Rico Ilarde is that strange, strange creature, the filmmaker that flits in and out of both independent and mainstream studio system with apparent ease. He is not your classic idea of the “indie” or “art-house” filmmaker—when critics or journalists write about him, he’s usually characterized as a “horror / fantasy” director, with elements borrowed from the martial arts / action genre.
He has worked as an independent filmmaker in one sense—he has directed at least three features (his first, and his two latest) without the resources of a mainstream Filipino film studio behind him. One is tempted to ask, is Ilarde a true Filipino independent filmmaker—meaning, I suppose, do his films embody the spirit of Filipino independent filmmaking? Are his films Filipino in the first place? Art, perhaps? What is an independent film, a Filipino film, an art film, and how do we distinguish from the various categories involved?
Rico Maria Ilarde (son of Philippine TV and radio personality Eddie Ilarde) was born and bred in Metro Manila; early education in De La Salle, in Greenhills; majored in Film at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California; spent the summer at the USC / Universal Studios film program.
His real education in filmmaking, however, began with the video collection of Bobby Ledesma (a work associate of his father), arguably the largest Betamax collection in the country at the time. He would view his favourite films, paying attention to fight scenes and shootouts: Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972); Robert Clouse’s Enter the Dragon (1973); Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976); Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) and George Miller’s Mad Max (1979) (if you look at the range of pictures, his formative years took place in the ’70s, when America had a particularly vibrant action filmmaking scene). He had a pantheon of favorite fight sequences and shootouts and would view them over and over again, taking them apart in his head and examining them till he felt he knew how they worked—all this before he ever even used a video or film camera.
Ilarde dropped out of college, under the impression that landing a filmmaking position would be easy (big mistake, as he would later admit). Could not get the jobs he wanted, ended up doing film-related work, mainly writing, casting, shooting AVPs (audio-visual presentations, or “industrials”) for B-movie producer Michael D. Sellers (Thierry Notz’s Goodbye America (1996); Seller’s own Eye of the Dolphin (2006)); earned an assistant director credit for one Sellers production (Michael J. Sarna’s Doomsdayer, 2000).
Z Man (1988), about a convicted military officer given the assignment of hunting down and pacifying three crazed superhumans, came about because Ilarde’s father was looking to devote his free time on a project. Ilarde’s first idea was to do an art film in black and white; then when thoughts of actually making his father’s money back intruded he decided on a comic-book action picture, modeled after his beloved “Metal Hurlant” (Heavy Metal, the legendary French science fiction and fantasy comics magazine), George Miller’s Mad Max, and Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner. He sold the film to Overseas Filmgroup / First Look Pictures; the experience was so unpleasant Ilarde senior basically gave up on the film producing business and told his son he was on his own. Rico would not make another film for over ten years.
What got Ilarde working again was an ad in a tabloid, of all things. Filmmaker/producer Joey Gosiengfiao (Temptation Island, 1980; Nights of Serafina, 1996) and ‘Mother’ Lily Monteverde of Regal Films (the nickname identifies her as the studio’s de facto matriarch) were looking for filmmakers to pitch ideas for possible projects. Some of these would eventually become the “pito-pito” (“seven-seven”) projects made for Joey Gosiengfiao’s Good Harvest Films (a subsidiary of Regal)—basically quickie pictures shot for seven days (in some cases around ten or so) and post-produced for another seven more (in some cases considerably longer), on a budget of two and a half million pesos (around seventy thousand dollars). Ilarde senior helped introduce his son to ‘Mother’ Lily, who was impressed with Ilarde’s demo reel and signed him to a contract. He would do his first Regal film after a year’s wait, the action-horror-fantasy El Kapitan: Dugo ng Birhen (The Captain: Blood of the Virgin, 1999), about a centuries-old curse unleashing a horde of zombies. The picture was a minor hit, and made enough money that Ilarde was able to follow it up with Babaeng Putik (Woman of Mud, 2001), about a woman grown overnight from a magic seed (the film would later be screened at the Udine Far East Film Festival, which specialises in commercially made Asian films).
Putik managed to snag a few sales in international markets but not enough to leave a lasting impression; Ilarde was again without a project. Eventually, with the dawn of digital filmmaking and the interest of film critic / producer Roger Garcia, Ilarde managed to assemble enough funding for a small-scale digital production. Sa Ilalim ng Cogon (Under the Cogon Grass, 2005), about an armed robber on the run hiding in an abandoned mansion, was done on his smallest budget yet but earned the most attention, screening in Udine, Fribourg, Puchon, Rotterdam, winning a Best Picture award at the Rojo Sangre Film Festival in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His latest, Altar (2007), about two unemployed men working on a mysterious house, screened in both Vancouver and Rotterdam.
