Tag Archives: Book Texts

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.

11011Such 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.

11011A 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.)

11011“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).

11011All 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.

11011Post-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.”

11011De 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.”

11011De 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.

11011As 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.”

11011He 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!”

11011As 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.

11011Yet 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?

11011Extra-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.

11011He 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.”

11011Casual 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.”

11011“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.”

11011De 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.”

11011A 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).

11011Based 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.

11011The 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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Book Texts – Interviews

PERSEVERANCE IN A NEGLECTED DIMENSION

I had planned a series of interviews with outstanding film practitioners and had, by this time, already conducted limited Q&A sessions with Ishmael Bernal and Ricardo Lee. What intervened was my sudden return to university, for my second bachelor’s degree, in film. Needless to point out, I learned much less from the program (and some teachers I had had probably learned more) than from my interactions with practitioners; but other factors cropped up, from individual (the death of cinematographer Conrado Baltazar) to political (the people-power uprising that shut down the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, which in effect had sponsored my studies). I had never gone over this article again since its original publication in the March-April 1984 issue of the Diliman Review (volume 32, issue 2, pp. 66-72); it sounded stiff then from being defensive about the choice of subject, and still does. I was gratified however to realize that the claims I made about the interviewee had only intensified through the decades, and that if I’d been fated to write about only one technical contributor, I could do worse than focus on the typically least-celebrated talent on most film projects. The original exchanges, which were conducted over several sessions at Ramon Reyes’s studio and home, were recorded by hand (ironic, considering the nature of Reyes’s craft, but he was not one to point that out); the notes have been lost, but I remember our speaking in Taglish and drafting the article accordingly, then deciding, with Reyes’s approval, on translating our conversations to English to dispense with the extensive translations. To jump to later sections, please click here for: The Once and Always Expert; Sound Principles; Sound Lessons; Within Hearing Range; Soundperson as Person; and Notes & Works Cited.

Ramon Reyes

If he had settled for security and stability, Ramon Reyes would not appear as imposing as he does now. South Asian features set in a six-foot frame, he confronts a career which has consistently resisted the efforts of his predecessors to draw forth some sense of importance, if not material well-being, from the star-blind business of movie-making. An impression of street-smart confidence rounds out an aura of intimidation, a trait the real character does not share: Reyes will be quick to point to himself as an epitome of his profession’s paradoxical nature. “The fact that producers reserve sound mixing for last among the phases of film production,” he growls, “implies that the process itself is indispensable. It’s the phase that finalizes every project, that in a sense prepares it for exhibition. Yet I still have to come across a film other than Mike de Leon’s which has a design for sound ready even at the pre-production stage.”

11011The voice derives a resonance not from volume but through a capacity to articulate with sound logic (pun intended). Close attention will eventually reveal, however, a modesty which would have disadvantaged most film aspirants who have only talent to fall back on. In spite of his attempts to draw attention to his profession instead of himself, Reyes can hardly help his propensity for perfection. Ten awards in a span of a little over seven years from four award-giving bodies, plus a special trophy intended as a commendation for collective technical excellence – no other track record remains as impressive so far in his or any other technical field of Philippine filmmaking. What makes the achievement extraordinary is not so much the ordinariness of the victor as the fact that no one who understands the import would begrudge him for it.

11011A Manileño from birth, Ramon Arevalo Reyes was a spark in the post-war baby boom which made possible the entrenchment of the star system in the 1960s and the emergence of movie patronage as a national distinction in the ’70s. The succession by Filipinos of nearby Taiwanese as the most movie-going people in the world, estimated for posterity by the latest edition of the Guinness Book of World Records (McWhirter) at almost twenty films per capita per annum, just about says all that needs to be told about the prevalence of the practice. And with the steady decline of the Filipino birth rate (ironically due in no small part to increased sexual awareness through films, which in turn has triggered off the social psyche’s conditioned conservatism as evidenced in family planning and anti-smut campaigns), filmmaking in the Philippines may revert to the purely commercial orientation of the late ’60s – minus the fanatic adulation afforded by a predominantly youthful population – unless an international market for local quality films be developed, or the high population growth rate returns.[1]

11011The attendant demand for formal training Reyes admits would faze him. “Except for Amang Sanchez, I know of no other soundman who has taken up sound engineering. That’s why I insist on being credited for ‘sound’ instead of for ‘sound engineering.’” Reyes himself holds an Associate in Electronics, which he finished in 1965 at the University of the East after two years of preparation for his childhood aspiration, a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering. Prior to that, he had typical middle-class preparations comprising elementary schooling at San Sebastian College and intermediate schooling at Don Bosco Technical Institute, where he spent his free time tinkering with machine shop equipment.

11011Movies then he watched purely for entertainment, until Mike de Leon, already an LVN Studios busybody, approached Reyes’s father Luis, already a star soundman recently rewarded by the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences for his work in Gerardo de Leon’s El Filibusterismo (1962), for a possible successor in the studio’s tradition of technical expertise. Although dynasticism was (and still remains) a feature of Philippine filmmaking, the elder Reyes refused responsibility for his son’s employment – more from a sense of propriety than self-preservation. Two other awards from regional festivals later, Luis Reyes shared his second Famas award with his son’s first for their work in Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975). The paternal team-up was to prove durable enough for a few more trophies for two consecutive years afterward – the first another Famas and the second an Urian from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino for Itim (with Sebastian Sayson) and the third another Urian for Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising, both by Mike de Leon, who has since defined a cycle in the Reyes line by retaining Ramon for all his succeeding projects. In 1979 the Reyeses worked on another Brocka film, Jaguar, which, like Maynila, was destined to capture the admiration of European critics in the early ’80s.

11011Yet for all his filial gratitude, Ramon Reyes would not encourage his children Carmelite, Lawrence, and Angelica, all under ten years of age, to work for film. “My success – if you could call it that – was due to a combination of luck and hard work, fifty-fifty. I would not want to have my kids take such big risks.” The family recently moved into a house of its own, after transferring several times from one residence to another, to a modest bungalow in Greenland subdivision in Cainta, Rizal. Reyes’ wife of twelve years, the former Virginia Alvarez, understands. She occasionally drops by LVN Studios, about an hour’s public-vehicle ride away from their place, to bring him some food or sometimes just keep him company. Consolation, however small, Reyes derives from realization that “other soundpersons are not paid well at all, especially when compared to movie workers in other fields.”

11011The Reyes household is always busy, accommodating an average of eight – residents, househelp, visitors, not to mention pets – at a time. The entrance leads to a living room which barely distinguishes itself from the adjacent dining room; this in turn leads to the garage, from which one could either cross the lawn back to the entrance or take a slightly longer route out through Sampaguita Road and back into the front gate. Ease of access is reinforced by the reassuring arrangement of available space as defined by cushions by the front door opposed by a hi-fidelity component rack built into book and record shelves, then by aquaria and aquatic equipment opposed by kitchen appliances in the dining room. Faced at thirty-seven with all this material evidence, Reyes would certainly feel left behind when compared with his would-have-been colleagues in engineering school. “I couldn’t even afford to sustain my fondness for raising goldfish,” he muses, brushing silver-streaked hair away from leaden-rimmed spectacles. “I simply discovered I could spend my leisure time on activities more appropriate to my profession.”

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The Once and Always Expert

Work for Ramon Reyes normally begins after lunch at the LVN sound studio and could proceed way into the night, to avoid the distraction caused by office transactions. While occupied last year with Oro, Plata, Mata, he often worked until morning with Peque Gallaga, whose first solo credit as director it was. Gallaga’s staid wife Madie, who line-produced the project for the Exeperimental Cinema of the Philippines, becomes uncharacteristically garrulous to praise the efforts Reyes expended on the film: “He would work with Peque like mad, sometimes insisting on perfecting what already seemed to us an acceptable soundtrack.” After a first print converted highbrow preview audiences from skepticism to acclamation, Reyes and Gallaga, in typical celebratory form, retreated into the cold gloom of the LVN sound studio to remix certain portions of the film, including the entire first and last reels.

11011It was the subtly improved soundtrack of snatches of dialogue floating more distinctly above the din of party chatter in the opening sequence that dispelled the only major complaint against Reyes’s work in Oro, Plata, Mata during the Urian deliberations. For what may stand an the most outstanding achievement ever – luxuriance and evocation in eight channels, instead of the already extravagant four – in sound engineering in local cinema, Reyes won his latest Urian as well as the Film Academy of the Philippines awards. As further evidence, however, that his work was no fluke, Reyes’ closest competitor would have been himself, for his work in Mike de Leon’s Batch ’81 where, in contrast with that of Oro, Plata, Mata, the use of sound observed austere prescriptions so as to epitomize the disembodiment of the characters from the rest of their social environment.

11011Reyes’s latest Urian trophy means a lot more to him than just another acknowledgment of a job well done: “My colleagues have been teasing me about winning the Urian only for films directed by Mike de Leon. This time I managed to somehow prove that I could outdo myself regardless of my familiarity with the filmmaker.” The Oro, Plata, Mata soundtrack Reyes recalls as a “very complicated effort, involving various mixing levels.” For one thing, he points out, the clarity of dialogue depended upon the purpose of the scene – meaning that dialogue may be either distinct, as in the intimate scenes, or almost drowned out, as in the party, outdoor, or massacre scenes. Sound effects, for another thing, had to be carefully filtered so as to avoid conflicts of purpose. The country-house generator, for example, had to sound practically subliminal so as not to intrude in the depiction of activity at the rural estate, while on the other hand the burning fields had to sound cacophonic so as to contrast with the stillness of the forest retreat in the next scene.

11011Behind Reyes’s exploit in Oro, Plata, Mata lies the experience of what he remembers as “learning almost purely from practice” – by his calculation, more than eighty field recordings and three hundred sound engineering work for films since his first credit, Romy Villaflor’s Assignment: Hongkong, in 1965; a more immediate predecessor in his use of naturalistic sound effects would be his then year-old output in Laurice Guillen’s Salome. “I used to work on about fifty films a year until Magna Tech Omni emerged as a major competitor in 1977, after which I could do only about thirty, sometimes as few as twenty, a year. Since sound mixing for film is my bread and butter, I don’t have the option of choosing whether I want to work on a given project or not; but at least one good project a year will compensate for all the mediocre ones.”

11011Reyes prefers to work on “relatively quiet” undertakings like Mike de Leon’s Itim and Kisapmata (1981), since these would be both creatively challenging yet “easy to work on, without the need to experiment with unnecessary sounds.” When the project bears more noise than promise, however, Reyes tries to sustain himself as far as the film would allow him to. “The advantage here is that the producers of such projects would not take the artistic side seriously, so they pay attention only to the earlier portions of the film. If my inspiration doesn’t last until the end, neither would their interest anyway. Usually we wind up impressed with each other, they in my efficiency and I in their carelessness.”

11011Although fluent in the abstractions pertaining to his profession, Reyes allows instinct to influence his performance. “Normally I allow an equal ratio between instinct and routine. But the more challenging the project, the more I tend to rely on instinct.” Contrary to logical expectations, he resorts to routine only when a “quantity, as opposed to quality,” project imposes purely professional, as opposed to artistic, demands, especially in terms of deadline. “You wouldn’t believe how some producers think post-production can be accomplished within one week but sometimes I get notices to finish my work in three days. In which case I’d barely have time to concentrate on quality, much less allow for inspiration.”

11011Before working on an artistically difficult project, Reyes would allow himself a whole day of rest. This he more often than not realizes through staying at home and listening to music. His stereo component system, an ingenious combination of old-fashioned speakers and contemporary hardware set in space-saving set-ups, provides him with all the fidelity he requires. Reyes believes in serious music as an extender of sound appreciation, and goes at the moment for the aural sensualities in old-time jazz and futuristic renditions of classics ranging from Bach to Wagner.

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Sound Principles

“Music,” Ramon Reyes maintains while playing Tomita’s synthesizer version of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” (from the Suite bergamasque), “is just another form of sound.” Reyes is beyond the assertion of the superiority of his element as justification for the existence of his profession; in fact he believes in the functional subordination of film sound to action. “During fight or chase scenes I avoid the use of music as much as possible. If it has to, music can come in more effectively before or after the action.” Indeed the current crop of progressive film musicians has been able to harmonize well with Reyes when it comes to projects they work on together – proof of which resides in the regularity with which a particular musician would win an award in the same film Reyes wins for. Among the aforementioned scorers would be Ryan Cayabyab, Lorrie Ilustre, Lutgardo Labad, Jun Latonio, Winston Raval/Vanishing Tribe, and foremost of all Max Jocson, whose efforts for de Leon’s Itim and Brocka’s Cain at Abel and Maynila can be taken as textbook samples of the unobtrusive deployment of film music.

11011In so far as the Urian, the award which ensconced Reyes as the best craftsperson in his field, is concerned, Reyes says: “The criterion the critics use for sound is correct.” Said criterion goes: Sound in a film is effective if dialogue, music, sound effects, and silence are vividly reproduced and are creatively orchestrated. “I would prefer, however, that artistic approach be given more weight.” A preferable direction lies in the integration of art and technique as presumed in the criterion stipulated by the MPP for music, thus: Music in a film is considered effective if it underscores meaning, heightens mood and emotion, helps define character, and reinforces the rhythm and pace of the film. Replacement of the word music with sound, however, would result in an ambiguity brought about by the differences between organized and disorganized sound. Hence a more ideal criterion would have the latter starting out as sound, particularly the use of dialogue, music, sound effects, and silence – granting, of course, that such a conception would be comprehensible for the average industry practitioner. “In itself,” Reyes concedes, “the existing criterion is already too advanced for second-rate associates. One time I argued with a producer over as basic a technicality as perspective. He refused to consider the possibility that the volume of dialogue may diminish when the speaker moves to a distance or out of the frame.”

11011In any case, the resolution of the conflict between style and substance in sound engineering could then facilitate concentration on more advanced theoretical issues, among which the pre-eminence of original sound over artificial sound Reyes would propound as his favorite crusade: “The reputation of movie soundpersons suffered with the emergence of the sound studio. I used to disagree with my father over the limitations of dubbing, but now I realize that I wouldn’t mind sacrificing clarity for ambience and perspective anytime.” The technical clean-up assured by the availability of the sound studio developed a set of conventions that do not necessarily meet the requisites of realistic reproduction. Ambience, for example, is usually idealized to the point where a rarefied audibility is preferred to the sonority of an enclosed marketplace, even when the setting in question happens to be, say, an enclosed marketplace. This anti-realistic anomaly Reyes traces to the abuse of the studio’s capability of controlling unwanted effects: as a result, serious performers are themselves expected to vocalize in a normal indoor range of volume, a standard which slurs over a national mentality acquired from centuries of conditioning under loquacious colonizers.

11011“I remember my father’s very first piece of advice: observe rehearsal carefully for the cuing of dialogue, or the magic of the moment will be lost. That was the time when the expertise of mikepersons was indispensable to the set.” One of the more obvious examples Reyes mentions is the feeding of lines in comedy. “Since performers dub their lines one at a time all by themselves, the sense of timing, not to mention spontaneity, is difficult to recapture.” An element of nostalgia never fails to inform Reyes’ ideal of a project as “one hundred-percent original sound.” He started out as a field recorder and successfully survived the transition to studio engineering. At AM Productions, wherein he practiced for eight months in 1966, he had the opportunity to work with the late Gerardo de Leon, now generally regarded as the most significant filmmaker of his time, on an omnibus project called Tatlong Kasaysayan ng Pag-ibig. “We had already exposed some two hundred feet of film for a master shot when I shouted ‘Cut!’ because of the intrusion of extraneous sound. ‘Manong’ displayed no anger, he just offered friendly advice regarding how unnecessary sounds on the set can become effective incidental sounds on the screen.”

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Sound Lessons

Such training for sound expertise Reyes declares cannot be acquired from studio work alone. “When I suggested to Mike de Leon that we fill in a pause when Ward Luarca sees Chanda Romero for the first time at the gate in Batch ’81, I didn’t even consider the symbolic significance of a jet plane roaring overhead. I just thought that if I were recording on the set and a plane did fly overhead, I would think first, just as ‘Manong’ would have, of how interesting it might turn out to be.” Reyes points with pride to his work in Brocka’s Maynila, which exploited the field sounds of Chinatown, Quiapo, and Diliman, requiring only about thirty-percent studio dubbing. The foreign-trained Amang Sanchez he refers to as evidence of how “locally, we’re still catching up with the refinements of dubbing when a big-budget prestige project like [Francis Coppola’s] Apocalypse Now (1979), which I managed to observe, used original sound almost entirely throughout.” Sanchez may have pioneered in alerting contemporary local audiences to the viability of original sound through his work in Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Brutal (1980) and Moral (1982), but Reyes looks forward to single-handedly dissipating the myth of its inadequacy once and for all.

11011The local film industry fell behind its foreign counterparts ironically by trying to overtake what appeared to have been a trend toward studio engineering in the 1960s. But considering the fact that other local industries were (and still are) reliant upon foreign, and particularly American, ones, the transition from field to studio would have been inevitable anyway. Besides, as Reyes recalls, the lack of professionalism among performers then as now incurred additional production expenses. “While waiting for a latecomer, ambience would be modified, mainly because set noise varies according to the time of day.” A thoroughly professional production like Lamberto V. Avellana’s filmization of national artist Nick Joaquin’s A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino (1966) could have benefited then from an expensive process called “direct optical,” where sound was transferred directly from field to film. This was during a time, according to Reyes, “when urban centers were not as congested as they are now,” thereby enabling field sound, as handled by his father, to be recorded with a minimum of intrusions. “Today’s typical prestige productions would not risk as much as LVN did then,” Reyes reflects. “Modest casting, domestic situations would normally be given proportionate technical treatment, not the kind of services enjoyed by Avellana’s particular project.”

11011In contrast, the disuse of field sound in Oro, Plata, Mata makes the younger Reyes’s achievement therein all the more admirable. “It’s a shame,” says Madie Gallaga, “that we decided upon ‘Monching’ only during the post-production stage. Several sounds in the rain forests of Negros are not available on standard sound-effects tracks. Also some stage-trained performers could not re-deliver their particular brand of upper-class hysteria in the studio. If we had managed to capture all the field sounds expertly enough for the final track, I would say that there would have been a qualitative difference.” Aware of the profit-oriented realities of the ’80s, Reyes would rather pin his hopes for the resurgence of original sound on the now-famous persistence of the Filipino filmmaker. “We are definitely behind the industries of other countries when it comes to facilities for recording original sound, but available local equipment might prove competent enough.” Resistance Reyes foresees as dual in nature: “Industry bigwigs will of course refuse to consider costlier arrangements on the set, much less buy additional equipment. But I’m also afraid that a cult of purists has developed among filmmakers – many of them might think twice before giving up technical deftness for authenticity.”

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Within Hearing Range

Artistic issues are not the only problems confronting the Filipino film craftsperson. More immediate ones center on the need to survive. Although Reyes acknowledges that “our pay here [at LVN] is okay – we earn better compared to the average movie worker,” he is also aware that most of his colleagues “have to resort to sidelines.” Of the nearly one hundred members of the Sound Technicians Association for Motion Pictures or STAMP, only about ten are actively involved in the more lucrative phase of post-production. The two-year-old FAP guild, first headed by Famas multi-awardee Juanito Clemente and now by Magna Tech Omni resident soundperson Rolando Ruta (helping out Reyes’ indisposed father, who at present is recovering from a mild stroke), has been striving to finalize a standardization of rates for duly accredited members.

11011Compared with the experience of the other FAP guilds, the STAMP could run into a lot of static owing to the crosslines involved in the allocation of a post-production budget which could reach as low as Php 20,000 out of the Php 1 million required for a passable production.[2] Frets Reyes, “How can you demand an increase in salary when you still have to look out for what you can get for your particular phase of production?” More often than not, a practitioner can get too grateful for a generous budget for sound engineering to be able to worry about how much will go to her or him as payment for her or his services. As can readily be gleaned from application forms for workshops and courses of the Movie Workers Welfare Fund, bright-eyed locals raring to crash into the festive world of filmmaking almost one-to-a-person rank sound supervision as their least-preferred field of specialty. “It doesn’t have glamour, and it doesn’t have the capacity, financial or otherwise, to compensate for the absence of glamour,” Reyes says. “The age range of sound supervisors is thirty-five to thirty-eight and increasing. The young ones think it’s not rewarding enough as a craft while the older ones say it’s not rewarding enough as a profession.”

11011And then of course there are the several discordant influences prevailing upon filmmaking as both art and craft. Censorship at the moment has generated the loudest uproar: “Sound doesn’t suffer as much from [celluloid] cuts as do the visuals, although the effect is more pronounced on music. The more important repercussion is the limitation the process imposes on post-production. The extra time the film spends with the censors should be used for necessary improvements on the finished product.” As to the provision of help for candidates for legal derailment, Reyes admits that soundpersons can only supply creative detours – “the creaking of a bed or the moaning of a couple in a lovemaking scene can be toned down so as not to become too suggestive.”

11011Other professional hazards come even from well-meaning sources, or what in a broad sense may be termed “self-styled sound critics.” Reyes enumerates three examples: the clumsy synchronizing of dialogue, the re-processing of prints from positives instead of master negatives, and the absence of standards for sound equipment in commercial theaters – all of which have detrimental effects on film sound. “When people hear out-of-sync delivery, hisses and scratches, or just plain bad playback, they tend to blame the soundperson without figuring out that the film editor is responsible for synchronization, the laboratory technician for print processing, and the theater owner for playback equipment. The solutions to these problems would require greater effort than the STAMP can muster, but we can go a long way if we start with enlightened movie-goers.” He tactfully avoids mentioning critics, but the implication is, or should be, deafening enough.

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Soundperson as Person

For his part, Reyes intends to persist in the pursuit of his career in the neglected dimension of film sound. Given the opportunity, he would not hesitate to work “for about three or four years in a more competitive milieu – the United States would be perfect – to acquire familiarity with advanced facilities and exchange knowledge and experience with experts.” Immigration would be out of the question though. “I’d still prefer to practice here, although a generation from now, when new blood comes in, I might have to start a stable business of my own just to be able to get by.” Such pessimism may not be in keeping with the promise of progress in local cinema, but for Reyes it will do. “At least by then I might be able to contribute a few things on my own terms.”

11011The prospects would not seem too far-fetched when Reyes’s status as the country’s premier soundperson is taken into account. He has just finished working double-time on another ECP project called Misteryo sa Tuwa (dir. Abbo de la Cruz), is winding up work with Sebastian Sayson on still another ECP film called Soltero (dir. Pio de Castro III) as well as with Juanito Clemente on a Regal production called Sinner or Saint (dir. Mel Chionglo), and is set to tackle the latest Mike de Leon film, Sister Stella L. Believers in historical determinism might all-too-readily concede that Reyes’s award-based recognition for this year will be ensured by any of the four titles mentioned.[3] Whatever the turnout of events, Ramon Reyes would be content with awaiting his next quality offer while earning his keep from the usual ones and relaxing with biking and ball games. “I could get by with a good massage or an out-and-out comedy movie, so long as I don’t get to dwell too much on the technical side of life.” So says one compleat professional, the ace technician in his field of endeavor, and his colleagues, competitors, and audience can dwell on the certainty that his craft, consummate as it is, will contain enough humor and humanity to go around for some time to come.

Notes

[1] By some estimates rapid population growth not only returned to the Philippines, though as of 2020 it is still outpaced by Singapore, which is also comparatively highly developed (World Factbook).

[2] Excluding inflation, Php 20,000 would be about 500 and Php 1 million about 20,000 US dollars. These relative costs will be difficult to adjust to current rates, since the digitalization of production has restandardized film practice. Contemporary independent films, for example, are known to have cost as little as Php 2 million, while low-cost studio productions might cost at least ten times that amount.

[3] As it turned out, Reyes (during my last year as a member) did compete with himself and received his latest critics’ award for Mike de Leon’s Sister Stella L.; with four more trophies afterward, he would emerge as topnotch winner, though lifetime achievement awards have so far been given to practitioners in other categories.

Works Cited

Avellana, Lamberto V., dir. A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino. Scr. Donato Valentin and Trinidad Reyes. Diadem Productions, 1965.

Brocka, Lino, dir. Cain at Abel. Scr. Ricardo Lee. Cine Suerte, 1982.

———, dir. Jaguar. Scr. Ricardo Lee and Jose F. Lacaba. Bancom Audiovision, 1979.

———, dir. Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag. Scr. Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. Cinema Artists, 1975.

Chionglo, Mel, dir. Sinner or Saint. Scr. Ricardo Lee. Regal Films, 1984.

Coppola, Francis Ford, dir. & co-scr. Apocalypse Now. Co-scr. John Milius. American Zoetrope, 1979.

De Castro, Pio III, dir. Soltero. Scr. Bienvenido Noriega, Jr. Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1984.

De la Cruz, Abbo, dir. & scr. Misteryo sa Tuwa. Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1984.

De Leon, Gerardo, dir. El Filibusterismo. Scr. Adrian Cristobal. Bayanihan and Arriba Film Productions, 1962.

———, dir. Tatlong Kasaysayan ng Pag-ibig. Scr. Pierre Salas. AM Productions, 1966.

De Leon, Mike, dir. & co-scr. Batch ’81. Co-scr. Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. and Raquel Villavicencio. MVP Pictures, 1982.

———, dir. Itim. Scr. Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. and Gil Quito. Cinema Artists, 1976.

———, dir. & co-scr. Kisapamata. Co-scr. Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. and Raquel Villavicencio. Bancom Audiovision, 1981.

———, dir. & co-scr. Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising. Co-scr. Rey Santayana. LVN Pictures, 1977.

———, dir. & co-scr. Sister Stella L. Co-scr. Jose F. Lacaba and Jose Almojuela. Regal Films, 1984.

Diaz-Abaya, Marilou, dir. Brutal. Scr. Ricardo Lee. Bancom Audiovision, 1980.

———, dir. Moral. Scr. Ricardo Lee. Seven Stars, 1982.

Gallaga, Peque, dir. Oro, Plata, Mata. Scr. Jose Javier Reyes. Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1982.

Guillen, Laurice, dir. Salome. Scr. Ricardo Lee. Bancom Audiovision, 1981.

McWhirter, Norris. Guinness Book of World Records. New York: Bantam, 1983.

Villaflor, Romy, dir. Assignment: Hongkong. Scr. Ben Feleo. Ambassador Productions, 1965.

World Bank. “Population Growth (Annual %).” Table to 2010-2014.

The World Factbook. “Country Comparisons – Population Growth Rate.” 2020.

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Book Texts – Features

LOVE WAS THE DRUG

Huwaran Hulmahan
Warning: emo material coming up.

11011A basic personal contradiction underlies the existence of this introductory essay. Johven Velasco had asked me, as his colleague and sometime mentor, to write one for his first book, Huwaran/Hulmahan: Reading Stars, Icons, and Genre Films in Philippine Cinema, then at the manuscript stage (n.b.: a distinction must be made between the aforementioned Huwaran/Hulmahan and the present Huwaran/Hulmahan Atbp.). My reply, in so many words, was that an intro would be more useful for a young author who needed some sort of validation from an established personage; in his case, he’d had enough of a stature to introduce himself, so to speak, so I told him he’d be better off asking friends like me to just review his manuscript for the benefit of the reading public.

11011The outpour of grief that attended his sudden death on September 1, 2007 might have surprised those who knew him as only an occasional credit or by-line or lumbering, cane-dependent figure. Velasco, for the most part and increasingly toward the end of his life, epitomized as nearly complete a combination of Othernesses that anyone could find in an individual in his situation. He was a teacher without the necessary advanced qualifications, illegitimate and impoverished in a middle-class milieu, intelligent and overweight in the face of middle-brow pop culture’s philosophobia and lookism, spiritual amid the materialist orientation of liberal academia, principled even when surrounded by pragmatists, and openly queer by any measure, when most men from generations later than his still opted for the comforts and conveniences of the closet. To top it all, his was a looming presence – about as in-your-face as Otherness could get.

11011When he lost his full-time teaching position at the University of the Philippines Film Institute (UPFI), his cri de coeur in the form of a mobile-phone SMS became the equivalent of a much-quoted haiku, the lamentation of a Pinoy Job: Bakit ako pinarurusahan? Naging tamad ba ako? Naging masama ba ako? [Why am I being punished? Did I turn lazy? Did I become venal?] No one had the heart to point out to him that what had changed was not so much him but the world around him. For where he had remained an old-school maestro, benevolent toward friends and gentlemanly toward enemies, everyone else, even those who walked the hallowed halls of academe, had long already internalized the dog-eat-dog values that typify periods of developmental haste.

11011Huwaran/Hulmahan was one of the means by which he had hoped to recover from the devastating financial and psychological blow dealt by the loss of his UPFI instructorship, the one incident from which he could actually never recover, the straw that finally broke his over-burdened back. He had originally been assigned to a number of non-compensatory academic functions, all of which he tackled in his usual selfless and enthusiastic manner. But when it came time for everyone else to take stock of his situation vis-á-vis the university’s up-or-out policy for untenured faculty, no one came to his defense to explain to higher authorities why he had not been able to make any headway in completing his master’s degree.

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11011When he told me this kind of casually brutal though legally defensible negligence would not have happened if, among other factors, I had stayed on instead of decamping for the proverbial greener pastures, I figured I owed him a favor, but I let him apply on his own terms. In response to a call for papers to the Korean conference I was coordinating, he submitted the Huwaran/Hulmahan manuscript – to which I had to answer that he had enough quality material to constitute an entire panel unto himself. His response to his experience of attending the conference was to re-assess his predicaments and formulate a few resolutions, but the form it took was an amazing and much-circulated (and tragically self-prophetic) epistolary piece that now serves as the epilogue of this collection – a funny, self-deprecating, astutely observed, yet ultimately heart-breaking narrative that reflected as much of the peoples surrounding him as it revealed a heretofore unheralded ability: Velasco the raconteur. Philippine film commentary is rife with personal essays, but “Korean Rhapsody” stands out for having been written during its author’s fullest maturation, where a peculiar combination of wisdom and kindness suffuses the usual gestures toward camp, ambition, self-doubt, and defiant hopefulness.

11011Huwaran/Hulmahan Atbp. may be translated as “Model/Mold Etc.” The present volume differs from Velasco’s earlier compilation in that it contains, apart from his autobiographical essay and all the original Huwaran/Hulmahan pieces, a number of journalistic contributions that started appearing in a number of periodicals since the start of Velasco’s term as UP faculty, as well as some of his plans for revisions (notably the splitting up of the longest article into one essay and a short fan article). Upon my return from my stint as exchange teacher in Korea, I kept asking him about his Huwaran/Hulmahan manuscript, with the intention of convincing him to submit it as the equivalent of a creative thesis before presenting it to a university press for publication. He was receptive to the idea – it was consistent with the resolutions he listed in his personal re-assessment – yet in a few months he seemed to have turned against everything he wanted to continue or complete, and instead talked, albeit jokingly, about setting himself up for his eventual retirement. The day he failed to wake up, he was scheduled to take a trip to a farm to consider some options in agri-business, a direction that he’d said he was reluctant to take. His partner of several decades, Jess Evardone, stayed over at his house to accompany him, and was the first person to discover that he was no longer alive. But in staying on first in the hearts of a few, and later in the minds of many more, his Otherness was thus in the end both completed by his death yet paradoxically also now fully absent.

11011An expanding circle of friends decided that Velasco’s legacy was worth maintaining, and the present volume is only one of several planned outputs. In putting together all the writings we could salvage, from hard drives and disks through email attachments to scanned manuscripts, I got to realize in hindsight that Velasco’s hesitation in getting his original manuscript published was not really because he had given up on accomplishing anything. On the contrary, he had lately discovered the psychic rewards of being a public intellectual operating in the feedback-intensive field of popular culture, so much so that one way, perhaps the only way, and definitely the first way of looking at Huwaran/Hulmahan Atbp. is that it is a work in progress, whose final form would have been defined possibly a year or two later had he lived on, depending on the insights that he could have drawn from his intensive coverage of the local movie scene.

11011Yet the current manuscript, for all its gaps, overlaps, and reversals, already constitutes an impressive achievement in itself, one that makes it possible to canonize its author as the millennium’s first major Filipino film commentator, relegating a significant number of other aspirants (myself included) to the status of also-rans, Salieris to his Mozart. Even in its still-to-be-finished state, Huwaran/Hulmahan Atbp. is indicative of Velasco’s ability to bridge distant and contemporary periods and subject their emblematic phenomena to sharp critical scrutiny leavened with wry humor. But more than a mere display of intellectual acrobatics is one quality that remains in full, regardless of the condition of the compilation or of its individual articles: Velasco’s unabashed affection for his material, his refreshingly frank appreciation and admission of cultural pleasure, as evident in the collection’s emphasis on performers and their films.

11011“In Praise of the Film ‘Star,’” the very last article he wrote and his first to be published posthumously, serves to determine the general direction of the collection as a whole. It is quickly followed (in Part 1: Fan Texts) by a series of fan articles, and the selection of subjects says as much about the author as they do about the performers themselves: chronologically, Velasco first wrote about someone he identified with (Susan Roces), then about those he had known personally, which in a sense amount to the same thing. The articles grow in length as Velasco proceeds to problematize questions of culture and political economy. Before discussing stardom itself, we turn to a section where Velasco foregrounds the issue that lurks behind everything he wrote as an academic – i.e., gender politics, the best thing, he said once, that graduate studies ever gave him. When he first heard me use the word “transgressiveness” as an indicator of progressivity he remarked that he’d always wanted to aspire to that type of ideal, and was glad that it could now be openly acknowledged in contemporary scholarship; I must add that he took the concept much farther than I could have imagined it could go in Philippine film studies.

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11011Hence under Part 2: Gender Texts he goes to town in imbuing female personae with masculine attributes and vice versa, and objectifies the Filipino male with admirably shameless delight, to the extent of embracing (figuratively in print and, who knows, literally in real life) a veritable stable of “bad” boys. In returning to a consideration of the movie star (Part 3: Star Texts), he discourses with renewed authority, effectively restoring to prominence the real-life reel couple he regarded as king and queen of the make-believe world that had provided him with much-needed solace during his formative years. The collection closes with a large group of articles, Part 4: Film Texts, that in one respect derive directly from his fascination with star personalities; the other respect is the one that also justifies Velasco’s position as our foremost film expert in the new millennium: he could write knowingly about the present, without the need to demonstrate any high-art or film-buff pretension, mainly because he maintained so much fondness for a past he knew first-hand. This section ends with his challenge to both organized and practicing Filipino film critics (often two discrete categories, as it happens nowadays): after demonstrating how to properly evaluate first a festival period and then a calendar year of sustained film practice, Velasco points out, in laypersons’ terms, precisely what makes award-giving and comparative auteurist analyses so dissatisfying – i.e., their practitioners use critical-sounding evaluation as a subterfuge instead of facing up to the manifold challenges and contradictions of genuine critical writing.

11011All of which brings us back to Velasco’s primary motive for writing – his love for all kinds of media of expression, whether belonging to high art or mass culture. In retrospect it wasn’t just the discursive potentials of local cinema that Velasco approached with this strange (in both senses of unusual and queer) combination of tenderness, acceptance, and rigor. Whenever he reflected on his personal and professional misfortunes, his tendency to break down in private followed by his refusal to protest the many injustices visited on him seemed then like a confirmation of the multiplicity of weaknesses that inexorably brought about his utter marginalization and ultimately his demise. But with this volume in hand, it has become evident that he was determined to fight after all, and the form that his resistance took was the hardest for anyone to muster, more so for someone in his condition: to struggle, to the bitter end if necessary, for love of everyone, and to respond to those who abused him with an even greater dose of forgiveness and understanding.

11011He died enviably, peacefully in his sleep, just as he had lived unenviably for most of his too-short fifty-nine years (or a full sixty, by East Asian reckoning), constantly worrying where his next red centavo would come from just so that he could write one more article, teach one more class, mentor one more advisee, direct one more script, crack one more joke, celebrate one more friend’s achievement. Huwaran/Hulmahan Atbp. is one among several proofs of how generous he had been, to a country, a society, and a university that could not properly figure out just how much he was giving out, so that he could be given in return the basic things he needed in order to attain all that he had ever asked for – a decent living, nothing more. First our Job, then our Christ: he died brokenhearted so that we could all now, if we choose to do so, relish the many delights bequeathed unto us by his selflessness.

[Originally published as “Context” in Huwaran/Hulmahan Atbp. (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2009): ix-xiv]

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THE DOLPHY CONUNDRUM

An earlier generation of Pinoy media observers would have thought that the death of Dolphy, once it arrived, would have left behind the issue of his profligacy: the usual tally of the deceased’s offspring and their corresponding mothers alone would already bring up the issue of his sexual insatiability and the potency of his allegedly humongous “secret weapon.” Yet it is a measure of the extent of the Philippines’ cultural maturation that the only controversy left literally in his wake is the question of why he had not been declared a National Artist, the country’s highest official distinction for people in his profession.

11011His earlier nomination, during the previous round, was supposedly sabotaged by the objection of a highly influential culturatus. The ensuing round of exchanges has been seemingly obsessed with the violation of a confidentiality agreement – a strange and moot assertion, considering that the National Artist selection process is performed as part of a mandate of the national government and is therefore always open to public inquiry. Nevertheless a resolution, as far as one can be determined, has been promised by no less than the President, with his assurance of support for any future recommendation for the award to be handed to the late comedian.

11011At this point a personal disclosure ought to be made: not so much because of my past association with some of the institutions involved in the controversy, but because of my incomplete coverage of a film artist who I presume to critically evaluate. I can probably count about a dozen Dolphy films that I have seen, and a whole lot of film excerpts, but this would not pass my own test for serious attention to someone’s body of work. Yet for someone with over 220 film titles (not to mention a successful TV crossover) dating to over 60 years back, Dolphy himself might be able to forgive anyone who’d been unable to watch a hundred or more of his own titles.

11011With the National Artist question, the answer may be parsed as simply and literally as possible: he was a major star (possibly the Philippines’ most prolific one even solely in terms of film projects) and was therefore “national,” and he had possessed sufficient artistry not only in maintaining this status but also in impressing colleagues and (certain) critics, including the official mainstream organization (with which I was also once associated) that had given him a lifetime achievement prize. Yet the next logical question, of whether being both nationally renowned and unquestionably artistic automatically makes one deserving of being called a National Artist, is where a lot of qualifiers have to be raised.

11011Dolphy had been part of the wave of local stars who wrested control of their careers from the vertically integrated studio system of the 1950s (the so-called First Golden Age) by producing their own projects; one such figure, Fernando Poe, Jr., had already been granted the recognition, while an arguably just-as-vital name, deposed Pinoy President Joseph “Erap” Estrada, may never receive it, because first and foremost, the distinction is inevitably political, and it would simply be more politic to bestow it on Dolphy than on Erap. Yet unlike the major stars who emerged immediately after World War II, Dolphy had been saddled with twin disadvantages that make his triumph more remarkable for its time.

11011One of those liabilities, poverty, was an acceptable one, in the sense that the democratic system being upheld by the republic (exemplified by the social mobility afforded by media stardom) allowed for individuals to transcend such class-based limitations. The other matter, his East Asianness, was a far trickier situation for anyone to navigate. The war had traumatized the population into an affirmation of the racial stereotyping originally propagated by the early European colonizers – that of distinguishing between the “right” kind of fair-skinned people (Caucasians) and the “wrong” kind (East Asians, who were earlier demonized as pagans and were later imaged as ruthless colonizers). Hence Filipino aspirants to movie stardom had to misrepresent their mestizo features as non-Asian; or, if this were impossible to pull off, then they had to settle for less-profitable second-tier status as villains (e.g. Bruno Punzalan), seductresses (Bella Flores), or comedians, where Dolphy (alongside Chichay, Babalu, and a long list of other names) found – and managed to build on – his niche.

11011It was certainly no help when newly emerging nationalists with anti-imperialist sentiments sought to critique Philippine culture’s excessive white love by producing xenophobic literature that targeted the local Chinese community. This context helps explain not just Dolphy’s long-term political neutrality (just as Chinese Filipinos were known to support both establishment and opposition candidates during elections) but also why his type of comedy evolved toward a safe, family-friendly, middle-brow variety. Of his few forays with “serious” filmmakers, none had been with Manuel Conde or Ishmael Bernal, the National Artist auteurs who had reputations for scathing social satire. In fact he had tended to fall into the same misconception that the biggest Hollywood clowns, from Charlie Chaplin to Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey, had about serious material: that it had to be unfunny in order to “deserve” respect.

11011Ironically it was also as a result of this nationalist resurgence that East Asians (Filipinos or otherwise) were finally able to attain star status in local media, starting with the distinctly chinita Vilma Santos all the way through the frankly named Rico Yans, Sandara Parks, and Kim Chius of the present, with his own children deploying his once-suppressed surname; any number of leaders – all the way to Presidents and Cardinals – no longer need to remain silent about their overseas ancestry.

11011How then should good old Pidol be assessed? His National Artist award will be handed down, barring unforeseen abnormal circumstances, and that would restore some symbolic balance to the excesses in our history of racism, however long-gone this tendency might have been. But it would be far more instructive for his audiences to remain aware of his weaknesses as much as his virtues, and the all-too-human reasons that had forced him to resort to the self-limiting career measures that he, in a sense, had no way of avoiding.

[First published July 12, 2012, in The FilAm]

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MANOY TAKES HIS LEAVE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note

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

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THE CARNAL MORAL OF A BRUTAL MIRACLE

One fascinating thing about having been present during the emergence of critical awareness in Philippine cinema was observing how games of auteur favoritism played out: who would be the critics’ pets and how would the rest fare in relation to them? The way the rules were formulated – a series of commentaries by organized critics that built up toward an annual awards ceremony – made for dramatic though ultimately hollow displays as a community of artists would be set one against another, with those who won more trophies regarded as first among their peers. The problem would be not so much the occasional lapse in judgment (Ishmael Bernal losing as director of Manila by Night [1980], Nora Aunor undervalued for some of the best performances in global cinema) as the regressive impact of film awards on cultural understanding; awards could not serve as periodic summations of critical evaluation simply because there is rarely any real criticism behind them. Influence-peddling probably, favoritism definitely, but critical thinking? Only if we accept celeb-fetishism as worthy of serious scholarly consideration.

11011Marilou Diaz-Abaya was one of the early victims of this still-ongoing practice of intellectual barbarism masquerading as earnest cultural analysis. Emerging fully formed and initiating a so-far unparalleled film series on Philippine femininities, mostly with the same team of close associates providing assistance, she met with dismissive responses from the exact same group of people who should have known best. Her recent death, after an extended bout with breast cancer, had met with a lot of appreciative reminiscences, evidence of the care and humor with which she prepared for the end; yet whether this kind of appreciation will ultimately extend to her body of work – that both remains to be seen and does not excuse the neglect with which her practice had been met. None of her major films (except for two star vehicles on Viva Films) is available on DVD; their restoration might be all that remains, if justice deserves to be served, toward the rehabilitation of her stature as major Pinoy film artist.

11011In retrospect, it would be easy to see how Diaz-Abaya could be so casually written off. Not only was she young, she had come from financial privilege and so could afford extensive film training, then-unavailable locally. Her circle included some of the most prestigious players the industry had ever seen: Ishmael Bernal mentored her, Jesse Ejercito produced her projects, and Ricardo Lee (the only one still actively practicing his craft) wrote scripts for her. It were as if she had been an interloper, and she had enough self-deprecating humility to preempt everyone in cracking jokes about her sheltered upbringing. Moreover, film practice at the time had attracted the finest talents in the country, facilitated in no small part by the fact that the Marcoses, despite their ruthless control of media, were sufficiently star-struck (Ferdinand won the presidency via biographical blockbusters, Imelda had screen-tested for the studio that produced her husband’s films) to treat film as their fair-haired child, their showcase of progressivity and proof to the world of their cultivation of democratic space.

11011Thus critics had no lack of talent to uphold, and shelving a relatively young newcomer who came from the “wrong” (that is, the right) side of the tracks would not count for much when so many others and so much else could be celebrated. Lino Brocka could come up with an instantly recognizable global classic in Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975), and Ishmael Bernal could presently respond with Manila by Night, arguably an even more significant contribution. Diaz-Abaya staked her claim to this order of filmic discourse by proffering Moral (1982), which expanded the city-film setting to include the newly formed metropolitan area and focused on women’s issues. Differing from Maynila, Moral sustained the sexual politics and multi-character format of Manila by Night; if the Bernal film still stood heads and shoulders above everything else, then both Maynila and Moral might be seen as its proper bookends, one anticipating and the other upholding the middle production and sharing its stature as major Philippine film confabulations.

11011Interviewed by phone, Lee recalled how Diaz-Abaya knew the long-term value of their output: Moral was “the only movie where my name and [producer] Jesse Ejercito’s appeared along with hers above the title,” he said, adding how her readiness to share credit extended to a directing class where he handled the writing portion as well as to the joint memoir of their professional collaboration that they had nearly finalized when the end arrived. He explained further why his scripts with her, and her films with him, have marked each other like no other Filipino director-writer team-up had ever had: “No other director treated my material with the openness and care that she did. Some of the materials we tackled were new to her – queerness, prostitution, incest, promiscuity, atheism – but with her I always had the assurance that she would set aside her biases and preferences and come around to the vision in our material.”

11011What compounds the difficulty of evaluating Diaz-Abaya’s output was her restlessness which, given how limited her time had been, may now appear as an eagerness to cover as much ground as her seemingly boundless energy could allow. I had occasion to interact with her twice, once in graduate school when she dropped by New York on her way home from a European film festival, and another time about a year ago when her cancer had been in remission; each time I was with a “younger Marilou,” first film critic Bliss Cua Lim and then filmmaker Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, and both times it still amazes me to recall how she had no other agenda except to indulge in intelligent exchanges. Earlier she had just finished Milagros (1997) and announced that she felt it was time to tackle films about men: “I’m not sure I’ll be as successful as I had been with [films on] women,” she said, “but I have to take this risk so I can know for sure.” More recently, she had just released her last film project, Ikaw ang Pag-ibig (2011), but she talked with undiminished excitement about teaching, research, writing, and spiritual preparation – everything (except perhaps the last) that I and everyone else I know had been doing.

11011What will always haunt me about her is my envy about how she never allowed any limitation to stand in her way: she consorted with far older adults when she was young, opted for a profession dominated by biological men, ran with a crowd far removed from her genteel and well-heeled origins, pursued topics and challenges way beyond her comfort zone, and kept looking forward even with death staring her down for years. She welcomed the revitalization of film practice via the shift to digital technology, but was never remiss in cautioning against the dangers of excess privilege – and who better to know about this than her? In one of several excellent interviews that have cropped up all over Philippine news outlets, she made mention of how indie-film production could entrap its practitioners; after affirming how respect for the audience should be “non-negotiable,” she proceeded to explain the merits of the currently most popular (and consequently most derided) local genre, the romantic comedy. This was a lesson that her generation of filmmakers learned the hard way: that the way to improve a much-abused mode of practice is not to reject it, but rather to seize it and transform it so that the people who attend to it will benefit from patronizing it.

11011Marilou Diaz-Abaya had always connected and insisted on learning and never hesitated to share what she had. In a too-short lifespan she had earned much more than a beautiful farewell, but in the meanwhile that is all we had been able to give, even as the harder long-term work of revaluation lies ahead.

[First published December 12, 2012, as “Marilou Diaz-Abaya, 57: Rule Breaker, Risk Taker” in The FilAm]

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A NATIONAL ARTIST WE DESERVE

Of whether Nora Cabaltera Villamayor, legally a senior citizen of the Philippines and permanent resident of the US, is an accomplished artist there can be no doubt. One might inspect the record of her multimedia accomplishments – as recording artist, television performer, stage actress, concert act, and film producer and thespian – and concede that she may have excelled in many, if not most, of these areas; one might even be a serious observer of any of these fields of endeavor (as I have been) and assert that no one else comes close, although many certainly aspire to her level of achievement.

11011Not surprisingly, the rejection by President Benigno Aquino III of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts’s endorsement of Aunor has occasioned a number of impassioned and articulate responses, starting with social networks, by now filtering through mass media, and inevitably destined to land in scholarly discussions, with the Philippines’s own major indexed humanities journal, Kritika Kultura of Ateneo de Manila University, slated to publish a special section devoted to her. (Personal disclosure: I am in charge of this specific project, as forum editor.) The nature of the reactions should not surprise anyone attuned to Philippine popular culture: the late-1960s working-class devotees who demanded for, and got, the teen idols they wanted have since grown along with them, many gentrifying and positioned in various capacities all over the globe.

11011It would have been instructive for the president’s culture team to have looked into the origin of what National Artist for Literature and Magsaysay Awardee Nick Joaquin described as a phenomenon, in one of his landmark journalism articles. For way before the 1986 middle-class people-power revolt that restored the oligarchy that Aquino effectively represents, an earlier, limited, though genuinely working-class form of people power, comprising mostly rural migrants working as factory hands and domestic labor, discovered the pleasures of pop-culture consumerism and ignored the dictates of the then-already enfeebled studio system of the so-called First Golden Age of Philippine cinema.

11011Rather than flock to the presentations of the typical European-featured and bourgeoisified talents then still being insistently launched by the major studios, the new urbanites, still capable of earning disposable income without seeking overseas employment, used their peso-votes to signify what types of idols they preferred. Today’s intellectuals replicate an error of historical interpretation when they position Aunor and her teen-star rival, Vilma Santos, as belonging to the native-vs.-mestizo division that observers during that time believed was at play: although Santos first emerged as a child star during the waning years of the Golden Age, her fairness did not conform to the anti-Asian requisites of the time; grown-ups with distinctly Oriental features like hers would have been relegated to serious secondary roles as male villains or femmes fatales or, at best, comic roles (where, instructively, the biggest star, Dolphy, had to suppress his Chinese surname).

11011Hence the masses’ new choices represented iconographies long withheld by the elite-controlled studio system, with the two biggest stars no longer male, and either morena or chinita (as their types used to be termed). By the arrival of the 1970s, the more Western-looking types accommodated this new demand for transformative appearances by exploring unusual options, including the pornography genre now remembered as bomba – also a reference to then-emerging student and labor unrest.

11011Since then this social experiment in discovering new types of media performers for popular consumption has either ended or changed, depending on what perspective one opts to adopt. East Asian-type candidates have managed to swing the door wide open, thanks to the example initiated by Santos and followed through by the middle-brow Chinoy-ethnocentric efforts of Philippine cinema’s most successful producer, Lily Yu Monteverde. But proof that this progressive window has also long slammed shut lies in the fact that no other brown-skinned female star has emerged since Aunor.[1]

11011To confound matters for the race- and class-conscious arbiters of social acceptability, Aunor’s Otherness was too close for comfort to her mass adulators’ condition – i.e., like them she was born poor and far from the capital city, enduring the then-standard harsh treatment reserved for those perceived as unable to call on socially influential contacts for protection, cursed with disproportionate ambition and fated to rely on wit, talent, and industry to attain her dreams. Not surprisingly, for the period of what might count as her on-the-job internship, she displayed an earnest studiousness, carefully enunciating her song lyrics and delivering over-rehearsed renditions of even the most casual lines of dialogue and investing whatever spare funds she had in art or period film projects that baffled her fans and accounted for her occasional impoverishment (by movie-star standards).

11011Nevertheless, when her artistic maturity had peaked, roughly toward the close of the 1970s, the fruits of such unmatched discipline and struggle went on glorious display and earned her an entirely new generation of followers, many of them academically trained in cultural and media appreciation. I remember suspecting her then of finagling her performance record by paying attention to only her serious projects (as other major performers and directors were wont to do), and watching the several potboilers she appeared in during her many periods of financial difficulty: to my amazement, each one, without exception, was stamped with a level of expertise that performing arts majors would have killed for.

11011This background also helps explain her disdain for the trappings of social respectability, having realized (as most long-lived artists do) that the widest range of experiential possibilities can always be harnessed in the service of interpretive craft. Small wonder that when she had the assurance of serious coverage during her current career resurgence, she spelled it out for the world, without apologies: chemical dependencies, multiple (including same-sex) partners, neuroses and anxieties, an inexplicable wanderlust, regret in the innocence of the now-lost past and hope in the uncertainties of the future. It was a source of amusement for me to see her fans scrambling to rationalize her statements, with a few of them abandoning their devotion to her because of their newfound fundamentalist religious convictions.

11011Less amusing was the spectacle of a supposedly enlightened presidential administration decreeing, in effect, that it did not want to be represented by such a powerfully transgressive figure.[2] Its ignorance of the artist’s temperament gets exposed when we look up the list of names who had already made it to the ranks of the country’s officially endorsed masters and see that the best among them had made use of similar methods of exploring hidden or difficult truths and realities. The kind of sensibility that counts a public record like Aunor’s as contaminated by her less-than-“exemplary” lifestyle encourages medieval institutions like the Catholic Church to attempt a takeover of official cultural functions; worse, it plays into the dangerous oligarchic fantasy that a commodified, infantile, unexceptional mass culture is the perfectly satisfactory consequence of a wholesome moral existence.

Notes

[1] In fact, a reversal of the casting of mestizas in sex films seems to have occurred, with brown-skinned actresses such as Maribel Lopez and Sarsi Emmanuelle (featured together in Elwood Perez’s Silip [1985]) and Elizabeth Oropesa “permitted” to star in such productions. This merely reflects the more libertarian values inherent in these projects, as well as the need to cast as wide a net as possible, mestizas still welcome, in order to meet the demand for such willing talent. Also worth noting is the possibly not-incidental fact that these actresses remained capable of delivering outstanding performances.

[2] Update (with trigger warning for those who insist on observing eternal respect for the dead): The demise of Benigno Aquino III on June 24, 2021, occasioned a few recollections from his colleagues regarding the possible causes of his lack of empathy, a character flaw that resulted, during the disaster-packed final year of his administration, in public resentment overwhelming enough to ensure that the presidential candidate who launched the most forceful attacks on him won the election. Most of these explanatory attempts were, not surprisingly, aligned with the local cultural practice of lionizing the recently departed: one of his staff members speculated that PNoy Aquino had to uphold the role of being in effect the only male in a household comprising a slain father, a mother, and several sisters, thereby enacting a local variation on stiff-upper-lip stoicism.

11011A colleague of mine and PNoy’s high-school batch mate, the late Bangy Dioquino, recalled how the surviving family members made sure that their youngest offspring and only son was always kept safe – a response that intensified when one of the several coup attempts against his mother (during her presidential term) nearly killed him. Aquino wound up so sheltered, per Professor Dioquino, that he did not even know how to approach the women he was attracted to, among other indications of excessive social awkwardness. The implications of these limitations were of direct consequence in his leadership style, but I prefer to leave the task of teasing these out to psychologists and management specialists.

[First published June 21, 2014, in The FilAm]

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Book Texts – Commentaries: Elsewheres

A NEW ROLE FOR KOREA

The forthcoming ASEAN-Korea Commemorative Summit will have been preceded by a related event, fraught with symbolic implications: the sixtieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and the Philippines (celebration ceremonies had to be postponed due to the period of mourning for the late President Roh Moo-hyun). Both countries underwent traumatic parallel upheavals in their encounter with modernization during the last century. In fact, the link between Korea and the Philippines may be traced to as far back as over an entire century, when the U.S. and Japan executed the secret diplomatic document now known as the 1905 Taft-Katsura Memorandum, a sort of gentleman’s agreement between colonizers to divide up the major Far Eastern territories between themselves – Korea for Japan and the Philippines for the U.S. For this reason I will focus initially on comparing and contrasting the two countries, before discussing Korea in relation to the larger ASEAN region.

11011Otherwise well-informed professors in the Philippines react with surprise when I tell them about the Taft-Katsura manuscript, about whose existence I’d learned in an English-language translation of a Korean high-school history textbook. The first half of the twentieth century resulted in divergent colonial experiences for both countries, with Korea opposing the Japanese occupation to the extent of forming an overseas exile government, and the Philippines growing loyal enough to fight alongside the Americans against the Japanese during World War II. The convergence of Korean and Philippine interests (pro-U.S., anti-Japan and later anti-Communist) continued through the Korean War, when the Philippines sent the biggest Asian delegation in support of South Korean combatants. Nationalists on both sides also expressed dismay that the conflicts were essentially proxy wars fought by the U.S. against its imperialist rivals, leaving the battleground territories (Manila in World War II, Seoul in the Korean War) utterly devastated, and with both Asian countries persuaded to subsequently assist the U.S. against the eventually victorious Vietnamese during a longer-drawn-out conflict.

11011Up to this point, the Philippines generally fared better. The country had a head-start in economic recovery and lucked out initially in its post-war import-substitution industrialization strategy. Its status as a long-Westernized, recently Americanized capital made it an attractive destination for other Asian citizens, so when it embarked on the U.S.-supported authoritarianist experiment that many other Third-World countries were pursuing, logic dictated that it would continue to lead the rest of Asia in finally attaining industrial development. (As partners in the regional strong-men club, Park Chung-hee and Ferdinand Marcos were able to meet up in Manila during an earlier version of the ASEAN, the 1966 conference of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.)

11011The end of the periods of dictatorship all over Asia proved to be generally beneficial for their respective countries’ economies – with the egregious and embarrassing exception of the Philippines (once described as a “banana republic” by the Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman). While Filipino experts tried to figure out what went wrong and how the Marcos era’s mistakes may be avoided in future, Korea made itself over into the most impressive economy in the region, next to Japan. In fact, from the point of view of other Asian countries outside East Asia, Korea’s example is not merely worthy of emulation; it is a moral triumph. For while Japan may have had a longer run and a still-larger annual income, Korea, like the rest of the ASEAN countries, had been and has remained resolutely postcolonial: at any point in its drive toward modernization, its wealth was never achieved at any other country’s expense, and if any people had to endure suffering, it was always first and foremost its own population.

11011This is the (admittedly simplistic, probably reductive, and strictly tentative) logic that I use in explaining why Korea holds such a strong fascination in the imaginaries of the other ASEAN member-countries. A few observers might want to believe that the Korean pop-culture wave might be over, or that it might not even have existed at all. Yet the record of, say, Korean TV dramas dominating the ratings of Southeast Asian media since the start of the current millennium speaks for itself. A Korean performer, virtually unknown hereabouts, has leading-lady status in Philippine movies, and the latter country acknowledged last year that the number of Korean visitors has now exceeded those of all other countries in the world, displacing the previous and long-time record-holders, the Japanese.

11011One way of illustrating how the exceptionally high regard for things Korean persists in the ASEAN region is by contemplating an alternative situation. If another major East Asian country were to initiate its counterpart of the Korean pop-culture wave, most Southeast Asian countries would likely respond with some degree of hesitation, if not outright coolness. For better or worse, the Chinese have been marked with an overriding (though much-envied) profit motive, while the Japanese’s espionage activities prior to their World War II imperialist expansion cannot be easily expunged from the other countries’ historical memories. This partly explains why most successful Chinese or Japanese cultural products circulate in the region through Western distribution circuits.

11011Hence among the “senior” non-ASEAN Asian economies, Korea may well be the country that is in a position to assume an influential role in the region. Why then has its leadership function remained largely theoretical, a kind of guidance by example, when the other East Asian countries have been more or less actively staking their claims to representing the rest of Asia? There are two interlocking ways of answering this question, one internal (to Korea) and the other external, which I will attempt first. From the perspective of the ASEAN members, the organization has been doing well enough without any form of outside interference. A cultural historian might be able to argue that, were it not for the intervention of European colonization, the region could constitute an entire super-nation or subcontinent (comprising a seemingly endless array of cultures and peoples and languages) unto itself. In a sense, ASEAN fulfills this might-have-been vision through an ideal of cooperative self-sufficiency.

