Wednesday, February 28, 2007
And Stella Stevens is wonderful; she's not just beautiful, but a complex, yearning woman with her own priorities and sensibilities. In a DVD interview she tells us that her greatest challenge in the role was figuring out why she falls in love with Cable; she finally decides to call it one of those "mysteries of life." I think it's her seeing how Cable, first attracted to her magnificent pair of breasts as any red-blooded male would be, gradually finds himself falling for the person behind those breasts, and she can't help but respond to his emerging awareness.
All that said, there's something to be said about Stevens nude. The sight of her backside gleaming with soapy water in the middle of the desert isn't just erotic, it's a glimpse of the impossible, a fabulous mirage. One of her other anecdotes was of how she promised herself after Cable Hogue that she and Peckinpah would work again, and she talked to Steve McQueen about doing The Getaway, whereupon McQueen told her that he saw her as competition. I can only imagine what The Getaway would have been like with McQeen and Stevens as the couple instead of cardboard cipher Ali McGraw; what's more, Stevens might have helped Peckinpah give a damn about the film, too.
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Twenty-five or so years and a David Lean adaptation later, I finally caught up with the novel, and yes, it's "actually quite good." Brings to mind Jean Renoir's The River and Anthony Burgess' The Malayan Trilogy in the way the foreign narrator (or storyteller) is able to evoke the sights, sounds, colors, feelings of another country, respecting its otherness at the same time he provides a fascinating view.
If I remember right, Renoir focused on British expatriates living in India, with maybe a few supporting Indian characters to round out the cast; same with Burgess, who also used a more satiric approach. Forster' novel has its share of humor (I'm thinking most of all of Dr. Godbole, who nimbly pads away with many of the scenes he's in), but there's also a magisterial confidence in the way Forster is able to inhabit the mind of Dr. Aziz (the novel's nominal protagonist), also the way he's able to sketch Aziz's lightly comical interactions with fellow Muslims (he can't relate to their passionate anti-Imperialism [at least not at first]), Hindus (he's suspicious and a bit perturbed at their odd [Godbole in particular] way of looking at things), his evolving relationship with the British (he desperately wants to be a friend, but is acutely aware of their contempt)--a remarkable achievement, really, considering how difficult the task is (Who has succeeded at something similar? Plenty of examples, I'm sure, but the first one that pops into mind is Graham Greene's whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory--made into The Fugitive, a much superior film adaptation to my mind, and by John Ford and Gabriel Figueroa, no less).
It's on its most basic level a withering account of racism in British India. Marvelous all the details Forster gets right (or as right as I can tell)--the way, for example, the British women seem more rigid in their attitudes than the men; the way the British pounce on any apparent lapse and hold it up as an example of Muslim illogic or duplicity (a late response to a summons) or even carelessness (a missing collar stud), when in truth matters are more complex; the excruciatingly funny--and pathetic--bridge parties, ostensibly (as implied by their name) meant to "bridge" the gap between Indian and British, only to emphasize the depth and breadth of it to everyone attending.
The rape trial is a comedy of horrors: the startling way the British community quickly and instantly (almost reflexively) comes together--like pioneers pulling their wagons into an embattled circle--at the news of a sexual threat; the odd detail of old Mrs. Moore's role in the alleged crime brought out, blown up, turned into local folklore (she's briefly deified as "Esmiss Esmoor"); the underplayed slapstick of having the community's most notable figures stand on the court's one-foot-tall platform with the complainant (Adel Quested, probably the only innocent involved in all this) as a show of support.
But the novel's so much more than its (accurate, acerbic) portrait of colonial era racism. It's as beautiful an evocation of a land through alien eyes (Forster's India ranks up there with Conrad's Africa, Greene's Mexico, Burgess' Malaysia) and it does something quite extraordinary, I think: where most writers would home in on a rape trial and its verdict as the novel's centerpiece and climax, Passage instead presents a number of storylines and zeroes in on the least likely thread--the friendship that develops between the accused (Dr. Aziz) and the town's school principal, Mr. Cyril Fielding. It's this friendship, more than the trial and its possible disastrous impact on Aziz (a lifetime in a British jail for rape, for starters) that provides the momentum, the pull, even the thrill that keeps one reading--not "will Aziz come through all right?" or "will Adela keep up this monstrous charade?" or "will the Indians show up those stuck-up Brits?" but "will Aziz and Fielding clear up their misunderstandings, and become friends again?"
Amazing how Forster is able to convey the effortless intimacy that can sprout between two sympathetic souls--and, conversely, how said intimacy can vanish for indefinable reasons (a misunderstanding; the steady venomous work of other, more jealous friends) only to spring up again, as unlikely as ever, at a later date. I'm tempted to say Forster's homosexuality at that time and age must have forced him to cultivate such platonic friendships, but the effortless way it speaks to many readers--the way it thrills some chord inside them, me included--makes me wonder if he didn't create something more universal.
I haven't seen Lean's film in a long time, and I do remember liking it quite a bit, but there's this crucial point where the film fails the novel, or fails to achieve the novel's greatness--the Lean of Lawrence of Arabia unable to resist the big drama scenes, and focusing on the trial, the rest of the book seemingly more like an afterthought, pinned on afterwards to forestall any accusations of infidelity to the source material. If Lean had taken the riskier route (a choice the Lean of Brief Encounter might have made), he could have followed the novel's meandering path more faithfully, tried dramatize it within the confines of a two-and-a-half or three-hour film without putting audiences to sleep (as is, I imagine the very title--can you really blame me for mistaking it for a travel book?--is not one to inspire passionate interest).
But even more than the sharp satire, lyrical evocations, delicate delineation of various relationships, there's the mysticism, the sense that Forster was constantly looking beneath and beyond the surface of things (and may have had more inside information--that's the impression I got reading the book--on the underpinnings of existence than any of us might suspect). Maybe one of my favorite moments involved Aziz trying to winkle out of Dr. Godbole the secret he suspects the man is withholding about the Marabar Caves; try as he might, though, Godbole refuses to respond, refuse even to admit he's refusing to respond, or that anything at all is the matter--as Forster puts it "the comparatively simple mind of the Mohammedan was encountering Ancient Night" (love the capitalization, the sense you get of a forbidding Hardyesque allegorical figure suddenly popping up in the midst of a sharply scribed comedy of manners). It's the slightest of omissions, a tiny little knot of nothingness--a foretaste, of course, of the Marabar Cave's mysterious echo.
That echo and Forster's evocation of it and what it means lies at the very heart not just of the novel, I suspect, but of Forster's philosophy, point of view, metaphysics. If, as someone proposed, one of the novel's main theme is "the unity of all things," and if the echo represents the most terrifying consequence of said theme (its single most terrible quality being that it reduces all sounds--from a simple clap to the recital of a beautiful poem--to one level, to the same massively lifeless roar), one wonders, perhaps even trembles, at Forster's view of things. The novel isn't all that dark, though there are passages where some characters undergo fearsome struggles, but that echo threatens to swallow everything (the satire, the setting, the extraordinary characters) into a single featureless "bo-um;" it does succeed in swallowing poor Mrs. Moore and all her idealism (of all the characters her fate is perhaps the real tragedy).
Preceding that echo is the my opinion far more disturbing (not to mention far beyond Lean's considerable powers of filmmaking to evoke) image, of a completely enclosed cavern--or not so much a cavern but a hollow egg, an empty space that "mirrors its own darkness in all directions infinitely." A mischievous reference to the central image in Forster's one science fiction story "The Machine Stops," perhaps (in that story, people are encapsulated--and enfeebled--by living all their lives in fully automated wombs, or eggs)? Or an awful summation of Foster's fatalism, his awareness of dark despair trapped inside unfeeling stone for all eternity--hell (or an unsuspected heaven) in an eggshell, in effect? I remember Kurosawa Kiyoshi's vision of the afterlife in Kairo (Pulse, 2001)--was Forster's echo and egg chamber something similar? Could--stray thought here--Kyoshi be the perfect choice to remake Forster once more on the big screen, at least when it comes to this crucial scene?
Whatever. A great novel, sure, by a great writer; I was enthralled.
Friday, February 23, 2007
John Fante was a relatively unsung poet of '30s Los Angeles, his novel "Ask the Dust"--featuring Fante's alter-ego, the ambitious and insufferable Arturo Bandini--a relatively unknown but intense autobiographical rant against the City of Angel's racism and implacability, and his own self-loathing self. The book possibly influenced J.D. Salinger--his Holden Caulfield sounds like a younger, better-fed version of Bandini. Charles Bukowski--who calls Fante his "God"--describes his discovery of Fante thusly: "one day I pulled a book down and opened it, and there it was…like a man who had found gold in the city dump, I carried the book to a table." Michael Tolkin (who wrote "The Player") is an admirer; and writer-director Robert Towne nursed a longtime dream of adapting the book to film.
It wasn't easy. Towne had discovered Fante's work back in the early '70s, when he was researching his script for "Chinatown;" at one point, just after the first two "Godfather" films became a huge hit, Francis Ford Coppola had planned to do Fante's "Brotherhood of the Grape" using a script by Towne. Johnny Depp waited a year for Towne to get the financing together; Towne never did. Even Leonardo DiCaprio was at one point attached to the project.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Dear Tinas and Louises -
I'm starting to think I have a biological blockage preventing me from giving a rat's ass about feature-length animation. Witness:
1. I think HEAVY METAL is the worst film ever made (not that I think about such things often).
2. FRITZ THE CAT is up there too (or is that "down there?").
3. BAMBI is the most overrated film of all-time (assuming anyone still rates it highly).
4. FANTASIA follows very closely behind.
5. Why on earth anyone would opt to see AKIRA before, oh, any of Brakhage's hand painted shorts is beyond me.
6. I hated PRINCESS MONONOKE.
7. And now I hate WHISPER OF THE HEART. When sitting through these things, I always ask myself "Why is this film animated?" And in the case of WHISPER OF THE HEART, I honestly have no clue. I suppose I should be asking the opposite of other films: "Why is, oh, RIO GRANDE not animated?" But there's a related question to ask of WHISPER: "Would this film be special were it not animated?"
And here I have more of a clue - no! Apart from some pretty scenes with that debonair kitty cat, most of the film is shot in ye olde long shot-medium long shot-medium close up-shot/reverse shot-zzzzz style. Where's the animation Hawks? Who is its Mizoguchi?
This is without mentioning the film's practically bullying sense of a life
trajectory. OK, I can sorta understand junior high schoolers feeling career pressures this early in their lives. But romance? I mean, hand-wringing, "I (already!) found my soul mate" sturm und drang kinda stuff. Sheesh - the main heteros threw themselves around almost as stormily as Maria and Marlon in LAST TANGO. Heavy, miserable stuff. Where is the magic in all this?
My ostensible question for y'all then: given the above, should I even bother with GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES and/or SPIRITED AWAY?
For what it's worth, I absolutely adored A SCANNER DARKLY. Now there's a film that needed to be animated or would have been much lesser had it not been (or had it not been animated in the way it was). Every single frame of that film gave you the feeling of a world infinitely scannable, a perfect bon bon to the keepers of various Patriot Acts. It also highlights what few resources we have at our disposal to avoid perpetual scanning. A quantum leap over the parade of know-everythings in WAKING LIFE. Adorno would have loved it.
And what's with all these people professing not to understand the thing? I didn't read the novel and I grasped the film fine. Rick's précis a few weeks back seemed like a clearly stated plot synopsis. What's not to get? It's all right there on the surface anyway.
Another favorite: THE IRON GIANT (am I hopelessly Western in thsi regard?)
The very gay and thus one-sided Kevin John
In all seriousness, I found WHISPER unbearably oppressive. To my eyes/ears, it never stood back to examine these imperatives of career and, especially, love.
