Tag Archives: Criticism

Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic

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From the INTRODUCTION (pp. 17-24):

As soon as I started the professional life that I had yet to fully chart, Manila by Night was ready to mark my steps. I had just completed the first of two bachelors degrees  at the University of the Philippines (declared the national university in 2008), but my preparation for a career in journalism did not work out as I (and my circles of friends) thought it would. The anti-dictatorship movement I had participated in prescribed a brand of Marxism that I later learned went by a few names, with “orthodox” being the less-offensive term. I decided to distance myself from the political and economic analyses on which I’d built my name as a campus journalist, and focused on cultural reporting. My internships also alerted me to the existence of values that I knew I could never take seriously – the cultivation of sources (the more exclusive or exceptional, the better), for example, and the drive to out-scoop everyone else. I decided to give freelancing a shot, and when I couldn’t shape a sufficiently interesting story out of a cultural (usually film) event, I’d turn in a review instead.

By late 1979, I’d made enough of a buzz to be invited to the award-giving film critics circle. I also heard of a movie about Manila nightlife – which I’d been discovering on my own as a restless, hyperactive insomniac. When I was invited to a preview of Manila by Night, I was stunned to discover a lot of the personalities, locales, and lingo that I’d familiarized myself with since college. It was like I didn’t have to wait until nightfall any longer: I could just step into the screen, and that would be the city I had come to know. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it was electric, erotic, vulgar, violent, dangerous, and loving, all in ways that the US-supported and Catholic Church-sanctioned dictatorship of Ferdinand E. Marcos would find embarrassing, if not outright immoral. It was too good to be untrue, so to speak, so I resolved to watch it as often as I could in case the regime decided to destroy all existing copies and consign the film to oblivion.

Which nearly came to pass. Before I could arrange to watch another preview, news came out that the movie had been banned by the then-militarized Board of Censors for Motion Pictures, a body that had tussled with Manila by Night director-writer Ishmael Bernal a few times already for too-earthy sex scenes in his previous films. “No worries,” said those in charge of the film, since the movie would be making its debut in an international venue anyway, having just been personally selected by Moritz de Hadeln to compete at the Berlin International Film Festival. Bernal, whom I’d met as a critics circle member, provided me with cassette tapes on which a playback of the audio track was recorded, with instructions to transcribe the dialog and provide a literal translation to be used as a guide by the German subtitler. The tapes were low-end, obviously second-hand, and I had to return them right after using them; if I’d known they would be the source of the only available “integral” version of the film, I would have asked for a better recording. A “where-are-they-now” epilogue was also hastily assembled by the producers for the Berlinale screening, to mollify the censors by making the claim that the intransigent characters were punished while the rest became upright citizens worthy of Ferdinand Marcos’s “New Society.”

After I turned in my work, a grapevine report circulated in film circles, about Imelda Marcos, with her typical flair for the dramatic, watching the movie and breaking down afterward. Everyone’s worst fear was confirmed: the movie would remain in limbo until the First Lady could be persuaded otherwise. I requested the copy of the transcription I made from Bernal so it could be printed, “uncensored,” in the March 1981 issue of The Review, a now-defunct monthly periodical in which I wrote and occasionally edited special issues. In November 1980, a few months before the script came out, the movie itself was approved for local release, with a four-page censors’ permit – the longest that had ever accompanied a Philippine screening. Since all mention of “Manila” (dubbed “City of Man” by the increasingly unstable Imelda) was disallowed, the movie’s title was changed to City after Dark.

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The deliberation session for the critics’ annual awards was understandably turbulent. Along with a few other members, I insisted that any recognition given to City after Dark would be tantamount to validating what the censors had done. This resulted in a surprising inconsistency in the awards results, including a win for Best Picture but a loss for Best Director (one senior member mentioned that Bernal deserved to be “taught a lesson” regarding the lack of surface polish in his work). The logic was certainly bizarre – if the mangled version of the film deserved to win, then its strength derived primarily from its directorial virtues. From this point onward I began to question the Hollywoodian logic behind the critics’ awards activities, and have since sworn to premise my critical output on the assumption that, among other things, their earlier methods of multiple screenings and intensive deliberations may be useful, but their divisive, formalist, and canonical social-realist approach to award-giving deserved nothing but condemnation, if not contempt.

Meanwhile, the publicity team behind Manila by Night continued to conduct previews of the uncensored version – and I continued to attend as many of them as I could. I’d seen Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), Bernal’s takeoff text, during its week-long run in Manila, and began paying close attention to attempts by other filmmakers, as well as by Bernal himself, to replicate this specific approach to the multiple-character film narrative. Despite the trauma experienced by Manila by Night, the multicharacter film format succeeded so well that it became a recognizable and distinct genre in Philippine film practice, with filmmakers (and a few critics) describing its samples as “milieu movies” and producers as well as talent managers introducing new faces in batches meant to appear as equal lead performers in as many film projects as they could sustain.

A few years later, the anti-dictatorship movement began to pose a serious challenge to Ferdinand Marcos’s presidency. I was working at the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP), the government film agency, and was surprised by the ease by which I was able to circulate a request to screen Manila by Night (not City after Dark) and process the paperwork for its release. The agency also assigned me to complete the then newly introduced undergraduate film program at the national university. Even before the people-power uprising of February 1986, the ECP was dissolved, but my new degree enabled me to start teaching as an instructor, and eventually helped me wangle a Fulbright grant for graduate studies in the US. My doctoral dissertation dealt, predictably enough, with the multicharacter film format.

During my last trip to Manila, I had an informal discussion with Bernal (a mini-interview of sorts), and managed to extract from him a promise to sit for an interview for my dissertation on multicharacter cinema. I told him I’d be drafting a set of questions and would send them to him before my next trip home. While I was away, he passed away from cerebral aneurysm, joining the legendary realm where Manila by Night continues to flourish. I decided to forgo all trips outside the US until I had completed my dissertation. My residency deadline was looming, and I was hastily drafting my manuscript on September 11, 2001, when my parents called to ask if everything was all right. The first tower crashed right after I turned on the television, and from that point on I knew that returning to the Philippines might not be the best option, but it was the only definite line of action that would be open to me in the near future. Bernal had been gone for over half a decade, and Philippine cinema was about to abandon celluloid production and embrace the digital era for good.

