Filipino movies

[Only IN Hollywood] Restored ‘Bona’ draws raves as biggest Filipino delegation gathers at Cannes

Ruben V. Nepales

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[Only IN Hollywood] Restored ‘Bona’ draws raves as biggest Filipino delegation gathers at Cannes

Screenshot from Bona

The audience breaks into two rounds of applause and cheers when the 'Bona' credits started rolling at Cannes

CANNES, France – “It’s a very powerful film. The lead, Nora (Aunor), is incredible in it,” writer-director Sean Baker said after watching the restored version of the late Lino Brocka’s Bona as a Cannes Classic here at the Cannes Film Festival.

“So, I’m really happy that Bona will be getting a new life because it really deserves an audience,” added Sean, who himself has an entry in the main competition, Anora. More about this winning comedy, which received a long standing ovation, in a coming column.

The American filmmaker, known for such acclaimed indie films as Red RocketThe Florida Project, and Tangerine, said to me in the reception at the Palais des Festivals following the special screening at La Salle Bunuel:

“This is my first time seeing this Lino Brocka film and I was blown away. I’m so happy that this is the way I’m first seeing it because this restoration is glowing. It’s incredible.”

“It’s like one of these ideal situations in which I’ve been told that they thought that the negative might be lost but no, the negative was safe and sound in Paris in a lab.”

Sean praised the late Pierre Rissient who championed Philippine cinema in his heyday: “Obviously, it was placed there by Pierre Rissient and thank God he did that because now, we have this classic that has been preserved and the restoration has now made it something that people can enjoy for generations.”

It turns out that Sean, whose accolades include awards in the Deauville and Hamburg Film Festivals and the Film Independent Spirit Awards, admires Brocka’s work.

“I’ve seen Insiang, excuse my pronunciation,” he shared. “And I’ve seen Manila in the Claws of Light and Cain and Abel. So, I’ve seen those four because of the new restorations but of course, I’ve always known about Brocka being the most renowned Filipino director and the first to play Cannes in competition.”

“So, I’m really glad that I’m going to be able to continue to explore his work. I have 62 films to watch (laughs).”

“But why I’m drawn to him is because we both work in social realism and tackling the subject matter with this craft is right up my alley.”

Sean, who directed Willem Dafoe in his Oscar-nominated best supporting actor performance in The Florida Project in 2018, was impressed with Nora’s turn as a fan who idolizes a bit player, Gardo (Phillip): “The very fact that she is one of the biggest stars from the Philippines and was probably at the height perhaps of her fame at the time.”

Told that Nora was only 27 at that time and she produced Bona, Sean replied, “Oh, yeah, but the very fact that she took on a role like this. And she produced it is quite special.”

“And that’s a star playing a fan. That’s meta in itself. But yeah, she’s incredible and it’s really beautiful that she was able to help with this restoration.”

I quipped that by coincidence, his in-competition film is titled Anora. “I know right?” Sean laughed. “That’s so funny.”

Watching the restored version inside the Bunuel Theater, I was struck by how well Bona holds up indeed. While there were fleeting reminders of that early 1980s era, including a uniformed Metro Manila aide sweeping a street, Bona’s story, written by the late Cenen Ramones, is timeless and universal.

The film’s stark beauty and power reminded me how sad it is that we lost Brocka so young; imagine how many more masterpieces he would have made.

And of course, the performances Brocka elicited from Nora, Phillip, and the cast, mostly from the PETA ensemble, are top-rate.

The audience broke into two rounds of applause and cheers when the Bona credits started rolling.

Panos Kotzathanasis of Asian Movie Pulse raved, “Bona is a great film that has truly stood the passing of time, highlighting the fact that Filipino cinema of the era was truly golden…”

“The concept of fandom has given us some masterpieces of international cinema, with Perfect Blue and All About Lily Chou-Chou being some of the most renowned. It is easy to say that Bona is on the same level, with Lino Brocka coming up with a superb story about the downward spiral of a woman obsessed while pushing the concept to its very extremes.”

Nora Aunor in the titular role is a wonder to look at throughout the movie. Her initial longing, her tenacity which eventually brings her what she wants (or at least what she thought she wanted) and the way she receives all the violence that comes from every corner is truly astonishing.”

