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A TRIBUTE TO GERARDO DE LEON, FOR THE CENTENNIAL OF HIS BIRTH (1913- 1981)

Aditya Monday September 29, 2014
Gerard De Lion on the Poster
Gerard De Lion on the Poster

 

Even though it is not yet systematic in the Philippines, because of the lack of material and the weak public interest in the past, some real film historians, scholars and cinephiles work in the shadows to pay homage to a few directors and actors of the faraway "Golden Age" of Filipino Cinema.

This year, thanks to SOFIA (Society of Filipino Archivists for Film) - mainly inspired and run by scholars like Cesar Hernando and Teddy Co, or Dr. Nicanor Tiongson and Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera (who are not members) - and to NCCA (National Council for Culture and the Arts), a homage is being paid to one of the greatest directors of Filipino classic cinema, Gerardo de Leon (better known as Gerry de Leon, or Manong to his family and friends). SOFIA has been organizing almost every month a screening of what's left of Gerry's work at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines (CCP). These screenings amount mostly to bad video copies or DVDs without subtitles, as is too often the case in the Philippines. So, with a one year long celebration (G.de Leon was born on 12 September 1913), a tribute is finally paid to a "direk' who some historians and film buffs  consider to be the John Ford, or the Raoul Walsh of the Philippines.

Actually, very few homages or retrospectives of his woks have been organised.One of the main ones goes back to the 9th Hong Kong International Film Festival (1985), with the participation of the late film historian Agustin (Hammy) Sotto, who wrote a very documented article for their catalogue: "The Life and Art of Gerardo de Leon". It provided precious information and insight on the director. Some of de Leon’s films were screened: 48 Oras (48 Hours, 1950), his famous film noir, Sawasalumangsimboryo (Serpent on the Cross,1951), about the picaresque adventures of a band of thieves during the Spanish colonial times),Dyesebel (Jezebel, 1953), one of his most popular films which created the myth of a mermaid community confronting humans. It has been remade several times (including for TV), and Sanda Wong (1955), a rare incursion of Manong into Chinese production, an adventure film shot in the Hong Kong Wader studios. Another success was Pedro Penduko(1954), a fantasy based on a serial published in Liwayway magazine. A copy of the film is available today. 

 Some of the films (48 Oras, El Filibusterismo) had also been shown in 1981 at the Festival des Trois Continents in Nantes (France) , in a short retrospective of Filipino films, with the participation of Hammy Sotto and Pierre Rissient (the man who introduced LinoBrocka to Cannes and the world).Unfortunately, most of his works are lost, and outside the Philippines, G.de Leon is only a mythical name, known as a major stone on the long bumpy road of Filipino cinema. Hence, the centennial of his birth, and hopefully, the restoration of one of his films (possibly Dyesebel, if the funds can be raised), is an opportunity to shed light on his "life and art", as Hami Sotto puts it. 

Gerry de Leon's life and achievements

Born Gerardo de Leon Ilagan on Sept.12, 1913, to an illustrious family of stage artists, known as "Sarswelistas" (Zarzuelistas), Gerry was soon to appear in his father's Zarzuelas (the Spanish style operetta), along with his many brothers and sisters. Hebecome an actor or a technical assistant (dubbing  silent films!) in the early years of Filipino cinema when it was very much under the influence of Spanish culture (1).Meanwhile, he graduated in medicine at UST (University of Santo Tomas) in 1938. After a range of experience in the field, Gerry de Leonwas finally given the reins by the original director Don Danon to co-direct his first feature, Bahay Kubo (Nipa Hut) in 1938. But his real solo debut was Ana'tanak(Father's son)in 1939, where he also played the father.

As  war broke out, Manong directed a few more films (Anonggandamo!/ How Beautiful You Are!, 1942), but mostly stage plays, as Filipino films were prohibited by the Japanese occupation forces.However, in 1944, when the Japanese decided to make some propaganda films in their Asian colonies, he participated in the making of The Dawn of Freedom (Jap. title: Anohata o utte/ Shoot at That Flag!), directed by the then famous Yutaka Abe (the excerpts we saw show that Manong was asked to shoot the scenes with the Filipinos, mainly children who are supposed to befriend the Japanese soldiers against the Americans). His sense of "mise en scène" was already obvious in that early film, as well as in the popular musical he directed next: Tatlong Maria(The Three Marias, 1945). 

However, the highlight of his career came after the war, when he began directing really important films (most of them now lost), and assert his own style: So long, America! (aka: I'll be Seeing You Everywhere, 1946), Isumpamogiliw(Swear it, My Beloved, 1947, a suspense drama), and Tayug, angbayangapi (Tayug, A People Oppressed, 1947, about the 1931 peasant revolt).  Along with the Golden Age directors such as Manuel Conde (Gengis Khan, 1950), Gregorio Fernandez, Lamberto Avellana, Eddie Romero (who was his close collaborator) and several others, he moulded Filipino cinema of the time, in film after film.

In spite of a bad car accident in 1947, which caused a permanent injury to his windpipe, Manong was to become the example of a director with a personal style. This was during the fabulous years of cinema as industry and art (although today the two are mostly split) when audiences would flock to the theatres, before the neo-colonialism of TV, the Internet and downloading.  From 1948 on, Gerry de Leon had a highly prolific career, mostly for Premiere Productions which was the home of Don Ciriaco Santiago. He stayed there for some fifteen 15 years, since he was given enough creative freedom. The other studio where he worked was the famous but now defunctSampaguita Production. He directed two or even three films a year, in all kinds of genres, from adventure to action films, from comedies to fantasies and thrillers , and sometimes more "serious" and ambitious films, like Ifugao (shot in Northern Luzon in 1954; it received the Best Director award at the Asian Film Festival that year). 

Among his films fully or partially saved is48 Oras (48 Hours, 1950), an imaginative film noir, probably made under the influence of some Hollywood thrillers of the late 40s. Here, he uses all the resources of a contrasted cinematography in B/W (by Tommy Marcelino), and sophisticated editing in one of the famous scenes where the characters are trapped in a closed space, with mad clocks. Dyesebel(Jezebel, 1953) was one among the many successful films he made – it was a top-grosser when Filipino cinema was reigned over a part of Asia - and its theme of the mermaids (after a very popular Komik) inspired movies everywhere in South East Asia. AnakniDyesebel (Jezebel's Daughter, 1964), was one of the many fantasy or horror films he directed in his later years.

 However, G.de Leon is better known abroad for his more ambitious literary adaptations of Jose Rizal, the National Hero of Philippine Independence, who was executed by the Spanish military in 1896. Sisa, made in 1951, was the first,  followed by the most famous of Rizal's works, Noli me tangere(Touch me not, 1961), and El Filibusterismo(The Subversive, 1962), films where Manongshowed his predilection for historical topics, and flaunted his highly creative sense of "mise en scène" and editing, as well as his taste for contrasts of composition in most of his shots, with a rather baroque aesthetic, sometimes akin to that of Orson Welles (Othello). Alas, his last adaptation of Rizal,Juan de Dios(1976) was to remain unfinished, due to his illness and lack of energy (and may be funds?).  

        At the same time, he was making several highly entertaining "adventure films", like the famous (and still extant) Serpent on the Cross (1951). Based on yet another Komik which he transformed into his own creation, the film exalts the resistance of a bunch of bandits against Spanish rule. It led to the production of Sanda Wong (1955), when G. de Leon met Hong Kong producer Ho Chapman at the Asian Film Festival. It was "not a sequel", but in fact a Chinese transposition of The Serpent…

       In the late 1950s, when the old Studio system began to collapse, Gerry de Leon made films for studios other than Premiere. He also directed B-movies for the American market, which were often co-directed by another legend of heroic Filipino cinema, Eddie Romero. They made films like The Day of the Trumpet (aka Cavalry Command, 1958, G. de Leon was left uncredited), or the interesting horror movie,Terror is a Man (1959), which looks like an early film by Roger Corman. They also directed a patriotic film -The Walls of Hell (aka Intramuros, 1964, with Fernando Poe Jr.), which bears Eddie Romero's stamp more than Gerry's.

