Tag Archives: National Pastime

The National Pastime – Genre: Melodrama

Return of the Melodrama

Kung Aagawin Mo ang Lahat sa Akin
Directed by Eddie Garcia
Written by Jose Javier Reyes and Gina Marissa Tagasa

If we were a little more conscientious and a lot less snooty about our film history, we would be able to draw out helpful lessons on how a community of film artists manages to acquire an acceptable level of competence within certain filmmaking genres. The corollary would prove even more significant: the movie-going masses necessarily develop a taste for quality or at least a tolerance for intelligent dramatic discussion, and the process by which this is brought about should provide invaluable insights beyond the realm of aesthetics. Those who slummed around a great deal in movie-houses during the last two decades will agree with me that the late 1960s had an abundance of above-average Pinoy Western (or koboy) movies; the mid-seventies, a wealth of alternative-style attempts; and the early eighties, a series of inspired gangster films, bringing us full circle to the early sixties coming-of-age of the genre with the antics of the now-antiquated Lo’ Waist Gang. Those with predispositions toward academic complications will even be able to point out three related observations: First, koboy movies were the same gangster movies masquerading under another form to evade the expansion of censorship powers during that period. Second, the last decade’s experimentation may have been brought about by the challenge of a cultural breakaway resulting from the declaration of a (fascistic) New Society by the past regime. And lastly, the resurgence of gangsterism onscreen would be indicative of the movie system’s longing for an age of innocence after the disillusion effected by the militarization of the censors body.

11011So it’s a new era all over again, but this time local moviemakers are treading the path of filmic progress too carefully, so much so that they have reverted to an even more ancient convention in movie presentation – the melodrama, which, from available evidence, reigned supreme during the fifties. On the other hand, the generic elements of Pinoy melodrama circa the mid-eighties are being refined to the point where, save for a few exceptions (offhand I could name only one, Gregorio Fernandez’s Malvarosa), the current crop of such movies has already surpassed its 1950s counterparts. If the present trend develops further, and if this trend gets reflected in reality (in fact our political experience is already beginning to exhibit the same plot twists and character reversals typical of high melodrama), then the period after last year’s revolt may yet be known as an extended season of melodrama.

11011Kung Aagawin Mo ang Lahat sa Akin would be a representative sample; a more accurate rendering would be the same statement, but with the title replace by “the typical Viva movie.” Granting the limitations inherent in generic formats, particularly the ones that get in the way of thematic and character development, one should grant that no other outfit does it better than Viva Films. One could name a number of relatively superior works – Laurice Guillen’s Kung Mahawi Man ang Ulap and Maryo J. de los Reyes’s Saan Darating ang Umaga? to name a couple – but this kind of hairsplit distinction would be tantamount to much ado about something that doesn’t deserve too much fuss in the first place. To be pedantic about it anyway, I’d rank Kung Aagawin director Eddie Garcia’s Sinasamba Kita somewhere above this confection; for additional controversy, I’d say he’s improved a lot, artisanship-wise, since Atsay. At least Kung Aagawin progresses from an awful opening to a less offensive conclusion, although a final concession to unqualified happy-ending requisites (the heroine meets her Prince Charming in the most unlikely location) has been appended, as if pleading to more critical observers not to be carried away by preceding achievements.

11011The only trouble with melodrama, compared with the other genres mentioned so far, is that it could become reactionary to the point of giving anti-hero characters a most difficult time. In Kung Aagawin, the only liberated character, the heroine’s natural sister, is saddled with Electra-complex motivations and an unbelievably moralistic comeuppance. That snide aside, I suppose one could let down one’s defenses for a genuinely unproductive but perversely engaging outing with this piece of, er, pastry? Next shouting match, please.

[First published March 18, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Mellow Drama

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

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

11011This time we’ve just had another output that contains all the elements of the melodrama we’ve come to be suspicious, if not intolerant, about. Happily, for the purposes of my thesis, the film works in several crucial areas, except maybe for the fact that it wasn’t produced by the company I was hoping would be able to perfect the form. Paano Kung Wala Ka Na has a beginning and ending that are unmistakably happy, unless you’re one of the few misanthropes around who denies the celebratory tone commonly associated with partying. All the main characters are unmitigatedly and unforgivably rich, and by that token could pass for being beautiful; the fact that they are physically so increases their distance from us lesser mortals.

11011They enjoy the luxury of playing at love, though not as intricately as the old French romantic comedies could depict it, but then who among our audiences have been exposed to this tradition, much less understand French? When these characters cry their hearts out, which at the most occurs roughly every other scene, only the heartless can resist agreeing that such perfect specimens don’t deserve such cruelties of fate. Even the hoariest convention in contemporary romantic works – the Lovers’ Interlude, a meaningless montage of a young couple having their fill of life (to the tune of the movie’s theme, for which reason blame MTV) – can be considered herein a mere irritant, a distraction if you will, justifiable only in the sense that the film’s plot complexities could use some breathing space. The best part of all, the one aspect which local melodrama, for some strange reason, finds difficulty in presenting, is the fact that all the characters are given equal time – not in the literal sense, but according to a great classicist’s dictum that everyone, most especially a character in a well-told story, has her reasons for acting (in the dramatic, not the histrionic sense) the way she does.

11011In Paano Kung Wala Ka Na this realization is pursued through a clever ploy. In the guise of allowing the marital problems of elderly couples to reflect on their young, the movie proceeds to develop the oldies’ stories into a finely woven tapestry held taut by a commanding sense of irony. The fact that the young ones’ love triangle inadvertently reverts to a disconcerting triteness is one way in which truly creative film artists could subvert conventions while seeming to indulge in them. In this sense Paano Kung Wala Ka Na could still be considered at best a transitory milestone, whose final goal would be a product that manages to discuss the problems of the elderly according to updated notions of morality, without having to resort to young stars seemingly being taken seriously for understandable (though not always acceptable) box-office reasons. More important, it points the way for current state-of-the-craft melodrama-making: that twists and reversals associable with the genre are best employed in the service of humane characterization rather than the plot complications that typify current approaches. I’m sure someday someone will castigate Paano for making all melodrama characters predictably likeable, but for the moment such a device is innovative enough, and therefore desirable in itself.

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

11011The film’s director-writer team-up (Mel Chionglo and Ricardo Lee respectively) has had some even more commendable output before, including Playgirl and Bomba Arienda, plus what I consider one of the most underrated movies of the current decade, Sinner or Saint. What an assuring development to realize that their decision to play around with current conventions of commercialism has provided them with invaluable skills and insights into that kind of challenge, and some sensible entertainment for the viewing public as well.

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

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Walang Karugtong ang Nakaraan
Directed by Leroy Salvador
Written by Rene O. Villanueva and Raquel N. Villavicencio

A season of blockbusters they called it, with not one or two, but three or four major stars (Fernando Poe Jr., Dolphy, Sharon Cuneta, and possibly Christopher de Leon) vying for box-office supremacy: a Christmas film festival ahead of schedule, as certain drumbeaters alleged. As to the potential for good cheer – well, three satisfied producers out of an industry patronized by millions couldn’t be too bad a statistic; even a savage yearend typhoon could cancel school and office activities but never (and only in the Philippines, I’ll bet) the opening-day movie-going ritual. There must have been a whole lot of head-scratching among audiences who valued their money. All three movie projects were komiks-sourced one way or the other: the Dolphy and Sharon entries were adaptations actually, while FPJ’s involved a komiks writer outright, the better perhaps to save on expenses for purchase of copyrights.

11011I went for what I thought would have been the choice of those who’d have been aware of the said ritual but wouldn’t have the most ideal option of rejecting it altogether. Walang Karugtong ang Nakaraan had two sensible writers working on a relatively acceptable komiks story, plus some promising thespic talents. And all right, I confess I was lured as well by the prospect of discovering Sharon Cuneta’s breakout movie as a serious actress, having sensed a qualitative difference in her capabilities since her last two or three projects. Alas, I was to lose out in most every way, save for some minor observation or two about the current state of melodrama moviemaking. First lies on the creative level of story formation: that is, a plot can be made too agreeable for its own good. The characters in Walang Karugtong ang Nakaraan spend practically all their screen time tying up preceding developments and foreshadowing future ones, and for the genre in which they function, that amounts to a near-impossible task. To the characters’ credit they succeed admirably, especially in the crucial instance where the lead male explains to the lead female that he never noticed her virginity because he was too obsessed with his late wife.

11011On the other hand, the price paid for such a fail-safe method is twofold: first, the essential logic behind melodramatic developments – that of keeping the viewer from knowing what comes next – loses its raison d’être, since in this case the viewer tends to rely on the characters to figure out for her benefit why something has happened and what next could transpire. Bad melodrama of course does nothing except confuse in this regard, but Walang Karugtong proves that the solution lies between minimizing the confusion and sustaining the unpredictability, rather than providing all of one at the exclusion of the other. A more serious consequence, particularly for the movie under discussion, is that the characters become so able in defending themselves that they all turn out similarly wholesome. Once more, as I’ve pointed out earlier (than this review, in fact), better this sort of approach than the usual fallback of stereotyping. But best of all to find ourselves full circle in upholding the primacy of social and psychological imperatives as these impinge upon our self-conceived notions of goodness.

11011A tall order, you might say, for a not-as-ambitious undertaking as Walang Karugtong, and I have to agree. The other minor comment would be more in the direction of such an assembly-line product. I refer here to the use of original sound in the film, which simply means that in some instances, the filmmakers opted for the field recording of the actors’ delivery instead of dubbing in their voices in the sound studio. In the case of such artifice-laden performers as Christopher de Leon, Carmi Martin, and Tommy Abuel, this works out just fine. As might be expected, however, the use of the technique is downright haphazard, relying it seems more on whether the field recording could cut down on post-production expenses rather than capture what has come to be called “original emotion.” As a result, the actors in Walang Karugtong enjoy some moments of histrionic credibility, aided in no small measure by the replay of their voices during their on-location performances. Other times the self-consciousness that the sound studio promotes comes through, and we get to thinking if the past is really as disjointed as the title maintains. Indeed, Walang Karugtong ang Nakaraan, and so much for advanced Yuletide treats.

[First published December 16, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Misis Mo, Misis Ko
Directed by Carlos Siguion-Reyna
Written by Bibeth Orteza

The best local motion picture debut since Chito Roño’s Private Show two years back also happens to be Viva Films’ best output so far. Now that his uneasy business of declarations has been done with, a qualification is in order. Misis Mo, Misis Ko, for all its inevitable association with its production outfit, is far from being a melodrama. From this observation does the movie derive its strong points, which are considerable, and its weaknesses, which deserve further qualifications. It would be easy to commend Misis Mo for not doing the things we’ve come to expect of Viva Films, not to mention local cinema. The countless plot twists and the overscaled production values are two items in particular that are mercifully spared the sensible viewer. But it would be unfair for both the filmmakers as well as concerned film observers to admire the work for merely being daring enough to run counter to expectations; if so, Misis Mo would have been in all probability pretty boring, conditioned as we’ve been to the visceral and emotional excesses of local cinema.

11011Actually Misis Mo creates an impact that could best be served by re-viewing or by post-viewing discussion, rather than by the very act itself of viewing. Only after the last plot point, a genuinely affecting coda where two couples at odds with each other meet again after a few years, does the realization occur that the entire foregoing body of development was intended as a comedy of manners. Sure, the humorous moments were all there all right, but roughly in the same proportion that may be found in typical melodramas. What’s problematic in Misis Mo is the amount of dead space relative to the absence of laughs – and by this I don’t mean the belly-natured slapstick-cum-witticisms that we’re treated to on the surface. Misis Mo is the sort of work that relies in the main on the credibility of its performers’ functions and interactions; you could probably dispense with the premise of a filmic reality and still come up with an acceptable work – which in fact is what the French court dramatists, by force of circumstance (film hadn’t been invented yet), had managed to do. The fact that the filmmakers correctly decided to emphasize close-ups demonstrates this point all the more clearly. It’s a measure of how accomplished all the other elements in Misis Mo are when one makes a statement to the effect that none of the four leads delivers satisfactorily, although all of them meet the level of competence required by melodrama.

11011This is where I think the movie embodies a uniquely medium-based tension. Apparently someone forgot to tell the actors that although they were in a Viva production, the project itself required something far different from Viva acting. All throughout the characters do mostly mugging of the mannered sort, but don’t get me wrong here – this approach could excel given the appropriate kind of vehicle, which unfortunately Misis Mo doesn’t happen to be. Among the four leads the relatively minor roles of the underprivileged couple are easier to take. Ricky Davao falls back on well-honed technique, while Jackie Lou Blanco works well precisely when she doesn’t try to, which is about half, the first half in fact, of the time; the other half she goes into a tremulous hard-edged whine that would normally pass off as melodramatic intensity, except that such an approach constitutes a misreading of character in this case. The rich kids, for their part, are completely off in their attack: Edu Manzano plays for glamour without comic reserve, while Dina Bonnevie is merely haughty where she has to be snooty. Such subtleties may be dispensed with in traditional melodrama, where the sheer narrative momentum helps cover up and in many cases even negate such lapses, but never in drama of a sophisticated order, to which Misis Mo comes admirably close. For this reason any foil-player with the correct balance of intellectual distance and emotional involvement can upstage any of the above – which is precisely what Jaclyn Jose, for all her prior restraint, does in her highlight of a confession to Manzano.

Jaclyn Jose, in a still from Chito Roño’s Itanong Mo sa Buwan (1988), anticipating the reflexivity of Carlos Siguion-Reyna’s Misis Mo, Misis Ko (1988).

11011I’ve already mentioned the well-advised use of close-ups in relation to how it exposed the movie’s less-than-adequate histrionic properties. One other technique has to be discussed as well: the filmmakers’ awareness of the so-called mirror potentials of their medium, in which it could be allowed to comment on itself by self-referential devices. In Misis Mo this is facilitated by setting the couples in an audiovisual profession, where they encounter both creative personnel and final creations, and do some creating themselves; this echoes the scriptwriter’s first effort in Lino Brocka’s Palipat-Lipat, Papalit-Palit, but this time there’s a conscious effort to provide contrast and suggestion (too much of the latter, though). Again a more filmically alert ensemble would have found ways to maximize this contribution by intelligent interaction with their environment – but then, of course, they would still have to surmount the problem of presenting themselves and relating with one another to begin with.

11011This last feature, the movie’s throwback to the mirror-construction propositions in recent film theory, shows the benefits obtainable in formal film study and training. The ability to draw out appropriate responses from otherwise capable actors is something that comes from life in the round, but considering the dire need for new and well-informed talents in the industry, what we’ve got in Misis Mo will do. I might have a whole lot more points to raise about the movie’s ideational orientations – its notions about women, for instance – but I’ll be the first to admit to the subjectivity of my motives here; besides, conflicts between the sexes date back to antiquity and still have to be resolved with finality anyway. What’s more feasible is the expression of responsible support for a needful situation, so meantime I’d rather thank the stars (heavenly, of course) for whatever blessings I’ve been able to count so far.

[First published March 2, 1988, in National Midweek]

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Isusumbong Kita sa Diyos
Directed by Emmanuel H. Borlaza
Written by Orlando Nadres

Kapag Napagod ang Puso
Directed by Maryo J. de los Reyes
Written by Jake Tordesillas

Nagbabagang Luha
Directed by Ishmael Bernal
Written by Raquel Villavicencio

Proof of how difficult it is to handle melodrama can be seen in the fact that no follow-up successes to Misis Mo, Misis Ko have been released this year – taking into account last year’s midyear outputs Paano Kung Wala Ka Na and Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak as gauges. Three successive releases, however, are more than just conveniently alphabetical in their chronology. They also serve to demonstrate for us certain lessons regarding the inherent and implicational aspects of film craft, on a level so basic that one might at first wonder how somewhat mature filmmakers could have overlooked them. These titles are Isusumbong Kita sa Diyos, Kapag Napagod ang Puso, and Nagbabagang Luha, although for the purposes of our framework we could begin by enumerating them according to decreasing technical competence: hence, Nagbabagang Luha, Isusumbong Kita sa Diyos, and Kapag Napagod ang Puso. One by one then.

11011Nagbabagang Luha must be the year’s model of plastic perfection, superior in this respect to its producer-director-writer team-up’s predecessor, Pinulot Ka Lang sa Lupa. Multiple credits for its visual elements – three cinematographers, two production designers – attest to the production’s concern for surface quality. The cynical could contend that this also indicates that the movie may have taken too long to finish, but this only confirms what has already become a rarity in these times: Nagbabagang Luha was definitely not intended to be a quickie. Before it came along, however, the year’s standard of competence was set by Isusumbong Kita sa Diyos, whose cinematographic achievement is more impressive in the sense that it observed a stylistic consistency. My objection to this, however, is easier to formulate, and so this is where the discussion really begins. Isusumbong actually employs film technique to compensate for an entire absence of verisimilitude. By the last polysyllabic term I don’t strictly mean the reincarnation angle on which the film plot turns.

11011Apart from the generally sympathetic readings of an admirably young cast, there hardly exists credible characterization in a context where logical behavior becomes crucial in advancing the cause of an essentially incredible system. To show understandable human beings responding to such a bewildering phenomenon would have enabled the viewer to identify with most, or at least any one, of the people onscreen. Nagbabagang Luha, for its part, somehow manages to take care in assigning proper background and motivations to its characters. This plus the principle of subsuming the visual factor to the requisites of plot ought to place it on equal footing, if not higher, than Isusumbong.

11011Yet there too exists a preoccupation with production values at the expense of thematic development in Nagbabaga. The handling happens to be largely a matter of directorial expertise (vis-à-vis the other movie’s cinematographic achievements), and so less obvious lapses are visible here. But the entire enterprise seems to flounder by an abiding lack of conviction in the project, as evidenced in a tendency toward campiness, especially in several lines of dialogue. All that this amounts to, in the case of both Isusumbong and Nagbabaga, is a fear of frank exposure of the limitations of material. To develop some amount of confidence, the filmmakers have overdone the polishing and finishing-touches aspect, with the correct assumption that careless film observers, not to mention the normally harried moviegoer, might either fail to take notice or be too appreciative of the effort expended in what essentially has amounted to a cover-up job.

11011Kapag Napagod ang Puso stands in stark contrast to these other two entries, primarily because it commits what Isusumbong and Nagbabaga were careful to avoid. As such it should have failed outright at the outset, with no redemption in sight even in the areas where the other two films also suffered. Strangely, however, it is Kapag Napagod that manages to sustain repeat viewings, relative to the other titles in question. By the very act of abandoning artifice, the movie’s creators paradoxically managed to disarm potentially critical audiences, making them more receptive to the smallest treats the medium could offer. If anything, Kapag Napagod might have finally been done in also by its reluctance to control the potential for excess of its merits. I refer here to the obviously improvisational delivery by a number of its performers, which were utilized as dramatic high points in the movie. The device begins to unravel when certain keywords (curses, in one case) get repeated too often for comfort, and in the editorial decision to dwell too long on uninterrupted takes.

11011Yet I must admit that such an approach has its charms, even for one already too over-exposed to the possibilities of cinema. For one thing, improvisation is rarely done in a serious vein in these parts; the practice is taken so much for granted that is has come to be associated with comedy. For another and more important thing, the sort of improvisation exhibited in Kapag Napagod works according to a mode of sheer rawness, rather than accumulated technique. In fact there is no technique to speak of in the film – whether directorial or histrionic. The movie shifts from carefully staged and rehearsed group scenes to nervous documentations of barely planned-out confrontations, with the acting seeming to dictate the style rather than the other way around. At first I was dismayed by the lack of consistency. Later I realized how necessary a semblance of planning is to fiction, even if only for the quiet moments to serve as breather for the “big,” showier portions.

11011I could only guess now what a mess the whole movie might have turned out to be if it had relied completely on its performers’ attacks of spontaneity. Besides, as it stands, it somehow supports my conviction that, within certain creative concerns, there is no such thing as correctness. The acting in Kapag Napagod will definitely not pass today’s textbook tests – yet its most powerful moments exceed anything done in recent memory. On the other hand, I dread to anticipate a spillage of improvisations from quickie comedies to high melodramas, as a result of the effectiveness (in box-office terms, that is) of the attempt in Kapag Napagod. Then again there might be some poetic justice in watching the very rich behaving in hit-or-miss method. Ah well, better the unpredictability of change than the complacency of competence. For now.

[First published August 24, 1988, in National Midweek]

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

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

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

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

11011Lost in the lollapalooza is the reality that film output is actually more variegated than what the apologies of this state of affairs would have us believe. Never mind the alternatives – those products finished in non-commercial formats for usually non-commercial, or at least non-mainstream, ends. What about the majority – the film products that fall in between by refusing to pander outright to either side of the industry conflict? What we usually take notice of are the extreme instances that justify the polarizations within: the box-office success that proves the necessity of publicity, the artistic triumph that provides another excuse for the annual award-giving ritual, and rarer still, the popular and critically acclaimed product that reconciles both sides for the moment, until the next non-artistic top-grosser or artistic box-office flop comes along.

11011Few movies, Filipino or otherwise, are unqualified masterstrokes either way, and so for the most part (or so I believe) regular moviegoers actually attend to the national pastime more mindful of one another’s responses rather than what people in media have to say. Which is just as well. It would be the height of absurdity to subject movies like Natutulog Pa ang Diyos, Paano Tatakasan ang Bukas?, and Sa Puso Ko Hahalik ang Mundo to the declaration of the box-office winner, since the mere fact of doing good financially is already a reward in itself; on the other hand, it would also be the height of cruelty to impose criteria of artistry on efforts that may have set out to accomplish something more than just returns on investments, but definitely not “art.” Maybe one could approach them then from the perspective of entertainment? This would admittedly be difficult, premised as it is on pertinent cultural assumptions and connoting a good deal of subjectivity in the process. The easier option is to behave, instead of think, like a typical Filipino moviegoer, but then the responsibility of rendering some insights, however tentative, gets forsaken.

11011So here goes. Natutulog Pa ang Diyos is surprisingly effective, if you’ve been following Lino Brocka’s progression. Where he used to concentrate mainly on surfaces, testing a technical or technological approach or two while remaining faithful to a predetermined text, here he seems more relaxed about merely being competent and allowing himself or his actors some latitude in on-the-set explorations, and possibly even revisions. (The same atmosphere informed, to more effective results, Mike de Leon’s last commercial-format movie.) Brocka’s attempts are highly uneven, but when they work, they do so in unexpected ways, notably the clowning of Gina Pareño in the suspenseful expository portions and the rejection of reconciliation (and thus predictable sainthood) by the Lorna Tolentino character in the end.

11011Only time can tell how far Brocka can push this method (and look, no caps!); although widely practiced among local directors, so far only one, Ishmael Bernal, could exploit it and still retain some measure of integrity. Emmanuel H. Borlaza, for his part, has used it to better advantage in the past. Paano Tatakasan ang Bukas? evinces no perceptible amount of conviction whatsoever, save for the regionalist humor of Chanda Romero; the tandem between director and actress recalls their glory days in regional (Cebuano-language) cinema, although Paano Tatakasan may be forward-looking in its own way too. About midway through the story the lead character starts spouting evangelical propaganda, and the others straightaway follow suit. The instance demonstrates the supreme incompatibility of a conservative movement seeking legitimacy via a still-radical medium of expression; it upholds one’s faith in film just as it exposes the hypocrisy of moralists, who just as easily would have us reject the medium for its alleged immoral influences.

11011The upshot then of this triple-fare viewing is that Sa Puso Ko Hahalik and Mundo may prove to be the least offensive, and therefore the most preferable, of the three. Well, nuts to the naïve. Sa Puso Ko is the most effective precisely because it dares to offend the most, and manages to sustain this mode of presentation, sometimes referred to as camp, to an admirably intolerable degree. Yet there is a value in Sa Puso Ko more felt than visualized. Where previous local efforts in modern-day camp, notably by the likes of Joey Gosiengfiao, proved too calculated (and therefore self-defeating), Sa Puso Ko contains the same deadly sincerity that made the same director’s previous outing, The Untold Story of Melanie Marquez, so difficult to dismiss in the face of its wholly dismissible material.

11011Sa Puso Ko in fact does one better by having not one but three lead characters delineating impossibly lachrymose tales within the all-too-ludicrous contexts of virginity, proletarian dignity, and filial piety. This plus the added advantage of fictional premises have provided Artemio Marquez with what may arguably be his mortal best, Brocka and Borlaza notwithstanding. And so this is what one sometimes gets for giving a well-intentioned film practitioner a well-deserved break. No mind-blowing mergence of art and craft, or sheer commercialist actuations. Just a curiously convoluted and intellectually refracted achievement of sorts. The mark of a master lies in how easy to make the whole thing seems to be, until you try to figure out a personal project along the same lines. You could just wind up smiling.

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


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

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Slugged Out

Directed by Eddie Garcia
Written by Orlando Nadres

Ang Bukas Ay Akin: Langit ang Uusig
Directed by Laurice Guillen
Written by Ricardo Lee

Convolutions in developments attended by mounting conflicts brought about by an array of star-players and capped with a so-far happy ending characterized the year, and the decade that ends with it, as the most successful Filipino melodrama ever produced. Why, even the international market paid it more than a passing glance, although the return of investments (in terms of additional aid and loans) might have been realized sooner if only our government had the foresight of selling the event per se, as a multimedia product, rather than the issues it raised. Whatever our wizards of movie magic manage to conjure up will never be able to equal the real-life drama that this year’s coup attempt proffered. Many viewers were even willing to risk their very lives to observe the, pardon the pun, shooting – and the cost of production proved so high that some such lives were regarded, at least by certain quarters, as dispensable. Come to think of it, the producers – our political and military elite – outdid not just the local movie industry, or the entire media system, but themselves as well. The only coup attempt that could hope to surpass this year’s performance would be something on the order of the February 1986 revolution, one that would result in political, and not just media, success: next year’s, perhaps?

11011For its part the industry, true to its survival methods, came up with its usual concerted effort at an all-around filmic counterpart: the annual Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), which has always enjoyed the distinction of closing the year, if not anything else. Its disadvantage, relative to a real-life star-performed crisis, is that viewers have to spend proportionately for the number of film-viewing experiences they want to savor; moreover, not every entry will be worth the expense. The high-minded would have been left with only the twin melodrama entries in this year’s MMFF – which confirms the highly developed state that this particular genre has achieved in these parts. Action films have lately been restricted by the misfortune of having to conform to real-life, usually sensitive, and media-illiterate sources. Comedy could never compete with the everyday routines of our political players, while sex-themed films tend to thrive for those deprived – of either the capacity for doing the roles themselves, or the financial wherewithal to afford basic video technologies.

11011Melodrama allows by its premises the multiplicity of characters and developments that makes possible the integration of the disparate forms of action and comedy and (softcore) sex, plus the cathartic function of tearjerking. This year’s MMFF melodramas, Imortal and Ang Bukas Ay Akin, also provide extra lessons by which future such products (and coup attempts) could be better appreciated. Imortal takes off on the epic scope and multi-character portrayals of Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit, going as far as pitting against the Nora Aunor-starrer her former husband Christopher de Leon and status rival Vilma Santos. It may be pertinent to observe that what Aunor begins, Santos follows through, and in a more triumphant albeit less artistic manner: the former’s climactic monolog in Himala served as the latter’s model in Sister Stella L. and a number of other outings, and now this. Ang Bukas Ay Akin, on the other hand, crowns Laurice Guillen as melodrama moviemaker of the year – and the end of the eighties, if we count in her MMFF entry last year, Magkano ang Iyong Dangal? Between festivals she came up with an out-and-out tearjerker, Rosenda, and managed to create the only successful breakthrough performance (as serious actress) this year for its lead performer, Janice de Belen, in effect leaving behind such long-time aspirants as Sharon Cuneta and Alma Moreno.

Laurice Guillen (b. 1947), a theater and film performer who started making films in 1980.

11011Ang Bukas Ay Akin compares with Imortal on the bases of scope and thematic (as opposed to technical) direction. Both films acknowledge the possibility of larger frameworks modifying the dramatic givens – politics in Ang Bukas Ay Akin, metaphysics in Imortal. The difference lies in the nature of the influence: in Ang Bukas Ay Akin, the issue of bureaucratic corruption serves as initial catalyst, while in Imortal, karmic reincarnation assumes increasing importance as the plot progresses. Critical reaction has been heavier on Imortal, primarily because of the burden it carries as MMFF best-film winner. The movie tries to do Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit one better by providing not two but three double incarnates, with the generations ending not with the past (as in the case of the Guy and Pip characters) but in the future. To see’s to disbelieve, however: Bilangin might have chosen to pass up the potential for politicized involvements during its 1960s State University sequences, but Imortal confronts 1970s Communist insurgency head-on by presenting it as an unworthy alternative to the then-existent Marcos dictatorship; quite unwittingly, most of the peripheral characters sport Russian appellations (including a girl called Vanya, a man’s name), necessitating a double-take. For not only did the insurgency in actuality single-handedly represent the anti-dictatorship movement then, it was also struggling against the Americanization (which is practically antithetical to Sovietization) of Philippine culture.

11011This oversight is arguably extrinsic to the story, but within, or actually between, Imortal’s structure lies the weight of an incredible prologue and completely preposterous epilogue. First we are asked to accept that a pair of children could look exactly like the parents of their respective sexes; this requirement came after the middle of Bilangin, so Imortal has, and used, the advantage of developing the body of the story in attempting to obliterate this premise via the distracting complications of plot. Then when all’s almost forgiven, the pair dies once more without the benefit of legitimized love but with some illegitimate sex, which apparently was not considered satisfactory by the filmmakers; so we have to flashforward to the next century, where the pair reappears (as children of the children of the first), this time assuring themselves of wedded bliss with outrageous costumes and hairstyles and dopey laser patterns on chapel ceilings as indicators of the period.