11011Korea, for its part, has always had the historical propensity to turn inward. Its comfort zone as a nation remained within its boundaries, among its people, hermitic (to use its self-descriptor) to a fault. By now its leading lights might have figured that such a response could prove debilitating in an age of globalization, just as it had proved disastrous during preceding eras of colonizations and proxy wars. Moreover, a genuine internal consolidation will be impossible for a long while, at least while the northern half of the country remains ideologically estranged and materially impoverished. Meanwhile, the Southeast Asian region remains for the most part organized, appreciative, determined to succeed on terms that do not seem all that different from what the people of this country had been able to achieve not too long ago. Spring is in the air. A period of mutual courtship is long overdue.

[First published June 2, 2009, in Korea Times]

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CRESCENT TENSE

One subjective measure of the distress over the recent killings in Mindanao’s Maguindanao province (also called the Ampatuan massacre) is how Philippine-based foreigners, including the few Koreans I advise mainly for their thesis completion, seem as traumatized as the Pinoy bourgeoisie, in stark contrast with the rest of the natives. This is not to say that the working-class majority feels unaffected by the tragedy. In fact the oft-noted peculiarity of the local response to crises – marked by the incongruent use of humor, or in this case silence – can be read as a form of fatalistic acceptance of the brutalities of fate, as well as a means by which the individual could refocus her or his attention on the exigencies of personal survival.

11011I must confess that I encourage my Korean advisees to indulge in something approaching xenophobic paranoia. Most Koreans who visit the Philippines are impressed by the local culture’s excessive libertarianism, a welcome relief from the severe patriarchal hierarchisms that invariably confront most East Asians from birth onward. Yet the country’s seemingly boundless promiscuity misleads foreigners into thinking that its culture is as benevolent as it is tolerant.

11011More than once some of my Manila-based colleagues had informed me that one or another of my male Korean students had set out, usually alone, for some unannounced inter-island itinerary, with the person’s mobile phone occasionally losing signal due to the underdeveloped condition of some far-flung destination. So far the guys have returned safely, convinced all the more of the kindness of the “other” Filipinos vis-à-vis the relatively cynical and materialistic Manileños, even as my friends and I wonder how to impress on these wide-eyed innocents the kind of dangers they were lucky to have skirted.

11011The Maguindanao massacre was not, even in my wildest and weirdest and saddest dreams, the example I had hoped for, but there it is. The widespread response to the event turns on its perpetrators’ bald-faced assumption that they could get away with such an extensive and bloodcurdling criminal operation, directed in open-space broad daylight against a large and influential group comprising mostly women, uninvolved passersby, and (the ultimate indication of contemporary hubris) media professionals. Beyond the jaw-droppingly pathological stupidity of a group of men driven by old-line machismo and power-hungriness, one could somehow sense a shock of recognition, even among Koreans who happen to belong to an old-enough generation.

11011For this is how people with absolute power (with the concomitant absolute corruption) have always tended to behave, down to the knee-jerk assignation of blame to armed seditionists. Just replace the unsophisticated provincial dynasty with more charming, urbane, and eloquent types and one would have the U.S.-sanctioned Third-World dictatorships that most middle-aged Southeast Asians (and Koreans and Latin Americans) still remember all too vividly.

11011Which makes the actuations of the Maguindanao-massacre perps as backward as they are barbaric, locked in a period and setting that ought to have been relegated to a permanently passed past. What provides an underlying unease regarding the response of the current Philippine administration is the fact that both sides of the political fence, the outraged ruling party as well as the infuriated opposition, are calling for immediate and unqualified intervention, thus conjuring up spectacles once more associable with the excesses of the long-deposed Marcos regime: the deployment of Philippine army troops to predominantly, supposedly autonomous Muslim areas, with hasty arrests of elements perceived as rebellious, and everything conveniently blanketed by the imposition (since lifted) of martial law, possibly as prelude to a transition of power to a bereaved rival who, it must be stressed, mirrors his opponents’ penchant for maintaining a militia force.

11011How the Philippines’ second largest (and richest, resources-wise) island ever reached such a sorry state of affairs, with the Maguindanao case a culmination of a long and so-far unending series of tragic events, can be best understood via a sufficiently distant geopolitical perspective. From, say, an orbiting satellite’s view, what may be regarded as the Philippines’ Christian majority is actually the Indo-Malayan archipelago’s regional minority, disproportionately empowered by the historical accident of the U.S.’s current undisputed status as global police.

11011After largely successfully resisting foreign attempts at colonization, the Philippines’ Muslim population found itself at the receiving end of a series of ill-advised political trade-offs initiated by the American reoccupation of the country after World War II. First, the U.S. reneged on its promise of benefits to the local Communist army after contracting it to undertake the bulk of anti-Japanese resistance. The peasant-based insurgency that ensued from this instance of Cold War-era duplicity suffered severe repression, and the then-fledgling Philippine administration sought to mollify increasing antipathy by providing ex-rebels with settlements in Mindanao, many of which were located in still-undocumented Muslim ancestral properties.

11011The disgruntlement that percolated under the social surface finally erupted with the Marcos government’s decision to infiltrate, destabilize, and reclaim Sabah in Malaysia using a commando unit (code-named Jabidah) of Filipino Muslims, trained on a ship without being informed of the nature of their mission. Upon learning what they were expected to carry out, the young men attempted to mutiny and were summarily executed (in a scenario reminiscent of then-concurrent events in Korea depicted in Kang Woo-suk’s 2003 blockbuster Silmido). Having since been radicalized by the Jabidah massacre, several generations of separatist Muslims experienced some of the most harrowing peace-time assaults by Philippine armed forces, punctuated by a few truce periods.

11011The US’s so-called war on terror did not ease matters for the severely put-upon Pinoy Islamic populace. In the current millennium, a few individuals attempted to meet half-way the globalist call for entrepreneurship by supplying, to an extremely responsive and grateful nationwide market, affordable copies of otherwise unfairly priced digital content; instead they were continually hounded and accused of more than just video piracy by the Motion Pictures Association of America, whose leader, the late Jack Valenti, claimed (but never proved) before the U.S. Senate, as a way to justify harsher measures, that the profits made by “pirates” were donated to terrorist organizations.

11011Where the recent return of the Philippine army to Muslim areas in Mindanao might lead this time is anyone’s guess, but if history were to serve as indicator, what may appear to be a solution at present might only lead to further heartbreak in future.

[First published December 14, 2009, as “Heartbreak in Mindanao”]

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ASIAN CASANOVAS

When the only serious contenders during the last US presidential election were a woman and a black man, most commentators wondered which category, gender or race, would prove worthier of the patronage of the electorate. As it turned out, voters felt more confident about being led by a black man, although in a show of buyer’s remorse typical of history’s most successful consumer society, some Americans nowadays tend to write how Hillary Clinton would have had the leadership qualities that Barack Obama, for all his Kennedyesque charisma, sadly lacks in a time of serious global crises.

11011Yet the bigger picture has largely been overlooked. The standard presidential qualities of maleness, whiteness, wealth, and old age have become more and more difficult to assert, due to the rise of identity politics during the only truly progressive revolution the US ever came close to, comprising the various cultural upheavals of the 1960s. After the election of the non-WASP John F. Kennedy ushered in the Camelot spirit, the old boys’ club managed to hold on for a few more decades afterward, although it became increasingly apparent that successful candidates could, and then should, be sold on the basis of their deviation from the norm: Jimmy Carter had been a peanut farmer, Ronald Reagan a B-movie actor, Bill Clinton an impoverished native son who could complete his education only through scholarship grants. In this context, even “Dubya” Bush connected with voters despite his monstrous incompetence precisely because he was an aw-shucks underachieving everyday guy, in dull contrast with his father, the US’s (and by extension the world’s) last patriarchal President.

11011The foregrounding of the formerly immovable categories of race and gender during last year’s election recalls another category, one where both qualities reside, and which (officially, at least) supposedly no longer exists: that of Orientalism. Ever since Edward Said published his eponymous study, Orientalism (or, more accurately, anti-Orientalism) became an area of scholarly pursuit, first within comparative race studies, where Said had originally located his ideas. Not long after, feminist scholars joined the growing body of work critiquing Orientalism, but in fact improved on Said’s framework by incorporating the issue of desire.

11011In other words, where Said pointed out instances in Western literature where the Oriental was presented as inferior to the Western subject, more recent studies of Orientalism, focusing mainly on popular culture, acknowledge that racial bias (expressed via Christianity-inspired moral chauvinism) had a tense and often conflicting relationship with desire, often by the West for the Other. For all its potentially contentious, controversial, even occasionally pornographic implications, this view helped explain several phenomena, including the feminizing attitudes Western nations and peoples had toward Orientals, as well as the West’s comparatively less destructive colonization projects, rather than the outright enslavement or extermination wrought on populations that early conquistadores regarded as subhuman.

11011In order to see just how far Orientalism might have transformed, I have been casually following the still-unfolding sagas of three celebrities, all males in their 30s, more or less Asian, and beset by women trouble. Tiger Woods, who describes himself as “Cablinasian” (Caucasian, black, [American] Indian, Asian), is actually more Asian than any of his other racial designations, but like Obama, exhibits the more genetically dominant African skin color. Pinoy boxer Manny Pacquiao is the more “native” Asian sportsman, a multiple-division champ, while Lee Byung-hun, as close to the stereotypical Oriental as any East Asian can get, is a Korean actor who has appeared in local and global blockbusters. One can “rank” them, as I had just listed them, in terms of increasing “Asianness,” but the way that twinned conditions occur among them is even more fascinating: Pacquiao and Lee are more racially Asian, Woods and Lee have middle-class backgrounds, and Woods and Pacquiao are already-legendary title holders in the traditionally masculinist profession of sports.

11011If we proceed from the feminization of Orientals by the self-masculinizing West, then Woods would be the person least subject to this outlook, mainly due to his most-mixed and consequently least-Asian ancestry. Ironically he has been the one so far whose stature has regressed the most, largely because of his incursion in a field, professional golf, which had been the bulwark of a type that would have once included former US Presidents. The outing, so to speak, of his sex addiction was undertaken by women who were, to put it mildly, unruly and, more significantly, white.

11011Lee, like Pacquiao and unlike Woods, only has to worry about a single female complainant, non-white at that. Although the specifically Korean offense of honin-bingja-ganeumjoi, or obtaining sex under a false promise of marriage, is no longer in force, it nevertheless points up the disparity between Lee and his way-too-young ex. Lee’s advantage over the other two is that, as an unmarried man, he is still technically free to play the field.

11011Pacquiao, if we were to take his detractors’ assertion that his philandering is more than just a gimmick intended to drumbeat his and his alleged paramour’s media projects, might not suffer the same extreme fall from grace that Woods did, but nevertheless still has to contend with his status as a family man. Yet he is the one blessed with a partner who has been fully supportive, who holds back her outraged responses whenever he prepares for one of his much-anticipated matches, and displays a warmth and graciousness during her interviews that have disarmed even those who had long gotten over her husband’s mystique.

11011This is where a further insight into Orientalism makes itself indispensable: within even a Western domestic sphere, where no racial Others might be present, the woman can still be configured as the Oriental of the man. (This is in fact a more optimistic view than Billie Holiday’s remark, famously quoted by John Lennon, that “woman is the nigger of the world.”) In a situation like the Philippines, which has been Orientalized several times over – by multiple colonizations, rapacious rulers, and possibly permanent underdevelopment – it is the country’s women, the close-to-legendary Pinays, who have managed to keep heart and hearth alive, further proof that, as Korea had earlier demonstrated, the most Oriental among us just might persevere in the end.

[First published January 25, 2010, as “A Few Insights into Our Asian Casanovas”]

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THE SINS OF THE FATHERS

The recent sensational revelations about ungodly, sometimes literally closeted goings-on in the Catholic hierarchy would not surprise those with a passing familiarity with Philippine colonial history. An early 20th-century report by James A. LeRoy in the Academy of Political Science’s journal listed a litany of excesses, all economic and political in nature, culminating in the charge that the Spanish friars “in general encourage[d] stagnation rather than progress.” By way of explaining such behavior, the author remarked that the majority of religious-order members “seem[ed], from their appearance, manners, and personal habits, to have been recruited from certainly not the best classes of Spain.”

11011It would be possible to tease out certain strands to explain both the character of religious officials posted to distant colonies, as well as the antipathy of the American observers who provided such condemnatory remarks. On the one hand, it would be next-to-impossible to persuade the most promising administrators, religious or otherwise, to accept an assignment in a destination that would have taken months of travel to reach, and from which a return to Spain, the colonial center, might never materialize. One extreme allegation was that out of desperation, some of the orders would seek potential recruits from the ranks of convicts and use their “conversion” as a means of petitioning for their release and subsequent deployment to Las Islas Filipinas.

11011I would not wish to cast the first stone, as it were, in maintaining that genuine repentance cannot occur in real life, even outside the pale of the then-raging European Enlightenment. But the actuations of many such shepherds of the flock did turn nothing less than wolf-like once they reached their Oriental destination. The first recorded account of a Philippine lynching, for instance, consisted of a mob of Spanish friars fatally assaulting their very own Governor General, a liberal administrator who had ordered investigations into and arrests of corrupt government officials and their religious defenders.

11011And as in public comportment, so in private: the climax of one of the multiple narrative strands in José Rizal’s masterly 1887 roman à clef, Noli Me Tangere, consisted of the revelation that the heroine, María Clara, had actually been sired by the hero’s mortal enemy, Father Dámaso; believing that her true love had perished as a falsely accused subversive, María Clara insists on entering the nunnery, only to fall into the waiting clutches of her ardent secret admirer, Father Salvi. The upshot of such common-knowledge instances of devilry among the country’s Holy-Joe imports is that even today, when someone with distinct European features turns up in an impoverished rural area, people simply shrug and say that a foreign priest must have intercepted the person in question’s ancestral line.

11011Such historical material can, at best, only serve as backdrop for the burgeoning tales about clerical scandals, which have so far been confined to the First World. That they involve this particular Catholic pope, at this particular historical moment, when in fact these stories extend into conditions whenever and wherever patriarchy holds sway (not just the present, and not just in Christendom), bespeaks of interests that had been at play even during the specific period when Spanish rule, epitomized by friar power, was being demonized in the Philippines: then as now, it was the Americans, the incoming colonizers, who took the lead in exposing the abuses of the Church – so just as we may be grateful for the outing of previously suppressed information, we might also do well to wonder who stands to benefit from such exposés in the end.

11011Joseph Ratzinger’s insistence on ideals that had been bypassed by several centuries of liberalization efforts (the last occurring as recently as the 1960s, during the Second Vatican Council) has led to the ugly quagmire that his dispensation finds itself in. The fact that priests all over the Western sphere believed they could continue to rape and torture minors with impunity is consistent with, not counter to, the position that women have no right to their bodies, queers have no right to happiness, humans (poor ones especially) have no right to reproductive health, and all opposing faiths ought to make way for the “one” “true” church, complete with god’s original (though long-dead) language, Latin. Emblematic of the darkest possible humor, were it not a real-life situation, would be the dozens of deaf children who attempted for decades to communicate their experience of abuse in the hands of an American priest who had meanwhile petitioned for, and received, clemency from the pope.

11011One more image, drawn from pedophile literature, would be that of hawks preying on hapless chickens. Once more, hard as it may seem, one must first attempt to withhold judgment; so yes, great literature can come out of such disturbing desire (witness Lolita, or Death in Venice), and a number of successful long-term relationships may have started from such distressing origins, if we were to accept some child-bride narratives at face value. However, as admitted atheist columnist Christopher Hitchens pointed out, the very people who represent an institution that upholds the most stringent moral standards (to the point where most of these have in fact already been rendered obsolete by modern history) ought themselves to conform to the most basic requisites of human decency, starting with the injunction to visit no harm, first and foremost, on the innocent and helpless.

11011In this instance of (pardon the pun) chickens eventually coming home to roost, one might hope, pray even, that Ratzinger and his minions could make the leap, resistant though they may seem to be, straight into the second millennium A.D. For starters: maintain the separation of church and state, accord reproductive health the import that good science has long acknowledged, respect the variegated possibilities of human sexual desire, provide for the ordination of women priests (and eventually a woman and/or non-white pope), and yield criminal transgressions to the jurisdiction of civil authorities. The apices of European classical art, music, architecture, and literature betoken the possibilities of lofty, if not divine, inspiration, but there remains no reason to restore the Roman Empire just to be able to partake of these pleasures.

[First published April 12, 2010]

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Book Texts – Foreign Film Reviews

Form and Function

Silent Voice (a.k.a. Amazing Grace and Chuck)
Directed by Mike Newell
Written by David Field

Full Metal Jacket
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford

The beauty of a work inevitably raises the issue of the purpose of the effort expended in attaining it: the more powerful the result, the greater the call for a purpose. If Einstein had handed over his theory of relativity to artists, the nuclear clouds they would have created would still give rise to the military-industrial complexes responsible for the arms race that threatens the very existence of life at present; the sheer beauty of nuclear explosions would have quickly become irrelevant. Such basic insights into the irony of modern existence aren’t the concerns of the latest no-nukes film, Silent Voice. The movie follows the liberal bent of politicized Hollywood filmmaking that once gave us daring but ultimately unbearable moralistic pieces like John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath (1940), Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), and the Stanley Kramer titles of the 1950s. The late ’70s saw a resurgence of committed films like Hal Ashby’s Coming Home and Being There (1978 and ’79 resp.) and Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae (1979), with another but more shrill no-nukes effort, James Bridges’s The China Syndrome (1979).

11011The trouble with too politically committed approaches to filmmaking is that the medium itself lies in danger of being regarded as not only divorced from, but even secondary to, the statement being made. Film therewith becomes a medium for essentially sociopolitical discourses, where the audience is expected to respond according to the requirements of mass education—hence the reduction of narratives to “scientific” principles that would yield results according to the greatest common factors. Silent Voice observes this tradition of sincere exploitation for political purposes. The sincerity is exuded right from frame one, but the exploitation becomes apparent only to those who’ve learned to love film experience for its own sake. There’s no doubt in the minds of the filmmakers as to who the good types and the bad types are. To make sure that the arguments against nuclear disarmanent get minimal airing, initially neutral elements like the lead character’s father and the President of the United States, you better believe it, get converted to the cause.

11011I object to the treatment not because I disagree with the movement against nuclear weapons. It’s just that film here is presented as an orchestration of disparate technical elements, and is thereby served with utmost competence. These days it’s still surprising to realize that even in the most technologically advanced circles the actual dramatic potential of film cannot be treated with deference, much less appreciated for what it can achieve. The people you find in Silent Voice aren’t made to act as individuals; they’re all subject to forces beyond them, and so the bravery of the heroes and the villainy of the baddies get unintentionally exonerated in the end.

11011Aside from the obvious convenience this provides of doing away with intelligient characterization, the necessity of raising the obvious philosophical question is dimissed in favor of a happy ending: once all those warheads are dismantled, what’s to keep people of the same persuasion that gave rise to the military-industrial complex from going it on their own, under wraps if necessary? The pre-nuclear age of innocence has been lost forever, but in Silent Voice we are asked to believe that we could go back to it by simply feeling for it. The intention may be laudable, but the impracticality of it all may ultimately prove dangerous for dreamers, whichever side of the camera they may find themselves straddling.

11011The most effective no-nukes movie is still the one that ends with the world getting blown up, with a strong dose of black humor for the faint of heart and stylistic experimentation for the non-believers in the capabilities of film, to make the journey to the end easier to bear. The same brilliance that informed the said work, Dr. Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), can still be gleaned from the same director’s latest output, Full Metal Jacket. Unfortunately Stanley Kubrick manages to sustain this milieu-documentation approach for the extended expository portion of his film, then gives out to universalized points about the horrors of war that pale beside the older film’s comparatively easy achievements in story and character construction. I suspect that adaptational problems (the present movie’s based on the novel of one of the scriptwriters) had much to do with the turnout of what could have been the most innovative war movie yet.

11011Come to think of it, discourses on the failed American involvement in the Viet Nam conflict were made possible through the same wave of committed filmmaking mentioned earlier. Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) may be considered the Godfather of them all, with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) as something of a fairy godmother. (Full Metal Jacket could then be the love child that suffered disorder and early sorrow.) I guess filmmakers intending to make the definitive movie statement on war will have to contend with the propensity of cinema to work on surfaces—faces, bodies, objects, landscapes, etc.—and that war gives the impression of these surfaces opening up, but only literally and not necessarily in essence.

11011Meaning that in war, someone or something may get blown up, but this doesn’t always provide an enduring truth except in the manner that everyone has become familiar with already. While watching Full Metal Jacket I acquired what I thought was a fanciful notion—why limit ourselves to treating war as a real event? The raw material will suffice to fulfill the requisites of realism, but what’s to stop an inspired film creator from breaking up the space-time continuum that’s getting to be a scourge in imaginative presentations? Then I suddenly recalled having seen Les belles de nuit, a fairly old (1952) film by Rene Clair, in which some characters are endowed with the supernatural ability to move continually through time and space. The suspension of disbelief was made possible through the use of charming humor and song, but along the way some points about love and power were made.

11011The moral of it all? Nothing is ever truly new. It’s what we make of things that provide them with the capability for transformation. Would that we manage to realize this principle even in such a mundane activity as film appreciation.

[First published April 6, 1988, in National Midweek]

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…And the First Shall Be the Last

The Last Temptation of Christ
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Paul Schrader

If Christ could have seen what his ministry would have led to, he might have become the world’s first existentialist. Much of the worst (aside from the best) aspects of modern civilization are premised on the observance of what is supposedly the definitive compilation of his teachings—the biblical testaments. The irony began as early as Jesus Christ’s own era: before and after the gospels which narrate what is undoubtedly one of the most moving accounts of any historical entity, we find fire-and-brimstone pronouncements alternating with manic-paranoid (and sometimes psychedelic) formulae for “true” salvation. Anne Frank being coopted in the midst of Nazi occupation could serve as a terribly apposite analogy.

11011Modern times have served to heighten the extent to which people would appropriate nobility of the spirit for purposes of the flesh. The US’s Republican Party ethos thrives on the assertions of the ultra-Christian on the basis of a hierarchy—US citizen first, then male, then white, then wealthy, then heterosexual, and so on down the line, arriving last and least at poor black homosexual Third-World Communist woman, where such wondrously exceptional combinations could exist. The Last Temptation of Christ attempts to overturn conservative conventions by presenting Christ as poor, Third-World, possibly Communist, and unconventional in his sexuality, or at least definitely unhomophobic. Historical, including biblical, evidence tends to support these traits, plus one crucial thing left out by central casting—that Christ was in all likelihood dark-skinned.

11011The expectations that Last Temptation raises place it closer to a skeptic’s speculation on what the historical personage may have actually been, necessarily rejecting the traditional sources. This is where its problems, aesthetic and circumstantial, begin, departing from the usual celebrated censorship controversies regarding works with literary merits. Madame Bovary, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Ulysses all rested their cases on the skill by which their respective authors justified the use of then-disallowed language and subject matter. Last Temptation takes the cue from the subject himself by constructing itself as an intense if cryptic reflector—one that throws back on any objector her or his own inability to perceive its affirmation of faith in the Abrahamic deity.

11011The method is, of course, admirably postmodern: from Christ’s dictum that “no one comes to the father but by me,” the filmmakers create a “me” that’s exclusively an imaginative one—a literary character, in short, who determines his own course of resolving the challenge of giving himself up for the sake of humankind. Nowhere is the fastness of their faith more evident than in the movie’s most controversial (extended) sequence of the hero enjoying a conventional lifestyle, complete with an active-though-legitimate sex life, before dismissing the entire excursion as a fantasy, his last temptation, and returning to the reality of death by crucifixion.

11011Gifted individuals (real artists especially, I imagine) would agree wholeheartedly with the decision of the Christ character in Last Temptation—that is, better the uncertainty of unconventional choices than the predictability of the normative. But the majority of nominal Christians have not been and can never be as daring, as Christ-like even, as Last Temptation exhorts Christ’s followers to be, and it is in this demonstration of the difference between conformity and individuality as an essentially Christian issue that gets the goat of the chosen flock: how can we expect converts to, well, strengthen the church when such an interpretation of Christ posits that they must seek god’s will not in terms of institutional prescriptions but as they believe they are called? This is the very reason why traditional Christianity is based on the life of Christ plus a surfeit of supposedly similarly holy writings that actually serve to temper, and in several instances overturn, the challenge of his example. Witness how as recently as a few years after Christ’s purported ascension, the former Saul of Tarsus, claiming to have been converted, qualifies (though sets aside would be more accurate) his master’s dictum of unconditional love by disparaging in no uncertain terms intellectuals, dark-complexioned peoples, women, queer folk, and a wide spectrum of nonconformists and nonbelievers alike.

11011Censorships are based on the same perversion of Christ’s offer of salvation through faith: he never wavered in his, but he nevertheless answered all questions and went to the extent of accommodating Thomas. Today’s so-called Christians would have banished such a doubter from the fold if it didn’t seem like such an un-Christianly thing to do, so they perform the next best thing by keeping all possible sources of critical questionings at bay. Unlike its predecessors in literary-censorship cases, the film version of Last Temptation cannot flourish on artistic merits alone. Most of its individual scenes are impressively executed in state-of-the-art-house manner, with attendant emotional content. The entire presentation, though, meanders too much, especially in detailing the hero’s angst and the aforementioned accumulation of a last temptation that doesn’t really turn out all that tempting in the end. All cards were stacked, too safely it seems, in favor of a Christian, or more appropriately (seeing how Christian could refer as much to a televangelist as to a liberation-theology follower) a Christ-based, faith.

11011The next step in this Thomasic exercise of creative doubting would be a work that dispenses with faith altogether, at least for the duration of its presentation, something like Last Temptation minus the main character’s triumph in the end. This would elevate the test of faith to the individual viewer’s personal capability in the face of a convincing testament to the contrary, and incidentally serve to correctly classify Last Temptation as an independent thinker’s confirmation of belief—in a Christ who, like only the best of us and in another sense like no one else, conquers what no one thought would ever be possible before.

[First published March 14, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Wet Noodles

I Come with the Rain
Directed and written by Trần Anh Hùng

As a scholar of global culture, I was intrigued by a recent release, probably still screening in some theaters. The movie sports at least four titles as of the moment, three of which are translations of its English title, I Come with the Rain (나는 비와 함께 간다 in Korean). The cast list also reads like an actors’ assembly convened by the United Nations, complete with that august body’s usual marginalization of women: an American (Josh Hartnett), Japanese (Kimura Takuya), Korean (Lee Byung-hun), Canadian (Elias Koteas), Chinese (Shawn Yue), Spaniard (Eusebio Poncela), token-female Vietnamese (Trần Nu Yên-Khê, the director’s wife), plus a handful of gun-toting Filipinos and a roomful of naked Filipinas presumably standing in for all the other nationalities left unrepresented.

11011Trần Anh Hùng, who wrote as well as directed, had done a few films earlier, mostly set in Viet Nam (including The Scent of Green Papaya [1993], actually shot in France), and generally well-received by art-film connoisseurs. I Come with the Rain appears to be his bid to acquire hit-maker status, drawing on his ability to interweave a wide array of characters in fascinating Oriental locales. Unfortunately, the attempt misfires so resoundingly that only a marvel greater than what Kimura’s miracle-working character can conjure up will enable the film to achieve wider release elsewhere before it shows up on video and the internet.

11011I Come with the Rain isn’t wanting in good intentions, so I found myself rooting for it to take off even after its hopelessly anachronistic climax. The challenge of maintaining exclusivist high-art aesthetics must have clashed with the thriller genre’s requisite of catering to as wide a viewership as possible, and while this may have resulted in an occasional masterpiece – witness Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) or Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – in this instance what emerged is an indeterminate hybrid comprising several arresting concepts that fail to coalesce in the end.

11011The movie’s narrative signals its problems from the get-go. After a cleverly misdirected opening, where Kline, a detective, is overpowered and vampirically bitten by an angst-ridden serial killer, we flash-forward to a couple of years later, where Kline, now permanently traumatized, is summoned by someone who claims to own the world’s biggest pharmaceutical company. This man is never seen by Kline or the audience, preferring to convey Kline’s assignment via a menacing lens and speaker set.

11011We learn that the CEO’s son, Shitao, has fled to Asia, and Kline has to track him down in his last known whereabouts, an orphanage in Mindanao. Upon reaching the place, Kline is informed by another detective that Shitao had been killed by the henchmen of a powerful mine operator, but Kline replies that he has evidence that Shitao has turned up in Hong Kong, where he intends to go next. Why Kline does not fly directly from Los Angeles to the former crown colony is anyone’s guess – I thought at first that the director was preparing to link the US with its neocolonial stronghold, the Philippines, as well as with its war-on-terror campaign on the country’s Muslim minority.

11011As it turns out, Mindanao’s main function is to provide scenic contrast with the First-World settings of the US and Hong Kong: jungle foliage and fauna, muddy roads, congested slums, sleazy expats, sapphic go-go girls, youthful killing machines, oh my. Far be it for me to espouse political correctness and positive images for any group, but one wonders what a fellow Asian might have in mind when he insists on depicting misery in the Third World: just in case the people living there had no idea how underdeveloped their condition is, perhaps?

11011I Come with the Rain sustains this impressive display of cluelessness upon reaching Hong Kong. The major Asian characters, presumably long-term residents if not natives, speak mostly English even to one another (Lee Byung-hun valiantly compensates with well-timed outbursts of rage, from all those TOEIC review sessions maybe). And if Trần Anh Hùng had any symbolic purpose in casting a Korean to play a sadistic Chinese gangster who literally crucifies a supposedly genuine faith healer played by a Japanese – well, these bouts of against-the-grain inspiration are just beyond me.

