Peque Gallaga: The compleat cinema artist in twilight
By Bien Lumbera
National Artist for Literature
THE way filmmaking is shaping up in our time, the mainstream film industry seems to be in its twilight years. The terms “dying” and “moribund” have been used, but Star Cinema and Viva Films are still struggling to come out with movies that raise hopes that the industry will yet revive. Twilight is a romantic time of day, and those hopes just might materialize into films when the nation’s economy allows such recuperation. So, it’s twilight time. And against such a romantic setting, it seems timely and perhaps imperative that tribute be paid to a filmmaker whose multiple faces justify the hopes that have been raised.
Peque Gallaga, at 56, has spent 36 years in the industry, directing 36 films, writing 22 film stories, acting in 13 movies and producing four. He made a name for himself as a knowledgeable production designer, authored stories for film and screenplays, acted in many films, and was a producer for movies. Indeed, he is the epitome of the compleat Filipino cinema artist.
He came to the industry from college theater, and brought with him a background of intellectual sophistication and artistic molding that is palpable in the best of his films. In spite of his upperclass mestizo background, Gallaga was not quite ignorant of the tradition of popular movie-making, for he had an early introduction to Tagalog movies through a movie theater in the Paco neighborhood into which he and pals would sneak in during the final screening on evenings when they had tired of basketball and bumming around. He fondly recalls director Consuelo P. Osorio of Premiere Productions as an early mentor in the business of making movies. It was she who tutored him on points such as casting that would spell success in surviving in the industry. Although he came from a background that would have precluded aquaintance with the “lowerclass” culture of Tagalog movies in the 1960s, his exposure to those movies in the Paco theater prepared him for a career in local filmmaking.
Gallaga first attracted attention as an artist in the industry when he did production design for Eddie Romero’s phenomenal return film about the changing culture of the late nineteenth century in colonial Manila. “Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?” (1976) treated Tagalog movie-goers to a knowledgeable production designer’s recreation of Manila as the city could be seen only in vintage photographs of the city. That was a product of the painstaking research and artwork of Peque Gallaga and his collaborator Laida Lim-Perez. In the same year, the production designer turned actor when he played the role of a collaborator sidekick of the Japanese officer played by Christopher de Leon in “Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos” (1976). Another role that made use of his mestizo features was in “Gumising Ka, Maruja” (1978) which put him in close contact with Lino Brocka, who was then emerging as the white hope of a new dynamic Filipino cinema. And in 1980, Ishmael Bernal, the other leading director of the new cinema, asked Gallaga to do the production design of a foul-mouthed and muck-raking “city film” “Manila by Night.” The film incurred the wrath of the bitter half of the dictatorship, who wanted Manila to be glorified as the “City of Man,” and the title had to be changed to “City after Dark.” Gallaga’s eye for the seedy side of Manila nevertheless found favor with the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, and his production design won for him an Urian trophy for 1980.
Having entered the aesthetic circle of Brocka and Bernal, Gallaga was ready to move into the big time by 1982. The Experimental Cinema of the Philippines had been set up by the dictatorship’s New Society and it had run a scriptwriting competition in which a script titled “Oro, Plata, Mata” by Jose Javier Reyes had won the top prize. Peque Gallaga was tapped to direct it, and there was the promise of a budget unprecedented in the industry. Gallaga had done “Binhi” in 1973, but that was but finger-exercise in amateur filmmaking. “Oro, Plata, Mata” was an invitation to do a grand concerto.
When “Oro, Plata, Mata” first broke into the film industry, poet-fictionist Alfred A. Yuson, then a Manunuri critic and member of the Film Ratings Board, exclaimed:
“Let’s say it right here, Oro, Plata, Mata (OPM) to my mind, easily enters the top five of a best-Filipino-films list. As a matter of fact, upon second viewing OPM ranks in my mind and heart as the best we’ve ever come up with. Whether it will wear well with time is an open question, but I have almost no doubt it will.”
