Recent Manila visitor Ang Lee is the first Asian to win two Oscar awards, one for Life of Pi in 2013 and the other in 2006 for Brokeback Mountain. But it was not easy for him to get into the world of filmmaking. He had to suffer countless defeats and rejections. He had to strain personal relations with his father. In a word, one could say that Lee’s passion drove his artistry in filmmaking.
Another Asian filmmaker visited the Philippines, and that was the 29-year old Singaporean-based Anthony Chen who wrote and directed ‘Iloilo.’ He based his first feature film on his childhood memories of their Filipino house helper in Singapore. Like Lee, Chen worked intensely on his screenplay for three years, and success has followed him ever since.
These Asian filmmakers who recently visited the Philippines can serve as an inspiration for those who are passionate enough to pursue the art of filmmaking. Both Lee and Chen had to break in to the industry, which was not easy for them. Both also had to go to film school, that is, to learn the techniques and to develop their style.
Clearly, both directors exude an Asian flair into their art. Culture is a big part of their films, and both had managed to tap into the simplest yet most touching of human emotions. Lee is even dubbed as the “guru of magical realism,” one that he doesn’t own up to.
Filipino filmmakers can learn from them. Independent films have depicted local culture, but mainstream Philippine cinema has repetitive story lines and predictable styles. In the local setting, there is a clear divide between mainstream and independent films.
From production to script to the actors, it is easy to distinguish one from the other. One sells, one tells a story.
There are those who blame politics in the entertainment industry as one of the downfalls of Philippine cinema. Young, local, independent filmmakers would complain of having to break in the industry by rubbing elbows with veterans who can get the funding and the right people for their films.
But then, in order to produce masterpieces, aspiring filmmakers who have the potential can learn a great deal from these Asian filmmakers who came to the country. Not only did they have to break in the industry. Lee attests that one has to “to adapt and deal with” the politics of filmmaking, and even if it is difficult, it has to be done.
As successful people would always say, grit and perseverance is the formula for success.
Also, culture should not be lost in mainstream cinema. If one can recall the Golden Age of Philippine Cinema, it was movies like the 1937 Zamboanga, or Manuel Conde’s Genghis Khan released in 1950, or movies like Kandelerong Pilak, Ifugao, Anak Dalita, Badjao, Anak ng Dagat, to name just a few, that received acclaim in the international film scene.
All these titles exude local culture, no matter how complex or simple their stories might be.
They also had to master their craft, one that Filipino filmmakers can also adapt. There is a lot of available technology in making films, and Filipino filmmakers have to educate themselves with all forms of technology they can utilize.
Lee’s plans to film the Thrilla in Manila boxing match in the Philippines can impact the local film industry not only in quality, but also the business aspect of it. This can spark the interest of big production companies who can see the Philippines as a good location in terms of logistics and feasibility. This can also generate jobs for local filmmakers, regardless of whether it is on sound or production design, no matter what department, locals will be able to witness Lee’s style.
He would require manpower, and it can be a great learning experience for those who will be part of Lee’s production. But the question is: can Filipinos apply the discipline learned from foreign filmmakers? Hollywood filmmakers like Christopher Doyle and John Sayles have filmed in the Philippines, so it’s not new to have foreign styles of filmmaking witnessed here in the Philippines. It’s also about adapting, one that Filipinos have always been good at. But big budget films always gravitate to the safe side. A love story with popular actors constitute Philippine mainstream cinema today, which shouldn’t be the case.
It was the likes of Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal and National Artist Eddie Romero who did put the Philippines in the world map of filmmaking. So it’s really not about the lack of funding or technology, it’s the lack of culture, education and experience that’s missing in the local industry, one that could be acquired through having directors like Lee film in the Philippines.
Lee and Chen were both brought here with the support of the Taiwanese and Singaporean tourism boards. This shows a clear government support in both their countries. This should also say something about how local filmmakers need the support of the government. It shouldn’t just be the National Commission for Culture and the Arts’ (NCCA) job, but a collective effort of the Department of Tourism (DOT), the Congress, and other government agencies that should work together to improve the quality of Philippine cinema and the taste local audience.
Bernal’s 1982 Himala was made over-budget with an impressive production. It was shot in Ilocos Norte, and there was a scene that required a whole barangay to participate as extras in the film. It was outrageous, but it was great. That movie would not have been possible if the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) (with heavy support from Imee Marcos) then did not exhaust all its resources. This shows that if the want is bad enough, the Philippines can produce cinema masterpieces.
The Philippines has the resource and talent to produce quality films. What is lacking is the passion to make good art, and the willingness to explore other possibilities. There is a lack of courage to be bold, different, and fear to step out of the box. It is about education and passion, one that Filipino filmmakers do have. Philippine cinema has certainly improved over the past five years, at least in the independent scene. Local films may be on its way back to its Golden Age, but, a little more support from the government, please?
As for Filipino filmmakers, remember a quote from Lee’s wife, one that was said at a time when the Academy Award winning director enrolled in computer classes and almost gave up filmmaking: “If you want that golden statue, you have to commit to the dream.”