Filipino movies

At Cannes, ‘Bona’ finds a second life

Jason Tan Liwag

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At Cannes, ‘Bona’ finds a second life

BONA. The 1980 film, which stars Nora Aunor and Philip Salvador, gets a 4K restoration.

Carlotta Films' Facebook

Ariel Esteban Cayer, co-founder of Kani Releasing, talks about the long road to making this Brocka-Aunor classic available to the public in its high quality glory

There is no star in the Philippines like Nora Aunor. Even those who are too young to have seen her meteoric rise from the late ‘60s as a singer know how she became a dominant force in acting in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Like her fellow inductees into the Order of National Artists Ricky Lee and Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Aunor’s onscreen legacy is inseparable from what is often called the Second Golden Age of Philippine Cinema.

At Cannes, ‘Bona’ finds a second life

In the last few years, Aunor’s work has slowly pushed its way back into the mainstream conversation. Ishmael Bernal’s Himala and Mario O’Hara’s Bulaklak sa City Jail played as part of CCP Cine Icons. Blu-ray restorations of Lupita Aquino Kashiwahara’s Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo have become available for purchase in North America. It’s serendipitous to discover that one of Aunor’s films, Bona, directed by fellow National Artist Lino Brocka, is making its way to Cannes later this week, just as conversations of a sequel helmed by Adolf Alix Jr. began surfacing in early April.

Bona follows a young, middle-class girl of the same name (Aunor) who drops out of high school to pursue a one-sided romance with Gardo, a minor actor in low-budget films.

At once innocent and unsettling, Bona harnesses the power of Aunor’s screen presence, even if she is the admirer instead of the admired. In film critic and programmer Barbara Wurm’s roundup of the 2009 Viennale for Senses of Cinema, Wurm writes how “the end of the film is taken over by an unforgettable, enormous zoom onto the face of the woman.” Brocka’s decision to end on this “freeze frame” of Aunor’s expressive eyes, sadness peeking through her downturned lids, is an testament to how her beauty — which at the time challenged Eurocentric and East Asian standards — can carry an entire film.

Before Bona was screened as part of the sixth Metro Manila Film Festival, Aunor collaborated with Lino Brocka as a director on two other films — Anak Ka Ng Ina Mo (1979) and Nakaw Na Pag-Ibig (1980). Produced under her production outfit NV Productions, Bona was the first and only of her films with Brocka where she served as an executive producer, emblematic of her efforts to take hold of her own career. It later made its international premiere at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight in 1981, the third time Brocka was at the festival after Insiang and Jaguar and Aunor’s first.

Forty-three years after its appearance at Cannes, Bona makes a return to France through the collaborative efforts of French distribution company Carlotta Films and boutique home video label Kani Releasing, with its 4K restoration premiering alongside other world cinema classics such as Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express (1974) and Ousmane Sembene and Theirno Faty Sow’s Camp De Thiaroye (1988).

In anticipation of the premiere of the 4K restoration at Cannes Classics, we spoke via email to Ariel Esteban Cayer, co-founder of Kani Releasing, about the long road to making this Brocka-Aunor classic available to the public in its high quality glory.

Separately, Lino Brocka and Nora Aunor have a plethora of masterpieces. What prompted the restoration of ‘Bona’?

Digging into Lino Brocka’s filmography a little bit, the film had a certain mystique. It was selected at the Director’s Fortnight in 1981, produced by Aunor herself, featuring her in a very intriguing role and, above all, was very hard to access unless you knew where to locate old copies (most often with burnt in French subtitles). And then, once you got your hands on the film, you couldn’t help but be shocked by its straightforward, yet riveting story of fandom and obsession that both deepened my understanding of Nora Aunor’s star persona and of Lino Brocka’s themes as a filmmaker. So there’s that. And then came the practicalities, of course: the fact the rights were clearable and the negatives accessible made the restoration possible at the moment it did. More masterpieces will come!

How did the partnership between you and Carlotta Films start?

