In his much-anticipated memoir, “Last Look Back,” the director Mike De Leon includes several pictures of him as a kid, a wide-eyed little guest at the grand birthday parties of his grandmother Doña Sisang, a witness to LVN milestones like his father Manuel returning home from the Asian Film Festival in Hong Kong with trophies in hand for “Anak Dalita” which he produced. In these snaps, the young boy, with his buzz cut and short pants, often appears confused, maybe a bit lost. Or in De Leon’s own words, looking back at the images now in his 70s, “overwhelmed…perhaps even traumatized.”
An insider with an outsider’s point of view. It’s a position the man behind Filipino film classics, “Batch ‘81,” “Kisapmata,” and “Kakabakaba Ka Ba?” has assumed or found himself in perhaps for a great part of his life—from being the film newbie and privileged kid producing a movie for an already established Lino Brocka in 1975 (“Maynila Sa Kuko ng Liwanag”) to being a “social media dropout” at the time he was to release2017’s “Citizen Jake,” his last completed film, aching to get out of the noxious world that got him in a number of online squabbles. “It brought out the worst in me,” he says of Facebook. “I didn’t like what I was becoming.”
It’s this outsider POV he takes on writing “Last Look Back”—which makes the two-volume memoir not only an account of his personal history in movies but a bold and honest critique of his life in it, acknowledging mistakes and the parts where he got things right, while also marking missed opportunities. It’s a refreshing, satisfying, enriching read. Mostly because it doesn’t fall into the usual trap many local memoirs fall into: the need to fashion a hero’s tale and make everything seem fine and dandy. Yet despite this, or maybe because of it, the book delivers both the necessary juice and access.
The writing is straightforward but not without emotion: you can almost feel the contempt he has for the people who’s wronged him, his movies, and his country. His convictions as an artist, among them that he must be free to pursue his vision, remains to be as strong as when he was starting.
And yes fans, movie insiders, followers of Philippine cinema will relish the recollections, especially those who grew up watching LVN productions from their TV sets as kids in the 80s, the same generation who rediscovered Mike’s own films in adulthood and continue to hold them in high regard. He takes us, for starters, inside his Lola Sisang’s famed mansion in Broadway, New Manila, where he watched movies being made in every part of the property—except for the house’s second floor where Mike lived with his parents and siblings.
In the book, he calls it their “split level existence,” in that the ground floor was his grandmother’s komiks-filled territory spruced and tidied up by household help in random pambahay, while upstairs was his mother’s domain, “smaller, neater, more tastefully appointed…maintained by a battalion of maids in uniform.” Adds De Leon: “My parents discouraged us from saying we were rich, which was belied by their lifestyle.”
Mike seems to have always been aware his family lived in far better circumstances than most. He recalls being friends with the children of their drivers and gardeners who lived at the backlot. From among them he would first hear, during one or their childhood fights, the line “Kapag bumaligtad ang mundo, kami naman ang nasa itaas”—which must have really struck a chord because it remained in Mike’s consciousness for decades, ending up finally as part of the dialogue in “Citizen Jake” more than a half century later.
The De Leon grandchildren were very close to Doña Sisang who the author describes as “a feisty woman with a sharp tongue,” a kind of Don Corleone even, “respected, feared, loved.” Their Sunday mornings were dedicated to keeping the LVN matriarch company—joining her at Mass, having breakfast with her, going with her to LVN to watch the latest footage from ongoing productions. During her annual birthday celebrations, which were big two-day affairs, it was her stars’ turn to gather ‘round her presence. “LVN was my grandmother’s movie hacienda, and she ran it like a feudal lord,” writes Mike in the book, “instilling in her actors, directors, and technicians a profound sense of family, morality, and loyalty.”
While the director takes us into these parties and the other highlights of his past through recollections and observations, the book also boasts pages upon pages of vintage photographs—all curated by Mike himself, one of local cinema’s great visual storytellers—all the more bringing his words to life. The images alone gathered in this book already makes “Last Look Back” an absolute cineastes’ treasure.
Of course, Mike also takes us behind the scenes of his movies, telling us, for example, the reason he urged Lino Brocka to replace Jay Ilagan with Bembol Roco for the role of Julio Madiaga in “Maynila Sa Kuko ng Liwanag,” a move that will somehow lead to Jay beating up Lino the day he was to shoot the important motel scene where Julio and Ligaya, played by Hilda Koronel, finally get to steal a moment together. (Hilda was then Jay’s wife in real life.)
On the set that day, tension was high. Mike, both producer and cinematographer of the film, wanted to call off the shoot; but his director and actress who were late and “in an understandably lousy mood” said they were good to work—until it turned out they weren’t.
