“Cinema is the greatest mirror of humanity’s struggle. You see this alternative world, but you’re part of it. Everybody is part of it. This is our world.” – Lav Diaz
Cinema was introduced to the Philippines as early as 1897 but most of the early silent films were made by rich expatriates and colonial masters. It was during the 1930s that the country began exploring the infinite possibilities of the medium, seeking to explore the familiar concepts of war and universal notions like cinematic heroism. However, Filipino cinema truly started developing its own voice from the 1950s which is now known as the First Golden Age of the country.
It was followed by increasingly subversive film movements which revolutionised the film industry. Some of the greatest Filipino filmmakers like Lino Brocka and Mario O’Hara were producing masterpieces during the volatile period of the ’70s which would go on to influence the cinematic sensibilities of the Filipino New Wave that emerged during the 2000s.
One of the leading figures of the Filipino New Wave, Lav Diaz, reflected in an interview: “What really inspired me to make cinema was when I was in the first year of college and I saw this film–it was assigned by our literature teacher–it’s a film by Lino Brocka, one of our greatest filmmakers. The title is Manilla in the Claws of Light and it was the first time I saw a Filipino movie that was that commercial and at the same time showed the social realities of the time. It’s critique of what was happening in the country really affected me when I saw it.”
He added, “I’m a very hopeful person. I’m just critiquing reality–you see my films, they are very dark. I don’t want to play around, I don’t want to do entertainment, I don’t want to do happy endings the way you see in the movies–those are lies; I don’t want to do that. As much as I can, I want to work on the truth of human existence in film. I don’t want to create lies like happy endings or climactic endings…that’s not cinema.”
As a part of our periodic spotlight on world cinema, we take a look at some of the definitive works from various movements in the history of Filipino Cinema in order to understand how the art form has evolved over the years in the Philippines.
10 essential films from the Philippines:
First Golden Age
Sisa (Gerardo de Leon – 1951)
Based on characters created by the legendary José Rizal, Sisa is the story of a mother who is wanted by four young men. However, it only ends in tragedy for her because the men in her life indulge in senseless violence and facilitate the manifestation of their masculine insecurities.
Screenwriter Teodorico Santos focuses his story on this minor character from Rizal’s seminal novel Touch Me Not, choosing to make her the protagonist of this cinematic masterpiece. Gerardo de Leon’s intense visual narrative helps accentuate the pathos of these people and sheds light on the volatile sociopolitical scenario of that time.
Child of Sorrow (Lamberto V. Avellana – 1956)
An early masterpiece by the prominent Filipino filmmaker Lamberto V. Avellana, Child of Sorrow is a 1956 crime film which became one of the highlights of the First Golden Age of Filipino cinema. It indulges in a commentary on war by telling the story of a glorified soldier and a prostitute.
Child of Sorrow was even selected as the Philippine entry for the Academy Awards but it was not selected and ended up winning the the Best Film Award at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival instead. Its importance has been re-evaluated by scholars in later years.
Malvarosa (Gregorio Fernandez – 1958)
An influential work by Dr. Gregorio Fernandez, Malvarosa is an insightful look at the widespread poverty in the Philippines at that time. Based on a popular comics serial by Filipino novelist Clodualdo del Mundo and written by del Mundo himself, the film showcases the plight of a poor family living with a crippling burden.
Restored to 4K pretty recently, Malvarosa is an important social document of the times. It shows Manila in a devastating condition, representative of the hard times that besieged it after the second World War. The film examines what family and social relations mean when the world itself has been torn apart by violence.
Blessings of the Land (Manuel Silos – 1959)
A graceful Filipino drama that beautifully captures the rural history of the country, Blessings of the Land is about the life of a family living in a village. Battling with oppressive societal norms and conservative prejudices, the couple and their deaf-mute son are subjected to unwarranted tragedies.
The film earned a nomination for the prestigious Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and won Best Picture and Best Story from the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences. Although it has been a neglected piece of cinematic mastery for a long time, the restored version was streamed on Facebook in October of 2020.
