The (Slow) Killing of Colonialism By Adam Balivet. Several important years in history: 1521: Ferdinand Magellan lands in the Philippines and claims the region for Spain...

Several important years in history:

  • 1521: Ferdinand Magellan lands in the Philippines and claims the region for Spain.
  • 1898: The Spanish-American War leaves the United States with "sovereignty" over the Philippines.
  • 1944: Japan occupies the Philippines during WWII until a U.S.-led force defeats them in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, thus restoring the islands to the U.S.
  • 1946: The Philippines declare independence.
  • 1959: Gerry de Leon and Eddie Romero release Terror is a Man.
  • 1979: Weng Weng appears as Agent 00 in For Your Height Only.
  • 1983: The Killing of Satan.

True, that set of islands in the Far East has gone through a lot under the force of colonialism. True, also, that it has responded in kind through the cinema. The low-culture films of a country or region tend to reflect the feelings of the people more accurately than the corresponding high-culture films and the Philippines provides a forceful and subversive model of this trend.

In 1959, Gerry de Leon and his protégé Eddie Romero put Filipino horror on the international map with the ominously titled Terror is a Man. The film serves as a prime example of an appropriation of a Western text, in that it seems largely based on H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (Erle C. Kenton’s 1932 Island of Lost Souls being the Western film version), telling the story of a doctor performing experiments in turning a panther into a human. While the film raises questions of morality, science, and power, the most important point for this discussion is that all of the main characters come from outside of the Philippines. The fact that the doctor and his wife, the shipwrecked visitor, and even the "animal" come from the U.S. (the doctor’s assistant originates from Guatemala), and that all but two of the island’s native inhabitants leave the island within the first fifteen minutes of the film indicates a clear awareness of the country’s history. This is not to say that the filmmakers have an obvious anti-colonial agenda—or any political agenda, for that matter. Instead, the debate plays out between the doctor, who wants to continue his experiments on the island at all costs, and his wife and Mr. Fitzgerald (the visitor), who wish to leave the island alone. The film differs from later Filipino genre films in that, although the viewer may eventually turn against the doctor (especially when making statements such as, "I can’t concern myself with the moral aspects of my work"), the lines between good and evil remain fairly ambiguous until the end. In this way, Terror is a Man distinguishes itself as an early representation of colonialism in Filipino low culture, though without a clear critique of colonialism.

While de Leon and Romero found moderate success in U.S. distribution in the 1960s with films such as Brides of Blood Island, U.S. mega-producer Roger Corman found success in shooting in the Philippines in the 1970s. He developed a string of women in prison (WIP) films, directed by Jack Hill and shot on the islands, including The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage, which have become legendarily successful. In 1971, de Leon made his own unremarkable version of the WIP film with Women in Cages. Romero, however, took some aspects of the genre (American women as captives, escape in the jungle) and created his own version of Ernest B. Schoedsack’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932): Woman Hunt. The power struggle between captor and captive is similar to the WIP films, but in this case, the captors are a group of wealthy businessman, led by the evil Spiros, as opposed to a generic prison warden. Recalling the "white slave" films of the early twentieth century in the U.S., Woman Hunt does not address a specific colonization issue, but does serve to further polarize the difference between good and evil, as when Spiros explains, "Every man has shown contempt for morality and principle; this is a demonstration."

1979 brought a landmark in Filipino political cinema with Eddie Nicart’s For Your Height Only. Ostensibly a James Bond parody, the film stars Weng Weng as Agent 00 who, standing at 2’9", provides for the title of the film. In representing the Bond character, he plays the hero. His enemies deride him, treat his female associates (equivalent to "Bond girls") poorly, and make attempts on his life. By positing themselves against Weng, they represent the evil against the "good" Weng. For Your Height Only, thus, serves as another example of the common emphasis in Filipino cinema on a clear division between good and evil. But an additional element exists for the film’s foreign audiences who see the English-dubbed version. The bad guys, heretofore referred to as the "crime syndicate" (as they call themselves), have dubbed-in voices replicating those of gangsters and anti-heroes from 1930s and 1940s U.S. films, á la Humphrey Bogart. The accents become especially apparent when one of them says something like, "No one could ever guess about the dough in this dough," referring to drugs hidden in bread dough. The English-speaking viewer would not be out of line in associating the crime syndicate with the United States. Similarly, the viewer might consider Weng, at less than half the size of his typical opponent, as a representative of the Philippines. Therefore, For Your Height Only tells the story of the heroic Philippines fighting against and completely destroying the evil colonizers—the U.S., in this case, although Spain or Japan could easily serve in its place. And so, when Weng first flies between the bad guy’s legs to attack him from behind, we see the beginning of an anti-colonial revolt in Filipino cinema.

When horror and sci-fi films began to wane in popularity in the 1970s, action became the genre of choice in the Philippines. In the 1980s, a wave of violent and mythical action films emerged in the country. These films produced an unusual clash between Christianity and magic and supernatural concepts, such as in Efren C. Pinon’s The Killing of Satan (1983). Essentially, it tells the story of a man given magical powers to defend a village against Satan. After centuries of Spanish colonialism, the Philippines emerge as the only country in Asia with a predominantly Catholic population, thus making a film about a fight against Satan a popular choice. The country also has a rich and varied history of folklore and supernatural tales. The opening scene of The Killing of Satan represents both of these facets of Filipino culture with a ritual scene that’s part Christian (carrying the cross up a mountain, whippings) and part supernatural (a man cut by a knife remains unscathed). The next scene involves a duel between the Prince of Magic (Satan’s disciple) and the local magic man, involving both guns and magic. The rest of the film revels in imagery deriving from both sources. In particular, imagery from Christianity’s "Garden of Eden" appears often, with people turning into snakes and snakes turning into people. At one point, one of the Prince of Magic’s female assistants takes a bite from an apple after her boss has turned into a snake. On the magic front, many of the film’s fight scenes (and there are many to begin with) play out as extended special effects sequences thrown back and forth between magicians. It seems that there may even exist a power hierarchy accordant with visual effects—i.e., certain visuals more powerful than others—but the effects fly by at such a speed that you don’t realize who has the upper hand throughout the fight until the end of the fight. In any case, the film provides a battlefield for Christianity and magic.

The Killing of Satan is unique in its treatment of the concept of master narrative. The traditional Filipino narrative of good versus evil is obviously and repeatedly reinforced in the film. The hero, Lando (Ramon Revilla), simply wants to save his daughter; he has no other agenda. The Prince of Magic, on the other hand, keeps Lando’s daughter locked up in a cage with other female slaves with the sole purpose of eventually "setting them free to spread evil." The obviousness of the Christian versus Satan story is underscored by the fact that two elements from different worlds—different master narratives, in fact—co-exist unquestionably: Christianity and magic.

This co-existence undermines both as traditional master narratives. To go a step further, the simplicity of the good versus evil plot could be considered a disguise for the subversive treatment of the Christian master narrative.

From Terror is a Man to For Your Height Only to The Killing of Satan, we see a decrease in dependency on the Western narrative, from adaptation to parody to traditional or non-existent narrative, and an evolution in level of colonial criticism, from barely existent to aggressive to subversive. I am now waiting for a documentary in which the government of the Philippines kicks every single Westerner out of the country. Might be a while.

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