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Raya Martin´s video installation at the Lopez Museum in Manila

May 27, 2009
Raya Martin´s video installation

Raya Martin´s video installation

The Lopez Museum in Manila has reshuffled its collection of Philippine art into a new exhibition called Double Take. The show includes a video installation by Philippino indie wunderkind Raya Martin, who was not able to attend the opening, as he was in Cannes, where two of his films were shown.

The Lopez Museum regularily invited artists to “interact” with pieces from their collection, and this collection now includes stills from the historic film studio LVN, the “MGM of the Philippines”, that was among the biggest and most successful studios in the “First Golden Age of Philippine Cinema”. Martin picked HUK Sa Bagong Pamumuhay (1953), a movie on the reintegration of communist HUK guerilla fighters into Philippine society, directed by Lamberto Avellana, one of the best directors of that period.

Martin took the movie apart into scenes that show violent confrontations, quiet bliss and nature, and shows them in three different projections in three different colors: red, blue, yellow, the colors of the Philippine flag. Ouch. The heavy-handed symbolism annoys, and it does not work either as the dominant color of the Philippine flag is white, and the unsuspecting viewer of this piece, who has not been clued in by some friendly art explainer, will assume that Martin simply used the primary colors.

However, the coloring does give the shots from the black and white movie the mushy/tinted pre-Griffith-era look that Martin accomplished with different means in his first and so far best movie, A Short Film on Indio Nacional.The visual material that Martin works with here, does not lend itself to this method as it lacks the poignancy to accomodate this approach. Some shots stand out (a close up of a bolo machete coming down on a table full of little heaps of rice, some close-ups of faces), but a lot of them look like scenes from the Keystone Cops, when subjected to the digital tinting. Royston Tan used a similar approach for his film installation for the National Museum of Singapore, but he had much stronger material to work with: the Malay films of Shaw Brothers from the 1950s.

While Avellana was a gifted director, his main concern was the narrative, not framing and shot composition.  A movie by Gerry de Leon, the Philippine master of making movies look monumental with simple camera placement, might have worked much better here. Come to think about it, de Leon actually DID use the method of monochromatic  tinting a b/w picture to stunning effect in his outrageous vampire movie The Blooddrinkers from 1966.

LVN props

Installation with old LVN props

The show also includes some props from old LVN movies, like a collection of old armors and helmets that hang from the ceiling with their backs to the viewers, giving the uncanny impression of left-over weapons from some ancient battle field.

One of the lovingly hand-painted armors

One of the lovingly hand-painted armors

The battle might very well have been over the consciousness of the post-colonial Philippines, as most of these props have a vaguely medieval European look.

More props from LVN movies

More props from LVN movies

Many of the costume films of that time were based on the traditional Philippine moro-moro plays that typically were about wars between vaguely spanish monarchs versus vaguely oriental muslims, a cultural mish-mash that is one of the many fascinating, yet confusingly contradictory features of Philippine folk culture. The Hercules movie Sohrab at Rustum that is shown as part of the installation is an interesting testament of the hybridization of European and Asian traditions that occupied the Philippine movie-going public at that time.

Highly unlikely that you will find props like the ones pictured above in the basement of Asian studios like Shaw Brothers or Toho…

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