header image


This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

Interested in What I Create?


Saturday, November 05, 2005

entry arrow8:08 AM | A Run-in With Contemporary Filipino Cinema

Just when I thought the Mano Po horrors have ended last year with what was supposed to be the last of a "trilogy" (trilogy, my ass), I get this from Manila Bulletin:
Since Regal Entertainment's Mano Po series began, it has become a staple in the annual Metro Manila Film Festival every Christmas season. This box-office hit series has also been expected every year with its followers looking forward to its stellar cast and its tear-jerking stories. This year though, the series takes a twist. Mano Po 4: Ako Legal Wife will still make moviegoers cry but from laughing hard as Mano Po 4 is a comedy!

A what?

What's worse: it's being directed by Joel Lamangan again, positively the worst Filipino director alive still working. That he is sometimes being touted as the successor of Lino Brocka galls me, because the proper inheritor of that distinction is Mario O'Hara, who proves it with Babae sa Breakwater. Lamangan, I tell you, is the symptom for all that ails Filipino cinema, considering that there are better filmmakers around him who are not as fortunate as him with regards amassing film projects.

Erik Matti, truth to tell, is still the better filmmaker because Matti is a master of visual stylistics that Lamangan can never hope to be. Given that cinema is still primarily a visual medium, that accounts for a lot. Consider, for example, the success and cult status of Terrence Malick, who may ramble on and on in The Thin Red Line, but he is able to give it resonance through imagery. And consider the grudging local respect still given to Celso Ad. Castillo who lifts the tawdry by garnishing it with vibrant photography. (Think Virgin People.) Matti only has to learn to make a good narrative to finally distinguish himself. I always thought Sa Huling Paghihintay was a stunning visual feast -- think of the scene where Bernard Palanca bicycles through a field of flowers, which easily reminds me of the best of Zhang Yimou or Wong Kar-Wai -- but the movie was hampered by a convoluted (actually non-existent) storyline. When he is not writing the script (such as in Mano Po 2), you see a glimpse of Matti's possibilities as a director.

Yam Laranas used to be of the same tendency. Radyo was an early indication of genius, which soon flowered into the visual mastery of Balahibong Pusa. Pusa, however, fell flat, story-wise. And yet I stil remember that scene in the rain, with Joyce Jimenez and the black umbrellas. Laranas, of course, has since graduated spectacularly with Sigaw, arguably the best of the lot in last year's ill-conceived Metro Manila Film Festival (which had three Lamangan entries!).

Do I still need to mention the Reds and Lav Diaz? Enough ink, I think, has been spilled chronicling their worthy efforts. Not enough attention has been given to Robert Quebral, whose irreverant and surprisingly intelligent Sex Drive has yet to see a follow-up. And what happened to Quark Henares whose Keka was an absolute delight?

I like the films of Mark Meilly, because they show a certain polish I wish becomes a significant and permanent part of Filipino filmmaking. What about Cesar Montano? A budding director whose Panaghoy sa Suba was well-received, he is still an unproven case. We have to wait and see what else he has to offer. Jose Javier Reyes, even with his commercial movies, can do no wrong for me because he infuses all his movies with a characteristic intelligence and wit, which should only be expected from the writer of Oro Plata Mata. When he is good (as in Toro, 9 Mornings, Pare Ko, and Radio Romance), he is very, very good. When he is not so good (as in Malikmata), he is still immensely watchable.

Rory B. Quintos and Olivia Lamasan, on the other hand, are promising directors who seem to come from the same mold as the early Marilou Diaz-Abaya, but they need to get out of the Star Cinema schtick, a "genre" of Filipino melodrama that may be effective but ultimately seems hollow. That said, I like their films, which seem to be a substantial inheritor of the old Viva glossy films. Their fellow woman-director Joyce Bernal seems to escape everybody's critical attention, but I think that's because she concentrates on what looks like mild fare (Booba, Super B, D'Anothers, and Masikip sa Dibdib). And yet there are days that I believe she may be our comedic equivalent to Buster Keaton (the director, and not as the comic actor) -- always overshadowed by others, but whose comic instincts will eventually be noticed. I have yet to find another person who cannot be reduced to sheepishly admitting that he or she enjoyed Booba immensely. (Wenn Deramas, in Ang Tanging Ina, comes close -- but that film seems to be a fluke. The guy still seems perfectly suited to small-screen dramatics. And please don't get me started on Mac Alejandre.)

