ASEACC 2008 "Bamboo Gods & Bionic Boys" seminar: (l-r) Andrew Leavold, Dr Tilman Baumgartel, Bobby A. Suarez
BAMBOO GODS AND BIONIC BOYS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF
[A shorter version was prepared for the Annual South East Asian Cinema Conference in Quezon City, Philippines in November 2008]
Large sections of the
Running parallel to the booming local film industry from the Sixties until the late Eighties was a thriving export trade in exotic and relatively cheap features for the international market. Enterprising producers in the Philippines sought to capture a much wider audience than Manila and the Provinces, and teamed up with overseas companies to form co-productions, or found an international distributor for their home-grown product. Like Italy and Mexico, and later Hong Kong, Japan, Indonesia and Taiwan, the Philippines found its niche in international markets amongst the more disreputable of genres – the so-called “B films” - whilst its more respectable art and commercial cinema, beyond overseas film festival appearances, went unnoticed.
Furthermore, the push into the international market came from a remarkably small number of independent producers rather than from the Philippines' studio system. Indeed, many of the export trade's production companies formed a Filipino facsimile of Hollywood's Poverty Row from the 1930s, producing B-level potboilers for the roadshow market in direct competition to the major studio system (in the Philippines' case study, the Big Three studios of Sampaguita, LVN and Premiere). Hollywood's Poverty Row producers not only exploited current trends in populist cinema; they were responsible for outright theft, at the same time as testing the boundaries of what was “decent” and “acceptable”. For both the Philippines' own Poverty Row AND the major studios, a copycat industry developed which thumbed its nose at the Berne Convention on copyright, to which the Philippines had been a signatory since 1952 (2). Clones of then-popular movies appeared as early as the 1950s ranging from cheeky parodies to bare-faced thievery, appropriating not only themes, ideas and plot lines but also characters, titles and music. For the most blatant acts of theft, geographic isolation helped, coupled with the seemingly impossible task of mounting a court action in a foreign country. For lesser offenders, the neverending cycle of copying foreign blockbusters continued unabated. With every Platoon (1986) or Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), there were an avalanche of jungle-bound action films; Mad Max 2 (1981) spawned W Is War (1983), Mad Warriors (aka Clash Of The Warlords, 1984), Searchers Of The Voodoo Mountain (aka Warriors Of The Apocalypse, 1985), and a rash of post-apocalypse action films from the prolific film producer/director Cirio H. Santago.
Terms in the modern Western vernacular such as “independent” and “mainstream”, or “A” and “B” movies, have little relevance to the Philippines' own film history. In the context of the Philippines, an “A” film is one imbued with the qualities of artistic or commercial merit; it's a subjective definition at best, and one dictated by the subject's own prejudices. An A film in the Philippines can be either a feel-good melodrama with a cast drawn from the pantheon of Manila's acting elite, a literary epic based on the works of a respected author such as Jose Rizal, or an edgy, subversive, overseas festival winner with little chance of success at the domestic box office. Similarly, B Films are just as difficult to define. In its purest sense, a B film is one relegated to the bottom half of a double film, scheduled before the main (or “A”) feature. Modern usage of the term “B Film” has expanded in two ways. In a broader and more traditional sense, “B” denotes a film of lesser importance or inferior quality. Secondly, and particularly if discussing films in terms of genre, “B” is a brand which subscribes to the more disreputable of genres - war films, westerns, simplistic action movies, fantasy and horror films, and sex-themed exploitation features - regardless of their quality. Thus, a Fritz Lang western or a film noir feature by Edgar G. Ulmer may be regarded as a film of artistic merit whilst occupying a place in the B movie ghetto. It's seemingly a paradox not lost on the Philippines' own A-list auteurs, many of whom – Lino Brocka, Eddie Romero, Ishmael Bernal and Celso Ad. Castillo included – have worked across the broadest spectrum of genres including horror and soft-core pornography.
Likewise, the phrase “independent cinema” has been wrestled from its textbook definition in recent years and adapted into the modern rhetoric to suggest any number of a film's “indie” qualities: its quirkiness, the auteur status of its director, a non-traditional narrative, its low budget, its potentially abrasive or taboo subject matter. To this day, the Philippines continues to produce its “art” cinema – auteur, experimental, avant-garde, digital – from both inside and outside the studio system, with the largest producer Star Cinema capitalizing in recent years on the digital New Wave. “Independent” should thus be restricted to its original definition, indicating those films operating outside of the larger studio system.
The term “export” film is also a problematic one, considering the varying degrees of input from foreign production companies. It's useful to imagine a sliding scale between International Productions, in which Filipino input is almost non-existent, to Local Films, which are by their definition for the Tagalog-only market.
1. International Productions – features using the Philippines as a cheap or exotic location, utilizing a predominantly overseas cast and crew, with locals as extras or technicians only. From as early as the John Wayne war movie Back To Bataan (1945) to Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) and Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986) and Born On The Fourth Of July (1989), the Philippines still functions to this day as an anonymous Asian or South American locale.
2. Co-Productions – the preferred route for smaller film companies in which local producers often cover “below-line” costs – shooting expenses, salaries for local cast and crew, many of whom occupy major acting and technical roles. American B film distributor Roger Corman, for example, worked in tandem with Cirio H. Santiago's Premiere Productions on most of his Philippines-lensed films.
3. Filipino Exports – local productions designed for the foreign market and filmed in English. Films from local producers such as BAS Films' Bobby A. Suarez and Silver Star Productions' K.Y. Lim are funded primarily or entirely with local finance, with foreigners usually occupying the lead roles only.
4. Tagalog Exports - films destined for the local market, which are subsequently purchased by an enterprising local or overseas distributor, invariably re-edited and dubbed into one or more foreign languages, and sold overseas. Both Cinex and Davian International Ltd were prolific distributors based in the Philippines, reworking Tagalog-language war and action films to meet the demands of the international marketplace.
5. Local films - like the majority of all Filipino A and B films, crafted for local sensibilities and never intended to be screened outside the Tagalog-speaking community, and thus are never subtitled or dubbed into English.
A historiographical dissection of B filmmaking in the Philippines is thus a multi-tiered effort, examining the relationships between the independents and the larger studios, analysing the effect of popular culture outside the Philippines on its story telling traditions, and tracing the development of a Filipino B Film export industry from within the independents. Both National Artist and film director Eddie Romero and digital avant-garde filmmaker Khavn de la Cruz told me half-jokingly, “ALL of our Filipino films are B films”. Whilst they were referring to the budgets of most Filipino productions compared to their Western counterparts, one could almost be tempted into reading into their statements a degree of cultural cringe present within critical circles, which relegates more populist fare to the “not worthy of discussion” basket.
At its best, the Filipino B film is a fascinating creature. In this list, I would personally include many of Bobby A. Suarez's James Bond/kung fu hybrids, the midget spy films starring Weng Weng, the baffling Death Wish (1974) meets Mad Max (1978) scenario of W (W Is War, 1983), and many others. For us Western audiences, we are very much the foreigner, the outsider to these seemingly jarring cultural dislocations, astounding leaps of logic, and an almost free-form jazz interplay of icons and signifiers. For at least some of us, part of the pleasure of viewing such films is to see familiar figures reflected back from an amusement park hall of mirrors. Even at their most mediocre and mundane, the B films are still an intriguing social and political barometer, a gauge of censorship restrictions, audience expectations, industry changes, and reactions to its both its own culture and the outside world. Through the B film, one can witness generic boundaries ever shifting and constantly being tested. And perhaps more than most countries, the Filipino B film is such a mutant stew of outside influences - a legacy of its American occupation and a policy of pacification and distraction through popular culture - and the Philippines' own storytelling tradition, itself muddied somewhat by its prior occupation by the Spanish (3). It's the Philippines' unique synthesis of these opposing forces which gives its cinema its character. The resulting process – which I call “Pinoyization” - results in a gumbo with such a unique and instantly recognizable set of faces, backgrounds and story elements, that almost qualifies the Filipino B film as a genre unto itself.
