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Twelve Great Filipino Films

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  • Noel Vera
    Twelve great Filipino films Noel Vera Back in January 2000 I wrote a piece for Menzone Magazine listing down what I thought were the thirteen most important
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 21, 2005
      Twelve great Filipino films

      Noel Vera

      Back in January 2000 I wrote a piece for Menzone Magazine listing
      down what I thought were the thirteen most important Filipino films
      I've ever seen--thirteen because I couldn't pick only ten; "most
      important" because that particular choice of words felt more
      defensible; and "ever seen" because, sad to say, being a Filipino
      film critic nowadays is race between critic and clock, the clock in
      this case being the ever-dwindling set of prints that represent
      Philippine Cinema's legacy, stored in less-than-perfect archival
      vaults and slowly turning into vinegar. Possibly there are better
      Filipino films out there--Gerardo de Leon's "Daigdig ng mga Api"
      (World of the Oppressed, 1965) comes to mind--but the print is
      unavailable presumed gone, and barring some miracle, will never be
      seen again.

      It's some four years later; time for a new list, I think. This time
      I've grown confident enough to actually use the word "great;" I've
      even managed to bring the number down to twelve (still can't come up
      with ten; perhaps never will). I've included films before 1970 (the
      cut-off year of my previous list), and more recent titles, the
      reason for which I'll talk about later.

      In descending order, then:

      1. "Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos" (Three Years Without God, 1976)

      About a woman (Nora Aunor) struggling to survive three years of
      Japanese Occupation during World War 2. Mario O'Hara's intimate epic
      is the rare non-Japanese film (from a country that tasted Japanese
      military rule firsthand) that presents the wartime Japanese in a
      more sympathetic--or at least more complexly human--light; Aunor
      gives perhaps the finest performance ever by a Filipina actress. The
      film, in terms of sweep and ambition, of dramatic and emotional
      impact, is perhaps the greatest in all of Philippine Cinema.

      2. "Insiang" (1976)

      Perhaps the most perfect Filipino screenplay ever written (by Mario
      O'Hara), about a young girl, her mother, and the man who comes
      between them. This is Brocka's "Othello," his compact masterpiece:
      three characters trapped in an ever-tightening circle of jealousy,
      lust and hate, set amidst Tondo's mountains of smoking garbage, and
      captured magnificently by the lenses of the great cinematographer,
      Conrado Baltazar.

      3. "Kisapmata" (Blink of an Eye, 1981)

      Mike de Leon's idea of a family movie is a horror story where the
      monster is the garrulous, pot-bellied old man next door (Vic
      Silayan, giving what may be the best performance ever by a Filipino
      actor). There's an intensely claustrophobic feel to the film, as if
      the viewer were caught in the clutches of some overwhelming
      sensibility (de Leon's); the film's power comes from the feeling you
      get of this being deeply personal to the filmmaker, the same time it
      feels unsettlingly close (because of its realism) to you--as if the
      gap between de Leon's dark, forbidding world and yours was as little
      as the blink of an eye.

      4. "El Filibusterismo" (The Filibuster, 1962)

      Jose Rizal's gothic masterpiece, magnificently adapted by one of
      Philippine cinema's finest filmmakers, with a towering performance
      by Pancho Magalona as the dark and brooding Simoun. Gerardo De Leon
      pushes the novel's social and political details into the background
      and brings the characters' humanity to fore; Magalona's Simoun isn't
      just some symbol of social dissatisfaction and revolution but a man
      haunted by the tragedy of his former life. His mind wavers--
      sometimes breathtakingly so--between a determination to execute his
      plans for bloody vengeance and a sense of horror at the evil he has

      5. "Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang" (You were Judged But Found Wanting,

      Lino Brocka's rare attempt at large-scale tapestry, a combination
      of "The Last Picture Show" and Jose Rizal's satiric social
      novel "Noli Me Tangere" (Touch Me Not). The story of a young man
      growing up to pass judgment on his town (San Jose, Nueva Ecija,
      Brocka's real-life home town) isn't as interesting as the love that
      develops between the community's two most wretched outcasts--Koala
      (Lolita Rodriguez), a crazed homeless woman, and Berto (Mario
      O'Hara, who also wrote the screenplay), the town leper.

      6. "Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag" (Manila in the Claws of Neon,

      Lino Brocka's most famous and most acclaimed film, based on Edgardo
      Reyes' great novel. The screenplay's meandering narrative is
      secondary to the beautifully understated neorealist photography (by
      Mike de Leon, also the film's producer), and the inimitable sense of
      immediacy Brocka gives the film.