I still say Jeffrey Jeturian is Ishmael Bernal's heir apparent. This guy has his finger on the nation's pulse, and constantly surprises and assures us with what he comes up with. Consider his filmmography. Sana Pag-ibig Na in 1998 showed us what he could do with a pito-pito film -- that even the starkest of filmmaking circumstances can still show a significant greatness if a great director is behind the wheel. In Pila-Balde, he showed us that he could take a trend (TF, in this case) and bend it to his will, so much so that by 2001 with Tuhog, he skewers even that trend (and the popular consciousness that let it flower), and starts a satirical mark that continues with Bridal Shower and Bikini Open. Heck, for a Tagalog, he could even do a Cebuano movie via Minsan Pa, and do it well. This guy is a genius. ("You say that because Jeffrey drove you to the airport once, in Manila, during a frightful storm," my conscience says. Trust me, this has nothing to do with my respect for the guy's abilities.)

I don't expect the elderly -- but still surprisingly active -- Eddie Romero to make any film soon. (Although how I wish that the National Artist -- a fellow Dumagueteno -- can make a film straight out of the sugar days of Bais and Dumaguete.) Among Joel Lamangan's older contemporaries, Laurice Guillen still churns out interesting and ambitious, if flawed, films like Santa Santita -- albeit an effort which becomes better when eventually compared to the lameness of American Adobo and the melodramatic embarrassment of Tanging Yaman. Our own answer to the masterful genre-bending capabilities of the late Stanley Kubrick, Mike de Leon, seems reclusive, his last worthy effort Bayaning Third World too cerebral -- a postmodern Rizal? -- for many unfortunate moviegoers to take. Maryo J. de los Reyes still comes up with interesting films now and then, but I miss the whimsical brightness of Bagets (which now seems to be Reyes's territoty) or the rawness of Working Girls (which also now seems to be Jeturian's territory). Peque Gallaga, with the mixed-reviewed Pinoy Blonde, is on his way to reclaiming his throne as local filmdom's major don -- but he will forever be haunted with such early successes as Oro Plata Mata and Scorpio Nights. (How do you top those?) I thanked God that the hectoring streak that marked Marilou Diaz-Abaya's run from Rizal to Muro-Ami to Bagong Buwan, finally ended with Noon at Ngayon, which proved to be a worthy if a bit lightweight sequel to Moral, despite the fact that everybody wanted to have the same cast of Lorna Tolentino, Gina Alajar, and Sandy Andolong back. Tikoy Aguiluz, who had been riding a critical high with such efforts as Rizal sa Dapitan and Segurista, ambitiously gambled with Tatarin, and fell flat. (Five words: Rica Peralejo as Amada? Ugh.) Today, he seems busy with his annual international film festival, a worthier effort than that infamous sacrilege on a Nick Joaquin favorite. Mel Chionglo, on the other hand, can be described as a fascinating example of a hit-and-then-miss director, whose works (Xerex, Burlesque King, Lagarista, Lahar, and Sibak) still run the cycle of critical wrath and praise. And what happened to Chito Rono? Feng Shui is the last film that still reminds us that this is the same director who made the wonderful Bata Bata Paano Ka Ginawa and Curacha, but he now seems lost in the limbo of coming up with a plausible film fantasy (Yamashita and Spirit Warriors, anyone?). I miss Chito Rono's films. I used to look forward every year to his films.

Heck, I miss the films of anyone of those I've mentioned above. They seem to be no match to the sheer quantity of Lamangan films coming out year after year. One friend once offered this telling joke last year, "They should rename the Metro Manila Film Festival the Joel Lamangan Plus Others Film Festival instead."

Every freakin' year, there's a new Lamangan film coming out of this supposedly dying national cinema, and every freakin' year, I tell myself, "Give this guy a chance. See the movie, and judge it for its merits."

And every freakin' year, I get out of the movie theater screaming for a refund.

Lamangan is Eternal Disappointment personified. Thirty minutes into Walang Kapalit, that 2003 Sharon Cuneta-Richard Gomez reunion movie, I bolted out of the theater, nauseated by the inept filmmaking, particularly the sloppy script and the strange editing technique that seemed like an experiment by a hapless director-wannabe rather than by a veteran. Bulaklak ng Maynila, Deathrow, Aishite Imasu, The Flor Contemplacion Story, and Sabel were embarrassing in their failed earnestness and self-importance, and Bugbog Sarado was a herculean mess that went nowhere fast. The only Lamangan films I like are Sidhi and Pusong Mamon, the latter still something I have to weigh because in the middle of production, Eric Quizon supposedly took over the director's chair.

What ails a Lamangan production? Is it a certain amateurish look in the production? But the movies of Gil Portes also show the same tendency (think of Miguel/Michelle, Saranggola, Mga Munting Tinig, and Mulanay), yet he still comes up with arguably powerful moviemaking. Is it a certain theaticality in the pacing? But Carlos Siguion-Reyna (the critic Noel Vera's favorite whipping boy) exhibits that as well, and can still come up with the remarkable Ang Lalaki sa Buhay ni Selya and Azucena.

I think it's a certain insincerity in the storytelling, coupled with a sometime technical conceit (the editing in Bulaklak, for example) that never works, and even (most of the time) a technical drabness that overwhelms everything. As a director, all he can offer are histrionics masking itself as drama (as in Filipinas). I wish for once that our movie directors, especially Lamangan, will stop believing in the notion that Filipinos like all that shouting in lieu of dialogue. Lamangan ultimately never excites, he never offers insights, and he has no sense of film composition. Give me a stunning mise-en-scene in any Lamangan movie, and I will give you a million dollars. I said "stunning," not "passable".

But to give the guy a break (because everybody deserves one), I am going to go into a two-month in-depth study of all his works, listed below:

Ako Legal Wife (2005)
Nasaan Ka Man (2005)
Sisteraka (2005)
Aishite Imasu (Mahal Kita) 1941 (2004)
Mano Po III: My Love (2004)
So... Happy Together (2004)
Sabel (2004)
I Will Survive (2004)
Filipinas (2003)
Bugbog Sarado (2003)
Ang Huling Birhen sa Lupa (2003)
Walang kapalit (2003)
Mano po (2002)
Bahid (2002)
Magkapatid (2002)
Hubog (2001)
Mila (2001)
Deathrow (2000)
Abandonada (2000)
Bulaklak ng Maynila (1999)
Warat: Bibigay Ka Ba? (1999)
Mister Mo, Lover Ko (1999)
Sidhi (1999)
Pusong Mamon (1998)
Bayad Puri (1998)
The Sarah Balabagan Story (1997)
Bakit May Kahapon Pa? (1996)
The Flor Contemplacion Story (1995)
Silakbo (1995)
Anghel na Walang Langit (1994)
Kapantay ay Langit (1994)
Pangako ng Kahapon (1994)
Hanggang Saan Hanggang Kailan (1993)
Ikaw (1993)
Kadenang Bulaklak (1993)
Hiram na Mukha (1992)
Ngayon at Kailanman (1992)
Darna (1991)
Kalapating Musmos (1986)

And then, by January, I will post a report. I will try to see each of these films with the eyes of a hawk, and try to dig for any semblance of merit, in case I didn't find any the first time around. Pray I will not develop a brain hemorrhage.

Some say that the savior of Filipino filmmaking are the digital films that are currently reaping raves from both critics and audiences. That may be the case. But as long as our critics -- save for a few like Vera, Ed Cabagnot, Gibbs Cadiz, and Lito Zulueta -- act more like PR people than cultural arbiters (did I say Nestor U. Torre?), and as long as our national cinema caters to subpar talents the likes of Lamangan, I swear Filipino film will continue to be looked on by so many as something hopelessly mediocre. This is something far from the truth, of course, but if the next best "effort" lauded everywhere is Mano Po 4: Ako Legal Wife, who can argue with them?


[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich