A Guide to Retrospective: Mike De Leon

by Patrick F. Campos

Mike De Leon is a giant in Filipino film, the enfant terrible of the New Cinema that emerged in the 1970s and made defining films into the ‘80s. He burst into the scene as a producer and cinematographer before directing and co-writing consummate films that explored the potential of diverse genres, several of which critics consider some of the greatest in Philippine cinema.

De Leon is the scion of two significant figures. His grandmother Doña Sisang co-founded LVN Pictures before World War II, which, under her leadership, became one of the most prolific studios in the postwar era, perfecting quintessential Filipino movie genres. His father Manuel produced LVN’s prestige pictures in the 1950s and ‘60s and cemented the stature of Lamberto Avellana, Gregorio Fernandez, and Manuel Silos as auteurs.

After a period of intense productivity, Mike De Leon went on a hiatus, directing only three features plus a handful of video works since the 1990s. However, in those years, he has been recovering the surviving films of LVN. He also recently published his autobiography, Mike De Leon’s Last Look Back (2022), which memorialises his family’s contribution to Philippine cinema for over 80 years.

Most of De Leon’s films, some paired with behind-the-scenes documentaries directed by his collaborator Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr., have been restored or remastered and are now available to a new generation of cinephiles. Although not in their best condition, a selection of LVN films is also ready to be rediscovered. The Asian Film Archive presents these, along with De Leon’s recent political works, as a portrait of an auteur and an object lesson on the colourful history of Philippine cinema.


L-R: Kisapmata (In the Blink of an Eye, 1981), Batch ’81 (1982), Sister Stella L. (1984) all directed by Mike De Leon, Manila in the Claws of Light (1984, dir. Lino Brocka)


Kisapmata (In the Blink of an Eye, 1981), Batch ’81 (1982), and Sister Stella L. (1984), which De Leon directed and co-wrote, and Lino Brocka’s landmark Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Light, 1975), which he produced and photographed, are arguably his most important contributions to Philippine cinema, made at the height of his creative powers. They are indispensable in understanding the New Cinema, which flourished under repressive conditions and whose filmmakers courageously defied the conjugal dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. Incendiary in their allegorical insinuations and charged with insurgent energy, these films by De Leon circumvented censorship, captured life under Martial Law, and—tragically—continue to resonate today.


L-R: Itim (The Rites of May, 1976), Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising (Moments in a Stolen Dream, 1977), Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (Will Your Heart Beat Faster? 1980), Hindi Nahahati ang Langit (Heaven Cannot Be Shared, 1985)


While his essential works overturn familiar forms—Kisapmata is a horror film garbed in domestic drama, and Batch ’81, a teen movie as a parable of fascist conformism—De Leon’s oeuvre demonstrates his versatility in his exploration of the boundaries of varied genres. Itim (The Rites of May, 1976) is an atmospheric horror film, a treatise on guilt, heavy with Gothic foreboding, while Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising (Moments in a Stolen Dream, 1977), his tribute to his grandmother, is a light and bittersweet romantic comedy. Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (Will Your Heart Beat Faster? 1980) is a riotous farce, while Hindi Nahahati ang Langit (Heaven Cannot Be Shared, 1985) is a melodramatic adaptation of a komiks serial, both films pushing the often-absurd premises of escapist movies to the extreme.


L-R: Aliwan Paradise (Entertainment Paradise, 1992), Bayaning 3rd World (Third World Hero, 1999) and Citizen Jake (2018)


De Leon’s later films honed in on reflexive techniques and foregrounded the iconoclasm that was the point of departure of his earlier films. Aliwan Paradise (Entertainment Paradise, 1992), a provocative “remake” of Brocka’s Manila in the Claws of Light, demystifies the legacy of the New Cinema and the golden years of LVN Pictures and prophesies about Filipino films’ international visibility. Bayaning 3rd World (Third World Hero, 1999), an irreverent film about making a film that can never be made, questions the national hero Jose Rizal’s heroism. And Citizen Jake (2018) is a thinly veiled attack on Duterte and Marcos Jr., former and current Philippine presidents, and the political culture that allows rapacious dynasties to stay in power.


L-R: Signos (Omens, 1983), Kangkungan (Swamp Cabbage Patch, 2019), Mr. Li (2019) and A Word from the Director (2018)


The retrospective features five shorts chronicling De Leon’s political engagements. Originally distributed surreptitiously, Signos (Omens, 1983) is best contextualised in De Leon’s series of anti-Marcos films (Kisapmata, Batch ’81, and Sister Stella L.). This unflinching Brechtian documentary captures the unrest that led to the uprising that toppled the dictatorship. It remains an essential political collective documentary, testifying that the years under the Marcoses were not a golden age. The recent video works Kangkungan (Swamp Cabbage Patch, 2019), Mr. Li (2019), A Word from the Director (2018), and Never Again (2016) were first exhibited or circulated on social media and at protest gatherings. With Citizen Jake, they respond to Duterte’s human rights violations and the Marcoses’ distortion of history.


L-R: Giliw Ko (My Sweetheart, 1939, dir. Carlos Vander Tolosa), Ibong Adarna (Adarna Bird, 1941, dir. Vicente Salumbides), Mutya ng Pasig (Muse of the Pasig River, 1950, dir. Richard Abelardo), Pag-asa (Hope, 1951, dir. Lamberto V. Avellana)


Five selections provide insight into LVN Pictures and, thus, Filipino film history before the New Cinema. Giliw Ko (My Sweetheart, 1939), a romantic musical that grapples with American influence on popular culture, was its first-ever release. Ibong Adarna (Adarna Bird, 1941) was a movie event revisiting the mythic creature of folklore. These are two of only five surviving prewar films out of hundreds lost, vestiges of a faded heritage. A Compilation of Color Scenes from 1950s Filipino Movies presents nostalgic moments in the history of LVN.

In De Leon’s autobiography, he highlights two productions he rediscovered and with which he found a deep affinity: Mutya ng Pasig (Muse of the Pasig River, 1950), an uncanny precursor of his Itim, and Pag-asa (Hope, 1951), though incomplete, one he “never grows tired of watching” for their “precise fusion of excellent camerawork and fine naturalistic performances.”


L-R: Anak Dalita (The Ruins, 1956, dir. Lamberto V. Avellana), Malvarosa (1958, dir. Gregorio Fernandez), Biyaya ng Lupa (Bounty of the Earth, 1959, dir. Manuel Silos), Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay (Huk in a New Life, 1953, dir. Lamberto V. Avellana)


The programme also showcases landmark films his father Manuel produced that had won prizes in international film festivals and are now remembered as classic masterworks and Asian cinema gems, namely the noirish Anak Dalita (The Ruins, 1956) and the family melodramas Malvarosa (1958) and Biyaya ng Lupa (Bounty of the Earth, 1959). They also gather four of Filipino auteur Lamberto Avellana’s influential postwar and postcolonial films: Pag-Asa, Anak Dalita, Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay (Huk in a New Life, 1953), and A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino (1965).


About the Writer

Patrick F. Campos is the author of The End of National Cinema: Filipino Film at the Turn of the Century (2016) whose chapter on Mike De Leon is a sustained engagement on the director’s cinema and is the editor of the auteur’s “cinema book,” Mike De Leon’s Last Look Back (2022). He is a member of NETPAC and FIPRESCI. www.patrickcampos.com

About the Writer