11011Ang Bukas Ay Akin also attempts Rosenda one better by throwing in the political agendum and having a plural, rather than the earlier movie’s singular, cast of leads demonstrate its machinations. The strategy of allowing interrelationships to dictate the course of the story is praiseworthier than the reverse observed by Imortal, but then on a different level, Ang Bukas Ay Akin suffers in comparison with its festival rival and even its predecessor. It’s the age-old malady of central casting, wherein less capable performers acquire the weightier roles by virtue of their perceived box-office clout, often at the expense of realist credibility. The absence of sharper edges in the husband-and-wife lead tandem, contrasted with the steely delivery of a trio (Cesar Montano, Cherie Gil, and Isabel Rivas) of second leads in peak form, has resulted in the usual morality conflict that typifies komiks-sourced material. When the husband acknowledges in the end the dispiriting possession that filthy lucre has arrogated in him, the viewer is hard-put to recall any such evidence of evil, though of blandness there’s plenty. And although the wife was the main target of the dubious intentions of everyone, including her husband, her attack remains just as crucial, since her character disappears for a considerable stretch of the story. As it is, she leaves no imprint whatsoever, and is allowed to return by the others on the too-obvious pretext of reclaiming her child.

11011What Ang Bukas Ay Akin and Imortal make clear in the end is that, as in political life, conflicting approaches generate misgivings of their own, even if reduced to a question of form. In which case, other criteria may be proposed – sincerity vs. competence, to use the ones in real-life currency – but the devices by which these may be measured can prove even more problematic, considering the subjective factors continually at play. One final standard, economics (translated into per-capita income for the country and box-office results for the industry), is widely accepted as the bottom line. By this token, unlike in the instance of the national conflict, the perpetrators of the MMFF melodramas, by making the audience cry, have earned the right to smile all the way to the bank.

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

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An Update

With our serious filmmakers finally taking stock of local melodrama conventions, we expect increased political awareness along with more expertise in the genre. How else can Pinoy melodrama be improved? Some tentative suggestions:

  • Implement strict viewing procedures based on screening hours. The come-anytime arrangement merely reinforces the tendency toward episodic and unstructured treatments, since the viewer’s attention has to be first caught and then sustained at any point within the film, instead of allowing the product to devote more attention to plot logic and build-up.
  • Search for and launch a female melodrama actress who physically personifies the masses. The shock of recognition could result in another coming-of-age on the part of the audience, similar to that of Nora Aunor’s followers when their idol decided to pursue serious artistic concerns. The other, perhaps riskier, option would be to repackage Aunor herself, who after all is thus far irreplaceable.
  • Explore and develop an aesthetic basis for males as melodrama leads. One direction would be to draw from the foundations of the action film, wherein the violence helps justify occasional displays of emotional weakness, and comedy, which distances the lead from the other characters as well as the audience. Currently, men in local melodrama are essentially defined by issues raised by female characters, providing the inaccurate and questionable impression that domestic concerns should not worry men at all.

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

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The National Pastime – Issues 2

Film since February 1986

The two years since the 1986 February upheaval have spawned various situations for each aspect of Philippine mass media. A reversal has figuratively taken place in print, with what was once the alternative press now lodged in the establishment, in more ways than one. Whatever the apprehensions of practitioners for the future, in terms of the drift toward conservatism, consistency of circulation, and activities of trade-unionists, local print media – flourishing as it used to before the imposition of martial rule – once more enjoys the approval of our American counterparts for being freer than it may have a right to be. An irony has occurred in radio, the very medium that more than any other was directly responsible for the turnout of people power crucial to the overthrow of the past regime. Today the airwaves are better known as the domain of loyalists of deposed President Marcos, but the notion doesn’t seem too farfetched when we consider that radio has a captive mass audience, print has a more discriminating readership, and television is simply too expensive. With television the status quo may be said to have obtained, once we take for granted the shift in political loyalties. Viewership is as high as usual, but the proliferation of outlets as realized in the example of print failed to come about in the case of TV, partly because the huge financial outlets (only so many channels on the dial) promotes too fierce a competition. In one instance, the only newcomer, Channel 2, has been accused of resorting to controversial marketing strategies, particularly in terms of piracy of other stations’ programs, since its resumption of operations last year.

11011For the spoiled darling of local mass media, however, all three descriptions have applied in succession. From the period of the contested election that led to open anti-Marcos defiance, to until a few months afterward, the movie industry suffered a reversal so serious that insiders were comparing it to the situation three years back – when the obscene success of an international film festival led to moralistic backlash in the form of revitalized censorship. The irony was that, instead of acceding to the call for progress with responsibility, the movie industry chose to fall back on formulae that had proved effective prior to the slump. As a result, the local audience, which was ready for a cultural reorientation and reliant on the movies for a significant portion of this function, has been reconditioned to respond to the lure of escapism – the same element by which the previous regime had maintained a fantasy of fulfillment among the masses. Once the process of miseducation had again taken effect, the entire system had of course regained its status quo.

11011But with a noteworthy difference this time: what had once been prevalent was no longer necessarily acceptable. The most obvious indication of internal dissatisfaction with the movie industry’s recent actuations is the shift of its best and brightened talents to the related field of TV with a few others practicing in print, whereas in the past the movement, if any occurred, was in the opposite direction. The reluctance of the system of movie production to advance with the times is not difficult to understand. Among all the existing forms of mass media in the country, that of film realized its potential for political advantage along with the emergence of then-presidential candidate Ferdinand E. Marcos. Two terms later, each credited in no small part to the box-office successes of self-serving pseudo-biographical movies, the mechanisms for institutionalized control of the film industry were set up: the militarization of the censorship body in the middle period of martial rule, then the founding of a development agency right after the announced lifting of emergency powers.

11011Paradoxically the repressive atmosphere induced a reaction so daring and, because of the multi-levelled nature of cinema, so creative that observers even in other countries took notice and expressed admiration. These instances, however, were the extremes that contrasted with the rest. Eventually the mainstream, as a counter-reaction, calcified into the production of propagandistic action movies, cynical bold films, sleek melodramas, and inconsequential fantasy pictures. Thus the current dispensation, during its period of struggle, found in print and radio, and later TV, less resistance to its messages of criticism and dissent. Film was too closely guarded, and more complicated as a medium besides, to accommodate what was in the main an informational need. The then-opposition took note, and responded accordingly. After President Aquino’s takeover, film became the most neglected mass medium as far as the new government was, and still is, concerned. Its function of providing revenues through taxes that reduced gross intakes by more than a third was deemed sufficient to allow its open-market operation. The measure of freedom granted the more cooperative media, however, was denied the industry, on the hoary pretext that, revolutionary accomplishments notwithstanding, the masses’ morals still had to be safeguarded. Institutional support, which was necessarily non-profit in nature, was similarly held back, again with the use of the false logic that the system might have to resort to immoral movie screenings, as it did in the past, just to be able to support itself financially.

11011A strategy for salvation may be found in alternative action – the same measure that worked for the other media under discussion. At the moment, only two – intensive film education and alternative production and screening – have proved workable, and even then, on isolated terms. While the State University has graduated the country’s first batches of film majors, a plan to introduce film appreciation in high-school curricula fell through. Though an independently sponsored alternative film festival succeeded, the sponsorship of short-film competitions, from which cash incentives used to spur further production, has only been lately (too late, some practitioners claim) revived.

11011One last example will help clinch the argument. Although virtually every aspect of the movie system has been organized – from concerned artists to critics and even journalists – the inevitability of unionism still has to reach the most ordinary of movie workers. What the industry has at present are the extraordinary apparatus of an academy comprising guilds as well as a setup for a workers’ welfare fund – both of which are dominated by producers. Most curious indeed is the progress visible in print companies, in which trade unions have proliferated since the revolution and, in one instance, managed for a time to take over the operations of a now-defunct newspaper. In mid-1986 a major effort was exerted to once and for all organize movie workers for union purposes but, as in the attempt to implement film appreciation in high schools, the project failed to attain fruition.

11011All the failures so far may be traced to the same source: the apathy of the powers-that-be toward the potential for progress of the movie industry. The presence of censorship and the absence of institutional support, these two abide. Marcos-era experiments in providing one without the other merely proved that both are expressions of the same concern, on the part of authorities, that could either encourage or discourage responsible performance on the part of the industry. Specifically, the lifting of censorship without an institution to nurture the creativity of artists led to excesses on the part of filmmakers prior to the declaration of martial law, while the provision of institutional encouragement amid stringent and arbitrary censorship led to excesses on the part of government after the lifting of martial law.

11011Freedom and support then: one cannot exist for long without the other, especially in industrialized culture. Perhaps such was the intention of the past regime in allowing one innovation exclusive of the other, so as to prove the industry’s incapability of addressing the demands of progress. The possibility of withholding both or either is out of the question. As to whether the government will overcome its bias against the movie system and eventually allow it the means by which it could measure up to the challenge of growth and development, the prospects are so far in increasing danger of flickering out.

[First published December 1986 in Philippines Communication Journal]

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People-Power Cinema

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

11011A problematic, however, can be sensed from the fact that local film criticism has been thrown into disarray by what outputs actually turned up, rather than by what have been turned down or out. Not a single serious product made since February 1986 – serious releases immediately after, but those could only have been made before the revolution! After is what matters, and the trail so far is littered with melodrama and fantasy, hardly the stuff for the sensible artistic discussion we used to know…. Well, not quite, if we count in the occasional bold and action film. But save for last year’s critics’ awardee Takaw Tukso, the former has been nothing if not the now-standard exploitation vehicle, while the latter has evolved into that most unsatisfactory mutant, the real-life hero’s story.

11011There may be a more positive stance one can take, and I believe it’s not only practicable, but absolutely indispensable, if our so-called critics are to assume once more their relationship of mutual nourishment with the industry. The problem is that the dark days of dictatorship, pardon the bromide, fostered in us an equation of grimness with seriousness. The fact that our culture is predominantly Catholic didn’t help: what comes easy is always suspicious, if not downright sinful, so value increases in proportion so suffering. The application of this sometimes-but-not-always valid assumption to film criticism becomes painfully obvious if we re-view (watch all over, that is) the titles that seemed to matter during the Marcos years. Admittedly a handful of great ones will continue to stand out, but I’ll bet my sense of vision that a disturbing proportion will emerge as having been admirable for some form of political or social daring, and nothing more. To an extent more than we care to admit, we were actually putting a premium on titles with an eye to watching the powers-that-were, who never had enough good taste to begin with, squirm from the references. Artistic achievement assumed secondary value, the icing on the pie in Imelda’s face, and sometimes, especially in the case of genre (standard box-office) titles, even became a liability because of its threatening nature. Why, if a bold or fantasy or action or melodrama movie were to be given serious consideration, who’ll pay attention to the latest academically engineered agitprop work of what’s-his-name, when his budget, not to mention his skills, couldn’t even begin to compare with the industry’s full-blast capabilities?

11011Of course this entire state of things became possible only because the viewing public occasionally made known its support through its patronage, and so our sociological framework of the masses seeking enlightenment during a period of oppression comes full circle. But now they’ve come to prefer escapist entertainment, and our pinpointing responsibilities on film- and policymakers will only amount to so much barking up the wrong signpost. The February 1986 revolution remains, after all, a happy memory, a veritable dream-come-true no scripted theatrical experience could ever hope to match. The desire to somehow extend the good feelings, even if only in the confines of a movie house, is where we’re starting from. If we’re loaded with titles that provide nothing but happy endings – which is actually the current case, even among our favorite pre-revolution filmmakers – then we better start looking for new values to champion, rather than imposing old ones. And if I may add the obvious, this is a good an opportunity as we’ll ever have to return to simple virtues of classicism in cinema – the well-told tale done with utmost competence, adding appropriate points for imagination. Where this will take us is anybody’s guess, including mine, but what matters right now is that film artistry, though always somehow with us, has never had, for reasons often beyond our control, its proper place in our hearts.

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

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Studious Studios

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

11011To be sure, the early confusion may have been numerological in nature. The last time a studio system flourished, it was manifested in the form of a trinity: a major, a rival, and an underdog, more popularly known as Sampaguita, LVN, and Premiere after the war. Movie stars, in an apparently instinctive bid to appropriate the axis of power among themselves, contributed greatly to the reshuffling, by attempting to violate the rule against shuttling from one outfit to another. The collapse of the studio system may have been due to the studios’ resistance to the upward mobility of their personnel, including their most prized possessions, their contract stars. All that was needed was for an entire pack of aspiring underdogs, then as now calling themselves independents, to provide lucrative options for discontented performers who’d break away from their mother companies only to find themselves blacklisted (as a form of collective protection) by the other biggies.

11011The star system, however, never really prospered beyond an individualized basis, for roughly the same reasons that the independents eventually yielded to the superstars: the individual entrants were too self-sufficient to coalesce or forge alliances, and the local market could only accommodate so much – three at a time, it seems. In a manner of speaking, the industry’s system has never really been based on independents or stars, not once; only on studios. Once the inadequacies of the alternatives between independents and superstars became clear, the time was ripe for another season of studio domination. Three at a time, then. With Agrix and Bancom Audiovision battling for supremacy during the 1970s, and a number of worthy stragglers, notably Crown-Seven, striving for third place, warnings began to be raised. Agrix folded up, so did Crown-Seven, leaving Bancom at the top and Regal, for a time an underdog, the closest rival. Bancom was then dissolved along with its larger conglomerate, and the apparent jinx suffered by those in the position of major was enough to pacify the pessimists.

11011Without much fanfare Regal took top place, while Viva came on strongly enough to claim the status of rival. Only an underdog-newcomer, the Marcos government’s Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP), made enough noise by way of threatening to dislodge both occupants, and the rest of the movie industry as well, from their profitable circumstances. It took the February 1986 upheaval to eliminate, among others, this last obstacle in the re-establishment of the studio system. Seiko assumed the unlamented ECP’s underdog role, and happy days, at least for the mogul-owners, were here again.

11011So far all the evidence favors the reincarnated versions over their predecessors. They’ve been wise enough to allow the sharing of contract stars among themselves – to the detriment of the personalized social-cum-thespic training the old studios used to proffer, impose even, on an in-house basis. Lately they’ve even outdone themselves on a conceptual level. For where the old studios employed certain generic trademarks with which to identify themselves – LVN with musicals and costume spectacles, Sampaguita with fantasies and tearjerkers, Premiere with gangster stories – the present ones have taken to exchanging their corporate images with one another: Viva, which prided itself on gloss, has been attaching its name, rather than that of its sister company Falcon, to low-budget crime stories like Ex-Army and Boy Negro (formerly associable with Seiko) and recently came up with a Regal staple, a quickie musical comedy, in Buy One, Take One; Regal, on the other hand, has been taking tentative steps toward comparatively big-budget but komiks-based products (after its quickie formula failed to work in recent succession), with Nagbabagang Luha and the forthcoming update of Dyesebel; Seiko likewise has begun glossy productions in earnest, what with the satisfactory box-office returns of Hiwaga sa Balete Drive (more Regal in its comic-horror bent) and Isusumbong Kita sa Diyos (definitely a Viva formula).

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

11011Most of these efforts were premised on the prospects of renewed moviegoer interest after the usual approaches became too predictable for (financial) comfort. No doubt the novelty of the old images carrying over into the new offerings had something to do with the encouraging turnout of viewers: Viva’s Sharon Cuneta and Phillip Salvador shedding their long-cultivated glamor, Seiko’s struggling also-rans suddenly basking in lustrous production values, Regal’s campiness to be enhanced (or perhaps defeated) by an uncharacteristically big budget. What is left for these modern-day mammoths to do is confront their one last impediment to immortality. In more than just the spiritual sense, the old studios passed away along with their founder-owners. The way the present ones are being run, it becomes easy for opponents to hope, if not in the progressive enlightenment of the moguls, in the eventual demise of Mother Lily, the del Rosarios, and Robbie Tan – a sure thing anyway, given the still-limited lifespan we have all been heir to. Decentralization may be the immediate logical response, although there remains one better strategy, the very factor that keeps certain First Golden Age titles in the consciousness of current film observers despite the virtual inactivity of the original producers: the word – but are we ready for it? – is, of course, quality.

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

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An Update

Legislated aid for film appears to be the only way to go, since the dictatorial whim that set up certain support bodies in the past could not assure their sempiternity. This type of recourse, however, takes too long and allows too many things to go wrong. In the rush to come up with much-needed solutions, what have we been given thus far? For one thing, a system of censorship that, through legalese mumbo-jumbo, claims it isn’t so, although the effects are very much the same. Then a system of rating (as opposed to classification) executed by the self-same body, with criteria preempted by moralist biases. And last, a proposal to restrict foreign-film importation – as if the video revolution had never taken place, and as if we, especially as audiences, could do without exposure to the latest strides in world cinema. Clearly these are halfway measures at best, the ideals consisting of: a classification system that doesn’t coerce its applicants in any way, and that doesn’t result in tampering with the submitted work on anyone’s part; a rating system with financially remunerative consequences and utilizing overtly artistic measures; and a rationalization, rather than delimitation, of foreign-film imports, prescribing a system of priorities based on obtained and provable merit: award-winners first, for example, then non-winning nominees, and so on down the line, with undistinguished entries coming in last, where they belong. Other areas our lawmakers should begin exploring are film education and the development of markets for export. Late as ever, of course, but better than never.

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

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The National Pastime – Alternative 2: Media

Underground, in the Heat of the Night

The kind of creepers offered by a special type of picture-stories are keen enough to distinguish the adults from the kids, sometimes. Once in a while a couple of runts browse through the stuff, maybe meaning to use the alibi that they thought it was the nicer kind, though everyone knows how quick kids are today with doubletalk. Couldn’t blame them, I guess – once you accede to bending down that low, literally even, I’ll bet your (alleged) normal youthful reputation you won’t be able to rise as quick. They’re picture-stories all right, spread out along with the more legit weeklies and song-hits mini-mags in the so-called capital city’s armpit and the country’s densest district, Quiapo or Po-quiaps or just plain (and vulgarly) Poks in kanto-boy and jeepney-driver lingo – nearly the only place in the country where an estimated minimum of two million souls in harried and hurrying bodies pass through, pass by, pass over and even under, and occasionally pass out in the course of a regular working day.

11011But those picture-story magazines, which we continue to call komiks despite the humorless attitude some sectors have adopted toward them, will be found, true to their nature, underground and in the heat of the night. At the Quiapo pedestrian underpass, which can be entered from among seven directions along the main thoroughfare just before Quezon Bridge, and during the hours between sunset and sunrise, vendors begin by arranging on the floor the safe items, reserving a middle section for the bolder versions once the underpass crowd composition maturates – that is, becomes on the average older and more masculine – to allow for easy retrieval in case of raids. With all the foolhardiness that youth and curiosity occasionally bestows, I descend the entrance alongside the recently renovated church, where the sellers of various herbs and amulets are packing up their wares in acknowledgment of the less spiritual nature of night life, and circle the central savings bank, fitting symbol of material aspirations even on the subterranean level, to pick out representative titles from about a dozen outlays.

11011One of the stands, or rather seats, happens to have the only male vendor around at the time, so the prospect of frank discussion doesn’t seem so embarrassing; he even opens a conversation by suggesting some of the better issues and offering discounts. Lito, as he introduces himself, has been in the trade (of selling komiks, that is) for almost exactly three years or, as he pertinently puts it, “mula nung assassination ni Ninoy.” The association by which he reckons his shift from carinderia operations becomes more germane when he explains that he started out by selling “Mr. & Ms. at kung anu-ano pang bawal nuon na hindi na ngayon. Siguro swerte ko na yung pagtinda ng babasahing hindi pa tanggap ng mga naghahari sa ’tin.” He admits that the “bold” versions he resorts to as a matter of necessity. “Ito lang talaga ang pinaggagalingan ng kita namin. Kung karaniwang komiks o magasin o song-hits lang ang aasahan ko e walang mangyayari.”[1]

11011I begin to get an idea of the economics involved only after skimming over the wares’ cover prices: the song-hits mags begin at ₱1, regular komiks at ₱2, and neither goes beyond thrice the rates, while the soft-core versions begin at ₱3.50 and reach as much as … ₱25! “Siyempre me tubo na kami agad,” Lito explains. “Nagkakaiba na lang sa kung alin ang mabenta.” Past issues can be bought on retail at bargain prices, which means they get sold for much less than their cover prices. “Yung nabebenta naming sa tigpipiso, nabibili namin ng 25 sentimos isa.” Moralists may argue that the profits are not that clean, and Lito agrees, on a purely monetary basis. “Wala ngang upa sa lugar na ginagamit, napupunta naman sa ‘pakikisama’ yung kita namin minsan. Pero mas matipid pa ’yon kesa kung ma-raid kami: ₱160 ang multa, umaabot ng ₱200 ang piyansa, napakalayo pa ng kulungan, sa Fairview, kaya yari ka rin sa pamasahe.” Either for profit maximization or for additional security, or more likely for both reasons, Lito claims that “magkakamag-anak kaming mga nagtitinda ng komiks dito” – maybe a literal reality, although just as likely a euphemism for the necessity of forming close-knit alliances against the free-for-all from several sides that a non-legal business regularly attracts.[2]

11011As to the items in question, much has been made of the case that both publishers and guardians of morality claim to have won over a year ago. A semi-legitimate status has been granted the more established outfits by allowing (or requiring, depending whose point of view you take) them to publish staff boxes; an obvious drawback here is that, as in the movies, such items may not go, as we love to say and sometimes do, all the way. Recent uncredited items such as Checkmate (₱25 each, all photos with word balloons) and Senswal (no price indicated, picture stories and features in song-hits-size format) get away with more than just the apparently allowed penetration scenes. Yes, María (Clara), they do have close-ups, as graphic as pen-and-ink or offset photography could allow, of genitalia in coital entanglements.

11011And yes, the relatively milder ones contain sexual couplings, or at the very least total nudity, as staples for each and every picture story and feature or narrative, which runs for up to five pages. Imagine a minimum of thirty pages per komiks issue, and titles running up almost the same number, and frequencies at weekly, fortnightly, or, at the rarest, monthly intervals – and you might find yourself reaching for a list of litanies or ejaculations (pious, if not anything else). The Man of La Mancha to which faithful beneficiaries like Lito play Sancho Panzas in this endeavor appears to be a certain “Atty. Amador E. Sagalongos,” publisher of about a half-dozen titles including the celebrated Sakdal and Tiktik and their spinoffs Tiktik Bold, Erotik, and so on. In certain titles he has run installments of the court ruling on the earlier mentioned obscenity case, while in most others he prints, under his by-line and with his picture, erotic verses that aspire to some measure of political relevance by castigating the previous regime or hailing the present dispensation.

11011In fact, for the rest of what Americans would call blue (or the Japanese, pink) publishers, social consciousness is the rule rather than the exception: certified Pinoy phenomena like overseas labor, illegal emigration to America, the presence of foreign military bases, double standards for domestic sexual practices, problems in premarital pregnancies and contraception, as well as the universal concerns of prostitution and poverty – all these and more define local erotic reading fare rather than do the psychological or anatomical fantasies found in foreign counterparts. From the twenty-or-so titles I bought, I was able to count only one instance each of a picture story that dealt with impotence, incest, bestiality, and urolagnia (translated on a Tiktik cover as “pantasiya sa ihi”). Homosexuality seems to be a different, er, affair altogether. Apart from specialized titles such as Silahis and Macho (another Sagalongos publication), there are stories or features in every other “straight” title that dealt explicitly with the subject.[3] Feminists may perceive another attempt at discrimination, but the male condition is almost always presumed in these pages to be more permanent in nature than lesbianism, in which the errant lasses get “converted” in the end by some guy or other. The incursion of this singular social taboo into the supposedly heterocentrist milieu of erotica may after all only be a throwback to the goings-on aboveground, where at this time of the night the members of the so-called twilight sex earn their epithet (and sometimes their keep) by cruising about, mostly on foot, for prospects for carnal communion, and where mainstream comedies now allow effeminate gay-male characters to retain their flamboyance all the way to the end but insist on tomboyish women capitulating to the dictates of (to coin a should-be disparagement) reproductivist patriarchy.

11011Whether gay or merely happy, the new breed of erotic komiks has come a long way from the BTS or “bedtime stories” type that used to flourish in the neighboring Recto-Avenida area during the late sixties and seventies. I remember mimeographed or photocopied issues going for the equivalent of a day’s allowance in high school, and heave a sigh – of gratitude, honest – from the thought that today’s social misfits would not have to spend proportionately as much as we did then. The advantages of legitimization go beyond consumer relief. According to Lito, “Natutulungan kaming mga vendors nung mismong mga publishers kung sumasabit kami sa batas.”[4] The publishers, writers, and artists themselves occasionally print declarations of war against government censorship on the very pages of their publications, although their defenses lie within the realm of social relevance, as pointed out earlier, rather than the standard Western reliance on artistic merit.

11011Again, as in the instance of cinema, I couldn’t help wishing that genuine literary expression could find its way into some of these items, so that their redemption, elitist as it may sound, will be complete.[5] Before that could happen, of course, the mainstream komiks publications may have to upgrade their quality, probably by infusing inspiration from the allied medium of film, rather than contributing mayhem, as they are wont to do, in the opposite direction. Thenceforth we may be able to watch the benefits trickle down the likes of Dalaga and Pic, the gamer Game, Lips, Hot Legs, New Boobs, Playmate, Intimate, Swank, For Gents Only, and the Sagalongos titles, and even the truly illegal items that refuse to identify the people behind them. Come that time, we may not have to envy those who check out a public library just to realize that some in-your-face rags might just be more sensible but still profitable picture stories, worthy of regard as vital and lasting contributions to the national heritage, you betcha.

[First published October 16, 1986, in New Day]


[1]Mr. & Ms. and other items that used to be dangerous to be identified with. I guess it’s just my luck to sell reading materials which don’t sit well with authorities.” “This is actually where we derive our income. If I rely on ordinary komiks or magazines or song-hits items I won’t be able to survive.”

[2] “Of course it’s sure-fire profitable.” “The difference lies in terms of which items sell more.” “What we can sell for a peso each, we could purchase at 25 centavos.” “We don’t have to pay for rent for the space we occupy here, but ‘cooperation’ takes a toll. We just think it’s cheaper than the consequences of a raid: the penalty’s ₱160, bail could reach ₱200, the jailhouse is too far, at Fairview [a suburban district], so you also wind up spending a lot for transportation.” “We komiks vendors are related to one another.”

[3] “Fetishizing urine.” “Silahis” and “macho” also happen to be code words in Philippine gay lingo, referring to bisexual males and gay-available straight men respectively.

[4] “We vendors are helped by the publishers themselves whenever we run afoul of the law.”

[5] A couple of colleagues who became scriptwriters for world-renowned films, as well as a university instructor (who sadly experienced oppression, from left-leaning seniors who should have known better, when she was outed for her experience in erotica authorship) were some of the few people I have known to engage in the profession.

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Home Sweet Home

In My Father’s House
Playwright Elsa Martinez Coscolluela (trans. Raul Regalado)
Directed by Tony Mabesa

As an extra-active in-house editor for the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP), I was once assigned to the screening committee of the third (and last) scriptwriting contest. Only two winners were chosen, both of which were endorsed to the board of judges by none other than yours truly. The inside news, however, was that the preferred top-prize winner was disqualified on a double technicality: not only did the script proposal require a more-than-modest budget (for which the consideration of a few other entries would have to be set aside), it would also have duplicated the themes and setting of the first ECP production, Oro, Plata, Mata. Flashforward to the present, when one of the contest’s judges, out of a refusal to allow the ECP’s demise to negate its noteworthy aims, convinces the writer of the said screenplay to revise her work for the medium out of which he has made a lifetime career: the theater.

11011Like Oro, Plata, Mata, In My Father’s House has seen rough commercial sailing. And if we take an optimistic course and regard its ultimate destination as the celluloid product it was originally intended to be, then its odyssey from judges’ favorite to future film product through the legitimate stage may well be one of the most unusual transitions in contemporary local culture. To be sure, In My Father’s House stands several cuts above the disturbing succession of stage plays that actually aim for ultimate preservation on film (or even just video, via television). Our local playwriting contests have much to answer for in this case; works are judged according to how they read, not how they may be performed, and in several depressing instances writers who employed misappropriated cinematic techniques tended to impress their respective jurors, who should have known better.

11011I hope I don’t sound too condemnatory in pointing out that these cinematically obsessed playwrights were in a sense the predecessors of our so-called independent film practitioners, who dabble in media or formats apparently alien from the mainstream movie industry, but actually aim for stable long-term employment within (as evidenced in their output as well as the number who grab too eagerly at opportunities for commercial film assignments). Nothing wrong with having to survive, I submit, except that sometimes the struggle has resulted all too often in a hierarchism of media forms and assignments: this here’s a mere short film (or play or article), it could get me some attention so I could get away with a little slothful artisanship – after all, this isn’t the big time … yet.

11011Hence my sense of appreciation and gratitude for In My Father’s House. The play’s film-script origins are still detectable, particularly in the inordinate number of blackouts (equivalent to the film medium’s fadeouts), but the whole presentation has amounted to a cherishable and well-grounded discourse on the dehumanizing effects of war on the best intentions of those caught up in it. The story details the plight of a Negros-based family, chronicling the members’ confrontation with the realities of the Japanese occupation from the start of the war until the impending liberation (or, as per Renato Constantino, the re-occupation) of the country by American forces. The siblings find themselves in opposing camps, though hardly by the passive nature of their characters: one realizes firsthand the effectiveness of the enemy’s brutality and decides to collaborate to preclude whatever further harm may be committed against his loved ones, while another is outraged by the very same reports, though from a comfortable distance, and decides to join the guerrilla movement.

The rural gentry confronted by the tragic divisiveness of World War II, in Elsa Martinez Coscolluela’s screenplay-turned-stage play In My Father’s House (1987, dir. Tony Mabesa).

11011The worst that the invading forces visit upon the family is the occupation of their residence by an officer, who is never seen; instead he is represented by his clown of a deputy. In the end the tragedy that befalls the family is directly caused by the guerrilla offering to save his collaborator-brother but inadvertently betraying him to a rival unit. An acknowledgment of classical traditions pervades the entire production, with deaths occurring offstage and the action being continually summarized and assessed by the survivors. The only onstage tragedy, the suicide of the fiancée who could endure repeated rape by the Japanese officer but not the contempt of her guerrilla-lover, serves to maintain the essential context of the drama – i.e., that the enemy, no matter how harmless in appearance, is capable, on a near-bestial level, of the civilized but still-harmful actuations of his captive hosts, and that in a sense this doesn’t make him any different from them after all.

11011Such perceptions about the wartime behavior of the bourgeoisie could only have come from finely observed and fully felt experience, and whatever the arguments against the dangers of romanticism, there ought to be room for such theses in the first place, the better to form possible answers from. In My Father’s House can be taken on its own, with the reservations (and then some) I already mentioned, but it can also be appreciated as a creative inspiration’s long (and unfinished) journey to realization. I suggest viewing it as a companion piece to Oro, Plata, Mata, with the notion of the voyeuristic peek into the bourgeoisie’s not-so-discreet charms this time replaced by an Areopagitica of sorts, a plea for tolerance and soberness from a people who are still figuring out what to do with themselves.

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

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Si Tatang at mga Himala ng Ating Panahon
Ricardo Lee
Quezon City: Bagong Likha Publications, 1988

It’s been a long wait – three years – since something that can remotely be called a local film book got published, and even then the pickings were pretty slim, mostly confined to anthologies and published screenplays. Now one of our more active film-and-print crossover writers, Ricardo Lee, has come up with his fourth book, and it happens to be another anthology that happens to include another screenplay. The first thing that anyone can say about Si Tatang at mga Himala ng Ating Panahon, however, is that it isn’t, strictly speaking, a film book. Aside from the film script and a few articles on local movies, Si Tatang comprises the author’s short fiction, all except one dating to as far back as the early seventies.

11011Si Tatang is also packaged with some pretty formidable raves from just-as-formidable names in local film and literature. Amazingly, though the comments seem to have been made with Lee’s specific accomplishments in mind, the book itself adds up to more than what one may be led to expect. This it accomplishes largely through the merits of “Kabilang sa mga Nawawala,” Lee’s latest piece of writing, classified in the book as fiction but actually a summation of the author’s thematic and stylistic concerns during the inordinately long spell when he forsook short-story writing for scriptwriting and journalism. “Kabilang” (at novelette-length the longest of Lee’s short fiction) will be capable of enduring more discussion than anything Lee has ever done before in the short-fiction genre, but as earlier stressed, its arrival in the book, as in Lee’s career, is itself worthy of careful consideration.

11011The build-up toward “Kabilang” is managed through a deliberate breakdown of classification. Journalistic pieces alternate with fiction, and even particular approaches vary from piece to piece. As if to literalize the point, Lee’s “Mga Batang Lansangan” series is evenly spaced between most of the rest of the book. This arrangement demonstrates that, superior as Lee’s earlier achievements in fiction were, it was actually the practice of journalism that served to provide him with the ideal laboratory for experimentation. His evolution in this regard is paralleled by the experiences of new journalist Tom Wolfe, who lately has also been turning to fiction after practically a compleat career in factual writing.

11011Where Lee outfoxes Wolfe is in the appropriation of magic-realist devices that come as a genuine surprise, appearing as they do (and as they are wont) from seemingly out of nowhere. That is, if we take the book as a faithful representation of Lee’s writing. Actually those who’ve been following him closely enough to observe even his work in film will have had enough warning of where he was leading himself to. The selection of Himala then assumes red-herring status in this anthology; relative to other Lee-scripted films, it’s a conventional achievement whose contributions lie in extra-literary aspects, specifically the circumstances attendant to its production and Nora Aunor’s performance (both of which are appropriately played up in production notes).[1]

11011More forward-looking works would be Lee’s previous book publications, especially the screenplay of Moral, plus other unpublished (but fortunately produced) scripts, particularly Sinner or Saint and Private Show. Of course this only means that there ought to be more film script publications done, but then this applies to a whole lot of other writers, not just Lee, and meanwhile Himala in the context of Si Tatang can be taken as proof that the author could be capable of above-average competence in disparate writing formats. The journalistic pieces evince more diversity and, most important, an abiding populism that heightens whatever the stylistic and even politicized interests of the moment happen to be. Journalism, by the very transience of its nature in general, has proved most productive for innovators like Lee; the challenge of holding responsibility for correspondences in real life supplies a discipline that could never have been available in fiction.

11011Hence a return to imaginative writing, as Lee does in “Kabilang sa mga Nawawala,” could only be logical enough in its evolution, yet indicative of more miracles up ahead. Outside of Si Tatang, “Kabilang” arrives alongside a revivification of stylistics in Philippine literature in English, but none too late for either current appreciation, or eager anticipation of what writers, those who’ve transcended trends, genres, and even language, will have to offer next.

[First published February 8, 1989, in National Midweek; excerpted in Ricky Lee’s Si Tatang at mga Himala ng Ating Panahon: Koleksyon ng mga Akda (Quezon City: Writers Studio Foundation, 2009), page 11]


[1] Upon compiling a comprehensive bibliography of Philippine film-book titles, I was floored to discover that, after over a half-century of fits and starts, the still-continuing contemporary wave (more like a tsunami) actually began with several volumes devoted to Nora Aunor. See “The Aunor Effect in Philippine Film Book Publications” in Amauteurish! (January 28, 2020).

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An Update

Unlike in developed countries, local television is being treated as an extension of the film industry. The logical and historically validated trend, of course, is in the opposite direction, so either the industry, with the necessary government support, shapes up, or TV eventually bears down. The other audiovisual medium, theater, will increase in importance once film is regarded as more than just a national pastime: where TV (via video) provides technological familiarization, theater will be hard to beat when it comes to supplying highly developed and properly oriented talent.

11011Print media ought to be the best venue for critical discourse of all kinds, including film – except that mainstream dynamics arrogates unto politics the status of serious object of study, and unto culture the role of jester. No doubt culture, film especially, can excel in this function, but it is also capable of raising issues as grim as they come, whereas politics is hardly ever constructively entertaining, unless and until all other options have ever been exhausted.

11011At the moment broadcast media are serving as popularizers for film awareness, which makes print the equivalent of discursive level for this activity. The manner by which all the other major forms of mass media treat film regularly, but not one another and not in the other direction (film regularly treating other media) upholds, like it or not, the primacy of filmic discourse in media and the arts, a stature that will be supplanted not by any of the other available forms, but by some possible future advancement in media technology.

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

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The National Pastime – Directors 3: Bernal/Brocka

Valiant Try

Directed by Ishmael Bernal
Written by Cecille Lardizabal (Franklin Cabaluna and Ishmael Bernal)[1]

Ishmael Bernal will be assured of major significance as a Filipino filmmaker by, among other films, Aliw. The same director who claimed in an interview last year that he makes films to express himself can now be said to have recognized his responsibility toward the moviegoers who support his work.[2] The urbane obsessions which characterized Dalawang Pugad, Isang Ibon, Ikaw Ay Akin, Menor de Edad, and Salawahan have been set aside, while the misfire of Boy Kodyak has been reloaded more carefully. In Aliw, Bernal manages with three characters what he had difficulty pulling off with one (Alma Moreno in last year’s Lagi na Lamang Ba Akong Babae?). Aliw, Sir!, the originally proposed title, would have been a better come-on; but then again, it makes unnecessary reference to the pre-martial law era’s Crush Ko si Sir. Whatever the reason for title change, the board of censors, contrary to its reputed character, allowed too-true-to-be-good glimpses into the lives of society’s alleged low-lifes, engaged in the oldest profession. The three characters round whom the narrative revolves are Ayet, Lingling, and Esper, who earn their keep at Valiente Super (so-spelled) Club.

11011Ayet (Amy Austria) is the worldy-wisest of the three. She studies Nippongo, enrolls in a typing class, and sells goods to customers and fellow bar girls. Her shrewdness is manifested in her way with figures, quitting a ₱200 modeling job after a spat with nasty choreographers, demanding the exact peso-equivalent of $100 (plus service tax) from a tightwad Japanese customer, and risking cohabitation with a sadist for a ₱1,500 monthly “allowance.” In the end, her preoccupation with figures brings about her emotional undoing. When goody-boy Nilo courts her, she first spurns him, then returns to him, then flees upon discovering he earns ₱500 a month and is only a sophomore commerce student, irregularly enrolled at that. Nevertheless, because of numerous live-in proposals, she is considered the most level-headed of the Valiente lot. “Ang hostess nabubuhay pag nagagarahe” [A prostitute succeeds when her sugar daddy provides full support], declares her cousin’s aunt, a has-been spendthrift ex-streetwalker who has been reduced to selling small (non-sexual) goods.

11011The novice the aunt keeps admonishing is 16-year-old Linda Pudoy, nicknamed Lingling (Lorna Tolentino). Baptized “Pandora” by another co-worker, Lingling personifies innocence corrupted in the course of the story. To emulate her cousin, she enrolls in a keypunching class, but refuses to consider an ₱850 bank job. She moves in successively with three different men who embody her increasing awareness of the need to gentrify: Atab, a band guitarist, who steals her money while whistling “Honesty”; a mestizo looker, who holes her up with his good-for-nothing gang and money-squabbling parents; and an elderly entrepreneur who insists on virtual nunhood as a condition for her stay. In each instance she winds up walking out of the relationship. Yet in the end she turns out wiser than before – that is, she learns to walk out earlier.

11011For Esper (Suzette Ranillo), no amount of wising up could vanquish an error from the past. She and her baby were neglected by Greg (George Estregan), who is married, but not to her. Greg’s spouse spots them in public, and a scene ensues; by its end Esper realizes she has lost him forever. Mercifully enough, as it turns out, domestic problems vie for her attention. Her lazy, idle-talking, improvident mother marries freeloading gambler Polistico after a two-week courtship. Her adolescent brother would better not be relied upon to look after her baby and their house. Her persistent boyfriend, after waiting for her too long, marries a giggly replacement. What to do then? For someone in her station, nothing else beyond confiding in another bar girl, getting drunk with a customer, and collapsing from excess alcohol, on her way to take a leak. Some of the more memorable moments in the film occur when the camera lingers on the mixed emotions transpiring on the newcomer performer’s face, as when in the midst of conscious restraint her eyes convey distinct hurt and bewilderment.

11011Unlike most apologetically ambivalent efforts at realism by major Filipino directors (including a few past Bernal films), Aliw’s boldness goes beyond skin exposure, proceeding from its frank contemporaneity, indicated by markers such as the disco hits covered by Atab’s band and the gaggle of Japanese tourists ogling the contents of the club’s “aquarium,” where the girls play poker and discuss the futility of applying for government housing loans while making sure they can still manage to capture the interest of prospective johns. Best of all, Aliw espouses a relentless materialist outlook. In one sharply observed exchange, the characters collect loan payments from one another – ₱800 for board and lodging, ₱50 for perfume, tuition money for a gay hairdresser’s boyfriend. Even when the painted ladies go to church, they pray for more foreign (and therefore affluent) customers. Refreshingly anti-social for a change, they matter-of-factly undergo health check-ups for venereal disease and detest “Family Night” at Valiente, since unlike the church or government, the family is the one social institution that they thrive on countering in the short term (by distracting husbands from their wives), even as they contribute to its long-term stabilization (by allowing these same husbands a means of containing their impulse to stray).

11011As may be expected of Bernal, Aliw is rich in peripheral details and unobtrusive symbols. As in his Lumapit, Lumayo ang Umaga, newspaper headlines ground the narrative in contemporary history; and when Lingling finally bags an upscale patron, the several gates she has to pass through in order to flee from her love nest betokens an insider’s familiarity with how success never comes easy for the people that society has turned its back on. As bonus, the movie’s dialogue is laced with wit throughout. The technique is at best Shavian, comedizing exchanges in order to temper otherwise painful situations. One may opt though to take exception with the portrayal of the police as upholders of law and order. Twice in interacting with the Wengweng character – in church, where she feels compelled to hide her cleavage from them, and in the nightclub, where they arrest her for possession of illegal drugs – local cops, contrary to common knowledge, are treated as omnipresent agents of retribution, ever ready to pounce on whoever oversteps the limits of decency and discipline.

11011As for surface technique, the most one can say is that the low-end production values complements the nature of the material; in short, this is a far cry from, say, Ikaw Ay Akin, the closest a Pinoy artist has ever come to a European art film without inciting smirks among intellectual viewers. Aliw’s sound engineering, though crude, not only bears favorable comparison with the current norm, but also pioneers in the conveyance of simultaneous delivery of dialogue by two or more characters – although the film could certainly benefit from more restraint in the use of the stating-the-obvious theme song during what should have been meaningful pauses in the plot. These minor irritants aside, one may already confidently declare that no other local film has succeeded in depicting the lives and loves of sex professionals in such a credible, accurate, and sympathetic manner – and profited extensively from the project. What Bernal could be capable of accomplishing after this can only be regarded as worth awaiting.

[Submitted November 1979 to Who; unpublished]


[1] When the Filipino film critics circle included Aliw’s screenplay in its list of nominees for its annual awards, the credited scriptwriter released a statement claiming that her original material had, in effect, been bowdlerized, and rejected the nomination. The list of nominees was revised to acknowledge instead the director and Franklin Cabaluna as scriptwriters.

[2] This is what comes of subscribing to conventional wisdom rather than deferring major insight until sufficient data has been collated, as well as immersing too obsessively with the film-text. After viewing all the still-existing Bernal films up to his breakout as Brocka-worthy major artist in 1976, I was amazed (and humbled) to realize that he was more consistent and quality-conscious than his contemporary and semi-rival. Where Brocka would enact his notion of industrial compromise by directing a series of surefire blockbusters, Bernal was readier to accept all types of assignments but ensured that these would be infused with as much sensibility and respect for the intelligent viewer as the material could muster.

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Renewal of Appreciation

Manila by Night
Directed and written by Ishmael Bernal

A series of films by Ishmael Bernal serves to remind us all too vividly how far we’ve fallen behind, in terms of the apices of achievements in local film art and artisanship. The tribute (by the Cultural Center of the Philippines) has been long overdue as well, and inadequate considering the transitory nature of a retrospective. Most of the proper superlatives will have been out by now, but I don’t see anything wrong in helping to propagate the truth: for all our inroads in international cinema, the world is still far from an accurate appraisal of our maximum capabilities – and only because it still has to be introduced to Ishmael Bernal.

11011I must have seen Manila by Night more often than any other Filipino, or probably even foreign, film in my life so far, and I’m talking about a fanaticism about movies that sometimes gets me to watching one title after another during my waking hours. Apart from my subjective fascination with its material, however, Manila by Night has me convinced, with each re-viewing, of its considerable and near-unique accomplishments in the medium, whether in a Filipino or even in a Third-World context. To begin with, the movie can be situated in the theoretical mainstream of progressive filmmaking – not according to the academic balderdash of social-scientific constructs that film scholars love to bandy about without half understanding the implications, but rather the more practical approaches that originated in European literature and developed in Hollywood products; as an aside, probably the very fact of this adaptation by the bastion of American commercialism-cum-conservatism has led to its underemphasis in film studies.

11011I refer here to the undertaking of several major lines of action from among as many characters, interwoven to provide a larger, usually abstractified, impression of a social milieu. The achievement isn’t as easy as it sounds, even when you’ve gotten the operational framework down pat. Robert Altman, the gringo who placed American cinema at the forefront of contemporary film innovation with Nashville, resorts to the same formula once in a while but still has to come anywhere near the significance of his politically and morally acute vivisection of country music.

11011A personal epiphany of sorts came about during my latest appreciation of Manila by Night, which pertains to how it falls within even a strictly technical schematization of this trend in thinking. The parenthetically mentionable Citizen Kane, the late Orson Welles’s first film, has been credited with releasing cinema from the confines of Soviet montage, in which film narrative is developed through the juxtaposition of several images. The introduction of relatively “faster” film for deep-focus purposes, wherein details could now be arranged within the same frame instead of requiring a successive presentation, allowed Welles the opportunity to initiate his long-standing reputation as film innovator, notwithstanding a few structural problems with his debut. In a sense Altman merely synthesized this visual deep-focus technique with an aural complement, through his patented Lion’s Gate system, and, for good measure, provided himself with the potential for multi-levelled storytelling through an astute choice of subject matter in Nashville. The problem, however, as evidenced in Altman’s failed attempts afterward, is that such a highly advanced use of technique requires a concomitant plan for execution – which simply means the project is always in danger of getting carried away by its own conceits, if not bogged down by the sheer weight of its ponderousness.

11011Where does all this place Manila by Night? It might be too early to create a case for exclusivity, but I still have to come across a work, regardless of origin, that provides such a successful depiction of milieu with all the energy of personal filmmaking. Inevitably a few particulars amount to sheer indulgence – the extended lovemaking scenes, for example, or the overexposed and overextended bayside frolic of dope fiends and Halloween revelers. But other former objections seem to acquire more defensible rationales in hindsight. The open-ended resolution doesn’t only parallel a realistic indeterminacy over social and sexual contradictions (as the movie’s more enthusiastic proponents used to answer those who attributed the ending to the filmmaker’s own confusion), it also suggests a method of dealing with the too-neat packaging of similar other works, as well as, if we’re fortunate enough, the rich opportunities for a sequel, if not a series.

11011The plastic shortcomings, especially in lighting, have also been rendered moot with careful laboratory processing. The latest Manila by Night print seems to be the version intended for its aborted participation in the Berlin International Film Festival competition, what with English subtitles and the New Society disclaimers obviously intended for the former First Lady. Its cinematographic strengths have been impressively enhanced, specifically in terms of camera placements and movements, revealing in effect how the film had been originally victimized by industrial as well as political limitations. Other titles in the Bernal retrospective reveal how this notoriously evasive artist has outlined his concerns in the medium. After seeking the requisite mastery of plastic and commercial elements in local cinema, he abandoned either one or the other in preparation for the masterwork that became Manila by Night: there was minimum commercial appeal in the subject and treatment of Nunal sa Tubig, and similarly few plastic merits in Aliw, yet these two exercises, rather than his better-received domestic dramas during the same period, stand squarely in the direction of internal theoretical discourse that eventually resulted in Manila by Night.

11011Thereafter only Ito Ba ang Ating mga Anak? and Working Girls, out of a series of milieu attempts, provided indications of the director’s full potential. Bernal did better with more conventional material in Relasyon, and with more conventional storytelling in Himala. Meanwhile at least one other team-up, Marilou Diaz-Abaya directing a script by erstwhile Bernal collaborator Ricardo Lee, has provided our cultural heritage with the only other title that belongs clear within the same league as Manila by Night – i.e., Moral. And while these dynamically gifted thinkers figure out where next to take film as a medium of universal and not just parochial properties, an entire community of evaluators, national and foreign, still has a lot of catching up to do. Would that Bernal et al. were as patient with backward opinion leaders as they are with film craft itself; then again, film understandably proves a lot more flexible, intelligent, and rewarding in the long run.

[First published March 16, 1988, in National Midweek]

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An Awakening

Pahiram ng Isang Umaga
Directed by Ishmael Bernal
Written by Danny Lopez and Jose Javier Reyes

The newest Ishmael Bernal release, Pahiram ng Isang Umaga, comes as the latest, and best, output in what has turned out to be a trilogy of melodramas, all spaced by roughly a year each and produced by the same outfit, Regal Films. The cycle actually initiates a phase in Bernal’s consistent abandonment of his successful decade-old milieu-movie attempts. At first I was very much tempted to regard Pahiram as part of a new Bernal concern: the multi-installment body of work. The director may be the only one capable of such a concept in these parts, and his earlier triumphs in milieu delineations seem to have met an industrial dead-end, what with the later impositions on his work (young-star smorgasbords in Ito Ba ang Ating mga Anak? and The Graduates, and gender-specific mash-ups in Bilibid Boys and Working Girls) that only serve to limit what should really be an expansive perspective.

11011Pahiram ng Isang Umaga can be viewed alongside Pinulot Ka Lang sa Lupa of two years back and last year’s Nagbabagang Luha, but that would probably be underestimating an intellectual stature as singular as Bernal’s. Sure, the most significant still-active French New Wave survivor – Eric Rohmer, after François Truffaut’s demise – operates entirely according to this strategy; so does commercial television. The title “major” belongs to individual works in literature and film, with concessions made to the output of the likes of Honoré de Balzac, Marcel Proust, Satyajit Ray, Ingmar Bergman, and why not, Eric Rohmer. For it sure takes a lot out of the artist’s energy to arrive at a respectable level of consistency, but truly productive creativity will cause the completion of work or works inconsistent with the rest, even the artist’s own. On a vastly minor but still important scale, this is what happens to Pahiram in relation to Bernal’s Regal melodrama cycle. Not that the komiks origin of the others are forgone this time: the lead character complains that she’d find her remaining time to live too long for comfort, and the movie’s several simplistic developments verify it; moreover, the leading man gets to bed her at a point too close to necrophilia. Neither is the work far from melodramatic – most everyone gets to cry a river and emote by the sea – although in certain instances, particularly in the working out of the main character’s conflict with her elder sister, the genre demonstrates its tragicomic potential in the finest manner possible.

11011Even Bernal’s political polemics are tempered, and for the better, if I may say so. What turned Hinugot sa Langit into so much ado about almost nothing, and the second Working Girls movie into an absolute mess, surfaces only twice in Pahiram, and in a sense makes the latter title a more filmically honest product, since its horizontal storytelling mode allows for the compartmentalizing of plot-based developments. In other words, the plight of fisherfolk plagued by Japanese trawlers, or of old-money restaurateurs threatened by American fast-food multinationals, doesn’t really have anything essential to do with a dying advertising executive’s interactions with her gentleman farmer of an ex-lover and her current neurotic-artist flame, but it’s a whole lot easier to discard these passages in Pahiram like so much excess baggage, in contrast with the wholesale presentations in the other “politicized” works. Where Pahiram takes off, literally and figuratively, from its predecessors, and in fact from the rest of Ishmael Bernal’s major works, is in the final scene. The last shot’s a helicopter long-take, though of course Bernal has done better with simpler crane shots (cf. Himala) in the past. What I refer to as the suggestion of a possible shift in the director’s regard for the medium of film is in the execution of this exact same seaside scene. Here the about-to-expire female lead proclaims her defiance against death in a whisper made louder than it actually sounds by her remoteness from the audience. The whole business is done in mostly long shots, with the helicopter view merely serving as confirmation of the entire foregoing attempt at distancing.

11011No previous Bernal melodrama, not even the ones made prior to and during his development of milieux in film, exhibits this tendency toward epic filmmaking. The closest the director has come to this sort of stance would be in his big-budget projects – Nunal sa Tubig, Manila by Night, even Himala – but the procedure he used then remains completely counter to that of Pahiram. For instead of expanding the feel of the movie through crowds and movements, as would characterize past Bernal films, Pahiram gets by with a deliberate paring down of dramatic essentials and personae, and an expansion of onscreen space. This could never have been managed by the Bernal we used to know, someone who was all-too-prepared to forsake surface gloss for the sake of multi-levelled dramatization. All his significant films since Manila by Night indicate an obsession with plastic polish, and Pahiram may very well be the culmination of them all (so far, at least).

Ishmael Bernal (1938-96), a director-writer, film critic, stage performer, and café proprietor, known for Manila by Night (1980) and several other films.

11011There is of course the very real danger of having appreciated too much in what could have been the producer’s whim or the writers’ specification. Be that as it may, the time has been long overdue for a responsible producer to risk once more the 1979 carte blanche that resulted in Bernal’s, and by clear analogy Philippine cinema’s, greatest movie ever, Manila by Night (released in 1980, after having been banned for nearly a year). What he’ll come up with this time may be difficult to ascertain at this point, but certain qualities based on his recent development can be ventured with confidence: spatially prolific, visually agreeable, commercially accessible, medium-conscious, and political, possibly to a fault.

[First published April 12, 1989, in National Midweek]

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Just another Exercise

Angela Markado
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Jose F. Lacaba

Angela Markado has the markings of a memorable movie. Unfortunately these do not obliterate its obvious and basic blemishes. The title name is the alias used by Angela del Mar, a rape victim who sets out to kill her five assailants and, with typical komiks consistency, slashes through all her obstacles more literally than figuratively. For Lino Brocka, working with komiks material is no new endeavor. His first movie, as well as some well-received ones among his other early efforts, are based on such sources. Predictably then in his latest film he has been able to surmount some of the limitations inherent in adaptations of like material, particularly in his handling of the sequences depicting Angela’s agony in the hands of her captors and the discovery of her brutalization by her first victim’s brother. Both are executed with discernment where overplaying or underplaying the attendant emotions would only have been too convenient for commercial or critical compromise.

Lino Brocka (1939-91), a theater and film director who led the resistance of popular-culture artists against the Marcos dictatorship.

11011The two aforementioned examples, however, are effective enough because they bear upon the story of the avenging Angela. Several other scenes, including an inevitably comic one involving the fainting of two feuding widows during their rapist-husband’s burial, are striking in themselves, but the absence of connecting threads to Angela’s story reduces them to the status of dispensable frills. Now if improbabilities are worse than deviations, then Angela Markado could have been better. Instead it follows up logical developments with improbabilities and follows up the latter with further improbabilities. After Angela escapes from the whorehouse her captors sell her to, she is discovered by Rona, a prostitute with the proverbial (and overused) heart of gold, who takes Angela to her apartment where she gives the latter a light meal and some transportation money. Not long after the burial of Angela’s mother, who had died of neglect and overwork, her waitress-friend Sally is raped by the same gang responsible for Angela’s fall. The next morning Angela finds her dead, her wrist slashed. That Sally should break down in this manner while Angela vows vengeance is inconsistent with everything that forewent between them. In the first place it was the suicidal waitress who advised Angela to maintain good relations with the gang members because of their influence over the management of the restaurant they were working in, and in fact this same character had precipitated her own fall by dating one of the members who had molested Angela in her presence.

11011On the other hand it was Angela who, though forced to support her consumptive mother, confided in Sally her reluctance in waiting on shady personalities. Anyway – an appropriate adverb for the narrative – Angela offers her services as domestic helper to Rona, who dismisses the offer and even counters with her own: board and schooling for the victim. Then it turns out that Rona is also sugar mommy to another of Angela’s rapists, whom the neighborhood suitor attacks in a fit of jealousy, thus providing Angela with an opportunity for revenge. In spite of the circumstances Rona suspects nothing; but when interrogated by the rest of the gang, she refuses to disclose Angela’s whereabouts. Considering the anti-social nature of her profession, Rona’s generosity during her first encounter with Angela is a little forced, but not entirely implausible. Her eventual taking in of someone whose sympathy she has no third-party confirmation of, however, strains her golden-heart bit a little too much. At least Celia Rodriguez, hardy survivor of Joey Gosiengfiao camp, interprets her role with self-parody sufficient for comic relief, raising the possibility that the other characters might have been approached with the wrong sensibility.

11011The romantic male lead, for one. Although he figures dramatically in the movie’s climax, he is developed with the hastiness and insufficiency of an afterthought. He is first introduced in the funeral scene as a lawyer concerned with the murder of his brother. To sustain his suspicions he asks from a survivor of Angela’s assault a description of the attacker, who therewith describes her as having sported an Afro regardless of the fact that she did not. Anyway again, the lawyer persists in tracking down Angela – who this time persists in wearing Rona’s Afro wig despite the availability of other styles in her hostess’s wardrobe collection – conferring with an incapacitated (and therefore unnecessary) lieutenant-detective and convincing the surviving gang members to act as decoys. After his development as his brother’s avenger, a male counterpart of Angela who does not hesitate resorting to extra-legal means for her capture, it is surprising to find him sympathizing with her, even offering legal protection in the face of the survivors’ insistence on dealing with her themselves. Of course it is also surprising to find these survivors around in the first place, but there apparently was no easier device for facilitating a chase and their subsequent killing. As it turns out, one survivor accidentally shoots the other when, in keeping with his heartlessness, he could have ordered the figure below him to halt for further torment. Angela, for her part, suddenly emerges atop the woodpile she has been hiding under and, out of self-defense, shoots the last gang-rapist dead.

