Mike de Leon first PH filmmaker to have a retrospective at New York’s MoMA

Mike de Leon (third from left) shoots a scene with Atom Araullo and Cherie Gil for 2018’s “Citizen Jake”

The “ber” months may have been associated with the rainy season. But for 75-year-old veteran filmmaker Mike de Leon, they’re perfect occasions to say, “When it rains, it pours.”

First, there’s the monthlong retrospective in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) from Nov. 1 to Nov. 30, titled “Mike De Leon, Self-Portrait of a Filipino Filmmaker.” Another retrospective will happen at the 44th edition of Three Continents Festival in Nantes, France, from Nov. 18 to Nov. 27.

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His first feature, the 1976 ghost story “Itim” (Rites of May), will have a theatrical screening at QCinema (Nov. 17 to Nov. 26) at Gateway Cineplex, Cubao.

Four years in the making, De Leon’s photographic memoir, titled “Mike de Leon’s Last Look Back,” has grown into two thick volumes and will have its official launch on Dec. 10 in a private event in University of the Philippines Diliman.

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“It’s a happy coincidence that the much-delayed book’s publication will coincide with the retrospectives,” De Leon told Inquirer Entertainment.

“The LVN films must be included in any retrospective. In Nantes, kahit paano, kasama raw ang ‘Portrait [of the Artist as Filipino],’ but they have not released the program. I don’t know how they will do it. I was told the program will be released in early November,” he added.

Just like an appetizer, on its social media page last Oct. 24, ABS-CBN Film Restoration streamed the 1959 social-realist classic “Biyaya ng Lupa” for free.

Earlier in October, the restored versions of Lamberto Avellana’s “Anak Dalita” (1956) and Gregorio Fernandez’s “Malvarosa” (1958) were also streamed as part of its “Sagip Pelikula” project. For trivia addicts, Fernandez is the father of the late action star Rudy. In his book, De Leon described Fernandez as the most experimental director in LVN.

These three restored LVN films made it to the MoMA retrospective.

From left: Charo Santos, Sandy Andolong, Christopher de Leon and Jay Ilagan during a break in the filming of “Kakabakaba Ka Ba” —PHOTOS COURTESY OF MIKE DE LEON

“What I’m most happy and proud about is LVN’s legacy will not be forgotten, what with the book, the two retrospectives, and ABS-CBN’s restorations,” De Leon said.

MoMA’s Department of Film curator Joshua Siegel confirmed to Inquirer Entertainment that De Leon is the first Filipino filmmaker to have a retrospective at the MoMA.

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Area of focus

“Yes, absolutely [De Leon is the first]—we have shown virtually every key Filipino filmmaker, but in other contexts and individual films, rather than a whole retrospective. So, yes,” Siegel said in an email interview.

“Southeast Asia has been an area of focus for us this fall (September to November), with retrospectives of Mike de Leon, Tsai Ming-liang and Rithy Panh, but prior to this, we have mostly shown filmmakers like Apichatpong Weerasethakul in other contexts, but not in full-blown retrospectives,” he added.

Siegel said there will be nine LVN features, nine De Leon features and eight De Leon short films, which include “Signos,” “Aliwan Paradise” and the behind-the-scenes documentary for Lino Brocka’s “Maynila, Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag.”

As director, De Leon has made 10 feature-length films. With the exception of the Cherie Gil-Joel Torre-Rio Locsin starrer “Bilanggo Sa Dilim” (1986), those included at the MoMA are “Itim,” “Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising” (1977), “Kakabakaba Ka Ba?” (1980), “Kisapmata” (1981), “Batch ’81” (1982), “Sister Stella L” (1984), “Hindi Nahahati ang Langit” (1985), “Bayaning Third World” (1999) and “Citizen Jake” (2018).

De Leon (center) with Gina Alajar and Vilma Santos on the set of “Sister Stella L”

To be shown also are Clodualdo del Mundo Jr.’s documentaries, “Itim: An Exploration in Cinema” and “Si Boyet, Hilda, Atbp.,” which respectively tackle the making of “Itim” and “Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising.”

For those late in the game, LVN is one of the three pioneering film companies during the studio era (1930s-1960s) that De Leon’s grandmother, Doña Sisang, cofounded in 1938. When Doña Sisang passed away in 1966, its management was handed to director Mike’s father, Manuel de Leon.