Whoa, hold on--examine what? Was Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain supposed to examine the callowness of Debbie Reynolds, and weigh her virtues against the immensely more entertaining Jean Hagen? Was he supposed to cast his eyes at Donald O'Connor (not that I wouldn't mind, but should we condemn him--and Donen--for NOT doing that?). (Whispers) is a romantic comedy, light as gossamer, not a major Ghibli film in my opinion, and in it we're supposed to be deconstructing romance and comedy?
As for the "why is it animated?" schtick, well, I've heard it a thousand times, and will probably hear it a thousand more--the genre of ultrarealistic anime in Japan is quite popular, and the aforementioned Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday are in my opinion fine examples. Why so many I don't know--maybe the people who enjoy it are idiots?
The more interesting question is: why doesn't America do this sort of thing? Well, that rotoscoping bit in Bakshi's American Pop--but that's notable as the exception more than the rule, and even then it was roundly reviled. Why do Americans insist that animation not attempt realistic drama and stick to fantasy and science fiction where it 'belongs?'
In the case of Grave, the best answer I can think of--and I don't consider it definitive, not by a long shot--is that animation was the chosen medium of this particular filmmaker. If it had been done live-action, it would not be Takahata doing it (and in fact it has--a live-action mini TV series, interesting in that the focus was more on the 'villainous' aunt's point of view), and even if he DID do it (he's done live action--documentaries, if I recall correctly), it would probably be done differently.
Yoshifumi Kondo, who directed Whispers, was animation director in Graves, by the way. Isao Takahata--who's the equal if not superior of Miyazaki--shows breathtaking range, from war drama (Graves) to domestic drama (Only Yesterday) to light family comedy (My Neighbor the Yamadas--which I prefer to Edward Yang's Yi-Yi), to epic ecological fantasy Pom Poko). I do think he's far less sentimental than Miyazaki.
Iron Giant was okay--maybe the best American animated feature in recent years. It's not on the same level of sophistication and subtlety as Studio Ghibli, though, at least in my opinion.
And as for animation in general--well, I love Dave Fleischer's Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor, Jan Svankmajer's Faust, Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Paul Grimault's The King and the Bird, Taiji Yabushita's The Orphan Brother, Takahata's Grave and Pom Poko, Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. I know lists are frowned upon round these parts, but someone asked; I responded.
Michael Kerpan: I prefer the work of Takahata to his junior colleague Miyazaki. And I prize the work of Yoshitoshi Abe (artist and sometimes writer) as much-- he is the visual eye behind Texhnolyze and the creator of Haibane Renmei (albeit not the director).
Michael--Haibane Renme IS intriguing--I like it that they never explain too much, and that the imagery is as surreal as it is soft-focus. Technolyze I need to see more--I could barely make it through the first episode.
Neon Genesis--oh, it's okay. Excellent mecha stuff, with a few subversive elements (the cannibalism, the outre violence, the emotional extravagance). I do think it's monumentally self-centered, and that the main character is ill conceived--more annoying than interesting, a real whiner). It does have a masterful 'clip show' (Death and Rebirth, especially the Death part--love the counterpoint with the musical sessions, as if linking what the director was doing to what the instrument players were doing--variations on a theme).
I might recommend another series, Master Keaton (note: Keaton discussed near bottom of webpage (additional note: just inserted additonal material on succeeding episodes)), some kind of archeologist / adventurer / insurance agent who ranges all over the world, fighting crime and injustice on behalf of Lloyd's of London. Witty, sometimes very well done. Realistic animation, I'm afraid--but here we go again.
> Was Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain supposed to examine the callowness of Debbie Reynolds, and weigh her virtues against the immensely more entertaining Jean Hagen? Was he supposed to cast his eyes at Donald O'Connor(not that I wouldn't mind, but should we condemn him--and Donen--for NOT doing that?)>
Well, it's always healthy to step back from such imperatives. But SINGIN'wasn't ostensibly about these relationships. It offered soooooo much more than mere possible couplings, het or homo. And it certainly wasn't about finding a soul mate (at, what, 12 years old?), a venal idea that sets up cruelly unimplementable expectations in so many dreamers, both het and homo. By contrast, WHISPER was ostensibly about this soul mate business and very little else. As I stated previously, it's more than probable than I'm missing something. But so far, I haven't heard any substantial defenses of the film.
Michael Kerpan opted not to defend it due to the apparently bullying nature of my post and I respect that 100%. But, Noel, you say: "It's a romantic comedy, light as gossamer, not a major Ghibli film in my opinion, and in it we're supposed to be deconstructing romance and comedy?"
It seems as if this film is impervious to criticism, positive or negative.Why can't we deconstruct light romantic comedies? (They might require it even more.) We're critics, are we not? Isn't that part of our job? (Oh and judging from IMDb and Amazon comments, you'd NEVER imagine that WHISPER was not a major film of ANY stripe. In fact, the almost unanimous euphoria greeting it makes one think Citizen Kane and Gertrud had a baby and named it WHISPER.)
I talked about all this with a friend last night who loves WHISPER and owns some Ghibli box set. He said he didn't even remember any of this soul mate hand-wringing. But he did offer that he simply loved the look of the thing; he loved marvelling at all the details which obviously (and thankfully, I'd say)tore him away from the story. Is that a sophisticated analysis? No. But at least it was something.
Well, I did step back from that question and tried to look at films from the other direction ("why isn't this film animated?") so at least grant me that.
I'll leave that to Fred Camper to answer.
Again, there's the great A SCANNER DARKLY. So I'm clearly not one of those Americans who believe "that animation not attempt realistic drama and stick to fantasy and science fiction where it 'belongs?'" And for the record, I don't consider SCANNER very science fictiony much less fantastical. Also, THE IRON GIANT as well as all the great Fox Sunday amination series are at least as realistic as WHISPER, no?
Finally, thanx for reminding me about great feature-length animation I forgot. Big fan of Lotte Reiniger's ADVENTURES OF PRINCE AHMED as well as Svankmajer. Hoberman's right - CONSPIRATORS OF PLEASURE is indeed one of the ten best films of the 1990s (so was Cronenberg's CRASH...and so was SIDE/WALK/SHUTTLE [big up to Brian for spilling his love for all those skyscrapers growing like jungle vines]).
Momma I'm so sorry I'm so obnoxious,
> WHISPER was ostensibly about this soul mate business and very littleelse.
Not even close to true. The boy is obsessed with violins. and the girl is obsessed with finding some talent -- and she focuses on trying to write.
I don't really consider Scanner Darkly animated--rotoscoping seems more like a stylization than anything. I do like it, but I can take it with or without the rotoscoping (or whatever they call the digital equivalent)--maybe slightly better without, as I think fantastical sequences are better served by a realistic background or setting. And I was thinking the Cronenberg of Naked Lunch could have made interesting work on this film--I can hear that jazz score playing around the movie's narrative.
I agree with Michael--the soul-searching is just one element; as important is their need to excel at what they do--the boy at violin making (it wasn't in the manga from which this was adapted), the girl at writing stories.
Should we criticize lightweight romantic comedies? Sure. Should we ask them to assume weight and profundity? Hell no--then they wouldn't be what they are. Do it as an exercise, perhaps? Maybe, but where does this particular exercise get us?
Monday, February 19, 2007
(Warning: story of this and Polanski's Rosemary's Baby discussed in detail).
When The Exorcist--that sensational horror flick about a girl possessed by a demon--first screened in the early '70s it was touted as the most frightening film ever made; for almost thirty years that reputation has held--has, if anything, grown.
Saturday, February 17, 2007
I'm not sure if we can call Zhang Yimou a great filmmaker, but in the '80s and '90s he was certainly a force to be reckoned with. For director Chen Kaige he shot "Huang tu di" (Yellow Earth, 1984), a film that announced to the world the presence of the "Fifth Generation" of mainland Chinese filmmakers; three years later, with "Hong gao liang" (Red Sorghum), "Ju Dou" (1990), and "Da hong deng long gao gao gua" (Raise the Red Lantern, 1991) Zhang helped establish the house style of the Fifth Generation--at once old-fashioned in its embrace of melodrama ("Ju Dou" owes a plot twist or two to "The Postman Always Rings Twice") yet new in its utter lack of cynicism (the unabashedly romantic flavor of "Hong gao liang's" love scene); voluptuous in its use of colors, shapes, textures (the dyed cloth in "Ju Dou" filling the screen with ribbons of fluttering scarlet, purple, gold) yet somehow austere in intent and ultimate impact (repeated shots of the compound's imposing rectangular floor plan in "Da hong deng" emphasizing the heroine's imprisonment). The 1999 "Yi ge dou bu neng shao" (Not One Less) subordinated that gorgeous visual style to the story of a young teacher struggling to keep her class of poor student peasants together. The result, I thought, was a film more persuasively moving (thanks to its countryside grit and simplicity) than any of his earlier efforts.
He's struggled ever since, sometimes in interesting ways: "Wo de fu qin mu qin" (The Road Home, 1999) is a romance told in flashbacks, as the lovers' son arrives from the big city to bury his just-died father (I liked it well enough, save that the mother seemed a tad too self-indulgent); "Xingfu shiguang" (Happy Times, 2001) felt like a reworking of Charlie Chaplin's "City Life" (blind girl given the illusion of a better life by an equally poor benefactor) and suffers in comparison (you also couldn't help but feel sexually predatory overtones--all these middle-aged men, surrounding a helpless blind girl--in what Zhang strenuously tries to present as an innocuous situation).
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos: A Love Story
By Noel Vera
Rosario: Nora Aunor
Masugi: Christopher De Leon
Crispin: Bembol Roco
Cion: Yolanda Luna
Andoy: Mario Escudero
Written and directed by Mario O'Hara
Shown (in truncated form) on Skycable's Pinoy Blockbuster Channel, various times.
Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God) starts on an ominous note: artillery and fire; corpses swept up by waves onto a beach; war and destruction. A narrator tells us the three years during the Second World War, when the Japanese occupied the country, were "three years when there was no God."
The story proper begins in media res; that is, in the middle of the action. Crispin (Bembol Roco), is at the town school, looking for Rosario (Nora Aunor). He finds her in a little hut in the schoolyard, shaded by trees. Crispin wants to say goodbye to Rosario--the Japanese are coming and he is joining the underground resistance.
This quiet scene is important; in the few minutes they have together, we have to see that Crispin and Rosario love each other deeply, and that Rosario is desolate at seeing him go. Mario O'Hara, Tatlong Taong's writer-director, handles this scene with great restraint: there are no histrionics, no desperate declarations of eternal love.
Rosario is hurt and distant; Crispin tries to be consoling, even when he understands that Rosario is beyond consolation. It's Crispin's understanding that shows the depth of the relationship: they love each other so much they're inside each other's heads. They know, instinctively, what the other is feeling, and (a nice touch by O'Hara) this intimacy is less a source of pleasure than it is a source of acute pain.
The next few scenes are transitory: how Rosario and her family are abandoned by their terrified neighbors; how the Japanese steal their rice and pigs and chickens; how they are reduced to eating roasted sweet potato for their main meal. When Crispin comes again for supplies and for rest, he is a blooded rebel, with friends. He tells Rosario in graphic detail what it feels like to kill a man. Rosario, disturbed, prays that God take care of Crispin--even at the expense of her own safety.
Enter Masugi (Christopher De Leon), and his doctor friend, Francis (Peque Gallaga). Masugi's a half-breed soldier--part Japanese, part Filipino; Francis, it's implied, is a Spanish mestizo. Masugi is lost, and tired. He demands directions, and something alcoholic to drink. Rosario, angry at Masugi's boorish behavior, demands that he leaves. Masugi is attracted to Rosario; being drunk, and being used to the invincible authority of a Japanese officer, he makes a pass at her. Rosario slaps him; insulted, Masugi hits her. Francis holds Rosario's family at gunpoint while Masugi chases her down into the basement and rapes her.
