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What Isn’t There: On Philippine Cinema and the Global Arena
by Don Jaucian

The prevailing practice in Philippine Cinema, at least on the surface, is to hold up a locally made film up to the standards of the West. Local box office returns and movie-going behavior suggest that we’ve never really outgrown our Hollywood upbringing and the films that still capture our imaginations are the big, bombastic productions that the overlords of the West deem relevant for the world’s commercial cinema. High-flying films such as Iron Man 3 and Star Trek: Into Darkness dominated the local theaters for weeks, dismantling the notion of choice for people who wanted to spend their hard-earned money for an hour or two inside the cinema. Films have always been viewed mainly as an escapist tool; a means to disappear inside the folds of the world unveiling before our eyes and Hollywood has been particularly adept in mesmerizing audiences, one franchise after another. 

But thankfully, the emergence of Asian Cinema in the international arena has allowed Filipino producers and filmmakers to craft films from a different perspective, one that is certainly close to ours. For the past decade, moneymaking ventures in cinema tend to drive towards two kinds of genre filmmaking: the romantic comedy and the horror film. Some of these films, as pointed out by film critic Dodo Dayao, move towards the direction of Korean romantic comedies, and later, with Erik Matti’s On the Job, the hyperkinetic action films of Hong Kong. Star Cinema, the biggest film production company in the country, Viva Films, and Regal Films all put out the biggest chunk of today’s commercial releases.

At the margins, it’s the indies that make a viable case for the evolution of our local cinema. These are the films that actually go abroad in international film festivals and represent the state of filmmaking in the Philippines.

Independent filmmakers look to international film festivals not only for the prestige it brings but also for the chance to market their films for a more sophisticated audience and get more financial backing. The lack of film appreciation in the country has caged independent films into the festival circuit, with only a chosen few getting out once in a while for commercial release. Films like Marlon Rivera’s The Woman in the Septic Tank and Auraeus Solito’s acclaimed The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (the first Filipino film in the Sundance Film Festival) prove that there’s a market for for intelligent, independent films that rebel against the formula of the mainstream. Their international successes, particularly with Maxi, prove that there is more to local cinema than beaten-down tropes. Maxi coated its social-realist codes in the fluff of pink cinema, creating a world that is all too familiar and recognizably Filipino.

After Brillante Mendoza’s win as best director in the 2009 Cannes Film Festival (for Kinatay), and the steady output of the Philippine New Wave filmmakers (an informal movement of independent filmmakers such as Lav Diaz, Khavn, Raya Martin, and Adolf Alix Jr., all regular fixtures in the international festivals) have paved way for Philippine cinema’s strong show in world cinema. Filipino filmmakers are profiled in film books and magazines and more programmers are including local films in their watch list. Suddenly, after a period of stagnation, Philippine cinema is getting back on its feet.

But the option to bring films to film festivals abroad also say much about the preferences of local audiences. While the attendance of the independent showcase, Cinemalaya, has grown over the years, it is still poised to break through the commercially viable barrier. The Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), the government’s arm in the promotion and preservation of local cinema, has also taken steps in bringing these films in different regions of the country since much of these festivals open only in Metro Manila). The cinematheques in Baguio, Iloilo, Davao, and Marawi, have become a venue to bring independent films and other classics to people who may not have the luxury to attend festivals in Manila. The FDCP has also launched their own film festival, Sineng Pambansa, last year, and its focus on regional cinema is another welcome development. Their efforts however still remains at a small scale and most of the films in Sineng Pambansa remain to be unseen outside the festival.

It’s films like Maxi that best represent what our cinema can offer to the world. A magazine editor once shared that in video stores abroad, Maxi is only one of the few Filipino films that make it to the shelves. But the recent critical success of Jun Lana’s Bwakaw, a story of an old gay man awaiting his death, and his relationship with the titular dog, and the triumphs of the four Filipino films in this year’s Cannes Film Festival, herald a brighter future for our cinema.

The Philippine contingent in this year’s Cannes runs a spectrum that outlines our cinematic evolution. First, Lino Brocka’s restored classic, Manila in the Claws of Light (also recently crowned by an online poll as the best Filipino film of all time), showcase the second Golden Age of Philippine Cinema. Then, there are the more artistic and in-depth byways into the Filipino psyche in Adolf Alix Jr’s Death March and Lav Diaz, one of the most important Filipino filmmakers, and his Dostoyevsky-esque Norte: The End of History. Diaz’s film wowed critics and audiences at the Croisette, and has been hailed a masterpiece. Such adjectives have always been associated with Diaz’s work whose epic running-times (his longest film runs for ten hours), plumb the deepest depths of our history and collective experiences.