11011In spite of the circumstances obtaining in the final showdown, Angela is reported to have been convicted on five counts of murder. More interesting is the faulty logic presented in the ruling, ending with the quote “‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord.” The irony here, whether deliberate or not, is either lost or wasted in a movie which makes no provisions for any form of subtlety. Apparently the creative forces behind the project considered the sympathetic depiction of police, village militia, and intelligence personnel insufficient for censors’ approval. But if in the first place the lawyer character were left out, there would have been no need to present the viewpoints of the other parties involved in Angela’s case. As a consequence the main character loses out, and not just to the legal system either. Hilda Koronel works hard for a role which does not work for her in return. She screams, writhes, and grimaces for her plight as Angela although like the rest of the cast, she suffers from apparently komiks-derived self-consciously poetic lines that abandon the use of colorful colloquial prose for stiff sentence constructions and an insistence on repetition when silence alone would have sufficed.

11011About the only aspect of the movie which surpasses critical commentary is Conrado Baltazar’s cinematography. Not since Jaguar, for which he also took charge, has a local movie possessed such distinct visual character. What stands out in that of Angela Markado is Baltazar’s use of light, or more properly his disuse of it. Defying the local preference to illuminate every detail, he employs one or two oblique sources for his nocturnal shots and directs the rays at some inanimate structure or at the camera itself. The result is not only (pardon the pun) arresting in approach, it also lends itself to levels of interpretation mature moviegoers would delight in discovering in such displays of expertise. Would that the same could be said for the movie as a whole. As it is, Angela Markado might best be taken as just another exercise by Brocka in his quest to depict the Filipina’s struggle for survival and dignity.

[First published November 21, 1980, in Times Journal]

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Text vs. Texture

Macho Dancer
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Amado Lacuesta Jr. and Ricardo Lee

For all its kinks, Macho Dancer ought to occasion the intense seminal discussions that major films during the 1970s, particular Nunal sa Tubig and Lino Brocka’s own Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, engendered. Unfortunately a complex of extraneous factors seems to be working against this possibility: once-extensive local critical activity has dissipated, the subject matter itself is too delicate for casual, much less objective, consideration, and the director’s international reputation seems to have raised expectations beyond what the movie is capable of sustaining. On the other hand, a new lease on national life was provided by the February 1986 revolution, and Philippine film observers will eventually realize (which means they still have to) that the original art-criticism signpost – the declaration of martial law in 1972 – has been superseded, for better or worse, by the three-year-old upheaval. Not only was there in 1986, as in 1972, a worrisome hiatus in film attendance preceded by moral permissiveness and followed by a return to basic commercial imperatives; critical reaction also, in both cases, suffered a decline owing to the momentary failure to acknowledge the implications of the shift in the sociopolitical structure on artistic production.

11011As far as the new, uncertain era has bidden so far, Macho Dancer is its first major serious output, and by a coincidence everyone has overlooked, Lino Brocka, who almost singlehandedly revived artistic consciousness in film with Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang in the seventies, has done it again. This process of pioneering, though, once proved too enervating even for someone like Brocka, who after the more impressive triumph of Maynila, left the field to the likes of Eddie Romero (Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon?), Ishmael Bernal (Manila by Night), and Marilou Diaz-Abaya (Moral), before bouncing back with a belated major-status entry, Miguelito: Batang Rebelde, right before the close of the previous era. Macho Dancer calls to mind a number of Brocka films that deal with the similar subject of homosexuality, all of them integral albeit minor achievements: the komiks-derived Tubog sa Ginto, the star (Dolphy and Niño Muhlach) vehicle Ang Tatay Kong Nanay, and the romantic-comedy Palipat-Lipat, Papalit-Palit. Macho Dancer, however, has evoked parallelisms with the redoubtable Maynila, and for good reason: what seemed like an indulgent deviation in the latter has this time been expanded to a full-blown treatise in the current release, with the searcher-cum-victim split into two major characters.

The cover review in Kultura, the Cultural Center of the Philippines journal, of Lino Brocka’s Macho Dancer (1988).

11011The innocent at odds with social evil has been a recurrent – as a matter of fact, the only – theme in the noteworthy titles in Brocka’s oeuvre, and Macho Dancer is no exception. The only complication, which to my mind has become Macho Dancer’s gravest flaw, is that this concept of social innocence is necessarily a bourgeois contribution to the fiction tradition, whether film or literature or, as in the case of Mahatma Gandhi (and Corazon Aquino), politics. Where a dramatic setup like that of Miguelito is favorably disposed to accommodate this sort of character orientation, that of Macho Dancer is woefully inappropriate, as will become evident later. Maynila is a special case in point, that actually upholds rather than challenges this thesis. Here the – how else to put it? – sensitivity of the provinciano lead is nullified by a twist in the end, where a social rather than a psychological resolution takes place: it is the members of Julio Madiaga’s class who take the initiative in, well, exterminating the guy, rather than the unspecified upper stratum that had been oppressing him for the entire length of the narrative.

11011Macho Dancer suffers in comparison with both Maynila, which at the very least had allegorical strength, and Miguelito, which had integral characterizations going for it; but then again, even Tinimbang Ka would have aged fast enough to crumble beside Maynila and Miguelito. What places Brocka’s latest a cut above his 1970s watershed work is the amazing consistency of filmic texture – the clearest indication that Macho Dancer could only have been an eighties, and an old-time director’s, effort. Moreover, it features a choice of material that’s not so much daring politically as it is morally, and by doing so it indicates for post-EDSA filmmakers where the next area for thematic debate lies: politics, dear Watson, won’t be necessarily passé. It will just assume the incidental role that it actually plays in subjective reality, prior to providing a higher plane of involvement, where the issues graduate from personalized relationships to more intellectual and medium-conscious concerns – in short, from the public sphere into the dualistic politics of identities that continually collide in the private sphere.

11011In more media-specific terms this can be deduced from the transmutation of the French New Wave into the so-called milieu movies of latter-era Europe and even Hollywood. How this might be manifested in Philippine cinema can be glimpsed through the triple-M treat of Manila by Night, Moral, and Miguelito (and we note with some reticence that it’s Brocka who contributed last to this formal discursive trend). Macho Dancer, were it not for its basic textual problems, could have served as a reviewer of this sort of function, considering that the distinctiveness of its setting recalls Manila by Night, the first and still the best of the lot. As it turns out, Macho Dancer flounders precisely when it attempts to move from delineation to development of milieu. As in Miguelito, the strategy is to employ the generic strength of the thriller, which by definition should suffice to maintain audience interest in lines of action, if not anything else. This is indicated in the film by a transition in physical location, when the lead character Pol moves from an American military-base locale to the metropolitan capital.

11011Pol’s story then follows his separate interactions with two characters – Bambi, a hardened streetwalker, and Noel, a fellow dancer and, but of course, another prostitute. Pol falls in love with Bambi and almost becomes Noel’s lover; Noel in turn traces his long-lost sister to a seedy brothel and perishes in the attempt to rescue her. The issue of credibility at this point centers on how Pol could have retained his heterosexual orientation all this time. Having had sufficiently profitable and trauma-free career upgrades, plus the casual consent of his family and hometown friends, there would have been the least chance of falling for a woman who never bothered to hide her brutalization from him in the first place; on the other hand, there would also have been every opportunity to develop an emotional dependence on Noel, with whom Pol had shared not just the melodrama of the latter’s search but also, and more saliently, a bedroom, a (skimpy) wardrobe, and a live erotic act.

11011Nowhere is this reluctance to pursue obvious logic displayed than in the excuses summoned for sexual encounters between Pol and Noel: first they were forced by their gay bar’s mama-san, then were caught up in the depression of discovering the plight of Noel’s sister, and finally, in a completely dispensable development, agreed to a pornographic video performance to raise funds for the sister’s deliverance. Not only does the last overlook the many other financial sources that Noel resorts to in the course of his presentation as character; it also leads to some possibly incidental semiotic irony, when the movie camera assumes the point of view of the video camera, in effect admitting (but only to the incorrigibly academic, I hope) the voyeuristic nature of this particular plot-based problematic. In the end Pol consummates his relationship with Noel vicariously, by offering his last live act to his late friend. The trouble is that he needs a partner for this number, and it turns out to be one of the least sympathetic characters in the film, a virtual extension of the corrupt policeman who killed Noel. The irony in this situation is glossed over by the lyricism of the execution of this particular scene; moreover, the Platonic (in the Calvinistic rather than the original Greek sense) nature of Pol’s regard for Noel effectively defines Noel’s desire for Pol as a weakness, juxtaposed as it was with Bambi’s resistance and eventual triumph for both herself and Pol.

11011Noel’s story is therefore the embodiment of whatever modern sensibility Macho Dancer has had the good fortune to retain. As performed by Daniel Fernando, it also constitutes an achievement in post-1986 film acting – multi-levelled, conflicted even, but heartfelt, and without a single hint of the inhibitions that would naturally attend this kind of role-playing. The Noel in Macho Dancer is such a rarity (in the film as in Philippine cinema in general) that when the character is bumped off, our realization that this sort of presentation – of a moral outlaw who operates without guilt yet prospers by sheer charm – might be on its way to finding a larger share of audience patronage is enough assurance, for now. The Bambi character also scores, notwithstanding the falsehood she incites in Pol, largely because Jaclyn Jose has developed into such a fail-safe performer. For post-1986 acting hers, regardless of film title, is the definitive model: stylish stylelessness, if ever there was one. Fernando’s in Macho Dancer may be the present era’s best male performance so far, but Jose’s body of work threatens to challenge any comparable accumulation in available local film history.

11011Two disturbing peripheral personae in Macho Dancer point to the larger potential passed up by the undertaking. Johnny Vicar as the corrupt policeman effectively essays the evil counterpart of Noel, but his role requires him to venture forth nothing more than utter villainy for his exceptional nature as powerful brute, moral degenerate, and heartless killer. On the other hand lies Noel’s sister, who as executed by Princess Punzalan is everything that the aforementioned police officer isn’t: straight, female, wholesome, and capable of suffering – Ligaya Paraiso of Maynila down to the fixed frown and moving monologue. That the policeman dies, as avenged by Pol, and the sister lives to return to what may be presumed a provincial idyll, is at the very least a reversal, at worst a betrayal of all the foregoing businesses. The viewer gets deprived of appreciating the extent and depth of big-city corruption, a realization reinforced by the reward granted the only character who opted to remain a weakling. Vicar and Punzalan, for all their displayed capabilities, square off against each other only on a symbolic plane, and the twists in their respective stories merely serve to confuse their meanings rather than reveal genuine social archetypes.

11011All the other elements, whether plastic or histrionic, combine admirably enough so long as they remain out of the track of the narrative. (For the first time, for one thing, star filters have been correctly used to convey the tawdriness of certain interior settings.) But when text leads to one thing and texture to another, the result could be self-defeating, or at least puzzling: after the policeman makes a display of his tender mercies, the better to cow his public to submission, he chooses to execute Noel sans his usual audience. A sudden (and analytically embarrassing) rain effect helps to drown out, as it were, the contradiction in this situation, but the filmmaker could get away with only so much – and only up to the point where his theatrical control ends. One last detail in the movie’s resolution constitutes a throwback to the basic political moralizing also pioneered by Brocka during the Marcos era. The policeman’s death is mistakenly attributed to the Communist underground hit squad, conjuring up an entire offscreen scenario of Pol’s American acquaintances as well as the policeman’s cohort constantly under threat of annihilation, no matter how justifiable. The trouble isn’t so much historical (Brocka once went on record to condemn such practices) or political (the notoriously heteronormative underground is queered by association);[1] a simple process of logic raises the question of how a guy who could be repeatedly duped by his big-city friends, seduced by a cynical sex worker, humiliated in public and even made to witness the murder of his best friend by the very object of his vendetta could still muster the distance and cunning necessary to carry out his vigilante-style execution.

11011The only plausible reason is that the story, crammed as it was with depressing developments, needed an uplift at this point – just as Pol’s subsequent dance fit perfectly in the movie’s rhythmic schema (a beatific calm after a grief-stricken storm), without necessarily taking into account the hard, scientific possibilities involved. A casual acquaintance with recent critical thinking will suffice to explain why filmmakers exposed to First-World aesthetic systems tend to overvalue non-dramatic elements. Since the basics of cinema were finalized decades ago, there was no other way for speculative processes to venture except into the heartland of film craft: the dramatics of film storytelling. But since the standards in this territory were set as far back as ancient history, and the commercial nature of filmmaking demanded (or so it seemed) greater justification for the simple act of dabbling in it, critics have been outdoing one another in attempting to turn this reliable and productive premise inside out. Narrative, yes; but rather the poesy of narrative first, its musicality even – rhythm and texture and harmony, rather than the rigors of plot and logic and character, lest we be mistaken for being old-fashioned and possibly capitalistic.

11011Modern apices in filmmaking craft have managed to accommodate both sides of this essentially irreconcilable opposition by proceeding from the basis of solid drama and working toward the so-called refinements of non-dramatic art. Texture as text becomes the operative formula in this case, although the actual procedure begins with text and builds up toward a text-based type of texture, which in the end can be taken as the final statement – the ultimate text – of the filmic work. Rather than being replaced, the dramatic nature of film is in fact upheld by this approach. The evidence of local capabilities in this area is commendable enough, with filmmakers coming up with output as impressive as the aforementioned Manila by Night and Moral even without the aid of theoretical articulation by our film critics. Even Brocka’s Miguelito begins with the same foundation, although the depiction of milieu does not come about as successfully as in the instance of the other two films, primarily because the movie’s discourse remained resolute on its level of origin.

11011Of course the other tendency, the literal application of “texture as text,” has also found its way in our midst, and has gifted us with at least one supreme accomplishment in naturalism, Oro, Plata, Mata. The primacy of basic dramatic values, however, has proved sturdy enough to demonstrate that, while Oro, Plata, Mata may have delivered the strongest initial impact among all the major Filipino films produced thus far, the absence of a sturdy dramatic framework has made it incapable of sustaining its first impressions. On the other hand, other types of films – even formalistically and ideologically conventional ones like Ganito Kami Noon – have proved to be worthier of long-term appreciation. Macho Dancer evinces an awareness of this debate, but happens to be indeterminate about the proper nature of the relationship between contradictory elements. The presence of a distinct but non-filmic milieu has been mistakenly regarded as sufficient unto itself, and the development of plot and character, at certain points at least, may have been considered as obstacles, rather than materials, in rendering social complexion. Such then becomes the tension evident in Macho Dancer: the voices of a young nation, simple in essence actually, crying to break out in final clarity, trapped for the moment in the conceits and convolutions of awe-inspiring world-class stylistic panache.

[First published April-June 1989 in Kultura]


[1] I remember Brocka issuing a statement condemning the spate of gun-wresting attacks waged by urban guerrillas that necessarily resulted in the assassination of police officers. I had (and still have) no way of determining whether his staging of these incidents in Macho Dancer or in his next major project, Orapronobis, derived from a shift in his opinion – toward an acceptance of the necessity of the practice, which to me seemed unlikely – or were intended as cautionary depictions. Ricardo Lee, one of the scriptwriters of Macho Dancer, confirmed then-prevalent impressions that the linearization of the initially multi-stranded plot occurred when he had to work on another script, at the point when Brocka “wanted to emphasize the syndicate and the role of William Lorenzo [who played Pol’s final dance partner]. He wanted to provide some hope in the ending” (Facebook Messenger reply, October 13, 2020).

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After the Revolution

Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Jose F. Lacaba

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

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

11011It also arrives, like those twin big-city masterpieces – Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night and Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag – in a swirl of controversies complicated no end by the project’s internationality this time around. No doubt discourses on the director’s differences with his foreign financiers and own government, plus the movie’s inherent capability of provoking debates on ideological and public-relations policy issues, contain the potential to continue beyond the resolutions of whatever problems can be formulated, for whatever motives possible. This is the main reason why Orapronobis is being discussed by practically every major opinionist who happens to have an outlet for publication or broadcast. And the determination of the movie’s ultimate worth being buried in the avalanche of articulate, well-meaning, but conflicting points set loose by political perturbations remains, as lawyers love to put it, a clear and present danger.

11011Orapronobis would probably be a fitting marker for the end of its director’s second decade in his profession – or, for that matter, the beginning of his third. Like any other Filipino filmmaker gifted with vision and intelligence, Brocka would be the last to admit that his career has been a tranquil and restful one. To make matters worse (for himself, that is), he happened to assume the extra burden of pioneering for Philippine cinema in foreign shores. It would be only logical to conclude three things, each proceeding from the other: that Brocka’s artistry, intersected as it had been at about the midpoint of his career so far by international attention, would exhibit permutations unique to his case; that these would be more difficult to analyze than similar case studies of local directors, since internationalized interactions presumably induce a system of dialectics which may be occasionally complementary with, but which may also at other times be tangential or opposed to, that of local dynamics; and finally, it would take even the most sincere and driven director (and Brocka is nothing if not one) quite a time, given these constraints, before he can come up with a definitive body of work.

11011Orapronobis is proof positive of the last conclusion. Prior to this, the only truly major movies Brocka ever made were Maynila and Miguelito: Batang Rebelde; naturally, the course of his international impaction did not always conform to the pattern formed by these three titles. If anything, Brocka became better – and unfairly, if I may say so – known for efforts that were minor to a fault, minimalist in style, and badly balanced by what could only be explained as an overeager willingness to please an ill-advised combination of foreign admirers and the local masses, neglecting the crucial element of local observers (including the community of artists Brocka belongs to). Ultimately the director will be known as more than just another Third-World filmmaker. With the three aforementioned titles, a case can be made for his versatility in three disparate and difficult film approaches: documentary realism in Maynila, milieu formation in Miguelito, and advocatory moviemaking in Orapronobis. Each milestone holds its own significance with respect to Brocka’s career development. Maynila was a stunning coup d’essai, coming as it did without any antecedent among any of the major talents (apart from Brocka, scriptwriter Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., cinematographer Mike de Leon, and lead performer Rafael Roco Jr.) associated with it; Miguelito displayed the range and extent of Brocka’s discipline in being able to pick up from what he had left off more than a decade earlier, improving on a better-forgotten first attempt in Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang; Orapronobis, for its part, has drawn directly from a number of impassioned works but responded to the need to depart from a scantiness of details and devices on the one hand and a surfeit of bathos on the other.

11011Of particular interest in this last instance is Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim, the previous collaboration between Brocka and Orapronobis’s writer Jose F. Lacaba. Released locally the same year as Miguelito, Bayan Ko managed to ride a crest of sentiment swollen by the anti-dictatorship movement (which had resulted in the temporary interdiction of the movie and incarceration of its director), sufficient to surpass in critical attention not just its superior contemporary but also a number of other better works. Ironically the 1986 revolution, in negating Bayan Ko’s source of suffering, did the same to its artistic raison d’être, in effect allowing its basic thematic weakness of justifying both proletarian nobility and lumpenist imperatives in the same character to now become a commanding concern. Such historical reversals may soon similarly obtain in the case of Orapronobis, but in the opposite direction. Reviled, at least in certain quarters, where Bayan Ko was admired, the current opus will definitely be capable of prevailing on its own merits as film – that is, if it manages to survive what is turning out to be typical establishment resistance to its divulgence of disillusionment and dissent.

11011The achievement is all the more noteworthy when one considers that Bayan Ko essentially constituted a throwback to Maynila, in the sense that the intention was for the viewer’s perception of reality to be transformed after the viewing experience; no plastic manipulations were imposed on reality as raw material, and at one point the action was in fact transposed to an ongoing protest march, rather than, as in Maynila, the march being staged for more effective filmic exploitation. Comparatively, Orapronobis consigns documentary events onscreen to the onslaught of a narrative which has drawn voraciously from known facts – hence sandwiching the presentation between history, on the one hand, and realistic imagery, on the other. The method would be daring for those who happen to share the movie’s conclusions, but even those who don’t will have to admit that cleverness of a high order is involved herein: the post-experiential transformation of reality may or may not take place, depending upon one’s ideological position, but in the meantime an alteration has already been accomplished, facilitated by the act of viewing itself, and the return to a stance of disagreement would require a strong (and possibly disturbing) triumph of the will.

11011The matter becomes clearer when one reduces Orapronobis to its most basic level of argumentation. All possible worst-scenario charges against the existing political dispensation are stacked up front, crowding out in the end any possible apology (as represented by the lead character’s initial frame of mind) for even the minutest offense. There is nothing really dramatic about this sort of attitude: in fact the only motivation, if we may extend our definition, allowed the main antagonist is that he suffers from a psychosis stemming from a lethal combination of colonialism, religiosity, and machismo. Yet in a schematic way the movie manages to convey a cautionary world-view that surpasses even the commonplace businesses that it purports to treat. If domestic relationships are regarded, as well they may be in Philippine culture, as basis for an ideal, then the movie’s protagonists can be seen to function in a context not far removed from the potential for abusiveness and callousness that their enemies have gone over into. The lead’s underground contact turns out to be a hit man who targets a policeman shown as having a family of his own (cf. the more exploitative treatment of this recent urban-guerrilla strategy in the previous Brocka international release, Macho Dancer); more saliently, the lead himself ultimately abandons his wife and newborn child to rejoin the underground movement, more in retaliation for the death of his illegitimate family than from any need for personal security.

11011The performances constitute a vital aspect in delineating this state of affairs. The legal wife’s predicament works only in retrospect mainly because Dina Bonnevie, despite a strong presence, loses out to the skills of Gina Alajar, who may originally have been intended as a foil, an impetus to the male lead’s change of heart, but actually succeeds in becoming a dominating figure in the movie through the sheer resplendency of her portrayal. Phillip Salvador is for once given again the opportunity to work with a fully rounded character, this time smoothing out the rough edges observable in Jaguar (his first film and the first Brocka-Lacaba collaboration, with co-writer Ricardo Lee). Jaguar though would be more instructive than coincidental this time around: here the antagonist, unlike that of Bembol Roco in Orapronobis, is treated with enough sympathy to create an involving conflict between him and the title character.

11011Hence the means by which Orapronobis elicits audience alertness is not so much representational as technical. It would be valid, though somewhat pedantic, to say that montage is actually the main actor in the movie – the engrossing alternation between romanticism and paranoia, the intricate correlation between imagery and anxiety, and finally the successful transmutation of symbols of personal comfort (religion, politics, even escapist cinema) into objects of social menace. When an editor – actually three of them in the opening credits – doesn’t hesitate to use jump cuts to compress time, then she knows and appreciates her film language; but when she uses them to facilitate transitions and make narrative commentaries in the process (as in the use of the religious-icon insert in the final rape scene), then she has progressed beyond film language to imaginative storytelling. Mature editorial judgments resist the usual confinements of style and genre; although essentially a political thriller, with several shots timed at split-seconds, Orapronobis’s climax comprises a series of prolonged takes, the longest of which consists of an excruciating yet exhilarating slow zoom into the lead character rocking his dead son in church.[1]

11011It may be said, on the basis of Orapronobis, that an aspect of Brocka’s artistic persona may have died along with his long-time cinematographer Conrado Baltazar. Gone are the cavernous compositions and light-and-shadow interplay that used to suggest more than what the script was capable of conveying. This is not to say, however, that Brocka has merely returned to the functionalism of his early, pre-Tinimbang Ka movies. What the latest work suggests is that the director has become more confident with the tools of his medium and may now pay more attention to how these can be made to serve the purposes of straightforward storytelling – not in the manner of recreating history in terms of imagery or narratory momentum, but through the realization of a vision whose relationship with actualities becomes secondary to its awareness of and approach to film. All told, Orapronobis bodes both ways for Philippine cinema in the next decade – or what we should all hope to be another Golden Age, if not a continuation of the previous one. It confirms the increasing technical sophistication of Filipino filmmakers even as it dares to challenge and reverse popular notions of existing reality. What ought to be anticipated is the reflexive backlash against such an appropriation of what has long been the jurisdiction of social institutions, rather than entertainment industries: the privilege to uphold or change values or attitudes. No doubt experience has proved that artists do it better, and less painfully besides, but then it’s the other types who maintain positions of influence in the end.

11011As for the particular artist behind Orapronobis, the time may well be near when a Brocka film could be appreciated fully on its own, rather than as part of an indispensable body of work, no matter how impressively sustained the individual entries may be. In this regard a long-time lesson from that part of the world where he has been introduced to the global film community could serve as appropriate starting point. Not long before Lino Brocka began making films, the French managed to prove, first in theory and then in New-Wave practice, that several styles may be successfully combined in singular works, which in turn would be limited only by their filmmakers’ command of the styles being used. When the next major Brocka movie would be putting to use in one summarist masterpiece his accumulation of skills through the years, instead of the pursuit of too-distinctive modes of expression and content, might just be one of the more welcome developments in the near future of Philippine cinema.

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


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

11011Elsewhere the author echoes his local source in describing Orapronobis and Manila by Night as instances of “socialist realism” (145 & 159 resp.), an even more baffling conclusion, since neither presidential regime under which these were produced (Ferdinand Marcos’s and Corazon Aquino’s respectively) was socialist in name or in practice; nor were the directors hard-line members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (which had been and continues to be outlawed) when the films were made. It would be reasonable to speculate that both Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal would hesitate (to say the least) in appreciating actual samples of socialist-realist cinema – a creature far removed from the worthier though also dated practice of social realism – and adopting these as worthy models, outside of campy comedic traditions. See Jonathan Beller, Acquiring Eyes: Philippine Visuality, Nationalist Struggle, and the World-Media System (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2006).

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The National Pastime – Directors 2: O’Hara/Gallaga

Major Bid

Bulaklak sa City Jail
Directed by Mario O’Hara
Written by Lualhati Bautista

Bulaklak sa City Jail is the last item in a series of outstanding outputs by the local movie industry in 1984. Among other things, three distinctions will be sure to secure for it at least a footnote in the history of contemporary Philippine cinema, in terms of the people involved in its production: it marks an auspicious debut for the Cherubim Films outfit, showcases Nora Aunor’s best performance for her comeback year, and signals the emergence of Mario O’Hara as a director whose command of craft has finally caught up with his conscience – an expectation which seemed to have been forgotten in the wake of similar successes by relatively more recent filmmakers. Audacious claims aside, the objective significance of Bulaklak sa City Jail resides in its depiction of a realistic social condition in high cineliterary style – an infusion that provides ample enough tension for most of the movie’s successful portions as well as diffusion of control in its less enlightening moments.

Print ad layout for Mario O’Hara’s Bulaklak sa City Jail (1984).

11011Bulaklak sa City Jail follows the searing odyssey of Angela, a pregnant victim of a miscarriage of justice, from her incarceration in the women’s section of an urban prison, through her escape and delivery of her love child in a city zoo, to her recapture and eventual legal triumph in obtaining custody of her baby. The city-jail sequences, which take up more than two-thirds of the film, provide the justification necessary for the above-mentioned declarations: here O’Hara creates a world self-contained in its observance of the perverse principles of dehumanization. Largely through a combination of a near-consummate grasp of technical elements as well as impressive performances derived from sound casting, the said sequences manage to build up to a workable microcosm of big-city savagery. So much so that once the movie’s concerns step out of the city-jail milieu, an imbalance ensues from an apparent confusion of purposes: if the aim were to establish prison life as a representation of everyday reality (as had been achieved in the film), then the device of re-establishing the same statement in the outside world has resulted in a redundancy; if, on the other hand, the city were intended to reflect and possibly amplify the conditions inherent in urban prisons, then the city-jail portions may be regarded as faulted by over-development. As earlier stressed, however, the portion of the film concentrated on the city-jail locale in itself makes possible the felicitous declaration of a qualitative adjustment in the capabilities of O’Hara.

11011So far the only pitfall he has stumbled into in Bulaklak sa City Jail appears to be the pursuit of a more grandiose design (the city as confirmation of the city-jail metaphor) at the expense of already established premises. For the excursion of Angela into big-city intrigues forces the film into a linear storytelling mode as the characterization of city-jail types is abandoned for plot twists; here the absurdities acceptable for enrichment of character begin to be called to account, and are transformed, in the context of conventionalized approaches, into glaring lapses of logic. Foremost among these is the total absence of outside support for any of the inmates. While this real-life improbability becomes necessary for the organization of the dramatic lines of force among the inmates, the artifice gets exposed once the Angela character is made to abandon the city-jail schema and the audience consequently realizes that the last jail victim she fought for before deciding to escape had connections powerful enough to influence court decisions – a consideration that makes their failure in releasing the victim-to-be too obvious to be ascribed to sheer negligence. A further inadequacy is evidenced in the stack-up of coincidences that lead to the dragnet and delivery sequences in the city zoo – admittedly the most impressive set-piece in the entire movie – although the question here is more of intention rather than method: why show the protagonist as trapped in a prison of murderous animals when the same point had already been driven home in, various degrees of effectiveness, in the city-jail and urban sojourns of the character? Here a less accidental development of action would probably have rendered the incident more satisfactory, unlike the forced (because false) wrap-up where Angela’s love child is presented to his godparents – who turn out to be the tragediennes of the city-jail portion: what were left behind by Angela as hopeless preys to the dog-eat-dog system of prison life turn out to be happy and whole after all, thereby contravening the already weak post-city-jail turn of events.

11011Although Bulaklak sa City Jail would ordinarily have been doomed by such compromises, the project does not appear to be as easily dismissible, saved as it is by a surface perfection never before seen in any Mario O’Hara movie. Previous exertions by the same director, if serious enough in purpose, tended to lapse into theatrical over-statement. Bulaklak sa City Jail indicates a readiness for maturation on the part of O’Hara, specifically in the combination of his willingness to handle big themes (which has always been his strong point) with the confidence of a veteran film craftsperson. Particularly noteworthy is his ability to create dramatic texture through the interrelation of character progressions (in the city-jail portion) and the use of ironic juxtapositions. Although these are virtues that should first be credited to the screenwriter, it may do observers well to keep in mind that O’Hara has written some of his own films’ scripts and has done even better ones for other directors. A continuing consciousness on his part of dramatic essentials will help distinguish him from the Johnnys-come-lately of so-called serious filmmaking, who in their less sober moments strive for flash without regard for illuminative sources.

