Sunday, 13 October 2013

THE KILLING OF AGENCY: The Destruction of Philippine Action Cinema under the Arroyo regime”

The Destruction of Philippine Action Cinema 
under the Arroyo regime”

by Carlo Cielo


Two brothers are running on roughshod streets. They run with the urgency of their lives. One is from a gang named New Moon; the other from the ‘Children of the Night’. Few moments’ back, they were in a scuffle with some scoundrels: first with punks high on hits; later, a fella put to waste. Nothing was resolved in the melee, with not one side standing in principle. No code to uphold, no ideal to protect, no rightness to be restored. A person would get ‘saved’ if only so he would go on thriving. What the siblings knew for sure is that they’re next. So they head deeper into the squalor of their impoverishment, drifting into dreadful passes, veering into byways. Soon, they reach the end of the line – here in these punishing slums, an expanding graveyard for trespassers and inconveniences. Pale horse had hidden well in the darkness, and caught up with them.

Holding them at gunpoint, a man in the motorcycle leads them both to the side of a road. There, lying before them is the horizon. He prods them : What do they see? On one end is the voidance and wayward mothers birthing into such. On the other is the future, of uncertain spaces and endless providence. It all may be worth the look, if only ‘coz there is nothing else in sight. These are from Pepe Diokno’s 2009 film ‘Engkwentro’, hailed as a ‘new breed’ of Filipino action film, and the path the movie took to get to such a point, like the course Filipino action cinema did itself, was not at all inspiring…


On Jan. 20, 2001, Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ascended into power through a largely non-violent uprising. This would be known as the Second People Power revolution, an event which would reunite key principals of the movement which toppled the dictator Ferdinand Marcos [1]. Featuring a confluence of elements from labor, the religious sector, and the middle class, this was the culmination of a year-long series of acts against the then-ruling government: against corrupt deeds committed such as alleged shady deals with illegal gambling lords. The President would soon step down upon the resignation of military officers (his office insists he’s only filed a leave), and be later jailed for high crimes.

The Second People Power drew sharp criticism. A part of world opinion would condemn this as a ‘stealthy power grab’ by a few social cliques, a ‘defeat for democracy’, a ‘coup’, or rather, a ‘mob rule carefully dressed as a coup’ versus a known populist [2]. Local institutions would try to legitimize this movement - the Supreme Court passing a ruling in its favor under the principle of ‘Vox Populi, Vox Dei’ ( The will of the people is the will of God ). Yet this would fail to quell dissent. Time Magazine further said in its editorial that:

 “… whatever curious legal construction anyone may now attempt to put on the ouster of Estrada, he was ousted by a military coup, with the connivance of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, major business groups, and two former presidents ”. 

A draftee of the 1987 Constitution would also condemn this based on similar grounds [3].

6 days before May 1, 800,000 supporters of the former administration would march to Epifanio De Los Santos Avenue on their way towards Malacanang.[4] They will be met by a barrage of troops, a few of them felled by a sniper bullet through the head .[5]

The deposed President is Fil. action icon, and erstwhile ‘champion of the poor’, Joseph Ejercito Estrada.

High Noon

Joseph Estrada a.k.a. Erap was born on April 19, 1937. He is from a family of twelve: eighth son to engineer Emilio Ejercito and Maria Marcelo. He took up elementary and high school at the Ateneo De Manila private school, before pursuing an engineering degree at the Mapua Institute of Technology. He soon discontinued his studies to pursue a job in acting.[6]

His first films were already tailoring him for familiar archetype: by the virtue of their stories and situations presented. These would be evidenced by titles such as ‘Lo Waist Gang’, in which he co-stars with another movie icon, Fernando Poe Jr. Namely, his characters would often be of the lower social rung, fully enmeshed in its rigors: its constant battles, its punishing plight, its daily hopes and dreams. The realm in which these occur would be parochial and communal, and though largely motivated by subsistence aims, had a certain dignity about it.

