Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Tanging Ina ((roughly) The True Mother, Wenn Deramas, 2003)

(Reprinted from my previous blog)

Wenn V. Deramas'
Tanging Ina is a surprisingly supple, surprisingly well-made, comedy that turns on the acting and comic talents of the decidedly unglamorous Ai-Ai de Las Alas. Ai-Ai is an odd combination: generous bosom and glamour-girl legs attached to cartoon mug and horsey jaw; you can see why men would find her attractive enough to make their wife, the same time God would find her funny-looking enough to be the butt of some of his less-than-kindly jokes.

The first twenty minutes are the film's high point. Deramas uses the standard tropes of Filipino comedy: speeded-up slapstick, absurdist imagery, semaphoring silent acting; what distinguishes his use of these devices from the usual Filipino director's is that it's all in the service of creating a genuinely complex and fairly original comic character: the mother as hapless creature of fate, doing her best to keep her sizable chin above the water as she marries one husband after another, is widowed in a number of rather ingenious ways (one drops dead from a heart attack; another falls from the balcony of a movie theater during a panic stampede; yet another is electrocuted at their wedding reception), each leaving her with an ever increasing number of children.

Along the way Deramas (using a script from Mel Mendoza del Rosario--one of the better comedy writers working in the industry today--and Keiko Aquino) scores satiric points: the tendency of Filipinos to produce unbelievably large families (Ai-Ai eventually ends up with a dozen kids), the mad scramble for decent jobs in an increasingly indecent economy; the value put on displayable material wealth and "face," or surface respectability. Some of the better jokes include Ai-Ai naming her children after numbers (Juan (Marvin Agustin), after "one;" Portia (Heart Evangelista) from "por" or "four"); an excellent Dennis Padilla as her latest suitor, a taxi driver with an appealingly maniacal twinkle in his eye and a penchant for showing up in his knight-errand taxi at the right place and the right time; and, of course, the film's title, which literally means "true Mother," the same time it's a pun on an obscenity that means: "whore mother."

The film doesn't sustain the comic momentum: about two-thirds of the way the picture seriously sags from all the tearjerking drama, meant to underline Ai-Ai's plight and suffering (they could have underlined it and still made it funny). Some of the satire isn't as pointed as it could be--Heart Evengelista could have really gone to town on her materialistic Portia, who expects her mother to fork out enough cash for her swanky debut birthday party, but other than some deft slapstick she does little else; no connection is made between Ai-Ai's troubles and the Catholic Church's medieval policies on birth control; and an incident involving a terrorist bomber seems to come out of left field if one isn't familiar with the turmoil that embroiled Manila at the time the film was made (some political context would have been welcome). Still, this is a film with serious targets that it manages to skillfully skewer at least half the time (most Filipino satires nowadays miss their targets entirely); and in terms of general quality it stands head and shoulders above the standard-issue "toilet humor" or "tits-and-ass" slapstick.

(Film available on Netflix)

Friday, October 27, 2006

One cheap shot deserves another: a reply to an article on "Insiang"

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Ruel Vernal, Hilda Koronel and Mona Lisa in Insiang

(Warning: plot discussed in close detail)

In a summer, 2006 issue of Reverse Shot,
an article by Mr. Michael Joshua Rowin on Insiang.

It's amazing the kind of reactions we can get on seeing a film, even one with a supposedly high reputation as this one. The writer admits as much, that a "variety of sources, all reliable" informed him of its status as Brocka's masterpiece. He whets his witty prose and proceeds to carve smooth chunks out of the film: is its status as 'masterpiece,' he speculates, only a matter of relativity--like, as he puts it, "calling Phone Booth Joel Schumacher’s magnum opus?" Is Brocka "a mediocre to bad director who nonetheless remains one of the Philippine’s few cinematic representatives on the world stage, thus allowing his output a free pass?" Is Insiang "by any standard, simply a hokey, silly piece of cheese that has earned its reputation—one might theorize—because of its status as Third World Art?"

Cheese, incidentally, is a luxury not quite as popular in our corner of the Third World (What a quaint term! Are there people in the world still unaware of how offensive that sounds to Asian ears?), partly because so many of the population are lactose intolerant, partly because few cows flourish in our tropical climate--but never mind; the man has a point. Has Brocka--and by extension Insiang--received what accolades it has received mainly because of film and filmmaker's status as low-budget heroes of Southeast Asia?

Mr. Rowin admits to not knowing much about our cinema, although "Lord knows I’ve tried to learn something about Brocka and his work in the weeks between the screening of Insiang and the writing of this review." Lord knows, it's too much to ask a man to perhaps do his research before watching a film, in case either film, filmmaker or context would prove difficult to understand. I have always thought Insiang, of all Filipino films, needed no introduction for a foreigner to appreciate--but that assumption has apparently been shattered, and we Filipinos should just humbly accept this contrary view.

