Tag Archives: Commentaries

A Formative Sojourn

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

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

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

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

Back to top

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to top

Á!


The Political Is Personal

“Marcos and Memory: The Past in Our Future”
Sheila Coronel
2022 Adrian E. Cristobal Lecture

One curious development, still within the first quarter of the third year of a history-changing global pandemic, is that the audiovisual material which most Filipino netizens are burring over at the moment is expectedly streaming, but it’s neither a film nor a TV series. It’s the latest installment of the decade-plus Adrian E. Cristobal Lecture Series, sponsored by the Writers Union of the Philippines. Titled “Marcos and Memory: The Past in Our Future,” the material promised topical urgency in the wake of the so-far certain possibility of the Marcos family recapturing the seat of power that their patriarch, Ferdinand Sr., occupied for over two decades and refused to let go until he was expelled by a popular uprising.

11011The Marcos strategy – proffering the only son instead of his smarter sisters – resonates with the Catholicized culture’s belief in a messiah sent by a stern father to point the way to salvation; it also dodges the gender association with the still-alive and possibly already-daft Imelda, notorious during her heyday for her tackily excessive shopping sprees and hatred of anything that reminded her of how dirt-poor she used to be. This is enhanced by the likelihood that the sisters may be in charge of their father’s plundered billions, with Imee exposed when her grandchildren’s names were listed as beneficiaries in the Pandora Papers leakage in 2021, and side reports of the ongoing Credit Suisse scandal reminding readers that the Marcos couple were some of the bank’s most infamous confidential depositors.

Portions of the pseudonymous contracts drawn up with Credit Suisse by the Marcos couple. From Raissa Robles, “How the Law Caught Up with the Philippines’ Imelda Marcos and Her Stolen Millions,” South China Morning Post (November 17, 2018).

11011The Marcos campaign has proved particularly divisive for the generation that was able to participate in the anti-dictatorship movement that became an inexorable force when oppositionist-in-exile Benigno S. Aquino Jr. was assassinated upon his return to the country in August 1983. Those who count themselves as keepers of the democratic flame lament that later generations have been miseducated and incapable of the intelligence and strength of character to resist the Marcoses’ brazen attempt to launder their ill-gotten wealth, if not add a few billions more. A number of people who reversed course point to the post-Marcos administrations’ failure in preventing the reassumption of political influence of sectors that Marcos had started to marginalize, specifically the old oligarchy and the church (exempting pro-US neocolonial compradors, of which even Marcos strove to depict himself as one).

The Marcos regime: at the start (1965 presidential campaign) and at the end (1986 people-power uprising). From “Marcos and Memory,” courtesy of Sheila Coronel.

Back to top

11011Most people invested in the issue would have picked one or the other position to uphold; a select few would have rejected both. Sheila Coronel, Toni Stabile Professor of Professional Practice in Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, performed the most unexpected act of deconstruction imaginable, by placing herself in both camps in order to explain why the Marcosist phenomenon is more deeply entrenched than we think, and why in order to confront it, we must begin by confronting ourselves. The premise of her lecture turns inside-out the self-righteous tendency to regard the support for the Marcoses as our Other, a monstrosity that only needs to be identified so it can be successfully resisted.

Sheila Coronel with her father, lawyer Antonio Coronel. From “Marcos and Memory,” courtesy of Sheila Coronel.

11011“If Marcos has such a hold on our collective imagination, it is in part because of the lies and half-truths he and his courtiers have told over and over again until they were accepted as fact,” Coronel leads off. “The Marcoses have been at this since 1935…. The rewriting of history didn’t begin after the fall [of the regime in 1986].”[1] Coronel then proceeds to recall how her own father, a well-known lawyer, defended individuals accused of acting on behalf of the martial-law administration. “He teased me about my objections to his clients but not to the shoes and dresses his lawyer’s fees bought me.”

