorship. The fact that the reconstituted body announced itself as “interim” in nature, implying an eventual return to civilian rule, was belied by its initial action of enforcing stricter measures, to the point of requiring the approval of storylines and screenplays and imposing a code that seemed deliberately directed against the output of serious practitioners. An entire catalog of anecdotes, sometimes humorous and often infuriating, primarily comprising dialogs between military censors and intelligent film practitioners, awaits documentation and will definitely help in particularizing the naïveté and arrogance of Filipinos suddenly imbued with power and influence.

The already mentioned developments actually consist of the introduction of award-giving mechanisms by three sectors that were to make bids of varying degrees of urgency on mass media in general, and film in particular: the Catholic Church, government, and intelligentsia. The Catholic sector, in reviving its Citizens’ Award for Television, expanded it to encompass locally existent media of communications. Significantly, the first best-film winner of the Catholic Mass Media Award was Nunal sa Tubig, which had seen rough sailing with the censors. The government, for its part, centralized all the annual city festivals in the newly organized metropolitan area in one major undertaking held during the lucrative spell between Christmas and New Year. The first few editions were either idealistic or disorganized or both, so that sensible film producers tended toward a policy of reserving prestige productions for this season. Despite occasional protestations from the bloc of foreign-film distributors and an ill-advised attempt to require developmental messages during the late seventies, the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) has endured as the government’s singular contribution to the pursuit of quality in local cinema, its awards being coveted not so much for the prestige they bestow as for the free and favorable publicity they afford otherwise commercially imperiled releases.

The third, and for our purposes the most important, film awards for this period consist of those handed out by the reviewers’ circle, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (MPP), organized in 1976 and barely in time for the first flowering of the second Golden Age. The Urian awards, as these were called, served to recall and amplify the impact of the first MMFF in their echoing of the latter’s best-picture choice, Ganito Kami Noon. In fact the FAMAS, so as not to be left too far behind, selected another MMFF entry, Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo, for its top-prize winner, and observed the Urian’s dark-horse selection of Nora Aunor as the year’s best actress for her performance in her latest flop-production, O’Hara’s Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos. The Urian remained the most serious award-giving body for the most part of its first decade of existence, employing a system of viewing assignments, repeated screenings, and exhaustive deliberations that would have proved perfect had it been implemented conscientiously and consistently. Whatever the turnout of the MPP’s choices for any given year, the fact remains that its nominations were generally reliable reflections of the industry’s achievements in the medium, and thereby serve as better indicators of the state of the art than the awards themselves.

This point was to be driven home as early as the next year of its existence. Where the MMFF actually defied the cultural establishment, which responded by withdrawing the prizes it handed out to Castillo’s Burlesk Queen, the Urian responded against the film as a representation of the MMFF’s process, selecting an academically defensible but less artistically vital entry as its year’s winner, and coming around to the Burlesk Queen filmmaker by awarding his next-year entry, which like the previous year’s winner was period and epic in scope. Such subjectivity of vision, coupled by a preference for underdog nominees, prompted Brocka, the fourth best-director awardee, to castigate the group and reject its future commendations. Nevertheless, as mentioned earlier, the MPP’s process right up to the deliberation of prizewinners was refined enough to ensure the accommodation of accomplishments that were major by the reasonably highest possible standards of filmic evaluation.

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Four Peaks

By this account it becomes evident that the performance output of the local film industry’s best and brightest tended to observe peaks and valleys, instead of a consistent (and therefore easily predictable) plateau or slope. The first was of course the already described beginning, that yielded Maynila on one end and Ganito Kami Noon on the other. The second was a good four years after, when the highest artistic point of the Golden Age and, by reasonable extension, of Philippine cinema thus far, was attained with Bernal’s Manila by Night. Afterward major-status entries on the order of Bernal’s innovations with filmic milieu arrived with regular frequency, with Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Moral two years later; Brocka’s Miguelito: Batang Rebelde still another three years after would close the era, curiously with the same director who helped open it.

This regularity of productivity was in fact cut short by the 1986 revolution, in much the same way that Proclamation 1081 ended the early seventies’ creative outbursts. Sociopolitical upheavals may be the most obvious, but definitely not the only, similarities between the periods in question. Prior to 1986, as before 1972, an era of moral permissiveness held sway in cinema. Immediately after the upheavals, audiences tended to shy away from moviegoing, and had to be lured back with blatantly commercial products that all but outlawed conscious attempts at artistry. The second Golden Age in this regard was distinguished by some of the riskiest filmmaking projects in local history: during the turn of the decade, one movie after another vied in laying claim to being the most expensive Filipino production ever, with audiences seemingly willing to reward these efforts if only for the sheer audacity of the claims.

Each artistic peak mentioned, in fact, also had clusters of other big-budget, even period productions attending it. Maynila was period by necessity, since early martial rule forbade derogatory references to the Marcos regime;[4] Ganito Kami Noon combined an ideological concern – the origin of “Filipino” as a historical designation – with the period of its metamorphosis, the transition from Spanish to American colonial rule. Romero was to further flesh out his pursuit of the identity of the Filipino with some other big-budget and period titles: Aguila, which covered the current century; Kamakalawa, which was situated during the pre-Spanish mythological era; and Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi, which was begun during but released after the Golden Age, and set also during the pre-Spanish era of regional trade relations. None of these other movies attained the balance between technical competence (Aguila would have been the closest) and storytelling superiority (Kamakalawa excelled only in this aspect) manifested by Ganito Kami Noon, and meanwhile Romero, who was a movie-generation removed from Brocka and Bernal, was exceeded in medium-based modernization by the practitioners who were to follow.

Brocka, on his part, responded to international exposure with a deliberate and sometimes disconcerting minimalization of his filmic abilities. Insiang, Jaguar, Angela Markado, Bona, PX, Cain at Abel, and Bayan Ko (Kapit sa Patalim) (in order of release) all may have followed Maynila chronologically, but actually antedate it in terms of the filmmaker’s capability of matching sweeping social concerns with an appropriately expansive vision. Aside from this, their distinction of having had international exposure in various festival venues here and abroad could perhaps only develop a case for Brocka as an auteur in the now-conventional sense of the word, where one work will have to be viewed in relation to all the rest before it could be appreciated. Miguelito, on the other hand, as a vastly improved reworking of Tinimbang Ka, is a contemporary but still-critical view of the body politic with its social and, more important, dramatic distensions intact, rather than deflated to microcosmic dimensions as Brocka had been wont to do in the case of the other films.

Bernal benefited the most from the effervescence of this period, mapping out a strategy that may have seemed erratic during the time but which denotes in retrospect the most impressive directorial figuring out and working over of the medium since Gerardo de Leon adopted the principles of deep-focus realism. Like de Leon, Bernal proceeded to adopt a foreign trend, this time the then-emergent character-based multi-narrative process, first experimenting with limited success in Nunal sa Tubig then introducing commercial elements on a more modest scale in Aliw. The greater profitability of the latter, in terms of both audience and critical reception this time, most likely emboldened him enough to return to large-scale businesses in Manila by Night, which in turn may have overstretched his technological capabilities somewhat but also served to accommodate his contributions to an international filmmaking mode, in a way that de Leon never managed to.

Manila by Night in effect proved that a personalized and multi-stylized approach to this manner of presentation of subject matter was possible, and that the filmmaker could choose to oppose the expectation of a final and logical conclusion and still justify an open-endedness in terms of his material. After such an accomplishment a more conventionalized orientation overtook Bernal – one that drew from the domestic dramas and comedies he directed prior to Manila by Night, the most memorable being Ikaw Ay Akin. His only other epic-scale project since, Himala, recalled Nunal sa Tubig in its choice of material (the eternal countryside, as contrasted with the contemporary big city in all of his other films), but the treatment this time observed classic unities rather than the versatilities which had brought him attention in the first place. Bernal’s other multi-character projects fared even less triumphantly, among them Ito Ba ang Ating mga Anak?, Working Girls, and The Graduates. A Working Girls sequel, released after the Golden Age, so dismayed everyone involved that Bernal has since tended to inhibit himself from such ventures, concentrating instead on small-scale projects where he had considerable success right after Manila by Night: Relasyon, Broken Marriage, and Hinugot sa Langit, among others.

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New Generation

Expediently for Brocka and Bernal, as well as Romero and, in a sense, Castillo before them, the second Golden Age lent an aura of legitimacy to the infusion of new blood into the system. Early on Mike de Leon and O’Hara persisted with always prestigious and occasionally remunerative projects; with the arrival of the eighties, the splashy debuts of women directors Marilou Diaz-Abaya and Laurice Guillen recalled the heyday of Kashiwahara, then already inactive.

It was Peque Gallaga, however, who demonstrated that even newcomers could buck the system and turn it to their advantage: first he won the scriptwriting contest of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP) for the storyline proposal of Oro, Plata, Mata, then acquired the right to direct it, and saw it right through copping a special jury prize from the Manila International Film Festival (MIFF) as well as major Urian awards, including best film. Curiously, however, succeeding aspirants could not duplicate Gallaga’s procedure; the closest anyone came to doing so was in using the ECP venue, the Manila Film Center (MFC), as Tikoy Aguiluz did for Boatman, rather than directing ECP productions, as Pio de Castro III and Abbo Q. de la Cruz were to discover after finishing Soltero and Misteryo sa Tuwa respectively; in this instance the dynamics of governmental support for the industry supplied the causative factors, and a thorough investigation of the matter would yield invaluable lessons for the future.

Before Gallaga’s virtual one-man coup, the female directors managed to call attention to themselves as viable entities; but how much of the appreciation was prepared by prevalent feminist sentiments still has to be quantified. Guillen had a modest and well-appreciated hit with her first film Kasal?, then after a box-office trauma went on to a more notable achievement with Salome, which won the Urian best-film prize. Diaz-Abaya, on the other hand, saw her first production, Tanikala, sink to the depths of anonymity – and her investment along with it, but rebounded vigorously enough with the MMFF multi-awardee and box-office placer Brutal.

In common with the early ascendency of these two was their scriptwriter, Ricardo Lee. Coming from a shared distinction (with Jose F. Lacaba) for Brocka’s box-office bomb but Urian winner and Cannes Film Festival competition entry Jaguar, Lee had his first solo masterstroke with Brutal and followed up in an even bigger way with Salome. His association with Bernal cemented as consultant for Manila by Night and writer for Ito Ba, Relasyon, and Himala, he proceeded to devise a female-humanist (typically mistaken for early-wave feminist) milieu movie, Moral, which Diaz-Abaya directed. Moral stands as the only other Golden Age product clearly in the same league as Manila by Night; the other possible sharers of this category would be Miguelito and, from the first Golden Age, Gregorio Fernandez’s Malvarosa – both of which suffer inadequacies that disallow declarations of unqualified masterliness within the terms of the multicharacter format. Thereafter Lee’s collaborations with Diaz-Abaya would result in relatively less satisfactory products, particularly Karnal and Alyas Baby Tsina. He subsequently realized higher degrees of literacy in cinema in his scripts for Mel Chionglo’s Sinner or Saint and Chito Roño’s Private Show, produced at the tail end of and released after the Golden Age; more fulfilling accomplishments, however, were awaiting him in other film-related media, notably journalism, metafiction, and playwriting, all of which he would turn to after the Golden Age.

The other directors fared fairly enough in establishing a respectable level of artistic sensibility in their works. Gallaga had a slightly better epic than Oro, Plata, Mata in Virgin Forest, which met with a counter-reaction probably inevitable considering the earliness and eagerness of the initial response that greeted him. After dabbling in melodrama with Unfaithful Wife, he would make one last epic, the fantasy feature Once Upon a Time, which had the misfortune of being released during the period of transition following the Golden Age, when no movie could hope to recoup its investments. Thereafter he would concentrate on and rise in favor again for expertly handling the horror genre, which would facilitate his return to epic filmmaking with Isang Araw Walang Diyos.

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Fringes of the Avant-Garde

Gallaga deserves a more lasting recognition for his revitalization of the sex film in Scorpio Nights, released at about the same period as his Virgin Forest and Aguiluz’s Boatman, and for the same venue, the MFC. In being less defensive about its social conscience, Scorpio Nights turned out to be a more effective evocation of proletarian decadence than any local erotic movie ever made.

Two significant directors, Castillo and Mike de Leon, reached their prime in the medium during the middle part of the Golden Age, then settled for relative obscurity afterward. Castillo came out with a series of mostly sex films that never matched the precocity of Burlesk Queen, while de Leon observed the Stanley Kubrick model, emulated to a lesser extent by Gallaga, of dabbling in one genre after another. His comeback in 1980 after a three-year hiatus resulted in a major-status movie that has managed to outlast all his other works so far, the political absurdist comedy-musical Kakabakaba Ka Ba? Along with Brocka, de Leon became a prominent figure at Cannes, where his subsequent output – the thriller Kisapmata and propagandistic Sister Stella L., plus Batch ’81, his misanthropic contribution to milieu delineation – were exhibited to mostly favorable commentaries. After an excursion into melodrama that disappointed him but not his financiers, de Leon shifted, right with the close of the Golden Age, to video with a feature, Bilanggo sa Dilim, that exemplified his directorial coming-of-age.

O’Hara similarly advanced in expertise as the period wore on. After making a financially fruitful comeback (after an absence about as long as de Leon’s), he came up with a partially successful milieu movie, Bulaklak sa City Jail, and followed up a previous action-thriller, Condemned, with another, Bagong Hari. Mostly O’Hara continued his association with Nora Aunor, who had more resounding results with Brocka and Bernal, but nevertheless managed to augment her store of talent with O’Hara.

One last directorial debutant, Chito Roño, whose Private Show came out almost too late for the Golden Age, bears comparison with the aforementioned names. In the period to come, Brocka, by virtue of his conscious holding back, may have already reprised his role as harbinger of what ought to turn out to be another, or at least an extension of the previous, Golden Age. Chionglo, Gallaga, O’Hara, Roño, Diaz-Abaya, and Guillen are in a position to assume artistic leadership, with Bernal, Castillo, and de Leon making authoritative contributions alongside Brocka, and Romero upholding the value of verified virtues in the craft.

The writer will be privileged with greater responsibility, as indeed almost all of these enumerated individuals are capable of scripting their and others’ works if desirable or necessary. Ricardo Lee will continue holding forth as a major non-directing filmmaker, with del Mundo, Lacaba, and newer members like Jose N. Carreon (Ikaw Ay Akin, Broken Marriage), Jose Dalisay Jr. (Miguelito), Rosauro de la Cruz (Scorpio Nights, Virgin Forest), and Amado Lacuesta Jr. (Hinugot sa Langit, Working Girls) regularly providing thematic worth and structural strength. A number of other writers, including Armando Lao and Bibeth Orteza, may have had apprenticeships during the Golden Age, but would seem to have considerable opportunities of playing the field thence.

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Performances of the Age

Award-sweeping became the in thing, what with the addition of more and overlapping bodies to the already flourishing FAMAS, Urian, MMFF, and CMMA – to wit, the Philippine Movie Press Club (PMPC), with its Star trophy, and the Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP). Two of these, the FAP and the FAMAS, claim to be industry-based recognitions, although the FAP is more systematically organized according to guilds; this advantage of legitimacy also brings with it the disadvantages of the prevalence of popularity choices,[5] just as between the Urian and Star, the former may comprise a number of serious critics, but the latter possesses the humility necessary for thoroughgoing review and evaluation processes.

Despite the propensity of these groups, both collectively and as individual bodies, in setting records for favored artists, the outstanding performance of the period belongs to that of Nora Aunor in Himala, which was honored only by the MMFF. Aunor had been possessed with a search for superior acting vehicles, and threw away a lot of her own money in the process, since in essence she mostly had to run against the preferences of her mass supporters. With Brocka she made perceptible strides in ensuring her lead over the rest of the pack, particularly in Ina Ka ng Anak Mo and Bona. But all that was really required of her was a project that had enough scope to demonstrate her far-reaching prowess, with a minimum of editorial manipulation. In Himala the director and writer seemed to have agreed to a mutual stand-off, thus amplifying the theatrical potential of an expansive locale with protracted takes; stage-trained talents ensured the competent execution of histrionic stylizations, with the climax set on an open-air platform before a hysterical audience. It was a truly great actress’s opportunity of a lifetime, and Nora Aunor seized it and made it not just her role, but her film as well.

Nora Aunor on the set of Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (1982).

Not since Anita Linda in Gerardo de Leon’s Sisa (circa the first Golden Age) had there been such a felicitous exploitation by a performer of ideal filmmaking conditions – and in this instance, Himala has the decided advantage of being major-league and universal. Other consistent stand-outs during the period – and these would be formidable enough as they are – demand to be taken in terms of body of work, not any individual movie: Vic Silayan for Ligaw na Bulaklak, Kisapmata, and Karnal; Gina Alajar for Brutal, Salome, Moral, and Bayan Ko; Nora Aunor for whatever title she appeared in during the eighties, regardless of budget, intention, or box-office result. Record-setters of this period, specifically Phillip Salvador, Nida Blanca, and Vilma Santos, deserve mention if only for the skills and supreme good fortune necessary in attaining their respective feats. Among newcomers, only Jaclyn Jose of Private Show seems to hold forth promise of an order comparable to most of those listed herein.

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Institutional Developments

What factors could have contributed to this concentration of creativity? The only trend that could be cited with confidence is something commonly perceived as a hindrance, its claims to patronage notwithstanding: active governmental intervention. The irony here can be traced from the very beginning (of the second Golden Age, that is) – the militarization of film censorship, and even beyond, if we were to particularize the controls on culture that the declaration of martial law brought about. With the fullest possible flowering of the Golden Age during the turn of the decade, the irony could not but have been heightened further. The government then set in motion the machinery of total institutional support that was to be known presently as the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, eventually housed at the aforementioned Manila Film Center (MFC).

The Manila Film Center, site of some of the best and worst excesses of the Marcos dictatorship.

To be sure, a compounded series of half-hearted inclinations betrayed the ultimate objectives of the ECP. First it was founded not to respond to any industrial necessity, but to legitimize the then-First Lady’s Manila International Film Festival. Then, to appease a First Daughter angered by the kidnapping of her paramour, control of the legitimizing body was turned over to her; this must have been perceived as a shrewd decision, since Imee Marcos-Manotoc, perhaps partly out of her rebellion against her parents, had been soliciting the advice of Marcos oppositionists in culture, most of whom had castigated the first MIFF. The granting to her of ECP was expected therefore to placate both her and too-outspoken Filipino film artists.

Palace politics in this regard kept the Marcos family too busy among themselves to pay attention to the moves of film practitioners. Film producers meanwhile were lured by the prospect of greater returns on investment with the introduction of an international venue (specifically the MIFF’s film market module) on these very shores. Hence films with big budgets and attendant artistic ambitions began to see the light of, er, theatrical exhibitions.

Marcos-Manotoc herself proved to be sincere about her responsibilities, at least during a crucial early phase of her assumption of ECP leadership. The rejection of the MIFF was just a signal to Malacanang of her sincere intentions. By then she had several projects running simultaneously, most of which had a highly favorable impact on film as artistic endeavor. Witness: the production of scriptwriting contest winners, subsidies for worthy full-length film proposals, tax rebates for deserving productions, exhibition of otherwise shunned or banned releases, plus a number of relatively minor benefits – first-rate screening venues, a library of film titles and books, short-film competitions with cash incentives, book and journal publications, archival research and preservation, seminars and workshops, etc.

