Thursday, April 11, 2019

Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay (Huk in a New Life, Lamberto Avellana, 1953)

Rebel yell

Available on filmmaker Mike de Leon's Citizen Jake Vimeo site: Lamberto Avellana's postwar drama Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay (Huk in a New Life, 1953), about a wartime guerrilla who out of desperation joins communist forces seeking to overthrow the Filipino government.

Produced by de Leon's grandmother Narcisa 'Sisang' De Leon to function as unabashedly anticommunist pro-American propaganda, the third such effort by Dona Sisang's LVN Studios. The print on this website--a not-especially-clear recording from a DVD--emphasizes the slant: some of the dialogue is in English and much of the Filipino dialogue is overdubbed with English narration*, reportedly by Avellana himself, carefully explaining the motivation of characters and significance of each scene: "If I had known then what Maxie (Joseph de Cordova) really represented, things might have been different."

*(Looking around I've found other online recordings without narration and the film feels like a somewhat different creature--but the picture quality is if anything even worse. De Leon's DVD-sourced copy is I think the best available online and in my book the preferred choice; I can always ignore the narration)

The foreboding voiceover narration could arguably be Avellana's concession to the noir genre, which loves foreboding voiceover narration. The narration drones on for the rest of the picture but the film (I submit) does rise beyond its limitations, thanks mostly to the performances and Avellana's direction.

The story starts literally with a bang: Carding (Jose Padilla Jr.), sudden and huge onscreen, flings a grenade at a Japanese truck as opening salvo to a guerrilla assault. At one point Carding's commanding officer Maxie shoves him to the ground away from rifle fire; Carding's cheek is scraped bloody, leaving him scarred for life.

Carding comes home an honored veteran but is soon laid low not by any one cause but by a perfect storm of events (taking that much, the film suggest, to pull a Filipino down): Maxie conspires with American communist leader Mac (Rolf Bayer, who also wrote the screenplay) to withhold Carding's pay; Carding is cheated out of his family land by the usuriously corrupt Mr. Vargas (Leonardo Fernandez); Carding (who has a temper) unjudiciously strikes Vargas with a shovel, leaving himself open to assault charges; topping matters off is an actual storm, a typhoon that devastates the crops and Carding's prospects in a single night.

Carding waits to be arrested (for hitting Vargas) but Maxie appears Mephistolike ahead of the police with an offer: rejoin us, the Huks, your former comrades-in-arms. The 'Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Mga Hapon' (Nationalist Forces Fighting the Japanese)--or Hukbalahap as they are more popularly known ('Huks' by the English speaking press) were a wartime force organized by the communist against the Japanese; they persisted beyond the war, fighting the Filipino government on behalf of guerrillas who were denied their salary.

The Huks may have a point. Filipino veterans to this day struggle for full rights from and recognition by the United States for their role in the war; Avellana and Bayer have to invent Maxie and behind him Mac (played by Bayer himself to resemble William Pomeroy down to the glasses and Filipina wife) to account for the injustice. 

Bayer's Mac is an amusing invention, not the least because his features and delivery remind one of a slimmer more garrulous Spencer Tracy. De Cordova's Maxie is the more interesting figure, his fervor fermenting into fanaticism and then full-on bloodthirsty megalomania ("If they fight back?" "We kill everyone")--with a pause along the way to recognize longstanding friendship ("I would have died without you"), even if he's been victimizing said friend for years. But what best sells Avellana's point, holds together and humanizes the picture, is Padilla--his Carding, a simple man of the earth, acquires monumental stature as Avellana shoots him in giant Eisenteinian closeup, straining against a plow or screaming at stormy sky or swinging ax against great tree trunk. There's also some psychological shading, the scar on his cheek suggesting both the lingering effects of war and of Maxie's moral claim on his life. 

Not that Carding suffers from PTSD; no, that fate is given to Carding's comrade and soon-to-be brother-in-law Hesus (Leroy Salvador), who at seeing all his friends dead loses the ability to speak. You might say the war splintered Carding into three: Maxie (Marxie?) representing political idealism; the allegorically named Hesus representing mute but sensitive humanity; Carding himself representing the sorely tried self caught between warring impulses. When Carding the Huk commander is pursued by government soldiers it's Hesus who fires the crucial gun; later Hesus approaches the bandaged Carding begging forgiveness for his role in the capture. Avellana's staging is I think crucial: he shoots past Carding's broad forbidding back at Hesus' imploring face. Carding orders Hesus to approach. Suddenly Hesus' face changes expression, Carding reaches out to tousle the young man's hair, and the two embrace. Through blocking and camera placement Avellana prolongs the drama of the occasion, presents a reconciliation between conscience (Hesus) and consciousness (Carding) that is arguably the film's most moving moment.

