Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Lino Brocka: The Heart of Philippine Cinema

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The filmmaker

I could fill this and several pages over with scenes and images, and every Filipino who loves cinema--and perhaps a few foreign film critics--would know exactly what I'm talking about: Ruel Vernal, plunging the dagger in the pig's throat in Insiang; Hilda Koronel in the same film with flat iron in hand, ready to smash it into Mona Lisa's face; Anita Linda pawing drunkenly at her long-lost American lover in "Hello Soldier;" Nora Aunor staring at a pot of boiling water while a carefree Philip Salvador sings in Bona; Bembol Roco, mouth frozen in a silent scream.

Lino Brocka was the first child of Regino Brocka and the woman for whom he left wife and family, Pilar Ortiz. When Regino died (possibly a political killing), Lino was taken to his mother's hometown in San Jose, Nueva Ecija, where he spent an unhappy period of his life. You might say many of the themes found in Brocka's films were sparked in this early moment of deprivation and loss: the scathing view of ossified small-town hierarchies (bastard children having little, if any, status); the protagonist looking in at society from the outside (even when, as in Tubog sa Ginto (Dipped in Gold, 1972), said protagonist is undercover--a business executive who is secretly gay); the simultaneously loved and hated father, or father figure; the eternal wanderer drifting through life in helpless solitude.

This life of crisis may have also sparked Brocka's tendency towards melodrama (his own life would have made an excellent Brocka film). He was an illegitimate child, and for years a closeted homosexual (he reportedly came out in 1975, after staging the play Hanggang Dito na Lamang at Maraming Salamat (Up Until Here and Thank You Very Much)); after being a model student in high school he dropped out and lived a somewhat aimless life; he eventually discovered theater, and beyond theater, filmmaking. From Cecille Guidote of PETA (Philippine Educational Theater Association) he learned how to block actors--a skill he would find invaluable on film, where an actor's position onscreen often declared his significance in the scene, and rather than move the camera to reframe the actors (increasing or decreasing said significance accordingly) he would as often have the actors move. This, of course, under the baleful eye of the film camera, ever quick to pick up any hint of artificiality or awkwardness in a scene's staging (in his best works you rarely found any).

Beyond blocking and directing the performances and often rewriting the dialogue (he wrote the screenplays of his first three films has reportedly rewritten the scripts of most of his films), Brocka didn't really spend that much time worrying about the technical side; for photography he depended on Jose Batac, on Romy Vitug, on the great Conrado 'Carding' Baltazar, or in the case of Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975, easily his best-known and most highly regarded film), on the incomparable eye of cinematographer-producer Mike de Leon; for editing he depended on Augusto Salvador or the Jarlego brothers (Ike and Edgardo). Yet these collaborators, especially the cinematographers, when working for other filmmakers (Celso Ad. Castillo, Mario O'Hara) would give us a different impression, display a different emotional palette. Brocka, despite not being so concerned with the technical aspects of filmmaking, communicated an unmistakable sensibility to the big screen--of footage shot just outside the theater then delivered, raw and bleeding, to the projector for immediate screening.

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Mario O'Hara as Berto the Leper, in Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang

It's this immediacy, this concern for documentarylike realism, this tendency of Brocka's camera to look around him (the drunken idlers in Insiang, the pious mothers in Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Weighed and Found Wanting, 1974) that marked his melodramas and enabled them to transcend their pulpy origins. Tinimbang is the story of a young man discovering his father's dirty secrets (again, that love-hate relationship between the naïve young man (the Brocka figure) and his powerful, charismatic father)) while Insiang is even simpler, about a slum girl raped by her mother's lover (since when did a Filipino film fail to depict or at the very least mention a rape?). But where in the former you're supposed to feel the young man's self-righteous anger, you come away with is an overwhelming sense of pity and tenderness for the town leper (a great performance by Mario O'Hara, who also wrote the screenplay); in the latter, instead of feeling vindication or a sense of justice fulfilled (the rape victim avenged, many times over), you feel horror--the victim has become the victimizer, and the now-hapless rapist actually makes a strong claim for our sympathy. Brocka at his very best--and it must be admitted, of the roughly sixty films he made not all of them totally escaped bathos and sentimentality--at his best stared into the melodramatic heart of the Filipino soul, and found redemption and damnation both.

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Cheesecake poster for Macho Dancer

People often consider Brocka's finest works to be the films he made in the early bloom of his career, from 1974 to 1976 (Tinimbang; Maynila sa Mga Kuko; Insiang); Angela Markado (1980) is often called Brocka's version of Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black, only transposed to the Philippines, and imbued with Brocka's trademark sense of immediacy. Essentially it's a chance for Hilda Koronel (who played the eponymous role in Insiang) to push her femme fatale character further, from surrogate murder to actual murder, and for Brocka and "Carding" Baltazar to play with light, shadow and color according to the conventions of noir--not perhaps first-tier Brocka, but it stands head and shoulders above almost any other attempts at the genre, by almost any Filipino filmmaker. Macho Dancer (1989) is to my mind somewhat better noir, a reworking of the storyline of Maynila sa Mga Kuko, where the innocent provincial boy (played by Allen Paule) arrives in Manila and, instead of looking for his lost love, takes an extended journey into the gay strip joints; more interesting than the erstwhile protagonist is the protagonist's best friend, played with understated intensity by Daniel Fernando. Fernando's character harbors two secret wounds: a sister lost to the city's prostitution rings, and a possible unrequited passion for Paule's character. Much of the film is taken up by frankly homoerotic dance numbers--including a startling number (at least in the uncensored version) where the dancers line up in a row, playing with themselves onstage--but the thread of conflict in the story (a man maybe in love with his best friend and searching for his lost sister) is strong enough to cut through the frankly exploitative footage.

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Gina Alajar and Philip Salvador in Bayan Ko

Of his later films, Bayan Ko (My Country, 1985) is arguably the most courageous. Done during the latter days of the Marcos Administration, when the dictator's hold to power was seriously weakened, it was nevertheless uncertain just how weakened that hold was--and hence considered dangerous to speak out against the regime. Brocka did, loudly and clearly, through Jose F. Lacaba's no-fat, no-nonsense, rigorously developed and brilliantly structured script, laced with only the thinnest trimmings of noir to disguise the politics from the censors (even then this film went through hell and high water for approval). Brocka, through Lacaba's inexorable sense of logic (in a way Lacaba was the voice of the early '80s) demonstrated how a man, cautious and not truly awakened politically, can still be snared by economic and social circumstance into a downward spiral of crime and violence. It would be the last great collaboration between Brocka and 'Carding' Baltazar, the latter giving the film its memorably gritty look--urban noir at its darkest (it was shot mostly at night, because Brocka was busy attending protest rallies in the daytime). It would be one of five Brocka-Lacaba collaborations, each one memorable in its own way (Jaguar (1979), with its wonderful simplicity (and Baltazar-blessed noir look); Orapronobis (Fight for Us, 1989)--perhaps the most intense of Brocka's late works, with its white-hot fury directed against an impotent, chaotic Aquino administration); of the five, Lacaba would consider Bayan Ko his personal favorite.

Fifteen years after Brocka's death (he died in a car accident, a couple of years after Orapronobis came out), the question stands: what is Brocka to Philippine cinema? His shadow as perhaps the Philippines' best-known, most loved, most respected filmmaker looms over all, and many a pretender has stepped up to take the crown--only to see it slip and dangle foolishly around the neck. Ishmael Bernal, easily the best-known Filipino filmmaker besides Brocka, has not survived him (one is tempted to say Bernal died due to the sheer pointlessness of outliving his greatest rival--but his fatal heart attack was a full five years after Brocka's passing). Of Brocka's contemporaries Lupita Aquino-Kashiwahara survives, but beyond a not-so-recent melodrama (Babae (Woman, 1997) starring Nora Aunor) remains relatively inactive; Celso Ad. Castillo continues erratically, on occasion brilliantly (his Lihim ni Madonna (Secrets of Madonna, 1997) was both an eyebrow-raiser and a jawdropper); Mike de Leon continues working in his inimitably brilliant way (his last was Bayaning Third World (Third World Hero, 200) a Jose Rizal film that proves the impossibility of making a definitive Jose Rizal film); Mario O'Hara unfussily continues to make films his own way, both realist (Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof, 1998); Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2004)) and fabulist (Sisa (1998); Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000)). More recent filmmakers include Jeffrey Jeturian (Pila Balde (Fetch a Pail of Water, 1999); Tuhog (Larger than Life, 2001)) who has carried on in the Brocka tradition, making realist melodramas albeit in a lighter, more comic-satiric vein (Brocka, it must be said, isn't big on humor). Lav Diaz, perhaps the best of the newcomers, has said we must move beyond Brocka (something, come to think of it, Mike De Leon and Mario O'Hara have been doing all along), and proceeded to create both realist (Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion (Criminal of Barrio Concepcion, 1998), Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001)) and fantastic (Burger Boys, 1999, Hesus Rebolusyonaryo, (Jesus the Revolutionary, 2002)) cinema.

What is Brocka to Philippine cinema? Maybe the present state of the industry is the answer. Where Brocka has been forgotten (and it's sad, how thoroughly the young have forgotten him) the films made are futile attempts to mimic Hollywood formula; where Brocka is remembered filmmakers either carry on the good work, or survey what ground Brocka has not covered and forged on ahead. Either way, those who remember the man do the interesting work, those that don't imitate and ossify. And so the industry goes--grows--onwards and upwards, despite daunting odds, carrying on from the heart of Philippine cinema.


Toto said...

Another great post.
I left some comments in your previous post (in case you missed it.)
Lav and I were together during Ricky Lee's second Screenwriting Workshop in the early 80s. Do you know where I could reach Lav? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Do you know where to get a DVD for Tinimbang ka Ngunit Kulang?

Noel Vera said...

None is commercially available at the moment, I'm afraid. One can always hope.