Saturday, May 09, 2009

Lino Brocka films thoughout the month of May

For the entire month of May, at Magnet: Katipunan: a month-long festival of Lino Brocka's films (link includes times and schedules).
Here's my article on the affair:

Brocka unbound

Lino Brocka has helped develop or collaborated with artists and actors--Mel Chionglo, Joel Lamangan, Peque Gallaga, Laurice Guillen, Tikoy Aguiluz, Mike de Leon, Mario O'Hara, to name just a select few--who have gone on to become major filmmakers in their own right, at one point or another adopting or reacting against his brand of melodramatic realism. He's shaped generations of filmmakers who may have not worked with him but have seen his films: Raymond Red, whose Palme d'or-winning Anino (Shadows, 2000) was directly inspired by Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975); Jeffrey Jeturian, whose Pila Balde (Fetch a Pail of Water, 1999) is a tragicomic variant on Brocka's slum dramas; Brillante Mendoza, whose internationally renowned Tirador (Slingshot, 2007)--and, for that matter, entire filmography to date--is Brocka realism set to an edgier, more contemporary rhythm; Korean filmmaker Park Kwang-su (Jeon tae-il (A Single Spark, 1995)), who cites him as an influence.

Filipino critics gives him his due, either positive or negative--Rolando Tolentino, Agustin Sotto, Bienvenido Lumbera all profess admiration for the man (Joel David, to name an opposite example, is more an admirer of Brocka's longtime rival Ishmael Bernal). Foreign critics interested in world cinema show at least a passing familiarity with his work (Charles Tesson, Dave Kehr, Elliott Stein, Tony Rayns, Pierre Rissent (who managed to save the prints of some of Brocka's best works, and helped produce one of his last films)).

Even filmmakers who refuse to declare an artistic debt to Brocka betray his imprint--Lav Diaz's kilometric works, for example, do their utmost to avoid Brocka-ish melodrama, choosing a more contemplative, less commercial running time and tone; John Torres' films experiment with a melancholic autobiographical essay structure, doing away entirely with the conventional narrative Brocka favors; Raya Martin's pictures possess a playful lyricism that you don't find in Brocka.

He is, in effect, the sun that deforms the trajectories of comets moving through his system, drawing some to the glare of his influence while driving others into frostier directions. Dead for some eighteen years, Brocka has for the past thirty-five dominated Philippine cinema.

So it's a strange and strangely moving development that only now are we having anything like a comprehensive retrospective of his work, most of them presumably on DVD or VCD (and except for the more famous films probably without English subtitles (it would be nice if someone actually listed them)), at one of Manila's more interesting small venues (Magnet Katipunan near Rustan's Supermarket, opposite Miriam College, Katipunan Road in Diliman, Quezon City). Ideally this should be an international event, to which cinephiles and critics all over the world are invited, after which there should be a world tour covering the major film cities--New York, Paris, London, Tokyo.

On the other hand, what more fitting place can there be for a Brocka retrospective than in an indie venue, frequented by students and indie filmmakers? For whom did Brocka make his movies but Filipinos, and who responded best to his films but young Filipinos hungry for something new, something good, something that spoke more urgently and frankly than ever before about sex and love and hatred and passion and cruelty? When Brocka established Cine Manila, his maiden offering Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged and Found Wanting, 1974) was a hit reportedly because he marketed it to students, to the hopeful and curious young. He would not have the same critical and commercial success ever again--some of his greatest works were boxoffice flops, while his more solidly commercial hits lacked the depth of feeling, the bleak yet somehow defiant sensibility that informs his finest films.

He made money; he was too good a filmmaker and too cunning an entertainer not to do that. He also lost a lot of money--"Mother" Lily Monteverde, head of Regal Films, tells stories of how she would lend him cash or even throw a project his way because he was up to his ears in debt. He made friends--sadly I had the privilege to shake his hand only once, to remind him that my identical twin brother once worked for him ("Oh," he said; "that's why you look familiar."); he also, or so it's told, made a lot of enemies, some of them the right kind (Marcos in his later years, Aquino when she lost control of the vigilante forces patrolling the countryside), some of them wrong.

