An End-of-the-Millennium List: Thirteen Important Filipino Films

by Noel Vera

The films:

13.  Scorpio Nights  (Peque Gallaga, 1985)
12.  Init sa Magdamag  (Midnight Passion, Laurice Guillen, 1983)
11.  Pagdating sa Dulo  (At the Top; Ishmael Bernal, 1972)
10.  Bagong Bayani  (The Last Wish; Tikoy Aguiluz, 1995)
9.    Babae sa Bubungang Lata  (Woman on a Tin Roof; Mario O'Hara, 1998)
8.    Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak  (When the Crow Turns White, When the Heron Turns Black; Celso Ad. Castillo, 1978)
7.    Manila By Night  (Ishmael Bernal, 1980)
6.    Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag  (Manila in the Claws of Neon; Lino Brocka, 1975)
5.    Bagong Hari  (The New King; Mario O'Hara, 1986)
4.    Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang  (You Were Judged and Found Wanting; Lino Brocka, 1974)
3.    Kisapmata  (Blink of an Eye; Mike De Leon, 1982)
2.    Insiang  (Lino Brocka, 1976)
1.    Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos  (Three Years Without God; Mario O'Hara, 1976)

The films not chosen

Coming up with a list of great Filipino films (or, in this case, important and influential ones) poses unique challenges that tend to distort one's list; for one thing, the absence of any film before 1970.  I don't mean to suggest that no film before the '70s can be considered great (or important); I meant that too many films are lost, or unavailable for the general public to see.  Maybe one or two rare films would have been all right, but it isn't a mere 'one or two films' missing; it's more like only one or two genuine masterpieces are left (I exaggerate; there are more--but not much more).

I'm sorely tempted to put Manuel Silos' Biyaya ng Lupa (Blessings of the Land) in fourth place, for its novelistic sweep and wealth of details; its lovely, Ozu-like quiet; its beautifully rounded understanding of people (an understanding not unlike Renoir's).  I'm also tempted to include a Gerardo De Leon film--any De Leon but especially my favorite (so far), Sanda Wong, for the way it brings together fantasy and action-adventure elements in a film smaller-scaled (yet more entertaining and inventive) than Alexander Korda's The Thief of Baghdad.  Mentioning these films, however, would be like whispering to myself; most people wouldn't know what I was talking about, or even care.

The fact of the matter is this: Philippine cinema is suffering from amnesia.  We have lost some of our best works--perhaps the best part of ourselves.  We are trying--slowly, painfully--to recover some of that heritage, but there will be permanent gaps.  And our perspective will remain distorted--clearest when looking from the '70s onward, increasingly blurred beyond--until we've completed the task of restoration.

The films about society

Melodramas that criticize Philippine society are a common staple; in fact, they were the specialty (and special strength) of film master Lino Brocka.  Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged and Found Wanting) was Brocka's rare attempt to do melodrama on a large-scale canvas--a panoramic view of society in a small provincial town, from its wealthiest citizen to its most wretched outcast.  When you think about it, it's really Jose Rizal's classic novel of social satire, Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), recast and reimagined in modern form.  Mario O'Hara wrote the script from a story idea by Brocka, and--incidentally--gives a great performance as Berto, the town leper.  The film was both a critical and commercial success when it came out in 1974; it began the '70s golden age in earnest, and remains one of the period's key films.

Celso Ad. Castillo's Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak (When the Crow Turns White, When the Heron Turns Black) injects political overtones into its story, about a poor young man (Bembol Roco) who, when abandoned by his upper-class lover (Vilma Santos), joins the Hukbalahap rebels.

Ad. Castillo in this film demonstrates an amazing visual language--not flashy, but quietly, lyrically brilliant.  He also demonstrates a more masterful grasp of music and song than possibly any other Filipino director--the film is a model on how to use kundimans, ballads, pop songs to differentiate social classes, to satirize and comment on the narrative action.

Tikoy Aguiluz's Bagong Bayani (The Last Wish) is a cinematic investigation into the Flor Contemplacion case--that of a maid in Singapore, convicted and hanged for murdering her ward and a fellow Filipina.  It carefully considers evidence for and against the defendant and recreates, with understated power, Contemplacion's last moments with her family.

The film is a triumph of low-budget (roughly US$200,000) independent filmmaking--which may be the only way unusual subjects can be handled at all.  Because Aguiluz didn't have the money to make a conventional feature film, he inserted interviews of Filipino workers in Singapore, even footage stolen from inside Changi Prison (the institute where Contemplacion was incarcerated).  The result is a Filipino film unlike any other, its dramatic scenes mixed with documentary sequences that expand the film's scope, from the story of one condemned woman to the story of all overseas workers, everywhere.