11011The level of familiarity with which Coronel spells out her argument paradoxically provides her with an authority missing in those of us who profess to stand apart from the loyalty and devotion that the Marcoses inspire. (Essential disclosure: Coronel was a classmate and campus-journalism colleague during my first undergraduate program at the national university – and those of us who closely observed her could already see her capacity for ambitious, reflexive, research-based writing; her many global distinctions since then confirmed her determination to use her gifts in the service of the least-privileged among us.)

11011Toward the end of her narrative-driven account, she shared her recurrent nightmare of repeatedly attempting to write but with her pen failing to generate any ink. This is the point where she prescribes a call to action. Accepting the worst qualities that the Marcoses represent as an essential component of the Philippine character could easily result in our quiescence, if not despair. On the contrary, Coronel maintains, “resisting normalization means resisting disempowering narratives.”

11011It would be pointless to continue finding fault with whoever we believe should have been responsible for ensuring that the Marcoses’ record of atrocities and abominations be inscribed in the country’s educational curriculum, but just to make our terms clear (and affirm Coronel’s point): our historians and popular-culture artists have done everything they could to set the record down, even when the Marcos patriarch was still around. Coronel’s text (available both as a live recording and as a published transcription[2]) suggests ways in refining, if not redefining, the Marcos narrative, and if the present trend persists, it will soon be time to designate our younger subjects to take charge of fixing the mess that their elders left them in.

Back to top

Notes

First published March 6, 2022, in The FilAm; reprinted in May 2022 issue ofThe FilAm: Newsmagazine Serving Filipino Americans in New York.

[1] I thought of going over Roland Barthes’s 1957 text Mythologies (trans. Annette Lavers, New York: Noonday, 1972) to check if he had any suggestions on how to “read” the delivery of a lecture. He didn’t cover the topic, but I came up with something more useful: “Myth on the Right” (150-56), which for some reason I completely forgot after thinking it would be applicable in discussing the then-recently deposed Marcos dictatorship. As part of a section titled Myth Today (as opposed to the book’s eponymous primary section), Barthes describes myth as being “statistically” on the right, and enumerates seven rhetorical forms that typify bourgeois myth, all fascinating but too complicated to bring up here. The first property he mentions, for example, is inoculation, “which consists in admitting the accidental evil of a class-bound institution the better to conceal its principal evil” (151). The succeeding figures are: the privation of History; identification; tautology; neither-norism; the quantification of quality; and the statement of fact.

[2] Still on the matter of approaches to evaluating a lecture, all the academic discussions I could find dealt with transcriptions rather than with audiovisual material; I look forward to more balanced coverage now that streaming websites have made available some of the more famous recordings by prominent thinkers of the recent past. Regarding “Marcos and Memory,” which was delivered live at the Facebook page of the Unyon ng mga Manunulat ng Pilipinas, the recording has been uploaded on the organization’s YouTube page, along with preliminary material and subsequent Q&A exchanges. Coronel’s draft, on the other hand, was reprinted in Rappler as well as in Positively Filipino, MindaNews (with a Cebuano translation), and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (which Coronel founded). The audio recording of the lecture has also been posted on the PCIJ’s Spotify channel.

Back to top


Nether Nation

Lockdown
Directed by Joel C. Lamangan
Written by Troy Espiritu

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

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

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

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

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

Back to top

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to top

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

Back to top


Siren Call

Nerisa
Directed by Lawrence Fajardo
Written by Ricky Lee

Among the “new normal” adjustments in media consumption induced by the still-ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the emergence of streaming as a viable, though still far from preferable, option to theater-going was definitely on its way to happening, with the current health crisis only speeding up its inevitable arrival. Not surprisingly, streaming has now become the place to watch out for pop-culture benchmarks, unless one insists on adhering to the increasingly nonsensical insistence of the Philippines’s critical and academic elite (same circle, for the most part) that the high-art presentation of poverty issues is the cinematic ideal to aspire to.

