Cinema as response to the nation: PH films at the Busan Intl Film Festival 2018

BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA – Philippine cinema has, for a century, gained international recognition as film-directors and script-writers – through very different eras – have portrayed the particularities and universalities of Philippine society.

There's the experiences of colonialism and fin de siècle-melancholy, martial law and its effects on everyday lives and family relations, youth and women’s revolt against societal norms, a political economy geared towards going abroad, rural poverty and urban loneliness, and lately, the campaign against illegal drugs.

The latter is a theme Brillante Ma Mendoza has engaged critically with, for instance in his Netflix-series Amo which he followed up at this year’s Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) with the film Alpha, The Right to Kill that shows how genuine police operations against drug-dealers cannot be separated from the economy of extrajudicial killings and the dehumanization produced in the process.

Mendoza also featured with Lakbayan, a 3-piece film directed by 3 giants of the Philippine independent cinema: Mendoza, Lav Diaz (known for Norte, The End of History, 2013) and Kidlat Tahimik, also known as the "Father of Philippine Independent Cinema." The feature depicts lives in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.


Lakbayan is an example of male-domination in Philippine cinema, a topic addressed at a roundtable among Filipina filmmakers and producers organized by the Film Development Council of the Philippines at BIFF.

“We are still struggling with issues of representation even if Philippine cinema history is full of strong women – strong women characters, script writers, and producer matriarchs”, said Sari Raissa Lluch Dalena, a filmmaker and scholar who directed Ka Oryang in 2011.

Gusto Kita With All My Hypothalamus (2018), directed by Dwein Baltazar and produced by Bianca Balbuena, was one of the films that helped tip the gender balance. In the film, the intriguing Aileen embodies the desires, dreams and longings of four men at Avenida Rizal in Manila – one working in an appliance store, widowed long ago; one in a clothes store wanting to return to his home province; one getting by pickpocketing and possibly fantasizing to actually become Aileen; and one a student whose girlfriend left him.

Aileen engages with and evades all of them, apparently at the same time, and the film investigates themes such as gender non-conformity, poverty, urban loneliness and labor migration.

Staying and going

Migration is central to The Dream of Eleuteria (2010), where director Remton Zuasola depicts the day Eleuteria, a young woman from a remote island, is supposed to go abroad to marry Hans, a German man her mother set her up with through a broker.

Eleuteria does not want to go and does not want to stay. Her local boyfriend tries to persuade her to run off with him; her cousin gives her advice based on her own experience with marrying a foreigner (“it’s not easy, you know”); the broker pushes on (“too late to back out now”); the mother pushes too, unrelenting; the father is devastated and sidelined; Eleuteria herself is going out of her mind, finding only a moment of peace when she meets an old classmate at the dock and a theme of impossible same-sex love is hinted on.

In Signal Rock, directed by cinema veteran Chito Roño, Intoy, a liked-by-all pretty boy with a sincere concern for his surroundings, is fighting on two related fronts: Helping his sister in Finland gain custody of the child she had with an abusive husband, and keeping his girlfriend whose father wants to send her off to work at a bar, catering to foreigners, on another island.

Responding from the archive

Under the headline “Cinema as a response to the nation,” BIFF screened classics such as Dekada '70 (2002) based on Lualhati Bautista’s novel about the Martial Law years viewed through the eyes of a mother of five boys, grappling with her responsibilities and concerns for her children and her desire to break free of patriarchal control and emerge as a political subject.

Women's experiences and troubles with societal norms – both when following and revolting them – are also dealt with in two other classics at BIFF.

A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino (1965) portrays two sisters living in an old colonial villa with their ageing art-painter father in the era just before WWII wiped out most of the material remains of pre-independence Manila high society.

Moral (1982), directed by Marilou Diaz-Abaya and called the first feminist statement of Philippine cinema, follows 4 young women friends struggling to find their path in an early 1980s Philippines, were everything is under transformation and yet stays the same.

From various vantage points the Philippine films screened at BIFF inquire into historic and contemporary challenges for the Philippines as a nation and for the individuals and collectives populating it.

As the word “response” in the collective presentation of them suggests, they do not provide answers so much as they pose questions and contribute to elevating the discussions on politics, economy, and culture. –


Nina Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian