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Filipino New Wave

by Jerome Magajes
From Orbis I am excited about what’s going on in recent Philippine cinema. I have not been this excited about our cinema for the longest time. Let’s see… since Lino Brocka’s Kapit Sa Patalim (1983), Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (1982), Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Karnal (1983), Mike de Leon’s Sister Stella L. (1984), Peque Gallaga’s Unfaithful Wife (1986), and Chito Roño’s Itanong Mo Sa Buwan (1988). After the People’s Power Revolution of 1986, and with the passing of Lino Brocka in 1991, Philippine cinema went into a deep coma that lasted two decades. Movie-making did not slacken–next to Bollywood and Hong Kong, the Philippines has perhaps the most… Read more

From Orbis
I am excited about what’s going on in recent Philippine cinema. I have not been this excited about our cinema for the longest time. Let’s see… since Lino Brocka’s Kapit Sa Patalim (1983), Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (1982), Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Karnal (1983), Mike de Leon’s Sister Stella L. (1984), Peque Gallaga’s Unfaithful Wife (1986), and Chito Roño’s Itanong Mo Sa Buwan (1988). After the People’s Power Revolution of 1986, and with the passing of Lino Brocka in 1991, Philippine cinema went into a deep coma that lasted two decades. Movie-making did not slacken–next to Bollywood and Hong Kong, the Philippines has perhaps the most vibrant movie industry in Asia–but directors stopped being auteurs, and produced stylistically generic, unengaging work, from cheap horror/fantasy flicks to belabored melodramas, abandoning the visceral and transgressive qualities of their breakthrough films.

Filmmakers still routinely blame stringent censorship, but, like it or not, the Marcos dictatorship was good to Philippine cinema–whether due to the urgency of the times, or the patronage of its delusional First Lady. Lino Brocka’s most intense social-realist films (Insiang, Jaguar, Bona) were made during the height of Martial Law, while Mike de Leon’s Batch ’81, an allegorical indictment of fascism, was released just after its lifting. De Leon, the last auteur of that generation left standing has also been unproductive (perhaps because he remains uncompromising), turning out his last feature, a black-comedy on Jose Rizal, in 2000. Bayaning Third World, however, remains the most sophisticated take on the national hero’s biography that came out of the nationalistic craze of the Philippine Centennial. (It is also pee-in-your-pants funny!)
Raymond Red made interesting historical films in the ’90s (Bayani, Sakay), but these stiff period pieces sink with their studied gravitas compared to Peque Gallaga’s earlier, more violent and voluptuous take on Philippine history (Oro, Plata, Mata, Virgin Forest). Red did give us, for the record, our first win at Cannes for his short Anino (2002). Among the last Filipino arthouse films I saw were Lav Diaz’s 5-hour bladder-challenge Batang Westside (2001) during its Cinemanila premier, and Ramona Diaz’s Imelda (2003) after its eponymous subject’s court injunctions were lifted. In the US, I essentially remained out of the loop, and nursed my nostalgia for the ’80s golden age by renting Cinefilipino DVDs at Netflix.

Then came Brillante Mendoza’s contentious win at Cannes as best director for Kinatay. Roger Ebert called it an “unbearable experience” that forces him “to apologize to Vincent Gallo for calling The Brown Bunny the worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival”. I myself was skeptical, knowing most movies we send off to these film fests are about Manila’s seedy sex trade, corrupt cops, and abject poverty in the slums. The film is indeed about a junkie prostitute, tortured and butchered (kinatay) by cops on the take, and the tabloid title does promise sensational gore. Yes, these are Philippine realities, but these are not all of Philippine reality. When would we produce such masters as Iran’s Majid Majidi (Children of Heaven, Color of Paradise, Baran, The Willow Tree) who depicts the condition of his people so lovingly in stories told with such delicacy?

