While often overlooked, Filipino cinema is a groundbreaking media form that celebrates the complexities of Filipino culture and diaspora. To celebrate the influence of Filipino cinema, here are 10 innovative movies to watch during Filipino American History Month. The month of October was first officially recognized as Filipino American month by the U.S. Congress in 2009, according to the Filipino American National Historical Society. According to the FANHS, Filipino people constitute the second largest Asian American group in the U.S and are also the third largest ethnic minority in California. The FANHS goes on to state that the month is a commemoration of the “first recorded presence of Filipinos in the continental United States, which occurred on Oct. 18, 1587, when ‘Luzones Indios’ came ashore from the Spanish galleon ‘Nuestra Senora de Esperanza’ and landed at what is now Morro Bay, California.” Here are 10 films that chronicle, follow or capture facets of the Filipino American experience.
Movies marked with * contain graphic violence
The Debut (2001)
If you’ve taken a class in Filipino studies at SF State, you’ve likely watched or heard of “The Debut.” First-time filmmaker Gene Cajayon directed and co-wrote “The Debut,” the first nationally released Filipino American film, as a love letter to the Bay Area’s Filipino community. The movie takes place on the day of Rose Mercado’s 18th birthday party, a traditional Filipino debut. Rose’s brother and the protagonist of the film, Ben, is a talented artist and comic-book aficionado who applies for CalArts, a prestigious arts university, much to the chagrin of their strict Filipino father. Roland, a hardworking postal employee, works to provide a better life for his two children, and he, along with other family members, expects his son to study pre-med at UCLA on a scholarship Ben received. Navigating the dynamics of the entire family, including overbearing atis (aunties), culturally oblivious cousins and his stoic and stern grandfather, Ben learns more about his culture, his family and himself in one night. Watch “The Debut” for the solid soundtrack and for the added bonus of Rose and Ben’s many cute Filipino cousins and friends.
K’na, the Dreamweaver (2014)
“K’na, the Dreamweaver” is a groundbreaking and culturally important film, and overall, a delight to watch. Directed by Ida Anita Del Mundo, the film is told entirely in the T’boli language, a native tongue used by the T’boli people in Southern Mindanao in the Philippines. K’na, the daughter of the southern chieftain of Lake Sebu, is raised from childhood to become a dreamweaver. She anxiously awaits the dreams given to her by their Indigenous goddess so she can serve her community by weaving t’nalak cloth in vibrant red, black and white fiber threads. The plot is fairly simple: K’na falls in love but must choose between her heart and her duty to her people to end the war between the northern and southern tribes. What truly shines in the movie is the beauty and community of the T’boli people. Plot elements are delicately folded within longer scenes of Indigenous life: eating; sleeping; working, joking, dancing and providing for each other. Superwide long shots show the vibrant visuals of Lake Sebu, and extreme close ups show K’na and the other weavers fingers moving deftly across their looms. Filipino culture often buries Indigenous history and language; this film combats that erasure in a beautiful way.
Call Her Ganda * (2018)
Jennifer Laude was known as “Ganda,” or “pretty,” to her family and close friends. Her mother Julita said Jennifer earned her nickname because she would often say “maganda ako” at a young age. In 2014, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton killed Laude – her body was found strangled and drowned in the motel room the two had rented with Laude’s friend, Barbie. “Call Her Ganda,” directed by PJ Raval, follows Filipino-American journalist Meredith Talusan, also a transgender woman, in her investigation of Laude’s death and revolutionary court case that ended in the first American soldier convicted of a crime in the Philippines without being overturned. The documentary takes this singular act of violence against a trans woman and expands the issue to an international level, providing modern commentary on the continued imperialism of the U.S. in the Philippines. Laude’s family and lawyers fight for a murder conviction, with overwhelming support from the Filipino trans community, against the Visiting Forces Agreement , which allows the U.S. government to maintain jurisdiction over any military personnel accused of committing crimes in the Philippines; this means that visiting American soldiers can’t be tried for crimes they commit by the Filipino judicial system. After two years, the court found Pemberton guilty but reduced his charge from murder to homicide. For those still following the case, on Sept. 7, 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte pardoned Pemberton, who left the Philippines on Sept. 13.
American Adobo (2001)
For something more lighthearted, romantic and humorous, “American Adobo” is the way to go. Directed by Laurice Guillen and written by Vincent R. Nebrida, the film follows five Filipino friends navigating their way through the U.S., adapting to the American style while still holding onto their culture. Based in Queens, New York, Tere and her five friends showcase the everyday struggles that they face, such as Tere struggling to cope with being single at 40.. Tere hosts a dinner party for her friend who is visiting from Manila, Lorna, who is considering staying in America instead of going back home to her wealthy husband. At the party, Mike, Gerry, Raul and Marissa are introduced. Mike is going through the process of questioning his career and unfulfilling marriage. Gerry, who is part of the LGBTQ+ community, is scared to come out to his friends, but he might be forced to tell his secret. Raul faces a roadblock in his life– to grow up and mature. Lastly, Marissa faces the infidelity of her partner, but is afraid to do something about it. “American Adobo” is a great film to show the everyday relatable struggles of a group of Filipino friends that lives in America.
