My close encounters with Bien Lumbera, National Artist 2
Lumbera 10 years ago. Photographed by Wig Tysmans.

In memoriam: Manunuri-ing and popular-culture vulture-ing with Bien Lumbera

Until he passed away on Sept. 28, 2021, National Artist for Literature Bienvenido L. Lumbera was the country’s foremost living critic and culture scholar
Lito B. Zulueta | Oct 03 2021

I got to know of Bienvenido Lumbera not because of his literary scholarship or creative works but because of his film criticism. A movie aficionado in my adolescence, I experienced the heady days of the so-called Second Golden Age of Philippine Cinema in the 1970’s during Martial Law. Part of the excitement of the age was because of the film reviews written by the country’s leading penpushers published in the Daily Express, the Times Journal, and the few publications that were allowed to operate by the Marcos regime. 

The film reviewers were a who’s-who of Philippine letters—Petronilo Bn. Daroy, Nestor U. Torre, T.D. Agcaoili, Nicanor Tiongson, Agustin Sotto III, Mario Hernando, Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., and Bienvenido Lumbera. In 1976, the year of “Insiang,” “Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?”, “Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo,” “Tatlong Taong Diyos”, “Tiket Mama, Tiket Ale, Sa Linggo ang Bola,” these critics united and formed the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, the society of film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian. The following year, the first edition of the awards was given. To this date, the Gawad Urian or film critics’ prize remains the most credible of the country’s award-giving bodies.

Bienvenido Lumbera
Acclaimed literature and culture scholar Bienvenido Lumbera was nothing less than the father of “Philippine studies.” Courtesy of Tala Lumbera.

Some 20 years later, I was invited by the Manunuri to join them. By then, the Manunuri had become quite known for its unorthodox choices and its peculiar habit of declaring ties in the hotly contested best actress derby (Nora Aunor for “Bona” and Gina Alajar for “Brutal” in 1980; Alajar for “Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim” and Nida Blanca for “Miguelito: Ang Batang Rebelde” in 1985; Pilar Pilapil for “Napakasakit, Kuya Eddie” and Jaclyn Jose for “Takaw Tukso” in 1986; Aunor for “Bilangin Ang Bituin sa Langit” in 1989 and Vilma Santos for “Pahiram ng isang Umaga”; Aunor for “The Flor Contemplacion Story” and Helen Gamboa for “Bagong Bayani” in 1995; and Aunor for “Bakit May Kahapon Pa?” and Sharon Cuneta for “Madrasta” in 1996. That particular quirk had so distinguished the Gawad Urian that it infuriated detractors, one of whom declared, “The Manunuri cannot seem to make up their mind!”

That catcall by a pseudo-critic of the critics left a bad taste in the mouth of the Manunuri, so that on my first year, I was the beneficiary of one of Bien’s very rare expressions of displeasure. Deliberating the best actress nominees that year, the Manunuri were again in a dilemma between two strong contenders. Knowing my Gawad Urian history, I advanced the usual—and the historically proven easy—recourse: “Let’s declare a tie.”

Bien glared at me and said, “Lito, don’t be wishy-washy!” He turned to the other Manunuri, “We should decide on only one winner! We should make up our minds!”

Mortified and perhaps permanently scarred, I have never again suggested declaring a tie in the Gawad Urian. Not that I don’t regret not challenging Bien’s wisdom. Shortly after that year when the Gawad Urian stopped declaring ties, the actress who was dropped to make way for only one winner passed away, unleashing Monday-morning quarterbacking remarks from the pseudo-critics of the critics that the Misers, este the Manunuri, had deprived her of one last chance at recognition before departure.

Perhaps I should disclose now one other peculiarity of the Gawad Urian: child actors have rarely won the acting award. During my initial years in the Manunuri when there were several child-nominees especially in the supporting-role categories, the Manunuri would suddenly have this attack of paternal (or is it maternal?) instinct, gushing over “How cute” this tyke was in this or that movie; and when it appeared that the kid would be chosen winner over the other—mostly adult—nominees, “Lolo Bien” would remark grumpily: “Hindi naman award sa pagpapakyut iyang Urian.”