Other critics were not as ruthless, but nonetheless reserved in their praises:

This rich vision of so much gloom, dim suspension, no action, no spectacle, no drama is a beautiful thing, something out of an avant-garde film dedicated to textures, subtle shifts in color, and spatial uncertainty of a sunless world… [The] rest of the movie is given as a handheld dedication to space—there, a porno theater, here, a sinister, anonymous police van traveling great distances at night for the purpose of terrible things, and later a torture house. But it is a space of obscurity, of uncertainty in a morally certain situation, and so the space, covered and run over again and again by the roving camera, takes on an abstraction nearly outside the story itself.

(from Daniel Kasman, The Auteurs)

Kinatay… is infinitely darker [than Serbis] but an equally strong depiction of modern-day life in the former American colony that some are comparing to Gasper [sic] Noe’s Irreversible… Mendoza is no gore-hound. He’s more serious than Noe. This is a fiercely moral and horribly unforgettable denunciation of societal corruption.

(from Sukhdev Sandhu, Telegraph.co.uk)

The split opinion makes me want to see the film even more. Comparison with Noe’s Irreversible is not such a scarlet letter. I get that movie. Yes, there was shocking violence as the whirling camera probed into depths of human baseness, and, yes, it’s hard to sit through the rape scene, but as the film progressed/regressed, as the photography settled, became more fluid, the earlier repugnance was redeemed by a most tender revelation at the end/beginning. I don’t think I have the stomach to watch this film again, but I will not dismiss its solid ideas, and the directorial decisions (if not taste) in its execution.

I digress. Mendoza’s win, and the critical attention Kinatay elicited, turned out to be just the tip of an iceberg that has been building up since 2006. All at once, a bewildering constellation of new Filipino filmmakers, with a growing body of work–none of which I have seen–came to my attention: Aureus Solito (Pisay, Ang pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros), Adolfo Alix (Manila, Adela, Batanes, Tambolista, Donsol), Pepe Diokno (Engkwentro), G.B. Sampedro (Astig–Mga Batang Kalye), Ralston Jover (Bakal Boys), Sherad Anthony Sanchez (Imburnal), John Torres (Todo todo teros), Jim Libiran (Tribu), Khavn de la Cruz (Maynila sa mga pangil ng dilim), and Raya Martin (Manila, Independencia, Now Showing, Autohystoria, Maicling pelicula nañg ysañg Indio Nacional). And it does not stop there: the international film festival circuit has also been enamored with this “new wave” in Filipino cinema, with special focus on these new crop of mostly young filmmakers, and retrospectives of past master Lino Brocka. Even Joey Gosiengfiao was honored with a retrospective in Paris–as the Filipino John Waters–with the showing of his camp classic Temptation Island.

Today, the 49-year-old Mr. Mendoza is the brightest star in what French film director and scriptwriter Rebecca Zlotowski calls the “constellation” of Philippines art-house film. Following Mr. Mendoza is a diverse band of mostly younger directors, ranging in age from early 20s to early 50s, who often collaborate and have helped confirm their country’s status as a darling of the international festival circuit over the past few years… “Despite the youth of most of these directors, they are making very mature cerebral radical films,” says Ms. Zlotowski… “The common denominator of all these films is their attention to social problems such as homosexuality, adoption, delinquency and poverty and their documentary style.” The Filipino filmmakers, she adds, “are actually contributing to the ongoing breaking down of the distinction between documentary and fiction” that is occuring in movies globally.

