Understanding the Many Moods of Mike de Leon Through His Films
Mike De Leon is as mercurial as the characters he conjures in his films—evidenced by films that span many genres and narratives, and which show off the obsessions of an artist who is meticulous to the point of greatness.
There’s something about Citizen Jake, for example, that makes it impossible to simply shrug it off, even amidst the film's admittedly very uneven crafting. The most obvious thing is that it is a Mike de Leon film, the work that the reclusive filmmaker has deemed important enough to, not only get him behind a camera again, but also to air his thoughts and emotions through social media.
The most interesting thing about it is that it exposes De Leon struggling with an artistic medium that has gone through vast technological and aesthetic transformations. It also reveals his obsessions and admissions. Through a narrative of a journalist characterized by his sense of privilege which both jars and complements a skewed messianic complex, De Leon opens up a Pandora’s box of intrigues and alarming social attitudes.
What De Leon did in Citizen Jake is brave because it is so unlike his previous films. It is starkly imperfect. It is overtly political. Most importantly, it is almost defeatist in its depiction of a concerned citizen who has all the tools to create change, but is still woefully unable to because the rot has invaded the core of the nation.
[Citizen Jake] is the work that the reclusive filmmaker has deemed important enough to not only get him to get a camera and shoot again, but also to air his thoughts and emotions through social media.
Itim, De Leon’s first feature film, is a vastly different film, one where technical prowess trumps almost everything else. The film mixes Catholic imagery with tinges of the supernatural to create an atmosphere that forms the backdrop to the hallucinatory and haunting experience he shapes out of a tale peppered with more realistic, down-to-earth social concerns.
Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising, De Leon’s sophomore film, is more intriguing in the sense that it starts out rather innocently before venturing into more sensitive territories that involve its characters’ pursuit of a temporary romance that is more profound than the lives they are trying to escape. The film is truly ahead of its time. It ostensibly shows a more tender and more passionate side of De Leon, but its plot swerves towards a more pragmatic appreciation of loving relationships.
[Kung Mangarap Ka't Magising] ostensibly shows a more tender and more passionate side of De Leon, but its plot swerves towards a more pragmatic appreciation of loving relationships.
Kakaba-kaba Ka Ba? is a critique of the sorry but strangely humorous state of the Philippines in the shape of a silly musical romp. De Leon—seemingly emboldened by the fact that his two prior features (Itim and Kung Mangarap Ka't Magising], of immensely varying moods and genres are both lauded—is even more adventurous here. What’s more is that the delightful traces of a sharp sense of humor in Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising is in full display here.
Kisapmata has De Leon perfecting the ominous appeal that he utilized in Itim. In visualizing and expanding Nick Joaquin’s “The House on Zapote Street,” the director made use of domestic paranoia to carve a monster out of an overprotective patriarch. Kisapmata shows De Leon at the top of his game, a director who is more than capable to stretch the limitations of genre to reveal painful social truths.
Batch ’81 uses fraternity culture to depict the fascist demeanor of the Marcos regime. The film’s use of a subculture that prefers the allure of secrecy to create a veneer of exclusivity is clever—its depiction of tolerated violence and humiliation within that hush-hush world is in itself an indictment of a country that is all too willing to be subservient to questionable ideals.
If Batch ’81 has De Leon veiling his political inclinations with a metaphor, Sister Stella L. is upfront, loud and curiously didactic. The issues are in plain sight, as the character of Vilma Santos is pushed to weigh the vows of her vocation against the requirements of her struggle to uphold the dignity of the people she serves. In any case, with this film, De Leon completes his evolution from being a filmmaker of undisputable talent to one who is also politically involved.
If Batch ’81 has De Leon veiling his political inclinations with a metaphor, Sister Stella L. is upfront, loud and curiously didactic.
Hindi Nahahati ang Langit is a strange film within De Leon’s filmography. Its aim seems only to please, being a commissioned work by a commercial studio that seeks to capitalize on the filmmaker’s acclaim after a series of successes. Despite what seems to be are meager intentions— especially if leveled against his previous works—the film is far more nuanced than the typical melodramas that were being released at the time. Its sordidness is riveting. Its bitter twists and turns are grounded not on whim but on fleshed out motivations. Even if De Leon is shackled by commercial expectations, he still manages to come up with a work that intrigues.
In Bayaning 3rd World, we see De Leon as a cynical commentator on Philippine society. This isn’t new. Kakabakaba Ka Ba?, Kisapmata and Batch ’81 are all biting observations of the ills of the country and its citizens, but in Bayaning 3rd World, the critique takes on a more ambitious form, one that exhausts history, pop culture, and comedy to dissect a nation’s fractured psyche.