Thursday, October 19, 2006
Jojo De Vera and yours truly, outside the theater
I'd already written about this before: The Imaginasian Filipino Film Festival which closed last October 19, showed several of the very best films of the '70s and '80s, including masterpieces by Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Mario O'Hara, Mike de Leon.
The venue is a little 300-seat theater, on 59th Street off 2nd Ave. It has a closed off boxoffice (you buy your tickets inside), a tiny popcorn stand, a tinier candy counter and if the theater happens to be showing a Bollywood feature, they even offer somozas.
Vincent Nebrida and yours truly, at the theater lobby
I got the invitation from Jojo de Vera, and through him festival organizer Vincent Nebrida--would you like to introduce some of the films in the festival, they had asked. I'd thought about it and said sure; New York City was just a four-hour drive.
Right. What with getting lost on I-78 (asked directions from a gas station; never realized there were still full-service stations in New Jersey), then taking the wrong turn off Lincoln Tunnel and ending up in 10th Ave., the whole trip took six, not four hours.
But it was worth it. Part of the package deal was an invite to see the New York Film Festival's screening of Lino Brocka's 1976 film Insiang. Went with the friend I was staying with, Ramon Mappala, to Lincoln Center. He asked me where the screening was; I told him "Alice Tully Hall." "That can't be," he said; "Alice Tully is too big. Let's check out the Walter Reade Theater." We went to Walter Reade; nothing was screening there. "Okay," Mon said; "Alice Tully then."
The theater was huge--1,100 seats. I wondered: could the showing of a thirty-year-old Filipino film generate enough interest for a venue this large? It was filling up; slowly, but it was filling up.
The film was preceded by a short; Todd Davis' In the Tradition of My Family, an interesting little tale about a family with a strange tradition--the father has to shoot his son anywhere in his body, preferably somewhere visible, and with a large-bore pistol. The opening credit sequence was beautiful, a set of drawings that moved slowly and smoothly across the screen (the drawings depicted various gunshot wounds)--you could tell this little piece had a budget.
After the short I looked around; the theater was almost full--800, maybe 900 people, from the look of it. I was impressed.
The short was followed by a speech by Insiang's producer, Ruby Tiong Tan, where she talked proudly of the significance of the film, of how it was the first Filipino feature to make it in Cannes, and how it's before God that we measure our true honor and worth, and how she admonished Lino to take out all the profanity, and how a film should be free of gratuitous sex and violence. The faint insistent scraping I heard was probably my eyebrows brushing against the ceiling.
Ms. Tan stepped off the stage, the lights dimmed, the projector fired up, and a half-naked Ruel Vernal plunged his knife into the throat of an upside-down pig, releasing a gout of dark blood. I had to chuckle; Davis' film, which was an amusing little gothic number not a little inspired, I think by Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" (the short is based on a story by Philip LaMarche), showed a convincing set of bullet wounds onscreen, but Brocka's very first shot wiped all memory of faked gore off one's mind and introduced us to the sordid tale of Insiang, the beautiful young girl sharing a man with her mother in the crowded slums of Tondo. This was Manila, no less, nor are we out of it.
Fiel Zabat, who designed the film, wasn't able to talk at the New York Film Festival screening, but she did speak at the Imaginasian screening a few days later, and she had a fascinating detail to reveal to us: Insiang's slum house was actually a set with multilevel floors and detachable walls so that the camera could move freely in and out of the house, in all directions.
Fiel Zabat and yours truly at the Alice Tully Hall, for the NYFF Insiang screening
Coming out of the theater, a camera crew--a camera crew?--asked me what's the significance of the film showing here in the Lincoln Center. "I think it's an honor," I said. "I think it's great we're having some kind of tribute for Brocka, who isn't really all that well-known outside of the Philippines and outside of film circles. And it's great he's represented here by one of his very best works--his masterpiece, in effect."
Interview outside Alice Tully Hall, the NYFF Insiang screening
(Or words to that effect. I don't quite remember, I just said anything that came into my head, so if anyone who sees that particular video clip and notices that the words don't match my recollection, I plead senility.)
