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The History of Philippine Cinema

Jim Dorsch has been a writer and editor for 25 years, specializing in food, drink and entertainment.


History and Elements of Philippine Cinema

The 2011 GMA Films thriller, The Road, was the first all-Filipino film in many years to be commercially released in North America. The movie ran in more than 50 American and Canadian theaters in May 2012, released through Hollywood-based Freestyle Releasing. The film is subtitled in English, with the original Tagalog soundtrack.

The film starred Carmina Villaroel, Rhian Ramos and TJ Trinidad and was directed by the internationally acclaimed Yam Laranas. The producers, cast and director attended the premiere at the Mann Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.

The Road may be the first Philippine movie to come to the attention of many Americans, but it's just one of some 8,000 films produced on the Philippine Islands since 1919. Filipinos have been watching movies since the late nineteenth century.

Early Years of Philippine Cinema

Films were first shown in the Philippine Islands in 1897 during the revolt against Spain, when two Swiss businessmen sponsored the opening of the Cinematografo in Manila. From this, the word “cine” became slang for the movies.

The Cinematografo showed documentaries brought in from the U.S. and Europe, and closed after just a few months because the owners were unable to import enough movies. At the turn of the century, cinema struggled to compete with the dominant entertainment form, the sarswela, a Spanish dramatic genre juxtaposing spoken and sung scenes.

Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States in 1898 through the Treaty of Paris. U.S. forces spent the next three years quelling the revolution. Two movie theaters opened in Manila, in 1900 and 1901. They showed silent documentaries, the only fare being made at the time.

Named for national hero Dr. José Rizal, (1861-1896), who helped spur the Philippine Revolution, the Cinematografo Rizal opened in Manila in 1903. It was the first movie theater owned by a Filipino. Cinematografo Filipino opened sometime later in Tondo, helping to establish movies as an important element in Philippine culture.

Films started to change from documentaries to entertainment in 1909. Film distribution agencies were established in Manila to import these kinds of movies from Hollywood. Movie houses soon dotted Manila. Local films were successful as well.

First Movie in the Philippines

The first locally produced film is thought to be La Vida de Rizal, a story about José Rizal. Rivals quickly produced a second film about Rizal, La Pasion Y Muerte de Dr. Rizal, which opened the same day. Produced by foreigners, both films employed sarswela troupes acting out the parts.

The father of Philippine cinema, José Nepomuceno (1893-1959), was a successful photographer before switching to movies. He opened a production company called Malayan Movies in 1917. Nepomuceno released the first Filipino-produced film, Dalagang Bukid (Country Maiden), starring Atang de la Rama (1905-1991), in 1919.

First "Talkie" Shown in Philippines

Released in 1930, Nepomuceno's masterpiece was Noli Me Tangere (The Social Cancer), based on José Rizal's Spanish-language novel of the same name. Rizal's story is credited with spurring a sense of nationalism among Filipinos of the day.

The American film Syncopation was the first “talkie” shown in the Philippines. The first locally produced film with sound, Ang Aswang (The Vampire) wasn't completely a sound film. That honor went to José Nepomuceno's Punyal na Guinto (Golden Dagger), which premiered on March 9, 1933, at the Lyric Theater in Manila.

The Philippine Studio System

Philippine studios emerged in the period 1934 to 1941, producing several pictures simultaneously in the manner of Hollywood studios. The first internationally known Philippine film was Zamboanga, starring Fernando Poe, Sr. (1916-1951) and Rosa del Rosario (1916-2005). Most stars during this time were mestizos, i.e., Filipinos with mixed foreign blood or Caucasian features.

The Road to the Presidency

Just as Ronald Reagan made the transition from Hollywood to the White House, Joseph Estrada used his success as an actor to become president of the Philippines. Born Joseph Ejercito in Manila on April 19, 1937, he abandoned his studies at the Mapua Institute of Technology to become an actor, appearing in more than 100 movies and producing some 75 more. He used the name Erap Estrada because his parents forbade him to act using the family name.

Estrada was mayor of the Manila suburb of San Juan from 1968 to 1986, was elected to the Senate in 1969, and became president in 1998. Scandal ended his presidency in 2001. Unfazed, he ran unsuccessfully for president in 2010.

World War II Era

With World War II raging, the 1940s brought an awareness of violence and conflict to Philippine films. The Japanese occupation brought an end to filmmaking until the occupiers revived the industry for propaganda purposes. They brought Japanese films to the Islands, but the locals didn't take to them. The paucity of locally produced films drove Filipinos to live theater productions, which often relied on the talents of underutilized movie actors, directors and technicians. Toho Films, a Japanese company, produced two Filipino films during the occupation. Tatlong Maria was a romance starring Carmen Rosales (1918-1991), and Dawn of Freedom was a propaganda film.

