Tag Archives: National Pastime

The National Pastime – Actors: Muhlach/Paulate/Aunor

Niño’s Comeback

Kontra Bandido
Directed by J. Erastheo Navoa
Written by Ruben de Guzman

Disclaimers from the participants’ publicity machinery notwithstanding, the 1986 Metro Manila Film Festival raised expectations of more substantial film fare than what was available to the public just before the event. From the foregoing any hack psychologist could infer that I’ve conducted at least a casual survey of what was showing then, and more than that … all right, so I slummed around some. And all right again, so I enjoyed the item in question – a two-hours’ wonder called Kontra Bandido. The trouble with this kind of experience is that no amount of aesthetic defense can justify even the mere act of paying attention to such a slim, inconsequential product. Film critics, when they feel like critics, fall back on social-scientific constructs to discuss what after all would be typical industrial output; but then again, expertise in the dynamics of society is supposed to take secondary place to an understanding of the nature and purpose of beauty, as far as the critic is concerned.

11011Hence our dissatisfactory condition of having film critics either lacking for titles to subject to proper scrutiny or, as is more often the case, lacking in the skills with which to approach works with artistic merit, because the very dearth of worthy titles has prevented what growth they may be capable of. The cleverer ones revert to what aspires to be social criticism, but only wind up at best halfway toward science and nowhere near art. Needless to add, the effect on a so-far passive audience would be miseducational; the small consolation we derive from the observation is that this passivity obtains only in the case of art criticism.

11011So my two-centavos’ worth on Kontra Bandido (the other ₱7.98 went to making the government and theater owner and producer happy) runneth thus: Niño Muhlach’s comeback picture did well in providing ample acting support to offset the star’s deficient appeal, coming as he does midway between cute kid and marketable teenybopper. The genre’s a tricky one, combining action with comedy, but succeeded, at least according to my vulnerable sensibility when I saw it, because of several departures from local convention. The outsiders who take over the requisite Everytown are not identified as political rebels (their leader is addressed with “Ka” or comrade, which is forgivable considering the lengths to which propaganda movies will condescend), although they wear fatigue uniforms. They’re more like paramilitary protection racketeers, especially when toward the end a benevolent father figure turns out to have two-timed the outsiders’ leader. Although said leader fails to appropriate this disclosure to provide himself with decent motivation, the father is not consigned to the oblivion of guilt, but is instead set up for sacrifice.

11011In the end, all who have indulged in violence, including our boy wonder and his well-meaning cohort, are wiped out by the same principle with which they attempted to attain justice – nearly all, that is, since the Muhlach character is provided, apparently as an afterthought, with a playmate more acceptable than the catechism teacher he has been lusting after. Aside from Janice Jurado, who plays the teacher with amusive hypocrisy, comic relief is provided by Bernardo Bernardo, whose nth portrayal of a gutsy queen in a presumably man’s world may be able to sustain a more diverting (and longer, if we throw in Roderick Paulate) discourse on the emergent gay phenomenon in Philippine cinema.

11011Not much, I’ll admit, but at least the significances (or significations, just to show how much I know) therein may prove useful for some future chronicler of pop history. Unlike – sigh – this review.

[First published February 11, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Gross, Gaudy, & Gay

Ako si Kiko, Ako si Kikay
Directed by Mike Relon Makiling
Written by Jake Cocadiz

The evolution of the gay persona in cinema has been a rather strange one, and not just because of the nature of the subject matter. To begin with, active artistic (or even just artsy) enterprises have been known to be relatively tolerant of the queer predilection – in fact, one area of debate rages as to whether the milieu causes the condition, or the condition defines the milieu. Lost in the brouhaha is the essential observation that artists, who after all may just be craftspeople who want to do good, need to keep in touch with the dual forms of sexual persuasions within themselves to be able to represent both sides in the war between the sexes. In the process, and to the occasional consternation of either sex, a distinct form – more accurately, a complex of several distinct forms – of sex-based characteristics has emerged.

11011The situation, of course, can be threatening, especially within the strictures of the Judeo-Christian tradition predominant in Western and Westernized civilization. But after the long and painful dismantling of institutionalized oppression against certain creeds, races, and sexes (women specifically), gay liberation promises to constitute the wave of the near future – with a downright effective propaganda potential in the community of artists. Beyond social context, film, as the most active art form of the times, has reflected the shifts in the portrayal of the gay condition in a manner which can be described as doubly realistic: for not only is the medium itself the most effective reflector of reality known to man (the generic, not the sexual, creature), the delineation of homosexuality in it can be considered a matter of the filmic and sexual practitioner’s portrayal of herself or (forget not gay males) himself.

11011And so where were we? Ah yes, Ako si Kiko, Ako si Kikay: gay Filipino movie characters, numerous enough to constitute a menagerie all to their fabulous selves, have definitely come a long way since the exploitative presentations of Dolphy some decades back. The conflict, if we were to take this kind of output seriously, was literally evident in the last Dolphy movie, the Facifica Falayfay sequel, in which the gay junior was developed according to updated stereotypical logic and then given the traditional resolution of going straight in the end; I wonder how many of the mass viewers got the point, much less appreciated it. The crucial turnabout was attempted by a ten-year-old Dolphy entry, Ang Tatay Kong Nanay, but the lead star’s persona could not break away from the box-office expectation of having the gay-male character seek solutions to his problem apart from the conventional options of going straight, celibate, crazy, or dead.

Dolphy and Roderick Paulate, as father and son (and real-life predecessor and successor as straight actors portraying gay characters) in Romy S. Villaflor’s Mga Anak ni Facifica Falayfay (1987).

11011A more likely watershed has been Manila by Night, which was revolutionary in several other senses as well. Conveniently released at the turn of the current decade, it has helped mark the era of a new type of approach to gay portrayals, with the characters being at the very least logical (Kaya Kong Abutin ang Langit), at the most humane and endearing (Palipat-Lipat, Papalit-Palit, Moral, and Scorpio Nights). The gay characters in these subsequent titles, however, essay supporting roles only, and here is where the hitch obtains: the compromise so far for having a lead gay-male character is providing the same with comic treatment.

11011In a sense this isn’t as bad as it sounds, since this approach makes the, er, guys easier to appreciate (especially when portrayed by purportedly straight, and therefore open-minded, performers), and more fun to behold besides. The obvious limitation is in the number of types available for depiction: quiet, unassuming ones, who’ve distinguished the movies earlier mentioned, lose out to loud screaming clowns – Mahinhin vs. Mahinhin, Paru-parung Buking, Lalake Ako!, and now Ako si Kiko, Ako si Kikay. Granting the entire scenario as a given framework, the best one can say of Ako si Kiko is that, well, lead performer Roderick Paulate is well on his way to developing an accomplished persona in his own right. His (pardon the term) faggotry is technically impressive, a welcome result of extensive training in the craft, comparable to Nora Aunor’s underdog – minus the potential for serious acting afforded by roles for the latter. The project itself is the sort of fluff, lighthearted and lightheaded, that enables any well-honed craftsperson to run away with the action, and Paulate doesn’t waste whatever opportunity has been made available to him.

11011On the whole the accomplishment doesn’t amount to much, particularly when one considers the dramatic potential in two supporting characters: the first is the domineering aunt, a reincarnation of the mother in the original Facifica Falayfay, who engineers and defends the upbringing of the gay character. The other’s the kookily flirtatious female, the realization of Kikay’s fantasies, implausible in herself (derived as she was, Nutty Professor-style, from a chemistry genius’s successful experimentations), but spiritually embodying the ultimate aspirations of the transvestic queen. The movie attempts a parallel by having Kiko similarly imbibe the potion and turn into a macho-bagets counterpart, but the resultant commentary is beside the point; I suppose, the commercial consideration of providing the authentic female with an authentic male partner aside, the filmmakers must have lost a crucial amount of courage, rather than imagination, in pursuing the contrast in sensibilities between femininity and gayness. Not to despair, though: in Paru-parung Buking, the queen (played by Paulate’s only other real competitor, Bernardo Bernardo), backs out of a sex-change operation after his conscience, in a fittingly campy Garden of Eden setting, quite simplistically warns him of the immorality of tampering with inborn essences.

11011This notion of the gay condition as being a compromise between two sexual orientations is in itself inaccurate and inadequate, so unfair as it may sound, one begins hoping for another Manila by Night or at least a character-intensive project for the likes of Paulate. Otherwise we may find genuine talent going the way of industrial dictates – by way of Kikay in succeeding Dolphy, or of Kiko in having a place among several other straight comic roles. For plurality’s sake let’s hope something turns up, aside from Paulate’s penciled eyebrow.

[First published September 30, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Chauvinist’s Nightmare

Kumander Gringa
Directed and written by Mike Relon Makiling

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

Roderick Paulate as the triumphant gay doppelgänger in Kumander Gringa.

11011To begin with, Kumander Gringa arrives on the (high) heels of Ako si Kiko, Ako si Kikay, which features not only the same director, Mike Relon Makiling, and performer, Roderick Paulate, but also the same comic premise – that of two characters identical in physical appearance but worlds (well, sexes actually) apart in orientation. Notice the twin defensive measures resorted to here, in terms of intention: not only is the undertaking a comedy, it also features the least offensive of Pinoy stock comic characters. And just in case this still couldn’t serve to appease the moralists in our midst, it further halves the lead character in two, the better to drive home the contrast between sexual differences, playing as it does the comic gay against his straight and serious counterpart.

11011But where Ako si Kiko was content to exploit this condition for strictly commercial comedic ends, Kumander Gringa pursues a far more ambitious and ultimately more appreciable, if not actually radical, course. Where the aforementioned biopictures were content to simplify political arguments by reformulating the left-vs.-right conflict into a center-vs.-extreme argument, Kumander Gringa provides sex-based embodiments for each side of the debate. Instead of the good-guy peace-lover caught between the bad-guy war-freaks on both sides of the political fence, we’ve got the gay lead straddling the contradictions between the more realizable concepts of civism and militarism, as represented by traditionally defined women on the one hand and similarly self-imposed men on the other. For the first time in any major local movie, both sides are made to succumb to the camp aspects of the gay option.[1]

11011The limitation of this sort of approach should be obvious to any perceptive social observer. It’s still too schematic to allow for innovation within specific sexual orientations, whether conventional or queer. Where our current biopictures attempt one over run-of-the-mill action movies by imbuing the psychologically motivated protagonists with political significations, the likes of Kumander Gringa in turn transform these political valuations into sexual differences. The approach is actually more analytical than dramatic, and in the final reckoning all these titles share the common property of editorializing in the wrong medium. They strive for the attention-getting appurtenance of thematic novelty without having fine-tuned (and as a consequence they cover up) the essential mechanisms of character and plot development. Using rhetoric metaphor, the machine looks new and therefore potentially workable, but it could never run itself into the long-term required for classical stature.

11011That would of course be tantamount to expecting Dostoyevskian rewards from a Mills & Boon paperback, and in fact I’d go as far as conceding that a Mad magazine feature would be closer to the nature of Kumander Gringa. But the mere fact that the discussion could initiate this level of polemics indicates that Mike Relon Makiling and Roderick Paulate, and by association contemporary Philippine motion-picture comedy, might be going somewhere. Kumander Gringa will also offer some slight film-educational, or more appropriately performing-arts, insights, particularly on the cruciality of the comic performer’s contribution. Again this carries on where Ako si Kiko, Ako si Kikay had left off, this time with the lesson more pronounced. What I mean is that, compared with most of Roderick Paulate’s previous gay-persona outings, Kumander Gringa to begin with has dangerously weak histrionic support: no Nida Blanca, Tessie Tomas, Nova Villa, not even a Maricel Soriano in close range, just a bunch of well-meaning and congenial talents eager to do their best but whose capabilities definitely fall outside the lead star’s caliber.

