Less than three months after releasing one of the most courageous anti-Duterte videos in recent memory, Kangkungan, Mike de Leon has dropped another bomb on the online world while everyone was literally sleeping. Around 4 this morning, May 7, the director of Sister Stella L., Kisapmata and Batch ’81, posted a new documentary compilation on the Citizen Jake Facebook account. It’s entitled Mr. Li, a 7-minute, 50-second exposition on the growing influence of China in the world, with particular interest in the superpower’s relationship with the Philippines.
“I have always been fascinated by Chinese history and sort of missed out on what was happening there and during the Hu Jintao era or after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989,” the reclusive director, who turns 72 this month, tells ANCX.ph via email when asked what inspired the video. He decided to revisit this fascination when, in his words, the current Philippine president “started his love affair with China.”
You may also like:
In February, he released the video, Kangkungan, with a maiden screening at the Cine Adarna in UP; it was played before the beginning and after the end credits of what was touted to be the last screening of his latest feature Citizen Jake. Kangkungan was the director’s summation of the Philippine condition in the last three years, beginning with Rodrigo Duterte’s rise to fame, and then to power. “Sa ngalan ng digma laban sa droga, naghasik siya ng lagim sa bayan natin,” says the voice over of actor Teroy Guzman in the docu. The veteran theater actor, who essayed the role of the controlling patriarch in Citizen Jake, also lends his voice for Mr. Li which is really anchored on the director’s personal narrative.
Mr. Li begins at the Olympic park in China, with a man singing a Chinese revolutionary song called “Sailing The Seas Depends on the Helmsman.” It is a footage de Leon himself took when he was visiting China as a tourist in 2011. He baptized the singing man Mr. Li, and imagined him a fanatical follower of Chairman Mao, “pining for the Great Proletarian Revolution.”
In De Leon’s email reply to ANCX.ph, he took us back to the moment he filmed the footage. “I looked around me and nobody was paying attention to him but I hung around and even asked my young guide, the real Mr. Li, if he recognized the song. He didn't, of course; he was quite young. I told him a little of the Red Guards and Mao's cultural revolution but I sensed he wasn't interested. He said most Chinese just wanted to own a car and make a lot of money. I asked him how he could reconcile that with Communism. He just shrugged his shoulders. Anyway, I continued filming the man who was singing that song.”
De Leon went back to the footage for the new documentary. Apart from books, Mr. Li's research is supplemented by his sizable collection of documentaries on China which he asked Tom Estrera III and Carlo Fajarda to watch. The two share credits with De Leon on the project (Estrera is one of the editors of Citizen Jake). “Tom and Carlo were quite eager to watch them all,” says De Leon of his much younger team. “Of course, masyadong marami but they tried their best (they were genuinely interested) and I sort of filled in the blanks. Now I’m reading up on Xi Jinping and China's new role in the world. Kaya ako lalong nabubuwisit kay Duterte, ang torpe talaga, imagining he had a one of a kind relationship with China.”
De Leon started writing the script just two weeks ago, with his documentary collection and travel footage in mind. Voice talent Guzman made time for the recording despite being busy with a new play. “I showed him a rough cut on a tablet to give him an idea that although it was me who was supposed to be telling the story, for obvious reasons, hindi ko kaya na ako ang mag-relate, although I narrated the editing guide," offers De Leon. "He roared with laughter when he saw the Chinese clip of Citizen Jake.”
The documentary—polished, funny (watch out for a Bruce Lee appearance and a parody of Citizen Jake that involves the consuming of xiao long bao), and compelling—arrives at a moment when there’s a growing number of Filipinos expressing their concern over the increased presence of Mainland Chinese in the Philippines, and when China’s continuous claims to the West Philippine Seas remains a hot issue.
“Ako naman ang lagi kong iniisip, China and its 'century of humiliation'— when the country was practically dismembered by the Western powers in the 19th century,” says the director. “With Xi Jinping, America's decline is much more evident. China was or is opening up while America was walling itself in with Trump. Maski nung 1970s or late 60s, I would tell friends here and Germany [where de Leon studied], that one day, China will regain its status as the center of the universe.” Back then De Leon was rooting for China. Back then he was a believer in Mao’s revolution. “But now things are vastly different,” the director says.