11011Among the country’s streaming participants, Viva Films has resumed its early role as determined new player, the same way it set out to challenge the then-nearly monolithic Regal Films when it first emerged during the 1980s. This time, however, it also seems to be partaking of the innovations that Regal once became known (or notorious) for, including its reliance on commercial (“low” to the critical elite) genres and bare-bones budgeting.

11011I would be remiss if I fail to report that with a currently streaming release, Nerisa (available via Vivamax & other services), it has finally struck gold, the same way that Regal regularly did during its time. Shot on a schedule resembling Regal’s pito-pito (₱2 million, minuscule for 1990s celluloid, for seven days of production plus another seven of postproduction), the project intercepted a young filmmaker, Lawrence Fajardo, on his way to upgrading his fluency in the medium while extending his grasp to material he had not yet attempted.

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

11011Fajardo’s qualitative shift in directorial expertise was affirmed when his previous project, Kintsugi (the technique of pottery repair in Japanese), shared the Young Critics Circle’s top prize with Raya Martin’s Death of Nintendo. Fajardo started out by specializing in the multicharacter-film format, a challenge that only a select number of filmmakers accepted with regularity, including Ishmael Bernal, the country’s undisputed master of the form. With Imbisibol, an earlier film set in the northernmost (and therefore coldest) Japanese island of Hokkaido, he depicted the lives of undocumented Pinoy migrants – one of whom was played by the luminous Bernardo Bernardo – beset by financial and immigration troubles, and attained a personal best.

11011Nerisa benefits immensely from the narrative treatment shaped by Ricky Lee, who has apparently reworked his script for Laurice Guillen’s Salome (1981), in its focus on the plight of an outcast couple in a coastal village. Since it follows a linear trajectory rather than the recollections in Salome of a crime of passion from the perspectives of several participants, Nerisa enables its characters to position themselves in the violence-prone class and gender dynamics that a patriarchal order imposes on its citizens, and further qualifies the proceedings by articulating (via radio commentaries) the global concerns of our fisherfolk confronted by Chinese vessels overstepping their territorial boundaries and plundering Philippine waters.

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

11011The townsfolk are far more aware this time of the impact of alien forces taking undue interest in local resources (as has always been the case since the 16th century), with the elders explaining how recent industrial activities cause landslides and pollution that make it impossible for fishes to thrive close to shore. So the scarcity of catch at all familiar distances, coupled with the possibility of superior foreign vessels ramming native fishing boats and leaving the occupants to the mercy of the sea, has made fishing-as-livelihood both difficult and dangerous. Obet, the title character’s husband, badgers his peers to venture beyond municipal fishing grounds in order to be able to purchase his own boat and stop relying on the preferences of boat-owning artisans.

Back to top

11011As in Salome, the couple live beyond the pale of their town’s quotidian concerns. Obet was an orphan raised by a childless couple, with his stepsister Lilet (an abandoned child being raised by the same couple) narrating Nerisa’s tale. Nerisa herself was a foundling rescued by Obet from drowning, who cannot remember her past life, and whose beauty is enhanced by her faithfulness to her savior; understandably the men who learn about her develop a fairly strong carnal interest in her, while their wives suspect her of bringing to their island the rusalka-like curse of a seductive yet dangerous mermaid. She finds sororal refuge in the town’s other outcast women – Joni, the independent-minded loner who dares to dispense with her body according to whatever advantage it might bring her, and the aforementioned Lilet.

11011When Obet disappears during a fishing expedition, the trio set out to ask help from Coast Guard officials. The townsfolk thereafter initiate a round of malicious gossip whose outcome anyone familiar with social media can expect to end dismally for everyone involved. Upon his return, Obet gets caught up in the cycle of negativity and works out a form of punishment premised on the kind of homosocial interaction observed by the late queer feminist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Between Men, where same-sex male bonding is facilitated by their use of women as objects of exchange.

