Manila Chronicles: the New Filipino Cinema

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Cinema from the Philippines is dead! Long live cinema from the Philippines. Once one of Asia’s most vibrant film industries, they’ve fallen off the film festival radar in recent years. Heck, it’s been almost 10 years since we’ve even shown a Filipino film. But with the deaths in 2012 of many of the elder statesmen of Filipino cinema including Celso Ad Castillo, Mario O’Hara, and, in 2013, the acclaimed Eddie Romero, we thought it was time to catch up with this special focus on movies from first-time and underground filmmakers that specialize in time travelling drug dealers, out-of-control teen parties, and refrigerators that kill.

Since 1897 when the first film flickered onto Manila screens, the Philippines have been movie mad. During WW II, the occupying Japanese cannibalized the Filipino industry for talent, equipment, and prints, then after the war the first Golden Age flourished in the 50’s, with four studios satisfying pent-up demand, and directors like Eddie Romero and Cesar Gallardo turning out so many movies that only Japan outstripped it in terms of production.

Labor unrest saw the major studios shut down in the 60’s but independent producers unleashed sex films, rock n’roll movies, westerns, and action flicks. As Ferdinand Marcos’s martial law clamped down on the country in 1972, a second Golden Age of underground directors exploded. Lino Brocka and Celso Ad Castillo were among their ranks, as was the unknown Kidlat Tahimik (“Silent Lightning”) whose Perfumed Nightmare won the Critic’s Prize at the 1977 Berlin Film Festival. Today, the Filipino film industry has gone from producing 300 movies per year in 1985, to 30 in 2007. But a wealth of new talent are emerging once more, including director Brillante Mendoza, who won “Best Director” at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. Our focus is on this new generation of directors who are relatively unknown outside of the Philippines.

Erik Matti (represented by the inferno of desire that is Rigodon) is the best-known of the bunch. We screened his ghetto superhero movie, Gagamboy, back in 2004, and his latest film, On the Job, was selected for the Cannes Director’s Fortnight this year. Rico Maria Ilarde has been making distinctively Filipino horror movies since 1999 and his The Refrigerator, about a hell-spawned appliance, is the horror movie simultaneously subverted and celebrated. Kevin Dayrit’s Catnip and Gino M. Santos’s The Animals are offbeat, bruising, and often bloody portraits of adolescence. And Christian Linaban’s Aberya is a stylish and occult debut feature unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

What emerges from our selection of Pinoy films is a cinema on fire, formed from fever dreams, pure sensation, and outrage that provides brisk, intelligent entertainment. But beyond the lively phantasmagoria, these films reveal a culture that has gone through the terrors of war, colonialism, and dictatorial rule, still aflame with conflict and contradictions. This line-up is a testament to the vibrancy and resilience of an industry that is possessed by the bold brilliance of a young generation of brand new filmmakers.