November is turning out to be a big month for Mike de Leon fans. The screening of the restored “Itim” (1976), De Leon’s feature film debut as director, is one of the highlights of the Quezon City Film Festival (November 18-27). His book, “Last Look Back,” about his memories growing up in the movie-making world, is also scheduled for release. But perhaps bigger than either of these two events is New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) dedicating the entire month of November to a retrospective of the award-winning helmsman’s works.
Entitled “Mike de Leon, Self-Portrait of a Filipino Filmmaker,” it is the first complete retrospective of the director’s works, which means it includes not only the big ones he is most remembered for—“AKO Batch ‘81,” “Kisapmata,” “”Kakabakaba Ka Ba?”, his most recent “Citizen Jake”—but also his shorts including the anti- Marcos “Signos” (1983) and the more recent “Mr. Li” (2019), an exploration of China’s growing influence in the world, with special interest in its complicated relationship with the Philippines.
De Leon is known for weaving compelling fictional narratives that carry highly political messages. He is a master in showing us how the political creeps into personal universes: the labor conflict in a bright-eyed novitiate’s life in “Sister Stella L,” the dictatorship in a father’s relationship with his daughter in “Kisapmata,” and Japanese imperialism in the adventures of a burgis barkada in “Kakabakaba Ka Ba?”
This is what keeps De Leon’s movies relevant, and it’s also why he is being celebrated by the MOMA. He is described by the revered museum as “one of Filipino cinema’s fiercely political and dramatic storytellers,” and his oeuvre a mix of genres but spiked “with blisteringly critical stances toward his country’s history of corruption and cronyism, state-sponsored violence, feudalist exploitation, and populist machismo: the festering legacies of the nation’s colonial past made even more purulent by the dictatorships of Ferdinand Marcos and Rodrigo Duterte.”
The retrospective also references De Leon’s unique journey and perspective in moviemaking, having culled influences not only from Hollywood and European pictures but also from watching, as a child, how movies are made at LVN, the movie studio founded by his grandmother, Doña Narcisa “Sisang” De Leon. Hence, one would find in the MoMA program screenings of LVN’s “Mutya ng Pasig” (1950), “Malvarosa” (1958), and “Anak Dalita” (1956).