The arrangement was too good to be true, and eventually succumbed to the regime’s self-destructive tendencies, embodied in this instance in the irrepressible Imelda Marcos. Once Marcos-Manotoc had been distracted by her election to the so-called legislature, the ECP quickly went moribund, with funds hemorrhaged for the alleged promotion of MIFF in foreign countries and with the MFC operated according to a prohibitive maintenance cost. This meant that not only would all charitable functions cease, including film productions and subsidies, but also only sure-fire highly profitable titles, which then as now denoted hard-core sex films, could be exhibited at the MFC’s exclusive venues.

The expected denunciation by the industry of the ECP’s exemption from censorship and taxation, premised on the grounds of unfair competition, was reinforced in part by a bid for survival by the censors body, which with the ECP had reverted to civilian status; a retaliation was also in order, since the ECP under Marcos-Manotoc had initiated moves to outlaw film censorship. All this controversy served to act as check on the choice of films for MFC exhibition, ensuring that the new leadership would resort to artistic quality (the very same excuse invoked for the MIFF), if nothing else, as defense. The outcome, in practical terms, was a handful of local erotica, including the previously mangled Manila by Night, unmatched in art consciousness relative to any other period in local history.

The Marcos government, however, could not stem the tide of the anti-dictatorship movement, especially as fortified by the outrage over the Aquino-Galman assassination, and the post-Imee ECP proved to be a most attractive target. In the end the by-now predictable, and thereby ineffectual, Marcos solution of establishing new institutions or transforming existing ones to conform ostensibly to legal requisites was applied to the ECP. The body was dissolved and another one, the Film Development Foundation of the Philippines (FDFP), set up in its place, without any change in the organization itself, save for its avowal of now being less public in nature; in fact it was intended to enjoy the best of both worlds – semi-private and thus exempt from censorship, semi-public and thus exempt from taxation.

That the FDFP did not differ from ECP except in name would have induced a renewed struggle for the formation of a truly responsive organ for institutional support, but at this point the nation’s attention was diverted by the snap elections that led to the people-power uprising that in turn expelled Marcos, shut down his film institution for good, and drew to a close the second Golden Age of Philippine cinema.

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Intrinsic Reasons

The futility of pinpointing institutional causes, a legacy of materialist orientations which even artists are prone to resort to, becomes evident when we take other national experiences into consideration. In South American countries, whose colonial and religious histories most closely resemble the Philippines’ own, artistic creativity has always been a direct function of political freedom. The same observation applies to contexts closer to home – in neighboring Asian countries. One would expect that the combination of both features – Hispanization and Orientalism – would only strengthen this correlation between the practice of politics and the production of art.

Not only do the Marcos years disprove this extrapolation; the few years since provide enough dramatic contrast to further affirm this deviation from an otherwise logical deduction. Part of the answer may lie in the Machiavellianism of the Marcos regime, its perverse pleasure in playing cat-and-mouse games with its opponents. In the case of industry-based artists, who themselves are no strangers to such dialectics between ideals and realities, this inculcates a disposition toward subtlety and the sublime.

This answer could of course cut both ways. A practitioner may just as well be cowed by the double jeopardy of having to please both an immediate boss and an Orwellian Big Brother, and if the displeasure of either may already mean the loss of career and prestige – in short, everything for the artist – then the displeasure of both would amount to sheer terror, if not paralysis. In actuality, a number of local filmmakers did exhibit indications of the latter syndrome, but these may on the whole be balanced by the others who found favor with either a producer or the regime, in certain cases one against the other.

In the end we could only grant that a major factor for the occurrence of the second Golden Age lies in the superstructure itself – more concretely, in the confluence of film artists who somehow attained a level of individual maturity and collective strength within roughly a common time frame – a force, in effect, capable of transforming what would normally be political and industrial liabilities into aesthetic assets.

This situation couldn’t be too phenomenal; a similar one was realized in Italy during the neorealist era’s inception during the twilight of the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.[6] Locally, the trend toward the organizing of artists, systematization of training (resulting in one extreme in the introduction of formal film studies at the State University), and the expansion of art consciousness in alternative film and related formats all betoken this contemporaneous ripening of occasional genius, regular expertise, and general resourcefulness in the country’s most popular mass medium. Final and conclusive proof of course lies in the works themselves – over a decade’s worth of major contributions to the art of cinema, on the whole outstanding by any standard, awaiting a comprehensive presentation to a global community that remains all the poorer for not having had the opportunity to strike the proper acquaintance so far.

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Notes

[1] Even a foreign “history” volume like Bryan L. Yeatter’s mostly dispensable write-up observes a 1974-85 periodization (129-65) that acknowledges a “Second Golden Era” without any clue about its provenance – a sign that the idea had become paradigmatic. As recent a text as Neferti X.M. Tadiar’s Things Fall Away (in Chapter 8, endnote 36), on the other hand, erroneously ascribes the Second Golden Age idea to Bienvenido Lumbera’s “Brocka, Bernal and Co.: The Arrival of New Filipino Cinema.” Based on a conference paper, Lumbera’s article was drafted in 1998 and made use of the term “New Filipino Cinema” (132, 135), a slight modification of his earlier catchphrase, “New Philippine Cinema,” that appeared in a number of his previous articles. Nowhere in any of Lumbera’s texts does “Second Golden Age” show up.

[2] The original argument for the existence of a First Golden Age was articulated by Jessie B. Garcia, in his article “The Golden Decade of Filipino Movies,” originally published in three issues of Weekly Graphic in April-May 1972 and reprinted in Readings in Philippine Cinema, ed. Rafael Ma. Guerrero (Manila: Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1983), pp. 39-54.

[3] In fact the long-cherished record of a National Artist for Film may have to be revised, or at least qualified. Culture critic Petronilo Bn. Daroy wrote that “Although his name was retained in the credits [of the Ah, Ewan! Basta sa Maynila Pa Rin Ako!] as director, [Ishmael] Bernal, on the first day of the showing of the film, was compelled to disown it” (Bernal et al. 6); the publicity layout, as if in response, bore the name of Luis Enriquez (Eddie Rodriguez’s actual name). No way of confirming what name appeared on the film credits is possible, since the film is considered lost; Nestor U. Torre, however, provided an inadvertent confirmation: “No, I told the film students – and they were ‘shocked’ to hear it – it wasn’t Pagdating sa Dulo [that was Bernal’s debut], as they had been taught in their film history subjects, but a Virgo Productions movie titled (take a deep breath) Ah, Ewan! Basta sa Maynila Pa Rin Ako!

[4] A disclaimer, in the form of the year “1970” superimposed on one of the opening shots of Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, was deleted in the film’s global release, thereby situating the narrative in martial-law present. The insertion enabled the film to be passed by the censors during its initial release in July 1975, on the argument that the poverty depicted onscreen belonged to the old system (dubbed a “sick society” by Marcos, to contrast with the New Society ushered in by PD 1081). Its subsequent deletion, on the other hand, gave foreign observers the impression that the film had dared to critique the martial-law administration, effectively overwhelming it to the point of sweeping the industry awards for its year of release. In “The Brocka Battles,” Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon provided further proof of how Brocka was able to trick Imelda Marcos (the country’s de facto chief film censor) to allow his films to be exhibited at the Cannes Film Festival: he considered casting Imee Marcos in Insiang and convinced Sean Connery to plead with Mrs. Marcos to allow Jaguar to be exported, as proof that censorship was not practiced in the Philippines (125-27).

[5] During the launching ceremony for the Film Academy of the Philippines, Imee Marcos, then-recently appointed Director-General of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, announced that the FAP would be replacing the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (inasmuch as the latter was an academy only in name). Joseph Estrada, then still the mayor of San Juan City, had just won two FAMAS awards, each one his fifth as producer and as actor, thereby qualifying him for elevation to its Hall of Fame in two capacities (a historic first-and-only achievement) during the next year’s ceremony. He therefore waged a campaign in favor of maintaining the FAMAS, forcing film authorities to agree to allow the new academy and the old pseudo-academy to continue; ironically, the FAP would also experience its own schism in the new millennium, resulting in two sets of awards claiming to emanate from the same organization.

[6] My last conversation with Imee Marcos took place during her term as Congressperson representing her father’s Ilocos Norte district, in her office located at the University Hotel in Diliman; I was also serving as founding Director of the national university’s film institute and was invited to discuss the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. She pointed out (rightfully) that the Philippine film industry managed to recover from the trauma of the late-millennium Asian financial crisis coupled with the phaseout of celluloid production, by adopting the strategies introduced by the ECP via its departments. I mentioned that the only previous country famed for introducing a FIAPF A-rated international film festival as well as a crucial support organization was Italy, during the regime of Benito Mussolini. I then ventured to point out the similarity between the name of the defunct ECP and the still-operational Centro sperimentale di cinematografia. She laughed and said it was a deliberate move on her end to give the Marcos film agency such a name, to find out how many people could pick up on the joke. (It was also possible that her then-rebellious streak may have been a factor, but I was aware that she had already reconciled herself to her parents’ legacy, for better or worse, by then.)

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Works Cited

Bernal, Ishmael, Jorge Arago, and Angela Stuart Santiago. Pro Bernal Anti Bio. Manila: ABS-CBN Publishing, 2017.

David, Joel. “The Golden Ages of Philippine Cinema: A Critical Reassessment.” Millennial Traversals: Outliers, Juvenilia, & Quondam Popcult Blabbery (Part I: Traversals within Cinema). Special issue of UNITAS: Semi-Annual Peer-Reviewed International Online Journal of Advanced Research in Literature, Culture, and Society 88.1 (May 2015): 1-15.

Lumbera, Bienvenido. “Brocka, Bernal and Co.: The Arrival of New Filipino Cinema.” Re-Viewing Filipino Cinema. Mandaluyong City: Anvil Publishing, 2011. 124-35.

———. “Problems in Philippine Film History.” Revaluation: Essays on Philippine Literature, Cinema and Popular Culture. Quezon City: Index, 1984. 193-212.

Maglipon, Jo-Ann Q. “The Brocka Battles.” Lino Brocka: The Artist and His Times. Ed. Mario A. Hernando. Manila: Sentrong Pangkultura ng Pilipinas, 1993. 118-54.

Tadiar, Neferti X.M. Things Fall Away: Philippine Historical Experience and the Makings of Globalization. Post-Contemporary Interventions series. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

Torre, Nestor U. “Ishmael Bernal’s Life Was His ‘Performance.’” Philippine Daily Inquirer (September 19, 2011). Posted online.

Vasudev, Aruna. “Cast in Another Mould.” Interview with Ishmael Bernal. Cinemaya 27 (April-June 1995): 16-23.

Yeatter, Bryan L. Cinema of the Philippines: A History and Filmography, 1897-2005. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2007.

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Book Texts – Pinoy Filmfests

Pinoy Filmfests ca. 2013

To jump to later sections, please click here for: Festivities; Sample “Fringe” Events; Masters’ Degrees; Power of Two; and Notes.

This year would be as good as – better, actually, than – any in many a Pinoy’s lifetime to talk about local cinema.[1] This early (last quarter, as of this writing), 2013 will be remembered as one of the major watershed moments in Philippine film activity, of which the most impressive ones transpired during the Marcos dictatorship: 1976, followed by the even-numbered years of the early ’80s: 1980, 1982, and 1984. Actually closer inspection of any of this era’s readily available filmographies will support the argument that some of these “years” were in fact longer than 12 months. The first period, for example, began in 1975 with Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, while the early 1980s was actually a sustained half-decade of growth, with the culminating year, 1984, extending way to the end of 1985. Sadly, for someone who had gone through those years, I’d tend to associate 2013 not with 1976 (when the country was benefiting from the then-recent stability provided by the implementation of martial law, but with 1984, when Pinoy film artists were performing at their peak right at the moment when the nation was reeling from the economic trauma wrought by widespread corruption and civil disobedience, exacerbated by the US-activated global economic recession.

The disasters of 2013 may have been partly environmental rather than entirely political this time around, but it should never be too premature to call attention to the productivity of local filmmakers, again because of the way that the 1980s anti-dictatorship movement overrode most reasonable responses to Pinoy film achievements: the early ’80s seemed impressive enough only in retrospect, mainly because what succeeded the Marcos era was several years of sub-quality productions followed by a spell of near-total inactivity and the studios’ inevitable attempts at profitability via the desperate measures of infantile fantasies, toilet-humor comedies, and exploitative sex dramas. If one were to read mainstream film commentary during the late Marcos period, it would seem that nothing of import was being done then – an attitude meant to reflect on the decline of the regime as a whole.

Hence any responsible observer would be obliged to declare that the evidence of quality film production in 2013 has so far been solid enough so that, if nothing else gets released during the rest of the year except for the middlebrow romances and funny-face comedies that established studios had been leaning on for the past couple of decades, we would still have more than enough reason to commemorate the year. Fortuitously, the promise of interesting productions has not been entirely exhausted: the very last event, the Christmas season’s Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), has been attempting a throwback to its glory years via its “New Wave” module, a side event of lesser-budgeted “independent” projects.

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Festivities

In ironic contrast with the present, the MMFF’s past role had been central to so-called Golden Age activity, with 1976’s first December edition yielding Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? and Brocka’s Insiang, and subsequent editions showcasing some of the best output of their respective years, all more or less deserving of canonical stature: Celso Ad. Castillo’s Burlesk Queen in 1977, Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Brutal and Brocka’s Bona in 1980, Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata in 1981, Ishmael Bernal’s Himala and Diaz-Abaya’s Moral in 1982, Diaz-Abaya’s Karnal in 1983, Mario O’Hara’s Bulaklak sa City Jail in 1984, and Castillo’s Paradise Inn in 1985 (two of the better festival franchises, the Panday and Shake, Rattle & Roll series, were also initiated during this period). From 1986 onward the MMFF had to struggle mightily but only wound up at best with also-rans, finally surrendering to the prerogative of stipulating box-office success as a major awards criterion about a decade ago, right at the point when it assumed a national character by appending “Philippines” to its name (MMFF-P). The process by which the event squandered its founding ideals should be an urgent problematic for any serious student of local cinema; unfortunately, the auteur-infatuated and canon-obsessed orientation of most local film scholars tends to preclude any initiative toward this end. Instead, the response of concerned individuals and institutions seems to have mirrored their reactions to the limitations of award-giving bodies: that is, first draw up a series of complaints about the flawed organization, then introduce a new award-giving system claiming to be an improved version of the earlier one – which in turn would be subject to the same dynamics that result in another process of deterioration, leading once more to the formation of still another group introducing its claim to award-giving validity.

Hence during the early 2000s, when film production had dwindled close to single-digit levels, there were actually more awards in existence than films produced annually;[2] similarly, there appeared to have been a subsequent trend toward the proliferation of film festivals, with 2013 marking the year when their numbers began to escalate. The critical response to the MMFF’s problems was immediate, expressed as early as the year it first introduced commercial performance as a measure for artistic recognition. Yet the formulation of a solution to its problems arrived only after several other MMFF-inspired festivals had sprouted, and only as an apparent afterthought, with the December festival being required to showcase “digital indies” (à la Cinemalaya, Cinema One, and Cinemanila) – as a pre-festival side event rather than in direct competition with the main entries.

One may argue (persuasively, to my mind) that film festivals are more directly productive than award-giving activities. More films being produced is always good news, and I’d maintain that in the most progressive sense, quality should become at best a secondary consideration: industrial activity always signifies that some people, few though they may be, are being gainfully employed, so no matter how loud the complaints against MMFF rise up, there will always be voices, belonging to the least privileged participants in the festival’s film projects, who will have been grateful for the event’s continuance simply because at the end of the day, they were able to earn an adequate living from a legal undertaking.

Yet the dangers of unreflective festivalizing (per Kanye West’s useful coinage) ought to have been inferred from the problems that awards activities have faced: not for nothing has an award-giving component been institutionalized in standard filmfest arrangements. So when an innovation like the MMFF can be bowdlerized to the point where in its current phase it could never be recognized as a kindred spirit by any of its earlier versions, the first issue to keep in mind is a paradox: that its current failure actually proceeded from its earlier success. The current iterations of the project-subsidizing merit-conscious festivalization of noteworthy film output stand at a remove from (and assert their superiority to) the MMFF in large part because of their inability to amass the same amount of profits – i.e., their moral superiority is perceived by critical observers in direct proportion to these events’ symbolic distance from filthy lucre. Once these admittedly enormous differences dwindle enough to relieve the seeming atrociousness of the older festival, there had better be mechanisms (not based on the personal preferences of their founding leaders) in the younger events to ensure that these do not follow the MMFF’s disgraceful about-face.

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Sample “Fringe” Events

As long as the MMFF is around, any of the newer events can claim to be an Other type of undertaking: the “Cine” triumvirate of Cinemalaya, Cinema One, and Cinemanila are only begrudged a limited measure of institutional support, while 2013’s Juanas-come-lately share the earlier trio’s troubles, plus they have to operate in their predecessors’ shadows.[3] Yet, if I may beg the reader’s indulgence, I would like to demonstrate how festival Otherness can never be pure, and can always be a matter of what anyone – organizer, participant, even observer – can be capable of imagining. In doing so we might be able to run through a few significant products of one of these events, so we’d even be returning to the auteurist and canonical issues that I had attempted to shunt aside earlier.

The redundantly titled Sineng Pambansa National Film Festival, like the MMFF, is more overtly a government-sponsored undertaking than, say, Cinemalaya, which is run by a team of outsiders in a government agency. The Sineng Pambansa organizer’s clout was demonstrated when the Film Development Council of the Philippines managed to wangle a full week’s run at SM Cinemas, the country’s top movie-theater chain. Also, all the names in its so-called All Masters Edition (hereafter AME) would be recognized by the relatively elderly among us as veterans of the MMFF, either as direct participants or as the latter’s contemporaries, and with an early winner (Celso Ad. Castillo) represented posthumously. How then does this event become its own Other?

From the fairly basic process of tracking its participants’ career trajectories. Inasmuch as the MMFF itself, as we noted earlier, had transmogrified into the very condition – excessively commercial film practice – that it had originally sought to rectify, the auteurs who had been its prestige era’s most successful players would have had to give way to more mercenary colleagues or newcomers, or to their own less illustrious tendencies. Since the newer digital-indie festivals stake their reputation on the breaks they provide younger practitioners (Cinemalaya and Cinema One even reverse the MMFF’s tokenism by allowing side events for masters – which in fact results in the same kind of Othering for the same group of people), we can provisionally conclude that at this point, it is the favored practitioners of yesteryears, the names that get listed immediately after the local Parthenon’s top-ranked Brocka and Bernal, who get marginalized when it comes to festival film production projects.

