The vessel to Venice

The curator of the Philippine Pavilion talks about Manuel Conde’s Genghis Khan.

Words  Patrick D. Flores

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A sketch of a brazier by Carlos “Botong” Francisco, who designed Genghis Khan; and a still from the movie showing director Manuel Conde as the “king without equal” and Botong’s realized brazier.

When Filipino filmmaker Manuel Conde graced the screening of his 1950 film Genghis Khan at the Venice Film Festival in 1952, he was rather confounded. He did not know what he had wrought, and why it had lured cinephiles and moguls outside his country. A particular scene showing horses was noteworthy. The film historian Agustin Sotto recounts: “Manoling [as Conde was called] remembers that during the screening at the Lido, he slowly dropped in his seat when the sequence involving horses was shown…The Philippine Constabulary had earlier reneged on its promise to lend its sleek, well-groomed horses and Manoling found himself in a spot where he could not postpone the shooting. He directed Carlos “Botong” Francisco to scrounge for horses in the nooks and crannies of Avenida, Rizal. Botong brought in these short horses on which the actors rode with their feet six inches above the ground. It was riotous. ‘Pinagtawanan kami sa Times Theater,’ Manoling repeats time and again.”

But in Venice, he was lauded: “After the screening, Manoling was congratulated for having employed the authentic Mongolian horses—a breed now difficult to find. Botong Francisco’s judgement had been unerring.” Co-written and designed by Carlos Francisco and re-edited and given an English annotation by the writer-critic James Agee, Genghis Khan competed with the films of Chaplin, Clement, Fellini, Ford, Hawks, Wyler, Bergman, and Mizoguchi in the fabled festival in Italy. Conde and Francisco are Philippine National Artists.

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As the Philippines returns to the Venice Biennale, so is Genghis Khan revisited as a trajectory into the very idea of Venice as the place that first recognized the country through the moving image.

To make a movie on history’s incomparable conqueror—“king without equal” as he was known—was a dare of a lifetime. And it bemused foreign spectators when it was presented at the Museum of Modern Art in 1952 and years later at the Pompidou in Paris in 1981.

PHILIPPINE RETURN

As Philippine representation returns to the Venice Biennale of art in 2015 after 51 years, so is the film revisited as a trajectory into the very idea of Venice as the place that first recognized the country through the moving image in the more halcyon times of the 1950s. This travel, specifically the distance and time traversed, indexes an aspiration. It also offers an opportunity to reflect on the condition of the world today and the potential of a Philippine Pavilion to initiate a conversation on the changing configurations of this world—on the volatile meanings of territory, country, nation, border, patrimony, nature, freedom, limit, and the “present passing.”

The film is the Pavilion’s vessel to Venice. Around this premise, Jose Tence Ruiz intimates the image of the Philippine ship on the South China Sea, at once “slum fortress” and armature of archipelago. Manny Montelibano refunctions the sound and image of a threshold to scan both the epic of survival and the radio frequency of incursion. Surveying his dominion at the end of the seminal film, Genghis Khan turns to his beloved to profess that he would tie a string around the world and lay it at her feet—a gesture of intense affection, of breathtaking hubris. The Philippine Pavilion risks to make claims on a current world, the deep past of a country’s prevailing, and the many lines spun, from island to island, all over.

At a tangent to Genghis Khan, the work of Tence Ruiz, Shoal, references the BRP Sierra Madre (LT-57), a ghost ship near the Spratly Islands that serves as an outpost of the Philippine Marine Corps. The New York Times describes it as the vessel of Vietnam War vintage that “the Philippine government ran aground on the reef in 1999 and has since maintained as a kind of post-apocalyptic military garrison, the small detachment of Filipino troops stationed there struggling to survive extreme mental and physical desolation.” Ruiz evokes the spectral ship, which conjures as well the fabled mountain range, as an ambivalent silhouette of a shoal through his assemblage of metal, velvet, and wood. The trace that is also a monument thus settles into and becomes a reef-outpost-detritus-ark floating on a contested vastness, at once forlorn and prevailing both as saga and shipwreck.

For his part, Montelibano presents the multi-channel video piece, A Dashed State, on the West Philippine Sea, which is part of the disputed South China Sea. It dwells on the atmosphere of a lush locale, particularly the sound of epics and radio frequencies that crisscross the expanse, and the vignettes of seemingly uneventful life ways of islands. The film invites discussion on the history of world making and the history of the sea in the long duration, and in relation to the histories of empires, nation-states, and regions. From the vantage point of Palawan, threshold to Borneo and the South China Sea, Montelibano films the conditions of the impossible: what makes a common sea and where lie frontier and edge, melancholy and migration?