It's a familiar story with wartime Filipinos; the family's young women taken aside by Japanese soldiers and brutally used. When Masugi comes back the next day and makes friendly overtures to Rosario, we're on Rosario's side: how dare he take up where he left off? And how dare he look so sincere about it?
We eventually learn that he is sincere: he helps her family, and he's happy when he learns that she's pregnant. Rosario's family is won over by Masugi's canned goods and rice and his well-meaning attempts to make amends, but Rosario refuses to forgive Masugi. He's not just a rapist, he's Japanese--the personification of everything she, her family, and every wartime Filipino fear and hate. More, Rosario loves Crispin, and any sign of relenting on her part would mean betraying him. Rosario is cornered all around--her hatred of the Japanese in general and Masugi in particular on one side, her growing attraction for Masugi on the other. She's waging--bravely, as she does all things--a one-woman Resistance movement all her own, except she's less and less sure what she should resist.
Sometimes her defiance takes her beyond the boundaries of common humanity. When her father is arrested in a shooting incident and Masugi gets him out, Rosario is angry. She doesn't care if her father is safe; all she knows is that they're even deeper in Masugi's debt. "Not once," she declares when her mother chides her, "did I accept a gift from him." Her mother looks down at her swollen belly and says: "you're lying and you know it. You have something of Masugi's, and you're still keeping it." Rosario blinks, as if slapped in the face.
Rosario's dilemma is similar to what Huck Finn faced near the end of Mark Twain's great classic, Huckleberry Finn, when Huck learns that his friend, Nigger Jim, has been captured and chained. Society taught Huck that it's wrong to free slaves; should he go and free his friend? Should Huck do something clearly wrong--willfully damn himself to hell, in effect--for the sake of friendship, and love? Is Rosario ready to accept a Japanese officer--the conqueror and killer of so many of her people, and the man who raped her?
The fiercest assault on Rosario's resolve comes from an unexpected source. Francis has just helped Rosario given birth; as she lies on bed resting, he sits beside her and talks--just talks. He tells her what kind of man Masugi is--how his parents were killed inside a Filipino prison, how he had to make his way alone across chaotic Manila, to seek safety with Francis. He tells Rosario of how the war has brutalized Masugi, and taught him not to think--simply act and fight, like an animal. Rosario and her child has changed Masugi; can't she open up to him just a little?
I don't know what went into this scene--presumably Gallaga's Tagalog was less than perfect (he is a Bacoleno, and possibly more familiar with Spanish), and O'Hara must have seized upon this limitation and turned it to the scene's advantage. Francis' twisted Tagalog--his helplessly groping, yet determined need to say the right words to Rosario--is what makes the scene heartbreaking. O'Hara has hinted before at the closeness between the two men, but only now, between the awkward pauses in Francis' speech, does the depth of the relationship come through.
Art critic Jolicco Cuadra claims that Francis and Masugi must have been, at one point, lovers. As proof, he offers a scene where the two are urinating: friends look at each others' penises and shyly compare notes; lovers do not--they are already familiar with each other's genitals. It's a fascinating claim, and it fits neatly into the scheme of the film, but ultimately, it's beside the point. Francis and Masugi's love for each other is another variation on the main theme, and whether the love was physically expressed or not isn't half as important as the fact that Francis' love for Masugi moves Rosario, shows her how wrong she is to resist him.
Perhaps Francis's speech was the last straw; perhaps it's the recurrent image of Masugi grinding away on top of her, whispering endearments. But something breaks in Rosario; she feels she has to resolve this conflict the only way possible. The act she proposes is brutal in its logic, extending as it does her line of thinking to its ultimate and terrible conclusion. There must have been a moment, possibly while standing on the stone bridge, when Rosario looked back and saw the steps she took along the way--how valid they seemed at the time, how reasonable and sane--and compared to them, how monstrous the act she is about to do.
And she backs down. She doesn't have the heart--she doesn't have the hate in her--to go through with it. It's ironic that an act of acceptance, of love and forgiveness, can seem craven and cowardly to the one committing it.
Rosario's decision is the turning point of the film; from then on, she is on Masugi's side, and she never wavers, even when she meets Crispin again, even until the end. O'Hara, having taken pains to show us the wrongness of Rosario's defiance, now demonstrates the wrongness of the rest of the world in judging Rosario for her decision. Rosario has done what she felt in her heart was true to her, what O'Hara makes us all feel was true and right and good for her; now we realize exactly what Rosario has done: gone over to the Japanese, married one of their officers--just when they were on the brink of losing the war.
Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos is remarkable for what the two halves of its story are able to achieve. In the first half O'Hara pulls us through the looking-glass to the other side. He stops the world on its axis and turns our expectations inside-out and upside-down, showing just how the wrong man--as wrong a man for Rosario as can be--can turn out to be the right one, a loving husband, after all. For the second half, O'Hara performs a simpler, even more amazing act: he allows the world to start rolling again, and lets us watch while it rolls over both Rosario and Masugi.
In The Human Factor, Graham Greene writes that nations don't matter, people do, and that a man's country is his wife and child; with this rationale, the English hero of the novel acts as undercover agent for the Soviet Union, betraying his country for his South African wife and her bastard child. In the novel (and later film of) Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, Count Almasy betrays England for the sake of a woman he loves, an Englishwoman (later, burnt out of all recognition, Almasy with his British accent is mistaken for an Englishman--the "English patient" of the novel's title). All three stories share one element in common, and that's the intensity of our identification with the betraying hero--Maurice in The Human Factor, Count Almasy in The English Patient, Rosario in Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos. We look at the world through their eyes, and we are made to understand how reasonable their treason seem to them, how they did it for the higher cause of someone or something they cared about. All three seem to say to us: "if you can't do anything--literally anything--for the one person you care about most; if you can't betray your country, your friends, your own self for the sake of the one you love, then your love means nothing, your love is worthless."
Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos and its better-known, more literary cousins are subversive in the worse sense. If everyone adopted this kind of thinking as their guiding principle, the world would slide into chaos; espionage would be the primary industry of the world and no one can trust anyone who was capable of any kind of attachment.
There are those, of course, who argue that the world is already in chaos, that espionage is already the world's biggest industry, and that no one should be trusted, ever.
A love story? Why yes, though it may come as a bit of a shock after all the wild flights of philosophy we've been taking: Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos is basically a love story. It's a fiery, flawed, fearless film, reckless and outsized in its quiet intensity, its understated passion. It speaks more eloquently on the nature of love and sacrifice than any hundreds of tepid local and Hollywood equivalents, and it speaks from a mind alarmingly well-informed on the great cruelties--and great love--human beings are capable of. And, (unlike, say, The English Patient) it does so in a plainspoken manner, without resorting to complex time schemes and finely written (meaning almost unreadable) language.
By the film's end Rosario sits alone in a church with no one to turn to, no one to protect her. She once again resorts to prayer, and asks nothing from God except to look after her baby. It's a risky move, a desperate move; she did this once before for Crispin, and as with Crispin, her prayer was paid for by her own pain and suffering. You might call Rosario's the tragic story of a girl whose prayers are always answered; the tragedy lies in the swiftness and brutality with which God answers her prayers. Later, Crispin sits in the same church. He is alive and well, thanks to Rosario, but (again, thanks to Rosario) alone. He asks a priest if there is a God--an old question, but asked in Crispin's sad and bitter voice, a question with an edge.
The priest gives a wise and reassuring reply: that Masugi and Rosario and his love for each other are a sign of God's presence, even in wartime. The reply is a little too pat, a little too well-prepared; it's the kind priests through the years have given to sad and bitter questions. You wonder how just much faith O'Hara puts in that reply.
Then O'Hara gives his own answer, in the form of a blind man lighting a candle for himself and his palsied brother. The blind man carefully picks up the child, and makes his way out the church just when a procession, complete with hundreds of candles and heavily costumed wooden saints, marches in. The symbolism is somewhat obvious--true faith walks quietly out the door, while pomp and pageantry make a grand, meaningless entrance. But the entire wordless scene is so quietly understated, so beautifully shot and staged--a perfect example of the purest cinema--that it literally takes your breath away. Yes, Crispin, there is a God--only he could have inspired O'Hara to shoot a scene like that.
From Menzone Magazine February 98
This post is part of the 100 films: Lovesick Blog-a-Thon
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
What rankles even more is that Ridley Scott doesn't improve on what he stole; Gladiator is essentially a dumb-down, druggy, digitally dolled-up remake. Joaquin Phoenix is not Christopher Plummer (who would be hideously miscast a year after as Captain Von Trapp in the (as Plummer himself put it) boxoffice smash The Sound of Mucus); Russell Crowe is not Stephen Boyd (who replaced Charlten Heston (Fall was to be Chuck and Mann's follow-up epic after the successful El Cid) but who, judging from their work together in Ben Hur, was a finer, slyer actor than Clueless Chuck could ever be); and in no way can I imagine Connie Nielsen as being anywhere near as desirable as Sophia Loren (who in this picture shows everything she owed to pasta, thank you very much).
And Ridley Scott is no Anthony Mann. Livius and Commodus are complex, driven men who grapple not just with each other but with various principles of politics and economics. Mann shows the realpolitik struggles that go on in these circles, and it's as taxing as any physical battle.
The battles themselves are spectacular--a million digital puppets simply can't compare to a few thousand extras running around in full Roman armor, a largely virtual coliseum isn't half as impressive as a full-scale fully constructed Roman forum (said to be the largest outdoor set ever built).
Well,maybe it's not all that simple--as Kristin Thompson's excellent review of Shilo T. McClean's book suggests, the fault may not be in digital effects, per se, but in the director's (Scott's) inability to serve up a story compelling enough to take our eye off the effects (hence our need to nitpick 'em to death). Not just script and acting, but a film style able to subordinate the effects to the storytelling, not allow them to call attention to themselves as mere objects of spectacle.
Commodus' showdown with Livius is excitingly staged and coherently shot and edited--no shaky camera shit or chop-suey editing for Mann, thank you (that he does it in aforementioned huge outdoor set--which would pose serious competition for the audience's attention--makes the accomplishment all the more impressive), plus I can't help but think Zhang Yimou borrowed the 'wall of shields' in this duel for his Curse of the Golden Flower. And this Commodus doesn't cheat (as in stabbing his rival before the contest); he waits until he's been fatally wounded by Livius, and then gives out treacherous orders. That's villainy with a dash of honor (not much, just enough to make the mixture intriguing) for you.
And to think Gladiator won the Oscar horse race for best picture. What bullshit.
Thursday, February 08, 2007
I hope there isn't anyone out there who still clings desperately to the belief that The Passion of the Christ isn't a hate-filled, anti-Jewish snuff movie. Despite the evidence--Gibson basing his script not on the Bible (as he claims) but on the writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich (allegedly Emmerich's--there's a possibility that German poet Clemens Brentano forged them), who at one point confidently wrote that Jews fed on the blood of Christian babies; despite his portraying Jews as sinister, avaricious, bloodthirsty (True, Christ, his mother, and Simon are exceptions, but in Gibson's mind, they aren't Jews--they're really early Christians)--the few cries of protest were drowned out by the hysterical wave of love shown the picture in Manila.
And then the drunk-driving incident. Oh my, how inconvenient--in vino veritas, and all that. Fanatical viewers may refuse to remove the redwood log jammed in their eyes, but the photo of Gibson grinning drunkenly from his arrest photo seems to have taken most of the wind out of their enthusiasm.
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
I hope this email finds you busy as ever and in good health.