When Philippine cinephiles speak of a Golden Age of Filipino cinema, they refer more often than not to the Fifties, and of a film industry dominated by a studio system in which the independents are sidelined. Since its inception in the opening decades of the Twentieth Century, the Filipino industry was, is and perhaps is destined to be, a Microcosm of its inspiration: Hollywood, the Macrocosm. The dominant Big Three studios (Sampaguita Pictures, presided over by the Vera-Perez family, LVN by the de Leons, and Premiere Productions under the Santiago’s) were a miniaturized version of Hollywood's Big Eight in the Thirties: dynastic studio heads reign supreme over their own extended family AND the major filmmaking families. Frothy comedy-musicals or melodramas driven by the studios’ brightest stars were the order of the day. With the exception of a few “directors as stars” - a proto-version of auteurship (Genghis Khan’s Manuel Conde, for instance, or later Lamberto V. Avellana and Gerardo de Leon) – directors were relegated to the status of mere technician; again, this is a reflection of Golden Era Hollywood’s natural pecking order. Furthermore, if we cast our critical eye over those films which established the big-name directors, they tend to be populist, sentimental epics and have a propensity to win the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS) awards (Avellana’s Lapu-Lapu , for instance, or de Leon’s adaptations of the works of national hero Jose Rizal). Those films are undoubtedly classics, but are framed in such a way that they have the word “important” stamped all over them; just like the David Leans and Cecil B. de Milles before them, the “important” or “epic” movie becomes a genre unto itself.
As in the Macrocosm, the majority of the Microcosm's output is cheap, escapist and ultimately disposable pop culture, catering for what director Avellana derisively labelled the “bakya” crowd (4) - the wooden-clogged lower classes who, for a few pesos, could immerse themselves in a masala of humour, conflict, tears and resolution, often with accompanying singalong musical numbers, and all crammed into an enjoyably predictable two hour package. As mass entertainment it's a vehicle required to be driven by stars the audience recognise and identify with, and in the case of action films, slavishly follow a simplistic good guys versus bad guys scenario in which sheer brute force allows Good to triumph over Evil. A few directors were able to transcend the limitations placed upon them by near-sighted producers - Avellana through his stage background, insistence on actors rather than stars and his complex social-realist scripts; Eddie Romero, attempting work akin to the Italian Neo-Realists in a Filipino setting; and Gerardo de Leon, a visionary as well as a true craftsman in lighting and composition. Such directors with indelible personal stamps on their work can be considered auteurs - like their Hollywood contemporaries (Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, for instance), were bound by studio demands of audience-friendly narratives, style, stars and genres.
Until the proliferation of TV sets in the Seventies, the cheapest forms of pop culture in the Philippines were radio (free) and komiks (less than one peso), with movies in a slightly more expensive third place. Komiks resembled heavily illustrated magazines and were designed as much for adults as children. They had previously made a half-hearted appearance before World War 2, but made their biggest impact in the late Forties, spearheading a concerted campaign of continuous American cultural hegemony and mass distraction. The text may have been in Tagalog, but their characters were clearly inspired by American archetypes - thus Mars Ravelo's superheroine Darna is a mildly Pinoy-ized reworking of DC's Superman and Wonder Woman, while there's no doubt whatsoever over the origin of Francisco V. Coching's jungle-bound, loincloth-wearing, Tarzan-like Dumagit.
Readership flourished of this derivative yet distinctly Filipino, cheap and instantly disposable form of popular culture, and in a strange twist became iconic of a culture of resistance; in fact the artists' unique visual style and Pinoy-ized content of the more popular komiks became so recognizable as Filipino that it's no surprise almost half of Filipino films in the Fifties and Sixties were adaptations of popular komiks serials (radio programs accounted for much less source material, as did television shows from the Seventies onwards). Characters already pre-branded in komiks franchises were a safe way of ensuring a ready-made audience, and opportunities to cross-promote each other's product were exploited to the hilt; often the feature version was released just weeks before a strip's resolution, maximizing profits for both parties. For some komik authors (Coching and Ravelo above all others), their name was almost as important as the star’s.
Like the Macrocosm, the Microcosm's popular culture was being shaped in the post-war period by comics, radio and movies, and so film genres mirror those of the US-influenced komiks: romance, family melodrama, crime, westerns, war, horror, comedy, science fiction and superheroes. Musicals are both a Hollywood convention and a natural progression from the Philippines’ own zarzuela stage culture; religious pictures, on the other hand, are more prevalent in the fervently Catholic Philippines. In the Fifties the local studios were still looking for mass acceptance for their films, regarded by the more sophisticated of audiences as poor imitations of the much superior product from the West. Filipino films were thus caught in a bind: smaller audiences allow only for guarantee smaller budgets, which means cost-slashing, penny-pinching, and a less-than-adventurous spirit. The belief their own films are somehow second-rate was, and to a certain extent still is, indicative of a crisis of confidence in Filipino culture.
The Tagalog film industry’s parochial distribution model was set in concrete: premiere the film in Manila to recoup costs, then roadshow the movie through the provinces for profits - so that notions of international sales are hardly considered. As a result, stars are only stars within the Philippines; FAMAS awards and critical acclaim are never recognized outside the country’s borders. It was hardly a unique situation; consider the cinematic reach of the rest of South East Asia and Hong Kong at the time, not to mention Australia, Turkey, India and, until the late Fifties, Mexico.
In very real terms of declining box office receipts, the Big Three were in the decline as the Fifties rolled into the Sixties, a period coinciding with a changing of the guard within the star system: the rise of a new Rat Pack of young Filipino actors: Fernando Poe Jr, Zaldy Zschornack and Joseph Estrada, amongst others. All were coached in the James Dean School of Troubled Teens - brooding, violent (though always righteous), and oozing more sex appeal than ever. Emerging superstar and later filmic phenomenon Fernando Poe Jr was the first actor of his generation (5) to challenge the Big Three’s star system, demanding and receiving a substantially larger paycheck – 8,000 pesos, instead of his usual fee of 3,000 pesos a picture from his Premiere Productions contract (6) - from brash and hungry independent company Hollywood Far-East Productions, for the Pinoy western Markado (1960). Together with Zaldy Zshornack, the two pooled their resources and formed Poe-Zshornack Productions, the first actor-run production company since Leopoldo Salcedo Productions in the early Fifties, releasing three reasonable successes in 1960-1961. Tagalog Ilang-Ilang Productions (or TIIP), a newer player formed in 1960 by the Laxa family (including future star Antonio Laxa, aka Tony Ferrer), were initially supplied by Premiere’s stable of stars; they in turn encouraged their young stars to form their own production companies, with TIIP as distributor, whilst bankrolling profitable star vehicles for their own company. Thus Poe’s solo company, FPJ Productions, and Joseph Estrada’s JE Productions and Emar Productions, emerge from under TIIP's protective wing to become two of the Sixties' major independents.
