Sunday, May 24, 2009

Gerry de Leon articles

Gerardo de Leon profile by Mark Holcomb

[originally published on the Senses Of Cinema website, March 2005]

b. Gerardo de Leon Ilagan, September 12, 1913, Bulacan, Philippines

d. July 25, 1981, Manila, Philippines

I. The Two Gerrys

Few figures in cinema inspire such uniquely contradictory reactions as Filipino director Gerry de Leon. Revered in his home country as a national treasure and esteemed by the international critical establishment, De Leon is just as readily dismissed by unwitting cinephiles – and undoubtedly many of the same critics who champion him – as an anonymous hack.

This schism doesn't represent a vehement divergence of opinion on his ability as a filmmaker, but stems from a confounding material conundrum: there's a distinct, maddening paucity of available works from De Leon's most fertile period, while a series of low-budget, independently produced, mostly American-funded and distributed films he began directing in the late 1950s are abundantly available.

At the time that De Leon took these latter projects on, the Hollywood-style Philippines studio system that had nurtured his early career – action specialists Premiere Productions in particular – was experiencing a meltdown analogous to that in the United States thanks to a well-coordinated, industry-wide labour dispute. De Leon was still the country's most revered “golden age” director, but he was no longer first in line for the choicest projects and grew ever more dependent on American backing for more exploitative material. Little wonder that he ended his days complaining of “the foreigners taking over” and arguing for state-subsidised production (1).

Given the rich and unusually convoluted artistic path De Leon had followed, his disillusionment and bitterness were perhaps understandable.

II. Passion, Opera, and So Forth

Born in 1913 to a show-business family in the Manila suburb of Bulacan, Gerardo de Leon Ilagan began making films in the late 1930s after finishing medical school, becoming licensed as a physician, and serving a stint as an actor. He directed dozens of movies in almost every genre over the next 30-odd years, among them Bahay Kubo (1938), a musical; acclaimed adaptations of Filipino anticolonialist martyr Jose Rizal's novels Noli Me Tangere (1961) and El Filibusterismo (1962); antic action-fantasy programmer Sanda Wong (1955), which was co-produced with Hong Kong's Vistan-Chapman studio; Pedro Penduko (1954), a treatment of Francisco V. Coching's popular comic book series featuring a sort of Filipino L'il Abner; Blood Brothers (release date unknown), a staff orientation film for the United States Navy; and, most intriguing, a handful of anti-American propaganda films produced in collaboration with the occupying Japanese forces during World War Two (2). De Leon won every possible major Filipino film industry award in his lifetime, and became the first filmmaker to be recognised as a Philippines National Artist shortly after his death in 1981.

De Leon's reputation with cineastes peaked at around the same time, thanks to screenings of several of his films in France and a gushing, perceptive appreciation by Charles Tesson in Cahiers du cinéma. Tesson neatly encapsulated the director's style and the giddy awe that it can evoke:

The extreme depth of field of his shots allows the viewer to take in everything, all the possible lines of action, and creates an internal rhythm sustained through all the mishaps and vicissitudes of the narrative. A change of axis, a shift of frame, suffices to upset the rhythm. ... Visually, this axis creates lines of flight – horizontal planes extending outside the frame to dissipate tension; as well as lines of force – diagonal planes within the frame. In short, he creates dynamic tension at the very source of each action, each adventure. ... This is truly great artistry. (3)

A few decades later, Bill Landis, editor of American schlock-movie fanzine Sleazoid Express, would exhibit similar enthusiasm by praising De Leon's way with girl-on-girl torture scenes (4).

Regardless of such taste-bridging talent, however, widespread renown for De Leon's work stalled around the time of Tesson's explication thanks to a dearth of the director's earlier work in Europe and North America.

