Brief thoughts on People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose (John Torres, Philippines, 2016)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Philippine cinema, Uncategorized

In 1936, Joseph Cornell reworked footage of East of Borneo (George Melford, USA, 1931) in order to create Rose Hobart (USA, 1936), an experimental short in which the meaning of Rose Hobart is changed as a result of how Cornell re-edits the Melford flick.

Meanwhile, east of Borneo is the Philippines, where another Rose – Vietnam Rose – was supposed to bloom in the 1980s, but who never really saw the light of day.

That is, Philippine director Celso Advento Castillo, the so-called ‘Saviour of Filipino cinema,’ in the 1980s tried to complete a feature film called The Diary of Vietnam Rose with the 19-year-old film star Liz Alindogan.

Alas, however, the film was abandoned after running into logistical and financial issues – with Alindogan herself being so traumatised by the experience that she basically disappeared from cinema for several years, having also functioned as one of the film’s producers.

It was only 30 years later, then, that John Torres put together People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose, a film that combines footage from some 20 reels recovered from the production of that film with original material made to look like it was shot at the time, and with various experiments in sound also playing a part of the film’s fabric (at times we hear dialogue from the characters in the scenes, but at other times we also hear voices delivering inner monologues and other sounds).

Being shot in 1986, the film was also made at the time of the People Power Revolution that led to the toppling of the regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Also known as the Yellow Revolution as a result of the prominence of yellow ribbons during the non-violent anti-government protests, and as the EDSA Revolution (EDSA stands for Epifania de los Santos Avenue – a chief artery in Manila), the moment brought about the end of martial law and the reinstatement of democracy in the Philippines.

In some senses, then, Torres’ film and the People Power Revolution resonate with each other – although the political aspects of the film are not what I shall focus on here. Suffice to say that as The Diary of Vietnam Rose fell apart, so in some senses did the Marcos regime. But it is not that Castillo or Alindogan are necessarily the equivalent of Marcos, or even that the film’s troubled production – in various ways involving but perhaps also exploiting locals in the remote location where the film was made.

Rather, the fact that the film fell into ruins bespeaks the state of the Philippines in 1986, such that the revolution took place. And where cinema as a force for change found it hard to survive under the Marcos regime, perhaps it is only since that the Philippines has  been able to develop a cinema worthy of the name.

The last paragraph is an overstatement. One need only think of the likes of Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal to realise that oppositional cinema was in some senses doing well under the Marcos regime.

And one might suggest that much mainstream cinema in the Philippines today is pretty mediocre, melodramatic fare – suggesting that cinema as a force for change still struggles to eke out an existence in the Philippines, as it does in many other places around the world.

But what I mean by saying that the Philippines has since developed a cinema worthy of the name is that flowers do grow on the ruins of the Philippines, with People Power Bombshell being a literal case in point as Vietnam Rose blooms a new life – different to the one that Castillo and Alindogan had intended, but which nonetheless is alive, and which suggests future life for the country in spite of ongoing corruption and other controversies. And in breathing new life into the world, People Power Bombshell is thus exemplary of a cinema that can bring about social change.

What is most fascinating, then, is that new cinema, in the form of a rose (red, yellow, pink or blue – as per the blue tint that Joseph Cornell typically added to Rose Hobart by projecting the film through blue glass), flowers where old cinema is thought to have died – east of Borneo, in the Sulu Sea that separates Borneo from the Philippines.

This creates a kind of paradox: this is both cinema but also not cinema, a new cinema born from the old cinema, a cinema that is also a non-cinema – much as Adrian D Mendizabal suggests People Power Bombshell features non-images here.

Indeed, the film shows the original reels from 1986 converted to digital images, but which have not been cleaned up or restored, but which wear on their sleeves the rot and ravage of time. Akin to the work of Bill Morrison, then, Torres’ film sees glitches and imperfections in the aged image not as faults, but precisely as expressive forces in the film – which becomes visually arresting, hard to read, but truly beautiful as a result.

What is more, as flowers grow from the ruins of cinema, so do begin to think of the film as being like another plant form, the rush. For, being made up not so much of finished sequences as rushes, People Power Bombshell sees the rushes grow green, suggesting a sort of amphibian cinema that rises from the depths – again giving testimony to the power of life to continue in spite of the death of any individuals.

Yongchun Fu, Maria Elena Indelicato and Zitong Qiu refer to recent Chinese blockbusters that are aimed at global audiences and which sometimes even involve western stars, such as The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou, USA/China/Hong Kong/Australia, Canada, 2016) as Huallywood – named after huaxia, or China, from the character 華, or hua.

However, perhaps we might make a semi-pun and suggest that this flowering cinema that blooms out of the ruins of the old cinema is also a different kind of Huallywood, but this time based on 花/hua, which is the Chinese for flower. Huallywood is cinema as a flower, which does not cut and shoot in the violent way that traditional (western) cinema does, but which produces new life from cuttings and shoots that grow upwards even amongst the ruins of the Third World.

In her recent Ex-Centric Cinema: Giorgio Agamben and Film Archaeology, Janet Harbord suggests that cinema is less about movement and scenes in which people set out to achieve pre-established goals via recognised and recognisable means, but more about gestures and bodies that move in strange and peculiar ways, which themselves affect us in ways that we cannot predict.

In this way, cinema in its commodified, mainstream form is about controlling bodies. But a cinema that moves away from itself (an ‘ex-centric cinema,’ which is not far removed from what I have – including in relation to Philippine cinema – called ‘non-cinema‘), sees bodies set free, as new life is breathed into them and where like a flower they flow.

Being made up of sometimes indiscernible, sometimes random and sometimes striking images, People Power Bombshell becomes a cinema that, in Harbord’s language,

deactivate[s] the smooth flow of commodity images. Cut, removed, repositioned and replayed, the naturalised sequences of ideal bodies and lifestyles become jagged-edged, unruly, uncomfortable to watch… In contrast to the perfect surface of the commodity image as it is put into circulation, the cinematic image comes to bear the marks of its exhibition, or to put it a different way around, it loses the sheen of its status as fixed record and moves into a zone where recording and transmission become indiscernible… [This is] the exhibition of cinema’s materiality as it surfaces in celluloid, video tape and digital video discs. In the glitches, sparkle and crackle that pattern the images… the commodity is subjected to the registration of its history, to contingency, finitude and decay. (Harbord 2016: 102-103)

In other words, in its very imperfection, the image demonstrates that the cinematic image is not eternal, unchanging and fixed forever – an eternity that is part and parcel of its power, in that only gods can stop time and are eternal, and if cinema is a commodity that has no flaws, then cinema as a commodity becomes, or at least aspires to be, god. That is the world of commodities, the world of capitalism.

In showing us that cinema, like the world, changes, and that it even dies… we learn to understand that life goes on, that things need not and will not remain the same, and that other worlds are possible.

May seven billion more flowers bloom on the ruins of cinema-capital and in the realm of non-cinema.

Many thanks to Aperture Asia & Pacific Film Festival for screening the film at the Close-Up Film Centre in London.

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