Other actors followed, forming a mass exodus from the withering studio system and creating new power blocs within a changing industry. Just as the major studios were dynastic in nature, so too were those run by star-producers. FPJ Productions fostered the careers of Poe’s siblings Andy and Conrad; Poe’s wife Susan Roces formed her own successful company Rosas Films; the Philippines' King of Comedy, Dolphy, established his own RVQ Productions with most of his siblings and numerous offspring on the payroll. These former studio contract players were no longer under the protection of their surrogate studio families, but carried with them the discipline, the industry savvy and a carefully-manicured profile courtesy of their previous bosses Premiere, Sampaguita or LVN. Confidence in the Tagalog film industry, both from within its ranks and its audience, climbed progressively throughout the Sixties, climbing from 94 features in 1960 to a staggering 234 in the industry’s peak year of 1971. Out of a total of 97 production companies active that year, former giants Sampaguita limped in with seven features, and Premiere with just three. (7) Productions started to decline in number from all three majors from the start of the Sixties for a variety of reasons, not least of all the staleness of their formulae. (8)
The new generation of stars and independent producers signalled a shift in content, with action films in particular taking on a cartoonishly darker tone. They became known in the Philippines as “Goon” movies, an apt description of a peculiar quality of action films entirely unique to the Philippines. “Goons” are the gorilla-like bit players, not quite actors and not quite stuntmen but primarily the henchman of the villain (the Spanish derivative “contravida” or “contrabida”), who populate low-budget action films solely for the hero (the “vida” or “bida”) to beat senseless. The term “goon” can be attached to any number of action-centric films: from Pinoy war films and westerns popular throughout the Sixties, the urban revenge and gangster movies, the spy and superhero craze in the mid-Sixties, the action film parodies of Dolphy and Chiquito, the karate-themed action films of the late Sixties, and the kung fu and vigilante films of the Seventies and beyond. The Philippines is perhaps the only country in the world to list their ubiquitous stunt teams alongside actors in a film's credits; groups like SOS Daredevils and Thunder Stuntmen were, during the heyday of Goon Cinema from the early Sixties to the mid-Eighties, almost as famous as Fernando Poe Jr himself.
Most goons are stuntmen whose name graduate to the bottom half of the credits and, as a result, become recognizable identities unto themselves. Some graduate from stuntman to stunt co-ordinator or fight choreographer, and then onwards to associate director, screenwriter, and ultimately director. Former SOS Daredevil Wilfredo Milan, one of the most prolific goon action directors since the early Eighties, described a goon to me as a “shrimp”: great-looking body, with a tiny, ugly head. (9) Other than providing a punching bag for our slap-happy heroes, a goon's main acting requirements are to over-react to every line of dialogue, shuffle nervously, smoke incessantly through their voluminous moustaches, and look uncomfortable in a 200 peso suit or, if filmed in the disco-era Seventies and beyond, in a garishly coloured polyester shirt (open, of course, to their just above the navel). Goons were staples in each successive wave of action films: from the James Bond clones of the mid-Sixties, through the late Sixties karate craze and Seventies kung fu phenomenon, into the of the jungle rebel films of the Eighties. The films were cheaper, louder, more vulgar than their Fifties counterparts, and indicative to some of a general decline in artistic standards within the film industry.
Premiere Productions emerged in the post-War period as on of the Philippines' three largest production houses. Cirio H. Santiago had grown up in the studio owned by his parents and in 1957, aged only 21, had enough business acumen to forsee the grim future for the Big Three studios. Of particular interest to Santiago were the opportunities to be made in the lucrative and ever-expanding American drive-in circuit. As television claimed much of the family segment of America’s movie-going audience, and “A” films were premiering in urban cinemas, the drive-ins became the domain of independent distributors plying an increasingly youthful market with more salacious, genre-driven fare: teen exploitation, monster movies and cheap war movies, often on double and triple bills. (10) With dreams of taking his films to the world's screens, and with the American drive-in circuit firmly in his sights, Santiago took a huge financial risk for Premiere: along with Eddie Romero, he set up the Philippines' first production for the international market.
The Day Of The Trumpet (1957) is ostensibly a western set during the American-Philippines War at the turn of the Twentieth Century, produced by Santiago and Gerardo de Leon, and written and directed by de Leon's protégé, the talented Eddie Romero. In a Philippines’ first, Romero filmed the dialogue in English with imported American leads John Agar, Richard Arlen and Myron Healey, secured via his successful attempts at securing overseas funding. Boasting much better production values than most local films of its era, it would nevertheless take six years for the film to be sold to an American distributor, re-titled as Cavalry Command. In the interim, Santiago set up a second feature through his own Cirio Santiago Film Organization - the noir-like thriller Man On The Run (1958) once again directed by Eddie Romero and starring American actor Burgess Meredith, whom Romero met in the United States during the post-production on The Day Of The Trumpet. Meredith accepted the paltry sum of US $2,000 for just three weeks’ work in Manila for a film Romero credits as opening the doors for his overseas film career. (11)
Romero’s efforts were noticed by American producer and distributor Kane W. Lynn, whose World War 2 adventures gave him a strong connection with Southeast Asia, and by 1959 had set up Lynro Productions with Eddie Romero to create a series of low-budget thrillers and war films for the American drive-ins, starting with The Scavangers (aka City Of Sin, 1959), and followed by Moro Witch Doctor (1964), The Walls Of Hell (aka Intramuros, 1964) and The Ravagers (1965), amongst others. Lynn's company Hemisphere Pictures distributed the finished films from Lynro, and later from Romero's Filipinas Productions, a company formed with expatriate American actor Mike Parsons. As luck would have it, it was Eddie Romero who would have a much better strike rate than Santiago in the Sixties exporting his own productions.
Santiago himself continued to pursue a career in the international market – his production of Gerry de Leon's vampire film Kulay Dugo Ang Gabi (1964), distributed by Hemisphere Pictures in 1966 as The Blood Drinkers, is a bona-fide classic of Filipino horror – whilst keeping Premiere Productions afloat. By the early Seventies Premiere began seeking out co-production deals with countries other than the United States, with a Columbian company co-financing Tarzan And The Brown Prince (1972) starring American actor Steve Hawkes and a popular child actor from the Philippines, Robin (son of action director/actor Jun) Aristorenas. Premiere, one of the Big Three studios of the Fifties, was rapidly evolving to become primarily, though not exclusively, a production unit for international features and co-productions. LVN ceased making films almost completely in 1961 and served as a renowned post-production facility; Sampaguita, its production schedules already battered by the onslaught of the independents, continued making films at a much reduced capacity until it closed down production altogether in 1982.
Clearly the Sixties were a turbulent time for the major studios, and a period of consolidation and change for the independents. Surprisingly, very few enterprising producers, with the exception of Cirio H. Santaigo and Eddie Romero, actively sought out co-productions with overseas companies, or distribution deals for their dubbed-into-English local productions. It took until the late Sixties for the first Philippines company to launch a serious campaign to sell its all-Filipino creations to the world. Nepomuceno Productions was formed in 1967 by Luis Nepomuceno, son of pioneering Filipino filmmaker Jose. Luis' new company logo proudly proclaimed it was a “symbol of quality films since 1917”, and within a year was able to reinforce his hyperbole with a series of FAMAS Award winners featuring his then-wife Charito Solis (subsequently listed as “Asia's Best Actress” in her Nepomuceno Productions credits). (12) Although the company had met with only middling success with its first attempt at the world market, the Eddie Romero-directed war film Manila Open City (1968) with Solis and American drive-in heartthrob John Ashley, Luis nevertheless forged ahead and produced the controversial Igorota (1968).
Clearly intended as an “epic” melodramatic saga of love and conflict between tradition (in the shapely form of Solis as the titular mountain princess) and modernity (Fred Galang playing Princess Maia's Manila husband), it was filmed in English and released in several territories overseas in a much racier version; in fact, for any film released commercially in 1968 regardless of its origin, Igorota features a startling amount of frank nudity and sexuality. Once again, international sales were modest, yet Nepomuceno decided to mortgage his studio for an even more ambitious project, the period martial arts film The Pacific Connection (aka Stickfighter, 1974) with Hollywood artists Nancy Kwan (The World Of Suzy Wong ), Guy Madison and Dean Stockwell alongside the Philippines' former Mr Universe competitor Roland Dantes. Despite its release at the height of the international kung fu craze, the film failed to set overseas box offices ablaze, and unable to absorb the spiralling costs of Hollywood-style salaries and primping his product to international standards, Nepomuceno watched his own studio, his filmmaking aspirations AND his family's fifty seven year filmic legacy go up in smoke. (13) Ironically, the three productions Nepomuceno’s “symbol of quality” will be known for outside the Philippines represent three of the least respectable genres: war, sex and martial arts.