And he made for great stories. I don't just mean the movies; I mean all the anecdotes about him, about half of which were true (did he really audition with a now-famous Hollywood star, for the leading roles an award-winning Hollywood film?); he died in a car crash in 1991, and even his death is shrouded in mystery (Was it an accident? An assassination?). If half the stories about Brocka are true, his life whould be a fabulous story--wonderful material for a biopic, someday, done perhaps in an approximation of his unique heartfelt style.

And then there are the films themselves.

It's a pity the organizers didn't arrange the films chronologically; it would be instructive to see his development in four short years from successful commercial director (Wanted: Perfect Mother (1970)--which isn't showing, pity; Santiago (also 1970)) to master filmmaker (Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang onwards).

The three years from Tinimbang to Insiang (1976) represent the height of his career, when each year he seemed to come out with a masterpiece, along with fascinating lesser works (one of which, Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa (Three, Two, One, 1974) is in this retro). They are arguably the apex of achievement in Philippine cinema, three attempts at dramatizing the Filipino struggle for love and acceptance in a hostile world, from a panoramic portrait of a small town (Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang) to a man's odyssey through the urban jungle (Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag) to a young woman's harrowing betrayal (Insiang). I'd made the argument before that the heart of the Filipino is basically melodramatic, that these three films represent melodrama at its finest, that Brocka's sense of realism and urgency (you get the sense that he shot these pictures just outside the theater and delivered them, still steaming, straight to the big screen) helps sell these melodramas as absolute truth. The three are found in the retro's last weekend, apparently to finish the festival on a high note. Those unfamiliar with Brocka might want to keep that weekend free; the rest might want to look at his earlier, lesser-known films.

Santiago is his recently re-discovered second picture, his only war film, and his only collaboration with legendary action king Fernando Poe, Jr.; it's fascinating for the portrait of the social outcast Brocka sketches, an early model for the more complex version he will develop four years later, with Tinimbang.

Stardoom (1971), a showbiz melodrama about a mother's all-consuming obsession with her son's singing career, features a great pair of performances from Lolita Rodriguez as the mother and Mario O'Hara as her unwanted son. Tubog sa Ginto (Dipped in Gold, also 1971) was re-discovered in 2006, and is an adaptation of the Mars Ravelo story of a husband leading a double life, notable for its retro-progressive (retro for today, progressive for '71) attitude towards closeted gay men.

Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa is a triptych of short films ranging from a drug rehabilitation drama to a young woman torn between her Filipino mother and American father to a rare gothic piece about an old spinster fascinated with her handsome gardener.

The recently found Ang Tatay Kong Nanay (My Father is My Mother, 1978) is arguably as if not more interesting than Tubog sa Ginto in that it presents the gay man as a possible parent figure; it's also the only collaboration between Brocka and comic legend Dolphy.

Ina, Kapatid, Anak (Mother, Sister, Daughter, 1979) pits two acting legends (Charito Solis and Lolita Rodriguez) with two radically different acting styles (one flamboyantly theatrical, the other naturalistic and understated) against each other, playing rival sisters. Ina Ka ng Anak Mo (You are the Mother of Your Child, same year) is a middle-class version of Insiang that combines the talents of Brocka with writer/playwright Butch Dalisay, Jr., and actresses Lolita Rodriguez with Nora Aunor. The film, incidentally, is critic Augustin Sotto's favorite Brocka. Jaguar (1979)--based on a Nick Joaquin essay ("The Boy Who Wanted to Become Society"), adapted for the screen by Pete Lacaba and Ricky Lee, and featuring Conrado Baltazar camerawork at its brutally darkest, is arguably Brocka's finest noir film.

