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Throwback to Philippine Cinema 2015: The Year of the Heneral and the Not-So Odd Couple

Any discussion of Philippine Cinema 2015 will inevitably center on two films that lorded it over others in terms of box office revenues and social impact; namely Heneral Luna (fifth highest grossing film of 2015) and A Second Chance (broke all records and now stands as one of the highest grossing Filipino films of all time). Providing a brisk and revealing study of contrasts, the two films and their respective success provide a strong argument for the notions that the only thing predictable about the local film industry is its unpredictability, and, when it comes to Filipino films, familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt.

How else can one explain the extraordinary success of a historical/hysterical drama centered on the life of one volatile and larger-than-life General Antonio Luna, set during the turn-of-the-century Philippine Revolution; when so many well-intentioned films depicting that same era and its personages have met the stiff resistance of the Philippine audience? And keep in mind, this was a “slow burn” success that saw word of mouth and a social media campaign save the day. The dismal initial response was overturned as audiences scrambled to find theaters still showing the film—and then theaters responded by reinstating screens exhibiting the film. A wonderful scenario for a film that had “indie... but with money” stamped all over it; and dared to treat history in a fresh, irreverent manner. Yes, the film is not without its flaws; but one had to admire how “formula” was thrown out the window—revising our perceptions that period dramas and films bereft of big stars are doomed for the celluloid scrap heap.

And how else can one explain the more than durable and luminous magic of the Bea Alonzo-John Lloyd Cruz tandem that saw A Second Chance reaping more than P560 million worldwide and becoming the highest grossing Filipino film of all time? One More Chance, a 2007 release, brought us the story of Basha and Popoy falling in love, drifting apart and reconciling. It was more than evident that their continuing saga in the form of the trials, tribulations, and intricacies of modern married life, as chronicled in A Second Chance, would find its audience. Apparently, eight years was not too long a wait for the generation that proclaimed One More Chance one of the best loved romance films of all time. They are now joined by a new generation of romantics who are ready to lap up every kilig moment of the new installment. Even the movie critics loved this very commercial film as it dealt realistically with the foibles and wrinkles of a millennial couple’s married life. A franchise in the making? The scenarios for a “Third” and “Fourth Chance” would seem to be begging for consideration—God forbid that decades from now, we get our “Last Chance,” where Lolo Popoy and Lola Basha enjoy senior citizen privileges and cope with incipient senility!

If there is one sustaining characteristic of Philippine cinema today, it remains to be its schizoid nature. On one end of the pendulum, we have the formulaic, commercial films that still reign in terms of number of screens allocated and box office potential, but are largely disregarded by the true-blue cinephiles as bland, unimaginative, and predictable. On the other end, we have the independent producers and filmmakers, who continue to keep the industry “alive” and fertile, gaining accolades and clear recognition abroad at film festivals. But they are often left desperately seeking a Filipino audience that can help the producers actually turn in a domestic profit. And of course, we now have that whole gray area between these two ends, where “marriages of convenience” can see the light of day, and allow us to look forward to films that may have that indie sensibility, but working on production values and marketing budgets that the more commercial films enjoy. How successful these “unions” will turn out to be remains to be seen, but it does open up a new world of possibility—and clearly the financial success of films such as Heneral Luna have paved the way for these sort of collaborations.

The recurring success of the Metro Manila Film Festival every December would point to the fact that the movie-hungry audience is still out there. But the nagging question is: what feeds them? Do we presume we have to “educate” them and possibly perish as producers in trying, or do we feed them the “staples” that hindsight has shown means keeping producers in the black? It is great to put out a film that spells gravitas and is proclaimed the “bright future of Philippine cinema,” but if that same film bombs at the local box-office, how then does the producer recoup his or her investment, and have the enthusiasm to raise money for the next film project? This conundrum remains a characteristic of today’s cinema scene.

You don’t believe me? Realize that a Heneral Luna or A Second Chance is the great exception in our film landscape. To this day, unlike in India or other ASEAN countries, there persists a cultural bias against our locally produced films. In India, while big foreign blockbusters will seek and enjoy box-office success thanks to the large population figures, a great number of Bollywood releases will likewise perform admirably—and the Indians, regardless of economic strata, are fiercely proud of and support their Bollywood. To most of you reading this right now, I posit the query of think back to 2015, and count the number of US or European films or TV series you watched or uploaded, and then compare that to the number of Filipino films and TV shows you watched last year. It is from the ranks of the affluent and upwardly mobile that the needed financing for our film industry will come, yet how many are “plugged in?” And while I accept this has been changing and evolving for the better, there is still so much “room for improvement” on this front.

