Race, Ethnicity, and the Nation in Three Filipino Films

Cinema, like any other cultural institution or artifact, is a carrier of ideology. Throughout its development, film has been used to supplement the process of accumulating knowledge of the ‘other’, images to justify imperialism both to the citizens of the colonial power and to the natives-colonial subjects. According to Edward Said (1983), using the power-knowledge model of Foucault, Orientalism refers to the total set of representations-categories, images, and classification-which constructs the Orient (mainly refers to Middle East but could also be applied to other places and regions) an object of the West’s study and understanding, thus also of domination. The discourse of the Orient is produced through various means like linguistics, anthropology, among others and eventually during the 20th century, photography and cinema. In his book Culture and Imperialism (1991), Said asserts that newly liberated people should ‘write back’ to the empire to challenge the images that has been made representative of them. This paper will focus on the medium of cinema.

This paper aims to investigate, whether the medium has been indigenized by the newly liberated subjects to serve their national interests in the postcolonial era. This study will first conduct ideological reading of three recent Filipino films tackling the discourse of race and ethnicity, namely Manoro (Brilliante Mendoza, 2006), Crying Ladies (Mark Meiley, 2003) and Panaghoy sa Suba (Cesar Montaño, 2004). These readings aims to bring to light foreign influences, limitations, potential for Filipino cinema especially its role in building of the imagined community.

Cinema and Colonialism

Motion Pictures were introduced on the islands in 1897 by two Swiss businessmen named Liebman and Peritz, who opened a “movie house” at No. 31, Escolta St., Manila. Development was stalled because of the Philippine Revolution, thus cinema flourished during the American period. “In 1912, two American business competitors vied with each other for the commercial rewards of being the first to make a feature film with Philippine life as subject matter.” (Lumbera, 1981) Aside from establishing a public education system with English as the medium of instruction, the American colonial government suppressed nationalist sentiment through military operations, sedition laws, and the pensionado system. Americans also utilized cinema as a tool for propaganda. “In an obvious attempt at revising colonial loyalties, anti-Spanish films based on Rizal’s life in 1912 (La Vida de Rizal from Oriental Moving Pictures Corporation and El Fusilamiento de Rizal from Rizalina Film Manufacturing Company) were shown and produced by American businessmen. Also, films made by Edison in the States using American actors reenacted several revolutionary scenes like The Rout of the Filipinos, Filipinos Retreat from the Trenches, and Advance of Kansas Volunteers at Caloocan (wherein Filipino revolutionaries were played by African-American soldiers) all in 1899.” (Flores, 1990, p.420)

When Filipino productions started coming out, they were still heavily under Hispanic influence, especially colonial theater. According to Deocampo, this was a logical step to fill the need “to first penetrate and then assert its supremacy in the Hispanic society. The first decade was a time of negotiation between the two entertainment forms. This may be surprising because up until 1902, films had been shown independently. Starting 1903, theatrical presentations began to play a major role in the exhibition of films. Films were screened alongside the staging of zarzuelas, bailes (dances), and songs, oftentimes called intermedios cantos (musical intermissions).” (p. 117)
The conditions during the early years of cinema in the country will undergo very little change to this day. Filipino cinema has two formal and ideological features: first, proliferation of movies using ‘tried and tested formulas’ influenced by Spanish theater and consistent competition from foreign market, namely Hollywood. The relationship between the two is in many ways, dialectical. Lumbera writes,

As an enterprise that developed under conditions set by US colonial policy, the Philippine film industry had to compete with the high-powered American film industry based in Hollywood. As early as 1914, Hollywood had the Philippine market all to itself, its products monopolizing the best outlets in Manila. Potentially, films using a language understood by the majority of film-goers ought to have enjoyed wider patronage than American films. However, in view of limited capital, technical skill and equipment, the local industry could turn out only a few films, and the long intervals between one film and the next gave American films, which came in one steady flow from Hollywood, the advantage of greater visibility. More important, the greater technical polish and the international reputation of American films could not but show up the faults and limitations of local cinema. (p. 178)

The Lesson of Modernity in Manoro (Brilliante Mendoza, 2006)