Giving his filmography a casual glance, it’s easy to dismiss Ilarde as a Steven Spielberg wannabe, an indie filmmaker from a developing Asian country aspiring vainly to the Olympian heights of his Hollywood models.
Exhibit A for the prosecution might be his first feature, Z-Man. The parallels to Blade Runner are painfully clear (man assigned to hunt down superhuman “converts” with a souped-up dart gun), with elements borrowed from John Carpenter’s 1981 science fiction thriller Escape from New York (convicted military officer assigned a near-suicidal undertaking (see also: Bruce Geller’s Mission Impossible series)). One can’t help but wince at the painfully stilted scenes with Emilio (Toby Alejar), code-named “Z-Man”, trying to make awkward love to China (Lia Baretto), the movie’s putative love interest; Z-Man was clearly written as comic-book entertainment, with dialogue pitched at the adolescent crowd.
Filmmaker-historian Nick Deocampo has an interesting take on the question of nationality: “Scratch the surface of a ‘Tagalog’ (the Philippines’ official language) film and one may still find vestiges of the Filipino’s Spanish past”. (1) Scratch the surface of this film full of homages to Carpenter, Scott, Spielberg and Akira Kurosawa (the slow-motion shot of an armoured guard collapsing to the ground) and you will find traces of an ‘insulares’ (meaning: Spaniard born in the Philippine islands) sensibility, not just in the casting (Alejar, Baretto, radio personality Bon Vibar), but in the rhythm and accent of their speech, the oddly fascinating way they mouth Ilarde’s American noir-style dialogue with its science-fiction content in a fluent yet faintly European (Spanish, to be specific) manner.
You’ll find that theatrical declamation with its dramatic pauses and Spanish cadences in almost all Filipino films (in fact, the few actors who do not speak this way—usually played by Filipino-Americans or American expatriates, and usually clearly identified as such—stick out in the largely harmonious weave of Spanish and Malay accents). Deocampo writes of how Filipino cinema “was imbued with the qualities of traditional theater” in the early years, “providing films their narrative structures, characters, styles, themes, pictorial conventions, and even ideologies”. (2) The influence would diminish with the advent of Filipino producers and directors, but would not be totally extinguished; in, say, the works of Gerardo de Leon one finds this heavy, declamatory style in its almost undiluted form, even up to his late productions in the ’70s. Fernando Poe, Jr. would make this acting style a lifelong choice, up to his last self-directed, self-produced, self-acted film, Ang Alamat ng Lawin (Legend of the Hawk, 2002). Lamberto Avellana and later Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal have worked to make their actors’ delivery more natural but even in their films the tendency persists; Ilarde’s films from Z-Man onwards betray traces of this distinctive form of performing. Is this ‘Spanish connection’ a tenuous, mainly facetious link between film/theater acting and Filipino culture? Perhaps, but as historian Renato Constantino points out, the very word ‘Filipino’ “originally applied to Spaniards”. (3) When the Spanish were overthrown the word eventually “embraced the entire nation and became a means of national identification”. (4)
It isn’t just Ilarde’s Spanish orientation that helps mark him as a Filipino filmmaker; according to Jose Capino (Assistant Professor of Cinema at the University of Illinois) foreign influence on Filipino films is not only inescapable but actually useful—that in order for Filipino films to thrive, between them and Hollywood films the “relationship must not only be one of radical difference but also of fundamental similarity”. (5) Capino goes on to explain how Filipino filmmakers mimic or appropriate outright storylines and elements from Hollywood or other foreign movies, and how this cultural osmosis (more inwards than outwards in the case of Filipino films towards Hollywood) not only provides Filipino filmmakers with material to digest and transform, but proves to be one defining trait of the Filipino character. If Ilarde betrays a fondness for combining ’70s American action filmmaking with noir and horror elements in a Filipino milieu, he’s hardly alone among Filipino directors to mix genres—though in his case, I would argue, this results in a rather unique mix of flavors.
David Bordwell states his belief that the ‘art cinema’ “as a distinct mode appears after World War 2 when the dominance of the Hollywood cinema was beginning to wane”. (6) This cinema “motivates its narratives by two principles: realism and authorial expressivity”. (7) Art cinema defines itself against mainstream Hollywood cinema (from the ’20s to the ’50s) through more realistic settings (often on-location as opposed to studio shoots), more realistic conflicts (the modern sense of alienation, the difficulty of communication), and more realistic behavior (a franker sexuality, an intricate inner psychology, and so on). Art cinema also represents space with greater verisimilitude, but “the art cinema’s realism here encompasses a spectrum of possibilities”. (8) There’s faithfully realised space (as in a documentary) and then there’s a whole other space, “justified as an intrusion of an unpredictable and contingent daily reality or as the subjective reality of complex characters” (9) —not just space presented ‘as is,’ but also space as perceived through one’s ever-shifting, ever-unreliable senses, or through an ever-shifting, ever-unreliable universe.
