A still from Alvin Yapan's Ang Sayaw Ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa, 2011

The landscape of queer cinema in the Philippines has been everchanging in the last several decades. The visibility of films that tackle LGBTQ+ themes became more striking in recent years with a growing market more open to the exploration of subjects that veer away from stereotypes and conventions. This is reflective of a contemporary attitude towards evolving cultural norms. But while these changes are a welcome development, they come from difficult beginnings.

Earlier LGBTQ+ representation in Philippine cinema started mostly as caricature, from Luciano Carlos' Facifica Falayfay (1969) to the gender swap flick Jack and Jill by Leroy Salvador, in 1987, starring Sharon Cuneta and Herbert Bautista, whose box-office success spawned a sequel Jack and Jill in Amerika (1988). The last two films updated a much earlier film incarnation of the comics-based characters in 1954, Jack n Jill, directed by Luciano Carlos starring Dolphy and Lolita Rodriguez. Predating Vice Ganda's recent stardom, it was Roderick Paulate who earlier gained popularity with his flamboyant portrayal of a gay man in several blockbuster comedy films from Kumander Gringa (Mike Relon Makiling, 1987) to Bala at Lipistik (Mario J. de los Reyes, 1994).

Perhaps the earliest film that broke away from caricature representation and presented a more sensitive portrayal of LGBTQ+ themes was Lino Brocka's Tubog Sa Ginto (Dipped in Gold, 1971) that revolves around the scandalous love affair between a businessman and his driver. It was followed a decade later by Danny Zialcita's T-Bird at Ako (T-Bird and Me). Released in 1982, a time when heavy censorship was in place and compounded by deeply conservative Catholic values, it explored the lesbian experience under the regime of Ferdinand Marcos.

Both films, although bookends to the Martial Law regime, captured the tension of the times. "Military repression resulted to sexual repression which had to find release in filmic expression," noted filmmaker and historian Nick Deocampo. 

The public dissatisfaction with the dictatorship continued to swell despite the lifting of Martial Law in 1981. Social and political unrest reached fever pitch when opposition leader Senator Ninoy Aquino, upon his return to Manila from exile, was assassinated in 1983. Queer cinema took on a more overt political tone. That year, Deocampo released his seminal documentary Oliver, about a female impersonator in a male strip club whose performance highlight is creating a spider web from rope emanating from his anus. The film is metaphorical and prophetic. Like the Filipino masses, Oliver becomes ensnared in his own web, but in the end, he musters all the strength to break free. This would happen years later in EDSA.

Days leading to the overthrow of Marcos in 1986, Deocampo saw himself filming the revolution as it unfolded in EDSA. Oliver was also there, among the throngs of people awaiting change to happen. Released in 1987, Revolutions Happen Like Refrains in a Song is a reflection on the EDSA revolution and the filmmaker's reckoning with his queer identity. He would explore this in succeeding documentaries such as Sex Warriors and the Samurai (1996) that examines the preparation of a transvestite to become an entertainer in Japan, and the autobiographical Private Wars (1997) about the filmmaker's search for his missing father.

Deocampo's films would comprise the groundwork for critical and scholarly curiosity on the Philippine experience in expanding Third Cinema as a field of study with emphasis on queer cinema as a form of protest cinema.

With democracy restored in the Philippines after EDSA, fundamental liberties enshrined in the new Constitution like freedom of speech and expression encouraged filmmakers to delve into bold subjects in their films. In 1988, Lino Brocka directed Macho Dancer, an exploration of a rural youth enticed by the city for greener pasture only to end up becoming a male strip club dancer or prostitute. But as it turned out, the promise of liberties under the new administration was a farce. Conservative attitudes continued and were enforced in the form of state censorship. Government censors ordered major cuts in the film. Brocka managed to smuggle an uncensored version of the film premiering at Toronto to critical applause. But the controversy and hype surrounding the film failed to prop its domestic box-office performance. Six years later, in 1994, Mel Chionglo explored the same theme with Sibak: Midnight Dancers which was banned initially but granted limited screenings after extensive cuts were made. It would be the first of a trilogy on male strip club dancers by Chionglo with Burlesk King released in 1999 and Twilight Dancers in 2006.

In a span of a decade, significant changes became noticeable in the tackling of queer subject in cinema. “The impact brought about by queer screen representation is one of sexual emancipation,” Deocampo noted.

“For someone like myself who belonged to the first generation that broke the ground for sexual minoritized communities to find public expression not only through filmmaking but through festival programming as activist act, writing about gay film politics, and holding workshops for more gays to make films, all these mattered a lot in widening the public space for gay screen representation which morphed into a community when the 1990s came,” he added.