‘TOO HIGH BROW AND LITERARY’

Genghis Khan was made on a paltry budget of Php125,000 and used 25 cans of raw stock worth Php30,000. After gracing Venice, it went to Salzburg, Rome, and Edinburgh. United Artists bought it for American distribution and was dubbed in 16 languages including Chinese, French, Italian, Spanish, Thai, German, and Japanese. An instrumental figure in this circulation was Jacques Grinieff who founded Société Générale des Films to finance grandiose films like Abel Gance’s groundbreaking masterpiece Napoléon (1927) and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928).

In an interview with Manuel Conde, he intimates that he was drawn to the character of Temujin (Temujen in the original script), the person who became the conqueror. He was struck by his valiant struggle to subdue the leaders of the other tribes who had gone to war over land and water; how he built a formidable army; and how he took on the mantle of the master of a sprawling empire. 

Of interest here for the Pavilion are the discrepancies between the modest expectations of Philippine cinema and the schema of Genghis Khan as a character of global magnitude, of the hills of Angono and the desert of Gobi. In fact, when the film was premiered in Hollywood, some observers were baffled. One of them quipped: “Even DeMille didn’t attempt to do a Genghis Khan.”

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Manny Montelibano’s A Dashed State, a multi-channel video piece

The reception to Genghis Khan in the United States was mixed. In the files at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, some notes surface. Commonweal magazine considered it a “semi-biographical, panoramic film made in the Philippines… an unusual movie.” It took note of the “somewhat too high brow and literary” English narration but praised its visuals, which “make the film so impressive.” Variety, on the other hand, covered its preview in New York on June 18, 1953 and called it the “Philippine film industry’s attempt to break into the American market.” According to its writer, the film is “occasionally interesting” though it belongs to an “also-ran class.” It is a “crude take off on a Hollywood costume drama” and its “camera work not up to U.S. standards.” Another publication pointed to “moments of glaring amateurish quality.” It seems that the film was difficult to place within the critical imagination, partly because it came from an eccentric site like the Philippines and that it was venturesome enough to take on the story of Genghis Khan whose domain “spread from Asia to the Danube.” Notes labeled “BFI” offer the most nuanced view of the film: “the technique is variable, often crude, and compositions and cutting too deliberately ‘artistic.’” There is productive confusion, a sign that the film holds out something aesthetically intractable. It continues to say that the “picture, however, is seldom less than interesting, and often most exciting, as, for example, in the wrestling sequence. Though the construction is weak and episodic, the action is all on a grand and heroic scale, so that there seems nothing farcical in Temujin’s splitting four armed warriors on one great arrow.” It does not scrimp on compliments for Manuel Conde and Lou Salvador as actors. It describes the battle scenes as “near balletic” and the English commentary “intelligent and well read.”

Agustin Sotto believes that Genghis Khan is peerless: “Nothing before it prepares us for its surprises and nothing after it comes close to its achievements. It seems to be the only Filipino movie in the Russian style of filmmaking. In its first shot, cirrocumulus clouds roll like powder puffs across the landscape… Soldiers are shot diagonally. Manuel Conde as Genghis Khan poses in front of the camera in a low angle similar to Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible.” But Conde has denied this Eisenstein influence, causing Sotto to look to Botong as the other eye behind the camera: “A few Russian movies played in Manila before the war—Alexander Nevsky, The Song of the Volga Boatman—and Botong must have seen them. Perhaps feeling that the Mongolian terrain was similar to that of Russia, he adopted the characteristics of the Moscow studios.” Botong, Sotto continues, “combines both rags and riches to evoke a Genghis Khan whose majestic bearings are tribal in origin. There is this air of impoverished grandeur that surrounds the production.”

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Jose Tence Ruiz’s Shoal, an assemblage of metal and velvet.

The Philippine Pavilion casts its lot with the prospects of the world being strung like islands in an archipelago, with water around it, replenishing or flooding it, ferrying its people across or forcing them to stay where they are. This shifting, sedimented site that is the Philippines is built as elemental strata, much the way Venice, in the vision of the historian Fernand Braudel, “rises over an engulfed forest,” an overlay of water, land, country, shoal, epic, reef, country, vessel—and all the strings around the world.