Then there’s “authorial expressivity,” where Bordwell describes the director as the “overriding intelligence organising the film for our comprehension”. (10) The director’s presence helps shape the film viewing experience for us, not just in autobiographical films (François Truffaut’s Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959)) but whenever the film deviates from the classical form of narrative storytelling. When a character’s motivations are unclear, or the motivation for an unusually timed cut or unusually framed or directed shot is vague, said deviation can be read as “authorial commentary”. (11)
If these two principles tend to oppose each other—if the effect of realism contradicts the effect of authorial expression—the filmmaker seeks to resolve this through the use of ambiguity. Where a breach in classical storytelling occurs, the viewer can try viewing it as an attempt at a greater realism, either objective (as in a documentary) or subjective (as in a psychological drama); if the attempt fails, the viewer can try viewing it as an indication of the author’s presence. “Ideally,” Bordwell states, “the film hesitates, suggesting character subjectivity, life’s untidiness, and author’s vision”. (12)
Ilarde offers this much a concession towards realism in his initial films: he favours actual locations over constructed studio sets (to be fair this is as much an economic as it is an aesthetic choice, location shooting being cheaper and independent film budgets being smaller, and he carries over this practice to all his succeeding features). Firmer evidence of the second—of ‘authorial expressivity’–can be seen whenever the demands of furthering plot or establishing ‘character’ (‘caricature,’ more like it) are put aside; then the film gains a life of its own.
The first hunt sequence (shot in La Salle Greenhills High School’s campus grounds, and its distinctive flying-saucer shaped St. Benilde domed gym) plays like a parody of the game of tag, with the superhuman target using speed and an almost witty playfulness to evade Emilio, weaving in and out of his field of vision on a child’s tricycle—a difficult enough trick to pull off in ordinary circumstances, but Ilarde makes it especially difficult by often shooting in long shot over a wide open space (the gym’s indoor basketball arena), and in lengthy takes. Ilarde admits to reading Andrew Sarris and harbouring a love for the films of Stanley Kubrick, Walter Hill, John Boorman among others; one can imagine him admiring their use of large volumes of space and extended stretches of time to create ambiguity (where is the quarry?), emphasise vulnerability (where will the next assault come from?), stretch the sense of tension (when will it occur?). Emilio’s quest to capture this superhuman on a set of children’s wheels becomes a parable on the filmmaker keeping his lenses on the subject—the superhuman consistently evades Emilio’s eyes (or his ‘lenses,’ metaphorically speaking); only when Emilio is able to fool the lenses (to in effect pull off his own sleight-of-hand under the superhuman’s gaze) is he able to turn the tables on his adversary.
The hunt for the second superhuman, set in a quarry in Rizal province, is framed and presented mainly as a straightforward test of force—the rocky surroundings, the use of heavy vehicles, the superman’s direct and frankly simplistic head-on tactics (brute strength, and what looks like a cross between riot police gear and a welding mask for armor). Emilio’s response possibly reflects Ilarde’s attitude towards the direct approach: instead of meeting force with force, Z-man resorts to lateral thinking, outflanking his opponent and—in a series of close-ups that offer striking contrast to the long shots that begin the sequence—hitting the superhuman’s weak spot.
The third hunt is easily the most intriguing of the three set-pieces. Shot in former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos’ “Palace in the Sky” in Tagaytay, the feeling of eerie isolation one feels from the locations of the previous two sequences becomes particularly intense here (Marcos, who had been deposed from power in 1986, was famous for his extravagant palaces; this one, located south of Manila deep in the countryside’s hilly ‘cogon’ grasslands, was never finished). Emilio is caught and wakes up in a decadent, faintly sadomasochistic tableau, chained to a four-poster bed and surrounded by gauzy drapes straight out of a softcore porn production while the third superhuman (Michael “Jennifer” Juliano) puts out campy-creepy dialogue like: “You’re different; you speak the truth. Truth as pure as her complexion—” ‘her’ being a gigantic mural of Marilyn Monroe painted onto one decaying concrete wall.
Easy to read Ilarde’s little portrait as a homophobic stereotype, but there’s a strange tenderness to Juliano’s performance, a tenderness pointed up by Ilarde’s weirdly lyrical (in this scene at least) dialogue, to which Emilio, chained and helpless, has no other choice but to respond, coyly. “I live here in solitude, worshipping,” Juliano muses out loud, asking of Emilio “would you like to witness a bit of near-perfection?” before treating his guest to a brief little dance sans music, all long legs and a twirling white skirt.
