In observance of the 122nd Independence Day of the Republic of the Philippines, spend time with friends and family watching these poignant historical films that depict some of the most important events, heroes, and places in and of our country
Historical period films set in the Philippines have been done in the past, but not too regularly considering the huge budget needed for it. But every time such films hit the big screens, film critics and academicians pore over it together. In the past, the Metro Manila Film Festival had a streak of giving the Best Picture award to period films. But in 2015, independent film production TBA Studios catapulted to fame with its Heneral Luna that changed the game for the genre and continues up to this day as one of, if not the, most popular and watched historical film in the recent decade.
Putting aside the epic special effects, on-point production and costume design, not to mention the riveting acting performances: what have these films reminded us of our history, culture, and core values? What are the realisations and learnings these films have asked of us, and have they shaken our consciousness as a Filipino?
As we commemorate this weekend the 122nd year of our independence from the Spanish regime (where we began our long continuing struggle to run a free and independent country), we've rounded up some cinematic masterpieces depicting significant events, heroes, and places in Philippine history for you to enjoy. As film is a director's medium, we cannot avoid the fact that these are not all spot-on accurate depictions but rather made with artistic liberties. Thus, it is still best to research further and discuss among your peers after watching these films the perennial question, "What will you do for this country?" most especially today.
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A glimpse on the life and culture of the Kalinga and Ifugao peoples in the pre-colonial times, watch Susano De Guzman's Kalinga (1969) and National Artist for Film Gerardo de Leon's Banaue: Stairway to the Sky (1975) on iWant. Although both are fictional depictions, these films tackle the northern tribes' rich heritage and customs, beliefs, as well as social norms in those war-torn times. Made in the height of the gender revolution, these films also highlight the position of women in pre-colonial Philippines. The digitally restored and remastered edition of Banaue can be watched on iTunes / Apple TV.
Spanish Colonial Period
The pursuit for Filipino identity revolves as the core theme in National Artist for Film Eddie Romero's Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon? (1976), which is available in iWant and iTunes / Apple TV. It is a romantic musical drama set in the near end of the Spanish colonial period and the first of the revered filmmaker's historical trilogy (which includes Aguila and Kamakalawa).
Meanwhile, GMA Network has produced two limited series, available now on Youtube, that depict two primary historical figures from the said era: Andres Bonifacio and Dr. Jose Rizal.
Katipunan is a historical period series based from the beginnings and plight of the armed revolutionary society Katipunan founded in 1892 by Andres Bonifacio and his colleagues. (Click here to see the full playlist.)
Meanwhile, Ilustrado marks as the only historical show that heavily focuses on Dr. Jose Rizal's childhood and teenage life. Also available on iFlix, this limited series is a step back in time to the Pride of the Malayan Race's colourful travels in Europe and the awakening of his and the country's eyes to the tyranny of the Spanish government and church. (Click here to see the full playlist.)
For more on Rizal and Bonifacio, check out Jose Rizal (1998) on iFlix and Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo (2014) on iWant.
In Marilou Diaz Abaya's award-winning film in 1998, Dr. Jose Rizal's life and works are recounted through a series of non-linear flashbacks which reflect on various aspects of his life—as writer, propagandist, lover, friend, brother, doctor and the man that inspired a revolution. The film also features excerpt adaptations of Rizal's two novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo with Joel Torre as Crisostomo Ibarra, whom he originally portrayed in CCP's television series in the '90s and would later reprise in Mike De Leon's 1999 satirical documentary Bayaning 3rd World, also available on iFlix.
Meanwhile, Enzo Williams' Bonifacio prepared the way for the much celebrated Heneral trilogy. This film tries to debunk some myths about the Father of the Katipunan and sheds light to the controversies pertaining to his death. But more than that, it reignites the Filipino audiences' thirst for action-packed and heavily budgeted historical films that engages audiences today to do significant actions for the country. The film closes with a post-credit scene with John Arcilla as Gen. Antonio Luna, a preview of the 2015 film.
See a different perspective on the psyche of Rizal and the tragedy of Bonifacio and his wife Gregoria de Jesus in this eight hour-long masterpiece by Lav Diaz. Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis (2016) will be available on Youtube for a limited time period only starting 12 June. The film is a collection of interconnected narratives on the Philippine Revolution of 1896-1897 against the Spaniards: the story of the ballad "Jocelynang Baliwag", which became the hymn of the revolution; Gregoria de Jesus’ forlorn search for the deposed body of Bonifacio in a forest mountain; the journey of Rizal’s fictional characters from his novel Simoun and Isagani; the role of the Philippine mythical hero of strength Bernardo Carpio; and the half-man, half-horse tikbalang. This historical fantasy drama film was selected to compete for the Golden Bear at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival and won the Alfred Bauer Prize.