The AME’s decision to dispense with the standard award-giving procedure (performed via the equalizing decision of declaring all the directors winners) has distinguished it further from both the MMFF and its “Cine” rivals. In a sense, this forces us to appreciate what this festival has been able to achieve that the others will be unable to: a throwback to the old MMFF, wherein even the least successful entries guarantee the mass-identified viewer that she or he is not going to be regarded as unworthy of understanding whatever statements the texts wish to make. In this instance, one’s disappointment will always be tempered by a personal longing, the same way one gets let down by a close friend; we are able to understand the intention behind the effort, and wish that the person had been up to the challenge, or had been capable of the kind of reflective and ego-free honesty that would have prevented this kind of waste of time and money. In terms of the type of disappointment one occasionally encounters in a contemporary digi-indie filmfest, where even an otherwise impressive display of school-trained skills could not mask the sense that the filmmakers would rather skip the local screening process and fast-forward to the Euro-filmfest circuit, I would be willing to rewind to a few decades back and slap around my younger self for having wished for more of this type of sensibility.

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Masters’ Degrees

About half of the AME entries – a higher average actually than the typical local festival, except for the exception-that-proved-the-rule 1977 MMFF – may be regarded as noteworthy, in both the positive and the negative resonances that such a term conveys these days. In fact, in the case of Mel Chionglo’s Lauriana, Chito Roño’s Badil, and Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes’s Sonata, the worst that can be said is that these filmmakers had done better work – capable of laying claim to lengthy lists that would be the envy of any directorial newcomer – in the past. In the case of Jose Javier Reyes’s Ano ang Kulay ng mga Nakalimutang Pangarap?, Joel Lamangan’s Lihis, and Elwood Perez’s Otso, one could even make the more brazen assertion (beyond contention, in the case of Perez) that these were their respective directors’ career best.

I had been able to focus on half of these aforementioned titles mainly because these were the ones I was able to rewatch, for highly subjective as well as pragmatic reasons; given a freer schedule and even freer budget, I would gladly reacquaint myself with the rest as well. Nevertheless, we could begin by taking note here of the manner in which two of these six constitute throwbacks to the debates on cultural politics circa the Marcos era. Gallaga, whose Oro, Plata, Mata launched the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines’ production scheme (the mother of all quality-determined film-subsidy programs in the country) in 1982, experienced pushback from leftist quarters for his alleged empathy for the plight of the landed class in his home province. This perspective belies the arguably stronger sympathy his debut film extended to the movie’s underclass characters, including the disgruntled and sexually exploited lumpen gang whose (initially successful) response lay closer to anarchy than to principled revolt; this would conceivably have aggravated the critical perception of any concerned-though-Orthodox Marxist observer, enough to override the film’s larger achievement as a triumph of naturalist cine-aesthetics.

Sonata references Oro, Plata, Mata in a literal manner, by setting the narrative not just in Bacolod but also in the very house, in the older film, where the extended family and their servants had their extensive idyll, before the incursion of the Japanese Imperial Army forced them further into the jungle and incited the behavior that one character described as asal-hayop or beastly. In contrast, Sonata presents a major character (played by the same actress who essayed the asal-hayop character, and who also happened to be the first female face to appear after the opening credits, in the earlier film) without the benefit of the perspective of secondary characters; the fact that she happens to be an eccentric crisis-ridden global artist – a middle-aged woman alienated from her society and culture, one eager to interact with social outcasts since she perceives herself as one – ought to have clued overeager commenters to the warning that the narrative is not meant to be read as a “correct” allegory of class relations.

The Gallaga-Reyes command of feature filmmaking craft has reached a point where one may note the ways in which the filmmakers tread on possibly politically contentious territory yet revel in the seductive pleasures of high culture, scenic bounties, childlike innocence, and honest emotions foregrounded in the film, held together by the larger-than-life delivery of Cherie Gil, who in her prime has been towering over her gifted clan and who, in a just system, should now have several other bigger stars begging for her mercy and producers begging for her service. As a way of further qualifying my notions about Sonata, I decided to rewatch Behn Cervantes’s Sakada (1976), which purported to depict the aspect of sugar plantation workers supposedly neglected by Gallaga (prior to and with Reyes), and a curious event took place: I witnessed a film where the harshness of hacenderos was received without humor or goodwill from otherwise sufficiently mature characters on both sides of the divide; the area they lived in was devoid of natural attractions, except for the grotesquerie displayed by the lords of the place; and in its world no perversion, much less perverse pleasure, could thrive beyond always-politicized decadence. I would believe myself capable of accepting both versions of reality proffered by these two conflicting texts, but I might have to state that one of them might be closer to the real-life existence I had been able to observe in my peripatetic lifetime; and once Sakada eventually qualifies its political agenda by laying conflictual blame on middle persons rather than on the enlightened and essentially well-meaning plantation owners, I knew that at least in this regard, the Gallaga texts display a more progressive attitude.

Another AME entry, Lihis, set me off in another direction, this time the recent past through a still-to-be-realized future. Joel Lamangan had announced a few years ago that he had decided to embark on a series of projects that would constitute his legacy as Pinoy filmmaker: a coverage, via digital feature-film texts, of organized resistance to institutional repressions, as a means of commemorating (and in the process redefining) people power.[4] The few that I had seen among his half-dozen installments so far evince a mature artist seeking to grapple with new technology as well as material that walks a tightrope in bypassing the generic excesses of commercial practice while acknowledging its audience’s entertainment expectations. In particular, one of the early texts, the Cinemalaya entry Sigwa (2010), goes to the extent of acknowledging the internal divisions that had effectively balkanized the once-monolithic Communist Party of the Philippines, although one’s receptiveness would depend on what position one would take regarding the legitimacy of the organization’s founding leadership.

Lihis allows for an externalized critique that may be shared by outsiders, a fact which might have enhanced its achievement as the most successful box-office performer among what we might provisionally term Lamangan’s progressive film series. The primary reason for its appeal is its clever reconfiguration of the inseparability of the personal from the political, in situating a then-disallowed preference, homosexuality, within the set-up of the still-disallowed New People’s Army. From observing the mostly young and presumably straight mass viewers who watched it, I’d speculate that their shock of recognition lay not in the now-tolerated display of male queerness, but in the intense romanticism that it could engender, with the idealism of a liberation army, ennobled by its opposition to the fascist dictatorship then ensconced in the country’s seat of power, affirming the tendency’s righteousness (per Foucauldian discourse) paradoxically by repressing it.

Thus, just as Marxist principles had to struggle against right-wing forces, so did queer desire set out to prove that an organization claiming to uphold radical change had its own limitations to confront. That it succeeded in doing so redounds to the NPA’s credit, inasmuch as it soon thereafter opted to recognize same-sex marriage, and in fact preceded the US, the object of its anti-imperialist critique, in introducing this socio-legal innovation. Lihis primes an audience conceivably less sympathetic to the historically demonized options of communal commitment and queer love by relying on capable storytelling as well as strong performances; Jake Cuenca in particular had my memory scrambling for any previous depiction in local cinema of such an intense combination of male longing and frustration – and when I finally remembered an equivalent sample, it was (not surprisingly) Eddie Garcia’s in Brocka’s Tubog sa Ginto. The other means by which Lihis makes a connection with unaffiliated viewers is through its feminist advocacy, not just in framing the narrative via the investigative research of the daughter of one of the gay male characters, but also in allowing the daughter’s mother, excluded by the inevitable fruition of her husband’s same-sex relationship, to express her disappointment not in her eventually divorced husband’s preference but in the hypocrisy of the movement’s leadership in declaring the relationship wrong but condoning it anyway for militaristic reasons.

Lamangan continues to earn flak for having once been extremely successful as a commercial player in the industry. In this regard, he has risked his own recuperation as Pinoy film artist by selecting material that requires the very opposite of flashy style – the cinematic “value” that over-schooled critics and aspirants regard as proof that one is not (or is no longer) profit-oriented, as if wasting producers’ currency and consumers’ patience were the whole point, or even a major part, of justifying one’s participation in industrial activity. A major local filmmaker, Ishmael Bernal, had been similarly penalized for resorting to aesthetic strategies that were more apt for Third-World contexts, and it would be tantamount to critical arrogance to maintain that Lamangan’s previous modes of practice and the stylistic decisions he makes for his progressive film series belong in the same realm just because they share the same credit. One could be disabused of this notion by watching the series chronologically; a still-forthcoming but already completed entry, Burgos, might soon be available and boasts of an even more subtle command of what may be described as a resolutely stylish stylelessness, with the same clutch of strong performances (Lorna Tolentino first and foremost playing against type, to surprisingly effective results) that help propel the narrative toward an open ending filled with grace and wonder.

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Power of Two

With Elwood Perez and Otso, the AME could claim that it has performed a signal intervention in the historical narrative of Philippine cinema. Otso is the kind of work that incites observers to return to the filmmaker’s early output, usually in order to search for evidence of how she or he had been dropping hints of the genius that had lately just bloomed and taken everyone by surprise. Allow me to simplify the hunt by stating that it gets easier the closer we get to the present. In his early years Perez was identified, whether rightly or wrongly, as part of a circle of “camp” filmmakers that, in its most basic configuration, included Joey Gosiengfiao and Cloyd Robinson; not only was the group mislabelled (they used some elements of camp and were therefore campy in style whereas camp, in contrast, could never be deliberate by definition), the membership was not one of equals, with poor Robinson the least significant of the three. Gosiengfiao peaked early and came up with at least one successful genre satire; those puzzled by the current cult devotion paid to Temptation Island (1980) can rest easy, since it’s Underage (from the same year) that I’d champion, for its gleeful skewering of the poor-little-rich-kids tearjerker movie without having to resort to easy misogyny and sloppy execution.

More relevant to the issue of reception, Gosiengfiao and Perez (and, why not, Robinson) were generally ignored, if not reviled, by serious commentators of the time for indulging in what were perceived as frivolities – humor, soft-core sex, reflexivity, genre send-ups, avoidance of or cynicism toward political issues – and, even worse for the critics though obviously not for the producers, profiting considerably from these attempts. This was the period when martial law was starting to worsen, after all. The price extracted from Perez must have stung since, after the Marcos regime, when Robinson and Gosiengfiao were becoming less active, he came into his own, possibly by accident, the same way that Otso appears to have been unexpected. In 1989 he completed the final installment of Regal Films’ revival of the Guy-and-Pip musical romance and provided the definitive sample of how a genre that seemed irredeemable, for having been excessively profitable for so long that it had gone out of circulation and had to be forcibly revived, could be reconceptualized as an epically proportioned social melodrama. Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit ought to have had a continuing impact, especially in today’s artificial separation between “artistic” indie practitioners and “commercial” romantic-comedy specialists, but it was downgraded by the critics’ group during its annual recognition ceremony in favor of a decidedly minor achievement by the more highly statured Bernal.

Bilangin ang Bituin, unlike, say, Bernal’s Pahiram ng Isang Umaga (the film that the organized critics preferred), exhibited a number of emotional high points, customary characterizations, plot coincidences, and anticlimaxes that might have doomed its chances for people still unable to appreciate the creative rigor required to pull off generic transformation. Its prefiguration of Otso can in fact be seen in one of its most audacious (and consequently heavily criticized) stunts, that of casting the same love-team performers to play their own respective children, who in turn attempt to form a love team of their own, and who assuage their heartbreak upon discovering their relationship as siblings by counting out 2,001 stars in the night sky and driving off a cliff.

Perez’s movies thereafter seemed bent on insisting on such a predilection for the perverse, which he had been able to indulge previously only in his sex-themed films.[5] With Otso he had come across a kindred spirit in the film’s writer and performer, Vince Tañada, and finally had an opportunity to bring together fantastic symbolism, absurd logic, slapstick humor, surreal developments, substantial in-joke references, and that intangible element, the ability to continually tickle and titillate the audience so that they wind up forgiving the movie’s several flights of fancy and pretentions to meanings that often get overturned in the end. Who could have imagined that a Pinoy film could present a full character’s conflicted existence and multi-levelled disputes with political and showbiz figures without requiring several hours’ worth of footage, and without aspiring to deaden its viewers’ sense of fascination and discovery?

With Otso, Perez brings himself, and the rest of Philippine art and literature, to what we might be able to hope would be one of several peaks in postmodern practice. It should be made required viewing for the filmfest greenhorn hoping to impress occasionally even more clueless jurors on who should be the actual appreciators of cinematic achievements, just as mainstream filmmakers need to study it closely to learn how they can provide entertainment and still wind up with artistic self-respect. Tall order, I know, and it would be far easier to simply begin revising the assessment of Elwood Perez’s significance. And if works with Otso’s quota of audacity, substance, and pleasure can be ensured in future film festivals, then I’d be willing to revise my doom-and-gloom assessment of their future possibilities: let a hundred filmfests bloom.

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Notes

[1] The author wishes to express gratitude for help extended by Mauro Feria Tumbocon, Jr. and Patrick Flores; Peque Gallaga, Joel Lamangan and Ricardo Lee, Elwood Perez and Vince Tañada; Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil; Ronald Arguelles, Tammy B. Dinopol, and Nestor de Guzman; and Leloy Claudio.

[2] The late Johven Velasco, author of Huwaran/Hulmahan Atbp. (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2009), pointed this out to me in 2002, when I first returned to the country from graduate studies in the US. Since the movie press and original “academy” had not yet split up into schismatic rival blocs with their own award-giving mechanisms, and the academe- as well as the internet-based organizations still had to emerge, I wondered how he could say that the dozen-or-so award-giving bodies could exceed the few dozens of local titles being released, even if the non-celluloid productions were then still being excluded from the award-givers’ major prizes. He replied that I was thinking in terms of singular “best film” trophies, when in fact each awards entity would have several other prizes at stake, with the smallest number, those handed out by the Young Critics Circle, starting at six (film including direction, screenplay, performance, “cinematography and visual design,” editing, and “sound and aural orchestration”).

[3] Among the newly launched or relaunched occurrences are: an additional digital independent event (Cine Filipino); a few local-government revivals; a number of regional fests; auteur retrospectives; and foreign screenings of Pinoy products, highlighted by the twentieth anniversary of the Filipino Arts & Cinema International in San Francisco, California.

[4] Apart from the movies discussed in this section, the films that Joel Lamangan set out to direct as part of his legacy project are Dukot from 2009; Patikul from 2011; and Migrante from 2012. In an interview with the author, Lamangan stated that he has no plans so far of determining at what point the series will end, and that he hopes to be able to focus on the plight of rural workers in future assignments.

[5] Another distinction that Elwood Perez had, relative to his “camp” buddies, was his willingness to depict ambitiously narrated sexual kinks and anomalies, thus aligning himself with such innovators as Ishmael Bernal and Celso Ad. Castillo. Disgrasyada in 1979 solidified Regal Films’ status as purveyor of the “bold” trend, and supposedly instigated a dressing down of producer Lily Monteverde by Imelda Marcos (in her infamous though possibly apocryphal “bamboo” speech castigating “Mother” Lily for being, in effect, un-Filipino); Shame launched Claudia Zobel in 1983 as the hottest sex kitten of her time, her career cut short in the next year by a fatal car accident; Silip (1985) rode on the censorship-exempt Manila Film Center’s propensity to offer increasingly extreme material.

[First published February 2014 in The Manila Review]

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Book Texts – Metacriticism

FILM CRITICS SPEAK
[Prepared with Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr. & Patrick D. Flores]

To begin with, we observed that the entire spectrum of existent Filipino criticism is evident in film; in short, cinema is the most widely discussed art form in the Philippines. Practically all publications acknowledge this widespread interest by devoting regular sections to film, and film commentary is also making inroads in television and radio. It is the level of commentary, however, that leaves much to be desired. As far as general impact can be gauged, we can safely state that serious film evaluation is performed and sustained primarily by the handing out of awards by various bodies. We cannot deny the publicity mileage this generates, especially since the sheer number of award-giving winners could go on for as long as the very last trophy during the very last ceremony still has to be handed out.

There are six established award-giving groups, as of last count, some of them clearly overlapping in claims and functions. Although one could argue the relative merits of each, we would rather take the larger and more controversial stance of stating that film discussion, although heavily promoted, is also seriously trivialized by award-giving. There is no focus of discussion, except the comparative aesthetic achievements of the nominees – and even then the fact that film is too complex an aesthetic system to be subjected to this treatment is glossed over. We would also like to point out that the movie industry labors under government neglect, particularly when compared with the institutional support provided by the Marcos dictatorship. We do not endorse the kind of self-serving and overscaled meddling suffered by our practitioners during the latter years of the dictatorship. On the other hand, we agree with some of the industry’s advanced sectors that relief from taxation and censorhip, as well as cash incentives for quality productions, no matter how occasional, resulted in an atmosphere of sanguinity then, and would still be welcome features today.

At this point we would like to go into one particular, and that is – the need to implement an honest-to-goodness system of film classification, one that does not result in the tampering of the work on anyone’s part, and that also presumes the liability of the practitioners strictly within the context of absolute freedom of expression. Meaning to say, one should be held responsible for violating our existing laws on the limits of expression, but one should also be allowed to complete the process of expression to begin with. We welcome the role that education plays in making the audience more aware of the nature and potentials of its favorite mass medium. However, we believe that the availability of such education is too elitist to be truly effective. A student first has to reach college and study in particular schools, mostly the expensive ones, in order to be able to take courses dealing with film. To specialize in the field, the student has available to her only one school, the national university. For advanced studies, she has to go abroad.

We enjoin all our fellow film critics to persist in popularizing film discussion without trivializing it. We seek to encourage sober discussions in as wide a spectrum of our audiences as possible, and recognize the cruciality of the role that Filipino film artists have been playing in conducting dialogues, no matter how limited, among themselves, with film commentators, and with the audience. In cooperation with our educational institutions as well as the mass media, we call for the expansion and development of local film scholarship, in order to provide a firm basis for popularizing film commentaries.

Lastly we would like to maintain the manifold advantages of expanding opportunities in film. Government could help a great deal in facilitating our filmmakers’ participation in foreign festivals and markets, counting the costs in terms of additional income and prestige rather than the personalistic self-image of whoever happens to wield power at the moment. We need to have more schools offering film courses and full-blown degrees in the field, as well as higher studies specializing in the medium. We envision the resulting network as a possible venue for alternative film products, with an eventual bearing on mainstream production. We also stand as one with our colleagues in pursuing the thoroughgoing professionalization of criticism in the Philippines, so as to enable serious film commentators to practice and grow in the craft without the distractions of unrelated income-generating activities or the temptations of public relations work that could compromise the formation of well-informed, carefully thought out and expertly articulated opinions on film.

[First published October 3, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Return to Book Texts contents

TEN BEST FILIPINO FILMS UP TO 1990

Before this report came out as the cover story of National Midweek, canonical surveys of Philippine cinema were extremely delimited, essentially dismissible novelties. The most extensive one I remember was a national daily’s Sunday supplement asking a handful of respondents to list their three “best” films – without any attempt at tabulating the results and arriving at (the semblance of) a group consensus. Among the several quantitative exercises I decided to undertake, this was the one that took off and refused to be shot down despite the limits that inhered even here, the very first attempt. Although these are discussed at length in the article, it still bears pointing out that: the circle of respondents is not homogeneous – a positive quality in terms of diversification of choices, but an essential flaw in the sense that the relative exposure of individuals might have been too wide for comfort; this means that some people might have seen more available (and a few later-unavailable) titles and would therefore be potentially better-informed than others. In discussing the results with some of my colleagues, we speculated that the ideal, in terms of having an “informed” circle, would be to get together a team and watch all the possible canonical candidates to be able to have common premises for deliberation. None of the succeeding internet-era exercises has done this, although all of them attempt to update the list below and a few managed to gather a larger number of respondents. Hence even if my intention was to provide as many examples of film canonizations in order to dispense with them and move on to serious critique, an “ultimate” canonizing project still remains to be accomplished.[1]

Click the pic to open a PDF scan of the original article.