“Particularly her looks of discomfort every time Gardo exhibits his awful tendencies will stay on the mind of every viewer…Since Bona was evidently a vehicle for his (Phillip’s) co-protagonist but (he) still manages to shine as a self-centered, spoiled, cruel womanizer. The antithetical chemistry of the duo is also excellent, in another of the film’s traits.”

Ruby Ruiz

Surprise, surprise – Bona was the first film of Ruby Ruiz, who is in Cannes, by coincidence, because she stars with Shaina Magdayao in Eve Baswel (Philippines) and Gogularaajan Rajendran’s (Malaysia) Walay Balay, one of the four shorts in the Directors Factory Philippines.

Ruby said, “I was 18 years old then, if I remember right. I was still an applicant member of PETA when I did Bona.”

“Lino Brocka handpicked me to play the younger sister of Ms. Nora Aunor. My call time on set was 7:30 – 8:00 a.m. As soon as I finished breakfast, I went inside an empty room in the house where we were shooting, faced the wall in the corner and started rehearsing my lines.”

“Lino was then checking all the areas in the house with the production designer. He was so surprised to find a girl facing the wall.”

“Kinalabit niya ako (He poked me) and asked, ‘Sino ito?’ (Who’s this?) So I faced him. To Lino’s surprise, he saw me all in tears already. He asked, ‘What are you doing here, Ruby?’ ”

“I told him I was preparing for the (wake) scene. He blurted into laughter and said, ‘Ruby, your scene is scheduled to be shot around 7 – 8 p.m. Why are you preparing so early?’ ”

“I answered, ‘I am so nervous because my first ever scene will be with the Superstar.’ ”

“Of course, I was starstruck upon seeing her on set but I pretended not to be. Nora really impressed me! She came on set prepared as well, in character and all.”

“Ms. Nora Aunor deserves to be called the Superstar because she is. As an actress, she is very intense and genuine with her emotions.”

Ruby also made Thy Womb later with Nora.

Joey Reyes

Joey Reyes, also in town as head of the Philippine delegation in the 77th edition of this festival on the Croisette, recounted watching Bona for the first time: “Oh, I saw that when I was literally a kid. Lino and Aunor were two of my idols and Bona is one of his benchmark works.”

Interviewed at the Philippine and Singapore’s joint pavilion, the new Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) chair said, “We found out about the possibility of the restored version of Bona being invited here in Cannes. We were excited but then we really could not say much until Cannes announced it.”

“How did I feel about it? Well, proud. Proud of the fact that Nora Aunor has gone into a full circle from the first time that Bona was brought here to now that it is restored and brought to a completely different generation of audiences.”

“I think that says a lot not only about the premium of two national artists, Lino and Nora. And what is my personal attachment to it? Well, anything that celebrates Filipino heritage in cinema is a reason to really celebrate.”

Cannes2024 Ruby Ruiz’s (left) first film was with Nora Aunor, Venchito Galvez and Rustica Carpio in ‘Bona.’ ‘I was 18 years old,’ Ruby recalled. Carlotta Films

“That’s one thrust that FDCP wants to emphasize or at least in my time, that we have to respect, we have to recognize, and we have to acknowledge the masters of the past. This sounds like a cliché but unless you give value to the past, then you will never know who you are in the present but worse, you will never know what direction to take in the future.”

“It is sad if a Filipino filmmaker is incapable of discussing and appreciating Ishmael Bernal, Brocka, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, and Gerardo de León because these are the giants’ shoulders we stand on today.”

Joey explained why Nora could not grace the special screening of her restored masterpiece: “We really wanted her to come but for health reasons, she has decided to stay home. Personally, I was worried because it’s not easy to get here from where we come from. It’s a 24-hour trip.”

“It’s not only a lot of sitting but it requires a lot of endurance, and to be able to retain your energy for 24 hours. We were worried for Nora.”

“We wish she were here because it would have been a full cycle. I don’t want to think it’s a swan song but I think it catapults her into her stature as a National Artist.”

On the Philippine cinema’s presence here in this fest in the south of France, Joey stressed, “This is the biggest contingent so far in the years of Philippine participation here in Cannes. We have 80 Filipinos who are here, who are involved in the various programs and activities held in this festival.”

