Diverse and Strange: A Brief Introduction to the Cinema of the Philippines

Image for this story

As two Filipino indie films top our Halfway 2021 list, Manila-based film critic Philbert Dy unpacks how Cleaners and Ode to Nothing fit in the Philippines cinematic landscape.

Pictured: ‘Ode to Nothing’ director Dwein Baltazar, ‘Cleaners’ director Glenn Barit.

Here are some things to know about the Philippines. One: we have recently celebrated a hundred years of cinema. The Spanish-American war ended with the United States taking over control of the Philippines. Americans quickly brought cameras to our archipelago, eager to find exotic locales to capture on this exciting new technology. And they opened theaters and imported Hollywood films as well. It wasn’t long before we were producing our own films, creating a whole, genuine industry that produced dozens and dozens of films every year, developing a national film culture.

Two: the Philippines had one of the longest and harshest pandemic lockdowns in the world. This radically affected the film industry. It brought on the first serious stabs at using online platforms to distribute films. And this led to smaller, quirkier films being made accessible to more Filipinos, whose consumption of cinema were once beholden to the whims of conglomerate cinema owners.

And three: on average, Filipinos spend more time on social media than anyone else in the world. There are 40,000 Letterboxd users that hail from the Philippines, and 17,000 of them joined in the last year.

These facts might help paint a picture of how two Filipino films found their way to the top of the Letterboxd 2021 Halfway Top 25. Cleaners and Ode to Nothing are exactly the kind of small Filipino films that would have struggled to get national distribution in theaters in the before times, despite the buzz that they garnered at the Quezon City International Film Festival, where they both premiered. At best, they would have been limited to a handful of theaters in Metro Manila, sporadically shown at odd hours, severely limiting their ability to gain an audience.

These are still niche films, even in the Philippines, but getting them online made them more accessible to exactly the kind of Filipinos who might sign up for a service like Letterboxd.

That’s not the whole picture, of course. Not every Filipino film inspires the passion and devotion that these two movies do. Again, we have a long history of cinema, and we produce all kinds of movies. We have fizzy, commercial romantic comedies, and we also have Lav Diaz. Somewhere in the gamut, Cleaners and Ode to Nothing emerge as something special, indicative of some interesting directions that Filipino cinema is going.

My review of Cleaners starts by highlighting the technical aspect of the movie, which is maybe its most obvious appeal. But there’s a lot more going on in this film than its look. It hails from Tuguegarao, far north of Metro Manila, where historically, most of the country’s activity is focused. Regional cinema is the most exciting movement in Filipino cinema.

The Philippines is made up of dozens of ethnolinguistic groups that developed independently of each other, generating their own specific cultures. This might help inform the second segment of the movie, where these kids from Tuguegarao are made to celebrate a national language that isn’t indigenous to the region, and made to rehearse a folk dance that isn’t in any way connected to their folk. The movie isn’t overt about it, but it’s telling that these kids seem to be able to more earnestly express themselves through a foreign musical movement than whatever national culture the school is imposing on them.

In general, Cleaners uses its youthful, high school trappings to question the cultural frameworks in which young Filipinos come of age, confronting the absurdities of our specific brands of misogyny and entrenched political corruption with a righteous, cathartic scream.

Ode to Nothing, written, directed and edited by Dwein Baltazar, highlights another unique aspect of Filipino cinema: we have a lot of female filmmakers and producers. The largest studios in the country have always been run by women. This sadly hasn’t kept our movies from suffering from patriarchal notions, but the consistent access for women affords more and more opportunities to address those historical deficiencies.

So, here we have a movie told deeply from a woman’s point of view, giving weight to her needs and desires, and really diving into a loneliness that stems from a society that values women to the extent that they fulfill their roles as caretakers or sexual objects. Also of note in this film is the lead performance of Marietta Subong, who is best known by most Filipinos by her stage name Pokwang. She is a comedienne, the kind that can often be the butt of the joke for not looking like a movie star. She carries that history into this movie, adding an extra layer of gravity to her performance.

The international scene tends to only focus on certain kinds of Filipino films: the social realist poverty dramas of Brillante Mendoza, and the epic length art pieces of Diaz. Here is the secret of Filipino cinema: it is diverse and strange, with generation after generation of young, hungry filmmakers trained to make magic out of limited resources. And it is through our smallest stories that we express the largest truths about who we are as a people.

Follow Philbert on Letterboxd

View the Halfway 2021 Top 25 list and read the accompanying blog about how the list is calculated.