dodo dayao

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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

Ten on Ten

The ten filmmakers of this year’s Cinema One Originals film festival talk more about their entries and the things that inspired them.

Alec Figuracion on Bitukang Manok

“I’ve always been a fan of non-realistic fiction. I love stories about the uncommon, but at the same time I am curious about people. This story came to life because I’ve always wanted to make films about flawed characters in unbelievable situations. I hope the audience acknowledges the characters in this film, whether they find them relatable or unsympathetic. I want them to see how unstable the human psyche can be when pushed to the breaking point.”

Kanakan-Balintagos (Auraeus Solito) on Esprit De Corps

“I wrote this play when I was 17. More than two decades later, I realized it was time to adapt the play to film, especially since the younger generation doesn’t have an idea of how it was to grow up during the Marcos dictatorship. It’s been disturbing that there’s been a revival of the “Marcos as hero” myth. This generation has no idea of what it was like in a time of no freedom and when the President had absolute power that corrupted him absolutely. But the disillusionment to the new government is the result of this. Yet we must never ever forget those dark times. This is my contribution for the healing of our culture of forgetting.”

Malay Javier on Hindi Sila Tatanda

“It’s really not about an alien waiting for love, but an Indigo child looking for someone to spread his seed with. And during this process, he learns the human emotions entangled along the mating practice. I don’t want to sound too crazy, but honestly, I’ve been caught up these past few years with the arguments of ancient astronaut theorists… Alien astronauts maybe living in other parts of the world, not only in monumental cities or countries. It may be far more logical to think that if aliens already live among us, they would choose to settle in smaller populations or countries with less international attention.”

Sigrid Andrea Bernardo on Lorna

“It’s not only about a love story. It’s about getting old and being alone. Everyone grows old not unless you die young. Age is something that we neglect because we are afraid of losing our youth or afraid of dying alone. As you age, it’s not only the physical issues but also the emotional challenge that you have to deal with it. When you reach that age, you will always go back to your past but now, you learn how to accept and learn from it. You learn how to move on. I wanted Lorna to portray the woman who never gave up. I wanted to tell the story through Lorna’s eyes, how she feels about love in the most complex way, and how she deals the pain of aging and being alone.”

Jay Abello on Red

Red is a love story.  What makes it unique is that it’s a crime-solving film. What I find interesting in all the other crime stories I’ve come to know is that nobody really knows the truth—except those who were really there—and the most interesting part is that the version that stays as truth is usually the best story told by the best storyteller. We love good stories and we look for it every day. Storytellers exist because we want them to tell us stories. It doesn’t matter if they’re really completely true or not just as long as they’re good stories or they’re told really well.”

Remton Siega Zuasola on Soap Opera

“In Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria there’s a foreigner character, although we never saw that person, he was a huge factor in the progression of the story. In Soap Opera, the foreigner is present in the film and plays a big role in the lives of the main characters. This is an attempt in humanizing these lonely people who come to our country hoping to find happiness. This is the flipside of the story of Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria where we mainly see the Filipina being on the losing end, while in Soap Opera it’s the foreigner who is clueless and vulnerable. I have a third story of this trio where a Filipino and a foreigner are truly falling in love. This completes the exploration of the different facets of these relationships.”

Nash Ang on Seoul Mates

Yung pinaka premise ng film ay galing sa kaibigan kong transsexual na ilang beses nang nakapag-boyfriend ng Korean without revealing her real identity. For Alice’s part, the beauty pageant is based on a real one organized by Filipinos in Korea. I was inspired to write that into the script because I was the crowned male winner of Ginoo at Binibining Kalinangan Korea in 2012. As for Joon, the back story is real. [It came] from one of my interviews before we wrote the script. Yung dalawang real stories na ‘yun, pinag-clash namin, then the film was born.”

Antoinette Jadaone on That Thing Called Tadhana

Tadhana is my sort of dream project, kaya iba ‘yung kaba and excitement. It’s not really a romantic comedy per se. It’s a love story that just happens to be a little funny sometimes. What makes it different, I guess, is that—‘di ba sabi nila, sa pelikula, dapat show, don’t tell?—Tadhana does the opposite. Tell, don’t show ito. Mace and Anthony are two people talking throughout the film—from John Lloyd to One More Chance to their lost dreams to their heartbreaks. At first, I was afraid na baka walang chemistry [sina JM at Angelica], kasi we didn’t have the luxury of time and money to have them undergo workshops. But the moment the camera rolled, wala, sila na talaga si Mace at Anthony. Ang swerte ko sa kanila.”

Paolo O’Hara on The Babysitters

“Starting with short films is an advantage for me in terms of storytelling. Sa short film, dapat precise ka, dapat maikwento lahat in a short period of time. Tatanggalin mo lahat ng palamuti; direct to the point dapat; so I tried applying that sa full length ko. I love the mixture [comedy and realism], ganun kasi sa totoong buhay. Kahit gaano kadrama ang buhay natin, makakakita ka pa din ng mga funny moments. In terms of structure, tragic-comedy pa rin siya. Pero ang directorial approach ko ay ibaKinuwento ko siya sa point of view ng isang character, a la Brechtian style sa theatre.”

Dodo Dayao on Violator

“Someone from the staff made a remark about the sheer number of conversations we were shooting. I made a joke about how we were really making a mumblecore horror film, and it sort of stuck, and it also sort of made sense. Dialogue really is something of a void in domestic cinema. Some get it right, sure. But most of it’s awful, either over-written or under-written or just plain written. I do sweat over the dialogue on paper. Then I sweat about it even more retro-fitting the lines to the actors. I am almost intolerably anal about dialogue. It’s my grievance and my crusade both.”