Despite his occasional astringency, Bien was well-liked and very much respected in the entertainment world. When he was proclaimed National Artist in 2006, Vilma Santos, with eight trophies the most-awarded actor in the Gawad Urian and the fabulous mayor of his hometown Lipa City at that time, organized a colorful motorcade for him, endowing the world of letters and scholarship with popular acclaim and show-biz glamour.

Bienvenido Lumbera
Lumbera (3rd from left) fighting against censorship with (from left) Bodjie Pascua, Carlitos Siguion-Reyna, Bibeth Orteza, Armida Siguion-Reyna, Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka. Courtesy of Leon Gallery

Father of Philippine studies

Of course, Bien is an acclaimed literature and culture scholar, nothing less than the father of “Philippine studies.” His best known work is “Tagalog Poetry 1570-1898: Tradition and Influences in its Development,” the 1986 book that grew out of his 1966 doctoral dissertation as a Fulbright scholar at the Indiana University. The book sought to chart the evolution of Tagalog prosody leading to Francisco Baltazar, who would influence 20th century for better or for worse. In establishing the tradition, Lumbera used formalist “New Criticism” thereby validating the “artistic worth” of Baltazar’s classic poem as well as the poetry that had come before or along with it.

But Bien’s study has other achievements. He drew attention to the rich mine of folk poetry that are contained to illustrate or provide examples to the entries of the Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala (Manila, 1754), the Spanish-Tagalog dictionary by the Jesuits Juan de Noceda and Pedro de Sanlucar. After establishing the oral tradition of Tagalog literature during the Spanish contact, he analyzed several samples of extant poetry that marked the shift from oral to written literature in the 17th century, then the period of “assimilation and synthesis” in the 18th, and the “consolidation of tradition” in the 19th. 

He rescued from oblivion (or is it neglect?) the anonymous poet who wrote the closing verses for the Dominican Tagalista Francisco Blancas de San Jose’s “Memorial de la Vida”“May Bagyo Ma’t May Rilim” (Though it is Stormy and Dark). Identified by San Jose merely as “una Tagala persona,” that his name wasn’t given, according to Bien, was “an unfortunate omission because the poem is a fine specimen of early Tagalog poetry for which the author richly deserves to be celebrated.” 

He also reaffirmed the literary and cultural value of his fellow Batangueño Gaspar Aquino de Belen’s “Pasion”: “He towers over every poet before and immediately after him not merely by the learning and bulk of his preserved work, but principally by the intensity with which he recreated the Passion story.”

Bien himself was a solid poet, librettist, and dramatist. The songs he did with National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyan for the rock ballet musicals “Tales of the Manuvu” (1976) and “Rama, Hari” (1980) are popular culture classics.


Critiquing the critic

I was never a student of Bien, but since we both came from the University of Santo Tomas (UST), and we are alumni of the Varsitarian, the student organ of UST (he belonged to the 1950’s batch, along with my teacher, the late poetess Ophelia Alcantara-Dimalanta; I was with the “V” from 1984 to 1986), we became friends. In the late 1990s, as director of the UST Publishing House, I helped in the publication of his “Revaluation 1997: Essays on Philippine Literature, Cinema, and Popular Culture.” USTPH later published “Bayan at Lipunan: Ang Kritisismo ni Bienivenido L. Lumbera,” edited by Rosario Torres-Yu, in 2005; and “Anticipating Filipinas: Reading Bienvenido Lumbera as Critic,” edited by Charlie Samuya Veric, in 2006.

Because we were friends, I could tell Bien where I disagree with his work. I told him he was quite dismissive of the “missionary poets” and even of the “ladinos” Tomas Pinpin and Bagongbanta, pooh-poohing the work of the friars at cultural development across nearly four centuries. I cited the sarcasm with which he met Epifanio de los Santos’s remark that the Spaniards came during the Siglo de Oro—the Age of Quevedo and Gongora, of Lope de Vega, Calderon de la Barca, and Tirso de Molina—whose spirit “took root in the Philippines.” “The Spanish conquistadores were sons of the Golden Age, to be sure,” Bien quipped, “but their coming did not automatically bless the Philippines with the riches of Spanish literature. If it did, the three hundred years of Spanish Occupation would not have been the lean literary period that it was.” This is a very reductionist view of cultural development. Even E. Arsenio Manuel had pointed out that the Tagalog tradition in poetry was “a product of the interaction between native and Spanish poetry.”