I did manage to shake hands with Danny Brocka, Lino's brother, which was a tremendous experience. Told him I'd met his famous brother once--years back, during a NY Film Archive retrospective in the early '90s--where I shook Lino's hand and mentioned that my brother had worked for him as an apprentice (an identical twin, is why Lino thought I looked so familiar).
Coming out of Insiang we were so late we missed the beginning of the screening of Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Weighed and Found Wanting, 1974); I was able to do a short Q & A where I noted that the film was the opening salvo in what's commonly know as the Third Golden Age of Philippine Cinema, from 1974 until the fall of the Marcos Administration in 1986 (an ad hoc label; the First Golden Age would probably be the pre-war period, from the beginning of the century till before the Second World War, the Second Golden Age is the postwar period, from the late forties to the fifties). I also noted that the film was shot in Brocka's home town of San Jose, Nueva Ecija, that his coming back there to shoot was a form of revenge (he left a bastard child, returned a big-time filmmaker) on the place where he spent an unhappy period in his childhood, and that the film's satiric tone reflected his feelings for the town and its people.
Introducing a film at the Imaginasian Theater
I stayed long enough to see the middle portion of Brocka's omnibus film Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa (Three, Two, One, 1974)--"Hello Soldier," written by Brocka's longtime collaborator Mario O'Hara (who had written Insiang and written and acted in Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang) and starring Hilda Koronel and Anita Linda. It's still a lovely, powerful little piece, about a young woman whose US Veteran father has come to take her away from her drunken Filipina mother. No subtlety about it, it fully embraces the pathos of its situation; what keeps it from collapsing in a sodden mess is Brocka's documentarian sensibility (he shoots in an actual slum, and uses crowds of actual slum dwellers) and O'Hara's insistence on on the reality of their situation (the characters may act or feel sentimental, he seems to say, but this is how they would really act). The American couple that visits may be less than perfect--their lines are clearly dubbed, and their talk a shade too literary, I thought--but O'Hara gives even them a point of view (the husband waxes nostalgic over old memories; the wife is apprehensive and not a little jealous of the young girl). Given O'Hara's half-American heritage, you can see that the script is a working out of his feelings on the subject of mixed heritages, familial loyalties and true or adopted homes (for the record, even though O'Hara and his family--thanks to his Thomasite heritage--have been granted American citizenship, he has no intention of leaving the Philippines).
It was too late to do a Q & A for the last film of the day, Tubog sa Ginto (Dipped in Gold, 1972), adapted from the "komiks" series by the amazing Mars Ravelo (the I would say Will Eisner of Filipino "komiks"), but for those who stayed, I noted that the film was one of the first Filipino films to deal seriously with homosexuality--most depictions of gay men before this were of the comical shrieking-queen variety--that the attitudes were somewhat dated (the most progressive figure in the film, a sympathetic family doctor, still considers it a disease), and that all prints of the film are gone (I had seen one reel, and it's a sodden, vinegary mess). The only reason we have this one video copy of the film is because Jojo had rummaged through a Filipino video store's garage sale and found a copy.
I also noted that between 1972 (when he did a deliciously malevolent turn as a gay blackmailer in Tubog) and 1974 (when he wrote and starred in Tinimbang), O'Hara had not acted in any films for Brocka, and for this reason: in Tubog he had a scene where he was supposed to strip his swimming trunks and dive into a pool. O'Hara had asked that only the crew be allowed on the set, but when he showed up, the family that owned the house was present and watching. O'Hara stepped up to the edge of the pool and peeled off his trunks; the houseowner's young daughter promptly pointed and screamed "Diyos ko, 'Tay! Ano 'yan?" (Dear God, Dad! What's that?). O'Hara swore he would never act for Brocka ever again (fortunately he changed his mind--but it took two years).
On Sunday was Ishmael Bernal's Himala (Miracle, 1982), about a village girl who finds she can do miracles, and the cult and industry that grows up around her. On introducing the film I noted that the picture wasn't particularly well-liked by the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (Critics of Philippine Cinema--the country's most prestigious critic's group), that it's an easy target because of its rather stale canonical status ("It's been considered a classic since forever!") but that actually watching the film through unbiased eyes, one might realize that this was Bernal's most visually daring film--an almost prescient picture that predicts the desolated look and feel of Central Luzon after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the early '90s.