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From ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. 9-10):

Profuse thanks to Patricio N. Abinales, Thelma E. Arambulo, Tina Baluyut, Joey Baquiran, Vicky Belarmino, Bernardo Bernardo, Pete Bilderback, Karen Blackstein, Marivic Buquis-Tjardes, Flor Caagusan, Patrick F. Campos, Veronica Caparas, Robert Cerda, Mel Chionglo, Leloy Claudio, Sylvia Estrada Claudio, Divine Go David, Gigi Felix-Velarde David, Jek Josue David, Nestor de Guzman, Nicolo del Castillo, Archie del Mundo, Lizbeth de Padua, Jojo Devera, Cynthia Estrada, Patrick D. Flores, Peque Gallaga, Alfredo Garcia, Melanie Joy C. Garduño, Paul Grant, Ju-Yong Ha, Maurine Haver, J. Pilapil Jacobo, Marne Kilates, Ricardo Lee, Bliss Cua Lim, Sergio Lobo, Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon, Juan Miguel Manansala, Gina Marchetti, Ibarra Mateo, Joe McElhaney, Toby Miller, Carla Montemayor, Roselle Monteverde, Jude Ortega, Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, Ellen J. Paglinauan, Vanessa Pallarco, Haesuk Park, Inkyu Park, Shin-gu Park, Sybil Jade Peña, Elwood Perez, Theo Tisado Pie, Benjamin Pimentel, Ethel Pineda, Jane Po, Rowena Raganit, Winston Raval, Lore Reyes, Ramon Reyes, Roselle Leah K. Rivera, Ninotchka Rosca, Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III, Angela Stuart Santiago, Aida Santos, Bayani Santos Jr., Teresita Santos, Ophelia Miller Segovia, Vincenz Serrano, Minsun Shim, Irene Balucos Sia, Boemshik Son, Robert Sklar, Francis Sollano, Robert Stam, Lauren Steimer, Chris Straayer, Lulu Torres-Reyes, Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., Violeda A. Umali, Charmian Uy, JC Velasquez, Taeyun Yu, Jovy Zarate, and Zhang Zhen.

I’ve been fortunate to work with some outstanding editors in the past, but with Matthew Hays and Thomas Waugh, I saw my early manuscript shape-shift in ways I couldn’t always anticipate, with the revised version always a new text whose acquaintance I was happy to make. They’ve been at this task for nearly a decade, without any remuneration, so while I imagine that the impending end of the Queer Film Classics series may be a relief of sorts, it would also open up a gap that other people ought to consider filling. Publishers Brian Lam and Robert Ballantyne, editors Susan Safyan and Tara Nykyforiak, and designer Oliver McPartlin are also part of the series, and while I interact mainly with professors Waugh and Hays, I occasionally correspond with the other participants in the project; as the book begins to take final shape, I can only be grateful that their commitment is just as complete and indispensable. (Portions of this manuscript have appeared in my articles in Kritika Kultura and Plaridel.)

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Contents of the Queer Film Classics Edition
© 2017 by Joel David & Arsenal Pulp Press; All Rights Reserved

PRELIMINARIES

Title Page; Copyright; Table of Contents; Dedication: For Ishmael Bernal (1938-96); Acknowledgments; Synopsis; Credits; Introduction (1-24)

BODY TEXT

Chapter I. Manila by Day: Fifty Years of Hollywood (25-69)

Movies and the Philippines
Master’s Tool
Language without Words
“Ishma” and Manila by Night
The Origin of Manila by Night
Controversies
The Berlinale Connection
The Other Manila Movie

Sidebar: A Pinoy Queer-Cinema Mini-Canon (70-75)

Chapter II. Manila by Night: City of Mania (76-115)

Many-Peopled Narratives
The Philippine Moviegoer
A Perverse Approach
Technique as Politics
Voyeuristic Restlessness
The Queering of Technique
The Mirror Effect
Sound Logic
Wow and Flutter

Sidebar: A Multicharacter-Movie Supplementary List (116-119)

Chapter III. Beyond Manila: Cinema & Nation in Crisis (121-158)

Locale as an Entity
Babies and Beauties
Triangulations
The Multicharacter Movie Genre
Road Not Taken
Milieu Realism
A “Straight” Way Forward
Gender Types
The Other(ed) Queer Character
Radical Potential

END MATTER

Conclusion; Appendix: Manay Revisits Manila by Night: An Interview with Bernardo Bernardo; References; Filmography & Theater Productions; Index; About the Author; About the Editors; Titles in the Queer Film Classics Series (159-208)

Related Links

• A special folio on the film now opens this blog’s Extras section.
• To read the book lecture “Queerness as Defiance in Manila by Night,” please click here.
• For a detailed storyline originally drafted for this book, please click here.

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Book Texts – New-Millennium Filmfest Report

Pinoy Filmfests ca. 2013

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

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

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

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Festivities

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

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

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

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

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Sample “Fringe” Events

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

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

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

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

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Masters’ Degrees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Power of Two

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

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

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

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

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

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Notes

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

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

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

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

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

[First published February 2014 in The Manila Review]

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Book Texts – Non-Film Reviews

DISORDER & CONSTANT SORROW

Subversive Lives: A Family Memoir of the Marcos Years
Susan F. Quimpo & Nathan Gilbert Quimpo, with David Ryan F. Quimpo, Norman F. Quimpo, Emilie Mae Q. Wickett, Lillian F. Quimpo, Elizabeth Q. Bulatao, Caren Q. Castañeda, Jun F. Quimpo, & Maria Cristina Pargas-Bawagan
Mandaluyong: Anvil Publishing, 2012

In the process of finalizing the current issue of Kritika Kultura, Ateneo’s online journal, on Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night, I went over some of the notes I took during the too-few interviews I had with the director. One of the statements he made, that our stories as a people are better told as a collective, became the basis of several articles and an entire dissertation on the film and its author. The format, which we can call by its description “multiple-character,” is a tricky one to pull off. Seemingly “social” fictions like Gone with the Wind or, closer to home, Noli Me Tangere typically begin with a large group of characters, then reduce the narrative threads until they focus on a hero, sometimes with a romantic interest or against an antihero, or (in the case of GWTW) a love triangle – which, by presenting a character torn between two options, invites singular identification and thus maintains the heroic arrangement.

The multi-character film format actually originated in literature, so it would not be surprising to find it deployed more readily in fiction and theater, where the “star” demands of cinema can be more easily ignored. The more ambitious samples, like Manila by Night (and Bernal’s avowed model, Nashville), succeed in portraying, via the interaction of its characters, an abstract, singular, social character that embodies the conflicts, frustrations, and aspirations of the milieu the text’s figures represent. The unexpected delight of my current Pinoy reading experience, in this wise, was in recognizing several of these qualities (and then some) in a recent book, titled Subversive Lives. Listing Susan F. Quimpo and Nathan Gilbert Quimpo as authors, the Anvil publication actually comprises contributions from the Quimpo siblings and the widow of their brother.

