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

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Thursday, September 22, 2022

entry arrow9:00 AM | A Remembrance of a Dumaguete Filmmaker

Last September 22, we celebrated the 98th birth anniversary of a Dumaguete filmmaker who was acclaimed and well-awarded in his prime, and produced many great works that contributed considerably to Philippine cinema—but is sadly mostly forgotten now. Two weeks ago, a restoration of one of the films he scripted, the classic The Moises Padilla Story, was screened by the Film Development Council of the Philippines in Trinoma, Quezon City, which was part of the celebration of the Philippine Film Industry Month—and the organizers forgot to invite his family.

I am going to devote this space in remembrance of him.

In 28 August 1974, when Cesar Jalandoni Amigo received the Outstanding Sillimanian Award for Scriptwriting and TV/Film Production, he was riding a crest of recognition for a body work that, starting in 1949, had been consistently impressive, and straddled two creative worlds—that of literature and of cinema. His citation for that award begins: “[His] world is the world of film, some of them fiction, but in that world, Mr. Amigo is real. His contribution to the art and profession of filmmaking in the Philippines has been substantial and for this he has been amply awarded.”

Cesar Amigo [right] receives the 1974 Outstanding Sillimanian Award for Screenwriting and TV/Film Production from then University President Cicero Calderon and Board of Trustees Chair Josefa Ilano.

What is the sum of this contribution? In quick consideration, there are the thirty-three films to his credit—all of which he wrote or provided the story for, and four of which he also directed. There are the six FAMAS Awards for his screenplays. And then there are the stories themselves—always with a social bent, geared towards a deeper consideration of what he felt to be the vital issues of the day.

In 3 June 1973, when he received the Patnubay ng Kalinangan [Guardian of Culture] Award, an honor bestowed by the City of Manila, which is considered by many local artists to be one of the most prestigious and the most sought-after cultural award, the noted writer and civic leader Celso Al. Carunungan addressed the city’s Commission on Arts and Culture in testament of his friend:

“Cesar J. Amigo has used his talents not merely for self-aggrandizement, but also as weapons, however modest, in humanity’s fight against traditional enemies: communism and population explosion. In the mid-1950s, Amigo devoted almost two years of his life writing and directing anti-communist films in Vietnam and Cambodia. The early 1970s see him gradually switching from theatrical movies to film featurettes on family planning, which Cesar Amigo now produces and directs for the National Media Production Center, in collaboration with the Population Commission.”

Cesar Amigo at his typewriter. He was most comfortable working late at night.

He was the most lauded scripter of his day, and people could readily recognize his authorial signature in the films that he wrote—one could say he was the precursor, together with Clodualdo Del Mundo Sr., to the likes of Amado Lacuesta, Clodualdo Del Mundo Jr., Ricky Lee, Raquel Villavicencio, and Jun Lana, all of them celebrated screenwriters that came after him.

Cesar J. Amigo was born in Manila on 22 September 1924, but grew up and spent his formative years in Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental, where he had family. [He is related to the famed Amigo clan in Dumaguete.] He went to kindergarten at what was then Silliman Institute in 1929, proceeding to the primary grades at the same school in 1930. For his intermediate grades, he attended West Central School [now West City Elementary School], graduating in 1937. He attended Negros Oriental High School for his freshman and sophomore years [1937-1939], but transferred to Mindanao and studied at Cotabato High School, where he graduated in 1941. He returned to Dumaguete soon after to study Pre-Law at what was now Silliman University—where he was subsequently elected Vice President of the Silliman Literary Guild [already betraying his literary inclinations at age 17]—but his college education was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II.

When he returned to school in Dumaguete in 1945, right after the war, he shifted gears and this time pursued a degree in political science. He also became part of what was later called the Class of Reconstruction—the cohort of college students at Silliman University who witnessed the biggest social change and cultural development thus far. The war had disrupted their lives, and those who survived the Japanese occupation and its terrors came back to the classroom with a renewed vigor. They brought with them, according to Silliman University President Arthur Carson, an “enthusiasm and … sober maturity,” which then “brought stimulus and reward.”

What should be noted is that this returning group of students—particularly the Class of 1948 [to which Amigo belonged]—brought together at least two generations of young people into war-ravaged Silliman campus: those who had yet to experience college life but were now of age to begin higher studies, and those whose own tertiary matriculation was cut short. The former brought with them fresh vigor, and the latter returned more than ready to begin again—and this combination became a melting pot from which would come much of the creative ferment that cemented Silliman’s [and Dumaguete’s] contribution to the national culture. The next five years after 1945 became a period when student population more than doubled, despite the glaring challenges of post-war education, including the lack of classrooms and the lack of faculty to teach. Because of the massive enrolment that only became even more massive as with passing semester, certain liberties in completing courses were instituted, and the schedule between semesters was tightened. 1946, for example, is known as the year without a summer vacation, as students raced to complete their courses to accommodate incoming students. In 1947, three commencement ceremonies were held for seniors who were able to complete their requirements.

The title “Class of Reconstruction,” which was given to the Class of 1948, is the cohort that felt the joy and the challenges of post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation in campus the most. Swirling around Amigo and his classmates were many things in the local culture that were beginning to stir. In 1948, the Student Government came back to operation, publishing its Constitution in the September 18 issue of The Sillimanian. (The school paper itself resumed publication only in 1946.) Plans for the reviving of the yearbook, The Portal, was also underway. (Its first post-war publication would eventually be released in 1949, reprinting with permission Rafael Zulueta da Costa’s poem “Like the Molave” as a centerpiece to underline a popular post-war sentiment of strength after adversity.) Theatre made a dramatic comeback, with Gilbert and Sullivan musicals and Shakespeare plays being staged to popular reception on campus in the late 1940s on to the 1950s. In 1947, Edilberto K. Tiempo, a returning faculty member, was accepted into the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, followed the next year by his wife, Edith, who was also admitted into the same program. Campus publication flourished, with Rodrigo Feria at the helm.

And lastly, in 1948, the Sands and Coral was launched.

The first issue of the Sands and Coral was edited by Cesar Amigo and Aida Rivera (now Ford), under the guidance of Rodrigo Feria and Ricaredo Demetillo. This magazine would later make its mark as the preeminent literary publication of Silliman University. The folio caught the attention of national literary circles, was reviewed favorably in newspapers, and signaled Silliman’s growing importance in the contribution to the national literature, particularly that in English, which would be the main engine of the burgeoning Dumaguete literary culture in those years. Alongside Amigo and Rivera would be other Silliman writers who would soon win national accolades and see constant print in national publications—including Jose V. Montebon Jr., Eddie Romero, Kenneth Woods, Reuben Canoy, James Matheson, Edith Tiempo, Edilberto K. Tiempo, Graciano H. Arinday Jr., Ricardo Drilon, Leticia Dizon, David Quemada, and Ricaredo Demetillo. Many of these names would be part of a campus literary group who called themselves The Barbarians, Inc.

Among Amigo’s literary output as a Silliman student are several items published in the 1946 issue of the Sillimanian Magazine, including a poem [“Postlude”] and a short story [“Rain Without Meaning”]. After his editorial stint for Sands and Coral in 1948, he would contribute one more time to the folio, this time with a criticism piece titled “Ideals and the Man” for the 1951 issue edited by Reuben Canoy, Claro Ceniza, Honorio Ridad, and Lugum Uka. In this short piece, Amigo crystallized an abiding philosophy: “The man who considers his ideal as a thing apart from his actual being, a distant goal, makes a perilous mistake. For the ideal is forever enmeshed with the courses of our lives. It never leaves us. A man may indulge in gluttony, but invariably he will despise another glutton because the perception of it revolts his innate principles of abstinence, which is only a factor of a more complex Ideal. In this case, the ideal manifests itself in a physical reaction, as it does in the more superficial motions and opinions of a human being. / Let there be no mistaking it: no man can isolate himself from the Ideal. He may be unconscious of it; he may despise ideals. But there is not a single human being of a sane mind, however stupid or dissipated, who does not erect [consciously or unconsciously] a standard of behavior, a Principal Attitude. What is this standard? An Ideal.”

His son Bob would remember his literary inclinations: “Like most accomplished writers, [my father] was a voracious reader. For the most part of the day, he would soak himself in reading novels, the local dailies, Time and Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, and just about anything he could get his hands on—including spiritual books from almost any religious persuasion. To be sure, this was the foundation that made him the consummate writer that he was. It would seem that this love for the printed page was a passion he learned from his mother, Belen Jalandoni.”

He continued: “As a writer, he was most comfortable working late at night. I remember waking up in the wee hours of the morning hearing him pounding away on his typewriter. And when he was exhilarated about a story or screenplay that he was doing, I would hear him relate this to my mother, Ursula. Oh, how he loved telling her his stories. I suspect that she was the only audience who mattered most to him.”