      7. "Manila By Night" (1980)

      Ishmael Bernal's masterwork is perhaps not as visually distinctive
      as Brocka's "Maynila," but does have a broader canvas and more
      sophisticated narrative. The Manila in this film is physically
      cleaner, more attractive overall than Manila today; it's the
      people's viciousness--their willingness to claw at each other and,
      sometimes, at themselves--that gives the picture its hellish energy.

      8. "The Moises Padilla Story" (1961)

      Originally intended to help elect Carlos P. Garcia to the
      presidency, Gerardo de Leon's attempt at propaganda is also an acute
      study of integrity, friendship and betrayal. Leopoldo Salcedo plays
      Padilla as a warm, likeable Christ figure, compelled to run for
      office in the face of a corrupt administration--all the more
      horrifying, then, when he is abducted, beaten and mutilated, in one
      of the longest and most intense torture sequences ever put in a
      Filipino film. Fine as Salcedo is, the more interesting performance
      is given by Joseph Ejercito Estrada (yes, the deposed president, in
      the performance of his life) as the best friend and Judas who
      supervises Padilla's torture. Looking at Estrada's anguished face,
      you almost can't tell who suffers more, the victim or his traitor
      friend; when arrested, Estrada's character actually seems relieved
      to be caught.

      9. "Burlesk Queen" (Burlesque Queen, 1977)

      Celso Ad. Castillo's masterpiece is fairly incoherent, and perhaps a
      touch disingenuous in trying to equate the struggles of theater
      burlesque to the struggles of Filipino filmmaking artists; but as
      prime example of what may be the most lyrical visual style in
      Philippine cinema, the film has no peers. Vilma Santos gives the
      performance of her career as the eponymous dancer (Castillo's
      extended shot focusing on Santos' face as she's being deflowered
      being perhaps her finest moment), but the film really belongs to
      Joonee Gamboa, who gives real dramatic force to his otherwise
      literary and overconceptualized character, the burlesque impresario.

      10. "Init sa Magdamag" (Midnight Passion, 1983)

      Laurice Guillen's masterwork, from a script by Racquel
      Villavicencio, was attacked by feminists for focusing on a woman who
      molds herself according to the needs of the men in her life,
      including (in the film's more disturbing sequences) a near-
      sociopathic sadist. But beneath the sensuality Guillen gives us an
      uncomfortable truth: that women--like men--want more than equality,
      they want the freedom to be sexual beings, even (and most alluring
      of all) self-destructive sexual beings. Perhaps the most thrillingly
      erotic Filipino film ever made (without a trace of actual nudity),
      and the most successful attempt I've seen to date to capture the
      spirit and secret of "The Story of O"--that the woman, in her
      complete and utter surrender to her man, holds the real power.

      11. "Pangarap ng Puso" (Demons, 2000)

      Easily the most imaginative Filipino film in recent years, Mario
      O'Hara's picture is a touching love story, an unsettling horror
      film, a harrowing war picture, and a celebration of Filipino poetry
      all at once; shot for a mere three and a half million pesos
      (approximately $70,000), it's an art film made using techniques
      Edgar Ulmer or Larry Cohen might use, with the same daredevil
      spirit. If Brocka perfected the social realism of Philippine Cinema
      with "Insiang" and "Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag," defining that
      cinema (or its most significant output) for a quarter of a century
      as being essentially realist, O'Hara's film (and the one that
      follows) shows us several new directions that that cinema could
      possibly take next.

      12. "Batang West Side" (West Side Avenue, 2001) Lav Diaz

      At five hours running time the longest Filipino film ever made
      (though Diaz's follow-up film "Ebolusyon" reportedly runs twice as
      long), it's also one of the most ambitious Filipino films in recent
      years, a comprehensive look at the Filipino-American community
      living in West Side Avenue, Jersey City, New Jersey, through the
      eyes of a police officer investigating the murder of a young
      Filipino. Diaz, inspired by the works of Andrei Tarkovsky and Theo
      Angelopolous (not to mention the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky), takes
      the film style of what is sometimes called "The Cinema of
      Contemplation" (and, less politely, "The Cinema of the Comatose")
      and applies it to the Filipino milieu. It's a surprisingly engaging
      fit, with Diaz's meditative style probing core questions we
      Filipinos have longed struggled with--is migration the solution
      everyone seems to think it is? Is the family still the central unit
      in Philippine--or at least Philippine-American--society? What hope
      is left for the Filipino youth--or is there hope of any kind left?
      Like O'Hara, Diaz opens up yet another direction for Philippine
      Cinema to take beyond Brocka's social-realist melodramas.

      (First published in the December issue of Fudge Magazine)

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