The war ended in 1945, and the Philippines became a free republic in 1946. With the Philippine film business essentially dormant due to the war, Hollywood studios initially dominated the market.

Four major Philippine film companies emerged after the war. LVN Pictures specialized in comedy and Sampaguita Pictures in melodrama. Premiere Productions and Lebran International made action films.

Post-War Era

Post-war Philippine films featured raw emotion, patriotism and heroism. War films released in 1946 included Garrison 13, Dugo at Bayan (The Country's Blood), Walang Kamatayan (Deathless) and Guerilyera. The first acclaimed post-war film was Orasang Ginto (LVN), directed by Manuel Conde (1915-1985). War films celebrated resistance movements and also showed the relationship of friendship with the United States. Gerardo de Leon (1913-1981) directed a different kind of film, So Long America (1946), dealing with the Filipinos' independence from the United States.

Big Four Studios

In the 1950s, the big four studios produced about 350 films per year. These played in just two Manila locations, the Dalisay Theater and Life Theater, while Hollywood fare was shown everywhere else. The big four controlled the industry, each employing its own stars, directors and staff.

The first full-color Philippine film was Prinsipe Amante (1951), directed by Lamberto V. Avellana and based on the komik (comic) of the same name. A bumper crop of movies helped deal with the dearth of films from the war years. Films in the years immediately following the war often dealt in fantasy and adventure, giving way to a variety of other genres later in the 1950s, including adaptations of Filipino komiks. Many 1950s Philippine films dealt with the war.

Philippine movies developed high artistic values in the 1950s. This put the industry in the international spotlight, with Manuel Conde's Genghis Kahn (1952) competing at the Venice International Film Festival. Leroy Salvador won awards for best supporting actor at the 1953 Asia-Pacific Film Festival for the film Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay and at the 1960 Asian Film Festival for Biyaya ng Lupa. These and other honors established the Philippines as an important Asian filmmaking center.

Bomba Films and the Failure of the Studios

The 1960s opened with some strong productions, notably Huwag mo Akong Limutin (Gerardo de Leon, 1960) and Kadenang Putik (Conrado Conde and Cesar Gallardo, 1960), both dealing with infidelity. Unfortunately, the major studios crashed and burned, primarily due to labor issues. Lebran closed first, and then Premiere, followed by LVN and Sampaguita. Independents replaced the old studios, and contract players started to go on their own.

A multitude of small studios now populated Philippine cinema, many producing bomba (erotic) films. These were inspired by bomba komiks, adult-oriented comics featuring nudity and sex, whose popularity peaked in the years 1967 to 1972. The first bomba film was probably Uhaw (Thirst) (1970), starring Merle Fernandez. Other bomba stars included Rossana Ortiz, Ryzza and Yvonne. This first generation of bomba actors tended to possess mestiza (mixed race) features such as fair skin and a sharp nose.

Bomba komiks were suppressed when President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Bomba movies disappeared and were replaced by softer “bold” films, frequently produced as "art films" with financial assistance from the government. Movies often featured “the wet look” of females bathing or swimming in flimsy suits. Former Miss Universe Gloria Diaz was often seen in these films, and actor Ernie Garcia became the “bold king” of Philippine cinema. Bomba movies returned when martial law was lifted in 1981. By this time, the players tended more toward brown skin, straight hair and a slender face.

The Marcos Era

The 1970s marked the debuts of three important directors: Ishmael Bernal (1938-1996), Lino Brocka (1939-1991) and Mike de Leon (b. 1947). Bernal's directorial debut was Pagdating sa Dulo (1971). Brocka made Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang in 1974 and Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag in 1976. Mike de Leon's first major work, Itim (1976), explored guilt and violence. De Leon looked at topics such as violence, labor issues and incest in his 1980s films.

Overall, about two-thirds of films produced in the Philippines between 1978 and 1982 were action films, with dramas accounting for just less than one-third.

Radical filmmakers during Marcos' reign criticized the Bagong Lipunan (New Society Movement) and First Lady Imelda Marcos' plan to shield poverty-stricken parts of Manila from the eyes of foreigners. Notable films of this period, the second golden age of Philippine cinema, include Brocka's Maynila, Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag and Insiang (1976), and Ishmael Bernal's Manila by Night (1980). Brocka documented atrocities committed by the Aquino administration in Orapronobisi (1987).

Modern Philippine Cinema

The new millennium witnessed a marked decline in the Philippine film industry. Hollywood dominated local screens, and just a few dozen local movies were produced each year. At the same time, the rise of the digital medium enabled independent filmmakers to enter the field. Jon Red's Still Lives (1999) led the way, and brother Raymond Red's short film Anino (Shadows) won the Palme d'Or the following year at the Cannes Film Festival. Outside of independent releases, action films declined, with formulaic romantic comedies dominating the mainstream.

The early 2000s were notable for the release of several inspirational films, such as the Gil Portes 2002 film, Mga Munting Tinig (Small Voices). Mark Meily made a comedy, Crying Ladies, in 2003, and Maryo J. de los Reyes released Magnifico the same year.

Local Adaptation

Popular foreign films concentrated on sex and violence. These included spaghetti westerns, spy movies, Asian martial arts films and provocative European fare. Local producers observed this and made movies with similar elements. Action films formed the most successful movie genre in the 1970s, led by directors Fernando Poe, Jr., Ramon Revilla (b. 1927) and Joseph Estrada (b. 1937). Local movies during this time tended to display poor artistic values, along with plenty of guns and cleavage.

From the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Filipino films were mass-produced and had unimaginative, predictable storylines. The acting tended to be uninspired over overplayed. Output centered on teen fare, massacres and soft pornography. Nevertheless, the industry was healthy, producing around 200 films annually. Several factors, such as the Asian financial crisis, high taxes, film piracy and competition from cable television, encouraged producers to skimp on film budgets. Most were pito-pito (seven-seven) films, produced in two weeks or less.

New laws gave more rights to women, and the 1980s saw the entry of two notable female directors. Marilou Diaz Abaya made Brutal in 1980; Laurice Guillen directed Salome in 1981.

Film Festival Recognition

Filipino films have made strong showings at international film festivals in recent years. Brillante Mendoza's Serbis (Service) competed at Cannes for the Palme d'Or in 2008. The same year, about 40 Filipino films were featured at the Festival Paris Cinema. Mendoza was named Best Director at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival for Kinatay (Butchered).

The first full-length animated Filipino film, Urduja, premiered in 2008. Another animated feature, Dayo: Sa Mundo ng Elementalia, was entered in the 2008 Metro Manila Film Festival.

A February 2012 government study indicated that piracy and competition from foreign films had caused a marked decline in the Philippine movie industry. Independent films were the one bright spot in the local industry, accounting for half the films being produced.

Taxes and Film Business

A 30-percent tax on gross revenues was instituted in the 1990s. This, combined with a 12-percent value-added tax, seems to have taken the life out of the local film business. The revenue tax was reduced to 10 percent in 2009.

The Philippines produced an average of about 140 movies per year from 1960 to 1999, for about 20 percent of the local market. Local film output fell to about half of that figure, some 73 per year, from 2000 to 2009, comprising about 11 percent of the local market. The Philippine film industry released 78 films in 2011, typically romantic comedies that didn't require big budgets.

Independent filmmakers produced 45 films in 2010 and 44 in 2011, according to the report. Independent directors, such as Brillante Mendoza, Pepe Diokno and Jim Libiran, have won awards at major foreign film festivals, but independent films tend not to do well at the box office because they usually address serious issues.

Honoring the Past While Looking to the Future

In late 2011, the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), a federal office, announced the establishment of the National Film Archive of the Philippines. The FDCP is archiving Philippine films and is restoring old films to remove scratches and breaks and restore colors. The council is working on a database of Philippine films.

Starting with just a few film festivals in the early 2000s, the Philippines now boasts a number of new festivals, helping support filmmakers and increasing the number of locally made films.

A key driver is the advent of digital filmmaking, which lowers production costs, with an attendant boost in numbers of independent productions. Social media can also level the playing field. For example, Jerrold Tarog's 2015 film Heneral Luna barely survived its first week in cinemas, but a rash of social media activity extended its stay by nine weeks. Social media played a role in production when director Antoinette Jadaone partially financed the 2014 romantic comedy That Thing Called Tadhana through crowdfunding.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Jim Dorsch


Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on January 23, 2014:

All my information came from internet searches. I'm sorry I can't recall the exact sources, but if you spend some time searching, you will find what you seek. I used a number of sources, and added some material over time as I found new information. I hope this helps.

random on January 23, 2014:

Hi! :) I was just going to ask what sources you used in writing this. We're researching this topic in school and I found what you wrote as something helpful so I was wondering if maybe you could suggest other readings related to this topic? Maybe on the history of Philippine movies, and romantic comedies in particular.

marion on May 10, 2012:

Its scary but I should have not watched it because I don't want to drive by myself at night anymore... lol

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on March 01, 2012:

Thanks for your comments. This looks like a great movie, but I'm not a horror fan, unfortunately. Perhaps this will open the doors to more Filipino films in the U.S.

precy anza from USA on March 01, 2012:

Wow! Feels proud for this movie :) I haven't even seen it yet but just seeing the trailer it looks good. Since this is a horror film, I just had wished somehow that the other Philippine horror movie "Aswang" (pertains to the folklore, the aswang creatures/people) could be another good one too. ^-^'Voted up!