Soon after graduating from college in 1949, Amigo would return to Manila, where he landed his first job—that of senior scriptwriter for Sampaguita Pictures, following the lead of Romero, who had begun writing screenplays for Gerardo de Leon, starting with Ang Maestra in 1941. [The two would have a long collaborative relationship in the coming decades.]

His stint at Sampaguita would last until 1951, whereupon he began working as a freelance scriptwriter. The gambit paid off, and his screenplay for Buhay Alamang [co-written with Romero] would finally be produced in 1952. The film would also net him his first award, the FAMAS for Best Screenplay. But the following years also saw him drop off from screenwriting altogether, and between 1953 and 1956, he turned to journalism, becoming a movie columnist for Sunday Times Magazine.

In 1956, he began working for the propaganda arm of the U.S. military, specifically as senior scriptwriter and documentary film director for the USIS-Saigon (Vietnam) and USIS-Pnom Penh (Cambodia). In this period, he would write and produce films with an anti-communist bent, notably with Saigon (1956), a film directed by De Leon and starring Leopoldo Salcedo, Ben Perez, Cristina Pacheco, and Khank Ngoc [a famous Vietnamese film actress and singer who would win Best Actress for Anh Sang Mien Nam (1955), a joint Vietnamese-Filipino production, at the Philippine Film Festival Award]. Saigon is a revenge melodrama about ill-starred Vietnamese lovers fleeing the Viet Cong from North Vietnam.

The stint with the U.S. military would last until 1957, and Amigo soon returned to the Philippines to write Ang Kamay ni Cain for De Leon, from a story by Clodualdo Del Mundo Sr. Soon, film assignments rolled in with more regularity, and the rest of the 1950s would see him write the screenplays for Sweethearts (1957), Bakya Mo Neneng (1957), Be My Love (1958), You’re My Everything (1958), Laban sa Lahat (1958), Hanggang sa Dulo ng Daigdig (1958), Rolling Rockers (1959), Eva Dragon (1959), and Hawaiian Boy (1959). Of this titles from this period of resurgence, he would be known most for Hanggang sa Dulo ng Daigdig—a crime film directed by De Leon, about an outlaw [played by Pancho Magalona] out for revenge—for which he would win once more the FAMAS Award for Best Screenplay. For that film, Reel News critic Francisco Villa would write: “[The film boasts of a] treatment at its most imaginative… and realism in its rawest and most stunning presentation.” Amigo’s reputation as a screenwriter was secured.

At the 1959 FAMAS Awards, where Cesar Amigo [left] won Best Screenplay for Hanggang sa Dulo ng Daidig. Its director, Gerardo de Leon [right] won Best Director.

In the 1960s, his screenwriting credits would include Escape to Paradise (1960), Sandakot na Alabok (1960), Kadenang Putik (1960), Sa Ibabaw ng Aking Bangkay (1960), Vengavito (1961), The Moises Padilla Story (1961), Halang ang Kaluluwa (1962) Labanan sa Balicuatro (1962), Falcon (1962), Sa Atin ang Daigdig (1963), Barilan sa Pugad Lawin (1963), Intramuros (1964), Blood is the Color of Night (1964), Magandang Bituin (1965), The Ravagers (1965), 7 Gabi sa Hong Kong (1966), The Passionate Strangers (1966), Gold Bikini (1967), Ang Limbas at ang Lawin (1967), Virgin of Kalatrava Island (1967), Brides of Blood (1968), and Igorota (1968)—a run of films that would exhibit Amigo’s wide-ranging capabilities in handling different genres, from film noir [The Passionate Strangers] to horror [Brides of Blood], from action-filled drama ripped from the headlines [The Moises Padilla Story] to war epics [Escape to Paradise], from historical melodrama [Igorota] to romantic comedies [Magandang Bituin], from musicals [7 Gabi sa Hong Kong] to spy capers [Gold Bikini]. He would also begin writing B-movies for Hollywood around this time, often in association with Eddie Romero, Gerardo De Leon, and Cirio Santiago.

He would also win the FAMAS for Best Screenplay for Kadenang Putik in 1961, and The Moises Padilla Story in 1962. The latter film [directed by De Leon]—about a real-life Occidental Negrense politician who becomes a martyr after a brutal election-related skirmish with a powerful provincial governor—has become an undisputed classic in the canon of Philippine cinema. This film, together with The Passionate Strangers [directed by Romero, and co-written by fellow Sillimanian Reuben Canoy]—which is set in Negros Oriental and is about an American factory owner who faces his demons as he confronts a labor strike and further muddles it with murder—completes Amigo’s duology on Negrense moral horrors.

