FILM Cinema has had a long and colorful history in the Philippines, with a first "golden age" of home-grown product in the 1950s, a turn toward exportable exploitation films in the '60s, notable new-wave directors (like Lino Brocka) emerging in the '70s, and so forth — sustaining one of the world's most prolific film industries despite difficulties political and otherwise. At the turn of the millennium those wheels were wobbling and slowing, however, hard-hit by a combination of too many low-grade formula films, shrinking audiences, and stiffer competition from slick imported entertainments. The commercial sector stumbled on, but as a shadow of its robust former self.
But there's something percolating beyond hard consonants on the archipelago these days, signs of a new DIY vigor coming from independent sectors juiced by the inexpensive accessibility of digital technology, undaunted (at least so far) by problems of exhibition and income-generating at home. It's a sprawling, unpredictable, work-in-progress scene that some figure could well become the next "it" spot for cineaste types seeking one of those spontaneous combustions of fresh talent that arise occasionally where you least expect it — like Romania, to name one recent example.
One person who definitely thinks that's the case is Joel Shepard, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' longtime Film/Video Curator. He's traveled to the Philippines several times in recent years (once serving on the jury at CineManila), and has previously programmed a few prime examples of the country's edgy new voices — particularly Brilliante Mendoza, whose notorious 2009 police-corruption grunge horror Kinatay (a.k.a. Butchered) was one of the most hotly divisive Cannes jury-prize winners in recent history. Now YBCA is presenting "New Filipino Cinema," Shepard's first "big fat snapshot" — hopefully to be continued on an annual basis — of a wildly diverse current filmic landscape, assembled in collaboration with Manila critic Philbert Ortiz Dy.
Shepard's program notes call the Philippines "an extremely fascinating country...but the more I learned about the place and its people, the less I felt like I actually understood anything. The truth felt more and more slippery." One might get a similar sensation watching the films in this expansive (nearly 30 titles, shorts included) sampler, in that they're all over the map stylistically and thematically — from lyrical to gritty, satirical to anarchistic — suggesting no single defining "movement" or aesthetic to New Filipino Cinema.
Nor should they, since these movies reflect very different cultures, politics, and issues in regions hitherto underrepresented onscreen. After all, Manila isn't the only place you can get your hands on a digital camera; and Tagalog is primary language for just one-third of all Filipinos.
The series opener has significant local ties: Loy Arcenas is a lauded stage set designer who's worked frequently with our own American Conservatory Theater. Unavailable for preview, in description his feature directorial debut Niño (2011) sounds redolent of Luchino Visconti and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (as well as, perhaps, 1975's Grey Gardens) as it depicts a once grand family of Spanish émigrés living in decrepit splendor, diminished over generations by political inconvenience and a proud, fatal inability to adapt.
Their aristocratic pretensions are a far cry from the rowdier real life captured or depicted in other YBCA selections. A bizarre footnote to the United States' complicated, incriminating relationship with the Philippines is documented in Monster Jiminez's Kano: An American and His Harem (2010). Its subject is a Yankee Vietnam vet whose military pension allowed him to construct a sort of one-man imperialist paradise centered around his penis. Whether he was a gracious benefactor, a bullying rapist, or both is a puzzle only clouded further by contradictory input from former/current wives and mistresses (even while he's in prison), stateside relatives who recall a childhood ideal to shape a sociopath, and the authorities who've lately kept him in prison.
War is ongoing, marriage an impractical hope in Arnel M. Mardoquio's impressive Crossfire (2011), whose young lovers in southern region Mindanao must dodge government-vs.-rebel-vs.-bandit guns as well as a rural poverty sufficient to make our heroine vulnerable to being offered as a lender-debt payoff. Their plight is starkly contrasted with the spectacular scenery of countryside few tourists will ever hazard.
Its atmospheric opposite is Lawrence Fajardo's Amok (2011), whose thousand threads of seemingly free-floating narrative depict life dedicatedly melting down all race, age, class, and economic divisions during a heat wave passage through one of Manila's busiest intersections. What birth and development keeps apart gets nail-gunned together, however, once this string of naturalistic vignettes hits a plot device that delivers deus ex machina to all with no melodramatic restraint. Fate also lays heavy hand on the junior protagonists of Mes de Guzman's At the Corner of Heaven and Earth (2011), a crude but honest neo-realist drama about four orphaned and runaway boys trying to eke out a marginal existence in Nueva Vizcaya.
Should this all sound pretty grim, be informed there's lots of levity — albeit much of it gallows-humored — on the YBCA slate. Jade Castro's exuberantly silly Remington and the Curse of the Zombadings (2011) finds the funny in homophobia as its crass young hero (a farcically deft Mart Escudero) is "cursed" by an angry queen he'd insulted to become gay himself; meanwhile somebody goes around their regional burg assassinating cross-dressers via ray-gun. Plus: zombies, and the proverbial kitchen sink. Also on the frivolous side is Antoinette Jadaone's mockumentary Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (2011), in which the titular veteran screen thespian struggles for recognition after decades playing bit parts and occasional showier ones, notably as witchy folkloric "aswang" attempting to suck the lifeblood from newborn babes. (See aswang-related coverage in this week's Trash column, too.)
Yet those are but moderately playful New Filipino Cinema exercises compared to the determined off-map outrages practiced by Mondomanila (2011). This gonzo eruption of spermazoidal huzzah! by multimedia Manila punk underground mover Khavn de la Cruz seeks to leave no societal cavity unexplored, or unoffended. Opening with an infamous quote from Brokedown Palace (1999) star Claire Danes, who characterized Manila as a "ghastly and weird city ... [with] no sewage system," it delivers both fuck-you and fuck-me to that judgment via 75 minutes of mad under caste collage. There isn't much plot. But there's variably judged arson, pedophilia, yo-yo trick demonstrations, poultry abuse, upscale mall shopping, voyeuristic pornographia, Tagalog rap, rooftop drum soloing, and limbless-little-person salesmanship of duck eggs.
Further complicating your comprehension of a very complex scene, the YBCA series encompasses avant-garde shorts by veteran John Torres and newer experimentalists. There's also a free afternoon Indie-Pino Music Fest Sat/9, and on June 17 there's a postscript: Lav Diaz's Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, the six-hour latest epic in a career whose patience-testing wide open cinematic spaces make Béla Tarr look like Michael Bay.
"NEW FILIPINO CINEMA"
June 7-17, $8
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF