Dream Factories of a Former Colony: American Fantasies, Philippine Cinema (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Noel Vera

The Monster in Gerardo De Leon's Terror is a Man

The Monster in Gerardo De Leon's Terror is a Man

Written by José B. Capino. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. 290 pp., illus. Hardcover: $75.00 and Paperback: $25.00.

Before anything, I’d like to say that José B. Capino’s Dream Factories of a Former Colony: American Fantasies, Philippine Cinema, is a precious gem, a resource of great value. Not only because it’s a particularly good or substantial and well-written critical study (just set that aside a minute) but because writings on Filipino films—especially serious, scholarly works—are few and sorely needed. There’s a near vacuum where analysis of Filipino films are involved, and it hurts our cinema, not just our reputation (why take our films seriously if film scholars won’t?) as well as means of financing (why invest in a cinema that’s largely without substance, mere entertainment?) and sense of motivated creativity (why engage in the arduous task of filmmaking for a cinema that’s largely without substance, mere entertainment?). Even the task of record keeping is erratically done—to this day we’re not sure just what prints are out there, and in what condition (the task of actually restoring and preserving these prints is another mission impossible entirely, one that deserves a full-length article, if not a book all its own).

Capino’s focus is on the ambivalent, ambiguous, love-hate, largely one-sided relationship between the Philippines and the United States, and how this affects Filipino and Filipino-American filmmaking. Note the crucial qualifier in that description: Capino doesn’t spend too much time with Filipino influence on American filmmaking, which at most consists of Gerardo De Leon and Eddie Romero’s minor impact on the American drive-in scene with their Blood Island movies (I’ve heard of a TV movie based on one of Lino Brocka’s finest works, Insiang (1976), and set in a trailer park, but that’s it—mostly rumors). The Hollywood/Quezonwood relationship is almost all one way, though in accepting that relationship and putting it to use we don’t always assume the role of victim, the oppressed developing country, living off the detritus of the developed—an observation Capino makes at one point. These “Philippine-made American fantasies” (to quote the author) sometimes cast the Americans as oppressors, sometimes liberators; Filipinos are cast as either passive victims or silent judges, handing out verdicts on the conduct of past American imperialistic projects.

Capino divides the book into three sections. The first, “Visions of Empire,” dwells on the collisions between the Philippines and American Imperialism in past, present, and future tense. For encounters of America’s imperial past Capino chooses Gerardo De Leon’s Terror is a Man (1959)—to my mind the finest of the many titles mentioned—and De Leon’s later Blood Island movies (of lesser but not entirely dismissible quality), in collaboration with fellow filmmaker Eddie Romero.

The Blood Island movies (and especially Terror is a Man) aren’t so much about a creature on the loose as they are about the past haunting the present (the book at one point calls this past America’s “ghost”)—the largely unintended consequence of America’s forays into imperialism. Their tiny budgets and inconsistent special-effects makeup mark them as drive-in fare for the masses and Capino makes the case that it’s only appropriate that these masses witness the effect of America’s imperialism on her former colonies. Capino singles out Terror is a Man for praise, citing its unusually subtle and textured characterizations, its retelling of the source material, H.G Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, as a parable on colonialism. The cruelty of the creature (the colonized) is viewed as an extension of the cruelty of the creator (or colonizer); the creature’s bid for freedom seen as a bid for state sovereignty, national independence.

For present-day effects of colonialism, Capino cites Lupita Concio’s Minsay’ Isang Gamu-gamo (Once a Moth, 1976), about a nurse (played by Nora Aunor, arguably the Philippines’ most popular actress ever) whose younger brother is mistaken for a pig and shot by an American military base soldier. Capino discusses the implications of this modern form of imperial injustice, then goes on to mention two other titles: Lino Brocka’s PX (1984) and Augusto Buenaventura’s In the Claws of an Eagle (Sa Kuko ng Agila,1981)—pictures that, despite their flaws, either attempt to criticize present-day imperialism or celebrate the triumph of the Philippines’ newfound nationalism. Capino comes to a full circle when, in describing the brother’s funeral, he mentions the nurse crying out in English, “My brother is not a pig!” He submits that this can be read differently, that the “brother” the nurse refers to may not just be her actual brother but all men, even Americans, that her cry of denial could be seen as a cry denying that men are totally bestial, totally devoid of humanist impulses—this extraordinary reading being one of many the author gives us over the course of his book.

As an example of the shape of things to come, Capino cites the “Hello, Soldier” segment of Lino Brocka’s Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa (Three, Two, One, 1975), which deals with a Philippine-American girl who has to choose between her alcoholic slum mother and the handsome American stranger who has come to claim her. Capino provides an excellent analysis of the film, then argues that the ending (the girl does not leave with her father) is not as simplistic as it initially appears. He discusses two other titles: Joey Reyes’s BatangBoy PX (Phil-American, 1997) and Chito Rono’s Olongapo: The Great American Dream (Exit Subic, 1987), and demonstrates how the conclusion of these films (the boy stays with his mother, the girl in Olongapo leaves) are not entirely the affirmation of Philippine nationalism or of “transnationalism” (beyond nationalism, or beyond national boundaries) that they at first seem to be.

Capino, in short, does his best not to draw lines in the sand, to divide people into a simple “us vs. them,” to find fault or virtue on just one side of an equation. He believes the films strive to create nuanced conclusions, or even inconclusive endings to their stories. With “Hello, Soldier” he suggests a third possibility, then entertains the notion that this third alternative is in fact paternalistic, even condescending towards women.