“After exposing almost an entire 400-foot reel of color negative (very expensive in those days) for a four-minute take, it became apparent that Lino was unhappy with Hilda’s performance and his direction,” recalls the author. There are other details to this story but let’s just say it ends with an understandably pissed Mike walking out of the set—but not before taking off his contrast-viewing filter and quietly telling everyone, “Producer ako ngayon, hindi cinematographer. Tapusin niyo ang eksenang ito.”
A visit of Mike’s father on the set of “Itim” in San Miguel, Bulacan, meanwhile, paints a picture of an uneasy father-son relationship. Shooting at his grandmother’s house, the young director felt he had total control of his set—until Manny de Leon arrived. Mike thought he was dropping by to check on his son making his debut directorial feature, but he started giving Mike a scolding for taking out one of two kamagong beds from his parents’ room. “Don’t you know those two beautiful beds were put together in their room shortly after the house was built?” Mike’s father asked. “They have never been taken out. And now the other bed is down on the front yard and the crew is playing cards on it.” Mike apologized. Looking back, he says he was “young, a bit stupid, quite insensitive, and overzealous.”
Fathers play an important role in Mike’s movies: there’s the terrifying authoritarian Dadong in “Kisapmata”; the journalist/vlogger Jake’s dad in “Citizen Jake,” Senator Jacobo Herrera; and the unseen father in “Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising,” asserting his influence in his son Joey’s decisions even if he’s only a mere voice on the phone. Manny de Leon certainly played an influential part, too, in his filmmaker son’s life, the weight of his suggestions, the stoic expression that might have held a hundred different meanings. “My father wasn’t easy to figure out,” writes Mike. “He wasn’t expressive of his feelings, and we grew up relatively distant from him and my mother.”
Mike and Manny would, however, become close later in life. “Even for a few years, I felt we had become friends,” Mike says, “that we finally had a real father-son relationship.” Based on the book, the younger De Leon picked up a few things about making movies from his dad, who helped run LVN with Doña Sisang. And of the movies the family studio churned out, it seems the director takes the most pride in those his father produced, like Lamberto Avellana’s “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino” whose restoration Mike spearheaded in 2015. The younger De Leon may have considered many LVN productions bakya and embarrassing during his youth but he would gain a deep affection for them later in life, appointing himself their custodian, saving as many of the films as he can from total destruction.
“I don’t think it’s presumptuous to say that my cinematic pedigree (to borrow a term from my dog breeding days) goes back to my grandmother’s and father’s legacy and their films that remain close to my heart,” writes Mike. “That is the emotional continuum that runs deeply through every one of the films that I’ve produced, photographed, co-written and directed.”
“Last Look Back” is a literal heavyweight, with the first book alone running up to 285 pages, and the second an even thicker read. But of course that’s not the only reason it’s a hefty tome. There are stories here many might be learning about for the first time. Like the one about that funny retort Mike told FPJ on the set of “Agila,” which The Action King didn’t find funny at all and might have led to Poe telling Mike in a movie party: “I can make a ‘Kisapmata’ any day in my life, but I challenge you to make a ‘Panday.’”
And then there’s the evening he spent at a military camp during the early days of Martial Law, where he was questioned by a “dreadful” Rolando Abadilla about some protest footage he was taking and his “alleged involvement in the making of subversive films.” Mike recalls of Abadilla: “The man’s calm demeanor was made sinister by his subtle leer that scared the shit out of me.”
In one portion of the book, the author even gets to address the issue about his famous temper, his mood swings, which has followed him for most of his career. “Film is a director’s medium,” he says, “and if the director also happens to be the film’s producer, he is literally accountable to no one but himself and his craft. Of course, that is no excuse for bad behavior, but unless he has a psychiatrist on the set checking his mental pulse all the time, clashes are bound to happen.”
“Last Look Back” is a chronicle of a film artist’s evolution. It’s the story of what it was like to be a filmmaker of relevance during a very dark period in the nation’s history, where one either almost always had a run in with uniformed men or with the Censors chief. But the book is ultimately the story of one of Philippine cinema’s greats, from watching how movies were made in the very house he grew up in; to making the movies himself and meeting people who would become very influential in his life (film students will be inspired by Mike’s exchange with Brocka, on how they mounted the unforgettable final scene of “Maynila”); and finally to save these movies from the fate suffered by hundreds of Filipino films made before the digital era: now lost or completely rotten and never to be seen again.
The book is Mike De Leon “compelled to keep the memories alive.” He had already started making another movie called “Unfinished Business” before the pandemic shut the whole world down. But having completed this book, he sounds like he no longer regrets not finishing the film. The book “seems a worthwhile replacement,” Mike writes towards the end. “Even better than a substitute: ‘Last Look Back’ is my latest, perhaps my last, film.”