Nepomuceno's story may have seemed like a cautionary tale for all but those with a fearless pioneering spirit and pesos to potentially burn. Despite a peak in film production in 1971 to 234 features, a remarkable feat for any developing nation, and a relatively favourable run throughout the Seventies, there was still an emphasis on catering to the domestic market, with its parochial themes and time-tested formulae, and thus most locally-produced films failed to make it beyond the Philippines' borders. The majority of the independents, having overtaken the Big Three's supremacy, merely aped the constrictions of genre and star power, their perception of audience expectations and distribution model of the majors. Film became more of a cookie-cutter industry than ever; one success was followed by thirty imitations, mostly of greatly inferior quality. Many independents were fly-by-night outfits lucky to make one rag-end movie before disappearing forever; the Bomba era of 1970-1972 (14) saw the greatest drop in quality, as producers scrambled over each other to make an obscene amount of money during the short-lived sex film craze - even to the point of inserting hardcore footage (a process known as “singit”) into films playing in the provinces, outside the authorities' watchful gaze. (15) More than ever, the profit motive was paramount, at the expense of paid talent and production values.
Demand for Tagalog movies peaked in the late Sixties and early Seventies, in spite of the general decline in the quality of films, and as a flow-on effect from the protectionist quotas President Marcos had imposed limiting the number of foreign features shown on Filipino screens. It was clearly a case for Pinoy Pride in an industry more than able to support its own cavalcade of superstars: the teen queens Vilma Santos and Nora Aunor, action legends Fernando Poe Jr and Joseph Estrada, the Kings of comedy Dolphy and Chiquito, the love teams of Amalia Fuentes and Romeo Vasquez, Susan Roces and Eddie Gutierrez. Gone was the widespread notion held before the Sixties that Filipino cinema was merely a second-rate imitation of Hollywood. The Microcosm had truly come of age.
Much of the credit for the boom in both the export and domestic film markets in late Sixties and early Seventies must be attributed to President Ferdinand and First Lady Imelda Marcos, whose influence and control extended to every level of society until the People's Revolution in 1986 ousted them from power. Politics and personality conflicts aside, most filmmakers agree that without the Marcos' influence, the film industry would not have developed in the same way. Whether introducing embargoes on foreign films, handing out tax concessions and cut-price hotel rooms for overseas film companies, or holding junkets for foreign film buyers, both President Marcos and the First Lady Imelda had a very clear vision of taking Filipino cinema to the world's screens.
Roger Corman's invasion of 1971 to 1975 were the Seventies' peak years of foreign productions or co-productions shot in the Philippines for the overseas drive-in market. Roger Corman, dubbed the King of the B's, was a phenomenally successful producer and director (Little Shop Of Horrors , the Vincent Price/Edgar Allan Poe series [1960-65]) who had toyed with independent film distribution since his Filmgroup days with brother Gene in the late Fifties. By 1971 Corman was increasingly dissatisfied with the manner his primary employer American International Pictures were handling his films – his apocalyptic counterculture comedy Gassss-s-s-s-s (1970) was reportedly butchered beyond belief - and he decided to become a full-time independent film mogul. Thus New World Pictures was born, and having connections already in the Philippines with Eddie Romero and Cirio H. Santiago via his former star John Ashley, a lucrative partnership was sealed.
John Ashley's visit to the Philippines to work on Eddie Romero's Manila Open City (1968) was the just the start of Ashley's decade-long involvement with Romero, as actor and subsequently as producer and business partner. Ashley's family owned a chain of Oklahoma theatres and sealed a lucrative deal with Hemisphere Pictures' next venture, the phenomenally successful “Blood Island” trilogy of sleazy gore films starring Ashley: Brides Of Blood (1968), Mad Doctor Of Blood Island (1969) and Beast Of Blood (1970). All three films feature Ashley on a tropical island stumbling upon the mutation experiments of an insane scientist; director Romero, along with Mad Doctor Of Blood Island's co-director Gerry de Leon, rework their own Island Dr Of Moreau adaptation Terror Is The Man (aka Blood Creature, 1959) as an escalating series of blood-and-ooze-soaked setpieces, the likes of which the American drive-ins had not seen before. The cost-effective thrills of the Blood Island series prompted Romero to sever ties with Hemisphere in 1971, and formed a partnership with Ashley and two other businessmen named Four Associates Ltd to supply Roger Corman's fledgling distribution company New World Pictures, amongst other distributors, with genre product. Their first effort, a bloodied werewolf movie picked up by New World called The Beast Of The Yellow Night (1971), inspired Corman to send Jack Hill to direct The Big Doll House (1971), a lurid tropical women-in-prison potboiler starring the next black action queen Pam Grier, which film opened the floodgates to many other low-rent production companies looking for their next tropical exploitation hit, including New World's follow-up with Grier and Hill, the similarly-themed The Big Bird Cage (1972).
The Filipino jungle became such an essential backdrop at early Seventies drive-ins that almost immediately there were imitators. From Dimension Pictures - Corman’s former associates at New World, Charles S. Swartz and his wife Stephanie Rothman - came two faux-Filipino prison features filmed in Puerto Rico: Sweet Sugar (1972) and Terminal Island (1973). Jack Hill’s former producer in Switzerland, Erwin C. Dietrich, assigned the ubiquitous Spaniard Jess Franco to direct a series of increasingly vile jungle-bound exploitation pictures such as Women Behind Bars (aka Des Diamants Pour L'Enfer, 1975) and Barbed Wire Dolls (aka Frauengefängnis & Caged Women, 1975), whilst Corman himself commissioned Joe Dante and Allan Arkush to send up the entire Filipino cycle (as the hilarious film-within-a-film “Machete Maidens of Moratau”) in the New World self-parody Hollywood Boulevard (1976). Meanwhile, former Hemisphere associates Sam Sherman and director Al Adamson fashioned a “fake” Filipino film, Brain Of Blood (1971) in California, and hired Asian actors make the film look like an official sequel to the Blood Island films. (16)
The Women In Prison films soon lost their appeal in favour of female gun-toting revolutionaries; the black action or “blaxploitation” craze demanded at least one or two black actresses to spice up the action, along with nudity, sleaze, blood and violence. Cirio H. Santiago had supplied Corman with his Premiere production unit for The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972), and soon was directing his first export titles for New World: Savage! (1973) starring black football star James Iglehart, a stewardess kung fu sex comedy Fly Me (1973), and T.N.T. Jackson (1974), a female revenge actioner inspired by Pam Grier's Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), starring black actress and former Playboy Playmate Jeanne Bell. More “girls with guns” films appeared – Jonathan Demme's The Hot Box (1972), Eddie Romero's Savage Sisters (1974), Cirio's Ebony Ivory And Jade and The Muthers (both 1976) – not to mention horror movies, sexploitation, tropical adventures, and the inevitable kung fu actioners.
