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What it will really take for Philippine movies to break through internationally

As Bong Joon-ho has learned from Brocka, so has our own filmmakers — but there is still much to be done. And this time it’s the Korean director who shines the light 
Andrew Paredes | Feb 14 2020

The ripple effects of Parasite’s Best Picture victory at the Academy Awards are still being felt.

At the Governors Ball and the different after-parties on Oscar Sunday, studio executives and industry insiders were heard debating what a non-English language film winning the top prize meant for Hollywood. One was heard saying that France has the César, Spain has the Goya, the United Kingdom has the BAFTAs—“perhaps Oscar should celebrate its own country’s cinema.” 

Which is patently absurd: Hollywood machinery relies on audiences around the world to make a profit, so why shouldn’t it take international tastes into account when it defines excellence in filmmaking? As Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang wrote in his post-Oscars column: “Parasite has dealt a much-needed slap to the American film industry’s narcissism, its long-standing love affair with itself, its own product and its own image. It has startled the academy into recognizing that no country's cinema has a monopoly on greatness — no small thing at a time when trumped-up nationalism and xenophobia have a way of seeping into our art no less than our politics."

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In practical terms—ie: the box office—Parasite also continues to astound. According to earnings tracker Box Office Mojo, the Korean thriller/dark comedy/class-warfare satire zoomed from number 12 in the North American rankings from the previous week to number 4 on the Monday after the Oscars aired, registering a 213% bump in earnings, helping Parasite close in on $40 million in domestic gross—a figure unheard of for a specialty box office entry with subtitles. In a town eager to replicate its successes, you can bet these figures are pricking up the ears of studio bigwigs.

At the Oscar viewing party where I witnessed Parasite’s momentous win, the room erupted in sobs as much as elated screams. It’s not just that the film served as a revenge fantasy-slash-primal howl for people increasingly hobbled by the elite’s untrammeled accumulation of economic and political power. Or that Parasite’s campaign effectively built up the narrative that it was an underdog going up against the Hollywood establishment. No; when it came down to a non-English language film walking away victorious in the movies’ biggest gladiator fight, it wasn’t the cinema of the West that stood tall…but Asia’s.

Which now begs the question: How can Philippine cinema follow the path forged by Parasite, and break through internationally?

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Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder

Of course, any marketing and advertising executive will tell you that first you need a top-grade product. But movies aren’t detergent. So what does that mean, exactly?

The conventional argument for a foreign film to make inroads into the global distribution pipeline has always been that it must embrace its foreign-ness. Your film must be immersed in the specificities of its culture and rely on its themes—its Statement on the Human Condition—to carry the weight of its universality. And obviously this is what Bong Joon Ho did in Parasite, portraying a peculiar brand of poverty in Seoul with its basement apartment-dwelling family of grifters. (And what a clever wink to name the two families at the center of the plot with the most catch-all of Korean surnames: the Kims and the Parks.) Every detail, from the Scholar Stone to the eccentricities of Korean drinking binges, felt delightfully exotic.

And so we slavishly followed the conventional wisdom and followed the model built by one of our most internationally recognized filmmakers, Lino Brocka. Back in the ‘70s heyday of critically acclaimed Filipino films, Brocka gained prominence in the global film circuit with gritty realist dramas like Insiang and Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag. Since then, every Filipino director with aspirations of being taken seriously has more or less riffed on the idea of souls rotting away in the dark underbelly of the city. But these filmmakers seem to have forgotten one tiny detail about Brocka: When his pocketbook dictated it, he was not above directing mass-oriented melodramas like Babangon Ako’t Dudurugin Kita and Hahamakin Lahat.

Brocka gained prominence in the global film circuit with gritty realist dramas like Insiang and Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (pictured).

That Brocka never really got to mesh his social-issues activism with his producer-given mandate to entertain is one of the biggest regrets of his cut-too-short career. Because that is what filmmakers need to do now to gain the attention of the international market: smuggle their statements into the paradigms of genre storytelling. Bong’s formative years molded him into a director that could do that elegantly. He spent his youth watching Hollywood movies delivered via the boosted signal of the American armed forces channel in South Korea. It’s not an accident that with Parasite, Bong has been hailed as the Korean incarnation of Hitchcock. He imbibed the genre disciplines of Hollywood storytelling, then ran them through the prism of his unique experience. When you watch his earlier works like Memories of Murder or The Host, you are entertained even as you recognize the unique hallmarks of a truly Korean director.

That is what filmmakers need to do now to gain the attention of the international market: smuggle their statements into the paradigms of genre storytelling. 

Put it another way: Sure, you may feel the artistic validation of being woke when you show the claustrophobic passageways and brackish water of a squatter colony. But unless you’ve got a plot that zips along, who’ll pay admission to sit through your unrelenting slog?

