The film starts with Mila (Charo Santos) announcing to her parents Dadong and Adelina (Vic Silayan & Charito Solis) that she is pregnant. She reluctantly asks her domineering father, a retired policeman, permission to marry her boyfriend and co-worker Noel (Jay Ilagan). Even this early, a sense of dread and tension is already brewing. Dadong begrudgingly agrees after setting his terms on the dowry and the date. As soon as the couple ties the knot, Dadong continues to exert his control over them, forcing them to stay at his house even though they could easily afford their own apartment. He even locks Noel out of the house when he returns late from a party and misses curfew. Tensions continue to build and build until they eventually boil over into Kisapmata’s brutally abrupt conclusion.
Kisapmata (the English translation of the title varies: In Just a Wink of an Eye, In the Wink of an Eye, The Blink of an Eye, or In a Blink of an Eye) is directed and co-written by Mike De Leon. It premiered at the Metro Manila Film Festival on Christmas Day of 1981 and screened the next year, at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, both times to great acclaim. The screenplay was adapted from “The House of Zapote Street”, a work of crime reportage by acclaimed author Nick Joaquin under his pseudonym “Quijano de Manila.” Joaquin’s story concerns a real-life incident between a policeman and his family that leads to tragedy. If some of the names sound familiar, you may recognize them from my previous Year of the Month article on A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino which was adapted from a play by Joaquin, produced by De Leon’s father, and also featured Silayan in a supporting role.
De Leon, most recently the subject of a MoMA film retrospective, is a fascinating figure in Philippine cinema, especially during that era. The scion of a family behind one of the country’s major film studios, he shot and produced Lino Brocka’s 1975 classic Manila in the Claws of Light before becoming a director in his own right. Whereas Brocka’s films tend to focus on gritty social realism, De Leon’s films are notable for their experimentation and exploration of various genres and styles. I like to think of him as both the Filipino Godard and Kubrick.
His 1976 directorial debut Itim (The Rites of May) could best be described as “supernatural noir,” followed the next year by the sentimental romance Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising (Moments in a Stolen Dream). His third film, 1980’s Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (Does Your Heart Beat Faster?) is a screwball farce notable for a musical sequence performed by nuns that anticipates the subversive singing nuns of Pedro Almodovar’s Dark Habits, the Off-Broadway musical Nunsense, and the Sister Act films. In 1986, De Leon also directed the first Filipino feature film shot on video: Bilanggo sa Dilim (Prisoner in the Dark), a loose adaptation of John Fowles’ The Collector. My favorite of his is Bayaning 3rd World (3rd World Hero, 1999), a black and white mockumentary about two filmmakers trying to make a movie about the country’s national hero, José Rizal. One commonality between Brocka and De Leon’s films, especially those made in the early ’80s, is their unflinching and increasingly bold criticism of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. during its waning years before the People Power Revolution of 1986. Batch ‘81 (1982) sees fraternity hazing as a metaphor for fascism, Sister Stella L. (1984) follows a novice nun’s political awakening, and De Leon even made a short guerilla-style documentary called Signos (Omens, 1983) about the people from all walks of life leading the opposition against the Marcos dictatorship at the time. All of these set an important context for Kisapmata.
Kisapmata is an unflinching portrait of both toxic masculinity and nationwide patriarchy, as embodied in the character of Dadong. Every character in his orbit must walk on eggshells in his presence to avoid his violent rage. Vic Silayan plays his character with subtle menace and cold intensity, as he psychologically torments his family, especially, his daughter and son-in-law in particular. There’s also the subtle implication that his relationship with Mila goes beyond fatherly affection. Even the house itself is an extension of Dadong himself: past the barbed wire outside the house already symbolic of his authoritarianism, the floor plan becomes his own personal panopticon (note the location of Mila’s bedroom and the telephone) to extend his intimidating grasp over his entire household. The design was even based on the real “House on Zapote Street”. That this cinematic allegory for life in a repressive state under the looming threat of a toxic authoritarian figure (Dadong even hails from Marcos’ home province of Ilocos Norte) was released at the height of the dictatorship is a miracle in itself that speaks to the caliber of filmmaking De Leon and his team were operating with in the early ‘80s.
At the Cannes premieres of Kisapmata and Batch ‘81 (which also screened at that year’s Directors’ Fortnight), De Leon was briefly interviewed for Wim Wenders’ documentary Room 666, which asked several directors, “What is the future of cinema?” De Leon’s unflinching response: “To ask a director like myself in the Philippines what the future of cinema is, I find, to be a very absurd question, because to ask for what the future of cinema is in the Philippines is like asking what the future of the Philippines is.” I think about this statement a lot knowing that my home country just elected Marcos’ son in a landslide right after enduring the rule of Rodrigo Duterte, a petty tyrant and the modern exemplar of toxic Filipino machismo. It is a stark reminder that just like Mila and Noel, Filipinos even today are still stuck in a perpetual everyday nightmare they can’t escape.
NOTE: Kisapmata isn’t officially streaming anywhere. The best place where you can watch it online is this Internet Archive link here. Carlotta Films, a French boutique film label, recently released a region-free box set of restored versions of nearly all of De Leon’s films (even including A Portrait of an Artist as a Filipino as a supplement), albeit subtitled only in French. There’s still no word of an official US release.