Thursday, October 18, 2007

Close-ups in Philippine Cinema

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Bembol Roco in Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag
My contribution to The House Next Door's Close-up Blogathon:
(Note and warning: plots of both Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976) and Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon) discussed in close detail)

An article on the use of close-ups in Philippine cinema probably wouldn't be very long--Filipino filmmakers are mostly narrative storytellers that rarely use the medium in formally experimental ways. The close-up for a Filipino filmmaker--at least the classic Filipino filmmaker, the digital young turks may have been doing interesting work on it since--is mainly a punctuation mark, a means of pointing up the climactic end of a scene or film. Filipino films are a stew of intense emotions; close-ups are the filmmaker's way of shoving said stew into your face.

That said, my earliest memory of a close-up would have to be the ending of Lino Brocka's classic Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975), where Julio (Bembol Roco), having killed a man, is cornered in an alley by an angry mob; Brocka cuts to extreme close-ups of Julio's face as the men point at him, point out his icepick, and pick up various pipes and rocks and clubs. Brocka had been using long shots before this, of Julio running desperately away from his pursuers; now he's switched to a strategy of identification, as we see Julio's face register the significance of the rocks, and pipes and clubs, the determined expressions on the men's faces. The men approach; the camera zooms in past them to a gigantic shot of Julio's face, tear-streaked and trickling snot, as his mouth opens in a wet scream--a scream we never hear, because Brocka freezes the shot at the penultimate moment. Slow fade to the cause of all this violence--a silhouette of Ligaya (Hilda Koronel, one of the loveliest faces in all of cinema), the setting sun behind her filling the screen with a light that the film from title onwards has all along been promising, all along been threatening, to flood our eyes with. The end.

When I was a child my grandfather had been screening movies in his basement. Not mere 16 mm prints--he had two monster 35 mm projectors down there, and a man who came every Saturday night with cans of film to screen for us (and whoever else we invited). Jaws, The Godfather 1 & 2, even 1941 we saw before their commercial screening (which was if I remember right mere weeks after the American premiere (this was before the proliferation of video piracy, and the practice of pre-emptive commercial runs in Manila theaters days before pirates can copy them off of American screens)). One of the more memorable films he screened was Brocka's Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa (Three, Two, One, 1975), and it shocked me no end, the shame and despair I saw in the figure of a man, head bowed, having all his hair shaved clean off (he was entering drug rehab).

Another was Maynila. There I was, ten years old and staring at Julio's wet, dripping face; for the first time in my extremely spoiled and sheltered life I knew violence, I knew hate, I knew terror, I knew suffering, I knew death. I knew, for the very first time, the power of cinema.

A similar though arguably subtler use of the close-up can be found in Mario O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976). Rosario (Nora Aunor) is about to hurl her baby, the result of rape by a Japanese officer, down a high bridge; O'Hara's camera slowly draws close till her face fills our view and we see, larger than life, feelings of hate, anger, horror--at the baby, at the man who created it, at what she's about to do--flit across the screen. Fade to a sunset (you can see the pattern: after dramatic intensity the filmmakers shift to a different, usually more serene emotional key). But the outcome is hardly settled; O'Hara cuts to scenes of mounting panic as the family searches for Rosario and her baby. Where has she gone, they wonder? Why has she gone? And what, exactly, has she done? 

O'Hara had honed his skills in radio, and with the sure touch of a veteran radio dramatist, he knew when to present a narrative hook then withhold information, withhold it, withhold it, withhold it till the maximum possible tension has been achieved. And then, simply and without fuss, allows release.

My story regarding this film is much less primal: I had met art critic Jolicco Cuadra back in 1995 in the offices of The Manila Chronicle. A man of eclectic tastes and outrageous opinions (the greatest American writer, he declared, was Philip K. Dick, and I found myself, well, not disagreeing with him (at least not vehemently)); he regaled me with stories of his bohemian life in Paris, where he met Orson Welles and Pier Paolo Pasolini ("he was so dirty--a dirty man!") and in Manila, where he met, among others, Gerardo de Leon. "Everyone is a thief and a fake," he informed me. "Celso (Ad. Castillo), Mike (de Leon), Ishmael (Bernal), Lino (Brocka), Gerry (de Leon)--all thieves and fakes."