Bienvenido Lumbera
With the founding members of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino. Lumbera is in the bottom row, third from left. Photo from the Cesar Hernando Collection

Free of jargon

Although a scholar, Lumbera’s criticism is remarkably free of jargon. I attribute this to his Litt.B. Journalism training at the old Faculty of Philosophy and Letters (Philets) of UST. I took up the same program 30 years later, but already under today’s Faculty of Arts and Letters (Artlets), and then as now, students of the program are always reminded—“Journalism is literature done in a hurry. And free of jargon.” Lumbera himself was to remark later that UST didn’t strictly have a “Creative Writing” course, but its Journalism program was heavy on literature (that’s why his degree was “Bachelor of Literature in Journalism”). And that he learned writing—creative, academic and other genres—in journalism school.

In his movie reviews, therefore, Bien combined the topical and the conceptual, the current and the cultivated. Reviewing Peque Gallaga’s “Scorpio Nights” (1985), he pointed out that its celebrated eroticism was “problematic” due to the socio-political context of its showing: “The problem is not that Gallaga’s newest movie is an excellent work of erotic art the way the Brazilian ‘Etu Te Amo’ or the Japanese ‘In the Realm of the Senses’ were,” he wrote in Sunday Malaya. “Rather the difficulty lies in a complex of factors that need untangling so that rational discussion could be made.” And one of the factors, he continued, was “the role of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines in providing the venue for films like ‘Scorpio Nights.’” “The ECP has been blatantly … indulging the penchant for comfort and luxury (which includes enjoyment of pleasures offered by food and sex under a repressive political regime) of the bourgeoisie to the point of dulling or diverting resistance among sectors of this class that have manifested a will to fight alongside militant activists for nationalist and democratic social change.”

In 2009, nearly a quarter of a century later, writing in the 32nd Gawad Urian souvenir program the feature on that year’s recipient of the Natatanging Gawad Urian for lifestime achievement in filmmaking—who else but Gallaga!—Bien referred again to “Scorpio Nights” but granting Peque the benefit of the doubt: “’Scorpio Nights’ was unprecedented in the local film industry,” he wrote. “”Although it was very  much in the tradition of ‘bomba’ films (local movie porn in the early ‘70’s), it displayed care and polish in its cinematography, editing, and in the performances of its principal characters. As such the movie demands careful attention from its critics, and it can be read as a subversive commentary on Marcos’ New Society and its repressive cultural policies.”

Bienvenido Lumbera
Lumbera was a solid poet, librettist, and dramatist. The songs he did with National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyan for the rock ballet musicals “Tales of the Manuvu” and “Rama, Hari” are popular culture classics. Photographed by Wig Tysmans.

Rizal movies

The scholar in Bien was also at play in his film reviewing, especially when looking back at important movies over the medium- or even long-term. In 2011 at a UST forum to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Jose Rizal, he looked back at the Rizal bio-films shown around the centennial of Philippine independence in 1998 (Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s “José Rizal,” Tikoy Aguiluz’s “Rizal sa Dapitan,” and Mike de Leon’s “Bayaning 3rd World”) and concluded that making a movie about Rizal, in comparison to writing a book about him, was, again, problematic.

Taking note that controversies attended Diaz-Abaya’s and Aguiluz’s feature films, while De Leon’s was a mock-documentary or metacinema, in which a pair of filmmakers seeks to make a movie about Rizal, Lumbera indicated the latter movie was comparatively successful but it also exposed the impossibility of  making an “authentic” biography of the national martyr:

“Rizal in film is a volatile fiction that De Leon’s filmmakers despair of fixing,” Lumbera said. “…Even as we are inundated by visual and aural impressions, knowing that as a medium film is a created reality crafted by several sensibilities and a variety of technologies, we cannot be totally convinced that we have been told the incontrovertible truth. ‘Bayaning 3rd World,’ when it concludes that everyone creates his own Rizal, drives home the point that the feature film renders a version of the truth that might convince for the duration of the screening, but remains suspect as a medium that by its very nature is unable to capture the authenticity of the real-life subject.”