And it was prescient, in more ways than one--at one point the film's protagonist Elsa (played by Nora Aunor), says that as a child she had always wanted to be the Philippines' first woman president (which we eventually got, two of them); at another point I noticed how uncannily the film in many ways mimics the career of its famous star; the town's fortunes rise and fall, rise and fall, much like Aunor's own.
In many ways the script felt pretentious, mock-poetic. When Gigi Duenas' prostitute talks about the wind carrying the prayers of the townspeople up the hill to where she was sitting, I thought: "She's not a hooker, she's a hippie" (which, in fact, she is; Bernal will at times willfully ignore or set aside realism for a specific effect). But the alien quality of the locale--barren landscapes rarely if ever seen in the Philippines (the film was shot in Laoag, in Northern Luzon)--is a memorable metaphor for the barrenness of peoples' souls, and if Aunor's Elsa seems less than adequately sketched out (I believe Bernal conceived of her as the enigma at the heart of the film), the people surrounding her--the aforementioned prostitute (a Magdalen figure, of course), the religious fanatic (Luara Centeno, one of my favorite performances in the picture), the passive yet troubled documentary filmmaker (Spanky Manikan, standing in for the director's consciousness and conscience) have been delineated with admirable skill. If Elsa herself remains stubbornly opaque, her effect on others is refracted through the various people surrounding her.
The crowd scenes have often been mentioned, but I feel the need to mention it yet again--it's almost a principal character, this evolving, pulsating, ululating, many-limbed creature that pulls and tears and tramples everything around it; its character and appearance evolves constantly, from the orderly masses that stand patiently outside Elsa's house to the panicked mob that swarms like a nest of frightened ants over the little sand hill where Elsa has her visions to--most alarming of all--the masses of praying faithful crossing the sand on their bare knees, sending their petitions heavenwards in an act of futile desperation. This is Bernal's film on faith and religion, and in many ways he flubs his message; in many ways the film is much larger than said message. He set out to create an anti-religion picture and instead created a film that testifies to the awful, awe-inspiring majesty of a people's faith.
I noted to the audience afterwards that Aunor had missed winning the best actress award in the Berlin Film Festival by one point, because she hadn't been able to attend. I also noted that many of the crew did their best work here--Sergio Lobo, Bernal's favorite cinematographer, came up with the hallucinatory images; Joel Lamangan directed the powerful crowd scenes; Racquel Villavicencio did the haunting production design (leafless tree standing twisted amongst the sand dunes). I finished with the observation that the image of Aunor kneeling with palms pressed together and head thrown backwards is as famous and iconic an image to most Filipinos as Scarlett O'Hara with fist upraised or Bette Davis descending a staircase is to many an American viewer.
Nora Aunor in Himala, (Miracle, 1982)
I'd also seen along the way two more recent Filipino digital films. Mario Cornejo's Big Time (2005)--about two small-time crooks who finally plan a major kidnapping-- feels like Kevin Smith's Clerks crossed with Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, done on a budget a fraction of the size of either films'. This kind of referential, smart-alecky filmmaking isn't my cup of tea, but I do recognize that if Philippine cinema has to grow it needs to acknowledge all its children, even those inspired by a, how should we put it, different muse (sassy 'n shallow 'n proud of it). As is, I do think it was more inventive and amusing--and on far less money--than Peque Gallaga's Pinoy Blonde (2005), a glossier, bigger-budgeted take on a crime caper gone wrong.
I found Mark Meily's La Visa Loca (2005) to be far more entertaining than either of the aforementioned films. Robin Padilla gives the performance of his career as Jess, a man who will do literally anything for a visa to join his wife in the United States. Padilla has always been seen as an everyman's action hero, but his true métier is the improvised comeback, the spur-of-the-moment comic reaction. With commercial filmmaker Joyce Bernal he's crafted a few decent romantic comedies, but apparently it took an independent production with a script by Meily to bring out the full force of his likeability. I prefer Padilla with his macho gallantry and unique unselfconsciousness to any number of romantic-comedy leading men working in Hollywood today--oh, Ben Affleck, Hugh Grant, Matthew McConaughey, all those wimps. And the movie is moving too--in a way, it's an expanded, comic variation on Mario O'Hara's "Hello Soldier," but with some (enough, I thought) of its poignancy.