In 1994, the first Pride March was organized in the Philippines, a historic first for Asia.

With changing attitudes on LGBTQ+ issues, not necessarily from mainstream society but from queer communities and their growing supporters opening to new ideas coming from the international front, more changes took place in screen representation in the late 1990s. Propelled perhaps by the popularity and acceptance of such films as Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Nicholas Hytner's The Object of My Affection (1998), local producers were inspired to create their own local outings, from Joel Lamangan's Pusong Mamon (Soft Hearts,1998) to Carlitos Siguion-Reyna's Ang Lalaki Sa Buhay Ni Selya (The Man in Selya's Life, 1998) which navigate complex romantic difficulties of their characters amidst the backdrop of prejudice, homophobia and the overwhelming pressure of social conventions.

With period films getting a boost as a result of the country's centennial of independence in 1998, Gil Portes directed Markova: Comfort Gay (2000), a biopic loosely based on the life of Walter Dempster Jr., a crossdresser forced to become a sex slave during the Japanese occupation in the Second World War.

In the early 2000s, owing to advances in digital video technology, the landscape of queer cinema changed dramatically. It allowed smaller independent production to make films that were constrained earlier by the high cost of making films in celluloid. Suddenly there was a profusion of rainbow colors in Philippine cinema.

The critical and box-office success of Auraeus Solito's Ang Pagdadalaga Ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros) in 2005 spurred other independent productions to mainstream new queer content –coming of age stories and tales of sexual awakening, for instance– that was intended for a mass audience. The commercial film studios responded by churning out caricatures with renewed vigor, through tried and tested formula that has survived the test of time, catapulting Vice Ganda's career.

On a different front, the flourishing of 'pink films' that were sexually titillating in nature was also happening. Cris Pablo made at least 31 pink films from 2000 to 2014 with highly successful titles such as Duda (Doubt, 2003), Bathhouse (2005) and Quicktrip (2008), while Jay Altarejos became famous for Ang Lalake Sa Parola (The Main in the Lighthouse, 2007), Ang Lihim ni Antonio (Antonio's Secret, 2008) and Ang Laro ng Buhay ni Juan (The Game of Juan's Life, 2009). In fact, it was Brillante Mendoza's film of this nature, Masahista (The Masseur, 2005), that earned him initial international recognition winning the Golden Leopard at Locarno.

The success of pink films was due to a captive market, both domestic and international, and the warm reception of aging stand-alone movie theaters whose income had diminished due to the increasing shift of movie-going experience to mall multiplexes. For more than a decade, these mall-based theaters have imposed restrictions on movies with an R rating. Pink films found their home in these stand-alone theaters.

But with the trend of stand-alone movie theaters being converted to Christian chapels and stores for cheap China-made products, it spelled the doom for pink films. For one, Video-On-Demand (VOD) platforms were unavailable yet. Producers couldn't rely on earnings from DVD sales. Worse, it allowed film piracy to prosper as technology to reproduce DVDs at astonishing speed became accessible.

As part of his artistic growth, Altarejos' later films became less sexually provocative, tackling queer concerns alongside socio-political issues that plagued the nation. As a consequence, many of the followers of his earlier films abandoned him. But Altarejos found a new audience in the younger set, the so-called 'woke' millennials, who watched films for various reasons other than to arouse carnal pleasures. As younger directors also started making films, the development of queer content for the millennial audience followed.

Ronald Arguelles, producer of Cinema One Originals, recognizes the vast potential of this market. “It is a conscious decision on the part of the Selection Committee of Cinema One Originals. The Festival is aware that there is a big audience and following for LGBTQ+ films,” Arguelles observed.

Cinema One Originals, a festival that finances and showcases the films of diverse Filipino filmmaking talents, has become the launchpad for new queer cinema since its inception in 2005, with a string of about 15 titles with LGBTQ+ content including Petersen Vargas' 2Cool To Be 4Gotten (2016), Samantha Lee's Baka Bukas (Maybe Tomorrow, 2016), Rod Singh's Mamu: And A Mother Too (2018), J.E. Tiglao's Metamorphosis (2019), and Giancarlo Abrahan's Sila Sila (The Same People, 2019).

However, markets have proved to be unpredictable. This allowed room for more diversity in screen representation to reach a wider section of the audience. Together with films tailor fit for the hugot (memorable line) generation audience are titles that are able to bridge generations of viewers like Joel Lamangan's Rainbow Sunset (2018).

For Alvin Yapan, director of Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa (Dance of Two Left Feet, 2011), it took almost a decade for his film to finally find its audience. This is due to the popularity of the Thai BL (Boy Love) series today which resonates with the theme of Yapan's film.

