Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Joey Gosiengfiao, 1941-2007

Alma Moreno in Gosiengfiao's Bomba Star (1980)

Joey Gosiengfiao: 1941--2007

Joey Gosiengfiao wasn't a friend--I wouldn't presume to have enjoyed the privilege. I wasn't close enough to him--didn't spend enough time with him to become close--but it wasn't for want of wanting. Of the many people I've met and come to know deeply or casually in the Filipino film industry he was one of the most good-natured, the most endearing. Never saw him angry; in a crisis he was often upset, but he never allowed himself to cross over to anger--never occurred to him, I suspect; even when he was reprimanding someone he sounded like a favorite grand-aunt telling you something unpleasant for your own good (you hung your head in shame--how could you upset your dear aunt…). Talking to people in the industry--not the celebrity actors or actresses, who demanded the best treatment, but ordinary folk who pushed the wheels of moviemaking slowly and painfully forward--I learned that he was the most beloved director in Regal Films. I don't know anyone who disliked him. Well, some might have felt annoyed at one time or another, but for specific reasons, during the course of doing business; I don't know of anyone who resented the man's character, or held a grudge against him for a very long time.

Best of all was the aura the man radiated--when you stepped up close, no matter what problem or stormy emotion clouded your brow, the sight of those chinky eyes, that wide smile, the hair that looked like fresh-mown grass set your soul (spirit, mind, whatever) instantly at ease. You could sit down with Joey, talk to him, and feel like he was your friend, no matter how short the acquaintance.

That's the man; as for his films--if you browsed through the Cultural Center of the Philippines' 1994 Encyclopedia of Philippine Art, the volume on Philippine Film, you'll find entries on dozens of filmmakers and actors and even writers (the most neglected of the species, I would argue), but you wouldn't find a word on Gosiengfiao (I hear they're updating the books; I hope the omission was corrected). I'm not familiar with the process they used in choosing who gets an entry and who doesn't but if what I've been told was correct, you need to win an award to get in--which is total nonsense. I've argued before and since (and recent award winners only serve to prove my point) that awards (even Hollywood's famous gold doorstops) are a result of compromise and politics, and the need to make the industry appear righteous and respectable--art and quality have little to do with the process.

Joey Gosiengfiao's films are anything but righteous, much less respectable. That was their glory and greatness, and the reason he could never win an award--Christ, I think, with his abhorrence of respectability, would like the man's style. Take, for example, the scene between Eddie Gutierrez and Ricky Belmonte in Bomba Star (roughly translated, Porn Star, 1980). Belmonte and Gutierrez are working out in a gym; Gutierrez starts casting looks at Belmonte; Belmonte coyly returns his looks. The two start teasing each other, tickling each other, suddenly find themselves on the floor wrestling with each other...enter Gutierrez's lover, played by Marissa Delgado--she doesn't do anything, just strikes a glamour pose, a sardonic expression on her face and the world's longest cigarette holder between her fingers. I wish I could explain why the moment is so irreducibly funny, but I can't; if I could, I suspect it wouldn't be funny at all.

Gosiengfiao wasn't just campy; his love scenes can be offhandedly sensual in startling ways. I remember gasping in shock in Nights of Serafina (1996--his last feature film) when Mike Magat, having bent Georgia Ortega over to take her from behind, shoves her face into a tray full of food, Ortega moaning in pleasurable response. It was a disgusting, demeaning, swinish display--and powerfully erotic (it was also a brilliant parody of James Cagney's grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy).
Then there's the death of fourteen-year-old Dina Bonnevie's baby in Katorse (Fourteen, 1980--Joey did five other films that year, and they're all arguably worth watching (What can I say? Filipino filmmakers make six feature films in the time it takes a Hollywood director to make one)): Dina, working hard in the cotton fields, leaves her baby in a basket beside a pile of picked cotton; the cotton falls over, and smothers the child. On one level, you have the pathos of a child's death--Gosiengfiao, unlike, say, Steven Spielberg, isn't so softhearted (softheaded?) that he'd cut away; the cotton in the basket trembles feebly, helplessly, as the baby struggles for breath.

At the same time you can't help but realize that the scenario--young beauty suffering in a cotton field--is a parody of classic Hollywood movies (Gone With the Wind comes to mind) and that the situation is so instantly, melodramatically horrifying it's funny. Mind you, it takes a perverse, witty, cinephilic mind to get all this--cinephilic enough to have seen the 1939 epic, perverse enough to know that Selznick's folly is the height of kitsch (not The Greatest Movie Ever Made, just The Kitschiest), witty enough to realize that the scene is a throwaway sick joke, meant to keep you off-balance and on your toes.

Arguably, Gosiengfiao's masterpiece came out that following year (along with five other pictures). Temptation Island is the story of a group of beauty contestants who set sail in a cruise ship; the ship bursts into flames, sinks (don't ask), the survivors--four women, two men and a maid--land on a deserted island, where they struggle to find food, water, shelter, and an outlet for their hairdryers.

I have to give credit where credit's due--Jessica Zafra was the first to express admiration for the film. I like to think I took that admiration further--far as I'm concerned, there is no Pedro Almodovar, no Matador, no Dark Habits, no Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (don't talk to me of Almodovar's work from All About My Mother onwards--I can't stand the gruesomely sticky, eager-to-please-and-win-awards spirit in which they were conceived); there is only Temptation Island. By turns grotesque, deadpan witty and surreal, it's the only film I know that can redeem the titanic sentimentality of a syrupy perennial like "Somewhere" and leave you howling in laughter and tears, both. A great film, surely, and surely for that one work alone Gosiengfiao will be admitted into the Pearly Gates with all the hosts of Heaven in attendance, decked out in their brightest pastel robes, garlanded with the most garish orchid (Know the etymology of the word? Check it out) wreaths, strumming with their harps the most elaborate arrangement of Sondheim ever created.

But Gosiengfiao was more than just a director--in 1998 he and Regal Films owner Lily Monteverde conceived of the Good Harvest pito-pito (seven-seven) films, precursors to today's digital productions, with a budget of only two or three million pesos (roughly fifty to sixty-five thousand dollars), shot theoretically in seven days, post-produced for another seven (actually ten days, with a little more time for post-production).

Filmmaker Rico Ilarde (Dugo ng Birhen (Blood of the Virgin) and
Babaing Putik (Woman of Mud 2001) describes the experience of working in Good Harvest: "It was a wild, magical time in that Good Harvest office. Under the stairs at Regal, next to Mother's Sto. Nino altar. People would just pile in and we'd take turns using the only conference table in the room-- it would be Mario O'Hara's staff, then after the next hour, Tata Esteban and company, then Lav's team (which included Mammu Chua, his AD), then Jeffrey's, and so on and so forth. It was controlled chaos at its finest and Direk Joey was the General, coach, general manager (and Queen) of the whole lot of it.

"I remember first seeing Lav (it was after the HUBAD (
sa Ilalim ng Buwan (Naked Under the Moon)) shoot in Ilocos) and damn if he didn't look like he just came from hell and back-- he was practically and literally black from being under the sun so much. And he looked dead TIRED like a bag of bones! I told myself, "Shit, what have I gotten myself into?" Little did I know I'd look the same way after my shoot cause it was that type of deal-- make a film at a breakneck pace with little more than an allowance, all for the chance to get your "break", or your see your dream film realized.

"It was a FUCKING WILD, WILD TIME, man. I proudly swear by my time in Good Harvest and talk about it like a badge of honor.

"Good Harvest was a tough place to work in mostly because of the low budgets and pay (and post dated checks), but it really fostered a commitment from any and every filmmaker that walked inside it. Just like the way the old boxing guys talk about the "hallowed" gyms in Philadelphia in the 70's --that if you could survive just the sparring alone then you had "IT"--Good Harvest forced you to develop your skills and really learn your craft on REAL TIME, and if you could hack it there, then nothing would ever intimidate you out in the "regular" world.

"Direk Joey was the perfect leader-of-the-band because he was very film literate and had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of films. In fact, I think his lifelong habit of watching films till daybreak, and sleeping at 7AM (when the rest of the world was waking up), eventually negatively affected his health."

Many were horrific beyond belief--we won't talk of them here--but a handful were genuine little gems.

Sana Pag-ibig Na (At Long Last Love), about a father's infidelity, was the lovely first effort of Jeffrey Jeturian. Gosiengfiao would also produce his sophomore effort,
Pila Balde (Fetch a Pail of Water, 1999); Jeturian would go on to direct, among others, Tuhog (Bigger Than Life, 2001), and Kubrador (The Bet Collector, 2005).

Serafin Geronimo: Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion was
Lav Diaz's ambitious debut (arguably the most impressive debut of any Filipino filmmaker since Raymond Red's Magpakailanman (Eternity) in 1983), a Filipino retelling of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment in the contemplative style of Andrei Tarkovsky or Theo Angelopoulos. Lav would go on to make films with ever more epic ambition and lengths on miniscule budgets--the five hour Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001), the ten-hour Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004), the nine-hour Heremias, Part 1: The Legend of the Lizard Princess (2006) (Lav may be taking more and more time telling his stories--and how!--but they're nevertheless hypnotic, fascinating journeys into the further reaches of the Filipino soul).

Mario O'Hara didn't debut in 1998--he's a contemporary of Gosiengfiao's. But his work had been inconsistent since his great epic noir Bagong Hari (The New King) more than ten years before, and it was only with the pito-pito films that he came out with not one but two great works, shot back-to-back in twenty days:
Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof) and Sisa. Gosiengfiao would go on to produce O'Hara's Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000), arguably the best of his recent work, and to my mind the best, most wildly imaginative of recent Filipino films.