But hold on, there's more: he makes much out of the fact that Brocka is a Mormon convert, and points to a "missionary morality, a sense that the world’s wickedness is a pure state in need of nothing less than divine clean-up"--which means what, exactly? Does feeling the need of some kind of apocalyptic cleansing preclude giving an artist respect? Brocka was also gay and openly so by 1976, a fact I doubt that the Mormons appreciate as openly; would Mr. Rowin be more ready to accept Brocka's "missionary morality" if he knew that said morality included homosexuals like Brocka in the clean-up?

But that's not the gist of Mr. Rowin's complaint, apparently; he homes in on the "unfiltered melodrama, the kind of unironic paean to Greek tragedy that without the appropriate critical distance or at the very least a sense of humor becomes a soggy, unintentional joke." He adds "(r)ather than the dirty grace of, say, Bresson’s Mouchette, Brocka develops the character’s downward spiral as uncomplicatedly as possible."

I don't know how radically standards of "complicatedliness" differ between Third and First Worlds, but may I offer to Mr. Rowin the possibility that he may have missed out on some of the complications? The fact, for one, that while Insiang turns vengeful Dado, her rapist, becomes hapless and even rather pitiful? The first time he comes to Insiang's bed we laugh when he declares his love for her; we think it's his usual bullshit (oh yes, humor--it's supposed to be totally absent from this film). In the next few scenes we learn that Dado's sincere (or as sincere as any man can be), that he really wants to run away and live with her, and plans his life accordingly. I don't know about First World critics, but a man this besotted deserves not just my laughter (I agree, the tattoo of his own name on his own chest is a bit much--but say that aloud in the streets of Tondo, and you're likely to get an icepick buried in your kidney) but my sympathy.

That the mother, "bitch" as Mr. Rowin may call her (I consider her monstrous, myself), became that way not without cause--a cause that Brocka and actress Mona Lisa take care to show to us on the big screen? Aside from the husband that abandoned her (an understandable cause for "bitchiness," I would imagine--but I wouldn't know what First World viewers can understand) Tonya is a handsome but aging woman who loves sex but is in the worst situation in the world to enjoy it. If she has to throw her in-laws out, keep the faucet running all night to cover the noise, believe her lover over her own daughter to keep enjoying that sex, well…but none of this obvious onscreen, apparently.

That the shape the plot takes isn't that of a downward spiral (a simple shape, it's true--are simple shapes such a bad thing?) at all but of a triangle--or, rather, a trio of inmates, hopelessly linked; that mother exploits daughter exploits lover exploits mother in an endless daisy chain, wrongdoing piling atop wrongdoing, and we can't say who is wrong or right anymore? That beyond Mr. Rowin's beloved "downward spiral" is this blurring line between victim and victimizer, blamer and blamed?

Mr. Rowin goes on to do something rather distasteful: he writes a detailed account of the film's story, giving away the ending in the process. "Apologies for the summary," he offers by way of explanation, "but the best way to truly account for this rote film is to offer a rote description." I would dearly love to offer up excuses for Mr. Rowin--that he had a migraine that day, that it was his time of the month, that the video he saw (he may say he has "seen plenty of video transfers of films" that he has liked, but I wonder if someone who still uses the term "Third World" in an actual article is really used to the kind of horrifyingly muddy video transfers common in Manila). Truth of the matter is, I can't think of any decent excuse for his offering this rote dismissal of a film he has acknowledged various sources ("all reliable" as he put it) have called a "masterpiece." I accept his reaction, even accept his sarcasm; I would have liked to know, in detail, what led him to said reaction, and why. I think a film beloved of many a "reliable" viewer (don't know who they are, but I assume they would include film critics Pierre Rissient and
Dave Kehr among many others)--just how "reliable" does he feel these sources are, and just how much respect is he willing to accord their view (in the sense that he must reconcile his contrary one)? Not much, apparently.

Mr. Rowin says "Brocka gives no indication that he sees any connection between the vicious circle of his characters’ deceptions and the world around them," claiming that "too much gets left to “human nature” and the worst clichés of psychological dwarfism" (is this reprehensible as opposed to, say "psychological giantism?"): he accuses Bebot of abandoning Insiang in the motel room " because it works for the plot and, heck, that’s what young men usually do to young women." But would it have pleased Mr. Rowin more if the young man had done what is not usually done to young women? That they had gone into a motel room together and Bebot, say, tried on instead some of the fabulous lipstick Insiang had borrowed from her friend? If this is "what young men usually do" (if it's psychologically plausible, I assume he means) and it "works for the plot" as well, wouldn't that qualify it as a well-written plot point? That maybe some of the "complicatedliness" and novelty he seems to be seeking will be found elsewhere, in the aforementioned triangle?

And just how else are you supposed to show connections "between the vicious circle of his characters’ deceptions and the world around them?" Have some socially conscious figure expound on the subject, at length? Draw a diagram, perhaps? Didn't Mr. Rowin notice that in Tonya's rejection of her in-laws she is in effect rejecting wholesale the community's mores? That there is commentary being made on the unfolding drama by the community--mostly represented by Insiang's best friend, the one with the fabulous lipstick (and that the best friend's own brother offers an opposing view?)? Aren't those connections, however tenuous (I don't think so, myself) between the characters and "the world around them?"

