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Critic After Dark

Directed by Mike de Leon

FIRST the title: Kangkungan — literally, swamp (or water) spinach patch. A highly nutritious green that flourishes in canals and fishponds all over the Philippines, often sautéed with fermented shrimp paste and minced garlic. What’s the significance?

Filmmaker Mike De Leon — one of the last surviving filmmakers from the great period of 1970s Philippine cinema — breaks out of his self-imposed retirement again (he’d been inactive since Bayaning Third World [Third World Hero], but came out recently with Citizen Jake) to release this short, on the eve of the 1986 EDSA Revolt anniversary.

It starts off briskly enough: “Countrymen this is the President of the Philippines”: a quick montage of Duterte cussing, flipping his finger, pulling a woman onto his lap — basically using the man’s own words and actions to describe himself.

After Duterte’s words, a precis of his actions: the massacre of thousands (some putting it at tens of thousands) for his war on drugs. The harassment, silencing, arrest of critics and political figures who oppose his agenda including Senator Leila de Lima, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, Sister Mary Fox, Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, and other human rights champions. The declaration of martial law in Mindanao — a stage rehearsal, De Leon darkly warns, for the nationwide expansion.


De Leon reserves his most withering contempt for Duterte’s open and unapologetic support of the Marcoses — of ousted president Ferdinand Marcos’ widow and children. One can question the filmmaker’s priorities — isn’t he flogging a long-dead horse? — till you realize, with a brief insert of son Bong Bong (yes, that’s his name, and, yes, he’s taken seriously as a possible presidential candidate) and daughter Imee that they’re poised to make a comeback, poised to re-establish a regime that (in terms of long-delayed vengeful malice) would make Duterte’s wrecking-ball administration look like a Boy Scout jamboree.

As De Leon looks to the future so does Duterte, who is attempting to fill the senate — the last bastion, as De Leon points out, of political resistance — with folk singers, former strippers, weeping police chiefs, personal assistants, anyone and everyone supportive of his cause regardless of qualifications, in a bid for “absolute power.” To underline the last two words De Leon inserts a brief clip from his film Kisapmata, of the murderous psychopath Sgt. Diosdado Carandang (Vic Silayan), yelling and brandishing a Colt .45 hand cannon.

De Leon mentions Federalism — Duterte’s plan to break up the central government into regions, on paper a way to distribute prosperity to outer provinces, in practice a way to break up the aforementioned central government so that political dynasties (like the Marcos clan and the freshly minted Duterte clan) can further consolidate their already considerable power.

De Leon saves mention of our humiliating subservience to a foreign power for last — possibly Duterte’s saddest and most damning legacy. If Trump is said to have sold the United States to Putin what more can we expect from a man who professes to hate America but apes (consciously or unconsciously) its most ignominious chief executive? Here De Leon strikes a more melancholic note, cross-dissolving onscreen images of the heroes of 1890s — Apolinario Mabini, Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio — as he mourns the loss of the country these heroes gave their lives for, comparing our nation at its very best with our nation at its lowest point. The contrast is, to say the least, vertiginous.

Finally, De Leon explains the title: stark white letters against a black screen intercut with shadowy black-and-white images remind us of the old idiom “itinatapon sa kangkungan” (dumped in a swamp patch) — the convenient way of disposing a murder victim and what, De Leon asserts, Duterte is doing to the country.

Five minutes of exposition and lecture — presumably De Leon left it at only five because in this ADHD social-media world five minutes of straight talk is the most he can expect any of us to sit still long enough and listen to — and, no, he doesn’t tell us exactly who to vote for, but does leave us with this suggestion: vote as if your lives depend on it. Because, as this (on the surface direct and in-your-face, under the surface witty and richly allusive) video explains, it does.