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Mike de Leon

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  • noelbotevera
    The thin line between genius and sanity Noel Vera It s easy to call Mike de Leon one of the greatest if not the greatest Filipino filmmaker who ever lived;
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 20, 2002
      The thin line between genius and sanity

      Noel Vera

      It's easy to call Mike de Leon one of the greatest if not the
      greatest Filipino filmmaker who ever lived; he's done only a handful
      (nine features and three shorts), but every one displays an amazingly
      high level of technical proficiency. In terms of sound design,
      cinematography, and editing, his films sound and look and flow better
      than almost any other Filipino filmmakers'; it may be argued that De
      Leon has never made a bad film--that his batting average runs a near-
      perfect 95 or even 100%.

      That said, De Leon does seem to have his blind spots. He's never
      done a big-budget picture before (the only one he's ever attempted,
      GMA Studio's "Jose Rizal," he walked away from after spending so many
      months and so many millions of pesos preparing). He never does
      explicit sex scenes, and almost never shows human sensuality in any
      form. He also seems to have trouble portraying women--they are
      either passive or impotent or almost totally absent from his films.
      For all of De Leon's supposed range and versatility, you could almost
      chart his career on what he will or will not do, as if some complex
      formula secretly ruled his life.

      And perhaps there is. De Leon's reputation for technical perfection
      is both boon and bane for anyone trying to assess his films; most
      critics only see the surface perfection--bow to it, hang garlands
      upon it, burn incense and chant hosannas to its holy presence. They
      don't seem in any way aware of the turmoil beneath that perfect
      surface, a hidden turmoil the dynamic of which mars as often as
      strengthens his films, and is the true source of their power.

      De Leon's first directed feature, "Itim" (Black, 1976) tells the
      story of a young woman (Charo Santos) haunted by the spirit of her
      dead sister. The film is full of memorable visual sequences--the
      séance, for example, where Santos is channeling her sister's spirit,
      the room spinning about as if the camera itself were possessed. Or
      the antiseptically white clinic where a photographer (Tommy Abuel)
      investigates the photographs hidden away by his father, a scene that
      evokes the otherworldly eerieness of Nicholas Roeg's "Don't Look
      Now." "Itim" is such a stylish exercise in atmosphere that you don't
      really notice that the story itself is actually thin, a mere
      investigation into a long-past mystery--the bells and whistles of a
      supernatural thriller (well-made they may be) taking the place of
      real dramatic conflict. When the final secret is discovered
      (involving Abuel's paralytic father, played by Mario Montenegro),
      retribution is swift, almost anticlimactic; we never really
      understand Montenegro's reasons for doing what he did, nor do we
      learn what Santos' and Abuel's ultimate reactions might be to the

      The true interest of "Itim" is its position at the forefront of De
      Leon's career, representing as it does his first, faltering steps
      towards true mastery. He has introduced a few of the characters he
      will repeatedly include in his films--the malevolent father, the
      passive young man, the victim/prize of a heroine--but has not yet
      fleshed them out. He has struck a note of Gothic foreboding, but has
      not yet articulated the story he truly wants to tell--that comes

      De Leon's second feature, "Kung Mangarap Ka't Magising" (Should You
      Dream, then Awaken, 1977) is more of a character-driven piece
      than "Itim," delineating a love affair between a young man
      (Christopher De Leon) and an older married woman (Hilda Koronel). De
      Leon himself disparaged the picture, calling it "the proto-Viva Film"
      years before Viva Studios (known for its glossy middle-class love
      stories) was established.

      What sets the film apart is its introduction of the first true De
      Leon protagonist--the strangely subdued young man who has difficulty
      bridging the gap between people, much less the woman he desires.
      It's a delicate, fully formed character, as conceived by De Leon the
      director and played by De Leon the actor (the two are not related).
      Where in "Itim" De Leon seems to be showing us what he's learned
      about atmosphere and style, in "Kung Mangarap" he seems to be showing
      us what he has learned about creating rounded, complex characters and
      making them interact in a non-melodramatic manner.