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

11011Fajardo’s expertise in handling these admittedly distressing developments lies in his ability to render passion as a crucial element of survival. Obet’s original intent to punish Nerisa via marital rape is misperceived by her as an expression of his ardor. The other menfolk’s savagery is infused with the anxiety they feel because of the depletion of natural resources that they once took for granted. Yet Fajardo also makes clear whose side he champions: in failing to see how the women in their lives are twice victimized – by the forces of uneven global development as well as by patriarchal ideology – they set themselves up for an ironically satisfying bloody retribution.

11011Nerisa’s brand of cautionary feminism may be yesterday’s news to today’s enlightened viewers, but I would argue that its delineation of a more conflicted mentality among villainous characters, as well as its upholding of women’s solidarity premised on their bodily prerogatives, ought to serve as templates for future rural-set sex melodramas. In addition to these revelations, Fajardo deploys a disciplined minimalism that only the ornery would ascribe to the limited resources he had to work with.

11011There’s a breakout lead performance in Cindy Miranda reminiscent of an earlier beauty queen-turned-actor, Elizabeth Oropesa, who here plays Obet’s adoptive mother, as overprotective of him as she behaves cruelly toward his half-sister (another feminist insight into mothering from an essential circle of authors starting with Jessica Benjamin and Marianne Hirsch). I also never imagined a time when Aljur Abrenica would be able to command a film screen with any authority, but if our cinema ever runs out of talent to celebrate, that would be the definite indicator that our surrender to forces beyond our control has been completed.

Note

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

Back to top


Peerless Vampire Killers

Vampariah
Directed & written by Matthew Abaya

In contrast with politics, the consensus among Filipinos is that 2016 has been an unqualified triumph for cinema. Not only did we have a second major prize at the Cannes Film Festival, we also won big at A-list European and Asian filmfests, topped by the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Even if we concede that using foreign acclaim as a measure of achievement might be problematic, the output of local film artists has been no less appreciable. Whatever else one’s position on Rodrigo Duterte might be, one will have to acknowledge that the first Metro Manila Film Festival during his presidency recalled the better MMFF editions of the Marcos years – which were some of the few positive contributions the dictatorship ever made.

11011Because of my status as an Overseas Filipino Worker, it takes me a while before I could watch all the significant Pinoy film releases of any given year. The unusual distinction of 2016 is that no single film, or even a couple or three, is or are front-running for that dubious credit of being “year’s best.” Even if one extends this insight further, by including Filipino films made outside the country, one could still have a noteworthy sample like Baby Ruth Villarama’s Sunday Beauty Queen, a documentary made in Hong Kong that turned out to be the MMFF’s surprise winner.

11011My own contribution to the list of memorable titles in the batch of 2016 is from even farther afield, a movie made in the US by Fil-Am talents, tackling the usual issues of national identity and alienation, but using the unexpectedly “trashy” genre of horror, in its even more reviled goth-punk configuration. Titled Vampariah, the film, directed and written by Matthew Abaya, has been earning raves from viewers who had seen it in various US festivals (including San Francisco’s FACINE, where I first watched it as the event’s closing film, and where Abaya’s short films had been screened over the past two decades). In resorting to a format that had proved useful for a long list of discourses on Otherness, Abaya manages to break out of the usual Fil-Am film’s stifling and predictable realist mode, and kicks open a Pandora’s box of lower mythology, colonial excess, racialized cross-cultural conflict, volatility of identity and desire, and (literally) posthuman development.

11011Vampariah was intended as an expanded version of Abaya’s short film “Bampinay.” In Abaya’s full-length debut, Bampinay becomes one of two lead characters – or, one could also argue, half of one. The title more likely refers to Mahal, a Fil-Am vampire hunter who sets out to avenge her parents’ death by tracking a specific type of supernatural predator, one that has started attracting the attention of American celebrity ghosthunters. The most notable instance of the latter is that of John Bates (a “whitesplainer,” per Abaya) of Crypt Hunter, who keeps hilariously enunciating “ass-wang” – the Midwestern twang makes it sound even more risqué – before being unceremoniously devoured on-cam. While wondering why her minder (Michele Kilman, intended to resemble Michelle Malkin) refuses to grant her more challenging assignments despite her superior vampire-killing abilities, Mahal manages to track down a particularly pernicious manananggal (a self-segmenting viscera-sucker) from a rural town through Manila to San Francisco.