Because the Philippines' economy and damp tropical climate (to say nothing of its turbulent political one) are detrimental to archiving audiovisual material, all but a few of the films from De Leon's prime appear to be lost forever. Indeed, as Richard Peña, programmer for New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center, has said, “To the best of my knowledge, there are only five of De Leon's films that exist in whole or in fragment of the 60 or so that are attributed to him.” Noli Me Tangere occasionally turns up in museum and festival screenings, and restored prints exist of Sanda Wong and the politically themed The Moises Padilla Story (1961). But, as Peña notes, “Most of what we know about De Leon's films is from written accounts. From what we can see, it seems very, very clear that he was a very strong talent.” (5)

Peña's statement reveals the central conundrum of assessing De Leon's work: By “what we can see”, Peña – whether he realises it or not – is referring primarily to the films produced during the last years and arguably lowest point of De Leon's career. With such sanguinary titles as Brides of Blood and Mad Doctor of Blood Island, and showcasing the sort of graphic violence and exploitation adored by the Sleazoid Express crowd, these American-backed potboilers are, for better or worse, all the De Leon most moviegoers will ever see.

Treasured up until now only by genre completists and nostalgia merchants, these movies – despite their low quality and even lower aspirations – tend to bear out Peña's hunch about De Leon's artistry, and their release in the last few years on DVD makes it easier to put his talent to the test. (For years, they were only available in fuzzy, fifth-generation videotape dupes marketed by disreputable distributors.) Nevertheless, most film historians are either unaware of these later works – hence Peña's undercount of extant De Leon films – or dismiss them altogether. On the flip side, the average video renter in the West is unlikely to know that De Leon directed anything else, and the various versions of these films released over the years, with their confusing re-titlings, threadbare transfers, and truncated credits, have made him an easy target for derision.

Such contempt may be misapplied, but it isn't entirely unfounded. With a few notable exceptions, these films are hobbled by juvenile story lines, silly monsters, repulsive gore, amateur performances (representative lead actresses include a retired Miss Denmark and sad, porn-starlet-to-be Angelique Pettyjohn), and the ubiquitous presence of faded 1950s American teen heartthrob John Ashley. Moreover, their Philippines setting serves as little more than a vaguely Asian, anachronistically “exotic” backdrop that's been culturally denuded for Yank consumption. It's only slight consolation that these choices reflect the tastes of the audiences the films were intended for (American drive-in habitués) rather than the director's own.

Yet for all their reliance on sure-fire schlock these films kept De Leon steadily employed, and he was given relatively free artistic rein on them. Most of the credit for this goes to his friend and one-time protégé Eddie Romero, a screenwriter and director who was perceptive enough to start an independent production/distribution company in the Philippines with Americans Kane W. Lynn and Irwin Pizor at the end of the studio-dominated era. Romero happily gave his former mentor work during this lean period, and among De Leon's early films for the fledgling Hemisphere Pictures was Intramuros (1964, later retitled The Walls of Hell), a well-regarded war movie that marked the first of the many projects the two friends co-directed.

Although it adheres to stock Hollywood combat-film tropes, Intramuros is unusual in its sensual abrasiveness and emotional equivocation. The soundtrack is a draining barrage of explosions and gunfire literally from start to finish, while the mise en scène is a baroque murk of smoke, dust, rubble, and bleached sunlight. The story, like all of De Leon's American ventures and many of his Filipino ones, is a mixture of overt cliches (the dialogue is peppered with such gems as “Any way you cut it, it's a dirty deck of cards”) and unresolved cross-cultural tension: a US ranger team sent to liberate hostages in the final days of Manila's Japanese occupation clashes with a Filipino ally (enduring Filipino box-office champion Fernando Poe, Jr) who sees the Yanks as little better than the Imperial Army – an estimation the film makes no effort to disavow.

Romero directed other war movies for Hemisphere that mimicked the themes and tone of Intramuros (1968's Manila Open City was, in fact, an unacknowledged remake), but they lack the stark physicality of that film. Romero is inclined to assert that De Leon's contribution to their collaborations was “style” while his own was characterisation, (6) and it's undeniable that Romero's solo films pivot more on moral – and not infrequently moralistic – quandaries than kineticism. Regardless, De Leon's work is, as Tesson suggests, the more visually indelible, and the complex, hair-trigger nature of the relationships in Intramuros belie Romero's neat recollection of the division of labour in their collective efforts.

