Zamboanga (Eduardo de Castro, 1937)
Made for American audiences by actor-turned-director Eduardo de Castro in 1937 and considered to be lost until its accidental discovery by film historian Nick Deocampo and screening in 2004, Zamboanga has the distinction of being the oldest surviving Filipino film. That distinction on a 1937 film, although very much welcome considering that the Philippines’ filmic heritage is dissipating every hour a film goes undiscovered somewhere in the world, is telling of how much the country, nay, the world, has lost because of ignorance, lack of interest, and to moneyed foreign film archivists, a stubborn insistence on concentrating valuable resources on so-called film canon and canonized directors and film cultures. Hope is thinning. Understandably, these films that have been rescued from permanently fading are viewed today with biased perceptions, like injured soldiers heroically returning from a battle.
Zamboanga is a severely outdated film. The first ten minutes function to introduce the moviegoers to the land that becomes setting to the story that feels only secondary to the showcase of the exotic culture that has thrived there for centuries. It is perhaps the unbridled display of cultural superiority in the film’s jading journalistic approach to the Tausogs, imputing barbarism to the Tausogs because of the custom of raiding villages for women that is the center of the plot of the film, which points to its obsolescence in these modern times where acceptance of cultural diversity is the enforced norm.
Interestingly, the film’s attempts to portray its setting in a more leveled light, showcasing its inhabitants in their day-to-day affairs in a singsong manner, belittles the culture simply because it lacks the sophistication and urbanity that the Americans pride themselves with. Thus, the details that differentiate the cultures of the film’s market and the film’s subject are treated with either sensationalism or singsong silliness.
Fernando Poe, who plays the pearl fisher whose fiancée (Rosa del Rosario) was kidnapped by the chief of a neighboring tribe, mostly takes control of the film. He is that rare performer whose screen presence functions very well as both romantic lead, with his matinee idol looks, and action star, with his chiseled physique, and De Castro knows this very well. He exploits his charismatic and virile star, allowing Poe his way with his leading lady, charming her with his undeniable suave and manliness. After this romantic interlude, he makes Poe prove his mettle in the wild, battling a terrorizing shark under the sea, before discovering his lady love kidnapped and in need of a heroic rescue that becomes the venue for Poe to display his fighting prowess.
De Castro’s direction is hardly noteworthy, although the usage, both graceful and exhilarating, of underwater photography is astounding, especially for its time, All that said, Zamboanga, despite the obnoxious intent of using the obvious foreignness of a given culture for profit in the guise of skewed education, is more than a well-made film.
Of course, to expect cultural sensitivity and journalistic responsibility from a film that was made for commercial purposes and marketed as spectacles of the danger and romance of these far-flung places for entertainment’s sake during the height of American imperialism is a folly. In other words, the logic of the film being revered today is mostly grounded on the fact that its discovery can be regarded as a ray of hope in the seemingly hopeless cause of Philippine film preservation. If only for that, the film, with all its intentioned inaccuracies, is noteworthy.