Although not available online, it is also good to make time for Mark Meily's 2008 drama film Baler which is a mix of fiction and true historical accounts about the 337-day Siege of Baler. Another great film to watch if you have a copy is Tikoy Aguiluz's Rizal sa Dapitan, a 1997 film about the four-year exile of Jose Rizal in Dapitan and his romantic encounter with Josephine Bracken.
Jumping off from the last events of Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo, Jerrold Tarog's Heneral Luna depicts the hot-headed and fierce Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines during Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo's presidency.
Praised for its cinematography, production design, and impressive screenplay, Heneral Luna was well received not only by critics but also by younger audiences. As Luna's horrifying assassination reopened controversies behind Aguinaldo's dictatorial administration, the film reflects disunity and betrayal among Filipino leaders of the time. Unsurprisingly, the same issues and conflicts continue to haunt our government and society throughout our republic's existence. Heneral Luna is available on Netflix and iWant.
Its sequel film Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral, also available on Netflix, highlights the last days of Gregorio del Pilar who was tasked by Aguinaldo to purge Luna's loyalists in the army and protect the president at all costs. Tackling on themes of identity, youth idealism, romance, and heroism, this film asks once more where should our loyalties lie—the country or our leader. This film depicts the historic Battle of Tirad Pass in varying perspectives based on the accounts and memoirs of American and Filipino soldiers.
Available only on iWant, Macario Sakay's 1993 biopic by Raymond Red lets us view closely the official end of the Philippine-American War that was depicted in Goyo in just a swift montage.
Sakay was declared an outlaw and a criminal before he was declared as a patriot and hero. A former Katipunero, he continued fighting against the Americans after the capture of Aguinaldo and the fall of the First Philippine Republic. Together with Francisco Carreon, Julian Montalan, Cornelio Felizardo and other rebel leaders, he revived the Katipunan and established the Tagalog Republic, proclaiming himself as its general and president.
If you want to know more about the end of the Philippine-American War, you may also watch on iWant journalist Jeff Canoy's documentary Babae ng Balangiga. The 2019 film rediscovers Casiana Nacionales' significant role in the Battle of Balangiga in 1901, a testament that there are more women who played major roles in our history that we may not have heard of.
Having mentioned films that featured the Republic's first president in supporting roles, it may as well be right to recommend El Presidente (2012) directed by Mark Meily. This historical biopic about the life and death of Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo provides a different perspective on him compared to the previous films, making it more respectful to the honour and legacy of the first president. However, it has drawn controversial response among critics for its resplendent portrayal of the great dictator.
Giving us a close look on Manila during the Commonwealth era are 2017 musical film Ang Larawan by Loy Arcenas and the documentary series The Manilaners, both available on iWant.
Ang Larawan is a film adaptation of the 1997 award-winning musical by National Artist for Theatre and Literature Rolando Tinio and National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab. Based on the 1950 english play by National Artist Nick Joaquin, the film revolves around sisters Candida and Paula Marasigan and their struggle to maintain an affluent life while Manila is in the brink of the Second World War. The original play was adapted in 1965 by National Artist for Film Lamberto Avellana, which has been restored and made available on iFlix.
Meanwhile, The Manilaners retells the lives of surviving Jews who were rescued from the Holocaust before the war came to Manila. It features excerpts of the award-winning 2018 film Quezon's Game by Matthew Rosen, which centres around Philippine President Manuel Quezon and his plan to shelter German and Austrian Jews in the Philippines from Nazi Germany.
Another interesting film to watch, although not available in any streaming applications, is Rosario (2010) directed by veteran actor Albert Martinez. Starring Jennylyn Mercado in the titular role, Rosario portrays the untold story of socialite and heiress Rosario Perriera and her multiple attempts to redeem herself as a woman, wife, and mother. She is the estranged grandmother of the prolific businessman Manuel Pangilinan, who produced the film.
The three-year Japanese Occupation period during World War II is perhaps one of the darkest in Philippine history. The atrocities of the Japanese forces and the destructive Liberation of Manila, not mentioning the tragic psychological and emotional effects of the war to the Filipino armed rebels are just some of the themes explored in the following films, all available on iWant.
The 1982 masterpiece of Peque Gallaga, Oro, Plata, Mata is set in the Philippine province of Negros and tells the story of how two haciendero families cope with the changes brought by the war.