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

11011The risk Makiling took in response to this limitation has paid off in most parts, of which the financial aspect isn’t yet the least. In Kumander Gringa Paulate comes into his own in a definitive manner, proving for all practical purposes that he’s the prime comedian of the day, fully capable and confident in getting away with even the worst conventions his specialized kind of craft can proffer. Shrewdly, as it turned out, Makiling built the movie’s highlights on scenes intended to be carried by one, the other, or both of Paulate’s characters, and in fact allowed his star the bravura opportunity of creating a character-within-a-character, with the gay lead barely though riotously managing to impersonate his macho counterpart.

11011But instead of leaving Paulate to assume the burden of taking the movie to climax in this one-upmanship manner, Makiling eased the project itself onto parodic territory. I wonder how aware the filmmakers were of how close to radical the movie’s climax was, wherein the gay survivor delivers the lines and actions so far reserved for our most revered male movie personae. The incongruity is downright outrageous, but no one who has ever been moved, as I’d sometimes been, with all those mythologizing endings in our action movies will fail to feel that almost-reflexive swell of emotion. On the other hand, if everything were deliberately done, at least as much as would be enough to hold up under this sort of scrutiny, then the movie couldn’t have been as casual, as disarming even, as it turned out to be.

11011Then again on further thought the literal notion of disarmament is made a vital part of Kumander Gringa’s denouement. I guess clever’s the word, and I mean it as a compliment, true-la-la, but somehow I couldn’t help suspecting that there might be more where this came from.

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


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

11011A further development must also be brought up here: the final doppelgänger roles essayed by Roderick Paulate was in Maryo J. de los Reyes’s Bala at Lipistik in 1994. This takes a step back from political discourse and focuses on the several comic predicaments that may be the stock-in-trade of the action film set-up, notably the abduction of the gay twin after being mistaken for his long-lost toxic-masculine gangster brother. Where it compensates is in the crucial aspect absent in the Makiling films: the beauty-parlor proprietor is partnered with a gay-for-pay stud, who proves chivalrous enough in upholding his sugar parent’s social respectability, despite the standard resolution where he has to settle for the best biological female who comes his way and require his same-sex partner to acknowledge the arrangement.

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Child’s Play

Takot Ako, Eh!
Directed by Mario O’Hara
Written by Mario O’Hara and Tito Rey

Poor Nora Aunor. Whether as a result of the trauma of her identification with the late unlamented Marcos regime or not, the fact remains that she parlayed her brood on the public when it was still suspicious of any move she would make thereafter. As it’s turning out, it wasn’t just her timing that was off; it’s the material as well – the content, if you will, of her latest career move, which has amounted to fostering on an apparently bewildered following all of her legal children. To be sure, the tots do seem to possess an acceptable amount of potential; at the very least, they could get by anywhere else on their unique brand of charisma, definitely drawn from their privileged intimacy with the only world-class multimedia phenomenon our culture has ever had the good fortune to witness.

11011Aye, but that’s where the rub sets in. For why should the selfsame phenomenon ever decide for the very public that made her possible in the first place? Granting that her decision to campaign for the Marcoses was borne out of an abiding political naïveté (which I did and still do believe was the case), should the disapproval of an understandably outraged populace signal that her time on the stage (or tube or screen) of public life is up? Besides, if the promotional build-up of her kids had been already planned before the hue and cry of her disastrous sorties, there arises another, even more vexed issue – that of pushing a number of innocents into a situation which they may have good reasons for not preferring, if granted the maturity and independence of the proper coming-of-age status.

11011The long and short of it is that Nora Aunor hasn’t yet given the public her fullest, judging from the upward arc of her recent performances, whether histrionic or vocal. If the masses seem to have lost a considerable amount of their admiration for her, then maybe it was high time that a reassessment of her public image were done anyway. If I may say so, better this new atmosphere of cynicism than the indiscriminate adulation everyone used to lavish on her. The solution lies in her coming to grips with a more critical audience through a no-nonsense display of that apparently bottomless reserve of talent she seems to be holding forth at the moment, rather than allowing a bunch of harmless but comparably less contributory minors take on the front lines for her. Meanwhile they’re here, all four of them, and every sensible movie fan should be caught up (as I am – a movie fan, that is) in the dilemma of wanting all those other poor orphans lying around to be adopted by such a distinctive mother, yet not wanting to have any more of such children turn into instant celebrities before their time. They’re all lumped together (and boy, do I mean lumped!) in their mother’s latest production, Takot Ako, Eh!

11011Actually I don’t intend my misgivings to mean that you should take the movie’s title as a piece of literal advice. The kids put up a brave struggle, I must admit their guts if nothing else (they’re mostly too young anyway) are worthy of their association with Aunor; and even she most carefully defers to them, by appearing in a low-key cameo and bowing out almost too soon before her presence begins to take hold. And that’s precisely where the trouble lies, friends. The kids couldn’t do yet without their mamma lending support, but if she did lend them enough, she’d surely wind up blotting them out. As a result, Takot Ako, Eh! suffers from a forward drive in its narrative, where the siblings, who play siblings, take too long to lead to a return to life of their dead mother, played by you-know-who; and when she does arrive, she just doesn’t stay long enough to develop dramatically.

The Nora Aunor brood in Mario O’Hara’s Takot Ako, Eh! (1987), left to right: Ian de Leon (her son by Christopher de Leon) and Lotlot de Leon, standing; Matet de Leon, Jimmy Fabregas (playing the kids’ father), and Kiko de Leon, sitting.

11011Not that I’m taking this entire outing seriously now, but you’ve got a team functioning here that’s capable of some impressive work, and in fact has done it before (in their previous effort, Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak, in fact). Aside from the weakness already pointed out, the sci-fi premise also demands a lot of imaginative stretching, not to mention state-of-the-art special effects, both of which are served short in this instance. Too bad; the material in Takot Ako, Eh! is far less pretentious than last year’s “Halimaw sa Banga” episode, and for that reason alone I kept waiting for the oportunity where it could serve to prove, as the full-length Halimaw did not, that all a horror movie need do to justify its existence and our appreciation of it is provide a good scare, regardless of our much-abused preoccupation with “social” messages.

11011The only evidence that Takot Ako, Eh! could not have been made by just anyone with the right money and resources lies in one extremely exclusive instance. This would take a whole lot of paring down and possibly a radical revision of the exposition, but if our point of reference is Halimaw, then you’d now have the best installment available for that omnibus product. I’m referring to the subplot involving Caridad Sanchez as a way-out househelp, not quite in her right mind yet not quite obtrusive enough to arouse anyone’s suspicions. Before the time machine brings back the Nora Aunor character it first spews out Dracula (a wonderfully with-it Richard Merck), who like all the previous males on the scene doesn’t really fall for the maid’s advances, but, unlike the rest, doesn’t have the advantage of remaining intact during daytime and going without blood.

11011When Sanchez starts turning on the charm for her captive lover, all hell, for him at least, breaks loose, and one wishes for the most part that the final Countdown hadn’t been sooner. And to return to where we started: wasn’t this the kind of role – the maid, I mean in particular – that Nora Aunor became famous for? A character performer like Caridad Sanchez can think of nothing about shifting from serious to comic interpretations within more or less similar characterizations (check out two temporally disparate Lino Brocka films, Santiago and Ano ang Kulay ng Mukha ng Diyos? plus her critically underrated salvo in Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Alyas Baby Tsina, for a sober accounting of the lady’s prowess); on the other hand, a Nora Aunor can only work on a highly involved plane of acting, in fact as in film. Forced to a distance (considering her bygone stature as the superstar of Cebuano cinema), Sanchez takes full advantage by playing to the hilt, damn the consequences, and involves everyone else in her having fun even at her own expense; Nora Aunor offers a weak substitute of herself, four of them in fact, and politely takes her place in the background. Somewhere there’s a metaphor for the human capacity for excessive celebrity, and the sadness of losing a precious sort of genius when the condition begins to take its toll.

[First published November 25, 1987, in National Midweek]

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An Update

The sobering of the national temper found its way into the essentially comic-fantastic genre discussed in this section, zeroing in on scatological details and the breaking of class-based sexual barriers. Given this type of requirement, authentic histrionic talent plays a role secondary to such criteria as physical deficiencies or bourgeois perfection. Meaning it won’t suffice to be just a well-prepared newcomer anymore, at least for the meantime. You’ll have to have something laughably wrong with your appearance, or else (if you’re female) an air of unattainability about you. The abstract notion of a pathetically unappealing male comedian being romantically linked, even if only in the movies, with a well-bred girl gone wild may not sound funny to you and me, but we can easily speculate that audiences who regularly undergo a sufficiently strong measure of social brutalization will eventually demand a proportionately desperate degree of entertainment. In terms of the particular examples already discussed, gay characters may have to straighten up or risk reverting to objects of offensive ridicule, while underdogs will have to bite; in short, (fictional) people will have to be what they’re really not for the moment, until matters beyond studio control begin to loosen up once more.

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

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The National Pastime – Directors 1: Romero/de Leon

The World According to Aguila

Directed and written by Eddie Romero

Daniel Aguila’s world consists of the 7,000-plus islands that make up the Philippines. Here he has led an existence that could provide sufficient material for any major movie. Enter Eddie Romero, film director-writer. Aside from technical expertise, ambiguity has been his most manifest trait. But never has this been more pronounced than in his story of Aguila. Previewed last Jan. 15 at the San Miguel Auditorium, Aguila the movie had its expected share of misgivings – both from its audience, which had its standards graciously low, and from its presenters, who reportedly discouraged subsequent comment. Such skepticism could be traced to the movie’s delicate financial future. At ₱6 million, it is the most expensive production in local movie history. Considering that is has to earn at least thrice that amount to break even, its failure as an economic enterprise is virtually foregone. But however it performs at the box office, Aguila will be in good company. Two other productions, Palawan and the re-edited version of Ang Alamat ni Julian Makabayan, will soon be exhibited but may hardly break even.

Newspaper layout ad for Eddie Romero’s Aguila (1980).

11011What sets Aguila apart from these two others is its quasi-official nature. Intended as the story of the Filipina’s search for herself, it normally would have, in these polarized times, two orientations to choose from: conservatism or radicalism. Eddie Romero, however, steers Aguila clear of any such commitment. His achievement in this regard is the movie’s prime virtue and, paradoxically, its prime fault – depending on one’s own political biases. Aguila is Romero’s fourth movie since his auspicious comeback in 1976. That year, his Gaano Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? won the Metro Manila Film Festival and Urian best picture awards, in spite of the fiercest competition ever afforded by any single seventies year. Then came Sino’ng Kapiling? Sino’ng Kasiping? and Banta ng Kahapon, both in 1977. The former was an urbane treatment of marital morals, the latter a commentary on violent election traditions.

11011Romero’s 1977 efforts were better than the average Filipino director’s output, but were overshadowed by the excellence of Ganito Kami Noon. Moreover, some quarters questioned the inconsistency between Ganito Kami Noon and Banta ng Kahapon. For while the former observed radical historian Renato Constantino’s thesis on the evolution of the term “Filipino,” the latter presented the present regime as a favorable resolution of the past – a notion objectively incompatible with its predecessor’s. And yet … and yet there were elements in Ganito Kami Noon which may be seen as reactionary, just as other elements in Banta ng Kahapon may similarly be taken as radical. Recall the former’s contrast between the well-meaning American and the ill-mannered Filipino revolutionary, as well as its uniquely sympathetic depiction of a Chinese national; also the latter’s portrayal of the protagonist’s condition as better off before martial rule and miserable after.

