“I disagree. Even vehemently.” Teddy Co is voicing out his dispute in his usual laid-back manner, but I believe his vehemence as much as I believe his optimism. We’re talking about the persistent scuttlebutt that Philippine cinema has plateaued into a point of aesthetic stagnation, homogenized into a sort of productive mediocrity. “Commercial cinema, maybe,” he qualifies and concedes, cognizant of the fact that a few weeks before we had this conversation yet another studio rom-com has become the highest-grossing domestic film of all time. Cognizant, too, I should add, that the landscape of commercial cinema has over the years become increasingly monopolized, to the point of being virtually colonized, by a single genre.
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“Philippine cinema is not one monolithic film industry,” he says. “It’s very, very diversified. You can make a film as cultural expression, as self-expression, they don’t have to make money. Commercial cinema is only one kind of cinema.” You could feel Co’s enthusiasm and conviction when he softly declares that the rest of it, the regional films and the arthouse films and the short films and the experimental films and the animated films and the non-commercial films and the documentary films, specially the documentary films, is in robust shape. “I’m still excited about Philippine cinema. I’ve seen how it has developed through the years and at no time in its history have we had this kind of diversity. All these workshops, all these grants, all these filmmakers, the free-flow of information. It’s more open now. You can actually do anything. It’s not always about the bottom line.”
You can’t help but listen to Co when he tells his stories. The vibrant anecdotal detail and the outright glee and unbridled enthusiasm he has when he tells them can suck you in. But it’s his longevity that gives his reminiscences its sumptuous traction, tinged by a keening mindfulness of how the past informs the present informs the future, rhapsodizing as he does about his primordial days as a young man from a middle-class, typically entrepreneurial Chinoy family who ran a garment business in Divisoria, on the cusp of the cinephilia that has defined and sustained him all these years, but not letting himself drown in his own nostalgia, looking back and looking forward at the same time.
He talks about the time he was crazy enough to dabble in film distribution, as a single-man operation, screening Chen Kaige’s relatively uncommercial Palme D’or winner Farewell My Concubine for five whole weeks and, impressively enough, breaking even. The 19 consecutive years he went to the Hong Kong International Film Festival on his own dime and how it was a Buster Keaton retrospective that convinced him to go the first time. His detective knack for unearthing previously lost films or previously unsung but crucial figures, like the production designer Vicente Bonus, who not only studied under Amorsolo but turns out to be the premier production designer of his time working primarily with Gerry De Leon (and whom he helped curate a retrospective on).
But it’s his longevity that gives his reminiscences its sumptuous traction, tinged by a keening mindfulness of how the past informs the present informs the future.
Funnily enough, I’ve listened to his stories for years but this is the first time I’m hearing the story of how it all began. “I wanted to study film in college. Problem was there was no film course in UP. I enrolled in Mass Communication, but I wanted to learn the art of making films, not the craft of broadcasting. It wasn’t the same. But I was in UP. You had the UP Film Center, under Virgie Moreno. That became sort of the virtual arthouse cinema. I had an epiphany when I saw Brocka’s Maynila Sa Kuko Ng Liwanag. Wow. It blew me away. I asked myself, ‘Filipino films can be this good?’”
Co eventually dropped out of college after two years but he had by then developed this voracious appetite for a cinema other than the Hollywood and domestic studio entertainments that dominated the theaters. And as if tinged with destiny—and who’s to say that wasn’t the case?—he didn’t have to go very far to feed his hunger. “From 1976 to the early 80s, I discovered world cinema, because I discovered these cultural institutes: Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Alliance Francaise. Even the National Museum eventually screened Tagalog classics. The Manila Film Center became a de facto cinematheque for awhile. They were even a couple of theaters in Ongpin that showed Chinese cinema, in Mandarin. I saw King Hu’s Come Drink With Me there. These films were so hard to come by and then you discover to your surprise that they’re just right there, some of them were even being shown for free.
“My first year I watched around 108 films, theatrical. A few years later, I watched 400. My knowledge base was built up from here. To me, it was paradise.”
Co tried film school at some point, Mowelfund to be exact, but realized he had no patience for filmmaking. Shifting to Fine Arts was a glimmer in his eye he never followed through on but if he did, Co imagines he would have been a conceptual artist, a good one if the few conceptual pieces he dabbled in were any indication, and he would probably be more famous, probably richer, too.
I had an epiphany when I saw Brocka’s Maynila Sa Kuko Ng Liwanag. Wow. It blew me away. I asked myself, ‘Filipino films can be this good?’”
Then there’s his legendary collection of film literature and paraphernalia. “I have four rooms full of books. Each room is the size of a small condo unit. I’m not a collector. Collectors have order. I don’t. But I’m a completist, as long as it’s at bargain prices. I do it out of a natural curiosity, to acquire knowledge. Maybe I was overcompensating because I was a dropout. But it’s only right. Unlike some members of academe. You will not believe the number of teachers teaching film who don’t watch Filipino films, for instance. It’s inexcusable.”
“I have four rooms full of books. Each room is the size of a small condo unit. I’m not a collector. Collectors have order. I don’t. But I’m a completist.”
Co fancies himself more as a hobbyist who is equal parts curator, researcher and sleuth. “It’s cultural work. But it’s not really work.” But what he has been “doing,” at least in occupational terms, is serve as commissioner for the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and for the last few years, in all disciplines, not just film. “It’s not a 9 to 5 job, but you can’t hold on to another job either. It’s very hectic. Many days you’re on call.”
Just before he turned 50, having lost two brothers at a young age, and having undergone his own near-death experience, the existential doubt set in, and he started to worry if he was going to exit frame without leaving much behind. “But after surviving that, everything I planned on doing when I was younger, started to happen, not simultaneously, but one by one, slowly.”
One of these things was Cinemarehiyon, the annual festival of films from the different Philippine regions. “As early as 1987 I had written about the possibility of regional cinema happening. Developing regional cinema has always been one of my advocacies. And we’ve been very successful. Cinemarehiyon is now eleven going on twelve years. There are currently 18 other regional film festivals. There’s a film scene in almost every region. That’s the Philippines. This year’s Cinemalaya Best Picture, John Denver Trending, is in kinaray-a. That’s not a mainstream dialect, like Visayan or Ilonggo. You want to have a national language, fine. But not at the expense of the others. Whatever your mother tongue is, whatever our culture, flaunt it, be proud of it. People are saying regional cinema is the future. I agree.”
It's getting late and time to wind down but having spent the last couple of hours seeing Philippine cinema through Co’s eyes, its rosy, slightly utopian tinge given veracity by the sort of pragmatic sobriety that only comes from having seen cycles run its course then pick up again, has somehow pried loose the gray pall that seemed to hang over everything — which is to say that Co’s optimism, his hopefulness, about Philippine cinema, his refusal to give cynicism any skin in the game, is infectious, an optimism you believe in because it’s earned, but also because it’s the same hope I have, the same hope one would like to think all of us have.
“Commercial films may be losing money and that can result in the death of the film industry as we’ve defined it, but there are other forms that will rise up. And they don’t have to rise up in Metro Manila.”
Portraits by Joseph Pascual