My name is Andrew Leavold, I'm a filmmaker and writer based here in Brisbane, Australia. I'm also a huge fan of Filipino cinema, and devoured your book Critic After Dark on the plane to Manila (it was a lifesaver!).
I have just completed a Manila Tour Diary of my research trip and documentary shoot to the Philippines last November. It's a monster (at 10,000 words, one of the longest articles I've ever written), but doesn't even start to include the interview material I collected. I'm thinking of sending it to a publisher as a proposal for a much longer book. Of course, that means coming back to Manila in February to do research for Part 2...
Please let me know what you think about the sample treatment - I really value your opinion.
WHITE GUERRILLA IN MANILA
Or: One Man’s Insane Search For The Truth Behind The Philippines B Film
by Andrew Leavold
Bamboo Gods And Bionic Boys
“Compiled and narrated live by Trash Video’s Andrew Leavold, a comprehensive overview of the most outrageous moments from the Philippines’ prolific B-film industry, a mutant stew of Hollywood genres, crazed local folk tales and just plain bizarre ideas about what constitutes “entertainment”! Features highlights from over 30 movies, from the infamous Blood Island trilogy, the midget James Bond (Weng Weng!) in For Your Height Only, superchick Cleopatra Wong and her nephew The Bionic Boy, Alyas Batman En Robin (ever see a dwarf Spiderman?), The One-Armed Executioner, the Catholic horrors of The Killing Of Satan and much, much more!”
Looking at a sea of expectant faces in the plush multi-screen Greenbelt Cinema in Manila’s Makati (pronounced “mah-car-teh”) district, I finish the introduction to my compilation of Filipino B films with the line, “I am so unbelievably happy to be in the land of Weng Weng.” It’s an almost two decade obsession coming to a head, and I soon discover most of my Manila audience has never heard of Weng Weng, let alone seen the tiny brown demon in action.
On the Greenbelt screen flashes the most absurd moments of the first Weng Weng film, the Bondian spoof For Your Height Only (1979). Over the astounding course of the film our 2 foot 9 hero Secret Agent 00, a curious little brown creature with a receding Ramones bowl cut and an all-white suit and boater, cracks an international drug ring, gets the girl, loses the girl (“Irmaaaaa!”) and infiltrates the secret lair of evil criminal mastermind Mr Giant (played, appropriately enough, by a dwarf), all with an armful of gadgets and his famous trick of punching someone in the balls, then running between their legs.
It’s not just the novelty of seeing a Filipino midget pretending to be a gun expert and ladies’ man, or the inexplicable thrill of watching bad (and I mean BAD) kung fu movies. Maybe it’s the surreal dubbing that takes For Your Height Only into another dimension. Perhaps it’s a combination of its constituent elements, or something new altogether. The more we screened the film on Trash Video’s film tours around Australia, the more I realized the power of Weng Weng to transform a jaded, cynical audience. “We love Weng Weng!” they would chant after the film, and each time I sat through the movie with a new set of faces, I would experience once again the sheer joy of watching the film for the first time. I can’t explain my fixation on Weng, which would grow into a lifelong obsession with Philippines pulp cinema, and soon enough with the Philippines itself.
He’s listed in the Guinness Book of Records as, at just 83 cm (2 ft 9 in) tall, the shortest ever lead actor in a motion picture. That’s as far as the official story goes - it seems like the Cone of Silence has well and truly fallen over Weng. I remember ringing the Manila Film Resource Centre in the mid 90s, and they pretended to have never heard of him. Was he truly a national disgrace? Or was he small enough to have slipped between the cracks of film history?
Urban legends swirl around his small brown head like a bullshit halo. He’s believed to have been a standup comic, dental student, customs officer, paratrooper. Even in his own country the truth about Weng Weng was submerged in a sea of stories about “Wenceslao Wong” wearing Ken Doll clothes and being a salsa champion. Some of the most outrageous lies were in “The Incredible True Story Of Weng Weng” published on our own Trash Video website, written by Sydney media provocateur and long time Weng addict Dr Verne Pullen (aka Chris Ruhle). Pullen’s more salacious claims include...
Weng Weng and Imelda Marcos did a karaoke duet of “My Way”, selling over 200,000 unauthorized cassettes
In 1973 he played baby Moses in the 3D Tagalog biblical epic “Go Tell It On A Mountain”
In the mid 1980's he married his long time girl friend and TV weather girl Maria De La Cruz (some two feet taller than her more famous partner) and together they raised a family of five children all of normal height save for the youngest son, Eduardo who is now so tall he recently trialled for the position of point guard with the LA Lakers...
“So - where did he come from? What happened to him?” I ask the 70-odd faces in the audience. No-one has a clue. Even in the land of Weng Weng, the enigma is stronger than ever.
“Does anyone want to be in my Search for Weng Weng documentary?” I grab the camera from the audience and turn it on the sea of smiling converts. “We love Weng Weng! We love Weng Weng!”
Joselito, Tikoy’s right hand man and chief programmer of Cinemanila, presents me with a festival pass that says ‘Uber Bamboo God’. I guess they don’t see too many film fanatics in these parts on a midget safari.
My Breakfast With Cleo
Channel 32 on Singapore Airlines’ inflight movies is - unbelievably - the 1978 kung fu spy actioner Cleopatra Wong. As one of my favourite B films, Filipino or otherwise, I’ve seen it forty times or more and yet I’m glued to my seat from start to finish. Four hours later Cleo herself picks me up from Changi airport. I tell her about my Wong experience on the plane and she squeals with delight. “After thirty years I’m finally a Singapore icon!”
I show her the review I wrote for the Cinemanila catalogue:
“Outrageous pan-Asian actioner starring Singaporean beauty Marrie Lee as the high-kicking disco diva, weapons expert and secret agent Cleopatra Wong. While on holiday in Manila, Cleo uncovers a major currency counterfeit operation, and immediately her kindly but sleazy Interpol chief orders her on the trail. Clad in orange hotpants and white boots, shooting through thin air on a turbo bike and taking on thirty balding wrestlers at once, its little wonder fanboy Asian fetishist Quentin Tarantino cites Cleo as a major inspiration for his Kill Bill series.
“In a classy display of Filipino ingenuity, producer/director Bobby A. Suarez milks his international locations for all his micro-budget allows: from a chop-sockfest above Hong Kong harbour and a riotous free-for-all on Singapore’s Sentosa Island to the film’s explosive finale, a thirty-minute undercover raid on a monastery with Cleo and co in nuns habits (and mustaches) tearing up the Philippines countryside in possibly the only entry in the "Nuns with Guns" subgenre.
“Cleopatra Wong is a landmark film in Filipino cinema for a number of reasons - the first international hit from an all-local production as well as start of the hugely successful Cleo Wong series. Canny exploitation genius Suarez gleefully mixes equal parts black chick superhero Cleopatra Jones, the gadget-laden internationalism of James Bond films, and the still-popular antics of Bruce Lee. Never has Filipino cinema been so gloriously derivative, so cheesily Seventies, or so much goofy, jaw-on-the-floor fun.”
I’d met Marrie Lee (real name Doris Young, but most people call her Cleo) months earlier at the 2006 Brisbane International Film Festival. I programmed Cleopatra Wong as part of my Philippines Pulp Cinema program and Marrie, who I’d interviewed over the phone earlier in the year, decided to fly herself out to Brisbane for a whirlwind holiday. For ten years I’ve watched her movies religiously, and for five days I was Cleo Wong’s Brisbane tour guide. Life takes a turn for the bizarre sometimes.
At the BIFF screening of Bamboo Gods..., I could feel Marrie squirm with excitement in the chair next to me when a three metre Weng Weng appears on the Queensland Conservatorium screen. “I met him!” she hissed, and I almost dropped my drink. “He was standing on a desk in Bobby’s office - Bobby was going to make a movie with him as the baby Jesus!” I’m speechless - my two favourite Filipino icons have suddenly collided head-on. “Bobby passed him around, I got to hold him in my arms like a baby.” She watched the trailer for another twenty seconds, then added, “He may have looked like a little boy, but he was all man, if you know what I mean.”
A huge silver-haired bear, Amable ‘Tikoy’ Aguiluz was in the audience. Unbeknownst to me, the Cinemanila Film Festival director (and highly respected filmmaker in his own right) was a jury member at BIFF 2006; I could hear him towards the back guffawing through the entire program. After Bamboo Gods... he walks up to me with a huge grin. “That was cool, man. You should come and do it in Manila.”
My mouth drops. “Really?”
“Sure. Fly yourself to the Philippines in November and we’d love to have you as our guest.” He then whispers, “Holy shit, man! Marrie Lee...Cleo Wong!....is in Brisbane!” His face shone like an adolescent fanboy.
“I know!” I shoot back.
He points to my homemade ‘I Heart Weng Weng’ T-shirt. “You love Weng Weng? I love Weng Weng TOO!”
After three Cleopatra Wong adventures, Marrie left for the States to star in a pilot for a proposed series called Charlie Chan’s Youngest Daughter. Then the Writers’ Strike hit Hollywood like a concrete enema and the project was canceled. Marrie had broken her contract with her friend, mentor and quasi-father figure Bobby Suarez and returned to Singapore with her tail between her legs. They didn’t speak for over 25 years. Only recently did they reunite, with Bobby planting the idea of a much-belated Cleopatra Wong sequel.
Marrie digs out a Variety ad from 1977 announcing pre-production on The Vengeance Of Cleopatra Wong.
“Only 28 years late,” I quip.
“That was just before the ‘Malaysian Incident’.”
Marrie looks mysterious. “Ask Bobby.”
Cleo drives me to her Singapore company where she sells wholesale herbal health supplements. On her return from the States she put herself through college, scored a series of business and computer degrees and set herself up as a highly motivated and independent saleswoman.
“Do you miss the limelight, Marrie?” I ask, scanning the walls of her office that doubles as a shrine to Cleopatra Wong - there’s an enormous framed glamour shot peering cheekily from above Marrie’s chair, and posters and snapshots galore. She sighs. “Of course. It’s my one regret in life that I didn’t pursue my acting career. That’s why I’m hoping something will happen with the sequel. But look at me, Andrew! I’m 28 years older. I don’t look like that photo anymore.”
“You’re still a fox, Marrie.”
She titters like a schoolgirl. “Oh, Andrew....”
She opens her email and shows me photos of leggy Vietnamese model Bebe Pham. “Bobby’s talking to potential investors in Cebu who want Bebe to play my daughter.” She looks sad. “I can’t help but feel I’m being forced to pass the torch onto the next generation.”
Marrie took me on a quick shopping expedition. “Bobby and his wife Gene love Singapore pork,” she says, scanning the basement level of a faceless shopping centre for a smoked meat emporium, who subsequently slice and wrap two kilos of square crackling pork in three kinds of wax paper and place them in a red-and-gold presentation bag, which is then carried on to the plane to Manila by one very nervous pork smuggler.
Through the plane’s round window Manila is flat and endless, like Hiroshima minutes after the bomb. Ever since Manila, Quezon City and their surrounding satellite cities were absorbed into the amorphous Metro Manila in the 70s, their boundless boroughs with very few high-rises look like it would take weeks to trek from one side of town to the other. It would be easier to find a clean tissue at an Italian funeral, let alone the last resting place of a long-forgotten midget superspy. The mind boggles.
Even in the early evening, the tropical heat wraps you in hot, moist towels. I’m from Brisbane and should be used to the heat, but I’m visibly wilting. Less than a minute off the plane and a young woman from the Department of Tourism comes to my rescue and throws a noose of white flowers around my neck. “Hello sir,” she says in an impeccably business-like fashion. “Welcome to Mah-neeee-lurrrr.”
“Why are you here exactly?”