Like many of Mendoza’s films, Manoro uses a plot technique more common in documentaries than in feature films, informally called ‘slice of life’ or ‘a day in a life’. The film focuses on Jonalyn who just graduated from elementary school and takes up the task of teaching her parents and other adults in her community how to read and write, so as to participate in the 2006 elections. Some like her father doesn’t believe in elections but could still use the lecture-exercise in literacy since he needs to fill up an application form for employment to a resort owned by a Korean national. During election day, Jonalyn looks for her grandfather who went out hunting in far areas of the forest. Almost half of the film is devoted to this strenuous and frustrating task. When her grandfather meets her, he doesn’t sympathize with her efforts and is proud to have hunted down a wild boar. After voting, the Aeta community enjoys a feast around a bonfire.

The very concept indigenous peoples in the country is problematic in itself. During the Spanish colonial period, all natives are called indios while Filipinos are those Spaniards born in the islands. As history progressed, the notion of Filipino was revised to refer to Hizpanized Christians, and it ended there. Everyone who doesn’t fit in category is called ‘indigenous’, the question is, aren’t Hizpanized-Christians (which is not even a homogenous body) indigenous to the Philippines? The complicated majority-minority issues in the country (e.g. ‘moro problem’) is evidence that national liberation (whether after the revolution or world war two) wasn’t a totalizing project. There was just a transfer of power and now the ruling group of the country merely serves as intermediaries of neocolonial powers. The present condition could be traced back to the early days of Spanish colonization with the imposition of reduccion. Lumbera & Lumbera writes that

in the centuries to come, a distinction would be made between those Filipinos who settled where they were within easy reach of the power of the Church and State in pueblos (taga-bayan), and those who kept their distance from the colonial administrators and their native agents, staying close to the sources of their livelihood in the mountains or the hinterlands (taga-bukid, taga-bundok). The distinction went beyond indicating mere geographical origins and took on overtones of cultural snobbery as the effect of colonization seeped deeper into the consciousness of lowland Filipinos. in time, taga-bayan came to be a flattering term for Hispanized and therefore, “urbane and civilized” Filipino, while taga-bukid/taga-bundok was to mock the indio who had not learned the ways of the colonial masters and therefore, among the brutos salvages (savages brutes) (1997, cited in Tolentino, 2007, p. 79)

After colonization, there emerged a condition called ‘internal-colonialism’ or the more euphemistic term ‘uneven development’. The former colonial capital continues to serve as a political and cultural center of the nation. According to Deocampo (2003), this also has ramifications in the film industry.

This is understandable as it is in Manila that cinema found its capital, creative realization, seat of production, base of exhibition, and network of distribution. The Tagalog culture became heir to the Spanish and American cultures. Manila exercised its dominance over the rest of the archipelago as the capital and symbol of the nation. In cinema, this is seen in the way a Tagalog-based film culture came to dominate the country’s cinematic landscape soon after the Spaniards and the Americans had relinquished ownership and control over the fledgling movie industry. (p. 20)

Manoro overtly tackles two modern national institutions namely the State and Education. For economic survival, Aetas take effort to acquire education; in fact the opening scene of the movie is a standard scenario during a graduation exercise. Another step in assimilating themselves in the larger Filipino society is through practicing their right of voting. It must be taken into account that the Aetas, like most other indigenous peoples, only vote and rarely run for office. Jonalyn, and the viewers, are witnesses to the limitations of modernity project. After voting, a man asks another man who he voted for president. The Aeta replied that he can’t make up his mind between FPJ and GMA so he wrote ‘FPJ-GMA’, both of them can be presidents. Jonalyn is caught in between two opposing cultural forces, and isn’t given much of an option. She knows that they can’t embrace modernity and its contradictions, but also that sticking to tradition won’t give them much of a chance for survival.


The experience of the Aetas in Pampanga would seem isolated but if juxtaposed with the total national experience under the throes of globalization (e.g. labor-export, K-12, neoliberalism, etc.), the story would become more allegorical. Jonalyn’s students are not limited to the Aeta adults and elders, but also include the viewers.