In 1963, he would direct his first film, Sa Atin ang Daigdig, a story following six people “from the gutters” as they strive to seek success. [The movie’s press bills it as a film that “will startle you with its frankness and stir you for its truth.”] It became the Philippine entry to the prestigious Venice Film Festival—an honor that Amigo took in stride, proclaiming both the success of the production and its inclusion in Venice as “beginner’s luck.” He would also direct two more films in the 1960s—7 Gabi sa Hong Kong [a musical extravaganza starring Gloria Romero, Shirley Gorospe, and Juancho Gutierrez], and Wanted: Johnny L [an anti-crime anthology film he co-directed with De Leon and Romero].

Igorota—directed by Luis Nepomuceno in 1968—would also be a landmark film in Amigo’s screenwriting career, although contemporary critics would come to deride the film for being a “misguided” attempt by the Filipino film industry to crash the international market with its sensational tale of an Igorot maiden who falls in love with a man from the city in the lowlands—their union stirring cultural conflict that end in tragedy. The film would however win eight FAMAS Awards in 1969, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress [for Charito Solis, for whom this would become a milestone role]. Amigo would also serve as associate producer for the film.

The 1970s would herald a trickling down of Amigo’s screenwriting outputs, which would include The Hunted (1970), Pipo (1970), Ang Larawan ni Melissa (1972), The Pacific Connection (1974), Hindi Kami Damong Ligaw (1976), Babae … Sa Likod ng Salamin (1976), and his last film, Sa Dulo ng Kris (1977). The Hunted, which Amigo would also direct, is Nepomuceno’s follow-up to the success of Igorota, also starring Solis. The actress would return for a final engagement with Amigo as director in Babae … Sa Likod ng Salamin, the first film produced by Reuben Canoy. It is a psychological melodrama about a woman with dual personalities—that of a faithful wife by day, and a seductive mistress by night. “I’ve always had a soft heart for Cesar. [He is mild-mannered, soft-spoken, and intelligent director.] Besides, he is really good,” Solis would speak of Amigo in Crispina Martinez-Belen’s Celebrity World column for Manila Bulletin.

In 1972, he would win Best Director and Best Screenplay for Ang Larawan ni Melissa at the Quezon City Film Festival.

In 1977, he would direct Sa Dulo ng Kris, an expansive tale set in contemporary Mindanao detailing the challenges that people from the South regularly faced [including the conflict between Muslim natives and Christian settlers], which was produced by Canoy and starred Joseph Estrada and Vic Vargas. It would prove to be his final film, earning him his last nominations for Best Director and Best Story at the FAMAS.

Sometime in the early 1980s, Amigo returned to journalism full-time, becoming managing editor of The Evening Post. From 1983 to 1986, he also became a regular writer for The Manila Paper, which Reuben Canoy published and edited, putting out a column called “Bench Warming with W. Somerset Moghum.” [W. Somerset Moghum, his pen name, was derived from W. Somerset Maugham. Moghum is a twist of his nickname Mogoy—which only relatives and close friends from Silliman would call him.]

His wife Ursula also would pass away in 1982 at age 52, and he started to develop a love for cooking—perhaps to fill his late wife’s role in the family, as she was known among their friends for her culinary expertise.

In the twilight of his life, he would also return to his literary [and Sillimanian] roots, and help produce Abby R. Jacobs’ wartime memoir We Did Not Surrender in 1986. [Jacobs was an American missionary who taught at Silliman University, and was in Dumaguete when World War II broke out. Together with other American teachers, she evacuated to the hills and mountains of Negros to hide from the Japanese occupying forces, and where they bravely assisted the resistance movement. She taught at Silliman until 1953, and was one of Amigo’s mentors in his student days.]

He later became editor of HOY!, a monthly magazine, in 1987. The April 1987 issue of the magazine would be his last work, as he was diagnosed with colon cancer towards the end of April. He immediately had surgery in May, but the surgery was only a solution to ease his last days. He passed away on June 5 in his house in Mariposa, Quezon City, surrounded by family.

Cesar Amigo with wife Ursula and their family.

His eldest daughter Marika would remember his passion for his work, and his devotion to his family: “Papa’s passion for film was evident with every line he wrote and every frame he shot. But what his patrons would never know was that the only thing this decorated filmmaker loved more than his craft was his family. And his countless home movies and family photographs prove that. The glitz and glam of the limelight never fazed him. His life at home was his priority and he made sure that we all felt the same way. Our dinner table was always bursting with excitement, as each of us would eagerly tell each other of our day. Our guests would even point out that dinners at the Amigo house would always run long because everyone had so many stories to tell. But no one told stories quite like Papa. His eccentricities and his cinematic narration were uniquely his.

