Photo thanks to the website Video 48On the occasion of the film's restoration and brief commercial screening in SM Manila
When I first saw Eddie Romero's Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon? (rough translation: The Way We Were Then, The Way We Are Now, 1976)--easily his best-known, most beloved film--so many years ago, I didn't like it.
I liked a lot about it, loved the literate, sophisticated world-weary tone, loved the tongue-in-cheek humor, loved the fact that it tackled a weighty issue (“who is the Filipino?”) without being weighty or (worse) dull. Loved many of the performances, from Leopoldo Salcedo's relentlessly self-dramatizing Mang Atong (my favorite performance in the picture) to Gloria Diaz's thespically ambitious Diding Patron to E.A. Rocha's ever-irritated Padre Corcuera. Loved the many songs and music, which sometimes make sly commentary on the onscreen action.
The film's camerawork I found more problematic. “Flat,” I had thought. Competently done, but compared to some of the work that came out in this period--Conrado Baltazar's slum noir photography in Insiang, Ely Cruz and Rody Lacap's gothic atmosphere in Itim (Rites of May), Conrado Baltazar's painterly images in Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God), Ganito suffered in comparison. I couldn't get beyond the fact of the film's comparative visual poverty, like sitting through a wonderful performance of a brilliant play with your back to the stage: you sense something great happening, but have a less than ideal view of it.
Seeing it so many years after is liking meeting an old acquaintance with which you've had a troubled, trying history: you feel embarrassed at having disliked him so much, the same time you want to discover that the passage of time and accumulation of history has worn away his rough edges, made him companionable and perhaps even charming.
Well...somewhat. You can't force Romero to tilt the camera any more than he actually tilts it, can't force him to move the camera forward, backwards, sideways further and more often than he does, can't force him to adopt a more memorable color palette (one that doesn't look made-for-television). To be fair, hardly anyone demands that comedies be cinematic, and Romero clearly intended to tell his story in as plain and unshowy a manner as possible--but must it be this plain?
On the other hand my appreciation for the script has grown. Sophisticated comedies in Philippine cinema are rare; sophisticated comedies that use humor to break open attitudes and ideas on the Filipino identity--apparently there's been one masterful treatment of the subject, and this is it. I don't mean the obvious symbols: young Nicholas ('Kulas) Ocampo (Christopher de Leon) as We the Filipinos, Padre Corcuera as The Abusive Clergy, Diding as the Anti-Maria Clara, who in turn is Emblem of Virtuous Womanhood, Don Tibor (Eddie Garcia) as The Powerful Landed Upper-Class. More interesting is Romero's treatment of the question “who are the Filipinos?” which Kulas asks again and again, getting a different reply each time, the range and variety of responses--from observant to self-absorbed, from thoughtful to defiantly proud--being itself a an eloquent and powerful answer: we are all Filipinos, we all represent the Filipino identity in our own flawed, gloriously varied, inimitably individual manner. Kulas will never get a satisfactory response because he will never get a final response; every Filipino he will meet will react differently, each response more perplexing, more thought-provoking than the next.
More interesting than the characters' allegorical surface traits are their contrary moments of humanity--Padre Corcuera is often truculent and dissembling, but when Kulas catches him off-guard he replies that we Filipinos will never change even if we do manage to free ourselves from Spanish oppression (what when you think about it can be more honest than a predator's opinion of its longstanding prey?). “Never be poor,” Padre Corcuera declares. “God loves the poor, but only God--no one else would bother.” He's lied to, deceived and manipulated Kulas throughout the film, but here he really does seem to be functioning as a concerned father, giving thoughtful advice.
Diding is if anything a more complicated knot to untangle. Easy enough to see her as a parody of Maria Clara, virginal heroine of Jose Rizal's classic Noli Me Tangere, but if we remember that Rizal himself was a superb satirist, and that Maria might have been meant to be a parody and not a paragon of Filipino womanhood--suddenly Diding seems knottier, more interesting, a response to Rizal's parody instead of a mere parody of a parody. Instead of Rizal's passive, helpless female Romero gives us a self-starter with innovative ideas about a woman's role in Filipino society; instead of a spineless idealist we have a clear-eyed pragmatist, who doesn't hesitate to use a man's strengths (i. e.: his libido) against him in a feat of sexual jiu-jitsu. Diding turns out to be as honest and witty a philosopher as Marilyn Monroe's Lorelei Lee, whose enlightened self-interest in Howard Hawks' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes seems positively Libertarian, almost Ayn Randian. Is she flawed? Yes, but Romero gives us fleeting glimpses into her motives, brief flashes of insight into her character so charming and seductive (in a philosophical rather than sexual--though there is that--sense) one is tempted to say we Filipinos need more of it (we don't but for a moment there I was swayed).
By film's end Kulas is sadder, wiser, etc., etc.; he is also far less happy than when he first started out. Beyond the obvious lesson--that experience only sharpens a man's mind and attitude--Romero also makes the larger point that one loses when gaining something, that time means inexorable change, that a man who stops moving stops living (improvement being at best a temporary reprieve from the general decline). Romero in direct contradiction to one of his inspirations (Voltaire's Candide, whose eponymous hero comes to the painful conclusion that we “must cultivate our gardens”) and as a salute to Mark Twain's great The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn pushes Kulas right out of the film frame and into the realm of the Filipino imagination.
So is Ganito a great film? I submit that Ganito is a great film script, and that its career as a work of literature is (or should be) only beginning--what's to stop this from being performed on the radio, or the theater stage? Take away the rather pedestrian visuals to focus on nimble storytelling and sharp dialogue? What's to stop this from becoming musical, perhaps? Monique Wilson would make a smashing Diding.
First published in Businessworld, 8.8.13