My belated contribution to For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon
Trying to list down titles lost to Philippine cinema is like trying to jot down all the Filipinos who fell victim to the last world war. There are too many to mention and the accumulation of names, the memories of what they were (fading, as those who actually saw them pass away), what they mean to us and what it's like not to be able to see them again, ever, is too heartbreaking to even talk about.
You hear of fires, floods, and various disasters cracking open and collapsing roofs, exposing precious celluloid to the elements. You hear of film prints being dumped in the middle of a basketball court, baking and slowly turning into vinegar. You hear of dank warehouses with no air-conditioning, an unmistakeably sour stench filling the air. You hear of actual film prints, of goodness knows what titles from goodness knows which filmmaker, being cut and rolled up and turned into party trumpets for blowing on New Year's.
We don't have a National Archive in the Philippines; we have at most various studios, with storage structures of varying and questionable capability (drip, drip drip; the whir of an industrial fan; the thick heat that wraps your face like a blanket when the door is opened). We do have a group intent on archiving--SOFIA, the Society of Film Archivists, but they have little funding and can do little more than exchange information and continue to agitate for the establishment of an actual facility (the recent world economic meltdown hasn't helped).
By default, the best archiving facilities in the country at the moment is in television station ABS-CBN's storage vaults which, unlike some film studios that will not be named, does possess temperature and humidity controls--ABS-CBN operates Cinema One, the Filipino film channel, and has possibly the largest collection of film prints in the country, outside of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), the official government arm dealing with culture as a whole. CCP has an excellent collection of film prints, but less than excellent facilities in which to store them--humidifiers, if I recall correctly, but no air-conditioning.
There have been a few success stories--Gerardo De Leon's Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not, 1961), his flawed yet fascinating adaptation of the classic novel by Jose Rizal, was saved through the efforts of the Goethe Institute Manila and NCCA (National Commission for Culture and Arts) Vice Head Teddy Co; Teddy was also instrumental in recovering a print of De Leon's political drama The Moises Padilla Story (1961). Lino Brocka's daring gay melodrama Tubog sa Ginto (Dipped in Gold, 1970) was considered lost until film blogger Jojo De Vera found a Betamax copy in a garage sale. Things move on--Lino Brocka's first feature Wanted: Perfect Mother (1970) has apparently been discovered, at least in video form; and a print (an actual print!) of Laurice Guillen's classic Salome (1981), long thought to be lost, has somehow surfaced.
These stories are but a few bright spots in what on the whole has been a story of unrelenting grimness, the gradually worsening state of amnesia in Philippine cinema. We have made thousands of films, some of them I believe to be the best in the world; every year heat and humidity take their toll, every year prints grow increasingly moist and vinegary. Back in the '70s, Teddy Co once told me, a retrospective of Gerardo De Leon's films was possible; in the '90s only a precious handful were left (I hate to think on how matters stand, ten years later).
Rumor once had it that a print of De Leon's El Filibusterismo (1962) was floating around somewhere in Germany--what happened to that? I know there's a blurry and barely comprehensible video copy in Viva Studios--that's how I saw the film, when they broadcast it on their now-defunct cable channel. Film preservation in the Philippines is a lot like Indiana Jones, adventuring in the jungle--you don't know what you'll find, or how you'll find it, you feel as if the world is if not indifferent then actively against you, you never have resources, and time inexorably against you.
Fairly hopeful update: in 2011 a U-matic video was discovered of the film and screened to appreciative audiences. Not 35 mm alas, but it's something.
A Lost King
Mario O'Hara's Bagong Hari (The New King) was released in early 1986, a special moment in Philippine history. It was produced and released during the final days of the Marcos regime, when the dictator's hold on things was seriously weakened (though few realized just how weak he really was), and the level of social and political ferment was at an unprecedented high--was at a level not seen since Marcos declared Martial Law fourteen years before. It was also--though few knew it then--the final days of what we might call the '70s and '80s golden age of Philippine cinema, a period that started with the release of Lino Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged But Found Wanting, 1974) and continued past the end of the decade with works like Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye, 1981) and Himala (Miracle, 1982).
In 1983 the assassination of Marcos' political opponent Ninoy Aquino threw the stagnant economy into chaos and provoked an outburst of anti-Marcos sentiment, one that the dictator struggled to staunch but never managed to stop. Partly as a result of political and economic troubles--Marcos had more on his plate than he could possibly handle--partly to appease people with "bread and circus" style entertainment and appear more liberal, Marcos eased censorship restrictions. Films full of graphically depicted sex and intense violence bloomed, and people felt it was a sign of the times--the end of the world for all they knew--that profound change was imminent, and maybe to be desired.
