The story of Citizen Jake Herrera, a high-minded young man born to wealth in a society he chooses to confront as a journalist, is no less than a parable of breaking free from captivity. Resigning from the newspaper job he loves when his father is elected senator, he leaves the family home and takes a teaching job 245 km away. In the university town of Baguio, he blogs obsessively on government corruption under a ruling dictator and his cronies, his father included.
So determined is Jake that he refuses to be distracted from his crusade even by the brutal murder of a student dear to his girlfriend. When he finally gives in and begins to investigate, Life itself leads him to a far deeper story. Much like the country’s power hierarchy with his father at its very heart, he finds a syndicate thriving on old men’s lust and the desperate need of schoolgirl prostitutes under the eye of killers.
As his son’s revelations begin to endanger his reelection bid, old Herrera suddenly claims ownership of the vacation home built by his wife in Baguio, Jake’s last refuge – or so he thought. Unknown to him, his father set his older brother to bribe the housekeeper’s son Jony to spy on how close Jake was coming to the truth.
Shaken by the loss of both home and in-house job, Jony’s mother, the housekeeper, finally finds the courage to shove a pile of letters into Jake’s hands that his mother wrote him through the years. Now the abandoned son discovers his father’s ultimate betrayal. Having driven his unhappy wife to alcohol, he exiled her to America for threatening to expose his corruption, just like their son is doing now. Overwhelmed by more truth than he can bear, the brave young journalist takes a gun to confront the cause of it all.
Mike de Leon employs a formidable range of old and new skills to tell this disturbing story. First was his daring choice of the real-life broadcast journalist Atom Araullo to play the lead role, rewarded when Atom turned out to be a quick study as well as just the right co-scriptwriter with him and komiks writer Roel Cruz.
Opening the film with Atom/Jake addressing the audience gives it the subliminal effect of a newscast, unfolding an alchemy of old and new. Relative unknowns play key characters seamlessly blended with veteran actors perfectly cast. De Leon’s signature painterly scenes -- set to his cousin Nonong Buencamino’s musical score -- smoothly give way to the digital animation he developed in LVN Pictures, his Lola Sisang’s storytelling domain.
Animated archival photos resurrect Baguio’s own story like a magic wand -- with colonizing Americans sweet-talking the Ibaloi tribe’s trusting headman to let them turn their ancestral land into a mountain resort-sanitarium. This turns its g-stringed natives turn into white man’s servants on their own land like the Herreras’ own servants. But times have changed. To Jake’s shock, his own dear childhood friend Jony, would betray him for money in the hope of escaping lifelong servitude.
Jake’s resolution of his dilemma is left unspoken as his life rises to the level of history -- and higher into tragic myth. The Great White Father dissolves into the giant stone face of the dictator Marcos on Mt. Shontoug in La Union, visible from Jake’s bedroom window, turning into the giant visage of his own father, Jacobo Herrera.
The point is made: like Jake, strong father figures have kept the nation captive throughout its history. And the film ends with a warning more powerful for being unspoken: the Marcos dictatorship is happening all over again. Do you recognize grave danger under a new dictator residing in your own psyche? Who will take up the gauntlet in a thoroughly corrupt society no one can change alone?
In the gaggle of local reviews on “Citizen Jake”, entertainment writer Edgar O. Cruz calls Mike de Leon a “presumptive National Artist for Film.” Flashback to the long, bumpy ride of over four decades of cinema, exploding ruling clichés all along the way.
It started in his very first film, with his cinematography turning slums eerily beautiful in Lino Brocka’s masterpiece “Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag”. What followed was the gothic tale of spirit possession in his first directorial venture, “Itim”. Hardly had its surreal aftertaste faded than lyrical young romance edging adultery followed in Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising followed in turn by sheer irreverence in the rollicking satire /musical, “Kakabakaba Ka Ba?”.
Traveling the spectrum of the Pinoy’s inner world, over-the-top hilarity is followed by dark undertones of incest in Kisapmata. In the next breath came merciless exploration of twisted psyches drawing sly parallels to martial law in the savage fraternity hazing of “Batch ’81.”