Second Golden Age
Manila in the Claws of Light (Lino Brocka – 1975)
The magnum opus of one of the greatest Filipino filmmakers to have ever lived, Lino Brocka’s 1975 masterpiece is based on Edgardo M. Reyes’ novel In the Claws of Brightness. The film explores the effect modernity has on humans through the story of a young village boy who searches for subjectivity in the dizzying cityscape of Manila.
In an interview, Brocka said, “I’m very open because I am a movie-goer. I love films, I love those violent, action-packed Hong Kong films, the way they are edited, the way the action scenes are choreographed, they are just fantastic. But in my case, in my country, it pains me that we import about 500 foreign films and we make about 150 local films and they’re complaining about the one film I made!”
Three Godless Years (Mario O’Hara – 1976)
Written and directed by one of the prominent filmmakers of the Second Golden Age, Mario O’Hara, Three Godless Years is an epic chronicle of the tumultuous life of a young schoolteacher who is raped by a half-Japanese soldier during the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines (1942-44). Many critics still claim that this is the best Filipino film of all time and one of the greatest war films to have ever been made.
Three Godless Years is not only remembered for O’Hara’s mastery over the cinematic medium but also for Nora Aunor’s powerful performance as the film’s protagonist. For her brilliant work, she was awarded the Best Actress award by the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences.
In Just the Wink of an Eye (Mike De Leon – 1981)
A work of immense artistic vision by the iconic Filipino filmmaker Mike De Leon, In Just the Wink of an Eye is a psychological horror film that follows the descent of an overbearing police officer into insanity. It tells the story of him and his daughter, showing how he controlled her life and even impregnated his own child.
Although it did not do well at the box office when it was first released, In Just the Wink of an Eye received widespread critical acclaim and several accolades. It has now been immortalised for its daring experiments with narrative, remembered for being the first major Filipino film to deal with incest.
Himala (Ishmael Bernal – 1982)
Produced by the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, Himala (“Miracle”) was based on accounts by schoolgirls on Cabra Island who claimed that they were visited by Virgin Mary during the late ’60s and the early ’70s. Ishmael Bernal investigates the grand concepts of spirituality and feminism, constructing a gripping tale of cinematic brilliance.
Himala is now considered as one of the greatest Filipino films of all time with special emphasis on Nora Aunor’s performance as Elsa, a local girl who becomes a quasi-mythical figure. The film won the the Viewer’s Choice Award for the Best Asian-Pacific Film of All Time in the 2008 CNN Asia Pacific Screen Awards.
Evolution of a Filipino Family (Lav Diaz – 2004)
With a runtime of 10 hours and 43 minutes, Lav Diaz’ epic masterpiece puts Bela Tarr’s Sátántangó’s claim as the ultimate test of voyeuristic patience to shame. Its length might seem intimidating at first but its intimate and powerful look at the collapse of a farming clan in the Philippines is greatly rewarding. Nine years in the making, Diaz makes you witness the real ageing of the characters like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Evolution of a Filipino Family is not just a film or a documentary, it is cinematic experience at its finest.
Diaz explained, “[My films are so long because] my cinema is not part of the industry conventions anymore. It is free. So I am applying the theory that we Malays, we Filipinos, are not governed by the concept of time. We are governed by the concept of space. We don’t believe in time. If you live in the country, you see Filipinos hang out. They are not very productive. That is very Malay. It is all about space and nature.”
Barber’s Tales (Jun Lana – 2013)
Set in a rural town during the end of the Marcos dictatorship regime in the Philippines, Barber’s Tales is an important contemporary film that questions the place of women in the country’s conservative history. It tells the story of a female barber who runs her own barbershop despite it being a male-dominated tradition.
One of the finest Filipino films in recent years, Barber’s Tales is the second addition to Jun Lana’s trilogy which focuses on small town life in the country. It earned awards and nominations at major festivals like the Tokyo Film Festival and the Asian Film Awards.