Perhaps one of the most intense expressions of this sentiment was Peque Gallaga's Scorpio Nights (1985), about an apartment housewife who has an affair with the college student upstairs, practically under the nose of her security-guard husband. The allegory was clear--youth and woman defying the authority figure for moments of intense sexual satisfaction--but it was the sex that inspired the audience's imagination; staged and choreographed as if they were stunts, the sex was imaginative, passionate, thrilling, like nothing ever seen in Filipino screens before, or since.
But if Scorpio Nights perfectly captured the people's hunger to see sexual rebellion in the face of repression in 1985, Bagong Hari perfectly captured the regime's utter corruption, its systemic use of violence, our need (or hunger, if you like) to have someone rise up against it. If, in effect, Scorpio Nights was Philippine cinema's ultimate statement on sex, Bagong Hari was that cinema's ultimate statement on violence. Ironically, while Scorpio was a boxoffice success, Bagong Hari was a huge financial failure--the film, meant for the December 1985 Metro Manila Film Festival (it failed to enter because of censorship issues), received an early 1986 release with little publicity (I do remember a quarter-page newspaper ad, a beautiful one featuring Addon (Dan Alvaro) in cruciform pose, with a barbed-wire crown on his head). Which was a pity, because O'Hara had meant it to be a commercial (albeit dark) entertainment, one that had sharp and even prescient things to say about Philippine politics at the time--or, for that matter, all times.
The setting is some unspecified province in the Philippines (Metro Manila); the governess (the late Elvira Manahan, doing a more elegant version of Imelda Marcos) is being accused of overspending on the construction of a large library (obviously the Manila Film Center). Her rival in the coming elections is Mayor Aguila (filmmaker Celso Ad. Castillo, in a witty performance), a former actor turned politician with a reputation of being an intellectual lightweight (the parallels with Joseph Estrada are striking, especially Aguila's ambitions of becoming governor of the province (read: Chief Executive)). The governess and Mayor Aguila's struggles to win the election form the complex series of machinations and betrayals that drive the film.
Caught in between is Addon Labrador (Dan Alvaro), son of Isagani Labrador (Robert Arevalo), Mayor Aguila's right-hand man. Addon doesn't share in his father's political success (his mother left Isagani years before, presumably for serial womanizing) but he does share one of his father's talents--he's a born killer, a one-shot, one-kill hunter also adept at street fighting and the barbaric yet strangely beautiful art of balisong (butterfly knife) combat.
Violence is a classic mode of expression among Filipino political parties, especially during election season (even today we hear news of assassinations and shootings this time of the year--if anything, the number of incidents has increased); more, violence is one of the oldest and most preferred means of interaction between men, with the man most skilled at inflicting it revered, worshiped, granted larger-than-life status. O'Hara's film acknowledges this from the opening sequence, a hand-to-hand duel between two men on a beach. Fists crunch into bone, feet are ground into faces, and faces in turn are crushed in the wet sand; O'Hara keeps the various body parts in giant close-up then freezes the images, partly to distance us from the horror of physical punishment, partly to aestheticize the violence, force us to dwell on its awful beauty (hard, muscular bodies being pummeled and punched). Meanwhile, the grunts, groans and howls of pain continue in the soundtrack, ending with the abrupt snap of someone's neck. The reasons behind this clash are only hinted at (a prize money is mentioned, along with ownership of the gintong balisong (a golden butterfly knife), and the title of hari (king)); the sequence is the opening chord in what is meant to be a symphony of brutality.
The film is full of fight sequences of various settings, emotional tones, overall look. The first had an existential quality to it (we fight, therefore we are), with two unknown men struggling on an empty beach; the second is substantially different, set alongside the Pasig River with the strains of a tender guitar melody as ironic accompaniment.
The fight begins with Addon in a urinal (a makeshift cubicle hanging precariously from the riverbank, directly over the river) being attacked by three men from behind; it proceeds up a tilted truck bed (one thinks of Carol Reed's canted camera angles only here it's the flooring that's askew), up on the rooftops of a series of shanties (here O'Hara's camera takes on a long view with the rooftops for a horizon as the figures run and jump and collide) to finally end (in a nicely symmetrical touch) back in another of those overhanging urinals. The fight is hardly gratuitous, either; Addon is being auditioned, presumably for a bigger fight.
The film's most distinctive battle is set at night, in the arena-like Greek Theater of the National Mental Hospital. Addon has been offered fifty thousand pesos (a huge sum to Filipinos, but a mere two thousand in American dollars) to fight the hari we had seen earlier in the picture (character actor Ruel Vernal at his most villainous); the fight begins with hand-to-hand combat, proceeds with meathooks ("What's this?" Addon asks; "just use it," he's told), and then with balisongs until only one is left standing; high up on bleachers rich young men place wagers on the battle's outcome.