Nora Aunor and husband Christopher De Leon in Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976)
One of the reasons I was invited to New York, of course, was because they were screening Mario O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976), and I was about as authoritative an, uh, authority on the film as was readily available. I managed to invite Dan Sallitt, filmmaker/critic and co-moderator of the online film forum a_film_by, to the screening.
He had this to say: "I got a chance to see Mario O'Hara's remarkable THREE YEARS WITHOUT GOD at the Imaginasian on Monday.
"Going in, I guess I assumed that O'Hara's style would be related to that of his more famous associate Lino Brocka. So I was surprised when the first few shots of the film (shot in Academy ratio) showed that O'Hara works with stable, attractive compositions, often long shots; and that he cuts them together to emphasize a sense of stability and stasis. Even though the material is melodramatic, even overheated, the film doesn't take on that tone: there's something distant, cool, sad, contemplative about the moment-by-moment effect. O'Hara introduces each movement of the film with documentary footage of World War II (some of it quite unnerving, like a shot of real dead bodies floating in the water), then cuts straight into his own footage: but the cuts don't so much launch the action of the story as they do give O'Hara an arty moment of calm and quiet before the story engages.
"Even as the melodramatic plot engages, O'Hara's big effects are nearly all a function of unexpected long shots that hold emotionally charged action at a distance.
"One of the best moments in the film is a long tracking shot that shows the heroine visiting her imprisoned father in a makeshift Japanese prison camp: at one point the heroine is slapped unexpectedly by a Japanese officer, but accepts the blow and moves on. O'Hara keeps the slap in extreme long shot, then tracks to introduce a panorama of prison life (calisthenics, propaganda speeches) in the middle range of the shot while the heroine makes her way in the background toward her father. I couldn't help but think that Brocka would rather have given up the cinema than filmed a slap in extreme long shot.
"Another lateral tracking shot begins with a shock cut to a row of bodies in coffins after an atrocity. Wailing mourners surround the coffins, dressed in black. O'Hara goes high with his camera, getting the morbid effect of showing the upper halves of the bodies; but he stays in long shot, tracking slowly sideways. The bodies are neither anonymous nor humanized. The chilly effect inevitably recalls Dreyer.
"Noel said O'Hara was the best Filipino action director, and I certainly believe it. There's a remarkable scene, not too related to the story, where a church service is interrupted by the entrance of Japanese officers. Everything happens very quickly: an anonymous woman in the congregation pulls out a gun and fires at the Japanese, in medium long shot; a brief battle breaks out, ending with a frightening shot where some children trying to escape the church are gunned down point-blank, after which Japanese soldiers arrange themselves around the bodies like an Eisenstein triangular tableau, to announce the end of the upheaval. The neat thing is that the stability of the images is not undermined by the speed of the action: the few, carefully selected shots in the sequence are all composed with a certain contained quality, and the camera stays at a cool distance.
"Another action scene near the end: the protagonists, fleeing the city by car as the Americans approach Manila, are shot at by Filipino guerrillas. The tone is established by a still, Tourneur-like shot of the car approaching from the extreme distance, in a diagonal composition. (Most of O'Hara's long-shot compositions have a pleasing diagonal quality, but not too forced, so that the lines of the composition do not strongly suggest the world outside the frame. The overall effect is of containment.) The action erupts in a flurry of short shots, including an abstract close-up of the car's windshield being shattered by a bullet. Then the car drives on past the chaos in long-shot. The shape of the scene is governed more by the trajectory of the car's physical motion than by the dramatic arc of the story.
"The only thing about the film that disappointed me was the climax, where O'Hara opts for a rather operatic abstraction that seems to me a bad idea. For once, he heightens the emotionality of the story instead of working at a quiet distance from it.
