Contestable Nation-Space: Cinema, Cultural Politics, and Transnationalism in the Marcos-Brocka Philippines

Author: Rolando B. Tolentino

Reviewer: Joel David, Inha University

Posted in the International Journal of Asian Studies


In the final chapter of Contestable Nation-Space (hereafter CN-S), which is an evaluation of the cinema of Lino Brocka vis-à-vis the dictatorship of Ferdinand E. Marcos in the Philippines, Rolando B. Tolentino mentions some limitations in theories of national cinema and endeavors to provide a more useful framework by tweaking Aijaz Ahmad’s 1960s-based revolutionary orientation and Pathar Patterjee’s anticolonial and antistructuralist reconceptualizations (pp. 198–200). This turns out to be late in the game, inasmuch as in an intensive study the framework ought to have been stated at the beginning and refined along the way. The book relies on readers being sufficiently acquainted with the issues it raises and capable of filling in the missing elements. (CN-S contains six chapters comprising, in chronological order: “Articulations of Nation-Space,” “Working Concepts,” “Cityscape,” “Postnational Family/Postfamilial Nation,” “Mattering National Bodies and Sexualities,” and “[Third] Worlding Nation/Cinema.”)

In his conclusion, Tolentino summarizes the situation of Philippine national cinema, drawing lessons from preceding chapters and providing recommendations for its betterment. This is where the instabilities that beset CN-S reach their tipping point. For while relying on an intensive cultural-studies approach, Tolentino has disavowed auteurism (pp. 77–79), a method premised on the acknowledgment of the director’s artistic primacy in film practice, notwithstanding the entire book’s focus on a singular filmmaker. Since the book advanced no other alternative to the author-function, we can only read CN-S as one more of those “great-men” confrontations that old-line histories are already replete with.

More disturbing consequences arise from Tolentino’s rejection of the auteurist approach, aside from the fact that it leaves its cultural-studies insights suspended in the book’s idiomatic conceits, rather than rooted in Brocka’s (and his films’) manifold quirks and contradictions. CN-S was a product of Tolentino’s film studies in the US and was published during his term as Communications Dean at the national university and as concurrent chair of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino [Filipino Film Critics Circle]. The latter group has come under increasing attack from independent critics, including former members, for its near-exclusive reliance on its annual award-giving ceremony as its primary means of validation. Personal disclosure: I have been referenced by the group, including Tolentino (2016), in the form of reprimanding a critique of the MPP that I had published (David 2013). As it is, Tolentino already happens to be the most highly qualified member of the circle and the most capable in terms of contemporary film discourse.

Tolentino’s refusal in CN-S to deploy auteurism could be ascribed to a corrective attempt on his part to temper the MPP’s awards-oriented proclivities. However, the study as a whole suffers immeasurably as a result. Tolentino revels in provocative premises, such as, in the introduction, by comparing the still-ongoing digital-independent cinema trend to the 1980s shawarma fad in Manila (p. 14), necessarily ignoring the fact that local shawarma, unlike digital films, have never been exported to the West. Several other attempts at allegorizations turn out to be more defensible than the shawarma analogy, but the book’s ideational (and physical) center, pivoting on Brocka’s city film Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag [Manila: In the Talons of Light] (1975), labors under Tolentino’s imposition of the concept of “capital infrastructuring” (p. 98), even though such a phenomenon could presumably abide without any film-text serving as confirmation. One reads on for the moment to see if Maynila itself can justify the use of the concept, but that point never arrives.

When Tolentino discusses Philippine political economy, he proceeds with a confidence that betokens deep interest in and preparation for the subject. When he then moves onto pop-culture territory, such confidence transmutes into an impatience for the material (which, after all, is regarded by orthodox Marxists as less vital to economic determinism). Truth be told, one could catalogue his errors of fact and perception and come up with an entire chapter of corrections. From one chapter alone (“Mattering National Bodies and Sexualities”), any local specialist could easily spot the following errors: the use of bomba [bomb] as a generic term for local sex films (p. 168), when in practice it refers to only the very first (occasionally hard-core) trend; the allegation that “Luz Valdez” as proper speak (where similar-sounding names are made to substitute for common words, in this case “lose”) arose from the actress’s popularity as villainess (p. 183), when in fact she was launched with, and has maintained, a wholesome image to the present; the avowal that the local slang word shoke [gay] was a portmanteau of “shota ay kelot” [his beau’s a man] (p. 184), when the latter expression was of more recent origin and shoke itself was derived from a corruption of shokoy [merman]. Most appalling of all is Tolentino’s contention that the use of the term “fighting fish” to mean Filipino pornographic movies came from the acronym MIFF, with people supposedly replacing the last two words of the early 1980s Manila International Film Festival with the euphemism (p. 171). A recent Google search turns up a declassified 1956 memorandum, ascribed to CIA operative Edward G. Lansdale, whose first description of fact states, “(A)n order of more copies of pornographic films (known in the message as fighting Fish [sic] film), has been received from Saigon from an American USIS employee” (Harper 2013).

Tolentino’s misimpressions of the Brocka films in his study evince certain shortcomings that auteurism, for all its excesses, would have corrected: he would have had to defer generalizing until he had seen all available Brocka films as well as the large volume of movies that either had influenced him or had been influenced by him; he would have had to anchor his findings in the formal properties of the specific Brocka texts that he opted to dwell on; and he would have had to focus more intently on the manner in which Brocka’s life, as the country’s most politicized and impassioned filmmaker, intertwined with his cinematic output. Tolentino’s difficulties become more congealed when he tackles the two projects that enabled Brocka to become an icon of independent production among several contemporary digital filmmakers: the epic small-town movie (Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang [Weighed but Found Wanting], 1974) and city movie (Maynila, 1975) by the production company he set up after he bolted from an onerous exclusive contract with an established studio. In this instance Tolentino regurgitates conventional-left wisdom about the director as a messianic rebel, which he modifies by effectively positioning Brocka, David-like, against Marcos’s colossal monstrosity. In truth, Brocka may have been more of a Saul of Tarsus, whose first moral adversary was himself: he had started out as a reactionary oppressor, forbidding queer behavior (Velasco 1993, p. 31) and even conducting an anti-Communist witch hunt at the Philippine Educational Theater Association (Velasco, p. 36), where he became its virtual custodian after its founder left the Philippines as an anti-Marcos activist-in-exile.

Hence, when Tolentino mentions in CN-S that “Brocka was already making direct assaults” on the Marcos regime during the mid-1970s (p. 24), he overrides this crucial bit of information formerly known to only inner-left culture circles. But the films themselves reveal enough about the director’s then-conventionalist outlook, and account for his consecutive sweep of the establishment-controlled Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences’ annual awards. Although Tolentino describes Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (1974) as “antithetical to Marcos’s idealized society” (p. 28), the film can nevertheless be read as a parable on the need to replace a morally bankrupt traditional order with a newer and more enlightened still-patriarchal system; the same way that Marcos had envisioned his New Society as a rectification of the weaknesses of what he had termed the Philippines’s “sick society.” In the next year’s Maynila, Brocka’s standard angry young man follows a more progressive turn in finding himself victimized by big-city operators. Tolentino rightfully deplores the film’s use of a small-time Chinese merchant as a means of signifying foreign domination of the economy – a telling detail that Brocka continued to rationalize (Sotto 1993, p. 224) and that was carried over from the source novel of Edgardo Reyes (1966–67).

In the instance of Reyes’s denunciation of a Brocka-concocted sequence where the main character gets sidetracked into the demi-monde of male prostitution, Tolentino maintains that “contrary to the novelist’s open criticism of the film’s . . .‘making gay’ the story, Brocka differentiates the subculture from the feudal production by laying bare its transformative qualities” (p. 93). Unsurprisingly, Brocka’s own defense affirms his homophobic intent (Sotto, p. 225). Two matters contribute to Tolentino’s difficulties with Maynila, both of them proceeding from the probability that he may not have been able to watch (or remember) the movie’s original-release screening in July 1975. First, the rentboy sequence actually ran several times longer than it does in all current versions, definitely ending on an anti-queer note, with the main character expressing disgust toward his besotted hustler-mentor and walking out on the entire prostitution scene (David 2012, p. 29). Second, the original-release print opened with a title card that said “1970” – a detail that was duly noted in most of the major reviews of the time (see the reprint of Lumbera 1997, p. 200); by this means, Brocka had exempted the martial-law regime, which began in 1972, from the movie’s powerful social critique.