III. The Blood Island of a Poet

Judging from De Leon's American-backed follow-ups to Intramuros, it could be argued that it was all downhill from there. But even under the most dire circumstances he exercised a characteristic cinematic bravado.

This is especially the case with Blood is the Color of Night (Kulay Dugo ang Gabi) (1964) and Whisper to the Wind (Ibulong Mo sa Hangin) (1966), two vampire films shot in Tagalog that Hemisphere purchased ready-made, edited (heavily, in the case of Blood is the Color of Night), dubbed, and retitled The Blood Drinkers and Creatures of Evil, respectively (7).

Of all his later films, this hip, dynamic pair showcases De Leon's skills best. His spare approach to narrative – which he credited to his early love of silent films – combines with a restless camera, extreme deep-focus set-ups, and monochromatic palettes signalling emotional and/or tonal shifts to make for unusually hypnotic viewing. (Cult director Guy Maddin's 2001 Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, a dance film commissioned for Canadian television, appears to borrow from De Leon's stylistic repertoire for these films, particularly the balletic Blood is the Color of Night.) Even the long, expository sequences that usually bring low-budget genre fare to a standstill are eye-catchingly composed.

In addition, despite the Gothic trappings, De Leon's vampire duo brims with more socio-historical baggage and potent cultural metaphors than even the incendiary Intramuros or The Moises Padilla Story. Whisper to the Wind, in particular, which takes place during the last gasp of the Philippines' tumultuous colonial era, has more on its mind than the usual connotations of sexual menace typically associated with horror cinema (although it oozes sexual menace as well). If both movies ultimately come off as oppressive Catholic agitprop – something Philippines film critic Mauro Tumbocon, Jr attributes to “a tendency [in Filipino horror] to moralize [and] reaffirm one's faith in the existing system” (8) – they nevertheless make for dynamic, probing pop artifacts.

Only the first of the “Blood Island” movies De Leon helmed for Hemisphere, a melodramatic spin on H. G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau called Terror is a Man (1959), fares half as well. The film lifts the central device of Wells' novel – a driven, demented physician transforming wild animals into human beings via surgery – as well as its interloper's point of view. But whereas Wells' darkly satiric tale of “the aimless torture in creation” explores the cruelty of God, De Leon and screenwriter Harry Paul Harber ponder instead the compulsive, barbaric ways in which humanity punishes nature – specifically its own. If the interpretation falls short of Wells' far-reaching treatise on Darwinism, it is unusually adept at highlighting the abiding cruelty of man, a theme that surely resonated in the serially colonised Philippines. (Ironically enough, most of Hemisphere's Philippines-produced films were never released in the country in which they were shot.) De Leon's tense pacing and noirish milieu capture a sadism that suits the material well, and it allows him to emphasise emotion over spectacle without sacrificing the kind of jitters Hemisphere was after.

The disappointing, increasingly formulaic follow-ups to Terror that De Leon directed with Romero, Brides of Blood (1965) and Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1968), are sumptuously shot if occasionally nauseating pulp entertainment, but lack the atavistic dread of the original or the quasi-Freudian depth of his vampire films. American indie micromogul and one-time Hemisphere silent partner Sam Sherman suggests that it was a case of the foundering production company “going to the well once too often” – or twice, since Romero directed a fourth entry, Beast of Blood (1970), on his own – and says that Romero, Lynn, and Pizor “ended up repeating everything they did. They had no versatility.” (9)

IV. Average Joe

The same can't be said of De Leon, who returned to strictly Filipino productions after scraping the bottom of the American exploitation barrel with the lurid Women in Cages (1971). This incongruously well-made girls-in-prison movie, which features cult icon Pam Grier in an early starring role as a brutal warden, was produced by Roger Corman's New World Pictures. Corman, like Kane W. Lynn before him, had discovered the low-budget production potential of the Philippines; unlike Lynn, however, he had no affection for the place or its artists and craftsmen, and the slapdash programmers he churned out succeeded in alienating much of the Filipino filmmaking talent who'd come to rely on his brand of funding.