      From 1980 to 1982, De Leon did a trilogy of films. "Kakabakaba Ka
      Ba?" (Worried? 1980) is a comedy about a band of friends (led by,
      again, Christopher de Leon) chasing an audiocassette tape made out of
      heroin fashioned by the Japanese Yakuza; later the Chinese Mafia and
      ultimately the Catholic Church join the chase. The film is a
      mishmash of absurdist non-sequiturs and subtle in-jokes--subtitled
      Japanese and subtitled Chinese vie for screen space, ultimately
      finding themselves jumbled together; periscopes pop out of swimming
      pools to monitor plot developments; a nun belts out a glitzy Broadway
      number, lifting her habit to reveal a sexily pantyhosed thigh.

      De Leon reveals a different side of himself here--the dry wit and
      satirist, the skeptical observer of human folly; what's missing is
      the emotional intensity hinted at in his two earlier
      works. "Kakabakaba" is a comedy, tinted slightly dark, but urbane
      and ultimately tasteful--not the kind of qualities you expect from De
      Leon. The original story was reportedly much darker, with vicious
      jabs at the Catholic Church; we may never learn what happened to
      transform that possibly more interesting project into this
      lighthearted, somehow insincere romp.

      With "Kisapmata" (Blink of an Eye, 1981) De Leon created his
      masterwork. The plot bears striking similarities to "Itim"--the
      latter might have been an important first draft--but with a crucial
      difference: De Leon has freed the father figure stalking the margins
      of the previous film from his crippling paralysis, and allowed him to
      take center stage. As incarnated by Vic Silayan, he is a retired
      police sergeant with an unnatural stranglehold over wife (Charito
      Solis) and daughter (Charo Santos). His claustrophobically enclosed
      world is threatened when Santos finds herself pregnant, and forced to
      marry a young man (Jay Ilagan). Silayan attempts to extend his
      influence over his son-in-law, who resists; there is a

      De Leon tells what is essentially a horror story, at the heart of
      which is a creature all the more terrifying because he's so familiar--
      a garrulous, unshaven old man with a huge belly and hidden .45
      caliber handgun. He could be someone you know; he could be your next-
      door neighbor. Along with that "neighborly" feel is the sense of
      utter conviction that De Leon brings to the material, to the conflict
      between domineering father and (yet again) passive son-in-law. It's
      as if De Leon knew these characters well--identifies with them
      intensely. The film is unsettling in the way it seems so close
      (because of the intensity) to the filmmaker, the same time it's so
      close (because of the realism) to you. As if the gap between our
      world and De Leon's more forbidding one is as little as, well, the
      blink of an eye...

      "Batch '81" (1982) sublimates the tyrant father into an all-
      encompassing organization, the college fraternity; for the mental
      torment of "Kisapmata" it substitutes the largely physical torment of
      fraternity pledges. This is possibly De Leon's way raising the
      stakes, by moving from closed family to closed fraternity, the
      fraternity standing in for the fascism of then-president Ferdinand
      Marcos' administration. De Leon does achieve scenes of intense
      claustrophobia, though not as intense or claustrophobic as
      in "Kisapmata"--it's difficult, if not impossible, to improve on an
      essentially perfect work. An interesting note: De Leon's now-familiar
      tyrannical patriarch--in the guise of one pledge's father--makes a
      cameo appearance, in a horrific sequence involving electrocution.

      "Sister Stella L.," one of De Leon's most highly regarded works (the
      film came out in 1984, when Marcos' dictatorial powers were still
      largely intact), is also, ironically, his least characteristic. De
      Leon must have been trying to break new ground by focusing on a
      strong female lead character (Vilma Santos--as a nun, at that) and
      her emerging political consciousness. The end result is a film of
      excellent craftsmanship (taut editing, intelligent camerawork) in the
      service of a Pete Lacaba script, Labaa being one of the strongest
      voices in Philippine political cinema. It's his milieu and
      sensibility that shines forth, not De Leon's; the director seems to
      be subjugating his inimitable style here, presumably in the service
      of liberation theology. Interestingly, the one sequence that feels
      most characteristically De Leon--and for me, the moment when the film
      truly comes to life--is in the torture of the strike leader, played
      by Tony Santos Sr.