11011With Bulaklak sa City Jail Mario O’Hara has begun his bid for major-league filmmaking. And at no sooner a time than the present: too long a period has elapsed since reviewers had such an opportunity to sharpen their critical faculties to be able to keep up with progressive artists who, by their long daring strides, set the pace for Philippine cinema.

[Submitted January 1985 to Tinig ng Plaridel; unpublished]

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O’Hara Strikes Again

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

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

11011He also seems to have found the ideal level of balance between working on a moderate budget yet making the most out of his own storytelling and his performers’ histrionic potentials. Of particular interest over the years are his collaborations with Nora Aunor, and since his resumption of a directorial career during the 1980s, his batting average of roughly one well-made movie annually during the past four years places him on a par with no other local director except Peque Gallaga. For belligerence’s sake, I suppose one could list down the latter’s Virgin Forest and Scorpio Nights (both 1985), Unfaithful Wife (1986), and Once Upon a Time (1987), and on the other hand name Condemned and Bulaklak sa City Jail (both 1984), Bagong Hari (1986), and add Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak as O’Hara’s 1987 entry. Funny, as a final sidelight, how one happens to be identified with the art-for-art’s sake camp, while the other’s associated with the social-realism group – reflecting the earlier dichotomization between the public personae of Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka.

11011Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak isn’t exactly a movie one should rave about indiscriminately – let’s reserve that reaction for the first title that recalls the glory days of the early eighties. What Tatlong Ina does is provide a conventional good time (an irony for a film whose main characters are illegitimate kids, sex workers, and gangsters) – and it sure reflects tellingly on the state of the industry when a movie without any major ambition turns out to be in many ways the year’s best so far. The strange thing about Tatlong Ina, coming as it does from a filmmaker with a presumably progressive political orientation, is the property it shares with O’Hara’s other recent good films: happy endings. (Of instructive socio-psychological value would be a comparison between these and Gallaga’s serious efforts, which in contrast, except for Once Upon a Time, present tragic resolutions.) Although suffused with film noir stylizations, especially in an overabundance of shadows and equally shady characters, O’Hara films are entertaining to a degree that would definitely appall dogmatic proponents of social realism.

11011Never has his strategy become more obvious than in Tatlong Ina, where the happy ending finally ties in most satisfyingly with all the preceding developments. For all its realist imagery and subject matter, the movie is actually a proletariat’s fantasy – a wide-eyed daydream on how personal virtues operating within the proper social circumstances might just suffice in surmounting classic class conflicts. As further proof of Tatlong Ina’s political sophistication – or cleverness, depending upon your preference for the conventional – the proletarian heroes encounter opposition from not only the orthodox villains, the bourgeoisie, but also the so-called bad elements from whom they (the heroes) may initially be indistinguishable. The unlikely team of golden-hearted prostitutes and noble-minded bums subdue kid-snatchers and snobbish aristocrats through the use of force and charm respectively, with sexual attraction for each other and sympathy for a fallen comrade’s love child as motivating force.

11011The abstraction does sound ridiculous, and isn’t helped any by a series of coincidences that help propel the major characters toward ultimate victory. Only an artist’s strong convictions in the face of all this silliness could create a semblance of integrity through technical consistency. Which, luckily, O’Hara provides, by way of skills rooted in theater and well-hewn in cinema.

11011It wouldn’t be too pedantic then to maintain that Tatlong Ina, as typical of O’Hara at his best, is an effective accumulation of finely observed and captured incidents with above-average performances providing the crucial credibility factor. His storyteller’s sense of proportion fails him this time in only two instances, both of them admittedly minor in relation to the movie’s overall accomplishment. One is the use of the child as commentator, when her narrative functions at the start would have sufficed. Of course the expansion of the precocious Matet’s role fits in with her lead-star status, which in turn has served as the movie’s main come-on; but the problem of explaining real time – when, where, and why is she telling the story of her “mothers’” uphill struggles? – eventually emerges, and is never given even a perfunctory explanation. Secondly, and more seriously for the film’s narrative purposes, the story suddenly permutes into the standard (and, by now, quite kinky) Nora Aunor requisite of pairing off a mousy character with an extremely improbable mestizo-type; the fact that the Adonis in Tatlong Ina also happens to come from old-rich stock practically promises to be the movie’s undoing.

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

11011To a certain extent this particular instance of indulgence is mitigated by O’Hara’s bravura staging of the most original wedding sequence since such endings recently became de rigueur once more in commercial romantic outings. To be sure, the mise-en-scène appears in this case to be simple enough; it is the working out of the various class reactions, specifically the reverse snobbery of the about-to-be-redeemed ex-prostitutes, that ensures that this wedding scene’s reliance less on pomp than on circumstance will make acceptable its appendage to the movie. The aforementioned reservations aside, Tatlong Ina can stake a short-term claim on memory, if only for its admirable exposition on the underworld milieu, comparable to the same director’s prison portion in his other Nora Aunor movie, Bulaklak sa City Jail. Tatlong Ina’s is more loosely structured, but then it covers a whole lot more territory, and as explained earlier, its upbeat ending fits the entire schema less awkwardly than does the earlier work. If this presages a cautious breaking away from the predictable and admittedly tiresome traditions of social relevance in moviemaking, then O’Hara’s next moves certainly merit closer attention.

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

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Beyond the Stars

Oro, Plata, Mata
Directed by Peque Gallaga
Written by Jose Javier Reyes

Directed by Marilou Diaz-Abaya
Written by Ricardo Lee

Something in the stars could have facilitated an ascendency in Philippine film during the last third of last year, when a staggering array of quality productions shone within these shores and beyond. These luminous additions to the growing constellation of local splendor include Batch ’81, Mike de Leon’s entry to the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight; Cain at Abel, Lino Brocka’s successful entry to the San Sebastian Film Festival competition; Himala, Ishmael Bernal’s Metro Manila Film Festival and Catholic Mass Media Awards multi-winner and opening film of the Manila International Film Festival (MIFF); and Relasyon, another Bernal film which merited inclusion in the MIFF’s retrospective of outstanding Filipino films. The two most significant films of 1982, however, have little in common apart from their simultaneous release and subsequent inclusion in the MIFF competition. Yet both films – Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Moral and Peque Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata – lend themselves to related commentaries not so much because of the superiority of one to the other (as is almost always the case in comparative criticism) but by virtue of the lessons they impart on filmmaking which local practitioners and producers of the craft could profit from.

Maurice Claudio Luis Ruiz de Luzuriaga Gallaga (b. 1943), better known as Peque Gallaga.

11011Moral demonstrates how the Filipino filmmaker is capable of working within an industry suffering from economic and political constraints, while Oro, Plata, Mata reveals how this same (nationality-wise) filmmaker would be just as capable of fulfilling expectations accordant to a significant reduction of the abovementioned constraints. In fact, as may readily be gleaned from any casual overview of recent Philippine film history, Oro, Plata, Mata could never have been produced without the relatively limitless budget and minimal politicking ironically afforded by the very entity which has so far failed to accomplish the same for its region of responsibility, the local movie industry. Ethical reservations aside, Oro, Plata, Mata runs along the lines of a genuine spectacle, setting standards previously considered too firmamental for Filipino craftspeople. The movie’s triumph is mainly directorial in nature. Gallaga invests his first solo credit with some of the most impressive visual flourishes ever to appear in a local period film. On the basis of one scene alone – the exodus of an aristocratic household across conflagrant fields – his auspice as a major filmmaker has virtually been assured.

11011Gallaga’s achievement is made all the more remarkable when one considers the many limitations inherent in his material. The structure is chronological as far as succession of events is concerned. Although the title’s ternary constitution suggests a division of the story into three portions, the film itself moves through five distinct phases determined by the location of the action: the urban residence, the country estate, the forest sanctuary, the bandits’ hideout, and the urban residence again. To suggest that the first or the last portion acts as an introduction or recapitulation respectively would be forcing incompatible analogies form another medium: each portion advances from the previous one toward a panoramic design of the aristocracy’s decline, so that the last setting, though physically similar to the first, differs dramatically, among other respects.

11011Up to roughly the middle of the middle portion the film benefits from confident, if conventional, storytelling. Thence it introduces a conflict apparently intended to catalyze its thematic concerns. Herein figures the film’s weakest item, when the issue of divisiveness is raised on the foundation of disputatious class relations. The subsequent reappearance of the oppressed transformed into organized brutes capable of murdering members of their own class and kin further adds to the viewer’s discomfiture regarding the same characters’ psychological makeup and emotional motivations. To Gallaga’s credit, the film never flounders in the face of its shortcomings. His flair for venturesome visual delights may result in occasional narrative lapses (as in the disappearance of some characters and the appearance of others), but begs indulgence in the long run, if only for the consistently professional level of craft which he maintains. For this reason the movie’s climax, in which the newly primed lead character wipes out a whole band of bandits with the aid of a speech-impaired guerrilla, may have been considerably diluted in its efficacy by the confusion of conflicts, but nevertheless stands on its own as a showcase of virtuosic production, becoming more of a genre-within-a-film, if not an integral part of the whole.

Peque Gallaga orchestrating the opening party sequence (at that point the longest single take in local cinema) in Oro, Plata, Mata (1982).

11011All these merits notwithstanding, Oro, Plata, Mata, as earlier stressed, was created within an artificial setup. Its achievements therefore attest to the capability of serious artists working in an environment once removed from the present industry’s existent ills. For such gifted practitioners, potential embarrassments can be converted into audacities which may go well with some and poorly with others, but never sink to the depths of the dismissible. Moral, the other movie under consideration, anticipates Oro, Plata, Mata’s accomplishments by authenticating the aspirations of progressive artists in backward systems: that a major movie can be made from minor resources, so long as the parameters of human experience are effectively explored, exploited, and expanded. In this regard one may begin at the end by noting that various misimpressions have attended the critical reception to Moral. Perhaps the most serious is the charge that the film, dealing as it does with contemporary women’s problems, fails to furnish a serviceable scheme for feminism. As it turns out, Moral commences with a set of conflicts which intensify with each attempt at abatement, and concludes with the characters’ collective realization of the irresolvability of their respective situations.

11011To take the inevitability of such ambiguities as the film’s only intent, however, is to negate the transcendence it achieved in the course of characterization. Moral presents modern existence as a series of contradictions and endorses perseverance as a means of transforming unsatisfactory options into more viable, though not necessarily ideal, ones. Hence the undertone of melancholy at the film’s close – an acknowledgment that strength may have been found, yet compromise remains the order of the day. The film breaks off at precisely the juncture where the desperation of the situation meets the characters’ maturation as individuals. That the major ones happen to be women serves not only to unify the issues discussed therein but also to provide a multi-levelled mainspring of causalities.

11011Nevertheless what triggers off the conflicts in Moral is the contemporaneity of the situation more than the femininity of the characters: the junkie sleeps around as a denial of commitment, the singer allows herself to be exploited to compensate for her mediocrity, the housewife deserts her abusive husband to be able to demand time for herself. Even the ex-wife who remains devoted to her homosexual spouse attains an exceptional degree of civility only after a tragicomic encounter with her lover’s mistress. It is Moral’s refusal to polemicize that contributes to the heightening of the emotional dialectics in its approach to the conflicts it presents. The instance held by viewers of various political persuasions (unfortunately including the censors) as the sole exception becomes, upon closer inspection, a means by which the film’s basic beliefs are affirmed and upheld: for just as the female activist derives ennoblement from having to cope with the summary execution of her husband, so must the now-reformed junkie she lives with necessarily cope with her own exclusion from the personal and political involvements of the same man, whom she loves. In fact at this juncture the ex-junkie proves herself the moral equal of her true love’s wife by sharing, apart from material elements like money and shelter (which she would not care for, anyway), the latter’s grief for the loss of the man, now necessarily an ideal, that they live for.

11011All these perspicacities Diaz-Abaya makes palpable by supplying for the viewer a dense overlay of affective texture, primarily through ensemble performances and stratified editing. The combination, admixed with keen-witted wordplay, has resulted in a literacy of so high an order that it comes close to cleaving itself from the film’s visual values. Sometimes the strain of synthesizing the abstract with the medium manifests itself through a theatricality of execution; other times it becomes evident in excessive verbalization. But as in the instance of Oro, Plata, Mata, such violations of aesthetic conventions in Moral can be considered to have been controverted, this time by the subsistence of an intelligent benevolence which, as far as indigent filmmaking is concerned, should permit of a compensatory quantity of crudity. The ideal, of course, is to have the blessings which obtained in the making of Oro, Plata, Mata shower down on the rest of the local movie industry. No less estimable, however, would be the valiance of talent which works its way upward amid regressive propensities. Would that the benefits of the former apply to the fullness of the latter – if the powers beyond the stars allow.

[First published May 1 & 8, 1983, in Sunday Special]

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Searching For Options

Kid … Huwag Kang Susuko!
Directed by Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes
Written by Alfred Yuson

What Peque Gallaga hath wrought in the course of maintaining a stronghold in the beleaguered local industry is something that colleagues and observers alike may be too tired or antagonistic to admit: the distinction of having had the most impressive body of work by any single film director during the past half-decade. How he managed to sneak such an anathematizing achievement in the face of panicky producers and a disputatious community of artists should prove instructive to prospective film practitioners. The most obvious lesson can be drawn directly from the nature of his output. Gallaga is a true film-lover, in a manner that sets him apart from other major local directors who seem to regard the medium as incapable of artistic fulfillment on its own terms (thereby necessitating a fallback on “related” art forms such as theater, literature, even painting) – and that may even account for the oversight of his peers to his accomplishments after his debut. Not one bothered to formally accord Virgin Forest with its objective stature of clear superiority (as will be immediately evident in successive viewings) to Oro, Plata, Mata, although the critics’ group conceded a few technical awards to Scorpio Nights, a lesser achievement, during the same year. His Unfaithful Wife managed to get away with a far more decent treatment last year, but on the understanding that the competition wasn’t as tough as it normally should be.

11011Gallaga’s strategy is, at least so far, to take on each and every challenge to work within a popular genre that comes his way. So after the epic feat (and equally epic financial loss) of Oro, Plata, Mata, he has tried his hand at comedy (Bad Bananas sa Puting Tabing), historical drama (Virgin Forest), softcore (Scorpio Nights), melodrama (Unfaithful Wife), fantasy (Once Upon a Time), and action (Kid … Huwag Kang Susuko!), with a little muscle-flexing in horror (“Manananggal” segment in Shake, Rattle and Roll). But just as his strength lies in his infatuation with the medium to the point where he refuses to shy away from material that other directors with claims to self-respect would never be caught dabbling in, so does his weakness emanate from the movie whiz-kid destiny of having to apply the expected perspective to filmmaking. Not only should the result be exuberant, as befits a true aficionado’s inspiration; it should also be careful not to take itself too seriously. Hence witness the disappointments of Hollywood samples like Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple or Francis Ford Coppola’s later works. The same principle operates for Bad Bananas, “Manananggal,” and, sad to say, most glaringly in Gallaga’s latest, Kid … Huwag Kang Susuko!

11011The problem with Kid in this regard is more a miscalculation than a failure of sensibility. Unlike the case of Once Upon a Time, to cite a precedent, the genre of martial-arts films is too specific in appeal and has been done to death besides, literally sometimes. Where a fantasy can be harnessed to serious commentary with relatively little risk of losing the charm inherent in fancifulness and special effects, a karate movie tends to convey a tiresome impression of easy-way-out exoticism due to the mystifying origins of Oriental self-defense systems. At this point there are no two ways within the possible alternatives: either you pursue the fabular extreme which the system’s premise leads to (the way King Hu has succeeded in doing), or you simply relax and have fun with the genre – even at its expense, for a change.

11011Those who saw Kid were instead served a hybrid that was inflated beyond the limits the genre was capable of sustaining – too complex for the escapist viewer to appreciate, too self-conscious for the reluctant serious film enthusiast, who would welcome a little working-over of a type of movie that had already proved good business for its investors elsewhere anyway, and for far less effort at that. No wonder the villain turns out to be the most interesting detail in Kid – not being made to explain where he stands or comes from, he fits in either the mythological mode or the comic-strip treatment the movie could have appropriated. The rest of the dramatis personae are burdened with tragic notions that don’t sit well at all with the mundane nature of their circumstances, in the process misrepresenting the reality of their positions and our understanding of the dynamics of social forces. The predicament resembles that of Unfaithful Wife, although when we come around to basic sources, melodrama could presumably afford such quirks of character and convolutions of plot which are its staples to begin with.

11011As for Peque Gallaga, the options also happen to lie in two directions: either he can return to the genres he failed or triumphed in to be able to redeem his efforts in the first case or outdo himself in the second; or he can conduct an inquiry into possible film genres to combine, using the lessons gained from handling the individual ones. Not only would the latter option play on the desperation of today’s film producers – it would also open up for Gallaga, as for everyone else, newer possibilities in film discourse and presentation. Here’s to the last of kowtowing to forms that never were indigenous, much less valid, in the first place. Kid, huwag kang susuko.

[First published August 19, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Film as God

Isang Araw Walang Diyos
Directed by Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes
Written by Don Escudero, Peque Gallaga, and Lore Reyes

After Lino Brocka, Peque Gallaga could be the only other major Filipino filmmaker ready to regain his pre-1986 people-power status. For all their ideological polarities, both have several things in common: they opted to buck a more highly commercialized system, release their artistic “comebacks” at about the same time, and may have been cautious enough for their own good, but too cautious in fact for the final worth of their projects so far. Brocka’s Macho Dancer would be the operative example in this instance, with the promise of more unqualified triumph in Orapronobis, plus a by-now irrefutable track record in crowd-drawing melodramas. In Gallaga’s case, Isang Araw Walang Diyos recalls his astounding early breakthroughs, particularly with Oro, Plata, Mata and Virgin Forest; at the same time he has virtually monopolized the horror-filmmaking genre (a territory once held, albeit with a more psychoanalytic bent, by Brocka’s international-circuit confrere, Mike de Leon). Macho Dancer and Isang Araw also exhibit the strengths as well as the weaknesses of their directors’ dabblings in the film formulae that they have become associated with.

11011Nevertheless, both titles remain the year’s outstanding outputs so far, and may be taken to reflect the serous local filmmaker’s conscious attempt to break free of commercialist expectations while at the same time refusing to alienate the audience he or she has developed. The artistry of the works themselves has become the dispensable factor for the meanwhile – and so the definitive confirmation that the best moments of the pre-revolutionary era have returned will have to be embodied by a forthcoming movie, very likely by Brocka and/or Gallaga. It may be as near in the future as the still-to-be-released Orapronobis, or as far away as, goddess forbid, the past. Isang Araw has done a lot to raise this expectation. It is more ambitious and cohesive than Macho Dancer, so inveterate optimists could only hope that the next major Filipino movie would sustain the progression. As it has turned out, advanced reactions to Orapronobis tend to stoke whatever ember of excitement has remained in anyone’s observation of Philippine cinema. More excitingly, Isang Araw and the forthcoming Brocka oeuvre deal with the same subject matter of right-wing rural vigilantism. The prospect of undergoing extremely emotional ideological debates presented in highly accomplished artistic forms is too good to be true, especially after an overly extended fallow period. What a way to end the decade, and usher in the next one!

Richard Gomez and Alice Dixson, as soldier and civilian conjoining their alliance against paramilitary vigilantes, in Peque Gallaga & Lore Reyes’s Isang Araw Walang Diyos (1989).

11011Political themes in Philippine movies have seen rough sailing since the 1986 storm. Isang Araw proves what the success of politicized comedies and the failure of films on rebel lives and the US bases have been suggesting so far: that the shift in political systems necessitates a change, if not an advancement, in moviemaking sensibilities. Where the Marcos regime may have made us cynical, unfeeling even, about politics, the current democratic spirit requires a passion for ideological discussion. Hence people would rather watch seemingly frivolous comedies and melodramas and the now practically dormant countryside-circuit sex films, in which issues of human relationships are pursued with some form of fervor, rather than the heavy-handed treatments of more identifiably political topics (some of which had been saved only by the generous infusion of the generic elements of action movies). In the process the movie-going masses have been accused, unfairly now it appears, of having been miseducated by producers, exploited by the political system, or incapable of simply remembering a three-year-old glory; and except for the last, the charges may even be true.

11011Isang Araw’s financial performance typifies the confusion. The producer claims that it has lost money, while its filmmakers allege that, as per holdover evidence and distributors’ reports, the number of metropolitan residents who went to watch it would suffice to encourage similar other ventures and, more important, upgrade our assessment of the public’s visual literacy. Another irrelevant point centers on the exact contributions of the directorial tandem that appears on the movie’s credits: rather than be drawn into the worst aspects of authorship controversies, why not abide by the obvious facts that one of the filmmakers has been at it since the mid-1970s, and that the work under discussion, as already described, evokes parallels with the best of his other output? Flippant as the justification may be (but essential to moving forward to more salient matters regarding Isang Araw), this ought to facilitate our consideration of the movie as the latest of Gallaga’s, just as it remains the later of Lore Reyes’s. Moreover, Isang Araw demonstrates a stylistic maturity that Gallaga, for all his early expertise, had been able to simulate only through a recourse to culturally alienating devices. In short, where Oro, Plata, Mata got by on a strong dose of kinkiness and Virgin Forest on a preoccupation with ponderousness, Isang Araw derives its strength from its filmmaker’s incursions into the horrific, through which he has been able to draw out suspense from familiar or even hackneyed imagery – a method more in keeping with the temperament of local audiences.

11011This is of course not the same as saying that Gallaga’s mise-en-scène in Isang Araw is familiar or hackneyed per se. The measure of his capabilities, which has remained unmatched so far in the general course of the decade since his emergence (en solo with Oro, Plata, Mata), lies now in his skill in transforming everyday details, through bold cinematographic realignment, into sometimes shocking, almost always disturbing filmic realizations. This contrasts gladly with his old penchant for devising highly imaginative visuals from material that, for all practical purposes, has been nonexistent for at least some time. In a literal sense this may be taken to refer to the fact that Oro, Plata, Mata and Virgin Forest are both period films, but it may also explain the subtlety of the former’s surrealism and the latter’s symbolisms in Isang Araw. In fact, if we were to force a hierarchy among Gallaga’s works, Isang Araw will have to count somewhere after Virgin Forest, but probably before or alongside Oro, Plata, Mata. And here is where the movie’s complications begin. Isang Araw is such a wonderfully executed series of shots that, like Oro, Plata, Mata, have more regard for their individual content than for their interrelationships. Where Virgin Forest ultimately abandons even a daring dramatic premise – a solution unsatisfactory in itself – to perfect the resolution of archetypes (Indio and Ilustrado, with Inang Bayan cohabiting with both) caught up in the whirlwind of history (Aguinaldo’s betrayal by his own compatriots), Isang Araw presents a similarly provocative admixture of icons, celebrates the combination … and ends therewith.

11011The raw material is once more history, and more accessible because of its recency. The military is drawn into protecting the rights of civilians and the religious (though it perceives the latter as left-leaning), with the media providing a crucial amount of support; the antagonist is represented by the leader of a personality cult whose fanaticism assumes religious proportions (and who, as if to assist the literalist, employs the V-for-victory sign). At least once in Philippine national experience was such a situation both valid and vital, and the more sophisticated objectors to the movie would probably choose to dwell on the first three words of this sentences; less sophisticated objectors to this line of argument might take the cue from the choice of song, “Yellow Submarine,” that the protagonists use to drown out (pun incidental) their enemies’ sacrilegious hymn-singing. The celebration of people power circa 1986, as embodied in Isang Araw, raises relatively minor thematic difficulties in the work itself. “Yellow Submarine,” for example, may be a more significant pop-music item than “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” but its psychedelic content preempts the emotional streamlining that enabled the latter to slip into local pop culture right after the 1983 assassination of Benigno S. Aquino Jr. But the logic of Isang Araw’s makers may be more astute that this concedes. “Yellow Submarine,” by being more specific than “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” implies both the reliance on colonialism and the simplification of issues that actually characterized the popular anti-dictatorship movement then.

11011More serious charges could be raised on the aspect of the movie’s regard for history. Many things have happened since February 1986, and no less dramatic (though no more spectacular) than the ouster of a dictator. Most pertinent of these developments is the dissolution of the multi-sectoral alliance that had proved capable of challenging Ferdinand Marcos in the first place. No way could Isang Araw claim to being anything beyond a tribute to people power, unless it had been careful or thorough enough to at least suggest the instability of the union among civilians, military, religious, and media practitioners on the one hand, and on the other the longevity (so far) of Marcos and his mystique. Yet it can also be maintained that this was the manner in which the artist preferred to exercise his prerogative in interpreting reality: simplicity as the glory of expression – the joy in the fact that the alliance once existed matters more than the pain in its perhaps permanent termination. Another artist (Brocka?) might choose to focus on the handwriting on the wall, and if I may reiterate an always-important principle, the more viewpoints the merrier. Which brings us back full circle to Isang Araw.

11011The movie in particular, and Gallaga in general, hark back to the tradition of film-loving filmmakers whose passion for cinema has moved them in the direction of distilling the properties of the medium and upholding these as an ideal even while wallowing in the depths of crass commercial practice. The so-called film-operas of post-neorealist Italian practitioners would be better examples than the most desperate moments of the Hollywood brats, since the exercise seems to require an instinctive approach that formal film study and training tends to stultify. Film as experience, rather than as entertainment, could serve as keywords here, although the end result – film as a commodity to be savored – has tended to blur the distinction, as reflected in recent theoretical propositions. This makes most of Gallaga’s major films, Isang Araw included, a sensualist’s delight and incidentally a classicist’s nightmare. Given the option between developing his dramaturgy and heightening his audiovisual effects, he has tended to go for the latter, but only to the extent of attempting to overwhelm the competition while maintaining good standing with the arbiters of taste. In effect, this requires an acquiescence to the current sacred-cow status of social relevance, and so all of Gallaga’s epics – from Oro, Plata, Mata through Virgin Forest to Isang Araw – have been as politicized as they come.

11011There are two consequences to this kind of approach. One is that it’s too reactive to facilitate a full appreciation of the man’s capabilities. Within the existing system it makes him appear quixotic in wanting the best of both extremes, reluctant to stake his claim as truly qualified conqueror in the devil-may-care territory explored (though ravaged may be more accurate) by Celso Ad. Castillo, at the same time neglecting his own flair for fashioning a strong solid tale using more modest resources, as he had demonstrated with Scorpio Nights and Tiyanak. In the end what happens is that the project’s concerns are magnified out of all proportion to their human dimensions. In Isang Araw, to be specific, such everyday virtues as friendship and professionalism are converted into grand emotions, while rationality and heroism become subjects for Greek-tragic treatment, whereas all that one really sees onscreen is a bunch of fair-to-middling lead performers who barely have an understanding of what their roles, much less their interrelationships, are about.

11011In the singular instance where a sense of dramatic purpose has prevailed, the movie works with a power nearly beyond articulation. Since no heartthrob would ever dream of portraying or even suggesting a Marcos-based character, much less a loyalist, the filmmaker was apparently able to cast and direct the antagonists’ camp with a perspicacity that could only hint at the project’s greater potential. Foremost among these is the player of the Marcos figure himself, Tito Arevalo (musical scorer of Gallaga’s first directorial credit Binhi), who brings to the role of a power-mad despot a beatific countenance that provides ironic contrast between character and actor. The people-power performers in this regard win in the plot but lose by default. The irony in their presence, where present, is always either incidental or unnecessary – especially when the love team enacts a protracted process of courtship and sexual surrender more in keeping with Scorpio Nights than a siege narrative. The other, younger actors don’t even have the benefit of such histrionic modulations. Mostly they look and act like refugees from Tiyanak, where the strategy of making mediocre talents play second fiddle to environmentalist issues and special effects could function because of the reduction in expectations. In Isang Araw the broader canvas merely serves to blow up these sentimentalisms and paroxysms to intolerable levels, and the horrors-of-war undertone may have been better served had the wondrously effective underage killer dispensed with his drugs and dispatched his contemporaries instead.

11011This may seem like so much petulance, but what does one make of a climactic showdown brought about by an escape aborted because of the need to save each and every surviving star-portrayed character? Much has also been made of the escape vehicle running backward as a metaphor for the country (or, as this review would have it, the revolution’s survivors), but nothing has been raised so far about the choice of driver: the media practitioner, who devised the plan to resuscitate the vehicle and drive the alliance to a new, still uncertain destination, had to forgo his regret over the loss of his story in order to excel in this voluntary assignment. The ambiguity applies to Gallaga and his colleagues. A better job lies in priorities that tend to exclude artistic supremacy, especially, and exceptionally, during a period of crisis. The days of godlessness over, couldn’t there be room for both rally driving and TV reporting? Isang Araw marks a conscious step forward in the Filipinization of the country’s only major “pure-film” director. So to reformulate the question, could we anticipate the day when both medium and material share unconditional mastery over the minions of mediocrity? At the moment, and in the particulars as presented, only Gallaga will tell.

[First published September 1989 in Philippines Communication Journal]

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The National Pastime – Ethics First

This article was first read at a Philippine studies conference, in an unsatisfactory panel where one paper reader, confronted with a difficult question, resorted to berating the audience for, in effect, not possessing the same level of film savviness that he had. I lost the original paper I drafted and wound up expanding the presentation version to approximately the length and depth I preferred and submitted it in time for journal review. I managed to recount a few of the citation sources I used for the present reprint; but the greenness of the scholarship, the occasional philosophobia, the reliance on dualisms, the erasure of the spectator, the hectoring tone – these still manage to disturb me, though not as intensely as they did when the piece came out. Possibly because I discovered a few things that I took for granted then: one was that someone else had anticipated my article “A Second Golden Age” by identifying precisely the same phenomenon a month earlier … and that someone was me; less facetiously, I recognize here a striving toward original theorizing, a possibly less-useful ideal today but an earnest expression of seriousness of purpose that would move me if it had been written by someone else rather than my once-naïve and -sentimental self. To jump to later sections, please click here for: Specialization Pros & Cons; Areas of Concern: Government; Areas of Concern: Education; Areas of Concern: Industry; Areas of Concern: Ideology; and Notes & Works Cited.

The eventual centennial of film in the Philippines some time during the forthcoming decade may serve as sufficient excuse for its beneficiaries to pay tribute to the medium – and, in the course of doing so, inquire as well what has been done for the medium in return. This concern is actually larger, nationwide at least, in scope than it may sound at first, once we agree that most Filipinos do benefit from the industry, and if we grant (as well we should) that entertainment alone could be counted a crucial aspect of well-being. The best way of summarizing, both for outsiders as well as ourselves, our contribution to the medium of film is by presenting our practice in it in the form of material proof. A truly comprehensive retrospective of outstanding outputs in Philippine cinema, however, would of course be next-to-impossible to mount, and would in a way always preempt the succeeding batches of work by defining them in advance, instead of observing the proper historical method of allowing the future to modify the present.

11011A more economical way would be to reduce this summary to a logically acceptable abstraction. I cannot overemphasize the advantage here as being primarily, and probably exclusively, financial, since the entire history of ideas in film thus far all points to a succession of overdeveloped, inconclusive, or half-baked systems of thought that, for the last quarter-century at least, have never proved adequate for mainstream film practice. The reasons are not difficult to comprehend once we view these developments in film theory in the light of essential film practice. The nature of film theorizing began with fanciful speculations regarding the still-to-be-created medium in the 1800s and even earlier, as Western artists sought several ways of reconciling the presentation of reality, its spatial and temporal properties intact, with the delight of having such a presentation in a final, permanent, concrete, and disseminative form (Canudo 58-65).

11011Closely related to this seminal tendency was the consideration of properties inherent in specific media of expression, and how these may interact with one another. Film, as we can easily discern in retrospect, served as the vital link between theater (reality as raw material) and literature (imagination distilled and preserved for posterity). But on the way to its realization, it first underwent an intermediate technological stage – photography – that also drew in the basic principles of the visual arts, of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Hence it should come as no surprise to learn that proper theorizing on film had always been technology-based and media-comparative, with the aim in mind of determining the purpose of the medium vis-à-vis other existing media. And it never came together in one metaformulization, for the simple reason that the technology of film, which dictated the pace of basic film theorizing, took all of the first four decades of the new medium’s existence to develop.

11011The advantage of this sort of step-by-step dissection of the emergent technology for us latter-day observers is apparent in more ways than one. First it gives us a clear understanding of the mechanics of film according to individual elements isolated and maximized in practice; in addition, it supplies for us, as it no doubt did for its contemporary observers, a body of output that constitutes undeniable proof of the same medium’s potential for superior artistry, even in its relatively underdeveloped phase. The major stages in the technological development of film, in chronological order and according to attendant progressions in film thought, would therefore be the “fine” photographic approach, the discovery of montage, the improvement of film stock, and the introduction of sound. Color, for all the happy critical salutations that it first occasioned, has remained an innovation similar to the standardization of screen proportions: everyone observes it, more or less, but everything done with it so far, including the violation of its conventions for purposes of artistic experimentation, has never led to any significant extension of the technical capabilities of film the way the other developments had.

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Specialization Pros & Cons

Academic film training has been responsible for the relative professionalization of film practice in the major international industries, including the United States with the emergence of the so-called Hollywood brats; with the necessary policy support, it will also surely provide a much-needed overhaul of values, if not systems, in the Philippines, with the introduction of academic degrees starting at the University of the Philippines (UP). What remains clear from this outcome was the increasing specialization of film practice, to the detriment of truly protean thinker-practitioners. No longer was it acceptable for filmmakers, or people close to them, to articulate their highest philosophical concerns; publicists or reviewers would do just as well, inasmuch as practitioners were not expected to have big overriding questions to confront. Film academicians, on the other hand, were expected to remain above the din of commercial practice, way up in ivory towers of productive speculation on film, lest they be suspected of harboring motives of crass materialism, considering how easy it has always been to benefit from casual associations with show business.

11011Toward the middle part of his career the realist theorist André Bazin hailed the Italian neorealist movement and proceeded to define its physical parameters (65). Here finally was a locus of film practice that may have been national (actually post-World War II Rome) in origin but which also had the potential of spreading out as a socio-industrial ideal instead of the usual exportable technology. Bazin consistently chronicled the directions and upheavals of the movement based on the output of its practitioners, but he died before any major transformation had taken place. Further developments in film ideas were to share these crippling effects on film practice. Certain academic film institutions have provided what seems to be a satisfactory means out of this impasse, by calling such recent suppositions in cinema “methodologies” instead of theories.[1] The complications posed by such speculative actuations for a situation like that of ours should be immediately obvious. With the country on the threshold, optimistically speaking, of economic development, a community of reactors influential and skilled enough to provoke interest and discussion in such undertakings would be hard-put to come by. Moreover, the aforementioned distance such methodological ruminations afford from practical purposes of film creation could become the basis of widespread dismissal by the public.

11011One possibility offers itself – one premised on the emergence of Italy as a national force in world cinema with its own distinct contribution, neorealism, despite its Third-World economic status then. Neorealism itself had been posed in the past as an appropriate model for our national cinema, grounded as it was in the selection of immediate and available thematic sources as compensation for a paucity of filmic resources. Such a notion is of course self-limiting in terms of both theme and technique; neorealism itself, as we have already seen, refused to remain as it had been in its country of origin. Filipino filmmakers have had noteworthy enough periods of apprenticeship in the craft, what with the adaptation of realism during what is now known as the first Golden Age in the black-and-white period (post-World War II through the 1950s, per separate accounts by Jessie B. Garcia and Bienvenido Lumbera) and the influx of New-Wave influence in what is now emerging as a second Golden Age during the Marcos era, 1975-85, coupled with the already mentioned academic institutionalization of film starting at UP. The strategy aims at the creation and sustenance of a socio-industrial system that will allow for maximum creativity in film, given the realities of our current cultural setup.

11011Articulation of this theory will be difficult and long-drawn-out, and highly dependent on the results of film practice and experience. The outline will initially observe ethical rather than aesthetic prescriptions, and may move into practical, possibly technological, dimensions depending on developments both local and international. Never has such a formulation been undertaken on a major scale anywhere beyond what had been propounded for neorealism, and even then Bazin’s articulations ended with a description of the movement, not (unusual for the man) with anticipative attempts to suggest or explain where it was going. How can such a movement of creative ferment graduate to making contributions on the world-class scale of film technology, or at least of film technique? Clearly this theory is premised on the real potential of film to link up with national development. The theory’s premise posits a conception of film as a distinct and vital entity, with a physical – in fact, industrial – dimension capable of interacting, clashing or harmonizing or coexisting, with the other institutions at play in both the cultural and politico-economic realm.

11011“Film” in this instance may also constitute an abstractifiable variable that includes the dynamics of film practice as reflected in the products of the industry. The reason here is that it is necessary to have a basis for generalization more final and conclusive than what historical minutiae can provide. This is the advantage that film possesses over, say, a political institution: the products of the latter would still be individuals or, at the most, processes based on individuals, and therefore always subject to the vagaries of human behavior. More traditional artistic activities, on the other hand, would not have the major industrial status that makes film a force to reckon with even on a social scale; the final “filmmaker” is, auteurism aside, still the collective responsible for a production, unlike the book’s writer or the play’s author. Once the conscious pursuit of this theory gets under way, and survives the country’s economic advancement, it would then be a simple matter of claiming the financial and logistical subsidies necessary for the initial implementation of an expansion of the medium’s technological capabilities. Hence the program for the prevalence of film should work for the strengthening of creative prerogatives in film practice and the flourishing of concomitant imagination in film theory and criticism. This may be mapped out according to four areas, all of them overlapping with one another: governmental, educational, industrial, and ideological.

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Areas of Concern

Government. A reorientation of state cultural policy has to be effected, with the current dispensation disabusing itself of the misconception that the provision of institutional support for the industry, recalling though it may the previous regime’s expressed tactics, will consequentially stigmatize the practice. The Marcos government undeniably went overboard in favoring film over other mass media, but if the other media were able to rise in opposition, this was simply because they were less totally controlled compared to film, and more predisposed to propagandism in the first place. A number of institutional modifications though may still prove irresistible to the present government in a strictly monetary sense, and may be utilized to provide the necessary support on both domestic and international fronts. Locally, I refer to the provision of tax rebates through a film ratings board that classifies films preferentially according to open and evolving criteria of quality;[2] as in the past, the government could allow itself, in the form of service fees, a reasonable percentage of the collections, prior to turning these over to the rebate winners.

11011Censorship of film, although unconstitutional, still cannot be successfully confronted, since its roots are more cultural than pathological, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. A mechanism for international exposure, where such a practice could be scornfully dispensed with, should be set up with strong emphasis on the marketing of local products to prospective foreign buyers. Allusions to the Manila International Film Festival might crop up, but then where the latter strove for prestige and goodwill, to the point of opening up the local market to international sellers, the new edition should seek to completely reverse this trend. Interest in Filipino products need not be drummed up in this same venue; the government should instead be compelled to facilitate the permission of local films and filmmakers to participate in foreign festival competitions, and perhaps extend incentives to successful participants via a tie-up with the film ratings board (e.g., automatic or additional rebates for international festival winners).

11011One last governmental contribution would be entirely unprofitable, but just as indispensable. The national film archives should be restored to a status of true autonomy, instead of its current and anomalous attachment to the local censors body, wherein archival personnel can presumably be tasked with neglecting, and thereby destroying, titles deemed detrimental to the ideals of the mother entity. Government could ease the burden on itself by requiring producers to deposit prints of every film output that comes along as a condition of the permit to exhibit, thus enabling itself to concentrate on reproducing or acquiring titles of more valuable vintage.

Education. Meaningful film education can and should be concretized through the expansion of academic film offerings. The state university should take the initiative in enjoining other colleges and universities to offer degrees in film, so as to further minimize the elitism still associated with the program. A position of academic leadership, meanwhile, can be promoted through the implementation of graduate-level film programs, still based in UP. A proposed course for requiring film study in secondary schools, which integrated film appreciation with social studies and literature and included teacher training, should be revived, updated, and implemented alongside an institutional plan to harness existing movie theaters to screen the titles necessary for study.

11011The ideal to be aimed at in the educational thrust is the thorough professionalization of the local industry, wherein prospective film applicants are best expected to present academic credentials. The long-standing demand for professionalism will thus be supplied with a solid and reliable means of enforcement, rather than the personalized character rebirths fashionable at the moment. Moreover, alternative cinema, which has been languishing this past decade for want of a mass audience capable of appreciating the self-conscious artistry of its outputs, will be able to utilize the network and audiences of educational institutions as among other things a springboard, from which a passage to the government’s international festival-market may be devised.

Industry. Studio domination should be seen as a means of achieving stability in the industrial system, while independent productions tend to be receptive to innovations in practices. Thus while a too-powerful entrenchment of studios (as was the case during the first Golden Age) is always in danger of stagnancy, an open season among independents could only result in resistive abuse. The balance currently obtaining between studios and independents should be maintained for as long as possible, preferably by legislative means. Naturally, since the metropolis tends to favor established outfits, independents should seek other still-lucrative venues. Foreign festivals are currently receptive to Third-World products, but the wherewithal necessary for participating therein would prove too imposing for truly struggling productions. Independents should take heart in the emergence of the South as a national economic force; the Cebuano-language audience, which has always been dependable (though not as profitable as that of Manila), might even now be ready for a resurgence of regional viewing fare. An Iloko movie or two might also perform creditably at the tills, if only as a reaction to the renewed pride and consciousness of the South.

11011Meanwhile, the importation of foreign films would be better rationalized than delimited. Toward this end, small and scattered art houses, rather than the mammoth and inaccessible Manila Film Center of the past, may be set up to accommodate what mainstream theatrical circuits would be reluctant to exhibit. The influx of video would make the control of the entry of foreign films a futility; neither has it satiated the appetite of the public for movie-going, as originally feared. More important, foreign films provide one of the most effective and perhaps the most inexpensive means for local practitioners and audiences to update their knowledge of film language and culture. In more practicable terms, the proposed art houses could eventually take over the function of the movie-houses commissioned to provide logistical support for secondary-level film education.

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Ideology. Creative activity should encompass, as it occasionally used to, the application of experimental or multifarious modes of expression to native-sourced material, without necessarily requiring the burden of additional technology. Ideological debates as presented and developed in various fora of national concerns should also be made to reflect in film products with proper dramatic treatment, rather than the dualisms that still typify local discourses. Both requirements depend primarily on the contribution of the writer, so aesthetic groundwork should seek to modify the claim of auteurism upholding the director as the most important creative factor in filmmaking. The industrial aspect could make its contribution, however small, by giving emphasis to writers’ credits in publicity materials, and in providing prominence to writers’ achievements. Better still, film educators should take care in maintaining a strong orientation in liberal arts and literature, and instead reserve the mostly technical approaches of visual training for craft purposes.

11011In the end what should be striven for is the primacy of filmic argument over its counterparts in sociopolitical realms. Critical activity should aim to develop a breed of reactors capable of figuring out the means by which film expression transforms raw ideology into modified or higher statements which, in being ultimately aesthetic, transcend the limitations of their origins. All too often film commentators are either inadequately prepared buffs with ulterior motives of crashing into the industry, or highly qualified sociopolitical experts whose air of condescension toward the medium stifles their appreciation of the virtues of filmic thinking. Innovation and sincerity of expression then, rather than conformity to a pre-given sociopolitical prescription, should be the guideposts of critical reaction. Critics should be measured according to their intellectual flexibility and adherence to the potential for plurality of media formats and achievements. This of course is not equipollent to the current multiplicity of awards for film and related media, and would better be served by a proliferation of filmic discussion in print; incidentally, this view also ascribes to electronic media[3] the more ephemeral function of film reviewing.

11011Finally, excellence of critical expression should once more be given strong emphasis in the local literature of cinema. This would of course be facilitated by the proper liberal-arts and literary orientation in film education mentioned earlier, but with the additional challenge of developing other Philippine languages, starting with the national language, in terms of their capabilities for critical expression. The abiding principle here is the property of written as well as visual language largely sharing intellectual appeal and an attendant expectancy of fluency of usage: if critics could demand that filmmakers perform at or above par in their craft, then likewise should filmmakers demand that critics write well, if not better.

11011Several of these issues as presented either belong to the best intentions of both film practitioners and observers at present, or have in fact been realized by them, if only occasionally. The question of feasibility, however, could not be a major issue at this point, since what I have outlined is based entirely on current realities. With the conversion of these recommendations into a movement of national significance, the formulation of a theory of Filipino film may be made – belatedly perhaps, but happily nonetheless.

[First published September 1989 in Philippines Communication Journal]

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[1] A useful compilation of methodologies may be found in the volume edited by Bill Nichols. David Bordwell subsequently reconfigured debates on film specificity as a “standard version” of film history (12-45).

[2] This concept, adapted from the successful implementation of the Film Ratings Board during the Marcos era’s Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, was eventually re-implemented, with even the original institution’s name intact.

[3] Prior to the dissemination of new media, the only “electronic” media at this point were radio and television.

Works Cited

Bazin, André. “De Sica: Metteur en scéne.” What Is Cinema? Vol. 2. Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. 61-78.

Bordwell, David. On the History of Film Style. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Canudo, Riciotto. “The Birth of a Sixth Art.” 1911. French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology, 1907-1939. Vol. 1. Ed. Richard Abel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988. 58-65.

Garcia, Jessie B. “The Golden Decade of Philippine Movies.” 1972. Readings in Philippine Cinema. Ed. Rafael Ma. Guerrero. Manila: Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1983. 39-54.

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

Nichols, Bill, ed. Movies and Methods: An Anthology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

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The National Pastime – Moving Picture: World’s Shortest Prequel

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

11011The further from academe I grew, the less self-conscious my notions of style became; at the same time I could not help but uphold the same standards for the works I selected for evaluation. With the inevitable maturation of my personal faculties, I somehow approached an ideal (rarely achieved, of course) of readability amid discourse complicated even for myself. Necessarily this involved periods of selectivity as well as rest and consolidation, but methinks the consequences are different for critics who rely on exigencies of artistic production, rather than artists who depend on critical evaluation; for in the final analysis, the artist could assume critical functions, at the very least for herself, while the critic can never really work in a vacuum, even (or perhaps especially) when working on theoretical issues.

11011I do badly regret not having come of age during the start of my self-proclaimed second Golden Age of Philippine cinema during the mid-seventies, although I suspect that more effective groundwork had been accomplished during the more turbulent pre-martial law years. As a college-fresh neophyte who honed my fangs on political and economic animadversions, I could draw from the likes of, say, Aliw and Aguila, but Manila by Night and Kakabakaba Ka Ba? from the same period seemed too intricate to unravel and too deep to reach then. I found sufficient leeway to try various approaches thereafter, but at the expense of otherwise praiseworthy attempts in Angela Markado and Batch ’81. And just when I decided to return to school, for which I had to hold down a job – both as full-time preoccupations, out came a full and consistent flowering of films, unaware even that late of the searing effect of the then-forthcoming February 1986 people-power uprising.

11011Only afterward could I graduate from chronicler to confident commentator, with the rather desperate optimism that, like what happened after the early post-martial rule dry spell, another Golden Age would not be long in following. Invariably my appreciation of paper boats and grease rainbows made the excursion through Manila’s bloodstreams worth the plunge. Along the way I could get my fill of doing retrospective commentaries, but then the best part consisted of divining what could come next and occasionally seeing it fulfilled in some form or other.

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

11011My list of great film-writers all have some profound contradictions crisscrossing their works, and this, more than anything else, makes reading them doubly difficult. Given the luxury of a lifetime, I’m sure I’ll be developing a few swivels and turnabouts here and there; already I know which of my past output, aside from the ones I’ve already mentioned, I could renounce in the name of personal progress, but meantime I did write them once, and became interested enough to stand by them even through the trauma of publication. So they appear as they do now, contextualized only by their respective dates of issue, in order to maybe show how far I’ve come (or gone), and perhaps qualify the shortcomings of the worthier items.

11011There’ll be an entire future to face, marked in the meantime by the impending close of the current century. Film, as I’d written elsewhere, will undergo further and radical transformations in terms of technology and approach, and what we consider Third-World practice is on an ascendency. There won’t be just floodwaters to cross, there’ll be entire oceans to swim, and though by then I might be sounding different, difficult even, I guess we’ll all be lucky, though we’ve long deserved it, to be where it’s at come the time.

[First published October 3, 1990 in National Midweek]

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The National Pastime – Alternative 1: Formats

Short Subjects

Mga Kuwento ng Pag-ibig
Directed by Jun Cabreira, Luciano Carlos, and Artemio Marquez
Written by Artemio Marquez and Jose Javier Reyes

3 Mukha ng Pag-ibig
Directed by Emmanuel H. Borlaza, Lino Brocka, and Leroy Salvador
Written by Roy C. Iglesias, Jose Javier Reyes, and Loida T. Viriña

Something positive should be said about the omnibus movie. For a medium that’s too expensive for full-length failure, and an audience that doesn’t pay any attention to screening schedules, it might be a good idea to have more film shorts compiled to run the two-hour theatrical maximum, instead of the stretched-out stories that only wind up fragmented and episodic anyway. Even the sheer statistical possibility of increasing the chances of success by adding more films to a single presentation ought to be enough encouragement for everyone involved. Why worry about perfecting a project when you can get by with a fraction or two? Moreover, given the humbler dimensions of the short format, ultimate earthshaking statements better not get in the way of the medium’s proper priority – entertainment.

11011For this reason omnibus film entries are almost always either failed ambitions or successful amusements; barely is there room for sustained inadequacies or grandiose achievements – both of which require the leisure of normal viewing time to attain. Valentine’s 1989 saw this observation being played out in typical industry overkill. Not one but two omnibus films by not one but two of our major local studios provided a veritable festival-total of six film titles for less than a third of normal screening time! Going by the admittedly friendly-critic principle that one good entry would validate an entire package, neither Regal nor Viva really lost; the issue in fact would rather revolve on who won more.

11011Regal Films’ Mga Kuwento ng Pag-ibig had, in order of presentation, Artemio Marquez’s “Halimuyak,” Luciano B. Carlos’s “Ginto’t Pilak, Namumulaklak,” and Jun Cabreira’s “Liwanag”; all three were written by Jose Javier Reyes, with the first co-written with the director. Viva’s 3 Mukha ng Pag-ibig had Leroy Salvador’s “I Love You Moomoo,” Lino Brocka’s “Ang Silid,” and Emmanuel H. Borlaza’s “Katumbas ng Kahapon,” all with Sharon Cuneta in common. Both productions shared Reyes, who wrote the Borlaza entry; the other Viva writers were Loida T. Viriña (Salvador’s episode) and Roy C. Iglesias (Brocka’s). With decent entertainment as minimum criterion, both films turned out an above-average (contemporary local industrial output as base) percentage division of 50-50, or three passable ones out of six. Most sensible viewers would have gone to see 3 Mukha on the basis of Lino Brocka’s credit alone; that plus Sharon Cuneta’s box-office draw would perhaps tilt the critical odds toward the Viva bet.

11011As it turned out, more viewers did patronize 3 Mukha, and rare as the occasion may seem, this was one instance wherein the better movie, even if only in slightly more favorable terms, drew in the support it deserved. Brocka’s “Ang Silid” surprisingly pales in relation to the other good episodes from either film. It’s a thriller where the moral issues are drawn as soon as all the protagonists are presented, and the plot twists that have been so injudiciously appropriated by local melodramas are sorely missed here. All “Ang Silid” ever really makes worthy of attention is the consistent competence of the performances – a rarity for even the most casual observation of Philippines movies – plus a moving self-play by what seems to be an authentic person with Down syndrome.

11011Regal’s “Ginto’t Pilak, Namumulaklak” would have been Brocka’s expected material, although the treatment is something else. And what a treatment! Luciano B. Carlos and Jose Javier Reyes take the story of a “class”-conscious slum-dweller to the outer limits of camp, then turn the whole thing inside out with a fabular happy ending. Lead performers Maricel Soriano and Joey Marquez ride along in the spirit of the undertaking, but the places they get to – a people-power uprising, a blatantly lewd courtship, the intervention of a female-but-fairy godmother, the intrigues and insecurities of the filthy rich – amount to a dizzying combination of the worst traditions of local comedy (toilet humor, cheap visual puns, improvised jokes, excessive campiness) presented in the best possible manner. In effect “Ginto’t Pilak” suggests that such elements seem contemptible mainly because of our familiarity with them. In a manner of speaking, this is what makes British film and Japanese television humor difficult for Filipinos to take: given the social stratifications and adherence to rituals that we expect of these nationals, it requires a form of logical somersault to appreciate the desperation of their amusements.

11011The best of the short-subject lot, Viva’s Borlaza entry “Katumbas ng Kahapon,” serves to confirm this notion, but from the opposite direction. “Katumbas” is a compendium of all our martyr-wife melodrama conventions, but the execution doesn’t require intellectualization to prove the point. This may have been because the time limit could not allow the overdevelopment characteristic of melodrama, and so the filmmaker finally had to rely on the strength of his performers. The final product contains an emotionally wrenching delivery by the grotesquely effective Christopher de Leon, matched highlight for highlight by Cuneta, who outdoes even herself in one of local cinema’s most satisfactory long-take endings ever. All the other potentially embarrassing moments in “Katumbas,” primarily comprising confrontation scenes between any of the leads and lesser-equipped performers, are outshone by the fireworks between Cuneta and de Leon. Much as we could conceive of more possible complexities (and therefore more pleasure) in the medium of film, such simple delights could do no harm and in fact could serve as springboard for more ambitious and longer attempts. Here’s to more shorts, in the theaters if not on the streets.

[First published May 10, 1989, in National Midweek]

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Triumph in 16mm.

Directed and written by Briccio Santos

It was bound to happen, sooner than later. Having been an active participant, as either coordinator or juror, in recent but now-defunct short-film festivals, and at the same time a privileged observer of the mainstream movie industry through my membership in the local film critics’ circle, I could not help but fear, if only vicariously, the arrival of the day when the two forms of film practice – one essentially a sub-industry of the other – would confront each other in a non-negotiable bid for mutually exclusive supremacy. After barely three years since the sensational debut of a number of artists in super-8mm., we now have, with the simultaneous shift of some practitioners to video, a situation in which the truly outstanding items of cinema so far this year are alternative in nature, in terms of either format or venue.

11011The big-time outfits immediately prior to the February political upheaval have all managed to resume commercial activity, but owing perhaps to the trauma of the temporary decline in box-office patronage, none has been able to come up with a critically acceptable output. Sure, Regal Films released some of the major directors’ also-rans, but its last competition-caliber productions were Ishmael Bernal’s Hinugot sa Langit and Peque Gallaga’s Virgin Forest – both over a year old. Better bets would comprise Sixto Kayko’s Private Show and William Pascual’s Takaw Tukso, plus also-rans by Gallaga (Unfaithful Wife) and Mario O’Hara (Bagong Hari). Among this year’s releases in alternative formats I’d place strong commendations on one in video – Mike de Leon’s Bilanggo sa Dilim – and another in 16mm., Briccio Santos’ Damortis.

Poster layout of Briccio Santos’s 16mm. Damortis (1986).

11011But first a few words of clarification about 16mm.: this is the midway format between the affordable (and therefore, some sometimes wrongly conclude, amateurish) super-8mm. and the commercial-gauge 35mm.; somewhere in distant lands lies the promise of an authentic roadshow presentation in 70mm., but short of engaging on equal terms in a co-production venture with a foreign outfit (a dream almost impossible in itself at the moment), we may have to content ourselves with a Third-World designation in the area of film-as-culture, as in all our other concerns. Because of its halfway nature, 16mm. could sometimes obscure – but never, as the more desperate artists maintain, negate – the distinction between what is alternative and what is mainstream. For just as 16mm. may be used to reproduce super-8mm. by allowing those produced in the standard speed of 24 frames per second to be enlarged, 16mm. may also be and is in fact more commonly used to reduce commercial 35mm. movies for various purposes, usually archival preservation or television broadcasting.

11011Which simply means that, in a strictly classificatory sense, films reduced from commercial format to 16mm., even were the 35mm. prints to be permanently damaged or lost, should not be considered in the same category as those produced originally in 16mm. or blown up from super-8mm. In this regard I can so far claim to having seen the alternative 16mm. features that matter, not to mention the commercial films that exist only in the reduced format, and this is where I stake my assertion, circuitous as the route has been, that among the former kind, Damortis is the best of the lot. After having been screened for free in several venues, the film was shown to a half-full house during the Wave festival, where I first saw it, and where it turned out to be the dark horse in the race for superiority among a number of well-chosen fiction-film entries. Having begun with such a casual attempt at comparison, I might as well take pursuit in a more pretentious vein by asserting that Damortis – exceeded as it was on the technical level by its less fully developed double bill, Carlos Siguion-Reyna’s Patas Lang – would pass muster if only on the plastics level of commercial releases.

11011The opening frames provide an impression of dramatic restraint, in the Franco-German or middle (Indian) cinema manner; takes are long-drawn-out, the filmmaker reliant more on in-depth composition to make his points. Toward the end the attentive viewer will have noticed that the filmic strategy has shifted toward the employment of montage, sometimes to the extent of documentary lyricism, dangerously close to but never quite within the realm of editorial indulgence. This is because the filmmaker does not let go of his initial attack in storytelling, in which he harnesses obliquity to pull forward a linear narrative: a seminarian returns to his hometown, Damortis, upon learning of the death of his father; he discovers he has occult healing powers and sets up a clinic, from which he and his wife profit unexpectedly even as they neglect an assistant, a childhood acquaintance of theirs. When the assistant’s father dies, the faith healer teaches him some basic rituals, after which the assistant’s healing powers surpass those of his master. He succeeds in ruining the master’s practice and in ravishing the wife, but is upended in the end by the avenging woman.

11011Various themes – the ones I can remember are occultism, lust (for sex and power), exploitation, and sexual politics – crisscross the tale, but refuse to come to a head in the end. Not one is in fact satisfactorily developed beyond the presentation of conflicts, but the essence is in the telling rather than in the message: everything gets drawn into a flux that indicates the meaningless repetition of ordinary existence, which may admit the raising of issues that provoke transitions to heroism, only to thwart the necessary culminations in order to uphold the cycle of survival. A recurrent strain in Damortis is that of religious rituals, repetitive and endless. For every act that the protagonists take outside of the ordinary, a ritual plows them back into the town’s earthy existence; the climax of the story may be initially seen as a liberating exception, until we realize that the very act of the rape victim in setting fire to herself and her transgressor is in itself a consummation of the protagonists’ rebellion against the life force – a metaphysical warning that those who dare counter this course will cancel out one another to the point of extinction.