Amigo * (2011)
“Amigo” will take you through the rice fields of the Luzon during the Philippine-American war, with fictional characters Rafael and his brother Simon. Directed by John Sayles, “Amigo” is the 17th film he has directed. It was first shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010, later released to theaters in 2011. “Amigo” shows friendship and betrayal between family, with violence that was faced during the war in the Philippines. This film includes Tagalog, Spanish and English, including subtitles. Set during the Philippine-American War, Rafael is the mayor of his village and is helping the American troops help find and locate guerilla fighters; however, his brother is the leader of the guerrillas in their village, making it a tough decision on how Rafael will help with the hunt for the fighters, making possibly a deadly decision on the village. “Amigo” is a great film to watch for drama and war plot movies.
Bitter Melon * (2018)
“Bitter Melon” is a film filled with dark humor, directed and written by H.P. Mendoza. It’s debut was at the 2018 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Filmed in San Francisco, the movie begins when its main character, Declan, decides to return home for Christmas so his family can reunite. He quickly realizes that his second brother has been abusing his wife and kids, as well as intimidating everyone else in the house, including their mother. Once his last brother and extended family arrives for the Christmas reunion, the signs of physical abuse toward the wife comes to light, but everyone chooses to act oblivious to the obvious bruise.. Declan suddenly comes up with an idea to help his brother’s wife – kill his brother. The plot of “Bitter Melon” is based on H.P. Mendoza’s own experience of domestic abuse within his Filipino family in the Philippines and in San Francisco.
Cavite * (2005)
“Cavite” takes you through a thriller of a poverty-stricken town in the Philippines named Cavite. Directed by Neill Dela Lana and Ian Gamazon, this English and Tagalog film brings terror, thrills and the realities of what it is like to live in Cavite and what people will do to survive. The plot of the movie follows the main character Adam, who has flown back to Cavite from the U.S. for his father’s funeral. He quickly discovers that his mother and sister have been kidnapped and will be killed if he does not follow through with what the kidnappers tell him to do. The kidnappers are part of a Muslim terrorist group in the Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf, who are trying to fight the government. Adam, who is not familiar with the country, must navigate his way through the dire circumstances to save his sister and mother from their potential deaths. Adam later realizes he must choose between self-sacrifice for his family or commit to crimes that can affect the population at large.
Eerie * (2018)
“Those who believe without seeing are blessed.” The words of St. Lucia serve as a cornerstone to the horror film “Eerie,” which will strike fear in those wary of the supernatural, self-harm and Catholic imagery. Although this is independent director Mikhail Red’s first foray into the genre, following two thrillers, “Eerie” spooks and shines through a focus on its multifaceted female characters and their relationships. Set in a prolific Catholic school named St. Lucia in 1995, guidance counselor Patricia Consolacion, known as Ms. Pat, works to support her students through the isolation and corporal punishment of a strict religious regimen. One student, Erika, requires a different approach. Ms. Pat uses her clairvoyant abilities to speak with the ghost of Erika Sayco, who hanged herself in a comfort room (bathroom) stall years before. When a student named Clara is murdered on campus, Ms. Pat looks to Erika for answers, hoping her story can help uncover Clara’s killer. The film starts slow with a few jump scares, establishing exposition for an intricate plot, but builds to a harrowing, fast-paced movie that scrutinizes the varied influences of Catholicism on the Filipino people. From cinematography to sound design to cultural critique, “Eerie” is a must see for horror movie buffs.
Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (1980)
There are few movies one could genuinely categorize as a “romp.” The ‘80s musical “Kakabakaba Ka Ba?” truly has the works: over-the-top and fully choreographed rock numbers; matching outfits with shoulder pads; unexplainable yet hilarious scenarios; and attractive young men in those flattering high-waisted jeans. From the mind of director, cameraman, producer and scriptwriter Mike De Leon, “Kakabakaba Ka Ba?” or “Does Your Heart Beat Faster?” follows two Filipino couples that inadvertently become entangled in a drug trafficking rivalry between the Japanese and Chinese syndicates in the Philippines. Films from this time period often are racially charged and culturally obtuse, with extremely insulting depictions of people from other countries, But they are still revered; think of any film written or directed by John Hughes. The representation of Chinese and Japanese people in “Kakabakaba Ka Ba?” acts as social commentary on the economic and political history of both imperialist countries in the Philippines. This film will make you laugh until you’re sore, nurture a newfound respect for Filipino music and stir you to ask important questions. Most notably: Just how comfortable is a water bed?
Tall as Trees (2008)
Separated from his mother, 8-year old Jude must navigate his way through Manila to make his way to the U.S. but runs into obstacles along the way. Directed by Gil Ponce and written by Mark Titus and Darren Des Voigne, “Tall as Trees” is a film about a young boy who must find his way to be with his father in the U.S., but quickly realizes he cannot trust everyone that he encounters. Jude and his mother are set to follow his father, who got a promotion to Seattle, but when he and his mother finally make arrangements to leave the Philippines,Jude and his mother separate. While separated, Jude meets people who are crooked and untrustworthy, but also makes friends as he tries to gather enough money to finally make it to the U.S. to be with his father. As his journey goes on, Jude reaches a turn of events that changes everything that was in his and everyone else’s path.