Erap’s breakthrough success would arrive with playing a notorious Tondo toughie in a film. In 1961, he, along with his director, Pablo Santiago would take Asiong Salonga, an otherwise real life Robin Hood figure, and make him a swaggering, mustachioed larger-than-life creation : a veritable ‘champion of the poor’, the sentinel of the masses standing up against the privileged who continue to imperil them, doing so in spite of himself. His flaws would be more defined by grievous circumstance and outside forces. This gives the marginalized a sympathetic figure, an omniscient protector with which they can identify and empower themselves with, and strengthen their political capital in society.

His political rise would be built around such image.

Erap would hold the mayoralty post in San Juan for 16 years. Later, he would nab a senatorial seat during the post-Marcos, Aquino regime of the ‘80s, and the Vice-Presidency in 1992, until his historic victory in the Presidential Race of 1998, where he is believed to have accumulated an unprecedented electoral mandate: upwards to 11 million votes, or 39.86 % of votes cast, with 14% lead over his closest competitor, Jose De Venecia of Lakas-NUCD-UMDP. [7]

However, there was another significant victory that he will achieve with ‘Asiong Salonga’: and that is the founding of the Filipino action film as the nation would come to know it.

Into Night

Prior to the success of ‘Asiong Salonga’, action cinema in the Philippines in general is far more diverse, dispersed, and not collating into any clearly delineated character or aesthetic ( in the same way that Heroic Bloodshed, for example, would come to define Hong Kong action cinema ), besides the more generalized ones, of course, such as those allowed to be protagonists. Modern Filipino fiction, after all, traces its immediate roots in Spanish colonialism, with the zarzuelas and the religious plays a.k.a. moro-moros the natives were forced into. Indeed, the first Filipino action films in this country would be crusades-themed.[8]

Films which will be produced afterwards, following the American period, would be either plain simulacra of several Hollywood genres ( such as spy film, thriller, quasi-noir, epic fantasy, period film, even horror ), or co-productions with American companies, which are usually war movies ( such as John Wayne’s ‘Battle Of Bataan’, and the early collaboration of Eddie Romero and Gerry De Leon, ‘Intramuros’ ).

Much of these wouldn’t seem indigenous, or even particularly relevant to local audience’s tastes, apart from their cheap thrills. An earlier film ‘Lo Waist Gang’, which starred Erap and another future action star and president Fernando Poe Jr., is basically a retread of the sort of rebel films top-billed by James Dean, with perhaps a bit of nod to the Marlon Brando of ‘On The Waterfront’. Pablo Santiago may as well be tapping into that Elian Kazan angst in ‘Asiong Salonga’, with its dejected lower class lead not trusting enough to be proletarian, but I digress.

The local action genre, therefore, is more of a bevy of highly Americanized products, than a distinct, precise brand.

This was partially due to the configuration of the Filipino film industry at the time. Filipino cinema was dominated by three major studios, each owned by the country’s richest families : LVN, Sampaguita Films, and Premiere Productions.[9] These are fully functioning and completely-actualized, with back lots, sound stages & equipment, and productions encompassing film, radio, and television. Each has a coterie of stars in their stable, bound by strictly exclusive contracts, from which they get their strength at the tills. However, these stars, much like the directors, workers, and writers, are subordinated by a pronounced studio system, which is macro-level and top down, and churns out films like an assembly line. LVN Pictures’ 1955 output, for example, is 27 films. [10]

About a few, such as director Lamberto Avellana, were able to leave a distinct mark on their work, as performers are only able to engage in terms of looks and performances, with their individual affectations safely kept at bay.

It wasn’t long before this oligarchic scheme was challenged, amid rising labor unrest nationwide, as the major studios went from the boom times of mid ‘50s and into the ‘60s, struggling to capture the local audience. These masses, which Avellana once derisively labelled as the ‘bakya crowd’, were looking elsewhere, finding folly in local work which futilely resembles foreign fare, and tackling concerns which are not immediately their own, while increasingly gravitating towards Filipino film stars, as they are the ones who anyways top bill their respective flicks. It was fortuitous then that a few of these actors would choose this time to formally break away from their studio contracts, and venture into their own with their stuff.