The by-line for the article was “Joel David, with Melanie Joy C. Garduño”; when it was anthologized in Fields of Vision, I included Violeda A. Umali, professor of communication research at the national university, as project consultant, as well as the list of students who conducted the survey.[2] Looking over the now-faded respondents’ submissions, I noticed how I later discussed the answers that my Midweek colleague, Raul Regalado, submitted, and noted in his sheet that he preferred one film to be upheld over the rest of his equally ranked choices. The adjustment has been incorporated in the report below. The Midweek publication date was July 4, 1990 (pp. 3-9), while the inclusive pages in Fields of Vision (which added the helpful qualifier “Up to 1990” in the title) were 125-36.

Ten best lists are sure to secure attention and controversy. The procedure – taking a survey of acknowledged authorities in the field concerned and tallying the data to arrive at a final ranking – is fraught with booby traps, beginning from the issue of whom to take into account as respondents, through the validity of the statistical methods employed, right down to the presentation of results, if not the results themselves. Any activity with intense cultural participation will inevitably provoke the issue of standards and, compared with the challenge of critical writing, survey-taking would seem to be a more exact, though perhaps less lasting (and, in addition, too guiltily easy) resort. The entire science of statistics can be arguably ascribed to this innate passion for comparative evaluation, and nowhere in recent years has this been more heatedly exhibited, outside of economics, than in film.

The standard reference in film listings is the decadal survey by the British magazine Sight & Sound, which has been responsible for the reputation of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane as the best movie of all time – at least for the past three decades, and never mind if the second best onward could not seem to be established, or if one’s viewing gets upended by great expectations unfulfilled.[3] All other critical institutions have their own means of bestowing rank, most visibly the outstanding achievement trophies proffered by every major award-giving body.

In the Philippines, similar attempts at duplicating the Sight and Sound activity have been made, except that the statistical universe, small as it already is, has never been represented comprehensively enough; mostly the respondents were confined to the survey-taker’s circle of acquaintances, if not the survey-taker herself bothering to inform the public of her own opinions and preferences. In 1982, as secretary of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, I undertook such a project limited exclusively to the members of what was then after all the country’s only organized group of film commentators. In the end, after collating and tabulating everything, I had to conclude that the number of respondents was still not enough – that on the basis of sustained industry evidence, there was still a critical community somewhere left unrepresented; leakage of the results found its way to the movie press, but I decided that at that point, silence would be the more sensible course of action to take.

Between then and now two crucial developments intervened: the Philippines’s first and so far only degree program in film was opened at the University of the Philippines, providing me with the opportunity of exploring (in my various preparations and sometimes with my students) the various forms and directions of critical thinking in local film practice; furthermore, the February 1986 revolution, for a complex of reasons whose long-term worth still has to be determined, placed an effective halt to the intense and concentrated artistic output in cinema which I had elsewhere called our second Golden Age.

In my third year of handling the UP film criticism course, I decided that the students, what with the consistent upgrading of our curriculum’s theoretical foundation, might be ready for a ten-best exercise. Proposed as a class project, the activity generated sufficient enthusiasm for an entire class of about twenty to publish forms and follow up the responses of more than fifty people, using our expanded definition of film critic, to wit: published film criticism (which should be differentiated from film reviewing) is only a small, perhaps even relatively insignificant proportion of true critical activity; most criticism may in fact be unarticulated by both audiences (which would be nearly impossible to tease out, except in terms of box-office patronage) and artists, who provide proof of their capabilities in the progressions evident in their output. Hence the list consisted of a number of practicing writers on film (including Manunuri members), plus those film artists whose body of work could be defensibly classified as exhibiting critical exploration and growth. Necessarily directors and scriptwriters constituted this grouping, with a much lesser number of producers, performers, and technicians.

For a number of reasons not everyone could be surveyed. Within the time frame of the first semester of Philippine academic year 1989-90, some respondents were out of town or the country, or were otherwise indisposed by their work schedules. The whereabouts of a few could not be determined, and some (mostly those contacted by mail) just did not bother to reply. Certain personalities declined on the bases of delicadeza (tact or propriety in Filipino) and apprehension over the consequences of such an undertaking. All in all twenty-eight individuals submitted their lists of Filipino films ranked from best to tenth-best, with three providing no ranking, another three submitting less than ten and six submitting more – the most of which was seventeen. The complete list of lists, so to speak, with titles enumerated per respondent, makes up Table 1.

Numerical values equivalent to the ranking given were assigned the films, with averages given for those titles stipulated to have equal rank (for example, three titles all ranked first would each carry a value of two, the number corresponding to the middle rank). A total of eighty-one titles was tallied, with thirty-three or over forty percent being mentioned only once, and two top-notchers being mentioned sixteen times. To provide as much equal opportunity to each film as possible, as well as clarify the relative rankings of those mentioned against those which the respondents may have seen but did not rank, we planned a second phase in which the complete listing would be returned to the respondents, for them to indicate those which they had seen and to rank these further as carefully as possible. Again, time constraints overtook the execution of such a plan inasmuch as several respondents delayed in submitting their lists. In the end the waiting period took a good part of the semester, necessitating the cancellation of the second phase and leaving the tabulation for me to accomplish.

The list of titles mentioned, in alphabetical order, is given in Table 2, with year of release and director(s) following in parentheses, and films mentioned only once being marked by an asterisk. As might be expected, the most number of films, about thirty, comes from the current (1980s) decade, with even one unreleased title, Orapronobis, listed (Mel Chionglo, who had viewed only the rushes, also gave it special mention). The preceding decades decline in terms of frequency of mention – sixteen titles from the 1970s, nine from the ’60s – until we come to the 1950s, where twenty-three films are named; this may be attributable to the long-standing reputation of that era as the first Golden Age of Philippine cinema. Another surprisingly strong showing, considering that a good part of the decade suffered a shutdown in production because of the war, was the listing of three titles from the ’40s. On a sadder note is the inclusion of one of the three pre-war features still in existence (the only film from the ’30s figuring in the survey); relative to this would be the need to raise an alarm about the condition of all remaining Filipino films – some of which have seen their very last screening (Hanggang sa Dulo ng Daigdig at a Manila Film Center retrospective), exist only in reduced format (Sa Atin ang Daigdig in 16mm.), failed to have their negatives preserved (Sisa being only a duplicate of another positive), or worst of all, persist only in the memory of those who have seen then (Daigdig ng mga Api, among several others).[4]

Thirty-two directors were mentioned, about a dozen of them deceased. Gerardo de Leon heads the list with twelve complete films plus two installments in omnibus projects, followed equally by Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka with nine each, Mike de Leon with six, and Lamberto V. Avellana and Peque Gallaga (one codirected with Lore Reyes) with four apiece. Three titles each are ascribed to Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Manuel Conde, and Gregorio Fernandez, while Celso Ad. Castillo, Cesar Gallardo, Eddie Romero, and Mar S. Torres share two titles each. Those mentioned once include Tikoy Aguiluz, Cesar J. Amigo, Augusto Buenaventura, Tony Cayado, Behn Cervantes, Abbo Q. de la Cruz, Armando Garces, Laurice Guillen, Lupita Aquino-Kashiwahara, Mario O’Hara, Gil Portes, Maryo J. de los Reyes, Chito Roño, Manuel Silos, Octavio Silos, Artemio Tecson, Carlos Vander Tolosa, and Robert Ylagan. Aside from Gerardo de Leon, those credited with episodes in omnibus films are Avellana, Manuel Silos, and F.H. Constantino.

Given these results, two approaches were possible, providing in effect a two-step procedure. One, the first, was to tabulate the frequency of mention of each film; all the films scored frequencies of two and above except for thirty-three as already mentioned. Next was to total the ranks of each film and divide this by the number of respondents, to get the average ranking. With this operation it would be possible to order each title according to its relative position on a scale from the smallest (i.e., the closest to a perfect “1”) to the largest average ranking, which turned out to be “17.” A comprehensive list would be too baffling without the breakdown and computation of figures, and too overdone with these, so as a sample demonstration, Table 3 contains the ranking of the thirty-three films which had only one respondent each.

In the end there were three types of ranking possible, two of them conforming to the top-ten mode of requirement. The first, with nineteen films in all, is a tabulation of the respondents’ number-one choices. The second is a ranking according to the frequency of mention of individual titles: the top films Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon? and Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag shared sixteen respondents, while the tenth, Moral, had eight, which quite neatly turns out to be half of the maximum. The third and, in the best way, final ranking is that done after the computation described earlier had been carried out, and the list confined, like the earlier ranking, to films mentioned by eight respondents and above; necessarily this would contain the same titles as the second ranking, but rearranged in consideration of the individual values accorded them by the respondents.

The value of the first ranking, the number-one choices, is that these are the titles that the respondents felt strongest about during the survey; it would be safe to say that each individual respondent wouldn’t mind finding her choice of number one making it to the magic circle, if not the very top. The second ranking is more independent of subjective opinion, since the films mentioned here presumably came about after the more emotional issue of determining the top-rank holder had been settled. On the other hand, such a ranking did not take into account the relative opinions of each respondent: most, for example, mentioned Ganito Kami Noon and Maynila, but does this mean they’d give either title top-rank as well? The answer is provided by the so-far final ranking, in which Manila by Night, mentioned by ten, turned out to be higher in their esteem.

In keeping with further categories formulated by James Monaco for a decade-wide survey, I checked the individual respondents’ respective lists against the final ranking and came up with originality quotients, wherein none or the least number of choices tallied with the results, and accuracy quotients, wherein all or the most number of choices did.[5] Agustin Sotto had a perfect originality quotient – more remarkable since he also had the most number of titles, seventeen. Next in line were Marra PL. Lanot with one choice out of ten, Armida Siguion-Reyna with two, and Ishmael Bernal, Vic Delotavo, Nestor U. Torre, and Romeo Vitug with three each (although Torre listed only five Filipino films in all). No one on the other hand had a perfect accuracy quotient, but Butch Francisco, Christian Ma. Guerrero, and Nicanor G. Tiongson came up with seven correct titles, followed by Mario Hernando with six, and Marilou Diaz-Abaya with five out of seven. Petronilo Bn. Daroy, Laurice Guillen, Nick Lizaso, and I also scored with five choices, while all the rest – Mario Bautista, Mel Chionglo, Isagani Cruz, Nick Cruz, Justino Dormiendo, Jose F. Lacaba, Bienvenido Lumbera, Antonio Mortel, Tezza O. Parel, Raul Regalado, Eddie Romero, and Raquel Villavicencio – selected four each, roughly the average performance of the entire body of respondents taken as a whole.

The final outcome can of course be subjected to criticism in various ways, but at this point I believe two things must first be pointed out: the individuals who submitted their lists took the risk of opening themselves to all manner of dissension, and not everyone would have the courage or conviction to do the same; more important, such results as presented should be regarded as the beginning of healthy debate, rather than the final word on the matter. Among the urgent by-products that should begin to see light would be the already-mentioned need for archival preservation of this vital aspect of our cultural heritage, and the development of the practice of revaluation, which may be generally (and mistakenly) perceived as too much of a luxury for these times of crises that we live in. A more or less regular revision of a ten best list would belong to this agenda, and that should probably be the primary context of this existing ranking – as the first, not the last, of its kind.

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Table 1. List of Individual Choices

Mario Bautista [submitted 2 titles listed as #10]: 1 – Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag; 2 – Nunal sa Tubig; 3 – Ikaw Ay Akin; 4 – Minsa’y Isang Gamugamo; 5 – Insiang; 6 – Manila by Night; 7 – Bayan Ko (Kapit sa Patalim); 8 – Sister Stella L.; 9 – Bukas…May Pangarap; 10.5 – Brutal; 10.5 – Moral.

Ishmael Bernal: 1 – Sisa; 2 – Anak Dalita; 3 – Kundiman ng Lahi; 4 – Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo; 5 – Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang; 6 – Boatman; 7 – Burlesk Queen; 8 – Moral; 9 – Kisapmata; 10 – Genghis Khan.

Mel Chionglo: 1 – Jaguar; 2 – Batch ’81; 3 – Bona; 4 – Kisapmata; 5 – Himala; 6 – Salome; 7 – Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag; 8 – Oro, Plata, Mata; 9 – Burlesk Queen; 10 – Sister Stella L.

Isagani Cruz: 1 – Itim; 2 – Jaguar; 3 – Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?; 4 – Himala; 5 – Manila by Night; 6 – Genghis Khan; 7 – Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag; 8 – The Moises Padilla Story; 9 – Badjao; 10 – Portait of the Artist as Filipino.

Nick Cruz, S.J.: 1 – Biyaya ng Lupa; 2 – Sakada; 3 – Sister Stella L.; 4 – Insiang; 5 – Miguelito: Batang Rebelde; 6 – Hinugot sa Langit; 7 – Batch ’81; 8 – Himala; 9 – Broken Marriage; 10 – Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?

Petronilo Bn. Daroy: 1 – Genghis Khan; 2 – Nunal sa Tubig; 3 – Manila by Night; 4 – Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?; 5 – Anak Dalita; 6 – Oro, Plata, Mata; 7 – Orapronobis; 8 – Insiang; 9 – Hubad na Bayani; 10 – Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo.

Joel David [submitted 11 titles]: 1 – Manila by Night; 2 – Moral; 3 – Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?; 4 – Malvarosa; 5 – Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag; 6 – Sa Atin ang Daigdig; 7 – Miguelito: Batang Rebelde; 8 – Kakabakaba Ka Ba?; 9 – Virgin Forest; 10 – Himala; 11 – Orapronobis.

Vic Delotavo [submitted 14 titles]: 1 – Daigdig ng mga Api; 2 – Hanggang sa Dulo ng Daigdig; 3 – El Filibusterismo; 4 – Noli Me Tangere; 5 – Ifugao; 6 – Sanda Wong; 7 – Dyesebel; 8 – Medalyong Perlas; 9 – Bicol Express; 10 – Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo; 11 – Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?; 12 – Oro, Plata, Mata; 13 – Insiang; 14 – Pahiram ng Isang Umaga.

Marilou Diaz-Abaya [submitted 7 titles]: 1 – Manila by Night; 2 – The Moises Padilla Story; 3 – Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang; 4 – Kisapmata; 5 – Moral; 6 – Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?; 7 – Badjao.

Justino Dormiendo: 1 – Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag; 2 – Nunal sa Tubig; 3 – Salome; 4 – Kisapmata; 5 – Oro, Plata, Mata; 6 – El Filibusterismo; 7 – Daigdig ng mga Api; 8 – Biyaya ng Lupa; 9 – Insiang; 10 – Badjao.

Butch Francisco: 1 – Oro, Plata, Mata; 2 – Kisapmata; 3 – Manila by Night; 4 – Hinugot sa Langit; 5 – Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag; 6 – Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon; 7 – Anak Dalita; 8 – Batch ’81; 9 – Biyaya ng Lupa; 10 – Relasyon.

Christian Ma. Guerrero [submitted 12 titles]: 1 – Burlesk Queen; 2 – Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag; 3 – Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?; 4 – Biyaya ng Lupa; 5 – Anak Dalita; 6 – Oro, Plata, Mata; 7 – Himala; 8 – Insiang; 9 – Itim; 10 – Aguila; 11 – Virgin Forest; 12 – Misteryo sa Tuwa.

Laurice Guillen: 1 – Sisa; 2 – The Moises Padilla Story; 3 – Insiang; 4 – Oro, Plata, Mata; 5 – Salome; 6 – Biyaya ng Lupa; 7 – Kisapmata; 8 – Ifugao; 9 – Anak Dalita; 10 – Burlesk Queen.

Mario Hernando: 1 – Anak Dalita; 2 – Biyaya ng Lupa; 3 – Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag; 4 – Manila by Night; 5 – Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?; 6 – Sister Stella L.; 7 – Batch ’81; 8 – Kisapmata; 9 – Nunal sa Tubig; 10 – Bayan Ko (Kapit sa Patalim).

Jose F. Lacaba: 1 – Daigdig ng mga Api; 2 – Anak Dalita; 3 – Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo; 4 – Nunal sa Tubig; 5 – Himala; 6 – Insiang; 7 – Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?; 8 – Salome; 9 – Brutal; 10 – Bona.

Marra PL. Lanot [submitted without any specification of order]: 5.5 – Bona; 5.5 – Brutal; 5.5 – Himala; 5.5 – Hinugot sa Langit; 5.5 – Inay; 5.5 – Jaguar; 5.5 – Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising; 5.5 – Sakada; 5.5 – Tatlong Taóng Walang Diyos; 5.5 – Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang.

Nick Lizaso: 1 – Noli Me Tangere; 2 – Tatlong Taóng Walang Diyos; 3 – Himala; 4 – Itim; 5 – Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?; 6 – Badjao; 7 – Anak Dalita; 8 – Oro, Plata, Mata; 9 – Kisapmata; 10 – Anak Dalita.

Bienvenido Lumbera: 1 – Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag; 2 – Nunal sa Tubig; 3 – Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?; 4 – Kisapmata; 5 – Noli Me Tangere; 6 – Isumpa Mo, Giliw; 7 – Kundiman ng Lahi; 8 – Biyaya ng Lupa; 9 – Kadenang Putik; 10 – Bayan Ko (Kapit sa Patalim).

Antonio Mortel: 1 – Minsa’y Isang Gamugamo; 2 – Badjao; 3 – Anak Dalita; 4 – Noli Me Tangere; 5 – Kisapmata; 6 – Itim; 7 – Himala; 8 – Oro, Plata, Mata; 9 – Ito ang Pilipino; 10 – Isang Araw Walang Diyos.

Tezza O. Parel [submitted 9 titles]: 1 – Himala; 2 – Moral; 3 – Jaguar; 4 – Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag; 5 – Itim; 6 – High School Circa ’65; 7 – Kakabakaba Ka Ba?; 8 – Kisapmata; 9 – Broken Marriage.

Raul Regalado [submitted in alphabetical order but subsequently specified one “all-time favorite”]: 1 – Moral; 6 – Boatman; 6 – Burlesk Queen; 6 – Kakabakaba Ka Ba?; 6 – Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?; 6 – Manila by Night; 6 – Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag; 6 – Private Show; 6 – Scorpio Nights; 6 – Virgin Forest.

Eddie Romero: 1 – Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang; 2 – Kisapmata; 3 – Manila by Night; 4 – Moral; 5 – Scorpio Nights; 6 – Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag; 7 – Hinugot sa Langit; 8 – Salome; 9 – Tatlong Taóng Walang Diyos; 10 – Paradise Inn.

Armida Siguion-Reyna: 1 – Insiang; 2 – Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag; 3 – Miguelito: Batang Rebelde; 4 – Hinugot sa Langit; 5 – Virgin Forest; 6 – Brutal; 7 – Relasyon; 8 – Bayan Ko (Kapit sa Patalim); 9 – High School Circa ’65; 10 – Working Girls.

