Monday, June 05, 2017

A New Golden Age: Contemporary Philippine Cinema

A third golden age?

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) from June 1 to the 25th will hold an exhibit titled "A New Golden Age: Contemporary Philippine Cinema"--basically a sampling of seventeen Filipino films from a broad range of directors: Erik Matti, Ato Bautista, Brillante Mendoza, Raya Martin, Lav Diaz to name a few. 

Wonderful tribute to what I agree is a wonderful development in our turbulent country: a (relatively) young generation of filmmakers funded by new forms of financing taking up the digital lens and recording not just what's happening around them but what's happening in their heads their memories their imagination. 

As to the term 'golden age'--why not? So many new names, so many new works in the past ten or so years; many of the titles interesting, a handful brilliant, a select few impressive enough to consider calling great (I say give them a few years and we'll see).

I do wonder about calling this period the 'third' golden age, citing only the '50s, the '70s-into-the-'80s, the '00s onward. Films started screening in the Philippines only a year after commercially screened cinemas first opened; the first Filipino filmmakers producing locally made films in 1919, their output building to an impressive number through the '30s up to the outbreak of World War 2. Filipino masters like Gerardo de Leon, Lamberto Avellana, Manuel Conde began work in the '30s through the '40s (their contemporary Manuel Silos directed his first feature in 1927). In terms of output there were enough films by enough talents to deem this the first such age--only problem being precious few have survived to attest their quality (we rely on witnesses' accounts). 

World War 2 halted most film production; the immediate postwar period was a time of reconstruction and recovery. By the '50s there were three major studios: LVN Pictures, Sampaguita Pictures (both survivors of the war), and Premiere Productions; Silos, Conde, Avellana, and De Leon were all prolific, at the height of their abilities.  

The '60s were actually an interesting time--the studios' hold on audiences was in decline, and various independent outfits emerged in an attempt to take their place. Conde did his Juan Tamad (rough translation: John Lazybones) series; Avellana adapted Nick Joaquin's play Portrait of the Artist as Filipino; De Leon delivered some of his greatest films--his definitive adaptation of Jose Rizal's novels (Noli Me Tangere, El Filibusterismo), his Daigdig ng Mga Api--though again with the latter we are forced to depend on testimonials, as no print remains. 

Many of the best-known Philippine classics were crafted during the '70s, from Lino Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Weighed and Found Wanting, 1974, not long after Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law), through Brocka's Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975--arguably the most famous Filipino film ever made) and Mike De Leon's Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye, 1982, a horrorcomic masterpiece) up to Mario O'Hara's Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986, not long before the EDSA Revolution forced Marcos into exile). 

In the '90s I submit there was a minor golden age. Mother Lily and Joey Gosiengfiao under Good Harvest Productions offered filmmakers the Faustian opportunity to make pito-pito (seven-seven) films: basically pictures made for two million pesos (roughly sixty thousand dollars), shot in seven days, assembled in seven days; beyond that the director was free to shoot whatever he wanted. Good Harvest started the careers of Jeffrey Jeturian (Sana Pag-ibig Na (roughly: If Only Love, 1998), Pila Balde (Fetch a Pail of Water, 1999)) and Lav Diaz (Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion (The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion, 1998), Burger Boys, 1999, and Hubad sa Ilalim ng Buwan (Naked Under the Moon, 1999)), allowed veteran Mario O'Hara to realize two dream projects: Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof (1998)), and Sisa (1999). Viva Films (mostly under its subsidiary Neo) would produce its share of interesting work, from Tikoy Aguiluz's Segurista (Dead Sure, 1996) to Celso Ad. Castillo's Lihim ni Madonna (Madonna's Secrets, 1997) to Butch Perez's Mumbaki (1996). Star Cinema would give us Chito Rono's Eskapo (Escape, 1995) and Marilou Diaz Abaya's May Nagmamahal sa Iyo (Madonna and Child, 1996).

