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From 2017 to 2019, we celebrate the centenary of Philippine cinema, which critic Joel David considers the “national pastime.”

The first Filipino-owned movie company, Malayan Movies, was established on 15 May 1917 by Jose Nepomuceno (1893-1959), owner of a photo studio on Carriedo Street in Manila.

Being an accredited correspondent for Pathe News and Paramount News, Nepomuceno recorded the funeral for the first wife of then statesman Sergio Osmeña in a newsreel, his first Filipino subject, which was shown in a cinema in Cebu in January 1918.

He went on to make the first Filipino narrative film, Dalagang Bukid, first shown on 12 September 1919, at the Teatro de la Comedia.

From then on, almost 10,000 feature films have been produced. Many local film studios have also emerged, flourished and declined, giving way to more producers of films.

With the rise of digital technology, filmmaking has been democratized and more filmic works are being made. But the movies of olden days still have the power to charm and move us. Many of these blazed the trails and remain triumphs of Filipino imagination and creativity.

Here are some of the iconic films of the past decades:

Photographed by Emmanuel Rojas/Courtesy of Nene Urbano

Although made with a small budget, National Artist for cinema Manuel Conde’s Genghis Khan (1950, MC Productions) impresses with its intensity and epic vision. Involved in the film was visual artist Carlos “Botong” Francisco (who would later become National Artist for visual arts) as researcher, co-writer and production designer. It was entered at the Venice Film Festival in 1952, introducing Philippine cinema to Europe and the United States and gaining worldwide distribution. Genghis Khan is credited for putting Philippine cinema on the international map. The film is based on the life of Mongol ruler and conqueror Genghis Khan, tracing his transformation from a tribal leader as Temujin (Conde) into Genghis Khan, meaning “ruler of the world.” It also tells about his clashes with Birchou (Lou Salvador), one of the tribal leaders he defeated and his falling in love with Birchou’s daughter, Princess Lei Hai (Elvira Reyes).

Photo courtesy of Mike de Leon

Written by Rolf Bayer, Anak Dalita (Child of Sorrow also known as The Ruins, 1956, LVN Pictures) is one of the best-known films of National Artist for cinema and theater Lamberto V. Avellana and is one of the earliest Filipino works that won an international award, the Golden Harvest Award at the 1956 Asian Film Festival. It is also one of the earliest films made in the neo-realist tradition of Philippine cinema, which depicts poverty and the dregs of the society, whose best-known practitioners include director Lino Brocka. The main setting is the ruins of the Recolletos Church in Intramuros, where people have taken shelter and a slum developed. Here, Vic (Tony Santos, Sr.), an injured Korean War hero, is forced to live. His mother dies and he lives in with the prostitute Cita (Rosa Rosal). Eking out a living, sculpting statues for a priest (Vic Silayan), Vic is enticed to get involved in smuggling through an old friend (Joseph de Cordova). He eventually has a change of heart and this leads to an action-packed conclusion. The young boy was played by Vic Bacani.

A fusion of drama, comedy and musical, Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon? (This Is How We Were Before…How Are You Doing Now? 1976, Hemisphere Pictures, Inc.) is the most beloved of National Artist for cinema Eddie Romero’s work. The film asks, “Who is the Filipino?” but is not weighed down by the seriousness of its topic and social commentary. Depicting life as theatre, it proves to be delightful with its nonchalance and tongue-in-cheek humor. Set at the turn of the 20th century during the Philippine revolution, the film, written by Roy C. Iglesias and Romero, follows the adventures of simple-minded and naïve peasant Kulas (Christopher de Leon). While on a trip to Manila, he embarks on the mission to search for a friar’s son (Dranreb) and bring him to the friar’s residence. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with aspiring actress Diding (Gloria Diaz). He receives a sizable reward for the mission, and receives training from Tibor (Eddie Garcia) on how to be an aristocrat. Although now rich, Kulas still longs to win the heart of Diding and find his purpose in his newfound world. The film won the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Production Design (Laida Lim Perez and Peque Gallaga) at the first Gawad Urian.