Back to top

11011The monstrous entity in question turns out to be Bampinay, and it would be no big surprise for horror aficionados to predict that hunter and hunted discover that they have more in common than they realize. Their sisterly bromance (womance?) is in many ways preferable to the guilt-ridden treatments in more famous samples such as Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971) and Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983), while the 300-year-old Bampinay’s critique of colonial history, derived from firsthand experience, would be the envy of the bloodsucking dissertation candidate in Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995). Vampariah herself calls to mind a whole lot of other generic predecessors, notably the title character in Stephen Norrington’s Blade (1998) and Selene in Len Wiseman’s Underworld (2003).

11011The intertextual possibilities in Vampariah are even more extensive than the titles I’ve listed, an inherent attraction of the typical B-movie product. Yet where the B-movie generally rests on this attribute, Vampariah takes the extra step of inculcating an awareness of local and regional cross-references, a challenge that can best be formulated and achieved by our mixed-blood compatriots. Not since the Blood-Island movies of Eddie Romero and Gerardo de Leon have there been alien monsters (not necessarily a redundancy) in Filipino horror films, and if for nothing else, Vampariah deserves to be remembered for featuring a first-ever showdown between a manananggal and a jiangshi, an East Asian reanimated corpse that moves around by hopping and that extracts qi or the life force from human victims.

11011The film’s ultimate achievement is in its exploitation of the genre’s ability to conjoin disparate ideas and sentiments in order to enhance what would otherwise be difficult or unpalatable messages. Vampariah distracts the potentially hedonistic and self-involved millennial audience with a surfeit of humor, surprises, frights, and irreverence, if not outright profanity. What this nonstop delirium effectively enshrouds is a pathos of profound proportions, ensconced in the permanently diasporic condition of individuals who can never be considered fully human anywhere they go, and who figure out ways of coping by wisecracking and ass-kicking their way through a hostile environment – whether that happens to be the home country from which they had fled or the host country that resents their presence as Others. If anyone had told me that a film embodied a certain Derridean principle, I would have steeled myself for an encounter with barely bearable high-art perorations; yet the demonstration in Vampariah of hauntology, of nostalgia in permanently effaced futures and possibilities, would be capable of sustaining a paper, perhaps even an entire panel, in a high-powered academic conference.

11011Abaya thus takes full advantage of the B-movie’s subversive potential as well as its ability to supply guilty pleasure, and the sadness in the experience of watching this fine little sweetmeat is in the awareness that it may be destined to subsist in the liminal world that its own characters inhabit. (Anyone who finds out that a game based on the film is currently under development would find the notion amusing yet logical.) But then we can always take heart in Bampinay’s assurance to Mahal that “We’re aswangs. We can do anything.” In the perfect world that these intrepid characters envision, they and people like them would be capable of dominating cinema screens everywhere. If the movie happens to breeze by your vicinity, don’t hesitate to give these ravishing monsters your (life)time. It would be a drop-dead occasion that could reanimate any vestige of movie love you still possess.

[First published January 13, 2017, as “Vampariah as Subversive Aswang Film” in The FilAm]

Back to top


The Reviewer Reviewed

I responded to a review of my work only once, with decidedly mixed feelings. I would have preferred to keep quiet, as I had earlier, regarding more vicious and unfounded attacks on my work and person. At this point, however, I felt that I could not bypass the opportunity to point out the differences between the reviewer’s expectations and the objectives that should have been readily discernible in the book being reviewed. Unfortunately (probably because of the bad blood I had accumulated from enduring earlier attacks), my response had an unnecessarily sharp edge that I now wish I could have blunted before sending the letter. For this reason I initially decided to conceal the details of publication, which I am certain the author, a senior colleague, would have preferred as well.[1] The digital edition of Fields of Vision is posted on this blog.

