Filipino cinema :
From the classic films to streaming : an ever-changing cinema.
Once upon a time, from the 1950s to the 1980s, Filipino cinema was the most active and prolific (a key word…) in South East Asia. It was then a very popular form of entertainment, aiming at a wide audience (long before television and internet) and easy commercial success, with a variety of genres and solid narrative. It was of course inspired by the Hollywood system, as most Asian film industries then (including Japan and Korea). Another reason was that the Philippines had been an American colony from 1900 to 1945 (Mac Arthur!) after almost 350 years of Spanish Jesuit colonization, which left a heavy cultural heritage, mostly through the omnipotent Catholic church. Filipino cinema had then big directors names such as Manuel Conde (Genghis Khan), Gerardo de Leon, Manuel Silos, the fabulous Eddie Romero (actor, director, producer) or Lamberto Avellana ( see his A portrait of the artist as a Filipino, among other titles). However, it was mainly based on the Hollywood star system, until the 1990’s or early 2000s, with an impressive number of star actors/actresses, some of them are still alive : Nora Aunor (aka Ate Guy, the “Judy Garland of Filipino cinema”), her rival Vilma Santos (now a Governor…), Sharon Cuneta, Charo Santos, Eddie Garcia or Philip Salvador, and the king of action movies Fernando Poe Junior, aka FPJ, among many others, acting in hundreds of genre films ranging from love stories, melodramas, to period films, from musical to comedy, from action to horror. Most of those films were produced for a mass audience, that didn’t really mind quality, but was a typical “Saturday night audience”, when movie tickets were still cheap.
The “revolution” of the 1960s and 70s
As in most countries in the late 1960s and early 70s, the filipino cinema started to change, under the influence of the various “Nouvelles Vagues”, and the moral evolution towards more freedom of expression. New directors and script writers like the most famous Ricardo (Ricky) Lee, surfaced in and out of the industry, and some producers were bold enough then. Young ambitious directors like Mike De Leon (“Itim”/ “The Rites of May”, “Kisapmata”) Ishmael Bernal (“Manila by night”/“City after Dark”,“A speck in the water”…), Mario Ohara (“Three years without God”), Peque Gallaga (“Oro, plata, mata”), Marilou Diaz Abaya (the trilogy “Brutal”, “Moral”, “Sensual”, and “Muro-Ami”) and the most famous of them all, Lino Brocka (“Manila in the Claws of Light”, “Insiang”, “Bona”, “Cain at Abel”, and so many more) brought a fresh breath to an industry which was sinking into formula, introducing new stars like Nora Aunor and Christopher De Leon, among others. Some of those films were produced by Regal Films, whose manager was the famous “Mother Lily” (Monteverde, the “Queen of Filipino producers”) , supporting those new directors, as long as it made money…
With renewed social ambitions, solid narrative and cinematics, those films made their way to the general audience, and young critics, attracted by the stars. In the 1980s and 90s, a handful of films directed by Lino Brocka and a few other directors, made their way to Cannes, Venice or Berlin, when hardly anybody even knew of their existence. The powerful social melodrama “Insiang” (1976) was the first film by Lino Brocka shown in Cannes, followed by “Jaguar” (1980), “Bayan ko : kapit sa patalim” (1984), and “Ora pro nobis” (1989), before Brocka’s accidental death in 1991 stopped his vital creation. However, other films by important directors of that period, such as Ishmael Bernal, Mario Ohara, or Peque Gallaga , never made it to the official Cannes selection. But Mike de Leon’s “Sister Stella L”, was shown at the Director’s Fortnight. Now, some of his best films (“Itim”, “Kisapmata”…) are restored and circulating again, thanks to Carlotta Films.
At the same time, in the late 1960s and 70s, the general quality level of commercial cinema (not meant for festivals then) went down and the generalization of sex orientated movies known as “Bomba films” produced a great number of sexy films, and a few pearls, like those of cult director Joey Gosiengfiao (“Temptation island”, “Bomba Star”, etc), or P. Gallaga’s “Scorpio Nights”. In spite of the opposition of the powerful Catholic church, and even during the Marcos regime, the Bomba films were pretty popular with the young audience, eager to escape from the reality.
Another manifestation of the liberalization of the 70s was the emergence of the original “Indie films”, entirely produced out of the industry system. To name but a few, this movement, often linked to the LGBT community, was led by such independent directors such as Nick Deocampo, who later wrote a series of important books on the history of Filipino cinema from the silent era to the Indie production. Another one was Raymond Red (Bayani/ Hero), who won the Golden Palm for the best short at Cannes 2000, for Anino (Shadows). His son, Mikhail Red is now an established director in the new Filipino cinema (films like Neomanila, 2017). And the most original one, Kidlat Tahimik, a proud indigenous cinéaste, whose Perfumed Nightmare (1977) revealed a new world of dreams and fantasies. However, those films were often more seen in foreign film festivals than in their own country (which is still the case for several Filipino directors now, notably Lav Diaz). These indie films survive today thanks to a bunch of original and ambitious young producers and directors, using the new digital technologies, and mainly produced by Indie festivals like the original and popular Cinemalaya.
