A journal of my sixth Manila trip (October-November 2010), originally published in Wordy Mofo magazine January 2011
October 19, and I’ve decided to fly into Manila’s worst monsoon this year, piggybacking on the typhoon that’s flattening the entire north of Luzon. Rain sheets down on the cab ride to Quezon City, and I begin to wonder if I’ll end up floating to the restaurant on top of empty duty-free bottles. It’s going to be a long three weeks, I’ve concluded. Furthermore, if I was a betting man I could’ve made a bundle predicting the first song played on the cab’s radio: fucking Air Supply. Along with Toto's “Africa”, “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All” still tops the Manila playlists from some Eighties parallel Hell.
It’s hard to picture, but Metro Manila is in fact sixteen cities stitched together, with the multi-levelled highway EDSA running down the middle like an enormous tarmac spine. Cross-town takes you anywhere from one hour to five, depending on the amount of traffic Manila's Lords of Chaos decide to throw you into. This is Visit Number Six to the Philippines since starting the Search For Weng Weng project, the first in two years, and already the place is feeling like home again.
Hitting EDSA, I can feel the blood pressure spiking. The Manila experience lends itself to early heart attacks – an addictive rollercoaster ride into an unknown part of a gigantic amusement park. It resembles the world we know, but its own cracked laws of logic rule supreme. Absurdities and incongruities - as we Westerners perceive them – abound, and those in their midst don’t bat an eyelid, unaware of or immune to the effect they have on outsiders. You learn to develop a thick hide quickly, or get sucked into the maelstrom.
I’ve come to realize it was no accident that Coppola shot Apocalypse Now in the Philippines. Like Coppola, Colonel Kurtz, and Joseph Conrad’s original protagonists, each visitor goes on his own journey into the Heart of Darkness; walking out of your safe cocoon of a hotel room is like going on safari, and each new adventure has its own unique set of thrills, the potential for danger or even worse.
Welcome to Manirrrrra. Hope you survive your stay.
It’s almost midnight as I check into Stonehouse in Quezon City, a favourite haunt of the movie crowd and rock stars thanks to its live music schedule every evening. The rain makes it impossible to cross the road, and I wake on my first morning to discover my seminar at Ateneo University has been cancelled due to power blackouts. Sensing a lost day or two, I take refuge in one of Quezon City's indeterminable number of shopping malls, only to hear young girls screaming “Happy Chreeeeeestmas!” at each other. I check the date: still October 20th. Then, as if sensing the store’s complete absence of irony, the muzak suddenly kicks into a syrupy “(I'm Dreaming Of A) White Christmas”.
Back at Stonehouse I switch on Cinema One, the all-Pinoy movie channel owned by TV giant ABS-CBN. The first sight to greet me is a close-up on the late comedian Rene Requestias' toothless grimace – last seen by me underneath the Joker’s Salvador Dali mustache in the excruciating musical Alyas Batman En Robin (1991) - as he takes a three-minute shit in a toilet stall. In a word: COMEDY GOLD.
Filipinos tend to staple their comedy legends to their hearts, long past their use-by date. An 82 year old Dolphy, I discover, is making another of his “last ever” movies right now in time for the post-Christmas Metro Manila Film Festival, capping a staggering career of 250-plus films over six decades as the Philippines’ undisputed King of Comedy. Waiting in the wings is Alyas Batman’s Joey de Leon, currently on TV seven days (and nights!) a week. “Do you ever get sick of him?” I ask a local. “No!” they spit back. “He’s JOEY!” An RVQ Productions insider tries to smuggle me onto Dolphy’s set later in the week; sadly Dolphy’s on oxygen between takes and can only shoot every second day, and shooting has been cancelled over the Halloween Weekend.
Cinema One’s ads promise a horror marathon every day until Halloween. Most of the iconic Shake Rattle And Roll series (1984 to present) are represented, along with Celso Ad. Castillo's classic Kill Barbara With Panic (1974), and recent New Wave horrors like Rico Ilarde's cheap-and-nasty Altar (2007) and Villa Estrella (2009). Grinning like an endlessly shitting Rene Requestias, I’m filled with an ersatz Pinoy Pride for a culture that’s embracing its own B film heritage with such unbridled enthusiasm. The future’s looking bright for horror in the Philippines. Now if I can only stop shitting for one moment…
Henry Strzalkowski chalks up a pool cue and casts his eagle eye across the table. He used to manage Heckle and Jeckle, one of the less aggressive of Makati's expat bars, and prefers to jump up on stage and sing or play guitar with any of the local blues bands gracing Heckle's stage. Prior to the bar business, the half-Polish Henry was one of the busiest actors in the export film boom, and was in many of Cirio H. Santiago's productions for Roger Corman, either as actor, casting director or AD.