11011This sense of equivocation is heightened in Aguila. Here the apparent attempt is to state that politics is never a matter of dichotomy, that social contradictions may demonstrate dialectical modes of behavior, but not necessarily according to the expectations dictated by academic idealism. Aguila tells the story of a Filipino, Daniel Aguila, born at about the time of the unfinished revolution against Spain. His mother was raped by a corrupt ilustrado, whom she marries for security after her husband gets killed in an uprising. À la the gospel story, Aguila’s adolescent years are left untold. He is suddenly more or less a man accompanying his stepfather and some American officials to Mindanao. There they divest a Muslim tribe of its property, first through duplicity and then through wholesale massacre. Daniel does not take active part in the undertaking; instead he impregnates an infatuated Muslim lass, who later pursues him to entrust to his care his son by her.

11011Back home Daniel gets involved in a legal tussle between an anti-American religious sect and his own townspeople. In the process he gets to know a liberal lady lawyer who gets fined and jailed for contempt of court while defending the sect leader. Because he desires to know this lawyer in another sense, he courts her. Some years after they marry, war against the invading Japanese breaks out, and so does Daniel’s wife – that is, with consumption. His eldest legitimate son joins him in the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE), but gets abducted by the Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Hukbalahap), whose leader proposes an alliance with Daniel’s troops to liberate a strategically located town. The allies succeed, but at the loss of, among others, Daniel’s son’s amazon-lover. True to character, the USAFFE takes over and arrests the Hukbalahap soldiers. Later a Filipino commander confirms Daniel’s fear: Filipinos won the war against the Japanese only for the Americans.

11011Meanwhile Daniel’s half-sister has been having incestuous relations with his stepfather and even broke his illegitimate son’s heart by sleeping with and then spurning the boy. Daniel finds father and daughter alone in their mansion – she figuratively dead of love, he literally dying of it. Now also in the middle age, Daniel settles down by playing around. His mistress begins taking matters seriously and tries to avoid him, but he has become too serious for even himself. So he runs away from it all. His eldest legitimate son takes it upon himself to look for Daniel, thus providing the narrative motivation for the plot. First however he has a taste of pre-martial rule urban unrest, particularly in his experience as an oligarch. He blackmails a seemingly psychotic instigator by threatening to expose her extramarital activities, but the revelation proves unbearable for his son (Daniel’s grandson). Daniel’s son traces the father through Mindanao (encountering, peacefully, his Muslim half-brother), the Visayas, and finally Luzon again. There he finds Daniel Aguila working among the Aetas, who had nourished and protected him as an orphaned child. Having inscribed this dramatic and geographical circle, the movie ends.

11011Although the plot involves a series of flashbacks from the seventies, it actually runs betters than it reads, largely because of good pacing and effective evocation of time and place. Occassionally heavy-handedness sets in when the film makes didactic attempts at value reorientation. Even then, some of the sermonizing is done tongue-in-check. Production design, cinematography, and sound are above par compared with standard industry output, acting is low-key and works well in most cases. About the only glaring technical shortcoming in Aguila is the aging characters’ faulty makeup – which, over-all, the other aspects make up for. Romero’s straightforward style somewhat falters after more than three hours of utility though, notwithstanding the presence of big-time performers. One could even forgive an operatic build-up and a sensational climax for having stayed put that long. Still Romero did not compromise himself on that score. Which brings us back to his orientation: at least one can be thankful for the absence of some of the New Society’s senile symbols and bovine bromides. In the hands of a less capable director – who wouldn’t have been hard to find – Aguila would have been happily doomed.

11011Instead Romero opts for a measure of sad success by playing his politics both ways. Although the Hukbalahap fought for land, its leaders wound up collaborating with the government. Although the early seventies’ activists failed in emancipating labor, that was because they were dubiously motivated. Although the recent past was relatively peaceful, it was also less prosperous. In choosing to be neither bird nor beast in his approach to Philippine politics, does Romero in Aguila reduce himself to opportunistic flitting between irreconcilable camps? On the basis of his humanistic emphasis here and in his earlier films, one may allow him the benefit of the doubt. Like it or not, Aguila is a major Filipino movie, the industry’s first significant output for an uncertain decade. If only for this reason it merits more than mere critical consideration, whether commendatory or condemnatory; healthy public patronage could go a long way toward the encouragement of similarly high-risk ventures in future.

11011As for Romero, one can at least admire the daring by which he tackles complex political ramifications, infusing the attempts with a serene diplomacy surprising for its rarity hereabouts. Having gotten away decently with such issues of extremes in Aguila, what will he come up with next? More important, will his dualistic approach work for him again?

[First published February 2, 1980, in Who]

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A Decent Fight

Directed and written by Eddie Romero

Palaban is no knockout, although it certainly puts up a decent fight. In this movie, director-writer Eddie Romero tackles domestic issues, a concern he seemed to have abandoned after Sino’ng Kapiling? Sino’ng Kasiping? in 1977. Palaban tells the story of a family whose splintered relationships are mended when their affairs get entangled with those of a so-called hospitality girl; in turn the latter, by striving to meet her more affluent counterparts on their level, realizes material, and eventually maternal, success.

11011Their cause of confluence is a child born out of wedlock to the girl and the family scion; the latter’s sister purchases the child to infuse her brother with a sense of responsibility. Impatient with her own strategy of self-development with which to impress the family, the girl decides upon the drastic solution of kidnapping her son. Apprehended before she could leave town, she discovers that the lawyer who volunteered to defend her in court was the estranged husband of her lover’s sister. The lawyer, in defending his client, presents in the process his case to his wife and manages to effect a reconciliation between them. The movie ends with the girl winning the baby, and the couple each other, with the antagonists befriending each other as a gesture of gratitude for their mutual maturation as social animals.

11011Such a story calls for a careful and conscious consideration of character – a requisite not fully developed in the movie. When the lawyer maneuvers the courtroom discussion in the direction of his domestic affair, the audience is prepared to sympathize with him only as far as his wisecracking and dropping of double ententes are concerned. In fact the same courtroom scenes, considering the tongue-in-cheek tone of the preceding scenes, render all the succeeding ones anticlimactic. After the lawyer’s self-conscious sermonizing, it somehow seems inappropriate to return to the same surface-level satire the movie had earlier indulged in. Moreover, as in its publicized take-off movie Kramer vs. Kramer, Palaban’s courtroom scenes misrepresent the legal process. For one thing, the child was never called in to testify, and for another, the judge ruled too readily in favor of the natural mother despite the latter’s lawyer’s off-tangent oratories. The most glaring oversight, however, lies in the movie’s ignorance of the legal mother’s best defense: that of questioning the claimant’s attorney – he after all being her estranged husband. It might be asking too much to expect perfect legal logic from Palaban, just as it is demanding too much to expect the same from the law. A real bargain from the movie may best be realized by simply sitting back and enjoying one of our better local film craftspersons at work. This way disappointments can be safely averted, inasmuch as Palaban proffers competent cinematic skills and commendable values which never seek to call undue attention to themselves.

11011There may be nothing really outstanding about the performances, but then casting never was Romero’s forte. At least Palaban has glamorous actors who manage to whet sensation-hungry moviegoers’ appetites through parallelisms between their screen and real-life existence. Then there are Romero’s peripheral parodies of social slip-ups: the propensity for scandal, the condescending attitude toward recently successful aspirants, the excessive regard for English as an indicator of upward social mobility. Romero has even taken pains to improve his poor command of Filipino – a defect which made Aguila’s high-flying surmises soar perilously close to absurdity. His use of language in Palaban, though sometimes well-nigh without what the situations actually call for, is nevertheless consistently adept, providing an otherwise loose plotline with a semblance of tightness.

11011In all, Palaban is one of Romero’s better-crafted films since his remarkable comeback four years ago. If since then he has been badly wanting in his treatment of material, with Palaban he has at least proved that the same cannot be said about his stance, even when fighting trim.

[First published June 28, 1980, in Times Journal]

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Romero’s Flip-Flop

Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi
Directed by Eddie Romero (Philippine version),
Hsiao Lang and Chou Lili (Chinese version)
Written by Hsiao Lang and Eddie Romero

As far as local achievements go, Eddie Romero’s career would be comparable to those of a select group of artists for whom nationality has become a secondary issue, having lived as they did relatively meaningful and meaningfully productive lives. A great work or two, a distinct aesthetic progression in one’s game plan, plus an abiding faith in humanity – I suppose most prodigies initially believe they could do better, but from the evidence available to us, the most old guards could hope for would be a little more time on this earth, if only to be able to advance to another stage in their effort. And so the most senior among our active film directors decreed some time ago that he deserved a better reputation (and the treatment that presumably accompanies it) than just a Hollywood “B” listing, regardless of the reverse snobbery involved. He chose to implement this transition in his very own homeland – to the mutual advantage of himself and our heritage, in the form of Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? Here his heretofore underrated (outside of specific industry contexts) skills as storyteller complemented the reasonably attainable demands of period filmmaking – a balance that was never to be his privilege again.

11011Aguila and Kamakalawa, which along with Ganito Kami Noon were supposed to constitute a trilogy on the search by the Filipino for her national identity, fell by the weight of either one or the other factors that Romero required to be able to maximize his capabilities. The first had storytelling requirements that were way beyond his admittedly superior but still conventional approaches, while the second could only be accomplished within a setup that afforded the latest in special-effects technology. Nevertheless a trilogy of impressive Romero film-stories still exists – that is, if we replace Aguila with Sa Atin and Daigdig (directed by the late Cesar J. Amigo but produced and written by Romero, as per the film’s credits), and only the unforgiving would preempt a truly accomplished practitioner’s prerogative of demanding more from himself.

11011Here we go anyway. Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi obviously belongs to Romero’s phase of going respectable, in the specific sense of big-budget, Hollywood-glossy acceptability. And for the first time I should be happy to report that he has managed to attain it. Yet I couldn’t help wishing that Romero, old and wise as he should be, own up to the fact that in striving for something that we may not even need in the first place, he could get shanghai’d along the way, and we along with him. I’m sure that deep within the recesses of his honorable person, he knew that all the multimillion-peso undertaking would amount to, at best, would be a commemoration of a minor political event between two neighboring Asian countries, and that the considerable but still discussible upheavals that took place in the intervening centuries could not be raised directly enough for relevant dramatic purposes, for salient diplomatic reasons.[1]

11011Plus there was also a danger that he may not have anticipated, although the final product practically assaults the viewer with the fact of its presence: that down-home truths, which would only be a self-respecting narrative artist’s last recourse, could get swept away and rendered useless, if not ridiculous, by the excesses of visual spectacle. This is one among many possible instances in the exasperatingly complex medium of film where a good sense of story won’t suffice, unless good sense itself were exercised in the first place. Then again, who’d presume to tell a master what he should have done? With the utmost deference I believe that Romero should try taking seriously the only-apparently humble dimensions of the industrially limited filmmaking practice whence he emerged. Significance in a work, as all available examples in the medium so far indicate, is more a matter of enlarging one’s concerns from within rather than supplying mind-boggling resources from without. Ganito Kami Noon proves one aspect of it, the positive side, while Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi demonstrates the other. And from all appearances and purposes, what is desirable in this instance also, and quite happily, happens to be the more feasible.

[First published September 23, 1987, in National Midweek]


[1] I was precipitate in attempting to pinpoint available faults in Romero’s work. In State and Society in the Philippines (2nd ed., Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), Patricio N. Abinales and Donna J. Amoroso reference Cesar Majul’s account of how “Sulu was visited by Chinese Muslim traders and Arab missionaries who began to spread the faith in the late 14th century,” and mention Paduka Batara as “the Sulu ruler who died in China [and] left two sons to be raised among Chinese Muslims” (Chapter 2) – a major historical milestone by any standard.

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Directed and written by Eddie Romero

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

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

11011There is considerable intelligence in the interrelation of divine and temporal issues in Kamakalawa – at least enough to justify the combination of various local mythologies into a new and original whole which will annoy no one except purists. When, for example, the forest god beckons vampires to vanquish his peeves, the realization of a hierarchy among supernatural creatures, which makes them no better than their moral counterparts, is made clear, regional incompatibility notwithstanding. Even Philippine pre-Spanish society in Kamakalawa is somehow tailored to fit the filmmaker’s imaginative fabric. In a specific instance, Kauing, a tiller of soil (“clodhopper,” as the international version’s subtitles translate), proves his prowess over a haughty nobleman by first sparing his life in a royal bout and then saving him from various enchantments wrought by the gods of nature. The consideration of chronology – of the emergence of peasants only after the decline of indentured slavery and its attendant nobility – hardly matters anymore, subsumed as it is under the filmmaker’s interest in the superiority of productive forces over non-productive ones.

11011Filmic brilliance, however, cannot be confirmed to conceptualization alone. As in any other artistic medium, substance could be either enhanced or subverted by style. In the case of Kamakalawa Romero’s statements are not exactly negated by his direction; nevertheless, considering their scope and magnitude, they have not been handled with the high degree of expertise they deserve either. The most embarrassing examples of technique getting in the way in Kamakalawa are in its use of special effects. To put it kindly, the in-camera tricks and special laboratory processes employed in the movie are inferior to those of local fantasy films of lesser budgets. Care could have been exercised in minor matters such as the depiction of proportions among gods, mortals, and elves, the exploration by Kauing of the river goddess’s lair, or the appearance of a musical ghost. If these instances sound interesting, then the movie’s supernatural highlights are definite downers. The climatic showdown between the forest god and the sea god is appalling – but not because the protagonists lay the landscape to waste; their weapons do not behave like the flashes of lightning they are supposed to be, their clashes are mere washouts, the havoc they wreak could be outdone by faulty firecrackers.

11011This is not to say, however, that Kamakalawa is downright disastrous. As pointed out earlier, Romero’s healthy humanism is reason enough for the movie to be seriously taken. No other local director would have the sagacity, not to mention the audacity (considering the speaker’s ridiculous costume), to furnish a character, the fire god, with a monologue on power, existence, and eternity – and make it sound sincere enough for comfort.

11011Kisapmata, meanwhile, has everything it takes – and more, if one were to quantify Vic Silayan’s performance – to succeed where Kamakalawa fails. Taken as independent contributions to a creative collective, the various filmic elements of Kisapmata are, without exception, exceptional. In audiovisual terms, nothing in the film is obtrusive or inadequate – a balancing feat by any technical standard. Hence while watching the movie the viewer would be drawn along from beginning to end by correct composition and consistent visual tone; one would be helped along by sparse but purposeful auditory exploits; one would even be moved by the performances of individual members of the cast. On the whole, however, Kisapmata is nothing more than a narration of the events that lead to a father’s killing of his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and self; any relevant issue – incest, obsession, fascism, rebellion – is treated as an incidental angle, then quickly cast aside in the pursuit of plot.

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

11011Consider, say, the incest angle. The act itself is suggested by the father’s entrance into his daughter’s bedroom, with a little help from an earlier confrontation between the mother and daughter confirming the practice within the family. This is a discreet manner of presentation of a social taboo, which no doubt facilitated the movie’s passage through the eye of our rusty censorship needle. Whether it serves the movie’s purpose is a different consideration altogether. In fact the graphic depiction of another social taboo – the killing of kinsfolk – would not be in keeping with this attempt at adumbrating a comparatively lesser aberration. The social issues are just as inadequately treated. Lip service is paid to progressive concerns, such as references to political detention centers and acceptance of police corruption. Mere mention, however, is not the same as discussion: for all the complexity of the issues raised, the movie’s singular dialectic begins and ends with the father’s fatal obsession with his daughter.

11011This disturbing dichotomy between technical wealth and thematic poverty is best exemplified in the relationships among the characters. For in Kisapmata, the excellence of individual performances provides an illusion of successful characterization where there actually is none. The practice of incest, for example, should have introduced psychological changes in the daughter beyond normative dimensions. As it turns out, she responds to her mother’s calls for aid and rebels when she finds out that these are pretenses planned by her father; also, in spite of her conventionality (she resorts to religion regularly), she submits to another man – her husband, with whom she had premarital relations – without discernible traumatic consequences. The father, played with a plethora of nuances by Vic Silayan, comes on as an imposing figure right from the start, and remains that way throughout. In this regard, his fateful outburst at the movie’s climax may be safely logical – but not, by any means, tragic. A serious oversight on the filmmaker’s part prevented the evolution of the father into an understandable figure; before the shootout he is simplistically dismissed by his family as a psychotic. But since he is made to carry out the climax literally and figuratively singlehandedly, his character, to say the least, should have been provided with subjective developments.

11011Creating sympathy thus for the father would have been less bold than the incest angle, but it would have made the shootout at the end cathartic instead of simply shocking. In this sense Kisapmata can be regarded as representative of the Hollywood influence on contemporary Philippine cinema: technique-conscious, paradoxically to a fault. A return to thematic awareness in the manner of old guards like Romero would be more welcome – presuming, of course, that the filmmaker concerned is already capable of technical competence to begin with.

[First published November-December 1981 in The Review]

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Waiting for Godard

Batch ’81
Directed by Mike de Leon
Written by Mike de Leon, Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., and Raquel Villavicencio

Batch ’81 was a major movie in the making. Almost two years have elapsed between its conception and exhibition, and it was (and remains) MVP Pictures’ biggest budgeted production. Behind it is the same creative team responsible for two promising ventures, 1980’s Kakabakaba Ka Ba? and last year’s Kisapmata. As an added sidelight, it figured in what appears to be the fashion as far as serious local film projects go: a conflict between director and producer which, needless to add, should be of no consequence in evaluating the finished product. At its premier screening last March, the movie held up to reasonable expectations accordant to director Mike de Leon’s past works. Although the version was subsequently declared an “answer print” – that is, subject to further revisions, it exhibited an extremely expert flair for technical proficiency in both aural and visual aspects.

Ricky Sandico as a fraternity neophyte in Mike de Leon’s Batch ’81 (1982).

11011Among local directors no one has been perhaps as conscious (or, for that matter, as adept) as de Leon when it comes to filmic sound and music. The definitive proof would be his comedy-musical Kakabakaba for its overt emphasis on these elements; nevertheless all other de Leon films (apart from the abovementioned, these include Itim, 1976, and Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising, 1977) demonstrate considerable competence in the same direction, and Batch ’81 is no exception. Sound à la de Leon seeks to establish a distinct dimension, related but not subordinated to the film’s visual content. Furthermore it ignores conventional differences between itself and music, occasionally merging and then resolving in sometimes startling, always effective turns. In Batch ’81 de Leon also makes literally visible progress. Its cinematography is the most satisfying of any de Leon film so far, preferable to the prettiness of the earlier works or the novelty of the later ones. Here de Leon derives expressive significance from his use of light – or, more accurately, his disuse of it. This becomes apparent, on more levels than one, in the fraternity rumble sequence, wherein a sense of dreadful finality is emphatically evoked through the gradual dominance of shadows.

11011Impressive production values alone, however, do not a masterpiece make. In this regard de Leon can be credited with having chosen for Batch ’81 more serious subject matter – the fraternity as a microcosm of society – than those of his previous films (in receding order: thriller, musical, romance, and horror). Also, in Batch ’81, several literate tributes (as distinguished from outright plagiarism, in which the reference, without the benefit of adoptive context, is appropriated as an original device) are made to similarly serious exertions in foreign cinema. All these considerations are, of course, so far still secondary, dealing as they do with what may be seen or heard but not with what may be understood, and it is at this point that the film’s difficulties begin. For there is no real exploration of fraternity life in Batch ’81 beyond what may be arrived at through good research. Sensational but irrelevant incidents are substituted for related but presumably less provocative ones. As a consequence, more time is spent on the depiction of initiation rites than on lead character Sid Lucero’s motive for membership at all costs, when in fact it is his obsession that leads to an escalation of the level of violence in the neophytes’ experience.

11011The only clues ever afforded the audience concerning his peculiar trait are contained in his interactions with women. Here again the observance of character is minimized to make way for catchy detail – the arrogance of his pill-popping mother, for example, or the latent resentment of his hypercritical steady – which, instead of elaborating on the issues at hand, provokes an impression of unwarranted misogyny. As a result, the successful performances of the actresses in Batch ’81 run against the roles. Armida Siguion-Reyna and Charito Solis, as the respective mothers of Sid and his roommate, have only their presence to present in what essentially are walk-on (or, more appropriately, talk-on) parts, while Chanda Romero manages to make use of comic timing and an uncanny regional accent to warm up her stereotypically cold-blooded role as a whore hired by fraternity masters to devirginize a neophyte. In contrast the actors, at least some of them, have the benefit of more sympathetic roles; curiously the less likeable ones come off better, particularly Mark Gil as Sid and Mike Arvisu as Abet, both hard-liners of their respective warring fraternities.

11011A considerate consensus would probably ascribe this contradiction to some form of ethical nihilism on the part of de Leon, in which his anti-heroes attain fulfillment by refusing to become heroes. On the other hand, he may only be wanting in the craft of characterization – which may explain why Kisapmata, which had better performers, was better acted than Batch ’81. To put it another way, Batch ’81’s “bad” characters are easier to understand simply because they are less ambiguous than the rest. Such reliance on technical virtuosity as a determinant of dramatic development has resulted in fact in a duality of mutually exclusive narratives which share the same highlight – the murder of Sid’s roommate – and nothing else. The technical narrative, on the other hand, begins with Sid’s application for fraternity membership, proceeds through the parallelisms between his persistence and his roommate’s pusillanimity, and ends with the survivors’ initiation. Meanwhile the literal ending, in which the new members undertake the hazing of the next batch of neophytes, demands an entirely different set of developments all its own.

11011The obvious conclusion here is that technique, when allowed to proceed at its own pace, is liable to lose dramatic drift. By this account de Leon is, if not anything else, still a technician – a terrific one, no doubt, perhaps the country’s best; but once the industry has responded to the standards of technical excellence which only he has been able to meet so far, can he continue to count on craft alone?

[First published June 16, 1982, in Who]

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Return to Form

Bilanggo sa Dilim
Directed by Mike de Leon
Written by Jose Almojuela, Mike de Leon, and Bobby Lavides

Having done something like ten audiovisual works in about as many years, Mike de Leon should be this year’s celebrated candidate for artistic re-evaluation. The fact that of his works, only six are in commercial 35mm. format while the rest are in alternative film (super-8mm. and 16mm.) and video formats makes for even more relevant discussion, with the latest – a “videomovie” titled Bilanggo sa Dilim – all set to open the first Independent Film and Video Festival at the Wave Cinema in Cubao next week. Bilanggo sa Dilim has more things going for it than a Mike de Leon credit (although an influential circle of admirers would be content with that alone); it is the first local Sony Solid Video production to be released, with a couple of others already in the can (or should we say the cassette?) and a lot more in the planning stage (studio?).