Agustin Sotto [submitted 17 titles]: 1 – Mga Ligaw na Bulaklak; 2 – Sanda Wong; 3 – 48 Oras; 4 – Geron Busabos: Ang Batang Quiapo; 5 – Hanggang sa Dulo ng Daigdig; 6 – Juan Tamad Goes to Congress; 7 – Luksang Tagumpay; 8 – ₱1,000 Kagandahan; 9 – Apat na Taga; 10 – Jack en Jill; 11 – ROTC; 12 – Sino’ng Maysala?; 13 – Cofradia; 14 – Dyesebel; 15 – Badjao; 16 – Giliw Ko; 17 – Ibong Adarna.

Nicanor G. Tiongson [submitted 11 titles]: 1 – El Filibusterismo; 2 – Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?; 3 – Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag; 4 – Insiang; 5 – Jaguar; 6 – Broken Marriage; 7 – Anak Dalita; 8 – Himala; 9 – Moral; 10 – Oro, Plata, Mata; 11 – Sisa.

Nestor U. Torre [submitted a list of “15 Good Movies” including 10 foreign titles]: 1 – El Filibusterismo; 2 – Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon; 3 – Itim; 4 – Manila by Night; 5 – Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag.

Raquel N. Villavicencio: 1 – Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang; 2 – Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag; 3 – Biyaya ng Lupa; 4 – Badjao; 5 – Sakada; 6 – Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?; 7 – Minsa’y Isang Gamugamo; 8 – Jaguar; 9 – Itim; 10 – Insiang.

Romeo Vitug: 1 – Biyaya ng Lupa; 2 – Anak Dalita; 3 – Hanggang sa Dulo ng Daigdig; 4 – Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo; 5 – Insiang; 6 – Relasyon; 7 – Salome; 8 – Burlesk Queen; 9 – Paradise Inn; 10 – Karnal.

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Table 2. Alphabetical List of Titles
[Asterisks indicate films mentioned only once – see next Table]

Aguila (1980, Eddie Romero)*
Anak Dalita (1956, Lamberto V. Avellana)
Apat na Taga (1954, Mar S. Torres)*

Badjao (1957, Lamberto V. Avellana)
Batch ’81 (1982, Mike de Leon)
Bayan Ko (Kapit sa Patalim) (1985, Lino Brocka)
Bicol Express (1957, Gerardo de Leon et al.)*
Biyaya ng Lupa (1959, Manuel Silos)
Boatman (1984, Tikoy Aguiluz)
Bona (1980, Lino Brocka)
Broken Marriage (1983, Ishmael Bernal)
Brutal (1980, Marilou Diaz-Abaya)
Bukas…May Pangarap (1984, Gil Portes)*
Burlesk Queen (1977, Celso Ad. Castillo)

Cofradia (1953, Artemio Tecson)*

Daigdig ng mga Api (1965, Gerardo de Leon)
Dyesebel (1953, Gerardo de Leon)

El Filibusterismo (1962, Gerardo de Leon)

Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon? (1976, Eddie Romero)
Genghis Khan (1950, Manuel Conde)
Geron Busabos: Ang Batang Quiapo (1964, Cesar Gallardo)*
Giliw Ko (1939, Carlos Vander Tolosa)*

Hanggang sa Dulo ng Daigdig (1958, Gerardo de Leon)
High School Circa ’65 (1979, Maryo J. de los Reyes)
Himala (1982, Ishmael Bernal)
Hinugot sa Langit (1985, Ishmael Bernal)
Hubad na Bayani (1977, Robert Ylagan)*

Ang Ibong Adarna (1941, Manuel Conde)*
Ifugao (1954, Gerardo de Leon)
Ikaw Ay Akin (1978, Ishmael Bernal)*
Inay (1977, Lino Brocka)*
Insiang (1976, Lino Brocka)
Isang Araw Walang Diyos (1989, Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes)*
₱1,000 Kagandahan (1948, Gregorio Fernandez)*
Isumpa Mo, Giliw (1947, Gerardo de Leon)*
Itim (1976, Mike de Leon)
Ito ang Pilipino (1966, Augusto Buenaventura)*

Jack en Jill (1954, Mar S. Torres)*
Jaguar (1979, Lino Brocka)
Juan Tamad Goes to Congress (1959, Manuel Conde)*

Kadenang Putik (1960, Cesar Gallardo)*
Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (1980, Mike de Leon)
Karnal (1983, Marilou Diaz-Abaya)*
Kisapmata (1982, Mike de Leon)
Kundiman ng Lahi (1959, Lamberto V. Avellana)
Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising (1977, Mike de Leon)*
48 Oras (1950, Gerardo de Loen)*

Mga Ligaw na Bulaklak (1957, Tony Cayado)*
Luksang Tagumpay (1956, Gregorio Fernandez)*

Malvarosa (1958, Gregorio Fernandez)*
Manila by Night (1980, Ishmael Bernal)
Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975, Lino Brocka)
Medalyong Perlas (1956, Lamberto V. Avellana, F.H. Constantino, Gerardo de Leon, and Manuel Silos)
Miguelito: Batang Rebelde (1985, Lino Brocka)
Minsa’y Isang Gamugamo (1976, Lupita Aquino Kashiwahara)
Misteryo sa Tuwa (1984, Abbo Q. de la Cruz)*
The Moises Padilla Story (1961, Gerardo de Leon)
Moral (1982, Marilou Diaz-Abaya)

Noli Me Tangere (1961, Gerardo de Leon)
Nunal sa Tubig (1976, Ishmael Bernal)

Orapronobis (1989, Lino Brocka)

Oro, Plata, Mata (1982, Peque Gallaga)

Pahiram ng Isang Umaga (1989, Ishmael Bernal)*
Paradise Inn (1985, Celso Ad. Castillo)
Portrait of the Artist as Filipino (1966, Lamberto V. Avellana)*
Private Show (1985, Chito Roño)*

Relasyon (1982, Ishmael Bernal)
ROTC (1955, Octavio Silos)*

Sa Atin ang Daigdig (1965, Cesar J. Amigo)*
Sakada (1976, Behn Cervantes)
Salome (1982, Laurice Guillen)
Sanda Wong (1955, Gerardo de Leon)
Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo (1952, Gerardo de Leon)
Scorpio Nights (1985, Peque Gallaga)
Sino’ng Maysala? (1957, Armando Garces)*
Sisa (1951, Gerardo de Leon)
Sister Stella L. (1984, Mike de Leon)

Tatlong Taóng Walang Diyos (1976, Mario O’Hara)
Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (1974, Lino Brocka)

Virgin Forest (1985, Peque Gallaga)

Working Girls (1984, Ishmael Bernal)*

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Table 3. Ranking of Films Mentioned Only Once

1    Mga Ligaw na Bulaklak

2.5  Ikaw Ay Akin
2.5  48 Oras

4.5  Geron Busabos: Ang Batang Quiapo
4.5  Malvarosa

7    Inay
7    Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising
7    Private Show

10    Isumpa Mo, Giliw
10    Juan Tamad Goes to Congress
10    Sa Atin ang Daigdig

12    Luksang Tagumpay

13.5  P1,000 Kagandahan
13.5  Medalyong Perlas

17.5  Apat na Taga
17.5  Bicol Express
17.5  Bukas…May Pangarap
17.5  Hubad na Bayani
17.5  Ito ang Pilipino
17.5  Kadenang Putik

23.5  Aguila
23.5  Isang Araw Walang Diyos
23.5  Jack en Jill
23.5  Karnal
23.5  Portrait of the Artist as Filipino
23.5  Working Girls

27    ROTC

28.5  Misteryo sa Tuwa
28.5  Sino’ng Maysala?

30    Cofradia

31    Pahiram ng Isang Umaga

32    Giliw Ko

33    Ang Ibong Adarna

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Table 4. Ranking 1: Number-One Choices

Thrice mentioned:

Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag

Twice mentioned:

Biyaya ng Lupa
Daigdig ng mga Api
El Filibusterismo
Manila by Night
Sisa
Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang

Once Mentioned:

Anak Dalita
Burlesk Queen
Genghis Khan
Himala
Insiang
Itim
Jaguar
Mga Ligaw na Bulaklak
Minsa’y Isang Gamugamo
Moral
Noli Me Tangere
Oro, Plata, Mata

Table 5. Ranking 2: Frequency of Mention

1.5. Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?
1.5. Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag

3.5. Insiang
3.5. Kisapmata

5.5. Anak Dalita
5.5. Himala

7.5. Manila by Night
7.5. Oro, Plata, Mata

9.    Biyaya ng Lupa

10.  Moral

Table 6. Ranking 3: Integration of Individual Rankings

1.    Manila by Night
2.    Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag
3.    Anak Dalita
4.    Biyaya ng Lupa
5.    Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?
6.    Moral
7.    Kisapmata
8.    Himala
9.    Insiang
10.  Oro, Plata, Mata

Note

[1] After I drafted this introduction for the digital edition, Pinoy Rebyu, a website managed by Skilty C. Labastilla of the Ateneo de Manila University, started performing an aggregational function for contemporary Filipino film critics and has been impeccable so far in this capacity. Professor Labastilla is also a member of the Young Critics Circle.

[2] The survey team comprised Jesselyn Aldea, Jonathan Aligada, Andrea Angala, Concepcion Ante, Michael Antigua, Alejandro “Kim” Atienza, Felisa Basco, Ely Buendia, Joseph de Guzman, Elaine Eleazar, Nolan Estacio, Raul Guerrero, Domingo Landicho Jr., Gerard Legaspi, Jenina Limlengco, Rafael Lukban, Marjorie Neri, Lorenza Salcedo, Patricia Sim, Jennifer Tanseco, Cristina Uykim, Joanne Ybiernas, and Manolito Zafaralla.

[3] While preparing to finalize my dissertation, I received an email from Sight & Sound, inviting me to participate in the 2002 survey cycle. I decided to take a stab and wound up with some unexpected results, which I wrote about in “Sight & Sound 2002,” in Part II: Expanded Perspectives of Millennial Traversals: Outliers, Juvenilia, & Quondam Popcult Blabbery (Quezon City: Amauteurish Publishing, 2019), pp. 88-94 (also available online as the May 2016 issue of UNITAS: Semi-Annual Peer-Reviewed International Online Journal of Advanced Research in Literature, Culture, and Society).

[4] Since then, all the other semi-available titles mentioned in this list are, for all intents and purposes, missing: Hanggang sa Dulo ng Daigdig has not been recopied while Sa Atin ang Daigdig has been lost via the all-too-typical case of an irresponsible borrower losing the last tracked VHS copy.

[5] Originally titled “What’s the Score? The Best of the Decade” and published in the July 1978 issue of the Canadian magazine Take One, the survey covered the decade 1969-78. James Monaco reprinted the article as “Critics and Critical Choices: The Best Films of the Decade,” in American Film Now: The People, The Power, The Money, The Movies (revised edition, New York: New York Zoetrope and New American Library, 1984), on pages 441-53, with the table of originality and accuracy quotients appearing on page 452.

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Return to Book Texts contents

ONE-SHOT AWARDS CEREMONY

This attempt at what I originally titled “Great Philippine All-Time One-Shot Awards Ceremony” (with due acknowledgment of Alfred A. Yuson’s Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café [Quezon City: Adriana, 1988]) arose directly from the objections I raised with the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino or Filipino Film Critics Circle’s reliance on fixed-category annual award-giving. The intent was semi-satirical, indicated by the titles (of the article as well as the award itself – so kindly avoid quoting in earnest any of the results as a “Joel David Award” or some variation thereof). This was originally printed in National Midweek’s February 20, 1991, issue (pp. 28-29), but by the time it was anthologized in 1995 in Fields of Vision, I wished I had updated it with a category I thought I could subsume under, or list after, Cinematography. Just for the sake of demonstrating the flexibility of the exercise, I added the new award, for Production Design, for the digital edition, and note that the post-Manunuri group I helped organize uses a variation of the description I provided in the Performance category.

With the 1980s’ decade-end approaches the prospect of yet another season of award-giving. Traditionally there’ve been two questions associated with this practice – both of which lend themselves to a whole lot of seemingly intellectual and deliciously controversial debates: first, who’ll be the top-grosser(s) in tems of trophies? and second (and more important, in the eyes of serious observers), which body will be the most credible in its choices?

I must admit I’d indulged once or twice in these issues in the span of my short critical career thus far; moreover, I found the ready response of readers, regardless of their professed distance from my position, spirit-stirring. Actually I suspect any Filipino critic will be overwhelmed by any form of reader response, judging by the sheer rarity of feedback activity in this field. On the other hand, after an entire decade of witnessing award-sweepers and award-giving bodies multiplying like loaves in fishnets, one eventually gets to wondering about the purpose of the miracle: it’s fish that belong in fishnets, and loaves that ought to be on well-serviced tabletops. In short, when what we need are various species of opinion, what we get are not-too-dissimilar spheres of judgment rendered in the exact same format of formal ceremonies that dispense sets of identical statuettes.

I suppose an entirely new distinction lies in store for the first award-giving body that owns up to this state of affairs. If it weren’t too painfully paradoxical, I’d suggest a trophy-in-waiting for the first such body that consciously and willingly folds up, in recognition of the superfluity of having too many, and even functionally overlapping, award-giving groups, as well as the need to advance filmic discourse beyond the scope of absolutist pronouncements.[1] Toward this end I’d also strategize by exploiting another parallel paradox, the ultimate awards ceremony, the one that should end all others, at least up to this point in history. This we can do by opening at least the most basic categories to all existing achievements in Philippine cinema, deciding on winners to the best of our ability, then holding the main event. Since the last would be the most difficult for me to accomplish, I’d like to presume, on the basis of my being this idea’s proponent, the sole execution of the first two procedures.

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So without much ado, not even your usual performance numbers and acceptance speeches, attend herewith the Joel David Awards for Excellence in Philippine Cinema:

Best Film. Regal Films’ Manila by Night (1980), a vote seconding that of the biggest majority of Filipino film critics and experts – including myself and supervised by myself again – the survey results of which helped sell out the magazine that published it. The film had one of the most precarious origins among local movies, with the original version banned and later mangled and its title changed (to City after Dark) by Marcos-era censors.[2] The integral version was later released, this time by another Marcos-era film body, the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, due to a providential cultural quirk: the ECP had to justify its exemption from censorship and taxation by resorting mainly to artistically defensible activities.

It won’t be much of a surprise then to discover that some of the other winners in this here’s batch were in some way or other connected with the organization; not that I was once connected either (I was with the public relations department), but this was also the period in which local artistic expertise was at an admirable acme. Manila by Night is figuring out as the central example of a formal discourse on local cinema that I’m attending to and I’m sure that most other types of theoretical activity won’t be able to deny its masterliness as well.

Best Direction. Logically, the best film is always the best-directed. Ishmael Bernal, whose censored version of Manila by Night won the Urian best-film prize, lost in the best director category by a slim margin for an unusual reason: the film had a defective plastic surface, which was compounded by its mangled condition. This form of logic was subsequently and successfully challenged by the release of the integral version (apparently intended for the film’s aborted international screening), which benefited greatly from careful laboratory supervision. No more cruel twists of fate this time, the wind being presumably clear of cultural and critics’ politics: Ishmael Bernal in Manila by Night has done the most impressive local directorial job ever – thus far.

Best Screenplay. I cast my vote for Ricardo Lee in Moral in 1982, along with only one other member in that year’s Urian body, and I could say that if there ever was a Manunuri member who had integrity and renown, it was (and still is) him, Bienvenido Lumbera. Moral itself can be defended in retrospect as its year’s best film, but on the level of the category under discussion, the screenplay’s been published in book form for everyone to judge for herself. Lee has labored under a lot of early conquests and later rebuffs, with his pre-Moral scripts for Jaguar (co-written with Jose F. Lacaba) and Salome winning Urian awards and the back-to-back book edition of Brutal and Salome copping a special prize from the first National Book Awards batch of the Manila Critics Circle.

Moral (an ECP Film Fund-subsidized product and official Manila International Film Festival entry) is cast in the same multiple-character mold as Manila by Night, but it delimits itself by concentrating on fewer and female characters and compensates thorugh a whole lot of impressive characterization and intelligent structuring. The screenplay (and its published version) did not receive any recognition whatsoever, except from the Metro Manila Film Festival, which also holds the distinction of awarding by its lonesome the next category’s winner.

Best Performance. When we speak of actor, actress and their respective supports we actually refer to performance one and all. In this category the winner was easy for me to determine as early as the year she was competing for the Urian – and, as in the instance of Moral, she lost. No other performance, male or female, lead or supporting, comes close, and all later screenings of whatever other films may be in contention bear this out: the entry, produced by ECP and directed by Ishmael Bernal and scripted by Ricardo Lee, is Himala, and the performer is, of course, Nora Aunor.[3]

For the record, several times did a vociferous La Aunor bloc demand a recount in the Urian, but we just could not muster the extra vote that would alter the decision. Himala qualified for the same international festival where Manila by Night almost competed, but the ECP refused to send the actress on her terms; again, she lost by a single vote. I may be perceived as kind in championing such lost causes, but my fearless prediction is that history will be far kinder. Already Himala, wherever it is being re-screened, is eliciting the same reaction: what a difficult role, and what a transcendent performance.

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Best Cinematography. The best Filipino cinematographer who ever lived has died, but not before perfecting his transition from black-and-white to color, and attaining his peak – and that, by simple extrapolation, of Philippine cinema as well. All that had to happen was for Peque Gallaga, who did the epic ECP production Oro, Plata, Mata, to recruit Conrado Baltazar, who was then already being credited for making a series of Lino Brocka films noirs seem larger than they actually were, for Regal Films’ Virgin Forest.

The film itself incribed a semi-cricle in Gallaga’s career by being screened at the ECP venue, the Manila Film Center, where his earlier release (also by Regal), the sex film Scorpio Nights, had acquired for him a strong measure of notoriety from both establishment and opposition moralists. Virgin Forest, despite being Gallaga’s best film ever, bore the brunt of the backlash, Baltazar’s work along with it. Baltazar’s expertise can be gleaned by inspecting a near-contemporaneous project, Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Sensual (1986), where he made credible use of (feminine) colorist textures worthy of Romy Vitug, although he never found another such oppurtunity on the same scale: both Gallaga’s and Brocka’s next significant epics, Isang Araw Walang Diyos and Orapronobis respectively (curiously dealing with the same subject matter of rural vigilantism), were to be made almost simultaneously the year after his death.

Best Production Design. How fitting that a belated addition acknowledges the variability of film presentations. The winner in this category, in contradistinction to the rest, never had a regular theatrical run. This was not so much because it was shorter than most regular releases (since, as most film historians will be capable of confirming, early films tended to observe far shorter screening times than they do today); it was because the product itself was unclassifiable by standard-release categories, with fictional and documentary elements, and with its achievements ascribable to both the filmmaker as well as the subject/performer, attaining the status of “art film” not just aesthetically but by literally presenting the subject’s art work onscreen.

