By Noel Vera
Directed by Mike de Leon
Mike de Leon’s first film in — has it been 18 years? — has to be an event; the latest from one of our finest filmmakers, in the same league as Lino Brocka, Mario O’Hara, Ishmael Bernal, Celso Ad. Castillo. If it’s arguably the weakest feature he’s done to date (hopefully not his last) it still stands head and shoulders above most anything out there today, Filipino or Hollywood.
Citizen Jake tells the story of Jacobo “Jake” Herrera (Atom Araullo) and right away De Leon has to riff on the keyboard: we have Jake seated at the computer typing and Jake walking down a hallway simultaneously, taking a seat and addressing us. We have archival footage of Jake’s beloved Baguio City where he lives in self-exile; flash-forwards to characters we have yet to meet; shots of the film crew shooting the very scene we’re watching; bits of dialogue laid out across the screen.
The film is part documentary on the City of Pines, part crime mystery (a young girl found raped and murdered), part political intrigue, part (as the director himself admits) autobiography (Jake’s tense relationship with his father Jacobo Herrera, Sr. [Teroy Guzman]). De Leon shuffles the various elements to the rhythm of his inimitably crisp editing style (actual cutting by Gerone Centeno and Tom Estrera), and you can’t help but feel you’re in the hands of a master. This is a Mike de Leon film we’re seeing and with it come expectations: that it be impeccably shot (by Dix Buhay) and acted, with high-quality (if modestly budgeted) production values (Mike Guison and Cesar Hernando) and a lovely lilting soundtrack (Nonong Buencamino). A good team — some of the names are legend — and a guarantee that we are going to be thoroughly entertained.
Only de Leon doesn’t seem to want to settle for “entertainment” — more like “information overload.” He throws at you a brief history of Baguio: how the city was established as vacation spot for our American overlords, how they exploited the native population, how that exploitation continues today in the form of “pony boys” (native youths grooming horses for tourist rides) and house servants (for vacation homes the owners live in only a few months of the year). He throws at you a withering precis of the abuses of the Marcos dictatorship, from human right violations to killings to lurid sex scandals. And he throws at you a selection of the more memorable political intrigues, lightly coated with fictionalized names.
Along with the history lesson is an entire film appreciation course tucked away in the corners of each shot (A poster of Costa-Gavras’ Z; a running gag where Roxie keeps alluding to the Godfather films [thinking he’s Sonny but suspecting he’s really Fredo]; a photographer-turned-investigator hero a la Blow-Out; alternate eyewitness accounts a la Rashomon; a home invasion scene a la Clockwork Orange; Kurosawa wipes; text spread in the Godardian manner across the big screen; images that recall Coppola, Antonioni, Leone, Dreyer; Jake’s house — the same American Colonial residence where De Leon shot Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising; the playing with medium and message as in his film essay Bayaning Third World; the film’s very title, a nod to Welles’ most famous film).
Does it all get overwhelming? De Leon doesn’t seem to want to make it easy; if anything he expects you to keep up. While you’re at it, don’t forget Jake’s uneasy feelings towards childhood friend and houseboy Jonie (Luis Alandy), his disintegrating relationship with girlfriend Mandy (Max Collins), his longstanding trauma from the disappearance of his mother Victoria (Dina Bonnevie). There won’t be a quiz, but there will be a few answers by film’s end.
It’s as if De Leon had bottled up everything he wanted to say for 18 years and let it all out in a prodigious flood; he’s doing his best to shape and shoot and cut it into some kind of coherent form and can hardly manage the flow. If anything, this film’s chief flaw is that it’s too generous, that there’s material here for perhaps three films and two hour-long documentaries; maybe De Leon shouldn’t have waited so long to start working again. The film lacks the simplicity of means, the eloquence of meaning of his greatest work Kisapmata, which is personal (as in — yes — autobiographical) and universal (as in able to happen in the house next door) and complex (metaphor for the fascist nature of patriarchal Filipino society) and simple (story of a family gone very wrong) all at the same time.
But there are, I submit, worse things in the world to be accused of than overreaching; this is a mighty meal, barely contained within its 137 minute running time. Some of the performances help clarify the storylines and histories (Was the plotline of Chinatown coherent? But John Huston’s Noah Cross helped clear the confusion: watching him you know the Devil is real and wears a white suit). Anna Luna’s Heidi is simple and affectingly direct; Ruby Ruiz’s Manang has melodramatic authority; Collins’ Mandy conveys a sense of understated grace (especially in her last scene with Jake); Raquel Villavicencio’s lovely little cameo as Miss Merci bears witness not just to the crime (or one aspect of it) but to a bygone era; Nonie Buencamino’s brief appearance as Judge is intense and movingly human; Cherie Gil’s Patricia Medina gives us cynical sophisticated decadence with a bitter personal edge.
I remember watching Lou Veloso’s performance of Anton Juan’s Taong Grasa (Street Bum) where he held an audience mesmerized for over an hour while presenting (all on his own, mind) the thoughts, the feelings, the world of the homeless. Here he plays poet-professor Lucas, holding the viewer mesmerized as he presents — in a brief scene, in verse he wrote himself — the vision of a rich land with teeming soil, sea, sky. “The Pearl of the Orient,” where the corrupt and abusive are “whipped for each soul (they’ve) harmed” and the people who have benefited must “be of service to (their) land.” Truisms galore but when Veloso delivers them and De Leon quietly shoots him (from a corner of the café, slouching on a chair) the words have the heft and feel of epiphanies.
But with De Leon it almost always comes down to family: the source of comfort and strength, of anguish and despair. It’s in the scenes down in Manila in the Herrera family mansion that the film comes truly to life, as Jake confronts his daddy dearest, his Alpha and Omega, his bete noir. It’s where De Leon gets unsettlingly personal as he digs into his knowledge of the emotional dynamics of powerful old families. Atom Araullo sometimes falters as an actor (he struggles to inject energy in Jake’s moments with Mandy) but he’s fine suggesting the love that can exist between two men who call each other brother (Jake and Jonie) and he’s magnetic suggesting the shame, guilt, resentment, yes, even hate, that can exist between privileged son and tyrannical father. “This country is best ruled by the elite!” declares Teroy Guzman as Jacobo Sr. (who not only matches Araullo’s intensity, he, in my book, can stand beside Brando without embarrassment). “By strong men!” And to Jake’s dismay he knows exactly what his father’s words mean even as he loathes their very meaning — he’s learned to wield power and influence himself, as a way of moving his investigation forward. You might say every sin he commits up in Baguio, his father (he ultimately learns) has already committed, on a much larger scale, down in Manila.
And even in the finale (skip this paragraph if you plan to see the film!) there’s a kind of double-edged awareness to Jake’s solution to the three-way confrontation that takes place in his father’s palatial dining room/living room: he does what he does because he knows he can. He strikes a blow for what he believes is immediate justice knowing that if he had shot the gun in the other direction nothing could save him from the consequences. Despite all his continued defiance, despite his life after (which is kept deliberately ambiguous), he’s still his father’s son — he’s too smart not to figure out the angles.
From Treb Monteras ll’s Respeto to Lav Diaz’s Panahon ng Halimaw to this, we’ve seen three responses to the Duterte regime to date — and may more be on their way. While none can or should be considered a definitive knockout — I doubt if anyone has the resources to suggest the scale of the abuses we’ve seen — each tries to cover differing aspects in their own brilliant way: Respeto through the angry rhythms of a rap artist, Panahon from the ground-level view of a poet being pushed however reluctantly to become a warrior. Jake could be their upper-class brother, yet another wanna be artist-poet (he doesn’t recite any, but I’ll bet his blog includes a few verses) looking down from his privileged vantage point, feeling the angst of someone who has the education and intelligence and power — someone very much like us in fact — to act, yet has failed to do so. One of the better films of 2018.