Unfocused View of RP Cinema
Nicasio Cruz, SJ

Reading Joel David’s Fields of Vision can produce a feeling like that generated by a lively intellectual conversation: the sense of challenge and excitement that comes from an encounter with a fine mind thinking deeply about important matters. One may disagree with some of his opinions and applications, but one can hardly avoid being stimulated by the scope of David’s scholarship and reasoning.

11011This book is a learned and provocative work, precisely because it raises so many questions that get at the heart of the challenges on the study of Philippine cinema. That it does not answer all the questions it raises is far less important than that it calls the reader into the conversation on different terms.

11011The book is neatly divided into three parts: Panorama, Viewpoints, and Perspectives. Part I is an overview of the New Cinema in retrospect, tracing the effects and influences of neorealism, cinéma vérité, film noir, and surrealism on Philippine cinema. This chapter is the most informative and a welcome contribution by the scholarly author to our deeper understanding of our own local cinema.

11011The big problem I encountered not only in this chapter but throughout the book is, David’s train of thought is something difficult to follow because of his peculiar style of writing and his penchant for unfamiliar words and ambiguous phrases, such as “imbricated” (ix), “multiplicity of participations” (3), “high-gear editing” (40), “shimmying exoticism” (13), “overscaled meddling” (108).

11011Part II contains the main body of the book. It is divided into sections with some titillating subtitles: “Demachofication,” “Sequacious Cebuano,” “Movable Fists,” “Mudslung.” Under each heading are listed the movies under consideration.

11011This chapter, though, creates some problem for the readers who are not familiar with the movies of the 1970s and ’80s. For instance, how could the reader understand what the author is talking about a certain a movie, if he does not know anything about the movie?

11011Take this example: “Nevertheless the device in Hot Summer has been wisely confined to the movie’s expository portion. Once the entire framework has been set up, the finishing touches admirably point up to a sound internal logic at work, employing the same principle of sensible character-based development observed in Paano Kung Wala Ka Na” (53).

11011I myself have not seen either Hot Summer or Paano Kung Wala Ka Na. An example of a scene or scenes from either or both of the movies cited would enable the reader to understand and appreciate what David is trying to say.

11011David could have given an excerpt from the movie Biktima to illustrate what he calls “an excessive cocksureness of approach” (95), which he averred victimized that movie.

11011For me, the best part of the book is Part III, where David proposed a list of Filipino film highlights (“Worth the While”) to prove that film as a medium still contains the country’s most consistent artistic achievements.

11011Noteworthy also is “Ten Best Filipino Films Up to 1990,” a credible selection of the ten best collated from the individual choices of more than thirty respectable film artists, film critics, directors, producers, and academicians.

11011The Ten Best list is sure to generate controversy. David himself, after collating and tabulating everything, concluded that the number of respondents was still not exhaustive, that there is still a critical community somewhere left untapped. But the list should be regarded as the beginning of a healthy debate, rather than the final word on the matter.

11011Taken as a whole, the book is a gold mine for which film students and film buffs can only be grateful. What the book perhaps lacks in focus is amply compensated by a wealth of informative material about Philippine cinema. It will be a most welcome addition to any film library here and abroad.

[Published June 14, 1996, in Philippine Daily Inquirer, p. C2]

Back to top

Letter to the Editor

July 4, 1996

Thelma Sioson San Juan
Lifestyle Editor
Philippine Daily Inquirer
1263 Makati City
Philippines

Dear Thelma –

I received a copy of a review of Fields of Vision in the Inquirer (June 14) through my publisher, but I didn’t have the time to write a response until today’s US holiday, Independence Day, ironically liberated me from my work schedule.[2] Nicasio Cruz’s review was appreciative and encouraging, and also evinced an attempt to be critical at the same time. I have not had problems with critics expressing reservations about my books, although for the first time, I feel that I need to contest a number of Cruz’s premises.