"I don't know," I told him, "They're not bad."

Jolicco shook his head. "The only one who's any good is Mario O'Hara. I can't remember the title of the movie I saw of his--what's the matter?"

The matter was, I had just seen Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos and I was more or less thinking the same thing--not that O'Hara's the only one who's any good (he isn't, and I disagree--vehemently--with Jolicco's list of thieves and fakes), but that he's the best filmmaker we have.

The realization took a long time coming. I had been blown away by O'Hara's Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986) when I saw it on the big screen; I had thought it arguably the greatest Filipino action film I've ever seen (a huge flop, it disappeared from theaters the very next day). I sought out other O'Hara films, but couldn't find any.

I did see some of his collaborations with Brocka, which were easier to find--Insiang (1976), arguably Brocka's masterpiece, about an Othello-like drama set in an urban slum (O'Hara had written a near-perfect screenplay, and--blowing my mind a second time when I learned about it--had based his characters on his backyard neighbors of long ago in Pasay City); and Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged and Found Wanting, 1974), which blew my mind a third time: not only had O'Hara written the screenplay but also gave a great performance as Berto, the leper. The man, I thought, was a triple threat: he could direct (Bagong Hari), write (Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang, Insiang), and act (Tinimbang)--what, exactly, could he not do?

Then I saw Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos, and was blown away for a fourth time.

Unsophisticated stratagems, perhaps; not for Brocka or O'Hara the almost exclusive focus on Falconetti's face in Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928), or the melding of faces (and by implication, of souls) of two faces as in Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966), which Brocka may have seen (O'Hara--probably not). The close-up in Philippine cinema is often just a punctuation mark--but the very force of that mark, as I can readily attest, can at times be a formidable thing.


Anonymous said...

I can't comment about Jolicco Cuadra's view on the directors, though it does sound way harsh (though so can you when you discuss, some of our American treasures :) -- pardon my emoticon), but his opinion on American writers wasn't all that outrageous. I think Dick is STILL underrated. Now, if he'd said Michael Crichton....

Noel Vera said...

Michael Crichton, to steal someone's quote, isn't a writer, he's a typist.


Hi, Noel! Thanks for this article. Makes me rabidly hungry for another Aunor-O'Hara collaboration. Long overdue for another film to leave the world awed of both their genius.

John Santos said...

Hey Mr. Noel, have you seen Manananggal in Manila? O'Hara did it in 1997 I think, prior to Babae sa Bubungang Lata. It's not as inventive as Sisa, and it is extreeeemely cut-rate (the manananggal had garbage bag wings, but he actually turned that cheapo trick into a comment on how it's a cheapo trick), but it's worth checking out how he played with the genre: it's not just about being a monster, but the "identity" of a monster. It's probably one of the most effective ways a movie symphatized with a monstrous character without going the pity route. It's hardly one of his best films, but it's worth checking out.

Noel Vera said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Noel Vera said...

Seen Manananggal in Manila? Babe, I wrote about it. It's in my book.

Here's a short excerpt:

What is the definition of ambivalence? Your brand-new Mercedes Benz driving off the edge of a cliff with your mother-in-law inside, screaming. Or, in this case, starting 1997 with a film by Mario O'Hara in which all but the last ten minutes of the movie are terrific--the catch being that those ten or so minutes are awful beyond words.

Noel Vera said...

You're rabidly hungry? Heh.

From what I understand, O'Hara has a trunkful of unproduced scripts, all from what I hear highly interesting. He had a script called Garbo where Philip Salvador plays a transvestite; he has a script for Nora where she's playing a man.

He has a script for her, Hocloban, and I've read it, that's absolutely fantastic: set in the time of Governor General Bustamante (it's the legend of La Loba Negra, done as a horror epic), it pits man against woman, Church against State, the Philippines against Spain, and pagan against Christianity. It has men turning into monsters, and a major role for Nora.

