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The director as rock star. Peque Gallaga in Negros, his hometown, while working on Oro, Plata, Mata (1981). Photo courtesy of the De La Salle University Library

The towering, wondrous legacy of Peque Gallaga

The director always confounded expectations, beginning with his instant classic, Oro Plata Mata. By ANDREW PAREDES 
ANCX | May 07 2020

In Christmas of 1997, at the release of Magic Kingdom, I found myself through an unlikely set of circumstances partaking of Ilonggo hospitality at Peque Gallaga’s home in Bacolod. I was working as a copywriter for McCann-Erickson at the time, but I was moonlighting for the Gokongwei-owned Manila Times, writing a weekly column under the pseudonymous persona of a film critic with dubious taste. The American-born production designer that I had accompanied on that holiday trip thought it would be fun to parade my latest column, which had the laboriously satirical title of “Tragic Kingdom”, around the table just to see how Peque would react. Perching the hands that held the newspaper on his generous belly, Peque took a few moments to skim the column while I wilted in embarrassment. Then Peque raised his eyes at me from behind his spectacles…and roared in laughter.

Peque Gallaga, who died at the age of 76 in Bacolod on May 7 due to complications from past health conditions, always confounded expectations. He seemed to spring fully formed as a director with only his second film, the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines-produced Oro, Plata, Mata. Watching that 1982 movie now—half of a one-two punch with Ishmael Bernal’s Himala which signaled the ECP’s grandiose ambitions of producing only awards-bait films—it’s amazing to ponder how Peque could have staged a film of such epic sweep so early in his career. Until you do the math and realize that, at 39, he got his directorial break late in life. Having accumulated enough experience and conviction in his own artistry, Peque was born ready to direct the film that would announce him to Philippine cinema.

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Directing Kuh Ledesma as the ghost in Oro Plata Mata. Photo courtesy of the De La Salle University Library

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Born Maurice Claudio Luis Ruiz de Luzuriaga Gallaga, Peque worked his way up the ranks, paying his dues as sometime-actor and production designer on such landmark Filipino films as Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon? and Bernal’s City After Dark, and even on the American B-movie creature feature Up From the Depths. It’s a résumé aspiring directors should kill for: a schooling in the breadth of subject matter and approach that was most apparent in Peque’s uncanny ability to bring warm-blooded immediacy to his award-caliber films and lofty ambition to his commercial work.

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He showed his great ambition from the onset. Here, he is shown directing the meticulous and complicated one-take party scene that opens his masterwork, Oro Plata Mata. Photo courtesy of the De La Salle University Library

After Oro, Plata, Mata became an instant classic, critics wondered how Peque could possibly match such a monumental achievement with his follow up. Refusing to cave under the pressure, Peque pivoted to mass-oriented entertainment and staked his claim on a pair of genres with his next two successes: directing the slam-bang “Manananggal” episode for the Douglas Quijano-produced first installment of the Shake, Rattle & Roll horror franchise (1984), and 1985’s scorching voyeuristic sex drama Scorpio Nights.

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Peque with Irma Alegre’s wings in the Manananggal episode of the first Shake, Rattle and Roll. Photo from @archivo1984 on Instagram

Anybody who watched Irma Alegre slather oil all over her body in a torch-lit forest in “Manananggal” or Daniel Fernando and Anna Marie Gutierrez swap spit in Scorpio Nights could instinctively grasp what Peque was communicating: the sense of danger in sex, the inherent horror in obsession. It’s a dark undercurrent that was present even in his first family-oriented film, the 1987 Dolphy-headlining Once Upon a Time. That Regal-produced fantasy opus was also the start of a long collaboration with fellow director Lore Reyes, a partnership that would last for nearly two decades and span such beloved titles as Tiyanak (1988), three more Shake, Rattle & Roll movies released over the span of 1990-1992, and Magic Temple (1996). In 1997’s Diliryo, in which Jomari Yllana and Giselle Tongi played lovers whose obsessive desire for each other manifests in a breathtaking climax where the two actors trash their condo down to the last pulverized vase, Peque seemed to crystallize his thesis as a filmmaker: Even the most wholesome of emotions can mask devastating impulses.

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Before his big directorial debut at 39, he’s already been doing movies, but as a production designer and actor. Here he is in a scene from Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos. Photo courtesy of ABS-CBN Film Restoration

In June of 2000, Peque took up the post of Artist-in-Residence at the University of St. La Salle in Bacolod City, largely eschewing the hustle and grind of the filmmaking scene in Manila to help oversee the school’s efforts to beef up their audio-visual programs. In a way, the academic post suited Peque: His once-intense mestizo looks had mellowed with age into a flowing mane of silvery hair and luxurious beard, giving him the look of a rotund Gandalf-like figure. But Peque had it in him to produce one more masterwork: 2013’s Sonata, in which Cherie Gil plays an opera diva in the twilight of her career who regains her sense of purpose through her friendship with a boy who lives in a hacienda. Any parallelisms to real life are up for debate, but the film’s evocative sense of place and gently elegiac tone are beyond reproach.

Peque once reputedly said, “Directing is like dancing on the teeth of insanity.” While the circumstances under which he is supposed to have said those words are now hard to find, they sound right: It’s a provocative quote that burnishes Peque’s myth. What’s for sure is that this one-of-a-kind filmmaker’s pirouettes on the edge will inspire our darkest dreams for generations to come.