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.
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.
Call Her Ganda
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.
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.
“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.