Big Jim Gaines gets three Red Horses from the bar. It's still a San Miguel beer – they own most of the Philippines, after all – but comes in a half litre bottle and at seven percent, has a serious kick on it. Three of those and you can feel yourself getting a little “wengweng”.
Jim is also half Filipino. His father was an African-American embassy staffer, and Jim stuck around the Philippines from the early Seventies, trading on his musical abilities to play in bands as well as his giant afro, lending him his unofficial title of the Jim Kelly of the Philippines. Between them, Jim and Henry were in well over a hundred films, most of them action films for the export market. The glory days of the Seventies and Eighties, of twenty or thirty international productions a year, are now fading polaroids; Henry still does some voice-over work, and Jim picks up the odd post-production or acting job, but it's a grim new film world that's passing the Philippines by.
These guys have been my drinking buddies for the last four years, ever since I interviewed them for The Search For Weng Weng. One of the strangest nights ever in Manila was watching Apocalypse Now at Henry's apartment, and he and Jim would periodically pause the movie: “That's me right there, next to the tank.”
Henry still jokes that his film career started with a Coppola flick, and it's been downhill ever since.
“I've been practicing my Tagalog,” I tell Henry. “Hindi ako sex turista. Sexay turista ako.” (“I am not a sex tourist. I am a sexy tourist.”)
“Dude, print that on a T-shirt!” Henry laughs.
“You think it would get lost in the translation?”
“Probably. Then we’ll see how long you last.” A comment made more sinister in a country where, it’s rumoured, a tourist was shot at a karaoke bar for singing “My Way”.
Jim brings back three more Red Horses. “To Nick,” he clinks.
“To Nick!” Henry and I chorus.
A moment passes in silence as we remember our fallen comrade. Nick Nicholson, fellow Apocalypse Now extra and character actor in close to a hundred movies shot in the Philippines, passed away in August. Each visit there are a few more empty seats, and 2010 was a particularly bad year for the Pinoy B world: producer-director Bobby A. Suarez, comedians Palito and Redford White, hero Johnny Monteiro and villains Conrad Poe (half-brother of Fernando Poe Jr) and Charlie Davao. None hit home, however, quite like Bobby and Nick.
“I recognize that Aussie twang!” It's Nigel Hogge, Makati's former Sultan of Sleaze, arm-in-arm with two bargirls (“I told them to take the night off”). Back in the Seventies and Eighties, British-born Nigel owned eight out of Makati's twelve pick-up joints along the infamous P. Burgos Avenue while doing the odd film role, usually as White Goon #2. These days he's out of the bar business – a quadruple bypass back in February helped his retirement plans along – and his last film was years ago, but he’s still a familiar face along the tourist strip.
I hand Nigel a small pile of One-Armed Executioner/Cleopatra Wong DVDs. US distributor Dark Sky Films had released the Bobby Suarez double bill a fortnight earlier, and my interviews with Bobby and One-Armed star Nigel are extra features.
“See this?” Nigel waves the DVD cover in the air. “This is a movie I made when I was much less paunchy and bald, but no less handsome.” The girls smile politely, and a few more drinks are consumed before Nigel slides off into the night, a bar girl on each arm.
Four thirty in the morning, I'm tearing along EDSA next to a taxi driver with no teeth and no seat belts, watching him do a magnificent serpentine dance through Manila traffic and sliding ever so close to causing a multi-car pileup. If I die now, I reason, at least I'll have enough Red Horse tranquilizers in me to make it painless.
“CAN YOU SEE THEM???”
October 20’s my first Pinoy Grindhouse lecture, and an afternoon of talking about kung-fu kicking midgets segues nicely into an evening of swapping B film trivia with the SOFIA guys.
Mogwai is in the old Shoe Expo in Quezon City's entertainment district of Cubao: a film nerd's watering hole, a bar and eatery downstairs and screening room on the first floor. Owned by film director Erik Matti, who has decked out the place in post-ironic wood laminate and bunting, it’s a sanctuary for Indie Film Kids, with the occasional white face to muddy the water.