It wasn't just the drive-in exploitation market but popular culture the world over that would see another kick to the head in 1973: the kung fu phenomenon, personified in both Enter The Dragon (1973) exploding across screens worldwide, and the subsequent death of its star Bruce Lee. The demand for Eastern action films was as instantaneous as it was global in nature. Audiences wanted Asian faces, martial arts action and scenery; these were no longer the exotic background, they graduated to become the foreground. For the Philippines, the effect was electric. In the same fashion the Spanish desert would stand in for Texas or Mexico during the Spaghetti Western cycle of the Sixties and early Seventies, the Philippines could double effortlessly for any Asian country you'd care to name. Its traditional martial arts was usurped for a while by the Japanese-influenced katrate craze in the early to late Sixties, and this was reflected in karate-themed action films aimed at Sixties Pinoy moviegoers already dizzy on goon punch-ups. “Karatistas” like blackbelters Tony Ferrer, Eddie Rodriguez, brothers Roberto and Rolando Gonzalez and Bernard Belleza were the First Wave of home-grown stars; enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee, and a Second Wave emerged - Ramon Zamora, Rey Malonzo, Ulysses Tzan, Robert Lee - who had happily traded karate kicks for kung fu chops, becoming known affectionately as the “Bruce Lees of the Philippines”. Thus the goon film morphed with little effort from the spy films and karate adventures of the Sixties into the kung fu revenge operas of the Seventies.
Hong Kong naturally led the Asian charge into the international market, with local producers not far behind, providing facilities, forming co-productions or making distribution deals with Hong Kong companies for their own kung fu movies. Bobby A. Suarez of BAS Films was without a doubt the most successful of all Filipino producers of kung fu films in the Seventies. Working his way to salesman at the Rank Organization’s Film Exchange in Manila, he moved to Hong Kong at the start of the kung fu boom, learning the international film trade from working with the Shaw Brothers before starting his own companies, Intercontinental Film Distributors based in Hong Kong, and RJR Film Exchange in Manila. He quickly moved into producing his own martial arts films starting with Cosa Nostra Asia (1973), a Godfather-themed kung fu picture with American actor Chris Mitchum and Filipino “karatista” Tony Ferrer. After a string of similar films, all sold internationally, he formed BAS Films and started to direct commencing with a series of kung fu/superspy films, the Cleopatra Wong films (1977-79). By splicing together a combination of then-popular genres and utilizing an already-established network of pan-Asian funding and global distribution, Bobby managed to sell his modestly-budgeted action movies the world over - an incredible feat, considering most Filipino producers relied on outside help, primarily from Hong Kong or the United States. Bobby achieved a first amongst Filipino filmmakers: he became a one-man export factory, and was successfully selling his drive-in features – his last theatrical release was American Commandos (1986) with Mitchum and John Phillip Law - long after the drive-ins had closed up shop.
Corman’s initial exit from the Philippines in 1975 with Cover Girl Models (1975), a threadbare production even for Corman, is a clear signal the market was saturated with Filipino-made product; in his own words, he'd gone to the well too many times. “We found the prices rising very heavily,” Corman wrote, “and one of the reasons for shooting there was that it was economically suited to low-budget filming - partially the exotic locales and partially economics. But as the prices rose, we retreated to the United States.” (17) The mid Seventies signalled a decline in box office returns - drive-ins started to close one by one, to be killed off forever by the home video market - and for drive-in movies the result was a dramatic drop in budgets and quality. The once highly bankable genres of blaxploitation kung fu, soft-core sleaze (including women-in-prison films) and horror simply ran out of steam in an exploitation-saturated market, and were yet to be replaced by the Eighties stock-standard genres of jungle action, ninja, Vietnam war and post-apocalypse movies.
The local industry saw a further slowing of film production in the early Eighties, around the same time a new kind of studio system emerged out of the independent free-for-all. Brash, youthful players became the new dynastic powerhouses and, to a certain extent, remain so to this day. Regal Films was first on the scene, a former distributor-turned-production company bankrolled by the tremendously wealthy Monteverde family and with astute Chinese-Filipino matriarch “Mother” Lily Monteverde at the helm. By the early Eighties Regal had cornered the lucrative youth market, binding cinephile young Turks (Elwood Perez, Joey Gosiengfiao, Peque Gallaga) to long-term contracts grinding out one movie after one in each genre guaranteed to make money. Despite Mother Lily's strict requirements of content and budget – in the late 80s, Regal pioneered the “pito-pito” movie, taking just seven days to shoot and seven days to edit - her Regal Babies, as her star actors and directors became known, would continue to usurp low expectations and deliver studio product that were genuinely and surprisingly good, and on occasion (the early films of Lav Diaz, for instance, made under Gosiengfiao’s supervision as head of Regal’s “Good Harvest” wing), groundbreaking and wildly idiosyncratic. Regal's success was closely matched by Viva Films, formed by Vicente del Rosario Jr in 1981; by 1983, Viva's output of nine features was second only to Regal's eleven (18), with a number of hungry independents nipping at their heels - Seiko, Solar, Cine Suerte, and of course Fernando Poe Jr's FPJ Productions and Dolphy's RVQ Productions.
On Imelda Marcos' part she oversaw the essential infrastructure required for a healthy film culture: the formation of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP), the building of the Cultural Centre of the Philippines (CCP) and the controversial Film Centre, where a number of workers died during its rushed construction attempting to meet its impossible January 1982 deadline for the unveiling of Imelda’s inaugural Manila International Film Festival. From its inception in January 1982 until Marcos' regime was ousted in 1986, the ECP was a funding body and thinktank with the Marcos' Western-minded and classically-educated daughter Imee installed as Director-General. In addition to screening films once considered scandalous (its initial screening was Nagisa Oshima's graphically erotic ghost story In The Realm Of The Senses ), the ECP funded what is considered the last Golden Age of Philippines Cinema, one in which filmmakers were offered the illusion of complete artistic freedom at a time of great political turmoil: the closing years of the Marcos government, the gradual loosening of the decade-long Martial Law and its strict censorship guidelines. (19) Within the four walls of the Manila Film Centre, Pinoy cineastes were introduced a new generation of auteurs (Peque Gallaga, Tikoy Aguiluz) in addition to those established filmmakers (Lino Brocka, Mario O'Hara, Celso Ad. Castillo) already infused with a very European sensibility of filmmaker as author whilst working within the genre-bound studio system. This concept was quite foreign to the studios, in which the producer still wielded supreme control over each movie like a Thirties’ Hollywood movie mogul. The ECP was a much-needed boost of confidence for the flagging spirits of those frustrated filmmakers already recognized and respected on the international festival circuit, but yet to see any tangible form of commercial distribution abroad.
Imelda's supreme offering to the Film Gods was the Manila International Film Festival. Having already attempted and failed to buy the American Film Market (20) and relocate it to Manila, she decided instead to bring the foreign movie industry to Manila from January 18th to 29th, 1982, showcasing not only Filipino culture and cinema, but the glory of the Philippines under the culturally (if not politically) enlightened Marcos regime. Expectations were running high, and local auteurs prepared themselves to be packaged and sold to the world. At the Festival, local industry bigwigs rubbed shoulders with Hollywood celebrities and international filmmakers like John Frankenheimer and Satyajit Ray; one of the Festival’s brightest shining stars was First Lady Imelda herself, cutting the ribbon at the press preview next to Franco Nero and Brooke Shields, while the world’s press noted just how glamorous a Filipino film festival could be.
Once the junket was officially over and dust had settled, it was time to evaluate the real benefits to the local film industry. Out of the sixty local productions offered through the Philippine Motion Pictures Producers Association, around 20 were sold for a grand total of approximately $500,000 (21), a disappointment to most companies expecting easy winnings on their home turf. English-dubbed action films were the fastest sellers, regardless of their destination of country of origin. The exception was Eddie Romero’s Kamakalawa (1981), one of several films sold to South East Asian neighbours. On the exploitation front, Cirio Santiago’s women-in-prison film Hell Hole (1978) was picked up for six territories for $95,000, and goon actioner Suicide Commandos (1981) was picked for international release by German distributor Atlas International. But by far the single winner of the festival was the Caballes family’s Liliw Productions, whose James Bond spoofs starring the two-foot-nine midget martial artist Weng Weng were sold worldwide. For Y’ur Height Only (1982) via its executive producer Dick Randall reportedly netted US $200,000 (22), a mind-boggling amount for a novelty action film considering its initial 850,000 peso price tag – around US $30,000, using current exchange rates. In West Germany alone, Weng Weng’s three latest films for Liliw, Agent 00 (1981), For Y’ur Height Only and the unfinished western D’Wild Wild Weng (1982), sold to distributor Kurt Palm for a reported $90,000. (23)
In the months following MIFF, the word “co-production” started to gain momentum. Roger Corman attended the MIFF symposium on film production and talked at length on his long association with the Philippines and particularly with Cirio H. Santiago. (24) Their combined output had slowed since the mid-Seventies, when the dwindling drive-in market forced Corman’s distribution company New World Productions to slash costs. In January 1982 the home video market was still in its infancy and the uncomfortable transitional phase was forcing low-budget companies to pool resources with other countries. Co-productions, Corman prophetically announced to the MIFF symposium, was the growing trend. “In doing co-productions,” he stated, “I’m primarily interested in the American market, so that I hire an American scriptwriter, director and actor.” (25) Santiago, of course, was an exception the rule, but even he agreed their films for the international market required Caucasian lead actors in front of the cameras, and an American scribe working on story, pacing and dialogue in a specifically American fashion. (26) Within 12 months, both the combined efforts of the Marcos' campaign and the demands of the international market had worked in the Philippines' favour. The Philippines was invaded once again by foreigners carrying movie cameras. The Europeans would arrive in droves - in sporadic forays at first, starting with Antonio Margheriti for his Deer Hunter-meets-Apocalypse-Now movie The Last Hunter (1980). By the time Margheriti had decided to relocate to the Philippines and film most of his Eighties output in the jungle, he was joined by Bruno Mattei, Gianfranco Parolini, Ruggero Deodato, Ignacio Dolze and many others, who were also fighting for space with Hong Kong and Japanese crews, Australian producer Antony I. Ginnane and Swiss producer Erwin C. Dietrich, and productions from West Germany, Belgium, France and even Malaysia.
The Americans, too, were back in droves, particularly after Cirio H. Santiago returned almost full-time to Roger Corman's fold. His Mad Max 2 (1982) clone Stryker (1983) was a spectacular success overseas, and its foreign agent, Trinidad-born Anthony Maharaj, was quick to capitalize on its success with a string of genre films produced by him and directed by Santiago. (27) Corman, it seems, regretted turning down Stryker and offered to bankroll a series of post-Apocalypse films back-to-back, quickly followed by a string of Vietnam war movies inspired by Platoon (1986) and “white-fu” martial arts films.
The buzzing hive of international productions and co-productions was matched within the local Tagalog-language industry, following its love affair with melodramas, Western parodies, teen weepies, steamy adult-oriented fare, and the inevitable “goon” action films. The plethora of gunplays and punch 'em-ups featured their local Tough Guys, from ageing superstars Fernando Poe Jr and Joseph Estrada, to the New Kids on the Block: Phillip Salvador, Dante Varona, Anthony Alonzo, Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr and Ronnie Ricketts. These so-called “goon” films of the Eighties were simply the continuation of a long-standing filmic legacy in the Philippines since the Sixties' Golden Age of Goon Cinema.
There were countless films with “Kumander” (“Commander”) or “Vengeance” in the title, movies based on the real-life or fictionalized exploits of military or guerrilla commanders, rebels, lone gunmen, ghetto heroes and villains. Their local versions of First Blood (1982) drew upon their own backyard's political turmoil - Magindanao (1982) and Kris Commando (1987) are both set in the troubled southern Moro, predominantly Muslim territory, while Sparrow Unit (1987) follows an rural communist National People’s Army (NPA) group during the long-running Communist uprising in the countryside. These plot points are of specific interest to its Filipino audience but are entirely lost on an overseas crowd; for them, the Philippines countryside may as well be an unnamed Asian or South American country, or in the case of Cirio H. Santiago's desert post-apocalypse films populated with Caucasian extras, in any country for that matter. Despite the sheer volume of productions - over 120 features in 1983 alone, over half of them goon actioners (28) - Tagalog films remained, as always, impenetrable to the rest of the world. They had their own star system, their own genres and subgenres, their own rich cinematic tradition that was constantly being drawn upon, reworked and parodied. Perhaps most significantly, their films were never dubbed into English or, unlike the vast majority of Hindi films, subtitled. Like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia and many other countries, the Eighties’ export boom, spurred on by the rise of the VHS market, finally revealed the mysterious Filipino genre film to the international market.
More than a theoretically quantum shift in quality, the Eighties export explosion was fuelled by a time-specific shift in genre. From the Fifties until the mid Seventies, the majority of jungle-bound war films either made by Filipino companies or by foreign companies shooting in the Philippines were set in the Pacific arena of World War 2. The mini-industry in wartime nostalgia would be forever changed by the intense interest surrounding Francis Ford Coppola's seemingly doomed production of Apocalypse Now (released 1979). Almost overnight, Coppola had started the first New Wave of jungle war films, set during the Vietnam War, and mostly filmed in the Philippines: The Boys From Company C (1978, beating Apocalypse Now's release date by almost a year), Purple Hearts (1981), and later with Platoon (1986) and Born On The Fourth Of July (1988). Demand for similarly-themed action films allowed the second-tier film companies - smaller, more independent production and distribution companies such as the US-based Cannon Films - to fill the gaps in the market with their own mild variations on the formulae.
Cannon Films was the first American company since the Seventies to exploit the cost-cutting benefits of shooting in the Philippines, starting with Enter The Ninja (1981), an effective B revenge film starring American action specialist Christopher George and Japanese martial arts trainer-turned-actor Sho Kosugi. They were one of the first companies to exploit their own subgenre with American Ninja (1985), also filmed in the Philippines; Cannon also followed Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984) with a cookie-cutter blockbuster Missing In Action (1985), featuring a gruff and grizzled Chuck Norris tearing up the Vietnam (read: Philippines) jungle with an M:16 looking for American prisoners-of-war. Before long, Cannon's modest action films became almost as iconic as their more expensive inspirations. Within two years, there was Cannon's official sequel to Missing In Action, their own derivative clone Behind Enemy Lines (aka POW The Escape, 1986) and scores of carbon copies from American, Italian and Asian companies, not to mention copies-of-copies from within the Philippines itself. Enter The Ninja, too, spawned its own following whilst riding on the coattails of Chuck Norris' own “white-fu” brand of martial arts movies. Co-star Sho Kosugi became the new Ninja subgenre's superstar and until it had exhausted itself towards the end of the Eighties, the hugely popular cycle would contain one of two essential ingredients: a white actor in a ninja outfit, or the star-thrower Kosugi himself. The kung fu film had morphed into the ninja movie, and the Philippines, as always, were happy to oblige.
By the mid Eighties the home video market was booming, and there was a mad scramble for titles. The huge VHS market in the United States was an obvious destination, but so were smaller, less discriminating markets: Greece, Finland, West Germany, Central and South America, Pakistan, Egypt and the Middle East. Genre titles with micro-budgets allowed international buyers with shallow pockets to purchase movies that resembled - at a distance, at least - their Hollywood prototypes. The quality demands of the home video market were so much lower than the cinema market: much smaller screens allowed for a diminished image quality, and would eventually cancel out the need to shoot on 35mm film. With genre titles in particular, consumer expectations are somewhat lower than those of the arthouse or quality drama crowd; it makes no difference to a Greek-speaking action fan if the film is poorly dubbed or not, so long as there are the requisite number of explosions or disembowellings. Rather than film prints, a distributor would merely require a Betacam master and key art for the VHS cover, and they had an instant release for a modest outlay. And such diminishing returns, thanks to the Philippines' lower cost of living, would still translate into a modest profit for the producers once converted back into pesos.
