Honor thy cinema

KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson (The Philippine Star) - January 17, 2016 - 9:00am

Long touted over the past several years is the likelihood that Philippine cinema is in the midst of a new “golden age” — however arbitrary that label may be.

The last time a similar dynamic cycle of filmmaking thrilled local cineastes was all of four decades ago, ironically enough, while martial law remained imposed during the 1970s. It spilled over to the next decade of political upheaval.

The convergence, then, of outstanding film craftsmen has apparently been of so long ago that we now refer to their works as that era’s “classics.” Most are now undergoing restoration and digitalization — a process that doesn’t only enhance old prints, but acquaints a new generation of moviegoers with these exemplary films.

The names behind them are hallowed: Eddie Romero, Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal all deservedly gained the National Artist award for Film. And they are joined in the pantheon by a host of other “direks” who similarly brought us up to par with the rest of the film-appreciating world: Mike de Leon, Celso Ad. Castillo, Behn Cervantes, Marilou Abaya, Laurice Guillen, Peque Gallaga, Joel Lamangan, Joey Javier Reyes, Tikoy Aguiluz…

It was a heady time for films that excelled as art and also drew audiences. They entertained as much as they met rigorous aesthetic standards. Why, a few of them even joined the early editions of the Metro Manila Film Fest.

They also inspired a younger generation of filmmakers to pick up from where Kidlat Tahimik, Henry Francia and Nick de Ocampo left off with their pioneering efforts at independent cinema. Raymond Red stood out among the new breed, and he himself has in turn inspired others who still choose to remain unbeholden to so-called commercial producers.

But somewhere along the line, the dynamic new spirit lost its fizzle. It didn’t help that Brocka and Bernal both died young. It also didn’t help that the MMFF eventually morphed entirely into a shameless pandering exercise involving dumbed-down audiences, all for the sake of making money, generally for the industry, but in particular for those who saw it simply as a nice golden egg come holiday yearend. 

Fortunately, however, the past decade or so has us recalling memorable films that suggest more than just a budding renaissance. Raymond Red kept up with his indie triumphs, if mostly in festivals abroad. There was Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros, helmed by newcomer Auraeus Solito in 2005, the same year that the Cinemalaya Film Festival started, and where it competed. For a digital film, it did very well in the box office, apart from making the rounds of international film festivals, and even wound up as our official entry to the Academy Awards.

Oh, well before that, an eye-opener for me personally was 1999’s Ekis by Erik Matti. I had only heard of him as a co-writer of Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes, and who took over as director of Scorpio Nights 2. Beyond the electric concupiscence he drew to the full by having Sunshine Cruz dance with an electric fan, and the first-rate acting he plumbed from Albert Martinez, here was a young man whose directorial style bore watching, I thought then. 

Lav Diaz came along, patenting his “slow movie” style until he became a favorite in international film competitions. Brillante Mendoza also made his directorial debut in 2005, with his first film, Masahista, shot on digital video with a small budget, winning the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival.

It has since been said of both Diaz and Mendoza, our best-known directors abroad, how it’s become a pity that their world-class produce are rarely if ever seen by local audiences. Add Red to that curious element of Philippine cinema. Our best art films keep gaining creditable awards and raves in foreign circles, but remain hardly known here.  

How different then is the triumph of a movie like Ang Babae sa Septic Tank, written by Chris Martinez and directed by Marlon Rivera, a 2011 entry to both the Cinemalaya Festival and the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film. Critical success at Cinemalaya catapulted the brilliant indie comedy to unexpected heights. The big kahuna Star Cinema bought the film for wider release, and it set a record as the highest grossing movie until That Thing Called Tadhana came along last year.

In 2013, just about everyone was impressed with Matti’s On The Job. Again, here was a gripping, entertaining masterpiece far removed from the studied artsiness of most foreign filmfest contenders. I was happy for the fellow who had pleased me with Ekis over a decade earlier. 

Then last year Heneral Luna burst into the scene as a game-changer. Credit its director Jerrold Tarog and its visionary producers, as well as the groundbreaking marketing strategy that utilized social media to the hilt in getting everyone heartily engaged with a period film, no less.

Movies like Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros, Ang Babae sa Septic Tank, On The Job and Heneral Luna are the off-season treats that come like surprising stardust to light up our movie houses. By word of mouth, they draw crowds that are not the usual masa magnetized by names, simple fare with the kilig element, or rom-com charm. They’re the kind of movies that ought to be part of the Metro Manila Film Fest.