Photo courtesy of Mike de Leon

Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS) Best Picture Biyaya ng Lupa (Blessings of the Land, 1959, LVN Pictures), directed by Manuel Silos and written by Celso Al. Carunungan and Pablo Naval, also competed at the 10th Berlin International Film Festival and the Asian Film Festival held in Tokyo, Japan, in 1960. An adeptly-crafted family melodrama, Biyaya ng Lupa follows a family from their bucolic beginning and the struggles they go through. Couple Jose (Tony Santos) and Maria (Rosa Rosal) start a life together, planting langsat (lansones) on their land and anticipating a future of bounty. However, tragedies come one after another, including the destruction of the langsat orchard by a typhoon; a daughter (Marita Zobel) raped; the death of Jose; a prodigal son (Carlos Padilla Jr.) and the loss of their land. Other sons were played by Leroy Salvador who played a deaf-mute and Danilo Jurado as the youngest. The film ends on a hopeful note.

Photo from the Mario A. Hernando collection

Manila by Night (also known as City After Dark, 1980, Regal Films) is the most acclaimed of National Artist for cinema Ishmael Bernal’s films with its original structure and unflinching depiction of Manila’s oft-ignored grimy and dark side. He chose to feature characters considered “unsavory” such as sex workers, gays, drug addicts and criminals, with the city itself serving as another character. The film follows several stories in several nights, revealing many social ills but ultimately celebrating the spirit survival in a harsh world. Released during the Martial Law era, the film has been subjected to censorship and alterations. The characters were played by Rio Locsin, Cherie Gil, Lorna Tolentino, Alma Moreno, William Martinez, Bernardo Bernardo, Orestes Ojeda, Gina Alajar, Charito Solis, Johnny Wilson, Jojo Santiago, Maya Valdez, and Sharon Manabat. It won four Gawad Urian awards including Best Picture.

Photographed by and courtesy of Cesar Hernando

Directed by Mike de Leon, Kisapmata (Blink, 1982, Bancom Audiovision) was inspired by Nick Joaquin’s 1961 Philippines Free Press article “The House on Zapote Street,” which was later included in his book, Reportage on Crime (1968). Written by Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., Raquel N. Villavicencio and Mike de Leon, the film is known for its masterful treatment of incest, obsession and murder with intelligent restrain and attention to details, craftily depicting tensions of a family in the grip of a repressive patriarchy that explodes in the end. In the film, newlyweds Mila (Charo Santos) and Noel Manalansan (Jay Ilagan) are forced to live with Mila’s family which include a domineering father, Dadong Carandang (Vic Silayan), a retired police officer, and his wife Dely (Charito Solis). They become miserable with Dadong’s instructions and intrusions, including not being able to sleep together. They escape. Dadong hunts them down but eventually agrees to make compromises to bring them back. The couple stands firm on not returning, and a dark secret is revealed—Dadong’s incestuous relationship with his daughter. A desperate Dadong shoots Dely, Noel and Mila, before killing himself. The film swept 10 awards at the 1981 Metro Manila Film Festival including Best Picture, and was presented at the Director’s Fortnight at the 1982 Cannes International Film Festival together with another De Leon film, Batch ‘81.

Photo courtesy of Mike de Leon

Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975, Cinema Artists Philippines) is considered by many as the best work of National Artist for cinema Lino Brocka. When it came out in 1975, it was hailed for its searing social critique of its time and its unflinching depiction of urban corruption. Written by Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr., the film is based on the Edgardo M. Reyes’s novel Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (In the claws of light), serialized in the leading Tagalog magazine Liwayway from 1967 to 1968, later published in book form. It tells the story of Júlio Madiaga (Rafael Roco, Jr.), who travels to Manila in search of his childhood friend Ligaya Paraiso (Hilda Koronel), who was brought to the city by Mrs. Cruz to work and to study. Julio discovers the sordid reality of city life underneath the bright neon lights and eventually finds Ligaya, who is, in truth, forced into prostitution and marriage to brothel owner Ah Tek. The two plan to return home to their province, but Ligaya dies during a struggle with Ah Tek. An enraged Julio kills Ah Tek and is chased by a mob. The film won nine FAMAS Awards including Best Picture.