Arts & Leisure

By Noel Vera

Philippine cinema’s poet laureate

Posted on December 04, 2012

ONE OF THE greatest has passed.

DIRECTOR Celso Ad Castillo (L) during the filming of Brown Emmanuelle
Celso Ad Castillo was born on the 12th of September, 1943 in Sinaloan, Laguna, son of lawyer and writer Dominador Ad Castillo, and Martha Adolfo. He graduated with a BA in English Literature, married and had children, at least one of which -- Christopher Ad Castillo -- followed in his footsteps to become a filmmaker.

Ad Castillo did not start out intending to direct, but lost little time in assuming the mantle. He really began writing for komiks, publishing -- with his father’s help -- a magazine where he wrote every story under different aliases. He was commissioned to do a James Bond knockoff so successful it spawned a sequel; he directed his first film -- Misyong Mapanganib (Mission Dangerous, 1965) -- at the relatively young age of 21.

Ad Castillo’s Asedillo (1971), possibly his finest early film, set the template for Filipino movie legend Fernando Poe, Jr.’s persona, as deadly gunslinger and champion of the poor; his best work was yet to come, but even this early on you could see his mastery of film language. Poe’s action movies are almost always well-produced, but this is the rare picture of his that shows touches of genuine poetry -- deep orange sunsets; elderly villagers expressively lit and photographed; iconic shots of Poe on his horse climbing an impossibly steep slope (the camera tilted to make it look even more impossible), his body bent forward as if to keep from falling off.

At one point Poe reads a crucial letter from his arch-nemesis, offering parley: Ad Castillo cuts to the people outside waiting for the results of the fateful letter, and as they chat Ad Castillo drops all sound except the wind blowing. The effect is remarkably ominous.

Ad Castillo’s Tag-Ulan sa Tag-Araw (Monsoon Rain in Summer, 1975) is about a young man (Christopher de Leon) who dorms with his uncle and aunt and falls in love with his cousin (played by a waiflike Vilma Santos). Ad Castillo tackles the sensational subject of incest by framing the two lovers’ relationship as a kind of innocent affair, taking place in a countryside Eden.

It’s the kind of hackneyed concept that really shouldn’t work; the result ought to be less like D.H. Lawrence and more like Emmanuelle.

But Ad Castillo happened to have one of the most prodigiously talented eye in all of Philippine cinema, and the heedlessly lyrical manner in which he shot Tag-Ulan transforms softcore porn into something like art. Every rainfall, every shaft of light, every leafy shadow caught by his largely handheld camera makes you catch your breath; there is lovemaking but no nudity, yet Ad Castillo shoots with such throbbing intensity that you are undeniably aroused.

He was incredibly versatile, from classic action to sensual psychodrama to, of course, horror. His Patayin Mo sa Sindak si Barbara (Let’s Frighten Barbara to Death, 1974), about a dead woman’s determination to wreak unholy vengeance on her poor sister, is not a perfect film or even a particularly good one, certainly not the finest of Ad Castillo’s work, but after a first half of playing with devil dolls and cheesy sound effects the film lays aside the childish toys and tries a different tack -- silence, shadows, the stretching of a moment of tension to sadistic length, revealing itself in its second half as arguably the most viscerally frightening film in all of Philippine cinema.

At one point Ad Castillo evokes the scene where Arbogast (Martin Balsam) climbs the stairs in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) -- only unlike many a Hitchcock imitator, he manages to pull it off.

Ad Castillo’s Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa (The Most Beautiful Creature on the Face of the Earth, 1974) is an unabashed remake of David Lean’s film maudit, the epic boxoffice failure Ryan’s Daughter (1970); it nevertheless has a coastal village sensuality that need not apologize to the underrated original. In Return of the Dragon (same year) he took a comedian famous for parodying Bruce Lee (the physical resemblance is uncanny) and forged a remarkably straightforward exercise in Filipino chop-socky, complete with fight scenes staged as if within an azure crystal bowl, the sky overhead an unnaturally vivid blue. In Lihim ni Madonna (Secrets of Madonna, 1997), one of the most beautiful actresses in Philippine cinema (his taste in women was legendary) runs about an abandoned mansion in a state of perpetual distress, wearing a transparent nightie -- a laughable premise, only he uses the gothic scare tactics from Patayin sa Sindak si Barbara to keep the audience off-balance, and ends the film with a magic-realist finale that evokes Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

With Ang Alamat ni Julian Makabayan (The Legend of Julian Makabayan, 1979) Ad Castillo and his cinematographer Romy Vitug had been accused of imitating the naturalist sunlight captured by Nestor Almendros for Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). If the films share a superficial similarity (both involve outdoor locations and natural sunlight) the resemblance ends there -- I doubt if Malick has the sense of showmanship to tell his story as a series of interviews, faux-documentary style, or the effrontery to pull a corpse out from inside a split-open water buffalo. With Pagputi ng Uwak, Pagitim ng Tagak (When the Crow Turns White, the Heron Black, 1978) Ad Castillo proved he could combine period epic and political firebranding -- a volatile mix -- with beautiful folk music.

As for his masterpiece, Burlesk Queen (1977) -- here’s an excerpt of what I wrote about a moment in the film (Chato’s deflowering), in Chris Fujiwara’s The Little Black Book of Movies:

“Celso uses Jessie’s smooth back as both veil and metaphor for Chato’s nudity, the clothes dropping from overhead hangers as metaphor for her failing inhibitions; what makes the scene erotic and nakedly emotional is Chato’s face, glimpsed over Jessie’s left shoulder as terror (the widened eyes), greed (the remote expression, as if she were a starving man wolfing down a steak), pain (the startled look of one who has been kicked in the crotch), guilt (the tears) and finally pleasure (the bit lower lip) flit across and mingle in her eyes.”

Ad Castillo was not a genius; he was more interesting than that. His films were often incoherent, often inconsistent, sometimes because he didn’t have the money, sometimes because he told stories that way -- narrative, apparently, was secondary to him, an excuse to flex his prodigious filmmaking muscles.

Of his greatest works -- which include but are not limited to Ang Alamat ni Julian Makabayan; Pagputi ng Uwak, Pagitim ng Tagak; and Burlesk Queen -- his imagery burned incandescent, his filmmaking technique was second to none.

If Mike De Leon is Philippine Cinema’s mad intellectual, Lino Brocka its fiery social realist, Ishmael Bernal its skeptic-satirist, Mario O’Hara its nightmare scenarist, Celso was its poet laureate. His images were pure visual poetry -- Filipino lyricism incarnate. His passing is an unimaginable loss.

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