movie reviews

Starting out as a young Filipino film critic

Jason Tan Liwag
Starting out as a young Filipino film critic

Illustration by David Castuciano

'Going through films reminded me of all the things I had felt I lost about myself'

I stumbled upon film and film criticism because my mental health was declining.

I was plagued by nightmares in the latter half of 2019. These prevented me from getting enough sleep, so much so that there were days wherein I was completely debilitated. In a desperate attempt to make sense of these dreams, I wrote them down. I’d narrate my dreams to friends, write them down on a piece of paper, or message myself through Messenger. 

I signed up for cognitive behavioral therapy sessions at the UP PsychServ earlier on in the year. I met my therapist in a small room in Lagmay Hall and told her about the dreams. Fascinated, she asked me to keep a dream journal to document whatever I could remember. I went to the National Bookstore and bought a notebook that same day.

The nightmares persisted and as they became more vivid, I felt as though the lexicon I had as a writer was insufficient. As an actor, I already used films as inspiration for character analysis and a source of monologues. But this time, I started scouring the internet for screenplays: trying to see if filmic language could help me process my nightmares. I managed to get a hold of a copy of the screenplay of Ari Aster’s Hereditary, a favorite of mine since god knows when, and began reading.

Soon enough, I was reading screenplays and watching how the films transformed these narratives into a visual language through the script library at Screenplayed. The dream journals began to be more detailed – so much so that I moved most of it to Google Docs.

As I began consuming films and writing about them, the nightmares started to disappear.

What film returns to us

Going through films reminded me of all the things I had felt I lost about myself. I had forgotten that I fell in love with science because I watched Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in my younger years and wanted to make my own dinosaurs; realized the kind of simple love I wanted after watching The Way He Looks; loved performing because I watched the High School Musical trilogy in my teen years.

In film, there seemed to be a space for collective memory; where what was lost to time and oblivion was returned.

I couldn’t talk about films with a lot of people (because of spoilers). So instead, I started writing about them through Letterboxd. It was late December 2019 and I was doom-scrolling through Facebook for the nth time when I came across a post by Cinema Centenario about a series of workshops on film criticism. I signed up on a whim and got word in early January 2020 that I was selected.

It was here that I met film critic, book author, and professor Richard Bolisay – who would later challenge my way of thinking about cinema. Online spaces such as Twitter, Letterboxd, or Facebook groups (such as film recs for cinephiles) had a tendency to shame people for their tastes and their opinions; with bashers getting more attention for their divisive hot-takes, as they baited people who had too much time and frustration in our government. In these online spaces dominated by the loud few, the quieter opinions seemed to be drowned out or shooed away.

But during these four hour sessions, we’d watch short films together and talk about what we saw in them. The disagreements brought about insight that we wouldn’t have arrived at had we not spoken up. It is our sessions with him that reminded me that film criticism needed to challenge the status quo rather than uphold it; that the dream was rooted in dialogue and dialectic, and not on the creation of some new canon.

The right to write

During one of our sessions, I remember telling Richard that I felt as though I had no right calling myself a film critic – I had no publications and no background in film theory, among other concerns. I hadn’t even watched Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag yet. What right did anyone who hasn’t had compared to all of the film students around me? He only told me (and I hope I’m recalling this right):

 “No one has a monopoly on insight.” 

As the pandemic unfolded, I stopped from March to July 2020 and exclusively consumed films (and even tried screenwriting). When I eventually returned to criticism, it became clear to me how easy it was to capitalize on wit for popularity (like on the parody account Lebbertoxd) without advancing discourse.

Though democratization of film writing and criticism has paralleled the increasing global access to films, there are things about cinema and the criticism surrounding it that are inevitably lost: long-form essays remain unpublished, the focus on text rather than the post-text, material analysis, among other things. As Adam Kirsch and Charles McGrath explained: anyone could be a critic, but not all critics have good insights or the diligence to sit down, think critically, and write about it. It was a process of filtering through the noise and looking for whose voices cut through, every time.

Time-traveller’s dilemma

To be a film critic, I needed to learn how to articulate myself better, as I once did with my nightmares.

That process started with some time-traveling. Writing involves as much reading, re-reading, and listening as it did the writing itself. I listened to podcasts like Third World Cinema Club, Endslate, and even The Big Picture while I performed my experiments. I read essays like “On Photography” and “Notes on Camp” by Susan Sontag and started with Pauline Kael’s “I Lost It At The Movies.” I marveled at Wesley Morris as he wrote about Beyoncé, social justice, and art and cried as I scrolled through Jonathan Lethem’s essays on how the coronavirus has changed the cinema experience irrevocably

I began reading works of Filipino film critics before me: Dodo Dayao, Richard Bolisay, Oggs Cruz, Noel Vera, Philbert Dy, and the late Alexis Tioseco, and even Joel David’s thoughts on Pinoy film criticism. It involved poring through the countless indelible works written in Pelikula Journal and their efforts at returning lost cinematic narratives to the everyday Filipino. It meant talking to my friend and fellow critic Emil Hofileña about the rewards and perils of publishing, and even asking strangers questions on questions on questions.

But more than that, film is also meant to be understood in the context of its history and its historicity because it is an act of communal storytelling. It meant looking up at the political situations, and engaging, listening, to the political dialogues in whatever way you can. In the grander scheme of things, I acknowledge that film criticism doesn’t answer a lot of our problems. There are more important things in life – especially in a country where families are shot in broad daylight and where governments seem to be run by fools. But film does offer a way to simultaneously escape and confront reality. All it asks is that we stop looking away.

It took an editor telling me that the deadline could be moved had I told him earlier that I woke up in a pool of my own blood to realize I need to rest. “You can’t be a shooting star,” my dad said, as he spoke to me in the car. “You deserve to write well for a long time and that can only happen if you treat yourself well for a long time.” Criticism also meant sleep and rest and living your life somehow. The “not writing” was, in fact, the most important part of the writing process.

I don’t know when I’ll be rushing again to the cinemas with my friends Ian and Zach, just to make it to half of Hintayan ng Langit, or when I’ll sing along the Cleaners soundtrack with my friend LJ, or when I’ll be cooped up again in my apartment watching Arrival with my friends Cholo and Bina. Till then, I’ll be accumulating whatever I can and doing my best to share them with the world. 

Because what would cinema be if we couldn’t share it with others? –

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.