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Fernando Poe, Jr. films

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  • Noel Vera
    Da King of Philippine Cinema Noel Vera Fernando Poe Jr. has at one point been described as the Filipino Arnold Schwarzenegger, America s one-time premier
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 31, 2004
      "Da King" of Philippine Cinema

      Noel Vera

      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
      reputed masterpiece.

      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
      ever made.

      (First published in Businessworld, 12/24/04)

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