The Filipino and Tagalog Movies

Posted at 10/28/2008 10:57 AM | Updated as of 10/28/2008 3:02 PM
Fernando Poe Jr. and Corazon Rivas

An insider’s view of an industry that mirrors Philippine society

If you want to understand the paradox of the Filipinos back in the homeland, try Tagalog movies. Much of what our people are can be better appreciated in the context of life on the movie lot and on the silver screen.

Beautiful and coy. Rough-hewn and uncouth. Gifted. Mediocre. Warm and hospitable. Pugnacious and undisciplined. Hardworking. Lazy. Diligent. Irresponsible. Religious. Superstitious. Faithful. Adulterous. Joyful. Sad.
Tagalog movies personified.

Pepito Vera-Perez, scion of the Sampaguita Pictures and Vera-Perez Productions clan and brother-in-law of former speaker and presidential candidate Jose de Venecia, once asked me why Joseph “Erap” Estrada, also a candidate for president at the time, was so popular with the masses, despite being known as a womanizer and a good-time guy.

“Think of it in terms of Tagalog movies,” I suggested. “How would you cast Joe de V? As the slick, college-bred son of the haciendero (landed gentry), right? And what about Erap? Wouldn’t you cast him as the canto boy (literally a neighborhood thug) with the good heart, who’s always defending the poor? Guess who will win the hand of the farmer’s daughter.”

Pepito got my point. De Venecia lost, of course. And Erap won by a landslide. We all know what happened to his presidency. And yet, the masses adore him to this day.

I spent my teenage years inside a movie studio and absorbed these insights like a sponge. Starting out as a feature writer and becoming associate editor of a movie magazine, I also wrote screenplays for LVN Studio. “Barkada,” my first story and screenplay, was about teenagers. I was 17. My second assignment was LVN’s anniversary offering, “Casa Grande,” a trilogy revolving around an old mansion. It was directed by Manuel Conde, Dr. Gregorio “Yoyong” Fernandez and F.H. Constantino. I wrote the screenplay of two of the three stories and was Yoyong’s assistant director.

Unbelievably, I wrote over 200 films (actually, closer to 250), mostly for LVN, Tagalog Ilang-Ilang Productions and Junar Productions, some of them really good ones. “Casa Grande” was one of them. So were “Daluyong,” directed by Ismael Bernal; “Nardong Putik,” which revived the career of Ramon Revilla; “Sabotage” and “Crisis,” both directed by Eddie Garcia and both the biggest hits in the Manila Film Festival; and “Elias, Basilio at Sisa,” which won the Rajah Soliman Best Picture trophy in that same festival.

In all of them, the various facets of the Pinoy character were laid bare, complex yet simple, a study in contradictions.

I got into the movies in the waning days of the big studios and the emergence of the star-led independents. The Big Three all had a stable of contract stars, the most beautiful and the handsomest creatures in captivity.

LVN’s Doña Sisang de Leon had Nida Blanca, Delia Razon, Tessie Quintana, Charito Solis, Carmencita Abad, Lita Gutierrez, Nestor de Villa, Mario Monte-negro, Rogelio de la Rosa, Carlos Salazar, Armando Goyena, Leroy Salvador, Amado Cortez and Eddie Rodriguez. Plus her “poultry”—the newly-recruited starlets, Luz Valdez, Lourdes Medel, Marita Zobel, Mila Ocampo, Bernard Bonnin, Robert Campos, and Lou Salvador, Jr.

Doc “Pinggot” Perez of Sampaguita nurtured Susan Roces, Amalia Fuentes, Daisy Romualdez, Romeo Vasquez, Juan-cho Gutierrez, Eddie Gutierrez and Jose Mari even while the studio’s premium properties—Gloria Romero, Lolita Rodriguez, Rita Gomez, Luis Gonzales, Ric Rodrigo and Dolphy—dominated the firmament.

Premiere Productions, in far off Caloocan, the kingdom of Doña Adela Santiago and, subsequently, Cirio Santiago, had the macho men and the dark exotic stars. Jose Padilla, Jr., Carlos Padilla, Efren Reyes, Leopoldo Salcedo, Jose Romulo, Eddie del Mar, Anita Linda, Olivia Cenizal, Leonor Vergara, Lani Oteyza and Alicia Vergel, along with new discoveries Zaldy Zshornack, Ronald Remy and Shirley Gorospe,and the Lo’ Waist Gang of Larry Santiago Productions, led by a teenager named Fernando Poe, Jr. (FPJ).