In its nearly two-and-a-half-decadeslong prodigious output, LVN Pictures produced around 350 films. As De Leon wrote in his book, in 1961, “the studio had become a veritable movie factory, producing an average of 20 to 25 movies a year—about one movie every two weeks.”

Being the only scion who still cares about LVN’s legacy, De Leon funded the restoration of some titles that could still be saved from the vinegar syndrome and total decay due to neglect.

Restoration

In the book’s first chapter, titled “Unfinished Business,” De Leon explained, “I got involved in another aspect of cinema that continues to be my advocacy: the preservation, restoration and dissemination of the films of LVN Pictures, a studio that my family owned that made its mark as one of the three top studios during a crucial period in Philippine film history. Unfortunately, this period is largely forgotten as much as films from bygone days have disappeared.”

“If you ask young filmmakers today about vintage Filipino cinema, their knowledge would probably go as far back as Lino Brocka’s ‘Maynila, Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanang’ (Manila, In The Claws of Light),’ which I produced and photographed in 1975. For younger filmmakers, a film over 40 years old is ancient, and they might remark, ‘Hindi pa ako pinapanganak noon (I wasn’t born at the time),’” he added.

Eventually, he made those digitized LVN films, all in black-and-white, available to the public for free on YouTube and Vimeo, using the Casa Grande Vintage Filipino Cinema Facebook page as portal.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic’s intermittent lockdowns, it has been one of the most visited social media pages as people looked for good, quality and free movies from the studio era to binge-watch on. Curated and moderated by De Leon, it has more than 50,000 followers.

In MoMA, it’s amazing that nine films from LVN Pictures will be seen again in a theater for a live audience. For example, its first film, Carlos Vander Tolosa’s romantic musical “Giliw Ko” (1939) will be shown 83 years since it was made.

Included also are Avellana’s “Pag-Asa” from 1951, “Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay (1953), the classics “Anak Dalita” and “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino” (1965). Though not with LVN but Diadem Films, “Portrait” was produced by Manuel de Leon, and restored in 2014 by Cinema Artists Philippines and the Film Development Council of the Philippines.

Richard Abelardo’s “Mutya ng Pasig” (1950) opens the MoMA festival on Nov. 1, while De Leon’s most recent feature, “Citizen Jake” (2018), closes it on Nov. 29.

We asked Siegel how they trimmed the choices.

“I worked closely with Mike in making the selection and paired his own films with LVN titles with which he had a personal connection (memories of seeing them as a child, for example) or have thematic or stylistic affinities with his own work,” Siegel said.

He added that each film will have two screenings. The capacity of the venue officially called The Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters at MoMA is 200.

De Leon’s retrospective also opens doors for other Filipino masters.

“Giliw Ko (My Sweetheart),” LVN Pictures’ first film in 1939, starred (from left) Fleur de Lis (later renamed Mona Lisa), Ely Ramos, Mila del Sol and Fernando Poe Sr. —PHOTO FROM MoMA GALLERY

“We hope to continue to feature work by Filipino film masters in the future. I’m particularly interested in the work of Ishmael Bernal,” Siegel said.

Elusive filmmaker

De Leon won’t be able to attend the MoMA and Nantes retrospectives. His followers in the Philippines would be lucky if they see the reclusive, elusive veteran filmmaker attend the local theatrical screening of “Itim” in QCinema.

Just like any true artist who lets his work speak for him, De Leon said he has never been comfortable with the spotlight. He doesn’t even want to be referred to as “master,” “acclaimed,” “iconic,” “legendary” and the most used that he cringed on—“auteur.”

“Just veteran filmmaker would do,” he said.

But in the last few days of October, there’s suddenly a deluge of requests not only for interviews, but inquiries from other festival programmers as well.

Here’s good news to those who want to own personal copies of his works: the veteran filmmaker exclusively relayed to Inquirer Entertainment that in early 2023, most of his films and shorts, including Avellana’s “Portrait,” will be released on Blu-ray and DVD in a Boxset published by Carlotta Films of Paris.

The rains will surely continue to pour for De Leon until early next year. INQ

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Mike de Leon’s restored ‘Itim,’ ‘Kisapmata’ to have back-to-back local theatrical screening

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