When his pocketbook dictated it, he was not above directing mass-oriented melodramas.

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On the other end of product lies shrewd marketing. And that’s where Hollywood comes in.

The truth of the fact is, you could have a film that would make Francois Truffaut turn deeper shades of envious green in his grave, but unless you have champions with deep pockets both at home and abroad to trumpet your film’s virtues all over the world, you may as well store it in a vault.

That’s what Parasite had with CJ Entertainment, a prominent player in South Korea’s enviably healthy film industry, and upstart production and distribution company Neon. Again, Bong was uniquely positioned to foster Hollywood contacts: After breaking through with The Host, Bong held no hesitation working on American-funded genre entertainments like sci-fi actioner Snowpiercer and E.T. the Extraterrestrial-flavored fantasy Okja. Following in the footsteps of Mexican directors like Alejandro Gonzalez Inñarritu, Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro—Oscar-winning directors all—Bong was not afraid to shore up his Hollywood bonafides and establish a career across the Pacific.

He imbibed the genre disciplines of Hollywood storytelling, then ran them through the prism of his unique experience. 

And still he saved his most personal project for an all-Korea cast, crew and setting. But by then he was so well-entrenched in Hollywood that Neon president Tom Quinn snapped up distribution rights to Parasite on the basis of its script alone. While CJ Entertainment worked up the appetite of a homegrown audience pre-conditioned to patronize Korean films first—to the eventual tune of a $72 million domestic gross—Neon helped Bong navigate the international film festival circuit all the way to a Cannes Palme D’Or victory and a strategic Oscar season campaign with a steady infusion of cash and marketing know-how.

All this took money—tons and tons of it. But it is time we acknowledged the fact that we need to forge mutually beneficial relationships with deep-pocketed local investors and well-placed partners overseas if we want to have a shot at being taken seriously everywhere on the planet. Investments of time and effort are required to forge friendships. Which then, in turn, beget investments of money and marketing.

Bong Joon-ho’s Hollywood project, Okja

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A lot of elements came together to form the perfect moment for Parasite. At least one of them took years and years in the making: a culture that fosters creative excellence.

It might seem strange to mention K-Pop and its rigorous standards (that, mind you, have often caused breakdowns and suicides among its young stars) in an article like this. But K-Pop, being one of South Korea’s most visible exports, serves as a handy example of the point I’m trying to make. You watch a slickly choreographed performance by BTS or a sleek music video from Black Pink, and the Western influences are hard to miss. Again, the imbibing of Western principles and work ethic are at play here: At the infancy of the genre, K-Pop producers weren’t shy about recruiting foreign talent to help spit-polish their records. And once they learned the tricks of obsessive attention to detail and willingness to experiment creatively, K-Pop producers started doing it themselves.

It is time we acknowledged the fact that we need to forge mutually beneficial relationships with deep-pocketed local investors and well-placed partners overseas 

We need to actively seek out opportunities to see how Hollywood practitioners work: their preparedness and brass-tacks planning, their economy of movement, their twin mantras that time is money and the set is not a picnic. We need to make the Philippines an attractive place for foreign film companies to shoot in, then hungrily observe their ways and practices. At the very least, we have to start planning the development of our movies so that we don’t end up still shooting footage a week before their playdates.

And on top of that, we need a government that actively fosters an environment where local films can flourish. A government that does not overtax, in the mistaken belief that producers are rolling around in dough. A government that does not censor, wielding a classification system over film practitioners’ heads like a sword that promises to decapitate an audience’s ability to watch a film if the subject is too “uncomfortable”. A government that disburses funds judiciously, rewarding grants to upcoming filmmaking voices, providing seed money as incentives to exciting projects, and encouraging film education in schools, beyond just the paltry plane tickets and accommodations to foreign festivals.

 

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It would be naïve to think that Parasite’s history-making victory now presages a history of consistency. If there’s one thing the Academy’s voting patterns have shown us, it is an institution that takes one step forward and two steps back. Two years after the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was launched, the 2017 nominees had seven actors of color among a roster of 20 acting nominees; in 2020, despite a wealth of worthy candidates, exactly one. And despite Kathryn Bigelow’s glass ceiling-shattering win as Best Director for The Hurt Locker in 2009, female directors have since had trouble duplicating her feat—or even getting nominated.

Hollywood may feel it has done its duty and reward retrograde movies in the mold of Green Book for the next few years. Which is just as well for Philippine cinema—that last prescription of a cultural shift is a doozy to fill. But if there’s one cue that we should get from Parasite, it is that we can do it. It will take a lot of pain, it will take a lot of effort, it will take a lot of paradigm-shifting…but if we want it hard enough, we can do it.