And if “human nature” can't determine motivation then what can--computer coding? I've said I don't mind the odd contrary view, but this particular contrariness seems difficult to understand (perhaps it's because my Third World sensibilities are so crude and insensitive). Perhaps (since he's evoked Bresson) he expects some kind of distancing stylization, with all the actors standing on their right foot and declaiming in iambic pentameter--to which I can only offer this poor reply from Mario O'Hara, the writer of Insiang: "The problem with many European films is that they are so intellectual. That’s good for the European audience, but we Filipinos are so much simpler. Our dramas are simple, our attack is simple."

Perhaps that's the problem: the film is too simple for Mr. Rowin to get. It doesn't fly over his head, it crawls too low beneath for him to be able to pick up. A simple slum drama isn't enough for him; he needs intellectual mediation, a way to keep the stink and grime of Tondo at arm's length (he characterizes the opening slaughterhouse scene as "unnecessary"--his opinion, of course, but for me it both strikes the right note of ever-threatening violence found in the slums and foreshadows Tonya's reaction to Dado's betrayal). But I wouldn't know; I am but a Third World viewer, and this is but a Third World film.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

World Trade Center (Oliver Stone, 2006)

Well, I didn't say it would all be Filipino films. I'll be posting the occasional paid-for article, and other odds and ends:

World Trade Center (Oliver Stone, 2006)


"This is not a political film." That was the mantra Oliver Stone reportedly repeated to himself while making his latest production, "World Trade Center." The basic idea was to show what happened on September 11, 2001, when two passenger jets hit the Twin Towers and not long after sent them tumbling down. "The details are the details are the details," he says, having been told in no uncertain terms by producers Michael Shamberg and Stacy Sher (they gave him the aforementioned mantra) to keep the paranoid conspiracy theories ("JFK" comes to mind) to a minimum and stick to the facts.

The filmmakers stick to the facts, up to a point; they use blueprints, computer simulations and laser-measuring technology to recreate exactly how the buildings fell; hire Will Jimeno (one of the two survivors) as special consultant; interviewed anyone and everyone short of the Taliban even remotely connected to the disaster ("It's to the point where he drives me crazy, trying to get things right," Jimeno says about the details-obsessed Stone).

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Filipino films on DVD (updated 5/9/08)

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Poster for The Fatima Buen Story (Mario O'Hara, 1994)

Maybe I need to backtrack, and mention where all the Filipino films I keep writing about can be found. Please note that I will be updating this particular post from time to time, and will provide a permanent link to it on my sidebar.

On recommendations on Filipino films, I posted a list of 13 favorites here:

Thirteen Important Filipino Films

with the added warning that anyone who began writing about Filipino films from the '80s onwards struggles against the deterioration of film prints, even of films from the '80s (I note that in the article); in fact our earliest available prints come only from 1939. We suffering from an increasingly serious state of amnesia, in effect, with regards to our film heritage.

I rewrote the article, modifying the list some, here:

Twelve Great Filipino Films

An article on one of the cinema's best artists, Mike de Leon, here:

The thin line between genius and sanity

As for available copies of the cinema's best-known filmmaker Lino Brocka's best known work Maynila sa Mga Kukong Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975); I remember seeing VHS copies in New York's video stores, presumably subtitled, and for a time kabayancentral
offered copies--which has since vanished. A DVD is being planned, but that's in the future.

Two Brocka films can be found at Facets
in Chicago; Orapronobis (Fight for Us, 1989), and Macho Dancer (1988). I wouldn't know if they have subtitles or not.

Recent Filipino films I recommended can be found on VCD or even DVD format here:


Search for titles like Mario O'Hara's Babae sa Bubungang Lata
(Woman on a Tin Roof), and Pangarap ng Puso (Demons); Peque Gallaga's erotic noir Scorpio Nights; Lav Diaz's science-fictional Hesus Rebolusyonaryo (Jesus the Revolutionary). All, unfortunately unsubtitled.

Kabayan Central
boasts of a selection of classic films from their
LVN Films catalog
and Sampaguita Pictures catalog. They also have more recent pictures, including Mike de Leon's Kung Mangarap Ka't Magising and Bayaning Third World (Third World Hero) and a selection from Viva Films (Tikoy Aguiluz's erotic noir thriller Segurista (Dead Sure), and his independently produced historical verite piece Rizal sa Dapitan--in which, full disclosure, I have story and dialogue credits). Again, most probably unsubtitled.

The website also offers a few worthwhile films with English subtitles: Mario O'Hara's Babae sa Breakwater
(Woman of the Breakwater, the first Filipino feature film to go to Cannes in fifteen years), Tikoy Aguiluz's Biyaheng Langit (Paradise Express); Lino Brocka's Macho Dancer (not his very best, but quite good); Ishmael Bernal's Relasyon (The Affair) and Manila By Night (both among his best; Manila in particular being his masterpiece, in an unfortunately not very good transfer); Jeffrey Jeturian's Tuhog (Larger Than Life--note: I know Jeturian's film has a subtitled DVD; I don't know if the website offers that DVD.