The complete title of the work as originally released in 1991 was Yuta: The Earth Art of Julie Lluch Dalena, with Hesumaria Sescon listed as director, although the Internet Movie Database shortens the secondary title to The Earth Art and includes Dalena as co-director. The members of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino declared this their “best short film” for the year, but Kritika, the short-lived critics’ organization I participated in, listed it and Elwood Perez’s Ang Totoong Buhay ni Pacita M. as Gold Prize winners.

Best Editing. A kink came up in this category, after a discussion with a film expert who, for some important reason, shall remain unnamed. My choice was Lino Brocka’s Orapronobis, which was edited, as per its credits, by George Jarlego and two non-Filipinos, Sabine Mamou and Bob Wade. The complication isn’t so much the fact that the film may have been finished counter to its makers’ preference, although some amount of hush-hush talk to this effect once circulated. The issue dwells more on the reality that certain types of material may seem less expertly edited precisely because of the greater ambitions they aspire toward. Manila by Night and Moral, for example, may be sprawling and ambiguous in parts, but this could only certainly be ascribed to the necessity of letting go of pure or perfected technique in order to allow some non-plastic aspect of the material to develop.

In this respect my source suggested Mike de Leon’s Kakabakaba Ka Ba?, which won the Urian directing and editing trophies over Manila by Night. I find both positions valid: Orapronobis is as editorially perfect as anyone has ever gotten hereabouts while Kakabakaba is as editorially ambitous in the same sense. Both were done by brothers, Kakabakaba by Ike Jarlego Jr. The phenomenon of tie-giving has its place in our awards system, so my preference is for both titles – and, in effect, for the gifted clan that has been putting together some wonderful films for several generations now.

Best Sound. Another clan holds fort in this area, the Reyeses. Luis and his son Ramon teamed up for some impressive sound-studio results, mostly in Mike de Leon films. The elder Reyes had also worked with, among others, Gerardo de Leon, while the younger one continues the tradition with some of our better filmmakers. Technically I’d say that a Gallaga film, Oro, Plata, Mata, which credits Ramon Reyes for sound, would be one of the best I’ve seen – and the best I’ve heard, in the strictly plastic sense.

But in an interview with Ramon himself, he avowed that his ideal of good film sound is one that draws from the more difficult live-recording than from the more controlled studio-dubbed system. Over the years I’ve learned to appreciate what he meant: you give up some amount of crispness and clarity in exchange for ambience and authenticity, and a good soundperson can always make the tradeoff preferable. Reyes held up as an example Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, which he and his father worked on, and I still have to find a better live-sound (and living-vision, which is of course directorial) film. Even the music, done by the precocious Max Jocson, was as unprepossessing yet eerily natural as the film’s aural design. The Reyeses earned a well-deserved trophy from the 1975 Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences for this film, and they earn mine all the way too.

Best Music. I’d settle for a Jocson score, with its incomparable admixture of minimalist principles and observance of the primacy of natural film sound. On the other hand, we’re really speaking of music here as distinct from sound, so I guess this could justify a score that heralds itself as unabashedly Orphic, capable if necessary of existing independently of the film that it accompanies.

The many times I watched Tikoy Aguiluz’s Boatman, whether at the MFC, a downtown theater, or on videotape playback, it’s the lush, expressive, achingly beautiful music I always wound up appreciating. Jaime Fabregas did some other highly competent scoring before and after this film, and even won an Urian for a relatively minor accomplishment in Scorpio Nights. Boatman was in the running the last year I was a voting member, but the prejudice against “bold” MFC films was then going too strong. This time around Fabregas in Boatman still gets my vote, man.

Sequitur

The problem with such state-of-the-art criteria is that early-state entries get excluded. The earliest awardee, Brocka’s Maynila, is from only fifteen years back, while the latest (prior to a post-publication addition), Orapronobis (another Brocka film), still has to be locally released. As problematic proof of its cyber-age existence, Orapronobis also happens to be the first Filipino film made available in laser-disc format.

Maybe someone else should come up with a qualified set of awards, like the best silent work (if anyone can remember or find any such thing) or black-and-white title. I would be very much embarrassed to hand out qualified awards though, much less receive them. I would rather stick to my list, and draw up a new one once the scenario changes too significantly to be ignored. Who knows? It could be as soon as the next couple of film releases, or as far away as, heaven forbid, the closing credits of our lifetime.

Notes

[1] In fact the last critics group I participated in, named Kritika, stopped functioning after a few years of handing awards using pragmatic, liberal, and flexible criteria of selection and recognition. The reason was simple and straightforward: the members had to leave for overseas residence – work, migration, or (in my case) study. The innovations I remember were: specifying a category only if the year’s output demonstrated productivity in it, designating more than one winner if such a number proved deserving, and specifying any number of output for any artist who merited the recognition. Individual citations were contained in a critical summary for the year under consideration.

[2] Queries from all over (including from foreign scholars) proceed from the appropriate title for the film: it appears that the members of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino insist on using other titles – City after Dark and even Manila after Dark, which never appeared on any of the film’s celluloid or print credits). Since these people took charge of cultural and educational institutions after the collapse of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, the movie’s censored title, rather than Manila by Night, kept appearing in “official” records. The historical narrative though remains transparent and unambivalent: when the producers applied for a permit in 1979, the local censors board, after imposing a total ban for months, disallowed any reference to Manila in the film as one of the conditions for its release, so the badly mangled print screened in Philippine theaters in November 1980 had the City after Dark title. Weirdly enough, the MPP opted to nominate this version for its annual awards and effectively penalized it by withholding the award for director from Ishmael Bernal (personal disclosure: this was my first year as a voting member, and my questioning of awards logic since then has only intensified through the years). So this is the version that the MPP wishes to uphold? Sadly the group, despite its claims to the contrary, is so anti-reflexive that we may never find out exactly what goes on in its members’ brilliant minds. Worth reiterating here is the fact that even the Marcos government’s own official film agency restored the Manila by Night title when it allowed the integral version to be screened at its venue.

[3] This selection, a reaffirmation of a throwaway subsection in The National Pastime’s opening essay “A Second Golden Age,” was so widely echoed that it became entrenched as some form of virtual dogma during the internet era. It was referenced when the film and the central performance were separately recognized in region-wide assessments that I only remotely became aware of afterward. My own reassessment of Nora Aunor’s record pointed to a different-though-related outcome, which I outlined in “Firmament Occupation: The Philippine Star System” (Kritika Kultura 25, August 2015, pp. 248-84): while her superiority to all other Filipino film performers had been evident for the past several years, Himala was one of several peaks in a run that has arguably continued to the present, spilling over to stage, television, and new-media presentations. An Aunor peak can be defined as a major project whose achievement is enlarged or boosted by her delivery. The coverage is admittedly slippery, since flawed or outright potboiler material can be rendered amusing, engaging, or at least tolerable because of her skills display. For this reason, I would now opt to identify an entire body of work, ironically culminating in her abandoned auteurist project, Greatest Performance, where the title’s claim is adequately fulfilled.

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LEVELS OF INDEPENDENCE

The current catchword in film circles is independence, and it’s a measure of how far film awareness has progressed when the sector laying claim to the term intends it to refer to a format-based difference vis-à-vis commercial-gauge products. But first a few technical clarifications. The fact that [circa 1990] film exists in varying formats, measured in widths, is ascribed to the practicality of various industry-based purposes: super-8mm., an improvement over 16mm.-halved 8mm., was home-movie stock until video became far more economical; 16mm. serves specialized industrial purposes, mainly advertising; 35mm. is for what may be called mainstream production, normally national but preferably international in scope of distribution; outside the country lies the possibility of 35mm.-anamorphic projection (which expands to twice the image width with the use of the proper lens) plus its real-thing equivalent, 70mm. wide-screen, for roadshow presentations.

Such a convenient availability for most conceivable filmic requirements belies the historical origins of the medium. Film formats differed not because usages varied, but because every investor who had the money and foresight was racing to get his standard – which may have been the first clear instance of the desperate competition that the medium has been exhibiting since, without letup, this first century of its existence. One way of providing some value to the numbers is by scaling them from least to most, and assigning some factors that observe the same principle of ascension or descension. Super-8mm., 8mm. and 16mm. provide maximum individual freedom at minimum cost, while 35mm. and 70mm. provide maximum profitability and audience exposure.

From the extremes it becomes immediately clear that both sides could formulate claims to the ideals of independence, presuming that such an ideal matters in this sort of undertaking. A practitioner in super 8mm., or even video (a non-filmic medium which could accommodate certain basic principles anyway), could point to the minimalization of authorship problems on the basis of the fewer workforce requirements of such a format; on the other hand, a mainstream person could counter that the essence of freedom is material-based, and so only those with sufficient financial, industrial, distributional, and popular support could achieve social change – which, after all, is (or should be) the goal of independence.

Proponents of 16mm., including film-educational institutions, have come up with their rationalization for its increased usage: assuming that both sides of the extremes’ arguments are valid but not necessarily conflicting, 16mm. offers a resemblance to mainstream technology at considerably affordable cost; though several times more expensive than super-8, it also happened to be more accessible in this country since 1985, when Kodak Philippines phased out local Super-8 processing.

Within mainstream practice, however, the issue of independence also assumes as many possible claims as there are self-conscious institutions. “Independence” actually originally referred to the production outfits that were relegated to the fringes during the post-war heyday of the studio system up to the early 1960s; once the majors were weakened by internal problems (talents’ dissatisfaction leading to labor problems) and external pressures (busting of production-and-distribution monopolies), the so-called independents closed in and instituted a system, if the word could still apply, of free-for-all enterprise. A subsystem of outfits based on stars, who were eventually distinguished from the rest of the constellation by the term superstars, has proved more enduring – and in fact constitutes what we can consider the mainstream independents of today.

Of course, the big three – Regal, Viva, and Seiko – in our current studio-dominated system all started out as independents relative to now inactive or defunct production houses. As mentioned earlier, any of these giants could claim, if they had a mind to do so, to being the true exponent of independent cinema in the country: all they have to do is admit that they don’t care to exercise this prerogative at the moment, and offer a genuine industry break to anyone who’d challenge their stature. The mad scramble for assignments in itself could serve as proof of the dissenters’ double-minded acknowledgment that, yes, enslavement to filthy lucre does liberate one from the poverty of cheap formats.

Meanwhile, there are the past and future processes of mainstream independence to contend with. Until as late as the early 1980s certain filmmakers could break free of, well, the Filipino language at least, by doing regional cinema in the Cebuano or, though rarely, Ilocano tongue. The system of distribution – outside the Tagalog region (and the attendant demands of Metro Manila moviegoers) – also enabled drastic reductions in budget costs and the use of non-stars: the profitability of such an option is still being realized by today’s countryside-circuit penekula or hard-core sex-film investors; in fact, the first color Cebuano film (and one of the last as well) was actually shot in super-8 and blown up, grains and all, to commercial-gauge 35mm., reportedly clobbering Manila and even foreign releases at the box office wherever it was shown. There’s a disturbing analogy somewhere, though, for future film scholars to ponder on: since we could say that regional movies have been replaced by sex films, does this mean that our provincial folk have “progressed” in their preference for spoken language to the inarticulate dictates of the, er, heart?

Finally, the most promising aspect of independence thus far almost became a local tradition were it not for the reckless conduct of an international film festival by the previous regime during the early 1980s. Exhibition in foreign film circuits proved favorable for Filipino directors fortunate enough to have been invited by patrons, but the problem is actually greater than the sanguinity of local producers in the sufficiency of the local film makers: Filipino authorities are pathetically simple-minded about the prospects of exporting our most impressive cultural body of work, preferring to dwell on the implications for the national image, as if that were all that the medium is good for.

The opening up of international film opportunities (confirmed by a corresponding ferment in film-theory circles) to Third-World cinema might find the Philippines typically left behind in an endeavor where we were in a sense pioneers – cf. our participation in foreign festivals during the 1950s. It’s a good thing that certain individual practitioners have gone as far as preempting both local producers and officials, notably the censors, in getting their dream projects produced not by themselves or by fellow Filipinos, but the foreign entities who’d have better access to worldwide distribution.

Such a notion of relying on foreigners for institutional support is, of course, profoundly antithetical to the concept of independence in the political scheme of things – which only goes to prove that the ideal of film may be more than merely material, or even political. In Japan, the world’s most economically independent nation, the best directors (Akira Kurosawa and Shohei Imamura, among recent examples) look toward non-Japanese investors for aesthetic salvation. Tokyo also happens to be the closest capital where we can get super-8mm. films processed. Something like having one’s sushi and sashimi, too.

[First published April 25, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Book Texts – Critic in Academe

The following comprises the original introduction of this Q&A exchange as it appeared in the April 4, 1990, issue of National Midweek (pp. 20-22, 46):

When Bienvenido Lumbera’s candidacy for the directorship of the University of the Philippines Film Center was announced, he reacted with typical modesty; at least, he told himself, this could be another opportunity for him to carry out some of his proposals for film study and research in the Philippines.

Such self-effacement contradistinguished a critic and scholar whose reputation in certain sober circles in academe and the film industry is almost legendary; this, plus his clarity of purpose, clinched for him the highly visible and passionately contested UPFC post. A professor at the Filipino department of the UP College of Arts and Letters, Lumbera, who holds an MA and a PhD in comparative literature from Indiana University, headed the English and Philippine Studies departments of the Ateneo de Manila University until his stint in prison as a Marcos-era political detainee. He has authored three books on Philippine culture – Revaluation: Essays on Philippine Literature, Cinema, and Popular Culture ([Manila]: Index, 1984), Tagalog Poetry 1570-1898: Tradition and Influences in Its Development (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University, 1986); and Abot-Tanaw: Sulyap at Suri ng Nagbabagong Kultura at Lipunan (Quezon City: Linangan ng Kamalayang Makabansa, 1987), all winners of National Book Awards – and holds a number of distinctions for his other creative and critical output. Now pushing 60, Bien, as he is fondly called, is regarded as the pioneer in modern criticism in Philippine literature, theater, and popular culture in general, but most especially in film.

This interview was originally conducted in two Taglish sessions at his poster-wallpapered UP Faculty Center cubicle, between breaks from his hectic schedule as teacher, center director, occasional lecturer, and creative writer-cum-cultural consultant. Lost in the transcription are the subject’s avuncularity and clearheaded delivery of answer, although an infectious (and youthful) enthusiasm for topics dealing with cultural and criticism, booby-trapped with an ironic sense of humor, can still be detected.

Bien is married to the former Cynthia Nograles, with whom he has three daughters.

To read the original, untranslated transcript of the interview, please click here.

In your early years, it seems you were also doing critiques in other areas aside from film.

I actually started as a student of literature. Then, because of my involvement in the nationalist movement, I slowly realized that many Filipinos are more influenced by cultural forms that cannot be classified as literature – such as komiks, television, and film.

The fact that you have recognized the reality of change – does this mean that you had to adjust your original perceptions as well?

The first time I wrote about film – this was in the early 1960s – I attempted to explain why Filipino films could not be as good as foreign films. Initially I thought that was what was originally described in the circles in which I moved as catering to the taste of the uneducated masses. Like, for example, I would look for what I called the logic of irony. There were only one or two films out of maybe about eight or ten that talked about which I thought answered my demands – Kadenang Putik (1960, dir. Conrado Conde & Cesar Gallardo) and, I think, Huwag Mo Akong Limutin (1960, dir. Gerardo de Leon). Later I realized, if my criteria could allow only a few films to be considered valid for discussion, there must be something askew. Fortunately, by now I think I’ve gotten over this.

Are there certain other things that you wanted then that have been realized today?

I think now we see the application of theory, largely drawn from Western theory, in the films that are shown. When some people view films, they go beyond regarding these as mere entertainment. Films now are being studied for how they reflect culture and society, whether consciously or directly or not.

What would be some other things that disappoint you at present?

One of the things that I hoped would happen would be for more Filipino movies to be of the same weight and quality as those that were produced in 1976. My expectation was that after all, since the industry had been able to produce these films before, perhaps in the coming years more would come out – no longer exclusively for elite viewers or with overt artistic intentions, but with technical polish, thematic sophistication, or subtleties of performance whether in writing, direction, or acting as part of local industry ethics. I think the crucial context here is the system that prevailed during the 1950s: filmmakers were each committed to working for a single studio, so even if their projects were not all highly intelligent or aesthetic, they’d still have the chance to do different types of films in one year.

But there also seems to be a form of studio domination today.

Seiko, Viva, Regal have what they call a stable of directors and actors, but when it comes to giving out assignments, it’s like: “We’ve finally contracted Phillip [Salvador] and we have to do a movie, but what’s hot nowadays? Action? Then let’s make an action star out of Phillip.” No longer do people consider where an actor or actress or director excels, unlike before, when there was more latitude [for one’s capabilities].

Now I’m not saying that Doña Sisang [LVN’s Narcisa de Leon], Doc Perez [Sampaguita’s Jose Perez], [or] Doña Adela [Premiere’s Adela Santiago] was interested only in art, but perhaps during the 1950s businessmen had more confidence in the industry: “If our movie flops, that’s all right. We have a big production scheduled next that will surely draw in the crowds.” Such a procedure essentially is a rational kind of capitalist thinking. I believe at present what we have is a highly manipulative system, essentially exploitive in its use of filmmaking talent, and I’m tempted to call it unprincipled in handling out assignments.

Do you think then we should make moves to initiate a return to the old ways?

No, I do not envision a return to the studio system in the 1950s. Even in the States that arrangement is gone for good; but when that happened, the so-called independent filmmakers were able to do films which had earlier been difficult to produce because of commercial dictates, and standards of technical excellence were carried over. In our case, the independents did not have sufficient equipment to go around, so whoever had larger capital could rent the better machines and facilities, and those who could cut costs did so. Gone are the productions that could instill pride in the industry. For example, if we mention [Regal’s] Mother Lily’s production of Sister Stella L. (1984, dir. Mike de Leon), I’m sure what she remembers is the big financial loss incurred by that movie, and whatever else it achieved, she’s determined not to make that kind of project again. That kind of perspective can’t be helped among those who invest their money, but neither does it contribute to enthusiasm and experimentation and pride in what our filmmakers do.

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But isn’t there a continuity between the system at present and the one that came out with so many quality products during the ’70s?

The ’70s were a conjuncture of several factors. The censors demanded to see a complete script before they could give a permit for shooting, so they could scrutinize film projects as early as the pre-production stage. Studios turned to journalist and creative writers in order to be able to impress the censors. Young filmmakers and writers saw here an opportunity to break into the industry and inject some seriousness in terms of content. Then: “Too bad, these movies don’t make money” – so producers backtracked.

But from that point on, the writers and directors who were able to get in already had a foothold. They’re still disadvantaged at present by the fact that the producers have become safe players. Plus, taxes, both national and local, have increased considerably. This is why producers always aim at having megahits, since only then can they hope to profit from film production. No longer do we have modest pictures that are not going to realize a lot of income but won’t flop entirely either.

Other industry people say that this decline in the profitability of film is just part of an international trend – what is known as the video revolution.

I think that’s definitely true in First-World countries. Few Japanese now watch their own films because most of their stars appear on TV shows. In our case, TV probably doesn’t have the same reach as the movies. Those away from city centers, who’d commute to the province during weekends and watch a movie before leaving – I’m sure they constitute a large number of moviegoers in this country.

