Philippine New Wave
A closer look at the spirited, ambitious and brilliantly diverse films emerging from the Philippines
The largest of several new sections introduced into the EIFF programme this year by new artistic director Chris Fujiwara, Philippine New Wave also looks like being by far the most exciting. Aside from their country of origin, what the 11 features (and several of the three-decade-spanning shorts programme) in the section have in common is they were made by young(ish) independent filmmakers, an unaffiliated group described by one of their own, Khavn De La Cruz (who guest-programmed the section), as the originators of his nation’s third golden age of cinema.
The films they have made are extraordinarily diverse, ranging from the poetic minimalism of Lav Diaz’s Florentina Hubaldo, CTE to the chaotic montage of Lawrence Fajardo’s Amok and from the avant-garde storytelling of Christopher Gozum’s Forever Loved to the technical craftsmanship of Loy Arcenas’ Niño. With these filmmakers, there is a sense that anything goes – and it does, frequently – and it is this that makes the Philippine New Wave an electrifying prospect.
If it’s difficult, if not impossible, to identify any other common traits existing in these films and between their makers, then it is possible to recognise a certain shared sensibility, an anarchic punk attitude (perhaps what the Filipino’s call their ‘sariling dwende’ or inner spirit) that’s evident across the board to a great or a greater degree. De La Cruz’s own film, Mondomanila, or: How I Fixed My Hair After A Rather Long Journey, is probably the most extreme example of this punk spirit. Based on Norman Wilwayco’s cult novel, Mondomanila is, as its title suggests, a sensational pseudo-documentary exploitation film about the bad and the beautiful of the Filipino capital’s underclass and subculture. It is here that you will be introduced to Mutya, the too-cool-for-school breakdancing amputee midget who earns a living by selling children to paedophiles.
Elsewhere in the programme, the punk spirit makes itself felt in less in-your-face ways, as is the case in Emerson Reyes’ MNL 143, which nonchalantly throws plotting out of the window and instead looses itself in a series of taxi cab rides, or Jewel Maranan’s Tondo, Beloved: To What Are the Poor Born?, which treats the ugly subject of poverty in Manila (a high-rise city/shanty town where 80-90% of the population live below the poverty line) in a way that bestows dignity and beauty on the poor.
The punk attitude shared by the Philippine New Wave filmmakers is, of course, a product of place, time and circumstance. De La Cruz and his contemporaries grew up in the Philippines in the post-colonial era, and they have come of age as filmmakers after a decade of silence following the last golden age of cinema in their country. Back then, during the 1970s and 80s, up to 160 films were released each year, and instant classics, Lino Brocka’s Jaguar, for one example, were given international recognition by being invited to international film festivals such as Cannes. (Incidentally, if you want to see a Philippine film from the first golden age get along to The Brockas in Film-Concert event. At it, the avant-garde rock band The Brockas, named after Lino (and take a close look at the bass player), will improvise a live soundtrack to Manuel Conde and Lou Salvador’s 1950 film, Genghis Khan, which previously played at EIFF way back in 1952.)
In recent years, the mainstream film industry in the Philippines has remained stagnant, artistically speaking, and has done nothing to help independent filmmakers get their films made (although it has attempted to curtail their creative freedoms and profit from their output). With the arrival of affordable digital technology, however, new and established independent filmmakers have had the means of production handed back to them, which, in a large way, accounts for the new-found vibrancy, this third golden age, of Philippine filmmaking.
Getting their films seen in cinemas is still a problem for these filmmakers, however. In the Philippines, as in North America and Europe, big business continues to control distribution and exhibition. But in place of national cinema chains, the international film festival circuit is beginning to celebrate Philippine films with retrospectives and, as is the case at EIFF this year, showcases of the latest, cutting edge films. The Philippine New Wave is gaining international recognition. And you can say you saw it here, in Edinburgh, first.
Edinburgh International Film Festival takes place Wed 20 June - Sun 1 July.