The third act feels like a more rugged Crime and Punishment, shot in an actual EDCOR camp (Economic Development Corp, a government-established program to resettle insurgents). Carding has always been strongwilled, and (like Raskolnikov) hesitates buying into the government's peace overtures. The process of integration is long and physically demanding: Carding works to clear land and build a relationship with his fellow laborers (most former Huk fighters) is ultimately voted into office as the community's mayor, but it's only when this new life is threatened--by Maxie again, this time infiltrating the camp as an undercover agent--that Carding finds himself forced to make a choice: reject the program or reject his third self, the ideological Maxie. 

A note on how this all plays out to more contemporary sensibilities: aside from the slower pace and more melodramatic tone, one can't help but be startled at how openly the American military influence is presented onscreen: Carding is transported to the southern island of Mindanao via an American battleship (a perhaps military surplus sold to the Philippine navy); later he rides a US Army truck (or the secondhand equivalent) to the camp. 

Then there's the noirish scene early in the film of Mac conspiring with Maxie over Carding's back pay. Mac sounds suitably sinister as befits a stock communist villain, but one of his lines retain a contemporary sting: "If the party can't win by peaceful means we'll build on hate. Fear." Still a sound strategy, successfully used by today's ruling U.S. government and its Filipino equivalent--communists need not claim a monopoly. 

Interesting to compare Avellana's style to Gerardo de Leon's: the latter often tilts the camera just so, giving his human figures a looming monumental feel; often de Leon has long shots of tiny figures running against a vast unforgiving landscape. Avellana coming from the theater stage puts emphasis not on people in landscapes but on people with people: medium shots often from the waist up to better capture the behavior of characters as they talk gaze touch each other, confirming friendships, debating issues, attempting to establish connection. 

Arguably Avellana's finest shot is his most understated: Carding has a bitter quarrel with his brother Manuel (Miguel Lopez) over the question of Vargas' loan (Carding is for, Manuel against). Manuel leaves to work the fields, gaining stature (having chosen rightly) as he walks up to the camera; Hesus lounges against a tree playing a mournful (because of the quarrel) "Leron, Leron Sinta" on harmonica. Manuel pauses to look back at Carding, angry and diminished (having chosen wrongly). Carding looks at his wife Trining (Celia Flor) standing beside him, strips his shirt off; suddenly Hesus is playing at a livelier pace as he and Carding run to catch up with Manuel, and all is that much righter with the world. Nothing an experienced theater director can't do--only with camera frame fixed at a low angle, moral authority has been assigned, taken away, restored, all through the simple device of having actors stand and walk up to the camera lens, the establishment of and change in tone cued by a skillfully played mouth organ. 

When Avellana does resort to an unusual shot the contrast is more startling:  Soldiers swarm like ants out of a dark stone doorway firing at that attacking Huks; as the rebels gain the upper hand they run into that same doorway in reverse flow, enemy ants triumphantly claiming the home nest. Later the filmmaker upends the doorway composition to gruesome effect, setting up camera at the bottom of a rectangular pit (an open graveyard?) looking up instead of looking out; the Huks kill a man accused of treason and his body falls halfway across the pit's edge, head and arms hanging upside down. 

Into battle sequences Avellana inserts shots of women and children wounded or killed, the atrocities escalating to include Carding's in-laws--always with fighting there's a cost, usually in civilian deaths, and the director takes pains in reminding us of that cost. Even Mac is given his due: wounded by ricochet during one of the picture's many gun battles he gropes blindly on the ground looking for his lost glasses. Avellana may be directing propaganda but allows himself a moment to recognize the humanity in a blinded man, no matter how subversive or villainous. 

I'd mentioned a typhoon wiping out Carding's farm. Carding plays the scene in full Lear mode poised against roiling sky, wind and water whipping his back as he vents his anger and despair. The nature theme continues in the EDCOR camp, where a half-naked well-muscled Carding swings his ax; Carding later stands on a felled trunk with confident equanimity, the former status between nature and man restored (mostly to man's satisfaction). These and earlier sequences of Carding pushing a plow are, I submit, far more effective propaganda than either dialogue or narration: they suggest a dignity in labor and in the common man that depends more on old-fashioned can-do attitude (with a little government support) than mere communist ideology.

Then there's Hesus firing at Carding's receding figure. Carding falls against a backdrop of towering bamboo--an oddly serene almost Japanese moment in an otherwise austere-looking film. You wonder at Avellana's thinking, why he chose to compose the shot thusly: to suggest fatalistic acceptance of the inevitable? Ironic counterpoint to violent betrayal? Or just a startlingly beautiful image offered out of nowhere, for no particular reason, arguably the most memorable in the film? Avellana at first glance is an understated filmmaker with unpretentious aspirations and strategies--until he's not. Then he's large, he contains multitudes.

First published in Businessworld 4.5.19

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