The second section, “Transnational Imaginings,” begins to blur the line between countries. In the chapter “The Migrant Woman’s Tale” Capino mentions Gil Portes’s ‘Merika(1984) and how its depiction of Nora Aunor’s migrant nurse leaving to return to the Philippines does not necessarily mean a triumph for Philippine nationalism (well it is, but at a price); Capino also discusses how the Philippine woman gains a measure of independence and self-esteem, again at a price—said independence granted by a foreign country, said country managed by a largely male-dominated society. Capino goes on to mention Olive Lamasan’s Sana Maulit Ulit (Hopefully, Once More, 1995), where the realization of the woman’s independence is more comprehensively and complexly realized (the man she loves follows her to America, and is subsequently emasculated), but the end product is nevertheless inferior (full disclosure: the author was kind enough to mention my Manila Chronicle article panning the picture).

The next chapter “Filipino American Dreams”—discussing Gene Cajayon’s The Debut (2000), Rod Pulido’s The Flip Side (2001), and Neil Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon’s Cavite(2005)—discusses Filipino-American films, and how they wrestle with the idea of a Filipino-American identity: should one retain the purity of culture of one’s mother country (and thus appear anachronistic), adopt the culture of one’s present country (and thus come across as a lowly copycat), or choose to develop some third way (and thus appear indecisive, incomplete)? Capino seems to approve most of The Flip Side—comedy, after all, embodies a more analytical and less naive approach than the other genres represented (e.g., melodrama, the action thriller).

Arguably, the book’s most interesting section is the third, “Global Ambitions.” In the chapter “Naked Brown Brothers,” Capino assesses the well-liked Brocka melodrama Macho Dancer (1988), usually considered one of the director’s lesser films, and gives us a radically different reading. He convincingly argues that the film’s large quotient of soft-core homoerotic porn isn’t a weakness (as so many critics—I included—have always thought) but constitutes a unique political statement. Soft-core porn in the Seventies (termedbomba or “bomblike” films) had a specifically subversive political meaning, one that Brocka knowingly evokes, or so Capino claims, to equate the political oppression of the Seventies to the chaos (and resulting economic oppression) of the late Eighties-—the sensationalism and exoticism inherent in Filipino homoerotic soft-core porn helping guarantee that the message will be seen, or at least noticed. Mel Chionglo’s subsequent efforts in this genre (Sibak–Midnight Dancers, 1994) and Burlesk King (1999) further the cause with a far more progressive agenda, albeit with far less visual and dramatic skill, and therefore less impact.

The chapter “Philippine Cinema’s Fatal Attractions” discusses two titles (Chito Rono’s Kasalanan Ba’ng Sambahin Ka? (Is It a Sin to Worship You?, 1990) and Mel Chionglo’sLoretta (1994), both directly lifted from American films and current events (Kasalanan from Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction [1987], Loretta from the infamous Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt case). Capino makes the case that while both films do a shameless amount of direct stealing (plot lines, characterization, circumstances), they do manage to improve on their sources (Kasalanan by upping the melodramatic stakes—acid not on a car but on the wife’s face) and feminist content (by picture’s end the wife leaves her husband for his complicity in the whole thing); Loretta by taking the tabloid story a step further and invoking spousal rights, the issue of domestic violence against housewives.

All endlessly fascinating stuff. If there is a flaw to Capino’s book, it’s the dense scholar-speak that he often adopts probably out of necessity (a sample: “...the figuration of empire in the films discussed here takes the form of a postcolonial commerce in “blood,” a mode of visibility proper to the violence of imperialism.”). I say “necessity” because Capino, an assistant professor of media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, must feel obliged to employ this sort of jaw-breaking terminology to win acceptance and credibility among his peers. Or it’s possible that this kind of complex language may be needed to fully articulate the nuances and complex relationships he wants to discuss.

An additional, possibly more serious limitation: America has historically been a huge influence on the Philippines, but, at least from where I’m standing, that influence will only decrease, not increase. The impact of economic and social relations with the Philippines’ neighbors has been waxing—with Japan, and especially with China, the emerging giant of the next millennium—to the point where it’s possible to project a day when they eclipse the Philippines’ economic and social relations with America in terms of significance. Capino’s book is of value, of course, but as a window of insight into a specific historical period, not necessarily of the future

Beyond that, it’s a pleasure to read the book, not just for the wide range of films it evokes and discusses (though I wish Capino had also included Tikoy Aguiluz’s great Bagong Bayani [Unsung Heroine, 1995], about women migrant workers in Singapore, his Tatsulok [Triangle, 1998], about a woman and her child born from American servicemen, and in particular Lav Diaz’s masterpiece Batang West Side [West Side Avenue, 2001], about a murder that occurs in the Philippine-American community of Jersey City, New Jersey). Capino’s line of argument has turned my thinking on at least one film (Macho Dancer), piqued my interest in a slew of others (Kasalanan Ba’ng Sambahin Ka?, The Flip Side, Cavite).

And what about that love-hate relationship between Filipinos and Americans? It’s like the 800-pound gorilla in the room, for now and for the immediate future; you ignore it at your own peril.

Noel Vera is the author of Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema, Philippine correspondent of Cinemaya Magazine, a film digest based in New Delhi, India, and occasional correspondent of Film International, a film magazine based in Tehran, Iran.

To purchase Dream Factories of a Former Colony, click here.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.