“You’re an important veeee-zitor to our cont-tree,” she replies without a trace of irony.
She speeds me through customs, who aren’t in the slightest bit interested in my dubious package of piggish contraband. “Did you have a nice flight, sir?” she asks at the baggage claim without breaking a sweat.
“Thank you, yes.” This is the first person on Philippines soil I have a chance to talk to, and like a sniffer dog on a cocaine-filled condom I’m not going to let go. “Have you ever heard of Weng Weng?”
“He was a very popular Filipino star in the Eighties.” No response. “How about Cleopatra Wong?”
“No, sir.” I sense this is the end of our official cultural exchange.
Standing at the airport’s taxi rank, a young guy approaches me with a sign: “Mr Andrew Leavold. I am Bobby Suarez.”
It was Bobby’s youngest son Richard. Bobby and his wife Gene shuffle across the road after him.
I’d talked to Bobby many times over the phone after tracking him down on Google, and felt like I was part of the Suarez family already. His small frame is dwarfed by me as I hug him and Gene.
As crawl through traffic I eye Bobby’s frail frame from the front seat. “This is nuts. How the hell am I going to find anyone for my documentary?”
Bobby is like a tiny Mexican (think Speedy Gonzalez minus the sombrero) due to his Hispanic lineage, mouth full of white teeth and shining eyes. His features are animated, always smiling and laughing. “You are a white monkey, so they will talk to you. You’re not a brown monkey like me.” Bobby laughs again. “How long did it take you to track down Bobby Suarez?”
I think for a moment. “Ten years, maybe longer.”
“And yet you find me!” He studies my face. “You are crazy! You are a filmmaker like me, so you MUST be crazy!”
It takes ninety minutes through Manila gridlock to get to the hotel. Tuesday’s the anniversary of Manila getting traffic wardens, so it seems the city takes to the street to celebrate. Gene’s nephew is behind the wheel, a former Manila cab driver who is naturally unfazed the relentless tide of automobiles swamping our four wheel drive. “When’s the worst time of the day for traffic?” I ask him. “Now,” he laughs. That could apply to any part of the day.
Bobby waits for me to check into the plush Manila Pavilion, then drops me off at Greenbelt Cinemas in a sprawling shopping centre in Makati before announcing he needs to make the ninety minute drive back home. I thank him and his family profusely for all their help. Bobby promises to send a car for me the next morning.
I walk into the multi-storied Greenbelt Mall and head up the escalator past a six-foot, full colour banner of the “nuns with guns” photo from Cleopatra Wong, just in time to catch the last half hour of B-film icon Eddie Romero’s first ever digital feature Faces Of Love.
Romero is outside the screening, a well-dressed, unassuming man in his 80s. I walk up to him and shake his hand. “Mr Romero, I am so happy to meet the director of Mad Doctor Of Blood Island.”
He looks me over with wise old eyes. “Ah, you’re like Tarantino!” He laughs heartily. “I’ll bet you’re a big fan of Pam Grier.”
“Hahahahahaha!” he roars, and hands me his business card.
Tikoy wraps his bear arms around me and says, “You have to meet your younger double in Manila. Andrew, this is Khavn.”
A blonde, bearded, definitely younger and slightly browner me shakes my hand. Khavn’s feature Ghetto Punk, a slice-of-life in a Manila shanty town following a seven year old would-be Travis Bickle, wins the second prize at Cinemanila’s awards later in the week. I watch its stunning b&w stream of poetry and documentary realism later in Khavn’s lounge, along with his no-budget, Miike-esque The Family That Eats Soil and Vampire Of Quezon City, and I’m floored at how varied, how experimental and yet how accessible and entertaining each film is. To date, Khavn’s output numbers 16 digital features and over 50 shorts. That’s 15 features more than me, I mentally count with shame. Khavn and his crew of crazy-assed filmmakers, artists and musicians end up becoming my unofficial tour guides, and at each turn in the road, I’m pleased to report, the DIY spirit is alive and well in the Philippines.
Elwood Perez, one of Philippines’ most notorious directors, was two seats away from me during my Bamboo Gods screening. He slinks further and further into his chair as I showcase the most shocking five minutes of his licentious epic Silip/Daughters Of Eve (1985), a clearly insane assault on religious dogma set in a fundamentalist Catholic dune-locked village, featuring Pasolini-style sacrilege, gore and near-hardcore pornography. Silip’s three devout sisters are in love with Simon, the promiscuous village buck whom they brand a demon due to his abnormally large organ. “We must cleanse you!” screams one sister at her aroused younger sibling while throwing handful after handful of purifying sand up her skirt.
“I was a much different person at the time,” confesses Perez to me later in the week over a meal in a Spanish restaurant. A flamboyant Perez spent much of his youth cruising through Manila’s gay scene while working in every conceivable genre at Lily Monteverde’s Regal film factory. Nevertheless, he is more often remembered for his outrageous 80s sexploitation films in which his “angry young artist” spleen finds full vent. Now age and a less explosive personal life has led him to question many of his past artistic choices. “It’s not a good time to question religion,” he says of Silip’s all-pervading irreligious tone. I’m genuinely surprised by his response. “I thought these days it would be the perfect moment in history to question religious fundamentalism,” I say. He smiles back at me like a tiger with its fangs filed down.
Near Silip’s inflammatory climax, the youngest sister walks up to a naked Simon and says, quite innocently: “Demon...may I touch your horn?” The entire Greenbelt audience erupts in nervous laughter; Perez slides even further under his seat and, even in the near-darkness, you can see which shade of purple his head has turned.
Afterwards, the guy in the audience holding my camera - a small, nebbish friend of Elwood with a goatee and prayer cap - introduces himself during the Q&A. Danny Sillada, I find out later, had been studying for the priesthood in the Eighties until he stumbled across Silip. Its frank condemnation of sexual hypocrisy was clearly an epiphany for Sillada, who has spent the last twenty years painting giant psychedelic penis landscapes. “Why,” asks a baffled Sillada, “does a profound work of art like Silip sit amongst this other....” He seems lost for words to describe the rest of the Bamboo Gods program. “This....rubbish?”
For once I, too, am lost for words.
I go drinking afterwards with Cinemanila’s volunteers at an Indian restaurant in the sprawling Greenbelt complex. As well as cheapish San Miguel beer, ‘Bollywood Cuisine’ has photos of Aishwarya Rai and Shah Rukh Khan on their menus. Tacky, I know, but it least it’s not Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.
The volunteers are Cinemanila’s target audience, a powerhouse demographic among the Philippines’ growing middle class: young, mostly college students, all technologically apt and culture-savvy cinephiles who spend much of their meal with their thumbs flying over their mobile keypads like hummingbirds’ tits.
“You know, I dreamt this moment ten years ago,” I tell the table boozily.
“Yep. I was in a hotel room in Manila ringing the Film Academy, trying to track down Weng Weng for an interview. I thought I had a documentary crew with me, but now I realize I was making it alone.”
“Oh...my...god...” I think I can see someone motioning for the cheque.
“I had another dream around the same time, I discovered Weng Weng’s email address on a piece of paper at a bus stop. It was email@example.com.”
Silence. The whole table looked at me like I’d pooed in their pina coladas.
Several years ago I listed my Weng Weng visions in an article “I Dream Of Weng Weng (With The Small Brown Head)” on the Trash Video website. I received the strangest responses from all over the world, including this from Nick in the UK: “I've had several Weng Weng dreams (but never admitted it until now!). In one I was fighting alongside Weng beating up all the bad guys. In another Weng and his brother (also a midget) were in a bar on the next table to me. I started chatting to them and then I got invited to be in their next film.”
Soon after I received an email from Dino, a Pinoy Weng fan now living in San Francisco: i don't know if you know this but the little man died in the mid eighties. my condolences.
My Lunch With Bobby
I have one of those Lost In Translation moments when I open the curtains in my Manila Pavilion room and turn on the TV. Five stations of Philippines TV reflect back at me the most grotesque elements of Western culture. One show, bubblegum TV for teenies and tweenies, is an inter-gender dance war between stick-thin New Kids On The Block. These would-be Pinay hoochies start waving around their arms to an almost Jap-pop number called “Call Me Chickiaki” while their hosts blurt out a jarring speed rush of Tagalog and mangled Americanese, with the odd Spanish phrase thrown in for dramatic effect.
“Be a woman and stick out your chest!” the next infomercial proudly proclaims. This push-up bra is apparently top of the pops in Hong Kong. Turn channels and an aging Priscilla Presley lookalike is discussing the pros and cons of plastic surgery through a distorting plastic microphone with a bored, cuecard-reading ‘pharmacologist’. I demand to see her credentials, but with no success.
I then find HBO Asia on the dial, and quickly discover all of its movies are not fucking Asian.
As promised, Richard and Gene’s nephew turned up at 10am to take me to Bobby’s office. Khavn later tells me there’s a local saying: If you can drive in Manila, you can drive anywhere in the world. Apart from the embassy district in Makati there are no discernible lines on any streets, just an endless serpentine triple helix of vehicles and a cacophony of horns, each with their unique pitch and signature series of honks. The roadside at times resembles a South American republic - massive painted portraits of politicians, ragged palm trees, neon-lit born again churches, and the omnipresent skeletal remains of long-abandoned billboards. One jeepney among thousands, the Philippines’ trademark converted army jeep covered in religious icons and fluro paint and at for 20c a ride the cheapest form of transport in Manila, speeds past with a tyre cover that announces, “Deputy Mayor Lapudo says ‘Get high on God but not on drugs.’” Walkovers and metal fences don’t stop pedestrians making their suicidal dash across motorways, yet there appear to be few casualties. Drivers have one eye on the road and the other on their dashboard’s rosary or brightly painted saint; in Manila, everyone believes they’re invincible.
Bobby’s car stops outside his first-story office in Plaza Santa Cruz, across the road from a magnificently imposing Spanish church from the 18th Century. Everything about Bobby’s corner of Manila seems out of time, and stepping through his wooden door with a bronze “BAS Film” plaque on it reveals a place frozen forever in the Seventies. Marrie showed me a photo taken in 1978 with Dynamite Johnson’s cast and crew against the same wood paneling and the exact same framed posters for They Call Him Chop Suey and The Bionic Boy on wall!
Throughout conversations with Bobby, he never lets you forget he was a Boystown orphan who cleaned the offices of Rank Films in Manila before becoming one of their chief executives. They Call Him Chop Suey (1975) was one of Bobby’s first jobs as producer at Intercontinental Films based in Hong Kong, along with Asia Cosa Nostra (1973) and Master Samurai (1974) starring Chris (son of Robert) Mitchum. Bobby absorbed all he could from everyone he worked with - including Hong Kong’s kings of kung fu cinema the Shaw Brothers - and formed his own company BAS Films International in 1977.
From the outset, Bobby’s films were always destined for the international market. Along with Eddie Romero and Gerry de Leon, and Cirio H. Santiago, who forged a close working relationship with US drive-in king Roger Corman in the early 70s and still makes films for Corman’s Concorde pictures, Bobby was one of the most successful Filipino filmmakers in the world marketplace. Instead of the well-worn, small minded route of making films in Tagalog, making their relatively meager budgets back in Manila and scraping the cream off the top in the provinces, Bobby could picture his movies on screens the world over. Just how he could dream up his ridiculously ambitious projects with such ragtag resources, is Bobby’s art.
BAS Films’ debut was The Bionic Boy (1977), an enjoyably derivative kiddie’s spoof of The Six Million Dollar Man starring an 8 year old Singapore black belt Johnson Yap, produced and written by Bobby but directed by his friend Leody M. Diaz. Flushed with its success on the international market, Bobby directed (as “George Richardson”) his first feature, Cleopatra Wong (1977). In true exploitation style, he matched up his first two successes in a third feature, Dynamite Johnson (1978), in which Cleopatra Wong happens to be the Bionic Boy’s auntie!
