Cinema Regained: Classic Filipino Films in Rotterdam
Feature by: Noel Vera
Some months ago, the Rotterdam Film Festival had asked me right out of the blue to program films I'd written about in my book Critic After Dark. I originally had over ten choices, narrowed it down to seven features and a collection of shorts, made a few compromises along the way but otherwise felt happy about what I'd been able to bring to festival audiences last January 2006.
The program, under the festival's Cinema Regained (a kind of jokey response to Paradise Lost, where little-known films are found and screened) subsection, includes Insiang, (1976), Lino Brocka's tightly structured, tightly told tale about a young girl betrayed by family and society; Kisapmata ("In the Wink of an Eye", 1982), Mike de Leon's harrowing film about a patriarchal tyrant; Tikoy Aguiluz's first feature (Boatman, 1984, about live sex performers) and arguably his best (Bagong Bayani ("The Last Wish", 1995), about the execution of overseas worker Flor Contemplacion in Singapore); a film looking back on the Marcos era (Chito Rono's Eskapo, 1995); a film from Lav Diaz--relatively short, considering his other works (Hesus Rebolusyunaryo ("Jesus the Revolutionary", 2002)); a late work from Brocka contemporary and collaborator Mario O'Hara (Pangarap ng Puso ("Demons", 2000)--in my opinion the best of the recent films); and, representing Philippine experimental cinema, the short films of Raymond Red, including his first (Ang Magpakailanman ("The Eternity", 1982)) and one of his latest (the Palme d'or-winning short Anino ("Shadows", 2000)).
My idea was to provide a sample of the '70s and '80s brand of socially committed neorealism (Insiang, Kisapmata--in my opinion, the respective filmmakers' finest works--and Boatman), then go on to show how others took that commitment in various different directions: docudrama (Bagong Bayani), dystopic science fiction (Hesus Rebolusyunaryo, which is set several years in the future), and magic realism (Anino, Pangarap ng Puso). A viewer following the screenings would in effect see the neorealist classics, then move on to the newer, more experimental films.
I was to introduce the films, at least the evening screenings, and conduct a Q & A session afterwards. The first film I introduced-- Aguiluz's Boatman--was simple enough: I explained that the film came out at a time when the Marcos regime's control was slipping, censorship of films was liberalized, and a whole spate of sexually and violently explicit films came out, this being one of the best of them. I didn't have much to add to the Q & A after, except to note that the film shows the eponymous character going full circle,
so to speak--at the film's beginning, he loses his foreskin at a circumcision ritual; at the film's end he loses much more than that. Lot Piscaer of the Daily Tiger noted that she had to take a moment to recover from that ending.
When I introduced Insiang, I mostly tried to put the film in context (Brocka's neorealist masterpiece, originally from a TV script by Mario O'Hara) and in the Q & A, pointed out differences in both script and film--how O'Hara had originally set the story in Pasay and not in Tondo, how this affects the film's veracity, why Brocka made the change; how the censors insisted on a different final scene between Insiang and her mother, how Brocka filmed it in such a way that satisfied him, and how O'Hara, in a recent theatrical production, took that scene, and with a few changes (mainly in how Insiang delivers her lines), reclaimed it for his own.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, author and critic of the Chicago Reader was in the audience, and I told him how important the film's structure was to its impact, the progression of relationships (Insiang's deteriorating regard for her mother; her mother's increasing mistrust of Insiang; Dado falling deeper and deeper under Insiang's spell), the accumulation of detail (from sex in a hovel to sex in a cheap motel; Dado's increasing irritation at Bebot's earring); Rosenbaum replied that structure isn't as important to him as the overall feel of the film, and that he certainly felt the film's intensity.
I do think much of the film's power comes from the eventual implication of everyone in the picture's penultimate crime. With everyone guilty, we can't fully sympathize with either one or the other; at the same time, we can't just self-righteously condemn anyone--Brocka (presumably taking his cue from Renoir) makes it clear that everyone has their reasons for being the way they are. Mona Lisa's Tonya is trapped in her advanced age and status as abandoned housewife; Insiang is trapped in the role of put-upon daughter and young woman in Filipino society (women being expected to treat their virtue as a priceless treasure, easily and irredeemably lost); Dadong is trapped by his own low ambitions and sexual appetites. All three are worthy of both our pity and our contempt, the end result being we tend in our confusion to suspend our judgment, and pause in thought. I submit that that confusion, that pause, that suspension of our tendency to accuse and condemn--that staying of our upraised arm, in effect--is "Insiang's" best and strongest effect. We judge not lest we, like these creatures so vividly, unforgettably alive and struggling before us, are similarly judged.
If in Insiang the audience reacted with repulsion and dismay, the reaction in Kisapmata was altogether more interesting. They were laughing throughout much of the film, but it wasn't easy, derisory laughter; if anything, it was a terse release of tension, the kind of laughter you hear from someone fully aware he should know better but feels nervous, nevertheless. Much of de Leon's film played like a sharply observed domestic comedy, where husband and wife are forced to stay with their in-laws, only with an unsettling nightmare undertone (actually, I thought the weakest sequence in the film was Charo Santos' nightmare, where the subtext was made-- unnecessarily, I thought--explicit).
I had again caught Rosenbaum in the audience (he seemed to be making it a point to catch the Filipino classics), and he told me that perhaps the one implausible moment was Charo Santos' need to confront her parents one more time, to which I replied that it might be more believable if you consider the kind of hooks parents can sink deep into their children, that in Philippine society that kind of filial sense of duty is perfectly understandable, and that much of the film's dialogue mirrors the dialogue married Filipinos often have with their in-laws. The film's impact with Filipino viewers comes mostly from the shock of recognition--how closely the newlyweds' lives closely (and uncomfortably) resembled their own.
Rosenbaum went on to note how the film made him think of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's TV movie Martha, about a troubled woman who marries a domineering and abusive husband. He acknowledged that Fassbinder and de Leon have wildly differing styles--Fassbinder tends to an offhand, seemingly slipshod style, while de Leon's is almost Kubrickian in its control of every detail—but that both films use black comedy as a means to bypass the audiences' defenses and bring the horror home.
Maybe the most notable question to come out of the Q & A for Bagong Bayani--which director Aguiluz introduced himself--was whether or not the film had a commercial screening and what effect this had on government policy towards overseas workers; Aguiluz replied that the film failed to get a commercial screening. I interjected that after being rejected by the Metro Manila Film Festival, Aguiluz had pretty much given up; meanwhile, I had recommended the picture to the Hong Kong Film Festival--which accepted it, to my surprise (it was the first film I ever programmed)--and it gained new life on the festival circuit. It was eventually bought up for showing at the local cable, which helped recover the costs of making the film.
As for any lasting effects, Aguiluz noted that Contemplacion's death had caused the firing of the Philippines' ambassador to Singapore, but not her dismissal from foreign service, and that it did at least draw attention to the plight of overseas workers. An independent body agreed to by both Singaporean and Philippine governments investigated her case, and came to the conclusion that she was guilty after all. I realized later on I that I should
have pointed out the film is relevant whether or not Contemplacion was innocent; it was the only one of the several films on the story that presented both sides of the case, and its focus is not just on her story but on the story of all Filipino overseas workers.
Perhaps the liveliest debate occurred during the evening screening of Pangarap ng Puso. I restated my basic thesis, that Brocka's films are an apotheosis, and that this represented the next step beyond. As critic Tony Rayns put it, the film "fits no established genre template. Part social history, part ghost-horror story, part romance, part quasi-Marxist parable, it has no obvious antecedent except perhaps Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter." I added that the film was made for under fifty thousand dollars and shot in fourteen days, and that reactions to the film have been extreme: either they agree with me that it's one of the best and most imaginative Filipino film in recent years, or they think I've gone insane. I added that there would be a Q & A after the screening so people could tell me to my face if I'm crazy or not.
After the screening I noted that one hallmark of an O'Hara screenplay is that he insists he does not include anything in a screenplay that he believes is untrue, or could not possibly true, that his script for "Insiang" was in fact based on his backyard neighbors growing up in Pasay, and that everything in this film, including the man thrown off a helicopter and the kapre (ogre) that steps over a house, is either based on testimony or on local myth (myths that he presumably believes are true--O'Hara, it must be said, has a strange idea of what reality consists of).
A woman informed me that I needn't have bothered mentioning the budget--that it didn't look like a fifty thousand dollar film (I thanked her for that). A young man asked about the class tensions between Negros hacienderos (ranchers) and their workers, that in this film class structures seem to be shallowly rendered where they were more endemic to his later Babae sa Breakwater ("Woman of the Breakwater", 2004). I replied that it was merely a fact of these people's lives, a background for the love story, which was the
main element. On reflection, I should have added that at least here the upper class have a face; in Breakwater they're mostly represented by the smoothly anonymous glass facades of the skyscrapers surrounding the breakwater inhabitants. O'Hara has dealt with class tensions before, in his noir film "Condemned" where a rich woman's suitcase of dollars is the McGuffin that propels a brother and sister to tragedy (the confrontation between rich and poor that constitutes the film's climax is priceless); and most notably in his flawed Mga Bilanggong Birhen ("The Captive Virgins", 1977), where the upper class and those revolting against them share a bitterly disputed commodity, their women (hence the title). I don't feel O'Hara has to rail against the dichotomy between rich and poor in every film, not when he has so many stories to tell, and so many ways in which to tell them...
A young woman (she and the young man seemed to be part of a group of Slovenians somehow involved with—or maybe they just read?--the film magazine Ekran) asked
about the nature of the creatures in Pangarap. There was the kapre; there were the forest spirits that played with the young girl; then there were the demons. Didn't I find it confusing that forest spirits and ogre are depicted in frightening terms when the former were innocent, the latter not? I replied that anything unknown is frightening, whether or not it's innocent; if we're not familiar with it we're scared, unless it proves itself otherwise. Plus the creatures--ogres, spirits, demons--can be seen as projections from the characters' minds; when the children saw spirits they saw them with innocent (if somewhat apprehensive) eyes; when they grew older andsaw ogres and demons, it was with less innocent eyes. The meaning of these supernatural beings changed, not
only with the youths' emerging sexuality, but also with their growing awareness of the political and military situation around them.
I should note that reactions to the film include Richard Porton's, editor of Cineaste Magazine, who thought the film was "extraordinary," and Bill Krohn's (who wasn't at the screening, but saw a tape) who wrote that it was "awesome; I've never seen anything
like it." Rosenbaum, who caught another screening, thought it was "wild and fascinating."
Reflecting on the film, I like the offhand way O'Hara presents contemporary Philippine history; he starts from before the EDSA revolution to the various post-Marcos administrations, a period of roughly fourteen years, showing them in a series of quick
photo stills. The theme recalls a similar strategy Lav Diaz used in his 9-hour Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino ("Evolution of a Filipino Family", 2005), and while I do like the longer film very much, was moved by the two family's plight, was moved by the swirl of events Diaz showed in a series of news footages (the long glide over the crowds of EDSA--millions of people crowding a great highway, covered in a single shot--was a visual tour-de-force), I felt Diaz was showing two separate films, and that they had at best a tenuous connection. O'Hara's still photos are like flashes of recollection, as if people were remembering what they had seen in newspapers and magazines, and you can see the effect of history's progress on the film's characters: as the monolithic repression of the Marcos administration gave way to the chaos of the various presidents, control over the military grew weaker and the atrocities grew worse. O'Hara was even able to crack a joke using this device: as a father explains to his daughter about those "who think they're kings too," O'Hara flashes a picture of Jaime Cardinal Sin, the once-powerful archbishop of Manila.
It was an exhilarating, and at the same time humbling experience. To see these people discover Filipino films, to see them react to its intensity, its strangeness, its moments of imagination makes me feel the whole business, the time and trouble spent on procuring these films, was more than worthwhile—that perhaps my entire career as film critic studying these films wasn't a waste of time after all. It's a vindication of sorts, I thought, at the same time it's a kind of gentle reminder that Philippine cinema still has a long way to go, in terms of recognition. The struggle continues.