Text by John Patrick Manio
President Ferdinand Marcos’ infamous martial law regime had brought the Philippines to one of its lowest points in history. Since then, it had been then the material of reactionary directors who would since bring the most prolific period in Philippine cinema.
This period saw directors such as Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, Behn Cervantes, and Marilou – Diaz Abaya who made classics which sought to criticize and oppose the strongman rule of the administration. They stood their ground in creating films that not only promoted Filipino values but also sought to destabilize the institutions that corrupt it, not fearing the dangers their profession could bring.
Now, under a different administration’s myriad of corruption, human rights abuses, and historical revisionism, a fellow director as critical and as competent as those mentioned above has stepped forward from the shadows to make another masterpiece of his own.
Citizen Jake marks the return of renowned Filipino director, Mike de Leon, after an 18-year absence on the big screen, this time, arguably more politicized and better than before. De Leon brought us classics like Sister Stella L (1977), Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (1980), Kisapmata (1981), Batch ‘81 (1982), and Bayaning 3rd World (2000), all of which sought to deconstruct Filipino society and its ailments with wit, cunning, and even farce.
The Past Haunts the Present
Atom Araullo stars in the leading role as Jake Herrera, a citizen journalist haunted by the misdeeds of his family and the disappearance of his mother. It is his debut performance as an actor.
He delivers a raw, powerful, and sincere performance in the movie, partially because he, like Jake, is also a journalist who has experienced his fair share of trauma in the profession. Adding to that is the real life experiences of Araullo’s mother,an activist herself during martial law.
The characters and theme in the movie share a unifying message: the present is always tied to the past. This shows an almost philosophical debate on whether characters act wholly on their free will or on the inevitable consequences of their previous experiences.
Throughout the movie, Jake insists on staying in his mother’s house in Baguio, away from the clutches of his father and brother, politicians who benefitted and are benefiting from their crony days under Ferdinand Marcos. In real life, this house was the ancestral home of Mike de Leon given to him by his mother.
Jake’s arc revolves around three aspects: protecting his mother’s house from abolition, finding the whereabouts of his disappeared mother, and exposing his father and brother from their corrupt leanings. All of these shaped Jake to be who he is in the present.
Even the setting of Baguio was scrutinized from the lens of the present to the past. The movie dedicated an ample time to inspect Baguio’s evolution from a serene vacation spot to a loud and dirty metropolis. But above all, Baguio was deconstructed as an American colonial city, with the colonizers actively claiming it for their own as natives and indigenous folk were left alienated and later objectified. This inspection from the city’s core was contrasted by the romanticization of it by the characters themselves.
Mainly, the film looks back at the legacy and implications of the Marcos regime. Characters like Lou Veloso’s Lucas interrogates the success of the People Power revolution. Are we really free from the grasps of the abusive ruling elite? Why are the Marcoses’ cronies still at large, with some even still in position?
Ferdinand Marcos’ bust, which was erected and later demolished in La Union, looms, reminding Jake and everyone else that power had remained to those willing to abuse it for personal gain. Cronyism in Jake’s family is what haunts him throughout the movie.
Victims Turned Predators
Characters’ histories revolve around a circular path of moral dilemma. Most characters have experienced being victimized in the past before being portrayed as guilty themselves.
One of these characters is Cherie Gil’s, Rosemary Velez. Velez, unlike any of the other characters, is directly victimized by President Marcos himself, being a fictionalized version of one of the starlets that he took to be his mistress.
In the movie, Velez has gone to become a pimp for the elite, victimizing desperate and struggling women to join her prostitution ring. She does this as a resentment to her days of acting as a prostitute to Marcos herself. Her actions and ‘business’ reverberated to other characters, extending the morality play to them.
Towards the end, Jake comes at a crossroads. He faces his past to overcome his demons only to end up being one himself. The movie forces characters to not only wallow in the past, but also to be consumed by it, changing them unwittingly or not. As a recurring line goes, “Kapag umikot ang mundo, kami naman ang nasa tuktok!”
Ultimately, Mike de Leon delivers a message through the film: one must know the past, and confront it in order to be free from its clutches. In the age of post-truth and historical revisionism, it is incredibly important to look at one of the country’s darkest years to know that we are again going on the path we took almost 50 years ago.
Like Mike de Leon’s past works, Citizen Jake breaks the fourth wall to let the audience know the anguished cries of its director.
This time, however, De Leon held nothing back.
He made the main character talk to the audience multiple times and even showed behind-the-scenes footage, insisting that what they are seeing is only a movie and that the stage and the injustices seen in the film extend to the real world. This approach is ingenious, as it inadvertently shattered the illusions of an escapist film to be replaced by one which is polemic in full effect.
Citizen Jake is not only the director’s message to us, but also his own action to this message himself. Going out of retirement, he made one last wake-up call to the Filipino audience. Citizen Jake is a splendid, thought-provoking, and gripping send-off by one of the masters of Philippine cinema.