      "Hindi Nahahati ang Langit" (The Heavens Indivisible, 1985) was De
      Leon's one bid for commercial success, an adaptation from a
      popular "komiks" serial; when the film was released, De Leon insisted
      on removing his name. It's one of the few films in Philippine cinema
      not to display a director's credit; it's also De Leon's one and only
      boxoffice hit.

      Even stranger than De Leon's curious rejection of the film is the
      fact that the film isn't bad at all--it's actually a smart, tersely
      told version of a convoluted melodrama, with layers of startlingly
      complex emotional undertones. What makes the film truly interesting,
      however, is the relationship at the heart of the film, between the
      wealthy young man (Christopher De Leon) and his stepsister (Lorna
      Tolentino). They start out as childhood antagonists; when De Leon's
      father dies, De Leon becomes Tolentino's legal guardian. He attempts
      to remold Tolentino according to his image of how a young woman
      should behave--attempts that Tolentino resists violently. Tolentino
      escapes to lives her own life, but their paths eventually cross
      again, the tension and growing attraction between them no longer to
      be denied...

      If De Leon sleepwalked through "Sister Stella L.," he's wide-awake
      here, giving the relationship between De Leon and Tolentino his
      characteristic touches--the shifting roles between dominator and
      dominated, the unnaturally close family ties, the claustrophobic
      intimacy between the two lead characters. That De Leon denies
      auteurship of the film is a real puzzle, as the film looks and feels
      so much like a De Leon film...

      In the years since, De Leon has worked three more times--on a video
      feature, a comedy short set in the future, and a black-and-white
      feature on Philippine national hero Jose Rizal. The darkly obsessed
      artist glimpsed in "Itim," "Batch '81" and "Hindi Nahahati ang
      Langit," that stepped out fully into the light in "Kisapmata," does
      so one more time for "Bilanggo ng Dilm" (Prisoner of Darkness, 1987)--
      an adaptation of John Fowles' "The Collector," about a man who
      abducts women and keeps them in his isolated mansion, trying to
      subject them to his will. I've seen the William Wyler version
      starring Terence Stamp, which is a complete and far more faithful
      adaptation of the Fowles story. For Wyler, however, it was a job--to
      be fair, one that likely interested him; for De Leon, the story
      apparently holds deeper, more personal significance...

      In the meantime..."Aliwan Paradise" (Pleasure Paradise, 1993) takes
      its characters from Lino Brocka's "Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag"
      (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975), for which De Leon had acted as
      producer and cameraman. The short, a segment from "Southern Winds,"
      an omnibus collection of Asian shorts, takes the Brocka classic and
      projects it into the future, where he stands the premise (that people
      suffer from hunger and poverty) on its head (that people can live off
      the entertainment value of hunger and poverty). De Leon's camerawork
      in "Maynila" made his name as a brilliant cinematographer, perhaps
      one of the best in the country, and it put Brocka on the highest
      pedestal, as the patron saint of Philippine cinema--De Leon's
      merciless lampooning of film and director is a startling, and rather
      courageous, act of effrontery. "Bayaning Third World" (Third World
      Hero, 2000) explores one by one the various means of filming the life
      of Philippine national hero Jose Rizal, and concludes that not one of
      them are feasible. It's a Rizal film about the impossibility of
      making a Rizal film, as neat a feat of intellectual prestidigitation
      as anything I've seen in recent Philippine cinema, and a splendid
      practical joke on the Filipino people.

      Judging from his recent work, De Leon seems to have exorcised his
      demons and is content to do clever, even brilliant, comedies; the
      anguished artist has given way to the urbane, sophisticated
      satirist. Which is fine and good, unless you happen to catch a
      screening of "Kisapmata," either in a retrospective or on cable, and
      notice how ten years later it still hasn't lost any of its power to
      disturb or shock--that, in fact, it's one of the greatest Filipino
      films ever made. Then you want to ask: "When is De Leon going to do
      something worth obsessing over again? When is he going to do films
      that matter again?"

      (Longer version of article done for the Mike de Leon retrospective at
      Cinemanila 2002 (www.cinemanila.com.ph), August 1 to 15 at Greenbelt
      2, Makati, and at the CCP).

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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