Director Lino Brocka: Stronger than Life

Sep 28, 2007
"His sure hand and unerring eye knew just how the interplay of elements would form the moving image on the screen that would be etched in the memory in a long, long time," wrote film critic Mario Hernando in his article "Lino Brocka: Director in Control—Blending Popular Entertainment, Realism and Social Comment."

PEP (Philippine Entertainment Portal) remembers director Lino Brocka who gave so much of his creativity and vision to Filipino movie making that his sudden death in a car crash on May 21, 1991 was a shock that reverberated not only in local show business but all over the country. He was only 52.

He was posthumously honored by the FAMAS (Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences) Hall of Fame as Best Director in 1991 and declared National Artist for Film in 1997.

He has been called one of the greatest directors of Philippine cinema. Indeed, he thrived in its so-called Second Golden Age when his peers were making their own masterpieces, like Ishmael Bernal, Mike de Leon, Celso Ad. Castillo, Laurice Guillen, Marilou Diaz- Abaya, and renowned veteran from the 50's Eddie Romero. Many of today's stars owe their rise in showbiz and acting trophies to Lino Brocka. At the peak of his career in the 70's and 80's, he made films that won critical acclaim and awards for their social and artistic impact.

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Mario Hernando of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, the film critics group that gives out Gawad Urian, lauded Brocka for presenting true and believable characters and powerful stories. One thing that Lino had was the "complete control of the art and his fellow artists and workers."

Yet the measure of Brocka's greatness must take account as well of his life outside the accolades. It was the deep well from which he drew the intensity, if not themes, for his films. He grew up in a broken family and experienced poverty and child abuse. The decade of the 60's found him struggling with issues of the soul and survival. In Hawaii, he tried hard to be a Mormon missionary but the rebel in him could not keep the faith.

Of Brocka's sojourn in Hawaii, Hernando wrote in 1993:

"Brocka had a lot of time to think and he began to put his own life into some kind of perspective. He had gone from being a prize-winning high school graduate with the world ahead of him, to a university dropout whose mother compared him unflatteringly to his former classmates, and his search for meaning in life through the Mormon faith was unfulfilled.

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"Gradually, he formed his own credo for living: to be grateful for what he had, not to clutter his life with non-essentials; to reject the excuse that something is futile and therefore not worth doing; and finally resolving that ‘life will never put me down, I shall prove stronger than life.'"

After ending his missionary assignments he flew to San Francisco and lived among hoboes, worked as a busboy and in a hospital for the elderly. Still struggling with his personal issues and feeling utterly homesick he returned to the Philippines in 1968.

He resumed his long-standing interest in theater through PETA (Philippine Education Theater Association), from doing menial tasks to eventually becoming executive director. On the road to becoming a movie director, he directed television shows (Balintataw, Lino Brocka Presents, Hilda, Tanghalan) and worked as script supervisor for director Eddie Romero's films.

PEP retraces Lino Brocka's achievements in film over two decades. He made over 60 movies. Many were commercial quickies, some were box-office hits; and others, powerful enough to pass the test of time.

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Early Acclaim (1970-1972). Lino Brocka made his first movie in 1970 under Lea Productions' Wanted: Perfect Mother with the cast of Boots Anson-Roa, Dante Rivero, Eddie Mercado, and Gina Alajar.He also wrote this melodrama, which won Best Screenplay in the 1970 Manila Film Festival.

That same year, he directed Santiago, winning his second award, this time as Best Director from the Citizen's Council for Mass Media. This action drama starred Fernando Poe, Jr. (FAMAS nomination for Best Actor), Hilda Koronel (Best Supporting Actress), and others in a powerhouse cast.

Brocka's other movies for Lea Productions included: Tubog sa Ginto (1971), which was controversial for its homosexual theme; Lumuha Pati Mga Anghel (1971), and Stardoom (1971).

Stardoom, a dark, tragic view of movie showbiz, garnered FAMAS nominations for Lolita Rodriguez (Best Actress) and Caridad Sanchez (Best Supporting Actress). The cast included Walter Navarro, Hilda Koronel, Mario O'Hara, Eddie Garcia and several other seasoned actors.

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His early works appealed to mass audiences and made money, endearing Brocka to producers of the movie industry. But after nine movies with Lea Productions he became disgruntled with commercialism and fell silent in the first two years of Ferdinand Marcos's martial law regime.

CineManila's Short Happy Life (1974-1976). Brocka set up his independent outfit, CineManila, and began to make films after his own heart. His landmark movie, Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (1974), an indictment of religious prejudice against social outcasts in a local village, won six FAMAS awards and two nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director; Best Actor (for Brocka's protégé Christopher de Leon) and Best Actress (Lolita Rodriguez as the madwoman Kuala). Brocka wrote the screenplay together with actor-director Mario O'Hara, who played a leper in the film.

Positive reviews by local and foreign critics continued with two more masterpieces in tragic drama: Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975) and Insiang (1976).

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Maynila, topbilled by another Brocka protégé, Bembol Roco, portrayed a young probinsyano's search for his sweetheart Ligaya Paraiso (Hilda Koronel) in the violence-ridden city. For his role as a tragic hero, Bembol bagged the FAMAS Best Actor award. Equally respected director Mike de Leon did the exquisite cinematography.

Insiang, a story of rape and revenge set in Manila's Tondo slums, starred Hilda Koronel in the title role, for which she earned a FAMAS nomination as Best Actress. Mona Lisa won as Best Supporting Actress. The film also reaped several nominations from the Gawad Urian. This was the first of Brocka's films to be shown and acclaimed at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France.