One of the tasks SOFIA, or the Society of Filipino Archivists For Film, does is lobby the government for a national Film Archive. In a country where a most of its pre-Eighties film treasures have been lost, the need for a world-standard film archive has never been greater. Instead there are a number of smaller private collections (ABS-CBN TV, the Mowelfund museum, the Cultural Centre of the Philippines, and producers such as Fernando Poe Jr), very few of which can, in all seriousness, be described as “archives”. Teddy Co, SOFIA’s eccentric eyepatch-wearing head and walking Wikipedia of Pinoy film trivia, has to rely on his steel-trap memory for details on films he watched forty years ago. Teddy's also a champion of the cinematic underdogs, and as result, his “Overlooked Films, Underrated Filmmakers” screenings are a defiant challenge to the myopic, Lino Brocka-centric view of Pinoy cinema as dictated by insecure alpha critics.
Halloween’s looming, so naturally the conversation steers toward ghost stories. Superstition, folk tales and supernatural goings-on are part of the fabric of culture, and thus ghost stories in the Philippines are treated with an alarming degree of reverence. Some take on Urban Legend status, always with a ring of truth in the telling. Taxi drivers will often talk of the White Lady, for instance, a legendary apparition which haunts a stretch of Balete Drive in Quezon City. Then there's the Manila Film Centre, supposedly the most haunted building in Manila. Built for Imelda Marcos' inaugural Manila International Film Festival in late 1981, the structure collapsed in the final phases of construction and around 120 workers were entombed in concrete. “Pour quick-drying cement over the bodies,” the overseer Betty Bantug-Benitez, Imelda Marcos's Deputy at the Ministry of Human Settlements, is reported to have said, in order to meet Imelda's impossible deadline (“Hack off their limbs and paint over them,” goes another version of the story).
“Ah, but did you hear what happened to Betty Bantug-Benitez?” laughs Teddy’s right hand man Monchito Nochon. “A few month later, she was a passenger in a car driven by the Education Minister, Onrofe Corpus, en route to Tagaytay. It was the dead of night, and along the way their car veered off the road and slammed into a tree. Corpus survived, but Betty died instantly and was decapitated.”
“That’s not the whole story,” Monchito continues, eyes widening. “In an interview after the incident, Corpus recalled that Betty suddenly went frantic, shouting ‘Can you see them, can you see them!??’, referring to the construction workers, carrying hammers and other such implements, that she saw crossing their path.”
“He saw nothing?”
“No. And in the middle of the frenzy, she grabbed hold of the wheel which led to the freak accident.”
Monchito and the others all laugh at my incredulous expression. They’re a ghoulish bunch, the Filipinos, and no wonder their black little animistic hearts all adore Halloween.
By now Dani Palisa, my tattooed Sancho Panza on many an overseas jaunt, had arrived from Australia. He was looking less ruffled than his first visit in 2008, but still, the heat and the chaos were starting to take their toll.
We take refuge in Quiapo’s Church of the Black Nazarene, after hacking our way through teeming hordes of five year old urchins clawing at our bags and legs screeching “Give me your coinzzzz!” Quiapo is near the old section of Manila, and just a few blocks from Escolta and Chinatown, the theatre and cinema district back in the Philippines’ Golden Age of the Fifties and into the Sixties.
After ten minutes of quiet contemplation, it’s time to brave the urchins once again, and we descend the underpass next to the Church and emerge, just as rain started to spit down, in a filmic netherworld.
The destination is the infamous Quiapo Markets: eight city blocks of pirated DVD stalls run by Muslim gangsters from Mindanao in the South. Once a seedy patch dedicated to stolen goods and black magic talismans and knife fights between street gangs, the traders now exist alongside thrillseeking visitors under an unwritten truce, united in their fight against the copyright police. Every few months the cops mount a show raid on someone whose payola has obviously lapsed, but the rest of the time it’s business – and I mean BIG business – as usual. So long as you grow a second pair of eyes in the back of your head, Quiapo is a riveting experience.
The same depressing titles star down from us, stall after stall – thousands upon thousands of Inception dupes, anime and Korean porn, mostly from criminal rings in mainland China. Dani and I are almost ready to throw in the towel, when a shifty-looking player ambles up to us.
“Latest release?” he asks; I shake my head. He tries once more to hold our attention. “Bold films? Ex ex ex?”
“No, Tagalog films.” His eyes widen in disbelief. “Old Dolphy films, FPJ, Chiquito...”
I expect him to poo-poo me as a white-faced crank. Instead, with a Masonic insider's expression on his features, he motions across the street.