“One of the highlights is that the Philippines was the focus of the Directors’ Fortnight with the Directors’ Factory, of which there are four Filipinos who collaborated with Southeast Asian directors to create four short films. These were lumped together to represent the Philippines in the Directors’ Fortnight.”

“Over and above that, we have a lot of young filmmakers who are here pitching their stories, gaining attention, not only of the Asian region but European producers and the likes. And I think equally important is the producers’ network.

“The Producers’ Network is where we brought in producers to learn and at the same time network with producers not only from Europe but also from Asia and the Americas with the hope that eventually, they will be able to come up with international co-productions which is the way to go in this post-pandemic scenario.”

FDCP hosted a dinner which was a convivial gathering of Pinoy film creatives from Manila and all over the world.

Joey also graced the well-received Directors’ Factory Philippines screening at the Directors’ Fortnight, featuring the four shorts of the aforementioned Eve Baswel and Gogularaajan Rajendran (Walay Balay); Maria Estela Paiso (Philippines) and Ashok Vish (India) (Nightbirds); Arvin Belarmino (Philippines; he also has another Cannes shorts entry, Radikal) and Lomorpich Rithy (aka YoKi) (Silig); and Don Eblahan (Philippines) and Tan Siyou (Singapore) (Cold Cut).

Arvin Belarmino makes a splash in Cannes with two films, ‘Radikals’ and ‘Silig,’ which he co-directed with Lomorpich Rithy. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

Several actresses in these shorts were on hand with these filmmakers to acknowledge the audience’s cheers – Ruby, Shaina, and Sylvia Sanchez. A surprise star in Cannes is Lorna Tolentino, whose late husband, Rudy Fernadez, had a cameo in Bona.

Producing couple Bianca Balbuena and Bradley Liew also deserve a shout-out for their help in increasing the Philippines’ visibility on the Croisette.

Adolfo Alix, Jr.

Adolfo Alix was extra excited to see the restored film because he is making the Bona sequel.

“When I was young, I only saw the blurred copies – VHS copies,” he said. “I saw it a couple of times before the restored version. But now seeing it on the big screen, it looks as if it was just shot yesterday. It feels good to see the performances.”

“Now, you can clearly see how the characters develop and all. So it’s timeless, it’s a classic. Now I understand why Bona’s character is so strong in the film, which I also really liked when I was watching it. I even appreciated it more because of the details that you see on screen.”

On making a follow-up to Bona – a tough act, given how widely revered Bona is – Adolfo remarked, “Right now, we’re in development for the final story. Ate Guy is involved in the process. She also wants to know the flow of the story, the inputs and all. So, probably this year, we’ll shoot it.”

“Yes, Ate Guy will be starring in the film,” Adolfo confirmed. “This will be what happens to Bona after 44 years. This was in 1980. So, we follow her character, what happened to her after 44 years. So that’s the basic premise of the movie.”

Cannes 2024 Filmmaker Sean Baker, in Cannes with his entry Anora, watched the restored Bona and praised it as a powerful film and hailed Nora Aunor as incredible Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

The director enthused about Nora’s performance: “The power of Ate Guy is in how she controls her performance. In the film, you see how at the start, you feel the story is normal. She takes everything in.”

“And then later on, like a volcano, it suddenly explodes. And the build-up is just beautiful. That’s what I appreciated when I watched it – you feel like you are following her, you are feeling her emotions.”

(Spoiler alert): “And then when things start to get crazy and all, that’s the right ending because you feel for her. You know what her character went through. So, when she does that to Gardo (Phillip Salvador), you know that guy deserves what she did to him because of all the things. So, the level of performance of Guy is really good.”

The director said that watching the film again gave him new ideas for his sequel: “Yes, because there are details that I saw for the first time on the big screen. So, we will discuss some ideas.”

“Maybe within the year or later this year, we’ll start production,” Adolfo promised.

Martin Arnaldo

Paris-based Filipino filmmaker Martin Arnaldo, for his part, shared, “I find Bona really beautiful because it’s very strong and what’s most beautiful is to hear the reactions in the room with the French audience that was laughing. It’s not a comedy laugh; it’s a very nervous laughter that was communicated. It electrified the entire audience.”

“A film like Bona still resonates very deeply with the contemporary audience which is fantastic.”