“His love for film poured into these conversations, too. This dinner table was where we would unleash our inner movie critic and conduct lengthy discussions on the films we just saw. Film was not just in our blood; it was part of our soul. Papa made sure that the very art form we loved would bring us closer to our loved ones.

“And as the years went by, this has not changed. The Amigo table still has the longest dinners that are chock full of stories we eagerly tell each other sprinkled with unabashed critiques of the latest box office hits. Papa’s love for family was infectious, so much so that we became each other’s closest friends. And although he did not get the chance to meet most of his grandchildren, they share that very same closeness my siblings and I share. Their dinner tables ring of enthusiastic storytelling and meticulous movie critiques too! “As a daughter that still misses her father, I’m grateful that Papa’s passions are still immortalized for the world to see. His award-winning films, and most of all, his influence in his family for generations to come.”

His second-born, Bob—or Bebop, would remember his tenacity regarding film production, insisting always on the paramount importance of story, but also not at the expense of the bottom-line: “As a film director, [my father] believed that the storyline was the centerpiece. But he did not indulge his creative senses in stories that his audience could not relate to. He understood the balance of doing a film that told a good narrative and returned a profit to his producers’ investment at the box- office. To this end, he did not believe in wasting raw footages that merely ended up on the cutting room’s floor. Thus, during production, he meticulously crafted every detail of his shot with the purpose of cutting down on outtakes.

“’Economy of words,’ he once told me, ‘is a skill that every writer should develop.’ I cannot help thinking that many today could benefit from his wisdom—particularly in an age when almost anybody can fancy himself a writer by merely putting out his work on the internet. Cesar J. Amigo belonged to an era of writers whose pen was golden.”

We get the same sense of Amigo as writer from son Ike, the fifth in the brood: “I did not have the opportunity to watch many of my father’s movies, because his prolific writing days were on its tail-end when I was old enough to go to the movie house. However, it’s not hard to see why he was a good scriptwriter. The stories that he’d tell us on the dinner table were always interesting—from how he won over my mother in marriage, to why he lost two fingers on his left hand, to his experiences in Saigon that closely resembled the adventures of Indiana Jones, even though that character wasn’t invented yet. That’s why I looked forward to our time on the dinner table, because it was a guaranteed front-row seat to my father’s next storytelling adventure.”

From Gigi, his fourth-born, we get a sense of Amigo as a man with many facets, including an inherent quirkiness—and further explanation for those two missing fingers: “[My father] was quite the character. He was funny and quirky and a great storyteller. He had a way with words, which is no surprise since he was a writer. But growing up in Dumaguete, his main language was English and Bisaya. His weakness was Tagalog. So what did he do? He invented some Tagalog words. These words seemed so real to us that it was only when I started school that I learned from classmates that I’m using made-up Tagalog words nobody understood. For example, ‘tudoy,’ which apparently was not Tagalog for ‘toe’! He gave funny names to our pets as well, like our dog A-shit, our goldfish Quasimodo, and a pair of carp he named Mr. and Mrs. Carruthers. Even the clueless mailman was baptized as Mr. Estonactok.

“But what everyone who ever met him would probably remember was that he always wore a two-fingered black glove on his left hand. This glove covered two fingers cut in half. Papa had a lot of versions on how he lost his fingers. Some stories were funny, while others were outrageous. But the best story was the real one. He accidentally cut them off with an electric saw mishap while attempting to build a bookshelf! He rushed himself to a nearby clinic just as it was locking up for the night. Papa knocked on the door with his bleeding hand and a beautiful woman opened the door to let him in. And that was how he met the love of his life, my mother. That is a story worth telling through the ages.”

From the youngest, Cesar Jr.—or Jun—we get a sense of a carrying on of that passion for filmmaking: “Pursuing a career in film or production was never a dream of mine. Sure, I was proud to be a film director’s son, and of course I loved movies growing up. But the thought of following in Papa’s footsteps never crossed my mind. Still, Papa had such a unique and impactful personality that it’s almost impossible not to be influenced by him. Seeing him a few times in action on a film set and having those endless discussions about movies during mealtimes gave my siblings and me an appreciation for film production, and depth of cinematic perspective far beyond others our age. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that four of his six children eventually ended up in production at one point or another, myself included. Papa’s been gone for awhile now but his legacy continues on… even to his grandchildren.”

My thanks to the Amigo family, especially Marika Amigo Bulahan, for their assistance in the writing of this article, as well as for the many photos they sent of their father and his work.

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