Such huzzah was to be repeated many times afterward by other viewers, and more than a decade later, praise has continued to come from filmgoers who had come into contact with Gallaga’s masterpiece. The title of the film is a phrase familiar to home-builders who have received the formula from some dim folk-belief and superstition. It refers to the prescribed number of steps for a stairway which stipulates that one chanting “oro, plata, mata” as he mounts the steps should not stop at “mata” (a derivative of matar, to kill) lest bad luck plague the owners of the home. The hovering threat in the title describes the descent into physical and moral disaster that the Pacific War visits upon two upperclass families in Bacolod. The film is prefaced by sequences depicting the innocence and self-indulgence of the rich.
The film begins at a coming-out party for Maggie Ojeda where adults and young people are celebrating as news of the impending war was the subject of a radio broadcast. Away from the crowd, youngsters Trining Ojeda and her boyfriend Miguel Lorenzo are exploring sexual awakening in the garden. With war in the offing, the Lorenzos invite the Ojedas to evacuate to their hacienda where the families could weather the war enjoying the comforts and joys that are part of the life of the rich. When the Japanese forces land in Negros, the families move to the forest resthouse of the Lorenzos.
The evacuees bring with them remnants of their urban life-style, but violence begins to intrude into their community as they encounter bandits led by a resentful servingman of the hacienda. Youngsters discover sex and under the uncertainties of a living in the wilderness, they begin to grow away from their elders and the values they lived by. When the bandits ransack the resthouse and molest the women, Trining allows herself to be carried off by them. Miguel has grown up hardened by violence. He sets out on an avenging mission, and finding the bandits’ lair, he turns into a killing machine. After the war, we find the Lorenzos and the Ojedas together again at the engagement party for Maggie and Miguel. At the gathering, seated among the guests, Trining casually remarks how war has brutalized people.
In the industry, Peque Gallaga had developed the talent of riding a trend observable among audiences. The first half of the 1980s saw the rise of sex-oriented movies, with the Japanese “In the Realm of the Senses” and the Brazilian “Eu Te Amo” as international exemplars that reached a Filipino audience through the International Film Festival sponsored by Malacañan. “Scorpio Nights” was Galllaga’s take on the trend. Using the porno genre as a frame, Gallaga tells about a young man living in a decrepit boarding house, spying on the nightly love-making of a security guard and his young mistress who occupy the apartment below. He finds an opportunity to enter the apartment, makes love to the young woman and, finding no resistance, begins an affair that was to prove fatal to the two of them when the security guard discovers it. “Scorpio Nights” was unprecedented in the local film industry. Although it was very much in the tradition of “bomba” films (local movie porn in the early ‘70s), it displayed care and polish in its cinematography, editing and in the performances of its principal characters. As such the movie demands careful attention from its critics, and it can be read as a subversive commentary on Marcos’ New Society and its repressive cultural policies. What the movie amply demonstrates is Gallaga’s revolt against the conventionalities of local filmmaking and his ability to assert his art as director against the strictures of censorship by government and producers.
After almost two decades of hewing to the demands of popular filmmaking as a studio director, Gallaga was tiring of the demands made on him by his producers. In an interview, he was quoted as saying that “many of our producers haven’t taken the LRT, are hardly aware of YouTube, the blogging phenomenon or know-how to handle the videos in their cellphones. So they continue propping up the old creaking formulas with more of the same stuff that hasn’t worked in decades. If that isn’t insanity, I don’t know what is.”Pinoy Blonde” (2005) is his send-up of the cliches of local filmmaking, in which two starting filmmakers are made to represent the Brocka-Bernal dichotomy as the inescapable tradition for those in contemporary filmmaking., The young men are tasked by their dying grandfather to deliver a paper bag to an abandoned hotel to unknown recipients. The two run into an assortment of toughies in the process and get into scrapes that allude to foreign action movies familiar to them. A bag of cash finally materializes for them and, amid a room in flames, the two laughingly talk about the movie they can finally make.
In recent years, Gallaga has absented himself from Manila, spending most of his time in Bacolod where he teaches theater and filmmaking. His mentoring of future filmmakers has made him a key figure in the development of regional films in Negros and neighboring regions. Among the talents he had nurtured are actors Joel Torre and Ronnie Lazaro, and directors Lore Reyes, Erik Matti, Lawrence Fajardo, and others still awaiting their opportunity to make their mark. Peque Gallaga, director, screenplaywright, production designer, actor, producer, and mentor of budding directors, in the twilight of mainstream filmmaking, his roles in the industry must be engraved in its history.