Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon (This Is How We Were, How Are You Now) is a film that constantly asks, “What is a Filipino?” but is so vibrant and droll that it never feels like the essay section of a dreaded social studies exam. It does not have the grinding sense of seriousness and self-importance that makes the typical historical film a chore to watch. The average historical film tries to guilt us into liking it, as if it were our patriotic duty to suffer through the hero’s tribulations and stifle the urge to shout, “Patayin ninyo na yan para makauwi na kami!” (Kill him now so we can go home!) Writer-director Eddie Romero puts his case with such a light touch, keeps us so amused that before we know it, we have pondered the question.
Made in 1976 and now showing at Power Plant Cinema in a digital restoration by the ABS-CBN Archives and Central Digital Lab, Ganito Kami Noon reminds us of the time when the Metro Manila Film Festival actually tried to combine artistic ambition with box-office appeal. In its skilful fusion of comedy, drama, and operetta, its casual, almost throwaway social commentary, and its depiction of life as theatre (complete with a traveling troupe), it also reminds us of the influence of Fellini on Filipino cinema in the 70s. Romero, who cut his teeth on American B-movies, was particularly interested in Philippine history—he made the epic Aguila, in which history transpires through the eyes of Fernando Poe, Jr., and Kamakalawa, set in the mythical pre-colonial past.
In the heart of the financial district of Makati and in a basement at the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas complex sits what may be the most valuable tangible heritage of the Philippines: gold objects believed to be a thousand years old. There are gold bangles inlaid with semi-precious stones and arm ornaments of hammered gold. There are belts of woven gold weighing over half a kilogram, and finely wrought ear ornaments. There are death masks, cutwork diadems, ritual vessels and elaborate headdresses. There is a gold halter weighing nearly four kilos that can choke the most avaricious fashion victim.
There are well over a thousand artefacts at the Ayala Museum and at the Bangko Sentral, all of them found in the Philippines, all of them dating back centuries before the Spanish conquest. The intricacy of the designs and the painstaking labor that went into their production point to a sophisticated culture with a high-level of gold and metal-working technology. The number of funerary masks and other grave goods hints at a culture that believed in an afterlife. Recurring Hindu motifs such as the Upavita and the kinnari suggest that the owners of the gold traded with the kingdoms of Southeast Asia or were even part of such a kingdom. Point to, hint at, suggest — meaning we don’t know for sure. It is characteristic of our unawareness of our own history that we do not know who made these objects.
When we were kids in the 1970s and early 80s, Bruce Lee movies clobbered Hollywood flicks at the box office, David Carradine walked the earth every week on TV’s Kung Fu, and Ramon Zamora punched, kicked and yelped his way to stardom. Martial arts masters, male and female, flew across the screens in lush historical epics. By the time we saw Luke Skywalker being trained by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back we were already familiar with the concept of a student being oppressed, knocked around, and heckled by a Shaolin master, so Yoda seemed too lenient. A friend of mine, one of the smartest people I know, was so impressed by the martial arts ballet in King Hu’s Come Drink With Me that at age 7 he tried to do the moves himself. In the process he took a flying leap off the roof of the family house, fractured his spine, and had to wear a brace for months.
It’s 2015, and the kung movie is on the decline. “The master-disciple tradition is being lost,” declares director Teddy Chen, whose electrifying movie Kung Fu Killer (released in the US and UK as Kung Fu Jungle) is a tribute to the martial arts movie and its best-loved stars. “Tribute” is the word because unless this decline is arrested, we may never see their like again.
The danger of Science-Fiction Week is that you may feel like abandoning other genres altogether, they seem so staid and predictable in comparison. We saw Alex Garland’s excellent Ex Machina, starring Alicia Vikander as Ava the artificial intelligence, Oscar Isaac as her creator, and Domhnall Gleeson as the programmer chosen to administer the Turing test. Garland got his SF cred from Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, in which a team that includes Cillian Murphy and a bearded Chris Evans embark on a voyage to turn the sun back on. He also wrote the novels The Tesseract, set in the Philippines (reportedly he wrote it in Quezon), and The Beach and the screenplay for 28 Days Later.
Alicia Vikander, like Oscar Isaac, is in every other movie that opens this year, and she’s so good we cannot begrudge her Michael Fassbender assuming they’re still together. We loved Domhnall Gleeson in About Time, in which he was part of a family that used their ability to go back in time to read Dickens over and over again (there are worse ways to use time). And Vikander and Gleeson were by far the best parts of Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (they were Kitty and Levin), except possibly for Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s moustache.
In Ex Machina, the tech billionaire behind the world’s most popular search engine—we think of him as Larry/Sergey—creates AI and gets one of his employees to test her. Lonely geek becomes emotionally attached to a program: it’s Spike Jonze’s Her, minus the whimsy, romance and the high-waisted pants. Ex Machina challenges the viewer to define what “human” is, and the results are uncomfortable. It makes us think that the singularity isn’t near, it’s already here and Asimov’s Laws no longer hold. The movie is chilly, and it’s supposed to be, so the sudden disco break is welcome.
Then we saw Alicia Vikander in James Kent’s Testament of Youth, based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of World War I. Vikander plays Vera, and she’s surrounded by some of the most adorable young British actors today, including Kit Harington (or as we call him at home, Christopher Darling), Colin Morgan (from the TV series Merlin, which makes us very angry because it takes painful myths we love and makes them cute), and Taron Egerton (from Kingsman). If you still haven’t recovered from the season finale of Game of Thrones, see Jon Snow clean-shaven here.
Testament of Youth reminded us of Joe Wright’s Atonement, no surprise since Brittain’s book is cited by Ian McEwan as one of the sources of his novel. Vera is a young woman who falls in love and gets accepted to Oxford in the same year—she’s all set to go to university with him when WWI breaks out and everything goes to hell.
Sapiens, available in hardcover at National Bookstores, Php1255
Seveneves got us to thinking about the survival of the species, so we picked up Sapiens, a history of the species by Yuval Noah Harari. We’re on chapter 4. It’s a fascinating book that makes leaps of logic that academics may scoff at, but we have no problem with.
The first part tries to answer the question: How did a species in the middle of the food chain suddenly vault to the top? We’d always thought that Homo sapiens descended from earlier versions of the species, Neanderthals and so on, but Harari points out that a mere 70,000 years ago there were six human species on the planet and sapiens basically won out. The competition was bigger and stronger, but sapiens could work together towards one goal, thanks to their ability to imagine things that did not exist, and to tell each other stories that bound their community together. In short, their weapon was fiction. So all you people who don’t read fiction, you’re doomed.
The non-claustrophobic can go down to the Castle Labyrinth (Entrance fee: 2,000 forints), the long, dark, very cold tunnels where the kings kept their prisoners. The most famous inmate of the dungeons was the prince Dracula of Transylvania, which used to be part of Hungary. Dracula was the son-in-law of King Matyas, for whom the fabulous Matyas Church was named. Old Vlad D was accused of being in league with the Turks, who invaded Hungary many times. He was reportedly tortured in the dungeons. Repeat, Vlad the Impaler was tortured in the labyrinth, and if I ran the tour there would be background music punctuated with bloodcurdling shrieks. My main fear was not that Dracula would appear, but that I would wander into a secondary tunnel and disappear. Outside it was noon; inside it was so dark and cold you could imagine vampires eating babies. The tour operator relieved the monotony of endless walls of rock with mannequins dressed as characters in a Mozart opera, finds from archeological digs, and other tchotchkes, but all you need is bad night vision and an active imagination.