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Love, Death and Marcos: A review of ‘Katips: The Movie'

By Kara Santos Published Aug 05, 2022 11:45 am Updated Aug 05, 2022 4:06 pm

Two rival films that tackle the subject of the Marcos regime have been released this week.

Filmmaker and lawyer Vincent Tañada’s film musical Katips: Ang Mga Bagong Katipunero, which was adapted from a stage play of the same name, portrays the struggle of activists during the height of martial law under the late President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. Meanwhile, Maid in Malacañang, by director and social media personality Darryl Yap, is set during the final days of the Marcoses in the Palace against the backdrop of the 1986 Edsa Revolution.

Katips: Ang Mga Bagong Katipunero was first screened on November 27 and December 3, 2021. Prior to its wider release on Wednesday, Aug. 3, it earned 17 nominations at the 70th Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS) Awards and took home seven trophies, including top prizes for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Tañada, Best Cinematography for Manuel Abanto, and Best Original Song.

It’s not the first time Katips has won awards. Back in July 2016, after the Philippine Stagers Foundation produced the play following the elections that catapulted Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency, the film musical won the Aliw Awards—the pioneering award for theater, opera, dance and instrumental productions, scoring Best Play and Best Actor for Tanada, among others.

While it received much acclaim as a stage play and had a limited run in 2021, the director said he decided to release the film again after it received the FAMAS nominations.

"This is about the truth, and nobody can invalidate my personal experience as a victim of martial law," Tañada said.

The film’s theater roots are very evident in the entire film production, with background visuals, costumes, and props that look like they were pulled from actual stage props themselves. The choreographed dance scenes and musical numbers tie together a fictionalized version of individuals and actual events that transpired during martial law based on history and facts, and not tsimis. Take note that the film has been given an R-16 rating because of some violent scenes that could be very triggering for some viewers.

**NOTE: Story details and spoilers ahead**

The movie opens with the launching of a Martial Law Museum in the present day era, with a young man touring the museum ahead of its opening, while an older man recounts memories of his younger days as he types a speech. The scene then leads to the main story being told in a series of flashbacks from the 1970s.

The flashbacks show a gathering of political activists, where viewers are introduced to the main characters of the ensemble cast including student leader Greg (Jerome Ponce), news writer Panyong (played by the filmmaker Tañada himself), Alet (Adelle Ibarrientos) the “Tandang Sora” of those days, labor leader Estong (Joshua Bulot), and 17-year old UP freshman Art (Johnrey Rivas). 

However, the group’s assembly is violently dispersed by the Metrocom led by Lt. Sales (Mon Confiado) and fellow police guards resulting in the death of a senior UP professor. When his balikbayan daughter Lara, a theater actress (Nicole Laurel Asensio), arrives from the States, it’s up to the student group to take her into “Katips,” the home run by Alet established for members of the movement to hide in from authorities. 

While the first part of the film takes a while to establish the story and portrays a rather cookie cutter image of student activists and supporting characters, the movie picks up during the standout musical number, Sa Gitna ng Gulo where four different couples converse and sing intersecting lines. This is where you start to feel the humanity and personality of the characters as individuals, and root for them and their love stories.

You can tell this kind of production was made for the stage with couples occupying different parts of the stage and spotlighted in turns, which is depicted in split screen in the movie version. The song, about finding love amid dark times, was a light and fun number that provided a break for the generally heavy subject matter. 

Another standout song was Manhid, a touching love song powerfully delivered by Tañada's Panyong, that would probably draw wild applause or a standing ovation if performed in live theater. 

The movie unfolds like lessons from history books told in songs. Hard facts about martial law and legal concepts are weaved into the story and mentioned throughout with the depictions of curfew, desaperacidos (victims of involuntary disappearance), mentions of writ of habeas corpus, police brutality, torture and salvage killings. Historical events like the Battle of Mendiola, First Quarter Storm, the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, and the 1986 EDSA Revolution are recounted with archival newspaper headlines flashed on screen during musical numbers.

While the movie left a very powerful overall impact on me and other moviegoers judging by the applause in the fully packed cinema (I watched it in during the movie’s second day of screening), I think I would have appreciated this even more if I had watched it in its original stage play format.

There are many aspects of the film that just work better as a live musical number or theatre production, and there are parts that could have been trimmed down or removed entirely for the movie version, just to cut down the total runtime of 2.5 hours. 

Katips would be a good introduction to the martial law era for younger audiences and students, if not for the incredibly graphic and brutal portrayal of torture techniques employed during that time. While these felt very painful and jarring to watch in a musical, what’s even more horrifying is knowing that these atrocities actually happened in real life, and how these incidents are being erased from history.

Musical films are not for everyone. And a musical about martial law and student activists may not resonate well with majority of Filipino audiences, who opt to watch movies purely for the entertainment value. 

But in this age of social media disinformation and fake news, Katips is a brave attempt to honor the past and remind the new generation never to forget the real history of the country and those who fought for our freedom. The movie is a must-watch for those who want to know more about a dark period in our country's history and is worthy of both its critical acclaim and online buzz.

Katips is now screening in select cinemas nationwide.