       In the 1960s, he had to accommodate to the trends of vampire movies brought in from the US and Europe, as some Hammer films by Terence Fisher were then released in Manila: Kulaydugoanggabi(Blood is the Colour of the Night, 1964) is indeed a very stylish vampire film, whose baroque visuals remind us of the aesthetics of Mario Bava (Mask of the Demon, 1962), although local films critics swear that no films by Mario Bava was shown in the Philippines. In the same vein, he made Ibulongmosahangin(Whisper to the Wind, akaCurse of the Vampires, 1966), Brides of Blood Island (1967), and Mad Doctor of Blood Island( akaBlood Doctor, 1969), all co-directed with Eddie Romero. The kind of films that were praised later by Quentin Tarantino, to the public embarrassment of Eddie Romero.

       At the end of his career, when he was suffering from emphysema and needed an oxygen tank on the set, Gerry de Leon did try to make different kind of films, but had nonetheless to yield to commercial and trendy productions. He directed the last episode of the omnibus films Fe, Esperanza ,Caridad(Faith, Hope and Charity, 1974), all with Nora Aunor.Caridad, a very symbolic story of a nun possessed by a handsome worshipper of the Devil, made in colour, is one more example of his sophisticated,"decadent",baroque style, and by far the best of the three parts. In 1975, Nora Aunor, who was then at the peak of her career, produced Banaue, where she acted with her husband to be, Christopher de Leon. That was to be Gerry's last completed film - and not his best. It looks like a homage to the original primitive tribes of Northern Luzon's Banaue (where the rice terraces are), may be seen as the ancestors of the Hippie movement of the 1960/70s. Stylistically impure, the film is odd, overlong,and at time unwittingly funny. One regrets that this was Gerry's last film, as Juan de La Cruz was never completed in 1976. 

              Gerardo/Gerry / Manong de Leon died on July 25, 1981, and was posthumously awarded the prestigious title National Artist (it's never too late…), a title that his former star Nora Aunor was not able to receive in 2014, due to a presidential refusal that sparked a huge controversy in Manila. He made 76 feature films, plus many documentaries and TV works. Like a real Hollywood director, he always made films within the studio system, but with a personal touch that brought him recognition as a real "cinéaste", if not an "auteur"- in the European sense of the word – and not just a clever technician.

A Technician and a Brilliant Stylist.

              As most directors of his time, long before the trend of Indie cinema with full creative freedom, G.de Leon had to work in the context of commercial entertainment and movie genres imported from Hollywood. His themes were quite diverse, and his centres of interest were mostly literary and "sexual". According to Agustin Sotto: "Given the non-availability of most of his films, the only viable approaches to studying his films thematically are through an analysis of his genre movies, an examination of his literary sources, and a collation of his personal quirks that appear: his consuming passion for the work of Jose Rizal, his constant overhauling of the "komiks" form, and his penchant for sexual symbolism". 

Manong's interest for the works of Jose Rizal came from his father, who was a fervent patriot, and had written several anti-Spanish Zarzuelas (operettas). But, although Rizal is the main National Hero, his novels are not regarded as "entertainment" by the producers, who usually tend to please the lower tastes and instincts of the general audience (action, violence, love, sex, etc.). Which is why G.de Leon was able to adapt only three novels by Rizal (Sisa, Noli me tangere, El Filibusterismo), and why he made so many films from popular Komiks, like Dyesebel, Serpent on the Cross, and BanganiZinadar(Jar of Zinadar, 1953), among many others hits.  

As he entered the 1960s and 70s, even as the "sexual revolution" was growing, he also"indulged" in some sexual fantasy films, including fetichism "a la Buñuel". He had some problems with the censorship in the 1950s, notably for Si Eva at Si Adan (Eva and Adam, 1954), and even more for Huwagmoalong limutin(Never Will You Forget Me, 1960), which was heavily censored at the time. However, from Sisato Lilet, from Sanda Wong to Caridad, he expressed his personal taste for sexual symbols and fantasies, with flamboyant baroque visuals. 

A look at the films that survive tells you that G.de Leon had a full mastery of cinematic grammar and diversified techniques. His wild angles and composition of frames are always very carefully set, with space in-depth. According to Felipe Sacdalan, who was the cinematographer on his late films: "Manong wasn't just a mere technician.Because he knew the story by heart, he could think in terms of the camera. That was his advantage over us.He could be very creative with his angles, because he knew the flow of the narrative".

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