So is it in this context – of hopefulness because the masses still patronize our own films, and on the other hand the desperation of the industry in surviving – that you expect academe to step in make changes?

Academe cannot intervene actively and has no power to compel capitalists to make better movies. All that can be done – on this, I can speak with some degree of certainty – is for the industry to be taken seriously, its products evaluated regardless of aesthetic quality, and a report given of what these products tell us about Philippine society.

Wouldn’t you say there has been a trend, at least in politics, to link up with academic institutions – something that the industry tolerates inasmuch as this doesn’t have anything to do with business anyway?

The government doesn’t really have any profound understanding of the workings and implications of moviemaking. They get bothered by films that they think will disturb people, like Orapronobis (1989, dir. Lino Brocka) and, in the past, Batch ’81 (1982, dir. Mike de Leon) and City After Dark (a.k.a. Manila by Night; 1980, dir. Ishmael Bernal), but these are isolated cases. In their consciousness films are produced so that capitalists can make a killing, and so the government should be in on the profits. Those are the simple facts of thinking among bureaucrats about the industry.

The creativity of our filmmakers during the Marcos regime contrasts with those in other countries who benefited more from political freedom; would you say that this indicates a peculiarity in the Filipino psychology?

I think what happened here was not just a matter of individual initiatives on the part of filmmakers. The artist’s discontent, if not assisted by others from outside his circles, becomes a private protest, since she tends more to reflect upon herself than to go out and join groups. I guess that’s what happened in the case of Mike de Leon’s films: Mike is a very private person, as can be attested to by those who observe the local film scene. But his outputs leave no doubt that he has some political consciousness operating, and I would attribute that simply to the fact he knew that – it sounds corny, but – hindi siya nag-iisa [he wasn’t alone], others were protesting and organizing. Assuming a situation where there is no movement, Mike de Leon might just stay put; I doubt if he would have the inclination to put into film his discontent with the situation.

How would you compare the present crop of filmmakers with the previous one?

With Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, and Eddie Romero then, you could separate their narrative since their films purposefully set out to tell a story. But if we consider Peque Gallaga, Laurice Guillen, Marilou Diaz-Abaya – offhand, I notice, they give emphasis to specific qualities of film. You don’t remember them for the materials that they handle, but for what they did to the medium, like Laurice’s attempt at trying to tell different versions [of the same incident] in Salome (1981). Even in [Guillen’s first film] Kasal (1980) there was that kind of exploration of levels of reality and motivations of characters. It seems like their group prescinded from the overtly philosophical, political telling of material; what becomes immediately obvious is the attention they lavish on details that one finds in reality. It’s not so much the material anymore but the approach to reality that matters.

Would you say this has had an effect on film practice?

I would say it is an advancement. They must have seen what Lino and Ishmael had accomplished in the past, so they try to go beyond. It is hoped that there would be an integration of the kind of film work done by the earlier masters in the direction of a more complex use of narrative, if possible, in the future. But more and more, I think the old approach to seriousness in film practice, where the artist does a narrative that has a line that can be easily plotted out, is becoming a thing of the past.

What was the role of film critics in this kind of progression?

Nothing, because you see critics –

– were ignored by the artist?

Yes. And besides, strictly speaking, we cannot talk about intensive critical activity in the local film world since outlets are not available, and critics do not work full time, they dabble only when the occasion arises. That is something that will have to be worked at, possibly in academe: to create activity more productive of critiques and reviews.

Would it be possible to say that Filipino film artists have assumed the functions that should have been performed for them by critics, in terms of evaluating their own work and integrating the lessons in their succeeding output?

Actually, artists are the ones who set the direction for what they want to be doing – assuming that they live in a society which provides them with a sense of history. But the act of taking the cue from critics – I don’t think that has ever happened here.

I remember, in the Manunuri, the time when we had some feedback from the industry saying that the only reason why some of us were into criticism was because we wanted to break eventually into the industry.

I don’t think that’s something that should be begrudged any film critic. I suspect that that was engineered by publicists who had taken advantage of their position in order to advance themselves in the industry. One reason why a person goes into analysis of film is that she’s interested in whatever it is that makes a good film. I think the real criticism is that some people go into criticism so that producers will take notice, then they’d say bad things about certain movies so that the producers will mollify them.

Would you say that the ideal balance between theory and practice was the same reason why you maintained some creative output – doing translations and librettos, writing for the stage, and performing occasionally?

In my case, I never made a strict separation between the creative part of me and the analytic part. My writing for the theater derives from an original urge to do creative writing when I was in college and immediately after. Then I got into teaching, so I began to do more criticism, more history. But essentially, I guess I saw myself as a creative artist.

Some practitioners, I heard, were also into criticism before they went into active industry work.

Ishmael [Bernal] wrote some articles on film, now I remember, for the magazine Balthazar.

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What would be the qualities of a good film critic?

She likes movies; she would have seen a lot of films, not only local but also foreign ones. She has a good eye – meaning if she sees something on the screen, she’s capable of recalling the details and immediately relating the elements of particular image. And also, of course, she knows how to write: her command of style should enable her to communicate her insights. Very important, in my view, is her respect for her intended audience. Once a critic assumes that only she knows whereof she speaks and the audience should be content with whatever her pronouncements are, she’ll make an offensive impression on the reader.

Mel Chionglo once told me that a liberal arts preparation is crucial to a filmic sensibility.

Yes, I think it’s very important that the writer can fall back on a fund of insights and information from previous exposure to the arts. Because if all one can rely on is one’s personal prejudices, the narrow concept of art that can be derived from reading some books, one can’t provide any substantial commentary for even the worst kind of products.

One time when I was speaking at the [Cultural Center of the Philippines] about theater, I said – I gave a number of dos and don’ts – that the writer must not be imprisoned by cuteness or katarayan [snark]. I think that’s a very strong tendency when one is beginning to write, when you fall in love with manner, an expression, a point that you want to make, and you put that across and sacrifice the object you’re talking about. I went through that experience when I was younger. Time magazine in the 1950s had very elegant stylists, so their reviews were always quotable, memorable.

How much further does local criticism have to go before it can assume a significant role in the filmmaking industry?

It’s not so much criticism that has to change but media which has to be more receptive to serious comment on film – meaning to say, not just anymore can be made to become a film reviewer, and the publications themselves have to be prepared to print serious articles that might offend the [advertising] producer. Then there also has to be an adjustment in the economic structure to enable people to become professional critics – like, you’re a newsperson whose beat is the movies, and your reviews are now considered the results of the discharging of your responsibilities. That will not come to be until the country has achieved a certain degree of prosperity, when movie writers won’t need to do press releases or hack-write for actors in order to make a decent living.

You’re implying that theorizing in film will also have to wait, since the practice of film criticism will take some time before it can flourish.

Not wait in the sense of postponing theoretical or critical activity, but accepting that no reasonable compensation can be offered at the moment. You can’t expect to survive on criticism, that the industry will appreciate and accommodate your actuations, and that the rest of society will support what you’re trying to accomplish.

Isn’t your scenario rather grim?

[Smilingly.] Really, there’s no other word for it. It’s a grim world that the Filipino critic lives in. So the fewer illusions she has about the viability of her profession, the better for her.

Do you think we’ll be able to realize a theory on film that we can call our own?

Well, not in my lifetime, because I only have a few more years to live. Right now we have not yet come up with a definitive film history, and you need history in order to be able to propose or suggest a theory of film. The fact that LVN could show a lot of its old films, and Sampaguita also has some of its own left – these are good signs, these are the texts that students will study. From such a study maybe the beginnings of a theory can be proposed; there’s no other substitute for this procedure. When I saw some films in the 1950s and even earlier in the late ’40s, I was watching not as a critic or even as a student of film, I was just an ordinary fan who followed the films of certain actors and actresses whom I liked. When I look back, I simply think of one as a movie in which Oscar Moreno appeared, another in which Paraluman played this kind of role. It was not until the 1970s that I began to think of film as a field of study. For instance, I once saw something by Gerry de Leon, Isumpa Mo, Giliw (1947). Among the movies of the past that I vividly recall, that was it – [it featured] Elsa Oria, Angel Esmeralda, Fely Vallejo. I found it very moving. But I remember only certain moments and highlights, so I cannot discuss the totality of that film as a work of art. That’s a problem with film, it’s such an ephemeral experience, and once the text is lost, it’s difficult to reconstruct.

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Book Texts – The Fantasy World of Rey de la Cruz

The surge of renewed interest in the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of too-young Pepsi Paloma in 1985 has still not raised any eyebrows regarding what subsequently happened to her rabble-rousing manager, Rey de la Cruz. Shot dead in the optical clinic where he lived, de la Cruz had deliberately cultivated an unsavory reputation – but mainly in his showbiz affairs. When Communist party renegade Felimon “Popoy” Lagman was also slain by unidentified assassins, the Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino, which he led, mentioned that an arrest warrant for him still had to be served for the murder of de la Cruz. So the question of who killed de la Cruz, unlike the issue of whether poor Pepsi was murdered, appears to have been resolved, but only because his supposed killer can no longer attest to or deny the charge. [This article originally appeared in the Business Day supplement New Day (October 6, 1986: 12, 14), with the unqualified support and encouragement of the section editor, Daisy Catherine L. Mandap, who now heads the Hong Kong-based Sun publication; an earlier interview with Rey de la Cruz, along with other star-builders, appears here.] To jump to later sections, please click here for: Distinctions; JQ Connection; Trendsetting; Legacies; and Notes.

New Day Ray de la Cruz

A tall leather chair behind an appropriately imposing table provides film personality Rey de la Cruz, incidentally Doctor of Optometry, with a suitable position from which to survey prospective applicants, patients, and interviewers who get to sit on depressed and low-backed receiving chairs. “I have always been a star-builder,” he smiles beatifically, “even when I was still a student. Everything you see here, without exception, comes from the blood, sweat, and tears I invested in my work in the movies.”

“Everything” I took to include an entire floor space of a relatively tall building in the Lilliputian backside of Quiapo, two blocks near the subject’s famed optical clinic, where a rugged male attendant directs correctly credentialed curiosity-seekers like me to search the doctor’s residence downstreet. “You won’t miss it,” he assures me, and sure enough, the first building that seems to assert an air of dignity in this polluted part of the district yields Rey de la Cruz’s name, and nothing else, for the fifth-floor portion of its directory.

The address where de la Cruz holds court will immediately impress the outsider with its overabundance of the trappings of fast accumulated wealth. A pair of gossiping old women, an alert girl Friday, a half-dressed teenage kid, and some children quietly at play make sure that you get ushered into the right parlor, instead of the kitchen, bathroom, or private chambers where, de la Cruz clarifies later, starlets Lampel Cojuangco and Mishelle Zobel, his latest acquisitions – rather, alagas, reside.

Distinctions

Dr. de la Cruz starts out by showing a recent issue of Asia magazine, which featured him in a sidebar on an article on the local bold-movie trend. “I was also voted ‘Most Controversial Guest of the Year’ in See-True[1] – he points to a plaque on a side table – “and was interviewed for Channel 2’s Variety program as well as another international magazine.”

Then he quickly gets to the point. “I don’t understand why people take my controversial status against me. I provide a living for my discoveries, I give the masa the entertainment they want, and I make a living in the process – ano’ng masama duon? I even agreed to become barangay captain of Quiapo to be able to render more and systematic service to my fellowmen, and then a nuisance like Polly Cayetano questions my appointment, charges me in court for exploitation of minors, and calls me a pimp on the air. Sa dami ng sumasakay sa akin, kailangang mag-rationalize ako, otherwise matagal na sana akong nawalan ng pag-asa.”

Sooner or later it becomes clear to even the most casual observer that the very subject of Rey de la Cruz may require some rationalizing too. I had interviewed him a half-decade ago for an omnibus write-up on the state of star-building in the country[2] and, in contrast to pros like Jesse Ejercito and Douglas Quijano, he had seemed much more guarded and tentative way back then.

Marami na akong na-build up,” he continues, “and each time na me kumakalas sa akin, I’d tell myself tama na, ayoko na. And then me bagong dumarating, me responsibilidad na naman ako, balik na naman sa star-building.”

At this point he cannot seem to resist a digression. “Tulad nung case ni Lala Montelibano – hindi ko naman intensyon na mang-iskandalo. I heard she wanted to break away from me, so when I learned she was appearing in See-True, I presented her with her real mother, as if to tell her, ‘We are all responsible for other people in our lives, so don’t forget whom you are responsible for.’ E siguro, her adoptive mother thought the real mother was there to get back Lala, di pati yung thirty-percent commission niya sa bata e mawawala, kaya ayun, nagkagulo na.”

Although aware that the incident has generated a generous amount of public outrage, de la Cruz will admit that at the most “I tell only white lies, in the interest of promoting a movie. Sino naman ba’ng hindi gumagawa nuon? Pero if ever I resort to a gimmick, ginigimikan ko lang ang totoo. Example: yung Tondo-girl gimmick ko ke Myrna Castillo, maraming nagalit doon dahil hindi raw kapani-paniwala na me ganung kaganda sa slum area. Nag-white lie na ako nung pino-promote yung launching movie niya, when I said na me tattoo siya sa boobs, pero it turned out na mas effective yung gimmick ko kesa sa promotion nung pelikula.”

In the long run, he has seen to it that, as far as he’s concerned, only good comes out of whatever vulgarities he foists upon the public to capture their attention. “Hindi alam ng marami,” he explains, “na behind all the publicity, I train my discoveries to become model citizens. Lahat ng social graces ini-introduce ko sa kanila. Pati sa acting, me workshop sila conducted at my expense, exclusively for them.” He proudly points out that two of his female stars have attained well-earned reputations as serious actresses, even though one of them – Rio Locsin – had a painful and public falling-out with him, and another – Sarsi Emmanuelle – has been having difficulty in sustaining her popularity because of alleged professional indifference.

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The JQ Connection

“If you still cannot take what I’m doing,” he says between chuckles, “blame Joe Quirino.” As his journalism professor at the Manuel L. Quezon University, the inimitable JQ took him away by introducing him to Mars Ravelo and Jose “Doc” Perez. The former may account for his propensity in plotting komiks-like twists and turns to publicize his wards, but it is the Sampaguita Pictures mogul he credits for teaching him “the ABCs of star-building. All in all Doc gave me ten valuable tips, all of them confidential.”

That was twenty years ago, when the Stars ’66 batch of discoveries had a tantalizing effect on him, coming as he did “fresh from a small town in Cagayan, where I was the seventh among eleven children; ako lang ang bakla, ako lang ang napadpad sa showbiz, at ako lang,” he finishes with relish, “ang nakapagpaaral sa twenty-five na kamag-anak ko, some of whom are now big-timers in the States.”

He strokes a thinning crop of hair and directs his professorial mien toward a forever-gone era of innocence, of roses and lollipops and Zandro Zamora. “I was only twenty when I started out. I had ten thousand pesos, all my savings, to begin with, so I bought my first car, a second-hand Triumph Herald, para maging karapat-dapat kay Zandro Zamora. Bini-build up ko siya pero nasira ang ulo ko sa kanya, masyado ako naging possessive. We parted ways as friends – if he ever considered me a friend – pero since then babae na lang ang kadalasang bini-build up ko. I get too involved with my men, and then they get involved with my female discoveries, as in the case of Gil Guerrero and Myrna Castillo. People get the impression tuloy na pinapares-pares ko yung mga alaga ko.”

After he made it big with Rio Locsin in the mid-’70s, he launched Myrna Castillo (initially as Rio Locsin II, to replace the then already-gone original) and, after she paired off with Guerrero – only to lately return to de la Cruz – he launched his first batch of female starlets. Because of their literally commercialized designations they became known collectively as the “softdrink beauties”: Coca Nicolas, Sarsi Emmanuelle, and the tragic Pepsi Paloma, who figured in a messy rape case (capped by an exploitation vehicle) before she allegedly took her own life. Introduced along with them was what de la Cruz describes as “the only uncola, Myra Manibog.” Then the “hard-drink beauties” followed – Remy Martin, Chivas Regal, Vodka Zobel, and Brandy Ayala; only the last, according to de la Cruz, “has survived in showbiz. The rest are in Japan earning two thousand dollars a month each as live entertainers.”

Trendsetting

De la Cruz’s arrival as a promo personality was accorded a dubious form of flattery during the early ’80s when his concept of launching discoveries in batches was imitated. Into the movie pages (as well as a few actual productions) marched the “street beauties,” who sported such throw-away appellations as Ayala Buendia, Aurora Boulevard, Remedios Malate, Lerma Morayta, and Bridget Jones. A parade of pulchritudinous hopefuls has been following suit since, assuming de la Cruz-inspired sobriquets like Lyka Ugarte, Claudia Zobel (another tragic waste), and, in keeping up with his latest batch, Cristina Crisol and Elsa Enrile.

Yes, he has decided to contribute his share to the political awakening of the country by presenting, on the heels of the runaway Lala Montelibano, the “revolutionary beauties,” complete with farcically flippant anecdote: “Nagkita-kita raw sila sa EDSA during the revolution, hindi na makauwi sa dami ng tao, so they decided to stay together with the rest of people power.” An enumeration of what sound like noms de guerre, instead of screen names, follows, showing that by now, the guy has crossed the line between wordplay and downright irreverence: “Aida Dimaporo, sixteen; Ava Manotoc, Vanessa Ver, and straight from Cebu, Lota Misuari, all nineteen; plus a tribute to my tormentor, Polly Cayetano, seventeen. I chose those names,” he hastens to add, “because I want people to become less emotional about political personalities. I’d like to see them smile when they hear those names.”

But what about the names’ real owners? “My legal research reveals that there’s no law against using other people’s names. Of course I might desist if the origs want me to, pero I’m sure that if they see the girls, with their beauty and sex appeal, baka matuwa pa pati sila.”

What de la Cruz tries his best to suppress is the notion that his girls are “available” – the subject of his interview with Asia magazine. “If ever they do it on their own, I have to make sure na hindi naa-associate yung ginagawa nila sa akin.” He applies the same tack to an even more sensational recent development in local film practice: “Beware, I tell them, if your director wants you to do penetration scenes, because I can’t be around to keep watch all the time. Ask yourselves na lang, in a practical way: gusto niyo ba, type niyo ba yung makakapareha niyo, tama ba yung bayad sa puri niyo, and dapat, money down. Kung maaatim ng kalooban niyo e bakit hindi, basta hindi kayo pinupuwersa. Pero kung ako ang tatanungin kung ano’ng advice ko, sabihin niyong sabi ko, huwag.”

Legacies

By a mysterious coincidence a side door opens, and out drifts a pale and fragile wisp of a girl in housefrock, smiling shyly at everyone present and receding before anyone could figure out what she was about. “Si Lampel Cojuangco,” Rey de la Cruz whispers, almost conspiratorially. “Hindi na ’yan mabobola ng producer sa mga penetration scenes.”

For every extreme development de la Cruz has required a balancing factor; it must be alarmingly reflective of the times that he claims to have resorted recently to, of all things, Bible-reading. “Dito ko kinukuha ngayon yang mga lessons na ina-apply ko sa kanila,” he says, picking up a voluminous edition from his desk and putting it down just as quickly.