When we first see Juliano (in the film’s prologue) he’s dragged in by two guards in special armour—a portrait of oppressed transsexuality? Towards film’s end the superhuman is cradled in Emilio’s arms, fading fast, in the classic pose of a tragic heroine in the arms of her grieving lover, asking: “Will I wake again?” It’s an eerily moving moment that makes one wonder where Ilarde’s empathy towards his film’s most bizarre character comes from, and a rebuke at the notion that Ilarde is at most capable of comic-book figures with little or no complexity.
Of Ilarde’s next two features, both shot at Regal Films, the first takes off from a romanticised Spanish-Filipino mythology. El Kapitan: Dugo ng Birhen begins with a beautiful tribal lass raped and murdered by a group of Spanish conquistadors; the girl’s grandmother curses the group’s captain, transforming him into a monstrous, vaguely werewolf-like creature condemned to walk the earth, seeking the hearts of fellow ‘insulares’ and converting them into the living dead, until eating the heart of a particular virgin (the superbly endowed Klaudia Koronel) can set him free.
The premise sounds like a mish-mash of Dracula (Francis Coppola’s ‘undying love’ version) and George Romero’s ‘living dead’ films. The practice of heart-swallowing fellow ‘mestizos’ (people of mixed breed) is only vaguely established and inconsistently carried out (we never learn how often the captain needs to nibble on the muscle, plus some of the victims look particularly Malay when the curse clearly requires ‘insulares’ meat), and the zombie hordes only seem to follow their captain when the director remembers to have them tag along. But the idea of a race war—cruel Spanish oppressors versus helpless Malay natives—is more or less established, with the captain both instigator and victim of that war. Interestingly the protagonists—Charlie Davao as archeologist Professor Alvarez and Monsour del Rosario as Tonio, a former Scout Ranger turned park ranger (his job description includes battling communists, pursuing illegal loggers and arresting poachers)—are recognizably of mixed heritage.
Visually speaking perhaps the most expressive scenes can be found in the film’s beginning, when the virgin is chased and ravished under the pitiless jungle canopy, and immediately afterwards, when the captain (Mark Gil sans wolf makeup) regards himself in his small gilt-edged mirror—Ilarde’s camera slowly approaches the captain then cuts close to his face, the sequence full of wordless power and unacknowledged portent. In the later fight sequences Monsour del Rosario’s Tonio mixes it up—swings his shotgun into play, fires, then lashes out with a high roundhouse kick; Ilarde here doesn’t seem as concerned about the Spanish-versus-Malay subtext as he is about having fun. Only towards the end does he make some kind of statement, having Tonio employ the specialized equipment (a giant automated oven for baking ceramic pottery and sculptures) of his sculptor sidekick (Caloy Alde, very funny here) against the seemingly unstoppable captain.
Ilarde’s next Regal production presents a more streamlined story, a more elemental struggle, resulting in a more effective film overall. Babaeng Putik has for its protagonist Mark—Carlos Morales, yet another of Ilarde’s ‘mestizo’ heroes.
It must be said here that most Filipino films cast in their lead roles tall, fair-skinned actors who are commonly perceived by the movie-going public as ‘prettier,’ ‘more handsome,’ ‘more glamorous,’ this being possibly the most persistent attitude Filipinos have acquired from their Spanish heritage. There are actors that defy this trend, of course, the most famous being Nora Aunor (real name Nora Villamayor), who from the late ’60s to mid-’80s became the nation’s ‘superstar’ on radio, records, TV, and the big screen without possessing a square inch of fair skin—but hers is such an unusual case she may be the exception that proves the rule.
Mark dreams of becoming a writer, and needs to produce a sample short story good enough to enter him in the University of California Berkley writing program (Ilarde’s hero here is a budding artist-warrior, where in his previous production the hero is an ecologist-warrior with an artist sidekick—again, the streamlining). Morales’ uncle generously offers his countryside rest house (which the uncle calls a ‘safe house’) for Mark to stay in and write undisturbed; on the way Mark saves the life of Ben (again, Caloy Alde), a shaman being menaced by a group of CAFGUs (Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit). Ben out of gratitude gives him a magic seed; plant this and water it with your urine, the shaman says to Mark, and you will enjoy unending pleasure—so long as you never plant under a full moon. A drunken Mark does just that, failing to notice the night sky; a giant seedling sprouts, from the seedling a giant pod drops, and out of the pod filled with blood and innards emerges Sally (again, Klaudia Koronel).
