A review of select titles of the series ‘A New Golden Age: Contemporary Philippine Cinema’ at the Museum of Modern Art, June 1-25.
Present in practically every national cinema is the interlocking relationship between countryside and city, or periphery and center, to chart the effects of modernisation on communities and individuals (among other motivations). This relationship is therefore always already historical and political in nature. Philippine cinema across the decades, from the past century to the current one, is no exception. Lav Diaz and Brillante Mendoza can even be read as representing countryside and city when considering their works in dialogue with each other. MoMA’s curated titles of contemporary Philippine cinema, taking place nearly this entire month of June, registers this characteristic in its selection of not only Diaz and Mendoza’s films but their peers’ films, cartographic acts in their own right.
The films signed by Raya Martin in the series are emblematic of countryside-and-city meditations, with the added element of cinematic nods. Two-films-in-one Manila (2009) by Martin and Adolfo Alix, Jr. is a direct homage to Philippine city films, particularly two directed by two of the most famous and influential Philippine filmmakers, Lino Brocka’s Jaguar (1979) and Ishmael Bernal’s Manila By Night (1980). Aside from the two separate films constituting the title, another cinematic nod includes a segment with Lav Diaz shooting, yes, a city film.
In contrast, Independencia (2009) presents colonial-era Philippines through the experiences of a mother and son who flee from their home and into the woods, as the country is at the dusk of revolution from the Spaniards but also the dawn of recolonisation by the Americans. This shift from nationalist fervour of revolution to the violence/trauma of recolonisation is reflected in the film’s depiction of a family and their basic but profound experiences as a result of this shift. Initially, the film has a kind of idyllic tone, with the mother and son living peacefully and poetically, if through makeshift means in a small dwelling encountered in the woods. Gradually, violence creeps in, and the ‘makeshift’ nature of the family extends itself when the son finds a woman who has been raped by an American soldier and brings her back home and she gives birth to a son. In keeping with the story’s period, Martin shot the film in the style of early cinema silents: in black-and-white; in a studio with two-dimensional backdrops; with the frontal, flattened, proscenium perspective and shallow depth; and the privileging of the individual shot, with little to no camera movement. He also splices in a faux newsreel that documents the American presence, thereby addressing the colonial gaze and cinema’s implication in colonial/imperial efforts. Martin’s handling of the material and style is so thoughtful that rather than prove to be distancing, the trauma is all the more wounding by film’s end.
Martin’s How to Disappear Completely (2013) is set in the present but also principally located in rural spaces and about a family and the increasingly violent occurrences in them. But the film’s subtitle could be ‘The Forest,’ which is the title of the book that the teenage daughter is reading on her bed at one point. One, because the family’s two-story house is located in the woods and contributes greatly to the film’s overall tone of deep mystery and impending menace, and whose architecture swings between pre-Spanish and Spanish colonial, making it a character in its own right. Two, the woods themselves serve as a space of transition, of crossing, from one place to the other, be it the daughter’s school, the local cemetery, or the sea. Moreover, they are also the site of play for the town’s children, which constitute the musical slo-mo interludes that frequently puncture the film’s world and further inject the film with an unsettling, disturbing quality. And three, the film is in some sense as much about a disconnected family –a religious mother often confined to the house, a father often absent gambling and drinking away his days, and a daughter whose actions and desires are expressed in the title – as the act of telling stories. For throughout the film also are separate, individual occasions of the mother, the father, and the daughter reciting a story, which are strangely linked by their traumatic and/or fabled nature. This last point nicely circles back to the family home and woods’ fairy tale connotation, not to mention the darkness and brutality for which fairy tales are known, given the last 15 minutes of the film.
Truth be told, the film’s concluding sequences are the most problematic part of the film, not in terms of narrative sense but representation and choice. If the relationship between countryside and city is an old but dynamic theme, rape as a metaphor for fill-in-the-blank is also old but repellent as a narrative device. In her analysis of Lav Diaz’ films, May Adadol Ingawanij aptly writes, ‘Their insistence on the motif of rape to symbolise the victimisation of the nation-body leaves a disquieting feeling.’ And such ‘insistence’ is found in both of Diaz’ films in MoMA’s series, Norte, the End of History (2013) and From What is Before (2014).
This insistence on rape continues in Isabel Sandoval’s Apparition (2012). The rape of a novice in the woods marks a turning point in the film’s story of a secluded convent in those same woods whose sisters try to maintain their faith, their seclusion, and their acts of charity in the midst of military crackdowns and citizen protests during the lead-up to martial law under president Marcos. Barring this regrettable ‘insistence,’ the film makes for an interesting contribution to representing the traumas of the Philippine past obliquely and from a distance, in order to better gauge the severity of its impact, geographically and historically. It also tackles the ever-present theme of religion and faith in Philippine films. Through the perspective of Sister Remy, her family’s direct experiences of a brother ‘disappeared,’ and her clandestine actions of attending protests and keeping a radio hidden to remaining abreast of new developments, the film makes of religion not as a source of empowerment but of selfish, senseless self-preservation, especially in the face of turmoil that is clearly happening in the cities. Sandoval elaborates this notion also through her use of the space of the convent, with the physical violence enacted by the sisters inside (self-flagellation, shock, withdrawal) when confronted by the novice’s pregnancy from the rape increasingly matching/echoing the violence beyond the walls and the woods that separate them from the rest of the nation. Ultimately, then, what the convent fails to realise is that they remain part of the nation whether they like it or not, so that the distinction between inside and outside – and the protection it affords – breaks down.
In still other films screening at MoMA’s series but also a constant in Philippine cinema, the inside-outside divide is about intra- and inter-national movement and migration – itself a constant of Philippine experiences.
 Here, I would like to indulge in an extension, or addendum, of notable Philippine independent films that did not make the cut in MoMA’s series. Ruelo Lozendo’s own deployment of silent cinema characteristics in his Spanish colonial era-set film Kolorete (2008) makes for an interesting contribution to the conversation of cinema as re/interpreting colonial history and the use of the countryside as part of this process. Through the staging of a sarsuwela in a Philippine village for the despedida of its Spanish mayor, making the film a pseudo-musical that betrays how deeply Spanish culture crawled and redefined local culture/cusoms, Lozendo cleverly presents how performance doubles as spectacle and resistance. Moreover, the cast of Angeli Bayani, Roeder Camañag, Perry Dizon, among others, is outstanding, particularly since Lozendo’s vision for the film was inspired by German expressionist acting and zombies.
 May Adadol Ingawanij, ‘Long Walk to Life: The Films of Lav Diaz, Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, Vol. 40 (Autumn/Winter 2015): 112.