We had both released and collaborated on the release of Cain and Abel (restored by ABS-CBN) in North America. In the process of producing that Blu-ray, we connected with pre-eminent Brocka scholar José B. Capino (author of Martial Law Melodrama, recently published by Ateneo de Manila University Press), who, as part of his research, interviewed the late Pierre Rissient. Rissient was a correspondent for Cannes and a champion of Filipino cinema, who brought Brocka’s films to the Croisette. Rissient entrusted Capino with information on the location of the elements of Bona, that he then shared with us, and that we shared with Carlotta, who were able to confirm the location of the elements in Paris and get the ball rolling on the restoration with the lab, Cité de Mémoire. We then circled back, so-to-speak, as the film’s North American distributor.

It’s been 40 years since ‘Bona’ was last available to the Filipino public in such a high quality. It’s a cheeky question but what took so long to restore it?

It’s a difficult question to answer, as these things are often the matter of stars aligning (i.e. interest, priorities, information) in a particular way. In this case, there had been sufficient interest in our respective releases of Cain and Abel to make this project viable. Then information came our way regarding the materials. And then the desire and possibility and right partners to make it happen (as we could not have done without Carlotta Films and, it should be mentioned, Nora Aunor’s collaboration).

Delaying these projects is never a conscious decision, but conditions need to align. It’s also a complex historical situation, in that the negatives were archived abroad. That is both the reason why the film can look so pristine now and, paradoxically, maybe why it took so long to re-emerge. 

What was it like communicating with Nora Aunor for this restoration? How invovled was she in the restoration, if at all?

The rights to Bona are with Nora Aunor, as she produced the film for Brocka through her own outfit, NV Productions. She was receptive to the project from the start, and I’m glad we can shine more light on this major work of hers.

Nora Aunor was recently awarded as a National Artist in the Philippines and is one of the few actresses in the country who remain household names after decades in the industry. Were you familiar with her work and legacy before working on the restoration? And what new things did you learn about her and ‘Bona’ in the process?

We first encountered Nora Aunor in Himala, and following that, in Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo, the restoration of which we also released on Blu-ray in North America. We hope that her star appeal may extend to our audience, or that new audiences may discover her work as it is one of the more important in Filipino film. For those unfamiliar with her, we believe Bona may be the perfect introduction as the film wonderfully subverts and interrogates her star persona and the fanaticism that surrounds it.

When did Cannes enter the picture?

The film premiered in the Director’s Fortnight in 1981 so Cannes was always the logical place to premiere the film. Carlotta Films guided this process in France, and we’re very proud Cannes thought it fitting to bring the film back 43 years later.

Your poster for ‘Bona’ is quite beautiful and it captures Nora at what is likely one of the peaks of her stardom. How did you arrive at the poster design?

The poster was designed by Midnight Marauder, who offered a wealth of incredible options. Ultimately, we felt like this one had the most persuasive font, conveying both the contemporary flavor or a restoration and the retro appeal of the film. Mostly, it was the most iconic interpretation of Nora Aunor’s face. I mean that literally, in that the film is concerned with the worship of movie stars that borders the religious (as is made evident by the opening of the film).

Nora Aunor portrays Bona, the obsessive character, but ultimately, she holds the power. What are stars without fans? Although, of course, the film also functions on the level of her own iconicity as a star, flipping her stardom on its head, commenting on it, and so on. Simply put, we wanted to turn Bona herself into an icon for a new generation. I think Midnight Marauder achieved just that.


The new 4K restoration of Lino Brocka’s “Bona” (1980) will premiere at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

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Jason Tan Liwag

Jason Tan Liwag is an openly gay scientist, actor, and writer. As a film critic, he is an alumnus of the IFFR Young Critics Programme 2021, the FEFF Film Campus 2021, the Yamagata Film Criticism Workshop 2021, and the CINELAB Workshop 2020 and has served as a jury member for film festivals locally and internationally.