The Hocloban, apparently, is a sorcerer of such power and ability that by just raising his hand, he can strike a man dead. Nora would be one such sorcerer.

And then, of course, there was his epic version of Sisa, with Nora in the title role. Gives me chills just thinking if the money poured into Marilou Diaz-Abaya's 150 million peso white elephant had been poured into this baby.

That said, the Sisa he has now--three million peso budget (that's roughly $60,000), shot in ten days--is considered by some people among the best Filipino films ever made. And I'm not sure I disagree.

Dan Sallitt said...

Here's a question for you O'Hara experts. I've seen one film by him (Three Years Without God, with Noel doing simultaneous translation from the next seat over), and I definitely think he's the best Filipino director I've encountered. I'd love to see a good traveling retrospective, though that seems like a lot to ask at the moment. It looks as if O'Hara has done twenty or so films. If you had the chance to program a retro of, say, eight films, which would they be? Choose primarily on the basis of quality, but historical and cultural importance can be factored in.

Noel Vera said...

Can I answer that first?

There would be two lists, based on two criteria; availability and desireability. The two would be subdivided into smaller groups (IF Regal films (where he made a good chunk of his works) will cooperate, always a big question mark, and IF said festival will allow video copies, which are at times all that's left of what he's done.

So, based on the first criteria:

Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2004) -- print (condition unknown, presumed good) available from the producer, an independent outfit.

Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000) -- print possibly available--can't say any more than that.

Sisa (1998) -- print (condition unknown, presumed good) at Regal Films

Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof, 1998) --print (condition unknown, presumed good) at Regal Films

Manananggal in Manila (Monster in Manila, 1997) -- print (condition unknown, presumed good) at Regal Films.

The Fatima Buen Story (1994) -- print (condition unknown) at Regal Films.

Bulaklak sa City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail, 1985) -- print (rather pinkish now) at the CCP (see warning).

Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976) -- print at the CCP (Cultural Center of the Philippines) -- which might send a video copy anyway, as they don't like lending out their one and only safety print anymore (there might be one more print at the Japan Foundation))

You'll notice that availability depended on how recent the film was (as is, I'm not 100% sure of the print condition; I've been to Mother Lily's print warehouse, and it's not a pretty sight), and if it's an older film, that's usually because CCP has it (and that's because the film won an award--for the longest time O'Hara didn't get much respect).

On desireability--ho, boy:

Pangarap ng Puso -- see above

Sisa -- see above

Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986) --print gone. Video copies exist, lousy quality.

Bulaklak sa City Jail -- see above

Condemned (1984) -- print condition unknown; it was listed in the MTRCB (the local censors board) as available, but I don't know who has the print, or what condition it's in. There are poor video copies available.

Bakit Bughaw ang Langit (Why is the Sky Blue? 1981) -- print unknown, presumed gone. There is a video copy, not prime.

Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, 1980) -- print unknown, presumed gone. There is a video copy, not prime.

Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos -- see above.

And since you confined it to only eight, I'll throw in an alternative desireable film:

Uhaw na Pag-ibig (Thirsty Love, 1983) -- print unknown, presumed gone. There is a video copy, not prime condition.

And three possibles:

Mga Bilanggong Birhen (The Captive Virgins, 1977) -- print available, I think at CCP.

Mortal (1975) -- his first film, print unknown, presumed gone. There is a video copy, not prime.

And one unknown: Gaano Ko Ikaw Kamahal (How Much Do I Love You?, 1982), which even I haven't seen.

They're all at least intriguing to great choices (I didn't include the out-and-out duds). As for subtitles, Babae sa Breakwater, Pangarap ng Puso, Babae sa Bubungang Lata, Bulaklak sa City Jail and Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos have subtitles.

And that, pretty much, is the condition of O'Hara's filmography this day in October, 2007

Dan Sallitt said...

So Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos has English subtitles? They didn't show a subtitled print in NYC, as you will recall.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks for asking that question--y'know, I remember the Japan Foundation paying for a safety print, but no mention of subtitles; and of being asked to do a translation for CCP but that the translation was never put into titles. So, no, it has no subtitles.