A still from The Woman in a Septic Tank. Photo: MoMa
A still from The Woman in a Septic Tank. Photo: MoMa

The Philippines has demonstrated a robust cinema industry over the past seven decades, with a prolific commercial scene aimed at local audiences, and an internationally acclaimed social realist movement dating back to the 1970s.

But few outside of the country are aware of the Philippines’ love of cinema, its diversity of film styles, and its filmmakers’ desire to experiment.

That’s something La Frances Hui, associate curator, department of film, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), hopes to change with the program – A New Golden Age: Contemporary Philippine Cinema.

The 18-strong selection, drawn from films made since 2000, brings together features from a diverse number of genres and styles and runs until June 25 at MoMA.

“I hope that this will be a game-changing series for Philippine cinema,” Hui says. “I think it’s important for MoMA to acknowledge such a vibrant movement.

“The films were carefully selected so that they cover a whole range of narrative styles – there are experimental works, there are documentaries, and there are genre films. My hope is that the MoMA series will legitimize this film movement, and get more people excited about it.”

A still from What is Before. Photo: MoMa

Diversity is a key part of this new wave, Hui says. A film wave – like China’s Fifth Generation, for instance – usually has underlying artistic principles and styles. But the new Philippine wave is the result of young directors working relatively independently across many genres.

“The films in this third golden age are all very different. Filmmakers usually engage in a dialogue with one another, and make films with similar artistic and stylistic qualities. But in this movement, they do things that are different from each other,” she says.

The filmmakers mainly connect through Manila’s Cinemalaya film festival in August, which supports and shows independent films, Hui notes.

The MoMA program is suitably wide-ranging. Notable features include Norte, the End of History, and From What is Before, from internationally acclaimed director Lav Diaz, a philosophical director who focuses on the wide arc of Philippines social and political history.

A still from Brillante Mendoza’s Service. Photo: MoMa

There’s the taut action thriller On the Job from Eric Matti, and the ambitious psychological drama Gemini from Ato Bautista. Raya Martin and Adolfo Alix Jnr’s Manila is a social realist drama which harks back to 1970s classics by the great Lino Brocka.

Documentarian Ramona S. Diaz provides Motherland, about a hospital which provides maternity services for poor pregnant women.

The new wave is too diverse to have a leader, says Hui, but Diaz – whose films can run to over 10 hours – is the best known of its participants.

“He exists on his own wavelength,” she says. “His films have the feel of classic novels – they are very long, they have lots of characters, and a lot of things happen. Diaz’s films usually contain philosophical observations about life, and these are related to the political conditions the characters live in. They are historical, but they have a resonance with contemporary life.”

Although there’s little crossover with the Philippines’ powerful studio system, indie filmmakers can still make excellent genre films, Hui says. “Eric Matti’s On the Job always seems fresh and exciting, and it has a political side. It says a lot about how the political system is corrupt from top to bottom.”

Crime movies like Bautista’s Expressway seem influenced by the classic Hong Kong crime films of the 1980s, she says: “Hong Kong films of that era were not high-budget productions, but they were thrilling, as the characters were so well written. The stories were engaging, and I see these filmmakers having that ability,” Hui says.

Pepe Diokno’s 2009 crime film Clash is a story based around extrajudicial killings in a Philippines town. The movie was inspired by actual events.

“Rodrigo Duterte was the mayor of Davao City before he became president of the Philippines, and he was using death squads back then. It seems like the film is telling the future, but extrajudicial killings have been a problem for many years,” Hui says

“Every filmmaker is doing something different, but there is a particular brand in contemporary Philippines cinema that that gives voice to poverty,” says Hui.

“Those films may have a connection with the films from the 1970s that deal with social issues, and the plight of the working class. The Philippines is not a wealthy country, and a lot of people live with very little means. Filmmakers are drawn to their stories.”