The two films did not make money in the box office. Critics said the themes were too dark and profound for the masses. CineManila went bankrupt in 1976.

That downfall apparently forced Brocka to make a 180-degree turn away from his aesthetics and political beliefs. During the next two years he made four movies for Lotus Films with the lead star in mind: Tahan na Empoy, Tahan (1977) starring child wonder Niño Muhlach and Snooky Serna; Inay (1977) which tried to re-launch the 50's star Alicia Vergel; Ang Tatay Kong Nanay (1978), topbilled by Comedy King Dolphy with Niño Muhlach; and Mananayaw (1978) with then-sexpot Chanda Romero.

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More Ups and Downs (1978-1985). This was a time of frenzied activity for Direk Lino. He made almost 30 films that reflected his non-conformist nature. Critics described these films in varying degrees—from dull to compelling, incongruous to brilliant. Their uncertainty and slackness were attributed to his personal problems, including financial troubles and his highly selective attitude in accepting or rejecting projects.

The 80's were also the years that Brocka's fellow travelers in the Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP) would remember him as a frontline marcher in protests against Ninoy Aquino's assassination, dictatorship and the suppression of freedom of speech. He even landed in jail for his political convictions.

Hayop Sa Hayop (1978) and Init (1979) were considered commercial projects that did not sit well with the standards of film critics. But Ina Ka ng Anak Mo (1979) was significant for tackling the issue of prostitution.

For Jaguar (1979) and Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim (1985) the critics were all praises. Phillip Salvador was the security guard whose loyalty to his master and dream to rise above his lowly status were bitterly betrayed in the end. Jaguar also starred Amy Austria and Johnny Delgado, with screenplay written by Jose F. Lacaba and Ricardo Lee. It won the FAMAS Best Picture award and was chosen by the Manunuri as one of the best films of the 70's. It was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980.

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Kapit sa Patalim (Phillip Salvador, Gina Alajar; screenplay by Jose F. Lacaba) was a tragic drama on the plight of a printing press worker forced to turn scab during a strike for the sake of his ailing wife, earning the ire of his fellow workers. Aside from other laurels, the film won Best Picture from FAMAS and the British Film Institute. The Manunuri chose this as one of the best in the 80's.

The director worked with Superstar Nora Aunor in Bona (1980). This film and Jaguar were screened at the Cannes Film Festival Director's Fortnight and Main Competition.

Miguelito, ang Batang Rebelde (1985) was the first film that Brocka directed after his release from prison. It combined drama and political commentary, pitting a mother (Nida Blanca) who had an estranged son (Aga Muhlach) and who was unjustly imprisoned for a crime she did not commit, against a powerful politician (Eddie Garcia). Nida Blanca won the Best Actress trophies of FAMAS and Gawad Urian.

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Brocka Undefeated (1987-1991). Brocka hit the right formula for combining the elements of a commercial film with his artistic and political vison. Most of his films during this period were produced by Viva Films.

Mario Hernando chose five from this period as Brocka's best works: the sex-drama Macho Dancer (1989), which once again depicted Brocka's take on gay issues; Babangon Ako't Dudurugin Kita (1989), Gumapang Ka Sa Lusak (1990), Hahamakin Lahat (1990), and Sa Kabila ng Lahat (1991).

In Babangon Ako't Dudurugin Kita (1989), Brocka pitted his protégés— Christopher de Leon, Hilda Koronel and Bembol Roco—against Viva's prized star Sharon Cuneta. Gumapang Ka sa Lusak (1990) had a stellar cast composed of Dina Bonnevie, Eddie Garcia, and Charo Santos.

Brocka did Hahamakin Lahat (1990) for Regal Films. This was his third movie with Vilma Santos. The role called for Vilma to be dark, daring and innovative, a complete deviation from characters usually portrayed by the sweet-faced Star for All Seasons. It showed a heroine entering into a marriage of convenience with a ruthless, scheming mayor, a character Brocka created to expose the hypocrisy and corruption of society.

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Sa Kabila ng Lahat (1991) was the last film he did that brought together Dina Bonnevie, Ronaldo Valdez, Nannette Medved, William Lorenzo, Celeste Legaspi, and Tonton Gutierrez.

Among the critic's chosen five, it was Macho Dancer that fared poorly in the box office. Its gay theme, which was sensational at that time, did not lend added value to the cast, which consisted of newbies. The movie also had little publicity.

Movie critics hailed Orapronobis (1989) as the most mature work of Brocka, a complex canvas of continuing oppression, political violence and injustice in Philippine society. It was based on actual events, like the end of martial law, but the characters were fictionalized. It was banned from showing in the country. Written by Jose F. Lacaba, the hefty cast was led by Phillip Salvador, Gina Alajar, Dina Bonnevie, and Bembol Roco.

The depth and greatness of Lino Brocka's greatest works are incomparable. They had the power to stir up various responses from the audience: to be emotional, to be critical, to be dumbfounded. More than box-office value, his best films probed the conflicts of doomed characters and exposed dark social realities, leaving moviegoers to think and decide actions on their own.

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For more on Lino Brocka see:

Mario Hernando, "Lino Brocka: Director in Control—Blending Popular Entertainment, Realism and Social Comment," and excerpt, "Lino Brocka: The Artist and His Times" (1993), Link to Lino Brocka

Lino Brocka's life and filmography

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"His sure hand and unerring eye knew just how the interplay of elements would form the moving image on the screen that would be etched in the memory in a long, long time," wrote film critic Mario Hernando in his article "Lino Brocka: Director in Control—Blending Popular Entertainment, Realism and Social Comment."
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