Among these were the ‘new Brat Pack’ of Fernando Poe Jr. a.k.a. FPJ, Zaldy Zschornack, and Erap Estrada. FPJ in fact, would be the first to defy the reigning ‘star studio system’. Actively carrying their ‘James Dean cred’ with them, while demanding more justifiable compensation, they would later try and build a career through their own production houses. FPJ and Zaldy would team up with the ‘Poe-Zshornack Productions’, the first of its kind since actor Leopold Salcedo’s, while Erap advances with his JE Productions and Emar Productions. FPJ would later move on with his solo FPJ productions outfit, and together with Erap, will have their films distributed under the common, Taga-Ilog Productions banner. [11]

Result is unprecedented progress for the Filipino film industry. The big studios continue to crumble, as each major actors and actresses follow the ‘New Brat Pack’s lead, and churn out new material under their own production wings. This would be a time of cinematic near-ubiquity, which made the Philippines one of the largest in the world in terms of film product volume, peaking in 1971 with 234 films. This also stratifies the star as the industrial & cinematic basis of Filipino cinema.

Amdist all these, what would be among the most worth noting was ‘Asiong Salonga’s success; particularly, its epochal impact on the cinematic landscape. Though exhibiting the qualities of an American gang picture, with perhaps a bit of the moral propaganda films of the 50’s, in its Christian warning of ‘living by the gun’, it transcends these tropes by effecting something that’s immediate and gut-wrenchingly native. The film does this by shifting its meta-concerns from the petty and procedural.

This is a film that didn’t just have ‘social concerns’ per se, or was made to accommodate such tendencies, but was at least a bit more attuned and on the level of the society it aims to depict. It espoused concerns which dealt with what the larger Filipino audiences were going in the here and now, and in a popular genre form: their marginalization, their de-facto pariah status, and their alienation from a ‘well-off’ social order that tends to abuse them. It simply intimated itself with their being.

What seemed like a by-the-numbers biopic, was in fact a mannered exercise in class agitation. And it paid off. It didn’t have the strains of ideology for them to have to slog through, and it didn’t put much discursive demands. Furthermore, it wasn’t one to cast too much judgment. There was no earnest figure talking before them, telling them to behave for other’s conveniences - others which are not of their own. Instead the lead protagonist was of them. He is the thug who lived by the side of the road, who goes to their kids’ baptismal rites. He is as dirty as they are, and is as tested on field. [12] These help them welcome him as an avenger, their brutal avatar, fighting similar enemies, dealing restitution, short of being their alter egos on screen.

The masses have finally found their cinematic representation. An idealized one at that, as formidable human mythologies ought to be, and though this may cast them as victim, it’s one which promises them an upper hand soon. This way, the progenitors straddle a fine line between escapism and social realism, short of inciting social action, yet enough to accommodate kempt energies along those lines.

Nonetheless, this film recommends a social grounding with which the masses can realize their agency. Namely: should they choose to strike back against transgressors, where would they be coming from, and from where are they going to attack? This movie suggests that it shouldn’t have to be from the barracks, or the uncharted countryside, but from the very slums in which they live. That is where they are going to deal with the class enemy.

Filipino action films here become simulacra no more, for it has finally found the stage for which the battle would be set, and in ways which could bring the local audience into the picture. The action they only saw through foreign eyes had finally come home.

It can be observed that near all Filipino action star personas afterwards have become derivatives of this anti-hero archetype. FPJ’s would probably be the most benevolent take: his characters being mostly found on the right side of the law, if not of the angels, yet none the better. Ace Vergel would be at the far opposite end of the spectrum; a foul scoundrel to the point of being rapist ( as evidenced by ‘Anak Ng Cabron’ ). Philip Salvador and Rudy Fernandez’ would be the weary layman, vacillating between the side of the status quo and the opposition ( from policeman in ‘Joe Pring’ in Philip’s case, to blue collar worker in ‘Kapit Sa Patalim’, to an NPA commander in ‘Orapronobis’ ). Ramon Revilla is Asiong Salonga as the ultra-violent extremist, a blindly raging force of antagonism, susceptible to every single element of nature, from the hyper real to the absurd; often at the same time [13].