Joel Torre in Mike de Leon’s Bilanggo sa Dilim (1986), the country’s first studio-produced video movie.

11011Typically the work – I hesitate to call it “film” – like the best of de Leon’s early achievement is the sort of thing that makes technique-conscious practitioners reach for the latest product manual or brochure, so as not to be left behind by the standards of competence it sets anew. In fact, with technical competence being the rare commodity it is these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if observers of Filipino audiovisual works again typically take to Bilanggo sa Dilim as if it were this year’s only qualified entry in the cinema-as-art competition that we so enjoy imposing on our film practitioners. And yet, in the sense that the work is opening an alternative film festival and should therefore be considered in that context first, I agree. Grudgingly, that is; for when in the recent past everyone seemed enamored with Mike de Leon’s displays of virtuosity (enhanced among insiders by a reputation for eccentricity), I had to endure some amount of difficulty in going against the grain, pardon the pun, just to be able to point out that other filmmakers were involved in even more substantial artistic and narratological innovations. I would say the height of irony in de Leon’s career took place when he abandoned his fondness for experimentation with the plastics of the medium and undertook the most conventional serious project he had set for himself – the agitprop film Sister Stella L. – and acquired in return the strongest round of raves and cheers (not to mention trophies) he had ever received yet.

11011So this time around I am genuinely resisting the temptation of going overboard in hailing Bilanggo sa Dilim as Mike de Leon’s return to form, in more ways than one, simply because it is his first videomovie, and his commercial-film record indicates a clear capability on his part to outdo himself. Those who have handled video will respond more readily to the precocity of Bilanggo sa Dilim, and might therefore understand my sense of panic-tinged admiration: video, as we have known it, has never been this accomplished, at least from within our national borders; after Bilanggo sa Dilim, how else could one dare to approach the medium with aesthetic intent? My past reservation about de Leon’s inadequacy (which after all may have been a mere hesistancy) in exploiting the dramaturgical potential of audiovisual media still holds to a certain extent for Bilanggo sa Dilim. Again, though, I must make clear that I measure his sense of drama against his flair for novelty, and not by the admittedly sorry standard obtaining in the commercial industry. For his latest, he has taken an extraneous source – a John Fowles novel – as the basis for his story, and though on the whole his adaptation is less conceited than, say, that of Karel Reisz’s version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, I can safely bet (not having read Fowles’ The Collector) that, from the onscreen evidence, it is de Leon’s bravura orchestration of video’s exasperatingly resistant instruments that saves the adaptation from a too-obviously literary premise. In one singular instance he completely subverts the language of film as we have come to know and accept it – when, in the climactic chase scene, he cuts to a high-angle slow-motion shot of the protagonists; basic cinematographic conditioning ascribes a connotation of detachment for high angles and that of relaxation for slo-mo takes, but in Bilanggo sa Dilim the combined usage of both techniques produces a startling realization of the beauty inherent in outbursts of violence. This is not in itself an original discovery – Arthur Penn and the late Sam Peckinpah, to use Hollywood-based examples, were once accused (an honorable distinction in artist circles) of using the same thing – but it points to something that apparently has never been carefully considered before in local practice: that video, instead of acting as an adjunct to film, can in fact attain more effective peaks of expression by breaking free of the rules of conventional usage, in the manner of the more advanced items in cinema.

11011That in itself should ensure for Bilanggo sa Dilim more than just incidental stature in an already reputable body of aesthetic achievement in Philippine cinema. The responsible de Leon observer, however, could in addition take notice of the fact that, although the director forsook his credit for his last film, he took care not to do the same with his newfound skill in handling actors. Whereas in the past he used to rely on the relative expertise of his performers as a given, in Bilanggo sa Dilim he has been able to draw out the same harmonious ensemble acting that may be the only claim to posterity of Hindi Nahahati ang Langit; in addition, he allowed one of the protagonists to develop with a sympathetic sensuality (name me any other Mike de Leon film that exhibits this virtue!) that, coupled with the appropriate resources of Cherie Gil, has resulted in the first honest-to-goodness flesh-and-blood character (as opposed to performance) in any de Leon opus yet.

11011I would like to believe, for snobbery’s sake, that Mike de Leon was merely flexing his capabilities, so to speak, so as not to overstretch himself in the new medium. He has done better, if not entirely satisfactory, efforts in the commercial mode, but I’d rather play safe and say that come the time when the first de Leon work of unqualified greatness, in whatever format, is revealed to the public, I wouldn’t want to be caught off guard in failing to anticipate it. It may be on the order of a more thematically cogent Kakabakaba Ka Ba? or dramatically valid Batch ’81 or presentationally daring Sister Stella L. Or it may be a completely different concern altogether – in which case your prediction will be as good as mine, and we can only hope it matches Mike de Leon’s. Meantime we have an effective melodramatic thriller in our midst, and in the alleged format of the future at that, and maybe we should all be so grateful that its proportions were not major enough to completely overwhelm us.

[First published September 22, 1986, in New Day]

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The National Pastime – A Second Golden Age

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

11011My own attempt at questioning the Golden Ages idea was (to me) too late, too rushed, and too reasonable (see “The Golden Ages of Philippine Cinema: A Critical Reassessment”), even if it also happened to be the first to do so. On the other hand, my elaboration of the aesthetic issues raised in the present article (via Fields of Vision’s “The ‘New’ Cinema in Retrospect”) appears increasingly defensive and interminable, the longer I look back on it. Nevertheless I submit that the following article encapsulates Marcos-era film policy and its overall-favorable impact on film practice, as well as film observers’ urgent need to find useful historical frameworks for further applications (and incidentally, to fellow Nora Aunor fans: “Performances of the Age” is only a section of the present article, not a stand-alone write-up). “A Second Golden Age” was originally published in the October-December 1989 issue of the Cultural Center of the Philippines journal Kultura (pp. 14-26 – p. 14 is below), then edited by Bien Lumbera; its title was modified by the publisher of The National Pastime (where it appeared on pp. 1-17) to include the parenthesized phrase “An Informal History.” To jump to later sections, click here for:

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

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

11011More to the point of Romero’s argument, however, would be the obvious difficulty in pinpointing specific periods of artistic productivity. The flowering of Athenian culture could be studied intensively within the context of entire centuries of ancient Greek life; true, certain important artists and philosophers were contemporaries of one another – but this was more of the exception, the rule being one major practitioner being followed, chronologically speaking, by another who would either break away from the elder’s school or tradition, or venture completely on her own in a new, unpredictable direction.

11011The soundness of Romero’s assertion actually derives from the fail-safe construction of his logic. Nothing in human history can ever compare to the Greeks’ cultural exploits – and so, if we grant that they never had a Golden Age, then there never could have been any such thing since. Rather than despair over our modern-day limitations in the face of such insurmountable criteria of excellence, I believe we could do well enough in assessing ourselves for more sober, though perhaps less immortalizing, reasons. By this account a Golden Age need not be a wholly intensive and sustained national outbreak of cultural creativity. A limited period in a specific field, defined according to the concentration of output relative to periods preceding and succeeding it, should prove adequate for the moment.

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Golden Age I

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

11011That this phase ever came to a close indicates the short-sightedness of the solutions being applied. Reconstruction commits itself only to the attainment of a previous level of accomplishment (in this case the prewar situation), whereas insurgency addresses itself to the overthrow of a government on the basis of a problem – agrarian reform – more persistent that its leaders’ understandable aspirations to political power. The movie industry’s studio system, in seeking to institutionalize professionalism and (incidentally?) control the means of distribution, overlooked the natural inclination of talents, including stars, to seek more abundant means of remuneration outside the system if necessary, as well as the willingness of independent production outfits to forsake the studios’ long-term advantages and meet the demands of talents in return for faster and more immediate profits.

11011Hence the interval between the first and the second Golden Ages saw the rise of the independents and the superstars, backgrounded by the revitalization of the peasant-based insurgency and an engineered economic instability that paved the way for the imposition and eventual acceptance of fascist rule.

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A Near-Golden Age

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

11011A casual view of the products of the pre-martial law seventies reveals what we might have been headed for: socially conscious and psychologically frank products, without a compulsion to alienate the vast majority of moviegoers, even in the most artistic instances. Apparently neutral or even antipathetic projects actually allowed for a lot of leeway in the selection of material and permutations of form and expression. Most significant was the proliferation of bomba or hard-core sex films, the direct result of de Vega’s extreme libertarianism; but just as important were the counter-reactions, the musicals and love triangles, that provided relief in opposing formats, even for serious practitioners. Moreover, regional (Cebuano-language) cinema had mellowed at the latter portion of a wondrously long curve, providing assurances of alternatives for Manila-based practitioners (which included Emmanuel H. Borlaza and Leroy Salvador), as well as an additional stable for the recruitment of onscreen talent, notably the Amado Cortez – Gloria Sevilla and Eddie Mesa – Rosemarie Gil clans.

11011Ismael Bernal came up with the last major black-and-white Filipino film and the most important debut of his generation with Pagdating sa Dulo. Lino Brocka, who was to share with Bernal the rivalry for artistic supremacy in the Golden Age that was to come, rebounded quick with a pair of highly inspired komiks-adapted titles for his studio base, Lea Productions, namely Stardoom and Tubog sa Ginto, plus an otherwise effective Fernando Poe Jr. epic, Santiago. This era, rather than the mid-seventies as commonly supposed, also signalled the maturation of Celso Ad. Castillo. In another Poe-starrer, Asedillo, as well as in a horrific bomba entry, Nympha, he exhibited a fascination for unconventional visual values and thematic daring, properties that were to serve him well during the latter part of the decade.

11011Other names associated with academe- and theater-based artist circles made their mark with relatively serious attempts, including Elwood Perez with Blue Boy and Nestor U. Torre with Crush Ko si Sir. Perhaps more significantly, a number of scriptwriters who were to figure prominently during the forthcoming Golden Age first emerged here, with either solo or shared credits: Torre with his debut film, Bernal with Luis Enriquez’s Ah, Ewan! Basta sa Maynila Pa Rin Ako!,[3] and Orlando Nadres with Tony Cayado’s Happy Hippie Holiday. Brocka, after writing for Luciano B. Carlos’s Arizona Kid, provided breaks for several scriptwriting aspirants, among them Nadres with Stardoom, Mario O’Hara with Lumuha Pati mga Anghel, and Alfred Yuson with Cherry Blossoms.

11011Right after Marcos’s martial-rule clampdown, and in a sense a consequence of the aforementioned near-anarchic (and therefore procreative) bent, came names like Peque Gallaga and Butch Perez with Binhi, Romy Suzara with Tatlong Mukha ni Rosa Vilma, Jun Raquiza with Dalawang Mukha ng Tagumpay, and George Rowe with Paru-Parung Itim, Nora Aunor’s first production, serious film, and (it wasn’t to be the last such combination) box-office flop. Rolando Tinio wrote for Bernal’s Now and Forever and Ricardo Lee, using the pseudonym R.H. Laurel, for the late Armando Garces’s Dragnet.