The Quimpos achieved fame (or notoriety, depending on one’s perspective) for having had several of them participate in the anti-dictatorship movement during the martial-law regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Since the only genuine opposition during most of this period was provided by the outlawed Communist underground, the Quimpo family, by its association, underwent dramatic upheavals, acute heartbreak, and occasional but still-too-rare moments of grace that would appear almost fantastic had the book been announced as a fiction. The fact that these events actually happened, related by the individuals who directly experienced them, provides the reader with a sense of how irreparably damaging authoritarianism has always been for our particular national experience. I remember how, as a student at the state university, I could always rely on the fact that my smartest classmates would be sympathetic, if not involved outright, with student-activist causes – in sharp contrast with the situation I later observed as a teacher. Subversive Lives provides a panoramic chronicle of how the militarized dictatorship, profitable only to foreign and mercenary local business and religious interests, upheld the worst legacies of colonial education and magic-patriarchal morality: backward thugs armed, fed, and protected by the machinery of an irredeemably corrupted state were allowed to wield life-or-death mastery over the very people in whom, by virtue of their capacity to exercise discernment, creativity, and determination, the future of the nation would have resided.

The Quimpo children, in this respect, may be regarded as representative of the country’s best and brightest, had they emerged in another place, another time. Starting out as stereotypical overachievers, the only source of pride of their financially distressed parents, they grew up just when the storm clouds of tyranny were gathering; having moved to a cramped apartment near the presidential palace, they were initially witnesses, then active participants, in the increasingly violent protest actions then taking place in their neighborhood.

One of the most powerful dramatic undercurrents in the book is how the Quimpos’ parents coped with the spectacle of several of their children giving up their scholarships, then their bright futures, by moving from school dropouts to wanted figures, hunted down and tortured by the military. One of the sons recollects his reconciliation with his father at the latter’s deathbed, and his story suddenly breaks free of the storytelling mode, addressing his father in the present as if he were still alive, and as if no reader would wonder: “Talk to me. I’m your son…. Why don’t you express all your heartaches, disappointments, and frustrations?” The siblings never shake free the realization that the paths they chose were not what their parents had hoped for them. If their parents lived long enough, they would have seen that the Quimpo children had been able to attain impressive career trajectories, covering several continents and participating in impactful projects (of which the book serves as group memoir) that would have been the envy of the more privileged families with their utterly predictable and vision-impoverished choices.

Even the sister who had opted for life as an Opus Dei numerary found inevitable parallels between her Order and the fascist system that her siblings were struggling against. The story of the retrieval of their brother’s body is hers to tell, and one would probably wind up smiling, in the face of the long-anticipated tragedy, at how she had managed to muster enough reserves of strength to confront and intimidate the military officers who felt like aggravating her and her grieving female companions, just for the heck of it. When, famished after the confrontation, one of them mistakenly brings one too many orders of Coke and the driver of their vehicle innocently asks whom the spare bottle is for, then they turn toward their brother’s body and cry all over again, I could not help turning as well toward the best moments in Pinoy cinema, where our film-authors are so casually able to incite these tender combinations of humor and warmth amid overwhelming sadness.

The book ends with a controversy that has shaken up, and continues to do so, the Philippine revolutionary movement. The Quimpos who were then still involved were major participants, and express the opinion that the leadership they challenged had taken on qualities of the dictatorship that they had fought against and (in a sense) succeeded in ousting. Like the best Filipino multi-character texts, Manila by Night foremost among them, Subversive Lives is sprawling, occasionally meandering, sometimes indulgent, and necessarily open-ended. It is also gripping, heartfelt, insightful, and forward-looking, so much so that the aforementioned “flaws” would be a small price to pay for its still-rare literary largesse, just as the Quimpo children’s rebellion has made the country’s journey to a more meaningful present a trip for which we as their witnesses ought to be grateful.

[First published September 18, 2012, as “The Marcos Dictatorship and the Irreparable Damage to a Family and the Filipino Experience” in The FilAm]

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THE NOVEL PINOY NOVEL

Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata
Ricky Lee
Quezon City: Philippine Writers Studio Foundation, 2011

The results of the recently concluded American presidential elections seemed guaranteed to make everyone happy – except for the Republican Party and its now less-than-majority supporters. American conservatives could have spared themselves their historic loss if they had taken the trouble to inspect the goings-on in a country their nation had once claimed for itself, the Republic of the Philippines. The admittedly oversimplified lesson that Philippine cultural experience demonstrates is: when conservative values seek to overwhelm a population too dispossessed to have anything to lose, the pushback has the potential to reach radical proportions.

This is my way of assuring myself that a serendipitous sample, Ricky Lee’s recent novel Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata (Amapola in 65 Chapters), could only have emerged in a culture that had undergone Old-World colonization followed by successful American experimentations with colonial and neocolonial arrangements, enhanced by the installation of a banana republic-style dictatorship followed by a middle-force uprising, leaving the country utterly vulnerable to the dictates of globalization and unable to recover except by means of exporting its own labor force – which, as it turns out, proved to be an unexpectedly successful way of restoring some developmental sanguinity, some stable growth achieved via the continual trauma of yielding its best and brightest to foreign masters.

Si Amapola is one of those rare works that will fulfill anyone who takes the effort to learn the language in which it is written. A serviceable translation might emerge sooner or later, but the novel’s impressive achievement in commingling a wide variety of so-called Filipino – from formal (Spanish-inflected) Tagalog to urban street slang to class-conscious (and occasionally hilariously broken) Taglish to fast-mutating gay lingo – will more than just provide a sampling of available linguistic options; it will convince the patriotically inclined that the national language in itself is at last capable of staking its claim as a major global literary medium. In practical terms, the message here is: if you know enough of the language to read casually, or enjoy reading aloud with friends or family – run out and get a copy of the book for the holidays. The novels of Lee, only two of them so far, have revived intensive, even obsessive reading in the Philippines, selling in the tens of thousands (in a country where sales of a few hundreds would mark a title as a bestseller), with people claiming to have read them several times over and classrooms and offices spontaneously breaking into unplanned discussions of his fictions; lives get transformed as people assimilate his characters’ personalities, and Lee himself stated that a few couples have claimed to him that their acquaintance started with a mutual admiration of his work.

This is the type of response that, in the recent past, only movies could generate – and the connection may well have been preordained, since Lee had previously made his mark on the popular imagination as the country’s premier screenwriter. The difference between the written word and the filmed script, per Lee, is in the nature of the reader’s participation: film buffs (usually as fans of specific performers) would strive to approximate the costume, performance, and delivery of their preferred characters, while readers would assimilate a novel’s characters, interpreting them in new (literally novel) ways, sometimes providing background and future developments, and even shifting from one personage to another.

