Monsters, ghosts, and other supernatural beings used to define horror films for me—horrifying, yet purely fictional. But as the world becomes increasingly cruel over time, the genre (especially in recent years) has made a marked shift: it has become a way to artistically portray the current state of society. It went from featuring mythical creatures to spotlighting socially driven and politically charged metaphorical monsters.
Filmmaker Mike De Leon is one of the pioneers of this change in the local scene. He worked on films that engage with sociopolitical conflicts, often illuminating contemporary concerns that affect real-life people. And I’d like to believe this was one of the reasons he’s being given a retrospective entitled “Self-Portrait of a Filipino Filmmaker” at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.
According to MoMA, De Leon is one of Filipino cinema’s most fiercely political and dramatic storytellers. His works are a mixed bag of melodrama, crime, supernatural horror, slapstick comedy, and musical with “blisteringly critical stances toward his country’s history of corruption and cronyism, state-sponsored violence, feudalist exploitation, and populist machismo.”
Making it to the retrospective lineup is a restored version of the veteran filmmaker’s debut feature “Itim” (1976)—which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. It follows the story of a young photographer (Tommy Abuel) who returned to his hometown to visit his father, a former doctor who became paralyzed after an accident. While doing a photo documentary of the locals’ Holy Week rites, he met a mysterious woman (Charo Santos) who was later on revealed to be possessed by his deceased sister—disclosing the truth about her sudden disappearance.
“Horror has now acquired a more sinister meaning. It is no longer about a ghost but about the monsters of Philippine politics, monsters that, after a long wait in the subterranean caverns of hell, have returned to ravish and rape my country all over again. The crazy thing is that we invited them back,” said De Leon in a statement last May.
“Kisapmata” (1981), “AKΩ Batch ’81” (1982), “Sister Stella L.” (1984), “Citizen Jake” (2018), and “Signos” (1983)—which features an underground collective of filmmakers and activists during martial law—are also part of the lineup, with a bonus screening of behind-the-scene production footage.
De Leon released a statement in lieu of being physically present at the retrospective: “I am very grateful to show the first complete retrospective of my films in the US alongside some of the surviving classics produced by LVN Pictures, my Lola Sisang’s movie studio, at the Museum of Modern Art.”
(ICYDK, LVN Pictures was one of the first and biggest film production studios in the Philippines.)
“The opportunity to show a retrospective of my work at MoMA, interwoven with the films of LVN, means something more primal than political to me. As the last ‘cinema’ heir of the family, it is strange to imagine what the future might hold during these disturbing times and after giving my family’s legacy one last, hard look,” read the statement.
“Self-Portrait of a Filipino Filmmaker” is curated by Josh Siegel and will be available for public viewing at MoMA from Nov. 1 to 30, 2022.
(Meanwhile in local cinemas, the restored version of Mike de Leon’s “Itim” is screening at this year’s QCinema International Film Festival.)
Still from “Itim” (1976)