For anyone planning a trip to the Philippines, Stephen Keeling has picked out ten top films that showcase the country’s landscapes, history and culture.
Make sure you watch the extraordinary restored and re-mastered version in high definition – it’s hard to believe this classic is over thirty years old. Oro, Plata, Mata, shot mostly on location on Negros and in Bacolod City, is still the best evocation of the Philippines during World War II. A saga of two rich Filipino families, the film highlights the lives of the wealthy land-owning class in the 1940s and the bloody horrors of war – though most of the fighting takes place among the Filipino protagonists.
This grand historical drama follows the life of national hero José Rizal (played by heart-throb Cesar Montano) through a series of flashbacks. It’s a thoughtful movie, alternating between slow-moving, often dream-like segments, and harrowing scenes of violence, garrotting and torture. The lush period sets brilliantly evoke colonial Philippines, while the story is a great primer not just on Rizal, but also the corruption and power of the Catholic Church, and the brutality of the Spanish regime – the friars come across especially badly. Get ready for a weepy ending.
A film of the acclaimed novel by Lualhati Bautista, tracing the lives of a middle-class Filipino family during martial law under Marcos (1972–1981), mostly through the eyes of female protagonist Amanda Bartolome (Vilma Santos). Filipino acting legend Christopher de Leon also stars. It’s the best way to get a sense of what Marcos really did to the country.
Mark Meily’s poignant comedy about three down-on-their-luck Filipinas who are hired as professional mourners in Manila’s Chinatown is still a hilarious introduction to contemporary Manila: street scenes of Binondo (Chinatown) in all its rich, gaudy glory; the sometimes uneasy mix of Chinese and Filipino communities; sordid affairs and illegitimate children; McDonalds happy meals, gambling, corruption and "videoke"; cadging free rides on "jeepneys"; a mix of Hokkien, Tagalog and English words (sometimes in the same sentence); and the daily struggle to make money. It’s all there.
This extraordinary, heart-rending story tackles the complex status of homosexuality in the modern Philippines. The set-up is potentially tragic: an effeminate boy lives in the Manila slums with his macho criminal family, and falls in love with a handsome, friendly policeman. The ending is heartbreaking, but in not the way you might expect – a wonderful, clever movie. The soundtrack is provided by Pinoy rock legend Pepe Smith.
This film is a bawdy and brutally realistic account of a day in the life of a family running a male prostitute service in a film theatre in Angeles City – your opinion of the latter is unlikely to be improved after watching this movie. This shows a seedy – and very real – side of the Philippines: incest, bigamy, unwanted pregnancy, sexual services and a good old-fashioned boil on the bum. It stars indie movie king Coco Martin. If you like this, check out Mendoza’s follow-up, Kinatay (Butchered; 2009).
Several Filipino films have been set during the bitterly fought Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 (notably the gritty Sakay, 1993), but this is the most accessible for foreigners, with Chris Cooper featuring as a grizzled US captain charged with “winning hearts and minds” in a Filipino village whilst putting down the local “rebels”. An ominous foreshadowing of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and beautifully filmed on the island of Bohol.
This contemporary indie uses real footage of President Benigno Aquino, aka “NoyNoy”, beginning with the death of his beloved mother, Cory, in 2009. The story follows his humble (and fictional) namesake Noy (Coco Martin), as he poses as a journalist commissioned to make a documentary about Aquino’s campaign. The real drama, however, is Noy’s family life, where the themes of poverty and the struggle for survival – and its price – are sensitively portrayed.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this lavish historical drama, the nation’s most expensive movie to date, starring several acting heavyweights – if you only have time to see one Filipino epic, choose this. It explores the life of Emilio Aguinaldo, the first president of the Philippines, and tackles the controversial rift between him and Antonio Luna (Christopher De Leon), and Andres Bonifacio (Cesar Montano). Aguinaldo is played by real-life Laguna governor turned actor Jorge Estregan (aka E.R. Ejercito), and Nora Aunor and Cristine Reyes also star. Shooting took place in Cavite, Laguna, Bulacan and Pampanga.
Written and directed by UK filmmaker Sean Ellis and starring Filipino actor John Arcilla, this movie feels like a documentary, following the fortunes of a farmer leaving Baguio to find a better job in Manila. It’s a grimly moving portrait of how the poor are still brutally exploited in the Philippines – it is essential viewing, but you are going to feel just a little bit guilty when lounging on that beach in Boracay. It won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2013.
While all the above should help to get you in the mood for a trip to the Philippines, it is not a list of the ‘greatest Filipino movies’. For that I’d recommend Gerardo de Leon’s lauded adaptations of the Rizal novels, and the later highly acclaimed art-house works of Lino Brocka and Miguel de Leon. To get a feel for what Filipinos like to watch today – from kitsch and campy romantic comedies to fantasy romps – check out Enteng Ng Ina Mo (2011), Sisterakas (2012), starring comedy vet Vice Ganda, and blockbuster The Unkabogable Praybeyt Benjamin (2011).
Stephen Keeling is the co-author of The Rough Guide to the Philippines.
Top image: © R.M. Nunes/Shutterstock