All examples establishing the not-especially-radical point that there's probably more of these periods of febrile creativity than just three, said idea in turn establishing my larger point: our cinema is much too diverse and complex for any one retrospective or exhibition to possibly do justice, the recordkeeping and film archiving too inconsistent (at least till recently) for any one person to handily summarize (unless said scholar has lived for over a hundred years, and can describe images found in the lost prints from memory). 

The seventeen choices in this retrospective showcase our cinema's range. I'd have included voices like John Torres whose feature-length essay-poems (Todo Todo Teros (2006), Ang Ninanais (Refrains Happen Like Revolutions in a Song, 2010) are unique in our often narrative-bound cinema; Sari Dalena whose Ka Oryang (Comrade Oryang, 2011) is a harrowing account of women abused under Martial Law; Rico Ilarde (Altar, 2007), Richard Somes (Yanggaw (Affliction, 2008), Eduardo Dayao (Violator, 2014), who prove that Filipino genre filmmaking can still show us a thing or two about melding substance into style; and O so many more. 

But that's my prejudices and obsessions speaking; otherwise I can't really fault the selection, which includes Erik Matti's popular On the Job (2013), about prison inmates hired to perform assassinations (an unlikely premise till you learn it's based loosely on a true story). Assassin antiheroes have been done to death, but Matti working from an intricate yet coherent script (thanks in part to writer Michiko Yamamoto) creates grimy sweatdrenched images of crammed prison cells and squalid slums, and the deadeyed killers who flit between these worlds. Call it a Third-World Chinatown only I doubt if Jake Gittes would last more than two days in either slum or prison.

Lav Diaz does have an assassin antihero in his Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte: The End of History, 2013)--significantly Ms. Yamamoto contributed to both screenplays--but as subplot; Diaz's films have room enough for a dozen subplots and you wonder why he doesn't fill up his vast canvases. I suspect he does this to stretch our attention spans and force us to contemplate the few objects and figures he does bring into his films, filling the blank space around his carefully chosen foregrounds with our minutiae, our marginalia, spinning us dizzy with details donated by our own minds. Here in his closest adaptation of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment yet, Diaz avoids diving deep into Raskolnikov's psyche, instead splitting him in two and sending him spinning off into two different fates (one fatalistic, one futile). 

Brillante Mendoza's Serbis (Service, 2008) I might liken to Kubrick's The Shining only instead of a snowbound cavernous hotel we have a slumbound cavernous movie theater showing uncensored prints of softcore erotica (shades of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange). The various characters chase, berate, occasionally fellate each other; they do an inordinate amount of mopping up (the toilets seem perpetually clogged) and still the theater is fascinatingly filthy--it's like Kubrick's famous elevator only instead of neverending blood we have sewer water of a far more sinister tincture. All the more fascinating because the film is an exaggeration--but only a slight exaggeration--of what I've experienced in cheap Manila projection houses. Never seen a goat but I've spotted cats prowling up and down the aisles seeking leftovers; and those toilets lord help us those toilets.

Diaz's Norte managed to snag a screening at Cannes, but I think Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (From What is Before, 2014) is possibly as important if not more so, with Diaz exploring not just the depravity found in a single human soul but the depravity that allows a community to fall prey to that soul's totalitarian rule (it's as if the anti-hero in Norte walked on to found his own petty empire in the next town). Ignorance apathy and paranoia abound, not to mention the innate desire to screw (literally metaphorically) one's fellow man. I'd always wondered if and when any of these filmmakers would tackle the phenomenon that is Rodrigo Duterte and his threat to re-impose Martial Law; seems to me Diaz has, with Norte and this film--not so much predicting the curve of future history as watching that history curving back, to conform with the film's narrative.

That's about it, only I wish they had moved heaven and hell to urge Mike De Leon into finishing his latest work Citizen Jake--now that would have been a coup. Did not happen alas, but that too is appropriate--in a cinema so full of energy and life you can never quite catch the next development coming round the corner right at you, at speed. 

With thanks to Joel David and Jo Atienza (any errors or distortions are mine not theirs)

First published in Businessworld, 6.1.17

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