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“In the Navel of the Sea” Shines at Filipino Film Showcase

"In the Navel of the Sea" Shines at Filipino Film Showcase

"In the Navel of the Sea" Shines at Filipino Film Showcase

by Bliss Cua Lim

Aptly titled “Looking Back, Moving Forward,” the recently concluded
Filipino film retrospective at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater in
Manhattan featured 29 films (out of an announced 30, the only
cancellation being the festival opener). The films spanned about six
decades in Philippine film history, commemorating the centennial of
Philippine independence.

The 20-day festival, which featured a special program of films by
internationally acclaimed director Lino Brocka (“Insiang,” “Manila: In
the Claws of Neon
“) also showcased the work of other key Philippine
directors — from pioneers Gerardo de Leon and brothers Octavio and
Manuel Silos to New Cinema auteurs Ishmael Bernal, Marilou Diaz-Abaya,
Mike de Leon, Chito Roño and Mario O’Hara. Important contemporary
directors, whether long-time independents like Gil Portes or respected
commercial directors like Joel Lamangan, Joey Reyes, Olive Lamasan, and
Carlitos Siguion-Reyna, were also represented in the festival selection.

Despite a number of canceled and postponed screenings, the festival
entries played to consistently packed and enthusiastic audiences.
Described by director Marilou Diaz-Abaya as “a very good beginning,” the
festival’s programming can be regarded as a laudable attempt at
representing the diversity of directors, film movements, and stars in
the history of Philippine cinema. The major obstacle for any ambitious
retrospective of Philippine films must always be the limited
availability of well-preserved, subtitled prints. Diaz-Abaya pointed
out that the bulk of the programming consisted of melodramas, despite
the fact that the most prominent mainstream genre in the Philippines has
historically been the action film, today representing over 60 percent of
the over 160 films produced annually.

Among the festival’s highlights were rarely screened classics like
Gerardo de Leon’s “Noli Me Tangere” (“Touch Me Not“, 1961). Hailed as
the “Father of Philippine Cinema” for his earlier work, De Leon’s
cinematic adaptation of the turn-of-the century novel by Jose Rizal was
a luminous introduction to the festival’s array of major Filipino works,
many of which have been read as social, if not national, allegories of
the Philippine condition. In fact, the festival’s opening-film
cancellation was the Berlin Film Festival premiere, Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s
Rizal,” about the life, and death by political martyrdom of the
national hero.

Ishmael Bernal’s “Nunal sa Tubig” (“Speck in the Water“, 1986), the
festival’s closing feature, remains a beautiful and poetic meditation on
the encroachments of modernity upon rural life. Other mainstream
highlights included Mario O’Hara’s “The Fatima Buen Story” (1994), an
astounding hybrid film which draws from the docudrama, action film,
women-in-prison narrative, melodrama, and gothic horror, is a fine
example of the work of a new generation of signature mainstream film
directors. Chito Roño’s “Itanong Mo sa Buwan” (“Ask the Moon“, 1988)
can be seen as a Filipino film noir in its investigative story
structure, which centers upon Jacklyn Jose (subject of a retrospective
tribute at the Nantes festival) as the sympathetic femme fatale. The
festival also featured strong examples of quality commercial
melodramas–Carlitos Siguion- Reyna’s “Ang Lalake sa Buhay ni Selya
(“The Man in Her Life“, 1997), a woman-positive tale of an unusual
encounter with male queerness, as well as Olive Lamasan’s “Madrasta
(“Stepmother“, 1996), starring “megastar” Sharon Cuneta.

The festival’s haunting opening-night screening, Diaz-Abaya’s “Sa Pusod
ng Dagat
” (“In the Navel of the Sea“, 1998), which had replaced the same
director’s “Rizal,” is a nostalgic coming-of-age narrative that
thematizes folk superstition as well as the social crisis of
modernization. Produced by private investors new to the film scene and
directed by a veteran of the New Cinema of the ’70s and early ’80s, “In
the Navel of the Sea” is a remarkable example of the vitality and
experimentation infusing Philippine cinema today. “Sea” continues its
esteemed festival screenings next week at the Toronto Film Festival.

Marilou Diaz-Abaya sat down with indieWIRE following the successful
opening night screening of her film. Characterizing the state of
Filipino filmmaking at present, Diaz-Abaya responded by first
contextualizing the early ’90s as a period of almost euphoric economic
growth for the Philippines and Asia in general, a time when “flushed
with new investments,” more movie theaters were built, television and
film studios expanded, and TV finally emerged as a profitable ancillary
market for films following their theatrical release.

She recounted that the influx of dollar remittances from overseas
workers resulted in the emergence of a new, more educated middle class,
who preferred to patronize Filipino movies by “signature directors” like
Joel Lamangan, Joey Reyes, Chito Roño and Carlitos Siguion-Reyna, among
others. But the Asian economic crisis, combined with the increasingly
discriminating tastes of the audience, created a certain amount of panic
among Filipino film producers.

“The margin of profit is shrinking,” said Diaz-Abaya, “but this is
because Filipino producers refuse to admit that the Philippines will
inevitably become too small a market for the production costs required
now. And this is not dictated by us (Filipino directors) because our
fees remain almost the same; it’s (dictated by) Eastman Kodak, here in
New York.”

She went on to say that the producers now “have no idea what will or
will not make money. That’s very good for the filmmaker because, like
the late ’70s and the early ’80s [the period of the New Philippine
Cinema], they are forced to concede that the judgment on what will or
will not make it, is really the director’s.” So Diaz-Abaya is
optimistic. “Directors are being allowed to make films which five years
ago would have been thrown out, because [producers] thought they had a
formula, but not now.”

Abaya noted that the economic uncertainty had actually led to more
opportunities for new independent producers and directors whose work are
non-traditional in funding and theme. “It all paints a picture of
vitality. I’m not discouraged,” Abaya declared. The festival’s
features certainly constituted resounding proof of the tenacity and
dynamism of one of Asia’s most prolific and promising film industries.

[Bliss Cua Lim is a doctoral candidate in the Cinema Studies program at
New York University. She has taught in the English Department of the
University of the Philippines and at the Cinema Studies Department of
NYU. Her dissertation on the Fantastic in film will include a chapter
on Philippine cinema.]

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