IN an increasingly “globalized” world where even bottles of Thai patis (fish sauce) have flooded supermarket shelves in every major city in the Philippines, Filipino film buffs have no choice these days but to either stay home or force themselves to watch an annual festival of so-so Filipino films rammed down their throats during Christmastime by people from the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA).
Thus, while the whole world is lapping up and talking about a good number of exceptional films, including Oscar-worthy contenders like “Les Miserables” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” Filipinos are stuck with mindless quickies ranging from comedy to horror, fantasy to formulaic love stories peopled with one-dimensional characters. How unfair!
I’m talking about the ongoing annual Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), which debuted way back in 1975. It was initially held for 10 days in June until organizers decided to move the event two years later to December, considered the most lucrative time in the movie industry’s calendar, when Filipinos have the cash and the time to spare to watch majority of the 10 or so competing films.
From 10 days, MMDA organizers, including 17 mayors from Metro Manila’s 16 cities and one municipality, have later extended MMFF’s run to 15 days (Dec. 25 to Jan 8). During this time, no cinema in the entire country is allowed to screen foreign and local films except those deemed official MMFF entries.
In an age of globalization, such an anachronistic law bolsters protectionism, which, like almost all laws crafted in the Philippines, began more than 40 years ago with noble intentions.
Apart from being saddled with onerous taxes, low-budget Filipino films were unable to compete with Hollywood blockbusters, especially during Christmastime.
To be fair to Filipino filmmakers, they might not have access to huge budgets and the latest special effects, but many of them even then, including a good number of actors, possessed the talent and imagination to do great films.
To give Filipino film producers a fighting chance, the government finally relented to the local movie industry’s demands by blocking off a 10-day period every year exclusively for the showing of Filipino films.
With generous tax breaks and no Hollywood blockbusters to compete with, most of the Filipino films entered in MMFF have earned the lion’s share of the budget Christmas-crazy Filipinos allot for entertainment.
Showcase of the best?
Although not stated in the law, one of the government’s original intentions for cutting the local film industry some slack was clear: MMFF should be a showcase of the country’s best and most provocative films.
For a time, the Filipino film industry delivered on its promise. Thus, the mid ’70s to early ’80s became known as the second golden age of Filipino films (the first was in the ’50s) with multi-awarded MMFF entries such as “Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag,” “Insiang,” “Burlesk Queen,” “Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon,” “Rubia Servios,” “Langis at Tubig,” “Karma,” “Kisapmata,” “Ang Panday,” “Atsay,” “Himala,” “Bona” and “Ina Ka ng Anak Mo,” to name a few, later becoming certified classics.
Although earlier editions of MMFF dished out their share of comedy, horror and fantasy films, they were more the exception than the rule. And even films belonging to such genres as “Ang Panday” (and its succeeding installments) and the original “Shake, Rattle and Roll” were deemed by many as groundbreaking works.
And MMFF was infectious. The enthusiasm to produce good films spilled beyond the 10-day film festival and the competing films involved, as filmmakers produced a number of gems throughout the year.
Purely moneymaking venture
But like all endeavors where politicians and their numerous cohorts are involved, the MMFF’s reason for being was too good to last. Through the years, the event gradually evolved into a purely moneymaking venture. Quality became an afterthought starting in the mid ’80s, as the festival’s screening committee put more emphasis on a film’s potential to make money.
Should we wonder any further why quality was sacrificed in favor of box-office potential when a huge chunk of the festival’s proceeds goes directly to MMDA’s and the mayors’ coffers?
What’s more, today’s MMFF is probably the only festival of its kind composed of a screening committee dominated by non-movie industry people, who don’t have a clue what sh-t is even if they’re stepping on one.
For instance, this year’s crop of entries is very telling. Apart from such tokens as “El Presidente” and Brillante Mendoza’s “Thy Womb,” a film, which recently won for its director and star (Nora Aunor) a slew of awards in several international film festivals, almost all of this year’s entries are commercial flicks with formula and inanity written all over them.
What’s more revealing, a number of them are rehash of tried-and-tested formulas involving the usual suspects such as Vic Sotto, Bong Revilla and, to a lesser extent, Ai-Ai delas Alas, whose brand of shrill comedy hardly changes from one movie to the next.
Believe it or not, the “Shake, Rattle and Roll” franchise is now on its 14th reincarnation, while Sotto’s “Enteng Kabisote” character, after joining forces with delas Alas’ “Tanging Ina” persona last year, has teamed up with Revilla’s “Agimat” superhero, a watered-down version of the original “Panday” starring the late Fernando Poe Jr. For good measure, Judy Ann Santos has joined the fray in “Si Agimat, Si Enteng Kabisote at Si Ako.”
I haven’t seen “Thy Womb,” so I can’t say whether it’s on its way to becoming another Filipino film classic. But judging from glowing reviews and the awards it has reaped so far, the film has lived up to the original MMFF spirit of providing Filipinos with well-made films that reflect certain realities about life in particular as well as Philippine society in general.
Since MMFF has done little over the decades to wean the public from formula films, Aunor’s much-awaited comeback film shot in Tawi-Tawi could only eek out a measly P900,000, while “Sisterakas,” a comedy starring the trio of delas Alas, Kris Aquino and Vice Ganda, amassed more than P39 million on opening day.
And while their predecessors were successful in enforcing the rule that theaters, which drew lots days before the festival as to which films to carry, should show a particular film up to the festival’s last day, today’s members of MMFF’s exhibitions committee claim to be helpless if theater owners choose to arbitrarily drop a film in favor of a more commercial one.
After opening in 44 theaters in December 25, for instance, “Thy Womb” is now reportedly showing in 27 or so theaters in Metro Manila. Mendoza earlier appealed to theater owners not to drop the film. He also appealed to the public, particularly to Aunor’s loyal fans, to watch the movie.
Like film festivals held in Cannes and Venice, MMFF organizers hand out awards. But it does it on the third and not the last day of the festival to help supposedly better films make more money at the box-office.
Things became even “curioser” a few years ago when MMFF’s awarding committee put considerable weight on an entry’s box-office performance as one of its criteria in winning top prizes. Thus, a well-made but box-office laggard could now be edged out by a more inferior but popular entry for best picture.
Well, the impossible has (again!) happened. Although Aunor, Mendoza and Henry Burgos won Best Actress, Best Director and Best Story, respectively, for “Thy Womb,” the film lost to Ruel Bayani’s “One More Try” for Best Picture.
“Thy Womb” had to settle for number of special awards, as it was also denied second and third best pictures. Like the Olympics, MMFF has this strange hierarchy of awarding the best entries in descending order. The Second Best Picture went to “El Presidente,” while the Third Best Picture went to “Sisterakas,” this year’s likely top grosser.
And since “Sisterakas” and “Si Agimat, Si Enteng Kabisote at Si Ako” are making such a huge killing at the box office, they obviously don’t need my hard-earned pesos anymore. The reaction of an outspoken officemate the other day on “Sisterakas” best sums up my sentiments on the film.
“Even if you bribe me with cash,” she said, “I won’t be caught dead watching that movie!”