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Pre-Golden Age II

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

11011Keeping the faith were Bernal, Perez, and Joey Gosiengfiao with their usually combinative Sine Pilipino/Juan de la Cruz Productions; Castillo with his horror films; Raquiza with this thrillers; Suzara with his sober dramas; and Nora Aunor with her admirable acting vehicles, including the only project that could boast of crediting both de Leon and Lamberto Avellana, the omnibus Fe, Esperanza, Caridad.

11011It was Brocka, however, who returned from a period of inactivity with two productions that combined the then-impossible characteristics of being both major and personal, Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang in 1974 and Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag in 1975. The direct beneficiaries of this renewal of artistic consciousness in film included Brocka himself, with his three-in-one Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa; Perez with his three-in-one Isang Gabi, Tatlong Babae!; Gosiengfiao with the last Filipino black-and-white movie La Paloma, ang Kalapating Ligaw; Castillo with his careful revivification of the bomba (later to be called “bold” and initiated with the wet look) in Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa; and Bernal with Mister Mo, Lover Boy Ko.

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Golden Age II: Beginnings

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

11011There are, however, other attributable semi- or even non-industrial reasons for the phenomenon. The relative sanguinity brought about by the sudden infusion of foreign loans (before these assumed malignant proportions), coupled with the enforced stability of early martial rule, encouraged several newly prosperous entities to invest their money in a business that could be both glamorous and profitable. The youthful mass audience of the early seventies was prepared for a divergence and diversification of its favorite diversion, which was to culminate in a sophistication of its command of visual language that may still be extant at present. De Vega’s widow, Ma. Rocio, took over after his death and, for some reason or other, saw fit to return to his pre-martial law policy of libertarianism – which the military was to exploit as an excuse for its small-scale takeover of film-censorship prerogatives.

11011Maynila’s impact was meanwhile long-ranging enough, boosted as it was by the earlier success of Tinimbang, and a whole new breed of filmmakers came to the fore; in chronological order: Lupita Concio (later Kashiwahara) with Alkitrang Dugo, Eduardo Palmos co-directing Saan Ka Pupunta, Miss Lutgarda Nicolas?, Behn Cervantes 1976’s first debutant with Sakada, O’Hara with Mortal, Dindo Angeles with Sinta! Ang Bituing Bagong Gising, Gil Portes with Tiket Mama, Tiket Ale, sa Linggo ang Bola, and Mike de Leon with Itim.

11011And these were just the ones who either started big or had major follow-up projects. A cursory look at the 1976 Filipino filmography would reveal a handful of other new names which would probably be of interest to those determined to delve deeper into the dynamics of the period. Again, however, the writers ought to sustain more productive study than the also-rans: Clodualdo del Mundo Jr. was responsible for the adaptation of Maynila from the novel by Edgardo Reyes, who himself was to cross over presently into the medium with Bernal’s Ligaw na Bulaklak. Preceding them were newsmen Antonio Mortel and Diego Cagahastian, who co-wrote Mister Mo, Lover Boy Ko, and fictionists Alberto Florentino and Wilfredo Nolledo, who were to be joined shortly by Jose F. Lacaba in Gosiengfiao’s omnibus Babae … Ngayon at Kailanman. Mauro Gia Samonte was to write for Castillo’s Tag-ulan sa Tag-araw, Jorge Arago for Bernal’s Nunal sa Tubig, and Marina Feleo-Gonzalez for Kashiwahara’s Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo. Lamberto Antonio collaborated with O’Hara on Brocka’s Insiang, Roy Iglesias with Eddie Romero on the latter’s Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon?, and Gil Quito with del Mundo (and Ricardo Lee without credit) on Mike de Leon’s Itim.

11011Sakada would have been the military establishment’s typical target for repression, but it unfortunately enjoyed the endorsement of de Vega; Danilo Cabreira’s Uhaw na Bulaklak, Part II served the purpose even better, deflecting as it did potentially confrontational politics toward the issue of moral rectitude; typically again, both titles had new writers-Lualhati Bautista and Oscar Miranda (with an uncredited Reuel Aguila) for the former, Franklin Cabaluna for the latter.

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Guideposts for the Times

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

11011The already mentioned developments actually consist of the introduction of award-giving mechanisms by three sectors that were to make bids of varying degrees of urgency on mass media in general, and film in particular: the Catholic Church, government, and intelligentsia. The Catholic sector, in reviving its Citizens’ Award for Television, expanded it to encompass locally existent media of communications. Significantly, the first best-film winner of the Catholic Mass Media Award was Nunal sa Tubig, which had seen rough sailing with the censors. The government, for its part, centralized all the annual city festivals in the newly organized metropolitan area in one major undertaking held during the lucrative spell between Christmas and New Year. The first few editions were either idealistic or disorganized or both, so that sensible film producers tended toward a policy of reserving prestige productions for this season. Despite occasional protestations from the bloc of foreign-film distributors and an ill-advised attempt to require developmental messages during the late seventies, the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) has endured as the government’s singular contribution to the pursuit of quality in local cinema, its awards being coveted not so much for the prestige they bestow as for the free and favorable publicity they afford otherwise commercially imperiled releases.

11011The third, and for our purposes the most important, film awards for this period consist of those handed out by the reviewers’ circle, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (MPP), organized in 1976 and barely in time for the first flowering of the second Golden Age. The Urian awards, as these were called, served to recall and amplify the impact of the first MMFF in their echoing of the latter’s best-picture choice, Ganito Kami Noon. In fact the FAMAS, so as not to be left too far behind, selected another MMFF entry, Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo, for its top-prize winner, and observed the Urian’s dark-horse selection of Nora Aunor as the year’s best actress for her performance in her latest flop-production, O’Hara’s Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos. The Urian remained the most serious award-giving body for the most part of its first decade of existence, employing a system of viewing assignments, repeated screenings, and exhaustive deliberations that would have proved perfect had it been implemented conscientiously and consistently. Whatever the turnout of the MPP’s choices for any given year, the fact remains that its nominations were generally reliable reflections of the industry’s achievements in the medium, and thereby serve as better indicators of the state of the art than the awards themselves.

11011This point was to be driven home as early as the next year of its existence. Where the MMFF actually defied the cultural establishment, which responded by withdrawing the prizes it handed out to Castillo’s Burlesk Queen, the Urian responded against the film as a representation of the MMFF’s process, selecting an academically defensible but less artistically vital entry as its year’s winner, and coming around to the Burlesk Queen filmmaker by awarding his next-year entry, which like the previous year’s winner was period and epic in scope. Such subjectivity of vision, coupled by a preference for underdog nominees, prompted Brocka, the fourth best-director awardee, to castigate the group and reject its future commendations. Nevertheless, as mentioned earlier, the MPP’s process right up to the deliberation of prizewinners was refined enough to ensure the accommodation of accomplishments that were major by the reasonably highest possible standards of filmic evaluation.

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Four Peaks

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

11011This regularity of productivity was in fact cut short by the 1986 revolution, in much the same way that Proclamation 1081 ended the early seventies’ creative outbursts. Sociopolitical upheavals may be the most obvious, but definitely not the only, similarities between the periods in question. Prior to 1986, as before 1972, an era of moral permissiveness held sway in cinema. Immediately after the upheavals, audiences tended to shy away from moviegoing, and had to be lured back with blatantly commercial products that all but outlawed conscious attempts at artistry. The second Golden Age in this regard was distinguished by some of the riskiest filmmaking projects in local history: during the turn of the decade, one movie after another vied in laying claim to being the most expensive Filipino production ever, with audiences seemingly willing to reward these efforts if only for the sheer audacity of the claims.

11011Each artistic peak mentioned, in fact, also had clusters of other big-budget, even period productions attending it. Maynila was period by necessity, since early martial rule forbade derogatory references to the Marcos regime;[4] Ganito Kami Noon combined an ideological concern – the origin of “Filipino” as a historical designation – with the period of its metamorphosis, the transition from Spanish to American colonial rule. Romero was to further flesh out his pursuit of the identity of the Filipino with some other big-budget and period titles: Aguila, which covered the current century; Kamakalawa, which was situated during the pre-Spanish mythological era; and Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi, which was begun during but released after the Golden Age, and set also during the pre-Spanish era of regional trade relations. None of these other movies attained the balance between technical competence (Aguila would have been the closest) and storytelling superiority (Kamakalawa excelled only in this aspect) manifested by Ganito Kami Noon, and meanwhile Romero, who was a movie-generation removed from Brocka and Bernal, was exceeded in medium-based modernization by the practitioners who were to follow.

11011Brocka, on his part, responded to international exposure with a deliberate and sometimes disconcerting minimalization of his filmic abilities. Insiang, Jaguar, Angela Markado, Bona, PX, Cain at Abel, and Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim (in order of release) all may have followed Maynila chronologically, but actually antedate it in terms of the filmmaker’s capability of matching sweeping social concerns with an appropriately expansive vision. Aside from this, their distinction of having had international exposure in various festival venues here and abroad could perhaps only develop a case for Brocka as an auteur in the now-conventional sense of the word, where one work will have to be viewed in relation to all the rest before it could be appreciated. Miguelito, on the other hand, as a vastly improved reworking of Tinimbang Ka, is a contemporary but still-critical view of the body politic with its social and, more important, dramatic distensions intact, rather than deflated to microcosmic dimensions as Brocka had been wont to do in the case of the other films.

11011Bernal benefited the most from the effervescence of this period, mapping out a strategy that may have seemed erratic during the time but which denotes in retrospect the most impressive directorial figuring out and working over of the medium since Gerardo de Leon adopted the principles of deep-focus realism. Like de Leon, Bernal proceeded to adopt a foreign trend, this time the then-emergent character-based multi-narrative process, first experimenting with limited success in Nunal sa Tubig then introducing commercial elements on a more modest scale in Aliw. The greater profitability of the latter, in terms of both audience and critical reception this time, most likely emboldened him enough to return to large-scale businesses in Manila by Night, which in turn may have overstretched his technological capabilities somewhat but also served to accommodate his contributions to an international filmmaking mode, in a way that de Leon never managed to.

11011Manila by Night in effect proved that a personalized and multi-stylized approach to this manner of presentation of subject matter was possible, and that the filmmaker could choose to oppose the expectation of a final and logical conclusion and still justify an open-endedness in terms of his material. After such an accomplishment a more conventionalized orientation overtook Bernal – one that drew from the domestic dramas and comedies he directed prior to Manila by Night, the most memorable being Ikaw Ay Akin. His only other epic-scale project since, Himala, recalled Nunal sa Tubig in its choice of material (the eternal countryside, as contrasted with the contemporary big city in all of his other films), but the treatment this time observed classic unities rather than the versatilities which had brought him attention in the first place. Bernal’s other multi-character projects fared even less triumphantly, among them Ito Ba ang Ating mga Anak?, Working Girls, and The Graduates. A Working Girls sequel, released after the Golden Age, so dismayed everyone involved that Bernal has since tended to inhibit himself from such ventures, concentrating instead on small-scale projects where he had considerable success right after Manila by Night: Relasyon, Broken Marriage, and Hinugot sa Langit, among others.

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New Generation

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

11011It was Peque Gallaga, however, who demonstrated that even newcomers could buck the system and turn it to their advantage: first he won the scriptwriting contest of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP) for the storyline proposal of Oro, Plata, Mata, then acquired the right to direct it, and saw it right through copping a special jury prize from the Manila International Film Festival (MIFF) as well as major Urian awards, including best film. Curiously, however, succeeding aspirants could not duplicate Gallaga’s procedure; the closest anyone came to doing so was in using the ECP venue, the Manila Film Center (MFC), as Tikoy Aguiluz did for Boatman, rather than directing ECP productions, as Pio de Castro III and Abbo Q. de la Cruz were to discover after finishing Soltero and Misteryo sa Tuwa respectively; in this instance the dynamics of governmental support for the industry supplied the causative factors, and a thorough investigation of the matter would yield invaluable lessons for the future.

