IFFR special - February 2006, nr 274


Movies that matter

Noel Vera, Film critic in Focus at the 35th International Film Festival Rotterdam, reports from Manila about explicit sex, intense violence and political turmoil.

Heremias (work in progress) (Lav Diaz).

There is censorship in the Philippines. The Movie and Television Classification Board (MTRCB) screens films beforehand, rates them, and makes recommendations to the producers what to cut to get the desired rating. As many an MTRCB Chairman points out, the board itself makes recommendations; it does not cut the films itself. This is considered proof that the MTRCB is not a censorship board. Yeah, right.
Strangely enough, the MTRCB really doesn't matter. Yes, there are struggles (how many nipples allowed, the elimination of pubic hair) but sex is an old game, one that waxes and wanes in intensity according to the political climate. Ironically, Filipino films were most explicit during the final years of the Marcos regime. Tikoy Aguiluz's Boatman (1984) and Peque Gallaga's Scorpio nights (1985) were approved for commercial showing at the infamous Manila Film Center, presumably to distract people from the political turmoil around them. Even more ironic is that both are excellent erotic thrillers, and brilliant metaphors for the regime's decadence. The basic problem may be that while there is a censorship board in place to intercept politically provocative films, there just isn't that many people making such films for the board to intercept. Which is a pity. At the same time, the board is as strict as ever with regards to sex but political and social criticism seems to pass by unnoticed.

Work in progress
Of the generation of Lino Brocka (perhaps the best-known Filipino filmmaker), two are still active today, and one is Mike de Leon. His Kisapmata (In just the wink of an eye, 1982), arguably his masterpiece, is a withering statement on the patriarchal and repressive nature of the Filipino family.
Tikoy Aguiluz started directing after Brocka's generation, but he's arguably the true heir to Brocka's brand of socially-conscious realism. His films capture various facets of the Filipino identity, from live-sex performers (Boatman) to domestic helpers working in other countries (The last wish, 1995). Thanks to the explicit sex and intense violence of films like Boatman and Paradise express he's probably had the most trouble with the censors, but his mix of canny melodrama and documentary realism is always worth watching.
Lav Diaz is best known for his massive meditations on Filipino society. His five-hour West Side Avenue (2004) is a multi-layered portrait of a Filipino-American community, and arguably his best film to date. His Evolution of a Filipino family (2004) is an even more ambitious work, a nine-hour retelling of contemporary Filipino history. Jesus the revolutionary (2002) is an intriguing shorter work, a glimpse into the turmoil within the Filipino Communist Party, set six years into the future. It's the first work of dystopic science fiction in Philippine cinema.
Diaz's peculiar position in the Filipino film community may be emblematic of what's wrong with the industry and its audience as a whole. He's doing
tremendous work, and is widely respected for it (Diaz' Heremias is screened in Rotterdam as a work in progress), but Filipinos just aren't watching him. Even the relatively short Jesus with its well-known actors and well-made action sequences, barely made a dent in the box office.
Part of the problem may be that Filipino audiences are unused to Diaz's way of storytelling, a meditative, understated style. Filipinos, like most of the peoples in Asia, have fallen sway to the Hollywood spell, to the huge blockbusters chock full of CGI effects that fill their multiplexes.

Alternative universe
The other Brocka contemporary is Mario O'Hara. At first glance, O'Hara's films may seem willfully apolitical. His Three years without God (1976) - arguably the greatest Filipino film ever made - is a period epic without any overt social or political message, in a year when political and social criticism was the norm and Brocka's Insiang (1976) - his greatest film, I think - dealt with the desperation of the urban poor.
But O'Hara always put forth some kind of truth in his films, no matter if it was couched in fantastical terms. The new king (1986) was a film noir carefully set in an alternative universe, with a large and powerful province substituting for Manila. And O'Hara has kept working. His Demons (2000) is yet another fantastic concoction, a love story, supernatural horror flick, war drama and celebration of Filipino poetry all at the same time, easily the strangest, most imaginative, most moving Filipino film in recent years.
O'Hara's Woman of the breakwater (2004) is the answer to Brocka's best-known film Manila in the claws of neon (1975), but where Brocka's film is often unrelentingly grim in its realism and O'Hara's film often takes its cues from the former in its depiction of urban horrors, Breakwater also has moments of lyricism, music, and understated magic. If Brocka in Insiang and Manila dealt with life in the Philippines in inimitably vivid realist terms, O'Hara and to some extent every other filmmaker I've mentioned, have extended those terms in various interesting directions.

Noel Vera

Film critic of the Philippine newspaper Businessworld, correspondent of Cinemaya Magazine (India) and Film International (Iran), author of 'Critic After Dark, A Review of Philippine Cinema' (2005).

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