While the advent of digital video changed the face of cinema the world over, for the Philippines it represented a veritable deliverance. Stretching back over a century, the Philippines possess one of the oldest and richest cinematic histories in South East Asia. However, following the so-called “Second Golden Age of Philippine Cinema,” which featured figures such as Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal and ended along with the dissolution of martial law in 1981, the country’s film industry plunged into a commercial black hole, gradually expunging all artistic merit from its output.
The increasing availability of cheap digital film equipment at the beginning of the millennium reopened the floodgates, however, and within a few years hundreds of independent features and countless more shorts were shot on digital. The rising popularity of indie cinema back home and the success of directors like Lav Diaz and Brillante Mendoza on the international festival circuit paved the way for a young generation of filmmakers that would otherwise never have been allowed—or, rather, would never have agreed—to practice within the studio system.
This was the case with John Torres. His original intention had been to move to the US after university and work in IT, but playing around with his father’s digital camera and editing software opened his eyes to the potential of the filmmaking process. Shooting feverishly and on impulse, he recorded random segments of his everyday life and later edited them together into abstract shorts, seeking to capture the essence of his present state of mind. The success of his shorts at local indie festivals led to his first feature in 2006, Todo Todo Teros, which was showered with acclaim and accolades at festivals abroad and established him, along with the likes of Khavn De La Cruz and Raya Martin, as one of the key members of this new generation of independent Filipino filmmakers.
His early films earned him distinction as the most personal director amongst his peers due to their highly autobiographical content. The romantic tribulations at the heart of Todo Todo Teros are drawn from personal experience and he used his next feature, 2008’s Taon noong ako’y anak sa labas (Years When I Was a Child Outside), to process the discovery that his father had a secret second family. While in narrative terms he subsequently strayed away from autobiography, his focus has remained the same. At their core, his films are considerations of the inherent complexity of identity, on a personal as well collective/national level, perceived through the prism of memory and subjectivity.
In Lukas Nino (Lukas the Strange) his fourth and latest feature—and the first he shot on 35mm—these themes are addressed through the protagonist Lukas, a 13-year-old boy whose father leaves home after telling him that he is a tikbalang, a folkloric half-man, half-horse creature. Simultaneously, the arrival of a film troupe in Lukas’ village sends the entire village into an excited frenzy as everyone hopes to be cast in the film. The engendered personal, familial and collective crises are conveyed through a heavily fragmented and elliptical narrative that weaves a poetic stream of consciousness out of the characters’ memories, fantasies and dreams, conveyed through an equally anarchic aesthetic. The image quality fluctuates wildly, the sound is out of synch, subtitles don’t always match the dialogue, voice-overs and inter-titles present a discord of mostly unidentified voices. The tone of the film is in constant flux, with a sequence of acute Lynchian dread followed by a scene of light-hearted slapstick, which in turn gives way to an orchestral interlude that invokes the feel of silent film.
Personal as well as historical references, metaphors, and allegories abound and the film lends itself to any number of analyses. However, just as Tarkovsky’s The Mirror can be transporting without knowing a thing about the director’s biography or the specifics of Soviet history, Lukas Nino is rewarding for the uninitiated, as the disorientation fuels a viewing experience that is spellbinding precisely because it disallows the cerebral. When I spoke to Torres, he actually encouraged such a viewing—which makes sense, since walking into a cinema without any prior knowledge of the film provides a perfect analogy both to his purely instinctual approach to filmmaking and to the serendipitous path that led him there.
Lukas Nino is not an “accessible” film, especially if one isn’t familiar with your style. How would you present your film to an audience unfamiliar with your work to ease them into it?
That’s a very difficult question. (laughter) But what I tell them as an entry point is that I started Lukas Nino with this boy in mind due to an error on my part, a mishearing. One night, my friend was telling me about his childhood and told me that his father, an ex-soldier, once told him, “Son, I am a tikbalang,” which is a creature that is half horse, half man. I was thinking that he must have thought that he himself was half horse because he had taken after his father. In all the stories that he told me that night, I was imagining that he was half horse. I was so enamored by this. This was an interesting enough story for me.
But this was an error on my part, a syllable that I missed. In Filipino you say, tikbalang ako, which means, “I am a tikbalang.” But if you miss one syllable, which is na — “natikbalang ako” — there’s a totally different meaning. It means, “a tikbalang tricked me.” That’s also very interesting because a tikbalang is a figure in our folklore, a trickster. He makes people lose their way. I wanted to retain this idea, this character of a boy—what if he thinks he’s really half horse? His father disappears the next day and as the boy is going around the village, he sees that the landscape, the people, have changed their appearance, because of a film shoot.
What would you say with regards to the style, which is so anarchic in this film?
It was really due to my experience watching films in the ’80s. Filipino mainstream films in the ’70s and ’80s, when I really started watching films, were almost surreal. You could tell that the dialogue was not in synch. The visuals, the colours weren’t even close. Everything was, you could say, not properly done. In that sense, I imbibed the technical aspect of it. I also wanted to describe and show the fact that I’ve seen all this mishmash of tapes and the very, very rough aesthetics of ’80s Filipino filmmaking, which I grew to hate, but later grew to love, and grew to embrace. Also, there’s the fact that I don’t really remember the stories behind those films, I don’t really remember the narratives, so what I have are just these snapshots or images and their combination with dialogue or sound that’s not in synch. As you say, “anarchic,” really. (laughter)
This is an excerpt of my interview published on BOMB magazine’s blog, BOMBlog. You can read the full interview here.