11011Trần may have also missed out on the lament of most Hong Kong film scholars – that recent movies made by their own enfants terribles tend to portray a universalized space that is no longer recognizably Hong Kong in character. This is a trend increasingly being manifested in national cinemas that have succeeded in appealing to a global audience, starting with the festival distribution circuit: filmmakers no longer need to connect with their own mass audiences so long as their output can be supported by a large enough number of fans in the West. The fact that I Come with the Rain isn’t home-grown in Hong Kong points up this problem even more egregiously.

11011What makes thrillers and horror films ultimately worthy of attention is their willingness to face abjection, an all-too-human condition that more wholesome genres shy away from. I Come with the Rain provides its share of hair-raising situations, but winds up advocating a redemptive ending modeled on the passion of Christ. How Trần ever came to believe that such a resolution (an Asian Messiah, how radical-chic) would complement his too-precious notion of infusing a “low” genre hybrid with high-art values is a lesson on the dangers of intellectual inattention. Apparently the early-Church memo stipulating that salvation was meant for everyone (the secular definition of “Catholic”) missed him by a millennium or two. I Come with the Rain, sure, but I got trapped in the puddle of my own pretension.

[First published November 9, 2009, as “Clueless Global Hybrid, Now Showing” in JungAng Daily]

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Two Guys, While Watching Avatar

Avatar
Directed and written by James Cameron

At a screening in downtown Seoul.

11011“I can’t believe you convinced me to watch this movie again. It wasn’t so great the first time we saw it.”

11011“You said you had nothing better to do, so I thought why not get another pair of tickets since we’re already here anyway.”

11011“Yeah but don’t you feel uncomfortable? I mean we’re in a dark hall surrounded by all these foreigners.”

11011“You know you better stop calling these people foreigners. We’re in their country, so here we’re the foreigners.”

11011“I remember in my hometown the cheapest grocery was run by a bunch of these people, and we always called them foreigners. I only figured they were Koreans after I came here.”

11011“Quiet, the movie’s started. Aren’t you going to put on your glasses?”

11011“Thanks, but I got 20/20 vision.”

11011“They’re for the 3-D effect. Just put them on.”

11011“Oh, so that’s how they function. I thought they were meant to dim the brightness on screen. What’s the guy saying? These glasses are cool.”

11011“You mean the hero? He traveled almost six years in deep sleep and when he wakes up it’s 2154.”

11011“That’s just like the time I went to high school. What kind of planet would you call Pandora anyway? Sounds like it was named by some Wiccan tree-hugger.”

11011“I knew an ex-Marine like the main character, all stoic just like that, strong but quiet.”

11011“I envy that kind of manly, totally macho culture. What’s he doing now?”

11011“You mean my friend? It’s a she. Married, with four kids.”

11011“What a shame. I mean, why would they let women join that kind of outfit? It compromises American masculinity. Just like all these foreigners with their feminine culture, where even the guys wear pink.”

11011“I don’t think cultures have genders. And you better be quiet, or they might get offended.”

11011“Are you kidding? They hired us to teach them English, so as long as we talk fast I’m sure they won’t have a clue as to what we’re saying. Get a load of this character, the colonel. Last time we watched I thought he was going to be the hero.”

11011“Well he wanted to destroy the planet to get their resources, so the ex-Marine had to fight him in the end.”

11011“Wait a minute, now I’m getting the drift. The corporation calls in the military so they can acquire this unobtainium thingy, but the movie makes a hero of the guy who stops them, right? And he does it by joining up with these Na’vi people of color?”

11011“Actually everything’s just fictional, so the Na’vi aren’t real people of color because no one on earth right now has blue skin.”

11011“Whatever. Hasn’t anyone figured this out yet? It’s a pro-Taliban movie! No wonder the Na’vi language sounds like Arabic. I can imagine Kim Jong-il smiling while watching this.”

11011“North Korea isn’t Muslim, it’s Communist. They don’t believe in religion.”

11011“You mean there’s a difference? If you’re American, all your enemies are the same. They all want to destroy us, and they’re all foreigners like these people here.”

11011“One more time, they’re not the foreigners, we are, okay? And a lot of destruction in the U.S. was done by locals. Some of them were even in government and the private sector.”

11011“Oh, I know what you mean – the liberals. Hollywood’s their propaganda machine.”

11011“Well this is a Hollywood movie we’re watching. Oh good, here comes my favorite character, the Latina hottie.”

11011“Yah, she really rocks. Too bad the colonel has to shoot her down. But it’s her fault, trying to save these Na’vi sympathizers. Hey, did you notice the resemblance? Na’vi, naughty, Nazi –”

11011“I think you’re over-reading. There’s some interesting psychology in the movie though. See how the colonel keeps calling the ex-Marine ‘son’? Makes it more ironic when they wind up trying to kill each other.”

11011“Just like that mythology guy, Narcissus. I did learn something in high school, after all.”

11011“I guess it’s worth becoming a Na’vi just like the ex-Marine does with his avatar, just to be able to ride one of those flying dinosaurs.”

11011“They’re dragons, man. And hey, they’re purple. James Cameron and his gang must have been ingesting some serious substances when they proposed this project. I mean, whoever heard of jellyfish and mountains that float on air? And trees that function like the World Wide Web?”

11011“Now that you mention it, I kind of like the way the Na’vi communicate with nature by plugging in with special strands in their hair.”

11011“I do that all the time, with my USB flash drive. So that’s really how we’re supposed to feel? That the Na’vi are better than the Americans?”

11011“The invaders are called ‘sky people’ by the Na’vi, but in the future we can’t really be sure if Americans will be in outer space, or if the U.S. will be around at all.”

11011“Don’t tell me you’re taking the side of these hostiles! The U.S. of A. has been here for over 200 years, so why shouldn’t it be around forever? It’s still the king of the world, that’s for sure.”

11011“That reminds me, do you think the movie will win the Oscar? Cameron’s up against his ex-wife, you know.”[1]

11011“Yeah, but she made that anti-war movie, plus he should win because he’s got the bigger hit, and he’s the guy.”

11011“Movie’s over, let’s step outside and get more popcorn.”

11011“Omigosh, my celfone’s gone! It must have dropped out of my pocket on my way here! Great, now I can’t find out where I’m supposed to meet my students this evening, on top of having watched this lousy movie with a bunch of, of … foreigners! What do you suggest we do this time?”

11011“How about we stay on and watch Avatar again?”

11011“Okay.”

Note

Written as a tribute to a long-inactive colleague, Raul Regalado, who led the charge in appropriating creative-writing elements for Pinoy film criticism. Submitted February 2010 to JungAng Daily, originally intended for Oscar awards week. The article was unpublished and the weekly column by Pinoy profs was subsequently dismissed. The unexplained rejection (of a film review?!) by JAD ultimately proved – to me at least, and to my perverse amusement – that I was capable of being censored by both conservative-left and right-wing publications.

[1] “I’m the king of the world!” was the most famous quote in James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), which was both Oscar best film and biggest blockbuster of all time, until Avatar surpassed it. The line was supposedly improvised by Leonardo DiCaprio (as tragic-romantic male lead Jack Dawson) and repeated by Cameron when he accepted the Oscar. See Hannah Wigandt, “That Time Leonardo Dicaprio Improvised His Famous Line in Titanic,” TheThings (March 27, 2020). As it turned out, Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow’s 2010 film The Hurt Locker did rout Avatar and enabled her to become the first woman to win best director.

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Hit in the (Multi)Plexus

Wan-deuk-i [Punch]
Directed by Lee Han
Written by Kim Dong-Woo

The latest Korean blockbuster film is a departure from the disaster releases that had been dominating the local box-office since Bong Joon-ho’s Gwoemul [The Host] set an all-time record in 2006. What is even more surprising about the current hit, Lee Han’s Wan-deuk-i (hereafter Punch), is that it is nothing like its title at all – closer to an air kiss from a distant lover on a dreamy autumn afternoon.

11011Yet Punch also partakes of the same elements that marked the disaster-film cycle set off by Gwoemul: it is insistently and daringly populist, and it looks at Korea during an age of global interaction (on which more later). More important for practitioners of film everywhere, it demonstrates the admirable willingness of Korean talents to grapple with the exigencies of genre production, constantly searching for ways to infuse difficult and complex material with accessible treatments. The manner in which Punch reconfigures melodramatic requisites, for example, exhibits its makers’ expert grasp of the strategies of excess and containment – i.e., one should provide an unusual amount of the genre’s primary element (chills in horror, laughs in comedy, tears in melodrama, sex in pornography, etc.), yet also ensure that the narrative eventually returns to a condition of normality in order for the viewer to achieve catharsis and closure.

11011Surprisingly, the element that Punch elects to overindulge in is the exact opposite of what its genre stipulates. Lee (drawing from a recent best-selling novel) provides a series of comic set-ups that serve to subtly foreground the pathos endured by the characters, so that toward the end, when the central tearjerker scene is staged, one could hear even male viewers unable to hold back their sniffles – a smiling-through-tears tactic more devastating than what manipulative Hollywood dreck like James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), for all their outsize budgets, are able to achieve. The ending, happy but not (yet) triumphant, confirms that although the movie might have masqueraded for the most part as a comedy, it has remained true to its melodramatic ideals.

11011The plot concerns a street-smart young man, Wan-deuk (the Korean title is a jokey variation on his name). Generally well-behaved although unable to control his bouts of rage, Wan-deuk remains devoted to his diminutive hunchback father and struggles to maintain a decent performance in high school. Unfortunately for him, his teacher, Dong-joo, insists on singling him out in and outside the classroom, and harasses him even at home, since he lives across from the rooftop quarters Wan-deuk shares with his father and “uncle,” a mentally challenged man his father befriended and trained for his dance performances. As a child Wan-deuk used to wander the provincial cabaret where his father tap-danced, but since the father believed that his son will have a better future by studying in Seoul, he decided to move there (near Dong-joo’s place, as it turned out) and earn a meager living by selling trifles at markets outside the city.

11011The turning point arrives when Dong-joo, also a minister at a church that assists illegal immigrants, discovers that Wan-deuk’s mother is a Filipina who abandoned her family right after weaning her son from breast milk. The news traumatizes Wan-deuk, who already resents Dong-joo seriously enough to pray in church for his teacher’s demise. The process by which the narrative illustrates how these estranged characters manage to accept one another and discover reserves of strength in themselves is enabled by an impressive traversal of the delicate line separating humor from tragedy, without tumbling over into either extreme.

11011Key to the success of this type of undertaking is the performances. The title character is played by (from the perspective of world cinema) a newcomer, Yoo Ah-in, whose credibility as a mature-beyond-his-years teenager derives from parallel real-life experience as a high-school dropout. The actual lead, however – the character responsible for driving the plot forward – is Dong-joo, played with flourish and acute comic timing by Kim Yun-seok, previously identified with violent, even literally bloody film noirs. The supporting cast – Park Su-young and Kim Yeong-jae as father and “uncle” respectively, and Park Hyo-ju and Kang Byeol as Dong-joo and Wan-deuk’s respective love interests – partake of the same bounteous reserve of colorful representation steeped in what hip-hop artists would describe as dope realness.

11011Even a seeming anomaly like the casting of Yoo Ah-in, whose character looks like neither of his parents (and better than both, actually – star-is-born alert, everyone), makes complete sense for people who marry inter-racially as a matter of course – not among Koreans, but among Filipinos. The fact that he is endowed in several other respects adheres to the biological principle, recognized in Philippine culture (and recently being acknowledged in the US), that positive traits tend to emerge more prominently in hybrid offspring.

11011Yet as mentioned earlier, a successful genre project also requires the curse of containment. In Punch this is brought about in the portrayal of Wan-deuk’s mother, who functions more as cipher than as character, remorseful over her initial abandonment, resolved to make amends to her husband and son, relieved that through them she might finally find some ease over her hardscrabble existence. The rupture in this formulation derives from the fact that the role is essayed by Jasmine Lee, who in real life started as an immigrant wife in Korea but succeeded in becoming a national celebrity after the untimely death of her husband.

11011The source novel’s character was actually Vietnamese, although the temptation to change her nationality to Filipino was understandable: the Philippines has virtually become an extension of the southern island of Jeju-do, the primary warm-weather destination for vacationing Koreans, many of whom choose to stay longer (for English training and business investment), sometimes for good. Yet where most other Asian wives would have remained helpless, hampered by differences in both culture and language, the typically Westernized and English-speaking Filipina would have been able to clamber her way up the social ladder one way or another, especially if she’d had the “good education” that Wan-deuk’s father quietly boasted to his son.

11011A kinder way of responding to this potential shortcoming is by answering that first, gender politics cannot be a national priority in a country that is technically still at war and whose economy lacks a Third World that it can exploit, thus situating its population in a perpetual crisis position even amid its First-World prosperity; and second, a culture whose pre-modern Confucian ideology is even more resolutely patriarchal than its current conservative-Western aspirations has no model for feminist enlightenment anywhere within itself. (Indeed, a previous all-time Korean blockbuster, Lee Jun-ik’s Wang-ui namja [The King and the Clown, 2005], is an example of how internalized misogyny can inadvertently ruin any well-intentioned queer text.) Like Gwoemul, Punch compensates in the next best possible way, by presenting its male characters as society’s Other, feminized in relation to the relatively powerful and wealthy majority. It remains then for Korea’s Asian Others – Filipinos and other immigrant populations – to continue demonstrating how and why gender progressivity is not merely ethical, but in fact beneficial and indispensable in strengthening the strands of the social fabric.

[First published November 28, 2011, as “Punch Tackles Fil-Korean’s Search for Mother” in ABS-CBSNews.com]

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Book Texts – Pinoy Film Reviews III: Digital Era

Heaven in Mind

Sabel
Directed by Joel C. Lamangan
Written by Ricardo Lee

Sabel is the type of film, now rarely produced, that ought to serve as reminder to local commentators that film criticism is more than just a matter of collecting their share of booty from annual awards-night telecasts. The movie presents difficult analytical and ethical challenges in a deceptively lyrical, bittersweet, and compassionate manner, a throwback to the original ideals of the French New Wave and its immediate aftermath in Prague Spring cinema.

11011What enables the film to withstand critical scrutiny is its daring plunge through the thickets of radical gender politics. Where it winds up is as far from a politically correct normative position as it’s been possible to depict onscreen in local cinema. (Warning to those who prefer their film surprises unspoiled: a few revelations are coming up.) The eponymous central character undergoes an odyssey that takes her in directions even she could not anticipate. Such unpredictability, coupled with the filmmakers’ refusal to pass judgment on her decisions, may be the key to the largely belligerent responses of film reactors so far.

11011How far does Sabel (the movie’s lead character) wind up from the norm? To modify the response of a character made famous by the late Marlon Brando, how many norms have you got? I managed to count class, gender, sexuality, legal status, social respectability, ethnic affiliation, even nomenclature, as the character we first encounter as Sabel insists in the end on being called by some other name. Her extreme self-transformations of identity mark her journey as more than queer, a concept that originally drew from feminist and gay ideals but now stands independent of and occasionally opposed to them. So more-than-queer, in fact, that she embodies the most radical position possible in the identity-political game, that of lesbian theory and practice.

11011At some point in the past I attempted to articulate how, in refusing the reacceptance of norms (also known as mainstreaming) undertaken by the feminist, gay, and now even queer movements, lesbian activism has proved to be the most resistant to civil-rights containment – i.e., the willingness of liberal authorities to provide a place at the table, so to speak, in exchange for good behavior. Although the film-text I was then reading, Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night (1980), literalized its queerness by fragmenting its narrative structure, Sabel performs an even queerer reversal by intertwining two strands that I did not imagine could be integrated in the same young-Pinay body: the sexual and the political.

11011In short, where I had simply observed that the political lesbian, by embracing her historical “lack” and exploiting what has been regarded as her weakness by precisely insisting on her right to constant mutation, can be equated with a similar long-running revolutionary, the Third-World guerrilla, the film Sabel presents both options within the same person. And although the twists and turns in the main character’s story could amaze – or dismay – those seeking full understanding from the get-go, the signposts are all in place, ready to be acknowledged if one grants the movie a second screening: the character’s volubility, her bouts of inarticulate rage, her insistence on solitude, her reliance on the support of “sinful” men, her capacity for strategizing, and her recognition of the variable uses for one’s body, starting with her decision, early enough in the narrative, to undress in order to calm down a hysterical male prisoner.

11011In fact, the potentially explosive feminist issue of rape is what provides the film with its most carefully calibrated distinction: although as a nun, Sabel allows her own rape to take place (which, by most legal definitions, decriminalizes the act), she refuses to forgive the land-grabbing lawyer who ravages her lesbian lover. Rape, in this sense, is separated from rough sex by the fine line of personal consent, in much the same way that Freud described the inevitable interrelatedness of pleasure and pain. In this way the movie takes a position regarding the standard American feminist debate on pornography, wherein the right-wing pro-Moral Majority camp insisted on its synonymity with rape and the queer wing took the broader view of considering women’s sexuality a potentially enabling and liberating force.

11011So what have we got so far from the film? A clutch of ironies, actually: a teen slut who falls deeply, near-suicidally, for one of her casual pick-ups; a rebellious daughter who protects her neurotic mom from an abusive husband by setting up his downfall; a nun who turns out to be complicit in her own sexual violation; an absentee wife who admits genuine love for the father of her child; a life-long urbanite who finds solidarity with oppressed tribespeople; an exonerated prisoner who had actually committed the crime she was imprisoned for; a sexual sophisticate who rejects the fashionable trend of lesbian chic in favor of a butch-femme arrangement. Such a head-spinning combination of contradictions makes sense only if we accept that a character could be radical on her own terms, and Sabel’s Sabel proffers terms that are as unorthodox as they come.

11011In comparison with other feminist Filipino films, notably the same scriptwriter Ricardo Lee’s early ’80s output for Marilou Diaz-Abaya plus her more controversial though still indispensable later output (especially Sensual [1986] and Milagros [1997]), Sabel unequivocally demands to be taken as an integral part of the canon. It improves on Brutal (1980) by first seemingly reversing the gender of its investigator, from female to male, then ensuring that this person is sufficiently de-masculinized – as an ex-prisoner castigated by his fiancée’s mother and rendered reverential (feminist, in a sense) by the sacrifice of the nun he thought he had raped and by the love of an ambitious and capable woman – prior to allowing us to share his gaze. More important, it corrects the only sour note in the otherwise pitch-perfect Moral (1982) – the depiction of a minor character, one strong woman, among other strong women, whose only “fault” was that she happened to love other women.

11011Per the Internet Movie Database, this is the director’s and writer’s eighth collaboration. Most of the Joel C. Lamangan films I have seen evinced an admirable willingness to tackle ambitious themes with the heavy-handedness of a self-consciously classically oriented artist. Sabel is that wondrous creature, a work that pulls in issues from all over the map with the skill of an accomplished raconteur, one unafraid to deploy standard-issue devices (jump cuts and quick dissolves, flashback indicators, dramatic echo effects, etc.) for the sake of easing the narrative along. When the genuinely subversive resolution becomes apparent – the conciliation between the less-patriarchalized straight man and his former lover turned lesbian avenger, one accused of murder and the other getting away with it – it registers first as a warm, feel-good moment, sustained by the closure of the other characters’ stories, before the shocking implications take over.

11011Past Lamangan films, whatever their limits, could not be faulted for his direction of actors, but in Sabel he elicits career peaks from all the major performers. Wendell Ramos appears to have correctly judged how to attack his role by utilizing a childish affect during his emotional highlights, instead of the now-hackneyed (and predictable) sensitive-male approach, while Sunshine Dizon demonstrates authority as a medical professional and confidence as a soft-spoken butch lesbian. Most impressively, Rio Locsin turns in a radiant, witty, and mercurial performance as Sabel’s mother, all raw-edged neurotic tenderness that threatens to exterminate anyone unfortunate enough to share screen space with her: when she turns on the charm for her daughter and prospective son-in-law, then turns on him to express her unmitigated disapproval, one can completely understand how he can be spellbound enough to smile through her insults and later consult with her on how to find her missing daughter.

11011How does the lead actress fare in relation to such expert deliveries? It would be nearly impossible to find reference points for evaluation, given the singularity of the character in local cinema. One could attempt a commutational exercise by imagining how, say, the young Nora Aunor could have further enriched the role by lending it the discursive wealth of her persona or how the young Rio Locsin could have added a crucial measure of sensuality, but this also indicates how Judy Ann Santos’s achievement as Sabel is worthy of comparison with our very best talent. I was first appreciative of how unconcerned she was about her looks, considering how far from conventionally beautiful her features are. As she continued to immerse in the difficult metamorphoses of her character, I realized how hard-working this young talent was, and how much justifiable pride she manifested in a job well done. And yes, she does manage to hold her own before the force of nature that is Rio Locsin. If ever, and if only, unapologetically transgressive women characters become a staple in local fiction, Santos’s performance will serve as yardstick not because she was first, but because she made it memorable.

11011One final female auteur has to be cited: she shares story credit for the film, and is its producer as well. Lily Yu Monteverde has never gotten her due as the most productive mogul in our country’s colorful film history, largely because she also has a contradictory reputation as a disruptive producer. But now that even the trashy products of Regal are developing cult reputations, people better start rethinking whether, like Sabel’s, “Mother” Lily’s success wasn’t well earned after all. I’d say, on the basis of previous prestige projects (Mike de Leon’s Sister Stella L. [1984], Lino Brocka’s Makiusap sa Diyos [1991]), the main character’s nunhood phase was her contribution. But the larger contribution was the production itself. When Sabel insists that everything is part of a larger design, one that she later admits she herself could not completely discern, which creator could the filmmakers be referring to?

[First published July 12, 2004, in Philippine Star]

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Survivor’s Guilt

Boses
Directed by Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil
Written by Froi Medina and Rody Vera

Boses is not the first noteworthy film shut out of awards recognition in Cinemalaya – anyone ever heard of Arah Jell G. Badayos and Margaret G. Guzman’s 2006 Mudraks? It joins a long and still-lengthening list of works, local and foreign, film and non-film, overlooked upon initial release, whose reward(s) would arrive, sooner or later, in the form of belated acclaim, discursive attention, extended shelf-life, or, best of all, a mix of all three. What distinguishes Boses is that it also serves to indicate a peak in the Cinemalaya ideal: the hope that talent from the margins could eventually overrun the mainstream even while playing by the latter’s rules.

11011This may be the reason why the festival jurors may have felt alienated, embarrassed even, by Boses’s accomplishments.[1] Boses takes a grim situation (child abuse), matches it with high-art therapy (classical music), and unfolds the narrative with a strong dose of pleasure, as startling in its effectiveness as it is unexpected, given the nature of its material. In this manner the film betokens not just some of the best moments of the local industry, but also that of Classical Hollywood – the dominant 20th-century film movement that the rest of world cinema attempted to topple, with the European New Wave finally managing the feat just a few decades ago.

11011But what became Boses’s liability also turned out to be the source of its instant turnaround: already the current Cinemalaya top-grosser, it appears capable of attaining blockbuster status, with repeat viewership boosted by word-of-mouth commendation, occasionally hysterical responses even in the staid venues (Cultural Center of the Philippines, University of the Philippines Film Institute) it has graced so far, and star-is-born adulation lavished on its gifted and charismatic child performer, Julian Duque.

11011The trouble with Boses’s context of emergence is that it requires critical observers to weigh the film’s merits vis-à-vis those of the other Cinemalaya entries, especially this year’s winners. One strategy would be to point out the weaknesses of the prize-winners, but this would imply that the goal of figuring out a single “best” film is correct and satisfactory, when all it is, in a situation overwhelmed by an excess of achievements, is individualist in the worst tradition of auteurism (the New Wave “theory” that posited that films can be evaluated according to singular creative contributions, rather than collective efforts). In pursuit of this exercise, a circle of fellow cineastes helped me figure out what ailed the major winners (and, possibly by extension, the current crop of indie practitioners): a valorization of technical supremacy and over-reliance on deconstructive methods by the best-film winner, an endorsement of bourgeois middle-brow ambitions by the best-direction winner, and an infantilizing of outsiders (literalized by depicting them as children, with characters from the nation’s capital providing conflicting versions of modernist enlightenment) by the special jury prize-winner.

11011Yet this type of winner-take-all exercise presents its own form of danger, in the sense that Boses, for all its counter-acclaim, also partakes of some of the winners’ weaknesses. In fact our position as responsible observers makes it necessary to point out that a more radical handling of its material would have us understand, to the point of empathy, the abuser’s dramatic condition, the abused child’s reason for willing to have remained a victim for so long, and the tensions in the social worker’s position of class privilege in relation to abuser and abused. And we still have to bring up its filmmaker’s admission that she had to significantly sanitize the situation, not to mention the language, familiar to real-life child-abuse perpetrators, victims, and therapists. Plus it appears to uncritically question the pro-choice option.

11011With all the ways it might have fallen short, why does Boses remain the favorite of many, me included, anyway? One clue lies in the movie’s first end credit: a dedication to Johven Velasco, a film artist, teacher, and scholar who languished in academe until his sudden and tragic demise about a year ago, unknown to the rest of the world except for a handful of students and friends who swear by his selfless dedication and willingness to share everything he had, even at the expense of his own welfare. The fact that Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil makes this connection between the lives of her characters and that of an actual acquaintance indicates that she recognizes and upholds the power of love, a value that, even more than film pleasure, tends to upset film experts, used as they are to the constant and facile ways it gets exploited in the medium.

11011Indeed the core relationship in Boses, between the young survivor of parental abuse and the violinist who awakens the former’s talent and in the process attains his own closure from a personal tragedy, is what provides, for want of a less corny metaphor, the film’s heartbeat. Not only does the interaction start cute and end passionately, complete with initial misunderstanding, close calls, near-breakdown, and bittersweet separation, it also occasions bravura performances by the actors involved – as thespians and as musicians. Even more surprising, though perfectly logical, was Ongkeko-Marfil’s onstage acknowledgment, during the film’s UPFI screening, that Coke Bolipata and Julian Duque are violin mentor and student respectively in real life.

11011Though Boses benefits immeasurably from the chemistry between the pair’s star turns, the high level of quality displayed by the rest of the film’s cast proves that Ongkeko-Marfil’s background in stage arts (specifically the Philippine Educational Theater Association, where she and Johven Velasco started out) has helped complement the impressive evolution of her cinematic skills. Her earlier films, Angels (2001) and Mga Pusang Gala (2005), already generated appreciative buzz among indie-film observers. With Boses, she hewed close to what Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal, misrecognized among indie filmmakers as foreign-festival and anti-mass audience innovators, struggled to achieve throughout their extensive careers: the unapologetic provision of spectatorial pleasure alongside their inevitably intelligent handling of material.

11011The mode that Ongkeko-Marfil chose constituted her gravest challenge to serious film evaluators: melodrama, a type of genre that belongs to the larger group of “body” films, so-called because of their ability to provoke corporeal, as opposed to cerebral, responses – i.e., tear-jerking in this instance, goose bump-raising in horror, sexual arousal in pornography, laughter incitement in comedy. Feminist critics, for the greater part of the last couple of decades, have been spearheading the campaign to recuperate these much-derided genres, but their uphill movement shows no signs of reaching level ground in high-art (and therefore essentially conservative) culture, the indie-film scene included.

11011Boses evinces a systematic working-through of the elements peculiar to the local practice of melodrama, but the mechanisms, subtle as they are, become evident only upon further viewing. I even managed to jot down, in the dark of the screening venue, the Pinoy terms used by native practitioners: kilig, tampuhan, tawanan, kantahan (with violins instead of voices), habulan, and pagwawala, in chronological order as well as according to increasing level of involvement.[2] The penultimate sequence – spoiler alert! – between the teacher and student protagonists encapsulates the film’s earlier depiction of the shifts in their relationship: from farewell bonding, to panic, to relief, to hysteria, to music-making, to a brief comic exchange, to a final display of open-air (and -water) exuberance. One might wish that the performers had been seasoned enough to allow Ongkeko-Marfil to use a single take (a much-abused property of digital technology), but my first impression was that the scene had unfolded in one continuous action covered by multiple cameras (another advantage of the new technology) – such was the brilliance of the said sequence’s nearly wordless conception, grand in its romantic dimension yet sad in its recognition that the just-bonded individuals will never be this close again.

11011In fact the musical number that ends the narrative succeeds precisely because it refuses to provide definitive closure for any of the characters: the teacher will have to contend with his newfound dependence on the validation provided by his prodigy, the child will have to work out his loyalties toward his two needy father figures, the biological father will have to face the reality of his son challenging his vulnerable manhood, the social worker will have to start worrying whether her decision to reconcile the family would work out for the kid, the young girlfriend will have to find a way to attain sexual normality … just as people who have experienced these lives will have to return to places they call home and rethink the relationships they might have taken for granted up to this point.

11011A few films (even Filipino ones) may have incited revolutionary change, but the inward turn that Boses inspires, at a time when many of us have learned to muddle through with severely lowered expectations, ought to be fulfillment enough for the talents behind it. Most local digital practitioners will continue to aspire to attain festival honors in foreign lands, but this is the first movie made by a colleague of theirs that, more than anything else, truly belongs nowhere else but home.

[First published October 16, 2009, as “Boses Is for the World” in Philippine Daily Inquirer]

Notes

[1] An even likelier reason, which I never managed to corelate until now, was the unethical and pretentiously pseudo-Marxist bashing visited on the film by evaluators during the “congress” that the Cinemalaya organizers limit to taste-mongers in Philippine criticism and academia. See the “Indie Cinema Bilang Kultural na Kapital [Indie Cinema as Cultural Capital]” blogpost.

[2] The Filipino terms may be translated, in order of enumeration, as follows: titillation, sulkiness, laughter, musicality, pursuit, and rampaging fury.

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Sighs and Whispers

Biyaheng Lupa
Directed and written by Armando Lao

The much-ballyhooed emergence of digital film production in the Philippines has brought with it several paradoxes. On the one hand, while it has enabled critics to celebrate the revival of local cinema, the fact remains that genuine industrial-scale production has remained moribund, save for the occasional ultra-commercial event movie that would always, and continues to, embarrass the said critics (on which more later). On the other hand, largely because of the still-evolving shape of the dynamics of production and exhibition, more and more individuals are able to come up with their own releases, here and now, without having to go through the old eye-of-the-needle difficulties posed by then-prevalent but too-expensive celluloid production. Yet, also a consequence of such a sanguinary situation, too few of these would-be innovators see no problem in going over the heads of the local audience, as evidenced in nearly everyone’s eagerness to attain personal artistic validation by opting to make a mark in high-brow, preferably foreign venues.