Bona (1980)--of all the roles singer/actress/producer/uber-celebrity Nora Aunor ever played, she will probably be best known for two: Elsa, the miracle worker in Ishmael Bernal's Himala (Miracle, 1982) and this, the story of a young woman's obsession over a minor movie actor. Brocka's urban slum version of Francois Truffaut's L'Histoire d'Adele H. (The Story of Adele H., 1975) was for many years the least seen of Brocka's major works (a print was only recently made available). Brocka would be inspired by Truffaut at least one more time, taking his La mariee etait en noir" (The Bride Wore Black, 1968) and retelling it through a "komiks" series by Carlos J. Caparas. The result is Angela Markado (1980), which features gorgeous noir cinematography by Conrado Baltazar and memorable theme music by Jeric Soriano.

Kontrobersyal (Controversial, 1981), Brocka's potboiler about the rise of a starlet (Gina Alajar) is the quintessential rags-to-riches, prey-turned-predator story, brimming with true-life anecdotes and an authentically acerbic sense of the seamier side of show business. The film, it must be noted, is UP Film Institute programmer and critic Nonoy Lauzon's favorite of Brocka's pictures.

Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim (My Country, 1984) is, along with Mike de Leon's Sister Stellla L (1984), one of a handful of mainstream films that had the courage to openly criticize the Marcos regime. Both films' screenplays were by auteur-screenwriter Jose "Pete" Lacaba.

Miguelito, ang Batang Rebelde (Miguelito the Rebel, 1985) is remembered for being the first time popular movie idol Aga Muhlach essayed a dramatic role, the son of a potentially corrupt political figure; the film should really be known for the wonderful pair of performances by the late Nida Blanca (as Miguelito's convict mother), and Rey "PJ" Abellana (as one of the father's political henchmen).

With Babangon Ako't Dudurugin Kita (I Will Rise and Crush You, 1989) Brocka tried to do for Sharon Cuneta what he did for Aga Muhlach; the results were a mixed bag if you're not a Sharon fan (which I'm not, unfortunately). Macho Dancer (also 1989) is considerably better, a noir involving erotic male dancers with memorable performances by Jacklyn Jose and Daniel Fernando. Possibly the best film Brocka made that year, however (it was a busy year) was Orapronobis (Pray for Us), Brocka's considerably courageous statement on Corazon Aquino, the housewife who helped break strongman Ferdinand Marcos's stranglehold on the Philippine presidency--namely, that her political ineptitude was in some ways worse than Marcos' corrupt despotism (the film would be banned for years by the Aquino administration). Partly funded by the French, written with sinewy leanness by Pete Lacaba and lensed by Mike de Leon regular Rody Lacap, the film had a distinct look and feel unlike any other Filipino film of the decade, and is a late high point in Brocka's career.

Gumapang Ka sa Lusak (Dirty Affair, 1990)--this melodramatic take on the last few years of the Marcos administration is arguably Brocka's last decent work. It is notable for Christopher de Leon's understated performance as the outlaw hero, and for Charo Santos' memorably sociopathic performance as an Imelda Marcos parody.

First published in Businessworld, 5.8.09


Dominic K. Laeno said...

Hi Noel, don't know if you'll come across this post (I'm DKL), but I was wondering if you could tell me about this site:

In particular, I really wanna buy DVDs, but I fear that they might be region 3 or something and I wouldn't be able to play them on my PS3 (which does region 1... I live in the states).

Anyway, yeah, that's pretty much what I needed to ask.

Thanks in advanced.

Noel Vera said...

Hi, Dom, nice to hear from you!

They're region 1. I play them on my DVD and they work just fine. Subtitled too, at least Insiang and Tiimbang were.

Dominic K. Laeno said...

Thanks a lot.

Anonymous said...

Hey there :)

What was the best quality and the worst movie of the year 2010 in your oppinion? To me it would have to be:

Very best: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One

Worst: A Nightmare on Elm Street

Cheers :) <3

Noel Vera said...

Between those two movies I think I'd rather have a root canal.