The BAS Films office is like the movies themselves: a family affair. Gene and Richard are constantly on the phone and on email in the adjoining office lined with DVDs, masters and pressbooks for their distribution company 21st Century Entertainment, which sells mainly American features to local TV and cable stations and DVD labels. Celso de Guzman, Bobby’s scriptwriting partner on Vengeance..., is busy typing away on a laptop in the corner, Marrie’s on the phone from Singapore checking to see if I made it to Manila, while Franco “Chito” Guerrero, Marrie’s sidekick in all three Cleo Wong adventures (including one in drag!) and lead in The One-Armed Executioner (1981), shows up for a regular afternoon visit.
“So...what exactly was the Malaysian incident?”
Code Name: The Destroyers would have been the third Cleopatra Wong film, with Marrie, Franco, a Malaysian actress named Sarimah Ahmad and several others playing a pan-Asian commando squad infiltrating a drug syndicate. Bobby was playing with his biggest budget to date. At some point during the shooting, the Malaysian backers insisted on Ahmad receiving top billing. Things turned decidedly nasty, and the cast and crew were forced out of Malaysia at gunpoint. Dejected, Bobby returned to the Philippines with a film that was impossible to finish, and made Devil’s Angels/Devil’s Three (1979) quickly and with a much smaller budget to bail himself out of debt.
“What happened to the footage?” I asked.
Bobby smiles. “I burnt it.” All of it? “Negatives, the lot. All that’s left is the poster.” Franco rolls his eyes; he’s obviously heard this story more than a few times before.
Over beer and pizza, Bobby and Franco reminisce about one of their last features together, Searchers Of The Voodoo Mountain/Warriors Of The Apocalypse (1985), in which a motley group of post-holocaust survivors cross paths with a tribe of magical pygmies (or, more specifically, naked dwarves in warpaint).
“Where did you get so many dwarves from?” I ask, sensing a Weng Weng connection.
“There was a restaurant here in Manila whose waiters were all dwarves.”
I go into a pink fit. “You’re kidding!! Does it still exist?”
Bobby, inscrutable as always, just smiles.
The World’s Smallest Waiters
There it was in the Lonely Planet guide, not twenty minutes walk from the Pavilion. I clutch the camera bag tight to my chest and walked with Nina, one of the more adventurous of Cinemanila’s volunteer army, through the entire stretch of the red light district of Malate (“mah-lar-teh”). An army of hostesses in low-cut red dresses line the thoroughfare, barely larger than one lane of traffic with a constant two-way flow of jeepnies, soliciting the wide-eyed tourist trade in front of bordellos poorly disguised as karaoke bars.
“No thanks,” I fling back pleasantly. “I have a sore throat.”
The entire street stinks of open sewerage; weirdly enough it reminds me of my childhood in the Middle East, as did the one-legged beggar who looks me up and down and decides I didn’t have enough spare change.
“How were the volunteers the morning after the Indian restaurant?”
“Hungover like crazy,” Nina says between green puddles. “They were a little wary of you.”
“Wha....? How come?”
“Think about it - we’re a Catholic country. Don’t tell them you’re Satan. Even if you are.”
I laugh and change the subject. “You know, I found the Weng Weng sequel The Impossible Kid five years ago, all in French with NO subtitles. I paid a Trash customer $100 in free rentals to translate the script into English.”
“You’re kidding? That’s insane!”
“The insane bit is I then toured Australia revoicing the movie live in front of an audience with Pauline, a friend of mine. I did half the voices including Weng himself.”
“You got to BE Weng? You must have fulfilled your life’s ambition.”
“Heh! Yeah.... And in true For Your Height Only style, we made up most of the stoopid jokes on the spot.” Nina stops to ask a beggar in Tagalog the way to the dwarf restaurant. “I finally tracked down The Impossible Kid in English in a video shop in Sweden - I even made the store clerk play the first five minutes over the phone!”
Nina giggles. “What did he say?”
I adopt a Swedish accent. “ ‘I have seen the film and it is preposterous!’ (laugher) What did the beggar tell you?”
“We’re a block away.”
“Cool. Anyways, the dubbing studio did a way too literal translation - Pauline and I were much funnier. Weng sounds like Wayne fucking Newton.”
We stand in awe outside a simple white sign that heralds the entrance to Hobbit House. I even hesitate before opening the door to make the experience longer.
Inside a dwarf maitre D snaps his fingers, and five or six waiters start running around our ankles babbling in Tagalog. I look at Nina, who appears to be enjoying the absurdity of moment as much as me.
As soon as I finish a San Miguel, a fresh one appears on the table as if by magic. “Do you mind if I can take some footage for a documentary?” I ask our waiter, whose name we learn later is Richard, over the din of the covers band, mid-song into a cover of Toto’s ‘Africa’.
“Certainly, sir. Like to buy a T-shirt?”
“Sure.” I take out the equivalent of $10 from my wallet. “How about an on-camera interview?”
“Absolutely. Want to purchase a wooden fan with ‘The World’s Smallest Waiters’ printed on it?”
I laugh: the little hustlers are fleecing me. No matter, the footage is worth more than gold.
I return from experiencing one of those Kindergarten Cop moments in the bathroom - the urinals are just three inches from ground - and train the camera on one of the waiters, who starts talking excitedly in Tagalog and pointing at her vagina. I look at Nina, whose eyebrows are crawling slowly towards the top of her head.
“She says she has a dwarf son to a normal-sized partner. But dwarves cannot give birth normally, so she had a cesarean.”
“Oh. That explains why she’s making a zipper motion along her belly.”
Our waitress turns even more animated, runs into the back room and returns with a pile of photos in her stubby fingers. She points and gushes in Tagalog.
“I think she wants you to film them,” says Nina.
I hold up a succession of photos to a San Miguel lightbox and shoot five seconds on each. The last photo is our waiter breastfeeding her dwarf son.
“This is where my trip to the Philippines takes a surreal turn,” I whisper.
“Shut up!” hisses Nina, her mouth twitching at the sides. “I’m trying to keep my shit together!”
Incidentally, I uncover one of the magical pygmies from Searchers Of The Voodoo Mountain. He’s far too grumpy to be interviewed, but I manage to film him from across the restaurant with the kind of reverence reserved for my first real-life dwarf superstar.
The Name Is Bond, Pinoy Bond
Richard drives me to the Film Academy of the Philippines on Panay Avenue in Quezon (“kay-zon”) City, the major satellite city to Manila where, like a miniature Hollywood, most of the film and TV companies congregate these days. Tony Laxa, the white-haired government representative of the film industry, grants me a two hour interview about its currently shambolic state of affairs. Richard hands him a personal message from Bobby as way of introducing me - meanwhile I can barely contain my excitement at meeting the brother of Tony Ferrer, Weng Weng’s boss in For Your Height Only.
While waiting patiently for me to balance the camera on a makeshift tripod of phone books, Laxa handed me printouts of the country’s woeful film statistics. For a glorious moment in the sun, the Philippines was the third largest producer of films after Hollywood and Bollywood, at between 300 and 500 movies a year. The local tally for 2006, at last count, was just over 30. There are no more independent or “stand-alone” cinemas, just multi-screens in SM Malls showing primarily American mainstream product. In a film culture saturated by the brightest and shiniest stars Hollywood has to offer, the local version of the Dream Factory no longer holds much interest.
A taxi driver and former pimp states it simply a few nights later: “Pah! I can go see a Hollywood movie and spend ninety minutes laughing, crying, feeling excitement. Why would I go to a Filipino movie and waste ninety minutes of my life?”
A knee-jerk reaction occurs with local producers. Why be adventurous and lose money, when you can rely on the same tired formulae that worked twenty years ago? Sure, you make less money than you used to, and most of your profits go back in taxes to a system that got greedy during the good times, but better a shabbier, less shiny Dream Factory than the Poor House.
Laxa formed Tagalog Ilang-Ilang Productions in 1960, and over the next decade firmly entrenched a new generation of stars with the Lo’ Waist Gang of Fernando Poe Jr (or simply “FPJ”), Joseph “Erap” Estrada, Zaldy Zhornack, Bob Soler, the Salvadors and many others. They were a tougher, leaner bunch of hombres than their Fifties counterparts, either talking big in crime-riddled urban scenarios or riding tall in the saddle on the Filipino prairies in an improbable series of Pinoy Westerns. Their star status was imbued with a heroic mythos - they appeared honest, ready to use their fists or guns or even sacrifice their own lives to defend the common sod.
Of all of his generation of matinee idols, FPJ was the king. When he died after an unsuccessful run at the presidency in 2004, millions of people lined the streets to catch a final glimpse of him. “Erap” is at present under house arrest awaiting trial for corruption, yet still people place him on a pedestal. What was it about them that modern stars can’t duplicate? Laxa thinks for a moment. “People believed them to be honest, and even if they became rich, they were still one of the common people.”
In the Sixties Laxa fashioned a highly successful film series for his brother Tony Ferrer. Based on the Bond series, the Philippines went bananas for their own superspy: supersuave, white-suited Agent Tony Falcon, code name X44. With Laxa producing and veteran actor Eddie Garcia as director, the X44 adventure Sabotage was the surprise hit of the first Manila Film Festival in 1966, and like its Bond series counterpart, continued with almost 20 films over the next two decades. The Philippines has a rich tradition of warping Western pop culture stylistics such as the evergreen Darna, the local variation of Wonder Woman by comic legend Mars Ravelo, and of course the miniature Agent 00. It’s not just a Philippines tradition, though. Third World cinema is littered with parodies like For Your Height Only and James Batman (1966) - in which the Philippines’ most popular comedian Dolphy plays both James Bond AND Batman - thieving not only their ideas but costumes, music, the whole shebang. It’s a weird form of exploitation, part of the colonial experience of simultaneous resistance and reverence towards their dominant culture.
Friends of Tikoy are currently shooting a Tony Falcon remake in town, purchasing the rights to the name from Ferrer in exchange for a cameo. Press coverage of the new Agent X44, Pinoy superstar Vhong Navarro, is in overdrive, and the new film could herald a revival in 60s Filipino kitsch, if only they can find the actual movies. Navarro, naturally, is resurrecting the iconic all-white suit, but sadly not the slick bouffant.
So Weng Weng’s white suit was a homage to Agent Falcon’s?”
“Exactly,” states Laxa emphatically.
“It’s also pure genius on the part of the producer to cast your brother, the Philippines’ James Bond, as Weng Weng’s boss!”
I can tell from Laxa’s blank expression he doesn’t share my enthusiasm. I press further.
“What were your impressions of the Weng Weng movies?”
His index fingers repeatedly tap the sides of his mouth. “They were....unusual......”
“In a good or bad way?”
His eyes widen slightly. “Just.......unusual......”
Outside the Film Academy, Richard runs into a tall, bald African-American in a business shirt. They converse in Tagalog for a while before Richard turns and says to me, “This is Jim. He was in one of my dad’s movies.”
He shakes my hand. “The One Armed Executioner. How you doin’.” It turns out they hadn’t seen one another in over fifteen years.
“This is too fucking weird,” I blurt out. “I was just having pizza with Bobby and Franco!”
He hands me his business card: James L.M. Gaines Jr. “If you’re doing a documentary on B films, you really should talk to me. I’m one of the last Americans from that era left in the Philippines.”
