Monday, November 14, 2022

Mike De Leon

The thin line between genius and sanity

Easy to call Mike de Leon one of the greatest if not the greatest Filipino filmmaker; he's done only a handful of films (nine features and three shorts), but every one displays an amazingly high level of technical proficiency. In terms of sound design, cinematography, and editing, his films sound and look and flow better than almost any other; it may be argued that De Leon has never made a bad film-- that his batting average runs a near-perfect 95 or even 100%.

That said, De Leon does seem to have his blind spots. He's never done a big-budget picture before (the only one he's ever attempted, GMA Studio's Jose Rizal, he walked away from after spending so many months and so many millions of pesos preparing). He never does explicit sex scenes, and almost never shows human sensuality in any form. He also seems to have trouble portraying women-- they are either passive or impotent or almost totally absent from his films. For all of De Leon's supposed range and versatility, you could almost chart his career on what he will or will not do, as if some complex formula secretly ruled his life.

And perhaps there is. De Leon's reputation for technical perfection is both boon and bane for anyone trying to assess his films; most critics only see the surface perfection-- bow to it, hang garlands upon it, burn incense and chant hosannas to its holy presence. They don't seem in any way aware of the turmoil beneath that perfect surface, a hidden turmoil the dynamic of which mars as often as strengthens his films, and is the true source of their power.

De Leon's first directed feature, Itim (The Rites of May, 1976) tells the story of a young woman (Charo Santos) haunted by the spirit of her dead sister. The film is full of memorable visual sequences-- the séance, for example, where Santos is channeling her sister's spirit, the room spinning about as if the camera itself were possessed. Or the antiseptically white clinic where a photographer (Tommy Abuel) investigates the photographs hidden away by his father, a scene that evokes the otherworldly eeriness of Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now. Itim is such a stylish exercise in atmosphere that you don't really notice that the story itself is actually thin, a mere investigation into a long-past mystery-- the bells and whistles of a supernatural thriller (well-made they may be) taking the place of real dramatic conflict. When the final secret is discovered (involving Abuel's paralytic father, played by Mario Montenegro), retribution is swift, almost anticlimactic; we never really understand Montenegro's reasons for doing what he did, nor do we learn what Santos' and Abuel's ultimate reactions might be to the revelations.

The true interest of Itim is its position at the forefront of De Leon's career, representing as it does his first faltering steps towards true mastery. He has introduced a few of the characters he will repeatedly include in his films-- the malevolent father, the passive young man, the victim/prize of a heroine-- but has not yet fleshed them out. He has struck a note of Gothic foreboding, but has not yet articulated the story he truly wants to tell-- that comes later.

De Leon's second feature, Kung Mangarap Ka't Magising (Moments in a Stolen Dream, 1977) is more of a character-driven piece, delineating a love affair between a young man (Christopher De Leon) and an older married woman (Hilda Koronel). De Leon himself disparaged the picture, calling it "the proto-Viva Film" years before Viva Studios (known for its glossy middle-class love stories) was established.

What sets the film apart is its introduction of the first true De Leon protagonist-- the strangely subdued young man who has difficulty bridging the gap between people, much less the woman he desires. It's a delicate, fully formed character, as conceived by De Leon the director and played by De Leon the actor (the two not related). Where in Itim De Leon seems to be showing us what he's learned about atmosphere and style, in Kung Mangarap he seems to be showing us what he has learned about creating rounded, complex characters and making them interact in a non-melodramatic manner.

From 1980 to 1982, De Leon did a trilogy of films. Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (Does Your Heart Beat Faster? 1980) is a comedy about a band of friends (led by, again, Christopher de Leon) chasing an audiocassette tape made of heroin fashioned by the Japanese Yakuza; later the Chinese Mafia and ultimately the Catholic Church join the chase. The film is a mishmash of absurdist non-sequiturs and subtle in-jokes-- subtitled Japanese and subtitled Chinese vie for screen space, ultimately finding themselves jumbled together; periscopes pop out of swimming pools to monitor plot developments; a nun belts out a glitzy Broadway number, lifting her habit to reveal a sexily pantyhosed thigh.

De Leon reveals a different side of himself here-- the dry wit and satirist, the skeptical observer of human folly; what's missing is the emotional intensity hinted at in his two earlier works. Kakabakaba is a comedy, tinted slightly dark, but urbane and ultimately tasteful-- not the kind of qualities you expect from De Leon. The original story was reportedly much darker, with vicious jabs at the Catholic Church; we may never learn what happened to transform that possibly more interesting project into this lighthearted, somehow insincere romp.

With Kisapmata (Blink, 1981) De Leon created his masterwork. The plot bears striking similarities to Itim-- the latter might have been an important first draft-- but with a crucial difference: De Leon has freed the father figure stalking the margins of the previous film from his crippling paralysis, and allowed him to take center stage. As incarnated by Vic Silayan, he is a retired police sergeant with an unnatural stranglehold over wife (Charito Solis) and daughter (Charo Santos). His claustrophobically enclosed world is threatened when Santos finds herself pregnant, and forced to marry a young man (Jay Ilagan). Silayan attempts to extend his influence over his son-in-law, who resists; there is a confrontation...

De Leon tells what is essentially a horror story, at the heart of which is a creature all the more terrifying because he's so familiar-- garrulous, unshaven old man with a huge belly and hidden .45 caliber handgun. He could be someone you know; he could be your next-door neighbor. Along with that neighborly feel is the sense of utter conviction that De Leon brings to the material, to the conflict between domineering father and (yet again) passive son-in-law. It's as if De Leon knew these characters well-- identifies with them intensely. The film is unsettling in the way it seems so close (because of the intensity) to the filmmaker, the same time it's so close (because of the realism) to you. As if the gap between our world and De Leon's more forbidding one is as little as, well, the blink of an eye.

Batch '81 (1982) sublimates the tyrant father into an all-encompassing organization, the college fraternity; for the mental torments of Kisapmata it substitutes the largely physical torments of fraternity pledges. This is possibly De Leon's way raising the stakes, by moving from closed family to closed fraternity, the fraternity standing in for the fascism of then-president Ferdinand Marcos' administration. De Leon does achieve scenes of intense claustrophobia, though not as intense or claustrophobic as in Kisapmata-- difficult, if not impossible, to improve on an essentially perfect work. An interesting note: De Leon's now-familiar tyrannical patriarch-- in the guise of one pledge's father-- makes a cameo appearance, in a horrific sequence involving electrocution.

Sister Stella L., one of De Leon's most highly regarded works (the film came out in 1984, when Marcos' dictatorial powers were still largely intact), is also, ironically, his least characteristic. De Leon must have been trying to break new ground by focusing on a strong female lead character (Vilma Santos-- as a nun, at that) and her emerging political consciousness. The end result is a film of excellent craftsmanship (taut editing, intelligent camerawork) in the service of a Pete Lacaba script, Lacaba being one of the strongest voices in Philippine political cinema. It's his milieu and sensibility that shines forth, not De Leon's; the director seems to be subjugating his inimitable style here, presumably in the service of liberation theology. Interestingly, the one sequence that feels most characteristically De Leon-- and for me, the moment when the film truly comes to life-- is in the torture of the strike leader, played by Tony Santos Sr.

Hindi Nahahati ang Langit (The Heavens Indivisible, 1985) was De Leon's one bid for commercial success, an adaptation from a popular komiks serial; when the film was released, De Leon insisted on removing his name. It's one of the few films in Philippine cinema not to display a director's credit; it's also De Leon's one and only boxoffice hit.

Even stranger than De Leon's curious rejection of the film is the fact that the film isn't bad at all-- it's actually a smart, tersely told version of a convoluted melodrama, with layers of startlingly complex emotional undertones. What makes the film truly interesting, however, is the relationship at the heart of the film, between the wealthy young man (Christopher De Leon) and his stepsister (Lorna Tolentino). They start out as childhood antagonists; when De Leon's father dies, De Leon becomes Tolentino's legal guardian. He attempts to remold Tolentino according to his image of how a young woman should behave-- attempts that Tolentino resists violently. Tolentino escapes to lives her own life, but their paths eventually cross again, the tension and growing attraction between them no longer to be denied--

If De Leon sleepwalked through Sister Stella L. he’s wide-awake here, giving the relationship between De Leon and Tolentino his characteristic touches-- the shifting roles between dominator and dominated, the unnaturally close family ties, the claustrophobic intimacy between the two lead characters. That De Leon denies auteurship of the film is a real puzzle, as the film looks and feels so much like a De Leon film.

In the years since, De Leon has worked three more times-- on a video feature, a comedy short set in the future, and a black-and-white feature on Philippine national hero Jose Rizal. The darkly obsessed artist glimpsed in Itim, Batch '81, Hindi Nahahati ang Langit, that stepped out fully into the light in Kisapmata, does so one more time for Bilanggo sa Dilm (Prisoner in the Dark, 1987)-- an adaptation of John Fowles' The Collector, about a man who abducts women and keeps them in his isolated mansion, trying to subject them to his will. I've seen the William Wyler version starring Terence Stamp, which is a complete and far more faithful adaptation of the Fowles story. For Wyler, however, it was a job-- to be fair, one that likely interested him; for De Leon, the story apparently holds deeper, more personal significance.

In the meantime-- Aliwan Paradise (Pleasure Paradise, 1993) takes its characters from Lino Brocka's Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975), for which De Leon had acted as producer and cameraman. The short, a segment from Southern Winds, an omnibus film, takes the Brocka classic and projects it into the future, where he stands the premise (that people suffer from hunger and poverty) on its head (that people can live off the entertainment value of hunger and poverty). De Leon's made his name in Maynila as a brilliant cinematographer, perhaps one of the best in the country, and it put Brocka on a high pedestal, as patron saint of Philippine cinema-- De Leon's merciless lampooning of film and director is a startling and rather courageous, act of effrontery. Bayaning Third World (Third World Hero, 2000) explores one by one the various means of filming the life of Philippine national hero Jose Rizal, and concludes that not one of them is feasible. It's a Rizal film about the impossibility of making a Rizal film, as neat a feat of intellectual prestidigitation as anything I've seen in recent Philippine cinema, and a splendid practical joke on the Filipino people.

Judging from his recent work, De Leon seems to have exorcised his demons and is content to do clever, even brilliant, comedies; the anguished artist has given way to the urbane, sophisticated satirist. Which is fine and good, unless you happen to catch a screening of Kisapmata, either in a retrospective or on cable, and notice how ten years later it still hasn't lost any of its power to disturb or shock-- that, in fact, it's one of the greatest Filipino films ever made. Then you want to ask: "When is De Leon going to do something worth obsessing over again? When is he going to do films that matter again?"

First published in Menzone Magazine, April 2002

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