Finally, there’s Erik Matti’s On the Job, a hit man film backed by an unlikely ally, Star Cinema. The studio let Matti take over the production, even allowing two of their biggest talents, Piolo Pascual and Gerald Anderson, take risks outside their established pretty-boy images. On the Job is both a gritty exploration of the darkest recesses of Philippine society, and a stylized action film that hopefully sets a bar in local filmmaking. It’s this careful marriage of style and substance that Matti hopes to bring to international and local audiences.

“[Our production outfit, Reality Entertainment] were gunning for local movies that have international appeal,” Matti told me in an interview before he showed OTJ inCannes. “I think that’s the way to go. The reason that we can’t bring our budgets higher than what we’re used to is because we’re only dependent on the local market. That’s why ang lakas pa rin ng mga Vice Ganda. But that can’t translate internationally, it’s geared towards a local market. Ito lang yung kaya ng budget.”

Alam ko talaga OTJ has a really strong international appeal kasi tayo lang naman yung walang buhay dito yung mga action saka crime drama pero internationally, everyone, The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, City of God, The Prophet, Johnnie To movies, mga ganyan yan eh. So it really has an international appeal if you do it right,” he added.

It’s about time the new Philippine cinema take its form and assimilate into world culture, just like how Westernized notions have taken us hold for the last few decades. But these triumphs are also telling of the shortcomings of our local film industry; that we still have a long way to go before we can instill a deeper appreciation for a different cinematic flavor, one that doesn’t’ subscribe to the whims of lazy producers and tired audiences. The need to spotlight small but important films, films that have a significant cultural value, like Benito Bautista’s documentary, Harana, or Antoinette Jadaone’s mockumentary on local showbiz, Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, should be taken out of their prized international film fest boxes into the welcoming arms of the Filipino audience. In the end, it’s all about cinema that speaks closest to your personal experiences; one that enriches your understanding of humanity and the world—be it grounded on the Filipino experience or otherwise.

Originally published as ‘What Isn’t There: Philippine Cinema vs the World’ in the July/August 2013 issue of Playboy Philippines

Ghost In The Woods
by Don Jaucian and Jansen Musico

Liberacion (2011)
D: Adolf Alix Jr.
S: Jacky Woo, Mercedes Cabral

There is an air of mystique that wraps itself around stories passed on through word of mouth that makes Philippine folklore so rich and magical. Concealed within the shadows of the countryside, these accounts, myths, and ghost stories never fail to mystify any ear with a penchant for such things. Adolf Alix Jr.’s Liberacion is such a tale. It is a ghost story seemingly plucked out from an era that sparked an abundance of them.

Set at the very end of the Japanese occupation, the film follows a group of tortured soldiers searching for truth and solace in a foreign land. A Japanese soldier, Makoto (Jacky Woo), leads what’s left of his team through a long and winding tunnel, their escape route leading out to the shrouded expanse of the woods.

In the beginning there is the slow and teasing drip of water inside the cave. Then, there is the darkness, occasionally illuminated by the small glow of their lamps. The soldiers almost blindly follow their leader into whatever end, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. From there, they’re spit out into the wilderness and are left to endure battles more gruesome than what they were asked to fight.

Alix’s forest is a hell of trees and rocks where tired souls are further tortured. The troop’s journey is exhausting, a slow drag made more agonizing by the jittery unsureness of the space and silence around them than by the hardships inflicted by man and nature. Minutes pass and we witness one man’s slow descent to madness, not in the pyscho-horror sense of the word but in an unnervingly fatalistic one. Makoto treads the thin line between reality and fantasy as he burrows in his conviction and dedication to his duty as a defender of his country, refusing to acknowledge the fact that Japan has been defeated in the second World War until his own general hands him the retreat order.

The line blurs as the years wear on, etching lines on his face and piling an even heavier burden in his soul. But with the appearance of an almost nymph-like lady of the forest (Mercedes Cabral), Liberacion strangely turns towards the fantastic—a jungle fever dream that blends history and the history we know through backyard tales of old, tellingly depicting our impulses, perceptions, and desires.