Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Three from Brocka

To commemorate the 70th birth anniversary of Philippine National Artist for Film Lino Brocka, the CCP screened his first three movies last Saturday, April 25, at the CCP Dream Theater. Billed as "Remembering Brocka: Realities/Rarities," the event offered a truly rare glimpse into the then-budding artistry of Brocka, who would eventually create more significant works that are still influencing Filipino filmmakers to this day.

Brocka's first film, "Wanted: Perfect Mother" (1969), is said to be a commercially-motivated move for the director, who at that time was already active in theater. Adapted by Brocka from a Mars Ravelo comic, Perfect Mother served as Brocka's calling card. And who wouldn't have called back after watching the movie? Though admittedly a partial rip-off of The Sound of Music, "Wanted: Perfect Mother" is a well-written and well-acted entertaining yarn about a father and his four kids' search for the perfect woman after the mother was killed in an accident. The top-notch cast includes Dante Rivero, Boots Anson-Roa, Liza Lorena, Caridad Sanchez, a very cute Snooky in her first movie, Gina Alajar, and über kontrabida Etang Discher. But the star of this movie is the first-time director, who tried to elevate this otherwise generic romp into a movie where every laugh is well-earned. In any other Filipino movie from the same era, the husband trying to reconnect with a former governess after not seeing each other for a long time would be a cheap excuse for a resolution. In "Wanted: Perfect Mother," when Dante Rivero calls Boots Anson-Roa in Canada and tries to woo her back to the country, we feel their happiness and wish the best for them. Why? Because Brocka made us feel that way, by taking us on an emotional journey with the characters. After the movie's over, you'd probably want to go on the journey again.

I didn't know that "Santiago" (1970) stars Fernando Poe, Jr. I'm always wary of watching FPJ's films because they're usually more like vehicles for Poe's persona than honest-to-goodness movies. I shouldn't have worried. Let's just say that in his second movie, Lino Brocka won over the king of Philippine movies. "Santiago" may even be regarded as a minor classic waiting to be rediscovered. In it, Poe plays a guerrilla fighter during World War II, who finds out too late that there were innocent people (women, children, elderly) inside an abandoned Japanese camp that he helped blow up. Racked with guilt and disillusionment with the resistance movement, he abandons the fight and flees to a small town, where he is ostracized by the townsfolk because he reminds them of their sons who had to leave their families behind to fight the Japanese. FPJ was FPJ, but after watching the movie, people would remember not how many Japanese soldiers he killed and how he did it or how he looked, but how truly good an actor he was when given great material to work with. Granted, the story doesn't really stray too far from typical FPJ fare, but the little-something-extra here is Brocka, who weaves the story with great skill (which can't be said of most of FPJ's bakbakan films), and shows confidence in staging huge scenes with dozens of extras and other technical considerations (if still a bit crude). If "Wanted: Perfect Mother" was the calling card, "Santiago" brought Brocka through the door, and serves as the earliest manifestation of Brocka as filmmaker-activist, capable of shaping people's ideas through his art.

The best among the three films shown at the retrospective was "Tubog Sa Ginto" (1971). In the movie, Eddie Garcia plays a closeted homosexual who tries to hide his true identity from his wife and son. Another adaptation of a Mars Ravelo comic, it is a story of struggle, deception, and ultimately tragedy, that for the first time showcased Brocka as a masterful director. While in his two earlier movies, some scenes were--to be honest--handled clumsily, in this movie, everything comes together perfectly. The cast, which also includes Lolita Rodriguez, Jay Ilagan, and Mario O'Hara, are just perfection. And whoever says that Brocka was not as humorous as Bernal should watch this movie; it has scenes that rival the best of Bernal and Gosiengfiao in the camp department. I'm not sure whether it's just Brocka or if it's quite the norm in early '70s Philippine cinema, but the bold colors, the tight shots, even the theme of the movie suggest the works of American '50s director Douglas Sirk, not unlike Todd Haynes' 2002 similarly-themed Sirk tribute, "Far From Heaven." In that film, a woman discovers that her husband is having an affair with another man, and is herself ostracized by the community for having a relationship with a black man. In "Tubog Sa Ginto," the characters are similarly so trapped in society's expectations and in their web of lies, that not even death can liberate them from their mise-en-scène, down to the last frame of the movie.

These three films should not be used in any way to judge the totality of Lino Brocka's contributions to Philippine cinema. Brocka went on to revisit the themes in these movies to create stronger pieces of work--like Insiang, Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang, Maynila Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, and Macho Dancer--certified classics that continue to inspire and influence Filipino filmmakers to this day.

However, the flip side to this is that Brocka's body of work has so dominated the consciousness of young Filipino filmmakers that everyone seems to be wanting to be the next Brocka, in their choice of themes, in their choice of milieu. They will all probably fail if they hinge their work solely on aping aspects of Brocka's because what made Brocka's films the way they are were Brocka's intellect and the richness of his personal experiences, and his way of translating them into art, and not really his decision to locate his classics in slums. I agree with what Boots Anson-Roa said in the forum held before the last screening, that our young filmmakers should find their own voice. Like, why be the next Brocka when you can be the first you? Granted, as shown by the retrospective, that it takes at least three movies for a filmmaker to be able to do that. Philippine independent cinema is enabling young filmmakers to find their voice. That is why despite the travelogues in disguise, the film school art projects, the "gritty" hand-held cinematography, the head-scratching pa-profound effects, and the criss-crossing tongues of current Philippine independent cinema, we keep watching, in the hope that we will find not the next Brocka, but the next filmmaker that will hopefully inspire a thousand others to pick up a camera and shoot.

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