arts & culture

Cinematic memory: The list of essential classic Filipino films

Such is the art of cinema: in encountering stories on the big screen, we understand the world and appreciate its richness. Sadly, many movies in this current age spew the same iterations of popular formula. Commercialism has imprisoned the craft, limiting the freedom to create new possibilities. Certain avenues have since arisen in order to remedy this malady—for instance, the proliferation of independent film festivals.

However, in the quest for freedom from the tyranny of sameness in our cinematic consciousness, one need not look into alternative spaces. Instead, one may look to the past, into an era once known as the Golden Age of Philippine Cinema.



A household name and the subject of many pop culture references, this film has awed multitudes comparable to the mass of followers that Elsa, the lead character, was able to attract. Elsa, an unassuming barrio girl, gazes at a lunar eclipse and encounters the Mother’s apparition. After the resumption of the day-to-day activities of the province, Elsa, still enveloped by the appearance, soon develops healing abilities. Neighbors start asking for cures, and soon, words on her miracles quickly spread around. The quiet town quickly emerges as a pilgrimage-cum-tourist area—a rather synthetic concretization of the Kingdom of God.

More than a film that catapulted Nora Aunor into an icon, the film effectively portrays the idiosyncrasies of a Filipino society basked in its own mythologies—one where popular religiosity is indistinguishable from the dictatorial rule of the mob.

Director: Ishmael Bernal

Writer: Ricardo Lee

Cast: Nora Aunor, Spanky Manikan, Joel Lamangan, Pen Medina

Distributed by: Experimental Cinema of the Philippines

Date of Release: December 25, 1982


Kakabakaba Ka Ba?


Films of the satirical genre are rarely produced in the Philippines. However, in 1980, director Mike de Leon weaved out a masterpiece that made possible for a critique of Filipino society in a much tasteful manner. The film portrays two couples that stumbles upon the operations of illegal smuggling of drugs into the country. One of the characters, after a mix up of items in the airport, accidentally takes possession of a cassette tape that contains the drug to be reproduced. The four characters then abound a series of adventures not only to find a way out of the underground but also to crack it open and expose the activities bubbling beneath.

The film is remarkably sharp in its commentaries on the drug lords reigning over our economy, the entry of foreigners in local affairs, and the implicit participation of religion in these shenanigans. What’s more praiseworthy, however, is the form for this message. Its so-branded “demented” brilliance is embedded as well in the details: the intelligent humor, touché references, and—my personal favorite—the singing nuns that much predated the Sister Act musical in the United States.

Director: Mike De Leon

Writer: Clodualdo del Mundo, Raquel Villavicencio, Mike de Leon

Cast: Christopher de Leon, Sandy Andolong, Charo Santos, Jay Ilagan

Distributed by: LVN Pictures

Date of Release: August 8, 1980


Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang


Filipino society is full of many contradictions, which this film portrays. In an ordinary town, Junior draws his attention to Kuala whose insanity has led her to being a nomad in her own town. The rest of the community, mostly well-off and religiously devout, are so accustomed to her. Either they could not care less or treat her as a laughingstock–she’s the village idiot, an aberration to the otherwise normal community. Never did anyone know, however, that she’s merely a victim, a product of the excesses of this same town. Behind the façade of austerity and simplicity lies a rotten and egoistic society—indeed these are the truly mad and insane ones.

A good critique is one that does not tell but shows. Perhaps this should be watched primarily to savor the searing realizations of truths in our society. And then lessons could be learned, thus making socio-political commentaries much less crass, and much more with art.

Director: Lino Brocka

Writer: Lino Brocka and Mario O’Hara

Cast: Lolita Rodriguez, Christopher de Leon, Mario O’Hara, Eddie Garcia

Distributed by: CineManila Corporation

Date of Release: May 30, 1974


Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?


In the release during its time in 1976, it served to be the ultimate historical epoch that sought to crystallize the elusive Filipino identity. Who is the Filipino, anyway? Corollary to this is the problematic of history. How does history construct our own identities? Set in the era following the Philippine American War, the movie tells the story of Kulas, a peasant in the countryside, who climbs up the ranks of the local elite—all by luck. Perpetually clueless about the world he now inhabits, he continues to move about this new realm dominated by foreigners and the local elite. He falls in love, gets disillusioned, and learns that heritage, itself, is invented.

Watching this from today’s vantage point adds another dimension of meaning: it’s watching history about history. Perhaps the question that the title of this movie offers begs for us to ask it time and again.

Director: Eddie Romero

Writer: Roy Iglesias and Eddie Romero

Cast: Christopher de Leon, Gloria Diaz

Distributed by: Hemisphere

Date of Release: December 25, 1976


Oro Plata Mata


Class distinction in current pop cultural representation is oftentimes portrayed in polar extremes. There’s the protagonist who’s of the lower class always oppressed by the nouveau riche. The latter is inherently unjust and always displays overt acts of evil, coming off as implausible most of the time. The latter seeks retribution when the wheels of fortune turn around and the two switch places. In Oro Plata Mata, such cyclical narrative is noticeably absent. It tells the saga of two haciendero families in Negros who enjoy typical affluence in the early decades of the twentieth century. The polarization is absent; the realism of lifestyle is raw and well vibrant. The presence of the World War eminently led to the elite’s decline, and the struggle with the Hukbalahaps and the fight for survival eventually show how feral the human psyche may be.


The argument against elites in this film is well articulated in poignant language. The depth of characters, the scenic mansions, the turn of events—all these provoke the right emotions from the audience thus showing glimpses to the fullness of how human people may be—whether part of the elite or not.


Director: Peque Gallaga

Writer: Jose Javier Reyes

Cast: Cherie Gil, Sandy Andolong, Joel Torre, Manny Ojeda

Distributed by: Experimental Cinema of the Philippines

Date of Release: January 27, 1982


By exploring past films, may we understand how it was back then; may the grandeur of that time transform us, in that, now, we may carve out a certain future where we can properly have an art that is free. Indeed, if part of the magic of films is that they immortalize, then we should do our part. Not only by watching them, but remembering them. Not only now, but even in the future. P

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