Most Tagalog exports would never have made it past Manila Customs if it weren't for the efforts of Davian International Ltd, a distribution and later production company formed by Hong Kong-born David Hung and his Philippines partner Vivian Andico (hence the “Dav-“ and “-ian” the company name) in 1986. Like Bobby A. Suarez before him, Hung had already muddied his boots in the low-budget distribution trenches as one of Joseph Lai's General Managers for Intercontinental Film Distribution Ltd, and was keen to source saleable action films for his fledgling company, primarily from his own back yard. Davian purchased the international rights to Tagalog-language films, recut them from their customary two hour running times to a more servicable 90 minutes, and supervised the dubbing into English, more often than not in Quezon City. Hung would then set up a booth at Cannes and the American Film Market and peddle his wares directly to overseas distributors. In this way, even the most generic Tagalog action film for other local producers – such as the Dante Varona vehicle Commander Lawin (1981) and The Day They Robbed America (1985) - could be given a Davian makeover and raffled off to one of their less discerning customers.
Davian International distributed both Cine Suerte and Sunny Films, owned by producer Sunny Lim, who was originally the Singapore distributor for Bobby A. Suarez before he set up Sunny Films and produced a number of action films in the Philippines, Malaysia and the United States. Producer and director Ben Yalung's Cine Suerte Inc followed a predictable course of goon actioners (Sparrow Unit , Lost Command , and one of Fernando Poe Jr's two Tagalog export films The Lethal Hunt ) with the outrageous komik-book snake monster antics of Zuma (1985) and its sequel Zuma II: Hell Serpent (1987). Davian's main Filipino competitor in the export game during this period was Cinex, the distribution company run by Conrad “Boy” Puzon and Pio C. Lee, who also ran the production company F. Puzon Film Enterprises. Cinex were regulars at Cannes and the American Film Market, where their eclectic roster - Rey Malonzo's urban revenge actioners, the Mad Max-inspired W (aka W Is War, 1983) and even the Catholic gore of The Killing Of Satan (1983) - were sold to video companies throughout Europe.
There was Gold Fever in the air, and the cry from the hills brought the hopeful and the hopeless running. The result was a series of one-off films for export by smaller companies, bankrolled by rich families or enterprising businessmen who all fancied themselves as film producers. Despite the humming from the hive, there was surprisingly little movement from the larger studios. Regal Studios, having already established its dominance over local screens in the early Eighties, tested the waters only three times – Phantom Soldiers (1987), Commander (aka The Last American Soldier, 1988) and Sgt Clarin: Bullet For Your Head (1990) - and despite sizable returns on all three investments, remained content with its long-established local market strategies. (29) From Viva, other than the children-friendly martial arts fantasy Ninja Kids: Phantom Force (1985), there was complete silence on the export front.
It wasn't just ninjas and angry POWs who emerged from the Filipino jungles. During the peak export years of 1986-1988, Davian joined other distributors - the West German company Atlas, for instance - in taking some baffling choices of Filipino genre films to the world's small screens. The Pinoy King of Comedy, Dolphy, finally made it onto American home video with his Chuck Norris spoof Action Is Not Missing (1987). Competing for shelf space were two Rambo parodies starring the stick-thin comic Palito, in a supporting role in third-tier comedian Redford White's Johnny Rambo Tango (1985) , and a lead in the astounding No Blood No Surrender (1986), in which the skeletal Palito runs around the jungle carrying a machine twice the size of him. Cinex trotted out boy wonder actor Nino Muhlach's pint-sized tribute to Clash Of The Titans (1982), Stone Boy (aka Boy God , a co-production with the Muhlach family's D'Wonder Films), a fantasy film almost as wild as Magic Of The Universe (1987), a garish horror movie for perverse adults and frightened children. On the extreme end of the entertainment spectrum, Solar Films marketed the grotesque and almost hallucinatory horrors of Silip (aka Daughters Of Eve, 1985) as a Filipino sex movie, presumably faring better than their two doomed action exports featuring the future action star, the Australian-born Gary Daniels in Final Reprisal (1988) and The Secret Of King Mahi’s Island (1989).
Without a doubt, the busiest of the low-rent Filipino outfits throughout the Eighties was the Silver Star Film Company, formerly Kinavesa Films International. Chinese-Pinoy (or “Chinoy”) businessman K.Y Lim had been involved with Hong Kong productions filmed in the Philippines as far back as 1973's Tiger Force (aka Kill The Tiger), and the Seventies kung fu boom proved lucrative for Lim, who made his own carbon copies for the local market (They Call Him Bruce Lee  featured “the Bruce Lee of the Philippines”, or one of them, at least: future export action star Rey Malonzo). After a series of goon actioners featuring all-Filipino casts, Mr Lim started thinking globally, and reasoned a number of European faces would enhance opportunities to sell his films internationally. He chose Richard Harrison - American star of countless spaghetti western and spy films of the Sixties, and kung fu movies of the Seventies – arrived on a plane from his Hong Kong home, and the motley crew of what would become Silver Star's stock company of familiar faces. The Vietnam-era war film Intrusion: Cambodia (1981) was a minor hit, but Mr Lim's standard US $50,000 budget practically guaranteed a healthy return. Richard Harrison returned to Mr Lim's meagre payroll several times - Fireback, Rescue Team, Hunter's Crossing (all 1983), Blood Debt (1984) - to be replaced by fellow Americans Bruce Baron, Max Thayer, Ron Marchini and Spanish-born Romano Kristoff, and backed by the ever-familiar faces of Jim Gaines, Mike Monty, Nick Nicholson, Don Gordon Bell, Jim Moss and many others. Some, like Nicholson, Bell and Mike Cohen, were ex-US military and presumably at home on Lim's ersatz battlefields; others were actors or would-be actors looking for adventure in the Philippines’ frontier conditions.
Urban revenge movies with martial arts gave way to the inevitable ninja cycle following Enter The Ninja (1981), and Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (1985) continued the seemingly endless string of jungle actioners, and Mr Lim was able to keep up the exhaustive output by maintaining his Hong Kong connections: film print processing, points of international distribution, and access to the wider Asian market. Cannon Films would also pick up many of the Silver Star's product and redistribute them as “filler”: bonus films to bulk out a video package of their own productions. The fact Mr Lim not only survived the decline of both the Filipino export and Tagalog markets, and maintains the same office in Manila's Chinatown peddling the Silver Star Film Company back catalogue to the overseas DVD trade, is testament to his staying power, resourcefulness and penny-pinching tenacity.
Even Mr Lim could sense the downturn in the export trade, and by 1989 had slowed down his production line from four to five features in the early Eighties to just two a year (30), finding it harder than ever to find international buyers. By the late 80s, American cable was cutting into the VHS market, and producers could no longer afford foreign locales so far from home, choosing the Caribbean and Latin America instead. The VHS boom that had carried the indies through the Eighties was subsiding, and audiences appeared to be tiring of the glut of shabby and derivative Filipino action films that came in the wake of Rambo and Platoon. Even Cirio H. Santaigo’s four to six features a year for Corman’s Concorde-New Horizons slowed down in the early Nineties and had all but dried up by 1996.
British-born screenwriter Mike Cassey began working in the Philippines in the late 80s and witnessed the decline of both the local and export film markets. “Most local movie people attribute the collapse of the movie industry here to the upsurge in video/DVD piracy,” he told me in an interview. “I totally disagree with that simplistic opinion. In my humble opinion, there were two reasons for the collapse of the Philippine cinema. On the technical front, international movie distributors and audiences were becoming more demanding and sophisticated. Audiences expected their movies to have live-sound (not dubbed), be in stereo (UltraStereo was the fad for B-movies back then), to be in widescreen, to have great soundtracks and (thanks to MTV) be fast-paced and tightly-edited. Local producers and Directors just didn't keep up with the changing cinematic trends but instead kept churning out the same old low-tech fodder. The local post-houses also did not update their equipment. The international distributors were just buying these products any more.