11011Some other observers may accuse me of having read too much into the film, and they could be correct as far as the weak ability of Damortis in purveying popular staples, beyond the occasional gore or epidermal exposure, is concerned. I for one do not imagine myself re-viewing Damortis with the same appreciation I held when I first saw it: my admiration for its offbeat storytelling and extra-cinematic daring will have been replaced by a more proper reaction to its visionary coldness. More to the point, I can imagine other filmmakers, if not Briccio Santos himself, undertaking less defeatist yet even more experimentally successful approaches within the format. In a sense, Damortis is the urbanite’s reaction to the rustic’s condemnation of the city; I can see the film taking the con side in a debate on the desirability of a return to rural values – the other side of which has already been articulated, perhaps unwittingly but still injuriously, by our typical slum films.

11011I may be succumbing to the lure of Damortis the town, but I don’t see any more appropriate way of ending this review by referring back to the mainstream-vs.-alternative industry conflict. Quo vadis, mainstreamers? The only possible opportunity to rally forth with a one last ticket for the awards sweepstakes would be the Christmas season’s Metro Manila Film Festival, but then again that couldn’t be considered a normal industrial period, could it? Somewhere in the back of my mind the prospect of alternative artists challenging and eventually dominating the moviemaking establishment becomes less fearful, more desirable even.

[First published October 20, 1986, in New Day]

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Movie(?) of the Year

Ang Lungsod ng Tao Ay Nasa Puso
[Originally titled Film Trilogy on the Theme of Poverty and Prostitution]
Directed and written by Nick Deocampo (a.k.a. Rosa ng Maynila)

Three films with the too-formal title Film Trilogy on the Theme of Poverty and Prostitution comprise nearly three hours’ worth of viewing time in super-8mm. format. The prospect of watching the individual entries in succession – “Oliver” at 45 minutes, “Mga Anak ng Lansangan” at 50, and “Revolutions Happen Like Refrains in a Song” at 75 – might be akin to sitting through a long-winded discourse by a brilliant speaker: his genius will endure, your patience may not. I had the understatedly more relaxed option of watching the short-film entries as they came along, in two-year intervals over a period of five years, plus the benefit of some intense exchanges along the way with the trilogy’s filmmaker, Nick Deocampo. “Oliver,” the first installment, introduced itself as the first in a series of works on what was then ironically being heralded as the City of Man. “Mga Anak ng Lansangan” provided a more technically assured but dramatically deficient presentation on the eve of the February 1986 upheaval, while “Revolutions Happen Like Refrains in a Song,” which came out this year, acknowledged the primacy of far-reaching sociopolitical concerns over technical finesse and went one step further than either of its predecessors in allowing its creator to finally take center stage and admit his role and motives in the making of the entire work thus far.

11011Local reception to these titles has tended to match their seeming unpredictability of direction. Acclaim came fairly and easily for “Oliver,” too easily for “Mga Anak,” and unfairly hard for “Revolutions.” As these stand, “Oliver” is the most perfectly wrought among the three, its focus having been provided by its sensational character-subject Reynaldo Villarama, who uses the alias in the title for his graphic gay live shows. Successive re-viewings confirm the classicality of its contributions to short filmmaking in the Philippines, or even in avant-garde independent-cinema circles elsewhere, which is generally characterized by an obsession with plastic experimentation at the expense of more permanent values.

11011In “Oliver” the choice of subject complements the medium’s propensity for surface exploitations: Villarama’s story may be sordid even for those familiar to the point of cynicism with the goings-on in the local gay underworld, but the guy himself lives in and loves the limelight. He comes alive with the essentially exploitative nature of documentary filmmaking, in effect ensuring the audience that not only does he not mind baring his soul (or close to what remains of it), he’d even be grateful for any sort of reaction, be it positive or negative, to his desperate attempts at exhibitionism. Deocampo, then going by the nom de camera Rosa ng Maynila, thus discovered and preserved for cultural posterity the proper sort of documentary subject in Villarama, a real-life counterpart of the effective screen actor, who after all is just another performer craving for public adulation.

Reynaldo Villarama (b. 1959), more famously known as Oliver, in Nick Deocampo’s super-8mm. Ang Lungsod ng Tao Ay Nasa Puso (1983-88).

11011In this regard “Mga Anak ng Lansangan” squanders this precious insight into documentary film craft. Here Deocampo surrenders, as it were, to the preoccupation with the so-called fine visual principles typical of alternative and academic film circles: standard light sources, carefully calculated lens openings, well-planned camera placements and movements, matched cuts, and all the other excess baggage assumed by short-filmmakers who can’t seem to discard the siren call of mainstream commercial practice despite their routine condemnation of the system. It isn’t so much Deocampo’s inadequacies with this sort of cock-eyed approach to the woefully inappropriate super-8mm. format that undoes him as much as the demands of his subject themselves. In “Mga Anak” he has trained his camera on child prostitutes, and they’re either as naïve or as reluctant about the opportunity of exposure in film as Villarama was neither. Interviews with adults who concern themselves with the kids’ plight only serve to heighten this awareness of how unforgiving the film medium can be, how unsparingly it exposes the limits of its performers’ understanding of the roles that they set out for themselves to play.

11011“Revolutions Happen Like Refrains in a Song” could therefore only be the inevitable result, although I wonder if Deocampo’s sense of hindsight resembles my own. A sprawling, exasperating, but nevertheless impressive mélange of personal memorabilia, outtakes from the earlier two films, and documentations of historical events in the interregnum, the film comes close to redefining documentary presentation as observed by its predecessors, and in fact already contains the potential for doing so. Only those who’ve done some careful thinking and tinkering with super-8mm. will appreciate this sort of achievement – which I suspect is the reason why local short-film festival judges, affiliated as they tend to be with the mainstream, accorded “Mga Anak” a recognition at par with that of “Oliver,” but gave nothing whatsoever to “Revolutions.” How could one used to commercial gauges even begin to take seriously any film print that deliberately contains mismatched overlit or underlit shots, defective celluloid surfaces, jerky home-movie camerawork, or downright bad takes strung together over the filmmaker’s first-person narration of how this particular work came about?

11011Of course this entire question has been answered in part by the proponents of personal cinema – and I’d emphasize “in part” because the personal-cinema movement has rarely been as intimate as “Revolutions” purports to be. To be sure, and as Deocampo himself has admitted, the movie tends to repeat itself in some parts: overall, however, the daring and the honesty coupled with the surface crudeness begin to assume a measure of charm, if not admirability. Moments like Villarama fumbling over his infamous Spiderman act (which served as “Oliver’s” finale) or gay live-sex performers arousing each other in near-absurd desperation (absent in the sanitized presentations of “Mga Anak”) provide enough theatrical distance to be almost funny in themselves, while the shots of the February 1986 revolution-in-progress instill a sense of relief, however false or fleeting, through the hope that the trilogy’s theme of poverty and prostitution may get caught up the sweep of farther-reaching social changes.

11011If we take “Oliver” as is, “Mga Anak” as a necessary step in the development of its maker’s understanding of his medium’s particular format, and “Revolutions” as a work-in-progress nearing completion, then Nick Deocampo’s trilogy is the fulfillment of a long-standing threat by alternative filmmakers to finally overrun the mainstream. What an honor that a foreign festival should give its highest prize to this work, and what a shame that we couldn’t have any similar means of formally providing the recognition it deserves.

[First published January 27, 1988, in National Midweek]

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Perils of Politics

A Dangerous Life
Directed by Robert Markowitz
Written by David Williamson

Finally, an audiovisual event that will surely figure prominently in everyone’s comprehensive yearend listings. Ironically for film observers, A Dangerous Life isn’t even, strictly speaking, a movie: it’s a multi-installment and big-budget video production. And ironically for nationalists, A Dangerous Life may not even be Filipino, if we consider sources of either capital or creative control. Whatever its merits and demerits, A Dangerous Life will remain the year’s most discussed, er, film, and people who have something to say or write about it would have done so by now. There won’t be a dearth of issues to raise: its perspective may be non-American but nevertheless remains Western (producers and creators are Australian); it has apparently served to further the claim to legitimacy of the current regime, not to mention the station that aired it nonstop save for the usual breaks; most important, it deals with the most significant event of our generation, the 1986 February revolution that resulted in the ouster of Ferdinand E. Marcos and the installation of Corazon C. Aquino in his stead.

Mendiola protest performance, a sampling of the anti-dictatorship uprising covered by Robert Markowitz’s TV movie A Dangerous Life (1988).

11011How to place this kind of work in the context of the local mainstream? To begin with, A Dangerous Life is not the first attempt at reconstructing the upheaval that began with the assassination of Benigno S. Aquino and ended with the people-power phenomenon. A number of documentaries by both local and foreign filmmakers are relatively easy to access, and the events themselves occasionally figure, if only in passing, in full-length feature productions. Nothing of feature-length scale has ever yet been accomplished, however, obviously owing to the sheer logistical and budgetary resources that such an undertaking will require. This makes of A Dangerous Life something like an ultimate, and a less-than-satisfactory one at that. Various quarters have questioned the disparities between perceived reality and the filmic version of it, even in details as dismissible as prosthetics. Of course the reconstruction of anything with the scope and magnitude attempted by A Dangerous Life is a heroic thing in itself, but I think its basic problem lies in the foundation on which it built the story of a nation and its people.

11011Take out the documentary footage and re-stagings of what supposedly transpired in actuality, and what’s left is a love story that assumes a triangular dimension at a certain point, but never becomes momentous or profound enough to require a corresponding historical background. Sure, you could voice exactly the same criticism about Gone with the Wind, and you’d be correct, except that GWTW had all the advantages of superior film technology and a desperate romantic conviction that surely derived from its makers’ confidence in themselves and in their ownership of the source material. In the case of A Dangerous Life, an unnecessary sort of tension results from the alternations between the love angle(s) and historically significant developments. It seems the filmmakers were reluctant to allow the concerns of the central characters, who were both foreign and fictional, from overwhelming the more impressive business of restoring democracy in a beleaguered Third-World country.

11011More serious is the oversight that resulted from such excessive carefulness. Philippine history suddenly became a morality play, with the forces of good clearly aligned against those of evil. Anyone who went through that period with any amount of intensity, myself included, will be able to contend that at most points it did feel that way, at least while it lasted. The trouble is that, even from the short perspective of the present, the entire situation never could have been as simple as it seemed then. It doesn’t help to assert, as the movie does, that Aquino was driven to a certain extent by vindictiveness, or that the Marcoses did have some amount of affection for each other after all. I suppose the major problem confronting a production like A Dangerous Life is that the real-life events it happens to be dealing with are not yet over; history too can be capable of the reversals and ambiguities that we normally associate with good drama. Yet if things remain as predictable as the movie suggests, what’s to keep creators from making the most of license? A Dangerous Life may have begun with this ideal in mind, when it sought to intersperse fiction with fact; but early on it decided to steer clear of possible controversies in historical interpretation, rather than pursue the more liberating option of turning fact inside out to make it more truthful, if not more real.

11011Thus it consigned itself to suffer the discontent of those who wanted more credibility in its depiction of historical reality on the one hand, and those who expected a more dramatically valid fictional framework on the other. In short, what we’ve got here is the classic case of someone setting out to please everybody and winding up pleasing no one, except maybe … himself? In the final analysis, such an account as A Dangerous Life provides will still have a place in our cultural setup, and not just from the politicized perspective either. Before our own creative artists make their own “ultimate” statements about the 1986 “revolution” (quotes are optional and may be removed by those who disagree), they’ll first have to see how far and how deeply the subject can sustain itself, given a particular medium as sample. And even before that, they’ll need to see if it can be done with any measure of success. A Dangerous Life, by the very act of letting down great expectations, will prove indispensable in raising these challenges.

[Submitted in November 1988 to National Midweek; unpublished]

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Imelda: Paru-Parung Bakal
Directed by Chito Roño
Written by Cesar Buendia

The demise of the hard-hitting television show Isip Pinoy could serve as marker for the waning of the public’s interest in politics; the more cynical among us would even go as far as saying that the cause was actually politicians, rather than politics itself. The distinction may prove to be more than semantic, once the new version of Isip Pinoy, now called Isyung Pinoy, gets under way. The pilot episode, slated to run for two hours (commercials included), features the former First Lady and makes bold claims, in both treatment and content, that the former series, for all its awards and distinctions, barely attempted before.

11011“Imelda: Paru-Parung Bakal” actually succeeds in some form of political sacrilege: it turns every Filipino’s favorite villainess into a highly sympathetic subject of study. In doing so it upholds the literary potential of video – the medium’s most vital aspect, so often neglected in the drive to exploit its journalistic capabilities. This reluctance to explore video’s dramatic potential had been primarily due to the inevitable comparisons with the more technologically developed medium of film on the one hand, and with the more aesthetically significant medium of theater on the other. Hence the most that video had done for itself in common practice so far was to approximate the storytelling function of film, reckoning with its technical limitations by appropriating the dependency on dialogue of theater.

11011Add to this program for survival the mostly financial advantages of issuing a product in installments, and what we get is A Dangerous Life – the surface characteristics of the epic minus the requisites of dramatic innovation that made classic examples more than just tolerable. The only other possible recourse, which to my mind is truer to the nature of video, is to regard it as lying not between film and theater, but rather on the other extreme of theater, with film in between. In practice all this simply means is that possibilities for dramatic presentation should be worked out according to the function that we have come to take for granted in video: that of audiovisual journalism or, in more faithful medium-based jargon, documentation.

11011By this account it should come as no surprise to discover that what A Dangerous Life barely attains in a more direct narrative manner, Isyung Pinoy’s “Imelda” manages in less than a fourth of the longer work’s total running time. The procedure can hardly be called chronological, much less filmic. Perhaps the seemingly extraneous formulations being imposed on film by more recent theorists will apply with unqualified success in the case of video. For where discourses on the relationship of the medium with the circumstances of its production become only so much ado about nothing if it eventually becomes capable of self-sustainment (as is the case with film), in video, or at least in “Imelda,” where the entire undertaking depends on the availability of effective historical footage, the circumstances of production are all but dispensable in arriving at a proper appreciation of the work.

11011In this instance we have a near-perfect choice of subject matter. No other prominent contemporary Filipino citizen, not even Imelda Marcos’s husband or his political successor, has such a confluence of contradictions operating on several levels of modern existence. “Imelda” reveals a woman ignorant of history but clever in her manipulation of it, allowing herself to be used by her master politician of a husband so as to be able to use him in return, sincere in her employment of pretense to surmount her early deprivations, committed to the end to a cause – her own, essentially – that she could never really attain on her own. One of the final images in “Imelda” is her interview on her arraignment in New York. It is something that should have been impressed on us, her former subjects, as closely as possible to its real-time delivery, rather than having been qualified by the news accounts that preceded (and thereby affected our perception of) it. “Imelda” restores the footage to a disturbing, heartbreaking, more, well, Filipino context, in which by virtue of the foregoing accumulation of the woman’s characteristics, what we find is our familiar conception of the earth mother: resilient and dangerously touching.

11011Some of the other aspects of the episode, notably the insinuation that Imelda Marcos lives on as a political syndrome among us, have apparently been intended for the former audiences of Isip Pinoy. The creation of “Imelda’s” central character is the more lasting achievement though, and the question of how the real thing corresponds with her video counterpart should be accorded a status at the most secondary to the issue of whether this sort of exercise should be encouraged in the first place. I doubt if the old (pre-1986 revolution) Imelda would agree with what she would find therein, and that in itself should constitute sufficient commendation for the product, if not the lady.

[First published March 15, 1989, in National Midweek]

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An Update

As recently as less than half a century ago, who would have imagined any Filipino’s gratitude for our proximity to the Land of the Rising Sun? Of course, super-8mm. wasn’t around then, but if it weren’t for Tokyo up north and the United States way across the Pacific, the format wouldn’t be around at all anymore. The first and most successful imperialistically introduced medium of the current century will surely be enjoying a renewed proliferation of 16mm., but not in the inexpensive black-and-white that characterized early television practice; formal film training will be making its mark on industrial practice sooner or later, and those in the know will agree with the wisdom of dabbling in a relatively cheap format that still approximates commercial-gauge procedures. No one seems to be interested at the moment in the 16mm.-to-35mm. blowup strategy, as well as the omnibus presentation, but these may accompany the onslaught of the local version of Hollywood Brats – or will it be the French New Wave? As for video, more and more people will be able to afford and appreciate equipment in this format (or medium – the distinction’s hazy here), which means, if we’re lucky, we could wind up having a nationwide filmmaking explosion. Or, at the very least, an audience who appreciates the process of film inside and out. Laser technology, which is currently proving indispensable to film preservation even in local cases, may yet provide radical options for filmmaking in video, though further miniaturization might first have to be realized.

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

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The National Pastime – Genres: Horror/Sex/Action

Where Has All the Horror Gone?

Those who condemn the vengeful comeback of fantasy films might in all hastiness overlook the merits of a related but surprisingly rarer genre, the horror movie. Now of course the average Filipino film release, especially in these times, can be a frightening experience in itself, but redundancy would probably be an incidental reason for the scarcity of genuine horror items in contemporary local cinema. The more logical route begins with the sorry state that obtains for films that are serious per se; if realistic or at least naturalistic works that do not contain any potential for erotica, violence, or humor find difficulty in acquiring acceptance among the movie-going masses, what more the sober treatment of supernatural issues? Presuming that the typical film viewer would first have to be either convinced or coerced into watching an artistic presentation, she would then have to be further academically prepared to be able to understand the significance of social, physical, or psychological ramifications within a dramatic framework. To demand that she carry this understanding into the realm of the abstract, which is what the best among horror movies enable the competent viewer to do, would be asking for too much as it already is.

11011Hence lovers of the horrific, if ever they do exist among our film practitioners, may have just given up the ghost in the meantime that proponents of realism attempted to resurrect the local audience’s appreciation of or at least tolerance for “seriousness.” When a tendency toward naturalism surfaced, notably because of the art-for-art’s sake orientation of practitioners who emerged during the eighties, supernaturalism in cinema eventually took hold – but only according to the strict commercialist terms of fantasy. Nevertheless there have been noteworthy samples of horror films that are still available, and therefore viewable, on video if not in the original celluloid. Because of the absence of centralized institutional film preservation, most of the gory – er, glory-day productions during the sixties will just have to be run through. Titles like Gabi ng Lagim and Maruja indicate how fertile that period has been for the horror genre, and in fact these two specific works are still subjects for remakes and sequels today.

11011But as in the experience of other Westernized cultures, the decline in horror movies was brought about by a laxity in film censorship – in our case, the late chairman Guillermo de Vega’s experiment in libertarian permissiveness during the early seventies that eventually became known as the bomba era. The connection between sex and horror is more than just skin-deep. With the British Hammer studio case as model, horror films used to provide opportunities to present carnal elements that would normally be disallowed by the establishment (and therefore powerful but not too imaginative) censor: the bite may be taken to mean the act of love, the initiation into a supernatural state may signify the acknowledgment of desire, and death may inarguably be seen as the ultimate orgasm, with the usually long and pointed killing instrument a phallic symbol – one need not be aFreud or too Jung to realize this.

11011With the emancipation of sex as a valid concern in cinema, horror, the fear of what may be real but unknown, has had to own up to its own given terms. The advantage here is that the genre could now discourse with the more abstractified perspective pointed out earlier, but the disadvantage, also already pointed out, is that the loss of innocence would also entail a fall from grace: no longer could the genre count on the commercial attraction of eroticism, since the audience would expect and demand that the latter be treated similarly on its own terms this time.

11011This mixed blessing has concrete evidence within the Filipino context to support it. Before the bomba era only the late Gerardo de Leon, among the serious directors, made a noteworthy (perhaps the worthiest for the period) contribution to horror filmmaking with the vampire movie Ibulong Mo sa Hangin, although another late master, Manuel Conde, had earlier succeeded with out-and-out and even way-out (of local folklore) fantasy treats.

11011During the seventies, horror films were fewer and farther between – some years in fact had no horror entries whatsoever – but what occasionally turned up was more often than not a commendable attempt. Celso Ad. Castillo, who in terms of visual proficiency was being touted as heir apparent to de Leon, has been the most prolific among our living major movie directors, with ironically a mere three titles – Kung Bakit Dugo ang Kulay ng Gabi, Patayin Mo sa Sindak si Barbara, and Maligno – all done during the middle part of the seventies. Lino Brocka did a Maruja film during the same period, but it was debuting directors who since then made must-see Pinoy horror items: Lupita Aquino-Kashiwahara with Magandang Gabi sa Inyong Lahat, Mike de Leon with Itim, Mario O’Hara with Mortal, Butch Perez with Haplos, Briccio Santos (in his first 16mm. work) with Damortis.

11011To this list we could add Tata Esteban’s experimental Alapaap, plus specific portions of Peque Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata, but more important would be the observation of the phenomenon of several of the post-bomba era’s major directors introducing themselves to the public in such a manner. Several explanations may be ventured, but all of them more likely lead to and from one another, in the process serving as a collective of causes. The audience may have been regarded as more receptive to works on the supernatural by first-timers rather than by veterans, since the former wouldn’t have any pretensions or self-consciousness brought about by success within the industry. The producers, risking as they do their investment in newcomers, figure that they would do well to avoid the genres dominated by established personages in the industry, and go for a type that used to enjoy a substantial following, in the hope that the awareness of pleasurable horror viewing had merely been dormant in the public’s consciousness. The directors would then appreciate this compromise between the commercial imperative of fantasy and their cherished desire to be serious, and so regard projects as artistic rather than commercial challenges.

11011Final proof that horror filmmaking is such a basic and appealing form of exercise in the medium lies in the fact that the future’s promising directors, who unlike their forerunners do not need to conduct their practice training in the expensive commercial format, are virtually turning alternative film (super-8mm., 16mm., and video) into frontiers for the exploration of the unknown. Would this mean they’d stand more than the ghost of a chance come their day of reckoning with the gods of big-time production? Vive l’esprit de corps!

[First published November 3, 1986, in New Day]

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Causes for Cerebration

Directed by Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes
Written by Don Escudero, Peque Gallaga, and Lore Reyes

Babaing Hampaslupa
Directed by Mel Chionglo
Written by Ricardo Lee

Two recent releases by the country’s most successful production outfit way before and ever since the 1986 revolution indicate the strategy by which our major filmmakers aim to recover their pre-revolution notions of dignity and self-respect. Whether or not these individuals are aware of what they’re doing, the formula seems expedient enough to be applied to the larger problems posed by video entertainment as an alternative to movie-going. The prevailing line of action is also sensible enough to be implemented with a minimum of logistical complications: just get the crowds back into the theaters first, then do what you want while giving them what they like. As a corollary, if they don’t like what you’re doing, either forget it or go ahead anyway, but at your own risk.

11011This might seem like something so logical that it must have been done before already, but as far as I can recall or surmise (into my own and the industry’s prehistory), our audiences have been so generally congenial toward the medium of movies that they always took to it even during periods of crises as serious as, for one, the imposition of martial rule during the early seventies. The only other period when Filipinos may have avoided the movie-houses en masse would be during the Japanese occupation; but then the occupation forces didn’t seem to worry too much about this decline in indulgence in a national pastime (they never took steps toward a full-scale revivification of the local industry) and besides, the people’s rejection of anything officially endorsed by the Japanese extended to all other forms of media as well.

11011If the invaders knew any better they would have been worried sick: for a fiesta-loving populace to forgo its usual entertainment could presage a darkening of the national temper; in the face of the expulsion of the Americans and their influence, this could only, and did, mean war. In contrast, the panic occasioned among film producers during the almost year-long dead stretch right after February 1986 was just a case of overreaction, fueled by good old-fashioned business greed. True, there was a decline in movie attendance worldwide, but this was because of a far less political upheaval, the video revolution. Locally the reasons could not be more threatening than a post-crisis sobering up, a taking stock of the complex moral issues involved in the ouster of a strongman who represented a generation of accepted values and attitudes.

11011The hindsight afforded by close to three years of observation allows me the audacity of remarking that the public’s movie-going habit would have resumed once its euphoria had subsided, but the futility of this sort of speculation is obvious. Meanwhile we’ve had a quite maddening succession of reoriented outputs, calculated to lure back moviegoers in numbers comfortable enough to warrant the maintenance of what remains a major national industry. With Tiyanak and Babaing Hampaslupa, the items attempt to go a step beyond the ordinary, but without outwardly distinguishing themselves. Where it seems to matter (the box office, of course), the camouflage has been successful. Moviegoers attended as usual, were treated to more than the average rehash of commercial viabilities, but without losing their minimum share of generic entertainment.

Janice de Belen, as an infertile mother, with her demon foundling in Peque Gallaga & Lore Reyes’s Tiyanak (1988).

11011On a more articulatory level, Tiyanak and Hampaslupa work by taking their makers’ cerebrations into current standardized formats, instead of forcing the formats to adapt to content (as would have been the ante-revolutionary case), or merely doing an excellent job with the givens (post-revolutionary, until about now). It should also be pointed out that, perhaps due to the halfway nature of such products, these kinds of films were commercially far riskier to make, before 1986, than out-and-out successful formula or artistic works. Would it be timely now to rejoice in the bridging of this crucial gap between film commerce and, uhm, art? I’d nurture my misgivings first, minor as they may appear within this sociopolitical context. Tiyanak serves its ecological punch early on, then holds it for some impressive special effects display and not-so-impressive hysterics, until it could let go with a closing follow-up. Hampaslupa does better in infusing its class concerns all the way to the lachrymal end, but at the expense of simplifying the other class extreme.

11011The filmmakers of both titles have been active in the exploration of the art-and-commerce options I outlined earlier, and whichever between their two approaches is more effective depends on your preference in entertainment. Tiyanak would appeal to those who like their serious and fancy stances clearly delineated from each other, while Hampaslupa is made for those who go for fusion. Hollywoodish vs. Europeanesque would be the pedantries one could put to use in pointing out the differences between the two. Not bad for items that could make you scream or cry as you realize these more discussible points, and not so bad for an industry that used to churn out highly innovative films with admirable regularity a couple of years back. This ought to be one way for us not to take such strokes of luck and talent for granted, from hereon.

[First published December 21, 1988, in National Midweek]

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Down but Not Out

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

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

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

11011Then came 1986, and notwithstanding pessimists’ claims, things did change, even in the local film scene. Comedy and melodrama took the forefront in both box-office and artistic terms, while bold films permutated into the hard-core quickies reminiscent of pre-martial law times, and action movies ventured in the opposite direction – real-life stories done with the ultimate in production costs. Nektar and Tubusin Mo ng Dugo, bold and action films respectively, seem to point toward a return to the median, as it were, for these temporarily lost film types. I’ll readily own that I might be too optimistic about the first title, but the second can be taken as a case for generic survival: instead of breaking as far away as possible from the films that seem to be doing well, why not figure out how best to adopt the factors that excite the mass viewership about them?

11011Hence, the spectacle of witnessing some form of industrial osmosis, with a bold film attempting to take on the plot complications and technical competence of melodrama, and an action film spiced (spiked, even) with comic routines. I’d like to be kind enough, at least in print, in pointing out that, the way most current bold films go, Nektar could have been worse. It’s bad enough as it is, but you could sense an aspiration toward, well, making sense. The story’s our well-worn odyssey of the Virginal Barrio Lass getting corrupted by the Big City, with the melodramatic, or at least komiks-influenced, twist of Morality Triumphing in the End. Before you start groaning in your creaky theater seats, let me remind you that this material has proved remarkably resilient through the decades, with each movie generation having its own claim to posterity in a least one such topical example: Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag honors the moviemakers of the seventies in this way, although of course Nektar could only hope to distinguish its own specific period in time, and no more.

11011There’s an even more painful aspect to the movie, and that’s the care, believe it or not, with which it was executed. Nektar must be the most carefully made bold film since Takaw Tukso two years ago – but one must be careful to take this in the context of the common run of such films, rather than the quality of the specific titles being compared. The difference, and this is where Nektar fails, is that its makers have just not been up to the challenge, meaning the effort shows in the final product. It becomes almost embarrassing to see a movie so sincere yet nevertheless substandard in all respects. A few portions do stand as set pieces, specifically the heroine wandering in the Luneta by night, and then much later discovering how her supposed savior betrayed her.

11011Of course this only makes the rest of the movie almost unbearable in its pursuit of a reasonable but overworked story framework. I guess in the final analysis, a little figuring out about the specific nature of filmwork could have helped: Maynila, although it resembles Nektar on paper, salvaged itself by opting for a semi-documentary approach; in the other direction, melodrama films contain the potential for degenerating into camp, which though not as promising at least provides a provocative element of fun. How sad to fall in between, losing the interest of both serious observers and escapists – unless a hard-core version exists somewhere; but then that takes the fun out of knowing you did a good movie and showing it to friends and potential acquaintances. In which case how sad again, etc.

