BRIDES OF SULU, AN INTRIGUING SILENT FILIPINO FILM IN MANILA
It was the fifth time that the International Silent Film Festival (the only regular one of its kind in South-East Asia) took place at the Shangri-La Plaza, in Mandaluyong, Metro Manila (August 26 to 28, 2011), but it was only the first time that a Silent Filipino film was shown, as the opening film. And it was an intriguing one, indeed. Officially, BRIDES OF SULU is an American film shot in the far away, exotic Philippines of the 1930s, with local actors Adelina Moreno and Eduardo de Castro (who both look like Mestizos/ mixed blood, not full-blooded Filipinos). It was released in the US under that title in 1934, and at least two more times later, in slightly different versions, and it is currently available on DVD. However, according to film scholar and movie fan Teddy Co, who introduced Brides of Sulu at the festival, the film just does not exist as such. It looks more like a montage of two separate films shot in the Philippines in 1931, in the Southern Muslim part of the country, mainly Sulu Island and Moroland. The first one, Princess of Tarhata, is a fiction film made by Jose Domingo Badilla, and produced by Araw Movies, while the other one , The Moro Pirate, produced by Malayan Movies, with a more "documentary" approach, is directed by none other than Jose Nepomuceno, the "Father of the Philippine Cinema", and both films, set in similar places, have the same actors.Brides of Sulu, as we saw it, which lasts only 47 minutes (!) is the story of a "forbidden love" between a beautiful Moro Princess (played by Adelina Moreno), and a Badjao (Christian) pearl diver, which is of course bound to be doomed by the morally intolerant Muslim society. But this story appears to be a pretext to show ancient indigenous customs, mostly ritual weddings (with ghostly real young brides...), dancing and combats, with most of the men looking quite unhappy when being filmed. The highlight of the movie is certainly the scenes of the fishermen's sailing boats hunting the two guilty lovers who escaped, with the climax happening on the sea, where they are inevitably caught up. However, an equally inevitable happy ending has been added by the American editors, as you can imagine... Obviously, Brides of Sulu, directed by a mysterious "John Nelson"(who seems to have directed only this film!...), whose initials are the same as Jose Nepomuceno, as Teddy Co underlined (1), looks indeed like a pirated film created from the two original films mentioned. But its screening, with a very adequate and inventive live band music, was really a very exciting experience into Filipino Exotica of yesteryear. The other good surprise of this festival was yet another Japanese silent film, The Dawning Sky (Akeyuku sora) made for Shochiku Kamata in 1929, by Torajiro Saito (1905- 1982) , an underrated director better known for his funny slapstick comedies, such as Why is Chaplin crying? (Chaplin yo naze naku ka, 1932), or Japanese King Kong (1933), and who made at least 34 films between 1926 and 1961. In The Dawning Sky, a pure Christian melodrama, he shows a real talent for telling the story of a separated mother and her daughter Reiko, with credibility and real emotion, within the limits of a "tear jerker" of that time. The highlights of the film, superbly shot in BW, are the tempest in which the daughter is trying to find her mother (who has become a female priest, after a family drama...), and the final pursuit, when Reiko's Grandpa drives a cart to try to catch up with the escaping mother on a train, with enough suspense to make us forget the basic incredibility of the very fact... The art of editing is at its top at the end of the silent era, and the direction is masterly, before talking cinema relies more on dialogues than images and editing. The Dawning Sky was shown with a remarkable live music performance by Bandang Malaya, creating a soundtrack that never existed before... The other films shown in the festival were the immortal classic by F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu (Germany, 1922), Dante's Inferno , by Giuseppe de Liguoro (Italy, 1911), The Greek miracle (a documentary, Greece, 1921, 5 minutes), and Spain's Pilar Guerra, by Jose Buchs (1926). The big absent was France, officially because of budget cuts (but Italy and Spain, more hardly touched by the economic crisis, were participating...). (1) For more details, go to the website arkivista.org, and read the very detailed and passionate article by Teddy Co, whose theory has a very strong credibility.
by Max Tessier