AKΩ Batch ’81. 1982. Philippines. Directed by Mike De Leon | Photo Courtesy Mike De Leon
NEW YORK – The Department of Film at the Museum of Modern Art presents “Mike De Leon: Self-Portrait of a Filipino Filmmaker” from November 1 to 30.
Mike De Leon, the producer, and cinematographer of Lino Brocka’s haunting masterpiece Manila in the Claws of Light (1975), is one of Filipino cinema’s most fiercely political and dramatic storytellers in his own right. This complete retrospective, the first ever presented in North America, combines all of De Leon’s feature filprodums and shorts as a writer and director. De Leon’s films are presented alongside some of the few surviving classic melodramas, musicals, costume dramas, and noir films of the 1930s–’60s to come out of the greatest of all Filipino studios, LVN Pictures, which was founded in 1938 by De Leon’s grandmother Doña Sisang.
Inspired by this storied history of popular moviemaking in the Philippines — one he experienced firsthand as a child on the LVN studio lot — as well as by Hollywood and European cinema, De Leon’s own films mix the genres of melodrama, crime, supernatural horror, slapstick comedy, and the musical with blisteringly critical stances toward his country’s history of corruption and cronyism, state-sponsored violence, feudalist exploitation, and populist machismo: the festering legacies of the nation’s colonial past made even more purulent by the dictatorships of Ferdinand Marcos and Rodrigo Duterte.
MoMA’s retrospective includes De Leon’s debut feature, ITIM (The Rites of May) (1976), in a new restoration that premiered at Cannes earlier this year; Kisapmata (1981); Batch ’81 (1982); Sister Stella L. (1984); and Citizen Jake (2018); along with Signos, the defiantly subversive anti-Marcos short he made in 1983 with an underground collective of filmmakers and activists; and rare behind-the-scenes production footage from Manila, ITIM, Moments in a Stolen Dream (1977), and Will Your Heart Beat Faster? (1980) shown alongside the features themselves.
Joshua Siegel, Curator, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art, organized the month-long screening of De Leon’s films.
For starters, the following movies will be screened on Tuesday, November 1, at 4 p.m. and Saturday, November 12, 14 4 p.m.
Mutya ng Pasig (Muse of the Pasig River). 1950. Philippines. Directed by Richard Abelardo. With Jose Padilla Jr., Rebecca Gonzales, Delia Razon. DCP. In Filipino, English subtitles. 90 min.
Muse of the Pasig River is one of the few films to survive intact from the archives of LVN Pictures, the celebrated Filipino studio run by Mike De Leon’s grandmother Doña Sisang. Surprised by the film’s “uncanny resemblance” to his own debut feature, Itim, De Leon writes, “Like Itim, Mutya ng Pasig is a ghost story set in a provincial milieu; a father commits a horrible crime; a young woman is possessed by the vengeful spirit of her dead mother….
The story of Abelardo’s film has other magical elements. For instance, a story about a ghostly woman singing in the dead of night the melancholy strains of ‘Mutya ng Pasig’ (a kundiman, or traditional love song), pining for her lost love, seeking pity and justice, circulates in the town of Matangtubig (Water’s Eye—even the town’s name is magical).
Nicanor Abelardo, the director’s cousin and one of our greatest composers, created this sublime kundiman while Deogracias Rosario wrote its lyrics.”
Itim (The Rites of May). 1976. Philippines. Directed by Mike De Leon. Screenplay by Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr., Gil Quito. With Tommy Abuel, Mario Montenegro, Charo Santos.
DCP. In Filipino, English subtitles. 107 min.
Though he has self-deprecatingly called it “a ghost story by a first-time and untested director from a wealthy family,” Mike De Leon’s Itim is one of the most remarkable debuts in cinema history. A major discovery when it was presented in a new digital restoration at Cannes earlier this year, the film expresses De Leon’s lifelong fears about “the dark side of our culture”: the Spanish colonial legacies of superstition and antiscience in his native Philippines.
