The society of respected film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian in cinematic excellence

Peque Gallaga to receive the 2009 Natatanging Gawad for lifetime achievement

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The man behind such masterpieces as “Oro Plata Mata” and “Scorpio Nights” and the rise of regional cinema will receive from the Manunuri on Sept. 19 the Natatanging Gawad for lifetime achievement

The cinema of Peque Gallaga: Signature in gold

By Lito B. Zulueta

PEQUE Gallaga will receive the Natatanging Gawd for lifetime achievement for filmmaking from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino during the 32nd Gawad Urian on Sept. 19 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Gallaga, according to National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera, founding member of the Manunuri, the society of respected film critics, is “the epitome of the compleat Filipino cinema artist.” According to the citation in Filipino drafted by Lumbera for the Manunuri, Gallaga has stamped his name in the film industry for his “multi-faceted talents and skills – as director, screenplay writer, production designer, actor, producer, and teacher.” It is only fitting for Gallaga, according to the draft, to be honored by all those who love and promote Filipino cinema “before the sun completely sets on the film industry.”

The waxing and waning of the fortunes of mainstream cinema seems reflected in the person of Peque Gallaga, a serious filmmaker with a track record of box-office hits and successful remaking, if not innovations, of commercial genres, particularly of horror and fantasy movies. As mainstream commercial cinema struggles to stave off death, independent and out-of-studio films have shown vibrancy and resilience, even catapulting Filipino movie to new global renown. Part of these stirrings of hope can be gleaned from the emergent regional cinema, whose mentorship and encouragement owes to Gallaga’s selfless tutelage.

Gallaga has won in the Gawad Urian several times: as best director in 1982 for “Oro Plata Mata”; and for best production design for “Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?” (together with Laida Lim Perez) in 1976, and for “Manila By Night: City After Dark” in 1980.

Although he had directed several television musical variety shows and co-directed with Butch Perez the 1971 movie “Binhi,” Gallaga entered into public prominence as the production designer, together with Laida Lim Perez, of Eddie Romero’s “Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?” The very important historical movie was shown on the same year as Brocka’s “Insiang,” Ishmael Bernal’s “Nunal sa Tubig,” Lupita Concio’s “Minsa’y Isang Gamu-Gamo,” Gerry de Leon’s “Banawe,” Mike de Leon’s “Itim,” Mario O’ Hara’s “Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos,” and Gil Portes’s debut movie, “Tiket Mama, Tiket Ale, Sa Linggo ang Bola,” making 1976 as the peak of the second golden age of Philippine cinema.

Gallaga’s early career shows a truism in cinema history: great filmmakers do not necessarily influence each other, but more practically, they work with each other, often in an unwitting sort of apprenticeship. Brocka had worked with Romero as a scriptwriter, and Mike de Leon had worked with Brocka and later, Romero, as cinematographer. Gallaga, who finished commerce and liberal arts at De la Salle University but had enrolled briefly in the architecture school of the University of Santo Tomas, had worked with Romero and Bernal (notably in “Manila By Night: City After Dark” in 1980) as a production designer. Also an actor, Gallaga played a part in O’Hara’s World War II tragedy, “Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos,” Brocka’s ghost story, “Gumising Ka, Maruja” (1978).

Gallaga himself was to contribute more fully to the renaissance by becoming a full-fledged filmmaker himself with his second directorial effort, “Oro Plata Mata” (1982), and later, Scorpio Nights (1985), arguably his two best movies.

The best melding of Gallaga’s strong background in art direction and his more prominent public face as director is best exhibited in “Oro” and “Scorpio Nights” No two films could have been more dissimilar. “Oro” is a family epic across the vicissitudes of the Second World War: it paints in grand and incisive strokes a sugar-baron family’s descent into madness as it tries to cope with the savagery of the war, when class lines are leveled and loyalties are jettisoned in the race for survival. It is a tragedy in the Attic sense of the term. The production design is an expansive canvas that runs the gamut of landscape painting: from the baronial estate to the mountain fastness, where the family flees from the Japanese invaders, and later finding out that that they could not replicate their old-gentry ways as everything around them descends to barbarity, from the pinnacle of civilization to the heart of darkness.

In contrast, “Scorpio” is about a young peeping tom in one of Manila’s squatter ghettoes who becomes sexually and personally involved with the subject of his lascivious spying, a cop’s wife. There’s no grand tragedy here, no struggle for rationality or even heroism: it’s really a no-man’s land whose inhabitants are sewer rats and alley cats with hardly any dint of humanity, except for the street-smart instinct that they employ when transacting for sexual relationships and personal arrangements and rearrangements. If the people here fail to get our empathy (they may even repel), it is because they have been boxed into this god-forsaken corner of the earth where waste and reject (scrap galvanized iron, throwaway cardboard, and poor man’s plywood) comprise their shelter. No “person” lives here because there’s no such thing as privacy—everything conspires to make one a peeping tom and a public violator. In privation, there’s no such thing as a private person.

In both “Oro” and “Scorpio,” Gallaga shows directorial breadth of vision and art director’s capaciousness, and it is really hard to tell which is which. Contrary to the auteur theory, he leaves authorial marks not only in his direction but also in the art direction and the costume design as well, and there’s no single authorship that can be traced to either production work. And since he’s also the writer of “Oro” (he had won the main prize in the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines scriptwriting contest and later earned the commission from the same agency to direct the script the final version of which was co-written by Jose Javier Reyes), Gallaga may have demolished the classic auteur theory or embodied it in its fullest sense: he is author and creator in one body. Even his collaboration with Bernal as art director of “City After Dark” and “Ito Ba ang Ating Mga Anak?” may bear Gallaga’s authorial marks as production designer.

Gallaga would show the same bravura in his other movies, notably in “Virgin Forest” (1985), “Unfaithful Wife” (1986), and in his recasting of the horror genre, the very successful “Shake, Rattle and Roll” series. The latter has assumed the character of a franchise through the years and for the younger generation of cineastes, is their most accessible introduction to the works of Gallaga. It is a brilliant reinvention of the horror movie for its trilogy format, its utilization of Philippine urban legends and folklore, and its occasional rollicking humor and lightheartedness. It also helps that the production design is very accomplished and provides viewers a strong feel of the actual.

Gallaga would later show the same strengths in his other genre reinventions such as the fantasy movie “Once Upon a Time” (1988) and the urban hip-hop film “Gangland” (1998). The former is another brilliant recasting of Filipino folklore with Comedy King Dolphy playing the mythical role of the Tikbalang, the legendary half-man, half-horse of the Filipino netherworld. The latter, in hindsight, seems to have set off the gritty urban street drama of today, as manifested in such provocative movies as Brillante Mendoza’s “Tirador” and Jim Libiran’s “Tribu.”

In the new century, Gallaga continues to make movies although he has largely based himself in his hometown of Bacolod, where he is artist-in-residence and where he teaches theater and film at the University of St. La Salle. By situating himself in the South and mentoring greenhorn artists, he has played mentor to future filmmakers and media artists. Those who derive their style and spirit from his rigorous but very paternal mentorship include Jay Abella, Manny Montelibano, Vicente Groyon and Richard Somes. A multi-variegated artist of intrepid vision and incredible stamina, Gallaga has become one of our few elder statesmen of the cinema arts.