August 29, 2020

Influential films during my formative years

Raise The Red Lantern, Zhang Yimou (1991)

 In an online lecture on improving the filmmaking skills of young Bangsamoro filmmakers two weeks ago, I was asked by an aspiring filmmaker what films were influential to my development as a filmmaker and writer on cinema. There was a deluge of questions and I feel that I was not able to answer this particular inquiry. 

Now pondering on the question I can divide a list of films into two timelines: my formative years from 1994 to 2009 which account for my university days to film school, my first short film to the year before I made my debut feature Limbunan; and my journey as a feature filmmaker and an active writer on cinema from 2010 onwards. For this post I will enumerate the films that helped cement my resolve to enter the world of cinema. I was preparing to become a medical doctor prior to this in fulfillment of a childhood dream.

While attending university in Davao, access to films was limited to what was available on VHS rental, mostly Hollywood flicks and the latest Tagalog flicks, and the films available in the university library like Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941).

It is said that the forbidden is a seductive thing. When the Philippine censors banned The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993) for its nudity, there was an uproar in Manila which consequently lead to the lifting of the ban. Somehow the ban created publicity for the film it upped the curiosity of people leading them to watch it in cinema houses. I saw the film in a standing room only screening and fell in love with it for the performance of its leads (who could forget Holly Hunter's performance when her husband cut off her finger), the lush cinematography and brilliant direction. Later the novelist and poet Danton Remoto gave me a book containing the screenplay of The Piano as a gift.  

Jane Campion, The Piano (1993)

My glimpse of earlier cinematic gems came in 1995 when Mowelfund Film Institute organized the World Cinema Centennial Film Festival in Manila. In the festival I saw what I consider 'The Trifecta', the three films that shook me to core. These were Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953), 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963) and Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971). I was enthralled by the slow pace of the films and the philosophical questioning on mortality, beauty and the nature of our own being. 

In 1997 the Cultural Center of the Philippines organized a tour to encourage the formation of Sineklab or film clubs in the regions. The tour screened Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, 1948), Raise The Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou, 1991) and Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988). De Sica's film offered me one of my first lessons in intertextuality as some of the composition in the film were derived from classical paintings. Zhang's film stirred something personal in me. I am familiar with polygamy as my grandfather had many wives. Although back then I was not privy with the jealousy and perhaps a conspiracy of wives to race to the top but it gave me a picture of what could be. Cinema Paradiso on the other hand validated my love for cinema with that end sequence forever haunting me.

The Scent of Green Papaya, Tran Anh Hung (1993)

During that tour I was introduced to Southeast Asian cinema with The Scent of Green Papaya (Tran Anh Hung, 1993). By now I realized that I am drawn to slow films and loved every moment of the film. With its rich visual details from close up of papaya seeds to the slow motion of the camera from one part of the house to another film, it became the visual peg for my debut film many years later. I also saw Happy Together (Wong Kar Wai, 1997) and was hypnotized by its cinematography capturing both longing, desire and alienation. Never before did I realize that sadness can be so beguiling. 

I went to film school in Manila in the summer of 1997. My access to films grew not only from the school library but also to what has become an all-too-important store in Greenhills, a center of film education of some sort, that sold bootleg VHS copies of films. I bought 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959) that would later introduce me to other French New Wave auteurs, Color Trilogy (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993-1994) which expanded my notion of cinematography as well as the moral ambiguity of characters that defied the clearcut distinction between good and evil in standard mainstream flicks, Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966) which had a profound effect on me for its exploration of the psychology of characters manifesting in very beautiful and surreal images, and Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) which taught me storytelling techniques as well as opened my eye to film criticism.

400 Blows, Francois Truffaut (1959)

As a fan of the late River Phoenix, My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991) holds a special place for me. Loosely adapted from Shakespeare's Henry IV, it gave me an idea to explore classic literature as a rich source of stories that can be translated to contemporary sensibility. My filmography would be filled with works that have been influenced by literature. 

Billy Elliot (Stephen Daldry, 2000) taught me that no dream is small. Raised in the rustic town of Pagalungan, Maguindanao, I saw my own struggle in Billy, in a town that does not understand the complexity of our desire, anxiety and restlessness to be something else outside of the norm  –be it a ballet dancer or a filmmaker. As Lupita Nyongo said in her Oscar speech, all dreams are valid. Billy Elliot is a testament to the validity of dreams.

I Dont Want To Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming Liang, 2006) showed me how the spectrum of identity and rootedness –from vacillation to being confident in your own skin –is important in becoming what we truly are. 

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