Si Amapola affords entire worlds for its readers to inhabit, functioning as the culmination of its author’s attempts to break every perceived boundary in art (and consequently in society) in its pursuit of truth and terror, pain and pleasure. For Lee, the process began with his last few major film scripts (notably for Lino Brocka’s multi-generic Gumapang Ka sa Lusak [Dirty Affair]; 1990) and first emerged in print with his comeback novellette “Kabilang sa mga Nawawala” (Among the Missing; 1988). More than his previous novel Para Kay B (O Kung Paano Dinevastate ng Pag-ibig ang 4 Out of 5 sa Atin) (For B [Or How Love Devastated 4 Out of 5 of Us]; 2008), Si Amapola is a direct descendant of “Kabilang,” at that point the language’s definitive magic-realist narrative.

Despite this stylistic connection Si Amapola is sui generis, impossible to track because of its fantastically extreme dimensions that abhor any notion of middle ground. The contradictions begin with the title character, a queer cross-dressing performer who possesses two “alters”: Isaac, a macho man (complete with an understandably infatuated girlfriend), and Zaldy, a closeted yuppie. His mother, Nanay Angie, took him home after she found him separated from his baby sister and, notwithstanding the absence of blood relations and any familial connections, raised him (and his other personalities) with more love and acceptance than most children are able to receive from their own “normal” relatives. A policeman named Emil, a fan of real-life Philippine superstar Nora Aunor, then introduces Amapola to his Lola Sepa, a woman who had fallen in love with Andres Bonifacio, the true (also real-life) but tragically betrayed hero of the 19th-century revolution against Spanish colonization. Lola Sepa moved through time, using a then-recent technology – the flush toilet – as her portal, surviving temporal and septic transitions simply because she, like her great-grandchild Amapola, happens to be a manananggal, a self-segmenting viscera-sucking mythological creature.

Already these details suggest issues of personal identity and revolutionary history, high drama and low humor, cinematic immediacy and philosophical discourse, and a melange of popular genres that do not even bother to acknowledge their supposed mutual incompatibilities; if you can imagine, for example, that a pair of manananggal lovers could be so abject and lustful as to engage in monstrous mid-air intercourse, you can expect that Lee will take you there. The novel’s interlacing with contemporary Philippine politics provides a ludic challenge for those familiar with recent events; those who would rather settle for a rollicking grand time, willing to be fascinated, repulsed, amused, and emotionally walloped by an unmitigated passion for language, country, and the least and therefore the greatest among us, will be rewarded by flesh-and-blood (riven or otherwise) characters enacting a social drama too fantastic to be true, yet ultimately too true to be disavowed.

At the end of the wondrously self-contained narrative, you might be able to look up some related literature on the novel and read about Lee announcing a sequel. Pressed about this too-insistent meta-contradiction of how something that had already ended could manage to persist in an unendurable (because unpredictable) future time, he replied: “Amapola the character exists in two parts. Why then can’t he have two lives?” Nevertheless my advice remains, this time as a warning: get the present book and do not wait for a two-in-one consumption. The pleasure, and the pain, might prove too much to bear by then.

[First published November 8, 2012, as “High Drama and Low Humor in Ricky Lee’s New Fiction about a Cross-Dressing Manananggal” in The FilAm]

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HIGH FIVE

Gang of 5: Tales, Cuentos, Sanaysay
Ninotchka Rosca
New York: Mariposa Center for Change, 2013

While awaiting the international availability of Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite, I placed some orders for a number of dead-tree editions – which also ran into unexpected delays. Meanwhile a packet arrived in the mail, containing a slim volume titled Gang of 5: Tales, Cuentos, Sanaysay. The author, Ninotchka Rosca, was someone I’d never met in person, although anyone with even a remote association with progressive literary circles in the Philippines would have heard her name sooner or later.

My personal regret is my failure in going beyond the opening pages of her first novel, State of War – I was then preparing for overseas graduate studies and ran out of time to read all the then more recent Filipiniana titles (mostly eventually damaged by the elements) in my collection. After having made the author’s acquaintance on a social network, I recognized certain qualities I’d grown familiar with from an earlier generation of activist authors, with whom I once hung out as a way of furthering my unsentimental education. Assertive, impatient with detractors, firm in her convictions, unsparingly self-critical, she would nevertheless surprise everyone with a graciousness that could only have come from a first-hand familiarity with people-oriented service – from gestures as casual as sharing pictures (of her home, or her past) that made her happy, to helping an infirm neighbor abandoned by everyone else, to offering assistance to anyone devastated by natural calamity.

My Gang of 5 copy will never leave my personal book shelf, mainly because of the author’s signature succeeding a handwritten quotation from Conrad Aiken – and also because of the text, “Limited Edition,” affixed above the title. In an exchange, Rosca said that the book will be available to a general readership by mid-year, and however one cuts the argument, it would be a major loss for readers of Philippine literature if it weren’t. For this, out of all the several anthologies of Pinoy English-language short fiction ever put out, will satisfactorily serve as the all-purpose single-volume introduction to local writing that anyone will ever need. None of the five pieces is less than inspired, each one represents a writing challenge distinct from the rest, and everything builds up to the larger anticipation of greater pleasures awaiting in the output of other Filipino authors – final proof of Rosca’s generosity of spirit in honoring her colleagues by providing evidence of how equal they are, as she is, to the challenge of literary excellence.

The book, as far as I can surmise from her social-network postings, was another of her selfless exercises in pursuit of a worthy crusade: it was intended as a giveaway for donors to the Mariposa Center for Change’s Stand with Grace Campaign, a so-far successful effort to prevent a corrupt and abusive Congressman from forcing his mistress, who had sought asylum in the US, to return to his overeager clutches. Such a cause-oriented origin should not mislead the reader into expecting a series of feminist philippics; rather, the pieces are feminist in the best updated sense, some of them even abandoning the literal prescription of center-positioning a lead female character, and in one case even revealing an otherwise strong and politicized woman as a villain – a lesson well-learned from the never-ending “positive images” debates of whether Others should always be depicted as virtuous, unblemished, normative, wholesome, victims-but-never-victimizers, etc.

In fact one can just as well imagine a scenario where an enterprising publisher announces an extensive search for women’s writing in diverse genres, selecting the best entries submitted, and discovering too late that they had all been written by the same author. The collection opens with an account of the musings of a murderously inclined male sociopath, an achievement noteworthy if only for its success in comprehending the morbid mind, without recourse to the generic solutions of depicting the character as evil or abnormal; the story’s ultimate source of terror lies in how such a person emerges as normal, even respected, in the Third-World milieu where he operates. The collection then shifts gears – another country, another gender – and provides a feel-good (in the well-earned sense, for which my word will have to suffice for now) tale of what it means to be a Filipina within an imagined community, even among people who have precisely nothing else but their imagination to follow-through this exquisitely complex construct.