11011These are problems whose solutions demand immediate attention, if only those in a position to attend to these issues could themselves take a step beyond self-aggrandizement. But one further paradox must be pointed out first, since it may be the most relevant in terms of Biyaheng Lupa. This proceeds from the preceding one, wherein digital production has provided an ever-growing number of prospective filmmakers with directorial breaks – so consistently, in fact, that eventually there might no longer be such a creature as a frustrated filmmaking aspirant. As in writing, where the fairly easy access to a typewriter (now a computer) nullifies any would-be author’s material excuses, so does digital film technology provide any auteur hopeful with a dwindling number of reasons to hesitate in taking her or his first directorial step.

11011Yet the now-unlamented tyranny of monolithic celluloid-dependent production was in fact capable of instilling in some of the best filmmaking candidates certain qualities that today’s film institutions, eager as most of them are to prove the worthiness of their respective trainees, wind up only paying lip service to: a solid grounding in the humanities, a thorough grasp of classical traditions, a philosophical engagement with issues both current and past, an enduring respect for the exigencies of financial risk-taking, and a willingness to engage the mass audience by entertaining and challenging them in turn, or simultaneously whenever possible. For this reason most old-school filmmakers, like today’s young Turks, could come up with creditable first projects … yet the old-timers could also sustain life-long careers by virtue of their intense personal commitment to complete artistic preparation, prolonged by the years, sometimes decades, of awaiting their respective breaks, whereas most of the names populating contemporary Filipino filmographies will be known mainly for the films they first came up with, and will be overstaying their welcome sooner or later.

11011It therefore also makes sense to maintain that the best local debut film, Ishmael Bernal’s Pagdating sa Dulo (1971), had not been surpassed for the past three decades, even in the face of the wild proliferation of first-timers since the turn of the millennium. Pagdating signaled the emergence of a talent distinguished by precociousness, reflexive criticality, intensive interest in social issues, and empathy for Otherness, with comic distance from profound institutional tragedies providing the equivalent of icing on the cake. And it also makes just as much sense to aver that Biyaheng Lupa shares all of Pagdating’s merits and then some, considering the fact that its director-writer, Armando Lao, has had close to a full career in scriptwriting – over a quarter-century, in fact – and had even then already embarked on an unrelated career or two elsewhere beforehand, much like many of the celluloid-era filmmakers once did.

11011A final similarity shared by both debut films resulted in an outcome that should not have happened then, and that has even less justification for occurring today: both display a sense of innovation so thoroughgoing yet so nonchalant that film evaluators have wound up taking the films’ presence, then as now, for granted. It would be newsworthy in itself if any influential institution were to recognize Biyaheng Lupa as the best Pinoy film debut of our time, just as Pagdating sa Dulo held that distinction for decades once people woke up to the fact. What will prove the current weakness of, say, the local critics’ group’s dynamics would be the inadequacy of its current screening methods – a reliance on individual video screeners, mainly, rather than the theatrical exhibitions that once guaranteed that complex film texts would have the potential to maximize their impact by approximating actual viewing experiences.

11011Like no one else except Bernal, Lao has infused his very first outing with a recognizable and fully developed aesthetic philosophy. Those who had been able to follow his scriptwriting career will be able to trace where he had been headed, and how he had managed an extensive self-revaluation and, at the same time, a welcome return to his roots. One could form one’s anticipation based on, say, the earthy handling of William Pascual’s Takaw Tukso (1986), the time-based experimentation of Chito Roño’s Itanong Mo sa Buwan (1988), the tragicomic national allegories of Jeffrey Jeturian’s Pila-Balde (1999), and the reflexivity of Jeturian’s Tuhog (2001), but Biyaheng Lupa would still prove more surprising than what any of these major works could presuppose.

11011Per the filmmaker’s own account, Biyaheng Lupa departs from Lao’s utilization of real-time presentations, notably in his collaborations with Jeturian and Brillante Mendoza. Lao’s real-time narrative strategy was itself a coping mechanism, after the commercial failure of his epic-scale project with Jeturian, titled Minsan Pa (which, like Biyaheng Lupa and Jeturian’s Kubrador [2006], was produced by MLR Films, whose executive producer, Joji Alonso, may yet bid to be the Jesse Ejercito of Pinoy digital productions). Lao has described Biyaheng Lupa as reliant on poetic time, where cosmic principles impinge on the unfolding of the narrative, as opposed to the duration-dependent real time and his earlier deployment of character-based dramatic time. Originally intended as a dramatic-time type of narrative focused on one of the present film’s main characters, the project hibernated, so to speak, as Lao went through his real-time storytelling phase, and re-emerged in the poetically inflected mode it has assumed at last.

11011Lao and his collaborators had endured varying measures of acclaim and grief – sometimes within the same project, as was the case with Mendoza’s 2008 Cannes entry Serbis. Curiously, Biyaheng Lupa both embodies this materialist orientation and transcends it at the same time, via its initial fragmentation of a close-quartered social unit, the passengers of a southbound bus, and the subsequent revelation of the artist’s motive: an amazing reconstitution of this same unit within the terms of the characters’ inner lives and often in spite of their individual selves, to such a degree that when one of them remarks, “My life is not alone,” it serves as a confirmation of what everyone had refused to accept until the fateful end.

11011Biyaheng Lupa sets out its contract with its viewers by asking them to accept its sole artificial element, the premise that people think in terms of words alone, rather than in terms of images or, more likely, in audiovisual stretches. Once we accept this, the film takes us on the journey of several characters – sixteen, if we were to go by the list of major performers, or seventeen if we include the anonymous, unseen ultimate determinant, the bus driver … who may or may not be standing in for the author, but the film’s ontological complications do not end here. At some point during the trip, the conductor operates the ubiquitous video player, and the Biyaheng Lupa producer’s earlier film, the aforementioned Minsan Pa, unfolds. Here the filmmaker may be acknowledging the reduction of finances (from celluloid epic to single-set digital) alongside the increase in scale (from hero-centered love triangle to multi-character dramatic discourse), even as the screen-within-the-screen characters, as stars playing “real” people, interpellate the bus passengers – who in turn “respond” by discussing the presentation, but whose comments reach neither the film being shown nor one another, but the film audience.

11011These polysemic valences come to a head with another video screening, this one more overtly interactive: a sing-along to Louie Ocampo’s pop ballad “Kahit Isang Saglit [Just One Moment],” where the passengers, without their knowing it, literally think of exactly the same thing, thus unconsciously-yet-deliberately forming an extemporaneous community of their own. The measure of Lao’s skill as documentarian is in how he demonstrates this occurrence without the usual humanist throwbacks to shared ideals or unified aspirations. In fact, the characters fall into singing along just as easily as they plot, bicker, judge, reminisce, fantasize, and regret, with one of them even developing at one point a funny-scary paranoid delusion that erupts in a knife-wielding outburst that just as quickly fizzles into abject surrender. One might remark here that, given the radical paring-down of scale and resources, Biyaheng Lupa attempts the same successful delineation of a recognizable Filipino social milieu that Bernal’s Manila by Night (1980) had done, but with more characters, and in reverse: where Bernal started with relative unity and stability and built up toward a monumental breakdown, Lao begins with the more recognizable self-absorbed individuals typical of a harried neoliberal Third-World existence, drifting in and out of their inner lives as they contend with the company of one another.

11011Yet even as they insist on the primacy of their lives prior to and possibly after taking the present trip, a question of haunting arises. The audience is never provided any assurance that the memories conjured up by any of the characters are real (one of them in fact worries that her illegitimate pregnancy will result in the delivery of a monstrous squid-baby, just like her neighbor did before her), which is why when the film follows some of them after they leave the bus, their situations acquire an uncanny quality that never became an issue when they were still taking the trip. On the other hand, most of them are so caught up in their other lives that the proximity of the other passengers results in intrusions that they dismiss, reject, misrecognize (especially in erotic terms), or at best tolerate; in short, while for us the characters’ pre-trip lives might just as well be fantastic, for the characters the other passengers might as well be specters that could dissolve once this transition in their lives has passed.

11011Such insights on transience, destiny, and the abiding power of memory are brought to bear in the film’s bravura climax, simple in conception, casual in execution, yet grand in the best possible way, heralded by a mystifyingly long take of the bus crossing a bridge then pausing in the middle. Without giving away (too much of) this vital closure, I ought nevertheless to remark that we witness a series of rapturous textual ruptures and arrive at one of the most incredible final shots in cinema – and yes, I do include global samples in this declaration: a close-up of the last passenger, her face crowded by translations of the monologues of everyone else around her, building up to her final utterance, devastatingly simple, amusing yet heartbreaking, drawn from a fiction whose reality effect surpasses whatever documentations have been made of life in our wondrous, terrible, much-abused yet constantly hopeful existence.

[First published May 2, 2009, in Philippine Star]

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On the Edge

On the Job
Directed by Erik Matti
Written by Michiko Yamamoto and Erik Matti

On the Job (hereafter OTJ) commemorates at least one milestone in the still-evolving narrative of Philippine independent cinema: it is the first digital-era action film to attain the genre’s elusive combination of critical acclaim and box-office profitability, reminiscent of the local industry’s social-realist achievements during the martial law period (roughly the ’70s to the mid-’80s). From my sadly delimited perspective, the project seems to have benefited from a serendipitous confluence of its creative forces, director Erik Matti and co-writer Michiko Yamamoto, each attaining a peak in relatively short careers already marked by several high points.

11011One measure of the movie’s impact lies in how it has been able to elicit commentary even from Pinoy reviewers who tend to focus on so-called mainstream releases. This is the key to OTJ’s significance as the latest in a still-rare series of independently produced films that fulfill the dream of a community of practitioners who seek to overrun the studio-dominated mode of production and exhibition. Unlike Aureus Solito’s Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (2005), the first digital indie success that turned out to be the exception that proved the rule, all the rest were generically recognizable exercises, notably a pair of comedies (Marlon Rivera’s Ang Babae sa Septic Tank and Jade Castro’s Zombadings 1: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington [both 2011]) and a melodrama (Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil’s Boses [2008]). OTJ claims pride of place in being directed at the patronage-shy male audience while accommodating whatever combination of viewers (female, youth, intelligentsia) still manages to sustain theatrical screenings.

11011In fact the few negative responses to the film dwell on aspects that the movie had no choice but to observe in order to succeed as a genre sample. One might feel that the fact that a woman co-scripted the material might have been nothing more than a stroke of luck for the project, but that would belie the evidence that Michiko Yamamoto was also responsible for the aforementioned Maximo Oliveros and Zombadings, as well as Maryo J. de los Reyes’s Magnifico (2003): if one were to imagine the men her fictions focused on, they would proceed chronologically from son to gay son to grown-up sexually conflicted teen, so there would be no reason to expect that she would be unable to deal (entertainingly) with mature conventional men.

11011What makes OTJ a qualitative leveling up, to use contemporary youth lingo, is not so much its close inspections of father-son relationships (also characteristic of the previous Yamamoto-scripted titles) as the proliferation of dramatis personae representing various social strata and performing diverse conflicting functions. The challenge of rendering these potentially schematic types as recognizable denizens of the urban jungles of Metro Manila was up to the director to realize, and Erik Matti proves himself equal to the task by relying (as Ishmael Bernal before him had been wont to do) on the tension that results from fusing a complex, raging narrative voice with a patient and keenly observed documentarian style, his on-the-prowl camera constantly encircling his major characters the same way that new media (in the form of CCTVs and satellites and camera phones, e.g.) ensure that our private moments might be shared by a voracious viewing public.

11011The icing on the cake is what probably proved irresistible to mass viewers, who are known to re-watch films that treat them to unexpected doses of pleasure: in OTJ’s case, this would comprise the nearly uniform sterling performances by an ensemble of actors who seemed to have been hungry for the opportunity to shine in sharply drawn characterizations, and proceeded to deliver quicksilver line readings, physically exhaustive maneuvers, and emotionally draining demonstrations. Actually it was only during a second viewing where I figured out that it was mainly the performances that accounted for an impression that the movie had set out to tackle Oedipal conflicts in a failed state, despite the fact that of the three sets of fathers in the film, the least visible son was the only one biologically related to his dad, an upstanding (and therefore professionally unsuccessful) police officer. The pair of prisoners who get spirited out by their militarily appointed handlers observe a mentor-student relationship (that occasionally has the potential to virtually replace the student’s own parents, as most teachers can attest), while the police detective that the Senate-aspiring general’s campaign manager assigns to attend to a series of messy clean-up operations is actually an orphan “adopted” by his father-in-law, the campaign manager.

11011If the set-up as presented sounds a mite too complex for a standard-issue actioner, that precisely is the contract the film proffers its media-savvy and issue-starved Pinoy audience, in exchange for headline-worthy acts of violence tempered with unexpected moments of gracious humor. That in itself would be sufficient payoff, but OTJ more daringly builds up its case against the state, where the lowliest character hints at the highest office in the land as implicated in unwholesome underworld skulduggery. The manner in which the father-son tensions are resolved is breathtaking in its cold-bloodedness, yet in both mass-audience and student venues that I attended, the viewers cheered at the end (as foreign-festival attendees reportedly also did).

11011A less forgiving observer might complain that the movie performs as entertainment machine too successfully, trading on its impressive skills display – and while I imagine that for some viewers that would be reason enough to be grateful, I’d hesitate to judge that desire as wrong per se. But I also think that the exchange between OTJ and its audience goes a bit deeper than that: by regarding the viewer as capable of following story threads as endless and labyrinthine as the alleyways and culs-de-sac that the characters keep navigating, hopeful for whatever reward they believe awaits them at the end, OTJ enables its primary audience to realize how Philippine society and its people are imprisoned in an insurmountable system of exploitation. Thwarted by electoral exercises, appalled by high-level corruption, distressed by the prospect of having to follow other people’s commands just to be able to survive – we are what we witness in this sordid, bloody, soul-crushing, painfully funny portrait of the national condition.

[First published September 12, 2013, in The FilAm]

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A Desire Named Oscar

Ilo Ilo
Directed and written by Anthony Chen

Metro Manila
Directed by Sean Ellis
Written by Frank E. Flowers and Sean Ellis

Transit
Directed by Hannah Espia
Written by Giancarlo Abrahan and Hannah Espia

The present year (2013) will be memorable for Pinoys mainly for the succession of national traumas it proffered, from the usual showbiz decouplings and sex scandals to pork-barrel exposés, militia violence, and record-breaking natural disasters. On the other hand, those who wish to remember whatever positive developments occurred will have enough to account for beyond the first Miss World (and Miss Supernational) beauty queens and the nth boxing triumph of Manny Pacquiao. In fact the equivalent past year, for those old enough to remember, would be 1984, when the country was in the throes of dismantling a discredited (US-sponsored) dictatorship, yet graced with what may have been the most productive Golden Age year for Philippine cinema. As if to compensate for the greater concentration of troubles that befell the republic this year, 2013 supplied not just more wonderful films than usual, but also more festivals to showcase several of these achievements.

11011The rest of the world’s film community must have been taking notes, since the Philippines not only claimed to offer “more fun” in its official tourist announcement, but also actually positioned its citizens in virtually all the inhabited areas of the globe. About one in ten Filipinos, or close to ten million in total, constitutes the official count; no other national economy depends as much on overseas income, even if three other countries (China, India, and Mexico) have, in absolute terms, more overseas citizens and consequently larger remittances. In this respect, the overseas Filipino worker or OFW possesses a status crucial to the survival of her home country, not to mention her usually numerous dependents back home. This fact ties in with several other problems whose solutions lie beyond our reach for now: elected officials, for example, will always be confident about plundering the national treasury since the people in charge of the economy will no longer be able to hold off their money-making activities, the way they did during the Marcos era; if the OFWs withheld their remittances, the pork-barrelists may be frustrated – but only after the OFWs’ families had gone without for too long.

11011Unlike Western and several newly prosperous Asian countries, therefore, the Philippine global presence is far less privileged, manifested by workers in some of the least-preferred stations in their destination countries, rather than by tourists and scholars or professionals on exchange programs. The fascination among foreign cultures with the Pinoys in their midst derives from a recognition tinged with embarrassment and guilt: in an earlier, less-developed period, they could have been us. Hence a lot of conflicted responses to the OFW presence can be explained in terms of how badly the foreign employers wish to deny this reality about themselves, or how sorry they feel for the people who might have been their equal, had history taken other turns (the global response to the victims of supertyphoon Yolanda/Haiyan can also be framed in this way).

11011Meanwhile, part of the pro-filmic renown that 2013 will be marking was the announcement that three official submissions to the Best Foreign Film category of the Academy Awards happen to deal with Filipino workers. The Filipino and Singaporean entries, Transit and Ilo Ilo respectively, are overtly about OFWs (with another country, Israel, as the setting for Transit), while the UK’s submission, Metro Manila, is about a Pinoy worker’s odyssey in his native land. Transit was the first to be screened locally, during the annual Cinemalaya Film Festival; Metro Manila was screened not long after, while Ilo Ilo will be in Metro Manila theaters by the time this article gets published. It is in reverse order of their Philippine release schedules that I will be discussing each one.

11011Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo brings with it a number of well-deserved distinctions, including a trophy from Cannes as well as Taiwan’s Golden Horse prize as the best Chinese-language movie of the year. It’s better than what one could hope for, and strengthens the perception of how Singaporeans are attempting to bridge the connections between their people and ours after the several difficulties the Philippines has had with the Singaporean government, from Lee Kuan Yew’s disparaging remarks about OFWs to the Flor Contemplacion tragedy. The earlier OFW-themed Singaporean film, Kelvin Tong’s 2005 horror entry The Maid, was similarly well-intentioned but too derivative and necessarily dualistic in its configuration of the “good” victimized OFW and evil-abusive Singaporean employers.

11011Since Ilo Ilo proceeds from a recollection of its filmmaker’s formative period with his Pinay nanny, it manages to depict a system where harshness and even outright cruelty can be understood even by the purported victim, with the IMF/WB-induced Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s as the invisible monster that inevitably takes over the country, driving its citizens to increasing levels of panic and frustration. Chen maintains a humane grounding for the family at the center of his narrative, with the usually demonized character, the mother, revealed as the force that keeps the family, materially speaking, together, her jealousy at the developing closeness between her son and his nanny kept in check by her realization that the problems she has to solve are larger than all of them put together, since it will mean their survival as citizens. To its credit, Ilo Ilo is able to advance these potentially melodramatic developments in a subdued, humor-leavened manner, the heartbreak of the family (and their country) falling apart and losing the first “other” friend their son has ever had all kept in check and staying with the viewer long after the screening experience has ended. If you happen to be in the vicinity where the film’s being screened, don’t wonder that people are not buzzing excitedly about it, since it’s not that kind of film; just rest assured that it will provide good old-fashioned substantive entertainment, and head to the nearest venue without delay.

11011Sean Ellis’s Metro Manila is made of more ambitious stuff, the same way that Danny Boyle presumed that he was in a position to envision the slums of Mumbai as an Oscar-worthy film in Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Alas, just as Slumdog Millionaire could only hope to repackage a proletarian children’s fantasy via all the razzle-dazzle that state-of-the-art Hollywood filmmaking could offer, so does Metro Manila falter in its attempt to portray the Pinoy underclass. The relationship between a British subject like Boyle and the postcolonial material that Mumbai represents can only work to the extent that, say, an author like Rudyard Kipling could only partially (and problematically) succeed with, and do so by devoting his entire life to living in and writing about India. And just as Slumdog Millionaire managed to get by through appropriating elements of Bollywood cinema, so does Metro Manila attempt to make its case by demonstrating how closely its makers had studied certain Pinoy social-realist samples that happened to be accessible to foreign viewers.

11011What Ellis and his team missed out on was the home-based critique of this tradition. Even worse, they subject the Pinoy psyche to a distinctly Western temperament, when the movie’s central figure (who’s male rather than female) feels shortchanged by the trader who buys his harvest, and decides to trek from faraway Mountain Province to Metro Manila, where he knows no one, bringing his entire family with him. To make things worse, everyone who meets him treats him worse than his rural boss, with a room-for-rent swindle serving as the proverbial last straw; no one even thinks of extending a hand, much less uttering a sympathetic word, at the plight of an incredibly naïve rural migrant – who it turns out can even speak fluent English! Midway through the movie the narrative veers into film-noir territory, so if you can sit out the first hour, you’ll finally be able to appreciate certain developments made more recognizable because of their generic properties.

11011Finally, Hannah Espia’s Transit stands as one of the most impressive first films in an accelerating list of local films filled with impressive debuts, and more striking since she happens to be the only female filmmaker in this trio as well as the youngest. Transit may not have been possible had the filmmaker lacked extensive preparation in her craft, and Espia’s status as a graduate of the national university’s film program evinces how the faculty, along with the better students, might have been able to assess the errors of the program’s earlier emphases on film plastics and found instead the more useful study materials on time, modernity, thirdspace, globalization, memory, and politics of gender and race. Apparently Espia reached into her own history as the child of Israel-based OFWs, and returned to this past in order to evoke it for people – her own, and others – who might find it less familiar than she does.

11011By focusing on a single episode, which may be roughly described as the effects of recent Israeli security policy of deporting the children of migrant workers too young to attend school, and the responses of a small circle of OFW relatives and friends, Espia enables the audience to realize the human cost of such a harsh (through presumably necessary) official decision; like Anthony Chen, she also positions the OFWs’ foreign employers as distinct from their countries’ state forces, and one realizes how well she succeeds with the characters in her narrative when an Israeli employer, a generous and avuncular elderly fellow, suffers an attack – and an OFW child, left alone in the Israeli’s house, now has to risk his resident status by running out into the open to seek for help.

11011The film’s complexities derive from the characters’ difficult relationships with one another, desirous of constantly expressing the warmth that Pinoy culture ingrains in its citizens from birth, yet wary of the way that this surrender to the dictates of the heart could trip them up in relation to their host country’s wartime rules and regulations. The narrative structure is in fact so simple that it actually helps the “readers” (the film’s audiences) to place where an individual character happens to stand in relation to the others, before her or his private moments reveal what thoughts or emotions she or he might actually be harboring deep inside. The same episode gets played out over and over, and in increasing length, from the perspective of characters who are ranged, chronologically, from oldest to youngest, until it ends up with a person directly affected by the country’s policy, a child below the age of five, and attains full circle cinematically while insisting on an open ending, with the characters changing the resolutions of the stories that they exchange with one another.

11011Having once taught at the institute where Espia had studied, I never imagined that an undergraduate would be able to configure how film form can be invested with useful discursive valences – so either this is an unusually gifted person who was fortunate in having previously unexploited material, or we might finally be witnessing an end to all these tiresome shallow experimentations that look like painfully prolonged film theses. Like Anthony Chen (and unlike Sean Ellis), Hannah Espia focused on theme, character, structure, historiography, and politics, and never let go of gentle humor. She apparently used admittedly difficult recent readings to find ways to tinker with these elements, and presumably set aside the usual goofing around with lights and mics and lenses and reflexive references. There’d be no other way for her and Chen to grow, full-grown as they already are, except by becoming fuller film specialists.

[First published December 4, 2013, as “The OFW Finds Well-Deserved Recognition in Hollywood” (Part 1) and as “Metro Manila and Transit: Ambitious, Impressive” (Part 2) in The FilAm]

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Antonio Luna’s Fall and Rise

Heneral Luna
Directed by Jerrold Tarog
Written by Henry Francia, E.A. Rocha, and Jerrold Tarog

By now, any Filipino in any part of the world who has been extensively plugged into the social network of Facebook would have heard of Heneral Luna, the celebrated blockbuster on Antonio Luna. Among several ironies, Luna (1866-99) was reluctant to participate in the uprising against Spain but led the revolutionary army, the Katipunan, in resisting American occupation; like the Katipunan’s founder, Andres Bonifacio, Luna was assassinated by his own compatriots, possibly on orders (or at least with the compliance) of the “first” Philippine president, Emilio Aguinaldo.

11011The film, directed by Jerrold Tarog and scheduled to screen in the US in a few weeks, boasts of several accomplishments beyond provoking renewed interest in several unresolved century-old controversies: it marked the emergence of vital new players in the burgeoning Philippine film scene; it exemplified ways of reworking a difficult and nearly forgotten local genre, the historical epic; and it demonstrated the material potential of social-network activism, with the movie’s box-office record actually increasing from one week to the next in direct proportion to the buzz generated among Facebook users. (Of special interest to social-science observers will be how this correlation between new-media activity and citizens’ decision-making plays out in next year’s Philippine presidential election.)

11011Only the most assiduous students of Philippine cinema will be able to assert that, contrary to the general impression, Heneral Luna is not the first successful local historical epic. Several other period films, notably Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? (1976), are fondly remembered even though they do not purport to overtly depict any historical personage; Celso Ad. Castillo’s Asedillo (1972) and Peque Gallaga’s Virgin Forest (1985) deal with personalities involved in the Fil-American War and its aftermath; and several other titles, notably those of Gerardo de Leon, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Mario O’Hara, and Mike de Leon, tackle the novels of Jose Rizal and/or the life of the national hero himself.

11011Heneral Luna, however, stakes a claim on Pinoy historical-epic production, and not only because it is the first well-received one made since the film industry’s transition to digital format. It evinces careful study of the tradition of an admittedly outmoded genre, one that was much-admired during the early years of cinema but has since been regarded with a certain degree of embarrassment, if not disdain, for its indulgence in “surge and splendor and extravagance,” as described by film expert Vivian Sobchack. By his own admission, Tarog reworked an already finished script not only by translating it from English, but also by adding several scenes and details, including a surprising amount of humor; in this way Heneral Luna manages to recall not just Romero’s work, but an unfairly forgotten early film on Artemio Ricarte by Ishmael Bernal, El Vibora (1972).

11011Unlike Romero and Bernal, Tarog exhibits a fluency in film language that enables him to bypass several of the standard elements of the historical epic genre. He had managed to work around the more technical requirements – the use of recognizable performers (as Asedillo, for example, had Fernando Poe Jr.) and the distension of time and space – by casting appealing performers who were capable of larger-than-life delivery without losing histrionic credibility, and by covering so many sociopolitical issues over so much geographic space that the film actually seems to run longer than its barely two-hour limit and seems to be spilling out of the confines of the frame; by the time the American colonial officers congratulate themselves and mock the natives’ attempt at self-determination, and face the audience to deliver their lines, the gesture seems to be so consistent with the film’s disciplined use of postmodern devices that no one feels that some realist contract has been violated.

11011The more significant contribution of Heneral Luna has been in Tarog’s refusal to follow the historical epic tradition of “writing History” (again per Sobchack), but instead opts to write a (version of) history, admitting to the use of fiction (as announced in the prologue) and even rumor (as admitted in a closing-credit notice). In so doing, the film manages to evade and even subvert the several forms of ideological baggage that encumbered Classical Hollywood samples: the rational humanism, bourgeois patriarchy, acceptance of colonialism and imperialism, and validation of entrepreneurial and corporate capitalism that typified early Oscar winners, for example. More than any previous sample of Pinoy historical epics, Heneral Luna comes closest to what may be termed the counter-cultural extravaganzas of post-Classical Hollywood and European cinema. It also reconnects with another moribund local genre, the action film, by repackaging the eponymous lead character as neither (strictly speaking) hero nor villain, but as a complex antihero: the responses of the secondary characters to his temperamental contradictions subtly mirror an audience dynamic, with the less “critical” mass audience more accepting, and appreciative, of the film, in contrast with pickier, logic-obsessed, PC-insistent commentators.

11011Hence anyone who scours the internet for every available response to the film would have eventually stumbled on dissenting commentaries, some of them harsh or outright dismissive. This would be understandable in any work of sufficient ambition and coverage: there will always be elements that will rub some people the wrong way, and in Heneral Luna these have arisen in the text’s critique of parochialism (painful for those who happen to be associated with certain tribes or regions identified as the villains of this specific version of history) as well as in the downplaying of American complicity in the revolution’s most contemptible tendencies. For a preferable corrective, I would refer such would-be critics to another fairly recent period film, ironically by an American, John Sayles’s Amigo (2010), which should be viewed as the history-from-below intertext of Heneral Luna.

11011For it would be to anyone’s future detriment to write off Tarog and his intention of completing a trilogy of filmic discourses on Philippine history. As a non-mainstream filmmaker, he had already come up with a personal series (which he calls his “camera trilogy”), and these indicate a willingness to delve into uncomfortable material via innovative strategies. With Heneral Luna he has managed to be earnest about raising questions of patrimony and identity while remaining playfully distant and allowing the audience to figure out their own takes on the past and on the filmic future. It takes a certain type of commitment (or what the romantically inclined might call “love”) to embark on this kind of long-term project, so anyone about to watch the film better be prepared: displays of love can embarrass, and surrendering to it will be overwhelming.

[First published October 15, 2015, as “Historical Film Depicts Antonio Luna’s Fall and Rise” in The FilAm]

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Ice with a Face

Ma’ Rosa
Directed by Brillante Ma. Mendoza
Written by Troy Espiritu

Brillante Ma. Mendoza’s Ma’ Rosa holds the distinction of being the second Filipino film to win at the Cannes Film Festival’s main competition. Even more impressive is the fact that the previous winner, Kinatay (2009), was also made by Mendoza, who won for direction. Ma’ Rosa copped a “lesser” prize (best actress for Jaclyn Jose), but as any observer of Philippine movie awards will confirm, any performance award makes a bigger splash with the local public, because of the way it plugs into the star system.