After moving on, De Leon's next few works – all unreleased in the West – included the award-winning horror movie Lilet (1971), a segment of the omnibus film Fe, Esperanza, Caridad (1975), and the film he was working on at the time of his death, Juan de la Cruz – a title that is the Filipino equivalent of “average Joe” (10).

The detours and derailments of De Leon's career are not substantially different from those of other non-Western filmmakers: removed from the money, power, and stability of the world's film production capitals, they are plagued by chronic budget shortfalls, resource scarcity, local indifference, and, in some cases, the humiliating scrutiny of official sanction.

What sets him apart is not just the sui generis muscularity of his films or his impressive flexibility, but his persistence. Gerry de Leon straddled the terrain between the disposable and the durable for much of his working life, and mined improbably rich material from it – all for no other reason than that he loved making movies.


1. From “Gerardo de Leon: A Master Film-Maker Speaks Out” by Amadis Guerrero, Philippines Daily Express, September 3, 4 and 5, 1978. Despite his resentment of Hollywood (and a disappointing attendant anti-Semitism), De Leon may have had a point. American films have dominated the Philippines' box office virtually since the introduction of cinema there, making local filmmaking ventures difficult to fund and a struggle to distribute. Thus the latter half of the oft-used, flippant summation of Filipino colonial history – “three centuries in a Spanish convent, 50 years in Hollywood” – is in one sense literal. Interestingly, “whorehouse” is sometimes substituted for “Hollywood” in this maxim.

2. There's evidence that De Leon was keen to work with Japanese director Abe Yutaka, who hand-picked him for these projects. Regardless, De Leon was imprisoned for treason after the war for his efforts, and was later pardoned when it came to light that he'd surreptitiously assisted the Filipino resistance at the same time.

3. From “Deux Cineastes Philippins”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 333, March 1982.

4. Landis on Women in Cages: “All exposition and explanation is irrelevant in this picture, which rides on the pure visceral impact of torture scenes in which glamazon Pam [Grier] works over Roberta [Collins], Judy Brown, and Jennifer Gan...” From Sleazoid Express, Fireside Books, 2002, p. 245, a book-length compendium/expansion of the zine co-authored by Michelle Clifford.

5. From author interview, January 2002.

6. From “Eddie Romero: Our Man in Manila” by Lee Server, Film Comment, March–April 1999. Romero on his and De Leon's collaborative style: “He was all passion, opera, and so forth, and I was all laid back and not wanting to make things a big show. Don't let people notice the framing, keep it real, keep the actors believable. And Gerry would be the opposite.”

7. Blood is the Color of Night and Whisper to the Wind were later re-retitled The Vampire People and Curse of the Vampires, respectively, to appear on the bottom halves of separate drive-in double-bills; little wonder that even Filipino film scholars have lost track of these as De Leon's work. Happily, they were released on DVD in the United States several years ago, complete with pristine transfers from new prints (supplied by Hemisphere beneficiary Sam Sherman), restored scenes, and yet another title change for Whisper to the Wind (it's now the more marketably thematic Blood of the Vampires).

8. Tumbocon makes this observation in advance publicity material for “In a Climate of Terror: The Filipino Monster Movie”, his essay in Steven Jay Schneider (ed.), Fear Without Frontiers, FAB Press, 2003.

9. From author interview, June 2001. Sherman, who went on to launch the successful production and distribution company Independent-International Pictures, had reservations about Hemisphere's business acumen, and was also sceptical of Eddie Romero's filmmaking instincts: “Eddie's an intellectual, he likes character and story.” (The rogue!) Sherman had no recollection of De Leon or his work.

10. Eddie Romero kept working, too, and after several more exploitation movies and a gruelling stint as the location liaison on Apocalypse Now (1979), he also weaned himself from American funding. He subsequently wrote and directed a series of well-received films that addressed the Philippines' social and political intransigence head-on, and never looked back. Romero later called his American-financed “cult” films – including the “Blood Island” entries he co-directed with De Leon – “the worst things I ever did” (from “Eddie Romero: Our Man in Manila” by Lee Server, Film Comment, March–April 1999).

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