And with the current controversy engendered by another “serious” Matti film, this is what might just happen in the future. Oh, Honor Thy Father was just as impressive in its filmmaking as On The Job. But it’s not an easy film to take. Odious as comparisons go, I’d say that OTJ is better, and certainly more enjoyable. It had a simpler narrative premise, and it had humor, with Joey Marquez’s character adding such honest vitality. HTF has a more complex narrative construct, and it is to both the scriptwriter’s and director’s credit that they pull it off, nearly entirely.

Not a single character draws sympathy. And there’s a backstory that is under-depicted. Admirable, the way Matti can weave together uniquely Pinoy cultural themes such as evangelical cults and pyramiding scams. But when the main character is forced to revert to some dim past, we wonder how professionally his Mafia of siblings was ever engaged in that kind of sordid business as a heist gang, over and above their expertise in mining, riprapping and de/construction activities.

There’s also a backstory crying out to be told: what it was in the wife that attracted the husband in the first place, enough for him to leave his brothers and their lifestyle behind, and to slog through middle-class domesticity even if it involved getting in with a religious cult and a shady investment scheme.

Who is the father to be honored? It is a tough mother who presides over her mafiosi sons. The wife’s father is dishonorable and is murdered for it. It can’t be the metaphorical father who rakes in tithes in the name of yet another deity. That leaves the John Lloyd Cruz character, loyal to his own new family, and honorably gutsy as to stand by wife and daughter. But he too is left desperate and dismal at the end. This closure of and unto helplessness makes for a bleak story.

But again, we have to give it to Eric Matti. In his choice of material, themes and motifs, he feeds into our Filipino-ness and makes us think. Which is why it also gives him the cachet to speak his heart out on the future of Philippine cinema. And we should listen. Especially when he says:

“Just tell stories that we haven’t heard or seen before. Stories that make us see ourselves and understand ourselves better. Stories that elevate us to think beyond our sorry lives and not just reaffirm what we already know about ourselves.”

His gripes about the need to honor our cinema are understandable, however they may spell near-hopelessness. In hindsight, it now seems to be a blessing that HTF’s DQ case happened, unfair and unjust as it was. We can look at the silver lining. Now that a Congressional hearing has all but exposed everything that has been dubious in the conduct of the MMFF, we can only look forward to emancipation from the dictates of certain movie moguls.

The next MMFF can invite the participation of our more adept film artists, and maybe give the yearend audience celebrating nationalism better choices among the entries. Sure, you can still assign four slots for the expected no-brainer grossers, but the other half can be turned over to more sagacious choices based on aesthetic considerations. 

The fact alone that among our current crop of filmmakers, the likes of Locarno Golden Leopard winners Mendoza and Diaz (for his recent Norte) and Matti and Tarrog now rule the roost, and with others like Red, Kanakan Balintagos (Solito), Carlitos Siguion-Reyna (back on the scene with his award-winning Hari ng Tondo), Itim’s Mike Alcazaren, Kid Kulafu’s Paul Soriano, Toto’s John Paul Su, and Dahling Nick’s Sari Dalena shoring up the wings or ready to thrust themselves onto centerstage, the claim of yet another golden age for Philippine filmmaking isn’t far-fetched.

Other names should be on this list, I’m sure. I can only wish to have more time to watch all the films that are recommended by knowledgeable friends. My wishlist includes the hope that Raymond’s Himpapawid of 2009 is eventually released to a wider audience. The same goes for his Kamera Obskura of 2012, and his latest, Rebels With a Case.

Participation in Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Rotterdam, Dubai, Toronto, Montreal, Sundance, Toyko, Osaka and Pusan is certainly exciting and well-deserved, but I also hope that both Lav and Dante can get back to treating local audiences to more of their exceptional films. Of manageable lengths, please. You may stick to your depth and vision, Lav, but give us a short once in a while, amigo. Meanwhile, I wish you well with Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis when all eight hours of it compete in the Berlin International Film Festival next month.

Oh, and would that the next MMFF help honor our cinema by being part of this manifestation of a golden age.

ACADEMY AWARDS ACIRC ADD RED ANG BABAE ANG PAGDADALAGA FILM MAXIMO OLIVEROS METRO MANILA FILM FEST ON THE JOB RAYMOND RED SEPTIC TANK
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