11011After Nektar, Tubusin Mo ng Dugo emerges as a minor cause for celebration. Pepe Marcos, a former editor (who also doubles for the same function in his films) who turned director four years ago, first came up with a passable debut, also a Rudy Fernandez starrer, in Sumuko Ka … Ronquillo! Neither practitioner has come up with totally execrable work since, but in Tubusin I’m happy to report a rarity of sorts – their best individual work so far. The qualifications should not be far behind though. Tubusin’s still a customary product, made for no greater shakes than the usual action entertainment contained in its main plotline. Normally I’d say it suffers from an imbalance in story development, but in fact this is where its strong point emerges. Instead of the usual establishment of good guys being lined up against bad guys, Tubusin takes an expository detour and provides a picaresque description of the lead character’s misadventures within a shrewdly observed social milieu.

11011Yessir, your average martyr of a mother happens to be a nag, your friendly neighborhood police chief resorts to third-degree, and your noble working-class savage gambles and drinks when he can, and even sets himself up for an occasional hustle! I was bewildered, to put it mildly, and then I started to wonder how long such a good thing could last. My worries were answered as soon as they occurred to me. Turned out that the mother feared for her son’s future, ditto the police chief, and though the hero-son gets to sire a family of his own, his involvement – unwilling, of course – in a big-time crime syndicate leaves him without much choice, were it not for the long, long arm of the law, yawn, yawn. I should have suspected something amiss after the hero rapes his best friend, a butch lesbian, and she forthwith disappears; what do you know, she reemerges much later, converted by her heterosexual encounter and therefore happily married to a poor unsuspecting atmosphere person.

11011Meanwhile a few instances of the early part’s humor, coupled with some really fierce action sequences, manage to pull the reluctant viewer through; the mass audience will of course be more forgiving, so I guess I ought to be honest about my admiration of how perceptive the filmmakers of Tubusin have been in their appropriation of current commercial preferences in a film genre that would otherwise have been as good as obsolete. In the end, Tubusin will be remembered mainly for just that – revitalizing a film type to conform to the mood of the times. Like Nektar, it will have acquired the box-office profits it intended to make in the first place, although with much less outrage about competence and entertainment appeal. We should all be so glad Armageddon might somehow take longer than tomorrow.

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

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Moments of Truth

Anak ng Cabron
Directed by Wilfredo Milan
Written by Conrad Galang

Afuang: Bounty Hunter
Directed by Mike Relon Makiling
Written by Amado Lacuesta Jr. and Tony Tacorda

Would it be precipitate to claim that the action movie as a function of social realities – an activity that obtained during the early years of the sixties and eighties – is once more coming into its own? The outputs so far this year seem to promise as much, what with an appropriate adaptation to the concerns of the times. During the late fifties and early sixties, with the likes of Cesar Gallardo and the late Gerardo de Leon leading the way, local action films undertook the depiction of underworld characters with the requisite tragic comeuppance; the attempts succeeded so well that the legal and physical mechanisms of film censorship were expanded to effectively outlaw such so-called gangster movies. The result? A spate of imitations of Western and superspy stories, complete with wholly incongruous production values (American Indians and formal wear in the tropical Orient) and performers (Caucasian blondes servicing not-so-appealing locals).

11011Similar political strictures during the seventies added a relatively closer but still alien form, the martial-arts movie. Suddenly Filipino film actors became more Chinese than the Chinese themselves, those on the mainland at least. Only during the latter part of the decade did both filmmakers and audience develop an understanding between them sufficient to codify (in the actual, not the semiotic, sense) martial-law situations into metaphorical setups such as prisons, slums, and urban-to-rural transitions. The problem for the Pinoy action movie since the two-year-old political “revolution” is this time more a matter of entertainment appeal rather than the old dilemma of getting social themes through a too-touchy censorship system. This is where the genre’s strength and weakness lies: on the one hand, the extremes of realities necessary to initiate an action, whether a chase, flight, or vendetta, presume an awareness of current social situations; on the other hand, this selfsame seriousness of purpose can prove (and has often done so) to be too high-handed for commercial comfort.

Phillip Salvador as Arsenio Cayanan, a mixed-race American mestizo who became known for a life of crime, in Pepe Marcos’s Boy Negro (1988).

11011A few weeks ago a Rudy Fernandez-starrer, Tubusin Mo ng Dugo, went a long way, in box-office terms, in taking cues from the recent successes of comedy entries. This time two other titles, Anak ng Cabron and Afuang: Bounty Hunter, try to introduce innovations of their own, and seem to be reaping rewards for the mere act of doing so. Between the two, Anak ng Cabron seems to be the more conscientious effort but winds up the less appreciable, precisely because of the aforementioned dangers of dissimulation. The premise – a society with a completely anarchic law-and-order arrangement – is attractive, and the execution even more so: the level of utter technical competence displayed herein is what all local films should strive for, at the very least; perhaps with enough international markets opened, the surface polish that characterizes Anak ng Cabron can be more willingly accomplished by the rest of the industry.

11011Unfortunately a lesser proportion of care was extended the movie narrative’s basic essentials. It would sound patently unfair, not to mention pedantic, to point out that an Aeschylean potential in the theme of a son inheriting his father’s personality defects remains undeveloped – but that’s only because the movie on the whole managed to evade the issue of ideas through a reliance on comic touches and an admirable expansion of geography. These of course are still backup devices that don’t really address questions of internal logic – like why should the women in this film hate so intensely someone who projects himself better than they do? At least Rudy Fernandez in Tubusin Mo ng Dugo was provided the self-awareness of using his physical charm to his advantage, even if only in the limited context of hustling. I could understand a neurotic mother and a dumb leading-lady character rejecting a movie-goon type, but Ace Vergel?! Perhaps a more psychologically provocative explanation for meanness than mere heredity (which was the achievement-of-sorts of another Vergel-starrer, Carlo J. Caparas’s Pieta) could have helped some.

11011Afuang: Bounty Hunter commits exactly the same things Anak ng Cabron does, but performs one over the latter through the application of a clever strategy. Where Anak ng Cabron sought to convey a vision of peace-and-order breakdown by simply assuming that it exists in the here and now, Afuang situates itself in an actual time frame – the period of transition between the past and present political dispensation. Production limitations aside, the notion of vicariously reliving those days with someone who actually went through the process still manages to evoke the minimal interest required for paying proper attention. Afuang then manages to be crafty enough to engage the viewer in a game of wondering how much of the onscreen resolution matches the real-life exploits of its lead character. Before you know it you’ll have gotten over the tension of hoping the Afuang you’ve identified with would make it through the change of regimes, largely because of the catharsis of his vengeance on the wrongdoers who may or may not have actually crossed his path the way they did in the movie.

11011The inevitable problem with character presentations in true-to-life stories still holds true in the case of Afuang: the way the guy talks, you’d suspect that it was this sermonizing, rather than his rectitude, that did him in during the latter period of Marcos rule. And as in Anak ng Cabron the women, the Mrs. Afuang especially, are converted into provocations for the lead character to enunciate, albeit hesitantly (as befits a real man, hah!), his philosophical stance; in short you don’t expect to find ladies here, you get gentlemen burdened with social ills and nags, not necessarily in that order.Between this given and the otherworldly solutions explored by Western cinema (Raging Bull et al.), there remains a number of minor points that should still be raised for commendation in the movie: the usual reliability of Phillip Salvador, the discovery of action-star potential in the actor playing his sidekick (Mon Godiz), and the casual implication of five-star hoodlum (now international fugitive) Fabian Ver in the dognapping racket that turned into the dreaded carnapping syndicate of not-so-long-ago.

11011Enterprises like Afuang are in danger of catching flak from still-present and ever-sensitive sources; sadly their appeal rests on this factor, rather than merits that don’t depend on extra-filmic developments. Nevertheless we could do worse with our entertainment, and meanwhile we need to accumulate anew an appreciation of social insights that the audience can share according to its level of maturity. If the outputs are at least as entertaining as what we’ve been getting lately, then who’s to complain?

[First published March 23, 1988, in National Midweek]

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Operation: Get Victor Corpus, the Rebel Soldier
Directed by Pablo Santiago
Written by Jose F. Lacaba

Balweg: The Rebel Priest
Directed by Butch Perez
Written by Amado Lacuesta Jr.

Kumander Dante
Directed by Ben (M-7) Yalung
Written by Ricardo Lee

With the release of Kumander Dante, a unique cycle of the depiction on film of local political rebels has been completed. It would take another complex of factors – the 1986 political upheaval and the differences that accompanied it – to enable us to witness another series of purportedly biographical treatments of the stories of bigger-than-life outlaws. More’s the pity then, since at this stage we have neither reached the cultural maturity to appreciate experimentalist deviations form avowed fact, nor acquired the political confidence to remain above the run of discourses about significant contemporary personalities. As far as current industry standards go, the trio of titles dealing with military renegade Victor Corpus, rebel maverick Conrado Balweg, and former underground leader Bernabe Buscayno (a.k.a. Commander Dante) are actually superior entries. They have been produced by major outfits with fittingly above-average budgets, and the concern for industrial legitimacy can be seen in both the production values as well as the large casting these projects exhibit.

11011The reason for such carefulness, however, is the same factor that accounts for ultimate disappointments about these works, once the extremes of film ideals are applied. We still consider people newly returned from beyond the pale of the law as possessing an admirable amount of physical vulnerability; they may be visibly present among us, but are still hounded by the conflicts they’re supposed to have left behind. This makes them intriguing enough to warrant features in a popular medium or two, but at the same time provides the makers with the fear of possible retaliation by the subjects’ enemies as well as discrediting by the subject themselves.[1] Proof of this split-level approach lies in the creative credit listings for each project: name writers were commissioned to write the first-draft scripts – the blueprint, as it were – but commercially oriented (and therefore industrially safe) directors were called in to execute the final products; in the instance of Kumander Dante, the producer himself opted to do the film. In this regard the most conscientious filmmaker would naturally manage to come up with the most acceptable output of all, and not surprisingly Butch Perez pulls off a near-coup of sorts with Balweg: The Rebel Priest.

Phillip Salvador as Conrado Balweg, a former reverend who founded and led the the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army, in consultation with director Butch Perez.

11011The achievement, however, is strictly technical, and in fact at certain moments I was just as overwhelmed at the epic excesses of Operation: Get Victor Corpus, the Rebel Soldier and the historical parallelisms of Kumander Dante. The latter, in addition, provides the clearest indication of art-and-life cross-purposes: it isn’t so much the approximation of the real-life occurrences that gives the necessary jolt to these works, but rather the afterthought that reality could be more dynamic and enduring in the long run. Sure, Corpus, Balweg, and Buscayno may not look as perfect as their screen counterparts do, but at least they possess the means to pursue, redirect, or even negate their own objectives, whereas those contained in the filmic representations of their lives will remain as is for all time, or at least as long as the stocks can be preserved. It’s a no-win situation actually. The only way to correct the impressions of the originals, should Corpus et al. decide to change courses in midstream, would be to update their stories via new film projects. In this sense Corpus himself or, to be more accurate, his screen character, enjoys the benefit of an open ending; any sequel to his story could still reasonably proceed from the original.

11011Yet there may be a more feasible option – one that upholds the integrity of the medium even, if necessary, at the expense of the subjects concerned. Early this year I made what seemed like a hyperbolic statement at the time, to the effect that a late 1987 release, Kumander Gringa, was in most ways the best political Filipino film since the revolution. If anything, the completion of the serious political-rebels cycle confirms this assertion, without necessarily sacrificing the requisites of box-office appeal and the star system. Of course, no one in his right mind would ever make the mistake of identifying Gringo Honasan with the character(s) portrayed by Roderick Paulate, but then this is precisely what makes Kumander Gringa more film than documentation. Political rebels in themselves provide enough real-life issues to last more than a mere couple of movies; on the other hand, a one-project affair, a do-or-die proposition, need not always prostrate itself on the altar of verisimilitude, especially when other options could be just as entertaining, if not more, and thereby possibly truer to the purposes of the medium.

[First published October 26, 1988, in National Midweek]


[1] At the end of the published version of the review, three disclaimers by the story consultants (Monico Atienza, Bonifacio Ilagan, and Marvyn Benaning) of Kumander Dante, the scriptwriter also of Kumander Dante, and the scriptwriter of Victor Corpus were printed. Each statement, in effect, said that the story or script that these individuals had written was not observed by the director of the finished film.

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An Update

The resurgence of horror in local films proved about us fleeting as post-1986 prosperity. This lends some credence to the psychoanalytic view that audiences would look for horrifying experiences in fictional works if they didn’t have enough of it real life; the corollary – audiences deriving their quota of horror from real life – can and should only be regarded with sadness and outrage.

11011The move toward down-to-earth explicitness in turn-of-the-revolution sex films proved no match for the heavenward turn of officiated (and legislated, as may be seen in the new Constitution) morality; the new repression, however, may help induce a new round of creative, well, gap-searching, similar to that of the Marcos era’s bold trend.

11011Action films have been called to reprise their historically contingent function of reflecting their audience’s experiences and aspirations. The heroes this time are younger, less reluctant about emotional displays, and more attentive to women; and some villains are of an entirely new breed – heroes of yesteryears, actually, including Americans and elected government officials. Once this last genre moves beyond articulating current conditions, to clarifying them for the benefit of the audience and prescribing possible courses of action, people (those in power, especially) better start worrying. Fortunately for the forces of reaction, our local film practitioners still have to prove their expertise in propaganda, and so do our audiences, in terms of their capability of responding to such efforts.

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

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The National Pastime – Issues 1

Censorship and Other Compromises

A curious aspect in the local experience of film censorship is the fact that, in the rare instance of libertarian restraint on the part of government, the eventual clamor by the influential members of society has been for more censorship, not less.[1] This contrasts dramatically with historical developments in other media of expression, in which at least one side – the so-called progressive segment of society – welcomes the granting of freedom and strategizes whenever possible for the institutionalization of newly acquired benefits. The differences can be perceived from concrete examples of recent origin: where the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines exists only in ignominy, castigated toward the end by the very same concerned artists who helped set it up, the “alternative” elements in print and broadcasting today dominate their respective media, rising from the status of glamorized underdogs by waging and then winning their wars on the circulation and advertising fronts.

Film & theater activist director/actor Behn Cervantes (1938-2013) in an anti-censorship rally.

11011The salient distinction arises from the fact that film, more than any other form of mass media, is an industrial product, notwithstanding the assertions of a number of enlightened filmmakers. For indeed, who is the filmmaker? The director (as pronounced in occasionally mystifying foreign critical terms) is generally regarded in artist circles as the central intelligence, but she usually merely interprets an earlier work, that of the scriptwriter – who in turn may have derived more than just ideas from another source, but for simplification’s sake let us stop here. The writer’s ideas would be almost always embodied in, if not argued by, a character or group of characters, which in industrial parlance translates to actors. The actors, unlike the director, do more than interpret: they provide the motive for the movie to advance to production by assuring, through their box-office draws, returns on investment. And where would a movie project be without investment in the first place? If producers were concerned more with credits than with profits, one wonders if the politics of auteurism (a movement which ascribed final credit for a film to its director) would ever have prospered. The authentic auteur – a producer-director-writer-performer, rarely found even in alternative formats – is the exception who proves the rule.

11011This industrial nature does not prevail as strongly in print, broadcasting, or theater, which are generally conceded to be writers’ domains. Where a singular source of responsibility can be pinpointed, it becomes easier to enforce ideals from within the community of artists. Hence the tendency among writers (in print, especially) toward censoriousness – a creature totally different from the monstrosity of censorship – toward one another, particularly the ones perceived as abusive. Filmmakers, or more accurately the makers of film, on the other hand, tend to exculpate themselves by pointing to one another, or if it becomes unprofitable or too late to do so, then perversely they turn on the hapless moviegoing masses on whom they rely to patronize their products.

11011The issue in basic law should therefore be modified, more so at present when that same law is being redrafted, to whether industrial expressions should be given the same status as individual expressions when it comes to the enjoyment of constitutional rights. Of prime importance here is the consideration that industrial output presumes a profit motive and results from several possible compromises, responsibility residing in a collective of individuals that breaks up as soon as the industrial process is completed (i.e., after the money has poured in). The previous regime’s schizoid approach in exercising film censorship and at the same time exempting an official entity on the one hand, and endorsing film classification and exempting taxation on the basis of quality on the other hand, may in retrospect seem too scatterbrained to be effective. But waste not the lessons of history, as the sage said, or else be doomed to repeat it. Already becoming evident is the imposition of a parochial (Catholic aristocratic big-business) stringency in film censorship, being challenged by or challenging a resort to alternative circuits (countryside moviehouses, replacing the Manila Film Center) by film practitioners desperate for easy profits.

11011If anything, Marcos-era government control over the film industry indicated that a reliance on extremes – total censorship and total freedom at the same time – promoted excesses on both sides. Of more instructive value are the well-received, though not entirely officialized, innovations in the toleration of film classification and the granting of incentives to quality output. And herein may lie an even more profound lesson for dealing with larger sociopolitical issues: the solution to a compromise-laden problem (represented in our discussion by film as an industrial product) may be found, not in the extremes applied to uncompromised challenges (censorship or exemption from it as in the case for written works), but in the best available compromise as well (classification and incentives for quality in film). Now if our national problems could be just as easily simplified….

[First published September 15 1986, in New Day]


[1] In a subsequent study, Lynn Hunt pointed out that the concept of obscenity, the elimination of which is the state’s motive for exercising censorship, became part of Western legal discourse after the propagation of printing technology – see “Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800,” The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800, ed. Lynn Hunt (New York: Zone, 1996): 9-45. Prior to this way of thinking, graphic sexual descriptions, access to which was then-confined to aristocrats and church officials, was described without the need to call in state control mechanisms – e.g. erotica.

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Film Reviewing and Criticism

Film students’ faces are almost always wide-eyed and expectant, understandably because of the stimulating nature of their subject matter. The few occasions they predictably go blank are when I’d drop a French-derived theoretical terminology, or when I make my standard assertion that film criticism, as it’s been known elsewhere, doesn’t really exist in the country. Why so? the questions begin. The entertainment sections of dailies and magazines feature comments on current and forthcoming titles – maybe not regularly but often enough to convince even disinterested observers of their presence.

11011The confusion over the differences between the reviewing and the criticism of films had been taken up and resolved in international circles some decades back, but for certain cultural and circumstantial reasons, we find ourselves with the impression that film criticism goes on as is where is, and suffices for purposes of appreciation of the medium. Said reasons operate as a complex, but I guess one could make the effort of disentangling them for easier scrutiny. Taking the typical nationalist reflex of finding others to blame first, one could come up with enough of an argument with which to exculpate fellow practitioners. The state of medium-specific film theory, which is in a proper sense the purest form of film criticism, arrived at a dead end a long time ago with the practical perfection of the medium, and to ensure that formal film studies would still benefit from the momentum of dynamic film theorizing, the academicians took over.

11011Now certain intensively intellectual disciplines, mathematics and philosophy for instance, benefit greatly from what has come to be known as ivory-tower activity. But film happened to be fun to study yet correspondent with real life at the same time: it’s an art form with a sociopsychological dimension, true, but it also has technological, industrial, and political aspects no less essential to its development. So when the era of real interaction between the theory and practice of film reached its maximum, with the admirable collaboration of critics and filmmakers (and at least one instance of a combinative genius in Sergei Eisenstein), filmmakers branched off into collecting their moral and financial dues for their years of risky experimentation, while critics sought refuge in churning out propositions for the medium that couldn’t find productive applications beyond the self-promotion of their proponents.

11011The more practicable methodologies include auteurism, structuralism (currently trying to make a comeback under Marxist guises), semiotics, and so-called Third World film criticism, which is actually a rehash of phenomenological propositions. I label these “practicable” because they could (and did) prove to be useful for film classification and a certain though often irrelevant type of evaluation; but heaven knows how many more filmmakers steeped in these schools of thought will be venturing forth with at first the conceit of holding the key to the next phase of the evolution of cinema and finally winding up with a body of pretentious, at best inoffensive, but never really vital, work.

11011How then does one determine if a theory deserves a status of serious consideration not just in film study but in practice as well? Simply put (though difficult to propagate), when it can be formulated as a proposition for a creative strategy, and when the application in turn yields insights into the original formulation and suggests further directions in speculation within and without the theory’s framework. Hence Eisenstein’s reflections on montage resulted in his Battleship Potemkin, and in the other direction Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game aided André Bazin in spelling out the whys and wherefores of deep focus.

11011On the other hand, the Cahiers du Cinéma school of auteurism (ironically associated with Bazin) resulted in a movement of wonderful personal films from the proponents themselves – no big deal but then again this reflects more the sincerity of the New-Wave critics-turned-directors rather than the soundness of their fury; in their wake, all the way to the present, came a glut of aspiring filmmakers whose notions of personal import derived from imposing on their audience a “mark” of some sort or other – a prop here, a stylistic device there – in the hope that the accumulation of these little quirks would amount to something more than indulgence, which of course rarely became the case. You can imagine how much more impossible it becomes for a pro-structuralist or -semiologist to come up with the Next Leap Forward in film theory, just by marveling at the inordinate complexities and near-obscurity of the basic texts.

11011And now Filipino film scholars have all this to contend with – a list of readings sounding terribly erudite but rarely with the disclaimers of their failure in practice; this plus the fact that the local industry has hardly progressed beyond the basic montage-vs.-mise en scène debate in cinema, and most probably never will, because of the characteristics of technology and market. And we haven’t even begun to consider the dynamics of writing on film in the Philippines.[1]

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State of Local Criticism

Much as we love to deplore the current state of poverty in film criticism, the Philippine situation isn’t really all that unique. Of course advertisers resent it when the pages they run their layouts in publish negative notices of their products. Of course readers burdened with elementary-school grammatical capabilities (observed for local newspaper writing) wouldn’t bother to read polysyllabic and syntactically playful analyses of what in the first place they regard as entertainment. Of course editors need to protect their advertisers and please their readers. And of course film writers will be lucky to find a way out, if not through, all this, dealing along the way with various impositions and influences peculiar to their status as members of intelligentsia.

11011Most people hereabouts seem to agree that film commentary is largely a matter of endorsing a worthy product and repudiating a worthless one. In fact the local reviewers’ group, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, points up this consumerist thrust in its organizational documents, and then some: in cases where film elements attain similar levels of competence, the members are expected to prefer titles with more “social” orientations.[2] As to how this has reflected on the group’s current claim to significance – the Urian awards for achievements in film – a highly specific case inquiry has to be done first.

11011The inadequacies of film commentary for consumerist purposes reveal themselves through time and practice, and the fact that the Manunuris still have to own up to this reveals how much of their time they have wasted and their practice neglected. The industry turns out only so many films a year, each intended to recoup investments from an audience of the impossible maximum of sixty million, the newborn, handicapped, and aged included. To tell readers who care to pay attention that a certain product isn’t worth patronizing is tantamount to telling off an entire system that wouldn’t have any other way of recovering losses and therefore alerts itself to offensive moves from any front, regardless of the purity of motivations.

11011Then we come around to the vicious cycle where most moviegoers couldn’t care less about aesthetics to begin with, only with entertainment values, and so the film reactor committed to working within a journalistic grind gets reduced to selectively evaluating films (only the praiseworthy ones), or compromising her criteria to conform to the less antagonistic aspects of film appreciation. This presumes that the film critic-aspirant possesses the minimum of an academically acceptable sensibility to begin with, but in practice the entire setup is so pervasive and aggravating that beginners in the craft of writing on film rarely even acquire insights on possible areas of exploration and development.

11011Hence the sorry state of film criticism extends to not just the circumstances surrounding the practitioners, but the condition of the practitioners themselves. One defense, as seen in the Manunuri stipulation of criteria, lies in the distortion of consumerist prerogatives to the point where film is perceived as something that’s intended to further the welfare of its patrons: not only is film comment supposed to distinguish the products to be patronized from those to be shunned, the highest form of recognition is also reserved for the title that keeps the best interests of society in mind, as if the obverse (society keeping in mind the best interests of its art forms) could be placed in subordination. Another and more insidious corollary from the ranks of the self-proclaimed critics, at least the organized ones, is based on the assertion that the filmmakers themselves don’t come up with discussible films often enough anyway; this attitude has served to justify the perpetuation of the Urian awards despite the well-known divisive effects it promotes in the community of film artists. The Manunuri’s arrogance in this regard has attained a height of sorts with the group’s cancellation of this year’s ceremonies because of the supposed paucity of instances of quality in film output during the previous year.

11011Lost in this enumeration of excuses is the purpose itself of film criticism: to provide for the development of film through refinements, if not advancements, in film theory and aesthetics. In practical purposes, the biggest losers aren’t really the financiers, who have found ways and means of either buying out or arm-twisting disobliging commentators; nor are the so-called critics either, given the facility and the mechanisms at their disposal to present rationalizations for accusations against their performances. It’s the film practitioners who in the final analysis are left without any means of critical support, eternally in peril at both ends of filmmaking activity: from the producers on the one hand and prospective film commentators on the other. If any substantial discourse about film has to be done, it can only be accomplished largely from within the ranks of the filmmakers – and such has already been the case, in the instances of individual artists so far. The body of work of the likes of Ishmael Bernal and Ricardo Lee, to name two, reveals a clear progression in working out approaches to the medium; a competent, eager, but naïve film researcher, however, might manage to search high and low for parallel discussions in print regarding the directions these individuals have taken and might take, but will never come up with an accurate articulation of their concerns beyond what they or the evidence of their works will be able to state.

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Reviewing vs. Criticism

A major instance of inadequacy that still has to be pointed out was how, in the case of Ishmael Bernal, local film critics never really managed to pinpoint, even within a wide latitude of accuracy, the director’s actual intentions for the use of the medium in his 1976 film Nunal sa Tubig. The material answer arrived four years later, too powerful for anyone to ignore – in the masterpiece that was Manila by Night. Issues on Nunal sa Tubig then centered on the validity of adopting devices perceived as Western to treat what was alleged to be non-Western material. The debate may have carried some weight in politicized discussions, but hardly merited attention within a strictly pro-artist approach, wherein devices necessarily possess neutral significance and are intended to be measured by how effectively they lend themselves to dramatic exploitation.

11011In hindsight, however, this deficiency in analysis ironically assumes a positive import, stemming from the fact that a controversy ever occurred at all, even if only regarding a peripheral aspect of film. Today the attitude among the more serious film commentators seems to presume that the medium deserves no further figuring out apart from what can already be acquired from available references – a viewpoint antithetical to what a practitioner like Bernal, for all his professed indifference on this score, is undeniably occupied with, on the basis of his continuing output.

11011Most urgently a call needs to be sounded out for an awareness of the relative worth of film criticism vis-à-vis reviewing.[3] The formation of the Manunuri can be credited with having elevated the status of reviewing over public relations work, but then the next stage has been long overdue. Commentaries on film need not always conform to the journalistic expediencies of outscooping competitors, providing the latest on every film output that comes along, and taking stock of space and market limitations at the expense of ideational progress. It should go without saying that such an approach will still have its place in our cultural setup, just as film publicity still finds excuses for being; but criticism of film – essential, learned, and forward-looking – cannot be delayed just because current conditions don’t seem to warrant it: no one expected film reviewing to gain public acknowledgment either, until the Manunuri came along.

11011By way of starting out, it would help to reiterate the differences between film reviewing and criticism by drawing from the more advanced discipline of literature: reviewing would involve the articulation of the writer’s reactions to a particular work or number of works, with a popular aim in mind such as endorsing or condemning the work, encouraging or disparaging the filmmaker, or even merely expressing a personal opinion; criticism, on the other hand, requires a more advanced treatment, with the objective of discussing, from a philosophical perspective, problems pertaining to the potentials or limitations of the medium, whether as art form or industry. A particular work or number of works may be employed as springboard in criticism, although a hypothetical question may serve just as well. For where in film reviewing validity is dependent upon the work under discussion, criticism does not require comparison with any title mentioned in the course of discussion to determine the strength of the points being raised: the primary test lies in the logical acceptability of the relationships established among the ideas in question, as well as the applicability of the said ideas in basic film practice.

11011I’d also like to point out the way in which film criticism will eventually get the state of local film commentary out of the rut it finds itself in at the moment. From the critic’s point of view, any movie is worth criticizing because of the industrial nature of filmmaking; no film can ever be finished without its having raised an issue relevant to modern existence, whether aesthetic, technical, moral, social, financial, political, psychological, etc. But then any piece of criticism demands further discussion, and so any film being subjected to criticism will, or at least should, always be worth watching. The challenge for the essentially subjective individual is to arrive as closely as possible to this objective analysis. A simple or simplistic film, a failure in terms of innovation in any way, will be easier to evaluate than a more complex one, which could go on providing insights even decades after its initial presentation; with criticism firmly in place, film commentators will be able to reserve for themselves the prerogative of subjecting their initial perceptions to revaluations.

[First published January-March 1989 in National Midweek]


[1] The situation described from this paragraph onward obtained before the emergence of so-called new media, i.e. the internet era. For a more recent explication of the concerns of this essay, see “Pinoy Film Criticism: A Lover’s Polemic” in Manila Review 4 (February 2014): 49-32.

[2] This elaboration of a presumably progressive adjustment of New Criticism’s form-vs.-content criteria for significance may be found in all texts by the organization that describe its annual movie awards – mainly brochures and the decadal “Urian” anthologies (the first, for ex., was titled The Urian Anthology 1970-1979, with the rest adopting this pattern).

[3] Most of the points raised here echo the writings, directly or otherwise, on the differences between reviewing and criticism, as elucidated in the output of practitioners during the so-called “Golden Age of Movie Criticism: The 1950s through the ’70s” in American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now, ed. Phillip Lopate (New York: Library of America, 2006): 207-504.

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