11011Jose’s achievement has the additional allure of the unexpected: among a long list of respected actors, she had long been relegated to secondary status (“supporting,” in awards parlance), although she managed to land a well-received lead role or two every decade since the 1990s. She emerged as an already-accomplished talent in late 1984, and had Lino Brocka scrambling to cast her in as many fallen-women roles as he could commission; in a couple of years, she earned an enviable notoriety for dominating sex-themed films without any compunction about shedding off all her clothes while delivering performances that won her a series of critics’ prizes. (Several of these 1985-86 titles may be found, remastered but unsubtitled, at Jojo Devera’s [now defunct] Magsine Tayo! blog.)

11011The standard procedure among Philippine film experts is to run a commutation test (following John O. Thompson’s prescription) imagining how the role would have turned out if it had been performed by Nora Aunor. Hard though it may be to believe, certain roles had always tended to lie beyond the reach of the country’s foremost film performer – sex roles, for example, like the ones that Jose once specialized in. Jose in Ma’ Rosa acquits herself sufficiently so that by the end of the presentation, one might still be able to speculate how Aunor could have enriched the role, but one would have to be too much of a Noranian to deny that Jose succeeded in creating an iconic character, one that would have been the logical outgrowth of the poverty-stricken sex kittens that she used to portray.

11011Jose’s predicament is matched by Mendoza’s. After witnessing how he had a series of increasingly controversial wins (topped by Roger Ebert’s sustained tirades against Kinatay), people now feel righteous enough to point out that his latest outing proffers yet another variation on his “poverty-porn” material. Once more it is anchored by his long-time collaborator (and Ma’ Rosa consultant) Armando Lao’s vérité-inspired found-story approach, focused on the dregs of society trying desperately to make ends meet, with the police force behaving as a sinister and ruthless extension of a negligent state that leaves its vulnerable Third-World populace to be buffeted by the combined forces of postcolonial neoliberalism, climate change, and uneven development patterns.

11011Yet Ma’ Rosa shares certain properties with some of Mendoza’s best work. It has the suspenseful exposition of Tirador (2007), the warmth of Foster Child (2007), the technical expertise of Serbis (2008), and even casts an actor from his first film, Masahista (2005), to play the same role as a gay sponsor. Jose as the title character and Julio Diaz as her husband appeared as a married couple not just in Serbis but also in William Pascual’s Takaw Tukso (1986), where Mendoza worked as production designer (and performs the same function in Ma’ Rosa, as he did for a number of his previous films).

11011Even more unexpected is the easy way that the current release lends itself to a second screening. Ma’ Rosa appears to promise further insights beyond what an initial viewing conveys, and dutifully manages to fulfill that promise. We see the worst of the policemen behaving tenderly toward a couple of youthful drug users, and the entire corrupt police force bantering playfully with a gay minor, Dahlia, who acts as their office maid.

11011Ma’ Rosa herself comes across as an exemplary businessperson, with enough sense (unlike her good-for-nothing husband) to avoid using the very product she dispenses and to keep a detailed sales record that winds up incriminating her; indeed her strong-woman genes seem to have thankfully persisted, with her daughter (played by Jose’s real-life offspring) the only one among her children still in school. Once we know Ma’ Rosa’s sub-rosa activities, and we see her purchasing instant noodles at the beginning of the film, we then find ourselves noting the irony of how certain products cause extensive health damage yet some of them can be acquired legally while others have to be handled with full awareness and acceptance of the risks involved.

11011An overlooked aspect of Mendoza’s work is his handling of women performers, and Jose’s Cannes prize serves as reminder for us to reconsider the several elderly actresses he had provided with rare opportunities to showcase their abilities: Aunor for Taklub (2015) and Thy Womb (2012), Anita Linda and Rustica Carpio for Lola (2009), Maribel Lopez for Kinatay, Gina Pareño for Serbis, and Cherry Pie Picache for Foster Child; an exceptional case would be Coco Martin, the closest to a Mendoza signature actor, who burst on the scene with Masahista and has become a household name (while occasionally reappearing in Mendoza films) as Philippine independent cinema’s most vital contribution to the mainstream industry.

11011Jose’s reading of her role is complemented by the high level of performance of the rest of the cast. Mendoza is one of the few indie filmmakers who can command people with leading-role backgrounds to play supporting characters, from Lopez’s single-scene appearance as Ma’ Rosa’s resentful sister-in-law Tilde, to Baron Geisler and Mark Anthony Fernandez as police officers who look snappily elegant when they finally don their uniforms but with Ma’ Rosa’s (and the audience’s) complete understanding of their monstrous potential, and Kristoffer King as Ma’ Rosa’s even-tempered drug dealer who grows increasingly menacing when he realizes how she had betrayed him to their neighborhood’s criminal police gang.

11011The film’s much-admired open ending, where Ma’ Rosa nearly chokes on street food as she witnesses a fate she’d been trying to avoid (a homeless family with their ambulatory store) also turns on the several problems that await her: insurmountable debt, spiteful neighbors and relatives, military-sponsored enemies, the loss of her primary source of income. Her husband will seek more solace in his drug habit, her daughter will be unable to finish her studies, her eldest son will complete his transition to street thuggery, her youngest will continue selling his body to predatory gay men. The “ice” she sold merely represented a more extensive underlying sociopolitical and moral corruption, and all she had tried to do was keep her home and family together using resources available to her. Through Jose, via Mendoza’s steerage, the cliché about the woman embodying the nation becomes a cold, hard, inescapable truth.

[First published July 14, 2016, as “In Ma’ Rosa, Cannes Best Actress Jaclyn Jose Plays a Meth Dealer with Eloquence, Warmth” in The FilAm]

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Book Texts – Metacriticism: “A Lover’s Polemic”

A LOVER’S POLEMIC

To jump to later sections, please click here for: Territorialities; A Genealogy; Critical Protocols; Working at Play; and Notes.

The difficulty in tracking the development of film criticism in the Philippines is that the practice tends to take after the volatile developments in the mass medium it seeks to cover. One could argue that it started out as an elevated form of advertising (or what cynical media professionals during martial law called “praise releases”), then sought its own institutional independence in the counterpart medium of print, then specialized further in the form of dedicated organizations, until it arrived at the current internet-facilitated Babelesque proliferation of individual and group voices. I would not claim to have done sufficient research in pursuit of this notion, and the urgency of figuring out the modern-day whys and wherefores of local film criticism would be formidable as it already is.[1]

11011What compounds the activity is the reality, as many an aspiring film practitioner discovers to her distress a few weeks into formal studies, that film criticism is hardly the only language that requires one’s attention; it is actually a minor, relatively easy mode of practice in the field of film scholarship, itself a subcategory of the larger field of cultural and literary studies. Hence when students realize that one more language – that of film itself as medium of expression – awaits mastery, too many of them retreat into this technological fortress, stepping out only when necessary (and mostly only to like-minded confreres) and using the only means available to them, the increasingly inadequate vocabulary of filmcrit agitation and canon formation.[2]

11011In American graduate school, I was able to witness firsthand how this separation between film scholarship and production resulted in specialists who suffered from serious lack in whatever realm they opted to work in: practitioners who started out thoroughly clueless about histories of and issues specific to the medium, and academics who were hostile to the possibility that their object of study could have real-world (especially monetary) significance. So when my colleagues in the national university were planning at one point to accommodate the film students’ understandable (but misplaced) resistance to literary and foreign-language studies, I felt I had no choice except to side with colleagues outside the program who derided their proposal to transform a full-blown degree into a glamorized certificate course.

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Territorialities

I would caution readers in other professions, not to mention other media, against bearing down on the admittedly pretentious and occasionally infantile excesses of contemporary Pinoy film artistes. The world that opens up to people who participate in film activity has been shifting for some time, in ways that differ considerably from critics who operate in other areas. Where the always-perceptive literary critic Caroline S. Hau could write, in this same publication, that “Rarely do Philippine books find a larger audience beyond the home country’s book market and a few area studies departments in American and other universities,”[3] most Filipino film scholars have to contend with a disadvantage in the opposite direction: the preemption and sometimes negation of homegrown responses by foreign commentators, who maneuver from within systems that adequately fund research and handsomely reward the publication of journal articles.

11011To be sure, this globalized state of affairs may have once been an indispensable survival strategy for local practitioners. Asian and (for innovative B-film releases) US markets had initially already been accessible venues for Filipino producers, with or without foreign co-financiers;[4] with the crisis situation induced by the implementation of martial-law policies, however, a more rarefied outlet – European film-festival exhibition and distribution – began to be reconfigured on both ends (i.e., by Euro organizers and US-dominated Third-World filmmakers) as the perfect safe haven: First World (and therefore profitable) but non- or even anti-American, with artistic cachet as fallback justification for “subversive” expressions.[5]

11011Hence the Pinoy film-buff’s world at the time (circa the so-called Second Golden Age roughly concurrent with the martial-law period), for all intents and purposes, comprised Manila as a site of struggle, Hollywood and its Asian satellites as sources of “safe” (i.e., politically uncommitted) profit, and the major film capitals in Western Europe, primarily Cannes in France, as nirvana, the ultimate destination for the worthiest among us. Small matter then that an undisputed master, Ishmael Bernal, was unceremoniously shunted aside at this venue, or that the festival’s fave Pinoy, Lino Brocka, had already started to exhibit the mentality that has since become the knee-jerk prophet-rejected-by-the-natives response of today’s so-called indie crowd.[6] More seriously, the present-day rush among wide-eyed cineastes to replicate the Brocka model overlooks the fact that, although he continued to be defensive about his global successes, he quietly undertook a careful repudiation of his missteps in terms of identity politics (specifically his racism, sexism, and homophobia) and was building up toward major projects that would have restated his reconsidered positions minus his previous disregard for the local audience’s generic preferences.

11011This imaginary geographic reconfiguration has become even more decentered and mutable at present, with Hollywood (via Sundance and the Oscars) finally being recuperated as just another playing ground, and the long-defunct Philippine-based outlet, the Manila International Film Festival, supplanted by the annual Korean festival in Busan. Pinoy filmmakers launch their auteurist vehicles, appropriately enough, via local “independent” festivals, supplementing their efforts with their individual or group weblogs and social-network websites. To say, therefore, that film criticism has arrived is true, in the sense that one may be able to find it anywhere (mainly in new media) wherever this community congregates, and largely just as untrue, if by criticism we refer to people who commit themselves to the practice without the ulterior motive of self-promotion and exploitation of press functions as a way of defending personal interests.

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A Genealogy

Much as I had pledged to acquaintances that I would refrain from my own knee-jerk tendency to bash organized colleagues, blame for Pinoy filmcrit’s arrested development will have to be laid squarely at the swanky doorstep of the original critics’ circle, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (MPP). Just as filmmakers had earlier resorted to foreign filmfest participation as a means of resisting fascist state repression, so did the first batch of MPP members find at least one noteworthy purpose in banding together: the awards they were able to institute acted as a long-overdue corrective to the corruption-ridden and mislabeled industry prizes doled out by the print media-controlled Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences or Famas, which was then further debilitated by its leaders’ flirtation with the dictatorship’s film-centered cultural ambitions.

11011In nearly forty years of award-giving and decadal coffee-table book publishing, the MPP has barely managed to elevate everyday critical discourse in the country. Its members’ standard awards-checklist evaluation of individual films (providing a rundown of a film’s categories as a way of judging its overall worth) is not only embarrassingly sophomoric and impressionistic, milking public interest in the group’s cash cow, the annual awards ceremony; it was also already old when it first appeared: T.D. Agcaoili could be excused for writing this way back in the 1950s, when New Criticism was still fairly literally new, and even Ishmael Bernal had stylistically superior samples during his brief career as pre-MPP critic.[7] The group has apparently decided to self-devolve into a highly exclusive kaffeeklatsch confined largely to high-brow academic personalities who probably count themselves lucky (or not) that they could desist from the gossip writing churned out by their most prolific member.[8]

11011Having once been part of this circle, I can understand the remaining members’ predicament even if I remain unsympathetic. Observing that most former members’ output as critics generally improved, in quantitative and qualitative terms, once they left the group, I set out to follow their example. (Warning: from this point the article will turn increasingly subjective; pretend if you can that the “I” that follows is the persona that I-as-author also wish to subject to critical inspection.) With a few other MPP renegades, I set out to form rival groups in hopes that the trend of the MPP taking on aspects of the Famas, which it had sought to replace in spirit, would turn out to be a tendency that could be bucked. Either I was wrong about this particular instance of historical determinism, or I could not function with individuals who depart too extensively from my predilections; at this point I can only work effectively outside any long-term institutional situation, with the exception of basic bread-and-butter arrangements.

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Critical Protocols

As Hau had stressed in her Manila Review article, criticism proffers discourse beyond an elaboration of the writer’s personal responses. Within our current terms, the latter type of output is designated as film reviewing and serves the laudable function of informing the potential consumer of whether a current release is worth patronizing or not. The problem with this concept, as many a frustrated reviewer (or a faithful reader of reviews) discovers early enough, is that in the age of the blockbuster release, audiences seem to decide on their film preferences irrespective of reviewers’ opinions.

11011All this would be to the benefit of the social scientist, actually, since it makes the box-office performance of any major film release as close to a popularly determined phenomenon as can be readily found in any cultural context. (One measure of any film enthusiast’s naïveté is how earnestly she or he perceives the artistry of “indie” releases as a value to be defended against the supposed vulgarity of the blockbuster movie. A useful rule of thumb would be to point out the contradiction in the person’s concern for the masses’ uplift vis-à-vis her or his rejection of the very sample[s] that they had decided to embrace; those who insist on reading this logic as a defense of the capitalist order ought to be regarded as beyond any kind of cultural assistance for the meantime.)

11011Film criticism, then, marks the step away from film reviewing, at best preparing the reader for the more difficult stage of tackling film scholarship. In requiring the author to be conversant with theoretical issues in film and culture, even when she decides not to foreground these in the written text, it makes demands that impressionistic responses do not impose on both writer and reader.[9] As in film scholarship, criticism does not seek to subject the text to consumerist standards of excellence; it assumes that the reader has seen the film, or intends to watch it eventually, for questions beyond (or including) the rewards of spectatorship.

11011The good-news corollary to this seeming limitation is that, since criticism is not quite (or not yet) scholarship, the critic has an entire arsenal, provided by reviewing in particular or journalism in general and literature as a whole, at her discretionary disposal.[10] Most film critics, not just in the Philippines, fail to exploit this potential and wind up writing with the stiff impartiality of “good” proper scholars. From what I can recollect, the list of Filipino film critics who had bothered with stylistic flourishes, for example, is both dismayingly short and short-lived: Bernal; MPP founding member Nestor U. Torre in his early period; ex-MPP members Ricardo Lee, Alfred A. Yuson, and Tezza O. Parel; and Raul Regalado. Almost all of them have virtually abandoned the practice (Bernal had passed away in 1996), and none had produced enough filmcrit articles for a book-length compilation. Tellingly, the surviving individuals (with the exception of Torre) have careers outside film journalism, areas of practice that require the study and application of creative technique, including the underappreciated element of humor.

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Working at Play

The type of critical experimentation I had in mind, once I had unfettered myself from the MPP’s institutional expectations, was to engage in mostly still-foreign exercises, partly as a way of demeaning the value of annual awards by saturating the culture with canonistical declarations,[11] and mainly to induce a state where resistance and deconstruction can be initiated. Here is where I realized how popular responses can take on a life of their own: although a few of my minor assertions found their detractors, the “Second Golden Age” declaration I made not only took off but also generated what to me were unnecessary permutations. Also, in the last couple of years, any Pinoy film blog and Facebook group suffused with a sense of historical self-worth has been engaging in variations of all-time-best listings. Strange indeed to learn that I had been mothering all along the monster that I should be slaying.[12]

11011Outside of these still-to-be-resolved dilemmas, I managed to get some favorable feedback for a number of film-focused commentaries I generated originally for a number of publications, particularly as resident critic for the now-defunct National Midweek. The procedure I observed was something that occurred naturally (so to speak) to me from the beginning, as a yet untrained film specialist: the research would consist not just of the film release to be commented on, viewed at least twice, but also of the industrial and social contexts of its emergence. I was only to realize later that most people do not start out in this manner – indeed, that it would be a matter of pride for a film commentator to announce that she or he required just a single screening followed by a single draft,[13] without the need to inspect the filmmaker’s related texts as well as the shape of the intended audience’s responses.

11011The fact that I never hesitated to contact any available practitioner to inquire about her or his objectives rubbed up against the notion of intentional fallacy, where the critic upholds the author’s motives as the only correct interpretation of the text. Serendipitously, this applies adequately only when a text is indeed “authored” by a single individual. Feature films rarely exhibit this condition, since they are always collectively configured. Moreover (and way before my classroom encounter with Michel Foucault’s formulation of the “author-function”[14]), the best Pinoy film practitioners know better than to resent well-intentioned negative observations, and are always only too glad to divulge insights into the creative process. The twin rivals for local canonical supremacy, both dead before their time, provided a study in contrast: I used to remark half-jokingly how a few minutes’ conversation with the always-available Ishmael Bernal would be enough to raise anyone’s IQ by a few points; whereas one of Lino Brocka’s very few shortcomings was his constantly defensive stance toward the working press in general and critics in particular, deliberately making himself scarce (except to his closest associates, many of whom were foreigners) and creating what outsiders felt was a fairly unpleasant cordon sanitaire around himself.

11011The other major element in my preparation – one I found myself always pursuing even when I could not contact any of the participants in production – is the one (to my constant perplexity) guaranteed to occasionally elicit angry responses among fellow critics and scholars, even among non-Filipinos. This is where I seek out actual mass viewers at random, mention the film I plan to write about, and ask them about their honest responses and their reasons, without interjecting my personal reflections. Not a single one has made the admission that affirms the biases of local intellectuals, even in supposedly progressive circles: no one has said so far, “Oh sure, I want to watch [or not watch] this or that current release because I’ve got no taste or my knowledge is limited.”

11011I take pains to spell this out at every opportunity because this way of thinking lies behind a lot of well-intentioned remarks that are always in danger of attaining critical mass (pun incidental), at worst eventually coalescing into educational and cultural policy. The insight that this essentially anthropological approach provides into “strictly commercial” film projects, where the practitioners cannot even be bothered to engage in dialog about their output, would be indispensable to articulating a special, sometimes heretofore hidden type of cultural logic. The fact that a now-pervasive means to evade this challenge – digital production and exhibition – was once unavailable to a generation of filmmakers means that our elders had learned to always, always keep a finger on the pulse of the mass audience, or else risk career stagnation or worse. They might have welcomed a system that rewarded them with “independence,” but the question must be asked: independence from what, or whom?

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Notes

[1] The article’s present title is derived from an observation made by Leloy Claudio, who was instrumental in persuading me to write on the topic. This article was made possible through financial assistance provided by the Inha University Faculty Research Grant.

[2] For this reason, outsiders who attempt film scholarship without adequate preparation similarly negotiate the field at their peril; witness the clunky regurgitation of dated theory anchoring already widely available data in Raymond J. Haberski, Jr.’s ambitiously titled “It’s Only a Movie”: Films and Critics in American Culture (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001). A subsequent footnote will mention relevant canonizing projects.

[3] Caroline S. Hau, “Reviewing the Reviewers,” Manila Review (14 December 2012).

[4] For an in-depth study of a specific practitioner’s output, see Bliss Cua Lim, “‘American Pictures Made by Filipinos’: Eddie Romero’s Jungle-Horror Exploitation Films,” Spectator 22.1 (Spring 2002), pp. 23-45. For a more comprehensive presentation, we may have to await the completion of a dissertation in progress, described by its proponent Andrew Leavold in his “Bamboo Gods and Bionic Boys: A Brief History of Philippines’ B Films” (South East Asian Cinema Conference paper, 2008).

[5] The association of European film practice with “art cinema” is espoused early enough in standard film-studies curricula, in one of the introductory textbooks, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s long-running (since 1977) Film Art: An Introduction (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012).

[6] The only Brocka interview article fully worthy of its subject is Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon’s “The Brocka Battles,” from Lino Brocka: The Artist and His Times, ed. Mario A. Hernando (Manila: Sentrong Pangkultura ng Pilipinas, 1993), pp. 118-54. At one point the always-beleaguered director points out how the British Film Institute’s Sutherland Trophy prize for his Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim (Malaya & Stephan Films, 1985) proved that a Filipino critic’s complaint about the film was in error (p. 147).

[7] See T.D. Agcaoili, “Movies,” rpt. in Philippine Mass Media in Perspective, eds. Gloria D. Feliciano and Crispulo Icban, Jr. (Quezon City: Capitol, 1967), pp. 133-61. Samples of Ishmael Bernal’s film criticism have been compiled in the appendix of Bayani Santos, Jr.’s M.A. thesis titled “Ishmael Bernal: The Man and the Artist as Revealed in His Works” (Manuel L. Quezon University, 2010).

[8] As a fan of such personalities as the late Giovanni Calvo or the Village Voice’s (recently terminated) columnist and blogger Michael Musto, and an insistent re-reader of Petronius’s Satyricon and obsessive purchaser of the occasional celebrity biography, I ought to clarify here that I do not disparage gossip writing per se; only its failed instances.

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[9] Several major American film critics have discussed the differences between reviewing and criticism extensively. The acerbic John Simon typically provided a bellicose distinction by stating that “Perhaps it is easiest to begin by defining the commonest kind of bad criticism, which is not criticism at all but reviewing”; from “A Critical Credo,” Private Screenings: Views of the Cinema of the Sixties (New York: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 1-16.

[10] Phillip Lopate, proceeding from Stanley Cavell’s metacritique, concludes that “the best film criticism verges on the personal essay, where the particular topic matters less, in the long run, than the companionable voice” (editor’s introduction to American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents until Now [New York: Library of America, 2006], p. xxv). I would counter though that if we regard filmcrit as typically suffering from too much bookishness, then this prescription merely serves to reposition and confine the activity at the opposite end.

[11] A study of the proliferation of awards in the Philippines (mainly in the area of cinema) would be capable of sustaining a singular article of its own, with or without other forms of canonization. For a useful perspective on global trends that, for the most part, may have affected local developments, James F. English’s The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Value (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005) provides an effective summation.

[12] The article that started this scandalous flurry of activities had a playful title that I have since forgotten; the publisher insisted instead on the far more dignified-sounding “A Second Golden Age: An Informal History” (The National Pastime: Contemporary Philippine Cinema [Mandaluyong City: Anvil, 1990], pp. 1-17). I attempted a repudiation of the Golden-Ages concept in a lamentably inaccessible volume – “The Golden Ages of Philippine Cinema: A Critical Reassessment,” Cinema Filipinas: Historia, teoría y crítica fílmica (1999-2009), ed. Juan Guardiola, ([Andalucía]: Juna de Andalucía, Consejería de Cultura Fundación El Legado Andalusí, [2010]), pp. 217-24. The canonical exercises I mentioned constituted an entire section, pp. 119-42, in my next volume, Fields of Vision: Critical Applications in Recent Philippine Cinema (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1995). Among the noteworthier canonizing projects since then are Top-100 lists by two Facebook groups, Cinephiles! (spearheaded by Adrian Dollente Mendizabal, covering global cinema including the Philippines) and Pinoy Film Buffs (led by Archie del Mundo, ongoing as of this writing), and a Top-50 listing initiated by Skilty Labastillas at the Pinoy Rebyu blog.

[13] Pauline Kael is famous for her claim that she watched a movie only once, then wrote out her review the same night, in longhand – pp. 18-19 in George Malko, “Pauline Kael Wants People to Go to the Movies: A Profile,” Conversations with Pauline Kael, ed. Will Brantley (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996), pp. 15-30. Rarely noticed are the qualifications to this remark: that she would scribble intensively in the dark during the screening, often taking all night to finish writing a review, and that she would moreover pick a film to write about only after having seen a number of contemporaneous releases. To me, this explains both the gut-feel immediacy of her writing, as well as the breezy, witty, yet complex manner in which she conveyed her ideas: as a connoisseur of jazz, she appreciated the need both to keep performing at one’s best level, revising as often as necessary, and to spare the audience the details of the process by which the final product was created. The ability to form a take on a film in one viewing is something I have yet to acquire, even if I still find myself following all her other methods (except for writing by hand); then again, Kael was herself one of a kind in critical literature. On the other hand, Brecht Andersch narrates the account of Lawrence Chadbourne, who attended the New York critics’ screening of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980): “As the lights dimmed, a woman squeezed into the seat next to him, pulled out a notebook and pen, and commenced furious note-taking. She spent half her time with her head bent down to peer at her incessant jottings, as they were streaming out. When the lights came on, Larry recognized his seatmate as Pauline Kael. Given her famous modus operandi of never seeing a film more than once, it would be safe to say she wrote her scathing piece – one amongst many, to be sure – without even having truly seen [the film} once” (Facebook post, March 6, 2016).

[14] Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 113-38.

[First published August 2013 as “Pinoy Film Criticism: A Lover’s Polemic” in The Manila Review]

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Book Texts – The Golden Ages of Philippine Cinema: A Critical Reassessment

Philippine film observers use the “Golden Age” approach as a way of periodizing artistic developments in Philippine film history. Generally, contemporary critics agree that there had been two Golden Ages, one during the 1950s’ studio-system era, and the other during the martial-law period of Ferdinand Marcos (early ’70s to mid-’80s), although the government’s arts encyclopedia insists on a third, occurring during the 1930s. This article will present the arguments used by the proponents of the “Golden Ages” in Philippine film, and also attempt to evaluate the heuristic value of such a device. This article was originally published in Cinema Filipinas: Historia, teoría y crítica fílmica (1999-2009), ed. Juan Guardiola ([Andalucía]: Juna de Andalucía, Consejería de Cultura Fundación El Legado Andalusí, [2010]), 217-24; translated in the same volume as “Las edades de oro del cine Filipino: Una reevaluación crítica,” 37-48 (linked to a PDF copy). To jump to later sections, please click here for: Déjà vu; Impure Gold; Only Two So Far; Deconstruction; The Lost Decade; Dynamix; and Notes & Works Cited.

To look at most available histories of Philippine cinema, one would get the impression that the country has been blessed with several periods of sustained creative activity or Golden Ages – at least two, by standard reckoning, or three if we accommodate a government cultural agency’s account, or four if we include the self-valorization of independent (now synonymous with digital) contemporary film artists. The drive to continually celebrate the filmic achievements of popular culture in the Philippines, or in any country for that matter, may not always be motivated by pure aesthetic ideals, but given the industrial and monetary components of film practice, it would be understandable, unavoidable even. This article will seek to delve into the Golden-Age periodizations of Philippine cinema using a basic two-part structure that will inevitably (as it must) resolve in an open ending: first, it will recount the Golden Ages divisions using originary texts; and second, it will attempt a deconstruction of the Golden Ages concept as it had been deployed in Philippine film discourse.

Déjà vu

It is a measure of the success of Golden Age idealizing when the present generation of drumbeaters for the “resurgence” of Philippine cinema unanimously herald (or, at the very least, suggest) the current ascendancy of such a system, without feeling the need to justify their assertions or define their terms. We’d had Golden Ages in the past, their logic seems to maintain, so why should there be any question about one more occurring today? This makes the present-day Golden Age, if it ever even does exist, unusual in the sense that it is the only one so far recognized even while it is still ongoing. More important, the prevalence of such a widespread, possibly uncritical evaluation of what purports to be a critical summation (i.e., so many proofs of excellence allowing us to conclude that another Golden Age holds sway today) makes it even more imperative to inspect earlier accounts that claimed the prior existence of past Philippine-film Golden Ages.

11011What might also be of interest in looking at the Ur-texts of Golden Ages in Philippine cinema is the fact that the articles setting the claims were clustered more or less within a single critical generation, the first in 1972 and the last in 1994. (As a matter of personal disclosure, one of the articles was written by the present author, whose name will hereafter be cited as a matter of historical necessity, per the Foucauldian principle of the author-function.) Even more curiously, the chronology of the articles does not observe the succession of Golden Ages in Philippine film history: if we exclude the present-day Golden Age as so-far unhistoricizable because of the lack of closure, then the first (Golden Age) was actually the last (article).

11011The first article, Jessie B. Garcia’s “The Golden Decade of Philippine Movies,” originally appeared in Weekly Graphic in 1972 and was subsequently anthologized in an Experimental Cinema of the Philippines publication. The second, Joel David’s “A Second Golden Age,” was first published in Kultura (October-December 1989), a journal of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, and presently appeared in the author’s first book (The National Pastime 1-17). The third, “Classics of the Filipino Film,” was a “historical essay” in the film volume of the CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art, thus bearing the equivalent of a governmental imprimatur. Garcia’s article referred to the post-World War II reconstruction decade of the 1950s. David’s, the one that was published closest to the period it defined, dealt with the martial law and post-martial rule years of Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos, or 1975-86, with the “people-power” uprising cutting short the dictatorship as well as the Golden Age. The CCP encyclopedia article is the most problematic, in that it acknowledged the Golden Ages that had already been declared, as it were, and insisted on a third one, roughly the 1930s, prior to the other (now-subsequent) two. This has resulted in terminological confusion for the negligible few who subscribe to the CCP’s version. The term “First Golden Age” has taken hold in referring to the 1950s, while the Marcos years have been known as constituting the “Second Golden Age,” mainly because of the earlier articles’ impact and in defiance of the CCP’s reformulation of the aforementioned Golden Ages as essentially a second and a third respectively, in light of the existence of an earlier one, supposedly the original first, before the other two had occurred.