De Leon recalls, “Itim is about a young man (Tommy Abuel) who visits his hometown during the Holy Week to take photographs for his magazine and visit his paralyzed father. While shooting photos of a pasyon (a poetic recitation, in song, of the Passion of Christ), he encounters Teresa, the young girl possessed by her dead sister’s spirit in the séance that opens the film. Although the film’s protagonist is the girl played by newcomer Charo Santos, I became more intrigued with the character of Dr. Torres, played by the late LVN star Mario Montenegro. Dr. Torres is a physical and moral wreck who committed an unspeakable crime. Mario was the first LVN star I worked with as a director, and at the start of principal photography, his presence on my set made me nervous. He was my favorite LVN actor because of the costume movies he made, including Prinsipe Teñoso (Gregorio Fernandez, 1954), one of my favorite films as a young boy.”
Itim: Isang Eksplorasyon sa Pelikula (Itim: An Exploration in Cinema). 1976. Philippines.
Directed by Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. In Filipino; English subtitles. 20 min.
Doy del Mundo’s documentary about the making of Mike De Leon’s Itim also features the only scenes to survive from De Leon’s now-lost debut film, the 16mm short Monologo (Monologue) (1975). De Leon recalls, “Itim was filmed in my grandmother’s hometown of San Miguel, in her family’s ancestral house where more than two decades later, I would also shoot Bayaning 3rd World. Doy and his brother-in-law Gil Quito wrote the screenplay. It was Gil who suggested the use of spiritualism and spirit possession during the holy week.”
Tue. Nov. 1, 6:30 T2, Sat. Nov. 12, 6:30 T2
Malvarosa. 1958. Philippines. Directed by Gregorio Fernandez. Screenplay by Consuelo P. Osorio. With Charito Solis, Leroy Salvador, Rebecca del Rio. DCP. Courtesy ABS-CBN Sagip Pelikula. In Filipino; English subtitles. 101 min.
Later reunited by Mike De Leon for Kisapmata, Vic Silayan and Charito Solis star in this melodrama made at the height of their studio-era careers, with Solis playing the long-suffering daughter of a raging alcoholic (the award-winning Rebecca del Rio), who sacrifices everything for her five brothers. Miraculously, Malvarosa has survived all these years, a prestige picture produced by Mike De Leon’s father, Manuel, for LVN and based on a komiks serial by Clodualdo del Mundo, the father of screenwriter Doy del Mundo (Manila, Itim, Bayaning 3rd World).
Thu. Nov. 3, 4:00 T2, Sat. Nov. 19, 1:00 T2
Kisapmata (In the Blink of an Eye). 1981. Philippines. Directed by Mike De Leon.
Screenplay by De Leon, Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., Raquel N. Villavicencio. With Charito Solis, Vic Silayan, Jay Ilagan. DCP. In Filipino, English subtitles. 90 min.
Shot in the blink of an eye—a mere three months—and featuring some of Filipino cinema’s greatest actors from the studio era, including Charito Solis, Kisapmata was inspired by the real-life crime story “The House on Zapote Street” (1961) by Nick Joaquin. He wrote as Quijano de Manila during his career as a literary journalist. Mike De Leon writes, “Kisapmata explores the concept of strongman rule as exemplified by the character of Dadong, ang Tatang, the psychotic padre de familia, rendered monstrous by the unforgettable performance of Vic Silayan. The father has incestuous relations with his daughter—the ultimate corruption. That the film was interpreted as an allegory of the regime of Ferdinand Marcos was no coincidence, though the crime happened in 1961. Nevertheless, many elements in this allegory were present in the original story. The policeman was an Ilocano, and so was Marcos. He ruled with an iron fist and subjected his family to unmitigated terror, just as Marcos did to the country.”
Thu. Nov. 3, 7:00 T2, Sat. Nov. 19, 4:00 T2
(To be continued)
–With Jay Domingo/PDM