And I should mention a new company, Cinefilipino
, dedicated to distributing Unitel films and Filipino classics in the United States, whose DVD releases had been reviewed recently by the New York Times' Dave Kehr. Their titles--all subtitled, though I can't vouch for the quality of the film transfer--include the aforementioned Manila by Night, Macho Dancer and Relayson, Lino Brocka's Ina, Kapatid, Anak (Mother, Sister, Daughter), plus an intriguing one by Mario O'Hara: The Fatima Buen Story, a true life tabloid story given a gothic flavor by one of the finest filmmakers in the industry.

Another alternative is Cinema One in The Filipino Channel (TFC), which a lot of Filipinos seem to subscribe to; they show almost all the films I've mentioned above (untitled, unfortunately); if you have a friend who has a subscription, he could tape it for you, maybe even do "benshi."

Lastly, while I haven't written about these particular pictures (but I mean to, one of these days), here are a few Gerardo de Leon*
films available on DVD:

Terror is a Man

The Blood Drinkers

Blood of the Vampires

Brides of Blood

Mad Doctor of Blood Island

Walls of Hell

I recommend Terror is a Man and Blood of the Vampires. But if you can't take my word for it, read Mark Holcomb of The Village Voice and his take on Gerardo de Leon.

*Correction: Gerardo de Leon never worked for Roger Corman.

Update (1/11/08): 

Kabayan Central lists all available DVDs with English subtitles. Of this list, I recommend Lamberto Avellana's tribal classic Badjao (1957); Maryo J. delos Reyes' youth angst film Bagets (1984); Ishmael Bernal's near-hallucinatory treatise on religious hysteria (Himala (Miracle, 1982)); Brillante Mendoza's 'omnibus' film Kaleldo (Summer Heat, 2006); Mike de Leon's political drama Sister Stella L. (1984); and Auraeus Solito's provincial drama Tuli (2005).

Meantime Cinefilipino has not been idle; it's managed to release bare-bone but nevertheless handsome DVDs of two of Brocka's best works: Insiang (1976), and Tinmbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged and Found Wanting, 1974). They have also released Lino Brocka's gay-man-adopts-angel-child film Ang Tatay Kong Nanay (My Father the Mother, 1978) and omnibus trio of short films Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa (Three, Two, One, 1974).

I've already mentioned their collection of Regal Film classics earlier, though the titles are worth repeating (Manila By Night; Ina, Kapatid, Anak; Relasyon; The Fatima Buen Story).

Most intriguing in Cinefilipino's catalogue are the Sampaguita Classics, films by Mar Torres and Carlos Vander Tolosa, titles I've heard of but never dreamed could ever be available on DVD. I can speak up for Jack 'n Jill at least--it's a delightful comedy, with Lolita Rodriguez as a butch, jeepney-driving Jill and the great comedian Dolphy as a fragile flower of a Jack (or is it the other way around?).

Of Unitel's original productions, I can recommend Mark Meily's green card comedy La Visa Loca (2005); director Maryo J. delos Reyes and writer Michiko Yamamoto's child drama Magnifico (2003); and Solito and Yamamoto's Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005).

Update (5/9/08)

Mike de Leon's Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (Rough translation--Does Your Heart Beat Faster? 1980) is, of all films, available on DVD! Mike De Leon's one out-and-out comedy isn't the funniest Filipino film ever made, but is easily one of the wittiest, not to mention demented.

And two major Mario O'Hara releases, on VCD! Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, 1980) is a commercial vehicle starring acting diva and singer Nora Aunor and stuntman Lito Lapid; accommodating the two lead stars resulted in a film that can only be described as a cross between George Cukor's A Star is Born and Ringo Lam's Prison on Fire.

O'Hara's Bakit Bughaw ang Langit (Why is the Sky Blue? 1981) is O'Hara treading in longtime collaborator Lino Brocka's social realist territory; the results, however, are (I submit) quieter, subtler, more intimate, more intense. Some say this is O'Hara's masterpiece; I don't quite agree, but I think I know where they're coming from. 

I write about Kastilyong Buhangin here and Bakit Bughaw ang Langit here. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Imaginasian Film Festival in New York

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Jojo De Vera and yours truly, outside the theater

I'd already written about this before: The Imaginasian Filipino Film Festival which closed last October 19, showed several of the very best films of the '70s and '80s, including masterpieces by Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Mario O'Hara, Mike de Leon.

The venue is a little 300-seat theater, on 59th Street off 2nd Ave. It has a closed off boxoffice (you buy your tickets inside), a tiny popcorn stand, a tinier candy counter and if the theater happens to be showing a Bollywood feature, they even offer somozas.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Vincent Nebrida and yours truly, at the theater lobby

I got the invitation from Jojo de Vera, and through him festival organizer Vincent Nebrida--would you like to introduce some of the films in the festival, they had asked. I'd thought about it and said sure; New York City was just a four-hour drive.