"Still, this is definitely my favorite Filipino film. It's not available, but there are two O'Hara films out on DVD with English subtitles (note: that would be Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2004) and The Fatima Buen Story (1994))."
I replied: "I'm glad to see the rare analysis of a Filipino film done this way, and even gladder it holds up to the scrutiny. A few notes: the woman who shoots the informant in the church is actually an insurgent in drag (they called them the Makapili short for Maka-Pilipino--'Patriots for the Filipinos.' They collaborated with the Japanese because they believed the Japanese and not the Americans held the true interests of Filipinos at heart)). The children the Japanese shot in response include the escaping insurgent and some churchgoers. It happens pretty fast, so I can understand your mistaking them for children.
"And I do agree, the climax was overdone--but I think the scene after involving the blind man more than makes up for it. I remember Brian (a fellow a_film_byer) telling me how he walked into the last five or so minutes of the film and liked that scene very much. Personally, it reminds me of Kurosawa's concern about capturing the details of a process, in this case how a blind man is able to light a candle--very specific, and I think lovely to look at on the big screen.
"Incidentally, I asked O'Hara about that blind man. He told me that he cast the actor (Melvin Flores) in that role because he had such beautiful eyes. I said "you cast an actor with beautiful eyes as a blind man?" He said: "But of course!"
"I've asked O'Hara about his influences and what he's seen, and I'm pretty sure he hasn't seen anything by the filmmakers you mentioned-- Tourneur, Eisenstein, Dreyer (He likes Fellini, David Lean, old-time Hollywood; of the silents he's seen mostly Chaplin). It's possible he's been influenced by Eisenstein indirectly, through the late Gerardo de Leon, who most likely DID seen Eisenstein and maybe even Murnau, or at least John Ford.
"I might add that while I do think O'Hara is a terrific action filmmaker, one of the best or easily the best in Philippine cinema, he's hardly alone. He is, however, the only gay Filipino filmmaker I know who's any good at action (it's strange, but the genres in the industry seem to divide along lines of sexual orientation--Bernal and Brocka are great at drama, filmmakers like Celso Ad. Castillo, Tikoy Aguiluz, Ronnie Ricketts, and Lav Diaz (he of the films of endless length) are excellent at action. O'Hara breaks that mold)."
I remember introducing the film by relating a bit of background: that Nora Aunor had initiated the project because she had previously been doing bubblegum pictures (Lollipops and Roses, Nora in Wonderland), that she had tasted serious filmmaking under Gerardo de Leon in one of his last productions, Banaue (1975); that she had first approached Lino Brocka, who said "I want to have nothing to do with that Superstar!" That Brocka passed on the project to his friend O'Hara, who must have seen something in "that Superstar!" because he recycled a TV script he had written and proceeded to direct Aunor in not just one but five amazing films--one of the most extraordinary actress-director collaborations in Philippine cinema.
After the screening I noted that the picture appeared in 1976, at perhaps the very height of the '70s and '80s Golden Age, one of the many excellent films that appeared that year--Insiang; Minsa'y Isang Gamu-Gamo; Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?; Itim; Nunal sa Tubig. I also noted that it's practically unique in all of cinema for being a film from a country which had suffered Japanese occupation that treats those same Japanese as human beings and not monsters (no mean feat; even in films as recent as Zhang Yimou's Red Sorghum and Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine you can feel the intensity of the anti-Japanese sentiment). I know of two other films--Jiang Wen's Devils on the Doorstep, which appeared some twenty-four years after Tatlong Taong, and reportedly some Thai film (of course, the case of Thailand was different; they signed a secret treaty of alliance with the Japanese) that do something similar--but otherwise that claim still holds true today.
I also noted that the film shares its theme with Jean Renoir's great wartime picture Grand Illusion, where love and friendship cross nationalities, even social classes. The fact that one is Japanese or Filipino, American or Iraqi, Christian or Muslim, soldier or civilian, rich or poor doesn't or shouldn't matter; what matters is who you love, and who loves you. Just a few of the many reasons why I consider this O'Hara's masterpiece, and very possibly the greatest Filipino film ever made.