Those were the days when you could tell a villain from a hero because the latter sported a mustache and the former were all tall-nosed tisoys (mestizos). The dark-skinned indios were usually extras, bit players and comedians.

Lou Salvador, Sr., Leroy Salvador (left and second to the left), Carmencita Abad (second from right) and Greg Macabenta (right)

The Big Three could not have anticipated the change in the psyche of the Tagalog moviegoers. While they clung to the stereotypes, these were being inexorably shattered. Joseph Estrada, the classic anti-hero, barged in and tore up the template. And then came Jess Lapid and Jun Aristorenas, who could pass for cargadores (pier hands) at the pier.

But the ultimate stereotype smashers were Diomedes Maturan and Nora Aunor. What???? They’re stars??? But he’s pangit (ugly)!!! And she’s pandak (short), pango (pugnosed), morena (dark-skinned)!!!

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But they were the biggest box-office draws in town! Adored by the movie fans whom film director and national artist Lamberto Avellana had once patronizingly called the bakya (wooden shoes) crowd.

With times getting harder and families getting poorer, Filipinos needed to escape from reality. Tagalog movies were the cheapest option (marijuana and shabu were not yet in vogue).

In Tagalog movies, the Diomeng Maturans and Nora Aunors of Sampaloc, Tondo, Iriga and Cebu had a chance to make it big. They just needed talent and luck. They also needed to be tough, like FPJ and Erap. And they had to have gimmicks like Tony Ferrer, alias Agent X-44, and anting-antings (talismans) like those of Ramon “Nardong Putik” Revilla.

In Tagalog movies, it was all right to break the law for a good cause. Besides, the cops always arrived too late, anyway—when all the bad guys had been killed, the mystery had been solved and humanity had been saved.

The rewards were worth it. Respect. Wealth. Women. Plenty of beautiful women. And for the girls, millionaire playboys for husbands.

I had the unique experience of seeing Tagalog movies from the perspective of the bakya crowd and that of an industry insider. I could empathize with the way the moviegoers fantasized over what they saw on the screen. But I also knew these objects of fantasy as they really were, off the set, without makeup, living their day-to-day lives, with their griefs and pains and their simple joys. With their pretensions and hypocrisy.

It’s not easy to understand movie people. How could you explain the fact that the mothers of Lou Salvador, Sr.’s dozens of children, played mahjong together on weekends while the kids bonded? Lou, Sr. had over 50 offspring, many of them stars and starlets.

But he wasn’t the only one. Bulacan Governor Jose Padilla, Sr. sired dozens of good-looking children who became film stars, like Pempe, Carlos and Amado Cortez, who became a diplomat. Their children and grandchildren became big showbusiness names themselves, like Zsa Zsa and Robin.

The rumor is that Ramon Revilla, a former member of the Philippine senate, holds the record of 80-plus children, one of them, Bong Revilla, being an incumbent senator himself, as well as a TV and film star.

It’s not easy to understand Filipino movie fans, either. How could you fathom how Erap Estrada got elected president? Unless you realize that these fans are the same simple folk who troop to the polls.

Indeed, the values by which they judge their movie idols often have little relevance to the Ten Commandments. This could explain why Dolphy is admired for being a caring and loving husband and father—to his many women and kids.

Of course, there are exceptions. Otherwise, how do you explain the affection and loyalty enjoyed by Fernando Poe, Jr. and Susan Roces, who kept their lives relatively free of scandal and never took advantage of their closeness to a sitting president—a conflict of interest rule routinely broken by families and friends of Philippine presidents past and present, including supposed paragons of virtue like Cory Aquino?

Through the prism of Tagalog movies, these contradictions may be easier to understand. On the screen, the plots are endless and not necessarily logical.
One thing is certain. As hard as it may be to accept, ours is a people in search of heroes. And, so far, these icons can only be found in the movies and, in recent years, on TV.

Is it any wonder, Erap became president? Will it surprise us if Noli de Castro becomes president, too?