“The cinematic articulation of the queer subject has been mainstreamed. Expect so many BL shows and films these coming years.This both a good and bad thing. Having a genre means you have an audience, but this will also limit the acceptable representations you can work with,” Yapan noted.

Despite legitimate concerns on representation, it is undeniable that the exploration of queer issues in recent years has expanded to cover more areas of the queer spectrum beyond issues of gay men. Now we have more films on the lesbian, trans and even intersex experience.

Samantha Lee has articulated the lesbian experience in Philippine cinema starting with her debut feature Baka Bukas that tells the story of a girl who starts falling in love with her best friend. Lee later directed Billie and Emma in 2008 adding to the vast trove of coming of age films.  Years earlier, Sigrid Andrea Bernardo directed Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita (Anita's Last Cha-Cha, 2013), a film that explores a small town psyche through a young girl's coming of age and her deep affection for a much older woman.

Meanwhile, the trans narrative has been told through Jun Lana's Die Beautiful (2016), film about a perennial beauty contest candidate whose gender identity is opposed by father, Isabel Sandoval's Lingua Franca (2019) that delves on the story of an undocumented Filipino transwoman who works as a caregiver but is faced with a difficult decision when she runs out of options to obtain a legal status in the U.S., and Ram Botero's Pamalugu (In Limbo, 2019) that narrates the travails of a trans woman, an activist and a poet who are caught in an indigenous concept of a limbo awaiting passage to the Afterlife.

In recent years, the outlying regions outside of Manila have become the new frontier for queer cinema. The taboo subject of lesbian relationship in Islamic society is tackled in Arnel Mardoquio's Ang Paglalakbay Ng Mga Bituin Sa Gabing Madilim (The Journey of the Stars in the Dark Night, 2012), a Badjau transwoman forced to keep familial duties over her lover is the subject of Xeph Suarez's Astri Maka Si Tambulah (Astri and Tambulah, 2017), and the coming of age tale set in Pampanga after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in Petersen Vargas' 2Cool To Be 4Gotten.

Alongside progressive thought, gender politics gaining a foothold in the Philippines allowed the new queer representation in cinema to flourish. Now, filmmakers and audience alike are becoming more politicized, interrogating not only issues in society, but also those that films have brought forth. As a result, the need for political correctness in issues of gender and sex has become more critical in independent films which are understood to be of the progressive strain than the old film establishment. It could be recalled that a controversy surrounded Jade Castro's Zombadings: Patayin Sa Shokot Si Remington (Remington and the Curse of the Zombadings, 2011) when it was accused of perpetuating the belief that homosexuality is a curse because of a scene in the movie.

Moira Lang, producer of Zombadings, has defended the film. “I welcome the discourse that brave, substantive and sometimes challenging narratives generate. I dislike literal readings, though, especially those that don't distinguish theme from advocacy, or a literary character's psyche from the author's worldview,” Lang said, adding that “a film or story like Zombadings is (in more ways than one) a fairy tale which benefits more from a nuanced, contextual reading than a literal one. And as it happens in fairy tales, things are often not as they seem or not what they are at face value. In this case, the movie is calling out and debunking the idea that being gay (or straight) is a choice, a notion that is as absurd as saying that being gay is a curse.”

As more queer filmmakers join the fold, it also allows the interrogation of films made by non-queer filmmakers. Ara Chawdhury's Miss Bulalacao (2015), a film about a drag princess who gets pregnant after an encounter with aliens, is a subject of much curiosity in terms of how queer culture in the region differs from Manila in its articulation of gender identities. “One of the things  that I was trying to state in Bulalacao was identity, that in the provinces there is no difference between being trans and being homosexual,” Chawdhury explained.

However, trans filmmaker Ram Botero disagreed. “That statement is insidious, reinforcing the narrative that transwomen are men dressed up as women. This is the narrative used by men to murder transwomen as an excuse for their crimes,” she said.

The trans narrative remains the least understood section of queer representation. Botero stressed the importance of  mapping the genealogy of queer identities and their place in history to better understand and appreciate the complexity of the queer experience.

While the blossoming of queer cinema in the Philippines is a cause for celebration, the boxing of queer cinema into a category has also surfaced important issues. Exploring LGBTQ+ issues in all his films, Jay Altarejos was asked once if he has plans to make a film that is not queer related. He lamented that this puts into question the validity of queer cinema as a legitimate form of cinema. This is a reminder that there are still much work to accomplish. Queer filmmakers should be able to brave the everchanging landscape and become its expert cartographers.

- Gutierrez Mangansakan II