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Critic After Dark

A FILM still from Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay (Huk in a New Life, 1953).

Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay
Directed by Lamberto Avellana

AVAILABLE ON filmmaker Mike de Leon’s Citizen Jake Vimeo site: Lamberto Avellana’s postwar drama Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay (Huk in a New Life, 1953), about a wartime guerrilla who, out of desperation, joins communist forces seeking to overthrow the Filipino government. Produced by De Leon’s grandmother Doña Narcisa de Leon, it was unabashedly anticommunist pro-American propaganda, the third such effort by Doña Sisang’s LVN Studios. The print on this website — a not-especially-clear recording from a DVD — emphasizes the slant: some of the dialogue is in English, and much of the Filipino dialogue is overdubbed with English narration, reportedly by Avellana himself, carefully explaining the motivation of characters and significance of each scene: “If I had known then what Maxie (Joseph de Cordova) really represented, things might have been different.”

The foreboding voiceover narration could arguably be Avellana’s concession to the noir genre, which loves foreboding voiceover narration. The narration continues for the rest of the picture, but the film, I submit, does rise beyond the limitations, thanks mostly to the performances and Avellana’s direction.

The story starts literally with a bang: Carding (Jose Padilla, Jr.), sudden and huge onscreen, flings a grenade at a Japanese truck as an opening salvo to a guerrilla assault. At one point, Carding’s commanding officer Maxie shoves him to the ground away from rifle fire; Carding’s cheek is scraped hard, blood streaming from the wound, leaving a scar that marks him for the rest of his life.

Carding comes home an honored veteran but is soon laid low not by any one cause but by a perfect storm of events: Maxie (in a shadowy noir-inspired scene) conspires with American communist leader Mac (Rolf Bayer, who also wrote the screenplay) to withhold Carding’s pay; Carding is cheated out of his family land by the usuriously corrupt Mr. Vargas (Leonardo Fernandez); Carding, who has a temper, unjudiciously strikes Vargas with a shovel, opening himself up to assault charges; Avellana tops matters off with an actual storm, a typhoon that lays waste to the crops and Carding’s prospects in a single night.


Carding waits to be arrested (for hitting Vargas) but Maxie appears Mephisto-like ahead of the police with an offer: rejoin us, the Huks, your former comrades-in-arms. The Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Mga Hapon (Nationalist Forces Fighting the Japanese) — or Hukbalahap as they are more popularly known (Huks by the English speaking press) were a wartime force organized by the communists against the Japanese that persisted beyond the war, later fighting the Filipino government on behalf of guerrillas who were denied their salary.

The Huks may have a point. Filipino veterans to this day struggle for recognition by — and full rights from — the United States for their role in the war; Avellana and Bayer had to invent Maxie and behind him Mac (played by Bayer himself to resemble William Pomeroy, down to the glasses and Filipina wife) to account for the injustice.

Bayer’s Mac is an amusing invention, not the least because his features and delivery remind one of a slimmer, more garrulous Spencer Tracy; De Cordova’s Maxie is the more interesting figure, his fervor developing into fanaticism and then bloodthirsty megalomania (“If they fight back?” “We kill everyone.”) with a pause along the way to recognize longstanding friendship (“I would have died without you”) — even if he has been victimizing that friend for years. But what best sells Avellana’s point, holds together and humanizes the picture, is Padilla — his Carding, a simple man of the earth, acquires monumental stature as Avellana shoots him in giant closeup, straining against a plow or screaming at a stormy sky or swinging an ax against a great tree trunk. At the same time there’s some psychological shading, the scar on his cheek suggesting both the lingering effects of war and of Maxie’s persistent moral claim on his life.

Not that Carding suffers from PTSD; no, that fate is given to Carding’s comrade and soon-to-be brother-in-law Hesus (Leroy Salvador), who, at seeing his dead friends, loses the ability to speak. You might say the war has splintered Carding into three figures: Maxie (Marxie?), who represents political idealism; the aptly named Hesus, who represents mute humanity; and Carding himself, who represents the sorely tried self caught between warring impulses. When Carding the Huk commander is captured, it’s Hesus who fires the crucial gun; later Hesus approaches the bandaged Carding, begging forgiveness for his role in the capture. Avellana’s staging is I think crucial: he shoots past Carding’s broad forbidding back at Hesus’ imploring face. Carding orders Hesus to approach; suddenly Hesus’ face changes expression, Carding ruffles the young man’s hair affectionately, and the two embrace. Through blocking and camera placement Avellana subtly points up the drama of the occasion, presenting a reconciliation between humanity (Hesus) and self (Carding) — arguably the film’s most moving moment.

The third act is shot in an actual EDCOR camp (Economic Development Corp., a government-established program to resettle insurgents). Carding has always been strong, and hesitates buying into the government’s peace overtures. The process of integration is long and physically demanding: Carding works hard to clear land and build a relationship with his fellow laborers (most former Huk fighters), is ultimately voted into office as the community’s mayor, but it’s only when this new life is threatened — by Maxie again, this time infiltrating the camp as an undercover agent — that Carding finds himself forced to make a choice: reject the program or totally commit to it.

It is interesting to compare Avellana’s style to Gerardo de Leon’s: the latter often tilts the camera just so, giving his human figures a looming monumental feel; sometimes he resorts to long shots of tiny figures running against a vast unforgiving landscape. Avellana, coming from the theater stage, puts emphasis not on landscape and people but on people with people: medium shots, often from the waist up, to better capture the behavior of characters as they talk, gaze, touch each other, confirming friendships, debating issues, attempting to establish connection. When he does resort to an unusual shot the contrast is more startling: Soldiers swarm out of a dark stone doorway, firing at attacking Huks; as the rebels gain the upper hand the Huks run into the same doorway, in reverse flow. Later he upends the doorway composition to gruesome effect, setting up his camera at the bottom of a rectangular pit (an open grave?) looking up instead of looking out; the Huks kill a man accused of treason and his body falls halfway across the pit’s edge, head and arms hanging upside down.

Into battle sequences Avellana inserts shots of women and children wounded or killed; the atrocities escalate to Carding’s in-laws — always with the fighting there’s a cost, usually in civilian deaths.

I’d mentioned a typhoon wiping out Carding’s farm and Avellana presets the moment with full Lear grandeur: Carding standing against a roiling sky, wind and water whipping his back as he vents his anger and despair. The nature theme continues in the EDCOR camp, where a half-naked, well-muscled Carding swings his ax; with the tree felled, Carding stands on the trunk with confident equanimity, the status between nature and man restored (mostly to man’s satisfaction). These sequences and earlier sequences of Carding pushing a plow are, I submit, more effective propaganda than either explicit dialogue or narration: they suggest that dignity in labor and in the common man is possible without communist ideology, and with government support.

Then there’s Hesus in mid-distance, firing at Carding’s receding figure; Carding falls against a backdrop of towering bamboo — an oddly serene, almost Japanese moment on which the plot turns. You wonder at Avellana’s thinking here, why he chose to compose the shot thusly: fatalistic acceptance of the inevitable? Ironic counterpoint to violent betrayal? Or just a startlingly beautiful image, arguably the most memorable in the film? One wonders. Avellana at first glance is an understated, unpretentious filmmaker with simple aspirations and strategies, until he’s not; then he seems large, he seems to contain multitudes.