MANILA, Philippines - He was The Kid. At age 21, he directed his first feature entitled Misyong Mapanganib starring Helen Gamboa and first-time star Tito Galla as a debonair spy fashioned after the internationally famous James Bond. Before that, he was writing komiks and scripts for crowd pleasers starring Eddie Rodriguez, Chiquito and Dolphy. The allure of cinema was too much to resist. He didn’t stop working since his first taste at being a director. At the age of 27, he had already directed more than five features and was about to direct Fernando Poe, Jr., who was already a much-adored action star, in Asedillo. During the same year, his Nympha, a sex flick starring a nubile newcomer bearing the screen name Rizza, became the second Filipino film to screen in the prestigious Venice International Film Festival. He was at the cross-roads, deciding whether he should continue his law studies, just as his father did, or to continue making films. Fate prompted him to choose the latter. His talent sealed the deal.
He was the Messiah. After Burlesk Queen won an astounding 10 awards at the 1977 Metro Manila Film Festival where films by Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Mike de Leon, Eddie Romero, Mario O’Hara and Joey Gosiengfiao also competed, he became the toast of the town, the upstart cynical critics wanted to tear apart, the director actors and actresses saw as their career’s salvation. With the ingenuity of having Vilma Santos gyrate her way out of the severe cruelty of life, he paved the way for the popular actress’s graduation from Darna and repetitive romances. He and Vilma would collaborate once more in what would be one of director’s most respected masterpieces, Pagputi ng Uwak… Pag-itim ng Tagak.
Christopher de Leon, burdened with the mestizo mug of the typical handsome dramatic actor, was turned into the peasants’ hero in Ang Alamat ni Julian Makabayan. German Moreno, the untiring master showman, delivers a surprisingly delicate performance in Payaso. Gloria Diaz, fresh from bagging the title of the most beautiful woman in the universe, progressed to being the movie star young men’s restless dreams are made of in Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa. Lito Lapid, the perennial star of low-budget Westerns and komiks movies, had the taste of being critically acclaimed in Pedro Tunasan. He had a way of turning his actors and an actress into the stuff cinema is made of. The characters they played became actors, either representations of a real life frustration or an overt exaggeration.
Mixed with insanity
He was a madman. His fealty with cinema was incomparable. Professionalism was mixed up with insanity. Scripts were written while shooting. His methods were daunting, especially for the producers who could not tame his artistic and logistic demands. The madness shows in his films. In Snake Sisters, his characters, played courageously by three impossibly sexy women whose screen names were borrowed from famous brands of soda, were speaking in a language only they understood. They feasted on monkeys or lizards, exploring a mystical jungle that could only exist in a limitless mind. The audacity of his vision was shocking. The extent of what he made his actresses do is alarming. Despite the boundaries of good taste, the film works. There are other films like Snake Sisters, like his remake of Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa, like Sanib: flawed, ludicrous, ambitious, but undeniably irresistible. He shaped the minds and expectations of his audience, whether they be commoners who just wanted to pass a couple of hours inside the cinema or discerning cinephiles, through the sights and sounds he majestically weaves with seeming ease.
He was madman enough to leave the Philippines when he found its audience unsupportive of his craft. He became a hit in Malaysia as Pikoy in Pikoy Goes to Malaysia, and eventually converted to Islam. He lived to make films. He was willing to do everything to continue making them, whether it strained familial ties or it forced him to move out of the country and back. His films were never just political messages or cultural manifestos carelessly nestled in a moving image. They were audio-visual experiments, showcases of animated pictures, exquisitely framed and lighted, melded with dialogues and sounds, then edited to near perfection. His cinema was treated with the same exactitude one treats objects of science. Yet, they were also emotionally potent, spiritually guided, and culturally rooted. In sum, he summarized the boundlessness of Philippine cinema, how it can be brash and measured, spectacular and moving.
He made film art, yet he never limited its appreciation to the cultured, the educated and the privileged. He gifted every Filipino the chance to see a semblance of what made films great within the genres everybody could embrace. He was The id, the messiah of Philippine Cinema, the madman who made movie magic. He was Celso Ad. Castillo.
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