“The other main reason for the collapse of the Philippine movie industry was local corruption. By the late 1980s, the Philippines had earned bad press in America and Hong Kong for ripping of foreign movie productions. Unfortunately, this is a label that still sticks. Unfortunately it's part of the Philippine psyche to think short-term and not long-term. But these stories soon spread around the international movie community and the Philippines were unofficially blacklisted.” (31)
Certainly, conditions within the Philippines were making film production increasingly difficult, even for the local market; with the ousting of the Marcos government in 1986, a succession of leaders took his place, none of whom shared his dream of consolidating the Philippines' place as the cultural jewel of South East Asia. Under Aquino, Ramos and - most surprising of all - former superstar Joseph Estrada, pragmatism and economic self-interest were paramount, and by the early Nineties the Filipino film industry was almost taxed into bankruptcy. The meteoric rise of the two media superblocks - local TV, radio and cinema combined under the two corporate banners and ABS-CBN and GMA - coincided with Hollywood's almost complete hegemony over the country's cinema screens, no longer independent stand-alone concerns but multiplex screens as part of corporate-controlled shopping centres. Tagalog-language features were competing with each other for the ten to fifteen percent of cinema screens available to them, while the flashier Hollywood product took the rest; thus television became the focus of revenue and star power, and cinema gradually lost its former lustre. By 2008 the Philippines, a former filmmaking and export dynamo, was down to 58 feature films for the ever-shrinking local market. (32)
Since 1993, Star Cinema (the film production and distribution wings of ABS-CBN TV) has captured the lion’s share of an ever-dwindling market; at this point in time, it is in television where the real power and money can be found. Economic realities have forced many independent producers out of the industry permanently, leaving film production predominantly in the hands of a new studio hegemony that's a virtual carbon copy of the Fifties' studio system, with a similarly parochial view of production, audience demands and distribution. More depressing is its defensive, closed-door approach to new ideas, relying instead on what studio heads believe to be tried and tested formulae. Hence the relentless avalanche - these days slowing almost to a crawl - of star vehicles, and copies of copies of Hollywood blockbusters. In short: a microcosm of Hollywood in its own decline.
Despite the industry’s own gloomy forecast, there are signs of activity, even in the export arena. Even the unfashionable phrase “co-production” started to be bandied around once again – Roger Corman renewed his filmmaking partnership with Cirio H. Santiago in 2005 and produced several features for the direct-to-DVD market until Santiago died in September 2008 during the filming of the post-apocalypse movie Road Raiders (still incomplete at the time of writing). Italian director Bruno Mattei also returned to the Philippines in 2004 after a fifteen year break and shot over seven features for producer Giovanni Paolucci before he too passed away in May 2007, having just completed Zombies: The Beginning (released 2008). Although Mattei’s features have a home-movie feel about them, shot on digital HD cameras for a fraction of the budgets of his previous Philippines-lensed features, it is nevertheless encouraging that the pioneering spirit of the B films still lives. Bobby Suarez is still pitching a sequel to the Seventies’ Cleopatra Wong adventures, genre specialists Rico Ilarde and Erik Matti both tell me they are currently in talks with UK-based production company Mondo Macabro, and Paolucci is looking for a replacement for his reliable friend Mattei to continue making micro-budgeted B films for the international DVD market. There are stirrings in the B film export trade, in the same way the words “digital” and “indie” are breathing life into an ossified film industry at large. The whims of international market will doubtlessly never allow the halycon days of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties to return, but the export trade will almost certainly exist in a scaled-down version, maximizing its smaller budgets with digital technology and connections to the direct-to-DVD market. And the Filipino genre film – as we define it, a disreputable creature skulking near the bottom of every critics' lists – will be scrawnier and may not travel well, but as always, ever-mutating and resiliant as hell.
1. The most reliable source of information on numbers of films produced in the Philippines until 1994 is in the Diamond Anniversary of Philippine Cinema program, 1994, pp.65-74. b. “Output of Local Films: 58” article posted 20/01/09 on the Film Academy of the Philippines website www.filmacademyphil.org/?p=1231
2. Philippines’ entry to the Berne Convention at www.kipo.ke.wipo.net/treaties/en/Remarks.jsp?cnty_id=1010C
3. See Nic Deocampo, Cine: Spanish Influences On Early Cinema in the Philippines, Anvil Publishing Co, Manila, 2007
4. Jose F. Lacaba, “Notes on Bakya: Being an Apologia of Sorts for Filipino Masscult”, Philippines Free Press, 31/01/70, reproduced on Lacaba's blog kapetesapatalim.blogspot.com/2008/12/notes-on-bakya.html
5. Both actor-producers Fernando Poe Sr and Leopoldo Salcedo ran their own successful companies in the Forties and Fifties.
7. Diamond Anniversary of Philippine Cinema program, 1994, pp.65-74
8. Amalia Fuentes interview with the author, November 2008
9. Wilfredo Milan interview with the author, July 2007
10. A good background to the evolving drive-in market in the United States from the Fifties to the Seventies can be found in Fred Olen Ray, The New Poverty Row: Independent Filmmakers As Distributors, McFarland, Jefferson NC, 1991
11. Eddie Romero interview with Lee Server, Film Comment #1 (March 1999)
12. Nepomuceno's hyperbole extended beyond the films' credits to their posters. For a collection of posters from Nepomuceno Productions, see video48.blogspot.com/2008/05/nepomuceno-productions-two-generations.html
13. Transcript of the Supreme Court ruling at www.supremecourt.gov.ph/jurisprudence/2002/dec2002/139479.htm
14. “Bomba”, according to actor Ernie Zarate, is a Tagalog variation of the term “blond bombshell”, and was also used in the Sixties to describe “a damaging expose”. “Pene”, the term for pornographic films during the Bomba period showing actual penetration, is short for “penekula”, and is also Spanish for “penis”. See Zarate’s article on Pinoy film slang in his “Pinoy Film Lingo II” article from the Film Academy Of The Philippines website, www.filmacademyphil.org/?p=130
15. Eddie Garcia interview with the author, July 2007
16. Sam Sherman interview with the author, June 2008
17. J. Philip di Franco (ed.), The Movie World of Roger Corman (Chelsea House Publishers, New York, 1979), p.202
18. Filipino Film Review Vol 1 Issue 5 (January-March 1984), p.23
19. Nicanor G. Tiongson, CCP Encyclopedia of Phil-Art Volume 8: Phil-Film, CCP Special Publications Office,
20. Anthony Maharaj interview with the author, July 2007
21. Starwatch, 03/02/82, p.5
22. “$.5-M local films sold” in Business Day, 29th January 1982, p.19
23. Nila Astorga-Garcia, “Sizable market for midget’s movies” in Business Day, 25th January 1982, p.19
24. Starwatch, 3rd February 1982, p.7
26. Cirio H. Santiago interview with author, February 2007
27. Anthony Maharaj interview with the author, July 2007
28. Diamond Anniversary Of Philippine Cinema program, 1994, p.82
29. Jim Gaines interview with author, November 2008
30. Kinavesa/Silver Star filmography on the author’s blog bamboogodsandbionicboys.blogspot.com/search/label/Silver Star and Kinavesa
31. Author’s interview with Mike Cassey, reproduced on the author’s blog www.bamboogodsandbionicboys.blogspot.com/2009/11/mike-cassey-interview-2009.html
32. “2008 Output Of Local Films” article on the Film Academy of the Philippines website www.filmacademyphil.org/?p=1231