‘Katips’ review: On lost lives and spine

Article by H.S.

Content warning: Mentions of torture and rape

Entering the cinemas felt like knowing each person in the reclining seats. The collective laughs, claps, raised fists and tears rooted from hope, empathy and a shared understanding that forgetting is a crime against the lives hurt and lost. 

Living in a time when a massive, well-oiled disinformation system has put a dictator’s kin back to power, it is no surprise that the Marcoses have extended their lies through a propaganda film, Maid in Malacañang, made to humanize them. 

What was unprecedented, however, is the rise of a film reminding us to push back against the Marcoses’ historical whitewashing, urging us to remember the atrocities under the Marcos regime. 

Re-released on Aug. 3 to clash against the Marcoses’ ‘telling-our-side-of-the-story’ film, “Katips,” short for “modern Katipuneros,” recounts the brutal events during the Marcosian years. 

Based on a theater play of the same title and director, the musical film swept seven out of fourteen Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS) awards, among which was Best Picture.

The 140-minute picture is director-lawyer Vince Tañada’s second film, which opens with a flag-waving musical number that is not too shabby except for the unsynchronized lip sync and dance steps of the leads, summarizing the First Quarter Storm of the 1970s. 

The first act legitimized the FAMAS laurels of Pipo Cifra, who curated both the film’s musical score and the original song “Sa Gitna Ng Gulo,” which optimistically describes how love for another thrives even in chaos. 

Early in the film, UP professor and protest leader Ka Manding (Nelson Mendoza) was gunned down, or “salvaged” as they would then call it, thus projecting the dictator’s chilling disdain for criticism. As they still do today, the police or “MetroComs” asserted their authority over alleged subversives using guns and bats, aiming to silence dissent against those in power and their cronies. 

Meanwhile, student activists Estong (Joshua Bulot) and Art (Johnrey Rivas) were rabidly arrested in a mass demonstration under the command of Lt. Sales—played by the internationally acclaimed Mon Confiado. Shortly after, the group’s maternal figure Alet (Adelle Ibarrientos) was kidnapped and brought to Lt. Sales as well. 

During this act, the genius of Tañada’s directing crept in through his obvious film language: juxtaposition. Spirited folk sounds contrasted barbaric scenes depicting bats and bullets grazing the skins of protesters. Comic lines, such as “Estong’s surname is not ‘Missing’”, were thrown in the middle of supposedly serious scenes of despair over arrested loved ones. It defeated predictability by deviating from formulaic dramatic sounds and a strictly grim screenplay. 

Tañada’s roots in theater were deeply embedded in the film, drawing the line between movie and play direction. The leads overacted to the point that it was distracting. Theatrical movements were made as if the camera failed to get close. An awkward screenplay with lines one wouldn’t say in real life. The incorporation of meaningful silences was absent, giving little time for the audience to sit with the characters.

Furthermore, the overused shaky handheld made it feel like the footage was shot for a primetime action teleserye, such as “Ang Probinsyano,” while the sloppily spelt subtitles proved that the film needed polishing.

The hints of amateurity in the film can be excused. It redeemed itself through its vivid and truthful representation of history. Cold-blooded acts of torture were graphic at the very least. Electrocution of the phallus, peeing on a body unwilling to fight, the rape of a betrayed lover, pulling off an activist’s fingernails until they bled.These were only some of the torturous scenes that kept you wishing they were not real.

Despite the inhumanity and gruesome imagery exhibited, the film does not fail to realize how love can bloom even in despair. The leads were divided in pairs, telling stories of four different kinds of love, all hoping to brave the brutal regime. 

There were Panyong and Alet, who arguably played the most part in the film’s narrative. Panyong, whom Director Tañada himself portrayed, is a writer of Ang Bayan, the official publication of the Communist Party of the Philippines, while Alet served as the group’s Tandang Sora, nursing those who are in need of a place to go to. 

As the group’s seniors, their love story is the most dynamic, carrying the tales of lovers but not quite, inspiring the most prominent soundtrack of the film, “Manhid.” After years of looking out for each other, their feelings were confessed only a day before Alet was abducted, raped and killed. If there are words to describe a love such as theirs, it would be waiting, and waiting some eternity more for each other. 

Meanwhile, Art and Lally’s story portrayed a love that only youth can define. Carla Lim’s performance of Lally was spry, but borderline forgettable. Meanwhile, Rivas’ ardent depiction of Art made him worthy of the Best Actor FAMAS award, and rightfully so. In addition, Art’s father is a street sweeper and die-hard Marcos fanatic, prompting one of the series’ most prominent betrayals, as Art was soon murdered by the police. 

Similarly, Susie, played by Vian Olmedo, and Estong’s love was nothing but typical, but they weren’t granted a happy ending either. Estong was suspected by the police to be an armed revolutionary, while Susie was an activist with Visayan origins. Just like Art, Estong was tortured and thieved of his right to living. 

Greg and Lara, played by Jerome Ponce and Nicole Laurel Asensio, respectively, told the tale of an activist falling in love with a Filipina balikbayan from the States, who was later revealed to be the daughter of the slain professor, Ka Manding.

Their conflict revolved around Lara’s conservatism and apathy to the subjugated Filipino masses, which, of course, did not sit right with Greg’s radical, Marxist yet unfittingly misogynistic views. It was only until Lara knew of her father’s death that she joined the demonstrations. 

Implicitly, this begs the question: How many more deaths do we need to witness for us to partake in social movements?

The love story formula observed in the film can be likened to the ending of Ricky Lee’s “Para Kay B.” The novel’s premise is: out of five people who seek love, only one can be given a happy ending. With that being said, only Greg and Lara were able to hold onto their happy endings as the others were left alone in grief, longing. 

Greg and Lara’s romance was incarnated by their son, Greggy, who was also played by Ponce himself. The child was a testament to love’s unwillingness to succumb to terror – that it can be birthed even in times the eyes do not see fit. He was a symbol not only of his parents’ love but also of the others’ who did not give up on it. Greggy was a remembrance of the love that stayed, the love that left and the love that never was given a chance. 

No matter how much Tañada denies the film’s political nature, it exposes the truth that the Marcos regime was brutally abusive. The way he tries to disconnect the film to its context, for whatever reason, tells me that this film could have been braver. 

It is about Marcos, and what about it?  

The film was ambitious, but not ambitious enough to be ranked among the critically successful works of Lino Brocka, Peque Gallaga, Mike De Leon, among others in depicting the social realities under Marcos Sr.’s murderous regime. Films such as Bayan Ko/Kapit sa Patalim (1984), Oro, Plata, Mata (1982), and Sister Stella L. (1984) are only some of the many films that effectively served as political commentaries against the existing social structure during those times. 

So much potential was lost to appease audiences who view EDSA unfavorably. It was made to be so palatable to the hopeless romantic, that it forgot what it was originally: a protest against the darkening of the times. 

If the film wanted to love better, it could have been more fierce in its messaging to pursue our historical truths.

In its final sequence, the film honored those who fought for freedom during the EDSA Revolution, especially the names of those at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani. With this, a seemingly forgotten message was enforced: EDSA was not a mere feud between two families, rather it was the plight of the oppressed Filipino masses telling Marcos and his cronies, “This far, no further.” 

When the times call for us to be brave, we should deliver. Here’s to never forgetting.