For the first time in Ilarde’s films Filipino political reality intrudes in the form of the CAFGUs (Citizen Armed Forces Geographical Units)—originally named the Civilian Home Defense Forces (CHDFs), these paramilitary groups were formed back in the 1950s to fight communist insurgents; under the Marcos regime they were accused of committing numerous human rights violations and atrocities. The Aquino administration (having taken power after the fall of Marcos) cited the 1987 Constitution as its basis for dissolving the CHDF, saying the organization was “not consistent with the citizen armed force established under the Constitution”. (13) Ironically, Aquino also signed into law Executive Order 264 establishing the CAFGUs, citing as its justification the same Constitution’s provision “calling for the formation of a “Citizen Armed Force” (Article 16, Sec. 4), which shall undergo military training and serve as may be provided by law”. (14) A rose by any other name in effect, and in the film Ilarde shows us their all-too-familiar tendency to exploit or abuse the civilian population. (Fact is, I wonder about Mark’s uncle and his countryside rest house (which he insists on calling a ‘safe house’)—what, exactly, does Mark’s uncle do for a living, and what, exactly, was the ‘safe house’ for? Wish Ilarde (or his scriptwriter Andrew Paredes) had been more explicit).
Perhaps the single most authentic moment involving the CAFGUs occurs just before the film’s bloody climax, when one soldier suddenly incapacitates Mark and drags him to their commander. Oh, I wonder—had they learned that Mark was the unknown assailant that scared off the CAFGU men tormenting Ben, earlier in the picture? No, as it turns out—they had merely caught a glimpse of Mark’s special guest Sally and wanted to get to know her better, preferably without Mark’s permission. Without thinking about it one is tempted to nod one’s head in agreement and say: ‘Yes, absolutely, the CAFGUs would do something like that.'”
In Dugo ng Birhen Ilarde presents explicit horror (flesh-eating zombies) side by side with frank eroticism (Koronel in a swimming pool with Georgia Ortega); in Babaeng Putik he incarnates horror and eroticism in a single figure. Sally is Mark’s sexual fantasies made abundant flesh, a walking, wordless (Mark introduces her to the CAFGUs as being both deaf and mentally retarded) erotic joke all too eager to drop every stitch of clothing she happens to be wearing (she also seems to spend an inordinate amount of time bathing in the little stone tub before the safe house); that she becomes a slime-dripping, acid-spurting monster whenever she happens to feel peckish adds kick to one’s feelings of revulsion / attraction—yes, boys, this was the woman you were drooling over only moments before. Beauty, beast, death, desire in one horrific package—like Mark, Ilarde nurtures both artistic ambitions and martial-arts / sports aspirations (he has dabbled in various fighting disciplines and was a pole-vaulter in high school); wondering if Mark represents Ilarde is but a small step to wondering if perhaps Mark’s fantasies represents Ilarde’s, as well.
Consistent with Ilarde’s theme the horror is often filmed head-on, the same time the frame is imbued (no small thanks to Ilarde’s habitual cinematographer, Johnny Araojo (he lensed Mario O’Hara’s Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986) and Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000), plus Ilarde’s first three features)) with the taint of beauty. In Ilarde and Araojo’s hands a bus emerges from the surrounding diesel fumes like a mythical beast out of mist and fog; Sally in creature mode hugs the underside of a log bridge, log, creature and surrounding rain forest lit up like an enchanted realm. In perhaps the film’s emblematic image, Ilarde introduces Sally, newly decanted from her seed pod / uterus: the camera does a simple tilt from foot to face revealing the woman—breasts heavy and low, skin and hair thick with gore—in all her bloody, bountiful glory.
Viewing Ilarde’s films in chronological order one can’t help but notice how their respective lead characters have evolved, from smooth and suave (sort of) Emilio to modest yet still gregarious Tonio to somewhat introverted Mark (who nevertheless still manages to pick up both a girlfriend and a high school buddy along the way to graduation). In Sa Ilalim ng Cogon this inward tendency goes further yet with Sam (Yul Servo), the getaway driver for a payroll robbery. Sam has no family; his only friend is his cellmate in prison, the man who recruited him for this job (and subsequently attempts to betray him). When the heist blows up and Sam is on the run with the money he has no one to turn to; alone, he dives into and loses himself in the sea of ‘cogon’ (grass) surrounding an unspecified Filipino countryside.
Before the dive, however, we manage a glimpse of Ilarde’s latest protagonist: a shy, gentle young man with hidden abilities (he’s an ex-Marine, for one, and doesn’t like to advertise the fact). Sam, despite the Western name, is easily the most recognizably Filipino of Ilarde’s leading men to date; there’s an openness, an innocence about him typical of Filipino males. He possesses recognizably Filipino values such as “pakisama” (friendship)–when his cellmate asks for help in the heist he hesitates, but eventually agrees. He has a sense of “hiya” (shame) —not just modesty but an impeccable sense of courtesy (he calls out at a gate before entering; is polite in interview with his new employer, gang boss Johnny-B (Dido de la Paz); is thoughtful and gallant when dealing with the opposite sex). He also has an abiding sense of morality—he knows he’s done wrong but refuses to resign himself to a life of crime. When he finds the abandoned mansion and settles in he prepares that most Filipino of quickie meals (canned sardines and rice), then indulges in that most Filipino of pastimes (especially with no TV available), killing time by wandering about, poking his nose into everything.
Suddenly, Sam comes upon a framed photograph—a family portrait of a man (Joel Torre) and his daughter, a snipped-out picture of the girl’s mother (presumably the man’s wife), pasted on the lower left corner. Suddenly the house has a past, a history, the picture a link to that history. Suddenly Ilarde seems to have discovered the fourth dimension, of time (true, Dugo ng Birhen had a prologue set a hundred years in the past—but that prologue, beautifully shot and choreographed it may be, didn’t have the eloquence of this photograph). The grass, the empty mansion resembling in architectural detail a renovated and somewhat implausibly well-maintained ‘hacienda’ (mansions once inhabited by the country’s Spanish overlords as they ruled vast farming ranches), the iron gate with its bell tower looming in the background—the entire film seems to operate on an altogether subtler level. Where previously Ilarde’s films delivered magic and the supernatural this one dwells on mystery; where his films doled out generous doses of nudity and explicit sex this one suggests sensuality; where his films drank deep of horror and repulsive spatter effects this one deals with a tone and atmosphere reminiscent of a waking nightmare.
Eventually Sam meets Katia (Julia Clarete), the enigmatic girl who leaves banana-wrapped packages in the middle of the road and takes brief dips into the mansion’s leaf-choked pool. If Sam is Ilarde’s most fully realized Filipino yet, Katia is easily his most fully realized Filipina, even if she did grow up isolated from the outside world. Katia is no mere male fantasy; she argues and can be defiant. (Why the sudden vigor of Ilarde’s female characters? Could this be the influence of producer / co-scriptwriter Mammu Chua, who at one point was involved with Ilarde?). Sam and Katia look good together, their youthful curiosity and eagerness to be near each other checked (barely) by their becoming mutual shyness.
Regarding Ilarde’s evolving abilities with regards to his characters’ speech patterns—in Z-Man the dialogue was comic-book tough English; both Dugo ng Birhen and Babaeng Putik managed to produce (thanks presumably to co-writer Andrew Paredes) earthier, more crudely humorous Tagalog chatter. The dialogue in Cogon represents both a step forward and step back: while Sam among his fellow criminals speaks street patois, Sam with Katia converse in the more lyrically stylized manner of Spanish—or early Filipino—theater.
Visually it’s Ilarde’s finest work, despite working for the first time with a digital camera. Ilarde with the use of a variety of crane and ground-level shots manages to turn the cogon grass into a major character–a vast, ceaselessly undulating creature both menacing and inviting, a place where one can hide indefinitely or, conversely, search forever without finding one’s objective. The abandoned mansion, the cogon’s constant companion, is almost as impressive a presence—an implacable façade suggesting far more rooms and secrets than anyone has the time or inclination to explore, with a seemingly bottomless pool out back. The film’s establishing, transitional and overall atmospheric shots are effective enough that they tend to overwhelm the few fight sequences, which Ilarde has scaled down considerably, made more plausible compared to his previous efforts. Now, instead of extended demonstrations of martial-arts prowess we have extended periods of tension punctuated by bursts of violence, we have random near-misses and unpredictable, skull-creasing trajectories—Ilarde’s action is finally beginning to hew to Bordwell’s other central governing principle for art films, that of realism as opposed to baroque expressivity.
Is this still recognizably an Ilarde film? Consider the evolving yet consistent use of the introverted, alienated male as his protagonist. Consider the persistently odd mix of genres: Babaeng Putik with its mute heroine straight out of Splash (Ron Howard, 1984) that mutates into a Filipino version of the creature in John McTiernan’s Predator (1987); Cogon begins as a Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992) heist flick, then transforms into a haunting, low-budget remake of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (with the cogon standing in for the sea surrounding Moreau’s isle). When Filipino horror filmmakers mix genres they do so matter-of-factly, with an eye to commercial box-office and the timidity of one terrified of the whole combination exploding in their faces; with Ilarde you get the impression of a demented scientist pouring one chemical after another into a madly bubbling brew, not avoiding but eagerly seeking that explosive combustion of styles. Not only is his grab-bag of influences more capacious and varied (you can tell he made good use of that vast Betamax collection) than that of most Filipino filmmakers, his skill at pulling off one film reference after another is more fluid, more fluent, altogether more fleet-footed (I’m thinking—again—of that initial image of Sally, which evokes everything from the slow-motion shot of Bo Derek in Blake Edward’s 10 (1979) to the climactic image of Sissy Spacek bathed in pig’s blood in Brian de Palma’s Carrie (1976), to the awesome sight of Audrey II looming over its hapless victims in Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors (1986)).