Bienvenido Lumbera
With actress Ella Luansing. Photo from Aegis, the Ateneo de Manila University college yearbook. Courtesy of Niccolo Vitug

Back to the future

Bien’s remarks about media advancements have made me realize that toward the last two decades of his life, Bien had become aware that his work of cultural conservation should keep up with the rapid advances in technology. In 2000 when I interviewed him for a magazine article about “the future of Philippine literature,” he predicted that Filipinos would for all intents and purposes go back to the oral tradition. I reported:

“Technology will also affect literature. ‘(Literature) will become more visual and less conceptual,’ Lumbera says. ‘The old narrative will have to go.’

“Literature, too, will become less of the literature that we know now, printed and published. It will, in fact, go back to the oral tradition, when literature was recited, intoned, and performed. This is in keeping both “with changing habits of the people—reading less and listening and looking more,’ and with the experiential impetus that wants literature to be tactile and virtual.”

Since those remarks, Bien had embraced what I would like to call as the “New Orality.”

He performed a mock-Balagtasan in drag with his fellow National Artist for Literature Virgilio Almario on the question, “Ganda o Talino?” (Beauty or Brains). Since presumably he had more comely features than Rio Alma, he was made to dress up as a belle. The latter of course was the geek complete with thick, high-grade reading glasses.

The script for the poetic joust was made by younger poets Vim Nadera and Mike Coroza, which the two ageing national artists read and performed. But because of the poor lighting in the performance hall, Lumbera was struggling to read the text so that at one time, he read even the stage instructions in between the brackets. The audience laughed and Rio Alma declared, “Ayan maganda nga ‘di naman matalino!”



It was Lumbera’s attempts to revive the oral tradition in Philippine literature that somehow contributed to the making of the celebrated hip-hop movie, “Respeto,” in 2017. In 2011, when the Varsitarian held a general alumni homecoming in connection with the 400th anniversary of UST, I was student publications adviser and after consulting the alumni—Bien, Nadera (former editor in chief), and Coroza (former Filipino staffer)—the staff and I arranged for a short Balagtasan for the reunion. Since Bien already had difficulty memorizing and reading his lines, we got Teo Antonio, who’s an alumnus of UST Fine Arts, to cross poetic swords with Mike. Vim was referee and juror.

The Balagtasan proved to be so successful that it impressed one of the alumni present, filmmaker Treb Monteras, former Varsitarian art editor. From that experience evolved what would turn out to be “Respeto,” best picture in the 2017 Cinemalaya festival and the winningest movie in the 2018 Gawad Urian.

Treb would later say that in writing the script of “Respeto,” he had to involve Bien, whom he had met during the reunion. “When you’re trying to make a film, you have to be good at almost everything—scriptwriting, etc.,” so they sought out Bien “and he was very willing to contribute to the film.” Indeed, some of the most searing poetic exchanges between rapper Abra and the Dido de la Paz character were written by Bien.

“Respeto” was a powerful indictment of the genocide unleashed by President Duterte’s anti-drug wars. But before the election of 2016, Bien had already been doing his own version of popular-culture “vulturing” when he joined a theatrical production depicting the horrors of martial law and warning the public against the vice-presidential ambitions of Bongbong Marcos. Shown at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani in Quezon City, “Hindi na Muli” (“Never Again”) featured Bien as a family patriarch who experienced the brutality of martial law.

Bienvenido Lumbera
 Lumbera presents an award at the 40th Gawad Urian Awards at the ABS-CBN Broadcasting Center in this July 20, 2017 file photo. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Kicking the bucket

In hindsight, I have realized that Bien was successful in making his prediction come true. He was correct in charting the future of Philippine literature and culture along the increasing orality-cum-aurality of emergent media arts and technology. But also in rereading the magazine article I did of him in 2000, I have noticed something that was not fulfilled:

“He (Lumbera) cites one perceptible influence of technology in today’s writings: ‘Writers are writing longer.’

“The culprit—or the godsend—is the computer … The long work excites Lumbera, ‘I welcome such a form,’ he says. ‘As a matter of fact, I wish I had availed myself of technology before.’ Not that the chance is long past. ‘A writer would want to go the long distance,’ he says. ‘I hope I can make a long work before I kick the bucket.’”

Was he talking about writing an epic or a novel? Obviously there was something left unrealized when Bien Lumbera kicked the bucket on Sept. 28, 2021. But with all his achievements, no one, not even his severest pseudo-critics, should complain.