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From the Claws of Darkness: Restoring Philippine Cinema

a Special Sunday Series on April 14, 2019


The mid-1970s to the mid-80s, not coincidentally the years of brutal martial law under Ferdinand Marcos, saw rumbling undercurrents of cinematic resistance and coded truth-telling. Directors like Lino Brocka and Mike De Leon fashioned out of the period’s family melodramas and bomba sex films the cultural materials for pointed allegories of crooked nationhood, fascist longings, and the perils of freedom-seeking. The result is sometimes called the “second golden age” of Philippine cinema, one of post-war cinema’s most incendiary film movements. But aside from faded transfers on DVD or television, these films have not been seen since – and even less so outside of the Philippines.

Film preservation has historically been a makeshift effort in the Philippines, with prints housed at the University of the Philippines or the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which serviced the historical work of scholars like Rolando Tolentino. It was the efforts of ABS-CBN, a media conglomerate which saw not only the cultural significance but also the economic incentives in preserving this legacy, that moved the needle in a mass way. Under the leadership of Leo Katigbak, a film vault was built in 1994, new film prints were struck, and Betacam transfers preserved picture and sound onto tape.

As digital technologies caught up with the majesty of celluloid, ABS-CBN embarked on an ambitious restoration journey, scanning and digitally restoring not only its own catalogue, but also licensed titles from other studios. In 2012, the project made its first international splash with the high definition restoration of Ishmael Bernal’s beloved HIMALA (1982), which premiered at the Venice Film Festival on its 30th anniversary. A new generation was able to see the film for the first time; an older generation could revisit the scorching passions, the emphatic faces in the crowd, and Nora Aunor’s brilliant performance anew.

Since 2012, ABS-CBN has upgraded to 4K scanning and restoration, collaborating regularly with the Central Digital Lab in Manila, L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, and Kantana in Thailand, joining Shochiku’s work on Japanese classics and Celestial’s work on the Shaw Brothers library as Asia’s most committed corporate restoration projects. But non-commercial interests have lent a hand in preserving Philippine cinema as well. The Film Development Council repatriated and restored the 1950 landmark Genghis Khan in 2012, and the Asian Film Archive in Singapore extended its efforts to such films as Mike De Leon’s BATCH ’81 in 2017. Overseas, the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project restored and reintroduced Brocka’s Insiang and MANILA IN THE CLAWS OF LIGHT to international audiences at film festivals and through the Criterion Collection.

And upon glimpsing these new restorations, a fire is rekindled. These are films that, under martial law, faced Marcos’ strict censorship gaze and yet demanded to be made and seen, through whatever ingenuity of allegory or whatever miracle of distribution. Brocka’s MANILA IN THE CLAWS OF LIGHT is a city that craves illumination as it journeys through the noir-like underbelly of multinational development. Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s underseen MORAL proves how ahead-of-her-time the late auteur was, weaving together the polymorphous desires of four women in the late martial law years. De Leon’s BATCH ’81 rings a fiery alarm about masculinity and fascism not just through its sensational images, but through an electrifying, Clockwork Orange-esque score. And then there is Nora Aunor in HIMALA, the superstar who critic and poet Benilda Santos once described as having an “aura of apparent invincibility,” who bridges the commonplace and the divine on-screen and off, who doesn’t need film restoration to be immortal, but whose presence has most to be gained from it, peeled from decaying celluloid and resurrected as eternal. -Brian Hu, Artistic Director