11011Before Gallaga’s virtual one-man coup, the female directors managed to call attention to themselves as viable entities; but how much of the appreciation was prepared by prevalent feminist sentiments still has to be quantified. Guillen had a modest and well-appreciated hit with her first film Kasal?, then after a box-office trauma went on to a more notable achievement with Salome, which won the Urian best-film prize. Diaz-Abaya, on the other hand, saw her first production, Tanikala, sink to the depths of anonymity – and her investment along with it, but rebounded vigorously enough with the MMFF multi-awardee and box-office placer Brutal.

11011In common with the early ascendency of these two was their scriptwriter, Ricardo Lee. Coming from a shared distinction (with Jose F. Lacaba) for Brocka’s box-office bomb but Urian winner and Cannes Film Festival competition entry Jaguar, Lee had his first solo masterstroke with Brutal and followed up in an even bigger way with Salome. His association with Bernal cemented as consultant for Manila by Night and writer for Ito Ba, Relasyon, and Himala, he proceeded to devise a female-humanist (typically mistaken for early-wave feminist) milieu movie, Moral, which Diaz-Abaya directed. Moral stands as the only other Golden Age product clearly in the same league as Manila by Night; the other possible sharers of this category would be Miguelito and, from the first Golden Age, Gregorio Fernandez’s Malvarosa – both of which suffer inadequacies that disallow declarations of unqualified masterliness within the terms of the multicharacter format. Thereafter Lee’s collaborations with Diaz-Abaya would result in relatively less satisfactory products, particularly Karnal and Alyas Baby Tsina. He subsequently realized higher degrees of literacy in cinema in his scripts for Mel Chionglo’s Sinner or Saint and Chito Roño’s Private Show, produced at the tail end of and released after the Golden Age; more fulfilling accomplishments, however, were awaiting him in other film-related media, notably journalism, metafiction, and playwriting, all of which he would turn to after the Golden Age.

11011The other directors fared fairly enough in establishing a respectable level of artistic sensibility in their works. Gallaga had a slightly better epic than Oro, Plata, Mata in Virgin Forest, which met with a counter-reaction probably inevitable considering the earliness and eagerness of the initial response that greeted him. After dabbling in melodrama with Unfaithful Wife, he would make one last epic, the fantasy feature Once Upon a Time, which had the misfortune of being released during the period of transition following the Golden Age, when no movie could hope to recoup its investments. Thereafter he would concentrate on and rise in favor again for expertly handling the horror genre, which would facilitate his return to epic filmmaking with Isang Araw Walang Diyos.

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Fringes of the Avant-Garde

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

11011Two significant directors, Castillo and Mike de Leon, reached their prime in the medium during the middle part of the Golden Age, then settled for relative obscurity afterward. Castillo came out with a series of mostly sex films that never matched the precocity of Burlesk Queen, while de Leon observed the Stanley Kubrick model, emulated to a lesser extent by Gallaga, of dabbling in one genre after another. His comeback in 1980 after a three-year hiatus resulted in a major-status movie that has managed to outlast all his other works so far, the political absurdist comedy-musical Kakabakaba Ka Ba? Along with Brocka, de Leon became a prominent figure at Cannes, where his subsequent output – the thriller Kisapmata and propagandistic Sister Stella L., plus Batch ’81, his misanthropic contribution to milieu delineation – were exhibited to mostly favorable commentaries. After an excursion into melodrama that disappointed him but not his financiers, de Leon shifted, right with the close of the Golden Age, to video with a feature, Bilanggo sa Dilim, that exemplified his directorial coming-of-age.

11011O’Hara similarly advanced in expertise as the period wore on. After making a financially fruitful comeback (after an absence about as long as de Leon’s), he came up with a partially successful milieu movie, Bulaklak sa City Jail, and followed up a previous action-thriller, Condemned, with another, Bagong Hari. Mostly O’Hara continued his association with Nora Aunor, who had more resounding results with Brocka and Bernal, but nevertheless managed to augment her store of talent with O’Hara.

11011One last directorial debutant, Chito Roño, whose Private Show came out almost too late for the Golden Age, bears comparison with the aforementioned names. In the period to come, Brocka, by virtue of his conscious holding back, may have already reprised his role as harbinger of what ought to turn out to be another, or at least an extension of the previous, Golden Age. Chionglo, Gallaga, O’Hara, Roño, Diaz-Abaya, and Guillen are in a position to assume artistic leadership, with Bernal, Castillo, and de Leon making authoritative contributions alongside Brocka, and Romero upholding the value of verified virtues in the craft.

11011The writer will be privileged with greater responsibility, as indeed almost all of these enumerated individuals are capable of scripting their and others’ works if desirable or necessary. Ricardo Lee will continue holding forth as a major non-directing filmmaker, with del Mundo, Lacaba, and newer members like Jose N. Carreon (Ikaw Ay Akin, Broken Marriage), Jose Dalisay Jr. (Miguelito), Rosauro de la Cruz (Scorpio Nights, Virgin Forest), and Amado Lacuesta Jr. (Hinugot sa Langit, Working Girls) regularly providing thematic worth and structural strength. A number of other writers, including Armando Lao and Bibeth Orteza, may have had apprenticeships during the Golden Age, but would seem to have considerable opportunities of playing the field thence.

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Performances of the Age

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

11011Despite the propensity of these groups, both collectively and as individual bodies, in setting records for favored artists, the outstanding performance of the period belongs to that of Nora Aunor in Himala, which was honored only by the MMFF. Aunor had been possessed with a search for superior acting vehicles, and threw away a lot of her own money in the process, since in essence she mostly had to run against the preferences of her mass supporters. With Brocka she made perceptible strides in ensuring her lead over the rest of the pack, particularly in Ina Ka ng Anak Mo and Bona. But all that was really required of her was a project that had enough scope to demonstrate her far-reaching prowess, with a minimum of editorial manipulation. In Himala the director and writer seemed to have agreed to a mutual stand-off, thus amplifying the theatrical potential of an expansive locale with protracted takes; stage-trained talents ensured the competent execution of histrionic stylizations, with the climax set on an open-air platform before a hysterical audience. It was a truly great actress’s opportunity of a lifetime, and Nora Aunor seized it and made it not just her role, but her film as well.

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

11011Not since Anita Linda in Gerardo de Leon’s Sisa (circa the first Golden Age) had there been such a felicitous exploitation by a performer of ideal filmmaking conditions – and in this instance, Himala has the decided advantage of being major-league and universal. Other consistent stand-outs during the period – and these would be formidable enough as they are – demand to be taken in terms of body of work, not any individual movie: Vic Silayan for Ligaw na Bulaklak, Kisapmata, and Karnal; Gina Alajar for Brutal, Salome, Moral, and Bayan Ko; Nora Aunor for whatever title she appeared in during the eighties, regardless of budget, intention, or box-office result. Record-setters of this period, specifically Phillip Salvador, Nida Blanca, and Vilma Santos, deserve mention if only for the skills and supreme good fortune necessary in attaining their respective feats. Among newcomers, only Jaclyn Jose of Private Show seems to hold forth promise of an order comparable to most of those listed herein.

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Institutional Developments

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

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

11011To be sure, a compounded series of half-hearted inclinations betrayed the ultimate objectives of the ECP. First it was founded not to respond to any industrial necessity, but to legitimize the then-First Lady’s Manila International Film Festival. Then, to appease a First Daughter angered by the kidnapping of her paramour, control of the legitimizing body was turned over to her; this must have been perceived as a shrewd decision, since Imee Marcos-Manotoc, perhaps partly out of her rebellion against her parents, had been soliciting the advice of Marcos oppositionists in culture, most of whom had castigated the first MIFF. The granting to her of ECP was expected therefore to placate both her and too-outspoken Filipino film artists.

11011Palace politics in this regard kept the Marcos family too busy among themselves to pay attention to the moves of film practitioners. Film producers meanwhile were lured by the prospect of greater returns on investment with the introduction of an international venue (specifically the MIFF’s film market module) on these very shores. Hence films with big budgets and attendant artistic ambitions began to see the light of, er, theatrical exhibitions.

11011Marcos-Manotoc herself proved to be sincere about her responsibilities, at least during a crucial early phase of her assumption of ECP leadership. The rejection of the MIFF was just a signal to Malacañang of her sincere intentions. By then she had several projects running simultaneously, most of which had a highly favorable impact on film as artistic endeavor. Witness: the production of scriptwriting contest winners, subsidies for worthy full-length film proposals, tax rebates for deserving productions, exhibition of otherwise shunned or banned releases, plus a number of relatively minor benefits – first-rate screening venues, a library of film titles and books, short-film competitions with cash incentives, book and journal publications, archival research and preservation, seminars and workshops, etc.

11011The arrangement was too good to be true, and eventually succumbed to the regime’s self-destructive tendencies, embodied in this instance in the irrepressible Imelda Marcos. Once Marcos-Manotoc had been distracted by her election to the so-called legislature, the ECP quickly went moribund, with funds hemorrhaged for the alleged promotion of MIFF in foreign countries and with the MFC operated according to a prohibitive maintenance cost. This meant that not only would all charitable functions cease, including film productions and subsidies, but also only sure-fire highly profitable titles, which then as now denoted hard-core sex films, could be exhibited at the MFC’s exclusive venues.

11011The expected denunciation by the industry of the ECP’s exemption from censorship and taxation, premised on the grounds of unfair competition, was reinforced in part by a bid for survival by the censors body, which with the ECP had reverted to civilian status; a retaliation was also in order, since the ECP under Marcos-Manotoc had initiated moves to outlaw film censorship. All this controversy served to act as check on the choice of films for MFC exhibition, ensuring that the new leadership would resort to artistic quality (the very same excuse invoked for the MIFF), if nothing else, as defense. The outcome, in practical terms, was a handful of local erotica, including the previously mangled Manila by Night, unmatched in art consciousness relative to any other period in local history.

11011The Marcos government, however, could not stem the tide of the anti-dictatorship movement, especially as fortified by the outrage over the Aquino-Galman assassination, and the post-Imee ECP proved to be a most attractive target. In the end the by-now predictable, and thereby ineffectual, Marcos solution of establishing new institutions or transforming existing ones to conform ostensibly to legal requisites was applied to the ECP. The body was dissolved and another one, the Film Development Foundation of the Philippines (FDFP), set up in its place, without any change in the organization itself, save for its avowal of now being less public in nature; in fact it was intended to enjoy the best of both worlds – semi-private and thus exempt from censorship, semi-public and thus exempt from taxation.

11011That the FDFP did not differ from ECP except in name would have induced a renewed struggle for the formation of a truly responsive organ for institutional support, but at this point the nation’s attention was diverted by the snap elections that led to the people-power uprising that in turn expelled Marcos, shut down his film institution for good, and drew to a close the second Golden Age of Philippine cinema.

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Intrinsic Reasons

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

11011Not only do the Marcos years disprove this extrapolation; the few years since provide enough dramatic contrast to further affirm this deviation from an otherwise logical deduction. Part of the answer may lie in the Machiavellianism of the Marcos regime, its perverse pleasure in playing cat-and-mouse games with its opponents. In the case of industry-based artists, who themselves are no strangers to such dialectics between ideals and realities, this inculcates a disposition toward subtlety and the sublime.

