What I learned watching Filipino silent movies

BLITZ REVIEW - Juaniyo Arcellana - The Philippine Star
What I learned watching Filipino silent movies
Nikolas Red’s Putol (The Cut)

The 15th International Silent Film Festival Manila came and went without much fanfare, except for the almost inaudible press releases one would stumble upon online in newsfeeds, there obviously was a glaring need to turn up the volume even just a bit.

Under the auspices of the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), six international mostly European films from the heyday of the genre in the ‘20s and nine recently made Filipino silent shorts by comparable young guns swimming through a pandemic were screened on the FDCP channel into early December, and what we could say is that you don’t have to say a word to tell a good story, or come up with pages and pages to tell a bad one.

Filipino talent is also showcased in the international releases, for the most part restored, as in the soundtrack for the Spanish silent Carcelaras, about a woman named Soledad torn between two or three loves and the scheming devices of some, while a Filipina vocalist overdubs in melodic fashion how love must triumph against all odds, even if it means the passing of an empire and the band plays on in a fine balance of guitar, bass and drums.

The other foreign entries were equally as compelling, as in Italy’s Pinocchio with its variation on the father-son trope or how wood is father to the man; The Foreman about life in the mines in rural France and the conflict between ambition and plain compassion for one’s fellowman; and the shortest of the lot, a semi-documentary on the onset of the flu pandemic in Britain a hundred years ago, and the steps to counter it a foreshadowing of our current straits.

Kate Torralba’s Ha-ha-Hambog

The Filipino complement tries to keep up with the masters if not put out a respectable showing, with mixed results. The best of the program comes in the latter part, and are coincidentally the shortest and have the most creative visuals: Putol (The Cut) by Nikolas Red and Ing Tianak by EJ Gagui and Mareinel Calma. Two others made by women filmmakers also are memorable, Ha-ha-Hambog by Kate Torralba and Jopie Sanchez, and Ang Pagsuyo sa Paruparo ng Gabi by Racquel de Guzman Morilla.

What’s fairly discernible in the first two are the daring visuals and sense of experimentation and play, perhaps accidentally creating inroads in the silent horror genre. Red’s reference to one of the first masters of Filipino cinema, Jose Nepomuceno, is given new light in transposition to a modern, more gruesome setting. Gagui and Calma, on the other hand, showcase a flair for animation, a short sure to stick in the memory despite having the lowest background volume, indeed as if it wants to fulfill its silent mandate to the hilt.

The mit out sound posse seem to come out of the same film school, given a list of themes or topics to choose from and expound visually. The dominant strain being myth, folklore and other horror tributaries, could be a harboring of the dark side or scary monsters bubbling underneath the surface if not within spitting distance.

There is also a hankering for nostalgia or serial throwbacks to the old days, when things were simpler and in black and white, as if the recurrent lockdowns under which these films were made pared down life to the basics, and one began to appreciate pleasures formerly taken for granted but now all the more necessary – as in human touch or face-to-face conversation.

Four of the nine resolve in homosexual endings, three of them woman to woman (Ang 3 Hambog, Dikit and I need More than Tofu and Other Vegetables), and the lone counterpart of male gays kissing underneath a stubby tree in Alingasngas ng mga Kuliglig. Could be disparate statements on double solitude.

Dikit innovates on the use of the split screen in telling parallel narratives, but the overall bloody proceedings could barely live up to the gore of its convictions. More than Tofu has its moments in placing a lesbian affair on the crossroads of domesticity, and Alingasngas also imparts some cinematic flair with its failed herbolario falling for a tree spirit. 3 Hambog is one of few that has lightness and humor, and could have been separated at birth from Ha-ha-Hambog.

Still what a rich feast it is, despite the occasional discrepancies and slightly atonal digressions, notwithstanding some malapropisms, here at any rate is the new unmuted generation, with music by the Silent Sessionistas.


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