By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento
Directed by Mike de Leon
FILIPINO FILM auteur Mike de Leon’s varied oeuvre spans musical screwball comedy (Kakabakaba Ka Ba, 1980), dark twisted psychodrama (Kisapmata, 1981), the inspiring politicization of once complacent religious during Marcos martial law (Sister Stella L., 1984), and the harrowing indictment of the so-called hope of our nation, our students’ complicity in mindless institutional conformity as manifested in brutal fraternity hazing rituals (Batch ’81, 1982). Each of these very different films is characterized by a singular intelligence and consummate cinematic craftsmanship.
It has been 18 years since De Leon’s last full-length feature, the slickly clever, dead pan Bayaning Third World (2000). He became to Philippine cinema, what J.D. Salinger was to American arts and letters. Thus local cineastes eagerly awaited Citizen Jake, said to have been three years in the making, and still fresh from the editing room, when it premiered on March 10 at the University of the Philippines’ Cine Adarna.
De Leon has described Citizen Jake as a family drama. It is a reflective, occasionally bombastic narrative of the inner and outer journeys of an erstwhile newsman turned blogger: Jacobo “Jake” Herrera, Jr. (Atom Araullo), whose story is played out against the backdrop of Philippine political wheeling and dealing, killing and whoring, with a teensy dash of romance for the kilig factor, what with two gorgeous leads like Max Collins (an earnest and tender-hearted college instructor) and Araullo.
This may be Mike de Leon’s most personal work to date. Much of the film is set in his grandparents’ family vacation home in Baguio City where the eponymous protagonist chooses to live. A portrait of the matriarch Narcisa de Leon, the founder of LVN Studios, is prominently displayed in the living room. Ominously, Jake hangs on his bedroom wall a large colored photograph of a wrecked red Volkswagen, its innards exposed. It might be the car in which Christopher de Leon romanced Hilda Koronel all over Baguio, in the seminal but bittersweet Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising (1977), which De Leon had dedicated to his grandmother Doña Sisang, on the occasion of her birth centenary.
Early on, the film reminds us that this is not the dew-kissed, pine-scented, misty mountaintops Baguio of old, but it is still less congested and filthy than Metro Manila. Besides, the Baguio house holds precious final memories of Jake’s mother Victoria (Dina Bonnevie) who inexplicably abandoned her family when her sons were young children. Jake continues to have restless dreams of his lost mother, vaguely babbling with a martini glass permanently fused to her hand. Still he loves this missing parent far more than he does his father, Senator Jacobo Herrera, Sr. (Teroy Guzman), a reptilianly cunning and pragmatic Marcos loyalist who thrives under whichever regime is in place. The senator eagerly awaits the second coming in the incarnation of BBM. The house of Jake’s policeman compadre/informant is plastered with campaign banners for Duterte-Cayetano and BBM, proclaiming “Itutuloy (They will go on).”
It is said that the very old, like the very young, can get away with saying things that might give lesser mortals pause. De Leon was turning 70 when he started filming Citizen Jake. He is of the age and stature where he can let the chips fall where they may. Throughout the film, he proclaims his contempt for the late Ferdinand E. Marcos and his immediate family, with their various cronies, raising howls of shocked hilarity and raucous approval from the mostly baccalaureated movie premiere crowd. One wonders though, how a less educated and more historically clueless audience might react during the film’s commercial run.
The male power of fathers is pervasive, looming larger than life as the Apo, whose mountainside monument Jake sees from his bedroom window even though the film is set in 2016. In reality, this statue was heavily damaged first in 1989 and further damaged in 2002. Towards the film’s end, it morphs into the leonine visage of Jake’s father, Senator Jacobo Herrera, Sr. Even the beloved Baguio house where Jake lives rent-free is in his father’s name.
Try as Jake does to dissociate himself from his father and his cohorts — choosing the ideals of journalism over the material rewards of politics, living away from his father’s domain — the reality is that doors open to Citizen Jake as a journalist because he is the son of Senator Herrera, Sr. He identifies as such when it’s convenient. There’s no getting away from his legal identity, as the most powerful woman in the film, Patty Medina (Cherie Gil), makes clear to him, even as she mocks him and toys with him. The success of her enterprise also depends on the protection of her well-connected male clientele. Her power as a woman is derivative and invisible.
Jake Herrera actually believed he was sincere in wanting to be just a “citizen.” He and Jhonie (Luis Alandy) the son of the Baguio house caretakers, would talk about the time when the social order would be turned upside down. As young boys, they were summer vacation best friends. Yet, when he reached manhood, the trust fund baby Jake never helped his impoverished BFF go beyond a high school education or rewarded his family’s loyal service by helping them to get some security through owning their own home. Believing that Jhonie betrayed him, Jake is sincerely hurt and harshly declares it’s impossible to be friends with someone from a different social class. Friendship Lesson No. 1: you don’t make your best friend get the gate for you or fetch and carry.
Later the senator mentions that one of the reasons for his wife’s disappearing was that she wanted to turn him in, and all his ill-gotten wealth over, to the revolutionary government. Now we know where Jake got his conflicted priggishness. He wants nothing to do with the family business of extortionate, rent-seeking politics. He hates being related to his older brother Roxie, (delightfully played by Gabby Eigenmann), whose peg is Coppola’s Godfather film series. Roxie gets a chance to re-enact a bloody sequence in the Godfather vein, but no big people die. As in real life, it’s the little people who pay with their lives. Remember that saying about how when the elephants dance, the grass gets trampled upon. That happens here too.