Eskrimadors (Kerwin Go, 2009)
The action film, a genre that was synonymous with the Philippines a few decades back where the country was producing countless films with heroes waging battles with iconic villains with their pistols or sometimes with only their deep knowledge in street fighting, is near-extinct in the present cinematic climate that fosters repetitive romances and horrific horrors.
It’s not that the country has lost action heroes (Monsour del Rosario, taekwondo champion turned action star, and Ronnie Rickets, action star who also directs, have moved on to politics) or directors adept with action filmmaking (there’s Rico Maria Ilarde who embellishes his horror films with lovingly staged action sequences). I’d wager that the lack of interest has more to do with the proliferation of big-budgeted Hollywood movies in the market. Where entire buildings burst into flames and characters dodge bullets and blows in eye-popping slow motion, the typical fisticuffs and car chases, no matter how adeptly staged, of a locally-produced and hence meagerly budgeted action outing seem outmatched. This is truly unfortunate, as this general lack of interest, caused by America’s cultural imperialism, is hurting our mettle for high-octane and violent filmmaking.
Kerwin Go’s Eskrimadors is not an action film per se. It is a documentary, and a very good one at that. Go centers on eskrima, more popularly known in other parts of the Philippines as arnis, a form of martial arts that primarily makes use of rattan sticks that originated in the island of Cebu. From its anthropologic roots as a sword-fighting method among the islanders down to its present-day popularity in international circles, the documentary carefully and effectively tackles the history of the sport, allowing living legends of eskrima to relay several stories, some of which are the stuff entertaining movies are made of. It’s all interesting. Go’s point in Eskrimadors is less self-congratulatory than it is cautionary, especially when the film’s mode transposes in the end where it feels like the film is lamenting the loss of a cultural treasure to a mixture of globalization and the lack of local interest.
To the martial arts enthusiast, the documentary is something of a well-packaged tribute to a sport that has been sadly relegated locally as mere curiosity when it has actually turned into a world-wide phenomenon. To the uninitiated in the field of martial arts, the documentary is told quite imaginatively, with a distinctly solid narrative flow, and a visual flair that outwits the budgetary constraints of a local independent production. It’s simply fantastic filmmaking. Instead of merely imparting researched knowledge, Go appropriates the brisk rhythm of eskrima into the film. The editing is aptly swift. The music scoring is exhilaration. The visual effects used are never needless. Eskrimadors plays exactly like an eskrima match: fast-paced, spectacular and always entertaining.
Go’s greatest asset in the film are the eskrimadors themselves, who he shoots in action, displaying their expertise and swiftness in maneuvering their rattan sticks. Moreover, interspersed within the documentary are episodes from a fictional retelling of one of those lethal duels that were widespread during eskrima’s early years. The story isn’t so much. It’s plainly about a young man who sees his father die in the hands of a villainous eskrimador in a duel. He trains, and eventually takes vengeance on the villainous eskrimador. What’s fascinating about these short episodes is how expertly directed they are, from the sweeping cinematography, to the exciting action choreography, to the editing, the music, even the acting. These exciting episodes (one happens on top of a hill, another in a dimly lit alleyway, and another right in the middle of a busy marketplace), snuck neatly in an already terrific documentary, can only implore you to take notice of talents, from filmmakers to martial artists, that would otherwise remain unseen, talents that could change the fate of the dying action film genre.
(Cross-published in Twitch.)