Martin offered a unique take on the genius of Nora’s portrayal: “She’s so intense from frame one and I’m wondering, do we still write these things on the page about the intensity of a character? Is that still in the script? What part comes from her and what part comes from the script?”

“What part comes from the director? How does he invent this intensity of this character? She pierces the screen from the moment of its opening.”

“So, it’s really a driving force where I wonder where it comes from – if it’s on the page or in the director’s interaction with Nora. I was really amazed.”

Martin discussed the film’s relevance even 40 plus years later: “Bona ages very well but it also questions very important things that are still relevant today. The opening is about this religious scene where people follow something very blindly and we go follow the story of this woman who has this passion for somebody whom she follows blindly.”

“So, what’s the relationship? Is that our culture? Is it our 350 years of colonization? And how does it relate to us today? I think it’s still completely relevant.”

Jojo de Vera

Jojo de Vera, who is among the Filipinos (along with writer Gil Quito and CCP and Cinemalaya’s Vicky Belarmino) who helped pave the way for Carlotta Films (led by co-founder Vincent Paul-Boncour) and the Hong Kong-based Kani Releasing to restore Bona, said:

“I love the restoration. I think it does justice to the film and it looks much, much better than when I first saw it back in 1980 at the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF).”

He announced, “I just wanted everyone to know that this version is (slightly) different from the one shown at the MMFF because there were scenes that were edited out for the MMFF but were added back to this (restored) version.”

“Pierre Rissient thought that Nora didn’t have enough scenes so everything that Brocka took out he had to put back in for this Cannes version.”

“That Metro Manila Film Festival version is at the MoMA [Museum of Modern Art]. I saw it years before at the Filipino Film Festival and that’s exactly the same as the one shown in the Philippines. So, I hope that they will be able to negotiate a copy that will be an extra on the Blu-ray release soon.”

Jojo, a friend of Nora, added about the extra footage: “Just a few minutes – maybe 10 minutes of footage. The footage that was added includes the ones where Nora was fetching water, she was fixing the roof, she was selling bottles, old newspapers and magazines, and also the scene where she was writing her name on the pail. Those were taken out of the original.”

Vicky Belarmino

Vicky shared, “Quite honestly, this is the first time that I saw the full film. I did not see it when it was first released in 1980. I was still young then. I wasn’t even with the Cultural Center of the Philippines yet.”

“So, this journey of Bona back to Cannes is really a long one. But we were able to pull it through. Nora was very cooperative since the time I started talking about the plans to restore Bona and maybe the possibility of it being shown here in Cannes this year.”

Cannes 2024 CCP and Cinemalaya’s Vicky Belarmino, who brokered the talks with Bona producer and actress Nora Aunor to restore the film, attended the Cannes Classics premiere. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

“So, actually it was a blast because I was surprised when Vincent said that the target is to show it here now. I said, oh no, that’s a restoration. It’s like we don’t know the process of restoration. It takes time. But thanks to Carlotta Films, Kani Releasing and the lab who took care of the restoration, it’s good.”

On helping get Nora’s permission to restore Bona, Vicky pointed out, “Carlotta had to pay her a copyright permission fee to have it restored. And I’m sure knowing her, she would also like to see again this film, which she produced 40 years ago, on the wide screen.”

“She is very sad. I was helping her process the paperwork to come over and, in the end, she was not given permission by her doctors to fly in because of her condition. But she’s very excited.”

Sony Dabao

Sony Dabao, who was a close friend of Lino and is the former wife of Phillip, was one of the Pinoys in the audience, which was mostly made up of non-Filipino film lovers.

Cannes 2024. Sony Dabao, a good friend of the late Lino Brocka, enjoyed watching the restored Bona and the performances of Nora Aunor and her former husband, Phillip Salvador. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

Nora and Philip are wonderful,” Sony told me. “Ate Guy is a wonderful actor and I have to say that for Phillip, too. He is very good in the film. He is very good with his craft and I’m proud of that.”

Sony, who watched Bona when it debuted in Cannes at the Directors’ Fortnight in 1981, talked about seeing it again this time as a restored Cannes Classic:

“It’s really wonderful and so fantastic that something like this can be restored in such an extraordinary way. I was very thrilled and happy. It’s almost like seeing it for the first time again after 40 years.” –

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.