By his works ye shall know him, they say. Everyone liked Gosiengfiao; he liked everyone in return, I suspect, otherwise he wouldn't spend so much time and trouble seeking people both new and neglected and producing their films--and what films! His passing is, if anything, a greater blow than Robert Altman's could ever be--at least Altman is mourned by practically everyone, destined perhaps to be remembered forever (but who can tell, in a thousand years?), only a relative few Filipinos know and love Joey and his work. But we few--we happy few--we know exactly what we've lost. 



Oggs Cruz said...

I got word of his passing last Friday from a scorer friend of mine. I was shocked --- since I saw him with Joel Lamangan and Manny Valera in a film premiere last December.

I've only seen one Gosiengfiao film in its entirety --- Temptation Island. I saw a huge chunk of Underage (which, as you've mentioned, mixed tears and laughter and a dose of implausbility to perfection), and a little bit of Katorse. It pains me that you have to be consistently lucky to view his films, as they're a rare commodity... We're not just losing our great films, we're losing our great artists... and we're just sitting comfortably, idly satisfied that their films are somewhat rotting alongside them.

Jojo Devera said...

great piece Noel! i was fortunate enough to have seen all of his films. each and everyone of them were just as entertaing as the other. Gosiengfiao's films are one of it's kind... nothing comes close. i read that he had plans of going back to film directing... i wish he's done it sooner.

Unknown said...

Joey Gosiengfiao's films have sense, style and content. Critics didn't recognize it. Its only now that TEMPTATION ISLAND is getting the accolades, thanks to Zafra, forgot the name of the other critic who reviewed it in Phil. Daily inquirer and of course, you, Noel. It seems that Joey came from being a production designer, even the villains in UNDERAGE look wonderful on screen! His films will not be complete without the court room scenes that begs you to understand his craft seriously and he always succeeds. He will surely be missed, his films that made an indelible mark on moviegoers imagination including me. May he find true happiness now.

Unknown said...

Great tribute! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. You made me remember some of his wittiest and wackiest scenes. Joey Gosiengfiao certainly had tongue-in-cheek style and was a master of innuendo, irony, and satire. I'll certainly miss his films. May he rest in peace....

rico said...

Noel! Awesome article, man. Awesome...congrats! Someone up there's smiling....

Noel Vera said...

Would be nice to think he is, Rico...

Anonymous said...

Such sad news. I interviewed him just three weeks before he passed away. Even though he was clearly weak from his previous five heart attacks, he was in fantastic spirits, and was never without a huge knowing smile on his face.

He spoke on-camera for 90 minutes about his theatrical career in the 60s, his Sine Filipino films with Elwood Perez and Ishmael Bernal, the Regal years (and particularly his masterpiece Temptation Island, which I finally got to see at the ABS-CBN archives)and his refelctions on the current state of the Filipino film industry.

He then sat me with his family and fed me salad sandwiches, as I had clearly not eaten in 2 days.

A week later I texted him from the airport thanking him for the interview, and said "I finally saw Temptation Island - you truly ARE a genius!" He texted me back offering to spend time with him when I got back to Manila in April.

Very, very sad. He was a truly wonderful man. At least one publication (you'd know which one, Noel) called Joey and Elwood the two most influential Filipino filmmakers of the Seventies. At least he got to hear that during hislifetime, and it filled him with pride.

RIP direk Joey.

Noel Vera said...

Lucky you got to talk to him, Andrew.


Hi Noel,

Belatedly went through your archived articles and read the piece about Joey Gosiengfiao.

I can proudly say I cut my teeth in Joey's films: I was Art Director for Bedspacers, Nympha and Blue Jeans, Production Manager for Bakit Ba Ganyan? and Bata Pa Si Sabel, and credited as Production Assistant for Underage. I also had screen time for Underage and Bedspacers.

Trivia: Joey couldn't type, and since I could (probably just a little faster than some others in his close circle at the time), there were instances when I would be sequestered in a hotel room with his writer while the two of them would plot out the sequence treatment for a forthcoming movie, and then turn to me to type it all out. Such was my experience in Blue Jeans and Underage, both of which written by Jonas Sebastian.

And before the age of line producers, my job as production manager practically was that, with the budget for the production entrusted to me, especially for the films we did on location. It was film production school outside of school.

Looking back, it was an honor and privilege to have been given such tremendous responsibilities.

Those were the days.


Noel Vera said...

Thanks, Dennis, for another insider's story on Joey! Really between Altman and Gosiengfiao, the loss for me felt almost equal (okay, I like Altman a lot--but I never wasted an afternoon arguing movies with him).

And how's the lovely Irma Adlawan? Still wowing audiences, I hope.

jagtwelve said...

ninong ko yan si joey gosiengfiao.. mabait na tao yan.. he and my father worked for 30 years kaya he's almost my second father na din..

marami ng tulong naibigay ni ninong samin.. salamat ninong.. >.<


Noel Vera said...

Thanks for posting, jags!