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Impure Gold

The difficulty that besets a consideration of the 1930s as a Golden Age in Philippine cinema applies to the other periodizations – is, in fact, a feature inherent in a medium that was invented and developed in countries with colder climates. Although a significant number of prints from the martial-law period may be gone, and the remaining number of copies of the 1950s’ studio system has been dwindling at an alarming rate, virtually nothing remains from the 1930s except for what a small circle of observers of highly advanced age can remember. The three still-available 1930s feature films (Eduardo de Castro’s Zamboanga from 1937, Carlos Vander Tolosa’s Giliw Ko from 1938, and Octavio Silos’s Tunay na Ina from 1939) are often mentioned as part of the tragically minuscule number of extant pre-World War II Filipino films (the only other titles would be Silos’s Pakiusap from 1940 and Vicente Salumbides and Manuel Conde’s Ibong Adarna, 1941).[1]

11011In fact, the 1930s “first” Golden-Age section in the CCP article comprises seven medium-length paragraphs, barely a tenth of the article’s total length. It cites six long-unavailable films as proof of the period’s quality achievements, yet two of the films (Dalagang Bukid and La venganza de Don Silvestre, both by Jose Nepomuceno) precede the 1930s – produced, in fact, in 1919, and it includes none of the still-surviving pre-war prints. (The remaining titles mentioned in the article are Nepomuceno’s Noli me tangere, Carlos Vander Tolosa’s Diwata ng Karagatan, Tor Villano’s Ligaw na Bituin, and Ramon Estella’s Huling Habilin.) The article also cites two other filmmakers, Joaquin Pardo de Tavera and Lorenzo P. Tuells, without mentioning any of their significant films.

11011The difficulty – impossibility, actually – in confirming through any available audiovisual form whether or not Filipino filmmakers excelled during this early period has precluded most observers from adopting the terms of the CCP article. This article will therefore be following suit in regarding any claims made about the 1930s as strictly hypothetical, pending more intensive presentation and analyses of data, and referring to the First Golden Age (without quotation marks) as comprising the 1950s and the Second Golden Age as constituted by the period of Marcos dictatorship.

Only Two So Far

Proof that the First and Second Golden Ages (respectively the 1950s and roughly the mid-1970s to mid-’80s) are more defensible in scholarly terms lies in the fact that not only do certain film titles still exist as confirmation, but also productive follow-through studies based on these assumptions have been made. In relation and as response to Garcia’s “Golden Decade,” Bienvenido Lumbera’s “Problems in Philippine Film History,” now regarded as the first useful comprehensive periodization of this long-overlooked field, divides what may be called the studio system era between pre-war and post-war periods, and considers the end of the 1950s as the start of a new, more problematic period. Lumbera describes the (roughly) pre-martial law years of the post-studio system (1960-75) as an era of “Rampant Commercialism and Artistic Decline” (Lumbera 181-84), and thereafter as marked by “New Forces in Contemporary Cinema” (184-86). In fact the more significant insight is that Lumbera’s essay, although necessarily shorter, rectifies several weaknesses in Garcia’s article. Lumbera provides before-and-after context, institutional explanation, explication of internal dynamics, and over-all signification where Garcia’s celebratory piece focused on a seemingly subjective enumeration of highlights.

11011On the other hand, Garcia’s insistence on personalities and projects conformed to the canonizing requirements of such periodizing efforts, whereas Lumbera only managed to come up with a short list of names: Gerardo de Leon, Gregorio Fernandez, Lamberto V. Avellana, Ramon Estella, and Manuel Conde, with “new directors like Eddie Romero, Cesar Gallardo, Efren Reyes, and Cirio Santiago [showing] great promise” (180). Many succeeding elaborations of the First Golden Age, including those of Lumbera himself, would follow Garcia’s lead in pointing to the projects that made an impact in foreign festivals: Conde’s Genghis Khan at the Venice Film Festival, and the films that dominated the Asian Film Festival: de Leon’s Ifugao, Avellana’s Anak Dalita and Badjao, Fernandez’s Malvarosa, Manuel Silos’s Biyaya ng Lupa.

11011David’s “A Second Golden Age” uses Garcia’s strategy in announcing the recent conclusion of a productive filmmaking period, combines it with Lumbera’s systematic presentation of empirical and analytic concerns, and suggests the titles of films and names of auteurs (including scriptwriters and performers) that could constitute the basic canon, most of which would still be familiar to anyone with a passing familiarity with recent Philippine film history: Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka and their city-film projects (Manila by Night and Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag respectively) in addition to a large body of work; Celso Ad. Castillo for Burlesk Queen, Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak, and Paradise Inn; Mike de Leon for Itim, Kisapmata, Batch ’81, and Sister Stella L.; Eddie Romero, a straggler from the First Golden Age, for Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon?; plus the first significant female filmmakers, Laurice Guillen (Kasal?, Salome, and Kung Mahawi Man ang Ulap) and Marilou Diaz-Abaya (Brutal, Moral, and Karnal). David named Nora Aunor (star of Bernal’s Himala) and Ricardo Lee (author of Himala, Salome, and Diaz-Abaya’s canonical films) as the outstanding performer and scriptwriter respectively of the period, and pointed to then-emerging filmmakers such as Peque Gallaga (Oro, Plata, Mata), Chito Roño (Private Show), and Tikoy Aguiluz (Boatman) as people who might be able to sustain quality output even beyond the end of the Second Golden Age.

11011Fields of Vision, the book by David that followed the one where the Second Golden Age essay appeared, may in fact be considered the first Filipino volume premised entirely on the recent conclusion of such a period. It starts out by echoing Lumbera’s still-to-be-concluded observation of the emergence of what he called a “New Philippine Cinema” (cf. “The ‘New’ Cinema in Retrospect,” Fields of Vision 1-36), thus connecting a first Golden-Age follow-up study with a second one. Necessarily Fields of Vision covered film releases since 1986, but several of its major-length studies, including aesthetic assessments of Philippine film products (highlighted by a so-far definitive ten-best film survey), served to focus attention on both Golden Ages, with the second Golden Age regarded as triumphant enough to have overshadowed the first: a per-category all-time best-of (mimicking an awards report), for example, asserted that the best picture, direction, script, performance, and technical achievements in Philippine cinema were, with only one exception, products of the Second Golden Age (see “One-Shot Awards Ceremony,” Fields of Vision 137-42).

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Deconstruction

At this point, the issue of the usefulness of what we may call the Golden Ages approach in studying Philippine history ought to be confronted. There may be positive and negative ways of responding to this issue, but most of the advantages would have been elucidated in the preceding discussion: asserting the existence of a Golden Age brings about scholarly and creative excitement, as may be gleaned in the belief (whose validity is a question that will have to be deferred) of so-called independent filmmakers that the current period is such a one. The faith of academic and film practitioners in an ongoing Golden Age functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy, compelling scholars to devote serious attention to the study of film phenomena and film creators to carry on with innovative and relevant productions.

11011Yet the practice of lionizing selected periods also requires that certain other periods be excluded, and it is here where the inadequacies of the Golden Ages approach are as obvious as they are overlooked. Between the First and Second Golden Ages, for example, lies the entire decade of the 1960s and the first half of the ’70s, and in order to point up the remarkability of the favored periods, evaluators wound up devaluing the intervening years. Lumbera had set the tone by describing this period as characterized by “Rampant Commercialism and Artistic Decline” (Lumbera 181-84), and all succeeding Philippine film historians followed suit. One by-product of the anti-1960s bias is the fact that, while useful resources covering the beginning of Philippine cinema to the 1950s, and critics’ anthologies listing films from the 1970s onward, are available to the public, no comprehensive filmography of the ’60s is available. The problem stems from the practice of subjecting only aesthetic material (films and auteurs) to critical analysis and neglecting to extend its application to the study of structural phenomena.

11011The First Golden Age, for example, is ascribed to the stability enforced by a limited number of studios – i.e., since they were assured of full control over local releases, their annual profits were permanently guaranteed; as a result, they could afford to fund prestige projects geared toward local-awards and foreign-festival competitions every so often. Studies that mention the insidious underside of such a monopolistic system – the blacklisting of unruly talents, for example, or the marginalization of competitors who could not match the vertically integrated resources of the majors – were often relegated to biographical write-ups on specific participants, never in relation to discussing the problems of Golden-Age production. The end of this studio system, brought about by the busting of the production-and-distribution monopoly (following the Paramount decision in the US) and the rise of actor-moguls (representing a more powerful type of independent producer), did result in the “rampant commercialism” decried by Lumbera, but the question of “artistic decline” is another matter altogether.

The Lost Decade

In fact the decade of the 1960s was characterized by an impressive, pioneering, taboo-breaking, politically charged vulgarity, of a sort never seen before or since in the country, and that would be essential to explaining why the Second Golden Age held far more promise and managed to meet more expectations than the First. Moreover, most filmmakers who made their mark during the First Golden Age actually produced what a number of people would consider their best products during the subsequent non-“golden” years[2] – Gerardo de Leon with The Moises Padilla Story, El Filibusterismo, or the long-lost Ang Daigdig ng mga Api; Avellana with Scout Rangers;[3] Cesar Gallardo with either Kadenang Putik or Geron Busabos: Ang Batang Quiapo (starring former President Joseph Estrada); Eddie Romero with The Passionate Strangers as well as producing and writing Cesar J. Amigo’s Sa Atin ang Daigdig; and Leroy Salvador’s remarkably overlooked Cebuano-language masterpiece Badlis sa Kinabuhi. The sheer proliferation of innovation alone would be worth a compendium all its own – transformation of actor-producers, as already mentioned, into auteur-moguls, triple-digit annual production, transitions to color, regularity of Cebuano production and international co-production (including links with US blood-island and blaxploitation films), eager bandwagoning by politicians (including then-presidential aspirant Ferdinand Marcos), depictions of heretofore unseen images of graphic screen violence, musical-teen-idol unruliness, social turmoil, and straight and queer pornography.

11011A highly qualifiable additional item may be mentioned as well – the emergence of the leading lights of the Second Golden Age, Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal, with the latter producing what is arguably the best debut film by a Filipino filmmaker, the reflexive Pagdating sa Dulo. More significantly, at least three other talents – Elwood Perez, Mario O’Hara, and Gil Portes – who would be active during the Second Golden Age but some of whose major achievements would be produced thereafter, also made their presence felt this early. Like the First Golden Age, the second was marked by a measure of stability brought about by the entrenchment of studios – three at a time, same as during the earlier era, but this time with independents occasionally claiming a share of the market and the government providing a mostly supportive, though occasionally threatening, intervention.[4] Similarly, the current (potentially) Golden Age of digital productions shares with the Second Golden Age all of the latter’s institutional features, with two crucial modifications: most of the government’s subsidiary functions have devolved to private agencies; and digitalization has taken over, with the major studios focusing mainly on television and only occasionally on film projects, and the independents entirely utilizing video format.

Dynamix

The explanation for how such a mix of factors could facilitate artistic productivity would constitute material for a separate study in itself, but once more the question of why what may be called the “wilderness years” (between one Golden Age and the next) should never be dismissed once more proves urgent. If we grant that the digital period in Philippine cinema (roughly since the turn of the millennium) might be eventually celebrated as the Third Golden Age, then the years since the 1986 revolution through the entire decade of the ’90s and early 2000s raise the question of any similarity with the 1960s.[5] And the most significant response – that certain practitioners came up with their peaks during the interregnum – once more, perhaps not surprisingly, becomes arguable.

11011Several aforementioned pre-Second Golden Age practitioners were able to present impressive, perhaps career-best, work: Elwood Perez with Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit and Ang Totoong Buhay ni Pacita M.; Mario O’Hara with Bagong Hari, Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak, The Fatima Buen Story, and Pangarap ng Puso; and Gil Portes with Andrea, Paano Ba ang Maging Isang Ina? (all but Fatima Buen and Pangarap ng Puso, interestingly, starring Nora Aunor – arguably the country’s first-rank pop-culture performing artist, who also emerged during the “rampant commercialism and artistic decline” period of the ’60s). Several other Second Golden Age practitioners came up with works equal to, if not exceeding, their Golden Age output: Lino Brocka with Orapronobis and Gumapang Ka sa Lusak, Ishmael Bernal with Pahiram ng Isang Umaga, Marilou Diaz-Abaya with Milagros, Peque Gallaga (with Lorenzo Reyes) with Tiyanak, Chito Roño with Itanong Mo sa Buwan, Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali?, and Curacha: Ang Babaeng Walang Pahinga (a sequel to Private Show), Eddie Garcia with Saan Nagtatago ang Pag-ibig?, Tikoy Aguiluz with Segurista, Pepe Marcos with Tubusin Mo ng Dugo, Augusto Salvador with Joe Pring, Wilfredo Milan with Anak ng Cabron, and Mike de Leon with Bayaning Third World. Finally, just as during the Golden Ages, several filmmakers emerged during this non-“golden” period, quickly creating material that rivaled the best of any age, including their own subsequent output: Carlos Siguion-Reyna with Misis Mo, Misis Ko, Hihintayin Kita sa Langit, and Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal, William Pascual with Takaw Tukso, Lav Diaz with Serafin Geronimo: Ang Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion and Batang West Side, and Jeffrey Jeturian with Sana Pag-ibig Na, Pila-Balde, and Tuhog.

11011What all this indicates up to this point is that any Golden Age may be a necessary, but also necessarily illusory, romantic ideal supportive mainly of auteurist and aesthetic ambitions. The production of “great” work (definable first and foremost in the context of any specific filmmaker’s oeuvre) may take inspiration, and more significantly funding, from the ferment that invariably obtains during these celebratory periods, but creative inspiration may also happen without any structural preparation, and may even be the more impressive for all that. What this article recommends, by way of a provisional conclusion, is for scholars to leave any Golden-Age hoopla to producers and artists, and evaluate all available periods and their products with equal fairness, rigor, and thoroughness … so that in effect the hope that Philippine cinema itself might constitute an unbroken Golden Age could be realized.

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Notes

[1] An extensive study by Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. pointed out that none of the still-available 1930s films may be considered as rising above the level of entertainment and therefore fail when compared with Hollywood masterworks (121-23) – a potentially problematic framework that nevertheless holds value in any consideration of aesthetic worth. The Facebook page “Casa Grande Vintage Filipino Cinema” posted an “Excerpt from Tunay na Ina (1939)” video post (December 22, 2017) but excluded Zamboanga in the posting’s enumeration of “four (so-far) pre-WW2 Filipino films that have survived”; queried about the oversight, Mike de Leon (or someone who claims to be him) states, problematically and without clarifying his terms, that Zamboanga “has been transformed into an American B-movie and that is its present and permanent state. Are we so desperate that we have to quibble over such unimportant matters?”

[2] The late critic-historian Agustin Sotto maintained that the 1960s “was also the period when the top directors shot their best works” – Ninth Period, “History of Philippine Cinema (1897-1969)” (n.pag.).

[3] Selected by the late film critic and director Pio de Castro III as superior to the rest of Avellana’s output; in a conversation regarding the selection of Avellana for the Philippine critics circle’s life achievement prize (cf. Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino), de Castro claimed that Avellana had expressed surprise and agreement with his choice (interview with author, Quezon City, June 1981).

[4] Because of periods where newly founded studios overlapped with about-to-be-defunct ones, a number of observers maintain that four is the magic number. Justifications for and speculations on the numerological principle of having three participants – a major, a rival, and an underdog – can be found in David, “Studious Studios,” The National Pastime 126-28. For a first-hand account of the machinations of the Marcos-era’s “umbrella” film agency, the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, see David, “A Cultural Policy Experience.”

[5] In fact in the official award-obsessed critics’ anthology for the decade of the 1990s, the decadal introduction described the period “as one of the darkest…in the development of the local cinema” (Tiongson 2). The article remarks that “It does not take a genius to see how or why the decade of the 1990s could very well be called ‘the worst of times’ in the history of the Filipino cinema because it was the decade when greed, attended by opportunism and compromise, reared its head and ruled in practically all levels and institutions of the movie industry” (35). Revealingly, the article points to trends in the 1960s in order to further condemn the output of the decade, referring to “the slavish and often pathetic imitation of Hollywood blockbusters and directors in order to take advantage of the popularity of the Hollywood originals” and singling out the local industry’s carnivalesque mimicking of James Bond, “Gringo cowboys,” and Chinese martial-arts successes (9).

Works Cited

“Classics of the Filipino Film.” Philippine Film. Vol. 8 of the CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art. Ed. Nicanor G. Tiongson. Manila: Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1994. 50-57.

David, Joel. “A Cultural Policy Experience in Philippine Cinema.” Wages of Cinema: Film in Philippine Perspective. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1998. 48-61.

———. Fields of Vision: Critical Applications in Recent Philippine Cinema. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1995.

———. The National Pastime: Contemporary Philippine Cinema. Mandaluyong City: Anvil, 1990.

Del Mundo, Clodualdo A. Native Resistance: Philippine Cinema and Colonialism, 1898-1941. Manila: De La Salle UP, 1998.

Garcia, Jessie B. “The Golden Decade of Philippine Movies.” Rpt. from Weekly Graphic (April 26, May 3, and May 10, 1972). Readings in Philippine Cinema. Ed. Rafael Ma. Guerrero. Manila: Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1983. 39-54.

Lumbera, Bienvenido. “Problems in Philippine Film History.” Rpt. from The Diliman Review (July-August 1981). Revaluation 1977: Essays on Philippine Literature, Cinema and Popular Culture. 1984. Rev. ed. Manila: University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 1997. 177-87.

———. “Critic in Academe.” National Midweek (4 Apr. 1990): 20-22, 46. Rpt. in Millennial Traversals.

Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino [Filipino Film Critics Circle]. “Natatanging Gawad Urian kay Lamberto V. Avellana” [Outstanding Urian Award for Lamberto V. Avellana]. [May 1981] , accessed January 12, 2010.

Sotto, Agustin. “History of Philippine Cinema (1897-1969).” Pelikula at Lipunan: Festival of Filipino Film Classics and Short Films. [Quezon City]: National Commission for Culture and the Arts Cinema Committee, Film Academy of the Philippines, and Movie Workers Welfare Fund, 1994.

Tiongson, Nicanor G. “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: The Filipino Cinema in 1990-1999.” The Urian Anthology 1990-1999. Ed. Nicanor G. Tiongson. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press and Film Development Council of the Philippines, 2010. 2-43.

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Book Texts – Manay Revisits Manila by Night

As part of a research project on Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night (1980), I drew up a questionnaire for the movie’s lead performer, Bernardo Bernardo. To put it more accurately, Bernardo was one of the movie’s dozen-plus lead performers, since the movie was (and remains) an outstanding achievement in multiple-character film storytelling. I dug deep into what I remembered of the film as a new member of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (Filipino film critics circle), which decided to reward the movie with multiple prizes, including best film and, for Bernardo, best actor. Bernardo provided answers that carefully qualified certain long-held assumptions about the film, and shared insights into how groundbreaking his characterization was by triangulating the relationships among the character (Manay), the actor (Bernardo), and the director-scriptwriter (Bernal). Ironically, as he would expound at length in the interview, the stereotyping he faced as a result of his depiction of Manay resulted in his decision to take a break from Philippine theater and media arts. Philippine performing arts endured a long spell without its most successful theater-to-film crossover actor when Bernardo decamped for the US in 2002; there he continued to reap accolades and awards for his stage activities, notably for his direction of and performance in The Romance of Magno Rubio. Also exceptional is Bernardo’s ability to be frank, gregarious, and playful in his interview responses – a throwback to his years as a journalism major and Varsitarian editor-in-chief at the University of Santo Tomas, as well as his later specialization in witticism-laden dinner-theater blockbusters. Since his return he has kept busy onstage and onscreen, with theater roles (including Shakespeare’s Haring Lear) and prominent film projects (last year’s multi-awarded Imbisibol, dir. Lawrence Fajardo); his latest film, Lav Diaz’s Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis, will be competing at the Berlin International Film Festival – where Manila by Night was also originally slated to participate, until it was banned from export by the martial-law censors. He has also been neck-deep in what we might recognize as “legacy” projects, including teaching (at the new MINT College and the University of the Philippines Film Institute) as well as memoir-writing.

Manay, Bea, and mystic

You mentioned on your Facebook page that you and Ricky Lee were consulted by Ishmael Bernal regarding the plotline of Manila by Night (MbN). The final film also includes Ricky, Peque Gallaga, Mel Chionglo, Jorge Arago, Joe Carreon, Toto Belano, and George Sison as “script consultants.” Were you the only MbN performer who participated in conceptualizing the film at this (pre-production) or any other stage?

I was among the last actors to be cast in Manila by Night and, consequently, was not privy to the pre-production discussions regarding the script of the film. However, I did have a meeting prior to the first day of shooting with the film’s production designer Peque Gallaga and film director Ishmael Bernal to discuss the character’s look and to clarify the character arc of Manay Sharon, the gay couturier I was cast to play.

11011Manay, I soon found out, was a self-confessed neurotic and well-intentioned meddler (with a “Rosa Rosal” social-worker complex) who also happens to have a penchant for juggling multiple lovers on the side; and, as written in the script, Manay would not only link the lives of several key denizens of the seamy underbelly of Manila’s nightlife, he would also function in the narrative, in Bernal’s own words, as “the conscience of the city.”

11011Curious, I asked Bernal, “Why a gay character as the conscience of the city?” And Bernal’s breathtakingly direct response was: “Why not?”

11011Queer vision at work; unblinkingly defiant. Spoken like the true conscience of a country in turmoil, during the Martial Law years. (I am now reminded of an article written by Pablo Tariman years later, after the demise of Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka, where he quotes Marilou Diaz-Abaya on the artistically incisive roles that two great Filipino film directors Brocka and Bernal had played in Philippine cinema and history. As Diaz-Abaya succinctly stated: “They both made films in the most challenging times and they responded with valor. Their kind of artistic nobility is now dead.” And, of course, they both happened to be gay.)

11011Additionally, Bernal explained that his approach to filming MbN was going to be ensemble-focused and improvisation-driven. And in so many words, Bernal pointed out that Manay Sharon was not going to be a variation of the stereotypical flaming queen then in vogue in Filipino movies. The tenor of the discussion suggested rather strongly that Manay’s character was going to be complex and that a certain gravitas was going to be required.

11011The closest I came to being consulted directly regarding the MbN narrative was during an informal post-production meeting convened by Bernal. He wanted to weigh the pros and cons of scenes that could be “sacrificed” in order to trim MbN to a more suitable running time (eventually, around 2 hours and 30 minutes). Bernal found the film a bit long.

11011Bernal invited script consultant Ricky Lee and I to the informal assessment of the film over coffee at the lobby of the Manila Garden Hotel. I felt so flattered and honored to be sitting with these creative geniuses in a group discussion, I did not dare ask why I was even invited. Still, I have to take some credit for saving one of the crucial scenes of William Martinez. At one point, Bernal announced that he was thinking about editing out the monologue of William Martinez (Alex) – an intoxicated Ode to Manila, delivered during an All Soul’s Day midnight swim along the breakwater of Manila Bay. It was evident on Bernal’s face that he was not particularly fond of William’s acting in that scene.

11011I reminded Bernal that other key characters in the film share their personal “Ode to Manila”; and, that since William’s journey, that of a young man losing his innocence in the dark streets of Manila, was central to the story – it would be important to hear William/Alex’s voice (regardless of the fact that it was dubbed by character actor Dante Castro to give it more, uh, character).

11011Bernal thought about it for a while, with that signature “inscrutable Bernie” expression on his face, and then calmly decided that he would instead trim the scene of Charito Solis with Johnny Wilson. The one he obviously liked – where the loving parents tearfully worry about their troubled son. It provides stark contrast to the scene where Charito and Johnny go on a moral rampage and nearly beat their son Alex to death for taking drugs.

11011Bernal announced he would trim to the quick Charito Solis’s tender but longish monologue about the birth of Alex that concludes that scene. And then, with a dramatic Bernal sigh, he said, “I will deal with Chato [Charito Solis] later.”

Bernal once mentioned that because of the absence of a shooting script, all the scenes in the film were to be improvised, a method he first attempted in Aliw. To what extent did he enact this improvisation? For example – did he provide you with lines or were you allowed to propose dialogue before or during the shoot?

Although it is true that there were no conventional shooting scripts provided, there were definitely scraps of paper on the set with key dialogue for the film character’s objectives for the day. On a typical shoot, with Bernal’s approval, I would ad lib during blocking rehearsals to bookend the philosophical riffs of Manay that Bernal wrote. Bernal understood that this process helped me to give the dialogue a more conversational, spontaneous feel.

11011A striking example of this collaborative improvisation method at work can be seen in the Misericordia Street scene. This was an ambitious, visually complicated tracking shot with long dialogue between the characters as Manay walked Bea (Rio Locsin) and Gaying (Sharon Manabat) home. The movement of the characters and their dialogue had to be timed accurately for continuity. My rehearsed ad libs allowed for timing adjustments as the camera followed us down the Binondo street lined with prostitutes, beggars, funeral parlors, funeral-wreath shops and delivery services, a real-life curbside altar for Catholic streetwalkers, and for a touch of humor, Virgie’s friend Miriam (Aida Carmona), an aging prostitute, haggling with a prospective client about the price of a blowjob while munching on a fried banana.

11011I am convinced that even with the absence of an actual shooting script, all the film’s sequences and key dialogues were very well thought-out in advance. There must have been a lot of pre-prod work because many of the setups tended to be complicated, and the visuals layered with societal references. Consequently, with the meticulous preparation, we were provided with a solid structure that allowed room for improvisation on location.

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Was his level of improvisation consistent in the case of the other actors? Meaning, for example, was everyone allowed or encouraged to provide lines or modify their characters’ behavior?

I was not involved in many of the shooting days and may have missed out on some improvisations on the set. But on the other location shoots of MbN that I did visit, the actors stuck pretty much to what was rehearsed, hewing close to the words that Bernal would “feed” the actors. There was hardly any improvisation, although occasional paraphrasing would occur. Usually the adjustments were contextual, depending on the location, situation, or who among the characters were involved.

11011I am inclined to think that Bernal gave me more leeway in improvising lines because of my background in theater and scriptwriting.

The exchanges you had with Kano (Cherie Gil) at Sauna Turko, with Bea (Rio Locsin) in Misericordia, and with Febrero (Orestes Ojeda) in Luneta were detailed, witty, and occasionally philosophical. The standard expectation is for the writer (in this case also the director) to provide some pages for the actors to memorize before the shooting schedule. Was this the case for these specific scenes?

The core elements of the dialogue came from Bernal. Without question, all of the philosophical forays in the MbN scenes were entirely Bernal’s. However, I will shamelessly admit that most of the punchlines in the scenes I was involved with were mine – resulting from my improvisations under the director’s watchful eyes. Sometimes, Bernal would even come up with a “topper” to end a scene that he was already editing in his mind; like, for instance, the Sauna Turko scene.

11011The accidental first encounter of Kano (Cherie Gil) and Manay somehow evolved into something reminiscent of an ironic vaudeville routine with Kano as the “feeder”/straight man and Manay as the comic who delivers the punch lines. What previously began as an exploratory repartee led to a philosophical discussion about “True Love,” done in a single long take; and then, for Bernal’s cherry of a philosophical “topper,” a tighter medium shot favoring Manay saying: “Alam mo yan, ilusyones lang yan. Ang sey nila pag natu-true love daw, gumaganda ang buhay. Pero ako pag umiibig ako, nagkakaputa-puta!” [“You know, it’s all an illusion. They say when you fall in love, life becomes beautiful. But me, when I fall in love, life gets all fucked up!”].

Among the rest of the major characters, only Evita Suarez (Mitch Valdes) was the closest, circumstantially speaking, to Manay. They moved in the same milieu, shared some friends, and displayed literate references in their lines of dialogue. Yet MbN also positions Evita differently. She disparages the working-class men that Manay and his friends prefer, and name-drops the rich and powerful – the types of people that Manay presumably avoids. In the Luneta scene with Febrero, we see a different circle of friends, also non-upper crust but mystics or bohemians. This invests Manay with the ability (not available to any other character) to cross class boundaries. What type of “character background” did Manay possess, and was this background provided by you or by Bernal? For example, was he born rich, did he migrate to the city, and so on; was he intended to resemble people in the Malate circle – Ernest Santiago, for example?

You’re right in saying that Manay has the ability (not available to any other character in the story) to cross class boundaries. Indeed, apart from the fun company of the 1970s “fag hag” Evita, Manay appears to avoid the rich and powerful. I had no scenes with the “sosyal” types even if these moneyed folks would logically be the clientele of Manay’s spacious Malate atelier. As written, Manay was more at home with the people of the streets, the working class, and night creatures.

11011In a telling manner, Bernal did not provide me with a character background. All I had was the sketchiest overview of the plotline. On our first meeting, I was expecting that I would at least be given a complete script for text analysis and character study. There was none. Other than some notes about coloring my hair a lighter tone, shaping my eyebrows, and wearing casually stylish outfits that had to be white, I was pretty much left on my own. It was like “that’s it, we’re done.” I was “It”: As Is, Where Is. Things basically evolved in real time, unfolding as we moved forward.

11011Significantly, Bernal gave me the freedom to cast my personal friends to play my “barkada” [entourage cum confidantes] in the movie. He knew I would be myself, feeling more at home and relaxed in my ensemble scenes with people I really knew. Heeding the director’s orders, I chose longtime friends who weren’t “butch types,” whom a couturier like Manay wouldn’t mind hanging out with, namely choreographer Bobby Ongkiko, character actor Manny Castañeda, and designer Ube Abeleda. Additionally, Bernal threw in a bit player, whose name escapes me,[1] as the designated “alalay” [gofer] – a logical choice since this character also works for Manay as a seamstress in his Malate shop.

11011Now, why would Bernal give me so much freedom? At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I feel it’s because Bernal really knew me. Before Bernal cast me in MbN, we’d been friends for seven years, sharing jokes and drinks and the company of eccentric friends at bohemian watering holes and gay bars (Indios Bravos, Dutch Inn, Coco Banana) and at the Luneta Park – all considered notoriously gay hangouts during the Martial Law years.

11011Maybe Bernal saw in me a reflection of his own or Manay’s personality. That we were actually sisters under the skin, so to speak, with a shared capacity to display barbed “taray” [bitchiness], droll humor, reckless promiscuity, bullheadedness, and irrational distrust of love relationships. Or, maybe he realized I was what he had in mind all along. Maybe. I am reminded of what Hollywood acting coach Larry Moss once said, “90 percent of directing is casting. So, if you cast someone that you believe can do the role, then get out of their way…. Trust your actor” (“Acting Coach Larry Moss,” posted April 13, 2010 on YouTube).