11011This answer could of course cut both ways. A practitioner may just as well be cowed by the double jeopardy of having to please both an immediate boss and an Orwellian Big Brother, and if the displeasure of either may already mean the loss of career and prestige – in short, everything for the artist – then the displeasure of both would amount to sheer terror, if not paralysis. In actuality, a number of local filmmakers did exhibit indications of the latter syndrome, but these may on the whole be balanced by the others who found favor with either a producer or the regime, in certain cases one against the other.

11011In the end we could only grant that a major factor for the occurrence of the second Golden Age lies in the superstructure itself – more concretely, in the confluence of film artists who somehow attained a level of individual maturity and collective strength within roughly a common time frame – a force, in effect, capable of transforming what would normally be political and industrial liabilities into aesthetic assets.

11011This situation couldn’t be too phenomenal; a similar one was realized in Italy during the neorealist era’s inception during the twilight of the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.[6] Locally, the trend toward the organizing of artists, systematization of training (resulting in one extreme in the introduction of formal film studies at the State University), and the expansion of art consciousness in alternative film and related formats all betoken this contemporaneous ripening of occasional genius, regular expertise, and general resourcefulness in the country’s most popular mass medium. Final and conclusive proof of course lies in the works themselves – over a decade’s worth of major contributions to the art of cinema, on the whole outstanding by any standard, awaiting a comprehensive presentation to a global community that remains all the poorer for not having had the opportunity to strike the proper acquaintance so far.

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

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

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

[4] A disclaimer, in the form of the year “1970” superimposed on one of the opening shots of Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, was deleted in the film’s global release, thereby situating the narrative in martial-law present. The insertion – described in Bienvenido Lumbera’s review as “[having] reset the time to the turbulent opening year of the 1970s” (201) – enabled the film to be passed by the censors during its initial release in July 1975, on the argument that the poverty depicted onscreen belonged to the old system (dubbed a “sick society” by Marcos, to contrast with the New Society ushered in by PD 1081). Its subsequent deletion, on the other hand, gave foreign observers the impression that the film had dared to critique the martial-law administration, effectively overwhelming it to the point of sweeping the industry awards for its year of release. In “The Brocka Battles,” Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon provided further proof of how Brocka was able to trick Imelda Marcos (the country’s de facto chief film censor) to allow his films to be exhibited at the Cannes Film Festival: he considered casting Imee Marcos in Insiang and convinced Sean Connery to plead with Mrs. Marcos to allow Jaguar to be exported, as proof that censorship was not practiced in the Philippines (125-27).

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

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

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Works Cited

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

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

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

———. “Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag: A Review.” Revaluation 1997: Essays on Philippine Literature, Cinema and Popular Culture. Manila: University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 1997. 200-03.

———. “Problems in Philippine Film History.” Revaluation 1997: Essays on Philippine Literature, Cinema and Popular Culture. Manila: University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 1997. 177-87.

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

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

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

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

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

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The National Pastime: The Digital Edition

National Pastime
The National Pastime: Contemporary Philippine Cinema was published by Anvil in late 1990. It was launched the next year at the University of the Philippines’s Faculty Center Auditorium, with Ishmael Bernal and Ricardo Lee as guest speakers; I have not had a self-authored book launched since then until 2017. The original manuscript was in two hard-bound volumes, but the publisher instructed me to reduce the amount by half, source as many photos as possible, and prepare a glossary as well as section updates. I would have preferred none of these modifications, but they did help attract people to the volume. I insisted on black-and-white cover printing (which characterized the rest of my solo publications), used an immoderately romantic photogram I created for a student exhibit, and requested National Midweek’s resident photographer Gil Nartea to take my pic.

11011Cinemaya: The Asian Film Magazine wrote in its Spring 1991 issue that the book “chronicles and comments on trends in Filipino cinema that only an insider to the ethos can evoke…. A polemical introduction leads on to articles on the recently concluded Golden Age in Philippine cinema (1975-1985), the first having occurred in the ’50s. [The articles] illumine not only the films/actors/genres/directors under review but also an era, its atmosphere, its debates – all this with a welcome sprinkling of humor. A valuable companion to Philippine cinema” (67); in the introduction, Bienvenido Lumbera wrote: “David stands apart as a reviewer because he has been touched by film theory as no other regular critic hereabouts had been…. The vast and variegated array of feature films serving as specimens in his account of the continuities and disruptions in the contemporary Philippine film industry convinces us of his assiduousness and earns him credulity…” (x).

11011A few other favorable comments came out in Philippine Star, Manila Times, Kabayan, and Philippine Collegian.[1] The National Pastime was listed as one of the entries in the Film volume of the second edition of the Cultural Center of the Philippines Encyclopedia of Philippine Art (Vol. 6 [Manila: CCP, 2017]: 386-87); it was shortlisted for the essay category of the Manila Critics Circle’s National Book Award, where another Anvil publication, Ambeth Ocampo’s Rizal without the Overcoat, won out. [Contents below exclude the book edition’s glossary – now rendered even more superfluous in the wake of Wikipedia. Book cover design: Albert Gamos; photogram: Joel David; author’s pic: Gil Nartea; inside pics acknowledgments: Ricky Lo, Cesar Hernando, National Midweek; publishing manager: Ma. Karina A. Bolasco; dedicatees: Ma. Theresa de Villa, Ma. Luisa Doronila, Esther Esguerra, Eleanor Hermosa, and Bernadette Pablo (whose name was inexplicably omitted in the printed version). For larger image, please click on picture above or below.]

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The Digital Edition (2014)
Cover design by Paolo Miguel G. Tiausas
“Bomba” © 2019 by Mina Saha

National Library of the Philippines CIP Data

David, Joel.
11011The National pastime : the digital edition / Joel David. — Digital Edition. — Quezon City : Amauteurish Publishing, [2014], © 2014.

Electronic resources
ISBN 978-621-96191-2-7 — Digital Edition
Original printed copy published in 1990 as The National pastime : contemporary Philippine cinema by Anvil Publishing

110111. Motion pictures — Philippines. 2. Motion pictures — Philippines — History. I. Title.

US Copyright Office Certificate of Registration:
TXu 2-255-114

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Contents of the Digital Edition (Reillustrated)
© 2014 by Amauteurish Publishing
All Rights Reserved
[For a PDF scan of the book edition’s preliminaries, click here.]

A Second Golden Age

Directors 1: Romero/de Leon

The World According to Aguila
Aguila (1980)
A Decent Fight
Palaban (1980)
Romero’s Flip-Flop
Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi (1987)
Kamakalawa (1981)
Kisapmata (1981)
Waiting for Godard
Batch ’81 (1982)
Return to Form
Bilanggo sa Dilim (1986)

Issues 1

Censorship and Other Compromises
Film Reviewing and Criticism

Genres: Horror/Sex/Action

Where Has All the Horror Gone?
Causes for Cerebration
Tiyanak (1988)
Babaing Hampaslupa (1988)
Down but Not Out
Nektar (1988)
Tubusin Mo ng Dugo (1988)
Moments of Truth
Anak ng Cabron (1988)
Afuang: Bounty Hunter (1988)
Operation: Get Victor Corpus, the Rebel Soldier (1987)
Balweg: The Rebel Priest (1986)
Kumander Dante (1988)
An Update

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Alternative 1: Formats

Short Subjects
Mga Kuwento ng Pag-ibig (1989)
3 Mukha ng Pag-ibig (1989)
Triumph in 16mm.
Damortis (1986)
Movie(?) of the Year
Ang Lungsod ng Tao Ay Nasa Puso (1987)
Perils of Politics
A Dangerous Life (1988)
Imelda: Paru-parung Bakal (1989)
An Update

Actors: Muhlach/Paulate/Aunor

Niño’s Comeback
Kontra Bandido (1986)
Gross, Gaudy, & Gay
Ako si Kiko, Ako si Kikay (1987)
Chauvinist’s Nightmare
Kumander Gringa (1987)
Child’s Play
Takot Ako, Eh! (1987)
An Update

Directors 2: O’Hara/Gallaga

Major Bid
Bulaklak sa City Jail (1984)
O’Hara Strikes Again
Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak (1987)
Beyond the Stars
Oro, Plata, Mata (1982)
Moral (1982)
Searching for Options
Kid…Huwag Kang Susuko! (1987)
Film as God
Isang Araw Walang Diyos (1989)

Issues 2

Film since February 1986
People-Power Cinema
Studious Studios
An Update

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Genre: Melodrama

Return of the Melodrama
Kung Aagawin Mo ang Lahat sa Akin (1987)
Mellow Drama
Paano Kung Wala Ka Na (1987)
Walang Karugtong ang Nakaraan (1987)
Misis Mo, Misis Ko (1988)
Isusumbong Kita sa Diyos (1988)
Kapag Napagod ang Puso (1988)
Nagbabagang Luha (1988)
Natutulog Pa ang Diyos (1988)
Paano Tatakasan ang Bukas? (1988)
Sa Puso Ko Hahalik ang Mundo (1988)
Slugged Out
Imortal (1989)
Ang Bukas Ay Akin: Langit ang Uusig (1989)
An Update

Alternative 2: Media

Underground, in the Heat of the Night
Home Sweet Home
In My Father’s House (1987)
Si Tatang at mga Himala ng Ating Panahon (1988)
An Update

Directors 3: Bernal/Brocka

Valiant Try
Aliw (1979)
Renewal of Appreciation
Manila by Night (1980)
An Awakening
Pahiram ng Isang Umaga (1989)
Just another Exercise
Angela Markado (1980)
Text vs. Texture
Macho Dancer (1989)
After the Revolution
Orapronobis (1989)

Ethics First

Moving Picture: World’s Shortest Prequel

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[1] A listing of excerpts:

• “This marvelous book by a young critic follows closely on the heels of the product of a senior Manunuri [Emmanuel Reyes’s Notes on Philippine Cinema], but does not suffer in comparison. David’s strengths lie in his wide reading, deep thinking, tireless research, and patient viewing. He is not afraid to show his bias, nor does he hesitate to judge if a film is worthy or unworthy of serious study. Although originally written for instant publication in mass newspapers and magazines, these essays transcend journalism and generally reach what David himself calls film criticism as opposed to mere film reviewing” (Isagani Cruz, Philippine Star, Feb. 28, 1991, p. 10).

• “One thing that David is capable of doing, and doing better, for that matter, than any other film critic hereabouts, is the uncanny ability to locate a film in the context of a director’s body of work, and in some cases, even against the backdrop of industrial practices. Herein lies one of David’s probable contributions to Philippine film criticism: the recognition of the fact that film is an industry which has its own rules and priorities. In fact, the industry should listen to David once in a while because he seems to speak for it…. Surely, David’s grasp of film technique and operations and his sensitive feel for film’s industrial character make him one of a kind in the arena of the untalented. For a first effort, actually a decade of work, an opening salvo maybe, David’s work will surely find a comfortable place in Philippine film criticism’s galaxy of stars. David is young, bright, smart, nice, and definitely miles ahead in intelligence and sensibility” (Patrick D. Flores, Manila Times, March 17, 1991, p. B10).

• “So far I find most of David’s ideas startling…. But if I were to make any conclusion at this point, it’s that I can’t help but agree with what he says” (Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., Kabayan, Dec. 17, 1990, p. 4; trans. from Filipino).

• “[David] combines traditional cinematic knowhow with keen understandings of semiotic, postmodern and at times neo-Marxist theories plus an appreciation of cinema’s popular nature” (Reginald Vinluan, Philippine Collegian, Jan. 29, 1996, p. 7).

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