The films about sex

Sex films are another staple of Philippine cinema (despite the conservative Catholicism of most Filipinos); a rare few transcend the genre--either through sheer explicitness, or through unflinching sensuality.  Peque Gallaga's Scorpio Nights uses sex to express the decadence and despair of its time and place--Philippines 1985, a year after Ninoy Aquino was assassinated, when the economy was in shambles and President Ferdinand E. Marcos was still in power.  It's about a student (Daniel Fernando) peeping through the floorboards to the apartment below, to watch a woman (Ana Marie Gutierrez) and her husband make love; later, student and housewife have an affair....

Gallaga was reportedly inspired by Nagisha Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses; I think Gallaga improves on his source, adding (unlike Oshima) a real sense of danger to the sex scenes.  The two lovers know what will happen if the husband (Orestes Ojeda, as the gun-toting security guard) ever finds out, and yet do it anyway; they are literally fucking in the face of death.  The Filipino audiences of 1985 recognized themselves onscreen and swooned; audiences today still swoon--they know a doomed act of defiance when they see one.  Scorpio Nights represents a high-water mark in the Filipino sex film; all others, including the film's own sequel, seem like a collection of limp sausages in comparison.

Laurice Guillen's Init Sa Magdamag (Midnight Passion) is, if possible, an even more arousing film than Scorpio Nights.  It's about a woman (Lorna Tolentino) who changes personality to please the man she's with, and about the man (Dindo Fernando) who brings her sexuality to full bloom.  The sex (done without any actual nudity) is both sensual and profane, swollen with unhealthy yet undeniably powerful emotions.  It's one of the most successful adaptation of The Story of O I've ever seen, where the woman's submissiveness is every bit as disturbing as the man's sadism.  The film declares that women have a right to their desires, their own path to self-destruction--a darker, less easily digestible message than most militant feminists can take (the film was attacked when it opened commercially).  Ironic, given that it's also the finest film ever made by a Filipina--a daring, defiant, brutally unflinching work of erotic cinema.

The films about Manila, as a lower circle of hell

It seems every major Filipino filmmaker has to make at least one noir film where the city of Manila is a main character; Ishmael Bernal's Manila By Night is easily the most sophisticated--and sardonic--of the genre, and the most difficult to describe.  The film follows the threads of several lives that tangle with each other, across the tapestry that is Metro Manila; at its most basic level it's a game of one-upsmanship: which character can shed the most illusions the soonest--the nurse, the gay lover, the taxi driver, or the pothead? It's a vivid demonstration of what Gustav Hasford said in his novel The Short Timers--that human nature seen honestly, now that is ugly.  The film owes an obvious debt to Robert Altman's Nashville--with the difference that Altman's characters never saw this much grit or grime or outrageous melodrama in their lives.  It in turn has been imitated by most subsequent multiple-story, multiple-character Filipino films (Moral and Bayad Puri (Paid with my Purity) come to mind)--without, however, matching its sweep and intricacy.

Brocka's Maynila Sa Kuko Ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon) offers a simpler, much tighter plot altogether: Julio Magadia (Bembol Roco) comes to Manila to look for his loved one, Ligaya Paraiso, and loses himself in the hellhole that is Metro Manila.

The film is often called Brocka's best, as well as one of the greatest Filipino films ever made; I disagree...but understand the high regard.  Brocka uses melodrama unashamedly (Ligaya Paraiso roughly translates as "Joyful Paradise," a name that, when you think about it, belongs to a porn star); what lifts his work above ordinary melodrama is the documentary feel--the sense that what you're seeing is what the camera caught just a few minutes ago, right outside the theater.  Maynila is one of the most intense expressions of that unique sensibility ever, no small thanks due to the director of photography, Mike De Leon, who later became a major Filipino filmmaker himself.  The film's visuals defined "The Manila Look" for practically every noir that followed, including those Brocka made himself (Insiang, Jaguar, Macho Dancer) and those made by others (Bernal--less successfully I think--with Manila by Night; Peque Gallaga, somewhat, with Scorpio Nights; and Tikoy Aguiluz with Boatman).

Mario O'Hara's Bagong Hari (The New King) takes the neorealism of Maynila Sa Kuko and twists it even further, into baroque nightmare.  O'Hara evokes a vast and corrupt cesspool of a city, filled with predatory creatures constantly feeding off each other.  It's a city where assassinations are commonplace, conspiracies are a standard mode of operation, and torture an occasional recreational perk--a city where two people fight each other to the death, and the decadent rich place bets over the outcome.