Robin Padilla would be said character as a young brat, all guns and broads in post-Cold War setting. Lito Lapid may seem to veer to a whole another path with the odd western of ‘Leon Guerrero’, but he would still be the Malayan defender of peasants against the Colonial Spanish.

Indeed, the local action films would exude common elements from this work : a.) a beleaguered lower class protagonist who is either an outlaw, or simply not well-socially adjusted, b.) a deep-seated, lyrical grievance against social wrongs and personal injustice, c.) a sense of responsibility towards the masses, be it in the form of family or community, d.) enemies either lumpen ( i.e. local bullies, gang lords, drug lords ), or of the upper crust who unleashes these, and e.) a willingness to take it to their enemies, even with the use of much-dreaded force. The title of their films would usually bear the name of the protagonists, making the mentioned pissings personal.

Moises Padilla, a film about whom Erap earlier starred in, would be revitalized in the ‘80s as a straight-up genre action film, as a crusader for the people who is deemed by liberal society as a brigand, played by a mustachioed action star, Anthony Alonzo.

LVN is the producer of the original Moises Padilla movie. Its last film on record as a production outfit was ‘Roman Rapido’ in 1983.

Conversely, Star Cinema’s first offering is ‘Adan Ronquillo’, starring Bong Revilla as an AK-47 powered man from the slums. It broke previous records by making P58.2 million at the box office. This ensured a certain future for the Lopez’ family’s foray into the movie business, as Star Cinema would soon expand into one of the major studios in the country; covering, it claims, 60% of the market. [14]

Asiong Salonga will be remade twice: with Rudy Fernandez in 1977’s ‘Salonga’, and George Estregan Jr. in 1990’s ‘Asiong Salonga : Hari ng Tondo’. [15]

With the withering of the major studios, and the film industry’s shift of reliance on the stars, the genres, once encased in their warehouses are finally released, and reconfigured in light of new market formations. These are not left to a select committee to replenish and maintain; rather they are left for bankable personalities to co-opt, repackage, and redefine. And in the vicious mores of freehand competition, those who emerge triumphant get to take the reins to the cinema, and mould it in their name.

Erap Estrada’s opus made it big at the box office, and become a phenomenon across cultural, socio-economic, and political spheres. With this, it has set the template for future action-driven material, like what ‘Dirty Harry’ did for cop flicks, and ‘Rambo’ did for militarism.

In the shift of industrial models, from the bulkier kind to something far more individualized, the cinema becomes the stars. Asiong Salonga effectively becomes Erap, and Erap becomes the Filipino Action Film.

To kill Filipino Action Film was to simply kill Asiong Salonga.

Permanent Darkness

About 31 action movies were made in 1998. This was split among the top producers at the time: these would be 1.) the Mother Lily companies ( Regal, Good Harvest, MAQ Films ), who made 34 films that year, 2.) the Viva companies ( Viva, Neo, Falcon ) with 23; 3.) the Lopezes’ Star Cinema with 18, 4.) recently launched GMA Films, with 9; and 5.) the independents Seiko, Taurus, and Shangten ( 4 each ) with 12. All in all, the year of Joseph Estrada’s rise to political power saw 145 films produced. Though this is 54 films less than that of the previous year, it still seems a staggering amount for an industry that at the time was being perceived to be in decline. [16]

Filipino action films dwindled upon Arroyo’s assumption of office in 2001. This would occur alongside a general decrease in local studio film production.

On Feb. 25, during the 20 year anniversary of the first People Power, a Martial Law esque declaration was passed to quell rising protests against the Arroyo regime, giving it power to seize all media properties, and arrest without warrant. [17]. Extra-judicial killings were to rise by this period, along with enforced disappearances. Human rights watchdogs estimate that around 1,200 peasants, farmers, and workers were murdered under her regime.[18]

A state of fear and helplessness grips the entire landscape in general. Culturally, this would be through the demonization of rallies and complaint. Cinematically, this would be manifested by a deluge of anesthetizing establishment romantic comedies, and conditioning attempts at horror.[19]

Zero action films were made by the major studios since.

In retrospect, most of the criticisms against the Second People Power stem from capitalist apprehension towards public mass protests. An aversion towards collective actions in and of itself, the alarmism heavily punctuated by bland adherence to a process, as a means of masking concern for the fragility of their proposed socio-political schemas ( bourgeois democratic project ), expressed in their clamor for ‘stronger institutions’ against forces besides the market. Calibrated hostility which would define the administration that rises in its wake.

She will commit an act of usurpation once again in 2004, this time against another Filipino action star and icon who won the presidency. He is none other than Fernando Poe Jr. [21]

Both Erap and FPJ have gained the majority of the votes, yet both would see their mandates effectively nullified. By virtue of their chosen personas, they had served as primary agents of catharsis, the avenging indio warriors in their films. It is upon their works that the language and ideology Filipino action film would be built, in all its social character and panache; its underlying class grievance that sustains the mechanisms of agency, and permanent threat of revolution.

However, this invites a trickle-down scenario in which upon taking down this Asiong Salonga personality, one can take down an entire whole genre of film, and by extension, an entire whole collective instinct that has depended on to persist. Materially, this could be done by inflicting trauma on the membrane of mass society as means of weakening its socio-cultural grip of these icons on the public, through forcibly dismantling the socio-political structures that have provided support. [22]

These temporally took the form of the electoral transactions forged during the early years of democratic restoration w/c made Filipino citizenry and cinema more synergistic than ever before, which culminated in the rise to the presidency of Erap himself.

In muzzling these erstwhile urban avatars through forced ouster, the larger polity that depend on them for their action would then be left scattered, vulnerable, and impotent; and with scant leverage to be had in the illegitimate new climate, they would have no choice but to live through social conditions that malign them, merely taking hits that come their way.

With no restorative capabilities on hand, with not even their own defense capacities to trust, the poor denizens here are reduced to nothing but the whimpering, tiring wretched of the earth. Having been deprived of anyone else to turn to, much less those who fight on their behalf, they can only do nothing but contemplate their situation – and fend for their lives.

The enemy in the 2009 independent film ‘Engkwentro’ is the mayor, and is basically a rebranding of the Asiong Salonga iconography : the mustachioed populist as a murderous threat. Portrayed by Celso Ad Castillo, he is played out as a thug without conscience, a symbol of mindless machismo, brandishing guns to any cameras in sight, and wearing his brazenness up his sleeve. He is a man of the masses, an enforcer to the poor, the meek – hence, his blind pursuit for security and progress. He is merely looking out for the little people after all, but sometimes he has to be ugly about it. Violence, after all, is deemed as ‘ugly’. Not in spite of himself, but because of himself. When it does occur, it’s open season for his private goons, the ravagers of the many. His only imperative, after all, is to keep the little people in line. The poor should only be wary of him.[20]

Mao Tse Tsung once said that the masses are the sea in which revolutionaries swam. It is imperative therefore for devious elites to do whatever it takes, to poison the water.

From which point, we would see the poor portrayed in films as being nothing more than victims. Open prey to their enemies – as even their former sentries of agency are cinematically turned against them.


Automatic gunfire creates automatic people [23]. Cultural and artistic movements have always been shaped and incited by directly political, real world action, being substructures to the superstructure of human antagonisms. The epochal has always been wrought by cataclysm. Russian Revolution, for instance, instigated the action montage. [24 ]

In the same way that the unacceptable is made common by shocks applied on the polity, hence the need to effect something big in society to unleash a filmic shift.

To diminish ourselves is inadequate. Submitting to bleeding hearts will not bring us our daily bread. For the true liberation of the mass audience, and the emancipation of a cinematic genre that has been suppressed in this part of the world, one will have to embrace the fact that violence will always be legitimate for the Filipino people, ‘since their very status is the result of violence’ [25]

As Jason Jacobs said in his 1995 Sights and Sounds appraisal of action cinema, current society ‘continually offers us examples of how we cannot do anything about our situation…we seem to have less and less control over what happens to us, however often we are told to take responsibility for it’. Thus, ‘the desire to shoot back is positive…at a time when our first instinct might be to keep our heads down and not make trouble’

Filipino Action film as we know it could only be restored, soon as the legitimate job is complete, and the villain responsible for this filmic impasse has been dealt with.


Footnotes :

[1] Philip Bowring, ‘Filipino Democracy Needs Stronger Institutions’, New York Times, 1/22/01

[2] Seth Mydans, ‘People Power II Doesn’t Give Filipinos The Same Glow’, New York Times,2/5/01

[3] Jesusa Bernardo, ‘The Conspiracy Of Edsa 2 : How Gloria Arroyo Managed Not To Let President Joseph Estrada Finish His Term’,, 2/25/08

[4] Malou Mangahas, ‘Church At The Crossroads’, Philippine Center For Investivative Journalism, 4/29-30/02

[5] Howie Severino, ‘This Is Polite Company’s Worst Nightmare : A Massive, Agitated Gathering Of The Poor, Demanding The Return Of Estrada’,, 4/29/01

[6] Erap Biography,


[8] Urian Anthology 1980-1990

[9] Nick De Ocampo Lectures, 2010

[10]These are: 1.) Higit sa lahat , 2.) 1 2 3, 3.) Ang ibong Adarna, 4.) Banal o Makasalanan, 5.) Banda Uno, 6.) Dalagang Taring, 7.) Dalagita't Binatilyo, 8.) Darling Ko, 9.) Dinayang Pagmamahal, 10.) Hagad, 11.)Ikaw Kasi , 12.) Indian Pana, 13.) Karnabal, 14.) Laging Ikaw, 15.) Lapu-Lapu, 16.) Lelong Mong Panot, 17.) Niña Bonita, 18.) No Money... No Honey, 19.)Palasyong Pawid, 20.)Panyolitong Bughaw, 21.)Pasikat, 22.) Pilipino Kostum No Touch, 23.) Salamangkero, 24.) Saydwo Vendor, 25.) Sonny Boy, 26.) Tagapagmana, 27.) Talusaling

[11]Andrew Leavold, ‘Bamboo Gods And Bionic Boys: A Brief History Of Philippines’ B Films’, 2010

[12]Santiago Pangan, ‘Salonga, Tondo Gunman, Killed’, The Manila Chronicle, 10/8/1951

[13] Urian Anthology 1980-1990



[16] Dr. Leonardo Garcia, Jr. and Ms. Carmelita Masigan, ‘An In-depth Study on the Film Industry In the Philippines’, 8/17/2001

[17] Presidential Proclamation 1017 – Full Text, Feb. 24, 2006

[18] Ecumenical Voice For Peace and Human Rights In The Philippines peg the numbers of victims killed to 1,191. This accompanies the 205 disappeared, and 1,028 victims of torture in a span of 9 years.

[19] ;

[20] Pepe Diokno, ‘Engkwentro’, 2009

[21] Veronica Uy, ‘2004 Polls Cheating Recalled On FPJ 68th Birth Anniversary’, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 8/20/07

[22] Following the principle of ‘shock doctrine’. Shock doctrine is basically electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) applied on society and public, in which ‘shocks’ are induced to change perceptions and beliefs, into making them accept something deemed as ‘therapeutic’. The actual ‘shock treatments’ usually result in disorientation and temporary amnesia. This works to the benefit of the practitioners, who aim to start with a blank, compliant state. Economic-wise, this is meant to characterize the methods resorted to by the likes of Milton Friedman in the ‘70s to enforce unrestrained free market policies on Third World nations, including installing a dictatorship.

[23] Jason Jacobs, ‘Gunfire’, Sights and Sound, Oct. 1995

[24] David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, ‘Film Art : An Introduction’, Eighth Edition, 2008

[25] Slavoj Zizek, ‘ A Permanent Economic Emergency’, Jul-Aug 2010


Carlo Cielo is a student of the College of Mass Communications, UP Diliman. He is known for social criticism and his fondness for"old" but "sensible" cinema.

and btw, thanks to Video 48 for the poster being featured in this writeup.