This film was judged “one of the ten important pictures of the 1980s” by the new Manunuri ng Pelikulang all the while that de Leon and his siblings in the “Second Golden Age of Philippine Cinema” seethed at the heavy hand of martial law censors -- bursting into editing rooms, yanking film strips away from editing tables. As luck would have it, “Batch ’81” narrowly escaped, thanks to the dictator’s daughter, cinema buff Imee Marcos impressed by de Leon’s daring craft.
No surprise that as history’s dam broke with Ninoy Aquino’s assassination, de Leon would be out on the parliament of the streets recording it all. From upheaval that ended the Marcos dictatorship would be born the super-8 documentary “Signos” and its sibling feature film with the activist nun “Sister Stella L”.
His intense first decade of cinema in the dark and light of the Filipino psyche had hardly ended when de Leon pulled another surprise. A film artist perennially overlooked by the masses stepped back and did his first potboiler, “Hindi Nahahati ang Langit.” The seven-year silence that followed his first pang-masa blockbuster was far from empty. It disgorged “Aliwan Paradise,” a savage satire on the Philippine entertainment industry.
No holds barred in this short film for the Southeast Asian anthology, “Southern Winds.” “Ministry of Happiness,” Aliwan Paradise’s official name, was created by government “to uplift a declining sense of humanity and morality in the land.” Mobbed by hopefuls desperate for work, one outrage follows another in its auditions for new acts to feed an entertainment-hungry public.
We see a former human rights worker blowing fire while lecturing on literature and eating shards of glass while teaching basic arithmetic. A nurse takes care of an elderly man stripped to her underwear. And surprise! Ligaya Paraiso, Brocka’s virginal heroine in “Maynila’s” slums, now gyrates in a glittering bikini, singing and dancing on the fallen Filipina. Ligaya turned fatalist was abandoning love for seduction in gut-wrenching need to survive. She and her sweetheart Julio Madiaga, Maynila’s symbols of a tragic search for happiness in poverty, are no more.
The blog Oggs’ Movie Thoughts sums it up: “Filipino society addicted to the pleasures of illusion, the fleetingly amusing, the ephemeral and unreal (in) poverty’s unquenchable desire for escape (has) turned into an embarrassing necessity in our entertainment.”
Mike de Leon just can’t help being an original. Two years later up came his humorous polemics on the national hero Jose Rizal. Turning down the offer to do an official full-color hagiography, instead he wrote, directed and produced the black-and-white meta-cinema, “Bayaning Third World” -- with two skeptical filmmakers scrutinizing the hero’s humanity with the magnifying glass of a century hence.
Not satisfied with what they find in libraries, they travel back in time, quizzing Rizal’s mother Teodora, his older brother Paciano, his sisters Trinidad and Narcisa, sweetheart Josephine, his priest adviser Fr. Balaguer and Rizal himself on his dilemmas hidden or even faked in historical records -- like his official retraction from Masonry to marry Josephine in Catholic rites hours before his execution.
Soon after this playful, technically stunning historical exploration for new generations, Mike de Leon would be named Centennial Artist for Film by the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1999, a revolutionary republic’s first century.
Early in the filming of “Citizen Jake” 18 years later, de Leon, now 70, remarked to an intimate, "Baka this is my swan song na.” Mortality ripples behind the scenes in the film’s invitational previews, sponsored by friends and admirers making sure it reaches the public in uncertain times.
For the very first time, a famous recluse has taken a break from his “very private life in a very public profession,” willingly posing for selfies with fans and friends. There, too, is the film’s Facebook page he administers himself, engaging his audience in banter-cum-teach-in on “Citizen Jake” in a new dictatorship emerging.
“National Artist” is an inevitable thought as Mike de Leon’s filmography reaches a peak in this film. He discourages this kind of talk, in near indifference to the world of show biz and film awards, laser-focused on waking a nation sleepwalking towards an abyss.
Doña Sisang would have been proud of this film her privileged heir, Citizen Mike, dedicated to her.
Sylvia L. Mayuga is a veteran Filipino writer on the arts, culture and history of the Philippines. She has three National Book Awards to her name.
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