11011To begin with, Cruz’s complaint that the writing uses “unfamiliar words and ambiguous phrases” is something that may be expected from a layperson. However, any academic ought to be able to determine the meaning of a word like “imbricated”; a media professor ought to be able to know what “high-gear editing,” “multiplicity of participations,” and “overscaled meddling” refer to, unless film, performing-arts, and cultural-policy terms happen to lie outside her or his sphere of expertise. Someone urgently needs to introduce the poor fellow to that basic research tool called a dictionary, upon which he might realize that whatever is “unfamiliar” and “ambiguous” about these examples may have all been a function of his hazy sensibility.

11011Even more serious is the clear possibility that Cruz may not have been reading carefully enough. For one thing, he misquoted one of the book’s articles’ titles – i.e., “Sequacious Cebuano,” which is meaningless, was a mix-up of two different titles, “Sequacious and Second-Rate” and “Sedulously Cebuano.” Furthermore, he ascribed to me the phrase “shimmying exoticism,” when in fact in the published text it is in the plural, enclosed in quotes, and attributed to John Grierson in the latter’s description of the work of Robert Flaherty. More glaringly, “multiplicity of participations” is not only similarly quoted and attributed, but is also immediately followed in the book by a paraphrase of Roland Barthes’s semiotic redefinition.

11011The surest indicator that Cruz may have been expecting a book of reviews when in fact he was presented with a body of criticism was when he demanded that the articles should have presented “an example [sic] of a scene or scenes from … the movies cited [to] enable the reader to understand and appreciate what David is trying to say.” The premise in reviewing is that the reader may be encouraged in or discouraged from watching a current release; in criticism, on the other hand, the reader is expected to have seen the item being discussed (or eventually make the effort to watch it), regardless of the author’s appreciation of or antipathy toward it.

11011Moreover, when did serious discourse ever make a claim to accurately represent the texts it was dealing with? A critique of, say, Crime and Punishment or The Bridges of Madison County (either the books or the films made from them) could never hope to fully recount their texts’ contents, and would only waste space and printer’s ink in trying to do so, when a journal or index or annotated bibliography might be able to provide that same function more effectively. If supplying a plot summary were necessary to the discussion, then by all means such a summary should be expected. But when Cruz gripes that he does not understand what an “excessive cocksureness of approach” means and expects to find it in the movie’s narrative, he just might be in the dark regarding the embarrassingly antique insight that film is primarily a visual medium.

11011I would not even bother to speculate as to the possible reasons why Cruz thinks that an anthology should have “focus,” and what he thinks this focus should be. It saddens me to note that Cruz has not grown much in the intervening years. Is his notion of film theory still a matter of (mis)taking the elements of film in the context of Classical Hollywood practice as the theory of film? Does he still refer derisively to Philippine movies when searching for samples of “bad” or “failed” applications in relation to the Hollywood model? Does the fact that a university press decided anyway to publish my manuscript indicate anything to him about how far gone the times have changed in relation to his ideas?

11011Thank you for providing this opportunity to engage in dialogue with one of your reviewers. I could have hoped for a more constructive exchange – a “multiplicity of participations” in effect, post Barthes – but my responses were imbricated in the excessive cocksureness, resulting in overscaled meddling, of the said reviewer’s “shimmying exoticisms,” to borrow once more from the late great Grierson.

Sedulously yours,

Joel David
New York City

Notes

[1] The demise of Nicasio D. Cruz, SJ, in 2017 has made it possible for me to identify him as the author of the review, without worrying about any possible repercussion for him at his educational institution.

[2] I was unable to track the details of publication of my response. All I had were messages from friends informing me that my letter to the editor had come out.

Back to top