One wonders how far he is willing to enforce the scarily stiff Judeo-Christian tradition on his present and prospective talents. “Me male applicant pa nga aka dito from the States” – he takes out photos of a mean-looking Oriental in progressive stages of dishabille and spreads them over the scriptures – “at mahina na yung dalawang walk-in applicants a day, from both sexes, sa akin. That’s because I can claim now that my stars get sold partly on the basis of their association with me. Pati masa nakikilala na yung hitsura ko.”

Talking about his image and popularity leads him to articulate his longing for “a legitimate ‘bold’ center, para magka-outlet ang artistic bold films, para ma-develop ang taste ng local audience, at higit sa lahat, para may pagkakakitaan ang mga taong umaasa sa ganung klaseng hanapbuhay, kesa mapilitang gumawa ng mas masama pa. I don’t understand why people get mad when the censors get strict, tapos they get mad again when there are bold films released. Most of all I don’t mind being associated with bold, pero ayun na nga, it’s always taken against me.”

Maybe you’ve become a symbol of sorts? I suggest. Rey de la Cruz smiles. He seems to like the idea.

Notes

[1] A then-popular TV talk show featuring mostly film personalities, hosted by Inday Badiday (screen name of Lourdes Jimenez Carvajal, sister of magazine editor Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc).

[2]Star-Building Pays,” Times Journal (May 26, 1980): 21, 23.

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Book Texts – The Critic as Creator

Completed on assignment at the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, this interview was seemingly afflicted by the several strokes of ill fortune that befell it, its production agency, and eventually the government that had set up, best intentions notwithstanding, the ECP. As Soltero was being finalized, Senator Benigno S. Aquino was murdered by still officially unknown assailants – and no amount of goodwill from this point onward could ever save the Marcos government. The ECP was dissolved and replaced by a more profit-oriented institution prior to the downfall of the regime. Pio de Castro III suffered a near-fatal stroke a few years later and died thereafter, as did Bienvenido Noriega, Jr.; Jay Ilagan perished in a vehicular accident. The hotel where the bulk of the interview was conducted, Hyatt Terraces in Baguio City, collapsed in 1990, during the last major Luzon earthquake of the 20th century. The article itself was intended for SineManila, an ECP film magazine which was unceremoniously shut down by a turf-obsessed intelligence agent in the organization; it eventually came out in an older outlet of mine, the December 4, 1984, issue of the Philippine Collegian (pp. 4-7), a student paper. As de Castro had feared, critical responses to Soltero ranged from cool to frozen; how much of this may have been due to the media’s civic duty of denouncing any move (including any movie) made by the Marcos government will have to be determined more carefully, at some future time. To jump to later sections, please click here for: Foundations; Resemblances; and Notes

Pio de Castro

Anyone who wills himself success in filmmaking must at least be competent in the less compound medium of literature. Hence the several cases of serious writers on film – often lumped together under the dubious heading of “film critics” – who eventually go into film practice, and the occasional instances of film practitioners who set down their thinking on print through interviews or articles or book writing. Not surprisingly, the field is replete with some of the best minds at work in any national art scene, a veritable namedropper’s delight: the French New Wave, the New American Cinema, to cite the more familiar foreign contexts hereabouts. More relevant still are the treats of Ishmael Bernal accommodating any interviewer daring enough to take him on, or Eddie Romero discoursing lucidly on the aesthetics and politics of local cinema under his own byline.

Such rare examples of talent awesome enough to cross over limitations inherent in various media make of us lesser mortals, if not trustful admirers, then suspicious watchdogs of that remote realm of genius. Any artist who distinguishes himself in a particular field cannot repeat his success elsewhere unless he were more than just another diligent craftsman: when Pauline Kael abandoned her New Yorker post, upon which she built a reputation as the most influential critic in America, the entire movie press called itself to attention; when her first project as script doctor, James Toback’s Love and Money (1982), flopped both critically and financially (notwithstanding an impressive debut by its director in Fingers [1978], which Kael was among the few to appreciate), howls of self-righteous protest resounded beyond Hollywood. Smug silence accompanied the still-plucky Pauline’s return from peril to the pages of her all-too-forgiving publication.

A similar posture prevails in the country. About the worst thing you could say of a tried-and-tested film writer who has “legitimized” his status via membership in the local film critics’ circle is that he is using the organization as a stepping-stone for breaking into the industry. All those contacts, all that goodwill, all that theoretical sharpening, where else could everything lead but toward practical application? Sooner than later another founding member of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, Pio de Castro III, will be going the same route attempted by his colleagues Behn Cervantes and Nestor U. Torre Jr. – right into the mainstream of filmmaking. As most frustrated film buffs would delight in pointing out, de Castro’s predecessors – whether deservedly or not – did not meet the expectations accordant to individuals of their stature, proof of which lies in their inactivity as film directors at the moment. (Never mind that perhaps the most successful critical and commercial filmmaker of the moment, Ishmael Bernal, was also a practicing critic before his entry into the industry.)

“You might consider me a bit different,” de Castro clarifies at the outset. “I was into filmmaking way before I went into film criticism. Even as a Manunuri member, I derived my subsistence primarily from commercial filmmaking. My practice of film criticism was more of an avocation, something that followed from my delight in the medium and not the other way around.” Pio de Castro III is the 40-year-old multi-awarded advertising and television director – and erstwhile Manunuri chairman – unanimously recommended by the board of jurors of last year’s scriptwriting contest of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines to direct the third-place winner, Bienvenido Noriega, Jr.’s Soltero. The movie follows the outfit’s first major (1982) successes, Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (from the screemplay by Ricardo Lee) and Peque Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata (from the screenplay of Jose Javier Reyes).

All the awards and distinctions garnered by both only serve to complicate the prospects begin brought to bear on de Castro’s Soltero by an audience already made vigilant with the awareness that the feature film debutant had been and can still be capable of passing reliable judgment on his colleagues-to-be. With the great probability of confronting unreasonably high criteria for aesthetic acceptance, de Castro has decided this early upon a stance of self-effacement. “I’ll be very happy just to get mixed reviews for this film,” the heavily built authoritative director and occasional character actor coolheadedly declares. “If some like it and others hate it, that would be good enough for me.” Such modesty belies what may be the most auspicious motion picture debut since, well, Oro, Plata, Mata although again the absurdity of latching reputations onto first works would be validated in the cases of established artists whose subsequent outputs render even well-received first films less significant, and vice versa.

Post-production observers can attest to the project’s evolution from literary winner to cinematic aggregate, from a disjointed three-hour rough cut to (as of press time) a coherent two-hour interlock. “I wanted to pursue the ‘experimentalism’ of the project by shooting the script exactly as the writer finished it,” says de Castro. “Normally you would have the director revising a script to suit the demands of his particular sensibilities, if not discarding it altogether and retaining just the plotline and the names of the characters. With Soltero it was different. I had to audition for the role of director. I could have been rejected; so the way I saw it, my passing the trial for the position meant my being qualified to direct the script as written.”

De Castro certainly had credibility in so far as being a “soulmate,” a key word in the film, to the central character in Soltero was concerned. He married late, about five years ago, and so was a soltero, or bachelor, for most of his life thus far. Almost immediately upon graduation from Ateneo, he took up his M.A. in film and TV at Wayne State University as a Fulbright-Hays scholar. When he returned to the country in the early 1970s, he applied for and got into Image Film, the advertising outfit with which he is still connected. He also moved into a small apartment near his office at LVN Studios; it was here where the Manunuri used to meet until de Castro, then already married, moved to San Juan where, needless to add, the Manunuri still goes to during sessions.

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Foundations

Soltero the screenplay tells the story of Crispin Rodriguez, a banking executive in this late 20s, whose singular pursuit is that of love in its various forms. In three particular areas of his life – romantic, familial, and professional – he realizes his aim in varying degrees of success. The film, in contrast, focuses on the aforesaid areas according to the amount of personal commitment involved on the part of the lead character – i.e., the most on Crispin’s love life, some on his family, and a few on his officemates. The evolution of emphases from the abstract whole of the screenplay to the more accessible simplification of the earlier mentioned interlock commenced only after it became literally evident that strict observance of the written work would have necessitated a final cut which exceeded three hours in length. “It would have been nice to see what the three-hour-plus finished product would be like,” says scriptwriter Noriega, “but we won’t be able to sell it. Having two versions of the same film – a long one and a short one – would also be financially inadvisable because of the expense involved.”

De Castro and Noriega, in apparent disregard of the traditionally individualistic processes acknowledged in undertakings of “high” art, conferred with expert acquaintances and arrived at the hierarchy of emphases essential to delimiting the running time of the final version.

As it is, however, the film’s present form will be undergoing a few more reconsiderations induced by its problematic transition from script to screen. A rich exposition, for example, appears to raise some issues which are not all pursued, while a few resolutions ask to be expounded on beforehand. “I’m amazed,” says de Castro in a more typically candid mood, “that a lot of people have been passing judgment on the project as if it were already finished. So many things can still be accomplished in the course of post-production.”

He may be merely reacting to a manifestation of the high expectations he had already anticipated. Those fortunate enough to have attended screenings of both rough cut and interlock, for example, will marvel over the remarkable job of restructuring accomplished in the present form, in which shots and sometimes entire scenes intended for mutually exclusive purposes were transposed to other sequences without any noticeable diminution of credulity. Given such expertise, the tendency of insiders to extrapolate their expectations could very well soar out of control. The notion that this course need not apply to established directors who have consistently maintained a level of mediocrity would be patently unfair, but de Castro is not one to take the whole thing seriously. As he announced during audition sessions for the movie, “I just want to do a successful commercial exercise – a ‘bold’ tearjerker!”

As a result of what may be considered the streamlining of the screenplay, lead character Crispin Rodriguez’s story has been constructed to begin with the end of a romantic relationship and end with the end of another one. The multi-leveled treatment carried over from the original screenplay allows for a meaningful overlap of the two women’s stories, not to mention the several ingressions into the affairs of Crispin’s family and officemates, which serve as commentaries on the lead character’s condition. A series of events arranged chronologically provides a throwback to the narrative requisites of commercial cinema, but the overall emotional wallop is more exhaustive without being as blatant as the commonly encountered cases of box-office melodrama, primarily because of the high degree of intellectual involvement demanded by the unconventional storytelling mode.

Yet preview audiences agreed that the product so far has demonstrated more commercial potential than could be expected from a prototype of the existentialist art film, purveyed most capably by contemporary German filmmakers. For with perhaps an eye out for the genre’s absence of appeal among Filipinos (witness, if you can, the availability of Ingmar Bergman releases), de Castro seems to have surmounted its individualistic nature by infusing it with a more popular, and therefore mass, accessibility. Or has he? Experts at home in the territory of personal cinema constantly allude to the humor, the ease with which the best samples are executed; after all, ethereality, when it becomes more than just the subject of the work itself, can never, at least in theory, be mistaken for its antithesis, ponderosity. In this respect, the director of Soltero can be said to have hit the right formula in his approach to the work – that is, to regard leaden material with the levity of familiarity. But then again, would that be a fair remark to make about a presumably perspicacious artist?

Extra-creative factors will determine the permanence of Soltero’s contribution to local filmic history, but at this time at least one declaration can confidently be made: the movie succeeds on its own terms not because of its commercial concessions or its generic faithfulness, but because of its conscious verisimilitude to a heretofore unexplored aspect of Philippine social reality, an achievement which draws a historical affinity through Crispin Rodriguez from other characters of contemporary cinema grappling with the entanglements of their respective social fabrics – e.g., the Kulas of Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon. . . Paano Kayo Ngayon? (1976), the Miguelito Lorenzo of Oro, Plata, Mata (1982), even the Julio Madiaga and the Poldo Miranda of Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975) and Jaguar (1979) respectively. The fundamental difference, however, between Crispin Rodriguez and the other names mentioned is that the Soltero character achieves historical significance paradoxically by his distance from the historical vortex. Whereas the other characters get caught up, whether or not against their will, in the velocity of their respective social eras (and therewith become signposts of some sort for scholars of local culture), Crispin Rodriguez could never attain fulfillment as a realist character except through the mutual exclusion between himself and his particular reality, which, because of its alienating affects, can never be disclosed in any other way.

He may be loath to consider the comparison, but Pio de Castro III bears such a visionary resemblance to Crispin Rodriguez. His wife, the former Joy Soler, describes him as “a very quiet, contemplative, into-Zen person. I’ve never seen anyone so placid. It takes a large amount of negative stimulation to get him angry at something.” The de Castros first met while they were both performing for the Philippine Educational Theater Association during the early ’70s. “He was visiting [founding chair] Cecile Garrucho then,” Joy recalls, “when he got persuaded to act for PETA. In one summer he did Bertolt Brecht’s [The Good Person of] Szechuan, the passion play Kalbaryo where he played Jesus Christ, and an Off-Broadway production, [Gretchen Cryer & Nancy Ford’s] The Last Sweet Days of Isaac.” De Castro’s acting career shifted media when Lino Brocka cast him as the ambitious worker Imo in Maynila, where he garnered critical notices for his sharply drawn portrayal of a single-minded proletarian who leaves his hopeless existence behind for the higher living of a white-collar employee. His last screen appearance was in Romy Suzara’s Mga Uod at Rosas (1982), in which he appeared as a commercial artist who again leaves behind a starvation lifestyle, this time as a serious painter, for the more lucrative lure of advertising.

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Resemblances

Again the parallelisms prove too tempting to resist. “The guy’s determination is fantastic,” avers Joy. “During film festivals where he decided to participate, for example, he could watch movies round-the-clock, sleeping less to watch more, and still retain what he saw for critical discussions” – reference here being made especially to de Castro’s involvement in both editions of the Manila International Film Festival, the second of which he participated in as chair of the committee in charge of a well-received comprehensive retrospective of Filipino films. Unlike his filmic portrayals, however, de Castro does not believe in brandishing his curriculum vitae so readily. “He takes care to keep most of his achievements discreet,” says Joy, without any hint of disappointment whatsoever. “Whenever he gets wind of a big break coming his way, he never tells me unless it’s been formalized. As a person close to him, I have the impression that his expectations are in inverse proportion to his efforts.”

Casual observers can easily corroborate the couple’s selfless dynamicism. Their residence is inadvertently referred to as the Manunuri headquarters even by the members themselves; for most of the group’s profitless subsistence, the de Castros “subsidized” meetings by preparing hearty meals (then as now the main incentive for attendance) for an inadequate token among the members present. Joy maintains that “there was no prior agreement between Pio and myself to support the group as well as we could. The Manunuris are the sort of people I don’t need in my career, but that’s precisely why I enjoy their company so much: they provide a welcome respite, these artistically inclined individuals who are honest and humane for a change. Also I make a deliberate effort to link up with Pio’s concerns, and serving the group is one of the most gratifying ways I know.”

“I learned a few thins while doing Soltero, says de Castro in Baguio, after a day of shooting some pivotal sequences, accommodating an unexpected TV interview in between, taking the ECP public relations staff to a few interesting locations (including a general hospital for the treatment of a member’s eye infection), and staying up past midnight to answer some off-the-record questions while preparing to leave for Manila by early morning. “No, actually I learned a lot. What we see on the screen in movie-house, the things we can criticize so easily after a short period of practice – those weren’t created with as much facility. I believe in film criticism, I believe there’s a place for it not only within the interests of the general public but those of the industry itself; I have always been into filmmaking, but working for the first time inside the industry has given me a different perspective. Whereas before I could assent to some sympathy for local artists, today I might even become vehement about it. I have this newly emerging conviction that if only to help them appreciate first-hand the plight of local filmmakers, all the film critics around us should be given the opportunity to direct.”

De Castro did not exactly push himself forward in a director’s direction, if one were to judge by the number of breaks he broke. One of the more recent ones went to an established director and was shown last year to a good box-office crowd which seemed to have excluded serious film observers, while another has been on hold ever since the local censors demanded a certification from the material’s writer, who has been dead long enough for his works to be made required reading even in institutions where they were previously banned. “I was always on the fringes of the industry, more as a filmmaker than as a critic. In a sense I still am, because of the nature of ECP. I tried my hand in advertising first and TV next, to be able to gauge my capability for film direction. With advertising, I thought that if I could make a minute or less worthy of my client’s money, then maybe I could use longer time to greater advantage; with TV it was more of an experiment: I did a limited series film-style, with more complicated set-ups, matching shots, and so on. When people said I did well, I felt more confident.”

A host of awards of merit and excellence from local and international advertising congresses, plus positive reviews and a Catholic Mass Media Award for the TV series Pira-Pirasong Pangarap[1] all serve to back up the assurance – of production experts if not de Castro himself. “I’m glad I had the opportunity to work with ECP; it’s the only outfit which could have produced a project like Soltero – an unconventional movie without traditional exposition, obvious conflicts, surface climax. I was also given leeway in the casting, except for Jay Ilagan, for whom the screenplay was written and who was specified from the start. I chose the performers solely on the basis of their individual proficiencies.” The actors referred to can likewise enjoy the privilege of a certain amount of pre-judgment. “If anyone asks me how any of the actors performed according to expectations,” says de Castro, “I would say simply that the very fact that they were cast implies that expectations were already met.” Jay Ilagan, who delineates the character of Crispin Rodriguez, may at this point in his life claim to have enacted the role of his career,[2] just as Vic Silayan did in Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata (1982) where Ilagan won his only other acting awards (Metro Manila Film Festival and the Manunuri’s Urian as supporting actor), a year after his MMFF trophy, also for supporting actor, for Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Brutal (1980).

Based on the controversies (or absence thereof) attendant to the production of Soltero, de Castro can assert that the project thus far seems to have acquired the approval of ECP observers. Previous ECP films always elicited adverse reactions regarding budgeting, with Soltero so far the only exception, notwithstanding last year’s economic inflation. “In fairness to finance experts connected with the project,” adds de Castro, “when they saw the results they understood why a few seconds’ take could cost so much and take so long to set up.” In contrast with its spectacle-scale ECP precedents, Soltero may yet chart a new and more affordable course for future productions – both within ECP and, more important, an industry whose audience has been estranged from essential intimacy in cinema … that is, if and when Soltero achieves its expected impact upon film experts and unexpected acceptance among movie-goers.

The movie’s director would rather not be too optimistic about either. “The movie has its moments, to say the least. I don’t want to be disappointed by the way it turns out, artistically and financially.” A performance by the film on both levels as modest as its filmmaker would suffice for the purposes of the film lover who only wanted to do good. The future can be just as modest: “I want to do a gangster film,” for a change of pace. I want to let out all the fury and excitement which I had to keep under control in Soltero.” A slight pause, then “I just hope I did well enough to deserve to make another movie.”[3]

Notes

[1] A moderately successful early ’80s program, rather than the ’90s series with the same title.

[2] After a recent re-viewing of Ishmael Bernal’s Salawahan (1979), I realized that this was Jay Ilagan’s indisputable peak as actor. For some reason, all his performances seemed to decrease in effectivity the further we get from this point.

[3] As it turned out, Pio de Castro III and Bienvenido Noriega, Jr. managed to make one more movie each after Soltero; Noriega in fact had died before one of his plays was adapted for the screen.

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