And there, my friends, across a river of rainwater was Stall 48. Three walls of Tagalog-language films from the Sixties to Nineties, all taped off cable or, we later discover, digitally transferred from a former video shop in Baguio's VHS stock. Weng Weng movies, Dolphy rarities I never thought I’d find, vintage goon action films, Tito Vic and Joey comedies, Pinoy Westerns unavailable through official channels. In its own unique, clandestine and completely inadvertent fashion, Stall 48 is one of those small archives of Pinoy Cinema that, rather than sealing off its treasure from the outside world, is keeping these film nuggets in circulation.
After hyperventilating at Stall 48’s impossible selection I managed to cram around forty discs into my bag and handed over around forty bucks Australian. As we walked off, Dani tapped me on the arm and pointed through the torrential rain at the hooded figures appearing in doorways. “Amerikano!” we heard hissed at us.
“Tourista!” More bodies followed our hasty retreat towards the nearest tricycle rider. We threw two hundred pesos at the driver and yelled, “Chinatown! Quickly!”
Chinatown is only slightly less dangerous than Quiapo, its tight streets packed with street vendors, hoodlums, cars and tricycles, and of course the old-fashioned horse-drawn buggies lying in wait for Taiwanese tourists. It’s only a stone’s throw from the home of the The One-Armed Executioner, Franco Guerrero, and he’s invited Dani and I to dinner in his favourite Chinese restaurant with his Goon Squad.
Aside from a few lines here and there, Franco hasn't aged since the Seventies, when Bobby Suarez was turning Franco into an international action star. He has the same matinee looks, and exactly the same pompadour; there must be a One-Armed poster locked away somewhere covered in creases and cracks in the ink. Across the table are three of his co-stars: Danny Rojo, Rommel Valdez and Bert Vivar, all stunt guys and character actors – in B films, known affectionately as “Goons” – and all familiar faces from around 1500 films throughout the Sixties and Seventies, the decades which saw the proliferation of a peculiar kind of Filipino action film heavy on stunts and hand-to-hand combat, and with the emphasis on the bad guys (“contrabidas”) and their goon armies. Two hours of hardcore interviewing later and I’ve tapped into the Goons Brain Trust, nailing what I describe to them as “the Essence of Goon”.
We leave MXT Restaurant flanked by the Pinoy version of The Expendables, and Dani and later agree will never feel more bulletproof in Manila. Half an hour later we’re in a karaoke bar in the red light district of Malate watching Franco crooning Englebert Humperdink. Rommel trots out “I Can't Help Falling In Love With You” while Bert conducts the Doo-Wahs, to the toughest audience on record.
Franco Guerrero takes the lead, while Danny Rojo (middle) and Rommel Valdez sway in unison
A CHINESE DAY OF THE DEAD
Second long weekend in a row, and Manila turns into a ghost town once again as families leave in droves for their home towns. After Easter's Holy Week, November 1 - All Saints Day – is the most sacred date on the religious calendar. Just as Mexico celebrates its Dio De Los Muertos (“Day Of The Dead”) on November 2nd, so does the Philippines, but combines the two events on the one day. Family is paramount in both Hispanic and Asian cultures, and the Philippines, being the bastard child of both, naturally “Pinoy-izes” the occasion.
Bobby Suarez’s youngest son Richard drives Dani and I to Bulacan, a neighbouring province an hour's drive from Quezon City. Going to the Suarez home in Balagtas was a ritual over the five previous visits. We would laugh, eat, watch movies, trawl through his unmade scripts, and call each other “monkey-faced brother” to disapproving looks from his wife Gene. Like I said, Bobby’s passing in February hit me hard.
We arrive just after 7am at Casa del Suarez, and are greeted by Gene and Bobby's eldest son Roberto II. It’s colder than I remember, and then realize it’s the first time Bobby's not here.
From left to right: Dani, Bobby's wife Gene, sister-in-law and brother Vergilio
Early afternoon, and already traffic into Bocaue Cemetery is at a standstill. It takes ages to weave across the lawn part, through each group of revellers under tarpaulins to protect their snacks from the constant drizzle. I see one family holding joss sticks bowing as one in front of a relative's private crypt, and the group across the path from us are having a barbecue, the smoke circling them like an ethereal lapdog. It's just as I picture a Mexican Day of the Dead, but without the skeletons and mariachi bands.
And there was Bobby's simple plaque, set into the grass and ringed with half-molten candles.
In every conversation with Bobby, he would never forget to remind you of his humble beginnings in Manila’s Boys Town. Family was everything to him, so that his company BAS Films became an extended clan, with Bobby as patriarch. Gene controlled the money, their kids were extras, and BAS regulars such as Marrie Lee (Cleopatra Wong) and Franco Guerrero were beholden to Bobby’s intense, Mafia-like code of fidelity. You were either “in” the BAS Family or excluded forever. And now the Don is dead.