It's O'Hara at his most baroque: two desperate men in a life-or-death struggle for the amusement of the upper classes; the arena setting and progression of weapons (from fists to meathooks to balisongs) reinforces the gladiatorial feel. O'Hara often perches the camera on the upper steps of the venue, looking down at the two small figures struggling below. The image calls to mind any number of ideas: that Dante's inferno was also shaped like a bowl; that freedom for the two combatants is found outwards and upwards, past where the camera sits (a fact underlined when Addon at one point starts walking out on his deal--walking towards the camera, in effect--and is halted by a man racking his M16 rifle). Later, when the hari takes one of the torches lighting the venue and attacks Addon with it, O'Hara shoots the two men through the spilled flames, as if they were already burning in hell.
The film goes on to chronicle how Addon is forced to commit his most heinous killing, and how Addon's attempts at retribution starts a cycle of escalating mayhem that leaves few people left standing.
I haven't touched on various minor elements--on Addon's girlfriend Rina (Carmi Martin, tough of heart and foul of mouth), for example, or her involvement with the governor's son Rex (Joel Torre, parodying the son of a famous political figure), or the power struggles between the governor and mayor's several underlings. I haven't mentioned the little girl who adores Addon, and is in many ways the film's mediating viewpoint (we are that little girl, looking up to her hero); I haven't mentioned details O'Hara adds that are possible only in Manila (the children perched atop bridges, for example, snaking down loops to hook objects from the barges that glide underneath; or the policeman who sets out to investigate a shooting by riding a rented tricycle). I haven't mentioned the various ways in which O'Hara presents the physical cost of violence--from the ripped stitches suffered by a hospital patient while fleeing her pursuers to another woman's agonized, shrieking attempts to breathe while dying of a gunshot wound to the chest.
I certainly don't have the space to discuss the ways in which O'Hara keeps all elements--the characters, the political allusions, the details unique to Manila, the varied and brilliantly staged action--in beautiful proportion and working towards an interesting (if debatable) point: if violent revolution ever needed a justification, then the political and social circumstances surrounding the Philippines during the years 1983 to '86 should suffice. And if a man were to initiate such a revolution, O'Hara gives us a rough sketch of one such man--earthy, quiet, courteous, gallant to women and children, essentially kind, but skilled at dealing out death. A champion, in short.
O'Hara's Addon Labrador is no Mike Hammer, looking for the Great Whatzit in Kiss Me Deadly, or Hank Quinlan using doubtful means to catch his quarry in Touch of Evil--but then O'Hara probably felt that the times didn't call for such brutes. A man taking on the Philippines' entire political establishment would have no time or energy to handle self-doubt, introspection, cynicism, elements that would only add complication to an already complex plot (part of the film's complexity--something I again have neither the time or space to fully discuss--comes from the careful way Addon's character is presented and developed, as someone basically good but not unbelievably so). The film pits Addon--and us with him--against the world, pits classic Filipino virtues (virtues which, when you think about it, the film itself possesses) against the vast perversion that is the Philippines today. It's a ray of hope, however fantastic, meant to encourage us in our despair.
Bagong Hari is recognizably noir, in that it has protagonists struggling against a complex crime plot in a dark and hostile urban landscape; because it presents such a wide range of characters--from the highest offices of power to the humblest river rat--interacting and dominating (or being dominated by) others, I'd say this belongs to the special subset of "epic" noir, of which Curtis Hanson's 1997 L.A. Confidential would be another example (personally, I prefer O'Hara's more modest but stranger and (I believe) visually richer work).
The film as mentioned was a boxoffice failure; nevertheless, it managed to impress the handful of people--me, included--who caught it on its brief commercial run. And it has left its mark on our cinema--many an action film since has since featured balisongs and meat hooks in gladiatorlike combat, many a drama has borrowed characters and events from our history for verisimilitude. Lino Brocka (with whom O'Hara has collaborated on a number of projects) did if not a remake, then a rather pallid reworking: Gumapang Ka sa Lusak (Dirty Affair, 1990), with Christopher De Leon as the Addon character and Charo Santos as the Imelda Marcos figure.
A final note: partly as a result of its commercial failure all prints of Bagong Hari have since been lost (the producer is himself looking for a copy), and only a few fugitive video recordings remain. That loss is more than a pity, it's an intolerable tragedy; that Philippine cinema was capable of this, arguably the finest Filipino action film ever made and the last great film from a great period in Filipino filmmaking--it's enough to make one weep.