And keeping a lid on that bubbling caldron of intertextuality, acting as superego to Ilarde’s near-irrepressible id is his visual style, which is persistently old-fashioned in its coherence—none of that handheld camera nonsense, edited together music-video style by a Cuisinart food processor (I’m reminded of an adage among Hong Kong cinematographers quoted by Milkyway Image’s production coordinator Shan Ding: “The handheld camera covers three mistakes: Bad acting, bad set design, and bad directing”.) (15) With the newly acquired hush and stillness of Cogon, Ilarde’s defiantly retro style comes out all the clearer, Ilarde overall having apparently become more himself (thanks to the low-budget freedom and flexibility granted by the digital camera) than he has ever been before.
Is Ilarde out of touch with the Philippines’ social and political realities? One wants to ask: does he have to be, and should reference to such realities be done in a didactic, thuddingly obvious manner? Ilarde made a brief foray into Spanish-style (and admittedly largely invented) mythology in Dugo ng Birhen; dabbled in contemporary politics with his inclusion of the CAFGUs in Babaeng Putik. Cogon seems as willfully isolated from general society as its erstwhile heroine Katia, but that is apparently a defining characteristic of the Ilarde oeuvre; it can be argued that that willfulness is a statement all its own. He builds little worlds sealed off from the larger one, bubble environments that follow their own magical or science-fictional principles, axioms, laws. If he deals in truths it’s an often human truth, with a connection to social and cultural particulars more subtle than didactic.
Babaeng Putik, for example; ostensibly about the dangers of wish fulfillment, on closer examination the film is also a satire on the Filipino male’s ideas about the perfect female, on his ideas of what constitutes a good time (which is where the CAFGU unit comes in: they engage in war and rape as the Filipino male’s idea of fun, rendered violently irrelevant by Mark’s own idea of fun run amuck). Cogon is for the first time in an Ilarde film not a story about a man but a woman—a parable on her coming of age and learning to choose the relationship she wishes to maintain (Sam, or her secretive sibling?). It also raises and leaves as an open-ended question the issue of whether or not Katia is fully human (will she remain so, or eventually transform?), or her offspring, if she decides to have any (the way Sam looks at her, he may be considering similar possibilities).
With his latest feature the emphasis returns to the male Ilarde protagonist, more introverted and isolated than ever. If in Cogon Sam’s story began (chronologically speaking) with him and his cellmate in jail, in Altar Anton (Zanjoe Marudo) sits alone in his putative cell, an unkempt rented apartment in downtown Manila. A fateful wind blows the pages of a tabloid open, and Anton’s eyes fall on a want ad, calling for workers.
The film, commissioned by Cinema One (a cable channel) with a budget of roughly a million pesos (or US$46,000), is basically a bare-bones haunted house story, with Anton and newfound friend Lope (Nor Domingo) hired to watch and help restore an old, abandoned house outside of Manila. Domingo’s Lope is an inspired choice to accompany Anton: where in Ilarde’s films protagonists tend to solemn taciturnity when sent on their missions alone (Cogon, much of Babaeng Putik) or their conversational wit turns out to be woefully inadequate (Z-Man), a good comic sidekick is a crucial addition (see also Caloy Alde in Dugo ng Birhen). Lope possesses a sense of humour typical of a Filipino male (salacious, spontaneous, swaggering), and an underdog quality (yet another typical Filipino trait) that keeps his braggadocio from being too off-putting or arrogant.
But if Lope is the life of the picture, Anton is its quiet heart. He’s burdened with a tragic past (basically John Wayne’s guilty secret in John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952)), his gentle demeanour concealing a soul so sensitive it can see things no one else can—a little girl, begging for help; a robed figure wearing a diabolical mask stepping up from behind, picking up the girl, carrying her away. Ilarde gives Anton every virtue attributed to the Filipino male, including a romantic if understated sense of gallantry—he feels he must rescue the girl, no matter what the cost.
And so it goes. Along the way Ilarde seems to have brought everything he’s learned from his previous work to bear on this wisp of a film, not so much intensity as a sense of proportion, an easy grace borne out of the experience of directing studio and independent productions alike, but especially Cogon (I can’t imagine Ilarde capable of something like this without first having done that film). The opening shots full of atmosphere; the romantic-comedy banter between Anton and Lope and their erstwhile love interests Angie (Dimples Romana, a nice complement to Jarudo’s modest manners) and Giselle (Kristalyn Engle, hot and spicy and easily the liveliest woman to ever grace an Ilarde film); the eerie sets that Ilarde refuses to explain or even dwell on for too long (you catch details from the corner of your eye before the camera moves on)—Ilarde puts every little detail in its proper place, moves the film along in a calm, confident manner that, put alongside the stop-start rhythms of Z-Man, seem startling to behold.