Despite his defensive posturing, Brocka apparently remained mindful of critical responses to these two early achievements and proceeded to correct the ideological shortcomings in these films and, subsequently, in his activism. In 1976, the year after Maynila, he made Insiang, which featured strong women characters surviving in the slums of the city (unlike the passive roles of women in Tinimbang Ka and Maynila); in 1979, he featured a sympathetic lumpen-proletariat character in Jaguar (a departure from the mobs that attempt to lynch the Other couple in Tinimbang Ka and that succeed in killing the main character in Maynila); in 1985, he positioned a strong-willed mother out to reclaim her son from a corrupt mayor in Miguelito: Batang Rebelde [Miguelito: Rebel Child] (in contrast with the madwoman still yearning for her cruel mayor-lover in Tinimbang Ka); in 1990, he depicted an educated and progressive Chinese family in Gumapang Ka sa Lusak [Dirty Affair]. His major crack at a queer-positive text, 1988’s Macho Dancer, was less successful than these other attempts; its gainful US distribution, however, encouraged him to plan a series of similarly themed projects that had to be finished by others after the fatal 1991 accident that cut short his career. After the 1983 assassination of an opposition leader Senator Benigno S. Aquino Jr., Brocka also began to take an active hand in the anti-dictatorship movement and wound up repudiating even the government that replaced it, for being insufficiently pro-poor (Velasco 1993, p. 37). His most overtly political films were produced at this time and would have been followed, had he survived, by increasingly ambitious, confrontational, and formally demanding works. A recognition of Brocka’s fullest measure could have been a cherishable aspect of any book that purported to tackle his films and their significances; unfortunately, Tolentino’s Contestable Nation-Space will not be such a volume.

David 2013
David, Joel. “Pinoy Film Criticism: A Lover’s Polemic.” The Manila Review 3 (2013), pp. 6–8.
David 2012
David, Joel. “Thinking Straight: Queer Imaging in Lino Brocka’s Maynila (1975).” Plaridel: A Philippine Journal of Communication, Media, and Society 9:2 (2012), pp. 21–40.
Harper 2013
Harper, Lauren. “FOIAsourcing: The Lansdale Collection.” Unredacted: The National Security Archive, Unedited and Uncensored (6 December 2013). Accessed 20 July 2016.
Lumbera 1997
Lumbera, Bienvenido. “Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag: A Review.” In Revaluation 1997: Essays on Philippine Literature, Cinema and Popular Culture, pp. 200–203. Manila: University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 1997. Originally published in Philippine Daily Express in 1975.
Reyes 1966–1967
Reyes, Edgardo. Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag [In the Talons of Light]. Liwayway serialization, 1966–1967. Rpt. Manila: De La Salle University Press, 1986.
Sotto 1993
Sotto, Agustin. “Interview with Lino Brocka on Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag.” In Lino Brocka: The Artist and His Times, ed. Mario A. Hernando, pp. 223–26. Manila: Sentrong Pangkultura ng Pilipinas, 1993.
Tolentino 2016
Tolentino, Rolando B. “Hinahanap, Kaya Nawawala” [Searched For, Therefore Missing]. Contribution to “A Round Table Discussion on Poetics and Practice of Film Criticism in the Philippines.” Ed.
Patrick F. Campos. Plaridel: A Philippine Journal of Communication, Media, and Society 13:1 (2016), pp. 178–84.
Velasco 1993
Velasco, Johven. “Brocka’s Theater: Something from the Heart.” In Lino Brocka: The Artist and His Times, ed.
Mario A. Hernando, pp. 23–37. Manila: Sentrong Pangkultura ng Pilipinas, 1993.