Of all the Manila films I've seen, Bagong Hari is the most violent and extreme, which is only fitting--the film, like Scorpio Nights, was made during the final years of the Marcos regime, when the despair was at its most intense.  A few days later, the February revolution broke out, and Bagong Hari disappeared in the political turmoil that followed, surviving only in the memories of the few that saw it.  If we grant for a moment that trends do not strictly follow calendar cutoff dates...and that the films of the early '80s were a direct result of what was begun in the mid-'70s...then Bagong Hari should properly be called the last great film of the '70s Golden Age.

Personal visions

Mike De Leon's Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye), about a married couple forced to live with the young bride's family, is almost defiantly outside of any trend and movement.  It does not pretend to any moral and social relevance, and its intriguingly implicit political allegory (dealing, I think, with fascism) remains that--intriguingly implicit.  The story bears some resemblance to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining--the intense claustrophobia, the deranged father--with one crucial difference: De Leon's smaller-scaled film is far more potent.  In other words, De Leon may betray signs of outside influence, but his unsettlingly ingrown vision is all his own.

There has been at least one (unsuccessful) attempt to remake the film (Karnal), and its unique views on family relations have made it the standard by which similar films have been (unsuccessfully) measured (Inagaw Mo Ang Lahat Sa Akin (Harvest Home) comes to mind).  The fact remains that Kisapmata is possibly one of the most perfect Filipino films ever made--as simple and elegantly constructed as a nightmare.

Later in his career Lino Brocka would make more politically outspoken films (Orapronobis (Fight For Us) and Bayan Ko (My Country)) but it's his early melodramas (Maynila Sa Kuko, Tinimbang) that, for me, really shine.  They have a richness to them, an ambiguity both moral and philosophical that you don't find in his later, more didactic works.

Take Insiang, about a young woman (Hilda Koronel in the title role) who is raped by her mother's unscrupulous boyfriend (Mona Lisa plays the mother; Ruel Vernal, the boyfriend).   As simply and elegantly told as De Leon's Kisapmata, it also has Brocka's incomparable documentary eye--capturing, as no other filmmaker can capture, the squalor and sheer misery of Tondo and of Smoky Mountain (the name of what is, literally, a mountain of garbage).  Insiang is from a TV script written by Mario O'Hara, who claims that he based the story on what happened to his backyard neighbors.  It is--in terms of intensity and emotional impact--Brocka's finest achievement, and a classic of Philippine cinema.

As mentioned earlier, Mario O'Hara wrote two of Brocka's best films--Tinimbang and Insiang.  He first tried his hand at directing his own scripts with Mortal, an interesting failure; his second film however (again from his own script) represents a quantum leap in quality--the great Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God).

Tatlong Taong is set during the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines, in World War II.  Like Insiang or Kisapmata, it defiantly refused to follow any of the social and political trends popular at that time--and in fact, was attacked for portraying the wartime Japanese as human beings.  The picture has flaws--some shaky scenes, a climax that doesn't quite work--yet in terms of story, acting, and imagery, it's a great film, perhaps the greatest Filipino film ever made.  More, the picture is unique: it's the only film from a country that has tasted firsthand the cruelty of Japanese soldiers that portrays those soldiers in a sympathetic (yet honest) light.  No other country with similar experiences has done this--you only have to look at Chinese films like Red Sorghum or Farewell My Concubine to realize just how much hatred for the Japanese still survives, even today.

Bookends of a Golden Age

Two films stand at either side of the '70s Golden Age; significantly, both are films about the making of films.  One, Pagdating Sa Dulo, is Ishmael Bernal's remarkable debut film; the other, Babae Sa Bubungang Lata, is O'Hara's no less remarkable latest work (it had a budget even smaller than Bagong Bayani--US25,000--and was shot in an impossible ten days).

It's instructive comparing the two.  Pagdating is an angry and bitter satire, about the pathetic working conditions that prevent Filipino filmmakers from making good films.  Implicit in that anger is the expectation that our filmmakers can do better, and will (once, if ever, they get their act together).  Bubungang Lata speaks in a radically different tone of voice: the film does its share of satirizing the sordid, squalid business that filmmaking has become today, but the overarching emotion you come away with after watching the film is one of nostalgia, even regret.  Bubungang Lata has been described as an elegy for the Filipino film industry--implying that the industry is dead, and that all we can do is mourn its passing.

(This article originally appeared in Businessworld and is used with permission.)

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