JESSICA ZAFRA | Celso Ad Castillo: genius is convulsive
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Lately I’ve been thinking about Celso Ad Castillo, the director of Burlesk Queen, Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-Itim ng Tagak (When Crows Turn White and Doves Turn Black), and Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop Sa Balat Ng Lupa (The Most Beautiful Animal on the Face of the Earth). He died several months ago, so this is too late for an obituary. I only met Castillo once, in 2010, but I’ve been watching his movies all my life.
Probably the first Tagalog movie I ever saw in a theatre was Pinakamagandang Hayop. For some reason my parents saw fit to take me along. I did not understand what I was seeing. Why was Gloria Diaz riding a white horse? (This was much discussed at the time -- her riding bareback and bra-less.) Why did everyone on the island hate her guts? Why was the mentally-retarded man watching her through the gaps in the wall of the nipa hut? The point is that I remembered these images even if I couldn’t explain them.
I did not watch Burlesk Queen at the first Metro Manila Film Festival, but I remember the furor that ensued when it swept all the awards that year, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Vilma Santos) and Best Actor (Rollie Quizon, a lightweight, beat the likes of Bembol Roco and Christopher De Leon). I remember Rolando Tinio and Lino Brocka having a very public argument and screaming “Bakla! BAKLA!” (Gay!) at each other. Many years later I became friends with people who were in that jury, and they explained the context of the quarrel. Apparently when Tinio, who was the chair of the jury, announced the winners, he proceeded to insult the other movies in competition. As this was Tinio, I assume those insults really hurt, hence Brocka’s reaction.
(And I recall Charlie Arceo’s scathing review of a later MMFF entry by Castillo, Payaso (Clown) starring German Moreno: Ang miningunang ino ay mahuha.)
I finally saw Burlesk Queen a few years ago, in a very bad copy. At least it was complete -- some versions aired on cable leave out the bloody climax. It was electrifying. Upon seeing Burlesk, Ishmael Bernal is supposed to have said, “Tapos na ang festival, umuwi na tayong lahat.” (The festival’s over, let’s all go home.) Filipinos made movies like this during the dictatorship! Censorship and political repression forced filmmakers to be creative and sneakily subversive, producing some of the finest Filipino films ever made. (Bonus question: Should we oppress our filmmakers for their own good?) Decades after seeing my first Celso Ad Castillo film, I had become a raving fan.
Cut to 2010, when the Cinema One festival named Castillo one of its honorees. I could not write the festival catalogue without meeting the man, and Ronald Arguelles, the head of Cinema One, made the arrangements. One Saturday afternoon my friend Noel and I went to Siniloan, Laguna to interview the so-called Messiah of Philippine Movies. The traffic was terrible and we were two hours late. Night had fallen by the time we found his house, a nondescript concrete building in the middle of a thick cluster of houses. The kind of neighborhood where the basketball game in the muddy alley continues in someone’s living room and everyone knows exactly what everyone else had for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We went up a flight of stairs and met Celso Ad Castillo.
His manner was that of a feudal lord welcoming pilgrims into his demesne. Grandly he waved away our apologies and bid us sit in his living room. The walls were lined with framed citations and photographs. A manual typewriter sat on a table, a sheet of paper in the roller -- apparently he had been writing something. A beautiful woman -- she looked familiar, an actress from his movies? -- brought us rice cakes and bottles of soda.
I had heard that he was insane. He certainly played the part, uttering pronouncements that caused us to hang on to the coffee table, lest we be blown away. “Nympha may well be my Citizen Kane,” he said of his 1971 bomba movie. One does not usually hear the Orson Welles masterpiece mentioned in connection with a sex movie in which the nymphomaniac protagonist bleeds to death in a cemetery. “I had not yet seen Citizen Kane at the time,” he clarified, “but I was thinking about it.” The more epic his statements became, the more I suspected that he was sane. I think it suited him to be regarded as a madman -- it gave him the freedom to do as he pleased. People expected strangeness of him.