And it all has a purpose, it all comes together by film’s end in an epiphanic moment that brings the film full circle, explains Anton’s ultimate fate, answers questions wordlessly posed in his airless apartment days before: Where am I going? Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life? Ilarde has finally achieved the kind of filmmaking only longtime veterans are capable, touched upon the kind of emotions horror filmmakers rarely evoke: tenderness, bittersweet regret, passionate despair.
So is Ilarde independent, Filipino—an artist perhaps? He started out a problematic figure—unique in that he had the resources and determination to write and direct his own feature film, same time said film, free to express everything about anything, did little more than express his love for and desire to emulate ’70s and ’80s Hollywood action pictures. Afterwards, he entered a period of what one might call indentured servitude, producing two genre horror features for Lily Monteverde’s Regal Films.
But even in this time of indeterminate identity (Is he independent? Filipino? An artist?) a closer look at his work showed promising portents. As Nick Deocampo points out, Filipino films even unto this day betray a distinctive Spanish theater orientation, and Ilarde’s choice of casting (Spanish-Filipino mestizos, particularly for protagonists) and direction of actors’ dialogue (the theatrical stylization, above all) reveal similar tendencies. Following Bordwell’s definition of an art cinema, we witness signs of personal expression, in the distinctly stylized action sequences, in the heightened look and feel of the photography (this especially in Ilarde’s last commercial feature, Babaing Putik). His filmmaking may be heavily influenced by the likes of John Carpenter and Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg, but it does take nascent talent and ingenuity to approximate these filmmakers’ styles on a Filipino film’s standard budget, and even then Ilarde’s cultural heritage and tendency to mix genres (a Filipino tendency, as Capino points out) will, on occasion, produce strikingly original imagery (Z-Man battling transsexual superhuman; Sally emerging bloodily from a seed pod).
A filmmaker evolves, his art evolves, and Ilarde with his hard-won experience in both independent and studio filmmaking finally broke free from the limitations of both with digital filmmaking—finally found himself, in effect, thanks to the digicam. Sa Ilalim ng Cogon follows Bordwell’s definition of the art cinema in several important respects—heightened realism (less extravagant fight sequences or gore), greater ambiguity (Ilarde using silence and ambient sound to create a sense of mystery), a personalised protagonist (Sam is a closer approximation of the director than his more gregarious, outwardly ‘mestizo’ forebears).
Altar is to date a culmination of these recent trends in Ilarde’s development. Ilarde so strongly identifies with his latest protagonist he manages to have said character capture our sympathies as well, to a degree that no other Ilarde creation has ever done before (think of Truffaut’s autobiographical hero in Les Quatre cents coups). The film presents itself as an authorial vision in the compactness of its overall shape and structure (Anton trading one prison cell for another, learning his life’s purpose along the way), in the precise tone of its telling (the film’s tendency towards understatement reflecting the hero’s—and filmmaker’s—shy reserve), in the romantic, deeply felt nature of its climax (Anton sacrifices himself for the world, and the one he loves) that at the same time strikes more universal chimes (What’s the purpose of our lives? Would we, faced with the same situation, react similarly?). Again, re-stating the question (is Ilarde independent, Filipino—an artist perhaps?), one in the face of the evidence might respond with the answer: not always, not at first; but he has grown quite capably into the role ever since.
- Deocampo, Nick. Cine: Spanish Influences on Early Cinema in the Philippines (Quezon City: NCCA, 2003), 207.
- Ibid, 279.
- Constantino, Renato. The Making of a Filipino—a Story of Philippine Colonial Politics (Quezon City, Renato Constantino, 1969), 7-8.
- ‘You’re Nothing But a Second-Rate, Trying Hard Copycat: Notes on the Hybridity of Philippine Cinema.’ Contemporary Asian Cinemas: Popular Culture in a Global Frame. Edited by Tereska Ciecko (New York: Berg, 2006), 33.
- Bordwell, David. ‘The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice.’ Poetics of Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2008), 151-152.
- Ibid, 153.
- Ibid, 154.
- Ibid, 155.
- Ibid, 156.
- Bagayaua, Gemma and Romero, Purple. “Fast Facts About the CAFGUs and Paramilitary Forces.” 12/28/2008. ABS-CBN News / Newsbreak. 2/28/2009. http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/nation/12/28/08/fast-facts-about-cafgu-and-paramilitary-forces.
- David Bordwell. “A many-splendored thing 4.” “Observations on film art and ‘Film Art.'” 3/22/2007. http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=577.