(from Emma-Kate Symons, Wall Street Journal)

Filipinos are known not to shy away from reality. And the Filipino reality is relaxed, accommodating, laidback… The Filipino filmmakers are not afraid of breaking rules, they are not restricted by the fear of not finding funding or a showplace for their work; they are in the fortunate position of being given the opportunity to give free rein to their imagination. That perhaps is what makes their films so original…

(from Aruna Vasudev, The Asian Angle)

This renaissance of sorts in Philippine cinema has been attributed to the new digital technology which at least solved the technical hurdles of filmmaking. “[Digital] technology means anyone can shoot a film,” says Raymond Red, who downplays the “revolution in Philippine cinema” as just a “revolution about technology” (from France 24 News). I disagree. In science, enabling technologies usher in scientific revolutions as much as groundbreaking theories, e.g., the invention of scanning probe microscopes in the 1980s paved the way for the current boom in nanotechnology, which was actually first described by Feynman as far back as the 1960s. As the prolific output within the last few years shows–and confirmed at least by the positive response from the international festival crowds–there is talent, craft, and vision latent in Philippine cinema that has been somewhat loosened by the genie of digital technology.

I was particularly impressed after watching a video interview of Raya Martin at the IX Festival Internacional de Cine de Las Palmas. Martin, who is being compared to Canada’s Guy Maddin (e.g., The Heart of the World), was very articulate about his filming process and theory, and had a profound grasp of Philippine film history. How refreshing to witness a very cerebral Filipino filmmaker (since Mike de Leon), which is almost a contradiction in terms, given the hysterical melodramas repeatedly shoved at us as fodder.Cinema Scope: Why make a silent film, now?

Raya Martin: I just told someone how I become really excited whenever I see actualities and silent films. I think a silent film is how I really see cinema. It’s an exact transportation of time and space, and that there’s something about the purity of images, to see just the images themselves, moving, and understanding that what you’re seeing was a real space in a real time. In this essence it could be an issue of novelty, I’m thinking. We’re in an age where everyone’s in retrospection, including my generation, maybe because there’s no “looking forward” anymore. The old is the new new. I did this film as a “kid” with a mix of natural and illogical motivations: a craving for magic that I get from silent films, curiosity for information, interest in learning…

(from Mark Peranson, Cinema Scope)

In his website, Khavn de la Cruz describes himself cockily as “a very outspoken, experimental film maker with an unstoppable desire to explore and cross boundaries. Considered as the father of Philippine digital filmmaking, he is the most productive film maker in the Philippines and probably also far beyond.” There may be truth to those words. His film Maynila sa mga pangil ng dilim quotes and deconstructs two Brocka masterpieces Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag and Orapronobis. In an ironic turn, the film stars Bembol Roco who also played the central characters in the referenced Brocka films: as Julio Madiaga, a helpless victim of social injustice, and as Major Kontra, a vicious vigilante killer.

These examples signal a significant break with the past when cinema served as a mirror of social realities (under the Marcos regime) with the aim of inspiring people into political activism. There was no coy theorizing, reflexivity, technical playfulness, pastiche; the message was clear, and it was dead serious. Modern versus postmodern. Perhaps these are the signs of the times. Raymond Red hit the nail on the head by asking: now that anybody can make films, the next question to ask is “why [these young filmmakers] are making movies… [and] for whom are they making them”? These indie films still have a limited audience back home–partly due to draconian censorship, deficiency of commercial distribution, and, more importantly, lack of popular appeal. The last is the most crucial aspect; without an audience, there is no show. Once, while chatting up a video store clerk in Gainesville, we lamented the fact that Satyajit Ray–a staple of arthouse video stores–is said to be more well known internationally than in his native India, where people prefer the formulaic Bollywood genres. There’s nothing remotely opaque nor intimidating about Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali–it’s a poetic, emotionally affecting film–but there’s still no song and dance.

Lino Brocka was a great film director because he understood his audience. Even his canonical “auteur” films are accessible because of their directness and realism, and their emotional intensity. Art is not foregrounded, it is hidden in plain sight. Despite his acclaim with film festival audiences, he did not shrink at making popular melodramas at home. He always risked sentimentality. His love for the Filipinos–especially the poor and the victims of social injustice–always shines through his films. He once famously said: “I’m not interested in making the Great Filipino Cinema; I am interested in making the Great Filipino Audience.” If, as recent developments seem to show, Great Filipino Cinema has arrived, I hope the Great Filipino Audience is not far behind.
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