Rosca maintains the central story, “The Neighborhood,” as a link to her past and future as story-teller. It comes from her earlier highly acclaimed anthology The Monsoon Collection (which I also have not read, to my continuing chagrin). Here she orchestrates the interactions of one of the metropolis’s several slum neighborhoods, a colony within a colony; a possibly magic-realist event closes what is necessarily an open-ended account, so it makes perfect sense that the central character’s narrative will be continued, per Rosca’s declaration, in her forthcoming novel, The Synchrony Tree (whose excerpts she has posted on her blog Lily Pad, a pun on the Filipino expression “about to fly, or take off”). The last two pieces focus on women’s heartbreak, one a semi-nouvelle à clef seemingly based on a famous Philippine multimedia pop star’s self-exile in the US, the other an autobiographical-sounding account of a mother’s abandonment of her helpless, oppressed daughter. Rosca refuses the facile options of resorting to victimological formulations of these characters’ respective plights; the reader is assured of her sympathy precisely because of her willingness to cast a cool, almost clinical eye on the inner conflicts of these personae, familiar from the stock repertory of soap fictions yet unnervingly represented with flesh-and-blood tangibility in these texts.

Rosca recalled how Julie de Lima, wife of the founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines, once remarked that “Only Ninotchka can render Joma [Sison] speechless.” The occasion was a public exchange on the use of English as a medium for expressing the ideas and sentiments of Filipinos, with Sison asserting the standard nationalist line that only a native language will fulfill the challenge of depicting, say, a slum child’s innermost concerns. Rosca, by her own account, maintained that “language – any language – [is] a malleable tool, per the writer’s skill. I then asked him whether reading Mao Zedong, [who came from] a Chinese peasant family, in English translation implied a loss in the thoughts of the revolutionary leader…. The question is why we accept reading scientific, philosophical, or political tracts in a foreign language [yet] demand that literature restrict itself to a first-level reality.” The incident reveals the little-known willingness of Sison in welcoming adversarial discussions, but it also cost Rosca the respect of some of his more fanatical followers.

Gang of 5 is, among many other things, elegant proof of her defiant stance regarding the utility of the language she happened to have at her command. Its achievements would have needed no further justification beyond the serendipity of reaching an extensive readership, but Rosca typically allowed it to shoulder a wide range of objectives – from assisting a battered woman, to embodying her convictions on language, even serving as a conduit in her once-and-future fiction projects – and like all major works of literature (even the shortest ones), the collection itself abides. Somewhere there’s a lesson for the country’s political and economic leaders, if they could find enough time and humility to draw inspiration from a few dozen pages of wondrously well-wrought prose.

[First published February 21, 2013, as “High Five for Ninotchka Rosca’s Sanaysay Anthology” in The FilAm]

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Book Texts – Foreign Film Reviews II

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.

Trần 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.

I 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.

The 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.

We 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.

As 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?

I 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.

Trần 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.

What 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.

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

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

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

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

“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.”

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

“Thanks, but I got 20/20 vision.”

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

“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.”

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

“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.”

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

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

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

“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.”

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

“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.”

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

“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?”

“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.”

“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.”

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

“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.”

“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.”

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

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

“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 –”

“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.”

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

“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.”

“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 operate like the World Wide Web?”

“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.”

“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?”

“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.”

“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.”

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

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

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

“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?”

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

“Okay.”

[Submitted February 2010 to JungAng Daily, originally intended for Oscar awards week; unpublished]

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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.

Yet 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.

Surprisingly, 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Key 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.

Even 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.

Yet 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.

The 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.

A 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 – New-Millennium Pinoy Film Reviews

My millennial reviewing activity was necessarily intermittent, owing to the lack of a regular outlet (shout-out here to the historic National Midweek), the difficulty of accessing niche-market digital products, my foreign-country semestral responsibilities, and the need to attend to “higher” scholarly pursuits. My old-school orientation is also part of the baggage, since I once tried relying on a screener submission and found the viewing experience inauthentic, to put it kindly; I also took note of blog-originated material for regular media outlets to pick up (or, more accurately, was alerted to it by concerned filmmakers) and realized immediately that I could engage in this kind of writing for most types of editors and imagined readerships except myself. Where this set of goals and obstacles will lead me to is the still-to-be-resolved question.

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.

What 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.

How 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.

At 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.

In 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.

In 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.

So 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.

In 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.

Per 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.

Past 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.

How 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.

One 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.

This may be the reason why the festival jurors may have felt alienated, embarrassed even, by Boses’s accomplishments. 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.

But 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.

The 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.

Yet 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.

With 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.

Indeed 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.

Though 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.

The 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.

Boses 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,[1] in chronological order as well as according to increasing level of involvement. 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.

In 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.

A 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.

Note

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

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

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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.

These 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.

Yet 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.

It 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.

A 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.

Like 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.

Per 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.

Lao 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.

Biyaheng 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.

These 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.

Yet 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.

Such 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.

One 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.

In 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.

What 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.

The 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.

If 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).

A 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.

The 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.

Unlike 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).

Meanwhile, 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.

Anthony 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.

Since 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.

Sean 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.

What 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.

Finally, 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.

By 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.

The 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.

Having 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.

The 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.)

Only 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.

Heneral 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).

Unlike 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.

The 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.

Hence 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.

For 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.

Jose’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 Magsine Tayo! blog.)

The 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.

Jose’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.

Yet 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).

Even 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.

Ma’ 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.

An 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.

Jose’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.

The 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 – Black & Blue & Red

BLACK & BLUE & RED

Bayani
Directed and written by Raymond Red

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Texts – A Lover’s Polemic

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]

What 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]

In 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.

To 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]

Hence 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.

This 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.

In 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]

Having 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.

All 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.)

Film 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.

The 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]

Outside 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.

The 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.

The 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.”

I 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 (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 furiously 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 it 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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Cold Word Wars: Philippine Film as a Critical Activity

2016 FACINE Gawad Lingap Sining Lecture
Diego Rivera Theater, City College of San Francisco
October 18, 2016
diego-rivera-stage
(Photo courtesy of Daniel Park)

Many thanks to Filipino Arts & Cinema International, Philippine American Writers and Artists, and the Philippine Studies Department of the City College of San Francisco, plus an additional expression of gratitud y apreciación to the memory of the great Diego Rivera. I might as well provide a necessary personal disclosure in case you might wonder: Mauro Tumbocon Jr. and I have been acquaintances since the early 1980s, when I was working with the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines and he was with a pharmaceutical company, writing film reviews and articles on the side. We mirrored each other’s experiences as members of the Filipino Film Critics Circle, and when we found out we had similar misgivings about the group, we set out to found alternate critics’ groups. One of them, the Young Critics Circle, is still active to this day. We have had some differences, as all healthy friendships should have, but I think our similarities always somehow enable us to surmount them. Just don’t get us started talking about our goddess, Nora Aunor.

I had originally planned to look into what we may describe as trouble spots in the course of the development of film criticism in the Philippines, but as I understand, this venue, the City College of San Francisco, has both a film program and a Philippine Studies program. I also read up once more some of the basic texts, mostly on literary criticism by Terry Eagleton, but these seemed too distant and quaint today, except for a fairly recent text titled Outside Literature, by Tony Bennett[1] – the Australian professor, not the Italian-American crooner. In the end I decided to just confine my lecture to the less-obscure controversies that people in this setting might be able to recognize. Not to go too far off-tangent, but if you’ve been monitoring developments in the Philippines, you might have noticed that people there have been polarized since the election campaign period that started a year ago, and the situation has never eased up, and probably even worsened. There are two main voices: one, the newly empowered, or some might say re-empowered, people in the administration of Rodrigo Duterte; and another, the group of people identified with the previous administration of Benigno Aquino III, who see themselves as marginalized by the present government.

For me, the predicament is a simple one. If you object to certain or all of the current government’s policies, could you still be called a supporter of the Duterte administration? The way that the existing discourse has worked out, the answer is no. Either you’re pro-Duterte and accept everything he had set out to do, including discarding due process for drug suspects and restoring Ferdinand Marcos to a position of prestige, or you object to these two things, plus maybe Duterte’s propensity for cursing and appointing some less-than-stellar officials, and advocate for his impeachment so he can be replaced with a more “acceptable” option. Now I’ve witnessed the overthrow of two Philippine Presidents in the past, and the aftermath has never been lovely – sometimes it even gets worse in some ways than before. But I also cannot abide people getting killed just because of a problem that is really social and psychological in nature, and that has been solved in other countries only by radically turning its premise upside down and legalizing drug use. But try insisting loudly enough, say on Facebook or Twitter, that you want this and other government policies revised or discarded, but by the same government, not by a new one. I and similarly minded friends share the same stories of experiencing bullying of various degrees – from both sides, the pro-government and the anti-Duterte factions.

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Why am I bringing this up in a discussion of criticism? Because it is precisely the absence of critical thinking that leads to such a disastrous state of affairs, on a national and maybe even overseas scale at that. For people like us who’re familiar with the process, it seems entirely plausible that one can accept a leader but not certain of her or his policies. Yet this fairly simple turn of logic will be seen by many Filipinos, even those outside the country, as implausible and even nearly blasphemous. Philippine cultural training, as implemented by its educational institutions, is still reliant on the top-down dissemination of knowledge and the propagation of assumptions that are meant to be beyond questioning, or what we now call deconstruction.

So when you engage in the practice of criticism, you actually benefit yourself and your readers, if your goal is to keep growing as a practitioner. But you also have the potential of applying your skills to a wider cross-section of the body politic, evaluating issues of varying complexities, according to how the solutions can best benefit the widest and most needful sectors of society. Just close your eyes and imagine you’re watching a multidirectorial melodramatic saga by Lino Brocka, with multi-stranded plotlines from Ishmael Bernal, focused on the dispossessed as Brillante Mendoza does, and with an endless running time courtesy of Lav Diaz; that would be a great and scary and funny and tragic movie, and that would also be Philippine politics, or maybe even American politics, who knows.

We’re all aware that discussions of politics are always in danger of intensifying without ever being resolved, so let me pretend to be subtle and diplomatic, and switch gears without warning, hoping that no one notices. Regarding our topic, Philippine film criticism, the first thing that I think any entry-level person should be aware of appears to be something that many practitioners lack. They can’t be blamed for it because the issue remains shrouded in the mist of colonial history. But it would be indispensable if we were to devise a means of distinguishing the practice from its global counterparts. What I refer to here is the fact that film, in particular, was originally introduced during the late Spanish era, in the 1890s, by investors who wanted to turn a profit, as they still do today. But when the Spaniards were shortly thereafter replaced by the Americans, the fast-evolving media of photography, and later film, were deliberately deployed by colonial officials, led by Interior Secretary Dean Worcester, to rationalize the colonization project.

Worcester and the periodicals that reviewed his output, including the New York Times, participated in this acknowledgment of the righteousness of the US occupation of the Philippines.[2] This is of special historical import, because when you read up on state cultural policy for cinema, this detail is overlooked in favor of a later development, when Vladimir Lenin declared that film would be the means for the Soviet Union to propagandize for international socialism. Thus when we speak of critical commentary on turn-of-the-century Philippine-produced photographic and cinematographic products, we are really talking about a perspective with two characteristics that were typical for that situation: first, it assumes the supremacy of visual technology; and second, it considers the interest of the Philippine subjects, who provide the raw material for these products, as incidental at best and insignificant at worst.

I wish to emphasize that this situation, which I’d call sordid if you’ll allow me to be subjective, applied to both the production of film and the output of criticism. And from over a hundred years ago, I would like to abruptly bring us all to the present, where film had just ended its reign as the country’s primary means of entertainment, its “national pastime,” to use the title I provided for my first book. It was so successful that at one point, during the 1980s, Filipinos appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most avid movie-goers in the world.[3] As an industry, the medium was always one of the first to bounce back during the several periods of wartime and peacetime upheavals, even after the IMF-World Bank Asian crisis of the late ’90s demolished most of the country’s medium- and small-scale industries. In fact Philippine cinema’s latest recovery is a testament to its people’s ability to make do with whatever resources are still accessible to native practitioners. Just as the Soviet filmmakers responding to Lenin’s call turned a shortage of film stock into the rapidly intercut juxtapositions that we identify with Soviet montage, so did Filipino filmmakers confront the prohibitive cost of celluloid production by simply junking it and making do with far more affordable video technology, initially setting up their own projectors in film theaters just to be able to screen their work.

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All this will sound like over-valorizing a trend that has somehow become standard by now, but at that time, I had just returned to the home country after completing my graduate studies in the US, and I can attest to the anxiety and humiliation felt by the digital-filmmaking pioneers, who thought that what they were making was not “authentically” film because it was not in celluloid. The celluloid-to-digital transition was completed in the Philippines before it was undertaken everywhere else, and succeeded so overwhelmingly that the industry was able to develop an industry-within-an-industry, a burgeoning independent-cinema scene, complete with its own series of competing festivals, auteurs and canons, and critical appreciators. The connection with the early years of US colonization becomes apparent when we look at an orientation that bothered a few mature critics and some young ones as well. Films were being finished for the explicit purpose of making a splash in overseas festivals, with a preference for those in Europe, and any record of rejection by the Filipino audience could be spun around into the claim that the artist, like the messianic biblical prophet, was without honor in her or his own country.

In that way, and at that moment, we managed to achieve American self-colonization, producing cultural artifacts that made use of the local audience’s real lives as raw material, but which were never intended for their own consumption and appreciation. The complicity of contemporary film commenters was troubling enough so that the then-chair of the original critics circle went on record to denounce them, preferring to call them film bloggers rather than critics, and demonized as well their propensity for scrounging for perks, in the form of free trips to foreign film competitions, as members of the jury (Tolentino 184).[4] I use the past tense in describing this state of affairs, because the situation has peaked, and with that peak, its possible closure has become discernible. This peak actually occurred in recent months, when Filipino entries in the so-called Big Three European film festivals won major prizes, including best film at one point. The Woman Who Left, the film by Lav Diaz that won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion prize, starred the former President and CEO of the country’s biggest film and TV conglomerate.[5] Diaz inscribed his own career circle, since his early films were produced by what was then the Philippines’s most successful studio, Regal Films, before he sought fuller autonomy via the combination of independent financing and digital production that I mentioned earlier.

For me, the lesson here is an affirmation of what I had always believed in: that among all possible types of professionals, artists (including writers) have the capacity to change for the better, with the rest of society and the world waiting to testify, to act as witnesses. Critics, when they’re lucky, should be in the position to herald the good news, or to demand for it when necessary. As you can sense, I’ve made another supposedly subtle segue into the ethics of film criticism, and wasted the previous minutes on a necessary but too-lengthy introduction. Don’t do that unless you’ve been granted exclusive control over a microphone and a guarantee that no questions will be asked right afterward. But honestly, if anyone were to ask me right now what she or he needs to prepare to get into film criticism, I would first respond by answering: what for? Is there an urgent need for it, a life-and-death situation that has the potential to turn tragic if another option, another desire intervenes and replaces this first one?

Like all defensive responses, this one reflects on me, the questioner, rather than the one being questioned. I was probably lucky in starting out in criticism before formal film training became a possibility in the Philippines, and figured out all the other necessities along the way. I was naïve enough, and the field was new enough, so that I could take stock of existing samples and say, “I could certainly write better than many of these people.” I was determined to become conversant with film theory and history, on my own if necessary, and at the very least become known as a film critic who could outwrite anyone else within the limited and insular circle of local practitioners. When I was invited to join the formal critics’ organization while barely out of college, that indicated for me that I’d been taking the right steps. Yet almost as soon as I’d signed the proverbial membership card, I’d taken my first misstep: an inordinately harsh denunciation of a commercial exercise by Lino Brocka. Manila being the tiny capital city that believes itself to be larger than what it is, I inevitably bumped into Brocka within the same week the review came out, and made the acquaintance as well of several other practitioners, a couple of whom also happened to be concurrent members of the critics’ circle.

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I never really had a sudden falling-out with the group, only a gradual and incremental accumulation of differences, based primarily on the circle’s insistence on annual award-giving as its nearly exclusive means of self-validation.[6] For me, that would be like winning every possible essay-writing prize and saying that I deserve this elevated recognition right now, because of the external evidence of my literary ability. But rather than recount the many disappointments I had with the Filipino Film Critics Circle, I’d prefer to share with you the positive lessons I picked up along the way. First, the members’ practice of rewatching films in contention as many times as necessary until they’re able to arrive at a consensus, was something I’d already been doing, but it reaffirmed my personal realization that films deserved as much close and precise observation as we bestow unquestioningly on fine arts and literary products. I am currently in the process of completing a canon project, over half a decade in the making, and the same procedure of making sure that the canon team’s choices can withstand more than one screening has led to some unanticipated discoveries and reversals.

Second, the ability of colleagues who can productively engage in metacritical discussions, where we critique one another’s criticism, is a rarity even among fellow critics, but an invaluable treasure when it comes along. During the period of my membership, the most important sessions I had were not the ones where the group determined the fate and reputation of the community of artists it claimed to support, by selecting individual award winners and causing resentment and disappointment among the rest. Instead, it was the moments when Professor Bien Lumbera, then and now its most senior member, would discuss with me the process of writing critical commentary, and explain the nuances of tone, diction, insight, structure, and rhetoric. To be honest, I found more of this type of rapport after I left the group, when I made the acquaintance of Mau Tumbocon here as well as a few other critics, and expanded my network to include classmates in graduate school and students at the film institute of the national university. I may as well also qualify that, among people capable of collegial interactions, differences can sometimes transmute into serious disputes, aggravated by the various side issues that tend to be raised by aggrieved parties in both camps. But since critical activity is as much reactive to subsequent social, aesthetic, ideological, and technological developments, even as it seeks to influence these phenomena in return, we find ourselves hailing the people we once thought we had given up for good, just as I had tended to grow apart from some groups with whom I once thought I could share long-term visions.

Third, and perhaps most unexpected though thoroughly commonsensical when you ponder it over, is the humbling discovery that critical thinking is not the exclusive province of critics. The greatest artists throughout history, in all corners of the world, had made that discovery for themselves, and their special gift to critics is the difficult-yet-productive exercise we get when we undertake a study of their body of work. I was already aware that Ishmael Bernal, for example, was conducting an intensive and radical reworking of the medium of film for Philippine subject matter and audiences, before I even learned that he was also once a film critic. This ties in with my insistence on literary polish and innovation for critical practitioners. I cannot count how many times I had cringed when I read critics complaining about a film’s lack of elegance and creativity, in the kind of writing that would be the very exemplification of the disappointments that their authors wanted to point out.

The last matter I wish to raise about criticism is the one that causes a crucial but often unnoticed division among practitioners themselves. I first got an inkling of it after I published my second book, essentially a more specialized anthology of my reviews supplemented by a basic but extensive critical study and a few canon-forming attempts. I was worried that reviewers might complain about how obsolete the issues it was raising were, since my intention was to demonstrate that those critical exercises first needed to be done right before they could be abandoned in favor of more current approaches. Instead, the most extensive local-daily reaction dwelled on the fact that some of the words I used went beyond journalistic-level samples. When I speculated what the reviewer must have thought about film writing, I concluded that he actually had a laudatory assumption: that discussions on film don’t have to be complicated, because film is accessible to a lot of people to begin with.