11011I felt Bernal trusted me. I noticed that he was very sparing with words when he was directing me. He only said what was needed; with a lit cigarette between his fingers, he would flick his wrist, to punctuate a directorial phrase such as: “Bernie, too macho” (regarding the New Year scene where I angrily attack Alex outside the Sumpak Gay Bar); or, with arms akimbo while thinking deeply, “it has to be a cathartic cry – of Greek Tragedy proportions” (as a preparation for my nervous breakdown scene outside the funeral parlor).

11011The only time I think I disappointed Bernal as an actor was in my final scene at my atelier when he asked me to go crazy while carrying a small image of the Sto. Niño as a prop. Manay finds religion, I asked myself. This coda follows my climactic breakdown scene at the funeral parlor. I didn’t know where to go from there. Being a fairly well-adjusted queer person at that time, my range of crazy was rather limited. All I could give Bernal was a tired “Sisa” moment with the wild eyes. I heard Bernal mutter: “Ay, hindi siya marunong maloka!” [He does not know how to act crazy!]. I couldn’t. And since the short scene was being shot in a rush, we had to settle for depression.

11011Of course, since that time, my spectrum of crazy has expanded considerably.

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Because of your character’s intensive interaction with certain key characters, a few friends suggested to Bernal that Manay might be MbN’s central character (“author’s mouthpiece,” according to one critic during the Urian deliberations). Bernal insisted however that all the characters were of equal importance. Yet there’s also the background story of Bernal picking you out from theater, unlike the other lead actors who were part of the Regal stable – plus possibly a shared nickname (Bernie, for both Bernardo and Bernal). What is your take on this issue of Manay’s centrality in the narrative?

In a sense, I would agree with Bernal’s insistence that “all the characters were of equal importance” because to me, I see all of the characters in MbN as his “mouthpieces” – all aspects of Bernal, if you will, with each character verbalizing Bernal’s varied thoughts on what is seductive and repellent about life in Manila.

11011However, by insisting on the equal importance of all the characters, Bernal could have been deflecting attention from Manay’s role as central character in MbN precisely because he did not want people to perceive Manay as “Bernal’s alter ego.”

11011I must confess that up to now I am convinced that Manay is the alter ego of Bernal – the director/scriptwriter. Bernal was very specific. He told me directly during our first production meeting that this gay character is “the conscience of the city.”

11011Out of all the characters in MbN, Bernal chose Manay to be his inner voice. In the film, Manay chooses to be a guide for the people he cared enough for, ostensibly to lead them toward a sense of what is morally right or wrong. As fleshed out, Manay became a hopeful, helpful, but ultimately helpless guide doomed by his own hubris – blind to his own flaws, he betrays those who fail to meet his expectations, while he himself is eaten up by his own addiction, promiscuity, and lies.

11011Manay was a flawed conscience. But more (Robert) Altmanesque than I expected. Beyond the celebrated Hollywood director’s influence on Bernal’s ensemble-focused and improvisation-driven films, it seems like the two directors share the same thoughts about human behavior. In a tribute to Altman in 2007, a telling insight shared by Robert’s son Michael seemed to resonate strongly with Bernal’s conflicted creation: Manay, the hater of lies. Michael revealed that his father was “not so much a lover of truth as a hater of lies” (David Carr, “A Very Altmanesque Tribute to Altman,” New York Times, February 21, 2007).

11011This Altmanesque thought echoes in Bernal’s Luneta Park scene where Manay betrays the duplicitous Ade/Alma Moreno to Febrero/Orestes Ojeda: “Hoy, hindi ako nagmamalinis, ha? Sa lahat ng ayoko sa tao yung nagsisinungaling. Nanloloko! Aba the minute na magsinungaling sa ’yo kalimutan mo na. Ano ka, loka?… Ano bang klaseng babae yang kabit mo? Saang impyerno mo bang napulot yang putang demonyitang yan?… Talagang sa panahong ito, wala kang mapagkakatiwalaan” [I’m not saying like I’m Mr. Clean, okay? If there’s anything I hate, it’s a two-faced hustler! A liar! The minute a person lies to you, get rid of her. Are you crazy?… What kind of tramp is your lover?… From what hellhole did you dig up that devil of a whore?… I’m pretty sure, these days, there’s no one you can trust].

11011Manay’s lines here practically mirror his more playful caveat to Alex/William during their first tryst: “Alam mo naman ako, nyurotika at tensyonada. Sa lahat ng hindi ko ma-take yung nanloloko at nandadaya, eh. Marami nang masasamang tao sa mundo, huwag na nating dagdagan pa” [You should know that I am neurotic and intense. Of all the things I hate in this world, what I really can’t stand are cheaters and liars. The number of evil people in this world has multiplied, let’s not add ourselves to their numbers].

11011It is tempting to oversimplify and simply risk calling Manay a gay jiminy cricket who is tragically blind to the errors of his own ways. But I think it is more telling of Bernal than Manay that the character seems above reproach and blind to his own flaws. Bernal makes Manay’s promiscuity funny and attractive; his drug addiction unexposed (although Bernal had me behaving more neurotic and looking “increasingly wasted” on screen as my relationship with Alex soured, Manay’s addiction was never shown; by contrast, Virgie, Alex, and even Vanessa were shown indulging in drugs); and, his innate distrust of people coupled with his penchant to manipulate relationships as almost acceptable quirks of a neurotic.

11011Thus, in the Binondo scene, it was as if the blind was leading the blind. When Manay walks Bea and Gaying home, Manay professes in Bernal’s words: “That is the tragedy of my life: lahat nakikita ko. Mga hindi ko dapat makita, nakikita ko. Maski wala namang dapat makita, nakikita ko pa rin. Loka…. Lahat ng tao sa mundo luko-luko, ’di ba? Ang mga mukhang inihaharap nila sa atin, hindi naman yan ang tunay nilang mukha eh, ’di ba?… Maraming mukha ‘yang mga tao…iba yan ng iba, ’di ba? Patong-patong” [I see everything. Things that I shouldn’t see, I see. Even when there’s nothing to see, I see something. Crazy…. All the people in the world are crazy, aren’t they? The faces they confront us with, those aren’t their real faces, right?… People have lots of faces…they keep changing, don’t they?… One on top of the other].

11011Was life overlapping with art? Was Bernal in denial? Only his friends who lived with him would know.

Some critical commentary noted how Bernal was an effective director of women mainly because he insisted that they mimic him (notably in the case of Elizabeth Oropesa). This could have accounted for a critic’s “author’s mouthpiece” comment. Considering that you had played a range of roles, this depiction of a dominant campy character, which hewed close to Bernal’s personality – was this something you consciously modeled on him? For example, did Bernal say outright “I want you to play someone like me?”

There may be some truth in the story that Bernal insisted that his actresses mimic him. I can see Bernal in Charito Solis’s movements (the comically aborted lovemaking with Johnny Wilson), her stage business (the Bernal twist on the Joan Crawford fetish for cleanliness), and the rat-a-tat delivery of her lines, broken by sudden shifts of mood.

11011In my case, Bernal did not say outright, “I want you to play someone like me.” To begin with, we were both “butch” types who have a flair for camping things up for fun. And so that part was a no-brainer. I just intuited that maybe I should copy some of his mannerisms, such as the way he smoked cigarettes and used his arms when making a point. Bernal’s body language was that of an educated person who was proud and sophisticated, controlled; but, during unguarded moments he tended to be effeminate, and a few notches short of verging on the hysterical. I could see me in him.

11011You see, when Bernal gave me his favorite white shirt to wear in the movie, I did not see it as just a kind gesture. Somehow, I thought Bernal wanted me to be him.

Manay came out, as it were, during a time when these types of characters were considered objects of ridicule (dominated by Dolphy, with Roderick Paulate starting to emerge with his Rhoda persona). Manay’s predecessors in film would be two gay characters in Lino Brocka’s films, Eddie Garcia’s character in Tubog sa Ginto and Dolphy’s in Ang Tatay Kong Nanay [My Mother the Father] (plus peripheral characters like Soxie Topacio’s in Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa [Three, Two, One] and Orlando Nadres’s in Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang [Weighed But Found Wanting]). Did you sense anything in Bernal and his friendly rivalry with Lino, where he set out to “improve” on these weak/tragic predecessors by presenting a strong, out gay character for a change?

No idea on this one. It would have been interesting to hear Bernal’s views on Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag [Manila: In the Talons of Light] or even Tubog sa Ginto [Dipped in Gold].

Manay’s most intense non-sexual bonding was with the lesbian couple (Kano and Bea). It’s probably easier to argue from these two, plus Manay’s relationships with straight men (Febrero and Alex), that queerness is the central gender position of MbN. As far as you could tell, did Bernal set out deliberately to create a queer text, or did MbN turn out that way simply because that was the nature of underworld late-night denizens in Philippine urban culture?

When asked whether or not I consider queerness is the central gender position of MbN, I am tempted to echo Bernal’s testy blanket rejoinder about the virtues of queerness: “Why not?”

11011In Bernal’s Manila by night, gay rules. And in this queer world, you can’t take the gay out of the city and you can’t take the city out of the gay. Queerness propels the narrative of MbN. It is Manay – Bernal’s designated conscience of the city – whose queer interests drive him to insinuate himself into people’s lives as the city’s well-intentioned meddler, who takes it upon himself to guide people toward bettering their lives. Ultimately, however, Manay reveals himself to be a flawed conscience, a duplicitous do-gooder who betrays the people he supposedly cares for because they failed to meet his moral standards (from which he appears to be exempt).

11011For the Queen of Denial, drug addiction and infidelity are unforgivable, but the worst sin of all is deceitfulness. After all, Manay does not lie; he just does not tell the truth.

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Manay (the character) was also observed – or criticized, by conservative sectors – as promiscuous. Were these elements in the character (a preference for casual sex and straight-identified men, for example) part of Bernal’s personal character?

I was not witness to Bernal’s promiscuity, although I heard interesting stories. We both caught the tail-end of the Free Love Movement of the 1960s and in the relative innocence of the 1970s we weren’t quite ready to give up being Flower Children. I was 33 years old when we filmed MbN. It was the pre-AIDS/HIV period, and we were fearless. And from what I heard, yes, we both liked our straight-identified men.

Your success in performing Manay might have also delimited your prospects in film assignments (as it did Roderick Paulate’s), since a lot of your future significant roles demanded that you use a similar persona. Did this predictability and media stereotyping contribute to your decision to take an extended leave from Philippine performing arts?

For some time, I was doing mostly “macho” straight roles in plays and musicals on stage for theater companies such as Julie Borromeo’s TOP Productions, Lamberto V. Avellana’s Barangay Theater Guild and Zeneida Amador’s Repertory Philippines. After essaying back-to- back butch parts in The King and I, Tatarin [Fertility Ritual], and They’re Playing Our Song, I took on a couple of high-profile gay roles because I felt left out when Lino Brocka cast some of my friends (Soxie Topacio, Larry Leviste, and Orlando Nadres) with Dolphy in Ang Tatay Kong Nanay in 1978.

11011I appeared as Fidel in Orlando Nadres’s Hanggang Dito na Lamang at Maraming Salamat [Only Up to Here and Thank You] with Dennis Roldan (Efren) and Fanny Serrano (Julie) at the Metropolitan Theater under the direction of Mario O’Hara. And, close on its heel, as the outrageous lead role in Boys in the Band Part II, at the Century Park Sheraton – a performance that Bernal caught, where I was flaming enough to burn the ballroom down. My decision to change camps, as it were, proved to be propitious. Within the week, he had MbN’s project coordinator Douglas Quijano call me to tell me that the role of Manay was mine if I was interested. And, after some drama with a take-it-or-leave-it pittance-of-a-talent fee and a subsequent heart-to-heart with Bernal, I took the role.

11011At about this time, some of my theater friends were already expressing their concern that I might get typecast, which was a threat I had avoided for the past six years in theater. I was aware that public perception by the larger mass audience can delimit my prospects for a variety of roles in films, especially after the tabloid brouhaha about my torrid kissing scenes with Orestes Ojeda and William Martinez. Soon after the initial previews of MbN, I sensed stereotyping was rearing its head when film director Maryo J. de los Reyes and scriptwriter Jake Tordesillas kept wooing me to essay another controversial gay role in their next film, Pag-Ibig Ko, Hatiin Niyo [My Love, Please Share]. Not wanting to dip in the same pool twice in a row, I said “No” and the role went to Orlando Nadres. I did not mind. I felt Bernal and I had created something truly special in the queerness of Manay, and I did not want to compete with myself.

11011After I won the Urian Award for Best Actor in the role of Manay, I found myself stereotyped for good. Although Bernal was set on casting me in a complete turnaround role as a macho butcher in Belyas [Belles], a passion project for Jesse Ejercito’s “seven belles” for Seven Star Productions (Chanda Romero, Alma Moreno, Lorna Tolentino, Amy Austria, Daria Ramirez, Beth Bautista, and Elizabeth Oropesa), the film was shelved. Instead, Bernal cast me in a cameo in his next movie, Pabling [Playboy], as a ditzy gay couturier. Other offers for TV and film were predictably for the same persona.

11011Luckily, the era of dinner theater comedies had begun and I appeared in a succession of “sex comedy” hits with Chanda Romero, Gloria Diaz, Pinky de Leon and Cherie Gil. For legit theater, I ended the decade with lead roles in the musical Katy! for Musical Theater Philippines, and La Cage aux Folles for Repertory Philippines. However, due to the economic crisis in the Philippines in the late 1980s, I had to migrate to Singapore to work as artistic project manager for Singapore’s Haw Par Villa Theme Park and lived in the city-state for two years.

11011Upon my return to the Philippines, I found that my gay persona was still in demand. I was cast as the comic nemesis of the Philippines’ Charlie Chaplin, the iconic Dolphy, in the TV sitcom Home along da Riles [Home along the Rails], which was a major hit that ran for 11 years on ABS-CBN Channel 2. This outstanding and profitable partnering with the King of Comedy subsidized my low-paying theater work in Tagalog with Tanghalang Pilipino of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, where I appeared in landmark productions of Noli Me Tangere [Touch Me Not], El Filibusterismo [The Subversive], Kalantiyaw, Mac Malicsi, and Ang Balkonahe [The Balcony], among others.

11011I thought I finally found the formula for a balanced life. Unfortunately, showbiz was assuming a corporate face and it was increasingly being run by suits; and, as a result, overall decisions for productions were being turned over to “creative committees.” Dissatisfied, I left for the US and lived there for twelve years.

The usual motherhood-statement questions: First, would Bernal, in your opinion, still have any importance in today’s digital-independent scene? Why or why not?

Bernal was brilliant. A gifted director and scriptwriter like Bernal would have been awesome in today’s digital-independent scene, liberated from antediluvian constraints. Unstoppable! For me, Bernal’s breathtaking talent for storytelling and creating compelling characters remains unsurpassed. I feel like life simply overtook him. He was going through a low period but he could have bounced back. Easily.

Second, is MbN still significant in a future (which is our present) where there has been increasing acceptance of non-normative lifestyles?

I will sound biased but I remain unapologetic. I believe MbN will remain significant because it is a classic that showcases the formidable creative talents of a film director at his peak. Film may be a product of its time, but MbN is more than just about a city or a particular time. It is more than just queerness. I saw it recently and it still looks and feels contemporary, unlike other films of the ’70s that haven’t aged well. With MbN, Bernal has woven timeless cinematic magic with his unique gift for storytelling and an uncanny ability to create believable, flat-out fascinating characters.

Note

[1] Identified as Jun Macapinlac in Bernardo Bernardo’s July 4, 2016, Facebook query.

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Book Texts: A Pinoy Film Course

Original Digital Edition (2016)
Cover design by Paolo Miguel G. Tiausas
“Bomba” © 2019 by Mina Saha
[Click on pic to enlarge]

The books I’d written as sole author were meant to be read chronologically (according to date of original publication). However, as several undergraduate students and laypersons made clear to me, that kind of effort would require an investment in which they did not (yet?) have the time or effort to commit. Hence I thought of providing Book Texts: A Pinoy Film Course, essentially a select list of recommended articles – not so much a “best of” and more of an appetizer course, pardon the semi-academic pun. This should not be construed as an introduction to Philippine cinema (although I do have a forthcoming book, SINÉ, that attempts to fulfill that function). Neither should it be considered an introduction to Philippine film criticism, or even that evasive creature that we may call “Joel David’s film criticism.” I provided a descriptor in the subtitle, and that ought to sum it up, with emphasis on the first word (cum letter) in “a Pinoy film course.”

11011Each entry is followed by the originating book title, abbreviated as follows: “NP” for The National Pastime (1990), “FV” for Fields of Vision (1995), “WC” for Wages of Cinema (1998), “MT1” for Part I of Millennial Traversals (2015), “MT2” for Part II of Millennial Traversals (2016) [click here for the unified blog entry containing both parts], “MbN” for Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic (2017), and “AP” for Amauteurish Publishing (current); journal credits include “AJWS” for the Asian Journal of Women’s Studies and “HD” for Humanities Diliman. After the source is the year of publication – not of the collection, but of the article. A short annotation, which may or may not overtly indicate the urgency of reading the article, ends each entry.

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11011To access sections without having to scroll downward, please click on any of the following:


National Library of the Philippines CIP Data

David, Joel.
11011Book texts : a Pinoy film course / Joel David. — Original Digital Edition. — Quezon City : Amauteurish Publishing, [2016], © 2016.
11011N/A pages ; N/A cm

11011ISBN 978-621-96191-5-8
110111. Motion pictures — Reviews. 2. Motion pictures — Philippines. III. Philippine essays (English). I. Title.

791.43095991101111011PN1993.71101111011P020200162

11011“Manay Revisits Manila by Night” and “Seeds in the Garden of Letters” © 2017 by Amauteurish Publishing; “Manoy Takes His Leave” © 2019 by Amauteurish Publishing.

US Copyright Office Certificate of Registration:
TXu 2-255-103

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Discourses

Essays that look intensively at specific films or at film-intensive issues.

Autobio

Personal write-ups that could help people understand the writer’s psychology, to dispel any lingering illusion of objectivity.

  • World’s Shortest Prequel (NP 1990). Or why my writing turned out the way it did, if childhood experience were ever capable of explaining anything.
  • The Last of Lino (FV 1995). What the death of a major local practitioner signified to someone (like me) who had always regarded his output with some reservation and ambivalence.
  • Ordinary People: Movie Worker (MT2 1987). A second stint at media freelancing, with the same meager income and a status adjustment from writer to laborer.
  • A Cultural Policy Experience in Philippine Cinema (WC 1998). In the slipstream of a distinctive degree of cultural patronage, that of a film “support” agency mandated by the Marcos dictatorship.
  • Small Worm, Big Apple (MT2 2005). Graduate studies (and survival) in New York City, during the eve of 9/11.

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

The core of any critical practitioner derives from the active consumption of cultural output within an extensive time frame – never an easy or affordable option. This was the period when local film flourished, then floundered, because of the instability wrought by the defeat of the Marcos dictatorship.

  • Exceptions (NP 1981). A comparative review of Eddie Romero’s Kamakalawa and Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata (both 1981), that still relied on the style-vs.-substance approach.
  • Down but Not Out (NP 1988). Another comparative review, this time of Francis “Jun” Posadas’s Nektar and Jose “Pepe” Marcos’s Tubusin Mo ng Dugo (both 1988), that looks at genre products with still a nod to issues of formal quality.
  • Chauvinist’s Nightmare (NP 1987). Mike Relon Makiling’s Kumander Gringa (1987) and why its under-the-radar commercialism allowed it to get away with potshots aimed at a few sacred cows of the time.
  • O’Hara Strikes Again (NP 1987). Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak (1987) as a demonstration of its director’s capacity to draw pleasure from formulaic material.
  • Mellow Drama (NP 1987). An attempt to draw from literary history in reviewing Mel Chionglo’s Paano Kung Wala Ka Na (1987).
  • Campout (NP 1988). Camp (actually campiness) as a determinant of preference in evaluating Lino Brocka’s Natutulog Pa ang Diyos, Emmanuel H. Borlaza’s Paano Tatakasan ang Bukas?, and Artemio Marquez’s Sa Puso Ko Hahalik ang Mundo (all released in 1988).
  • After the Revolution (NP 1989). Lino Brocka’s Orapronobis (1989) engendered controversial responses among, predictably, conservative sectors, but even members of the intelligentsia had their misgivings; this review seeks to bridge the differences between the film and its better-intentioned interlocutors.

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

The film industry recovered after the people-power uprising, enough to recall the Marcos-era glory years and still unaware of the forthcoming storms to be induced by globalization trends, specifically the late-’90s Asian economic crisis and the digital turn in film production.

  • Persistence of Vision (FV 1990). The culmination of my attempt to describe and uphold an operatic sensibility in cinema, via Chito Roño’s Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali? (1990).
  • Indigenous Ingenuity (FV 1990). My effort at foregrounding my personal participation in Gil Portes’s Andrea, Paano Ba ang Maging Isang Ina? (1990) resulted in censorship by an editor who should have known better, and in expulsion from the publication (without the courtesy of a letter informing me of the decision).
  • Head Held High (FV 1990). A review that welcomed a successful turn in Lino Brocka’s Gumapang Ka sa Lusak (1990), from his usual separation of box-office projects from political statements, to a film that demonstrated that contradictory elements need not be jettisoned from one’s intended undertaking.
  • Family Affairs (FV 1990). The emergence of a politically sponsored star and her genuinely talented sidekick is interrogated in this review of Tony Cruz’s Pido Dida (Sabay Tayo) (1990).
  • Men and Myths (FV 1990). A state-of-the-genre look at the action film (with dramatic and comedic elements adding extra spice) as embodied in Pepe Marcos’s Bala at Rosaryo (1990).
  • I.O.U. (FV 1990). One of the occasional progressive trends that emerged in Pinoy action cinema (see “Head Held High” earlier), evaluated alongside the movie’s director-star persona, in Jesus Jose’s (a.k.a. Lito Lapid’s) Kahit Singko Hindi Ko Babayaran ang Buhay Mo (1990).
  • Movable Fists (FV 1990). Further possible twists in the treatment of action material, in Junn P. Cabreira’s Walang Awa Kung Pumatay (1990), Francis (Jun) Posadas’s Iisa-Isahin Ko Kayo (1990), and Mauro Gia Samonte’s Apoy sa Lupang Hinirang (1990).
  • Sedulously Cebuano (FV 1990). The last pre-digital Cebuano-language movie, Junn P. Cabreira’s Eh … Kasi … Bisaya! (1990), deserved a commemoration all its own.
  • Black & Blue & Red (MT1 1992). In the tradition of short-format filmmakers who graduate to full-length projects, Raymond Red’s Bayani (1992) acquired the additional cache of representing a movement with messianic-artist claims.

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Pinoy Film Reviews III – Digital Era

By the end of the first decade of the new millennium, local production had gone totally digital – unknowingly foreshadowing what more developed countries would eventually be doing.

  • Heaven in Mind (MT1 2004). The new Pinay and her journey, tracked and celebrated in Joel Lamangan’s Sabel (2004).
  • Survivor’s Guilt (MT1 2009). Why the personal is social, and how a filmic discourse on trauma such as Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil’s Boses (2009) can provide insight and entertainment without compromising one for the other.
  • Sighs and Whispers (MT1 2009). The fullness of the aesthetic potential of the debut film, as emblematized by Armando Lao’s Biyaheng Lupa (2009).
  • On the Edge (MT1 2013). Pinoy action cinema redux, featuring Erik Matti’s On the Job (2013).
  • A Desire Named Oscar (MT1 2013). Among other distinctions, 2013 was the year that three countries submitted films featuring Filipino characters for Oscar consideration: Singapore with Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo, UK with Sean Ellis’s Metro Manila, and the Philippines with Hannah Espia’s Transit.
  • Antonio Luna’s Fall and Rise (MT1 2015). The historical epic, and a misunderstood (anti)hero, are recuperated in Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna (2015).
  • Ice with a Face (MT1 2016). Jaclyn Jose’s Cannes-winning performance provides (among many other things) a starting point in assessing Brillante Ma. Mendoza’s new level of achievement in Ma’ Rosa (2016).

Foreign Film Reviews

I maintain that an appreciation of foreign cinema should mainly assist in understanding local products, not the other way around; my grad-school exposure to a wide array of world cinema and film styles further affirmed this conviction.

  • Form and Function (MT1 1987). Mike Newell’s Silent Voice (a.k.a. Amazing Grace and Chuck) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (both 1987) provide insights on the necessary specificities of war themes in contemporary cinema.
  • …And the First Shall Be the Last (MT1 1990). A typically Catholic neurosis in pop culture, where an allegedly heretical text turns out to be ultimately pro-religion (though not always pro-Church), obtains in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
  • Wet Noodles (MT1 2009). Orientalism by a fellow Oriental? Something to ponder in Trần Anh Hùng’s I Come with the Rain (2009).
  • Two Guys, While Watching Avatar (MT1 2009). Plato as stand-up comedian, an approach that once more horrified square print editors, in my review of James Cameron’s all-time money-maker Avatar (2009).
  • Hit in the (Multi)Plexus (MT1 2011). A Korean blockbuster, Lee Han’s Wan-deuk-i [Punch] (2011), based on a novel with a Vietnamese migrant-wife character, whose nationality in the movie was changed to Pinay.

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Non-Film Reviews

Film is a language, as are all other forms of cultural expression. Appreciating one specific form while rejecting all others is a sign that the critic urgently needs to move forward.

  • Home Sweet Home (NP 1987). A theater presentation, Elsa Martinez Coscolluela’s In My Father’s House (1987), which was originally submitted as a film proposal.
  • Time and Again (AJWS 2009). Feminism as a means of engaging with salient philosophical debates on time and imagination, via Bliss Cua Lim’s essential volume Translating Time (2009).
  • Disorder & Constant Sorrow (MT2 2012). The martial-law era recounted as family saga, from the experiences of the Quimpo clan, in Subversive Lives (2012).
  • The Novel Pinoy Novel (MT2 2011). Language, memory, imagination, identity – all deliriously blended into an unforgettable experience, in Ricky Lee’s Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata (2011).
  • Seeds in the Garden of Letters (HD 2017). The once and future prospects for Philippine film studies, compiled in Patrick F. Campos’s monumental volume The End of National Cinema (2016).

Commentaries: Pinas

Film is culture, and therefore culture impinges on film, directly or otherwise. I originally envisioned these types of mini-editorials, breathers from the frankly debilitating rigors of film reviewing, as potential frameworks for future studies, and I’ve in fact managed to expand some of them in later material.

  • People-Power Cinema (NP 1987). A year after the February 1986 uprising that restored democratic processes, the film industry had yet to fully recover – the films that commemorated the event were paradoxically unpopular.
  • Studious Studios (NP 1988). A short (numerological) reconsideration of the political economy of the Philippine studio system.
  • Shooting Crap (FV 1990). The controversial toilet-humor trend and its alleged purveyor, Joey de Leon; or why the carnivalesque can’t always be dismissed out of hand.
  • Fleshmongering (FV 1990). Just shallow proof that some amateurish film “authority” wasn’t first at historicizing these trends, and even then misnaming them left and right despite the proliferation of available texts and witnesses.
  • Firmament Occupation (FV 1990). A redefinition of the much-maligned star system, to take into account the implication of the word “system.”
  • Blues Hit Parade (FV 1990). A pathologization of producers’ obsession with blockbusters.

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Commentaries: Elsewheres

No film issues get raised in these “non-Pinas” articles, which I guess buttresses the point I’m making; but it also helps any kind of reader to know that the writer proceeds from a specialization in cinema.

  • A New Role for Korea (MT2 2009). Or how the Philippines could have turned out, given a different set of historical circumstances.
  • Crescent Tense (MT2 2009). The massacre in Maguindanao as an index of long-simmering Muslim-Christian tensions.
  • Asian Casanovas (MT2 2010). “Cablinasian” Tiger Woods, Korean Lee Byung-hun, and Pinoy Manny Pacquiao as randy celebs, positioned at the intersection of race and gender.
  • The Sins of the Fathers (MT2 2010). The ending of innocence, courtesy of duly certified shepherds of the flock.

Features

Pinoy film people, all in the mainstream. No apologies on my end.

  • Love Was the Drug (MT2 2009). The introduction to the anthology left behind by the genuinely beautiful Johven Velasco.
  • The Dolphy Conundrum (MT2 2012). The difficulty of ascertaining whether the country’s top comedian deserved to be honored as a National Artist.
  • Manoy Takes His Leave (AP 2019). The sudden departure of another extremely productive talent and the many treasurable samples he left behind.
  • The Carnal Moral of a Brutal Miracle (MT2 2012). The insufficiently appreciated Marilou Diaz-Abaya, thoroughly prepared (as always) for the end of life.
  • A National Artist We Deserve (MT2 2014). Nora Aunor, deprived of an honor that belonged to her before anyone else.

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Interviews

A more intensive type of feature, where the voice of the subject is foregrounded.

Metacriticism

The criticism of film criticism, from “scientific” to “social” approaches.

  • Film Critics Speak (FV 1990). A statement on the condition of film criticism in the country.
  • Ten Best Filipino Films Up to 1990 (FV 1990). An exercise in canon-building, too successful for its own good.
  • One-Shot Awards Ceremony (FV 1991). A declaration of all-time achievements in specific categories – an idle exercise, admittedly, but also one that immerses in the pleasures of film evaluation.
  • Levels of Independence (MT2 1990). The genealogy of what might actually constitute “independent” local cinema.
  • Pinoy Filmfests ca. 2013 (MT1 2013). A look at the sudden proliferation of film festivals during the era of digital film production, with focus on the first Sineng Pambansa entries (specifically Peque Gallaga & Lore Reyes’s Sonata, Joel Lamangan’s Lihis, and Elwood Perez’s Otso).
  • A Lover’s Polemic (MT2 2013). Film criticism in the Philippines.

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