The afternoon melts into evening, and Bobby’s sister, brother Vergilio and his family have joined us back at the house. After countess plates of food and San Miguel Pales, the entire gathering band together for a group photo: Dani and I at the foot of the stairs, with three generations of the Suarez clan above us.
Dani glances at me afterwards. “You okay, amigo?”
“Sort of,” I tell him, tears streaming down my face. It's not just Bobby's absence I'm feeling, but the gravity of what's just happened. On the most private and sacred of family occasions, Gene and the kids have opened their welcoming arms to us. It’s nice to still feel like a member of the BAS Family.
Running the gauntlet of Makati’s P. Burgos Avenue is like going into a war zone, and Big Jim “Makes Chuck Look Like Chick Norris” Gaines is your CO.
“You got all your shit in your front pockets?” he asks Dani and I. “Holding your bag tight?”
We step over Happy the legless cripple, the most benign hustler of the bunch, and immediately every other two-bit chiseller on P. Burgos descend like bats, waving under our noses ecstacy and shabu – the local variant on crack – as well as underage prostitutes, copy Rolexes, and the seemingly evergreen bestseller, fake Viagra from mainland China.
Jim eyes the pill salesman wryly. “Viagra? Motherfucker, you tryin' to insult me?” The guy suddenly looks a tad worried. “Tell you what,” Jim continues in fluent Tagalog. “I'll drop my pants and you can suck my dick. If it gets hard, I'll buy the whole box.” I swear there was a cloud of dust behind the hustler’s speedy exit.
At the end of P. Burgos’ soiled rainbow is our Shangri-La: Ringside, a boxing-themed pick-up joint whose marquee proudly promises “Ladyboxing and Midget Oil Wrestling”. Over the deafening music you hear the “ding-ding” of the Ringside’s bell, signalling a change of dancers in the ring, or the start of its novelty matches.
Dani waves the manager over with a beer coaster and winks conspiratorially. “How much to get HIM…(points at me)…into the ring with the little guys?”
DING-DING. Fifteen minutes later, I’m in the ring between two dwarves in boxing gloves. “Aim for the groin!” I hiss at the taller of the two. “Excuse me, sir?” “Punch him in the balls,” I reiterate. They both look worried; I’m obviously enjoying myself waaaay to much for comfort.
DING-DING. The little guys jab at each other while I run rings around them. “That’s uncalled for!” I remember screaming. I must admit, I think by that time of the early morning I was a little weng-weng from the overpriced Red Horses. Biff! Pow! DING-DING. “And the winner is….” Basking in the red light’s angry glow, I hold up the taller boxer’s arm.
Ladies’ Drinks worked out to ten bucks Australian EACH, and man, can those little guys put them away. I suspect we ended up two hundred bucks poorer by the time we made it out of Ringside. Everyone’s a hustler on P. Burgos, even at classier joints like Ringside, so long as there are midget-struck Westerners with a beer-addled grasp on simple arithmetic.
Life really does become a B Film if you allow it, I muse on the plane to Singapore, and sometimes the distinctions between the real and celluloid worlds are so blurred to become inconsequential. And with that profound epiphany, Dani and I grab our bags and head towards a waving Cleopatra Wong.
Near the Changi Airport exit I glance down at a five year old girl, and my Manila eyes scream “urchin alert!!” Then I look up at her parents, and forget I’m back in the clean world. She doesn’t want your coinzzzz, I am forced to remind myself, and must remember not to kick any more small children away from me whilst in Singapore.
Cleo's shrine! With Marrie Lee, Raphael Millet, Jasmine Trice
Henry and Dani, Heckle & Jeckle hecklers
Post-lecture outside Ataneo University with Dino Manrique and Nick Deocampo
Lecture at University of the Philippines (UPFI) - director Eddie Romero listens in the foreground
Pre-lecture at UPFI: Nick Deocampo, me, Dani, Henry S, and Eddie Romero (seated)
Interviewing legendary director/producer Luis Nepomuceno under the portrait of his late father
Dani warning the people of Olongapo
Interviewing Conrad "Boy" Puzon of Cinex Inc
Big Jim's guided tour of Sampaguita Pictures studios
Joel Torre's Chicken Shack with Jim and director Rico Ilarde
At award-winning director Brillante Mendoza's home/studio
Attending a screening of Brillante's film Lola (2009) at TV station GMA-7
Exterior, Regal Films' office