NEW YORK—If you had been asleep for a long time and happened to wake up a week ago in Manila and scanned the movie pages of the dailies, you might have thought that there was only one film in the whole wide world.
And that film would be the comics-inspired blockbuster Justice League.
Most of the innumerable screens in the metro area were showing that film and only that film. Even given that the range of Hollywood-produced or Hollywood-derived films is limited, this devotion to only one work was jaw dropping.
Where were the rom-coms, the historical epics, the policiers, family dramas, animated films, and horror movies? Instead, what you had for at least two weeks was a whole nation of more than 100 million deprived of other cinematic options—at least, on the big screen. (Thankfully, for those with computers, streaming online provides a much-needed alternative. Of course, this is richly ironic, as viewing films on the Internet has been a major factor in the decline in movie attendance.)
The circles of culture as dictated by the incredibly wealthy illiterati have grown smaller, more constricted. Pretty soon, these circles will disappear, obliterated by the insatiable thirst for profit that distributors possess, until only one circle is left, that of greed. I’m sure there’s a special circle in Hell for them.
Greed may be good for a select few, but devastating to the whole country—income inequality breeds cultural inequality: those making the most determine what most of us consume culturally. Indie filmmakers and production outfits can only dream of being obsessed over by distributors, their works shown on hundreds of screens nationwide, not just for one or two days (the usual fate of indie works) but a couple of weeks or enough time for the public to get to know via word of mouth if not through the critics what the independently produced and directed film is like.
This did happen with Heneral Luna, reviewed in this column when it first appeared in 2015, produced by Artikulo Uno and directed by Jerrold Tarog. Sans big-name actors, it proved to be a winner both at the box-office and in the eyes of most of the critics, becoming the highest grossing Filipino historical film then and now. (Full disclosure: my late brother Henry co-wrote the screenplay, along with Ed Rocha, and later tweaked by Tarog.)
You’d think the gods at the big studios and the distributors, who have an incestuous and parochial relationship, would have realized that there is gold in such films, and in the treasure trove of historical material that they explore. But clearly if this fixation on Justice League is any indication, the illiterati continue to be ass-backwards in their thinking. (As it turns out, Justice League isn’t earning as much profit as expected, one reason being the exposure on too many screens—a classic case of supply outstripping demand.)
I certainly hope the fate that awaits the soon-to-be-released Smaller and Smaller Circles, directed by Raya Martin and based on the crime fiction novel of the same name, by F.H. Batacan, will replicate the success of Heneral Luna.
Batacan’s award-winning novel deals with a serial killer who abducts poor young boys from Payatas, a huge dumpsite, kills them, then mutilates their bodies as to render them unrecognizable. Aiding the hapless National Bureau of Investigation are two Jesuit priests, who happen to be forensic specialists. Complicating the narrative is the issue of clerical sexual abuse, with the church hierarchy being in denial.
Given that this is the murderous age of Duterte, with the dramatic rise in extrajudicial killings of mostly poor young men, the film offers a much-needed investigation of a sinister world peopled by desperate characters and marked by society’s callous indifference towards them.
Martin has made a name for himself in international film circles, with films such as Independencia and Autohystoria. More meditative and nonlinear, his works are suffused with a detachment resulting in an idiosyncratic exploration of the subject at hand.
While Martin’s temperament doesn’t quite fit the material—this is a genre film, after all, and a bit more blood and thunder would have helped to lead the viewer to a catharsis—nevertheless there are directorial intelligence and a sense of craft at work here, so that the narrative unspools smartly.
Produced by the same outfit that made Heneral Luna, Smaller and Smaller Circles is well worth viewing, and not just as a vote against the mindless tripe that distributors/illiterati too often favor but as part of a collective effort to render Philippine film deeper and more rewarding.
Copyright L.H. Francia 2017