Tony Laxa has made a phonecall to keep the Film Museum open after 5pm. One of the researchers takes me, with Richard and Celso swapping duties as cameraman, on a personal guided tour. Quezon City’s Museum opened several years ago and showcases the original Darna costumes, old posters of Erap and FPJ, newspaper articles dating back to the 1890s, all cobbled together from donations by the actors themselves, and held together on a shoestring budget. Until now, there was no such thing as archiving or film preservation in the Philippines. Even Quezon City’s finest video store Video 48, with its phenomenal range of out-of-print VHS titles from the 80s and 90s, has gargantuan gaps in its collection.
Its shrine to all six Philippines’ National Artists, both living and dead, includes Lino Brocka, FPJ, and, I’m pleased to report, the directors of Mad Doctor Of Blood Island, Eddie Romero and Gerry de Leon.
Outside the Museum, Richard introduces me to a small guy in his fifties in a tee-shirt and baseball cap. “This is Edgardo ‘Boy’ Vinarao. He’s edited about 400 movies, and directed almost thirty.”
I train the camera on him. “‘Boy’ Vinarao - where do I know the name from?”
“I edited most of Bobby’s films.”
“Good god man! Including the Cleopatra Wong features? We just screened the first one last night at Cinemanila!”
“All of them.”
The camera starts to shake with excitement. “That’s amazing. Cleopatra Wong’s one of the first films that got me into Filipino films. The other’s For Your Height Only.”
“I edited all of Weng Weng’s films too.”
If you ever get to see the camera footage, it’s priceless. There’s silence from my end for a few seconds, then: “You’re....joking....”
“Nope. All ten of them.”
“There’s TEN Weng Weng films?”
“Six as main actor, four as cameos.”
“So whatever happened to Weng Weng?”
“Peter Caballes the producer would know, he practically adopted him. Weng was living in his house and was treated like a superstar. Then Weng got sick and moved back to the countryside. I think Peter went on a week-long bender when he found out Weng had died. He spends most of his time in the States these days.”
“What were the other films?”
“Oh god, I can’t remember. I think one was a similar kind of James Bond spoof, with a really thin comedian whose Tagalog name meant ‘matchstick’. He starred as James Bone.”
“You mean a midget James Bond AND an underfed James Bond? In the same movie?”
Cue sound of me hyperventilating in the background.
Cinemanila’s tab at the Pavilion runs out after three days, so Celso books me into the Eurotel in Cubao (“koo-bow”), a central suburb of Quezon City, across the road from both MRT and LRT trainlines and next to - quelle surprise - a shopping mall called the Coliseum. Eurotel is a multi-storied Japanese motel which promised “a view of Europe from every window.” Of course the building was a converted porn cinema from the 80s, so the “windows” were colour blow-ups of Continental postcards with a wooden frame around them (mine was the Anschloss Room with a picturesque view of an Austrian castle), and which would explain the three channels of hardcore porn, but not the 5am Christmas muzak piped into the hallways at maximum volume.
A sign at Eurotel’s entrance says “Please leave your weapons at reception for safekeeping”, and it’s no joke - security is the fastest growing industry in a country which offers an armed guard, and at times sniffer dogs, outside every Western-style business. Technically the country’s still at war with the Muslim insurrection in the South, and since September 11 anyone who’s browner than regulation is given a full rub-down. I stumbled on a security guard training class in Bobby’s Plaza Santa Cruz corridor; through a glass window I saw thirty rookies being shown how to mow down a bandido with a semi-automatic.
During a quick walk round the block I count five former stand-alone cinemas, now housing clothing warehouses and at least one McDonalds. The ex-cinema directly across the road from the Eurotel is “The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God”, a garish multi-million dollar monstrosity bathed in grey tiles and mirrors, not thirty metres away from entire families living on cardboard squares who, you would assume, would benefit from some Christian charity. There appears to be an invisible yet fairly discernible line in Cubao, just five paces between the consumer wonderland of its shopping mall and glaring, abject poverty. And with security guards to keep out the undesirable elements, you could walk around your local SM Mall past Taco Bell and huge vinyl banners of Catherine Zeta Jones all day with a clear bubble around your head piping in an even more soulless muzak version of Jennifer Lopez and pretend you were in Little America, and not perched on the open mouth of Hell.
Eddie’s Big Doll House
Each cab in Manila has its own name (I even spotted one called “Agent 00”!), and in this one, driven by Dante, I discover the hard way that Robin Gibb in town later in the month with his backing band The BeeGees (??!!), playing just across from the Eurotel at the Coliseum. Trapped in across-town traffic, the radio station is stuck on an hour-long BeeGees marathon, punctuated by your favourite your favourite your favourite your favourite every three minutes. At the end of the longest hour of my damnable existence I claw my way out of Dante’s Disco Inferno, and the meter still only reads $3.
Eddie Romero lives in a beautiful two story villa in a quiet street off Quezon City’s main thoroughfare. There’s no real backyards to speak of, but you’re so used to everyone sleeping on top of each in the subway and other jockeying for space on the sidewalks, you forget how nice some parts of Manila can be. His housekeeper serves us impossibly strong Costa Rican coffee; Eddie genuinely appears concerned when I reach for a second cup.
For two hours I interview Eddie on his career in B films, starting with the first Filipino horror film Terror Is A Man/Bood Creature (1959). Produced by Romero with his long-time collaborator Gerry de Leon directing, Terror... is an incredibly atmospheric and beautifully photographed b&w variation of Island Of Dr Moreau. Romero sold the film to the American drive-in market via American businessman Kane W. Lynn, and the two formed a partnership, Hemisphere Pictures, producing low-budget war films and actioners for the lucrative international market, with de Leon often on board.
Hemisphere’s greatest successes were the so-called “Blood Island” trilogy: Brides Of Blood (1968), Mad Doctor Of Blood Island (1969) and its semi-sequel Beast Of Blood (1971), all starring former AIP drive-in star John Ashley and a variety of oozing ghouls. The films were only vaguely connected but established enough of a visible esthetic to spawn a fake Filipino film Brain Of Blood (1971) by infamous Z director Al Adamson. Gerry de Leon meanwhile made two solo pictures for Hemisphere, the bona fide vampire classics The Blood Drinkers/The Vampire People (1966) and Curse Of The Vampires/Creatures Of Evil (1970).
Romero later teamed up with Ashley and Roger Corman to mastermind the werewolf film Beast Of The Yellow Night (1970), classic drive-in nonsense Beyond Atlantis (1973), Savage Sisters (1974), The Woman Hunt (1975), and the Pam Grier starrers The Big Doll House (1971), Black Mama White Mama/Women In Chains (1972) and The Twilight People (1973). This slew of horrors and women-in-prison features ushered in the country’s Golden Age of Exploitation, and as the horror boom waned, the kung fu craze kicked in with a vengeance. Imported stars like Hong Kong’s next would-be Bruce Lees, Bruce Le and Leo Fong fought alongside local luminaries like Ramon Zamora and the Jackie Chan-alike, the unlikely-named Ulyssess Chan (note the number of s’s) whose hair-helmeted performance in 1979’s Mantis Boxer is virtually a scene-by-scene recreation of Jackie’s Drunken Master.
Romero, meanwhile, had turned his back on the international market for Filipino films he had virtually created, and from 1975 onwards made smaller, more personal films in Tagalog - what may be considered “art” films - which, at least in the Philippines, is what Romero will be enshrined at the Film Museum for.
So what exactly did Eddie and I talk about? You’ll have to wait for the documentary to come out...
The Firecracker Capital Of The Philippines
The 90 minute drive with Celso and Richard to Bulacan goes past hundreds of firecracker stalls all waiting for Chinese New Year, then through what looks like a frontier town from the 1920s. Richard scans the pavements for bar girls. “You can’t see them during daylight...”
“See what, Richard?”
“What do you call them? - ‘nightcrawlers’!” he laughs.
Bobby’s home is a beautiful colonial style villa with a separate servant’s quarters and a garden almost flattened by the recent typhoon. In the room next to the servant’s kitchen, Bobby opens a wardrobe door to reveal three giant Arriflex 35mm cameras in their travel cases. I’ve struck the BAS Films nerve centre. Bobby points to a dustpile in the corner. “Here’s the editing table I cut Cleopatra Wong on.”
I film Bobby’s interview against his back wall. “Can you smell?” The odour’s strong, like ammonia. Bobby points over the wall to the remains of a poultry farm. “Chicken sheet!” It must be years old by now, but no less powerful.
I do my best Will Ferrell from Anchorman: “It stings the nostrils.” The reference is completely lost on Bobby, and probably for a good reason.
“You remember Weng Weng, don’t you.”
“Yes!” exclaims Bobby. “Wonderful little guy. Always bowing, like a Japanese businessman.”
“Marrie tells me you were going to make a movie with Weng Weng playing a little brown Jesus.”
“Not Jesus. Would you believe Weng Weng as....Superman?!!”
I laugh. “About as much as I’d believe him as James Bond.”
“Ahahahahaha!” His smile almost slices his face in two. “He was standing on the same desk you ate pizza on the other day.”
“Good Lord!” I now wish I’d saved a napkin as a souvenir.
“Peter Caballes wanted to premiere the James Bond film at the 1980 Metro Manila Film Festival, but there were no screens left. Peter asked me if I could help him out, he so desperately wanted his little film to be shown. So I rang up FPJ and asked him to pull his new feature. And he did. It was then seen, and picked up for distribution overseas.”
“So Bobby - YOU are responsible for For Your Height Only being sold all over the world!”
“I’m afraid so.”
Bobby plans to fly to meet with his potential investors on the southern island of Cebu on Friday. He and Celso spend much of the afternoon hammering out a ninety-page treatment for Vengeance Of Cleopatra Wong, which now features more of Cleo’s daughter than Cleo Wong herself.
“What do you think of Bebe?” Bobby asks, throwing me a photo spread of the still-leggy model.
“Mmmm. Sounds like she’s world famous in Vietnam.”
King Of The Zombies
James L.M. Gaines Jr (“call me Jim”) ushers me into Imagine Nation’s spotlessly clean third floor office in Makati. He recently set up the company as a full post-production house, taking advantage of the quiet digital revolution going on the Filipino film industry. Conversing effortlessly in Tagalog on the phone in a shirt and tie, you almost forget he spent most of the Eighties running around the Philippines jungle in army greens and with a monstrous Jim Kelly afro.
Jim casually tosses a gun magazine across the white formica table. “The film that brought me to the Philippines was Apocalypse Now.”
“Which one were you?”
“I’m not on film for very long, but I’m Robert Duvall’s right hand man.” I strain the memory with no success. “A typhoon had destroyed the set so they had to be rebuilt from scratch. So I got paid by Coppola for a year to sit in Manila bars smoking ragweed and drinking beer with Duvall and Martin Sheen.”
“But not Brando!”
Jim laughs. “Hell, no!”
Apocalypse Now was a watershed film for the Filipino film industry. Almost every able-bodied Filipino film jockey got to train on Coppola’s monolithic Hollywood set, and were paid handsomely for the privilege.
“I hear Coppola was out of control on the set,” I add.
Jim laughs again. “He wanted a shot with fifty body bags in the distance. So he shipped in fifty corpses from morgues. Man, you couldn’t even SEE the bodies!”
I asked Eddie Romero, who was line producer for Coppola on the Apocalypse Now shoot: “It’s true, medical students couldn’t dissect a corpse in Manila for the years 1976 to 1977. They were hanging from trees, over fences... I told him, ‘Mr Coppola, we have access to the finest special effects guys in the Philippines. We can MAKE you corpses!’ He wanted real bodies.”
So Coppola was like a method director? Jim Gaines rolls his eyes. “Yeah, totally.”
Apocalypse Now gave local filmmakers the added confidence to market their own films abroad. The big Hollywood productions continued to roll through - Boys In Company C, Hamburger Hill, Platoon, Born On The Fourth Of July... - and in their wake came a rash of similarly themed (read: carbon copied) WW2 or Vietnam War actioners. Gaines ended up a regular star in direct-to-video features made by Silver Star Films by pair of Chinese Filipinos, producer K.Y. “Sonny” Lim and his directors “Teddy Page”/Teddy Chiu and “John Gale”/Jun Gallardo. Along with fellow Americans Nick Nicholson, Mike Monty and occasional appearances by former peplum and spaghetti western star Richard Harrison, their ultra-low budget earnestness makes them a favourite among bad kung fu film fanatics.
Antonio Margheriti started the Italian invasion of the Philippines with his Deer Hunter/Apocalypse Now reworking The Last Hunter (1980) and before long had based himself almost exclusively in the Philippines for the rest of the Eighties, directing Gaines in Tiger Joe (1982). Other Euro filmmakers were soon in on the action like Swiss-born producer Erwin C. Dietrich, and director Bruno Mattei with his regular assistant Claudio Fragasso (Gaines was in Zombie 4 and Strike Commando among others), all shooting cheap thrills masquerading as exotic genre pictures for the still-lucrative international video market. The Philippines countryside doubled as Vietnam, Korea, South America, Africa - chances are most cheap-assed direct-to-video dreck featuring a palm tree or VC were lensed within sniffing distance of Manila.
Jim initially returned to the Philippines to be assistant on a hardcore porn shoot with the infamous Dick Randall, American producer based in Rome who made a fortune in Z-grade exploitation like King Of Kong Island and The Wild World Of Jayne Mansfield (which included tacked-on footage of Jayne’s grieving family shot a week after her funeral).
My ears prick up. “The film that brought me to Manila was a Dick Randall release - For Your Height Only.”
“Dude, I was one of the voices on that.”
Again, silence. “You’re....fucking....kidding....”
“I was three of the villains.”
“You mean... [adopting a Humphrey Bogart voice] ‘With that curiosity of yours, one day you're likely to wake up dead!!’?”
“Fuck a duck.”
“Three of us sat in a dubbing studio for two or three days smoking pot and pissing our pants laughing.”
“So the English-dubbed For Your Height Only is MEANT to be that absurd!”
“Oh hell yeah. Can you imagine ever taking that film seriously???”
“Did you ever meet Weng Weng?”
“Just once. The producer brought him into the studio. He was such a nice guy, he had absolutely no idea how far the film would travel and make him a star outside the Philippines.”
Before I leave the office, Jim motions me next to a computer screen. “See this? We’re working on the post-production for a new Italian horror film.”
It’s a four minute teaser for Island Of The Living Dead filmed amongst the WW2 ruins on Corregidor Island in Manila Bay. It’s full Fulci-style ultra gore, conquistador zombies, Italian and Filipino actors getting torn to pieces, and the bald dome of Big Jim Gaines himself in the lead role of zombie slayer. “Directed by Vincent Dawn” flashes up at the end of the credits.
“Holy fuck! It’s Bruno Mattei!”
“Yeah man, the Italians are back. They’ve been making three or four films a year for the last few years, all low-budget genre movies shot on HD.” He pulls a smallish digital camera out of its case. “This is the one they use. They’re back in January in the countryside for a new one called Horror River. You should come back to the Philippines and shoot some footage on the set. Bruno’s a certifiable nut. Those crazy Italians!”
Celso had told me the way to Eddie Nicart, director of For Your Height Only and The Impossible Kid, is through the Tropical Hut. “You’ll find all the old stunt guys from the 70s and 80s there. There’s no work anymore, so they sit around drinking coffee waiting for the phone to ring.”
Acting on Celso’s tip-off, I did the mad across-town cab ride to Quezon City to an innocuous plastic-looking burger joint just around the corner from the Film Academy.
I walk through the front door, pull out my camera and ask the counter monkey, “Are there any stunt guys here?” He points to four or five crusty caffeine addicts in baseball caps.
“Do you guys work in the film industry?” I order a round of coffees. One guy, a particularly weathered gent in his sixties with less teeth than a hung jury, surveys me through steely slits. “I acted and did stunts for over 500 movies.”
“I directed six movies, was assistant director for another fifty.” His slits narrow even further. “I’m the Lee Van Cleef of the Philippines.”
He introduces himself as Steve Alcarado. His friend across the table, Vic Belaro, acts and directs when not working for the Manila police. Another guy, not a particularly talkative chap, was apparently a karate champion and Tagalog action star in the Sixties. “I once saw Vic shoot a guy to death just behind the entrance over there,” says Steve, waving in the direction of the Tropical Hut express lane. He then reaches into his knapsack and pulls out a well-fingered photo album. “Here’s me with Antonio Margheriti, me in a 70s western, me jumping out of a palm tree...” In an early 80s polaroid of Steve in jungle greens and ammo belt playing a South American revolutionary, he truly is the spitting image of Lee Van Cleef.
He then hands me a business card for his stunt team Wardogs International. “If you come back to the Philippines and you ever need stuntmen...”
“Do you know Eddie Nicart from the SOS Daredevils?”
“Eddie? He’s my best friend!”
“Holy shit! So you’d remember him directing Weng Weng in a film called For Your Height Only!”
“I remember Weng Weng. Beautiful person.”
“Is it true that Eddie discovered him in a marketplace doing circus tricks, then trained him to become a stuntman?”
“Yes. Do you want to meet Eddie? I can take you in a cab right now.”
“Steve, I’m leaving in a few hours. Shit.”
And that’s the closest I got to Weng Weng. In a burger shop in Quezon City with Eddie Nicart’s coffee buddy.
Steve hands me his mobile number. “Next time you’re in the Philippines I’ll take you to Eddie.” The other guys drain their coffees and give me their numbers as well. “If you ever need a production designer...” “
The fickle Finger of Fate seems to be pointing to my triumphant return to the Philippines. Just like General MacArthur, but with a midget cage and butterfly net.
Final night drinks are at Hobbit’s House. Richard the young dwarf waiter recognizes both me and Khavn - Khavn laughs and says, “Richard was in my feature The Family That Eats Soil.”
“Of course he was.” I begin to realize how small a country of 80 million can actually be. At one point in the early hours of the morning I turn around to catch Richard on stage with the house band singing “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”.
Only in the Philippines.
4.30am, and Khavn’s driven the dregs of the Hobbit House party to a karaoke bar deep in the bowels of Quezon City, surrounded by toothless old winos singing Sixties ballads in Tagalog. Naturally I get a little over-excited during my shambolic pants-down rendition of “The Greatest Love Of All”, jumping on a plastic lawn table and kicking over everyone’s drinks. I get away with it, but just. Again, only in the Philippines.
Two hours of fitful sleep later, I’m driving to the airport with Bobby’s family.
Bobby, Gene and Richard drove me on the two hour trip to Aquino International Airport on the way to the airport.
“Did you get to find Weng Weng?” asks Bobby.
“No. Maybe next trip.”
“You’ll be back many times. I feel it.”
Franco rings. He’s still recovering at his mother’s in the country and apologizes for missing his interview. “Next time, I’ll spend a couple of days with you!” I’m already seeing the country fade before my eyes.
Bobby hands me the treatment for Vengeance Of Cleopatra Wong. “Let me know what you think. I have money in the budget put aside for you to do the ‘Making Of...’ documentary.”
“Really?” I hug Bobby.
“You know, one day I’m going to make another horror film.”
“Oh,” I say, almost afraid to ask.
“Draculita. The GAY Dracula! Can you picture it?” His eyes twinkle. “What do you think?”
I study him for a moment. Twenty years of political correctness have left Bobby completely untouched. “You’re crazy,” I finally reply.
“You are a filmmaker, so YOU’re crazy!”
I laugh. “And the poster can say, ‘I want to suck your...’ “
Bobby laughs with me. “Ha! NOW you’re thinking like a Filipino filmmaker!”
Please let me know what you think about the sample treatment - I really value your opinion.
Warmest regards, Andrew
I write about Philippine cinema, not crap like what you like to watch. Who are you to consider good everything I abhor and despise? It's Westerners like you (call this racism, I suppose, but can you consider it unprovoked?) that ridicule and make small everything we hold dear; I imagine a turd like Borat, only directed at us Filipinos, coming from your little mind. Now, please go, and do not disturb me evermore.
This is great stuff! No, unfortunately, I've never seen a Weng Weng film (my ignorance on these matters is incredible), but I'm wondering from the sample you've written, have you heard of our classic comedians? Dolphy, in a double role as a gay man and Satan in Omeng Satanasia (1977--he won a FAMAS Award for Best Actor!)? Palito the walking corpse; Pugok, of bald pate and prehensile lower jaw; Chiquito? Bentot, who wore shorts and a beanie cap and acted like a thirty-year-old child?
Tito, Vic, and Joey, the Three Stooges of Philippine cinema? Rene Requiestas, the other walking corpse who did a few romantic comedies with Kris, the actress daughter of President Corazon Aquino (and fell in love with her to boot)? Or Kris' other films, mostly the infamous 'massacre movies,' directed by the Ed Wood of the Philippines, Carlos J. Caparas? Or the camp classic, Temptation Island (1981) (done by a Japanese-Filipino, Joey Gosengfiao), featuring a bevy of beauty contest aspirants stranded on desert island, suffering from hallucinations, at one point straddling a giant ice cream cone?
You probably have included some of these, maybe most (I'd love a copy), but I'm betting not all. A sequel, perhaps?
Anyway, glad to hear from you. This is a quick missive fired off in a hurry; I haven't read your article in detail. But it looks like great fun. One serious observation: it seems a tad scattershot to be truly systematic...but then, this book is born out of passion, not hard logic, is it (who am I, with my own book, to demand systematicism from anyone?)? And what's the charm of a dry, academically sober textbook on Weng Weng (a joke article, maybe?)? If I can give the sample a second and closer read one of these days, maybe I can comment more... Anyway, thanks for the heads up! More power to your book.
I almost dropped dead when I read the start of your reply!!!
Now that I've recovered...
Many thanks for your feedback, and for your suggestions on Pinoy comedians.
Dolphy - I've seen his classic James Batman (1966) and a recent film, Home Alone Da Riber. I desperately need to see more, particularly Dolphy's Angels (1979) and the late 80s Da Best In Da West, in which I believe Weng Weng has a cameo.
Palito the walking corpse - is he known as "Matchstick"? Boy Vinnarao told be he was in a series called James Bone produced by Peter Caballes, who also teamed him up with Weng Weng in a "Bone Meets Double O" feature. I can't find ANY of Palito's films.
Joey and Rene were in Alyas Batman En Robin, which I own, and I continue to look for more. They did mostly TV?
"Kris' other films, mostly the infamous 'massacre movies,' directed by the Ed Wood of the Philippines, Carlos J. Caparas?"
Found them ALL in Quezon City's Video 48, and will be devoting a whole chapter to them!!!
"Or the camp classic,Temptation Island (done by a Japanese Filipino, Joey Gosengfiao)"
Heard about it on my last trip but am yet to find a copy.
"One serious observation: it seems a tad scattershot"
I agree, the 10,000 word version is a little scattershot. Once I finish my second research trip, then arrange the previous article into chapters and cover each topic (the Corman & co drive-in films, FPJ westerns, Tony Falcon, Pinoy superheroes, Celso Ad. Castillo's genre films, the Italians in the Philippines etc) in depth along with interview material, it really will read a lot better.
Will keep you up to date!
Many thanks again, Borat ...I mean Andrew
Andrew, one more recommendation: Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000), a supernatural-war atrocity-love story celebration of Phlippine poetry, and one of the best recent films I've ever seen.
Note: a shortened version of the above article appeared in the Pacific Film and Television Commission website and was mentioned in the Brisbane International Film Festival monthly newsletter.