The contemporary generation: split between audience and festivals.
Today, cinema is much less of a popular entertainment, because of the so easy access to all kinds of platforms and audio-visual sources on cellphones, not to mention the hiking cost of the movie tickets in malls, far too expensive now (about 5 to 12 Euros, relatively four times higher than in France) . However, there are still a number of good producers and directors (whom they call “direk”), young and older, trying to make quality films, inside the fragile “system”. One of them is director Chito Roño, who started in the 1980s, and still struggles to make quality films. In 2002, he made a remarkable film, Dekada 70 (The seventies), centered on a family torn apart during the Marcos dictatorship.
More recently, from the early 2000s, ambitious “Indie directors” like Raya Martin (Independencia), direk Brillante Mendoza (“Foster Child”, “Service”, “Kinatay”, “Lola”, “Captive”, “Ma Rosa”, “Feast”, among 40 films), or the “Guru of Filipino cinema” Lav Diaz, made their way to major films festivals, like Cannes, Venice, Berlin or Locarno, or Busan and Tokyo in Asia.
B. Mendoza, whose latest film “Feast”, is shown at the FICA, is perceived as one of the heirs of Brocka, because of the social content and his raw filming in the streets of Manila (“Ma Rosa”, best actress for Jacklyn Jose at Cannes 2016. And Lav(-rante) Diaz is the epitome of the super-auteur director, with his super-over long films based on time elongation, formal composition, and political statements against the local dictators (Marcos or Duterte…), themes developed again in his latest film, “When the waves are gone” (2022). Behind those big trees are the smaller but ambitious new directors revealed in the latest decade, mostly in the local festivals (Cinemalaya, Cinema One, PPP, and other ones, at least before the pandemic) and abroad: let’s only mention Zig Madamba Dulay (“Luggage”/”Bagahe”, FICA 2017) , whose brilliant short film “Black Rainbow” (best short and Netpac award at Cinemalaya 2022) is shown at the FICA this year.
Far from that new wave, the surviving “commercial” production, which was badly hit par the pandemic and the total closing of all cinemas for two full years, is struggling to lure a lost audience who went to other media. Many directors, well or less known, had to turn to streaming (mostly VivaMax, producing a lot of sex movies) to survive, like B.Mendoza, or Lawrence Fajardo, Adolfo Alix, etc). And better directors like the talented and daring Erik Matti (“On the job”, and “On the job 2: the missing 8”, awarded in Venice last year for best actor John Arcilla) turn to Netflix and other platforms, as their films have difficulties to reach the local screens… Another talented new director is Jun Robles Lana, who , with his partner/producer/director Perci Intalan, is regularly making films of interest, with a political subtext (“Bwakaw”, “Barber’s Tales”, “Kalel 15”, or his recent “Big Night”). The list is rather short, but quite encouraging.
Thus, once a major producer of “entertainment” in South-East Asia, Filipino cinema is now split between “Auteur films” aiming rather successfully at foreign film festivals, but rarely seen at home except in local festivals, and less and less popular genre films (like syrupy rom-coms, basic sexy films, or cheap horror films with haunted houses…) crushed by big Hollywood blockbusters/Marvel Films in expensive malls (as the old stand alone cinemas have disappeared or survive as meeting places…).
In spite of it all, Filipino cinema as a whole remains alive and kicking, at least in festivals, where its “Auteurs” regularly win awards. Like the whole country, it’s kicking, full of vital energy. Like the Filipino people, it’s quite resilient, more anchored in the present than the past, and unpredictable. It also tries to survive in a country led by solid-rock dynasties (of course the Marcos, back in power again with son “Bong Bong” Marcos , the latest president, along with his mother, the mythical Imelda, still alive, and his sister, Senator Imee Marcos, who produced and supervised Maid in Malacañang, a one-sided film about the last days of the Marcos in the presidential palace before they escaped to Hawaii, in 1986…). But also the Aquinos (Corazon, Noynoy, Kris…), and many others. To be sure, the Philippines is a country apart, torn between Asia and its deep Spanish-Mexican roots, and the best of its cinema today has to reflect those everlasting contradictions. Mabuhay!
For a complete immersion in all aspects of Filipino cinema, you can read the most exhaustive book published recently : Philippine cinema (1897-2020) by Gaspar A. Vibal and Dennis S. Villegas, edited by Teddy Co (foreword by Clodualdo “Doy” del Mundo, afterword by Nick Deocampo). The Vibal Foundation 2020, 408 pages. d