Fernando Poe, Jr. films
- "Da King" of Philippine Cinema
Fernando Poe Jr. has at one point been described as the Filipino
Arnold Schwarzenegger, America's one-time premier action hero. Silly
choice--FPJ (as he's fondly called) was never so blunderingly
thickheaded or loud or obvious. The more useful comparison would have
been to John Wayne, who for around thirty of his fifty-year career
came to epitomize the slow-drawling, straight-shooting, two-fisted
gunman, the simple, straightforward hero that ordinary men can trust,
or believe in. There are crucial differences--FPJ outlasted Wayne
(his career spanned fifty-three years, his last film having come out
in 2003); outproduced him (he made over 200 movies to Wayne's 174),
and even outranked him (he was, after all, "Da King" where Wayne was
a mere "Duke").
It might even be possible to consider Poe's career the longest among
Asian actors--Kwan Tak Hing played China's mythological hero Wong Fei
Hung for something like thirty-six years; Katsumi Ayoshi has played
Japan's favorite family man, Toro-san, for a mere twenty-plus.
Poe, like Wayne, or Kwan or Ayoshi, knows the value of a created
persona; if anything; his hero are loved for their predictability,
not spontaneity. You know what you're getting when you buy a ticket
to an FPJ picture--there are no surprises, only sustained
reassurance; no innovations, only interesting variations.
Some of the more interesting variations are his collaboration with
writer-filmmaker Eddie Romero, the best of which is probably "Aguila"
(Eagle, 1980). A multigenerational story spanning decades, with an
obvious debt to Francis Coppola's "The Godfather," "Aguila" tells two
stories--one, of Daniel Aguila (Fernando Poe) and his struggles
against the wartime Japanese and against modern Filipino society; the
other of Daniel's wealthy and powerful son Mari (Christopher de Leon)
and his search for his father, who has had enough of that society and
vanished--no one knows where.
It's a broad tapestry Romero and Poe paint, a sweeping tour through
recent Philippine history (from 1898 to 1978) with a decidedly
ambivalent attitude towards our American colonizers; it's also a
quite moving epic, with Poe's stoicism seemingly more and more
beleaguered and heroic as he faces one disillusionment after another.
When Mari finally finds his father, you feel as if you've come at the
end of a long journey--both into the past and through the present--
and whatever peace Daniel finally wrests out of himself and his
relationship with the world can only seem like a well-earned reward,
won out of a long and hard battle. It's not only one of FPJ's finest
films, it is, in my opinion, Romero's best, most complex, most
ambitious work, far better I think than "Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo
Ngayon?" (We Were Like This Then, How Are You Doing Now? 1976), his
This wasn't FPJ's first collaboration with Romero, of course; sixteen
years earlier they had done "Intramuros" (The Walls of Hell, 1964), a
typical wartime melodrama, with the tall and godlike Americans
standing alongside their little brown brothers, fighting the enemy.
Despite the imported actors the production had a modest budget, so no
big-time Hollywood names; the real star of the picture are the
gigantic, twenty-foot thick ramparts of old Intramuros, Manila's four-
hundred-years old walled city, the near-impenetrable fortress into
which the Japanese have taken refuge with a thousand civilian
hostages. The city is impossible to take via direct assault--as one
officer so vividly describes it, a hundred thousand shells have been
hurled against those walls, and they still haven't been breached.
There has to be another way.
Enter Poe, literally popping out of the ground from a sewer trapdoor,
complete with Elvis curls and a James Dean attitude. His lean-hipped
good looks and Latino arrogance tend to make the blandly handsome
Americans fade into the background; his dark glower tells them that
they mess with him at their peril (they've got their rifles pointed
nervously at him, and you can believe they'll shoot; what you can't
believe is that the bullets will hurt him much). If the walls form
the movie's massive centerpiece, Poe is its vivid, live-wire heart,
determined to save the day for the thousand Filipino civilians, with
or without, his expression seems to imply, the Americans' help.
Perhaps the quintessential Fernando Poe, Jr. picture is Celso Ad.
Castillo's "Asedillo" (leastwise it was the picture that established
FPJ's image as expert gunslinger and defender of the poor); the film
tells the story of Teodoro Asedillo, a schoolteacher turned rebel
hunted by the Police Constabulary in the Sierra Madre mountains in
the 1920s, at the time of the American Occupation.
Celso had been directing for some five years (his first feature
was "Misyong Mapanganib" (Dangerous Mission) in 1966), and his best
works were yet to come ("Burlesk Queen" (Burlesque Queen,
1977); "Pagputi ng Uwak, Pagitim ng Tagak" (When the Crow Turns
White, When the Heron Turns Black, 1978)) yet even this early on you
could see his mastery of film language. Poe's action movies are
almost always well-produced, but this is the rare picture of his that
shows touches of genuine visual poetry--deep orange sunsets; elderly
villagers expressively lit and photographed; iconic shots of Poe on
his horse climbing an impossibly steep slope (the camera tilted to
make it look even more impossible), his body leaning forward as if to
keep from falling off the mountainside. At one point Poe reads a
crucial letter from his arch-nemesis, the Constabulary chief,
offering parley: Ad. Castillo cuts to the people outside, waiting for
the results of the fateful letter, and as they chat, Castillo drops
all sound except the wind blowing; the effect is remarkably ominous.
In many if not all of Poe's films the acting has been consistent: the
people speak a kind of declamatory rhetoric, with long pauses between
sentences, a florid vocabulary, and a solemn pace. Ad. Castillo (who
also wrote the screenplay) emulates this performance style, a relic
from the '50s, but the fluid editing and camerawork (Sergio Lobo does
the wonderful cinematography) undercuts the heaviness, giving the
film tension and energy. What's more, because editing and camerawork
emphasize the larger-than-life qualities of the characters, the
declamatory dialogue becomes less a liability--an anachronism from an
earlier decade--than part of the film's overall style: an evocation
of a different time and place, an indication of the gravity and
seriousness of the characters' intentions. Easily one of Poe's finest
films (it's my favorite), and one of the finest Filipino action films
(First published in Businessworld, 12/24/04)
(Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)