History at the Margins in Panaghoy sa Suba (Cesar Montano, 2004)


I’ve been to Bohol twice back in 2010 and I still consider it to be one of the most beautiful provinces in the country. I made a note that when I’m rich enough, I’ll buy property in Panglao Island. Bohol has a strong local government unit that protects its environment and critical towards urbanization and industrialization (e.g. no SM and Robinsons malls in the island), to fuel the province’s economy it capitalizes on green tourism. This commitment to preservation of the environment could be seen and has been interwoven in the plot of Cesar Montano’s Panaghoy sa Suba (Call of the River). It is not only a historical film, dealing with events in a town during world war two, but also a history of the marginal, not of heroes but of ordinary folk. But the most daring feature of the film is having the majority of the script in Bisaya, the latest endeavor since Eh…Kasi,,,Bisaya! (Jun Cabreira, 1990). According to Joel David (1995), Bisaya-language films were the only productions alternative to Tagalog films coming out with titles as early as 1930s (p. 97). However, producers became dissatisfied with the Bisaya viewers, though always dependable, are not as large as the market for Tagalog movies. (p. 98)


The film centers on Duroy (Cesar Montano), a boatman who turned into a guerrilla leader during the onset of the war. Duroy takes care of his family and is courting Iset (Juliana Palermo). Iset works as a sort of assistant in a crafts workshop owned by an American, John Smith. Her parents disapprove her entertaining Duroy as a suitor since Smith also fancies her. Things get a little more complicated when Duroy finds out his brother; Nonong who works for Smith also likes Iset. One day Smith finds Nonong and Iset talking in work, and in fit of jealousy fires Nonong. Nonong gets filled up and attempts to kill Smith, who in defending himself ends up killing Nonong instead. Duroy then swears vengeance, but before any retribution can take place, the war breaks out in the Pacific and Smith enters the Army and leaves the island. When the Japanese forces occupy the town, Duroy and other people flee to the hills. This time, a Japanese officer, Fumio Okkohara (Jackie Woo) shows interest to Iset, which her parents, ever preoccupied with survival, openly accommodates. Duroy and other villagers stay in the hills for next few years; Duroy grows a long hair ala Macario Sakay, until some concluding skirmishes to the end of the war. When the village returns to its peaceful existence, Smith returns with the intention of marrying Iset. Duroy secretly waited to ambush him and was at the point of killing him, when Iset stops him. Iset was helping Smith when he remarked that the country is filled with animals. Iset gets filled up and leaves him. In the mean time, Duroy returns to being a boatman, answering the call of the river.


Panaghoy’s narrative has nothing innovative, in fact remains conventional. The film’s merit lies in its portrayal and treatment of the people from the regions. Said asserts in Culture and Imperialism that colonialism directs people’s spatial desire to the imperial center even after liberation. So it is common to see in Filipino movies the probinsyano/probinsyana being suffocated in the ways of the barrio and dreams of going to the big city ([imperial]Manila). If the story is already set in the city (center), usually characters aspire for redemption in a foreign land or by a foreigner, in the case of the Philippine, US. Panaghoy is noteworthy since it discredits this ideological positioning when it is fact very dominant in war genre films. “After the war, the guerilla-garrison genre came to the fore. Revolving around Japanese atrocities and the celebration of Yankee liberation and guerilla struggle” (Flores, 1990, p. 422). Local resistance was valorized but the real heroes are the Americans. Duroy in opposing to aid Americans soldiers boldly remarked in Bisaya, “This is a war of Visayans, this is a war of Filipinos!”

The second value of Panaghoy is in the discourse of language. In the present local and global geopolitics, the vernacular occupies the lowest strata. Common in Tagalog films are cases where the character with the probinsyano accent is degraded and limited to subservient roles like house help while characters with American or Spanish accents are highly esteemed. Actors in Panaghoy refuse to yield to this arrangement. It is especially enlightening to see (and hear) actors like Cesar Montano, Caridad Sanchez, Juliena Palermo who have became ‘fluent’ in Tagalog speak a different language.

Panaghoy reimagines the Filipino nation historically, spatially, and linguistically. Roland Tolentino (2000), in his analysis of Manilyn Reynes as cultural text, summarizes the radical potential of the vernacular in cinema,

“Bilang isang stratehiya, ang kaso ng texto ni Manilyn at ng wika’t panitikang vernakular, ay ang pagkakaroon ng kakayahang patuloy na pakikipagbalitaktakan sa sentro upang madesentro ito, at gayon din, ang tabi para di na maisantabi ito. Sa kalaunan ng pagdedesentro, inaasahang tuluyan nang magkaroon ng kapasidad ang komunidad na di na muling makapagtahak ng mga dibisyon, kategorisasyon at parametro.” (p. 131)

Death and Redemption in Crying Ladies (Mark Meily, 2004)


On the surface, the story of Crying Ladies is very simple. Winston Chua’s (Eric Quizon) father died of a heart illness. As he informs family and friends, buys a coffin and burial clothes, he also takes up the tasks of finding burial criers. He asks around, and encounters difficulty; traditional criers are apparently going out of style. He eventually meets Stella (Sharon Cuneta), an ex-convict (jailed for estafa), in dire need of extra income, while waiting for her application as an entertainer in Japan to push through. Her mother used to cry at Chinese burials and she herself has a little experience. She takes the job and agrees to find two other criers. She goes to Doray (Hilda Koronel), a former movie extra who now works in a horror house attraction of a perya at the same time pressuring her daughter to put into use her beautiful features in the show business, much to the daughter’s ire. Then Stella comes across her friend, Choleng (Angel Aquino) who presently volunteers in a religious foundation, who is currently having an affair with their friend’s husband. For the next five days of the lamay, we learn about the life of the crying ladies and also Winston’s family.


Crying Ladies is one of the few films to actually tackle in depth the issue of Filipino-Chinese in cinema. When I was younger, I was able to watch the Mano Po series. Aside from the fact I have vague recollection of the narrative of the films, I doubt if the genre of melodrama is best suited to explore the stories of Chinoys. The series is still basically about a rich family/ies in crisis, who happened to be Chinoys. Hispanized/Mestizo Filipino actors and actress didn’t have difficulty in crossing over since Chinoys also have fair skin. Crying Ladies is interesting since it tackles the interaction of (Hispanized) Filipinos and Chinoys, from different economic classes.

It would appear that the film is all about get through a death of a love one, but this is just a unifying theme to explore a bigger phenomenon that is getting through life. Each character has his or her way to achieve day-to-day salvation in Filipino society; Doray is having difficulty letting go of her dreams of stardom, Choleng uses religion and charity (to the ire of a priest she frequently confesses), Winston puts up with her mother questioning his loyalty to the Chinese tradition, deals with his father’s mistress, practices Chinese rituals he halfheartedly believes, gets extorted by politicians, but the most resilient is Stella. She resorts to a low paying job, honing her talent in prospect of employment abroad, she gambles in a pseudo, thus illegal, wake, she joins contests in the radio, she even has a technique to get a free ride in the jeepney, she wakes up early and wears a foolish costume hoping to get lucky in a television game show, she gives in to her son’s fascination with toys in fast food chain. All these daily struggles are placed in a comedy format. Every time you laugh, you catch yourself since you are actually laughing at yourself.


As the film demonstrates, the Chinese minority have been well integrated into the Filipino mainstream culture, mainly through religion. There emerged a hybrid of practices especially with the later generations of Chinoys who mix Buddhist and Christian rituals. (p. 4) According to Teresita Ang See (1997), prejudices towards the Chinese are predominantly economic in nature. She asserts that this is mainly because of the position most Chinese take as retail merchants. Often they deal with consumers face to face, and in times of crisis like economic inflation, they would receive the ire of Filipino which blames them for the rising prices. (p. 8) This is where myths of Chinese affluence begin to emerge, which also find representation in cinema. Caroline Hau (200) juxtaposes the image of the Chinese as a scheming merchant like Ah Tek in Brocka’s Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag and the high incidents of kidnap for ransom and extortions of Chinoys. Thus, the body of the Filipino-Chinese itself has became a signifier of economic capital (p. 225).

In elaborating the case of Filipino-Chinese and Crying Ladies, I would like to utilize the ideas of Slovenian Lacanian-Marxist Slavoj Zizek on ethnicity. According to Zizek (1991), racism is not due to clash of symbols between groups vying for supremacy, but rather a clash of fantasies. He outlines several features of fantasy. First, fantasies are produced as a defense of against the desire of the Other, manifested in the ‘Che vuoi?’ the question of what the Other, in its inconsistency, really wants from me. Second, fantasies provide a framework of seeing the world, presupposes a point of view and denying us an objective account of the world. Third, fantasies what makes us individuals, forming a subjective view of reality, and very prone to intrusion of others. Lastly, fantasies are ways to organize or enjoyment or jouissance. Two racists fantasies are when we believe that the ethnic other has a strange privilege to jouissance or when we think that the ethnic other is trying to steal our jouissance.

“In short, what really gets on our nerves, what really bothers us about the “other”, is the peculiar way he organizes his jouissance (the smell of his food, his noisy songs and dances, his strange manners, his attitude to work – in the racist perspective, the “other” is either a workaholic stealing our jobs or an idler living on our labor.” (Zizek, p.165)

Fantasies are immune to rational arguments, and Zizek suggest we should battle it on three fronts. First, as much as we can, we should not intrude into other people’s fantasy space. Second, use the state as a buffer of the tensions in civil society. Lastly, and this is what Crying Ladies demonstrates, we go through the fantasy and show that on the other side, there is nothing. No matter what our ethnic fantasies are, we still subject to the exploitative structure of global capitalism. In the end, each crying lady achieves little redemptions; Choleng becomes a marriage minister, Doray stars in a reboot of Darna, and Stella wins an award in Japan. It is still a happy ending, but one that demands reevaluation of our aspirations, subtlety revealing their limitations. Death is not as tragic as nation that is reluctant for collective struggle.

Cinema and the Filipino Imagined Community

I always found Benedict Anderson’s (1983) theory of ‘immagined community’ problematic. He asserts that nationalism emerged along with the development of print-capitalism. When people read newspapers and novels they can imagine other people reading and imagine the nation as a sociological community moving along ‘homogeneous, empty time’(p. 44-46), Anderson discusses Rizal’s Noli me Tangere to demonstrate this (p. 28). How can Filipinos imagine the nation through Rizal when majority of them can’t read? Reynato Ileto (1979) points to the pasyon for explanation for the mass support of the Philippine revolution. Next, when more people were able to read Noli, it was under the tutelage of American colonialism, structures of education that remain to this day. Subsequent writers like Nick Joaquin and F. Sionil Jose among others also taken up the task of writing the nation, but their works only reach a very small intelligentsia readership, this time writing in English. Filipino writers and readers are divided by preferred language, in the case of the Philippines, imagining the nation should go beyond literature, and this is where I believe cinema comes in.

Cinema, like theater before it, enjoys a mass audience; critic Joel David even called it as the ‘national pastime’. Cinema can serve as a visual lingua-franca for the Filipino nation, and as the three films analyzed demonstrated, it has an almost boundless potential as an instrument for nation building/imagining. However, the industry is in a miserable state. Three films discussed were exceptions rather than norms in the present cinematic productions. The ‘Indie’ movement, which includes Manoro, shows promise but only reaches a very limited audience. Because of this, Tolentino (2008) puts forward a notion that indie films have become cultural capital. Artists have indeed indigenized the medium, but there is still much to be done. Lastly it must be reiterated that like any cultural artifact, cinema doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Film making and viewing is never a substitute for the national struggle that is getting more and more difficult with the onslaught of globalization, which always existed outside the movie theaters.


Anderson, B. (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. New York and London: Verso/ New Left Books
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_________________. (2000) Manilyn Reynes at Ang Konsepto ng Vernakular, In Richard Gomez at ang Mito ng Pagkalalake, Sharon Cuneta at ang perpetwal na birhen at iba pang sanaysay ukol sa Bida sa Pelikula bilang kultural na texto. Pasig City: Anvil Publishing, Inc.
_________________. (August 2, 2008) Indie Cinema bilang Kultural na kapital, Bulalat.com, Retrieved from (http://bulatlat.com/main/2008/08/02/indie-cinema-bilang-kultural-na- kapital/)
Zizek, S. (1991). Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: MIT Press


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