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The film may be divided into three parts that begin with the affluent life in Negros continuing to their indifference to the coming war which leads to the horrors it has brought with its arrival—a reference to its title which translates to gold, silver, and death.
Another classic film from the Second Golden Age of Philippine Cinema that tackles World War II is Mario O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos. It features Nora Aunor as Rosario, a young schoolteacher engaged to be married to Crispin who soon leaves to fight the Japanese forces as a guerilla. In Crispin's absence, a Japanese-Filipino officer named Masugi rapes her and eventually courts her, leaving her pregnant with the enemy's child.
For a contemporary film about World War II, check out Joel Lamangan's 2004 film Aishite Imasu 1941: Mahal Kita, which is top-billed by Judy Ann Santos. It is a melodramatic story of fictional characters Inya, Edilberto, and Ignacio and how they dealt with the Japanese Occupation to survive or at least fight for their town San Nicolas. One aspect of the film that was well received by critics and audiences is Dennis Trillo's performance as the transvestite Ignacio who in the film falls in love with Ichiru Hamaguchi, a Japanese army official.
Another film that gives representation of the LGBTQIA+ community during the Second World War is the 2000 biopic of Walter Dempster Jr., also known as Markova. In the film Markova: Comfort Gay directed by Gil Portes, Philippine cinema's King of Comedy Dolphy brings to the silver screen the life and times of the last surviving Filipino "comfort gay" (male sex slaves for the Japanese Army) from World War II. Markova's turbulent childhood and his travails during the war were portrayed by Dolphy's sons Jeffrey and Eric Quizon, respectively. Besides the accolades it has received from the 2000 Metro Manila Film Festival, Markova film's actors won the Prix de la Meilleure Interpretation in the 2001 Brussels International Film Festival.
The suffering of the Filipino families ravaged by the war is the central theme on these two acclaimed films that were set in post-war Philippines.
In Abbo Dela Cruz's Misteryo sa Tuwa (1984), a plane crashes on a small village resided by Hukbalahap (WWII guerilla survivors who later defied the newly-reestablished Philippine government). Ponsoy, Mesiong, and Jamin have gone to the crash site and find a suitcase full of cash. When the authorities approached the town mayor to help them find the suitcase, the town mayor instead devises a plan to steal the money for himself. Inspired by the Joyful Mysteries from the Holy Rosary, Misteryo sa Tuwa tackles greed, corruption, and hatred in masterful dramatic progression to somehow comment against the capitalist system of the 1950s.
Another social commentary of post-war Philippines is Lupita Aquino-Kashiwahara's Minsa'y Isang Gamu-gamo (1976). It represents the colonial mentality prevalent during the time when Filipinos dream of working and migrating to USA. The film focuses on Corazon de la Cruz, a Filipina nurse in Pampanga processing her employment at an American hospital. On the night of the farewell party thrown for her by her family and friends, her brother was mistaken for a wild boar and shot by an American soldier assigned in a nearby military base.
The digitally restored and remastered version Minsa'y Isang Gamu-gamo is available on iTunes / Apple TV. Meanwhile, Misteryo sa Tuwa is currently available on iWant, with its restored version to be available soon.
Martial Law Period
Moving on to the country's modern history, check out on iWant and iTunes / Apple TV the 2002 drama film by Chito Roño Dekada '70, based on the acclaimed novel by Lualhati Bautista. It is a fictional portrayal of the turbulent 1970s in the Philippines under the regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The horrors of the Martial Law period were seen through the eyes of the Bartolome family who, like other families during that decade, were torn apart by two conflicting political philosophies and caught between the atrocities of the military government and extremities of left-wing communist groups.
Meanwhile, Christopher de Leon who portrayed Julian Bartolome opposite Vilma Santos in Dekada '70 also starred in a '70s period film in 1995. In the true-to-life film Eskapo, also directed by Chito Roño, de Leon played Eugenio Lopez Jr. (then chairman of the Lopez Group of Companies, most significantly ABS-CBN Corporation) who together with Sergio Osmeña III (played by Richard Gomez) suffered false accusation of assassination attempts to Marcos. Their arrest, incarceration and thrilling escape from Fort Bonifacio are the film's focus.
During the Marcos regime, most filmmakers and producers were under strict observation by the presidential family. Hence the heyday of escapist fantasy films and musical blockbusters. However, the likes of Ishmael Bernal and fellow National Artist for Film Lino Brocka proved their versatility in their impressive bodies of work—ranging from drama box-office hits and socially relevant auteur films. At the height of the Marcos regime in 1980, Bernal premiered a noir f