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Yet I could not bring myself to accept this premise. To me, the fact that people respond enthusiastically to a phenomenon should never be seen as a weakness to pamper, but rather as an opportunity to elevate discourse. Of course we find extreme examples where the enthusiasm for theoretical engagement turns into a refusal to be comprehensible. Once more, the person who has trained in effective expression, where ideas that are drawn from credible and knowledgeable sources, can be re-worded for the sake of the lay reader, would have an edge here. The ideal for the critic would be the generation of relevant, complex, and progressive ideas in the simplest language that said ideas could embody without betraying or compromising their content. The tension in this formulation derives from a false opposition between the scholarly writer and the journalist, or what I once innocently echoed as the critic and the reviewer. To me, these distinctions matter less today; I wouldn’t agree with the late John Simon that reviewing is just bad criticism,[7] but rather that everything, not just reviewing but even film reporting, can be criticism. The contemporary film critic would, or should, actually function as both: as someone who keeps abreast of new writings in cinema and media studies, who also seeks to popularize these ideas when they pertain to certain recent film releases or trends.

There are two points I could never over-emphasize in this regard. One is that the use of theory in writing reviews may or may not be foregrounded, but it should be capable of providing a framework for the critic’s take on the film or films being discussed. Another is that this framework is not the usual operationalizing of correctly understood concepts that we learn to do in school. Theory, as our fellow YCC founder Patrick D. Flores put it, is a matter that should be engaged, not applied (193).[8] This means that while the critic may explain her harsh or dismissive take on a film by referring to the underlying principles of a theory, the critic should also ensure that she had managed to evaluate the theory in terms of its appositeness, relevance, explanatory potential, progressiveness, and other questions essential to what we may call theory appreciation. Too often, we come across readings of non-Western cultural samples where the critic has regurgitated recent theory and wound up displaying her grasp of sometimes new ideas at the expense of prejudging the native product.

I would like to end by saying that while I may have accumulated this collection of insights on what an effective film critic would be like, I would be lying to you if I denied that I sometimes fall short of one or more of the ideals that I recounted in the course of this lecture. I also look forward to learning a few more tricks along the way, if I can still have the good fortune of discovering them. The biggest misgiving I had with this recognition is that from hereon, there would be less room for me to commit mistakes, the source of some of my most-enduring lessons. But then I could also have a better platform by which I could tell the current and forthcoming generations of Filipino film critics to prepare as best as they could, and once they have taken stock of their preparation, to take a step or two further into what they think is unexplored, probably even questionable, territory. Be well-conditioned, but don’t forget to take risks. People will give you a once-over because you’re dealing with a medium that’s close to their hearts. Make sure you’re ready to give in return more than what they expect, not only because they might appreciate the effort, but because you owe yourself a useful lesson each time you send out your contribution to our now-growing stock of cultural discourse.

Thank you for paying attention. I wish you all the best experience before, during, and after watching movies.

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Notes

The author acknowledges the assistance provided by the Inha University Faculty Research Grant. Many thanks to Ha Ju-Yong, Lee Sang Hun, Park Shin-gu, Park Haeseok, Son Boemshik, Park Jinwoo, Yu Taeyun, Jek Josue David, Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., Alexei Masterov, Nora & Pete Luayon, Ohny Luayon, Ann-Marie Alma Luayon-Tecson, Lewis Tecson, Marita Jurado, and Carlo Jurado.

[1] Tony Bennett, Outside Literature (London: Routledge, 1990). Other texts consulted include The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983) by Edward Said; and The Function of Criticism: From the Spectator to Post-Structuralism (London: Verso, 1984), Marxism and Literary Criticism (London: Routledge, 1976), The Significance of Theory (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), and Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (London: Verso, 1981) – all by Terry Eagleton.

[2] See Mark Rice, Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014), 118-55. Also see “Calls Wild Men Our Wards,” New York Times (December 31, 1913): 7, qtd. in Rice.

[3] Guinness Book of World Records (Samford, Conn.: Guinness Media, 1983).

[4] Rolando B. Tolentino, “Hinahanap, Kaya Nawawala” [Searched For, Therefore Missing], 182-88; in Patrick F. Campos (ed.), “A Round Table Discussion on Poetics and Practice of Film Criticism” (initial post), Plaridel: A Philippine Journal of Communication, Media, and Society 13.1 (2016): 149-217.

[5] Lav Diaz (dir. & scr.), Ang Babaeng Humayo [The Woman Who Left], perf. Charo Santos-Concio, John Lloyd Cruz, Michael de Mesa, Nonie Buencamino, Shamaine Buencamino, Mae Paner (prod. Sine Olivia Pilipinas & Cinema One Originals, 2016).

[6] See Joel David, “My Big Fat Critic Status,” Ámauteurish! Extras (1985), posted online.

[7] John Simon, “A Critical Credo,” Private Screenings (New York: Macmillan, 1967): 1-16.

[8] Patrick F. Campos (ed.), “A Round Table Discussion on Poetics and Practice of Film Criticism” (initial post), Plaridel: A Philippine Journal of Communication, Media, and Society 13.1 (2016): 149-217.

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Book Texts

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.”

Each 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), and MT2 for Part II of Millennial Traversals (2016) [click here for the unified blog entry containing both parts]. After the book source is the year of publication (not of the anthology, but of the article). A short annotation, which may or may not overtly indicate the urgency of reading the article, ends each entry.

Original digital edition: © 2016 by Joel David & Ámauteurish Publishing; All Rights Reserved. To access sections after Discourses without having to scroll downward, please click on any of the following:


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.
  • 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’s 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 (FV 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 (FV 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.

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.
  • 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).
  • High Five (MT2 2012). An excellent English-language short-fiction sampler, Gang of 5: Tales, Cuentos, Sanaysay (2012), from expat national treasure Ninotchka Rosca.

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Commentaries

Film is culture, and therefore culture impinges on film, directly or otherwise. No film issues get raised in the later 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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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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Millennial Traversals – Foreign Film Reviews II (Exertions)


Thank you for your interest in Millennial Traversals, my fourth sole-authored book. In addition to its distinction as, to my knowledge, the Philippines’s first complete open-access (non-journal) volume, it has reappeared as a print edition of UNITAS, the semi-annual peer-reviewed journal of the University of Santo Tomas – which has also reposted it online. Please click on this link to open Part I: Traversals within Cinema, where the article you are seeking can be found. You may also find more information on the blog page of Millennial Traversals.

Á!