The year 2015 saw a rash of Filipino films copping prizes and awards at various festivals all over the world. Here’s a sampling of some of those films, and if your pride is more than mere lip service, check out how many of the following you actually have viewed; or how many we can say lasted more than a week at our theaters:

Balikbayan #1 (Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III) by Kidlat Tahimik - Caligari Film Award in the International Forum of New Cinema Section of the 65th Berlin International Film Festival, Germany

Bwaya (Crocodile) written and directed by Francis Xavier Pasion –

Cyclo d’Or Award in the Contemporary Asian Cinema: International Competition of the 21st International Festival of Asian Cinema, Vesoul, France

Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita, written and directed by Sigrid Bernardo –

Lesbianism and Gender Award and Best Screenplay, 12th Zinegoak Festival Internacional de Cine, Bilbao, Spain

Magkakabaung (The Coffin Maker) by Jason Paul Laxamana –

 Best Film in the 3rd Silk Road Film Festival, Dublin, Ireland

Dementia by Perci Intalan –

Gold Remi Award, Fantasy/Horror in the 48th WorldFest-Houston International Film & Video Festival. Best Foreign Language Film in the 3rd St. Tropez International Film Festival, Nice, France

Ekstra (Bit Player) by Jeffrey Jeturian –

Bronze World Medal, Feature Films Category in the 69th New York International Film and Television Awards, Platinum Remi Award for Best Foreign Feature in the 48th WorldFest-Houston International Film & Video Festival

Kamkam by Joel Lamangan –

Gold Remi Award, mature theme, in the 48th WorldFest-Houston International Film & Video Festival

Taklub (Trap) by Brillante Mendoza –

Ecumenical Jury Prize-Special Mention in the 68th Cannes Film Festival, Audience Vote Best Feature Film Aleph Award in the 15th Beirut International Film Festival, and Audience Award in the 16th Asiatica Film Mediale in Rome, Italy

K’na the Dreamweaver by Ida del Mundo –

Best Show in the 14th Female Eye Film Festival, Toronto, Canada.

Mana, written and directed by Gabriel Fernandez –

Best Film in the Madrid International Film Festival, Spain

Ari: My Life with a King by Carlo Enciso Catu –

Best World Film in the 11th Harlem International Film Festival, New York City, USA

Anino Sa Likod Ng Buwan (Shadow Behind the Moon) by Jun Robles Lana – 

Jury Best Asian Film Award and the International Federation of Film Critics Prize in the 13th Pacific Meridian International Film Festival, Vladivostok, Russia

Bambanti (Scarecrow), written and directed by Zig Dulay –

Best Film in the First Festival International du Film de Bruxelles, Belgium

Ruined Heart: Another Love Story Between a Criminal and a Whore, by Khavn de la Cruz –

Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 8th Austin Asian-American Film Festival, Texas, USA


Several Filipino films traveled around the world and garnered acting awards and best director nods: Cherie Gil, Nora Aunor, LJ Reyes, Aiko Melendez, Vilma Santos, Allen Dizon, Buboy Villar, Epy Quizon, and Richard Gomez, among the notables on that list. So globally, it was a very busy and auspicious year for Philippine cinema.

If one looks at the record for commercially released films on an annual basis here in the Philippines, excluding the indies created for festivals, the past three years have averaged from 35 to 45 releases, and 2015 was no exception. That would mean some three to four releases a month, peaking during the year-end Metro Manila Film Festival. Compare this to say India’s Bollywood, where more than 200 films were released last year. And while our statistics show that among our ASEAN neighbors we are more cinema-crazy, the general quality of our films would make most avid observers still nostalgic for that second “golden age” of Philippine cinema, the mid-1970s on to the ’80s. Then, the likes of Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Celso Ad. Castillo, Mario O’Hara, Mike de Leon, Peque Gallaga, and Marilou Diaz-Abaya, to name a few, were at the height of their filmmaking careers.

To be fair, the digital age has brought on a democratization of sorts for filmmakers. Foregoing the expense of producing in celluloid and being dependent on big, returns-oriented producers, has seen the birth of a new generation of directors who, in time, will hopefully prove that the second golden age was no fluke, and that the earnest and innate creativity of the Filipino filmmaker is truly alive and well. This new breed has shown much promise over the last decade, and it is thanks to such festivals as CineMalaya, Cinema One Originals, QCinema, and Sinag Maynila that there are potential successors to the likes of Brillante Mendoza, Aureaus Solito, and Lav Diaz.

Controversy seems to be another trademark of our film industry. Only last December, during the MMFF, we witnessed the scenario of Honor Thy Father copping several acting and technical awards but disqualified to vie for best picture. At the time of this writing, the issue has not yet been resolved, and rather than discuss the merits of either side, it is best to just say that the whole affair left a sad and bitter taste in this writer’s mouth—as it exemplified how an industry with so much potential, but a “small player” from a global perspective, can still be so divisive and fraught with bickering and arguments. Hopefully, this is also one characteristic of our industry that can be swiftly dealt with and left behind.

The creativity of our writers and producers, the innate talent of our directors, actors, and film crews —these are all precious gifts that we should proudly be sharing with the world. Day by day, the recognition that comes our way can lead to a more financially viable and booming film industry. It is within our grasp; whether to be seen as an ideal location for various technical reasons for foreign productions (like how many know that The Martian was shot primarily in Jordan, or the ocean scenes of Life of Pi in Taiwan?), or as the ASEAN headquarters for film restoration and archiving—a great potential dollar earner. There are a myriad of possibilities waiting to be recognized as opportunities for us, and to galvanize, and turn these into realities would seem to be the challenge we now face. si.


Article originally published in Metro Society's February 2016 issue / Minor edits have been made for Metro.Style