Right. What with getting lost on I-78 (asked directions from a gas station; never realized there were still full-service stations in New Jersey), then taking the wrong turn off Lincoln Tunnel and ending up in 10th Ave., the whole trip took six, not four hours.

But it was worth it. Part of the package deal was an invite to see the New York Film Festival's screening of Lino Brocka's 1976 film Insiang. Went with the friend I was staying with,
Ramon Mappala, to Lincoln Center. He asked me where the screening was; I told him "Alice Tully Hall." "That can't be," he said; "Alice Tully is too big. Let's check out the Walter Reade Theater." We went to Walter Reade; nothing was screening there. "Okay," Mon said; "Alice Tully then."

The theater was huge--1,100 seats. I wondered: could the showing of a thirty-year-old Filipino film generate enough interest for a venue this large? It was filling up; slowly, but it was filling up.

The film was preceded by a short; Todd Davis' In the Tradition of My Family, an interesting little tale about a family with a strange tradition--the father has to shoot his son anywhere in his body, preferably somewhere visible, and with a large-bore pistol. The opening credit sequence was beautiful, a set of drawings that moved slowly and smoothly across the screen (the drawings depicted various gunshot wounds)--you could tell this little piece had a budget.

After the short I looked around; the theater was almost full--800, maybe 900 people, from the look of it. I was impressed.

The short was followed by a speech by Insiang's producer, Ruby Tiong Tan, where she talked proudly of the significance of the film, of how it was the first Filipino feature to make it in Cannes, and how it's before God that we measure our true honor and worth, and how she admonished Lino to take out all the profanity, and how a film should be free of gratuitous sex and violence. The faint insistent scraping I heard was probably my eyebrows brushing against the ceiling.

Ms. Tan stepped off the stage, the lights dimmed, the projector fired up, and a half-naked Ruel Vernal plunged his knife into the throat of an upside-down pig, releasing a gout of dark blood. I had to chuckle; Davis' film, which was an amusing little gothic number not a little inspired, I think by Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" (the short is based on a story by Philip LaMarche), showed a convincing set of bullet wounds onscreen, but Brocka's very first shot wiped all memory of faked gore off one's mind and introduced us to the sordid tale of Insiang, the beautiful young girl sharing a man with her mother in the crowded slums of Tondo. This was Manila, no less, nor are we out of it.

Fiel Zabat, who designed the film, wasn't able to talk at the New York Film Festival screening, but she did speak at the Imaginasian screening a few days later, and she had a fascinating detail to reveal to us: Insiang's slum house was actually a set with multilevel floors and detachable walls so that the camera could move freely in and out of the house, in all directions.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Fiel Zabat and yours truly at the Alice Tully Hall, for the NYFF Insiang screening

Coming out of the theater, a camera crew--a camera crew?--asked me what's the significance of the film showing here in the Lincoln Center. "I think it's an honor," I said. "I think it's great we're having some kind of tribute for Brocka, who isn't really all that well-known outside of the Philippines and outside of film circles. And it's great he's represented here by one of his very best works--his masterpiece, in effect."

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Interview outside Alice Tully Hall, the NYFF Insiang screening

(Or words to that effect. I don't quite remember, I just said anything that came into my head, so if anyone who sees that particular video clip and notices that the words don't match my recollection, I plead senility.)

I did manage to shake hands with Danny Brocka, Lino's brother, which was a tremendous experience. Told him I'd met his famous brother once--years back, during a NY Film Archive retrospective in the early '90s--where I shook Lino's hand and mentioned that my brother had worked for him as an apprentice (an identical twin, is why Lino thought I looked so familiar).

Coming out of Insiang we were so late we missed the beginning of the screening of Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Weighed and Found Wanting, 1974); I was able to do a short Q & A where I noted that the film was the opening salvo in what's commonly know as the Third Golden Age of Philippine Cinema, from 1974 until the fall of the Marcos Administration in 1986 (an ad hoc label; the First Golden Age would probably be the pre-war period, from the beginning of the century till before the Second World War, the Second Golden Age is the postwar period, from the late forties to the fifties). I also noted that the film was shot in Brocka's home town of San Jose, Nueva Ecija, that his coming back there to shoot was a form of revenge (he left a bastard child, returned a big-time filmmaker) on the place where he spent an unhappy period in his childhood, and that the film's satiric tone reflected his feelings for the town and its people.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Introducing a film at the Imaginasian Theater

I stayed long enough to see the middle portion of Brocka's omnibus film Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa (Three, Two, One, 1974)--"Hello Soldier," written by Brocka's longtime collaborator Mario O'Hara (who had written Insiang and written and acted in Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang) and starring Hilda Koronel and Anita Linda. It's still a lovely, powerful little piece, about a young woman whose US Veteran father has come to take her away from her drunken Filipina mother. No subtlety about it, it fully embraces the pathos of its situation; what keeps it from collapsing in a sodden mess is Brocka's documentarian sensibility (he shoots in an actual slum, and uses crowds of actual slum dwellers) and O'Hara's insistence on on the reality of their situation (the characters may act or feel sentimental, he seems to say, but this is how they would really act). The American couple that visits may be less than perfect--their lines are clearly dubbed, and their talk a shade too literary, I thought--but O'Hara gives even them a point of view (the husband waxes nostalgic over old memories; the wife is apprehensive and not a little jealous of the young girl). Given O'Hara's half-American heritage, you can see that the script is a working out of his feelings on the subject of mixed heritages, familial loyalties and true or adopted homes (for the record, even though O'Hara and his family--thanks to his Thomasite heritage--have been granted American citizenship, he has no intention of leaving the Philippines).

It was too late to do a Q & A for the last film of the day, Tubog sa Ginto (Dipped in Gold, 1972), adapted from the "komiks" series by the amazing Mars Ravelo (the I would say Will Eisner of Filipino "komiks"), but for those who stayed, I noted that the film was one of the first Filipino films to deal seriously with homosexuality--most depictions of gay men before this were of the comical shrieking-queen variety--that the attitudes were somewhat dated (the most progressive figure in the film, a sympathetic family doctor, still considers it a disease), and that all prints of the film are gone (I had seen one reel, and it's a sodden, vinegary mess). The only reason we have this one video copy of the film is because Jojo had rummaged through a Filipino video store's garage sale and found a copy.

I also noted that between 1972 (when he did a deliciously malevolent turn as a gay blackmailer in Tubog) and 1974 (when he wrote and starred in Tinimbang), O'Hara had not acted in any films for Brocka, and for this reason: in Tubog he had a scene where he was supposed to strip his swimming trunks and dive into a pool. O'Hara had asked that only the crew be allowed on the set, but when he showed up, the family that owned the house was present and watching. O'Hara stepped up to the edge of the pool and peeled off his trunks; the houseowner's young daughter promptly pointed and screamed "Diyos ko, 'Tay! Ano 'yan?" (Dear God, Dad! What's that?). O'Hara swore he would never act for Brocka ever again (fortunately he changed his mind--but it took two years).

On Sunday was Ishmael Bernal's Himala (Miracle, 1982), about a village girl who finds she can do miracles, and the cult and industry that grows up around her. On introducing the film I noted that the picture wasn't particularly well-liked by the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (Critics of Philippine Cinema--the country's most prestigious critic's group), that it's an easy target because of its rather stale canonical status ("It's been considered a classic since forever!") but that actually watching the film through unbiased eyes, one might realize that this was Bernal's most visually daring film--an almost prescient picture that predicts the desolated look and feel of Central Luzon after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the early '90s.

And it was prescient, in more ways than one--at one point the film's protagonist Elsa (played by Nora Aunor), says that as a child she had always wanted to be the Philippines' first woman president (which we eventually got, two of them); at another point I noticed how uncannily the film in many ways mimics the career of its famous star; the town's fortunes rise and fall, rise and fall, much like Aunor's own.

In many ways the script felt pretentious, mock-poetic. When Gigi Duenas' prostitute talks about the wind carrying the prayers of the townspeople up the hill to where she was sitting, I thought: "She's not a hooker, she's a hippie" (which, in fact, she is; Bernal will at times willfully ignore or set aside realism for a specific effect). But the alien quality of the locale--barren landscapes rarely if ever seen in the Philippines (the film was shot in Laoag, in Northern Luzon)--is a memorable metaphor for the barrenness of peoples' souls, and if Aunor's Elsa seems less than adequately sketched out (I believe Bernal conceived of her as the enigma at the heart of the film), the people surrounding her--the aforementioned prostitute (a Magdalen figure, of course), the religious fanatic (Luara Centeno, one of my favorite performances in the picture), the passive yet troubled documentary filmmaker (Spanky Manikan, standing in for the director's consciousness and conscience) have been delineated with admirable skill. If Elsa herself remains stubbornly opaque, her effect on others is refracted through the various people surrounding her.

The crowd scenes have often been mentioned, but I feel the need to mention it yet again--it's almost a principal character, this evolving, pulsating, ululating, many-limbed creature that pulls and tears and tramples everything around it; its character and appearance evolves constantly, from the orderly masses that stand patiently outside Elsa's house to the panicked mob that swarms like a nest of frightened ants over the little sand hill where Elsa has her visions to--most alarming of all--the masses of praying faithful crossing the sand on their bare knees, sending their petitions heavenwards in an act of futile desperation. This is Bernal's film on faith and religion, and in many ways he flubs his message; in many ways the film is much larger than said message. He set out to create an anti-religion picture and instead created a film that testifies to the awful, awe-inspiring majesty of a people's faith.

I noted to the audience afterwards that Aunor had missed winning the best actress award in the Berlin Film Festival by one point, because she hadn't been able to attend. I also noted that many of the crew did their best work here--Sergio Lobo, Bernal's favorite cinematographer, came up with the hallucinatory images; Joel Lamangan directed the powerful crowd scenes; Racquel Villavicencio did the haunting production design (leafless tree standing twisted amongst the sand dunes). I finished with the observation that the image of Aunor kneeling with palms pressed together and head thrown backwards is as famous and iconic an image to most Filipinos as Scarlett O'Hara with fist upraised or Bette Davis descending a staircase is to many an American viewer.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Nora Aunor in Himala, (Miracle, 1982)

I'd also seen along the way two more recent Filipino digital films. Mario Cornejo's Big Time (2005)--about two small-time crooks who finally plan a major kidnapping-- feels like Kevin Smith's Clerks crossed with Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, done on a budget a fraction of the size of either films'. This kind of referential, smart-alecky filmmaking isn't my cup of tea, but I do recognize that if Philippine cinema has to grow it needs to acknowledge all its children, even those inspired by a, how should we put it, different muse (sassy 'n shallow 'n proud of it). As is, I do think it was more inventive and amusing--and on far less money--than Peque Gallaga's Pinoy Blonde (2005), a glossier, bigger-budgeted take on a crime caper gone wrong.

I found Mark Meily's La Visa Loca (2005) to be far more entertaining than either of the aforementioned films. Robin Padilla gives the performance of his career as Jess, a man who will do literally anything for a visa to join his wife in the United States. Padilla has always been seen as an everyman's action hero, but his true métier is the improvised comeback, the spur-of-the-moment comic reaction. With commercial filmmaker Joyce Bernal he's crafted a few decent romantic comedies, but apparently it took an independent production with a script by Meily to bring out the full force of his likeability. I prefer Padilla with his macho gallantry and unique unselfconsciousness to any number of romantic-comedy leading men working in Hollywood today--oh, Ben Affleck, Hugh Grant, Matthew McConaughey, all those wimps. And the movie is moving too--in a way, it's an expanded, comic variation on Mario O'Hara's "Hello Soldier," but with some (enough, I thought) of its poignancy.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Nora Aunor and husband Christopher De Leon in Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976)

One of the reasons I was invited to New York, of course, was because they were screening Mario O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976), and I was about as authoritative an, uh, authority on the film as was readily available. I managed to invite Dan Sallitt, filmmaker/critic and co-moderator of the online film forum a_film_by, to the screening.

He had this to say: "I got a chance to see Mario O'Hara's remarkable THREE YEARS WITHOUT GOD at the Imaginasian on Monday.

"Going in, I guess I assumed that O'Hara's style would be related to that of his more famous associate Lino Brocka. So I was surprised when the first few shots of the film (shot in Academy ratio) showed that O'Hara works with stable, attractive compositions, often long shots; and that he cuts them together to emphasize a sense of stability and stasis. Even though the material is melodramatic, even overheated, the film doesn't take on that tone: there's something distant, cool, sad, contemplative about the moment-by-moment effect. O'Hara introduces each movement of the film with documentary footage of World War II (some of it quite unnerving, like a shot of real dead bodies floating in the water), then cuts straight into his own footage: but the cuts don't so much launch the action of the story as they do give O'Hara an arty moment of calm and quiet before the story engages.

"Even as the melodramatic plot engages, O'Hara's big effects are nearly all a function of unexpected long shots that hold emotionally charged action at a distance.

"One of the best moments in the film is a long tracking shot that shows the heroine visiting her imprisoned father in a makeshift Japanese prison camp: at one point the heroine is slapped unexpectedly by a Japanese officer, but accepts the blow and moves on. O'Hara keeps the slap in extreme long shot, then tracks to introduce a panorama of prison life (calisthenics, propaganda speeches) in the middle range of the shot while the heroine makes her way in the background toward her father. I couldn't help but think that Brocka would rather have given up the cinema than filmed a slap in extreme long shot.

"Another lateral tracking shot begins with a shock cut to a row of bodies in coffins after an atrocity. Wailing mourners surround the coffins, dressed in black. O'Hara goes high with his camera, getting the morbid effect of showing the upper halves of the bodies; but he stays in long shot, tracking slowly sideways. The bodies are neither anonymous nor humanized. The chilly effect inevitably recalls Dreyer.

"Noel said O'Hara was the best Filipino action director, and I certainly believe it. There's a remarkable scene, not too related to the story, where a church service is interrupted by the entrance of Japanese officers. Everything happens very quickly: an anonymous woman in the congregation pulls out a gun and fires at the Japanese, in medium long shot; a brief battle breaks out, ending with a frightening shot where some children trying to escape the church are gunned down point-blank, after which Japanese soldiers arrange themselves around the bodies like an Eisenstein triangular tableau, to announce the end of the upheaval. The neat thing is that the stability of the images is not undermined by the speed of the action: the few, carefully selected shots in the sequence are all composed with a certain contained quality, and the camera stays at a cool distance.

"Another action scene near the end: the protagonists, fleeing the city by car as the Americans approach Manila, are shot at by Filipino guerrillas. The tone is established by a still, Tourneur-like shot of the car approaching from the extreme distance, in a diagonal composition. (Most of O'Hara's long-shot compositions have a pleasing diagonal quality, but not too forced, so that the lines of the composition do not strongly suggest the world outside the frame. The overall effect is of containment.) The action erupts in a flurry of short shots, including an abstract close-up of the car's windshield being shattered by a bullet. Then the car drives on past the chaos in long-shot. The shape of the scene is governed more by the trajectory of the car's physical motion than by the dramatic arc of the story.

"The only thing about the film that disappointed me was the climax, where O'Hara opts for a rather operatic abstraction that seems to me a bad idea. For once, he heightens the emotionality of the story instead of working at a quiet distance from it.

"Still, this is definitely my favorite Filipino film. It's not available, but there are two O'Hara films out on DVD with English subtitles (note: that would be
Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2004) and The Fatima Buen Story (1994))."

I replied: "I'm glad to see the rare analysis of a Filipino film done this way, and even gladder it holds up to the scrutiny. A few notes: the woman who shoots the informant in the church is actually an insurgent in drag (they called them the Makapili short for Maka-Pilipino--'Patriots for the Filipinos.' They collaborated with the Japanese because they believed the Japanese and not the Americans held the true interests of Filipinos at heart)). The children the Japanese shot in response include the escaping insurgent and some churchgoers. It happens pretty fast, so I can understand your mistaking them for children.

"And I do agree, the climax was overdone--but I think the scene after involving the blind man more than makes up for it. I remember Brian (a fellow a_film_byer) telling me how he walked into the last five or so minutes of the film and liked that scene very much. Personally, it reminds me of Kurosawa's concern about capturing the details of a process, in this case how a blind man is able to light a candle--very specific, and I think lovely to look at on the big screen.

"Incidentally, I asked O'Hara about that blind man. He told me that he cast the actor (Melvin Flores) in that role because he had such beautiful eyes. I said "you cast an actor with beautiful eyes as a blind man?" He said: "But of course!"

"I've asked O'Hara about his influences and what he's seen, and I'm pretty sure he hasn't seen anything by the filmmakers you mentioned-- Tourneur, Eisenstein, Dreyer (He likes Fellini, David Lean, old-time Hollywood; of the silents he's seen mostly Chaplin). It's possible he's been influenced by Eisenstein indirectly, through the late Gerardo de Leon, who most likely DID seen Eisenstein and maybe even Murnau, or at least John Ford.

"I might add that while I do think O'Hara is a terrific action filmmaker, one of the best or easily the best in Philippine cinema, he's hardly alone. He is, however, the only gay Filipino filmmaker I know who's any good at action (it's strange, but the genres in the industry seem to divide along lines of sexual orientation--Bernal and Brocka are great at drama, filmmakers like Celso Ad. Castillo, Tikoy Aguiluz, Ronnie Ricketts, and Lav Diaz (he of the films of endless length) are excellent at action. O'Hara breaks that mold)."

I remember introducing the film by relating a bit of background: that Nora Aunor had initiated the project because she had previously been doing bubblegum pictures (Lollipops and Roses, Nora in Wonderland), that she had tasted serious filmmaking under Gerardo de Leon in one of his last productions, Banaue (1975); that she had first approached Lino Brocka, who said "I want to have nothing to do with that Superstar!" That Brocka passed on the project to his friend O'Hara, who must have seen something in "that Superstar!" because he recycled a TV script he had written and proceeded to direct Aunor in not just one but five amazing films--one of the most extraordinary actress-director collaborations in Philippine cinema.

After the screening I noted that the picture appeared in 1976, at perhaps the very height of the '70s and '80s Golden Age, one of the many excellent films that appeared that year--Insiang; Minsa'y Isang Gamu-Gamo; Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?; Itim; Nunal sa Tubig. I also noted that it's practically unique in all of cinema for being a film from a country which had suffered Japanese occupation that treats those same Japanese as human beings and not monsters (no mean feat; even in films as recent as Zhang Yimou's Red Sorghum and Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine you can feel the intensity of the anti-Japanese sentiment). I know of two other films--Jiang Wen's Devils on the Doorstep, which appeared some twenty-four years after Tatlong Taong, and reportedly some Thai film (of course, the case of Thailand was different; they signed a secret treaty of alliance with the Japanese) that do something similar--but otherwise that claim still holds true today.

I also noted that the film shares its theme with Jean Renoir's great wartime picture Grand Illusion, where love and friendship cross nationalities, even social classes. The fact that one is Japanese or Filipino, American or Iraqi, Christian or Muslim, soldier or civilian, rich or poor doesn't or shouldn't matter; what matters is who you love, and who loves you. Just a few of the many reasons why I consider this O'Hara's masterpiece, and very possibly the greatest Filipino film ever made.