Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Manuel Conde is our newest National Artist for Film

The late filmmaker Manuel Conde will be proclaimed National Artist for Film in June 2009. He is the seventh film personality to receive the nation's highest accolade for artists. The other film artists accorded the distinguished title were Lamberto Avellana, Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, Gerardo de Leon, Fernando Poe Jr., and Eddie Romero.

Conde directed Genghis Khan (1950), the first Filipino film to gain recognition in a major international film festival. The film was honored for technical achievement at the Venice Film Festival in 1952. Critics raved at the epic feel of the low-budget film. They marveled at the authenticity of the little horses used for the film.

During the Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival 2008, a retrospective of Conde films was held at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). I was surprised to see Genghis Khan listed as one of the films to be shown. With the state of film preservation efforts in the country, it was a miracle to see the film in widescreen. The amazing film still holds up very well. It was a fast-paced thrilling epic with bits of humorous scenes.

There were six other Conde films shown at the CCP and the University of the Philippines. The original Ibong Adarna (1941) is a visual treat. Among the tricks utilized by Conde were matte painting to convey grandeur of castle, deep focus camerawork during the giant scene, and a Busby Berkeley-esque dance sequence. The film is also known as the first local movie to feature a color sequence. The part showing the transformation of the Adarna bird was tinted with color. However, the version shown at CCP did not have the colored sequence.

Conde dabbled in different film genres. Senorito (1953) is a romantic comedy. I saw traces of Chiquito in the proud character played by Conde. The film also had a stunning in-your-face fist fight scene. Then, there were the actioners, El Robo (1957), Venganza (1958), and Krus na Kawayan (1956). Once again, the realistic bloody scenes (eg. torture and stabbing scenes) stand out in these films. Film critic Nicanor Tiongson noted that five persons died during the perilous shooting of Krus na Kawayan. I failed to see the comedy film, Pilipino Kostum - No Touch (1955).

From the extant films of Conde, I noticed the strong emphasis on visuals, realistic violence, and suave humor. The maverick director collaborated with National Artist for Visual Arts, Carlos Botong Francisco in his films. The production design and cinematography gave Genghis Khan a sweeping, majestic look. Conde was also able to mix brutal violent scenes with funny scenes in this film and other films.

In connection with the Conde retrospective, Tiongson's book on the maverick filmmaker had its launching at the CCP. Among the guests was reclusive director and future National Artist for Film, Mike de Leon. Almost all the film buffs there had their eyes fixed on the jacket-clad filmmaker. He went out of his way to show his respect and appreciation to a true film master, Manuel Conde.

The book titled The Cinema of Manuel Conde is a dazzling opener to the world of Conde films. With the dearth of existing Conde films, the book gives a strong defense for Conde's proclamation as a National Artist for Film. A reading of the synopses of the highly-acclaimed Juan Tamad films will make a Filipino film buff cry. He will weep because the excellent films are no longer available for viewing. Another reason is that the social problems (eg. corruption and vote buying) tackled in the films did not fade away.

Try to get a copy of Tiongson and Cesar Hernando's book. It is the first of a twelve-part series on Filipino film directors. The book, just like its subject, is truly magnificent.

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